Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad (Men) World

Every now and then I'll hear some reasonably intelligent media critic say that "television these days is probably better than movies." Some of you may know my opinion of television drama. It has not been high. To be fair, I haven't bothered to delve much into the cream of the supposed crop. Never saw The Sopranos. Haven't caught The Wire. I have heard they are fine shows. Anything else I've seen tends to pale in comparison to even a marginally competent feature film. But a year ago someone loaned me the first season of Mad Men. By Jove, I enjoyed it. While I did not feel it was not as strong as the best in contemporary cinema, I had to admit that it was actually better than most of the movies that end up being released in the theater these days. In short, I decided it was worth my precious time (and that's saying a lot).

I was not able to catch the second season, but cable has now made its presence known in my apartment and I have been watching episodes of the third season when they happen to be on. Part of me initially wondered whether I should dare watch episodes of the third season without having seen the second season beforehand, but the other part of me just said "Screw it."

Here is what I like about Mad Men and why I think it is stronger than other television dramas:

1) In addition to being a drama, it's also a historical and sociological study. I feel like I am actually learning about the early '60s when I watch the show. How many shows in the history of television have not been set in the present? Little House On The Prairie? M*A*S*H? That '70s Show? Not quite the same sociological study thing going on there. I heard the Mad Men creator talk about the decor on the set, and he said, "We have decor that is from the '30s and '40s and '50s, because not all of the buildings in the early '60s were brand new." Hmm, good point. Hadn't thought of that. See, this guy really knows what he's doing.

2) The characters are, for the most part, rather unsympathetic and morally ambivalent. I like that a television drama has the balls to make so many of its characters unlikeable. But the show also does a nice job of making some of the characters occasionally likeable every now and then; otherwise it would probably just be too draining. To tell you the truth, I may find the characters on Mad Men more likeable than other supposedly "likeable" characters such as Jack Bauer or those cretins from Sex And The City.

3) The show is not afraid to include odd pauses and scenes that do not seem to make an obvious point. We the viewer are allowed to wonder why exactly we are seeing a particular character do a particular thing.

4) Attention is paid to cinematography, editing, and set design. Many people who say that "television is as good as movies" don't watch movies in the same way that I do. They simply watch the plot. I watch more than the plot. There is not a high demand for creative cinematography from most television shows' target audiences. Thus, most television shows simply point the camera at the action. The makers of Mad Men are much more creative and thoughtful. They generate extra meaning through the choice of images they present to us. Mad Men's cinematography is not as good as, say, The Conformist's, but it is better than Sorority Row's.

Some people might be inclined to say that a show like Mad Men is simply "a great movie broken up into hour-long pieces." I would not go that far. Here are, in my opinion, some of Mad Men's limitations:

1) Because the length of the show's run is indefinite, I think it suffers from a symptom that all television shows, in my experience, tend to suffer from: the show doesn't know where it's going. Frequently I get the sense that the writers are making up the plot as they go along. Now, I have learned, after many years of puzzlement, that a work is usually stronger when the author knows how the story is going to end when he or she commences the writing. There is a certain unity that cannot be concocted on the fly. Often while I'm watching Mad Men I feel like the writers are throwing a bunch of crazy plot twists at us, knowing that they don't make any sense, but they figure, hey, we'll have plenty of time to make more sense of them later. Great movies never do this. But I suppose, given the nature of the television medium, such a shortcoming is hard to avoid.

2) Even the best episodes of Mad Men don't really "lift my spirits" the way my favorite movies do. I think this is because the target audience of the show (middle-class Americans) probably sees itself in the characters all too well. Most of the characters on Mad Men are searching for money, status, power, influence, alcohol, and consequence-free sex. I would say that most middle-class Americans are, sadly, searching for the same things. Although most of the show's viewers are watching and laughing and saying to their family members, "Oh God, isn't that terrible what Don Draper did?," I'll bet that deep inside they are so much like Don Draper it is not even funny. I imagine corporate executives watching Mad Men with their buddies and thinking, "Yeah, I know this show is ostensibly supposed to be dark satire, but come on, these people understand what life is really about." And, I'm sorry, I'm just not that cynical.

