Quarterly Report


Those of you who follow HeelsFirstTravel.com (and that should be all of you, because it’s a great site) should be familiar with Keri’s posts on Birchbox and Glossybox. I’ve always been kind of jealous of the idea of getting packages full of random goodies in the mail, but although there are versions available for men they still focus on personal care products and other things I have zero interest in (but if it sounds like your cup of tea, visit the links above and sign up; Keri deserves the referral credit for turning you on to it).

A few months ago I discovered the online service Quarterly.co. They have a different take on the “random package of goodies” concept. They have a list of contributors who “curate” packages every three months (hence the name of the company) based around a certain theme. The themes range over a wide territory, with everything from the generic “Technology & Toys” or “Travel & Adventure” (curated by Quarterly directly) to more specific mailings from contributors such as Style Girlfriend (a blogger who brings her fashion advice to the real world with her care packages) and Jesse Kornbluth of HeadButler.com, who “sends overlooked gems in film, music, and literature.” There are also some more esoteric offerings, ranging from advice and tools for entrepreneurs from True Ventures (a venture capital firm) to themed mailings like the one from Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., who sends mailings based on “curiosity”.

I signed up for the aforementioned Technology & Toys mailing as well as the Laughing Squid package, but what with the timing of the shipments (the name sort of gives it away) it was a bit of a wait before I finally got my first package, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it ever since. Once it finally arrived, I tore it open and found some curious items inside. It seems the theme of this month’s mailing was “physics”, and all the ways you can play around with it. Here are the goodies I received. First, the Airzooka:

IMG_0113

Not as menacing as it looks.

Looks cool, right? Well, it was “some assembly required”.

Some assembly required

“I fall to pieces…”

And here’s the final product:

Exactly as menacing as it looks.

Exactly as menacing as it looks.

When I finally got it together (which only took about five minutes and a small bit of help from My Not So Humble Wife), I did get some fun out of it. It’s a nifty little toy, and I will probably play with it some more in the coming weeks off and on. Still, not the coolest thing ever. Let’s see what else I got.

Room-a-Rang

Not pictured: an actual Australian.

Yes, that’s a Roomarang. As in a boomerang you can throw inside. And yes, it does work about as advertised. It was fun for a few minutes, and I found myself coming back to it a couple times (and might again), but once I finally caught it on the return trip it wasn’t nearly as compelling as it was at first. Next up was the kite.

Kite

Things I won’t be doing: impersonating Benjamin Franklin. Starring in Mary Poppins. Thinking of a third kite-related joke.

You will notice it is still in the sleeve. There are a couple reasons for this. First is because it’s summer in Virginia. That means the weather comes in two flavors: hot and humid with no wind or hot and raining. In a couple months if I can still find it the weather might be right for flying a kite. I won’t know because when I was ten I realized I will never be one of those guys who can do cool tricks with kites. I also realized that cool tricks with kites don’t actually impress girls. There may be a correlation there. Either way I won’t be flying a kite again anytime soon.

Next up was a funky lens for my iPhone camera.

Fisheye photo lens.

This lens wasn’t the only thing getting the fisheye.

You will notice this is also still in the box. The reason for that is before taking the pictures for this blog post, I hadn’t taken a picture with my phone in weeks if not months. I’m just not that kind of guy. I may not be the norm in that regard, but it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you. I have no idea where they got the idea I would enjoy this, but at least they were kind enough to send me a postcard when they got there.

Postcard

“Just like anyone else who sends you a postcard, we clearly have no idea what you like.”

To summarize: 50% of the toys in the box got played with for a couple days, and the other 50% never made it out of the box. That means that I paid $25 each for the Airzooka and the Roomarang. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. I was expecting bells and whistles, gadgets and toys. Instead I got a physics lesson, a postcard, and a couple of toys.

I’m not giving up on them yet, because I still have high hopes for this mailing, and even if the next one is disappointing there are several others I’d like to try (such as Netted by the Webbies, Joshua Foer, and Alexis Ohanian). If those crap out on me, I’ll just start buying myself $50 worth of random crap off Amazon every few months. Either way I win.

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Vacation Movie Roundup: High Culture and Low Brow


I’ve been taking some time off this week, and as always that means I’ve been exposing myself to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entertainment world so that you, my loyal readers, won’t have to. I’ve got a trio of movies for you this time, ranging from family friendly fare to art house Shakespeare, and theaters-only to cable-exclusives.

First up is the Joss Whedon re-imagining of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve got a huge man-crush on Whedon, but I also have an undying love for Shakespeare that is as intense as My Not So Humble Wife’s passionate hatred for him (which she can even express in iambic pentameter). Considering my strong and mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado (I loved most of it, but there were some serious casting problems, especially Keanu Reeves as Don John), I approached this film with some joy and much trepidation. The fact that it was shot in twelve days during what amounted to a vacation in the middle of making The Avengers added a certain amount of uncertainty as well.

