Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

It's just a turn of a calendar page...a new number to remember to write on checks and correspondence...and yet it's more than that. It's a time of new beginnings...of new possibilities...of new chances to soar as you continue the journey from birth to the light at the end of life (the light at the beginning of eternity however you concieve of it.)

Thanks for visiting Neverending Rainbow. I bid you all who pass this way a bright and bountiful New Year...a 2006 filled with all the love, light, laughter, passion, and peace you could possibly need or want.

namaste, y'all,
Michael K. Willis

Friday, December 30, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

There was a remarkable and interesting film that could have been crafted from the often interesting book of the same name…something that could have embraced the undeniable grace, the quiet majesty, the bittersweet humanity, and the tantalizing, sensual mystery of the geisha culture…but, unfortunately, director Rob Marshall didn’t make that movie.

Memoirs of a Geisha is, at times, a quite lovely film to look at…filled with lush colors, lovely scenery, sumptuous locations and costumes, and seductive shadings and tones…but it never really truly engages your complete attention. Part of the problem seems to be that Marshall doesn’t trust his audience’s attention span so he edits what should be a more meditative story of a young girl’s journey from being sold into the geisha house by her destitute parents to being the most acclaimed geisha of her time and place into a maddeningly frenetic hodgepodge of quick impatient cuts, unnecessarily cloying shadows, and haphazard pacing (things that worked to pretty fair effect in Marshall’s entertaining last movie, Chicago, but which were a disservice to the telling of this very different story.)

The performances are fine enough (special kudos to Michelle Yeoh, as the mentor of the title character, who had a fine, world-wary resonance) but the actors seem lost in the process of trying breathe life into their characters, lurching from scene to scene without much real connection to the plot or to each other.

Perhaps the geisha life before and during World War II was like this…filled with casual brutality, almost constant bitchy cat fighting and backstabbing, overwrought duplicity, and, at the end, the plague of loutish, leering, occupying American soldiers…but the movie never made any of it ring true.

A pity…the material was ripe for a thoughtful, sensual exploration but all Memoirs could muster was a tepid, simplistic soap opera that too often looked like it had been edited to be an MTV video.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Random Notes (Pop Culture '05 Edition)

We are the world:
Rock stars, movie stars, and everyday stars (that would be most of the rest of you out there) rally together to raise money and attention for tsunami victims, “third-world” debt, and those impacted by the Gulf Coast hurricanes (among other causes.)

Don’t call it a comeback:
Martha Stewart steps out of the pokey and right back into the swing of things with two new TV shows (one kind of a hit, the other not so much) as well as new endorsement deals, new magazines, and more money than ever. Batman returns in a good movie. Fiona Apple resurfaces with an extraordinary new record. The Rolling Stones put out a record that isn’t an embarrassment (though they should have rethought putting the naïve “Sweet Neo-Con” on it.) Mariah Carey shakes the stigma of Glitter off her career with platinum sales and multiple Grammy nods.

That sweet soul music:
It was a pretty cool year for R&B with the ladies…Mary J. Blige, Shemekia Copeland, Bettye LaVette, Lizz Wright, Sharon Jones, Alicia Keys, Leela James, and others…leading the way.

Pithy social commentary or petulant sour grapes?:
“Reality TV is a festering boil on the ass of humanity” - Brian Dunkleman, erstwhile co-host of the mega hit “reality” TV show American Idol.

Working hard to prove Dunkleman’s point:
Breaking Bonaduce, Being Bobby Brown, The Surreal Life, Strange Love, My Fair Brady, But Can They Sing?, etc., etc. Isn’t there a point where you say “I don’t need to be on television THIS badly!”? (For some celebrities, apparently not.)

He’s with the band:
Rock Star: INXS was a kind of creepy idea but, despite that, it turned out to be a pretty entertaining little show with some interesting performances by singers with varying degrees of potential. The band ended up going with J.D., the guy among the contestants most like their old lead singer, the late Michael Hutchence, which wasn’t that surprising (and yes, that “Pretty Vegas” of his is a catchy song.) Too bad that Switch, the album made by the new lineup, wasn’t nearly as lively or interesting as the TV show.

Now that’s some magic:
J.K. Rowling gets millions of kids (of all ages) to slow down long enough to willingly read a 600+ page book with the penultimate Hogwarts adventure, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Dude, pace yourself:
Ryan Adams releases three new CDs (one a double-disc set!) over the course of the year (Michelle Shocked goes him one better by releasing three new CDs all on the same day in June.)

