Friday, June 30, 2006

Music: Finally Woken • Jem

Genre: Electronic pop
Released: March 2004
Verdict: &&&1/2

Here's another from the criminally ignored pop albums file, this time from another Euro-diva in waiting, Jem. The opening one-two punch of "They," which weaves children's voices into a hypnotic mix, and "Come on Closer," are about as smart and addictive as pop music can get these days. I'd wager that either track, given some exposure, would have vaulted into the top 40, if not top 10. A casual listener to one of these tunes might guess the singer to be Dido, but the bottom-heavy beats juxtaposed with occasional electric guitar ("Come on Closer," "24") yield a slightly grittier sound than Dido's. "Wish I" offers a different mood, sounding like breezy beach music, but not unappealing. The real treat of the album is "They," with its unshakable melody and addictive lyrics about shunning mindless conformity, or some such. It also sounds somewhat mysterious and intriguing, as a great pop song will, and it's one of my favorites of the 2000s. Finally Woken arguably goes a bit uneven in the closing stretch, but it sure beats listening to American Karaoke's Taylor Hicks or Katherine McPhee.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fun with search terms

The Jeblog uses a counter to help me marvel at how much or how little traffic is rolling in on any given day, and, as any good counter does, it provides the search terms that have led gentle, sometimes randy web surfers to this destination. The results are often amusing for one reason or another. Here's a sample. Click the search term to find out what really led them here.

Gloom, despair and agony on me karaoke Oh god, no.

Buck Rogers television catfight Oh, we see what's on your mind — perverse childhood TV memories. Wilma in tight jumpsuits. Incidentally, if the Buck Rogers DVD set weren't so grossly overpriced a la Star Trek, I'd already be a happy owner.

Match game 73 episodes dvd You WISH! And I'll take the entire 1983-1989 network run, as well as the concurrent syndicated run, of $ale of the Century, thank you very much. Admittedly, yours is far more likely to happen, but why not just watch them on GSN?

Luke Perry barefoot You whore.

Mummer's dance tv show OK, I'm obviously missing something on this one.

Breasts dance to music You perv.

Stephen king storm of the century how it ends Just watch it. It is, hands down, the best Stephen King TV project, except for that part near the end when the kids fly around.

Monday, June 19, 2006

TV: Windfall

Genre: Drama
Logistics: NBC, 9 p.m. (Central) Thursdays
Verdict: &&&

It taps into an everyman fantasy: Winning tons of cash, more than you can find ways to spend. It provokes imaginings of the different ways you might gleefully sever yourself from your employer and what might be the first self-indulgent major purchase. For me? A car, obviously, or maybe Sony's SXRD HDTV or a new Apple computer. That's just half the fun of NBC's summer series Windfall, which sees a group of friends win a huge lottery jackpot, only to have all kinds of problems come their way as a result. You can imagine the writers having their roundtable, dreaming up all the dirt to throw at these new millionaires. Then, they up the payout by filling the cast with hotties and basing the plot as much on their relationships as their issues with managing millions. From the moment Luke Perry was jumping around barefoot on his front lawn in celebration, I wanted to hate Windfall, yet I was pulled in as if by a horrendous car crash. Among the best plot threads: A rebellious teen steals his neighbor's mail order bride so that she can collect the cash for him, and a young man with a shadowy past convinces a straight-laced woman to claim his share of the cash in order to protect his identity. Like a cheap scratch card where you can lose ever so easily and a win isn't worth all that much, Windfall isn't a bad ticket for an idle summer evening.