Fortunately there was nothing to be concerned about and everything to cheer for (even the wife liked it). The entire movie played smoothly, with a cool hipster-jazz influenced feel. Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice revive the on screen chemistry that long-time Whedon fans will remember from later seasons of Angel. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and well played, and the staging is perfect. Fran Kranz turns in a solid performance as Claudio, bringing a believable yet charismatic youth and impetuousness to the character without being emo, and Jillian Morgese is charming and reserved as Hero.

My personal favorite surprise was Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. I have never really understood nor appreciated the humor of this character before, particularly since every time I have seen the show Dogberry is overplayed and chewing the scenery (Michael Keaton, I’m looking squarely at you). Fillion brings a surprisingly subdued turn to the role, and by underplaying it actually makes it much funnier, as well as giving his fellow ensemble members a chance to shine.

5/5 stars

While I’m on the subject of ensembles, I may as well talk about Pitch Perfect. Yes, I watched this film, mostly because My Not So Humble Sister said it was funny. I hate admitting she’s right about anything (see the part about her being my sister), but I have to admit it was pretty good. It’s about what you would expect, but there are some ways that it manages to rise above itself. In addition to having some really stellar a cappella performances, the film makes a few inside jokes subverting the very form of film it is (my favorite being when Beca (Anna Kendrick) mocks movies that have the exact plotline of the movie she’s in). Another great bit of comedic subversion in the film is Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Rather than being the typical shy fat girl who needs to develop self-confidence, “discover herself” and open up, Amy is played as a strong, confident woman from the start. She also has plenty of well-sculpted young men keeping her company in her palatial estate over Spring Break, another nice change from expected norms.

The film does unfortunately have some downsides. They play to the lesbian stereotype more than a little, and there is more than a little bit of gross-out humor (some of which is so far over the top I couldn’t even watch). The plot is also so derivative that, as previously mentioned, they felt the need to mock it in the movie. That only gets you so far.

All that having been said, if you’re looking for something relatively light, relatively fun, and not in any way taxing, Pitch Perfect definitely hits the mark.

3.5/5 stars

I also finally got to see Puss in Boots. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, because Puss has become about the only character from Shrek that I can watch for more than five minutes without feeling the need to punch something. It’s not that I don’t like the Shrek franchise, it’s just that I get tired of the same joke after hearing it enough times, and apparently that number of times is two (hence why I can’t stand Shrek the Third, and the less said about the abysmal Shrek the Halls the better). Lucky for me, ditching Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy seems to be exactly what this franchise needed.

Puss in Boots is a sweet, fun, lighthearted romp. It’s family-friendly, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. It’s got a lot of laughs for pretty much everybody, and they cut back the cast to something a bit more manageable to they can really enjoy and play with the idea of the characters again rather than every character just being a one trick pony (or a one note donkey, as the case may be). If the plot was a little predictable, that’s only because (a) they actually laid everything out in such a way that nobody can cry foul later in the film, and (b) the target market for this film probably doesn’t have two digits in their age. If you can accept that, you’ll have a lot of laughs, maybe even enjoy a heartwarming moment (it’s DreamWorks, how can you not?), and then go to bed like good little boys and girls.

4/5 stars


The Soundtrack of My Life: Coming Around Again


“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”

Carly Simon, “Coming Around Again”

By this point I’ve pretty well established I have eclectic taste in music, but there are some artists who I just can’t get enough of. Whether it’s because they have an iconic sound, their ability to weave an amazing story, or just because they captured my imagination and never let it go, these are the artists that tend to dominate my mindscape when I think about music.

Billy Joel – The Stranger: One of (if not the) most successful albums by Billy Joel, it actually took me a while to warm up to this one at first. There’s a certain complexity to it, both lyrically and musically, that he doesn’t quite have on Piano Man or Glass Houses, and I didn’t quite gravitate to it as much as I did those albums. I also didn’t really “discover” it until I was much older and had listened to the Greatest Hits Vol. I & II ad nauseum, so about half the album was old hat to me. All of that being said I think it’s worth noting that, as I just mentioned, about half of this album is comprised of songs Joel is famous for, including “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and “She’s Always a Woman”. These are all great songs, but my favorites also include the slightly less well known “The Stranger”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, and “Vienna”. I think these tracks are a bit more complex, but they also bring a lot more to the discerning listener.

Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse of Reason: As I mentioned previously, this album was my first exposure to Pink Floyd, and as such it will always hold a special place in my heart (although in full honesty I’ve since become more a fan of the Roger Waters era; sorry, David!). There’s no denying the rich beauty and soaring magnificence of this album. While there is definitely the distinct “Pink Floyd sound” to it, this album is a clear change point from the earlier albums, and overall a fantastic work. In some ways I feel like it may have been the perfect entry point for a new Pink Floyd fan, and I might even recommend it to this day. While the lead vocals might not be quite comparable, there’s a certain optimism (or at least a lack of bleak cynicism) that’s not present on many of the Waters-era albums, while much of the storytelling and poeticism of the earlier works is still strong. Oh, and the music is absolutely brilliant. For my money the best tracks on the album are “Learning to Fly” (the first Pink Floyd song I ever heard), “One Slip”, “On the Turning Away”, “A New Machine (Part 1)”, and “Terminal Frost”.

