Monthly Archives: May 2010

Drew’s “40 at 40” (part 1): A birthday celebration through music

Had a bit of a wingding this weekend as part of my 40th birthday celebrations. If you were so lucky as to attend, you walked away with a 2-CD set of my “40@40,” a reflection of all the songs over my life that are the most meaningful to me.

Not only do the songs come in the set, but you also get complete liner notes explaining my choices, which is really way too much information about tunes that, essentially, are about dancing your ass off and whooping it up.

If you’re curious at all about the way my mind works (and I understand if you aren’t; I barely am myself), then I share the selections here. First the introduction on the CD:

Tim Dohrer put the challenge in my lap: On my 40th birthday, choose 40 songs that make up the soundtrack of my life, the songs that had a lasting impact me across the years. The 40@40 challenge had only two rules: No more than two songs per artist; and be honest.

I, of course, bent the rules to my will. First, Talking Heads and David Byrne are not one in the same. Second, there’s such a thing as too much honesty. Play just about any Cyndi Lauper tune, and I can vividly picture the high school dance where it was played. But do I really want to memorialize the gawky anxiety of Homecoming? And do you really want Cyndi Lauper in your stereo?

This list is also a bit dishonest because it leaves out some crucial influences: copious amounts of Big Band jazz, the minimalist anthems of Phillip Glass, and classical, classical, classical. If were really being honest, I would kick things off with K-Tel’s disco-thumpin’ “Hooked on Classics,” which is truly what awoke 11-year-old Drew’s inner musical omnivore. Instead, we shall stick to pop rock here, because let’s face it, those tunes are the yellow bricks paving the road to the Emerald City.

And I’m as surprised as you are that, for a guy who doesn’t particularly care for dancing, so many of these songs are real shake-your-money-makers. Whether or not you like to shake what your momma gave you, I hope you enjoy this trip through time.

Tim pointed out to me later in the evening that there was a third rule: No songs from before the day you were born. As it turns out, I only really flubbed one, which you’ll see in tomorrow’s post of Part 2.

The select songs and their liner notes (click the link to hear them on Blip.fm!) :

1. Talking Heads: Road to Nowhere

The punky nerdy Heads were my college soundtrack. This song in particular. Why? Because my fellow marching band geeks and I built a giant hollow replica of the Northwestern Rock, put it on wheels and wired it for sound. This was the anthem blaring from our speakers as we pushed this beast up Sheridan Road to promote band recruitment. Sweaty hot inside our float, I thought: “College is great.”

2. Men at Work: Overkill

Man, I so wanted to go to the Men at Work concert when they played Timberwolf right up the road from Cincinnati in 1983. But my mother was not ready for me to succumb to the empty promises of rock and roll, and she denied my parole. I sulked, and she tried to cheer me up by showing me the tepid concert review in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It did not cheer me up. This version was recorded years later by Colin Hay, and makes a nice update from the original.

3. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bad Moon Rising

CCR is real America. Their music never feels stuck in one era, and is always unassailable. This tune was on the “American Werewolf in London” soundtrack. Great movie.

4. Eagles: Hotel California

A warhorse of a standard, and many performers are sick to death of it. Who cares? I would listen to it over and over in my room, feeling spectral and all-knowing.

5. Jim Croce: You Don’t Mess Around with Jim

Even though this was my brother’s music, my father took a shine to it. This tune reminds me of riding in his 1976 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible, listening to Croce on the 8-track car stereo.

6. Soft Cell: Tainted Love

Do you remember a 2006 Levi’s commercial with ER doctors singing “Tainted Love” in time with beeping monitors? I had completely forgotten this song until that moment, and it transported me to 1981, taping Casey Kasem off the radio.

7. INXS: What You Need

What a bass line! Good for gawky high school dancing.

8. Peter Gabriel: Shock the Monkey

Oh, Peter. You’re so wonderfully weird and inscrutable, especially this ambiguously euphemistic tune.

