Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Survivor: Samoa's wtf conclusion

Never before has the vote for a Survivor winner — let alone any other moment on Survivor — left me as conflicted as that of Survivor: Samoa.

And not just conflicted but speechless, flummoxed and furious, plus a dozen other adjectives.

Like many others, I couldn't believe that evil mastermind Russell Hantz, who often in aside interviews referred to his fellow contestants as dumba**es and made this one of the great Survivor seasons, had not won the game.

If he didn't win in this three-way final vote, it appeared that genial physician Mick would be the obvious winner. Certainly not aw-shucks Natalie White of Arkansas, the ultimate coattail rider.

Wrong. She easily collected the million bucks and title of sole survivor, and even Survivor host Jeff Probst has expressed dismay with the vote on his blog.

The irony of my fury at this result is that I immediately loathed Russell, who seemed like a classic jackass as he emptied canteens and burned socks around camp and displayed utter contempt for anyone or anything other than his advancement in the game. But the truth is his unscrupulous schemes became a joy to watch as he made shady deals with almost every player and pulled off amazing feats such as finding hidden immunity idols before it had even been disclosed that they were in play. My feelings for him evolved from loathe to love to hate to pulling for him in a Dexter or Hannibal Lecter antihero kind of way.

And it became easier to pull for him as many of the other personalities emerged — the selection of likable people has not been a strong suit of Survivor casting of late. The cast was also so huge that we never really got to know a number of them. Brett, who became a key figure, got minimal screen time before beginning his immunity run.

Further irony is that I really, really love it when the underdogs — Natalie being a prime example — pull off an in-your-face coup over the often cocky and arrogant alpha males who are accustomed to dominating the game. I love to see them taken down a peg, because the weak are often targeted as useless and unworthy.

That's the brilliance of Survivor — the way it's a simmering little microcosm of all the human prejudices and foibles exposed for the world to witness in all their naked glory. I love those exit interviews of ousted contestants in which they essentially say, "Well, I was obviously so great that they were afraid of me, and they had to get rid of me. They're all going to die of hunger now and lose all the challenges."

Right. Whatever gets you through the night.

Survivor is very much a social game, and Russell failed to balance the drive to control the game with the necessity of maintaining goodwill. Probst is right that a bitter jury robbed Russell of the million, but it's also critical to remember that a vehemently bitter jury in season one rewarded Richard Hatch, a similarly diabolical figure, with the million because they could admit that they had been outplayed. Samoa's jury, on the other hand, failed to set aside its ego. It's an incredibly tough sell to say that Natalie outplayed Russell, and that's why the gut feeling that this result was simply wrong won't go away. The producers better hope that angry fans don't go away, as well.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: Paranormal Activity

• It's the Blair Witch of the 2000s, and almost as good.

Stars: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Director: Oren Peli
Rating (out of 5): &&&1/2
Run time: 1 hr 39 mins

Paranormal Activity, the shoestring-budget movie riding a crest of Blair Witch-sized buzz, is getting a bit overrated, but it's still a movie that every horror fan should make a beeline to see. In a time when empty horror films come and go at the multiplex just about every weekend, this movie proves there is an appetite among audiences for something more than f/x and torture porn, and it's nice to see a fright flick with a brain get some attention. It's been reported that DreamWorks bought the movie with every intention of doing a big-budget version but decided that the lo-fi version was too effective to discard. The movie's rudimentary production style is certainly reminiscent of that of The Blair Witch Project, which, in my opinion, remains the superior of these two movies.

