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I’m glad ‘Community’ is back in all its glory; now may that glory not kill them

Like a loud drunk at a wedding, "Community" amuses some guests, while grating on others and embarrassing the bride's mother.

“Community” is back on the air and you can count me glad. It’s the only show on TV I care to follow, and when I miss it (which is always) I catch it the next day on Hulu over lunch. When it went on hiatus in December, I wasn’t the only fan who worried NBC was trying to diffuse fan outrage over a pending cancellation, hoping we would become mollified by some other show and forget to launch our blistering letter-writing campaign.

The show has big cult following, but not a big marketable following, and the fans know it. “Community” isn’t for everybody. It’s the funniest thing on TV for my money, but let’s face it, my money’s not always good in this town. The show has two big strikes against it that make it hard for a wider audience to warm up: “Community” is weird and it’s cynical.

Weird shouldn’t be a problem.

“The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” are weird too. Tracy Jordan having a drug reaction, clinging to the ceiling of his dressing room, “bugging out” about little blue dudes and shouting out for “Doctor Spaceman” – that’s pretty out there. Then again, having two characters who convert a bedroom in their apartment to a Holodeck-like “Dreamatorium” where they can indulge their deep fantasy role-playing sorts of trumps it all. (Wider audiences failing to embrace this extreme penchant for oddity may be why, at the beginning of Season 3,” the “Community” cast pledged to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Of course, they pledged this as part of a Broadway song-and-dance dream sequence, so maybe they were being a little disingenuous.) Still, shows like “30 Rock” and the others mitigate their insane B plots with sweet, likable characters who can ground the audience in relatively-less-insane A plots.

Which is where cynical comes in.

Here, “cynical” is just a big umbrella word I’m using to wrap up all the deliberately thorny elements that distance viewers from this show and keep them from buying in to the long-term storyline of the characters.

Those likable characters from Dunder Mifflin and Rockefeller Plaza? They’re in short supply at Greendale Community College. (Individual characters are likeable, but “Community” makes sure we never feel sentimental about them for long. Everybody is flawed and occasionally ugly. “Community” writers make sure we remember that.)

Sweetness? It’s more an undercurrent of meanness that pervades this show. (Characters are dicks to each other – so much so, in fact, they occasionally call each other “dick.”)

Often the whole ensemble is at odds with one another and will end the entire show a fair distance short of a group-hugging make-up that gets us back to the cheery status quo. The status quo at Greendale is, indeed, that usually these characters are annoyed with one another.

I know precious little about improv comedy…

…but I know that one of the precepts is that you never improvise a disagreement or an argument that tears your fellow players down. You build them up. You never say, “No, you’re wrong,” you say, “Yes, and…” You build on one another. But “Community” is often an exercise in tearing others down.

To many, that’s the show’s strength. Some fans prefer that the show abandons treacle and contrived sitcom conventions to do something truly daring. It dares to make characters unlikable, racist, dumb, possessive, manipulative, intolerant and egomaniacal. Usually, audiences like shows where lead characters who skewer these traits in others; in “Community,” the characters are skewering these traits in each other.

When the show debuted in 2009, I wrote about my enthusiasm with glee, but I cautioned the main character, Jeff Winger, “seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight.” At times, it seems Winger did grow. One of my favorite sequences in the first season is when he finally relents to become Spanish class partners with Pierce, the boorish old blowhard played by Chevy Chase. Winger doesn’t want to get sucked into Pierce’s weird event horizon, but to heal hurt feelings, Jeff finally lets Pierce dictate their elaborate presentation for tyrannical Spanish professor Senor Chang. Shown in a wordless montage, the presentation involves silly dances, tiny sombreros, dramatic gesturing and fistfuls of sparklers.

 

When it’s over, the two stand stock still, panting, under the scrutinizing gaze of Chang. Finally the professor nods as if he has at last given begrudging admiration for such a ballsy and ambitious delivery. Similar situations in movies and TV have taught us what to expect next. We expect him to say, “OK. That took guts. An A for the both of you.” But:

CHANG: “F … and F minus.”

PIERCE: “Did you say S?”

That’s comedy. That’s fresh and unexpected and it piles ridiculousness on top of ridiculousness. “Did you say S?” That kills me.

So there’s evidence of Winger growing. But most of the time the show shelves this, and he and others go back to being snarky and mean to each other again. Which I guess is just like life, you know?

Depth is rare – but there

The thing is, “Community” is chock full of tender moments that mean something. Two Christmases ago, the Rainman-like Abed had a seasonal meltdown that resulted in him seeing everything in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion winter wonderland. The group played along with his delusion to get him to the bottom of his depression (albeit in their own snarky and sarcastic ways). The episode explored how small traditions can resonate more powerfully than the big, gaudy, bedecked traditions that Christmas seems to be about. In a way, it’s the most trenchant commentary on the holiday season since Charlie Brown and his crappy little tree.

