Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, June 07, 2007
      ( 6/07/2007 12:10:00 PM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VIDEO – Hey, it's Demetri Martin again, this time performing in the services of the opening track to Fountains of Wayne's newest disc, Traffic And Weather. Here's "Someone to Love":

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      ( 6/07/2007 11:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MISTY WATER-COLORED MEME-REES – Got tagged with a music meme by Ben yesterday. Rules of this 'un are fairly simple: 1. Go to www.popculturemadness.com; 2. Pick the year you turned 18; 3. Get yourself nostalgic over the songs of the year; 4. Write something about how the song affected you; and 5. Pass it on to five or more friends.

My year is 1968: a fecund musical year, though one you could easily argue also saw the beginning of the end for Top 40 AM radio. The Beatles had two number ones that year, "Hello Goodbye" and "Hey Jude," neither of which is a heavy favorite of mine; it was "Jude" which really pushed the bounds of the two-and-a-half to three-minute single, a moment in pop history that I still have mixed feelings about.

Though most folks think of the late sixties as a Rock Era, a lotta Easy listening crap still made it to the top of the charts. Consider these turkeys from '8: Paul Mauriat's "Love Is Blue," Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey," wispy vocalist Herb Alpert's "This Guy's In Love With You" – proof positive that not everybody buying music was doing drugs in the sixties, since any of these tracks would've probably provoked a stoned listener to tear their ears off. And leave us not forget some of the dumber attempts at cramming social commentary into the grooves of a radio-friendly 45: Jeannie C. Riley's too-bad-to-be-camp "Harper Valley P.T.A." and Diana Ross & the Supremes' egregious "Love Child." Just thinking about that last 'un gives me the cold wobbies.

But let's consider some of the decent Number Ones, starting with the track that was holding the Top of the Charts on the day I turned eighteen (June 17th): Simon & Garfunkle's cinematic folk-rocker, "Mrs. Robinson." As a single, it's too overly dependent on the movie from whence it came to fully stand on its own. But since the movie from whence it came seemed totally timed to my own high school graduation malaise, I can't help loving it. Recently heard an Indigo Girls' cover of this song off of a Desperate Housewives soundtrack and was quickly struck by how much their earnest vocals missed the point. Say what you will about Paul's occasional moments of sixties era preachiness (remember that version of "Silent Night" with the news broadcast layered over it?), he also had a sensa humor.

Two other Number Ones from the year, Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" and Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," represent soulmen at their most universally soulful. (As a teen, I think I keyed into “Bay”’s moody beauties more than I did “Grapevine.”) Overused to the point where they've both become Baby Boomer clichés (think of the opening to The Big Chill), the two cuts still manage to tell us something new every time we sit down and actually listen to 'em because the emotions are so deeply earned in ‘em. Contrast Gaye's version of "Grapevine" with the lesser hit version that Gladys Knight & the Pips had with the song just one year earlier, and this becomes even clearer. In Knight's hands, the song is primarily an excuse to dance; in Gaye's, it's a genuine moan of anguish.

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate plasticity in my pop tunes (an obvious declaration for anyone who's followed this blog for any length of time), and two hits from the year represent a trend that still continues to give me pleasure: psychedelic pop as repped by John Fred & His Playboy Band's "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" and the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine." Entertaining trifles made more entertaining by their faux druggee flourishes, they serve as a reminder that in the world of pop music, phoniness isn't necessarily a vice. Of the two tracks, I favored "Judy" – it moves faster and has a nice slice of meanness that still speaks to my angry nerd self: pop-psychedelia wasn't all just the rain, the park and everything . . .

One last track from '68 that I can't help mentally replaying: Archie Bell & the Drells' "Tighten Up," wherein a bunch of Houston funksters attempt to beat James Brown at his own game. Don't quite make it, of course, but they come darn close, and it's the funkiest thing to appear on the Top of the Pop charts. As a teenager, Bell's marble-mouthed intro made me smile ("We can't sing, but we dance just as good as we want!"); these days I get off on the guitar lines. Oh, and James Brown's big R&B Number One masterwork from the same year? "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)." Not a track to garner big crossover numbers – at least not in '68 . . .