By now, you probably know the basics of the plot — a young couple early in their relationship are having unusual experiences in their home, and the male half (Micah Sloat) decides to set up a camera and audio recorder in the bedroom in an attempt to capture whatever may be happening while they sleep. Early on, we learn that the happenings are attached to the female half (Katie Featherston) and that the noises they both hear and the whispers she hears are the work of a sinister presence. Micah's interest in playing with the electronics is deeper than his conviction that something is really going on until he begins to catch things on tape and the occurrences begin to escalate. Wanting to defend his woman, he also becomes provocative toward the force as the movie goes on, breaking one of the cardinal rules of dealing with the paranormal. It is here that the movie uses one of the staples of the haunted house tale — tension between a couple breeding negative energy that serves to escalate the activity. For all this movie does to cleanse the palate of so many bad horror movies in the 10 years or so since The Sixth Sense and The Ring, it still turns to some familiar devices such as a Ouija board, things that go bump in the night and a snowy television screen. I even found its occasional use of a jolting noise reminiscent of the classic The Haunting, the quintessential horror movie in which the unseen is powerfully frightening — a technique that has been sadly forgotten by too many movie makers.

The best horror movies are those that play on dread and anticipation in unique ways, and Paranormal Activity achieves this in presenting everything from the point of view of Micah's video footage, focusing primarily on a wide view of their bedroom and the hallway. In the beginning, the viewer gets nothing more than a little tease in the overnight footage, which is often time lapsed, but the payoffs gradually increase. By the time the camera captures shadows and footprints creeping into the room, viewers are squirming at the edge of their seats, and the final payoff is truly creepy — almost enough to forgive the grating bullheadedness of Micah's character.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I love the '80s … 1880s!

Simpy the most hilarious thing I have seen in a while:

Give them a marketing award STAT. The CD is currently on offer for free — yes, FREE — at Amazon MP3.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Don't know much about Erik Hassle …

… but I know that he has big hair and I really, really dig his synthy song "Don't Bring Flowers," which sounds very 1986 but also very now, which works for me in a way that Nickelback and Taylor Swift would never understand. Even better, I nicked the song as a free download off Popjustice. While it has the retro thing going, the song also has smart lyrics. The refrain of "Don't bring flowers after I'm dead / Save your givings for the living instead" has burrowed with sinister fashion into my brain. In the press materials, Hassle (only 20 years old!) says the song deals with a person who didn't make much of an impression in life, yet everyone is at his funeral. “And that’s like regular life," he says, "where you’re treated like sh*t then people worry about it afterwards. You can’t just stand by not caring: who are you to mourn, don’t touch me when I’m in my coffin.”


The Swede's album is called "Hassle."

Monday, September 14, 2009

A night out with the (Pet Shop) boys

It was a fantastic show Saturday night at the Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta … really happy that we weren't left "wondering why we traveled so far."

We got to meet them in the pre-show meet and greet. As we approached and the previous group was getting their last few seconds, Chris seemed to be saying that The Weather Channel is the greatest thing on American television — "It's nothing but the weather all day long!"

When our turn came, Chris, apropos of nothing, welcomed us with a hyper, "Are you from Nashville!?!?" I told them we're from Mississippi, near Tupelo, ("Such pretty names these places have," Neil observed) and told them we'd love to see them play Memphis sometime. They were sure that they've never played Memphis because they would have gone to Graceland. "We've been in Mississippi," Neil said, and proceeded to describe some geography to Chris.

I asked if they would be doing any more television while on the U.S. tour, and Neil said that there is a possibility they might be on the new Jay Leno show (yuck — they should go on Craig Ferguson's show again). "I don't think it's going to happen, though," he said. Chris commented that American TV doesn't seem to be very interested in them and said that Late Night with Jimmy Fallon didn't want to provide them video screens for last week's performance, so they ended up purchasing televisions for the performance.

I also told Neil how much I love the "Love Etc." video with its video game influences.

And that's that. Never thought I'd meet them nor have my favorite CD signed. Amazing.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing

I've never been a big concertgoer — not many good shows come within easy reach of me here in the relative boonies — but I've managed to see a few interesting ones. In September, though, I will add what for me is the ultimate live performance to the list: The Pet Shop Boys Pandemonium tour at the Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta.

