Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, January 07, 2007
      ( 1/07/2007 10:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AND NOW A BRIEF COMMERCIAL WORD FROM THE MAKERS OF VISINE – A quick note to Dick Van Dyke on the occasion of the broadcast of Hallmark Channel's most recent Murder 101 telemovie:
Dear Dick:
Please see Ben Stein about getting the red out.
PC Gadabout
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      ( 1/07/2007 07:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HOSING OFF THE DIRT – Watched the Friday night rerun of Dirt's debut, and I largely agree with Ben's assessment of the much-hyped fx series. (I used to like that Peter Gabriel song.) I don't particularly give a rat's ass about the problems of paparazzi-bedeviled celebs either, any more than I do the super-rich who'll apparently be the center of yet another "edgy" upcoming fx series, so it'll be up to the series to give me a reason to keep watching. Courtney Cox's neurotic bitch magazine editor is plainly meant to be our central figure. But on the basis of the premiere, she appears to be doing a variation on the same character she played in Scream (only with corporate status thrown into the mix), so I'm not sure how much new there is to see there. More intriguing is the character of schizophrenic photog Don (Ian Hart, who played Professor Quirrel in the first Harry Potter movie), whose hallucinogenic struggles without his psychotropic meds and love for a dying cat provided the only real doses of sympathetic humanity in the series pilot. Wanna wager whether this character'll survive the season?
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Saturday, January 06, 2007
      ( 1/06/2007 09:32:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A HOPELESS CASE – So lemme get this straight: Numb3rs' Charlie Eppes has this hot & brainy colleague who also happens to love the Kinks – and he still hasn't taken their relationship to the next level? Wotta dork. (Extra points taken off, Charles, for shutting off her CD mix tape in the car this week before it actually gets to a Kinks track.)
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      ( 1/06/2007 09:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"DON'T KNOW MUCH, BUT I KNOW THAT WHAT I DIG IS THIS!" – Mention the dB's or Mitch Easter to most power-slash-jangle pop fans, and, most likely, you'll get a loud sigh o' pleasure in response. Much beloved by record shoppe habitués (like yours truly at the time) in the early eighties, the deeBs were the most criminally underappreciated southern pop band of the era (the most criminally overappreciated being, of course, R.E.M.) Their first two releases, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, are still cited by true believers as pristine pieces of brainy jangle-pop, while Like This, produced after founding member Chris Stamey left to pursue a solo career, has its equally strong proponents (among 'em, this writer). Easter, in addition to fronting another underrated pop-rock group, Let's Active (perhaps best known for the sparkly "Every Word Means No"), was also producer for R.E.M.'s early releases. There's a lotta musical D.I.Y. history in those two names, in other words – and where the two first came together was in Winston-Salem, NC, with Sneakers.

Founded by future dB's Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, Sneakers released two indie EPs, Sneakers and In the Red, both of which received kudos in rockfan forums like Trouser Press and New York Rocker but largely went unnoticed beyond the fanzine press. The first six-song EP was the work of a four-man unit – Stamey, drummer Rigby, guitarist Rob Slater & bassist Robert Keely – while the second was the creation of a band in name only. Stamey and Easter (who'd joined the group for a gig at Max's Kansas City) put together Red as a duo, utilizing a few archival tracks featuring the rest of the players, along with future dB's bassist Gene Holder, but primarily playing most of the instruments themselves. With Easter sharing vocal responsibilities, the six-song set sounds as much like nascent Let's Active as it does pre-formed dB's.

Both EPs, along with nine other tracks initially produced around the same time, are now being re-issued by Collectors' Choice under the collegially pretentious title Nonsequitur of Silence. For fans of the sound, the collection provides a splendorous earful of early D.I.Y. popmaking. (A historically contextual parenthetical should probably be inserted here: when Sneakers was first released in '76, the best-known indie tracks were by the likes of Patti Smith, Television & Pere Ubu. The power pop boom that brought all those skinny tie bands into the public limelight wouldn't flower for at least another year, so this stuff was really ahead of its time.) Though the first six tracks, recorded lo-fi and mostly live by another name-to-be, performer/producer Don Dixon, primarily reveal a young band whose reach exceeds its grasp, Stamey's early compositions show the man's sense of minor key hookery was already keenly developed.