Professor Duncan encourages Abed to visit the Cave of Frozen Memories to sort out this crazy Christmas delusion, but Abed is having none of it.

The episode before that, Troy the naïve jock-nerd turned 21 and the gang took him to celebrate “growing up” with his first trip to a bar. But alcohol turned everyone ugly, and Troy realized that growing up meant un-fun stuff like being responsible and driving your incoherent friends home. Amazingly incisive character exploration, all of it.

Hair in your soup

But then there was the much-ballyhooed Dungeons & Dragons episode of last season. As you may be aware, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for D&D, both as a game and as a cultural roadhouse where so many generations and demographics have stopped in for a drink, even a metaphorically tortured one. I had heard that “Community” was embracing a D&D themed episode, and the early buzz was that it was a love letter to the nostalgia of role playing and dice rolling. It started quite promisingly, as the study group tries to buck up the spirits of a seemingly suicidal fellow student by feigning interest in his favorite hobby: D&D. They put on brave faces and try out their first game with their friend, Fat Neil.

Pierce reads ahead in the module. There is no greater sin in a game about storytelling.

So far so good. But Pierce, who creator Dan Harmon once called “the Daffy Duck of the group,” just had to become the antagonist. Often Pierce is the source of derision in the show, and he regularly says and does dumb and detestable things. But in this episode, he takes it to a new level as a D&D villain, both in-game and in-show. He takes umbrage that the group did not invite him to play the game with Neil, and he goes on an episode-long tear replete with such dialog as:

“First of all, gay. Second of all, stupid. And thirdly, why was this a secret? Are you cutting me out of the group?”

“You remembered to let fatty sit in my chair. Get out! You’re stretching it.”

“I’m 66, dick.”

(upon taking Neil’s prize possession in-game) “Maybe I’ll wipe my ass with it. That’s what you get for taking my chair, fatty.”

A lot of people loved this episode. I was so disappointed. I had wanted to share it with others, possibly others who are married to me, and say, “Hey, look at D&D through this very funny lens and see why people like me aren’t totally stupid for getting a kick out of it.” Instead, it was as mean-spirited and nasty as a dracolich with an ochre jelly in his phylactery. (That joke would kill at D&D session.) It wasn’t that the writers did any kind of disservice to role-playing games. In fact, they gave D&D a fair shake, getting legitimate laughs with the tropes, not at them. Instead “Community” did a disservice to its characters and now I don’t recommend that episode to anyone.

But whenever I get down about these characters, they say or do something surprising that reminds me why I tune in. Like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which re-imagines a story six ways based on which character must go to the door to fetch the pizza delivery. Or “Basic Rocket Science,” in which the gang is trapped in a KFC-sponsored space flight simulator. Or “Modern Warfare,” one the greatest-ever sitcom episodes ever about paintball … and possibly one of the greatest-ever episodes of TV comedy anywhere, anywhen.

Or even just a snippet of awesome banter, like this from last week’s back-from-hiatus episode:

BRITTA: Weddings are like a little girl’s tea parties, except the women are the stuffed animals, the men are making them talk, and they aren’t drinking tea. They’re drinking antiquated gender roles.

JEFF: Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is.

BRITTA: I know what it is. It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.

See what I mean?

So hooray for being back, “Community.” I await more laughs of this caliber and beyond. May I just request that your writers familiarize themselves with Wheaton’s Law?

You know: Don’t Be a Dick.

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Rejection Week: World traveler stinks it up

In 2001, I joined my wife on an adventurous business trip to Germany and Austria. It was adventurous less for our adventure and more for who joined us: our 1-year-old son. He was an active dude, who quickly got to know everyone on the plane as he ran up and down the aisles greeting people. Of course, whether ascending or descending, the plane is almost always at a pitch, and while running downhill, Oldest Boy would really get to motoring, up to and past the point of falling.

Just a couple of good looking guys, out for a cruise in Kitzbuhl. "How you doin', ladies?"

It was exhausting, and all three of us slept for 14 hours once we bedded down in our Garmisch-Partenkirchen inn at the day’s end.

In any event, when we returned, I felt I had a singular look inside the travails of traveling with kids. It was no cakewalk, but it could be done, and I had insider information. I knew people who knew people at the Chicago Sun Times, so I wrote up my first big travelogue and hoped to make a sale. I must have botched the initial impression, because even though I thought this was pretty good, I was politely declined.

There went my career as a travel writer. Perhaps I would have been miserable … though I’m looking for a downside to travel writing and I just can’t find one.