Like me, the PSBs aren't getting any younger, and these opportunities won't come around forever. I've wistfully watched their U.S. tour dates come and go since Nightlife, thinking each time that I ought to go, but never acting on it. So, come Sept. 12, I and the two friends I have who wouldn't give me a strange look for going to a PSB concert — who implicitly understand why I need to have this experience — will make the five-plus hours drive to the big city.

The previous shows I've seen are a wildly mixed bag:

• Tori Amos at The Orpheum in Memphis in 1998.

This was around the time the excellent From the Choirgirl Hotel, with the stomping "Raspberry Swirl," was released, and I remember that song being the highlight of the show. Tori has lost me in recent years; the magnificent To Venus and Back is her last disc that gets any spins in my playlist.

• Amy Grant in Tupelo.

Don't remember the year, but I went with the parents because they had a spare ticket. I was a casual fan of her pop hits, particularly "I Will Remember You." She should've made an electronic album.

• The Eagles in Tupelo.

Don't remember the year, but it was early 2000s. Thought my ears were going to bleed before it was over. The highlight for me was the performance of Don Henley's synthy solo hit "Sunset Grill" — always loved that one.

• Elton John at Tupelo.

This was a great experience, shared with my mother and a friend who has since drifted out of my life. Elton gave 200 percent for several hours, and the real treat for me was that he opened with one of my favorites, "Simple Life," a minor hit from The One. Wouldn't have bet on that in a million years.

Now, more than 20 years after my fandom began, the PSBs will join this list. It's costing me an obscene amount of money (yes, three "VIP" seats), and my mind is filled with all the things that could go wrong: What if it rains? With my luck, a hurricane will come ashore and sit over Atlanta. What if there's car trouble on the long drive? Can't just take a taxi to Atlanta. What if a seven-foot-tall drag queen sits in front of me? What if the sound quality is hideous? The possibilities seem endless.

But some experiences in life are worth throwing caution to the wind. With Very and all the others in my heart, I'll make the journey and hope to be rewarded with a red-letter day.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's Bad was one of the first CDs that I owned, alongside Actually by the Pet Shop Boys and Jody Watley's self-titled solo debut. As a 14-year-old drawn to the embarrassment of riches of electronic pop filling the airwaves, I wasn't impressed by the first single from Bad, the rather sappy ballad "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" with Siedah Garrett, but most of the rest of the album offset that first impression. Bad became a hot topic at school, and I can remember trying to work out the lyrics to "Smooth Criminal" with my friends: "Eddie are you walking? Are you walking? Are you walking, Eddie?"

File that one under famously misheard.

Those were the days when a big hit album could easily go four or five singles deep, and Bad went no less than seven, with five worthy chart toppers. And, in the U.S., some of the best tracks weren't even tapped as singles. In retrospect, the prescient "Leave Me Alone" seems like a no-brainer choice to have been one of the first few singles off Bad. Even if it was a CD-only bonus track, why leave it on the table and release an obviously weaker song, such as final single "Another Part of Me"? "Speed Demon," too, with its muscle and bluster, seems an obvious single. I can easily imagine the music video, with Jackson zooming around in sunshades at night on a motorcycle, working his "bad" routine.

While I certainly noticed "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" in the early 1980s (and they are arguably better songs than anything on Bad), I wasn't yet a music consumer, and that leaves 1991's Dangerous as the only other Jackson album I own. It was a peculiar mixed bag and overrun with the influence of "New Jack Swing," a style that I generally found underwhelming. Tracks like "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" and "Keep the Faith" simply felt like Jackson was trying way too hard, although "Who Is It" is a paranoid gem and "Jam" is hard-driving fun. With Nirvana's Nevermind following Dangerous at number one early in 1992, I associate the album with a time when the public was turning its back on the styles that I loved.

In a sign of how sharply his fortunes changed, I can't recall even hearing a single from 2001's Invincible on the radio. Anything is possible, but it's hard to believe there was another big hit in Jackson's future. I would love to have been proven wrong, though, and yesterday's loss feels as if a cornerstone of the world of pop has been yanked away.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Belatedly, 2008's top tunes

Is it too late for a retrospective post on 2008? Hope not, because this is the first of two or three.

