Thursday, May 17, 2018

Party like it's 1989 with Paramore and Bruno Mars

A few weeks ago a song came on the radio and immediately stopped me in my tracks — a rare occurrence in the 2010s.

I was listening to an adult top 40-ish station, and I was like, "Whoa, somebody accidentally put on something from 1989." Shazam informed me that this curiosity is Paramore's latest single, "Rose-Colored Boy," which sounds, at least in that opening bit with the "low-key, no pressure" chant, like very late 80s dance pop (not so much new wave, as some have suggested). And, a bit later, it occurred to me that it actually evokes a particular song — Martika's first single, "More Than You Know," which went to #18 in 1989. Despite their apparent popularity, I wouldn't know another Paramore song if it humped my leg, but "Rose-Colored Boy" is a real treat amongst the mess that's on the radio these days. And, boy, does it stand out. Like many of my favorites, it's a clever juxtaposition of melancholy lyrics and upbeat music.

Another ear-turner for me is Bruno Mars' "Finesse" (without the Cardi B rap, thank you very much), which cleverly evokes Bell Biv DeVoe's excellent 1990 single "Poison" by using the same drum sounds that define the earlier song. Mars also pulled off a fine imitation of 1989 R&B balladry with previous single "Versace on the Floor."

Monday, April 09, 2018

Streaming Unsolved Mysteries

We've been having a lot of fun watching Unsolved Mysteries on Amazon Prime Video (it can be found elsewhere, as well) — it's a great trip back to the late '80 and into the '90s, a time when crop circles made us want to believe. "Fun" may not seem the best word, given that Unsolved Mysteries is essentially a show about tragedy, but it was presented with great dramatic style. There's the outstanding theme music — you could imagine X-Files composer Mark Snow was a fan — alongside the comforting narration of Robert Stack. And the stories were backed with good, old-fashioned reporting. The occasional paranormal and UFO segments were welcome diversions, although the long-lost family member stories did wear out their welcome. It's a show that, in this time of revival fever, ought to come back, focusing on crime and the paranormal.

The Dennis Farina revival episodes are also there for streaming, and it's pretty stunning how many of those there are. Nothing against Farina, but it's really all about the Stack episodes.

Each week, Robert Stack would dramatically wrap up each episode with something along these lines: "For every mystery, someone, somewhere, has the answer. Perhaps it's you." But what really kept us coming back was that strange human drive to indulge our fears as entertainment and knowing that a little turn of fate is all it takes to make us an unsolved mystery.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Nine things about iPhone X

• That nifty new thing where you hold the old phone next to the new one to initiate the transfer to the new phone is great, except no one tells you that Bluetooth must be turned on in order for it to work. This is kind of essential, no? I generally keep Blutooth off to help extend battery life. A little bit of instructions in the box can go a long way.

• I also had a more substantial wrinkle in the transition. Just before turning in for the night, I noticed that none of my photos had transferred to the new phone. With a little googling, I found that this is a pretty common occurrence when the phone is set up while not plugged into an electrical outlet. I plugged up the phone and, voila, photos.

• Face ID feels alternately revolutionary and like a step back. When I'm in the sweet spot for the sensors, it works flawlessly … well, unless I have my sunshades on, in which case it never works. When it's sitting on my desk at work off to the side, I can't unlock it through face ID without picking it up and looking at it; I've resigned myself to typing in the passcode instead. There are situations such as that in which the functionality of touch ID was more convenient. Wouldn't it be nice to have both forms of security, allowing us to use whichever is more convenient in the moment? Bottom line, Face ID doesn't always "just work," like Apple is supposed to do. If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't care much at all that the home button is gone, because swiping up to go home and exit apps feels perfectly natural and intuitive.

• I hate the inability to have the battery percentage show at the top of the home screen ... a casualty of the "notch." The same is true of the alarm indicator which used to reside up there at the top. These feel like removed functionality (and yes, I know both of these now reside in the control center).

• Especially with the price tag taken into account, I wish it had a more distinctive look. The glossy black back of the space gray is nice, but, at a glance, the phone is almost indistinguishable from the iPhone 6 I had previously.

• This is my first iPhone without the headphone jack, and that situation is a pain in the butt. I'm constantly having to pause and drag out "the dongle" to hook up my headphones (I'm not interested in the little Bluetooth ones, thanks very much).

HOW TO FORCE QUIT / POWER OFF IPHONE X: This is another one of those essentials that Apple doesn't include in the package, and I've already had to hunt it down once when my phone became unresponsive and would not turn off in the usual way. Press volume up; then press volume down; then hold down the right side button. "They say" you may have to hold down the right side button for as much as 10 seconds, but it worked pretty instantly for me.

• Along those lines, the combination of presses of the three side buttons for certain functions does not feel intuitive, and I'm still learning them.

• Yes, it's a really good phone … not as much of a step up as it should be, given the price tag and its anniversary edition status, but still really good. If you're hedging, I'd wait for the next one, which surely will smooth out some of the quirks.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I want to believe The X-Files can be good again

Is it possible the dreadful new era of The X-Files turned a corner with Wednesday night's "Plus One" episode? We're now nine episodes into the return of one of my all-time favorite shows (consider my avatar at right), and this was the first time I mostly enjoyed the results. I think part of the reason for the success of this one is it felt like a deliberate attempt to be a standalone episode from the old X-Files. Consider the description:

"A spate of deaths in which victims are plagued by their own doppelgangers leads Mulder and Scully to a pair of twins playing a dangerous game."

