Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Name Is Earl- a redneck hero

The resurgence in quality TV is usually thought to be on cable (specifically HBO) but even network TV is coming through now with good programming. Lost is an engaging serial that always keeps you guessing and after a shaky start, the U.S. version of the Office is almost looking as good as its original U.K. counterpart.

And then there's a lovable, scruffy show that's become a personal favorite of mine. My Name is Earl has a simple but appealing premise- a former scumbag sees the error of his ways (thanks to, of all people, Carson Daily babbling about "karma") and decides that he somehow make up for his misdeeds (basically, trying to repent though it's definitely not seen in religious terms). He draws up a mile-long list of all the horrible things he's done and takes the lottery money that he's won to try to go back to the people he's messed up and somehow correct everything.

The beauty of the show isn't just the wonderful idea behind it but also the cast that's assembled- Jason Lee as the title character who struggles to be virtuous, Ethan Suplee as his dopey and even more lovable brother and Jaime Pressly as Earl's scheming, scummy ex-wife. Creator/producer Greg Garcia deserves a lot of credit for making this bunch of white trash misfit into three-dimensional characters who try to navigate difficult situations and not just going for easy punchlines like most sitcoms do. At first, the show's ratings weren't impressive but NBC wisely stuck by Garcia and viewers have come around to it. It's easily one of the best shows on TV now- it won four Emmies this year (including one for Garcia) and definitely deserved it.

After coming out on DVD with its first season, the show is about to start its second season tonight and to also celebrate it, they've released a soundtrack album. Granted that most albums tied to TV series aren't much use except for fans but like the show itself, the soundtrack is a cut above its competition. For a series that's made up of rednecks, it's not surprising to find Jerry Reed (twice) and Skynyrd here but how do you explain two late 80's rap hits ("Bust a Move" and "It Takes Two," which is featured in several episodes)? Granted that they're G-rated and not gangsta material or Public Enemy but they're also great tunes and serve as a worthwhile reminder that rap had crossover appeal years ago (even to the reddest of necks), even before a lot of its teen audience of today was born. There's also some remakes of classic rock songs by newer artists to give the material some modern sheen- Uncle Kracker doing fine by "The Weight" (if not as great as Mavis Staples), Matthew Sweet doing even better by ELO's "Livin' Thing" (giving it a power-pop spin that Jeff Lynne would appreciate) and John Hiatt doing a easy rollin' version of John Lennon's "Instant Karma" (which he would appreciate). Sweet and Hiatt are also notable because their vocals show some healthy distrust rather than just simple respectful reverence. Then you also have Los Lobos' wonderfully yearning "One Time One Night" (from the under-rated By the Light of the Moon album), a Sammy Davis Jr novelty that sounds like Reed could have sung it and a honky-tonk weeper by Harry Nilsson ("Joy") which fits in well with the overall look and feel of Earl and like the rap hits, extend the sensibility of the show outside of its expected demographic (both physical and spiritual). That goes double or triple for a metal cover of Nena's "99 Red Balloons" with Lee on vocals and Slayer's Dave Lombardo on drums that ends things off.

The CD packaging makes the album out to be a mixtape that Earl's made for his brother Randy as a sort of thank-you for everything he's done to help him. The resulting sentiment is as wise and big hearted as the show itself.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sprites and the Music Lovers- smarty-pants for their own good

Want to impress a scribe? Piece of cake. Just toss us some turn of phrase, some clever lines and flex your smarts. We'll eat out the palm of your hand. Hey, we're a cheap date, we admit it and that's why we salivate over Bob Dylan and other literate folks. Even the indie world goes cuckoo over say Magnetic Fields, Mountain Goats and such. If the music happens to be good also, it's a nice bonus. Maybe that's why I'm so enchanted by two fine new releases from two bands that barely even make it into indie shops now.

With UK combo The Music Lovers, singer Matthew Edwards plays the soon-to-be-jilted lover, stuck in the past with bad relationships and his worship of 60's power-pop, which is bad for the former but good in the later. He also likes to drop hints about his grey matter- he did call his band the Music Lovers, after all. The Music Lovers' Guide For Young People isn't just a cute album title but it's even a song title, which might be taking his brainy conceits too far but there, he advises the little ones to base their life on a "cheap pop song" (just like many of us have already). On the first song, he toasts Cornelius Cardew and speaks of his Marxist gal-pals a little more subtly than Stereolab dropping the same kind of propaganda in their lyrics. Maybe because Edwards is more cynical, he's less sunny than the 'Lab but still hooking his career to "cheap pop songs" (they did title their first record Cheap Songs Tell the Truth, which means that they're masters of self-deprecation as much as Woody Allen) . Again, I say "good for him!" especially when he turns his anger into good rock momentum on "Habit" or "Alan Lake" (after a Brit actor who committed suicide). At his best, he's got down pat the wit and self-flagellation of Morrissey at his best. The only problem then is that he might be a little too smart for his own good As the Drive-By Truckers could tell him, leaning hard on self-conscious knowledge gets you recognized but it makes it hard to build a huge fan base.