We’ll have a gay ol’ time:
Melissa Etheridge makes a triumphant return at the Grammys after beating cancer. Ellen DeGeneres continues her comeback as a mainstream pop culture force. Brokeback Mountain provides much fodder for gay cowboy jokes online and on the air. Elton ties the knot with his David. Brothers on the “down low” featured in R. Kelly’s crazed masterwork (see below.)

Move over, “Thriller”:
R. Kelly’s monumental (and totally insane) 12-part soap opera “Trapped in a Closet” takes the prize as the most overblown, so-bad-it’s-almost-good, “what-the-hell-we’re-they-thinking?” music video of all time (sex, guns, incontinent little people, no need for hooks or real song structure, pithy commentary to explain the “complexities” of the tale, what more could we want?)

Thanks for the memories (and rest in peace):
Anne Bancroft, Saul Bellow, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Carson, Ossie Davis, James Doohan, Will Eisner, Ibrahim Ferrer, Shirley Horn, Peter Jennings, Arthur Miller, Pat Morita, Brock Peters, Richard Pryor, John Spencer, Hunter S. Thompson, Luther Vandross, August Wilson, Robert Wise

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

All other hype aside, this movie is about love. And passion, sometimes rapturously indulged but too often wistfully unrequited by the unforgiving vagaries of time, circumstance, social norms, and personal responsibility.

And it’s about loneliness and fear and the kind of lingering longing and unspoken despair that you really have to have experienced to truly understand.

Ang Lee has crafted an evocative, lyrical, beautifully canvas on which the colors…lush and verdant and passionately expansive when the protagonists are alone together in and about the titular locale; bleak and tattered and filled with cool, plaintive emotional distance most other times…bring life to the spare, almost poetic, story (based on the fine Annie Proulx story with a screenplay co-written by the masterful Larry McMurtry.)

Jake Gyllenhaal is fine as the more effusive (relatively speaking) Jack but the story belongs to Heath Ledger’s Ennis, a taciturn, lonely man who doesn’t know what to do with his true feelings so he keeps them bottled up as tightly as he possibly can. Ledger’s performance is remarkable in its restraint…in the quiet that he effortlessly inhabits.

As the wives of these men, Anne Hathaway and, especially, Michelle Williams are remarkable in displaying palpable emotional range even though they have scant few lines of dialogue between them.

Brokeback Mountain is not an easy movie…it draws you into its world but it doesn’t let you experience it passively…but it is a wonderfully bittersweet, engaging (if you give its slow, deliberate pace and foreboding undertones a chance)…heartbreaking and emotionally-resonant…movie indeed.

Dear Santa...

Dear Santa,

Thank you (and your wonderful deputies, my family and friends) for indulging my ever-active pop culture jones with this cool stuff you left under my tree (I very much appreciate the other stuff too, of course, but pop culture is the focus of this particular site.) This should keep me occupied and out of trouble for a little while anyway (gotta start working on staying on your “good” list for next year :-)

Thanks for picking up on my "subtle hint" about The Complete Calvin & Hobbes (especially since it's already hard to find until the second printing comes out in April.) And for giving me lots of delightful music to explore from departed legends Johnny Cash, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia (hadn't even heard of the Garcia CD...good call, old-timer :-)

Giving is better (the guilelessness of seeing a child's smile when she's opening a Christmas gift is worth more than anything) but I would be lying if I said that getting stuff wasn't fun too :-)

Thanks again, big guy…and enjoy your time off (you’ve earned it!)

Your pal forever,
Michael Keith

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Happy Christmas

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

Thanks for stopping by Neverending Rainbow. I hope that you all have a very Happy Christmas and a bright New Year filled with love, light, laughter, music, joy, and peace.

bread and roses, y'all,

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”
words and music by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
©1971 Lennon Music/Ono Music

The image is from Cloudeight

Bread and Roses

Christmas Annex 2005

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Project Runway 2

I don’t care…even a little bit…about “high” fashion (not the high-strung designers nor the imperious fashion editors and writers, not the haughty waif-like models nor the self-styled “trendsetters” who dwell in and about the whole fashion industry…none of it means anything serious to me) but, that said, I really like Project Runway.

The first season of the Bravo “reality” show was hoot filled with campy vamping, rampaging egos, pretentious babble from contestants and judges alike, sometimes hilarious and sometimes downright hideous (and, to be fair, occasionally kind of interesting) designs, catty backbiting, and, at the center of it all, “supermodel” Heidi Klum as the frosty mistress of ceremonies dismissing losing contestants with a sharp, clipped “You’re out.”