But, hey, it's better than CSI:Miami.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Better Than The Beatles

I mean sure, the Beatles were good ... for their time. But their time is over people. Those 12-string Rickenbackers just won't cut it in today's dark and menacing world. Enter Beatallica. The Fab Four's Merseybeat harmonies have finally been given the thrash metal make-over they've deserved. Meet Jaymz Lennfield, Grg Hammetson, Kliff McBurtney and Ringo Larz. Bask in the glory of their metal concept album Sgt. Hetfield's Motorbreath Pub Band, featuring such classic tracks as "Blackened the USSR," "Leper Madonna," and "A Garage Dayz Nite." Or revel in the splendor of their sophomore release Masterful Mystery Tour, sporting timeless tunes such as "Fuel on the Hill," "The Thing That Should Not Let It Be," and "I Want To Choke Your Band." And who can forget their Our World satellite broadcast anthem "All You Need Is Blood"? Sorry Beatles, as a '60s artifact you're quaint and cute, but that was then, this is now. A Beatallica time is guaranteed for all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Finally, Pitchfork: A Band Worth Reviewing

I was wondering if Pitchfork was going to make any sort of acknowledgment of the Beatles remasters. Boy, did they ever. Last week we were treated to a brand-spanking new review of each release (apparently no one at Pitchfork had reviewed any of them already). Rather than try to play the obnoxious Gen-X contrarians, the writers mostly fall over themselves trying to toss superlatives at this music. Hey, if I usually spent my time reviewing Scarlett Johansson/Pete Yorn collaborations, I'd probably be excited about a chance to pontificate on the wondrous depth of a certain Liverpudlian discography too. I find the ratings curious but not outrageous. Tom Ewing gives the early Beatles albums ratings like 9.3, 8.8, and 9.7. Sure, I guess. Scott Plagenhoef doesn't mess around and simply gives Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour all a 10.0. Honestly, if these albums are not a 10.0, then what albums are? Mark Richardson mercilessly dishes out a 9.1 for Let It Be and a 9.2 for Past Masters, but saves the big Ten-Point-Oh for The White Album and Abbey Road. Of more interest than the ratings are the reviews themselves, which I think do a nice job of offering a fresh perspective on these canonized warhorses - something Pitchfork usually tries way too hard to do with '60s re-issues, but here they try just hard enough.

I don't know if I agree with Tom Ewing on Please Please Me being a better album than With The Beatles, but I like his reasoning:

Rather than an accurate document of an evening with the pre-fame Beatles, Please Please Me works more like a DJ mix album-- a truncated, idealized teaser for their early live shows. More than any other of their records, Please Please Me is a dance music album. Almost everything on the record, even ballads like "Anna", has a swing and a kick born from the hard experience of making a small club move. And it starts and ends with "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout", the most kinetic, danceable tracks they ever made.

The "evening with the band" feel makes Please Please Me a more coherent experience than other cover-heavy Beatles albums: Here other peoples' songs work not just as filler, but as markers for styles and effects the band admired and might return to as songwriters. McCartney, for instance, would go on to write songs whose drama and emotional nuance would embarrass "A Taste of Honey", but for now he puts his all into its cornball melodrama, and the song fits.

He also nails the appeal of A Hard Day's Night as a pure piece of mind-blowing Beatlemania (although I could do without some of the pseudo-industrial adjectives like "steamroller," "gleaming," and "blast"):

But the dominant sound of the album is the Beatles in full cry as a pop band-- with no rock'n'roll covers to remind you of their roots you're free to take the group's new sound purely on its own modernist terms: The chord choices whose audacity surprised a listening Bob Dylan, the steamroller power of the harmonies, the gleaming sound of George Harrison's new Rickenbacker alongside the confident Northern blasts of harmonica, and a band and producer grown more than comfortable with each other. There's detail aplenty here-- and the remasters make it easy to hunt for-- but A Hard Day's Night is perhaps the band's most straightforward album: You notice the catchiness first, and you can wonder how they got it later.

Scott Plagenhoef essentially toes the party line on Rubber Soul and Revolver, although I don't know if agree with him that "McCartney ... oddly comes off third-string" on Rubber Soul (were George's two songs really better than Paul's four?) or that "She's Leaving Home" is the second-best song on Sgt. Pepper. He seems to be a big fan of this tune:

"A Day in the Life" has only grown in estimation, rightfully becoming one of the most acclaimed Beatles tracks. "She's Leaving Home", by contrast, has slid from view-- perhaps too maudlin to work on classic rock radio and too MOR for hipster embrace, it was nevertheless the other headline track on Sgt. Pepper's when it was released. The story of a runaway teen, it misses as a defiant generational statement in part because it's actually sympathetic to the parents in the song. In the second verse, McCartney defies expectations by not following the young girl on her adventure but keeping the track set in the home as her parents wake to find her goodbye letter.

