Thursday, August 31, 2006

Modern Times

It’s been 5 years since our pal Bob put out the wonderful Love and Theft (itself a sequel to the Grammy-winning, and equally engaging, Time Out of Mind) but it was worth the wait. Modern Times is a delightful little jewel of a record that should touch the hearts of Dylan fans young and old (yeah that’s me enthusiastically waving my hand…)

Some of the early praise for this collection has been effusive (Rolling Stone, not surprisingly given its worshipful regard for Dylan over the years, waxed rapturously about it in a 5-star review) and just a bit excessive. Look, me and Bob go way back…his songs are often insightful and sometimes downright magical and his voice (definitely an acquired taste) is a ragged, expressive wonder that I’ve come to appreciate enormously over the decades…but I think it piles too much baggage on Modern Times…a sweet (“Beyond the Horizon” is an unabashed love song so warm that you just know that other people are going to be climbing over each other to cover it), witty (Alicia Keys is name-checked to cheeky effect on the jaunty opener “Thunder on the Mountain”), often fun, occasionally haunting (the loping rewrite of the old blues chestnut “The Levee’s Gonna Break” invokes last year’s Gulf Coast disaster to fine effect…and the closing “Ain’t Talkin’” is filled with palpable menace, mystery, and rueful dark humor), relaxed and unassuming record…to act like it’s the second coming of Blonde on Blonde or some such.

Modern Times is a laidback…but never dull…record that Dylan produced (using the pseudonym of Jack Frost) using only his crack touring band as his support musicians (a grand idea…the players all compliment each other beautifully) and it feels lived-in and familiar (in a very good way) from the very first listen.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Survivor: Cook Islands

Sight unseen, I know that somewhere out there in cyberspace some wag has already dubbed the upcoming season of the show Survivor: Jim Crow Islands.

Both the producer and the host of the show call the twist…segregating the new cast (see above) by ethnicity (four teams: one white, one black, one Latino, and one Asian-American)…a bold “social experiment” (they’ve started seasons with teams separated by gender and by age so why not race?)

A more cynical soul (such as yours truly) might call it an incredibly cynical and manipulative stunt designed to pump up the slowly-fading ratings of what used to be the most popular “reality” TV show (American Idol has seized that particular crown and seems unlikely to give it back anytime soon.)

But, that said, the publicity stunt is also, to be fair, actually quite brilliant. Survivor is getting more press and attention than it has in a long while (some civic officials in New York have already weighed in to express their outrage and, this being an election year…and the media always being a handy target…I’m sure other politicians will jump on the bandwagon before all is said and done) and chances are that all of that will turn into killer ratings…at least for the first few episodes of the new season…as people tune in to see what’s going to happen (and maybe root for their favorite ethnic group.)

Perhaps my misgivings about the concept are misplaced and Survivor: Cook Islands will turn out to be compelling, enlightening television and that give us all new insights on race and interpersonal relationships while at the same time being smart, sparkling entertainment….I’m not holding my breath on that but hey could happen, couldn’t it? Yeah, I didn’t think so either…

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan

In the mid-Seventies, Maria Muldaur had a fluke top 40 hit with the charming novelty song Midnight at the Oasis”; as far as I can remember she never hit the top 40 again. But during the ensuing years she has made a good number of wonderful albums...including great discs celebrating the blues, the music of Louisiana, and the immortal Miss Peggy Lee...combining the blues, folk, soul, gospel, and rock & roll into a tasty musical gumbo all her own.

This notion of combining Muldaur’s smoky… sweet, husky, and downright sexy….pipes with Bob Dylan’s poignant, poetic, heartfelt love songs was an inspired one (her record label’s president suggested a collection of Dylan songs after seeing a documentary on the man and Maria came up with the idea of doing Dylan love songs) and it pays off grandly on this delightful little collection.

With the able backing of a crack band, Muldaur puts a bluesy spin on Dylan tunes from different eras…some (a softly-sassy reading of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, a sultry “Lay Lady Lay” [recast here as “Lay Baby Lay”], a soulful twist on the oft-covered “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) perhaps a bit more familiar than others (“Golden Loom”, “To Be Alone with You”)…and makes them smolder, sizzle, lope, swing, and soar with masterful aplomb.

When the celebratory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”…with Muldaur playing some tasty fiddle…ends you’re surprised at how quickly 49 minutes have passed. Heart of Mine is a very worthy addition to the expansive body of Bob Dylan covers that have been recorded over the years.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Aaron Sorkin…the creator of the criminally-underappreciated Sports Night and the acclaimed The West Wing… is a man with an ear for clever dialogue, a knack for developing interesting characters who interact in sometimes mundane situations, and decidedly liberal political point of view. All of these things are showcased in the pilot episode of his new NBC series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The dialogue in Studio 60…which is set behind-the-scenes of a Saturday Night Live type show… is, almost as a matter of course with Sorkin’s work (which also includes the scripts for the movies A Few Good Men and The American President), whip-smart and intricately paced and the cast is stellar.

Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford (Josh from The West Wing) are the leads (though they don’t show onscreen until almost 20 minutes into the pilot) with Perry playing a slightly ditzy writer and Whitford playing his more stable (relatively speaking) director friend. The chemistry between the two is, at first blush, quite effective and both actors are in fine form. Amanda Peet brings sparkling and impish wit to her role as the newly-hired president of the network (NBS – the National Broadcasting System) and Steven Weber (probably best known for his role in the old sitcom Wings) has the thankless task of being a priggish network executive.

The rest of the main cast…including D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, and Nathan Corddry as the lead stars in the show-within-a-show and Timothy Busfield as the director of the show…are sketched out a bit in the pilot but, with such a large ensemble, it will take a while to get a handle on all of the characters.

Sorkin, as I said before, has an unabashed point of view (and, apparently, a chip on his shoulder) and his script doesn’t shy away from lambasting President Bush’s intelligence or from flat out calling Pat Robertson a bigot. Guest star Judd Hirsch, playing the executive producer of the show, is given a fiery monologue cribbed straight from Paddy Chayefsky’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from Sidney Lumet’s classic 70’s movie Network (a fact duly noted in the script) that rips on network television (including, in a cheeky “biting the hand that feeds you” riff, taking potshots at NBC offerings such as The Apprentice and Fear Factor) with special venom.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, judging by this introductory episode, has the potential to be a challenging, entertaining, wickedly subversive show…presuming it finds enough of an audience (one of those deplorable network practices is the fact that good shows are often not allowed the time it takes to find an audience) to reach that potential.

NBC released DVDs of the pilot through Netflix (which is how I saw it, of course), which is an interesting way of promoting the new show. (The DVD also included the pilot of Kidnapped, a mildy-interesting crime serial, and 5-minute previews of Heroes and Friday Night Lights.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Back to Basics

Christina Aguilera never met a one-syllable word that she couldn’t stretch to five or six unnecessary syllables and she’s never come across a musical space she couldn’t fill with wailing, soaring, nearly-operatic vocal runs and fills (whether the space needed them or not)…but, all that said, I have to give proper credit to the lady for this record. The best of this two-disc collection is a sparkling pop confection that solidifies her position as one of the most talented vocalists of her generation of pop singers (and this coming from someone is who not really a fan of most of her previous offerings.)

And this indeed a pop record…some of the early rumors about Back to Basics suggested that it was going to be some of kind of honest-to-Billie jazz, torch song, or classic R&B album and there are touches of all those (and shout outs to folks like John Coltrane, Etta James, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and others) on the first disc (produced by D.J. Premier) and more than touches on the second disc (produced by Linda Perry) …but this is, despite any affectations to the contrary, a pop record from start to finish (and that’s all to the good.)

Despite the self-conscious (and quite unconvincing) boasts of the track “Still Dirrty” (and the clumsy come-ons of “Naughty Nasty Boy” on the second disc…about which more later), Ms. Aguilera has toned down the sex kitten act and embraced a more adult perspective in her music on the first disc of Back to Basics with defiant self-affirmations like the quietly funky “Here to Stay”, sweet, gentle paeans like the lilting “Oh Mother”, and playful struts like the smokin’ hot tribute to her husband “Ain’t No Other Man”.

When Aguilera puts her powerful pipes to the gospel soul of “Makes Me Wanna Pray” (featuring some righteous keyboard work by Steve Winwood), you want to be in the choir that backs her up and sing “Hallelujah!”

(Okay, she could have left off the ego-stroking “Thank You” which is filled with snippets of fawning “Christina, you’re so wonderful and inspirational” messages from fans…but I guess I can give her a pass on that.)

If the first disc is filled with hip hop flavored beats and tasty pop, the second disc is more jazz and blues flavored and it’s just a little bit problematic for that.

“Candyman”, is a blatant, though admittedly still sassy, rewrite of the Andrews Sisters’ classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” but it is still a lot of swinging fun just the same.

There are more stumbles on the second disc than on the first…the salacious, brassy ballad “Nasty Naughty Boy”, for example, is much more embarrassing (for Xtina and, especially, for listeners) than it is sexy (which she was apparently going for.)

“I Got Trouble” is a stab at singing honky-tonk blues that doesn’t work because Aguilera, for all of her talent, just doesn’t have the credible blues chops to pull it off.

“Hurt”, on the other hand, is a big, string-laden pop-rock ballad that is elevated above its clich├ęd lyrics by her powerful and multi-faceted vocals (expect to hear this on pop radio a lot in the very near future.) The gospel confession of “Mercy on Me” soars so powerfully that you want her to have the forgiveness she pleads for in the song.

The acoustic (accompanied by a guitar and an unobtrusive string section) “Save Me from Myself” features some of Christina’s most subdued, and effective, vocals ever.

The strings are brought to the fore on “The Right Man”, the melodramatic tribute to her husband and her wedding that brings the disc to a close on an unfortunately overblown and sappy (if probably very heartfelt) note.

There are very few two-disc CD sets that wouldn’t have been more punchy and powerful if edited down to one disc…and Back to Basics is certainly no exception to that rule…but overall I have to give Ms. Aguilera (and her producers) kudos for putting together a double-disc collection with many more highlights than disappointments.