Diaper Rush

When traveling with baby, don’t forget the simplest rules of planning

By Andrew Scott

Of all the triumphant sights in Germany—Hitler’s Alpine aerie, Ludwig’s mad castle, the basilica of the beer-brewing Benedictines in Ettal—none was sweeter than my wife pressing a package of diapers to the window of a Munich gas station.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it…a stinky, stinky sigh of relief, since my 1-year-old son’s current (and last remaining) diaper had filled the car with more than the air of desperation, if you know what I mean. This station was truly our last hope for finding a fresh nappy in, apparently, all of Germany.

It was a simple mistake. Between the diaper bag supply and the suitcase stash, we miscounted our inventory, just before my boy’s pants went atomic. No diapers? No problem—if you have the ubiquitous American retail system at your service. But shopping in Germany is a weisswurst of a different color.

We were just checking into our hotel in Munich when we made our unpleasant discovery. Where, we asked the front desk clerk, is the nearest grocery store? She provided the directions, but pointed out a small detail as we turn away:

“But today is Saturday.”

Turns out this wasn’t such a small detail after all. All stores—and that meant all stores—closed at 5:00 on Saturdays. We had missed last call by an hour. Worse still, those same stores remained closed on Sundays. And, of course, the kicker: Monday was Pfingstmontag, or Pentecost Monday, a national holiday. In America, of course, it’s inconceivable to imagine a thing that cannot be bought at any hour of any day, especially something as essential as a disposable poop catcher for your infant. But here in Germany, we were looking another 60 hours of diaperlessness. What was next: Ringing doorbells?

But then another clerk offered this crazy idea: “Well, there is that filling station that has a store. It might be open.”

Really? Gas station convenience stores are a novelty in Bavaria? With a son who was growing increasingly vocal about the situation in his drawers, we drove 15 frantic minutes to an unassuming little box of a gas station. When my wife held that package of “Fixies” brand disposables against the window, it felt like opening day of Oktoberfest.

On the whole, our first real trip with baby was an amazing success, despite the litany of crises, averted catastrophes and near misses. Because we had planned obsessively for this before we left, we never hit total misery even when the wheels came off our wagon. Here is a short list of ideas—both practical and philosophical—that we gleaned for other parents making their first-time long distance leap:

* Be patient. Travel is never going be the same way for you now. Admit it. Move on.

* Expect that not you will enjoy everything the way you want. On more than one walking tour of a gold-gilded palace, I hung back from our tour groups to minimize the distraction of a fussy baby. Granted, this was a small mercy on some of the stuffier palatial tours—but I accepted this eventuality before I even bought my ticket.

* The umbrella stroller is magic. An umbrella stroller whisks baby from car to terminal to gate, a walk of approximately 20,000 leagues in most airports. Then, right before boarding it collapses into a neat tube that most flight attendants are happy to store special for you. (We managed to get some seats backing up to bulkheads, so the stroller could be tucked right behind us.) Don’t spend more than $50 on one of these; the more geegaws they have, the clunkier they are. We went bare bones and were never sad.

* Back carriers are essential—but not benign. Umbrella strollers are suited for shorter distances over smoother terrain, which does nothing for a day in Salzburg’s Old Town district or the rocky paths above the Eagle’s Nest. Instead, we relied on the back carrier. Sure, it was bulkier than soft pouches or slings, but the extra structure, when properly adjusted, provided superior support for long days on foot. My back ached at the end every day, but less than any other option, I’m convinced. Plus, it elevated my son above my head, giving him a better view (and keeping his grabby hands away from counters and tables). When it came time to eat, our carrier could stand upright next to the table, a helpful feature for the many, many times restaurants came up empty on boosters and high chairs. Speaking of which…

* Go fearlessly. Few Germans seemed to take their kinder out to eat at restaurants. (Yet, strangely, dogs were welcome everywhere.) We took our baby anyway, and discovered that even though we sometimes felt conspicuous and out of place, we were just as often received with warmth by servers and locals who admired our bravery and our son’s spirit. Having our son along made new cultural connections possible.

* Take few toys—but make ’em good. We didn’t want to haul a daycare’s worth of toys across Europe. To keep our son occupied in the car, we selected one manageable chunk of plastic that had a bunch of manipulation points—clicking, whirring, popping up, snapping down, tinny music and a poorly digitized voice chip. Even if the incessant tinkling and tootling from the back seat bordered on a violation of the Geneva Convention, it kept him occupied on sometimes lengthy drives.

* Count those diapers. At least once a day. And as a last line of defense, keep one spare tucked in an outer pocket of a suitcase. You just never know.

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
(Rejection Week Day Two)
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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Rejection Week: A goodbye to my greeting cards

Welcome to Rejection Week, an examination of just a few things I have created that have been rejected, denied, passed over and outright dissed. My list of misses is much longer than my list of hits, and sometimes I think there’s more value in reflecting on what didn’t work rather than what did.