In the end, we learn "She" left home for "fun"-- a rather churlish reason, and when paired with McCartney's simplistic sentiments in "When I'm 64" (the aging couple there will be happy to "scrimp and save"), the young girl seems more selfish than trapped. In fact, for a group whose every move was a generational wedge, and for such a modern record, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's is oddly conservative in places: "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" takes inspiration from a Victorian-era carnival; "When I'm 64" is a music-hall parody that fantasizes about what it would be like to be the Beatles' grandparents' age; "Fixing a Hole" has a rather mundane domestic setting; the fantasy girl in "Lovely Rita" is a cop.

This "conservatism" Plagenhoef describes is party what I think has helped Sgt. Pepper age so well; it is not, in my opinion at least, a "naive, peace and love, hippie album," as some people have sneeringly complained, but a more multi-faceted view of the modern world. I'm also not sure that "the group's every move was a generation wedge" or that the most notable aspect of "Fixing A Hole" is its "mundane domestic setting" and not its poignant analysis of interpersonal relations. But at least Plagenhoef is trying. Witness his attempt to quantify the exact number of " moments in pop music history in which you can mark a clear before and after": "In the UK, it's arguably happened only five times, and on just four instances in the U.S. (Thriller here; acid house and punk there, and Elvis everywhere, of course); in both nations, the Beatles launched two of those moments." Well, OK, if you say so buddy.

Plagenhoef and I are more in agreement on the accidental but nonetheless immensely rewarding merits of Magical Mystery Tour (Jason be damned), which is perhaps not a"major" album, but somehow manages to be delightful precisely because of its "lesser" nature, as it catches the late-period Beatles essentially coasting on transcendence. Here are a few large excerpts of his passionate defense:

The remaining four songs released exclusive to the EP are low-key marvels-- Paul McCartney's graceful "The Fool on the Hill" and music-hall throwback "Your Mother Should Know", George Harrison's droning "Blue Jay Way", and the percolating instrumental "Flying". Few of them are anyone's all-time favorite Beatles songs, only one had a prayer of being played on the radio, and yet this run seems to achieve a majesty in part because of that: It's a rare stretch of amazing Beatles music that can seem like a private obsession rather than a permanent part of our shared culture.

Of the three singles, the undisputed highlight is "Strawberry Fields Forever"/ "Penny Lane", John Lennon and Paul McCartney's tributes to their hometown, Liverpool. Slyly surreal, assisted by studio experimentation but not in debt to it, full of brass, harmonium, and strings, unmistakably English-- when critics call eccentric or baroque UK pop bands "Beatlesesque," this is the closest there is to a root for that adjective. There is no definitive Beatles sound, of course, but with a band that now functions as much as a common, multi-generational language as a group of musicians, it's no surprise that songs rooted in childhood-- the one experience most likely to seem shared and have common touchpoints-- are among their most universally beloved.

In almost every instance on those singles, the Beatles are either whimsical or borderline simplistic, releasing songs that don't seem sophisticated or heavy or monumental (even though most of them are). In that sense, they're all like "All You Need Is Love" or childhood memories or Lewis Carroll-- easy to love, fit for all ages, rich in multi-textual details, deceptively trippy (see Paul's "Penny Lane" in particular, with images of it raining despite blue skies, or the songs here that revel in contradictions-- "Hello Goodbye"'s title, the verses in "All You Need Is Love"). More than any other place in the band's catalogue, this is where the group seems to crack open a unique world, and for many young kids then and since this was their introduction to music as imagination, or adventure. The rest of the Magical Mystery Tour LP is the opposite of the middle four tracks on the EP-- songs so universal that, like "Yellow Submarine", they are practically implanted in your brain from birth. Seemingly innocent, completely soaked through with humor and fantasy, Magical Mystery Tour slots in my mind almost closer to the original Willy Wonka or The Wizard of Oz as it does other Beatles records or even other music-- timeless entertainment crafted with a childlike curiosity and appeal but filled with wit and wonder.

On the whole, Magical Mystery Tour is quietly one of the most rewarding listens in the Beatles' career. True, it doesn't represent some sort of forward momentum or clear new idea-- largely in part because it wasn't conceived as an album. The accompanying pieces on the EP are anomalies in the Beatles oeuvre but they aren't statements per se, or indications that the group is in any sort of transition. But if there was ever a moment in the Beatles' lifetime that listeners would have been happy to have the group just settle in and release songs as soon as possible, it was just before and after the then-interminable 10-month gap between the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's. Without that context, the results could seem slight-- a sort-of canonized version of Past Masters perhaps-- but whether it's an album, a collection of separate pieces, or whatnot matters little when the music itself is so incredible.