Opener track, "Ruby," gives a good idea of what we're in for. While it just barely holds together instrumentally – though Rigby's solid drumming grounds the track, Stamey and Slater's ramshackle guitar hooks struggle in spots to stay in place – the song also contains an irrepressibly catchy "talk is cheap" chorus. If some of Sneakers' experimental flourishes (in "Driving," the song's atonal guitar embellishments threaten to overwhelm Stamey's characteristically light vocals) take getting used to, by the fifth track ("Crisis"), the sound coalesces and pure poppery prevails. Lyrically, the songs – with their refs to the Kennedy era America – owe a debt to John Cale at his most geopolitical: even when he writes a paean to an unattainable girl, Stamey can't resist comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The debut's aural peak is its finale, "On the Brink," which just smashes through its tinny production right into yer living room. Makes you wonder what the full group could've produced if it'd stayed together longer.

This is not to put down follow-up In the Red, which in many ways shows quantum sonic leaps above its predecessor. It begins on a melancholy acoustic track, "Story of A Girl," about a suicidal young Eleanor Rigby type (nifty sitar by Stamey slipped in this 'un), then kicks up with the rollicking "What I Dig," which even manages to toss rockabilly hiccoughs into the mix. Stamey and Easter regularly throw in small off-kilter touches without (as in the first EP) overbalancing the songs. "Some Kinda Fool," for example, includes a bridge that hints of a previously unheard spy movie theme, but when it breaks into a Stamey/Easter sung chorus about a young heartbreaker who "likes girls," the song approaches harmony pop nirvana. More than in the first disc, you can really hear where these two pop smarties are headed: Easter's "Decline and Fall," f'rinstance, wouldn't have sounded out of place on Let's Active's own glisteningly creative EP debut, Afoot, five years later.

Most of the bonus material is on the same sweet level as Red, two stand-outs being "The Perfect Stranger," which has the kinda wuzzy harmonies Stamey would stretch even further in his solo work, and "Be My Ambulance," a proto-psychedelic song that you can imagine the Soft Boys recording. Of course, you get a coupla goofy throwaway tracks: in this case, a brief instrumental snippet of a more explicit faux spy theme ("Mark Peril Theme") and what appears to be a radio spot for B&G Pies, which sounds like a throwback to the days when bands like Shadows of Knight used to churn out radio jingles for potato chips or the "sold-out" Who sang about "Coke after Coke after Coke." "Love's Like A Cuban Crisis" even shows up in its original demo form, more simply entitled "Love that Girl" after its hooky chorus.

This is probably not the disc to introduce neophytes to either the sounds of the dB's or Let's Active. For that, I'd recommend the two Collectors Choice reissues of Decibels/Repercussion and Cypress/Afoot (though if you also happen upon the reissue of the Peter Holsapple-led deeBs, Like This, I'd advise you to snap it up, if only for "Spy in the House of Love"). But for those who've kept the chorus to "Ask for Jill" and "Make Up with Me" in their head for decades now, Nonsequitur of Silence is a revelation: a sign of greater things to come and a purty sweet deal all by itself. As the lads themselves croon, this is what I dig . . .

UPDATE: After posting the above at Blogcritics, I received the following message from dB's/Sneakers drummer Will Rigby:
"Saturday [January 13] brings the first appearance by Sneakers since 1976. The dB's play Bowery Ballroom in NYC with Mitch Easter opening, and orig Sneakers bassist Robert Keely is coming up and we're going to try to get through a handful of tunes..."
As Will notes, this will be the first public appearance by the original band since the mid-seventies (Stamey & Easter made an appearance at a Winston-Salem record store in the early 90's to promote an earlier reissue of Sneakers material entitled Racket, but the rest of the group wasn't involved). Sounds like it could be fun or a mess or both . . .
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Friday, January 05, 2007
      ( 1/05/2007 01:13:00 PM ) Bill S.  

