Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, March 07, 2003
      ( 3/07/2003 03:55:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BETCHA FIVE DOLLARS HE’S A GOOD DOG, TOO – Old crony Jay Zilber has apparently raised a tempest in a teapot with a joke poll on his Mind Over What Matters blog. Me, I voted in it and don’t see what the brouhaha is all about: far as I’m concerned puppies are way better than kittens.
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      ( 3/07/2003 10:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GETTIN’ DOWN WITH A YOUNG FRESH FELLOW – Minus 5’s new disc, Down With Wilco (Yep Roc) has been grabbing a good deal of critical attention since it was released two weeks ago – and understandably so. The ad hoc group (a side project for singer/guitarist Scott McGaughey) is primarily composed of members of this year’s pop critical darlings, Wilco, while the disc’s periodic strange piano and guitar sounds often recall that group’s Nonesuch disc, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which has topped many a pop critic’s best-of list for 2002. Small wonder this disc’s getting plenty of play; in some music stores it’s even being sold in bins as a new Wilco release.

Fans of Pacific Northwestern garage denizens the Young Fresh Fellows (myself included) will have a different take on the matter. For us, this is one of McGaughey’s ongoing low-key pop-rock projects away from the YFF: the previous Minus 5 outing, Let the War Against Music Begin, was included in a two-disc jewel case alongside the Fellows’ last release Because We Hate You. Both discs were packaged as a mock battle-of-the-bands with the listener given a score card on the inner jewel box sleeve to rate each track.

I’ve been a McGaughey/Young Fresh Fellows fan since the early days of the Comedy Channel and the Higgins Boys & Gruber (their show had a theme song composed by the group). A working band since 1982, YFF specializes in ramshackle rock characterized by nuggety proto-psychedelic guitar, endearingly awkward vocals and smart-guy lyrics. An ideal band for college radio in the mid-eighties, where they had cultish play through tracks like “Amy Grant” (a funny soulful put-down of the Christian songstress). But what first hooked me was the sight and sound of the band’s video for a track from its ‘89 release This One’s For the Ladies (Frontier Records), a remake of Ray Davies’ “Picture Book.” Somebody doing a cut from Village Green Preservation Society? The Kinks kultist in me was immediately intrigued.

YFF has released something in the neighborhood of seven CDs, and while some of ‘em can be undeniably spotty, I play each one regularly. (But, then, I’ve also been known to pull out my copies of Preservation – Parts One & Two more often than they deserve, too.) Most solid items in the discography? The Men Who Loved Music (from whence came “Amy Grant,” but I also love nerd anthem “When the Girls Get Here,” too), Ladies plus Electric Bird Digest (all released on Frontier Records). 1992’s Low Beat Time plants the group within a chronology of great Pacific Northwest rock bands by including two songs recorded in the same no-track studio that the Sonics used to record sixties garage classics like “Strychnine” and “Psycho.” The results are predictably ragged, but cooler than anything the Hives have yet recorded.

Minus 5’s newie doesn’t aim for the same tin-can fuzziness. If anything, it works the ultra-plastic studio sounds of grandiose Beach Boys or Van Dyke Parks’ cultish Song Cycle. Not a lot of raucous rawk: more of an emphasis on smiles, harmony and, you know, ambiguous vibrations. Even McGaughey’s characteristic geekly vocals have been toned down into something more poppish. A fun disc to thse ears. Coolest tracks: "Retrieval of You," a hooky gem told from the POV of a failed indy music type; the woozy "Daggers Drawn" and the neatly contradictory mid-tempo rocker "I'm Not Bitter."

So is McGaughey playing Parks to Jeff Tweedy’s Brian Wilson? Perhaps. Only Parks was way too airy to even think of slipping an elegiac mention of Maurie's Sex Shop into his frequently precious lyrics. Still, listening to the way the band shifts gears within the tracks of this obscurely connected concept album can’t help but bring back memories of great failed releases like Smiley Smile or Beach Boys Love You. That Down With Wilco looks to this great dead-end era is, I suspect, more a testimony to McGaughey than it is the one-time alt-country boys from Illinois.
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      ( 3/07/2003 09:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, P.F. SLOAN? – Watching and listening to G.W. Bush’s big press conference last night, I came out with two big separate thoughts (a record for me when it comes to politics). First was that The West Wing has definitely influenced how I watch these things. Listening to a reporter lob a softball query to Bush about his faith can’t help but bring up those moments when press secretary C.J. schools President Bartlett on which press folk to acknowledge and when.