Also, there’s a completely self-serving aspect, too: Many of the things I’ve created I really liked, and if no one will ever see them, then they die little deaths on my shelf. So yes, I will only be sharing things that I am at least a little proud of.

We open with a series of greeting cards I made in 2009 as part of Hallmark’s regular open contests for amateurs. Though I didn’t necessarily expect Hallmark to use my art, I worked as hard as I could to make some of these look pretty. I believe my style could only be lumped generously in what is called “naive art,” which is a pretentious way of saying “doodler.” As I recall, I did the first two for a basic birthday challenge, and then another series as a sort of “what can you do” sampler aimed directly at Shoebox.

In each case, I got a confirmation e-mail that my submissions had been received. And that was all.

What I learned

I learned that coming up with pithy, bawdy, zippy jokes for a greeting card is not the same as cracking jokes in the back of an office meeting or civics classroom. I was unemployed when attempting these, and I think it would have been easier if I had been surrounded at the time by my usual cadre of funny co-workers. Just being around smarties and smart alecks raises the game of creative types. I’m especially susceptible; retorts and repartee are an elixir for inspiration. (Which seems self-evident on the Shoebox blog; that sounds like a supportively goofy office for generating regular ha-ha.) I could have used that boost when staring at the drawing board for these.

Follow ‘Em All!
(Rejection Week Day One)
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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Golf claps, and a side of grousing, on the Oscar inevitability of ‘Toy Story 3’

Pixar’s entertainment juggernaut continued its dominance with the announcement of the 2011 Oscar nominations. Like “Up” before it, “Toy Story 3” was nominated in both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature categories.

Like most observers, I believe the history of “Up” will repeat itself as TS3 will miss top honors, but will instead use that nomination momentum to ride roughshod over the competition in the animation category. If any cartoon flick deserved a decent shot at the top Oscar, it was “Up.” If that didn’t win, TS3 won’t.

Not that I object to an imminent “Toy Story” victory in its proper category. TS3 is a powerhouse, a wonder, a you-name-the-superlative. It deserves every little scrap of praise it earns for the way it cranked an old franchise back to life and gave it a moving, worthy send-off like few final-chapter sequels have ever done. Who would have thought you could wring so much emotion from a boy parting with his childhood toys? Plus, who doesn’t marvel at the ingenious mechanics of teeny things traversing a big world? Just opening a door is an epic hero’s quest in the Toy Story Universe, and the animators and storytellers earn my word of highest respect: clever. TS3 is, in so many ways, a great movie.

So with its place in history assured, and with the DVD on continuous loop in my household, now is the time to uncork a few observations:

TS3 milks its drama hard. Too hard. The-udder-is-starting-to-chafe hard. In the climactic scene of toys descending ever lower into a trash-burning inferno, the musical score clang-clangs like an anvil in a forge as Doom. Creeps. Ever. Closer. Music clang-clangs, the toys hold hands, fires get hotter, clang-clang, worried look, hot fire, clang-clang … CLANG CLANG! It was remarkable when I saw it in theaters (“Wow, they’re really hammering this home!”). On repeated viewings, it’s maudlin, manipulative and cheap. We know they’re in peril. Quit clanging me over the head with it.

Martian ex machina. The toys are plucked from inferno at the last moment by three toys that have escaped the camera’s eye and had a little adventure of their own: They have found and learned to operate a giant junkyard “claw” in time to find a needle in a haystack (their friends in the trash heap). On repeated viewings, this last-second save doesn’t feel earned, no matter how clever it is that the Martians — who are famously obsessed with “The Claw” from their origins in an arcade toy-grabbing game — are bringing things full circle with, ha ha, a real claw. “Oh,” I say on second and fourth and sixth viewings, “that was convenient.”

The bowling-ball-on-the-head gambit. Speaking of convenient, I am mildly annoyed that Pixar has to resort to a trope that has been around since the Flintstones: Identity amnesia turned on (and off!) by a blow to the head. The gag starts out great, as Buzz is very neatly compromised by fiends who put him in “Demo Mode,” thus erasing his memory. This is complicated even more neatly when the heroes inadvertently engage Buzz’s “Spanish Mode” while attempting to restore him. Now Buzz has become a flamboyant Latin lover who moves with flamenco passion. Mucho humor follows forthwith. When the story needs to have him turn back into Regular Old Buzz, though, he gets hit in the head. For Fred Flintstone, it was a bowling ball, for Buzz it’s a TV, but either way, the result is the same: Poof! He’s back to his old self! What a convenient, creaky old gag.