As usual, I invite anyone who wishes to take up this meme to do so – just lemme know if you do.
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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
      ( 6/06/2007 08:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ELO ELO – See that Robert Christgau has gone back to doing his "Consumer Guide" monthly: good news for us impatient types. This month's contains an "A" rating for the Apples in Stereo's newest, an evaluation that I'd definitely echo, though Christgau is more tolerant of that disc's little instrumental interludes than I am. Worth a read.
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      ( 6/06/2007 05:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“SOMETIMES I REMEMBER TOMORROW; SOMETIMES IT'S SO FAR AWAY” – Every devotee of a particular musical era has bands or artists who they feel haven’t been sufficiently recognized. One of these, for me, has long been Translator. A San Francisco guitar-based unit from the New Wave Era, the group’s primarily known for one (admittedly great) jangle-some single, "Everywhere That I'm Not," though they had plenty of other tracks which made optimal use of their echoey folk-rock sound (personal faves: the anti-arms race shouter, "Sleeping Snakes," and childhood memory song, "Necessary Spinning"). Despite my fondness for the band's 415/Columbia album releases, though, I hadn't really followed any of the members' careers post-Translator until now – with the release of Translator frontman Steve Barton's third album.

Credited to "Steve Barton and the Oblivion Click," Flicker of Time (Sleepless Records), Barton's album doesn't have the same level of harmonic bombast that helped propel many of Translator's best tracks. Its format – lead singer/songwriter and rockin' back-up band – is a spot more modest. But Barton's gift for crafting catchy guitar pop-rock thankfully remains intact.

The disc opens on a rousing note with "Cartoon Safe," a subterranean homesick rocker that makes sharp use of Robbie Rist's (part-time cartoon voiceman and onetime child actor) insistent drumwork (also on fine display in the equally hard-rockin' "Goodbye Oblivion"). Other pop-rock hot spots: the contemplative "Beverly Park," a lament for a demolished amusement park, beautifully bolstered by Magical Mystery Tour influenced harmonies; "Oblivion," which wouldn't sound out of place in a Posies set; the riff-driven "Winter Light;" the bluesy "Thrill," with its strong bass lines (courtesy of Derrick Anderson) and one-step-from-balled-up guitar solos (from both Barton and Casey Dolan); and the bash-pop nugget, "You Make Me Smile As Big As I Can." Barton & the Click-ers, having reportedly lived with much of this material for almost two years, display a unity of purpose reminiscent of Costello & the Attractions or Parker & the Rumour back when they were all breathing the same air.

Per the title, a lot of the songs seem overly concerned with the way that time keeps on slippinslippinslippin-into-the-future, but Barton produces some sweetly eccentric love songs, too. "Sometimes I live too much in my head," the singer admits in "Great Expectations," just before drifting off into a bluesy guitar duet with Dolan. If a few tracks contain some lyrical stumbles (e.g., "Under A Broken Sky," a piano moaner that's as obvious as you'd expect it to be), in most cases, Barton's incessant tunefulness and his band's spunkiness keep things moving.

