Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

With a title like I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (reportedly a paraphrase of something overheard from an NBA player during a game) you’re almost obligated to come up with a…well…kick-ass disc to justify the boast. Yo La Tengo (its name taken from an anecdotal incident during a baseball game) did just that by reaching into its bag of musical tricks and pulling out an eclectic , thoroughly engaging and entertaining, 15-track gem of a record.

This collection is bracketed with two long tracks (neither of which overstays its welcome): the opening “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” (clocking in at nearly 11 minutes) is a glorious, churning, feedback-drenched, Psychedelic rocker that relentlessly draws the listener into the groove (the vocals are buried in the thick mix); and the closing “The Story of Yo La Tango” (coming in at just under 12 minutes), a slow-building tour de force that features layered guitars building to a majestic crescendo and brings the disc to a powerful conclusion.

In-between those two tracks, the band follows its collective muse wherever it takes them. From insanely catchy pop songs (the sprightly, witty “Beanbag Chair”, the gently propulsive “The Race is On Again”, with its sweet guitars supporting the lovely, intertwining male and female vocals, the punky “I Should Have Known Better”, the dreamy “The Weakest Part”) to reflective piano-accented ballads (the heartbreakingly poignant “I Feel Like Going Home”, the bittersweet “Sometimes I Don’t Get You”, and the wistful “Song for Mahila”) to horn-driven soul shuffles (the sparkling “Mr. Tough” which features cool falsetto vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on a Prince record.)

From multi-layered mini-epics (the stately “Black Flowers”, in which Kaplan’s plaintive vocals are cushioned by sweet harmonies, delicate horns, and soaring strings and the brooding yet delicate, nearly 9-minute instrumental “Daphnia”) to flat out rock and roll (the garage band stomp of “Watch Out for Me, Ronnie”, the sonic assault of “The Room Got Heavy”, which sounds to me like a wondrous mash-up of the Byrds and Santana with a healthy dose of Iron Butterfly thrown in for good measure, and the Beatle-esque shimmer of “Point and Shoot”.)

This is, quite simply, a wondrous pop record (one hour and seventeen minutes well spent indeed.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Hiro Nakamura is a drone in a faceless Japanese company but he aspires to more than just a face in a homogenous crowd. Hiro is a pop culture geek (his breathless exclamations are peppered with references to Star Trek and the X-Men…though my personal geek has to point out that his reference to X-Men #143 is incorrect…Hiro references the character Kitty Pryde from that issue but he misinterprets her powers in the process…but I guess that’s neither here nor there to non-geeks) who wants to be a super-hero and he believes that he does indeed have superhuman powers. And, indeed, he does.

Hiro is one of the titular heroes of this intriguing new series. As is the vogue for network dramas these days, Heroes is a serial with, as a matter of course, plotlines twisting and turning within in the context of a larger picture that we’re not privy to as yet (though reports have it that a super-powered serial killer is going to be the adversary in the first season.) A seemingly unconnected group of people are discovering they have super-powers (teleportation, flight, invulnerability, etc.) without knowing how or why.

The one person who seems to know why…an Indian scientist…is killed by a conspiracy of some sort (what serialized thriller would be complete without a shadowy conspiracy?) and his research is taken up by his son, Mohinder, who finds himself on the run from the same conspiracy and taking a job as a New York cabbie while he does so.

The threads of some of the characters’ individual plotlines are already being drawn together. Mohinder, for example, is spooked by a creepy conspiracy guy who turns out to be the stepfather of Claire, a Texas teenager who has discovered that injuries to her body head themselves miraculously.

Peter, an easygoing nurse who believes he can fly (and the brother of Nathan, an ambitious candidate for Congress who dismisses his brother’s fanciful beliefs), has a crush on Simone, the daughter of one of his terminal patients, who in turn is the girlfriend of Isaac, a tortured artist and drug addict who appears to have the power to see the future (a power channeled through his paintings.) Isaac, in a drug-addled stupor, hints that there is some tragedy that the would-be heroes must stop. (Peter also crosses paths with Mohinder when he takes a ride in his taxi.)

Niki, a stripper on the run from the mob with her son (who himself seems to be extraordinarily intelligent), sees visions of a doppelganger in mirrors and other reflective surfaces…a doppelganger who, apparently, can manifest violently (as evidenced by the killing of two mob goons who tracked Niki down.)

(The pilot episode does not introduce us to Matt, a Los Angeles policeman who thinks that he can hear other people’s thoughts, or to D.L., an inmate who can apparently pass through solid walls…which, my inner geek coming out again, is Kitty Pryde’s power.)