Queensryche – Empire: Speaking of those surprising first albums, here’s another one that got me a lesson in music history. My first exposure to Queensryche was this brilliant, off-beat mélange of hard rock. Each song is like a vignette from a completely different book, complete in and of itself, telling a powerful and moving story that at the same time has nothing whatsoever to do with the previous, the next, or any other song on the album. Add to that the fact my initial introduction was through the power ballad “Silent Lucidity” (it was the end of the 80s, don’t judge me) and you can see why I was completely gob smacked when I heard the entire album. There is a brilliance at work here, a mad genius akin to Scheherazade’s one thousand and one nights, as each story captivates and spins a complete worlds before moving on to the next. Some of the most compelling are “Jet City Woman”, “Della Brown”, “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, “Empire”, and “Silent Lucidity”.

Jimmy Buffett – Living and Dying in ¾ Time: This is the album I am most ambivalent about in my whole Jimmy Buffett collection (and I actually have quite a few). There are some songs on this album that I listen to because, eh, they’re okay, and there are other songs on this album that I think are so amazing they stop me in my tracks every time I hear them. Surprisingly, the couple of tracks from this album that appear on Songs You Know by Heart fall into neither category (they’re both good, but not that good). Where Buffett really shines on this album is when he stops trying to make music and starts telling stories (in one case quite literally). Some of the most powerful, moving, beautiful and heart-wrenching music I have ever heard appears on this album, along with what has to be one of the funniest comedic monologues ever recorded. There are no bad songs here, but the truly great ones are “Livingston’s Gone to Texas”, “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown”, and “The Ballad of Spider John”. After all that (each song is sadder than the next), help yourself to “God’s Own Drunk”. It’s a hoot and a half.

Related Posts:

The Soundtrack of My Life: Definitive Albums
The Soundtrack of My Life: Odds and Ends
The Soundtrack of My Life: One Shot of Greatness


The Soundtrack of My Life: Definitive Albums


There are some albums that for me not only define a point in my life but also define the artist or artists who made them. While there may be other albums I love by that artist, that specific album will always be the one I point to when I say “This is what they sound like.” Here are a few of those albums.

Queen – A Kind of Magic: It almost seems offensive to pick just one album to “define” Queen. Freddy Mercury was truly mercurial, reinventing himself (quite successfully) almost on a whim. And yet the powerful, soulful, and almost operatic performances that he and the rest of the band brought to rock and roll are undeniable, and the entire range and depth of their considerable ability is on display in this one compact album. Granted, I have a special love for it in that it encompasses not only the soundtrack for one of the greatest movies of all time (seriously, I once wrote a class paper on just one scene from this film), but also includes the themes song from one of the other greatest movies of all time. All that having been said though, this is still an amazing work of art on its own. To truly appreciate the range and scope of this album, check out “One Vision”, “A Kind of Magic”, “Who Wants to Live Forever” (one of the most beautiful and poignant songs I have ever heard), “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)”, and “Princes of the Universe”. You won’t be disappointed.

Genesis – Invisible Touch: The first Genesis album I remember being old enough to really appreciate, this one absolutely floored me. From the first time I heard “Land of Confusion” I was hooked. Granted the video was pretty cool, but that was just a bonus. When I listened to the entire album I became obsessed. I would literally spend hours listening to it (no, it wasn’t healthy, but this isn’t about me, this is about Phil Collins… and my obsession with him… shut up.) Three amazing musicians explored all kinds of new territory, including a practically unheard of (at the time) nearly 11 min. long song, as well as a nearly five minute long instrumental piece that is absolutely amazing. The best songs on the album for my money are “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “Land of Confusion”, “In Too Deep”, “Domino” (the aforementioned 11 min. song, so brace yourself), “Throwing It All Away”, and “The Brazilian” (the instrumental piece). Give it a try; it’s a lot more than just a pop rock fixture.

Jimmy Buffett – Last Mango in Paris: I first got exposed to Jimmy Buffett the same way lots of fans did: someone I knew (in my case my Dad) owned a copy of Songs You Know by Heart, and I listened to it incessantly. Eventually after several years I decided to take a risk and venture out into, you know, actual albums (instead of just the “greatest hits”) and this was one of the first I stumbled across. Johnny Loftus of allmusic nailed it for me when he wrote that “Last Mango in Paris’ host of high points make it essential for anyone enamored of Buffett’s live shows, or even the casual fan looking to expand beyond Songs You Know by Heart.” While the songs all had the same wry wit and fun I had come to expect from Jimmy Buffett, there was also something fresh and unexpected in some of them. In particular I recommend “Please Bypass This Heart” and “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” for the sound and texture of them, “Gypsies in the Palace” and “Jolly Mon Sing” for the storytelling, and “Desperation Samba (Halloween in Tijuana)” just because it’s a fun, different sound from this versatile artist.