Thank you, Scott. Finally, Mark Richardson has some nice observations on Abbey Road:

One more "like we used to" was how Paul McCartney framed it to producer George Martin; a chance to make a "good album" was George Harrison's take. They were hoping to bounce back after the serious downer that had been the Get Back sessions, which, months after they wrapped, had yet to yield an album anyone was happy with. But what "like we used to" meant, exactly, was rather hard to pin down: The Beatles' life as a band was so compressed, with such a massive amount of music and change packed into a short time, that there was never a single moment that could be used as a reference point for what a Beatles record was supposed to be. So when they returned to the EMI studios on Abbey Road in summer 1969, it wasn't clear how it would go. They still weren't getting along; their musical interests continued to diverge; John Lennon didn't really want to continue with the Beatles; Paul McCartney did, but on his own terms, which meant that he set the pace and got what he wanted. Though it was unspoken, they all had a good idea that this could really be the end. So what now? One more, then.

And what a finish. The Beatles' story is so enduring in part because it was wrapped up so perfectly. Abbey Road shows a band still clearly in its prime, capable of songwriting and recording feats other groups could only envy. Working for the first time exclusively on an eight-track tape machine, their mastery of the studio was undeniable, and Abbey Road still sounds fresh and exciting 40 years on (indeed, of the 2009 remasters, the improvements and sonic detail here are the most striking). Even if it's ultimately the Paul McCartney and George Martin show, as demonstrated on the famous second-side medley, everyone brought his A-game. Where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band strained for significance, The Beatles was schizophrenic, and Let It Be was a drag streaked with greatness, Abbey Road lays out its terms precisely and meets them all. There's not a duff note on the damn thing.

Other bands wished their last album was this perfect. Oasis, I'm looking at you. Finally Mark makes an unintentionally revealing comment:

The Beatles' run in the 1960s is good fodder for thought experiments. For example, Abbey Road came out in late September 1969. Though Let It Be was then still unreleased, the Beatles wouldn't record another album together. But they were still young men: George was 26 years old, Paul was 27, John was 28, and Ringo was 29. The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, had come out almost exactly six and a half years earlier. So if Abbey Road had been released today, Please Please Me would date to March 2003. So think about that for a sec: Twelve studio albums and a couple of dozen singles, with a sound that went from earnest interpreters of Everly Brothers and Motown hits to mind-bending sonic explorers and with so many detours along the way-- all of it happened in that brief stretch of time. That's a weight to carry.

In other words, the difference between music released in March 2003 and music released in September 2009 is ... what, exactly?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thanks for the Meme-ories Kanye

In case you missed it, here's the now infamous video of Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV music awards the other night. While Kanye is without a doubt a jackass for doing so (and Obama apparently agrees), I just can't help but find his interruption hilarious in it's inappropriateness. But I'm not here to gossip about that. What I am here for is to document the hundreds of related spoofs, parodies, and remixes the internet has already spilled forth from it's meme-inducing bowels. Ladies and Gentlemen, the "Kanye Interrupts" meme has been born!

How about the time that Kanye interrupted Obama, remember that? Or when he interrupted Patrick Swayze's funeral? We all know what Kanye thinks of ol' Bush, but what about the time he interrupted Bush in the middle of one of his speeches? Or Clinton? Still doesn't ring a bell? Well certainly you remember Hitler's reaction to Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift?

Well Kanye is bound to make some money off of this, there's already a new remix of his song "Heartless" available which addresses his outburst, listen to it here. Well, that's it for this meme-watch. Play Kanye off Keyboard Cat!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fortunately I Never Ate Any Of This Stuff Anyway

In the mood for a little salmonella, E. coli, roundworm, tapeworm, lungworm, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, or Listeria monocytogene? Check out MSN's Top 5 Menu Items Most Likely To Contain Parasites. Guess I better cut back on my escargot, sushi, steak tartare, and ham and pork sandwiches, huh?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Don't Copy that Floppy 2

In case you don't remember the anti-piracy video "Don't Copy that Floppy" from 1992, now you can watch the hilarious new update above, complete with an ode to itself at the beginning. I can't figure this new one out. It seems to take itself somewhat seriously, despite some of the goofiness and cheesiness. But then there's the Klingons. And what's with the high-pitched "convicted felon" at the end - are they pulling my leg here or what?