The second sound you hear is of my clanking brain finally realizing what’s been bothering it all this time about the push toward war. It’s the speculative nature of this whole preventative war shmear. Forget the question of whether Saddam is a despotic bastard: we’ve got plenty of those in the world (one of ‘em just a boat’s ride south of Miami). And anyone who believes that ousting Saddam will deter the other guys is lacking a grownup’s knowledge of the egomaniacal nature of basic bastardry.

And let’s dump the issue of 9/11, too. Despite some torturous attempts to do so, the Bush administration has not been able to make a connection between that horrifying event and Hussein. The best he could do at the press conference was repeat the statement that Saddam has given support to terrorists, repeating the phrase frequently as if hoping the American public would automatically insert “9/11” into it. As if Iraq was the only Middle Eastern country to be engaging in this nefarious practice.

No, the big justifying question, the one that still keeps us on the side of the angels, is the one the futuremongers send us: the one that says we need to get Saddam before he can get us with weapons of mass destruction because he’s sure as hell going to try. Whether you accept that scenario as real or imminently real is a major key to where you’ll stand on the war question. Which potential scenario you take as most likely to result will probably be used to buttress your belief.

Several times during his press conference, Bush repeated the line that Saddam has been given more than a decade to disarm and hasn’t. That’s a telling point about Hussein’s unwillingness to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors, but it also contains another simple nugget: in all that time he hasn’t utilized any of his weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. I grew up in an American era where nuclear war between Russia seemed nearly inevitable. Ask most thinking Americans in the fifties and early sixties if they thought that war with the Soviets was likely, and you’d just as likely get a yes answer from ‘em as a no. It didn’t happen, of course, for a variety of geopolitical reasons, but there were any number of would-be futurists back in the day who would’ve told that nuclear war with the Russkies was inevitable.

And, returning to the bastard point, I’m betting that most fifties Americans would’ve put Nikita Kruschev in the same demon column as Saddam.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: these are different times. All present times are different when compared to the past, simply because you don’t know how everything’s gonna turn out. What I know for sure is we’ve been balancing on the line between Life and Apocalypse since before I was born – and we've kept from crossing it through the combined efforts of canny diplomatic men and women from all sides. So what’s so different now?

Here’s where I get all judgmental and partisan. After listening to Bush unconvincingly attempt to differentiate between Iraq and North Korea, the primary sense I get is the root reason we’re going to war is our current administration is too inept and uncreative to think of other options. Could be that there realistically aren’t other options. But considering the combination of bullying arrogance and grade school diplomacy that we’ve seen from these guys, I just don’t trust ‘em to have a good handle on global affairs. Back during the Clinton Era, that administration’s critics loved labeling them as diplomatically unsophisticated. But at least they were capable of getting NATO on board with Kosovo. Watching the Bush bunch fumble the act of cajoling most of our allies to our side is just not confidence inspiring.

At this writing, the odds makers are predicting we’ll be going to war with Iraq. There are plenty of sharp men and women who believe this is the right thing to do. I hope they’re right because from this small corner it looks more like the prime forces sending us into battle are stubbornness and a profound failure of imagination. And while it ultimately doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, I find myself coming down against a war whose biggest talking point is ultimately rooted in speculative fiction. I may be a sci-fi geek, but I’m not that big a sci-fi geek.

Now back to the pop culture stuff. . .
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Thursday, March 06, 2003
      ( 3/06/2003 08:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AND THEY NO LONGER HAVE TO HIDE CORDY’S PREGNANCY – Not gonna really say much, but I can’t help noticing that – a few choice Hannibal Lectorisms aside – the evil Angellus on Angel hasn’t really done anything truly Ee-vil yet. (Last night’s ep even saw him dispatching the Beast that’d plunged Los Angeles into perpetual darkness; plus the only human we see him chomping is the already dead Lilah.) Think this Angellus biz is all just a set-up to flush out the real Big Bad?

Oh yeah, and I’m glad Faith’s back.
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      ( 3/06/2003 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MARK – Still tracking the progress of Ed's Mark Vanacore: the Stuckeyville high school senior who had gastric bypass surgery to account for the weight loss that actor Michael R. Genadry was also experiencing. Last night’s ep was the first time we’ve gotten an update on the guy since his procedure last December: two months later, and the character has apparently lost 200 pounds from his former 475-pound frame (results may not be typical!), while he also doesn’t appear to be suffering from any negative side effects.