Slow-motion, pillow-fighting hobbits. Few people love the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as much as I. But even I must admit that by the end, when everybody has made it out of the exploding volcano alive, director Peter Jackson took just a little too much advantage of the circumstances by letting his key characters reunite in an over-sentimental, oversaturated hugfest under a Vaseline-smeared lens. Likewise does the denouement of TS3 go on just a tad too long, and it risks turning sweetness to treacle. Yes, it is the most powerful moment in the movie when Andy gives up his toys to a little girl with a worthy imagination. But like our slo-mo halflings, the scene overstays its welcome by nudging us in the ribs: “Didja cry yet? Didja cry yet?” Yes, I am moved. Yes, my eyes are moist. And now I am ready to move on; please join me before I begin to regret granting you this gift of my raw emotion.

I only react to little things like this because I’m so invested in the rest of it. I wouldn’t care so much if the rest of the movie wasn’t worthy. I still shake my head in admiration at all the deft details, from the creative use of a tortilla to the final shot of clouds that perfectly mimics the very first image of the franchise. It’s near-perfection, and I only pick at these nits because I want so much for that perfection to be more than just “near.” Catch me opining this much about “G-Force.”

BONUS OBSERVATIONS

* I haven’t seen any of the other competitors in the Animated Short Film category, but I’m confident in saying the other Pixar entry, “Day and Night” (which appeared before TS3 in theaters), is a jaw-dropper that will win it. I’ve never seen so much innovative story telling as two blobby characters who act as filters through which the real world can be seen at different times of day. Who thinks of this sort of thing? I remain amazed on every viewing.

• “How to Train Your Dragon,” the Dreamworks entry in Best Animated Feature competition, is the latest entry from that company to really rise above its station. What could have been a jokey fantasy one-off delivered more heart than I was expecting from a story of a boy who disappoints his father, while struggling to find his confidence. Against many other Pixar entries, I might have insisted “Dragon” is a more Oscar-worthy entry (you may recall I greatly preferred “Kung Fu Panda” over its rival award-winner “Wall-E”), but even Dreamworks has to tip its viking helmet to the accomplishments of TS3.

• “Tangled” didn’t get a nomination and that’s just rude. It’s every ounce a qualified nominee, even if not quite the winner. I don’t know why this fun tale was left out, unless it’s a reaction to Disney Marketing somehow losing its nerve by not just calling the the thing “Rapunzel.” (Call a spade a spade, Disney; that worked pretty well for “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”) Anyway: Boo, Oscars, you dropped the ball!

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The language of the music review

Assignment: Write a music review for the next ragtime performance you attend.

In a recent book review about “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” I quoted a neat passage by author Jess Walter that parodied the odd dialect of the music journalist. (“The state Senator’s speech ‘lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook.'”) I like that passage because it acknowledges the unusual burden writers must place upon words to describe the qualities of sound.

I’ve been collecting music reviews that catch my eye, or my ear, or whatever piece of the soul is engaged by written descriptions of notes. I find the art a little amusing, as Walter does, and also rather beautiful. Not because it always works — some billows of words chosen by gabby reviewers defy understanding — but because I admire the discipline of defining one medium by using a completely opposite one. Like re-creating a solid by using only gas.

Here are just a few I’ve clipped and saved over the last year or so. They are examples of bravado and silliness and subtlety, sometimes successful, sometimes ridiculous, but all of them fun to observe in their natural habitat:

The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (reviewed by Greg Kot for the Chicago Tribune ; July 14, 2009)

(White’s) production and songwriting once again embrace a raw, fuss-free vibe, with robust guitar riffs and drums that force the action. The recording has a you-are-there immediacy, with dramatic swings in volume and density and touches of sci-fi keyboard atmosphere. … The music grinds and lurches, as if writhing through a fever dream or crawling through glass. It’s tense and claustrophobic, with Mosshart sounding appropriately misbegotten, while Fertita’s guitar jabs in and out. The low end positively vibrates at times, the rock equivalent of a gangsta-rap rumble.

Kot takes a poetic and kinetic approach. He uses concrete concepts like a “raw, fuss-free vibe” and “dramatic swings in volume” and he uses some very evocative descriptors (tense, claustrophobic, misbegotten, jab). He also likes to dare my imagination — maybe a bit much. How do “drums force the action”? What is a “you-are-there immediacy”? Who knows. I like reading those passages if only to marvel at what they could mean. He also really goes for it when concocting his similes. Saying the “writhing” music is “crawling through glass” lays it on a bit thick for my tastes, but bless him for swinging for the fences.

