Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

…it was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…

Well actually it was 40 years ago. June 1st is the 40th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ epic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and if you’re of a certain age that’s certainly an announcement that will likely make you feel especially old :-).

Sgt. Pepper, an audacious artistic statement in its day (the Beatles had stopped touring and had given their musical imaginations full reign in the studio), still holds up after all of these years. It is the favorite Beatles record for a lot of fans (it’s third on my personal list…after Abbey Road and Revolver and just ahead of “The White Album” and Rubber Soul…but that takes nothing away from what a great album it is; indeed it just shows how magical the band was during its brief season.)

It’s an eclectic journey…from the opening salvo of the rocking title track shifting effortlessly into the bright pop of “With a Little Help from my Friends” (yay, Ringo!); from the trippiness of John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and George’s sitar-driven “Within You, Without You” to the jaunty sway of Paul’s “When I’m 64” and John’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”; from the hard groove of the reprise of the title track to the elegant melancholy of the magnificent coda “A Day in the Life”…but it’s a journey that is still incredibly rewarding.

…they’ve been going in and out of style
but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

so I may I introduce to you
the act
you’ve known for all these years

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!

- words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney -

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More MKW Blogstuff: Bread and Roses

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

American Idol Finale

Well the finale was…interesting.

It’s funny, Simon spent a large percentage of the season complaining that some of the contestants…Melinda and, especially, Jordin…were singing songs that were old and/or old-fashioned and then the finale was packed to the gills with veteran performers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Gladys Knight, Tony Bennett, Bette Milder, and Smokey Robinson…they’re legendary performers all but they’re hardly on the radar of the demographic that American Idol intends to try to sell records to. (That said, Smokey showed the top 6 guys how it was done and Gladys did the same for the top 6 girls.)

Doug E. Fresh? Dude, I’m glad that Blake got to go hog wild beatboxing (he looked to be totally into it) and with Doug E. Fresh no less (nothing says modern music like a beatboxing battle with Doug E. Fresh!)

And what possessed Joe Perry to play with Sanjaya on another craptastic performance of “You Really Got Me”?

The gospel number with Melinda and BeBe and CeCe Winans was rousing and the African Children’s Choir was adorable again.

Gwen Stefani made yet another half-hearted AI appearance but Green Day’s performance of “Working Class Hero” (with a snippet of John Lennon’s vocal at the end) was very cool

It was cool that all of the former Idol winners showed up to perform (except for Fantasia, who had the excuse of performing on Broadway…to glowing reviews apparently… in The Color Purple)…and to acquit themselves well (Kelly’s new single was interesting and Ruben and Jordin made a fine duet…Ruben was one of the few guys on the show this season that Jordin didn’t tower over :-)

I could have done without Clive Davis gassing on…and the Golden Idol thing was lame (save the freak show contestants for prelims and leave it at that.)

They finally got those clearances for the Beatles songs as they opened with Blake and Jordin doing an awkward “I Saw Her Standing There” (get it? …”well she was just 17”…) and then the show finished with the big Kelly-to-Taylor-to- Carrie-to-Ruben-to-the-Season-6-Top-12 Sgt. Pepper medley (I thought they might be leading to that long-rumored Paul McCartney appearance but that didn’t happen.)

And after more than 2 hours (including about 137 commercials) : The envelope please…yadda, yadda, yadda…74 zillion votes…yadda, yadda, yadda…and the winner is Jordin Sparks! Hugs all around…come on, Jordin, sing the tepid winner’s tune so we can go home (they held a songwriting contest and this song was the best they could find? It’s better than “Do I Make You Proud”, “I Believe”, or “Inside Your Heaven” in what way?)

All in all, this was not American Idol’s finest season and the finale, like the rest of the season, followed the pattern of pushing aside the current contestants in favor of letting big name guest-stars monopolize the spotlight. Hopefully next season they’ll retool…better casting, more emphasis on the contestants, less camera-hogging nonsense from the host and the judges…and come back better than ever. We shall see come January.

Friday, May 18, 2007

American Idol

It’s not at all a surprise to me that Melinda Doolittle is not in the American Idol finals. She was, and is, my favorite contestant this season (and she’s arguably the best pure singer to be on the show thus far…no disrespect intended to stellar former contests such as Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Tamyra Gray, Clay Aiken, and others) but I never imagined that she could win out.

Her appeal, for one thing, skews older than the target market for Idol and the producers would not have known how to market her had she won. Hopefully her third place finish will allow her to make the record she wants to make while the AI producers spend their time and attention crafting music for and with Jordin and/or Blake (kind of the way it worked out with Chris Daughtry who’s had a pretty good run with his CD.)