Mark’s success is noticed by others in school, of course. He’s attracted the flirty eyes of a blond beauty you know wouldn’t have given him the time of day pre-surgery, while a second super-sized high-schooler, a black kid named Jimmy, has decided to follow Mark’s path by also undergoing gastric bypass. Characteristically, Mark is uncomfortable with all the attention he’s receiving (“I’m the poster boy for gastric bypass,” he moans at one point), but when Jimmy’s surgery doesn’t go as well as his, our hero plunges full-tilt into heavy guilt.

You can see the writers at Ed working hard to provide a balanced take on this most controversial medical procedure, but to a certain degree they’re held back by the essentially lightweight nature of this dramedy. We never get to see Jimmy post-surgery, for example, nor even learn the details of his botched surgery: all we’re told is that he’ll regularly be in and out of the hospital for the next year or so. Meanwhile, poster boy Mark doesn’t appear to have been inconvenienced by his altered digestive system one whit (though when girlfriend Diane takes him out to eat, the scene is blocked so we never get to see what’s on Mark’s plate). Clearly, the procedure’s side effects don’t jibe with the whimsical tone this series strives to maintain.

That noted, I’m glad to see the show’s writers acknowledging the very real risks of gastric bypass, even if they keep the specifics vague. (Early on, Mark takes Jimmy to a post-surgery support group, where we learn that one of the members died from her surgery.) Perhaps I’ve gotten spoiled by shows like C.S.I., which revel in specific medical detail, but it seems that someone in the group would’ve been a little bit more concrete about what happened. (There’s always seems to be at least one person in every group who loves recounting gross medical specifics – often over the dinner table.) But maybe that would’ve been a bit too much for the Neverneverland that is Stuckeyville, Ohio.
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Wednesday, March 05, 2003
      ( 3/05/2003 12:00:00 PM ) Bill S.  

AT LEAST SHE’S OUT OF THAT SURVIVALIST’S FALL-OUT SHELTER – So, the big newcular bomb threatening L.A. on 24 has finally been uncovered and dumped in the desert (so long to poor ol’ weaselly George Mason!) Which places the Fox series in the same stalled spot it was about this time last year – when we got its infamous amnesia plotline.

From the beginning, this season’s crises have played much more mechanically than Year One’s. While the ongoing terrorist plot is definitely au current, the Perils of Kim portion of the show has grown progressively more absurd. (Anyone on the writing staff still recall the murderous child abuser who put his wife in the trunk?) At this hour (fourteen) in the action, the girl's scenes are an irrelevant intrusion, not an organic, suspenseful part of the show. (Face it, Elisha Cuthbert’s character has made more boneheaded moves than a party of humping slasher flick teens.) Well, we all knew it was gonna be a strain, subjecting the same characters to a second all-day danger binge.
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Monday, March 03, 2003
      ( 3/03/2003 03:58:00 PM ) Bill S.  

MAYBE SOMETHING BY THOMAS OTT? – As Steve at Flat Earth reminds us, in addition to my wife's birthday, it’s also International Read a Comic Book Naked Day. Me, I tried it this a.m. with the newest Shonen Jump, but I was freezing by the time I got halfway into the mag. . .

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      ( 3/03/2003 09:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“BABY, BABY, BABY, LET’S INVESTIGATE THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE TONIGHT” – Happy Birthday to wife and collaborator, Becky (“Your Wildest Dreams”) Fox!
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      ( 3/03/2003 08:02:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THAT COULD JUST BE THE ANESTHESIA TALKING” – Six Feet Under had its season debut, and it opened with a dizzying conceit: as prodigal son Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) experiences brain surgery, we’re taken through a series of multiversal realities in which a variety of scenarios are played out: he dies and meets his father; he lives and marries current girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths); he doesn’t even exist, but his dad is still alive, etc. When we finally stop at the “true” reality – our hero survives his surgery, goes on to marry his pregnant ex-girfriend Lisa (Lili Taylor) and spend the next year learning to be a good father – we keep expecting the bottom to drop out of that reality, too.

A promising beginning for this mordantly entertaining series. Looks as if creator Alan Ball has created some ripe set-ups: the neurotically vicious Hollywood writer (played with brio by Catharine O’Hara) who’s employing Lisa as a live-in cook; brother David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and his lover Keith’s adventures in couples counseling (squirmingly funny and realistic); sister Claire’s (Lauren Ambrose) exploits as an art school grrl; and mother Ruth’s (Frances Conroy) further struggles to fill her empty nest. For the past few years, HBO’s The Sopranos has been the cable channel’s flagship teledrama in terms of awards and critical kudos, but after that series’ rocky last season, I think Six Feet Under is poised to take its place. Let’s see how Ball and co. manage this opportunity.