You could go back in time and tuck this into one of season two's long stretches of standalone episodes and no one would be the wiser.

Season 10 pretty much earned a pass for the novelty of having our old heroes back in the game; it was a joy to see them, even if the stories stunk. And boy, did they — the mythology episodes, most egregiously, seemed to openly crap on the mythology of the first nine seasons, leaving us to wonder why we bothered. 

Based on some decent buzz, I was hoping for more from season 11, but it started off with two massive bombs, perhaps worse than any in season 10, and I was considering bailing out on the show altogether. The only thing I had liked before "Plus One" was the opening soliloquy of the season 11 premiere; having The Smoking Man bloviate about his legacy was an excellent touch.

Gillian Anderson has said she's done with the show now, and she may have the right idea. The disappointing storylines have got me thinking about all these shows that are coming back and whether trying to recapture the magic is a futile exercise. But I am nothing if not a nostalgia whore, and I'll likely be among those of a certain age who will come back for more.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Music that moved me in 2017

Top song …

My most-played song released in or not terribly far from 2017 is "Mistakes" by Avec Sans, which finishes at #2 overall in my top 100 of the year as monitored by This kind of ethereal, melancholy electronic bliss leaves me drooling. It's the closer on their really good debut album, Heartbreak Hi.

Other notables …

• "Up the Creek," Tori Amos' best single in years, at #29
• "Losing Touch," a new synth masterpiece by Empathy Test, at #20
• Sia had a big year on my chart, finishing at #3 with "The Greatest," #4 with "Never Give Up" and #11 with "Move Your Body."

Oldies …

My most-played song overall was Billy Joel's somber and reflective ballad "I've Loved These Days" from Turnstiles. The most-played album overall, by a substantial margin, was the very good super deluxe release of Fleetwood Mac's 1987 classic Tango in the Night.

Posthumously …

• George Michael finishes at #6 with "Something to Save," #7 with "White Light," #29 with "Heal the Pain" and #66 with "Shoot the Dog."
• Prince lands at #73 with "Strange Relationship," #87 with "The Morning Papers" and #95 with "P Control."
• Leonard Cohen is at #67 with "Hallelujah."

Most-played new album …

With 2017 releases from Erasure and Goldfrapp sadly underperforming, the door opened for Depeche Mode to sneak in with the politically charged Spirit. It's the only DM album I've wanted to listen to all the way through since Violator.

What's so hot about the Hot 100 …

There is, per usual, minimal crossover between my year-end chart and that of popular consumption. Here are the two miracle compositions:

• "I Feel It Coming" by The Weeknd Featuring Daft Punk, #34 Billboard, #56 me
• "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry Featuring Skip Marley, #73 Billboard, #20 me. I'm skeptical of everything to do with Katy Perry, and I think she's one of the most commercially and critically overrated forces in popular music, but there is no denying that this is a successful stab at mature and sophisticated electronic pop music. The same is true of "Roulette," which sounds like it could have been released in 1996, and lands at #60 on my year-end chart.

Click here for 2016 and prior years.

Friday, December 29, 2017

All these confused Star Wars feelings

Two years ago, I felt like I was one of the few detractors to The Force Awakens, which is so mired in homage to A New Hope that it fails to be its own movie, so I've watched with interest all the fan negativity being hurled at The Last Jedi. The truth lies somewhere between the critical 91 and the audience 51 scores bestowed upon this very long movie at Rotten Tomatoes … I find myself settling around a 3.5 out of 5. I left the theater feeling fairly conflicted … not outright disliking this one, but also thinking the whole franchise might be due for another good rest (which we know isn't happening), and I've never before felt that way.

Some things I know for sure:

• We do all expect a dose of humor in our Star Wars movies. "Will somebody get this big walking carpet out of my way," etc. Here, however, we have one after another painfully lame attempts at getting chuckles, starting right from the opening with the terribly awkward "on hold" for General Hux bit. It pulled me out of the movie. Along these lines, I also found myself becoming annoyed with the antics of BB-8.

• The Princess Leia moments in this movie are, sadly, not especially exciting.

• The homage problem is not as pronounced in this movie, but it's still there, as in the big fight scene in the imperial throne room, or whatever it is, when Rey is shown the attack in progress by Snoke on a handy little TV screen.

• Speaking of Snoke, who the hell is this guy?

• The absence of characters like Han Solo hurts. These movies generally have better casting than did the prequels, but the gravitas of character is lacking in The Last Jedi.

• After seeing them stand around in previous movies, it was cool to see the red-draped imperial guards engage in a major throwdown.

Rogue One easily remains my favorite of the new films.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

RIP Chiller

I've always liked knowing Chiller is there even if I don't often watch it — the world of cable would be less interesting without a channel devoted to the horror genre. But that's where we're headed, with NBCUniversal set to shut it down at the end of the year. It also fondly reminds me of the time when I got satellite television for the first time about seven years ago and had lots of new channels to explore.

I won't argue that Chiller was a great channel, but it commendably stuck to its niche — something countless channels have failed to do over the long haul as the hunt for ratings steers them to broader fare. The movies were often decidedly of the "B" variety on Chiller, but novel things came along from time to time, like that Psycho marathon, which resurrected the rarely aired sequels. And there were occasional interesting finds, like Death and Cremation (2010). The channel also stacked the schedule with some fun anthologies, like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters and '80s Twilight Zone.

Goodbye, Chiller — you were, indeed, scary good … sometimes.