Billy Joel – Piano Man: As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been a lifelong Billy Joel fan, and it started with Glass Houses. The defining album for me when I think of Mr. Joel’s work however (I’m sorry, I just can’t call him Billy, it just feels too informal; we’ve never even been introduced) is Piano Man. It’s more than the storytelling that is evident not only here but throughout his career, and it’s not just the title track that (admittedly) had such a strong influence on my perception of him for decades to come. There’s a passion and theatricality to the songs on this album, as well as a certain gritty realism, that defies simple classification as “pop music” or “soft rock”. The soaring vocals are matched by Mr. Joel’s earnest and full-bodied compositions. The stand-out tracks on this album are “Piano Man” (obviously), “You’re My Home”, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (which I always silently dedicate to my family in Long Island), “Somewhere Along the Line”, and “Captain Jack”.

Oh, and Mr. Joel, feel free to call me Bobby.

 Related Posts:

The Soundtrack of My Life: Odds and Ends

The Soundtrack of My Life: One Shot of Greatness

The Soundtrack of My Life: Y2K Bug


The Soundtrack of My Life: Odds and Ends


Sometimes it seems as if my life is less a continuous journey from one point to another and more a disjointed, constantly interrupted bashing about through random stops in time. This is particularly the case when I look back on my teens and early twenties, when I managed to find every way to creatively screw up that I could that didn’t involve drugs, violence, or jail (although I may have flirted with all three at some point, Your Honor). Among the few signposts I have as I journey back through those tumultuous memories are the songs I listened to, the soundtrack that accompanied my foolish decisions and what seemed to me at the time to be heroic deeds.

Dire Straits – Making Movies: I love this album for a lot of reasons, some of which are personal memories from my senior year of high school (and if My Not So Humble Wife is reading this, let me remind you honey that was about fifteen years before I met you, so you don’t get to hold it against me), and some of it is because the song “Romeo and Juliet” was indirectly referenced by Douglas Adams in So Long and Thanks For All The Fish (it would be the song with the really good guitar bit when Arthur goes flying), or so I was told when a friend first introduced me to the album. Having listened to the song many times, I have no reason to doubt his word on this. It really is an excellent guitar bit. The album covers a fair bit of terrain artistically, more I dare say than on most other albums from Dire Straits (except possibly Brothers in Arms), and while the expected jazz-rock fusion is there for the entirety of the album they manage to find a lot of room to experiment. In addition to the aforementioned “Romeo and Juliet”, I highly recommend “Tunnel of Love”, “Expresso Love”, and “Hand in Hand”.

Bruce Willis – The Return of Bruno: This album will always hold a special place in my heart for two reasons. First because it’s one of the first real records I ever owned that I bought just for me. Second because it’s one of the first records I played so much that just the mention of it is enough to make My Not So Humble Sister want to throw something heavy at my head. Ah, memories. So why do I enjoy this album so much? Is it because Bruce Willis is a great singer? No. But let’s not kid ourselves; neither is David Lee Roth, and everybody howled for his return to Van Halen. What Willis does do is attack the songs on this album with a passion and an honest love that you just don’t find in most singers today. What he may lack in technical performance is more than made up for in his virtue of an indescribable fun and joy. It’s clear that this is exactly what he wants to be doing, and he has the charisma to transmit some of that sense of fun to the listener as well. In addition to that, as I’ve previously mentioned I really do enjoy a good bit of harmonica playing. He may not be a virtuoso, but just because not every guitar player is Jimi Hendrix doesn’t mean we say they are somehow lacking, we just enjoy what they bring as long as they bring enough, and Bruce Willis brings more than enough. This album would be enjoyable enough on its own merits, and it’s doubly so considering it came out in an era of vanity albums being produced on behalf of other actors who didn’t understand they should have stayed actors. The best tracks off this album are “Young Blood”, “Under the Boardwalk”, “Secret Agent Man/James Bond Is Back”, and “Jackpot (Bruno’s Bop)”.

Sponge – Rotting Piñata: This is another album that I love as much for the memories (good and bad) that it invokes as much as for the music. It reminds me of a time in my life when I made some of the worst choices and best mistakes, and I ended up with some great stories if nothing else. I also learned some of the most important lessons, although I didn’t appreciate most of them until much later. Things like who truly cared about me and who didn’t; who I could trust, and how to figure it out fast enough not to get burned too badly; and exactly how much my family really means to me, and just how much they’ll forgive. Vinnie Dombrowski’s vocals, which sound like he regularly gargles with straight whiskey, blended with the gritty post-grunge sound of the instrumentals on the album immediately bring me right back to that place, and the shadowy (or at best semi-bitter) lyrics remind me again of all the damn fool things I’ve done, enjoyed, survived, regretted, and come out the other end of, hopefully better than I went in. Top tracks on this album are “Pennywheels”, “Miles”, “Plowed”, “Drownin’”, and “Molly (Sixteen Candles)”.

R.E.M. – Out of Time: This is another album that was pretty big my senior year of high school. Ironically this album starts off with “Radio Song”, a song about music on the radio controlling the tastes of the masses, which is kind of appropriate, since I feel like a lot of the best music on this album never got the airplay it deserved. I also seem to remember most of the R.E.M. fans I knew at the time being disappointed (if not outright horrified) by this album, which I find to be rather ironic as well, since this is the first album of theirs I loved from start to finish. Despite the two biggest songs on this album being “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”, I personally feel like those are the least representative tracks for the album as a whole. For my money “Low”, “Near Wild Heaven”, “Belong”, “Half a World Away”, “Country Feedback”, and “Me In Honey” are a better sample of what the album is about.