COMIC STRIP LIGHTENING RODS – Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon has put out several pieces pondering possible replacements for the daily "FotTrot" strip. Our local paper, The Daily Pantagraph, has responded with a strip I haven't seen mentioned yet: John Hambrock's "The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee." Centered around a genius ten-year-old and his talking rat Joules, the strip attempts to blend Bill Watterston-styled flights of fancy with mildly left-of-center political commentary.

In today's strip, for instance, our hero is working on a device to conduct electricity from lightening. "The key is to attract lightening to this apparatus using these metallic rods," Edison tells his rat buddy, "which, to help increase my odds, I'm placing inside these Republican pundit figurines." (The final panel shows our hero sticking a rod into the base of a vaguely human clay figure.) I like Hambrock's art but find the non-specificity of his slam at "Republican pundit figurines" blunts his slight joke. If Hambrock's hoping to achieve the same degree of notoriety as "The Boondocks" (or even "Mallard Filmore"), he's definitely gonna have to hit a little harder . . .
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      ( 1/05/2007 09:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – A coupla weeks back, we had a big ol' headshot of Ziggy Stardust, here's Kyan Pup demanding equal time.

THE USUAL NOTE: For more companion animals, check out Modulator's "Friday Ark." And if you wanna see some more dogg blogging (and who doesn't?), there’s the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings.
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Thursday, January 04, 2007
      ( 1/04/2007 12:21:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I'M WET!" – New Year's Eve is typically a good time to catch big laff-out-loud movie comedy on television (even as a kid, I recall watching Marx Bros. flicks on one of the local stations), so this year, we caught HBO's airing of the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick musical version of The Producers. The movie received mixed reviews when it was first released, though we generally found ourselves going along with it. Nathan Lane remains, as ever, a force of nature unto himself, though it took some time for us to warm up to Broderick, who is clearly not Gene Wilder. The movie's first act hysteria scene, which I can still hear in Wilder's manic high-pitched voice, blows its biggest laff, though once the movie put our nebbishy accountant in a scene that wasn't in the original Producers, (the song-&-dance at the accountancy firm), he made the part his.

Still, for all its big bux theatrical success, I have to wonder about the wisdom of making a musical out of this material in the first place. The original 1968 feature was a small-budget slice of insanity that took maximum advantage of its tatty New York theatrical setting; the musical is a palpably artificial construct that by its very nature can't help muting many of the original's best jokes.

Let's consider the park fountain, shall we? Both Producers have a scene where Lane's scheming Max Bialystock wins Broderick's accountant to his big money-swindling scheme. In both, a fountain in the background starts up dramatically right at the moment Leo Bloom sez he’s in. In the original, it's a funny bit because writer/director Mel Brooks plays this palpably artificial exclamation point against his New York setting: it's a movie musical moment, coming when we least expect it. In the current version, though, that fountain's just one more slice of scenic choreography. This open theatricality even manages to take much of the helium out of the film's big big number, "Springtime for Hitler." Isolated as the original Producers only musical number, its outlandishness is intensified: placed within a full-blown musical extravaganza, even the aerial swastikas don't have the kick.

Too, I didn't buy the tacked-on ending that Brooks and his collaborator Thomas Meehan concocted for their musicial play. The original ended – as so many great comedies do – with our heroes learning nothing: imprisoned in the big house, Bialystock & Bloom are shown putting on a new show with a prisoner cast, still bilking investors as they go. That they're doing this in jail, where they'll remain within reach of their victims after the show is over, makes this refusal to learn even funnier. Yet the musical sidesteps this by tossing in a last-minute reprieve that allows our boys to duck out on the consequences of their actions. While the list of schlocky B&B productions that we've given at the end is kinda amusing, it doesn't have the same comic boff as the sight of Zero Mostel directing a chorus of convicts doing "Prisoner of Love."