Sprites take a different tact to show off their smarts. In this DC combo, Jason Korzen comes on as the ambitious nerd on his second album Modern Gameplay (Darla Records). Like They Might Be Giants, he likes to show off his tunefulness but picks more obvious references than Edwards, titling one song "George Romero" (a great post-acopalyspe song up there with Postal Service's "We Will Become Silhouettes"). But anyone who also pens a bright, catchy tune called "Me and the Sysop" or the instant sympathy-getter "I Started A Blog Nobody Read" (where Dubya is tagged as "an evil moron" and he threatens to list his 100 favorite albums) is reaching out to geeks more than mopey Moz wanna-be's though like Edwards, he does love his breezy pop for sure. Even his voice has a lovably nerdy twang to it and if you sometimes think you've heard his songs before that might mean he's a great hook-smith or that like Ray Davies, he's at least stealing from the best. Either way, the guy's catchy new wave pop is winning and no, his grey matter doesn't stand in the way of you appreciating it either, especially when he wonders out loud "who do I have to sleep with to DJ in this town?"

Y0u can hear some of the Sprites album at their MySpace page. Ditto for the Music Lovers and their album is also available at Darla.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Gina Villalobos- 2 Kool 2 B Underground

Some artists you can't help but love, especially when the music-buying audience doesn't give them the love they deserve.

Singer/songwriter Gina Villalobos is one of those people for me. I first heard her music through the superfine Miles of Music distribution service and wrote up a short notice about her first album for my zine and subsequently reviewed her next record for Harp Magazine.

What struck me about her was that her music, her voice and her songs sounded so forthright, so firm and so confident that I couldn't for the life of me figure out why she wasn't more well-known. Maybe the easiest comparison is Kathleen Edwards but she never came close to Villalobos' dynamic work. This is the kind of artist that you want to scream to the world about.

Sad to say, I only had her records to experience and not any shows. I even missed her SXSW performance this year when my plane arrived in Austin late, goddamnit. But that was before she included a World Party cover on her album, caught the ear of WP leader Kurt Wallinger and was invited to be his opening act when he did a U.S. tour (currently underway) to promote her new record Miles Away. That also meant her first stop in NYC and a chance to finally catch her live.

Thankfully, she had enough energy and enthusiasm to win over a Gotham crowd who probably hadn't heard her before. The only drawback, which she apologized for, was that unlike on her albums, she didn't have a full band with her to fill out her sound. Until next time, her records are the place to find out what she's truly capable of though he solo appearance do show off some of what she's capable of.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Blog Is Not Yet Rated

While the FCC is successfully keeping us safe from ourselves via TV and making sure that the media can communicate only with people that have grade school sensibilities, they have allies at the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) who are also doing a good job of this in the film industry.

Their rating board has assigned the well-known G/PG/R system to all domestically released films since 1968. After some protest (and a supposed copyright violation), the X rating was changed to NC-17. All of this was done under the guise of protecting children from explicit content in films.

Or so the story goes. Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated explores the rating system and the inherent hypocrisy involved in it. Filled with interviews of directors who have butted heads with the rating board (and possibly fear retribution from them for appearing in the movie), This Film makes a compelling case for reform of the system.

The crux of the problem that many producers and directors face is getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. Such a movie will then automatically not appear in many theatres across the country, which prefer to show more family-friendly entertainment. As such, a film will then lose a lot of money because it will be less widely available. One of the greatest problems that the film-makers then face is trying to figure out a ratings standard which supposedly doesn't exist- they're sometimes told that the board doesn't want to censor films so they can't say which exact scenes need to be cut to get an R-rating.

Not surprisingly, indie studios have a much tougher time getting an R-rating instead of an NC-17 rating. Trey Parker of South Park fame found this out the hard way- his 1997 film Orgazmo (released by an indie studio) was slapped with an NC-17 rating while the South Park film which came out two years later through a major studio (and was filled with a record number of obscenities and scenes of violence) received an R-rating.