THIS WEEK’S COLDPLAY ALERT: Yup, the Brit band’s music shows up in the Six Feet season premiere: “A Rush of Blood to the Head” (apt in light of Nate’s brain surgery) at ep’s end.
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Sunday, March 02, 2003
      ( 3/02/2003 08:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FROM RUTLAND WEEKEND TELEVISION – Viewed Bill Maher’s new HBO chatfest Real Time last night: pretty much the same as his old show (which I rarely watched), though you do get to hear panelists swear. (Unless they’re panelist/comedian Larry Miller, who quaintly used the phrase “b.s.” instead – and good for him.) I’m not much for Maher, and I have to wonder whether the uncensored HBO format is right for him. Unchecked, the guy’s essential heartlessness comes out in ways that are unfunny and unsettling (e.g., his suggestion that a display devoted to “Why They Hate Us” be added to the WTC site). But perhaps that's just me.

This week’s panel included Danny Hellman’s pal Ted Rall, Miller and the Leggy Blond Right Winger Who’s Not Ann Coulter. I’ll let Michele Catalano and Jim T. bitch slap Ted (though I do think he made a decent point discussing Prez Bush’s over-reliance on appeals to the Christian wing.) For me, the creepiest commentary came from a one-on-one satellite interview between David Horowitz and Maher. Horowitz is a rhetorical fraud – calling up his 60’s credentials one minute, then resorting to the same ad hominem call-‘em-communists tactics on today’s anti-war protestors that were used to dismiss him back in the day – and a damned irritating one at that. Doesn’t matter where you fall out politically as a guest, come across too smug and self-righteous, and it’ll be unpleasantly magnified on the teevee screen.

Highlight of the show came in its last minutes: Eric Idle dusting off his old Rutland TV persona for a sing along of the “Rutland National Anthem.” The performance was rough, but the material was broadly funny, a deflation of Big Country arrogance that reminded me of Randy Newman’s “Political Science” and also hearkened back to the tunes this most musically prolific of Pythonites composed for his old troupe. Personally, I’d recommend setting the recorder for this ep’s last ten minutes and leave it at that. . .
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      ( 3/02/2003 05:32:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“TROUBLE AHEAD/TROUBLE BEHIND” – Perhaps still under the spell of my head shop reminiscing, I bought a copy of the Rhino reissued Workingman’s Dead Friday. I’m by no means a Grateful Deadhead (I had no desire to buy the WB-spanning boxed set that Rhino released last year). But I do love the back-to-back punch of their two great studio albums, this and American Beauty. The band’s early studio records are a mess, druggy parties that may’ve been fun to attend but which barely work as records. In this ‘un the Frisco-based group returned to its folkie roots with panache. Every cut is polished; every cut makes its point and leaves.

Separating the Dead from its audience has always been key to really listening to the band’s music. Unlike the hippie dippy vibes that hung over the group’s fan base, much of the group’s actual music could be pretty dark. Jovial opener “Uncle John’s Band” aside, there’s a lot of death, betrayal and plain rough work in the lyrics of this album. Like Robbie Robertson and the Band, the band utilizes well-burnished American sounds – a bit of Merle Haggard country here, folkish singalong there – to produce something about as far from “psychedelia” as you could get. It sounds real friendly until you listen to what the songs are actually about.

As usual, Rhino’s reissue adds a passel of bonus tracks: a demo of “New Speedway Boogie” plus six live tracks, only one of a song not on the original album (“Mason’s Children.”) Listening to the band reallllly stretttccch out “Black Peter,” for instance, gives a sense of what a wreck the original LP could’ve been if the band hadn’t decided to knuckle down in the studio. Thankfully, they did.
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Saturday, March 01, 2003
      ( 3/01/2003 06:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES?” - Break out the sharp cheddar & sparkling grape juice: it's Pop Culture Gadabout's birthday!

It's been a fun year since your obedient servant decided to follow old fandom funnies bud Jay Zilber into blogland. Spent more time on this whole bloody blogging thing than I probably should've, but since I've enjoyed the past year's bloggish writing, let's leave fuller consideration of my time management skills for another day, m'kay?

Spent some time skimming through the last year, and some highlights jumped out at me. So here's a half-assed overview:
March 1, 2002: we debut - w./ a fingerpointing piece (Blame Jay for This!) plus our 1st review: Joey Ramone's Don't Worry About Me (an apt way to open, actually);

March 5, 2002: 1st of many TV reviews: the season premiere of Six Feet Under;

March 6, 2002: 1st comic book review: a reprint paperback of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which I foolishly decided to re-read;

March 15, 2002: Necco mints considered;

April 2, 2002: Unitarian Poker Night is documented for the first time; blog readership en masse goes huh?