I'll admit we both laughed more than once (most often during the scenes with Uma Thurman, actually) watching the musical. But, in the future, when I wanna see the Bialystock & Bloom story, I know which version I'll select: the one where Gene Wilder does the whining about that glass of water tossed onto his puss . . .
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Wednesday, January 03, 2007
      ( 1/03/2007 10:16:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"HAVE FUN STORMING THE CASTLE!" – Read in the morning paper today that our local moviehouse, the Castle, is closing after a little more than three years of business. I've written about visiting the Castle Theater before: a retro-fitted movie theatre that had couches and love seats in place of regular theater seating, it was a comfy forum for movie watching. Though I no longer go to the movies as frequently as I did ten years ago, I genuinely enjoyed the Castle. Among the movies that I experienced in the smothering comfort of the theatre's couches were A Mighty Wind and Bubba Ho-Tep: quirkier flicks that frequently got ignored by the big chain companies. But sometime within the last year, owner Ben Slotky ceased booking the odd grown-up movies, replacing the theater's weekend matinee movie offerings completely with family features that had already been played out in the area chains. (Last feature that my wife and I saw there was Revenge of the Sith.) Nights were replaced with stand-up comedy and big-screen viewings of Monday televised sports; though it still had a big ol' marquee, the Castle was just barely a movie theater anymore.

Still, we'll miss it. The whole thing may've been a quixotic financial endeavor – especially in these days of bigger and louder high-def home theaters – but it was still a neat nite out . . .
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      ( 1/03/2007 08:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"STAY WITH US IN OUR DREAMS" – For our mid-week music vid, let's spend three-plus minutes with Sally Timms & the Mekons, doing one of their classics: "Ghosts of American Astronauts."

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007
      ( 1/02/2007 03:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

A MARATHON OF MARATHONS – Because both the wife and I spent much of our Sunday and New Year's Day nursing and keeping our eyes on a dying ferret (adios, Eeyore!), we spent a lotta time, flipping through the cable teevee program menu. As a result, we wound up discovering two separate Ugly Betty marathons being held over the long weekend: the first, which contained parental advisories before each ep, aired on ABC Family; the second showed on the Soap Channel. We re-watched the Xmas Party episode on Family (Betty, Betty, Betty – can't you see that you and Jake 2.0 are meant to be together?!!!), and, where I once would've agreed with Ken Levine's estimation that the show was a half-hour sitcom stretched into an hour soapcom, I've since grown hooked on the whole big sloppy package. Six weeks of guest-starring producer Salma Hayek definitely didn't hurt, but I'm even more partial to "ugly" lead America Ferrara, who I first remember seeing in the 2002 indy flick, Real Women Have Curves. Ferrara holds the screen even when on-camera with glamorpuss scene-swipers like Gina Gershon – thanx to her, this heartfelt blend of class-steeped comedy and over-the-top soap operatics deserves every ounce of push that ABC's giving it . . .
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      ( 1/02/2007 01:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SHEIKS AND HAYSEEDS – Though his best-known music-themed graphics work is his classic cover to Big Brother and the Holding Company's concert album, Cheap Thrills, R. Crumb's musical sympathies have ever been toward older acoustic musicianship. His early underground comix are rife with refs to early blues platters (the cover to All New Zap Comix #1 contained a joking play on Blind Blake's "Diddie Wah Diddie" – and let's not forget the much-pirated "Keep on Truckin'" panels) while an alignment with record reissue companies like Arhoolie, Blue Goose & Yazoo resulted in a series of Crumb covers for old-time blues collections and anthologies. Crumb's Yazoo elpee illos ultimately led to what was first proposed as a series of individually issued trading cards devoted to "Heroes of the Blues." As initially planned, Crumb's cards were going to be singly attached to new Yazoo releases, so that fans wanting to get a complete set would've been forced to shell out money for thirty-six long-players just to get the first full "Heroes" set. While I can appreciate the missionary motives that'd lead Crumb into wanting to expand his readership's listening experience, the obsessive collector in me is grateful that Yazoo ultimately decided to go a different packaging route with these cards, selling 'em as boxed sets instead.

The artist wound up doing three such collections for Yazoo, devoted primarily to obscure blues, jazz and country figures. Each hero (and occasional heroine – like the great blueswoman Memphis Minnie) was given a single card with a brief description of the artist's career written on the back by Stephen Calt, David Jasen or Richard Nevins. (Of the three sets, Nevins' country blurbs are the most info-packed.) Twenty years later, all three sets have been reprinted in a compact 6"-by-7-1/2" hardback, R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (Abrams). The book is a strong reflection of the artist's love for the largely unsung music of an earlier generation. Utilizing old photos and snippets of newsreel footage as his primary source, Crumb tackles artists as diverse as the Memphis Jug Band to Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers to the more urbane sounds of Bennie Moten. A few more immediately recognizable names crop up in the three series – The Carter Family in the Country set, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the Jazz collection – though as Terry Zwigoff notes in his introduction to the book, Crumb doubtless had the most fun doing pictures of figures only the most dieheart old music lover would immediately recognize.