And so it goes with gay scenes which are almost identical to male-female sex scenes in movies: This Film shows them side-by-side in comparisons with only difference that one of these type of movies gets the NC-17 rating and the other type gets the R-rating. Guess which is which. The same goes for male-female scenes were the women is having a little too much pleasure from the encounter.

As for scenes of violence, with regards to body count, the sky is usually the limit. An action hero film where 100's of people are slain casually? No problem. That's an R or maybe even a PG-13 rating. And what does this say to the kiddies that the board is supposed to be protecting with their ratings?

In a wonderful turn of fair play, Dick spends a lot of the movie also tracking down the previously invisible ratings board by hiring a detective. Not only does she get names and photos for Dick but she also tracks down the members of the appeals board even after the MPAA people try to hide them. It turns out the appeals people are made up of studio suits and theatre retail bigwigs, all who have vested interest in the system.

Dick ends the movie with his own trials and tribulations of submitting This Film for a rating. Not surprisingly, the secretive board didn't appreciate the expose and slapped it with an NC-17 rating. Dick takes his case to the appeals board whose star-chamber process doesn't allow him to question anything or barely lets him speak. The final verdict? A 10-0 unanimous vote against him. At this point though, it doesn't matter. Dick has already exposed them as the two-faced cowards that they are.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Happy B-day to Sonny Rollins

To celebrate the still-active saxman's 76th birthday, his website has a video library of various performances going back to the 50's and stretching right up to this year. Interesting to see not just his style change but also his outfits and hair-do's (especially like the bald look from '65). Also note a baby-faced Henry Grimes in the early clips- he'd later go on to play with Albert Ayler and then disappear from the music scene for decades, recently resurfacing on the gigging scene. Also love the joyous version of "Mack the Knife" from '81 and the gorgeous version of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (where he sneaks in a bunch of childhood themes) from '82.

Rollins did a really nice free show at Lincoln Center last month (well documented by the New York Times). The guy's still got it, long notes and all, plus he's got a new CD out now, which you can buy as MP3's from his website for a mere 10 dollars.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Meme tag time

A fellow blogger (aka my boo) sent me a "tag" where I'm supposed to follow up on a thread about important books in my life so I figured that I dig through my brain and shelves to see what I'd come up with.

A book that changed my life:
William S. Burrough's The Naked Lunch: Nothing I'd read by high school prepared me for this and after it, my reading experience was never quite the same. For me, it was an amazing primer for what could be done in realm of writing. Favorite passage: a computer shorts out and accidentally lets loose all the loonies on the world, told in deliciously grizzly detail.

A book I've read more than once:
Amos Vogel's Film As A Subversive Art: It's a bit out of date now but it's still an interesting look at the taboos of cinema. Decades after its publication, few of them have been broken (no surprise there), which says a lot about our society.

A book I would take with me if I were stuck on a desert island:
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake- It's actually several novels in one and only being secluded like this would afford you the time really needed to parse some different meanings from the book

A book that made me laugh:
Any collection of plays by Eugene Ionesco: no one chronicled the absurd better than he did (except maybe Beckett or Dylan). Even more than "Rhinoceros," I love "The Bald Soprano."

A book that made me cry:
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol: especially the ending where Scrooge gets reformed.

A book I wish had been written:
Write Around the World: An Anthology of Music Journalism from the Four Corners of the Earth: This is something that I'm working on now, specifically focusing on writers not in the U.S. or the UK and I've already found a lot of fascinating material. I just need to find an enlightened publisher...

A book I wish had never been written:
Anything by Michael Savage or Ann Coulter. I guarantee that history will not be kind to them.

A book I've been meaning to read:
The Bible: probably the most used and abused book in history, I've glanced through passages before but it would be interesting to go cover-to-cover to see what's really said and think about what it's really supposed to mean. For the same reasons, I'd want to read the Koran too.

I'm currently reading:
Among other things... Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Bill C. Malone's Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class and Adam Cussow's Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition

An added category:
A book that I wish I had written:
Christian Bok's Eunoia: A brilliantly maddening prose book where each chapter consists only of words which all use the same vowel. Favorite: Chapter A, which is decided to Hans Arp (get it?)

And to carry on with the tag tradition, I'm passing this along to five other bloggers:
Even if they don't have time to respond, they have good sites you should check out.

Also, if you out there in blog-land have some favorites, feel free to share them in the comment section here.