Related Posts:

The Soundtrack of My Life: One Shot of Greatness

The Soundtrack of My Life: Y2K Bug 

The Soundtrack of My Life: I Discover the Nineties

 

The Soundtrack of My Life: One Shot of Greatness


There are some bands, some performers that utterly transcend the genre of music, who go on to become legends. Time after time, album after album, they continue to produce world-changing music that inspires generations of listeners to either become performers themselves or, if not, to at least seek to their own form of achievement in whatever field suits them.

Sadly, these are not among those few.

While they each have managed to go beyond the level of “one hit wonder” in my own personal estimation, in the pantheon of music greatness they will never rise above the level of once-was or might-have-been. That’s not to say they didn’t make more than one album, just that they never managed to make another album I could get behind. They never quite hit it, they veered off in the wrong direction, or they petered out almost before they started, but at least each one managed to leave behind one album I could love forever before vanishing into the night.

Spin Doctors – Pocket Full of Kryptonite: Despite having produced one of the most execrable earworms of the 90s (“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” – it’s stuck in your head just reading the name, isn’t it?), this was actually a fantastic album. The sound was something fresh and jazzy, a welcome change from both the pop ballads and the grunge invasion that were vying for control of the airwaves. The lyrics on this album tend toward to be sharp and clever, although sometimes a bit too clever for their own good. My personal favorite song is (arguably) the title track “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”, from which the line “I’ve got a pocket full of kryptonite” originates.  Other great tracks (that haven’t been overplayed on the radio) are “Forty or Fifty”, “Refrigerator Car”, “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)”, and “Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist”.

Martika – Martika: O.K., true confession time. I was first drawn to this album because I had a huge crush on Martika back when she was on the kid’s show Kids Incorporated (I was a kid myself at the time). When I found out she was all grown up and had an album out, of course I went out and bought it immediately. I listened to it over and over, and fortunately for me I was at exactly the right age to enjoy it, considering the album was basically an average teen pop album and I was a teenager who liked pop music. Listening to it now, it’s pretty good for teen pop music; Martika has a strong voice, and the production values are pretty good. I think most of the enjoyment I get out of it is nostalgia, although actually hearing a good alto in pop music is so rare I’m almost ready to take it at any cost. If you decide to give it a try, I would suggest her big radio hit “Toy Soldiers”, her cover of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”, and “You Got Me Into This”. If you don’t like those, you won’t like the rest.

Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – God Fodder: I don’t really remember when I first heard this album; it was sometime in high school and I just fell in love with it. Everything about it just says punk to me in a way few other bands do, especially bands that explicitly proclaim themselves punk. Maybe it’s the extra bass. What I love most about Ned’s is that they do what they do without being just like everyone else: the guitar lines are power-driven without being the standard “power rock” lines, the drums are hard hitting without feeling like the drummer is coked out, and the lyrics are rebellious and strong without needing to be screamed or merciless. There’s a beauty here that belies the notion punk has to be ugly in order to be raw. For a taste of what I mean, check out “Kill Your Television”, “Less Than Useful”, “Grey Cell Green”, “Capital Letters”, and “What Gives My Son?”

Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes: This is the one I expect to get the most pushback (read: blast of shit) from my friends about, but I’m not going to qualify it in any way. The simple fact is, this is a great album, and as far as I’m concerned the Femmes never lived up to it ever again. They had a few songs I liked after this, but it was never the same or even close. That having been said, when you set the bar so high on your freshman effort, it really is near-impossible to live up to it on any subsequent try, although their drift to different sounds (notably in  country and deep alternative direction) didn’t help any either. All that having been said, it takes nothing away from the stripped down, severe beauty of this album, and if you haven’t taken the time to enjoy it in its entirety I strongly recommend doing so. Most of the songs on this album that are most worth listening to have become radio standards, so I’ll pick out the ones that tend not to get airtime that I think are worth extra attention: “Please Do Not Go”, “Prove My Love”, “To the Kill”, “Ugly”, and “Gimme the Car”.

Other posts you might like:

The Soundtrack of My Life: Y2K Bug

The Soundtrack of My Life: I Discover the Nineties

The Soundtrack of My Life: LOL Albums


Son of My Favorite Movies (That You’ve Never Seen)


About a week ago I was going through my Dad’s old movie collection, packaging it up and selling what I could, disposing of the rest. It made me realize something: my Dad and I had very different tastes in movies. Not that he had bad taste, mind you, just very different. James Bond, for instance. I like Bond films well enough, and I’ve seen all of them since Octopussy, but Dad had seen and loved all of them, and he had them all on DVD (and more than a few on VHS). As for John Wayne, he had more than a few collections, and he had most every John Wayne film ever made on DVD… all 169 of them. I never really understood his appreciation for John Wayne, but then I’m not sure he ever understood my appreciation for Tim Curry, so fair’s fair.