Here’s how another reviewer, Noel Murray of The A.V. Club, reviewed the same album the same day:

Even before The White Stripes broke wide, the alt-rock scene harbored a goodly number of loud, minimalist electric-blues acts steeped in echo, bash, and gothic misery. Jack White injected a necessary dose of wit and personality into the genre, laced with an understanding that while a bluesy sound is easy to replicate, a credible swagger takes a leap of imagination. … But about half of Horehound is very much in the same spook-boogie mode that’s been done to death by thousands of Allmans/Winters/Hendrix/Zeppelin-worshipping bar bands.

A more restrained approach. He too uses a lot of practical words (loud, minimalist, wit, bluesy) with words that make you work to visualize how they apply to music (credible swagger, “spook boogie”). I don’t know what that last phrase is, but it sure evokes something. Also, a really obvious way to describe an album is to compare it to the other bands it might remind you of. I don’t know if there’s some sort of music journalist code about how often to dip into the “Sounds like…” well, but they don’t have to hold back on my account. It works for me.

Florence and the Machine, “Lungs” (reviewed by Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork; Aug. 13, 2009)

Lungs is a cloud-headed introduction to Welch’s world, where It Girl hype, coffins, violence, and ambition combust on impact; it’s a platinum-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness. Instead of giving this gothically pale 22-year-old with megaphone vox some classy pop-soul to work with à la Duffy or Adele, Lungs takes the smorgasbord approach. Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock, epic soul, pint-tipping Britbeat, and– best of all– a mystic brand of pop that’s part Annie Lennox, Grace Slick, and Joanna Newsom. A lesser talent might fall prey to such veering stylistic change-ups (cough, Kate Nash, cough), but Welch powers through, her ear-snapping alarm call of a voice making Lungs sound like the work of a courageous artist rather than a group of well-paid producers.

Wow. I can’t tell if that’s some beat poetry escaping there (“Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock…”) or just some note-drunk typing, but I admire this greatly. It helps that listening to Florence Welch (especially her waterfall of a song, “Dog Days Are Over”) fills me with a kind of heart-bursting enthusiasm, too. When you share the reviewers excitement, it’s hard not to go right along with their excesses. What is a “platimun-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness”? You might have your own picture of what that means (or no idea at all), but since I believe Welch’s music to be smart stuff that transcends its medium, I can’t blame the writer for trying to keep pace by transcending his.

Of course, not everybody likes this kind of grandiloquence. Webcomics creator Jeph Jacques had this to say about Gui Boratto’s “Take My Breath Away” album:

Whereas Chromophobia was like a strobe-light rave on the beach, Take My Breath Away is like a disco-ball freakout by the poolside. Wait that sentence is USELESS AND PITCHFORKY NEVERMIND

Basically this record is melodic, syncopated, accessible techno that doesn’t mark a significant deviation from Boratto’s previous work, but adds a slightly different flavor to the mix. Basically the record is worth buying/downloading/whatevering for the track “No Turning Back,” which is the single most epic thing Boratto has yet recorded. Yeah, the vocals are a little cliche, but JESUS when the main hook kicks in it’s a hell of an adrenaline rush.

This is how a non-journalist music-lover tells a friend about an album. Obviously I don’t agree that all aggressively poetic descriptions are USELESS AND PITCHFORKY, but when you really want to be clear why music is meaningful to you, it’s hard to beat communication like “accessible techno that’s not much different from their previous work,” and making special note of what you have to endure before the “adrenaline rush” kicks in.

Sometimes non sequiturs and free-association imagery can convey meaning more clearly than simple, declarative sentences. Read this phonovault.com description of the “Southern Gothic rock band” The Lobster Quadrille, then listen to a sample of their music. You’ll say, “Yes, that’s exactly the sound that I was expecting from that description.”

The Lobster Quadrille’s eponymous debut is a walk down willowed lanes and marshy backwaters, accompanied by pillars of smoke and flame. The album’s tracks drift from ante-bellum, southern socials through dark forests, consumptive sick rooms, and fantastic hells amid whispers of murder, sex, damnation, elation. The tone shifts from Old Testament dirge to roof-raising Satanic gospel and everything in between. Perfect accompaniment to dining, dancing, fornication, or drug use.

You can hear the washboards, reedy clarinets and woozy electric guitars already, can’t you?

Now, a trio of trips: The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (First Runner Up) goes to:

Mikael Wood, Entertainment Weekly (Sade, “Soldier of Love”; Feb. 12, 2010)

Beyond the surprisingly hard-thumping title track, the group’s first album since 2000’s Lovers Rock sticks faithfully to the lush quiet-storm sound … Given the singer’s still-incredible voice — imagine the world’s sexiest yoga instructor leading an epic om — that lack of evolution hardly presents a problem. Sade exhales peerlessly while the boys behind her fluff one heck of a sonic pillow. Weary bones, rest here.