Jordin and Blake…both of whom I also liked a great deal this season…were the logical ones to be in the finals (especially after the Sanjaya hubbub died down.

This has been an interesting year for Idol…long on talent, short on personality (save, of course, for the aforementioned Sanjaya), and, yes, a little bit…dull. The judges and the host have settled into a sometimes annoying rut with their actions, reactions, and antics (Seacrest has been especially insufferable this season while the others seem to be doing the show on automatic pilot) and the bloated results shows have proven eminently skippable. Some of the celebrity mentors stepped up to the plate in a serious way (big props to Jennifer Lopez, Tony Bennett, Martina McBride, Lulu, Jon Bon Jovi) while others just phoned it in (yes, I’m looking at you, Gwen Stefani) but it still added up to not much at all.

I expect no dazzling revelations from the finale (if pressed I’d predict that Jordin is going to win but truth to be told it could go either way) but it should be a fairly entertaining show.

I’m sure the producers will be more careful with their casting of the next edition of Idol…we’ll all find out come January ’08.

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More MKW Blogstuff: Bread and Roses

Monday, May 14, 2007

NBC's Fall Schedule

NBC has become the first network to announce their fall lineup.

The ratings plagued Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did not, alas, make the cut. Law and Order will be back for an 18th season (still gunning for that 20-season Gunsmoke record drama series run, the show will be broadcast on Sunday nights after the end of the football season and NBC’s Sunday Night Football games) while Law and Order: Criminal Intent will shift over to the USA Network (with those episodes probably being used on NBC later to take the place of failed series.

The critically acclaimed (but ratings deficient) Friday Night Lights will get a second season…and a move to Friday nights.

Heroes will be “bulked up” with Heroes: Origins, a spin-off series that will introduce a new hero each episode and then allow viewers to vote for which one will be added to the main series during the next season. This will give us 30 episodes of Heroes goodness next season. There will also be 30 episodes of The Office (including 5 hour-long outings) as well as 25 episodes of My Name is Earl.

There is also going to be revival of 70’s cult classic The Bionic Woman. And Lipstick Jungle, the new hipster women in the city series from the writer of Sex and the City, will debut in January following the football season. The series stars Brooke Shields and Kim Raver (late of 24).

The schedule is as follows (new series in capital letters, ER excepted):

8-9 p.m. Deal or No Deal
9-10 p.m. Heroes
10-11 p.m. JOURNEYMAN

(Journeyman is the story of a time-traveling newspaper reporter.)

8-9 p.m. The Biggest Loser
9-10 p.m. CHUCK
10-11 p.m. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

(Chuck is a comedy/spy thriller about a computer geek who becomes a secret agent.)

8-9 p.m. Deal or No Deal
9-10 p.m. BIONIC WOMAN
10-11 p.m. LIFE

(Life follows the adventures of a police detective returning to the force after spending years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.)

8-8:30 p.m. My Name Is Earl
8:30-9 p.m. 30 Rock
9-9:30 p.m. The Office
9:30-10 p.m. Scrubs
10-11 p.m. ER

8-9 p.m. 1 vs 100/THE SINGING BEE
9-10 p.m. Las Vegas
10-11 p.m. Friday Night Lights

(The Singing Bee is a karaoke reality show where contestants must sing the lyrics of popular songs perfectly even after the band stops playing; it will alternate 8-week runs with 1 vs. 100.)

8-9 p.m. Dateline NBC
9-11 p.m. Drama Series Encores

SUNDAY (Fall 2007)
7-8 p.m. Football Night in America
8-11 p.m. NBC Sunday Night Football

SUNDAY (January 2008)
7-8 p.m. Dateline NBC
8-9 p.m. Law & Order
9-10 p.m. Medium

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Katharine Hepburn

Today would have been the Great Kate’s 100th birthday. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, or Jack Nicholson notwithstanding, they don’t make movie stars like Ms. Hepburn anymore (yeah, I know that’s a cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.)

She was a shimmering, ever-engaging presence in her movies…from her Academy Award winning turns (Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond) to her delightful comic turns (Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib) to effortlessly holding on her own onscreen with great actors (Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Peter O’Toole, John Wayne, Henry Fonda)…and an plain-spoken, irascible, and unapologetic embracer of the concept of living her life on her own terms.

Happy Birthday, Kate.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

Tribute albums are always a slippery slope. If the covers are slavish copies of the original songs there is little point but, that said, if the covers are so different as to be unrecognizable hardcore fans of the artist being feted will likely be put off (and, as a matter of course, some hardcore fans are going to be put off no matter what.) Finding an entertaining and illuminating middle ground…coming at the music with a fresh but respectful vision…is something artists participating in tributes struggle to achieve.