What’s not to like? :-) (Okay, probably a lot for most of you reading this...but me, I don't mind wasting an hour a week to watch it unfold in all of its tacky "glory".)

The second season (the cast…Ms. Klum, the designer contestants, and the models who have to wear the garments these folks create…are pictured above) has gotten off to even more delightful start with the egos being larger (one guy, who has a VERY high opinion of himself and his talents, pouts outwardly and goes off to sulk if he doesn't come in first with every challenge), the cattiness (including and especially among the male contestants) being sharper and more unabashed, and the outfits being enough to make a fashion-challenged, jeans-and-tee-shirts guy like me just shake his head in amused wonder.

Throw in the fact that Heidi seems to have dozens of stylish maternity outfits (she was pregnant with baby Seal…or, if you'd rather, with her husband Seal’s baby… when taping the show) to share with us all and you’ve got “reality” TV gold, baby! :-)

After the disappointments of this season’s relatively-tepid editions of Survivor and The Amazing Race (not to mention cringe-inducing, “I-can’t-believe-they-really-need-to-be-on-television-THIS-badly” train wrecks like Being Bobby Brown and Breaking Bonaduce), Project Runway 2 has shown up just in time to give hope to those of us who include “reality” TV shows amongst our guilty pleasures .

What Hit Song of 2005 Are You?

My 2005 Song Is

Beverly Hills by Weezer

"My automobile is a piece of crap
My fashion sense is a little whack
And my friends are just as screwy as me"

You breezed through 2005 in your own funky style!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

AFI Awards 2005

Here in the time when critics’ awards sprout up like weeds, the American Film Institute has stepped up to the plate with their selections of the top 10 movies and TV shows of the year.

The Films:
Brokeback Mountain
The Forty-Year Old Virgin
Good Night, and Good Luck
A History of Violence
King Kong
The Squid and the Whale

The TV shows:
Battlestar Galactica
Grey’s Anatomy
Rescue Me
Sleeper Cell
Sometimes in April
Veronica Mars

The AFI certainly likes to keep it eclectic, don’t they? (I have absolutely no idea what Sometimes in April is or was so I guess, according to them anyway, I missed something there.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

2005 Grammy Nominations

The Grammy nominations were announced (in a whopping 107 categories) this morning (instead of the calendar year, the eligibility period for these awards includes discs released from October 1, 2004 to September 30, 2005) and George W. Bush’s favorite rapper, Kanye West, is one of three leading the decidedly mainstream (no surprise there) pack with 8 nominations. West’s protégée John Legend and comeback queen Mariah Carey also picked up 8 nods each.

West’s Late Registration and Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi are in the running for Album of the Year along with Gwen Stefani’s bubbly solo debut Love, Music, Angel, Baby, Paul McCartney’s much-lauded Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (the token non-platinum seller in this category as well as the token veteran comeback that could have also gone to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, or Neil Young), and perennial nominees U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The Record of the Year competition features Carey (“We Belong Together”), West (“Gold Digger” featuring Jamie Foxx), and Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”) along with Green Day (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) and Gorillaz (“Feel Good Inc.” featuring De La Soul.)

Ciara, Fall Out Boy, Keane, and Sugarland will be runners-up to probable winner John Legend (with 8 nominations, they’re gonna give the guy something…the Grammys are like that more often than not) in the Best New Artist race.

Other folks with four or more nominations include Stevie Wonder (always a Grammy favorite), Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, 50 Cent, Destiny’s Child, Gretchen Wilson, Common, Foo Fighters, Gorillaz, Brad Paisley, and The Black Eyed Peas.

There’s not really any point in decrying the Grammy voters giving the nods in major categories to (mostly) mainstream, (mostly) multi-platinum sellers…that’s what they do (and they’re apparently okay with that.)

Sprinkled in amongst the many, many categories are nominations for less-mainstream artists such as The White Stripes, Beck, Solomon Burke, Maria Muldaur, Daft Punk, Ry Cooder, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Emmylou Harris.

And perhaps the most eclectic group of nominees is in the Spoken Word Album category which features Air America host Al Franken, Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keeler, legendary cranky comedian George Carlin, prickly Oscar winner Sean Penn (reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles), and US Senator Barrack Obama.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now

The music industry has responded to the ongoing Gulf Coast Hurricane recovery with benefit concerts, programs aimed at helping New Orleans musicians get back to their music, and, lately, with a handful of fund-raising CDs. I wrote about Dr. John’s effort, Sippiana Hericane, a couple of postings ago.

Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music spearheads another disc, A Celebration of New Orleans Music, a sparkling collection of previously released tracks by luminaries such as Aaron Neville, Harry Connick Jr., Jelly Roll Morton, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, and Marsalis himself. Proceeds from this one are donated to the MusicCares Hurricane Relief 2005 fund.

Branford’s older brother, Wynton Marsalis, is the featured performer on the live Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert CD with performances recorded in September at Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is joined on the disc by Aaron & Art Neville, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Wynton Marsalis Hot Seven, and others. The Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Fund is the beneficiary of the net proceeds here.

And then there’s the set pictured above (the net proceeds from which…at least $15 per CD sold…is being shared equally by the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and MusiCares Hurricane Relief 2005) which is a 2-disc, 35-track collection of live cuts, newly-recorded songs, and classic tracks featuring 80+ artists.

Disc 1 starts off with a grand live recording of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” by the immortal Louis Armstrong. Disc 2 kicks off with “Any Other Day”, a smoothly soulful duet between Norah Jones and Wyclef Jean.

Live cuts on the set include songs by the Dave Matthews Band (“Louisiana Bayou” with pedal steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph sitting in), Bonnie Raitt (with the sassy “I Will Not Be Broken”), Coldplay (the romantic anthem “Fix You”), Sting with trumpeter Chris Botti (a playfully jazzy “Moon Over Bourbon Street”), the Neville Brothers (the stirring “Brothers”), Elton John (the upbeat “I’m Still Standing”), James Brown (the classic “Try Me”), the Winans Family (with the gospel soul of “After All”), and John Fogerty (a potent version of “Born on the Bayou”.)

Aaron Neville joins forces with John Meyer and his band for the beautiful, bittersweet “Heart So Heavy” while Harry Connick, Jr. offers up his own poignant ode to his New Orleans hometown, “City Beneath the Sea”. Chris Thomas King performs a song written in the wake of the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, the thought-provoking “What Would Jesus Do” and Rod Stewart teams up with soul singers Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town for a jubilant a cappella rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”.

R. Kelly’s offering is a fine inspiration number, “Let Your Light Shine”, while Faith Hill goes to church as well with a rousing take on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (Ms. Hill also has the most surreal credit lines in the liner notes with nods to the women who do her wardrobe and her hair and makeup for reasons that escape me.) Diddy raps a few lines on “By Faith” and then (wisely) gets out of the way and lets gospel star Fred Hammond carry the rest of the potent song home.

Other tracks here include songs from Van Morrison (a fine tune called “Blue and Green”), Gloria Estefan (a nice acoustic medley of her songs “Coming Out of the Dark” and “Always Tomorrow”), B.B. King, Barbra Streisand, Brian Wilson (a sweetly fragile remake of his own “Love and Mercy”), Josh Groban with Bela Fleck, Clint Black (the apt “When the Levee Broke”), Lenny Kravitz, and the young R&B group Black Buddafly (the lovely, hopeful “Make a Change”.)

The spirit of old New Orleans is celebrated with great old classic tracks from Clifton Chenier (the Cajun swing of “Ay-Te Te Fee”) and Professor Longhair (the joyful “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”.)

The living spirit of modern New Orleans is joyfully invoked by “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” featuring lead vocals and piano by Dr. John along with vocals by the Neville Brothers and swinging solos by Crescent City legends Al Hirt (on trumpet), Pete Fountain (on clarinet), and Charles Neville (on tenor sax).

A handful of all-star collaborations round out this wide-ranging CD: including an infectious track, “We Can Make it Better” featuring rappers Kanye West, Common, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and Rhymefest.

The soaring patriotic anthem, “Heart of America”, finds co-writer Eric Benet joining forces with Michael McDonald, Wynonna Judd, and Terry Dexter while a heartfelt cover of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” features the talents of Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Rod Stewart, Gwen Stefani, Velvet Revolver, Steven Tyler, Josh Groban, Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne, Pink, Andrea Bocelli, Gavin Rossdale, Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, and Robert Downey Jr.

The title track, the gospel-like “Come Together Now”, also has an equally unlikely combination of performers as it features The Game, Celine Dion, American Idol alumni Ruben Studdard and Kimberley Locke, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, Patti LaBelle, Natalie Cole, Brian McKnight, Aaron Carter, John Legend, Mya, Jesse McCartney, Angie Stone, Kelly Price, Gavin DeGraw, Chingy, Stacie Orrico, and the Backstreet Boys trading off lines and acting as the choir.