In fact, to demonstrate how enjoyable Flicker of Time proves to be as a whole: when I read in the promo materials that Barton's old band was also reuniting to put out some new music, the first thought to come into my head was, "Gee, I hope that doesn't mean Barton'll be abandoning these guys!" I mean, I wanna hear "Everywhere That I’m Not" being performed in concert as much as the next fan – except on those days when I'd just as soon hear "Cartoon Safe" (fun metaphor, Steve!) instead. Some days it ain't such a big deal that Beverly Park is gone – not when our present-day amusements can be just as sparkly . . .
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Tuesday, June 05, 2007
      ( 6/05/2007 07:13:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE CLAY MENAGERIE – Caught the premiere of the Americanized Creature Comforts last night: watching in on BBC-America, I enjoyed Nick Parks' series of animated interviews in its original English form, but wondered if the show's sometimes low-key humor would work as effectively with Yankee interviewees. Turns out the approach – taking snippets of real-life interviews and animating 'em with talking animals – works just fine. (Love the porcupines talking about whether they’re afraid of needles.) If anything, the first ep of this decent li'l summer replacement show contained more laff-out-loud moments: in part because the subjects appear to be less guarded than their British counterparts. Some of the interview jokes – like the somatic canary who ticks off a seemingly endless list of medical people that she sees regularly – are decidedly more American.
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Monday, June 04, 2007
      ( 6/04/2007 03:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

THE ADRIENNE KING SYNDROME – Haven't caught it in the theatres, of course, but I see from a Blogcritics slam of Hostel 2 that Jay Hernandez's character, the surviving "hero" of Hostel, apparently buys it early in the sequel. Always thought it was a particularly nasty ploy to pummel a character all the way through the first flick – and then make 'em the quickie opening kill in the follow-up . . .
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      ( 6/04/2007 09:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PENULTIMATE SOPRANOS – So why do I think that weaselly psycho Paulie Walnuts is the only one in the crew who'll get out of this bloodbath alive?
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Sunday, June 03, 2007
      ( 6/03/2007 04:29:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"EARTH MAY NEED ITS BOILS TIGHTENED!"– When I first read an American DVD company was working on bringing the original Godzilla and its sequels to disc in both their original Japanese and American versions, I began to wonder how much the later Godzilla flicks' fondly remembered goofiness would translate back in their original language. We all know that the original 1954 Gojira was a fairly grim nuclear age monster rampage film in both its Japanese and American form – but as the series "progressed" into the sixties and seventies, the Americanized Godzillas turned into Saturday afternoon kid's teevee fodder. Having seen a slew of these ill-synced flicks in my wasted youth, I was curious as to how they'd work without dubbing or the rough handling so many of 'em received when they first arrived in the U.S. (case in point: first sequel Godzilla Raids Again, which was even re-titled Gigantis the Fire Monster on its first American release because new distributor Warner Bros. didn't want to pay for the Godzilla brand name). With the upcoming release of two new entries in Classic Media's "Toho Master Collection," Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), I had the chance to see just how wacky these rascals are in their original un-Americanized versions.

Let's take a look at Ghidorah today (and save Astro-Monster, which was originally released in the U.S.A. as Monster Zero, for another time). Ghidorah contains the first instance of what would quickly become a familiar Toho plot: wherein Godzilla and two of the studio's other heavy-duty rampagers – Rodan and Mothra – team up to best an invading monster. The alien menace, Ghidorah (full name, "King Ghidorah"), is like an amalgamation of his opponents: a three-headed dragon with two tails, he has wings to blow the roofs off pagodas a lá Rodan or Mothra, but can also indulge in Godzilla-styled stompitude. Where the Big G. breathes radioactive fire whenever he's really being pissy, Ghidorah shoots out electric whatsit beams from his three mouths. No wonder it takes all three of our home-grown creatures to whup his two tails.

The title beastie doesn't really show for two-thirds of the movie, so to pass the time, we're given a plot around a visiting Princess (Akiko Wakabayashi, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) whose body is taken over by a survivor of Ghidorah's invasion of the planet Venus 5,000 years earlier. (Why'd the monster wait so long between invasions? A long hibernation, perhaps?) Said Princess is the survivor of an airborne plane explosion plotted by nefarious spies from her homeland of Segina, so when she unexpectedly appears unharmed on Japanese soil, spouting prophecies and chirpily telling folks, "I'm from Venus," the sunglass-wearing bad guys try to hunt her down. On the side of the angels are a brother cop and sister reporter, the usual obligatory nerdy professor, plus the twin fairy sisters (Eimi & Yûmi Ito, a.k.a. musical duo the Peanuts) from Mothra's home island, who get to do full renditions of the big bug's summoning tune, "Call Happiness," twice in the movie.