I had planned to talk about all the obscure movies that I found in Dad’s collection that I loved, but the truth is most of the ones we had in common were either well known (like Rocky II)  or I’ve already mentioned (like Excalibur). So I’ll take this opportunity to cover a couple I did find as well as a couple I think Dad would have liked.

The Name of the Rose (1986) – Based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco, this film stars two of my favorite actors, Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater (somehow I only seem to like a young Christian Slater). It’s the story of a Franciscan monk and his apprentice who investigate a series of strange deaths at a monastery.  Call it a period mystery, if you will. I can’t really go into much more description without giving away lots of the plot, but the best part of this movie for me is the depth of characterization and world building. Apparently a lot of that derives from the source novel (which My Not So Humble Wife loves, although I’ve never personally read it), but the acting is top notch as well. While Connery drives the majority of the action, I want to give special attention to Ron Perlman as Salvatore; it’s a difficult role to play with empathy and he does it exceptionally well.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) – This was probably the first (and for a long time the only) western I ever really liked, let alone loved. I think this film gets a lot of grief for both deserved and undeserved reasons. There’s a certain amount of unrealistic expectations, in the same way that any iconic pop culture figure will have that any departure from established traditions will only exacerbate. That having been said, there’s also a certain amount of heavy-handedness: in the attempts to make the bad guys truly evil, to make Tonto more than a stereotype (and in the process making every other Native American in the film a bigger stereotype), and in the attempts to make John Reid into a larger-than-life hero. With all that having been said, I still believe this movie largely succeeds at being greater than its flaws, and if approached with an open mind and in the spirit of a western dime novel or “gritty remake” of an old radio show, it can be very appealing.

The Searchers (1956) – I had to watch this movie for a film class I took a few years ago, and I’m glad I did. After I finished, I immediately called my Dad and said, “Hey Dad, I take back everything I ever said about John Wayne. You were right.” He asked me what movie I watched, and when I told him, he wasn’t in the least surprised. “You started with the best.” The conversation went on from there, and we must have talked for an hour just about this movie and how amazing it is, and why. I could lay it all out for you here, but you should really just watch it for yourself. Not only does John Wayne give one of the most fantastic, nuanced performances I have ever seen, but the entire film is full of great performances, amazing visuals, and a stirring and poignant plot. If you only watch one western in your life, this should be it.

Cat Ballou (1965) – Now, if you’re going to watch two westerns in your life, may I make another suggestion? I remember watching this movie as a kid with my Dad and My Not So Humble Sister and it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why were people singing? In a western? (Bear in mind this film preceded Paint Your Wagon by about five years.) Isn’t that Nat King Cole? And I’m pretty sure that’s Jane Fonda. Wait, why is that gunslinger drunk? What in the world is going on here? That was basically my reaction to this movie the first five times I watched it. It took me a long time to realize (a) this was a comedy and (b) there was a plot, I just wasn’t following it. Once I got it all straight, I learned to stop worrying and just go with it, and it actually turned out to be a pretty funny little film. Not the greatest comedy or western ever but enjoyable, and Lee Marvin puts in an Oscar-winning performance, so it has that going for it. And hey, Nat King Cole.


The Soundtrack of My Life: Y2K Bug


One of the funny things about going through the dustbin of your own history is that you will occasionally discover odd synchronicities that you had never been aware of before. There are three great bands with three great albums that I never realized all released in the same year, although considering everything else that failed to happen in that year, I suppose it’s not surprising I didn’t notice all the great music that was going on all around me at the time.

Wheatus – Wheatus: Anyone over a certain age knows the song “Teenage Dirtbag”, which is almost a shame, because I think that’s what doomed this fantastic band. While it’s not unusual for a band to be a one-hit wonder (particularly when their one hit is nothing like the rest of their music), Wheatus got doomed for the opposite reason. Their one hit was too clever by half; it seemed like there was no way the rest of their music could possibly be that sharp, could hit that same note of teen angst so accurately, with just the right blend of sympathy and gentle poking of fun. Truth is, the rest of the album may not be in the same character of “teen angstyness”, but it is sharp, witty, and powerful. Lyrically the tracks range wildly, and the music varies between alt-rock and just this side of experimental in some places. Some of the songs may sound like typical pop fluff on first listen, but there’s a lot of substance underneath, and the album is worth more than a few listens. I highly recommend “Sunshine”, “Hump ‘em N’ Dump’em”, “Leroy”, “Love Is A Mutt From Hell”, “Punk Ass Bitch”, and the awesome cover of “A Little Respect”.

SR-71 – Now You See Inside: Okay, so I’ll be honest, I have no reason to be proud of discovering this band earlier than most folks did. It’s not like I knew them back when they were Honor Among Thieves, nor did I ever go see them live even though they were right up in Baltimore (which isn’t all that far away). So what pulled me in? The song “Right Now”. Yeah, I was that shallow. Or rather I’d at least like to establish that, at the time, I was very much between relationships and… you know what, I can’t even defend this one. Yes, it was sad that this song is what grabbed my attention, but I didn’t pick up the album until after I heard “Politically Correct”. That was the song that made me realize these guys were more than a one trick pony. The lyrics were just as clever on both songs but went in totally different directions. The music was the sort of solid rock I had been missing for a long time, with driving rhythms, strong guitars, and a lead vocalist who has what I can only describe as an acid-washed whiskey voice. IN addition to the two I mentioned above, to get a good sample of the range on this album, I would suggest checking out “What a Mess”, “Last Man on the Moon”, “Fame (What She’s Wanting)”, “Non-Toxic”, and “Paul McCartney”.