9. Queen: Flash’s Theme

OMG OMG OMG you guys … 1980 Drew was SO IN LOVE with the “Flash Gordon” movie, right down to the flying spaceships with visible wires. Queen belongs on this list with just about any of its songs, but the confluence of nerd metal and cheeseball sci-fi makes this peppy theme a perpetual must on my list. As Freddy Mercury sang: “King of the impossible!”

10. Oingo Boingo: Nasty Habits

[I can only find this live version on Blip.fm]

God bless Danny Elfman and the forces that keep his eerie, quirky tunefulness thrumming in the public ear. “Weird Science” was my first choice here, but it made the disc run long, so “Nasty Habits” is a happy, funny (kinky) second.

11. Thomas Dolby: She Blinded Me with Science

Yes! More nerd rock! Dolby is just having too much fun here. The fun compounded for me when “Science” became a killer arrangement for high school pep band. Great to listen to and to play.

12. Talking Heads: (Nothing But) Flowers

The 1988 “Naked” album was on steady play throughout college on my cassette deck alarm clock (my only source of music those days). Choosing just one from this album was a struggle.

13. The B-52’s: Dry County

The “Cosmic Thing” album is best known for “Love Shack” and “Roam,” but for me, it’s the bouncy boredom of “lazy days” that has always stuck with me. You can really feel the roots of a local band singing about what they know.

14. Murray Head: One Night in Bangkok

I could never get my head around the notion that this tune came from a Broadway musical, “Chess.” This idea, plus the mix of sounds and odd narration, held me pretty rapt.

15. David Byrne: A Million Miles Away

[Inconceivably, Blip.fm does not have this tune on file anywhere in its near-infinite digital warehouse.]

The “Uh-Oh” album: fantastic from top to bottom. Choosing just one was tough, but this tune gets the nod because of the lyric, “I ain’t gonna work here no more.” When I was slogging along in my first stultifying corporate gig, I hummed this tune non-stop to keep my spirits up.

16. Barenaked Ladies: Call and Answer

[Can only find this live version with Alanis Morisette on Blip.fm. Weird omission!]

This band is always an enigma, playing around between gimmickry and masterful tunesmithing. Not that I mind the former, but “Call and Answer” is definitely the latter, a real building-up of emotion with a relentless drive behind it. Listened to this album a lot in the days winding down to fatherhood.

17. Aretha Franklin: Think

First introduced to me through the “Blues Brothers” soundtrack. It was the beginning of my lasting love of strong women who don’t take no shit.

18. Madonna: Respect Yourself

[Not! On! Blip!]

The “Like a Prayer” album thumped through the air on every floor of my college dorm. The more I listened, the more I realized that underneath the bubblegum and the stunts lurked real musicality.

19. Paul Simon: Under African Skies

I really think music historians will hold “Graceland” on a special shelf a hundred years from now. Laced with the African vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the entire album blew my little mind. I could have chosen any tune for this list.

20. Enya: Orinoco Flow

In 1989 I got hit by a car, which broke my arm and required two surgeries. Somewhere in the middle of this I had four wisdom teeth pulled. The point is, I was on a lot of painkillers. And this Enya tune warbling endlessly in my headphones played a kind of ethereal shepherd that tethered my altered consciousness to this plane and kept it from floating into the land of fever dreams and imaginary friends.

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On the loss of ‘Lost’

“Lost” has concluded, and the Internet has now cracked in half as the naysayers and the yaysayers duke it out for What It All Means and whether this is the Best or the Worst Finale Ever.

My additions to this debate are of little merit. I’m already on record about how much I love the show: Nothing, just plain nothing, on TV comes close to offering the same big-ideas-per-minute ratio as “Lost,” and I’ve been fully engaged with every twist, turn and dead end since episode 1.

Now that the show is through shuttling story threads through its loom, I can say this about the finale: I am deeply satisfied.

It was perfect in its imperfection and surprisingly clear for all its ambiguity. This series resolved in the same tenor as it progressed (as always, some questions were answered as new ones were posed), and in this I find it to be an ideal period placed at the end of a long and difficult-to-diagram sentence. I push back from the table sated.

