Saturday, August 18, 2018

RIP Aretha Franklin

The mid to late 1980s was a great time to be a teenager getting into music. While there were all of those new sounds happening, it was a time when radio was kinder to veteran artists, and the likes of Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin could still chart a hit. When I think of Aretha, I think of those '80s hits like "Freeway of Love," "Through the Storm" (with Elton John), "Jimmy Lee," and particularly the Narada Michael Walden collaboration "Who's Zoomin' Who?", a fine pop jam that hit #7 in 1985. Good times with the Queen of Soul, a great American, and one of those people who it seemed would always just be there.

There was no music video for "Who's Zoomin' Who?" …

Monday, June 25, 2018

New Miami Vice music package offers several treats

Jan Hammer's Miami Vice: Special Edition, a repackaging of Miami Vice soundtrack selections, quietly surfaced in May, and it brings a good bit of Vice synth-pop music to Spotify for the first time while also adding a couple of remixes and two tracks that did not appear on Miami Vice: The Complete Collection, which spans more than 40 tracks of dramatic chords and sunny synths. 

First, the new offerings: "Little Havana" is the better of the two; a pleasant, moody, salsa-ish number. "The Kick" is more of a driving rocker that sounds like it could serve as background for a guns-blazing chase through the Miami streets at night.

Special Edition opens with a new remix of the theme music, the XL Mix, which is largely faithful to the original but about a minute longer and with some additional guitar parts. The intro is also tweaked. It sounds like a new recording and, thus, cleaner than the original, which could stand a good remaster. 

"Crockett's Theme," which got a big boost in the '90s from its inclusion on the popular Pure Moods album, is not labeled as a remix or a remaster, but it is clearly a different mix than the original. In some regards, it sounds better (cleaner, like the theme), though there's a new little repeating electronic chirp that I don't love.

About 16 tracks of Hammer's Vice music were already on Spotify via previous collections Escape from Television and Snapshots 1.2. Some of the better Vice tracks joining them now are the likes of "Clues" and "Voodoo Dance." But this new collection curiously omits a few old favorites like "Chase" and "Evan," which were on the original soundtrack release in the '80s alongside the hits by Tina Turner, Phil Collins and Glenn Frey. They are, however, available for purchase through Hammer's website, along with all of The Complete Collection.

We need to talk about Westworld

In my entertainment universe, Westworld was one of my most anticipated TV shows of all time — right up there with the return of The X-Files. The concept has my tastes written all over it.

Quite by chance, I saw the 1973 Westworld movie not long before news broke that HBO would be making a series based on the flick. It's an excellent movie, and it's easy to draw a line directly from its future world to things like Terminator (the indestructible villain coming relentlessly for you) and Jurassic Park (an amusement world gone deadly wrong).

Most of season 2 of Westworld sits unwatched on my DVR because the first couple of episodes continued to be a tepid, boring slog, while the show ought to be a nonstop rollercoaster. Wouldn't it be fun to occasionally see guests arriving at the park (the still functioning other sections) and letting loose? Playing poker and bagging some hookers? Having a shootout with the drunks at the bar? Robbing the bank? Something, anything?

Sometimes I wish I could tell Dolores to stop talking … to please just shut up about her endless naval-gazing robot vision quest. And the same goes for Arnold/Bernard. I'm all for deep and thoughtful sci-fi — it's why the Battlestar Galactica remake is my favorite show — but not at the expense of anything fun happening. This version of the robot awakening puts me to sleep.

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.

UPDATE // After a dreadful start, season 11 made a turnaround, and I quite liked it. The comical fighting-everyday-technology episode was a classic, and I even liked the mythology ending. More, please.