Snake River Conspiracy – Sonic Jihad: Possibly the only time I can remember MTV doing anything for me since the mid-1980s (and this is not because of me, this is because I can’t stand “The Real World”), I accidentally turned on the falsely named Music Television one day when they left an intern in charge and he (or she, I won’t be sexist) and this fool unknowingly played music videos. I was so stunned I actually sat and watched them for the whole half hour they were on before cooler heads prevailed and put on a three hour marathon of Road Rules: Say Goodbye to Good Taste. In the midst of this accidental bonanza, I saw a video for Snake River Conspiracy’s cover of “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths. The secret to a good cover is to find something in the original that you can reference while making the song your own, which SRC does beautifully here. They take the lush, deep, symphonic sound of the original and bring the tempo up just slightly to make it feel a little more rushed, a bit more like a dance tune. Tobey Torres’ vocals strike a unique counterpoint to Morrissey’s somber tone from the original, and they go in a playful direction where the original goes more serious and (dare I say it) full of itself. They bring this same fun, playful energy to many of the other tracks on the album, including a great cover of “Lovesong” by the Cure, although there are more than a few harder, more industrial-influenced moments as well. Overall there’s a lot to like here, including “Breed”, “You and Your Friend”, “More Than Love”, and “Somebody Hates You”.

 

Other posts you might like:

The Soundtrack of My Life: I Discover the Nineties

The Soundtrack of My Life: Dharma Days

The Soundtrack of My Life: Parental Advisory


How Episodic Television Shows Are Killing Their Own Business


I watch Netflix about as much these days as I do regular TV, and here’s why: when I can actually get the service to work (thank you Verizon), I can watch entire seasons of shows at once, without having to wait a week at a time, without having to sit through reruns, without having to “choose” between two shows in the same time slot (like I really watch either of them when they come on anyway, it’s called DVR folks), but most of all because I don’t have to sit through commercials.

Unfortunately, I usually have to wait a few years for a single season of a show to hit Netflix, assuming it ever does. I assume this is because they want to make sure to get their money from the first run, the reruns, the syndication, the DVD sales, the syndicated DVD sales, the reruns of the syndicated DVD sales, and whatever all else they do. It’s not until they have a given season running on at least three basic cable channels (or they’ve been passed up by five) that they “stoop” to leasing the rights to Netflix, and even then I’ve seen some shows yank the rights back (I got about five episodes into Babylon 5 before they did this to me).

Why? What do they really think they’re getting out of this? Is there some rabid ocelot in a back room that flails around on a Twister board and they interpret these signals as decisions? Here’s a little clue for you, Oh Great And Powerful Television Executives: the people who bother to watch syndicated television are not the same people who watch Netflix or similar streaming services. Not even close. There may have been, once upon a time, a cross-over audience between those who bought entire seasons of TV shows on DVD and the streaming audience, but that’s a dying trend, too. Only the truly rabid fan base is going to care that much and they will still be there for you (probably wearing a handmade costume piece from their favorite character that you sent a cease and desist order about).

As I see it, there are three primary audiences “second run” television should be aiming for. The first is the hardcore audience, the folks who love a show enough to want everything about it. These folks will buy the entire season on DVD/Blu-Ray, especially if it comes with extras like cast interviews and commentary. The next audience would be the “catch-up” audience. This is what I envision as the folks who only heard about the show from friends well after the season (or the show itself) started and don’t want to jump in halfway through. They want to binge, catch-up to the current storyline, and watch all the first run episodes from there. These are the folks who will watch all the back episodes on a streaming service (small revenue source) and then become more eyeballs for the new episodes, you know, the ones with the most expensive commercials (big revenue source). Finally there’s the casual viewers who like the show well enough to leave it on but don’t consider it “must see” television. This is where you get your syndicated television dollars.

In an ideal world, I envision the lifecycle of a show would be this:

  • First run, including all reruns in primetime slot. Season ends.
  • As soon as season ends, entire season is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. DVD/Blu-Ray includes bonus features.
  • Over off-season, previous season reruns in primetime slot.
  • After new season starts, last season enters syndication immediately.

The benefit of this system for the viewers is obvious. The benefit for the studios is a little more subtle, but what it means in the long run is less pirating and more eyeballs for first-run content. When people don’t have to feel 2-5 years behind the storyline (unless they feel like coughing up a couple hundred bucks for a show they might or might not like), they’re more likely to get invested. And more invested fans means a higher percentage of rabid fans, which means more DVD sales. The syndicated episodes aren’t going to be hurt any, because the folks who weren’t willing to pay for streaming services are still going to be there, and the ones who did? You grew your audience for those episodes.