The CD is brought to a close, fittingly enough, with a swinging, almost-irresistable version of “When the Saints Go Marching (Back) In” featuring saxophonist Kirk Whalum, trumpeter Roy Agee, bassists Wayman Tisdale and Kyle Eastwood, and rapper Coolio.

The decidedly eclectic assortment of songs and performers on Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now may be problematic for some but I think it’s a cool collection of tunes (most pretty good, some very good, and some downright wonderful) for an extremely good cause. Works for me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Holiday Music

Okay, bear with me here (this will be kinda long and unabashedly geeky.) It’s December. Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is a few weeks down the road. I love Christmas and, more on point here, I love Christmas pop music. I don’t know why…I’ve stopped trying to understand it and I just go with it. A burgeoning subsection of my CD collection (60+ titles as of last count) is filled with Christmas CDs…almost every year (including this one) I find at least one or two to add to the ranks.

There are countless Christmas CDs, of course, and they are definitely not created equal. The six discs I’m highlighting here are purported to be the “best”…what floats individual holiday music boats is too subjective to bother with that kind of hubris…but rather a half-dozen cool ways to embrace the musical season (you know you wanna…)

New this year is Joan Osborne’s very tasty Christmas Means Love, a soulful mix of traditional tunes and less reverent yuletide offerings (including the wonderfully sassy “What Do Bad Girls Get?”.) Apparently this one is only available at Barnes and Noble.

Also new is Diana Krall’s swinging, impeccable Christmas Songs featuring a lot of the usual holiday suspects (“Sleigh Ride”, “The Christmas Song”, “Christmas Time is Here”) presented in a relaxed, engaging set aided and abetted by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. (Not sure why they went for the cheesecake cover but whatever works…)

From last year is the utterly delightful Barenaked for the Holidays by the utterly delightful Barenaked Ladies. It swings from straightforward renditions (including the wonderful “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” medley with Sarah MacLachlan and a neat cover of “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”) and witty, tongue-in-cheek numbers (the opening “Jingle Bells” starts as a languid piano ballad but after a minute and a half it suddenly kicks into sprightly gear…and they include the “Batman smells” verse…how cool is that? And “Deck the Stills”, a short version of “Deck the Halls” using only the words “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young” has to be heard to be believed.) There are also some cool original tunes.

Some of the best Christmas discs are compilations and the others on this list are three of my favorites.

First up is the 2-disc, 36-track set Now That’s What I Call Christmas! seriously, it’s a great collection. The first disc is filled with old school Christmas stuff…Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling”, the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc…along with a couple of wild cards (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth”.) The second disc is more (relatively) contemporary stuff…John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas”, Band Aid’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas”, Bruce Springsteen’s great version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, etc….and features tracks by an eclectic lineup including Paul McCartney, Shaggy, Diana Krall, Britney Spears, Mannheim Steamroller, Boyz II Men, Harry Connick Jr., and ‘NSync.

Time-Life’s Jingle Bell Rock (from 1987…I have no idea if it’s still in print) features 25 tracks of classic pop and R&B. Two tracks each from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, and the pre-wacko years Jackson 5 (a nice cover of “Someday at Christmas” and a cute version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) plus cool stuff from Elton John (“Step into Christmas”), Chuck Berry (“Run, Rudolph, Run”), Bobby Helms (the title track), the Beach Boys (“The Man with All the Toys”), Booker T. & the MG’s (“Jingle Bells”), Otis Redding (a majestic “Merry Christmas Baby”), and Donny Hathaway (the immortal “This Christmas”), among others.

And, last but not least, A Very Special Christmas, the first of what would become a series of discs benefiting the Special Olympics. There are some fine tracks on subsequent volumes but the first one is still the best. From Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s playful live version of “Merry Christmas Baby” to U2’s yearning “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”…from the Pretenders’ lovely reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Madonna’s playful vamp through “Santa Baby…from Whitney Houston going to church with a mighty "Do You Hear What I Hear?" to Run-DMC’s clever, show-stopping “Christmas in Hollis” everybody on the disc brought their A-game to the party (okay, so Bryan Adams is no Chuck Berry on “Run, Rudolph, Run”, it’s the thought that counts…)

As I said before, I love this stuff so if there’s some cool holiday music out there you think I may not have heard of I welcome you to let me know about it.

Happy Holidays, y’all.