As Ghidorah opens, our gal reporter Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi) is interviewing a crew of scientists observing a sudden rash of shooting stars that are dropping onto the planet during an unusually warm winter (we know what season it is because two of the exposition-happy characters tell us this fact); elsewhere, her police detective brother (Yosuke Natsuki) has been given the assignment to bodyguard the visiting Princess Salno, but before he begins said assignment, he receives word that the princess' plane was destroyed mid-flight. When a mysterious prophetess appears at Mt. Aso, the site where the flying monster Rodan was reportedly killed in his first movie appearance, sharp-eyed Detective Shindo recognizes her royal corporeal form.

Our Venusian-controlled princess has shown up at the volcano just in time to warn scoffing tourists of Rodan's imminent resurrection, then later does the same at Yokohama to be equally unheeded by the passengers and crew of a ship that'll get demolished by Godzilla. (As a kid watching the earliest Godzillas on television, I thought the scenes where Gojira rises from the sea, water cascading from all sides of him, were the scariest moments in these pictures.) Godzilla and Rodan meet and commence fighting – a preliminary match before the title antagonist makes his appearance – until one of the mysterious shooting stars "hatches" and out pops King Ghidorah.

The two dueling beasties don't immediately take after the invading alien, however. For that to occur, Mothra has to be summoned from her island to recruit both Godzilla and Rodan to take on the fight. The scene where young Mothra, still in giant caterpillar form, interrupts the duo's fight by spraying cocoon strands on 'em is pretty funny, but the follow-up where the good bug tries to persuade the two to take on Ghidorah and save humanity is a comic high point. As the fairy sisters obligingly translate for us ("Godzilla is saying he has no reason to protect the humans. 'They're always bullying me . . .'"), the two monsters are initially unresponsive to Mothra's entreaties. "Men are not the only stubborn creatures," one of our hapless human protagonists notes. But, happily, the big three-on-one battle finally takes place. Like any good reluctant movie hero – from Rick Blaine to Snake Plissken – you can count on Godzilla and Rodan to ultimately do the right thing.

The movie's special effects, courtesy of Toho main man Eiji Tsuburaya (also responsible for Godzilla, Rodan & Mothra's first appearances), are exactly what you'd expect: men in bulky monster suits tromping around a landscape of easily demolished warehouses and electric power lines. (At one point, the berserk beasts accidentally save the Princess from being electrocuted when Rodan drops Godzilla belly first onto a big electric tower.) On their own endearingly clunky terms, the fx largely work – though a couple of times when Mothra chomps down on one of Ghidorah's tails, you can see the strings, while a shot showing two puppets of the monsters off in the distance looks jerkier than it should. Classic Media, on the packaging for Astro-Monster, calls the fx "retro-riffic," which is basically adspeak for "cheesy."

As for the question of whether subtitles add to or detract from the movie's quintessential ridiculousness, I'm happy to report that the original movie's Silliness Quotient still remains enjoyably high. In one of my favorite moments, the movie attempts to explain how Princess Salno escaped that exploding airplane by bringing on a "UFO Expert" to nonsensically babble about the existence of other dimensions alongside ours. The way the scene is shot and lit, it looks like one of Charles Gray's earnestly pontificating moments from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether in its native tongue or dubbed into Yankee Blather, a movie moment like this remains eternal . . .
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      ( 6/03/2007 02:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HEX MARKS THE SPOT? – So we're planning to watch the season opener of the occult series Hex on BBC America last night, and we turn on the tube at about 6:45 p.m., only to see from the cable teevee menu that the three-hour season premiere started at 6:00 Central Time. Not to worry, we think; Beeb-Am will doubtless rerun the three hours later in the night – after the season premiere of Graham Norton's newest chat fest, no doubt. We click on the cable teevee menu and see that the network is rerunning just two hours of the three-hour season premiere.