The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (Grand Prize) goes to:

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly (Ke$ha, “Cannibal”; Nov. 29, 2010)

Her herky-jerky rhymes still sound like they came from the bathroom wall of a reform-school kindergarten, and the beats are as el cheapo electro as ever. …Cannibal does have a sulfurous end-of-days whiff about it. As Armageddon parties go, though, this one should leave plenty of sweat and confetti on the dance floor. (Leah Greenblatt)

The award for Most Evocative Use of the Middle Ages to Review Death Metal (Booby Prize) goes to:

Monica Kendrick, Chicago Reader (Skeletonwitch. “Breathing the Fire”; April 29, 2010)

The low, mean chugging in the guitars and the demonic cracks in Chance Garnette’s voice both come out more on this record, and the extra coating of murk gives it a bit of the ominous feeling of an old blues 78. … Their NWOBHM underpinnings give them an infectious momentum, like a stampeding army driven forward by classic Saxon or Celtic Frost — it sounds like they barged straight through later trends like thrash and death metal, picking up influences from them the way a horseman on a battlefield might get spattered with gore.

Love them or eyeroll them, those last three entries represent what I love best about music writing: the quest for the elusive metaphor. Whether or not you experience an epic om, a sulfurous reform school bathroom or the frickin’ gore of invading Saxons when you listen is entirely up to you. These writers found the words to capture the experience as best they could in a way that will never be more than imperfect. That’s where the wonderment of the art is. To me, it’s as if the moment you catch the leprechaun his magic begins to fade. (Yet if you never caught the little bugger to begin with, you would have nothing at all.)

Let’s close with a palate cleanser. I heard pianist Reginald Robinson for the first time on my local NPR station last week, and found myself sitting in my parked car until he finished his subtle composition, something that I could only identify as “modern ragtime.” He wasn’t playing relentless Scott Joplin-style ragtime, which can sometimes have a mechanical quality as if it’s being cranked out of organ grinder’s box. This bore the hallmarks of ragtime, while still embracing changes in tempo, dynamics and … and something softer that I’ll call tone for lack of a better music-writer’s word.

To save me, here’s the clear, unpretentious way that an accomplished jazz writer (Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune) described what he hears in Robinson’s work:

Robinson’s compositions, in other words, are not simply re-workings of familiar ragtime conventions and never were. Instead, Robinson has extended the definition of the genre, expanding its harmonic palette, enriching its rhythmic vocabulary, altering its underlying structure.

No unnecessary similes or over-reaching adjectives here. Do yourself a favor and listen to Robinson play the pieces I heard that morning, and see if you can agree he’s an artist who is “extending the definition of the genre.” Or maybe you’ll find he’s just a guy who plays a real sweet tune just like they used to.

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New Favorite Word alert: ‘gahonking’

The webbed menace gahonks, right before our very eyes. (photo by Jacob Cohl)

Stand aside, woozy. There’s a new awesome word in town and it’s big. So big, it threatens to take down ginormous. And monstremendous. And other words of bigatude with questionable pedigree.

I speak of gahonking, which debuted today on the digital pages of NPR, in this post by culture blogger Trey Graham:

There’s been a fuss, and inevitably a counter-fuss, about the early previews of the much-delayed, notoriously troubled, gahonkingly expensive Spider-Man musical that’s readying itself for a January opening on Broadway.

Tremendous. And thank you, NPR, for not staffing the kind of humorless nit-pickers who would edit away such a word on the grounds it doesn’t exist. It does exist, obviously, because there it is. And I understood its meaning at once. Language is a living beast, and no one is fit to tame it. Except the French. (God bless ’em, but that Academie Francaise is, I’m afraid, founded on the notion of humorless nit-pickery. Their language may be pure, but their sense of whimsy is not. Long live English and her crazy ways!)

Literate readership, you know what to do. Propagate this adjective and its adverbial cousin until the cultural landscape teems with it, so that it may become a permanent part of our lingual ecosystem. Together we can make it happen!

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How to make a superhero movie (Hint: It ain’t just punching, but boy it helps.)

I could point out that it’s the Age of the Geek, and that the Nerds have at last achieved the everlasting Revenge that they’ve been lusting for since the mooks at Alpha Beta burned down their house, but I don’t have to.

You’re already a Nerd.

Statistically speaking you are, at least. And if you’re not, if you’re really a Jock, then you’re trying to lie low so you don’t draw attention from the Nerds, which could only get you fired from your job or or your favorite TV show canceled.

I mean, us Nerds, we’re everywhere, right? We’re the mainstream. We’re where culture is at right now. Hollywood goes to Comic Con to beg for our purchasing power. Advertisers and merchandisers know they need to appeal to our sensibilities to or risk their products being passed over by the Dorkish Tastemakers with discretionary income.

But I’m nervous. We could still blow it. And the superhero movie could be our undoing.

