Monday, February 25, 2008

Thriller - 25th Anniversary Edition

25 years ago Michael Jackson’s Thriller became such a cultural phenomenon that people kind of skipped past the fact that it was a really good album but not a really great album.

We all remember the highpoints…the silky, ominous throb of the amazing “Billie Jean”, the propulsive energy of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, the smooth and pleasing pop sheen of “Human Nature”, the paradoxically goofy and funky title track (major props to the late, great Vincent Price for his “rap”), and the snarling rock and roll marriage of Jackson’s voice and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar on the still-potent “Beat It”…with abiding (and well-deserved) fondness.

A lot of what made those songs even more indelible is not only that they were great tracks but also that most of them had interesting videos that were in heavy rotation on MTV (back when MTV…you know…played videos during most of the day and night.)

The rest of Thriller is, truth to be told, mostly just okay. “The Girl is Mine”, the duet with Paul McCartney, was and is a harmless pop trifle, “Baby Be Mine” was and is a generic Quincy Jones pop/soul mid-tempo jam, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” was and is silly and annoying (yeah, I know it was a hit…I don’t care…it’s still silly and annoying), and “The Lady in my Life” (yes another “hit”) was and is a limp, unconvincing love ballad.

For the 25th anniversary edition CD, the original album is supplemented with two outtakes and four remixes. None of this stuff adds much to the record. The best of the lot is an amusing 24-second clip from Vincent Price’s voiceover track work for “Thriller”. The other outtake is “For All Time”, a pleasant enough (though ultimately forgettable) love song that might have been left out because the melody sounds more than a bit like “Human Nature”.

None of the remixes comes close to improving on the originals. “Billie Jean 2008” featuring Kanye West (whose vocal contributions consist mainly of throwing in the odd “yeah, yeah” here and there) slows the tempo down and buries the track’s strongest feature, that tight bass line, in the mix while Akon adds nothing interesting to “Wanna Be Startin’ Something 2008”. “P.Y.T. 2008” is only made even more silly and annoying with the addition of and the idea of turning “Beat It” into a duet between Jackson and Fergie may have seemed like a good one on paper (though I find that hard to believe) but it was a bad idea when executed.

Thriller is, flaws and all, still a remarkable pop record even if this anniversary edition really doesn’t add anything good to its legacy.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The 80th Annual Academy Awards

A big night for the Coen brothers…three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay)…and their movie, No Country for Old Men, on a sedate, kind of uninspired Academy Awards night.

The show itself was okay…Jon Stewart was pretty good (not great but he had a few nice moments) as the host…with decent enough musical numbers, relatively brief acceptance speeches, and perhaps a few too many montages (I’m guessing they put them together in case the writers’ strike was still going on and they needed to fill a lot of time and decided to go on and use them anyway.)

Everything about the 80th Academy Awards show was…okay…nothing particularly memorable but nothing especially bad either. And hey they got it done in less than 3 ½ hours…gotta give ‘em credit for that :-)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

American Idol 7: Semi-Final Round

Oh my. The shtick really has calcified hasn’t it? The principals on American Idol really are phoning it in and they’re not even bothering to pretend that they’re not.

Let’s see now: Ryan Seacrest as the preening ass who thinks he’s much wittier than he is? Check.

Randy Jackson as the goofy over-aged “hipster” who hasn’t a clue how far removed he is from being as cool as he imagines he is? Check.

Paula Abdul playing the role of the den mother desperately trying to organize her sunny comments into something coherent but failing at that more often than not? Check.

And Simon Cowell…so bored with the proceedings that he spends his time playing bratty brother to Abdul and then trotting out the same old tired put-downs? Check.

Add to that the fact that they made the singers do songs from the sixties (except for the one kid who did “Jailhouse Rock” which no one seemed to notice was a hit in 1957) and then had the judges (mostly Cowell) whine about the fact that the songs were not “relevant to today”.

They keep telling us that the top 24 talent this year is the best ever but none of the performances proved that out (they were mostly bland, inoffensive, and, yes Simon, forgettable...hopefully the women will show something more) and the rote interactions between the judges and the host have gone past annoying right into utterly predictable and completely boring.

Perhaps this season’s Idol will pick up steam as it moves along…maybe they’ll, as Randy would doubtlessly say, “work it out”… but at this point I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, dawg.

* * * * *

2/21 addendum:

The ladies were a little better as a group than the guys were the night before...but nobody thus far has jumped out as someone who would put out a CD that I would be rushing out to buy. We'll chalk it up to first week jitters and hope that the contestants will start living up to Seacrest's incessant claim that they are the best Idol semi-finalists ever. We shall see.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Just a Little Lovin'

Shelby Lynne is a soul survivor…an extremely talented singer and songwriter who won a “Best New Artist” Grammy years after she had started putting out records…a restless, creative spirit with a beautiful, sultry voice…and so the idea of her making a disc of covers of songs made famous by the amazing Dusty Springfield seems like a no-brainer. And, even more importantly, it made for one damn fine CD.