The fact that Netflix and Hulu are coming up with their own original programming is just going to hurt these guys even more. Now there are even fewer reasons to be attached to networks and their ridiculous scheduling. I understand once upon a time the system was rigged in such a way that it was winner take all and pitting the best shows against each other meant you had the best chance of crushing the other guy and getting all the money, but here’s a thought: maybe people don’t watch TV that way anymore. Maybe (and this might even date back to the advent of the VCR) people expect to be able to watch ALL the shows they like, not just one or two. Having them all in the same time slots and on the same schedule just seems… well… dumb. But if you have to continue playing that game, at least give yourselves the best chance at a second chance, and stop holding back last year’s episodes until nobody cares anymore.


The Soundtrack of My Life: I Discover the Nineties


As I look back on this series so far, it’s occurred to me that I may seem to be stuck in the 80s. There’s a reason for that.

I am (just ask my wife).

But seriously, it’s not like all the music I listen to came out in the 80s (or before then…), it’s just that shortly after high school I started listening to a wider variety of music, but I also found fewer albums that I really enjoyed all the way through. I think there may have also been a drift away from the idea of albums sometime in there, and more towards singles, such that it became easier to care passionately about a song but not a band. Fortunately there were still a few bands creating great records all the way through, and I still listen to them today.

Stone Temple Pilots – Core: If I had to pick one phrase to describe this album, I’m afraid it would have to be “bad timing”. Caught right in the middle of the grunge explosion, squarely between Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero on the one hand and Pearl Jam’s Ten and Vs. on the other, and releasing basically the same day as Alice in Chains’ Dirt, being seen as anything other than a “me too” would be damn near impossible for anyone. Which is too bad, because if any album could stand tall among these giants, this would be it. For my money this album is every bit as good as Nevermind and Ten (although it’s well known among my friends that I’ve never been a huge Nirvana or Pearl Jam fan, I still acknowledge those are amazing albums), and it comes pretty close to Dirt (“Would” and “Rooster” alone are enough to put Dirt over the top in that contest). If you’re a grunge fan who somehow missed this one, pick it up, and if you never got into the grunge scene, this is a great place to start. Best tracks are “Sex Type Thing”, “Wicked Garden”, “Creep”, “Plush”, and “Where the River Goes”.

Garbage – Garbage: On a slightly different note, there’s the self-titled debut release from Garbage. Shirley Manson captivated me immediately with her dark, smoky vocals, and the heavy, almost goth/grunge sound of the music hit the sweet spot for me. There also seemed to be a certain tongue-in-cheek humor to it, as the first single I remember hearing off the album was “Only Happy When It Rains”, which has a healthy dose of self-mockery that was sorely lacking in the goth scene I found myself escaping at the time. While the album tends toward an alt-rock/grunge sound, the instrumentals are a bit too clean and sharp to really fit neatly into the grunge category, and the vocals manage to soar past most of what I generally think of as grunge (although whether that’s because of Manson’s skill or just because I haven’t heard any hardcore female grunge bands is hard to say). All around a great album, and in addition to “Only Happy When It Rains” I would suggest checking out “As Heaven Is Wide”, “Stupid Girl”, and “Milk”.

Blues Traveler – four: And now for something completely different… It’s a little known fact, but I absolutely love good harmonica playing. I don’t know why, but I’m a total sucker for good harmonica, especially when it’s blues or rock style. Small wonder then that I should get sucked in by the likes of John Popper, harmonica virtuoso, fronting up a band called Blues Traveler. What I particularly liked about this album was that they managed to range over a wide area both thematically and musically, being everywhere from up tempo to down tempo and inspiring to… well, to be perfectly honest there’s some out and out depressing moments in this album, as well. But taken as a whole it feels like life. This is a serious and mature album from a band that has had time to get a sense of who they are and what they can achieve, and they bring a great sound together with brilliant lyrics. My favorite tracks include “Run-Around”, “The Mountains Win Again”, “Crash & Burn”, “Price to Pay”, “Hook”, “Just Wait”, and “Brother John”.

Adrian Belew – Young Lions: While it seems like the odd duck out in my collection of music in many ways, this album always puts a smile on my face. Adrian Belew first came to my attention with his hit single “Oh Daddy” off his album Mr. Music Head, and although I was never a big fan of that one, I latched onto this album immediately. Something about the title track just grabbed me, and even to this fay every time I hear it I am inspired with wild ideas of artistic works I will never complete, but at least it gets me started. There’s a few more experimental tracks on this album that also inspire me to just let loose and go with whatever crazy new artistic venture I’ve been holding back on, although I usually abandon them by the time the album is over. The rest of the tracks are more standard pop-like fare, which is not a bad thing, because they’re all executed exceptionally well, with guest appearances on a couple of tracks by David Bowie. “Young Lions” is not to be missed, “Pretty Pink Rose” is great for Bowie fans, “I Am What I Am” is just a trip, and “Men in Helicopters” is another good all-around song.

 

Other posts you might like:

The Soundtrack of My Life: Dharma Days

The Soundtrack of My Life: Parental Advisory

The Soundtrack of My Life: Punk Rock Nation