See, in 2012, Nerdom is set to explode, really explode all over itself, when two long-anticipated hero movies hit theaters: the third installment of Christopher “Dark Knight” Nolan’s Batman franchise, and “The Avengers,” the summa summarum of a series of Marvel hero flicks that begins with “Iron Man,” continues through Captain America and Thor installments, and ends with a chorus line team-up of costumed characters so epic it can only be entrusted to director Joss “Buffy” Whedon, the godfather of geekpower.

The cast of "The Avengers," assembled for the first time at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. And the nerdosphere squealed.

Don’t forget a certain 2011 movie dedicated to the least understood Justice Leaguer, Green Lantern, who wears a magic ring that creates indestructible goodies like giant hands and baseball bats and (in one hilarious Silver Age comic moment) enormous radiators. (That last was for absorbing villainous heat rays. Naturally.) This one has Mr. Scarlett Johannson donning CGI spandex:

Ryan Reynolds, reporting for duty in Sector 2814. (That's Earth, duh!)

And I’m nervous about this not only because it could be superhero overkill (it could be) and not only because real-life humans wearing supersuits look silly (they do). I’m worried because pulling off a great hero movie is the exception, not the norm. The goofier these heroes are — namely any Man not named Super, Bat, or Spider — the less likely it is audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, or sustain their tolerance for this costumed tomfoolery.

I mean, moviegoers barely tolerate the ridiculousness of a strongman in blue, yellow and red who no one can recognize when he puts on glasses, but that’s purely because Superman has been anointed in the sacred waters of American legend. He’s an icon now; if he had debuted in the ’60s we’d have laughed him out of his little red boots by now.

So I’m really worried that during the ultimate hero scrum of “Avengers,” the Jocks will look at each other and go:

“You know what? These dudes look really stupid.”

“Yeah. A Norse god? Seriously?”

“Totally. If Captain Yankeedoodle went into a real Marine barracks wearing that outfit they’d beat the spit-and-polish out of him.”

“Oooh! A guy who can shoot arrows real good! I’m glad he’s on the team with the thunder god and the flying iron guy with the laser cannons in his palms.”

And then the spell would be broken. The Age of Nerds would end, and the Jocks would resume casting their Sauron-like aura over the Middle-earth of our souls.

But there’s hope. There’s a way this could all build to greater heights without tearing down our house of Magic: The Gathering cards. I have seen the salvation of superhero storytelling and it is this trailer for DC Universe Online.

DCUOnline is a massively multi-player online game, and whether it’s fun or not is almost irrelevant to me, based on how UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME I DON’T WANT TO OVERHYPE THIS BUT LOOK OUT HERE I GO the trailer looks. What’s important here is that the creators seized my attention with tight, tense superhero action. Not just one superhero, but the whole cast of the Justice League and its stable of archenemies.

There’s punching, swordplay, major ordnance discharging and all manner of magi-cosmic hooha thrown into this 5-minute sequence, and none of it feels out of place or, dare I type this with a straight face, implausible. This is exactly what a balls-out battle between superpowers would look like.

Joss Whedon, and all other big-budget, super-franchise moviemakers out there, please take note of this trailer. Right off the bat, it makes Wonder Woman seem like not the most silly concept for a hero ever. The mechanics of her punching, stabbing, throwing, ripping, and leaping — oh! that leap! — blow out the bulb of her hero thermometer, and then some. This is a Wonder Woman you could watch a whole movie about.

This trailer makes a cosmic-powered ring work on screen by not dwelling on daffy constructs or look-at-me graphics. Instead, Green Lantern uses his glowing green magics to bitchslap badguys — when not getting bitchslapped by them himself.

Then there’s a beautifully choreographed (and comically, deliciously brief) fight between Black Adam and a really, really, really pissed off Man of Steel.

One  reason why this all works is because these are cartoons; put live actors in those suits and you begin to lose an ineffable believability to it all. It’s ironic that cartoonish characters make the scene more plausible, but that’s the magic of comics, and of art in general: Images are abstractions, and abstractions are easier to graft our meanings and our stories onto.

So all I’m really asking is that if we insist on going through with it, that we’re collectively determined to put Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans in some of the dopiest four-color costumery that 25-cent funnybooks can muster, then please, please, please let the action live up to this trailer.

It’s not enough to build character: Take Brandon Routh of “Superman Returns,” who had gobs of pathos and regret and loneliness and other emotions that went deeper than Spandex … but who didn’t punch anything. Nothing, which is a big deal for a guy like Superman. As we learned from “Iron Man,” first you make us care about an intriguing character. Then you let him hit the hell out of something, and good.

Otherwise your franchise will wilt faster than Aquaman at an Arizona SB 1070 protest rally.

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