Monday, September 7, 2009

If A Law Falls In The Woods, And There's No One There To Enforce It, Is It A Law?

Such is the question I pose to myself every time I watch a passenger hop onto the back door of Muni without paying the fare. What is the driver supposed to do? Yell "Hey! You! Stop!"? Or how about "Come on...please? Pretty please? Pretty please with sugar on top?" There is one driver and almost 100 passengers. The driver's main responsibility is to drive the bus. S/he is not a security guard. The passengers are all very desperate to arrive at their destination and they can't wait one more extra minute to watch the driver meekly attempt to enforce the unenforceable.

A couple of weeks ago an elderly black man brazenly stepped on through the back door. The bus was already half empty. Usually people hop on through the back door when the bus is obscenely crowded. But we were near the end of the route. An Asian woman stepped on through the front door at the same exact time, flashing her FastPass. This man was not even trying to be discreet. The bus driver, who was also black, shouted out, "Hey, come on man!" The elderly (probably homeless) fellow proceeded to launch into an incoherent tirade. "Hey come on nothin'! I don't owe you shit, you know what I'm sayin'? I'm goin' to the Greyhound station. I don't owe no one nothin', I been ridin' this bus for forty years and I do what I want, my daddy was a bus driver, you don't tell me nothin' you hear?" The rest of the passengers, mostly white-collar workers such as myself, sat there silently, pretending not to hear. Unfortunately I had my headphones on, so I did not catch the full conversation clearly. After only two more stops, the man then ran out the back door. The bus driver turned around, shook his head, and let out an amused laugh. "I thought you were going to the Greyhound station!" Some of the other passengers chuckled awkwardly.

Another day, riding home from work, a swarm of gangsta-looking teenagers jumped on through the back, laughing and shouting. The bus driver called out, "Gotta come in through the front door! The front door!" One of the kids barked back, "Hey man, is that how you talk to your wife back home?" The other kids snickered demonstrably, and the bus rode on.

Is Muni just hoping that most people, out of guilt, or the kindness of their heart, pay the fare even though there appears to be nothing Muni can do to punish them if they decide not to do so? Has Muni considered hiring more people to "enforce" the fare? Oh my God, what a concept. Last weekend I rode to Palo Alto on Caltrain, and guess what: on the way there, and on the way back, someone came by to check my ticket. I guess Caltrain can afford to hire these people. Or maybe San Francisco simply knows that their poorer citizens have no other way of getting around and they figure it's not worth it to make a scene with a group of unhinged teenagers.

And so I ride. And I pay. And I pray.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Oasis Leaves Oasis

Well, the official headline is "Noel Gallagher Leaves Oasis." But I find this headline rather comical, for a number of reasons:

1) Noel Gallagher is Oasis. It's like a headline saying, "Pete Townsend leaves The Who." What, is Roger Daltry going to go on tour with a bunch of friends and bill himself as The Who? The real headline should be, "Oasis breaks up." Just because you're finally writing songs Liam doesn't mean you can be the leader of Oasis. Sorry.

2) Noel Gallagher has "left" Oasis several times before. Soon the phrase "boy who cried wolf" will fall out of usage; it will be replaced by "Noel who cried Fuck Liam." How seriously can you really take this "announcement"?

3) Why now? First of all, it's not like Liam has "suddenly" become an unbearable prick. He's always been an unbearable prick. What was it, Noel, that finally, after all these years, pushed you over the edge? Did you ask him to pass the mashed potatoes only to hear "Go stick these mashed potatoes up yer fuckin' arse?" What was the straw that broke the camel's back? Inquiring minds want to know. Second, why couldn't you haven broken up when people really cared? Why now and not, perhaps, 1998? In the opinion of many (including myself), Oasis haven't really been "Oasis" since the release of (What's The Story) Morning Glory. Just not the same band. The Rolling Stones have been calling themselves The Rolling Stones long after, oh, I'd say somewhere around Tattoo You, but they haven't really been The Rolling Stones we think of when we think of "The Rolling Stones." After some initial disappointment, I actually came to enjoy Oasis' 2000 album Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, but, Stephen Thomas Erlewine's exhortations of an artistic "comeback" to the contrary, I've found that every Oasis album since seems to be worse than the one before. Overwrought production. Cliched lyrics. And most shockingly of all, no sense of humor. Look, Noel: book a studio, take some drugs, and give us a wacky solo album. Your moment has arrived.