Not everyone agrees. I’ve read more than one Internet Philosopher today who asserted: “I used to love ‘Lost,’ but now I hate it hate it hate it with all the hot heat my heart can muster.” Which can’t be helped; it’s not a show for everyone, even for people who loved it for 5 seasons and 15 hours before changing their minds.

I take the long view of such things: Of all the time we’ve spent together, “Lost” and I, has it been a good and loyal friend to me? Yes, it has. And then some.

Some viewers invest so much time in a show, they think they are owed a particular resolution. But TV is a relationship proposition.  If you don’t like it, move on, the sooner the better. If you do like it — really, really like it — then be patient with it, forgive its occasional missteps, and reward it when it rewards you. As relationships go, this is a pretty sweet deal, since it is the show (and its creators) doing all the work. The rest of us just sit there.

When “Battlestar Galactica” ended, and the Internetosphere again gnashed its teeth in dissatisfaction, my counsel was the same:

Where this finale felt a tad thin, I’m happy to pat in on the back and say, “You did good. You entertained me for a long time. You’ve certainly given me more than I gave you, so go ahead — ask a mild indulgence or two of me. I’m just in the mood to grant it.”

“Lost”‘s finale might yet be dragged down by the list-keepers of the world, the people who had the pet favorite plot threads go unresolved and who Demand Satisfaction. But Linda Holmes at Monkey See, NPR’s culture blog, tries to talk these nitpickers down from their ledge:

I’m interested in bafflement and struggle and confusion about what’s the right thing to do. I’m interested in sacrifice and loss. I’m interested in devotion and loyalty and pondering other ways things might have worked out. … That’s why the most important thing to me, by far, is the human beings who are involved in this story.

I certainly hope that people who have enjoyed this show for six seasons aren’t going to retroactively decide that all their time was wasted because the finale didn’t satisfy them by answering an adequate number of questions. [The creators] are driving the bus, and you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least give them a shot at showing you where they’ve been going all this time.

And that’s how I’m heading into Sunday’s finale. I’m leaning back in my seat, I’m relaxing, and I’m assuming that I’m in good hands, because I have been so far.

Count me in the ranks of those pleased with both the journey and the landing. Good show, “Lost.” You’ll be sorely missed.

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When fan films attack: From amateur to auteur with the amazing ‘Anachronism’

The term “fan film” has a dirrrty pejorative feel to it, doesn’t it? Summons up images of amateurish acting, cheap props and manic dream fulfillment in which someone’s favorite fictional characters have the ultimate fight/coupling/poetry slam denied the audience by the source material. It’s a sea of lightsaber duels and sword battles re-imagined with replica arms and Ren-Fair clothes.

Most of these make me cringe, despite some impressive budgets and actual film school training being brought to bear. A lot of fuss was made in 2003 about the short film “Batman: Dead End,” which was the first really slick fan film I ever saw. It had a budget, it had someone knowledgeable behind the camera, and it had access to some pretty spiffy costumes.

It left me colder than Dr. Freeze’s jock strap. Because no matter how nice the budget, at the end of the credits, it’s still amateur hour. Oh, and because Batman ends up in some kind of “Aliens vs. Predators” showdown in a Gotham alley. Seriously.

Over at TheForce.net, things start to look up a little. George Lucas apparently takes a very friendly attitude toward not just parodies of his fan-favorite films, but also of serious stories set in the Star War universe. Again, most of these give me the willies. I am partial, though to the ones that go for broke in the parody department. The best of these is “Death Star Repairmen,” the story of what really happened the day Luke turned off his guidance system and Used the Force.

Oooh, and also don’t miss Ryan vs. Dorkman, a meta-contextual showdown of two digital artists whose real-life Internet sparring led to one of the best fan-made sword duels ever. (And yeah, the list of Best Fan-Made Sword Duels is incredibly short, but this stands taller than those other ones stacked on top of each other.)

Really, check that link out. The last minute is not just inventive fight choreography but clever and intriguing uses of the Force that I wish I had seen in actual Lucas films.