Perhaps, we think, the first hour is a recap show, similar to the one that the producers of Lost cobbled together to precede their two-hour series finale? Nope, we learn when we later click on Hex at 10:00 p.m., the cable net has apparently decided not to rerun a whole hour of story that night. During a commercial break, I head for the BBC America website to track down the missing hour of story. And I'm confronted by a bewildering numbering system which makes it look as if the first two hours are out of story sequence, though, clearly, from what I've already seen of the second hour (Ella's been sprung from the loony bin! And is dying!), this is not the case. Way to make things easy for your returning loyal viewers, guys . . .

UPDATE: On BBC America's Hex web board, other viewers complain about the incomprehensible scheduling – which apparently is not just limited to this series . . .
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Saturday, June 02, 2007
      ( 6/02/2007 03:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"HAVING BEEN SOME DAYS IN PREPARATION . . ." – On the 40th Anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the record, not the abysmal movie), Johnny Bacardi has a loving track-by-track appreciation of the album, which was first released when he was seven years old. Me, I was just seventeen (if you know what I mean), when this groundbreaking platter debuted in the record shoppes – and not as big a rock music junkie as I would become (t'was my younger sister Barb who owned the first copy in our household) – but even as geeky novelty record addict who made fun of his sister's preferences simply she liked 'em I could recognize what a great collection of pop music this was. If asked (and sometimes when not even asked), I'd opine that the Beatles' Revolver is this much-loved quartet's pinnacle, but Pepper remains joyfully replayable – something I confirmed this very afternoon by putting it on ye ol' CD player. Think I like "Lovely Rita" more than Johnny does, though – for both its woozy orchestrations and lyrics (which you just know a young Rick Nielsen learned by heart) . . .
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Friday, June 01, 2007
      ( 6/01/2007 03:44:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA – (This Week's Episode: "There was something about Dee that made him impossible to hate.")

When our local comic book shop recently began divesting itself of its manga stock, I started availing myself of the opportunity to explore some of the older series on the shelves (Battle Vixens, Comic Party, the Samurai Champloo manga) as well as catch up on some series that I'd let fall by the wayside (picked up five volumes of GTO, f'rinstance). One of these series, Sanami Matoh's Fake (Tokyopop), was of a genre of manga that I'd regularly heard about but hadn't yet read: shōnen-ai manga, whose main plot focuses on the growing attraction between its two male leads. It appears to be a popular storyline for girl readers, and Matoh's series, which was first published in Japan in 1994, has had a successful seven volume run; Tokyopop's translated version of the series debuted in 2003, and at present all seven volumes appear to be available in the U.S. Additionally, a new "second season" of the series has reportedly debuted this spring in a Japanese magazine called Hug, though it's probably too soon to tell if this second batch of Fakes will make it to these shores.

In any event, I picked up a copy of the first book in the series to see what all the to-do was about. The series centers on two young and dreamy NYC cops, Randy (a.k.a. Ryo) Mclean & Dee Layter (is English adapter Stuart Hazleton to blame for the puns in these names?), who work out of the 27th Precinct. Ryo is the newbie, a blond-haired androgynously pretty recruit who immediately attracts the attention of a female desk sergeant when he comes in to report for work. (First full shot we get of his face, the background of the gritty precinct is suddenly filled with flowers.) He's partnered with Dee, who we first see getting chewed out by the outrageously large-mouthed precinct Chief for what we presume are the usual Rule Bending Cop violations of procedure. Just yer typical NYC precinct, in other words.