Springfield approached these songs like the big R&B/pop diva (that word used in the most affectionate and admiring way) she is…she inhabited songs with soul, passion, and verve. Lynne has those same qualities but she approaches the songs with a cooler, supper club vibe…subtle playing and, especially, nuanced singing…that breathes interesting, jazzy new life into some very familiar tunes (including sweet and smoky readings of “The Look of Love”, “I Only Want to Be with You” [see below], and “How Can I Be Sure”.)

The title track sets the mood with an evocative stroll and that is immediately followed by a beautifully yearning take on “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and a powerfully understated version of the often bombastic “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” that seals the deal on this collection’s greatness. Lynne’s wistful, self-penned “Pretend” fits like a glove with the 9 covers here.

The music…a quartet of keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums on most cuts…is masterfully played but it’s Lynne’s rich, compelling voice that effortlessly…and rightfully…holds the center and righteously carries the day on all 10 tracks here; she once again proves that great singers and great songs are in no need of vocal gymnastics to make them soar and shine soulfully.

This is music for slow dancing…or snuggling…with someone you have a serious thing for…unabashedly passionate and romantic music that isn’t the slightest bit cloying…great music, a tribute from one great artist to another, that is achingly heartfelt and wonderfully entertaining from the first track to the last.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The 50th Annual Grammy Awards

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences realized that when it comes to the Grammy awards…especially the 50th anniversary awards…it’s the music that counts. There are only so many laundry lists of record executives and shout outs to God that the audience wants to sit through so, again, they kept the number of awards they handed out on the prime time broadcast to a minimum and concentrated on presenting an eclectic array of performances. For the most part it worked to make for an entertaining show.

As far as the awards went the Academy went against the prevailing wisdom that Amy Winehouse’s train wreck of a personal life would preclude them from honoring her by giving her 5 Grammys…including plum prizes for Best New Artist, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year (the latter two for the ironic but undeniably funky “Rehab”.) Winehouse (above with her Mom), originally denied a visa to come to the ceremonies, performed in a small venue in London before an enthusiastic audience. Her performances of “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab” were a bit ragged but potent nevertheless. She seems genuinely shocked by her Record of the Year win, which announced just after her performance.

Winehouse lost the coveted Album of the Year to a surprise winner: Herbie Hancock’s (below) lovely River: The Joni Letters (only the second jazz album to win the prize following the 1965 award to Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.) Kanye West lost out on this one for the third time (both Vince Gill and Usher took playful jabs at West’s petulant behavior during previous awards shows.)

The show itself was a celebration of Grammy’s 50 years with lots of Grammy favorites among those presenting awards or introducing performances. Among the very familiar faces were Quincy Jones (27 Grammy wins), Stevie Wonder (25), Cher, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, and Ringo Starr.

Alicia Keys opened the show with a duet with the youthful ghost of Frank Sinatra on “Learning the Blues” (Keys would return later for a rousing version of “No One” with some help from John Mayer) followed by Carrie Underwood romping through “Before He Cheats” backed up by a phalanx of percussionists.

Some of the performances that followed were rousing: Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang’s soaring take of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Beyonce and the immortal Tina Turner shimmying through “Proud Mary”, Aretha Franklin and BeBe Winans leading a gospel medley, young Timothy Mitchum and Carol Woods (from the movie Across the Universe) with an amazing gospel version of the Beatles’ “Let it Be”, Kanye West’s heartfelt “Hey Mama”, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban’s majestic “The Prayer”.

Others were fun…the reunited Time teaming up with Rhianna, Foo Fighters blazing through “The Pretender” with an orchestra conducted by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and a violin solo by this year’s “My Grammy Moment” winner, West and Daft Punk’s otherworldly performance of “Stronger”, John Fogerty teaming up with rock and roll fathers Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Feist’s understated version of “1234”.

(A couple were….um…a bit more problematic:’s rap was lame and the duet on “That Old Black Magic” between veteran Keely Smith…still in fine voice…and Kid Rock…not exactly Louis Prima… was a bit awkward. And there was a bit too much Cirque du Soleil for my taste.)

All in all, Grammy didn’t embarrass itself during its golden anniversary show and that was all good.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Eli Stone

Eli Stone , ABC's new Thursday night "dramedy", tries hard to achieve a state of profound whimsy…there’s a definite Ally McBeal vibe (complete with random production numbers and quick cuts to exotic locales in dreams) to the proceedings…and sometimes it reaches that state.

But the word that too often encapsulates the show is cute. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing.

The titular character is an ambitious shark of a corporate lawyer…he is successful and engaged to his boss’ daughter…who finds a new direction in life due to an inoperable brain aneurysm which causes him to have vivid (and, yes, whimsical) hallucinations which show him the way to do the right thing. There is some stuff about Eli perhaps being a “prophet” though one would hope that modern prophets aren’t seeing George Michael dancing and singing “Faith” :-)

The show is visually remarkable and the cast…led by Jonny Lee Miller as Stone and featuring the always wonderful Loretta Devine and Victor Garber…is solid but the pilot still wasn’t engaging enough to turn me into a fan. I’ll give it another viewing or two to see if it grabs my interest.