Considering the limited source material that he must have had to work with, Crumb provides some marvelously evocative portraits. I have to admit to a fondness for the blues and country sets over the jazz pix: with the third series, he'd shifted to watercolors from Pantone color sheets, eliminating much of his trademark black ink shading in the process. The results are stiffer to my eyes, not as full of the artist's usual scruffy life.

Crumb's blues and country group shots are especially intriguing, often providing at least one of the figures in the frame with an expression that gets you wondering, "What the heck was on their mind?" That expression of aloofness on guitarist Nettie Robertson's (of Eck Roberston and Family) face or the pissed-off glare that's aimed at us by the second banjoist in the Southern Broadcasters – where'd they come from? And how about that wall-eyed look on Gus Cannon (of Jug Stompers fame), right behind the sleepy-eyed gaze of John Estes? Some of Crumb's portraits look not far removed from turn-of-the-century family funeral portraits (you know, the ones where they posed the open casket right amidst the surviving family members); others are more welcoming (a picture of bluesmen Curly Weaver and Fred McMullen playing guitar together is particularly warm). Even if their names are totally unfamiliar, you can probably imagine what the artists sound like on the basis of Crumb's graphics.

To help those of us with less imagination, of course, the publishers of Heroes have included a Yazoo sampler disc featuring 21 of the artists (seven per set) in the series. Though it does provide a good general sense of the sounds that Crumb's Heroes produced, the selection can be frustrating in places. Why, for instance, does the disc include Hayes Shepherd's "only solo effort" when Crumb's card focused on the Shepherd Brothers? For that matter, why is the Cannon Jug Stompers' version of "Minglewood Blues" featured when the only Stompers track described by writer Calt is the folk blues classic "Walk Right In"? Surely, the mighty Yazoo archives are vast enough to give us material that directly connects to the original trading cards?

Ah, but that's a small grouse: the main draw here remains Bob Crumb's loving music illos – which is what it's really all about. He may not wanna directly tell you what "diddie wah diddie" means, but he's ready to show you the way to learn for yourself . . .
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Monday, January 01, 2007
      ( 1/01/2007 08:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"YOU'RE TRYING SO HARD TO BE THIS OTHER GUY, IT'S PAINFUL TO WATCH!" – In between watching Marx Bros. comedies, I got a chance to view David Cronenberg's A History of Violence this weekend (how that for a shift in tone?) An efficiently unnerving picture, thought I: only Cronenberg could make his movie's overbright primary small-town setting so unsettling without resorting to easy audience cuing stylization. The showdown 'tween hero Viggo Mortensen's Tom/Joey and scarily scarred Ed Harris's Carl – the scary part is the realization that the disfiguration was given to Carl by Tom/Joey with a piece of barbed wire – in the sunny front yard of our hero's farmhouse is the movie's peak. When Tom/Joey returns to dark Philadelphia to confront his violent past (nicely exemplified by an over-the-top William Hurt), the seams of story formula become a little more apparent, though not disastrously so.

What ultimately lifts the film is its final scene: a denouement too many films skip altogether these days, simply contenting themselves with rolling the credits over a weary, but victorious hero once the action stops. In History, we see the awkward and uncomfortable moments after Mortensen's former gangster returns to his family – and the movie leaves us wondering what are they gonna do now? Watching it, I was reminded of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a flawed seventies movie that uses violence to considerably different ends (in Dogs, gum-chewing Dustin Hoffman becomes an adult after he commits some good Ol' Testament vengeance on some thuggish village low-lifes) but also got you wondering about the long-term effects of the protagonist's violent acts. These days, not enough American movies (yeah, I know Cronenberg's Canadian, but you know what I mean) stop to take a look around at the results of the carnage they've just shown us, but History of Violence memorably does . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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