April 5, 2002: a visit to Metropolis, Illinois, is described;

April 24, 2002: 1st book review: Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum (I don't read enough real books these days: an embarrassing admission for a former English teacher);

April 27, 2002: on personning the phones for an NPR station Pledge Drive - weeding out the people w./ money from the chatty drunks;

May 3, 2002: grousing about celebrity activists;

May 10, 2002: 1st big blockbuster movie review: Spider-Man (liked it);

May 12, 2002: in praise of cartoonist/buddy Ned Sonntag (and his zaftig pin-up ladies);

May 18, 2002: the joys of Closed Captioning;

May 28, 2002: 2nd big blockbuster movie review: Attack of the Clones (was lukewarm toward it);

June 6, 2002: underrated alt country greats, The Meat Purveyors' All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail;

June 19, 2002: 1st of the Dog Park Tapes: Rhino's DIY: Starry Eyes collection of late 70's era Britpop (life begins at the hop!);

June 26, 2002: lookin' at pro-gun propaganda signs on the Illinois highway;

June 28, 2002: takes four months to do it, but I finally add a comments section to this blog;

July 15, 2002: 1st big flop movie review: The Powerpuff Girls (liked it a whole lot more than that Star Wars flick);

July 28, 2002: ruminations on the Fat-Guy vs. MacDonald's lawsuit;

August 4, 2002: 3rd big blockbuster movie review: Signs;

August 16, 2002: yours truly joins Blogcritics and begins the dubious practice of posting more extensive review pieces both & there; first up: Mark A. Long's Bad Fads;

September 1, 2002: my review of Mark Evanier's 1st collection of “POV” columns sparks a friendly response from Mark on his own site;

September 13, 2002: we begin an ongoing look at sundry prime-time TV premieres w./ an examination of WB's Family Affair (don't worry: the pickings improve);

September 29, 2002: review of Rhett Miller's The Instigator, which turns out to be my fave album of the year;

September 8, 2002: my review of Marvel Masterworks: Spider-Man, Volume Two is the start of a near weekly series of comics books reviews written w./ the Blogcritics audience in mind;

October 19, 2002: thoughts on liberals & liberal bashing;

October 27, 2002: the inevitable Mad magazine reminiscence;

October 29, 2002: taking a holiday from caffeine (oh, the headaches!);

November 10, 2002: post card collecting & fatabilia;

November 24, 2002: poli-blog Mad Libs (well, the idea amused me);

November 29, 2002: the Man of Steel on the psychiatrist's couch?

December 3, 2002: review of R. Crumb's 1st new comic in way too long, Mystic #3;

December 9, 2002: one of two reviews following the Spielberg produced mini-series, Taken;

December 12, 2002: your lazy-ass reviewer finally finishes a book he's started months ago: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay;

December 12, 2002: 1st of two considerations of the gastric bypass subplot on NBC's Ed, a topic that has resulted in more Google-spurred visits than anything else I've discussed on this blog!

December 26, 2002: 1st e-book review: the William Messner-Loebs tribute/benefit book Working for the Man;

January 20, 2003: my review of Courtney Crumrin And The Night Things sparks a comment from the book's creator himself;

February 1, 2003: reader reaction to a Blogcritics posting sparks a review of Marvel's The Ultimates - pure blog dialoguing!

February 7, 2003: bloggish self-absorption at its finest: your humble correspondent gets the gout!

February 17, 2003: first movie since Xmas holidays (I've gotta get out more!): Daredevil;

February 25, 2003: in which our hero firmly stands up for the right to still be indecisive on this whole War Bizness.
In the grand Duchy of Blogland, Pop Culture Gadabout has been a fairly low-profile operation. On a good day, we get between 50-75 visitors: not bad, considering the essentially trivial focus of this blog. (The Blogcritics pieces, hopefully, increase my readership, but I have no idea how much.) I'm a reluctant self-promoter: too damn introverted to garner the energy to do it, I suppose.

I'm well-nigh hooked on this blogging thing, though, so it looks like Pop Culture Gadabout'll be carrying on for another year. To those of you who've visited, here's hoping there'll be enough to keep you coming back. And to those of you who've emailed, corrected or otherwise added to the discussion (a gold star goes to Johnny Bacardi, who holds the record w./ fifteen comments and counting), many thanks. When you don't have a tip jar, comments are your currency.

Now . . . onto Year Two!
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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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