It’s an intriguing start...Heroes (Monday nights on NBC with Friday repeats on the SciFi Channel) may indeed turn out to be worth the season-long investment serialized stories require providing it has the staying power of some serials (Lost, 24, Prison Break) and not the frustrating ratings weakness of others (Surface, Threshold, etc., etc.)

Friday, September 08, 2006

American Idol Autumn

It’s the fall of the American Idols…or something like that. American Idol will return to the airwaves come January but between now and then no fewer than 7 veteran contestants from the show will release new CDs (and that doesn’t even count season 3 “diva” Jennifer Hudson’s contributions to the soundtrack of Dreamgirls which will, I presume, include her singing the show-stopping “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”.)

Clay Aiken (and his unfortunate new haircut) leads the pact this month with A Thousand Different Ways (which will feature 4 new songs and 10 covers of love songs from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s including Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wing”, Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”, the last reportedly a duet with Rock Star: INXS contestant Suzie McNeil.)

Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard offers up The Return in October, the follow-up to his disappointing debut Soulful and the gospel disc I Need An Angel. Also in October, season 5’s blonde country sweetheart (who was either incredibly crafty or incredibly ditzy depending on who you asked) Carrie Pickler will try to follow in season 4 winner Carrie Underwood’s multi-platinum-selling footsteps.

In November, season 5 winner, Taylor Hicks is supposed to step up to the plate (his CD doesn’t have a title yet…I guess calling it Soul Patrol would be way too obvious, right? Man, I certainly hope not…cause that bit never got old on the show, did it?…) along with discs from the ubiquitous runner-up Katherine McPhee and rock guy Chris Daughtry (who may be working on a song with…Rob Thomas?, okay, that’ll probably be cool…)

And also in November, season 3 winner Fantasia promises a fun disc that will be accessible to pop audiences on her follow-up to her fine R&B-flavored debut Free Yourself.

(Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson is waiting until early ’07 to put out her next disc.)

That should be enough AI goodness to keep the fanbase satiated until Simon, Paula, Randy, and Ryan take their places in their hearts...and TV screens...again in January, shouldn't it? We shall presume so.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Star Trek

Call it Star Trek: The Special Edition. Beginning the weekend of September 16, Paramount will be rolling out refurbished editions of the original Star Trek series in syndication (more than 200 stations are signed up as of this writing.) The episodes will be digitally upgraded with new special effects and matte paintings. The plan is to upgrade all of the episodes…though, apparently, they won’t be shown in original broadcast order.

According to a press release, the changes include:

Space ship exteriors -- The space ship Enterprise, as well as other Starships, will be replaced with state of the art CGI-created ships. The new computer-generated Enterprise is based on the exact measurements of the original model, which now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Show opening -- The Enterprise and planets seen in the main title sequence will be redone, giving them depth and dimension for the first time.

Galaxy shots -- All the graphics of the galaxy, so frequently seen through the window on the Enterprise's bridge, will be redone.

Exteriors -- The battle scenes, planets and ships from other cultures (notably the Romulan Bird of Prey and Klingon Battle Cruisers) will be updated.

Background scenes -- Some of the iconic, yet flat, matte paintings used as backdrops for the strange, new worlds explored by the Enterprise crew will get a CGI face-lift, adding atmosphere and lighting.

Even our Earth will be given a makeover in the couple of episodes when the Enterprise returns to Sector 001 as we have images of our planet from outer space that they didn’t have when the show was produced in the mid-1960s. And phaser blasts will be given more “oomph!” as well.

I’m sure some purists will cry foul (as some Star Wars fans did when George Lucas performed similar alterations on the original trilogy of that movie series) but, as someone who was an avid fan of the original series when the show was first being broadcasts, I’m cool with the changes. Hopefully the alien worlds will look really alien and not...oh let’s say…like the backlot of a movie studio in Southern California.

Now if only they could something about some of the dialogue :-)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Overnight Sensational

Sam Moore is an honest-to-Aretha soul survivor. As half of Sam & Dave…along with the late Dave Prater…Moore created some of the most indelible R&B records of the Sixties…including “When Something is Wrong with my Baby”, “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, and the immortal “Soul Man”.

Moore has been a revered soul man making appearances on record every now and again...perhaps most notably his fine duet on “Rainy Night in Georgia” with the late, great Conway Twitty on the under-appreciated 1994 soul/country crossover collection Rhythm, County, and Blues.