OK, but the reason I’m posting this now is because I’ve had my jaw dropped today by a little tiny indie film: “Anachronism.”  It’s hard to call it a fan film, since none of the characters are based on famous licenses. But it has its heart in super-fandom by being a sci-fi tale with a steampunk heart courtesy of Jules Verne; the only thing missing for maximum geekdom is someone in a cape and cowl.

It’s the story of two curious children exploring the seaside and discovering, as one often does on holiday, a metallic squid. From the opening scenes of quiet character details to the haunting and apt final image, it’s a 15-minute wonder that held me rapt, not least because amateur films just shouldn’t be this good. If you can handle a dash of science fiction with your Victorian character drama, please give this 15-minute short a whirl.

“Anachronism” comes from a Vancouver studio and probably had some funding from some Canadian arts board or two, judging from the end credits. Details are fuzzy about the maker, Anachronism Pictures, but whoever these guys are, they’ve elevated the bar for makers of amateur films.

As Remy the rat said in “Ratatouille,” when told that anyone can cook: “Yeah. Anyone can, that doesn’t mean that anyone should.” We’ve known for a long time that content creation in the modern age is open to anyone, and yep, YouTube proves that even though everybody is doing it, not all content is created equal. Here’s hoping that efforts like “Anachronism” push other fan-filmistes to pick up their game.

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Want the world’s best adjective-noun combos? Your quest ends here

Woolly thinking.

As in this quote attributed to Tim O’Reilly in “The Oracle of Silicon Valley”:

“There is a wonderful rigor in free-market economics. When you have to prove the value of your ideas by persuading other people to pay for them, it clears out an awful lot of woolly thinking.”

The phrase is most often hijacked by headline writers for stories about sheep farming, hand-made sweaters and abrasive steel scrubbing products. Take it back from the punsters, won’t you? It deserves the usage as demonstrated by O’Reilly.

Veritable plethora.

Is there any other kind of plethora? No, there must not be — but for two exceptions.

One: If you intend it not in its everyday use (“an overabundance”) but in its medical use (“”an excess of blood in the circulatory system”). Doctors do not have time for superfluous descriptors.

Two: You are in the 1986 movie “¡Three Amigos!,” which featured the mildly famous exchange:

Jefe: I have put many beautiful pinatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.
El Guapo
: Many pinatas?
Jefe
: Oh yes, many!
El Guapo
: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?
Jefe
: A what?
El Guapo
: A *plethora*.
Jefe
: Oh yes, you have a plethora.
El Guapo
: Jefe, what is a plethora?
Jefe
: Why, El Guapo?
El Guapo
: Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has *no idea* what it means to have a plethora.
Jefe
: Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

Fershluggin mess.

A neologism limited to an extremely regional usage … namely my father. If something had been well and truly mucked up, he might mutter “it’s a fershluggin mess,” or he might refer to a large group of things (either tangible items or abstract notions) as “the whole fershluggin mess.” In that usage, it’s an equivalent to “the whole enchilada.”

“Fershlugginer,” as near as I can discover, is a modified Yiddish (or even completely fictional Yiddish) intensifier popularized by MAD magazine, which, in its signature New York Jewish voice, liked to play with foreign words as recurring non-sequiturs. There’s some debate about its origin: “farshlugginer” may be true Yiddish to mean “shaken or mixed-up;” it may be a descendant of the German “verschlagener” (meaning “more devious”); or it may just be legendary MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman having a jape at linguists’ expense. In any case, it’s meaning here is clearly as a mild expletive.

The irony is not lost on me that my straight-laced father would have borrowed a turn of phrase from MAD, a counterculture magazine he once called “ten miles of bad road.” If he knew its source, he would never have admitted it.

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What’s better than free comics? …GOOD free comics

Like all loyal Retort readers, I loaded my arms full at Free Comic Book Day on May 1. It takes time to savor that much content, but I persevered … and survived to declare one true winner. This thing:

A supernatural Western featuring some kind of cursed six-shooter? You had me at hello. You also had me at, “hangin’ tree full of oracular corpses”…

… “crank-handled machine gun monks” …

… and “undead undertaker posse.”