This tribute problem is heightened when the honoree is a singular, distinctive talent like Joni Mitchell. A Tribute to Joni Mitchell…featuring an eclectic and interesting assemblage of pop artists…is all over the place when it comes to trying to surmount the aforementioned slope.

I have, as I have doubtlessly said before in this space, a strange fascination for tribute albums and combining that with my abiding respect and affection for Joni’s work it was a foregone fact that I was going to be all over this one. Add in the fact that some of my favorite artists…Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson, Prince, Elvis Costello, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens…were involved was sweet icing on the cake.

Stevens kicks off the proceeding by turning “Free Man in Paris into a horn-driven baroque fantasia that gets points just for sheer audacity. The fact that it works…capturing the spirit of Mitchell without aping her version of the song…is a cool bonus. Bjork follows with a spare, aching, vaguely other-worldly take on “Boho Dance” (from Joni’s underappreciated The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which is also the source of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” presented here as a lovely piano instrumental by Brad Mehldau.)

Caetano Veloso offers a percussion-driven of “Dreamland” (originally from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) giving it an appealing carnival vibe in the process.

Cassandra Wilson’s husky, sultry, beguiling voice…supported in a superb way by understated guitar, acoustic bass, harmonica, and percussion…smoothly inhabits “For the Roses” and the ever-amazing Emmylou Harris takes a grand, heartfelt tour through the plaintive “The Magdalene Laundries” (from Turbulent Indigo.)

Prince’s abridged version of “A Case of You” has a certain earnest charm (he plays piano, guitar, bass, and organ on the track) while Sarah McLachlan’s voice eerily channels Mitchell’s on her ethereal take on “Blue”.

Annie Lennox’s “Ladies of the Canyon” has underpinnings of sitar, tabla, and santoor giving it a “world music” vibe…but those touches are overwhelmed by the keyboards. Lennox’s voice, of course, stands out over the din.

Recorded back in 1997, Elvis Costello’s version of “Edith and the Kingpin” (again from The Hissing of Summer Lawns)…featuring a horn section (flute, clarinet, trumpet, flugal horn, sax, two French horns) aided and abetted by bass, vibes, and drums…never really catches fire despite a nice vocal.

The disc closes with two covers that deviate only slightly from the originals: k.d. lang’s “Help Me” (lang’s vocal is, of course, lovely) and James Taylor’s “River” (from his Christmas album…it’s fine but not distinctive enough to merit repeated listenings.)

As these things go, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, has more hits than misses and if it leads fans of the artists involved to go discover the original Joni tracks and albums then it’s all good by me.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Based on a True Story

I am a big Kimberley Locke fan…her 2nd season American Idol run (where she came in third behind Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken) was grand and her first CD had some fine moments…and so I had high hopes for her second collection.

It’s not bad…Locke has a strong, enormously appealing voice…but it’s front-loaded with too much faceless, paint-by-numbers pop that doesn’t linger long after the music stops playing.

The first three cuts…”Change”, “Any Which Way”, and “Trust Myself”…are all soaring pop-rock ballads complete with generic guitar riffs (the music occasionally threatens to swamp Locke but she is, for the most part, able to hold off that particular threat without allowing her voice to resort to screaming to be heard) and earnest vocals. It’s almost like Kimberley is trying to go for the Kelly Clarkson vibe but it doesn’t really fit her that well.

“Supawoman” throws the contemporary R&B curve and, again, it’s okay but not really anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before. The dance number “Doin’ it Tonite” is pleasant enough while it’s playing but in the end it’s unremarkable and unmemorable. “Friend Like You”, on the other hand, has a fairly tight hook that keeps the guitars down in the mix and it really works.

Things pick up nicely on the second half. The big Faith Hill-style ballad, “Fall”, is very nicely sung and the mid-tempo groove on “Talk About Us” is sweetly funky.

“You Don’t Have to Be Strong” has the most passionate, soulful vocal on the disc and the bouncy, hopeful “Everyday Angels” has an appealing gospel flavor. The CD wraps up with a nod to her AI days with a fine cover of “Band of Gold”.

Based on a True Story is a good, but not great, record. Here’s hoping that Kimberley shows more personality (and keeps the session guys better reined in) next time and really gives us something to shout about.

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More MKW Blogstuff: Bread and Roses

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Iron Man

Entertainment Weekly debuted this first full shot of the Iron Man armor from the movie due out next year. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as billionaire Tony Stark and his super-heroic alter ego Iron Man. Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges also star in the movie which is being directed by Jon Favreau.