TV on DVD: Seinfeld Season 3

Genre: Sitcom, '90s
DVD Released: Nov. 23, 2004
Verdict: &&&&&

I'm not the typical TV on DVD viewer who binges on an entire season of a show in a single day or weekend. Instead, I like to keep a stack of several shows in progress, handy and ready for a tailor-made Sunday evening of viewing — my own custom-made Must See TV. It may take me months to get through whatever's currently in the stack, but that's just fine. An indispensable part of the TV on DVD rotation these days is the brilliant sitcom Seinfeld, which comes in a package that should serve as a textbook example of how to do DVD. Each set is positively loaded with features that you'll actually want no, crave to watch, and menus lovingly constructed from certain set pieces and scenes enhance the experience. In addition to the expected commentaries, there are amusing deleted scenes, inside looks that detail the creative genesis of plots, outtakes and bloopers, promo spots (Remember when the show aired on Wednesday night for a time? Neither do I) and notes about nothing — Seinfeldian minutiae about everything from episode order and airdates to ratings and useless trivia, plus the essential Kramer entrance counter, presented in text at the bottom of the screen. I actually find the notes about nothing somewhat distracting, so I've opted to save those for future viewings of the episodes. Other extras vary per set; season 3, for example, includes an incisive "Kramer vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo" featurette on the origins of fan favorite Kramer. It includes interviews with many actors and perspective from Michael Richards, who reveals, among other details, the obscure inspiration for all those hilarious little mouth noises he made. There's also some previously unreleased Seinfeld stand-up footage in the mix. While the trimmings are as watchable as it gets, the meat of the package is 22 outstanding episodes from the season when the characters and tone of the show truly gelled. From a giggly, drugged Elaine shouting, "Stella! STELLA!" in "The Pen" to an ultimate episode about nothing, yet everything — "The Parking Garage" — season three is positively loaded and a harbinger of the many sweet nothings to come.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Music: Fundamental (Limited Edition) • Pet Shop Boys

•• revised on 6/17/06 and 11/04/07 ••

Genres: Synthpop, electronic
Release date: June 27, 2006
Verdict: &&&&

The phrase "return to form" keeps getting attached to the new Pet Shop Boys album, but I think this is more an expression of relief that they've moved in a different direction from the rock experimentation of their last outing, 2002's Release. "Return to form" also implies that they lost it with Bilingual (1996), Nightlife (1999) and Release, and that's simply not true. Admittedly, they haven't produced a wholly cohesive album since Very (1993), but their songwriting and production skills have only grown richer with time, and Fundamental is another glowing example. Even the Fundamental tracks that at first underwhelm – take slower tracks "I Made My Excuses and Left" and "Indefinite Leave to Remain" as examples – gradually reveal their subtle pleasures (I love the use of strings and the strange voice in "Excuses") until any doubts about these songs melt away and, now in late 2007, have become adored favorites.

Many of the richest moments of Fundamental, not surprisingly, come on the up-tempo material: With its refrain of "An empty box / An open space / A single thought leaves a trace," the stamp of Trevor Horn's orchestral production and the nod to New Order-styled guitar at the end, "Minimal" is entrancing; it feels like elegant dance music for grown-ups. Anthemic album closer "Integral," a scathing stab at government intrusion of personal freedom ("If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear / If you've something to hide, you shouldn't even be here"), is arguably their most rousing stomper since "Go West." "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," whose sound is actually not far removed from the rock vibe of Release, rises to similar heights, and I can't get enough of the paranoid chants of "Psychological" (Who's that knocking at the cellar door?) and the political satire of "I'm with Stupid" (No one understands me, where I'm coming from / How could I be with someone who's obviously so dumb), each of which shine among the dance tracks. This album's sleeper is "Twentieth Century," buried in the latter half with an irresistible melody and an astute observation that works on the personal and political level: "Sometimes the solution / Is worse than the problem / Let's stay together."

The Boys have never been ashamed to be shameless – think the use of Cher's vocoder effect on Release – and on Fundamental it's the treacly downer "Numb," penned by the powerhouse balladeer Diane Warren, who has written countless bombastic hits from the '80s to the '00s. This track had already been held over from their recent hits compilation, and, on a different day, you could imagine them dumping it as a b-side. Nevertheless, it has that sappy quality that might click with American adult contemporary radio if given the chance.

Lyrically, there's perhaps a bit too much of the world and not enough of the personal on Fundamental; there's nothing that captures a life moment or epiphany in the way of a "Liberation," "Nervously" or "Being Boring," and then there's the outright silliness of "Casanova in Hell," although I do like that song's brass and "ooh-ooh" background vocals that Neil Tennant does so well. Ultimately, Fundamental is, as usual, a quality electronic pop album, and one that will likely be remembered as a highlight of the late PSB era. To paraphrase one of their classic lyrics, some 20 years after "West End Girls," it's fabulous they're still around today.

// About the bonus disc, Fundamentalism // The one new track here, "Fugitive," stirred some controversy because it's from the perspective of a terrorist, but it's an excellent dance track that should have made the album. The rest are seven mixes of six different songs, including the Dusty Sprinfield track "In Private," here with Elton John on vocals. To their credit, they've offered mixes here that are not total deconstructions of the originals, but they're also fairly indistinct. The real keeper is the Melnyk Heavy Petting Mix of "I'm with Stupid;" it strips away the somewhat shrill brass of the album version, casting the lyrics against a dark bed of sound that feels more in tune with the song's theme. Overall, not nearly as good as the Release bonus disc.

