Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, April 07, 2006
      ( 4/07/2006 06:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – Here's a snapshot of the still-growing Kyan Pup that was taken this a.m. when I let him out to do his morning ablutions (which in puppy terms consists of rolling one's body in the still dewy grass). Drove him into the vet for his second set of shots this week and learned that he's more than doubled his weight since we first got him (34 pounds now) – not quite half as big as Dusty, but it's clear he still has some growin' to do.

NOTE: As before, if you wanna see more dogg blogging, check out the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings. And for a broader array of companion animals, there's Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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      ( 4/07/2006 05:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SONNTAG SHOW – A note to any of you in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts area: cartoonist and illustrator Ned Sonntag has an informal mini-retrospective currently on the walls of Dick’s Coffee Bar, featuring photocopies of graphics that go back to his days as an underground cartoonist. A good chance to see work by this underseen cartoonist, though reportedly Ned is also working up a more elaborate showing in Chatham, Mass.

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      ( 4/07/2006 05:12:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GOUTING - Had my first big bout of gout in over two years this week, and, lemme tell ya, it's no fun trying to do house repair work like wall-painting when yer right foot is throbbing like all get-out. Been out of Indomethacin, the medication used to treat inflammation caused by gout or arthritis, for over a year - and I'm unable to renew the scrip until I visit my family physician. I have an appt. set for later this a.m., but most of the week, I've been hobbling around pretty pathetically. Yesterday, for example, I went to put the pups out while I was robed & barefoot when 80-pound Ziggy Stardust trod on my right big toe - the primary inflamed area - as he was dashing out the door. Scared every bird in a two-block radius with my loud bellow.

Pain sucks.
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Thursday, April 06, 2006
      ( 4/06/2006 12:37:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IT ISN'T VERY PRETTY WHAT A TOWN WITHOUT PITY CAN DO!" – So Gene Pitney, master of the melodramatic pop single, has passed on at the age of 65. As a 'tween boy in the early sixties, I was a major fan of Pitney – one of the great pre-Beatles rock 'n' roll crooners – and I had copies of his two big movie soundtrack singles, "Town Without Pity" and "Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (which, interestingly, doesn't appear in the actual movie) in my small library of Woolworth's purchased 45's. I suspect I was just the right age for both songs, but they still both sound great to my ears – did my heart good to hear "Pity" being used to make a thematic point in John Waters' Hairspray, too. Looks like I'll be putting on Rhino's Anthology when I get home this evening . . .

(Thanx to Ivan G. Shreve for pointing this out to me.)
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      ( 4/06/2006 10:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THE LITTLE BIT THAT WAS IS ALL THAT WE HAD" – Learning that Ray Davies, erstwhile leader of the Kinks, was finally putting out his first elpee of original solo material, lo, these many years after his band's dissolution spurred some heavy mixed emotions from this longtime fan. The lads' final albums were not, let's be charitable, the sound of a band or a composer working at the peak of their powers. It seemed pretty clear Ray'd run out of things to say with his band, which had grown rather complacent with its arena rock stance. Perhaps it was best to just remember Raymond Douglas Davies in those young and innocent days of sunny afternoons and village greens, of splendorous Britpop that grabbed from everywhere and sent it back to you all smartly polished.

Well, I've been listening to Other People's Lives (V2) for a month now, and all I can say is, "To hell with nostalgic melancholy!" Lives is the best release that Ray's affixed his name to in decades, and if the guy never releases another disc in his lifetime, it won't matter. It's a magnificent piece of autumnal rock 'n' pop.

In timbre, the album goes back to my favorite period of Davies' Kinkswork: the willfully eclectic era of character-driven tunes that gave us the great Face to Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society trifecta. Moving to the U.S. several years ago would seem to've renewed Davies' far-reaching love of differing popular music styles: there are plenty of soulful flourishes (check the Stax-y horns on "Thanksgiving Day," the Motown-ish bassline on "Run Away from Time") on this disc, something that would've been beyond the reach of his earlier band, while the return of Latin rhythms that once would've been confined to the periodic bossa nova rip is also welcome. (Sweet use of flamenco guitar on the title song.) Davies' band of hard-rock sessioneers is generally up to his demands, though on more than occasion, I still found myself missing brother Dave Davies' rave-up guitarwork, which could've, for instance, pushed the Credence-y countrified "The Getaway (Lonesome Train)" into pure cow punkery once the song breaks free. Love the "Lola"-esque acoustic guitar slam Ray uses to open "Is There Life After Breakfast?" though.