Overnight Sensational is not a solo album…it is, instead, a Genius Loves Company- style series of collaborations between Moore and some of his many friends and admirers. Producer Randy Jackson (yeah, the “hipster” dork from American Idol) frames the vocalists in a sturdy, but not oppressive, musical foundation that keeps them right up front where they belong.

Wynonna Judd is in fine soulful fettle…a great match for Moore…on the opening track, Ann Peebles’ oft-covered “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (with Billy Preston on keyboards and Bekka Bramlett & BeBe Winans on backing vocals) while Bruce Springsteen channels his inner gospel man on the boisterous “Better to Have and Not Need”.

Moore and Fantasia rescue “Blame it on the Rain” from its ignominy of being a Milli Vanilli hit with an infusion of solid soul. Jon Bon Jovi joins Moore for a credible cover of the old Bobby Womack hit “Lookin’ for a Love”.

Moore and Steve Winwood sound utterly grand together on the propulsive “Ain’t No Love” (featuring some nice keyboard work by Winwood) while Sting steps up to the plate to join Moore on “None of Us Are Free” (which also features Sheila E. on percussion.)

Moore takes the lead on a heartfelt cover of Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” with some wonderful background vocals by the unlikely combination of Vince Gill and Mariah Carey.

“Don’t Play That Song”, a hit for the immortal Aretha, is revived to wonderful, soulful effect in a jumpin’ duet between Moore and Bekka Bramlett.

Perhaps the most surprising song on the disc is a funky cover of Tony Toni Tone’s “If I Had No Loot” featuring vocals by Nikka Costa and Van Hunt along with some tasty guitar work by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

Moore and Travis Tritt make a fine pair on soul-infused cover of “Riding Thumb”, an obscure Seals & Crofts ode to hitchhiking. Robert Randolph ups the energetic ante with some grand pedal steel guitar work. Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers joins in on a soaring gospel-infused take on Garth Brook’s brotherhood anthem “We Shall Be Free”.

The final cut on the album is a heartfelt version of the late Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful” (made famous by Joe Cocker’s version) featuring Preston (whom Moore describes as his best friend) on vocals, Eric Clapton with a sweetly mournful guitar solo, Robert Randolph on steel guitar, and Italian R&B star Zucchero on background vocals. It’s a lovely tribute and sweet coda to the collection.

Moore is in fine voice throughout and seems to be having a great deal of fun (as do his collaborators.) Overnight Sensational is a fine, fun album.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Celebrity Duets

Have you ever wondered how it would sound if Cheech Marin sang a duet with Randy Travis? Or how it would be if Lucy (Xena: Warrior Princess) Lawless sang with Michael Bolton? Yeah, me neither.

But that didn’t stop American Idol's Simon Cowell from presenting this show featuring 8 celebrities not known for singing sharing duets with accomplished music stars.

Along with Lawless and Marin, the celebrities include: Alfonso Ribeiro (best known as Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Hal Sparks (late of Talk Soup and Queer as Folk), Olympic Gold Medal winning gymnast Carly Patterson, actress Lea Thompson, WWE wrestler Chris Jericho, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Jai Rodriguez.

The lineup of music stars for the first show was impressive enough. Along with Travis and Bolton they included: Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Lee Ann Womack, James Ingram, Peter Frampton, and Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams (who suffered the indignity of being upstaged by her duet partners.)

Future shows will feature stars such as Chaka Khan, Kenny Loggins, Patti LaBelle, Clint Black, Macy Gray, Cyndi Lauper, Aaron Neville, Taylor Dayne, and Richard Marx.

Wayne Brady…often looking uncomfortable as he tried to pump life into this cheesy spectacle…is the host. And the requisite panel of 3 judges includes a perky Marie Osmond, a befuddled Little Richard (sometimes I wasn't sure if the “architect of rock and roll” really knew where he was), and a bemused David Foster (too solicitous and too gentlemanly to really be the snarky one he’s apparently supposed to be.)

It’s all very familiar (it looks like the show was broadcast from the American Idol stage), all very predictable (some of the celebrities did okay…Rodriguez and Ribeiro especially…and some were, to use a word Cowell would have dragged out, horrid…Patterson and Jericho were troopers but….), and all very dull.

Cowell…who spent the summer trying to convince us that “America’s got talent” by showcasing finger snappers, rapping grandmothers, and strange winged Russian guys…is going to keep cranking this stuff out (I’m sure it took him all of 5 minutes to “create” Celebrity Duets) for as long as the audience buys into it. Make him stop…just say “no”, people!