Read this issue FOR FREE online, it in its entirety. It’s mystic, it’s dusty, and it’s got as many shady layers of good, bad and in-between as an “Unforgiven” film school discussion.

There were other comics available on May 1, some for kiddies, some for adults, some as jumping on points for other series, some as out-of-context windows into other stories that may or may not draw new readers in. But if you picked up a copy of this, you got as iron-clad an argument to return to your comic store as any I can imagine.

Yeehaw, undead cowboys!

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‘Community’ is a critical block party: But how do you describe it?

I don’t know if the NBC show “Community” is setting the world ablaze, but it’s got my britches thoroughly singed. I’ve been vocal about my enthusiasm, and it’s the only sitcom I make an effort to watch. Yes, I know “Office” and “30 Rock” are great — but I only have time for one 22-minute collection of yuks, and I’ve made my commitment to the ‘Unity.

That’s because it’s so different somehow, and when you can show me something different in our media-saturated world, you have my respect and loyalty. “Community” knocks me out with its unique way of telling jokes and building character, its bizarre and hard-to-categorize sense of humor. I’ve never had formal training in criticism — television or literary or otherwise — so I seem always to lack the words to explain why a thing works. Thankfully, “Community” has been getting some great critical coverage lately, and those guys always know what to say.

Take, Entertainment Weekly, for instance. They’ve got their fingers on the pulse of everything!

Community is the ultimate meta-sitcom. Tropes are clearly spelled out, references to Cheers and M*A*S*H abound, and archetypes are wrung for maximum irony. … The fact that they’re somehow able to transcend the cliché even while reveling in it is what makes this show so improbably original.
Keith Staskiewicz, EW, 5.7.10

…ooookay, I don’t really know what that means. I mean, I went to college and all, and I recognize words like irony and M*A*S*H, but I’m not sure this clarifies the magic of this show. Mostly, I think it means Keith Staskiewicz can’t put his finger on it either. That’s OK, Keith; it was better than I could do.

What does NPR have to say about it? Those guys are all brainiacs! Linda Holmes writes a really thorough piece here, with specifics that are getting a little closer. She calls out “Community’s” magic cast and the writer’s jokes, but gives special emphasis to the show’s confidence. That’s an apt word choice, and gets us closer to an expression I can live with.

They’ve embraced the idea of pop-culture references, yes, but they do it with sure-footed joy, not with the grasping sense that they want the laugh for the reference itself. It takes a strong sense of identity to throw as many kinds of comedy into the mix as they use here…
Linda Holmes, NPR

That’s still kind of cerebral, and I’m not sure I could convince a skeptic to watch based on that description alone. But I notice Holmes says something later in the review that stuck out:

“This is, for lack of a more refined phrase, a very happy comedy. It’s not an angry comedy, or a cynical comedy, or a dark comedy.”

Which is amazing. Because I (and a few other reviewers I noticed) came up with “mean-spirited” to describe the pilot, and I’m pretty sure you could pour any episode through a cynicism-shaped colander and get at least a little grit in your trap, not to mention occasional grains of anger and darkness.

And this got me thinking: Maybe the explanation of “Community’s” success is not in its confidence, but in its contrast. It’s the show where all kinds of humor are possible. It’s possible to make fun of people without getting too mean; to roll your eyes at the world without getting too cynical; to be witty at someone’s expense without getting too sarcastic; to be happy without being saccharine; to be angry without being nihilistic.

In fact, Slate sums this up in the most succinct way possible: “Acrobatically, the show manages to mock to the low status of [the characters] without sneering.”

Acrobatic comedy, that’s more like it. That’s a word that I can use in a cocktail party conversation to turn a disbeliever around and make him watch this show.

Of course, if that description doesn’t make a strong enough case for you, Hulu makes it pretty easy to get on board by posting scads of episodes and short clips to whet your appetite. Or try this insane fan-made mash-up, that turns some of the show’s more outrageous dialog into a hip-hoppity dance mix.

Or just tune in because it’s the show where people dress like this:

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