Of course, with Davies, a big part of the show remains his lyrics: arch observations (as in the obligatorily music halled "Next Door Neighbor"), dramatic monologues ("All She Wrote," wherein a dazed lover reads an accusatory Dear John letter that turns into something darker) and generalized admonishments to Buck up, Laddy, it ain't no-how permanent ("Breakfast"). Ray being Ray, he still can't resist shoe-horning a nattering lamentation about the loss of good old-fashioned standards ("Stand Up Comic") into the proceedings. But it's the only misstep in a set that also includes more effectively sardonic takes on tabloid journalism and tourism. More often, Davies' view of modern life's travails is ruefully experienced; though he's singing about "characters," for the first time in ages, you can feel the songwriter inhabiting these other people's skins. It's a gift that I'd long feared the guy had lost after years of rock band living. Turns out all he needed to rediscover it was to do a walkabout in the U.S. of A. all by his lonesome . . .
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Wednesday, April 05, 2006
      ( 4/05/2006 07:06:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THAT CORE BASE - Never did have too strong a feeling for John McCain, though I have to admit the persona he staked out for so long - the let's-look-at-things-on-an-issue-by-issue-basis guy - has its allure for me. Still, watching him attempt to reposition himself recently for the upcoming presidential race by hat-in-handing to the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell can't help getting me thinking about the current West Wing plotline wherein moderate Repub Arnold Vinick keeps getting pressured by members of his own party to make gestures that'll appeal to the ultra-conservative base. Principled Arnie sticks closer to himself, of course, but then he's a teevee character and played by Alan Alda, besides, so you wouldn't expect him to do otherwise. McCain is a sadder story.

Watching him interviewed via satellite on The Daily Show last night, though, I thought I saw a hint of ruefulness from the man, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking. McCain can clearly think on his feet and has a decent way a with a quip, but that'll only take you so far when you've got a guy like Stewart asking, in all seriousness, what the hell has happened to you. McCain's been a fairly regular guest on Jon's show in the past, but on the basis of last night's interview, I'm betting his people start advising him to skip Comedy Central for the nonce . . .

UPDATE: Crooks And Liars has posted a clip of the amazing end of Stewart's interview (where Jon asks the Senator if he's going "into crazy base world").
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Monday, April 03, 2006
      ( 4/03/2006 08:40:00 PM ) Bill S.  

COULDN'T HELP GETTING THAT SINKING FEELING . . . - . . . as soon as Kristin Chenoweth's Annabeth announced on last night's West Wing that she was gonna go wake up the sleeping Leo . . .
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      ( 4/03/2006 02:15:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"DOWN HERE, I'M CARLITA!" – The second season of Showtime's Huff debuted this weekend with an overlong but heartfelt reintroduction to the series' characters. Though trafficking in soap opera time (at one point we're told it's been ten days since the events of last season – but a character who was newly pregnant last year shows up in her second trimester this year) and a heavily telegraphed character demise designed to parallel the death we saw at the start of season one, the episode contained plenty of nifty actorly moments. Me, I loved Oliver Platt with guest Sharon Stone's epileptic client, Blythe Danner's alcoholic Izzy as she fends off both her caring grandson and pissed-off son, and brother Teddy's (Andy Comeau) believable med-less free associations on the run in Tijuana. Hank Azaria's psychiatrist hero, Craig Huffstodt, remains an appealingly infuriating lead – still struggling to remain an interested observer when his own life is messier than many of his patients – and though he snuck five seconds of Apu into his voice last night, it's clear the man's more than "just" a comic actor.

But, hey, did we need two different vomiting scenes? I know: physical purging makes for a handy metaphor, but still . . .

Note: Huff fan Ben Varkentine has a typically smart take on the season premiere . . .
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      ( 4/03/2006 11:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE SOPRANOSYou see a character in an idyllic moment with some sweet-sounding doo-wop oldie playin' on the soundtrack – and that's your cue that the guy's gonna get smashed on the knee-cap . . .
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Sunday, April 02, 2006
      ( 4/02/2006 06:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DOWN IN THE ALLEY – It's spring pledge time for many of the PBS and NPR stations in the U.S. – and, like last fall, yours truly did a stint of phone volunteering last night for our local NPR Jazz 'n' Blues station WGLT. Wife Becky and I are mainly there for the blues, which holds sway over the station's programming for most of the weekend, and we're particularly enamored with Frank Black, who's been a blues deejay on the station for 21 years now. Whenever we volunteer, we try to get on one of Frank's Friday or Saturday night shows.

Times being what they are, pledge drive goals haven't been as easy a make as they useta be. A few years back, the university-based GLT was doing well enough with the pledges that it was able to cut its pledge drive down several days; this year the station has had to re-expand the pledge schedule by several days. Last night was fairly slow going; we were there four hours, and the first hour had nary a call. Though things picked up, we never got to the point where all five available phones were used at once.