First case our duo gets assigned concerns a murdered mule named Dick Goldman, who was running dope for a local drug kingpin named Richard Feldman (first time I read this chapter, I had to go back to verify that the editor hadn't made a slip-up – what's the idea of giving two characters names that are so close to each other?) Dead Guy Goldman has a son named Bikky, a roller-skating bi-racial street kid whose unruly blond hair pokes out from under his cap, making him look like a would-be Thompson Twin. Bikky is pugnacious and prone to sudden outbursts of temper – a younger version of Dee, in a lot of ways – but Ryo breaks through the kid's barriers by being his nice guy empathetic self. Though Dee protests ("he's still a kid out of the 'hood!"), the rookie detective decides to take Bikky in. Ryo doesn't know, of course, that the young kid is in possession of his dad's drugs – and, since no one seems to think of searching the little spud when they have him at the precinct, he's a target for Still Living Guy Feldman.

When Bikky and Dee get kidnapped in the park by Feldman's henchmen, it's up to Ryo to save them both – which he improbably manages to do by sneaking onto Feldman's estate, planting a bomb(!) in the attic and then phoning the police with an anonymous city-wide bomb threat. (And this is the cautious member of the team?) Pretty ludicrous even by the standards of yer average brain-dead buddy cop actioner, but, then, most of Fake's Older Teen readership hasn't come to this series looking for a serious police procedural.

The prime focus in Fake, of course, is on the developing attraction 'tween Dee and Ryo: which is teasingly protracted throughout the first book (and presumably prolonged even further for the next five volumes, at least). First indication that our two police lads will be exchanging lots of yearning looks comes when Dee, with zero concern for the niceties of personal space, goes nose-to-nose with Ryo and asks if he has "some Japanese" in him ("Your eyes are pitch black," he explains.) Turns out Ryo is half-Japanese – it's a multi-culti big city, right? – but the main thing we take from the scene is the rabbity expression on Ryo's face when his new partner Stands So Close to Him. Is Dee coming onto him or not? Well, there's that later moment in the same chapter when the tough cop "jokingly" asks his new partner if he'll "still love" him – not to mention the kiss he plants on Ryo's lips once they've safely concluded the Feldman Case – but what's a little smooch among co-workers?

It's not a question that Ryo wants to spend much time pondering, anyway. "I'd better stop obsessing about his sexual orientation," we see him thinking at one point. "If I focus too much on him, I'm going to have to admit some stuff about myself." What stuff is that? we're supposed to wonder. Perhaps Ryo's not really half-Japanese?

The two cops continued this back and forth throughout most of the first volume: Ryo kisses Dee a second time to throw off a gang of pursuing thugs; Ryo ponders Dee's long eyelashes; Dee watches Ryo sleeping; Ryo feels a flash of jealousy when yet a third 27th Precinct detective pops up and kisses Dee. If much of this behavior seems more 'tween-aged than adult, perhaps we're meant to take it as a reflection of our two closeted leads' relative immaturity in the realm of Boy Love. Still, the whole shmear can't help coming across more than a little unintentionally campy.

Matoh's art, unsurprisingly, is at its best contemplating its attractive leads (including Bikky and a second street-wise teengirl named Carol who mainly seems to've been pulled into the storyline to reassure us that the little sprat will grow up straight) in languid repose or contemplation. (Matoh's action scenes are serviceable, if by and large unexceptional.) Perhaps the most jarring art moments for me came from the artist's reliance on massive cartoon shout mouths during some of the more deliberately comic scenes: whenever she used this approach with Bikky, the results wound up resembling cartoon black-face. Not the look, I suspect, she was actually going for.

After three long acts of the Dee & Ryo Delayed Gratification Show, the first book concludes with a short act centering on Bikky & Carol at Youth Camp. It's a fairly silly sequence and doesn't add a bit to the shōnen-ai storyline, but we do get to see gallant Bikky kiss the girl after he's rescued her from a bear. Sure, it’s a distraction from the series' main plot – but after watching the adults kiss-and-back-off three (or is it four?) times in this book, it's kind of a relief to see a kiss that's just a kiss . . .
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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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