// Worth seeking // American fans will want to import the "I'm with Stupid" single for the outstanding b-sides, "The Resurrectionist" and "Girls Don't Cry."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Movies: The Omen (2006)

Genres: Horror, remakes
Director: John Moore
Cast: Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, Mia Farrow, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick
Verdict: &&&&

"There's something about Damian …" I had a good chuckle that the local theater was playing the remake of The Omen on a screen next door to The Da Vinci Code, a movie that demonstrates just how much a seemingly innocuous piece of entertainment can stir the public. People made uneasy by that Hollywood thriller would likely be just as disturbed by this surprisingly strong remake, which, in its opening scenes, makes a case for imminent Armageddon with footage of the devastated World Trade Center, the doomed space shuttle Columbia and hurricane/tsunami flooding as examples of apocalyptic biblical verse. As in Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho homage, director John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix, Behind Enemy Lines) has created a movie that, at times, feels like a scene-for-scene reshoot of the original, which I never considered a classic of the genre. In his first foray into horror, Moore aims high with a sterling cast and accomplishes some striking visuals that serve to heighten the tension throughout. In the notorious birthday party scene, after the nanny shouts, "Look Damian! It's all for you Damian!" and hangs herself, I love the way the camera follows the slow decent of one of her stray shoes, which crashes into a table of bottles and crystal, shattering the frozen moment of stunned silence. The death scenes, including an impaling and a gruesome decapitation, are gleefully over the top and completely satisfying. The casting of Mia Farrow was a stroke of genius; she oozes an undercurrent of evil as the solicitous nanny who mysteriously appears at an opportune moment. Her facial expression as she hand feeds strawberries to the devil child speaks more than any line of dialogue in the recent remake of The Amityville Horror. More debatable is the casting of Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, who, as Damian, offers more blank stares than the nuanced menace for which the role screams. My least favorite parts of the original come late in the movie when ambassador Robert Thorne (here played capably by Liev Schreiber of The Manchurian Candidate), Damian's father, tries to learn what really happened on the fateful night of his son's birth. Although the snowy scenes in Italy have a surreal, otherworldly quality, the remake loses some steam here, as well – this story works best when Damian is up to his antics, such as tipping his mother off the balcony's ledge. On the whole, though, Moore deftly weaves quieter moments of creeping dread with jump scares that aren't insulting, creating a movie that can appeal to both teen audiences and the thinking horror fan without selling its soul.

// Linkage // Official site

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

TV: Gameshow Marathon

Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. (Central) Thursdays throughout June
Verdict, so far: &&&

Part of the summer's original programming, rather surprisingly, is this homage to fun game shows of years gone by with somewhat of an emphasis on the 1980s. Celebrities play classic games in an elimination format with one classic game featured per show. Proving yet again that there's not an original idea in game shows in the U.S. today, it's inspired by Ant & Dec's Gameshow Marathon from the U.K. With three of the seven episodes now aired, here's a look at some of what we like and what we don't:

Pro: Authenticity • The loving recreations of the originals make this a true nostalgia rush. The holy grail for me comes tomorrow night when the celebs play Press Your Luck in all its original glory, as if the ill-conceived Whammy revival on GSN never happened. In an era when all the game shows want dark, space-agey sets like Millionaire, it's great to see a celebration of gaudy sets and flashing lights. Bring on Match Game '73 and the shag carpet. The opening montage of clips from the classic shows is nicely done, building anticipation in each episode for the game to follow.

Con: Host Ricki Lake • Nothing against Lake, who seems like a nice person, but her delivery has been a bit shrill. Not the best choice of host for this gig.

Con: Order of the shows • CBS will be lucky if there's any audience left after tonight's Beat the Clock snoozer. Things got off to a shaky start last week when the pricing games on The Price Is Right had rather boring consequences. Fan favorite Plinko was typically anticlimactic, with just $2,100 won. Some of the most appealing shows (Press Your Luck, Family Feud, Match Game, Card Sharks) are bunched toward the middle and end, and I'm afraid some audience has permanently tuned out before we get there.

Pro: Revivals? • It's speculated by some that these shows could serve as a sort of testing ground for the possibility of reviving a classic game.

What's left • 6/8 - Press Your Luck, 6/15 - Card Sharks, 6/22 - Match Game, 6/29 - Family Feud