Still, we had a fun time eating cold Avanti's pizza and chatting with Janet and Pete Moore, two volunteers we met for the first time this weekend. Janet does a nifty little science feature with ISU physics professor Jay Ansher entitled "Uncommon Knowledge" for the radio station. Spent time this a.m. playing a batch of these shows on the 'puter, and it's a keen collection of science factoids that explains, among other things, why the ink in the new ten dollar bills changes color when you look at it from different angles and whether an egg can really stand on its end the first day of spring. Janet and her hubby also do a Central Illinois-centric podcast called "Illinoise!," while Pete also has a second podcast devoted to un-boring Christian music plus a blog entitled The Bored Again Christian. Busy folks.

We also bought our share of leftover GLT merchandise while we were there: two travel mugs that had been a premium gift several years ago and a pair of Frank Black tee-shirts that were printed up last year to celebrate his twentieth anniversary at the station. Our coffee cups are predominately radio station mugs; they get a lotta use in our house, and the only ones that've shown any wear are a pair of latte mugs that, for some reason, lost some of their lettering in the dishwasher. Fortunately the station, which is celebrating its fortieth birthday this year, has proven more enduring . . .
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Saturday, April 01, 2006
      ( 4/01/2006 03:12:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – Today's Episode: In which our manga explorer feels a mite claustrophobic. . .

First read about Minetaro Mochizuki's Dragon Head (Tokyopop) in Heidi MacDonald’s blog, The Beat, in an entry Heidi entitled "Manga for the Rest of Us." Though the post's title assumes a certain ambivalence about manga that I obviously don't share, it managed to spark my interest in Mochizuki's work. Went scouring for it on the manga racks – a lotta books with "Dragon" in the title, doncha know – and recently was able to pick up the premiere volume.

The cover pretty much lays out what you get in the book: a hemmed-in close-up of the book's hero, Teru Aoki, looking desperate as sweat drips all over his face. The sweat turns out to be more than just a manga visual convention. The teen-aged schoolboy is one of three survivors of a railroad disaster that's occurred inside an overheated mountain tunnel. For reasons that aren't yet clear (earthquake? That flash of light that Teru noted just before the train entered the tunnel?), the tunnel has collapsed on both sides of the train, derailing it and killing most of its passengers, trapping our threesome under what appears to be tons of earth.

We learn about this slowly, as Teru does, first waking to discover himself in a dark and tilted rail car full of dead bodies, then carefully exploring his surroundings as he searches for some light. An ordinary teen, Teru possesses no special knowledge or abilities to handle the seemingly hopeless crisis that he's suddenly been thrust into – it takes him more than half the book to realize that the alcohol in the club car will make a good hand-held torch, for instance – and Mochizuki convincingly communicates the kid's initial shock at being plunged into this seemingly hopeless situation. On the basis of the first volume, Dragon Head appears to be a realistic work of survival horror, though there are hints that the ten-volume story'll be headed into more fantastic areas. The work is rated "OT" for ages 16+, presumably for the gore, some in-character profanity and a story ref to the heroine's period. (Is that what constitutes "manga for the rest of us"?)

Teru's fellow survivors turn out to be an unstable Columbine-y kid named Nobuo, who immediately steals Teru's flashlight and refuses to give it back, and a young girl named Seto, who spends much of the first volume unconscious. While our hero struggles to hold it together (even as we see him occasionally retreating into dreams and fantasies of being back with his family), Nobuo quickly and distressingly heads into a more ominous place. Once a victim in school, he relishes the deaths of his former classmates and returns from a trek down the tunnel with his body all covered in blood. Though we haven't seen him doing it, the impression we get is that he's just spent time battering the body of a former tormenter.

Mochizuki keeps a strong visual hold on his clammy situation throughout – dark and shadow is forever threatening to impinge on our protagonists – though he perhaps repeats his core images (the disabled train, the caved-in tunnel) more than necessary. (Reflecting the story's original serial appearance, perhaps?) While believably bloody, much of Dragon's omnipresent death imagery is presented in shadow and fragments, though the story doesn't shy away from the specifics of a train filled with dead teens – at one point, for instance, the threesome moves out of the rail cars to get away from the accelerated decay that the hyper-hot tunnel has set off. Mochizuki’s art makes plenty good use of sweat-drenched close-ups and anxious expressions, but he also catches every angle of that derailed train with obsessive attention to detail. The net feel is oppressively atmospheric. I kept mentally revisiting images from this work long after I finished reading it.

Manga for the Rest of Us? Let's just call it a moody and suspenseful graphic entertainment that deserves to find as many readers as possible – and leave it at that, okay?


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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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