According to the statmeisters of last.fm, the following songs are my 20 most-played of 2008:

20 Road to Somewhere – Goldfrapp
It was very much the year of Goldfrapp on my playlist. I first crossed paths with Goldfrapp via a free iTunes download of "Ooh La La" from Supernature, but it was 2008's folk-tronica release Seventh Tree that led to Goldfrapp scaling my artist chart. Easily my favorite release of the year, it propelled Goldfrapp from the lower reaches of my top 50 artists to number four.

19 Holiday Road – Lindsey Buckingham
Theme from the great National Lampoon's Vacation.

18 Nikita – Elton John
I tend to fixate on random '80s songs such as this, #17 and #15 for periods of time.

17 Hold Me – Fleetwood Mac

16 X-Files (UNKLE Remix) – UNKLE
The movie I Want to Believe, while not altogether bad, was certainly not what the franchise needed at this point. This new interpretation of Mark Snow's classic theme, however, is simply brilliant.

15 I'm Your Man – Wham!

14 You Never Know (Live in London) - Goldfrapp

13 So You Say – The Bird and the Bee
The retro-modern bliss of songs such as this, "Birthday" and "Polite Dance Song" made The Bird and the Bee my second-biggest breakout of the year.

12 Birthday – The Bird and the Bee

11 I Told Her on Alderaan (Richard X Andress Mix) – Neon Neon
I have no idea what this song means, but it's really catchy pop with a strange Star Wars reference.

10 Light Years – Kylie Minogue

9 Some People - Goldfrapp

8 Happiness - Goldfrapp

7 Underneath – Alanis Morissette
Alanis had steadily been losing me to the point that I never bought the last album, although "Everything" was a nice single. The new album is — dare I say it — a return to form.

6 Little Bird - Goldfrapp

5 4 Minutes - Madonna

4 Clowns - Goldfrapp

3 Number 1 - Goldfrapp

2 Give It 2 Me – Madonna
I had myself all psyched up to hate Hard Candy based on the stylings of Timbaland and Timberlake and the fact that Confessions on a Dancefloor was a creative peak, but I ended up really digging it. This, the second single, is a perfect example of why. The "get stupid" breakdown is killer. It's a shame that it has become so in vogue to dis Madonna.

1 A&E – Goldfrapp
Absolutely sublime. It's disheartening that a song this amazing gets completely ignored in the U.S.

BMG Music Service calls it quits

Another sign that the world is moving on arrived in my e-mail box today: A note from BMG Music Service informing me that the music club is folding as of June 30. I guess this time they really mean it when they say the offer for that stack of CDs comes "with nothing more to buy … ever."

They're replacing the club with a new service, yourmusic.com, which sounds like a boneheaded, cue-based Netflix approach, except you don't send the music back.

I've been a member of BMG since the early '90s. Like everybody else, I couldn't pass up those dozen CDs for a penny deals, and it was a decent way to boost a music collection, even if their editions were sometimes dodgy. I can remember some of the cassettes I got back in the day didn't include liner notes. And it was a pain to have to mail in that card declining the featured selection that you wouldn't want in a million years.

Steep shipping charges and the delay for new releases were always problems, but a bigger obstacle in recent years has been lack of selection. There have been numerous times when, lured to the site by an offer of 60 percent off with no shipping and handling, I would have bought something if there were anything I wanted. Looking for Goldfrapp's back catalog? Go elsewhere.

Of course, BMG deals in physical media, which can't catch a break these days. Really, though, when Amazon MP3 sells a hot new album for a few bucks on release day, it's not a surprise that the era of the music club gets an obit this year.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Love Etc.

On the first couple of listens to "Love Etc.," the Xenomania-produced lead single from Yes, the forthcoming Pet Shop Boys album, I was shaking my head "no." I wasn't feeling it. With a couple more listens, it started to make sense, and it had firmly taken hold by about the sixth listen. I'd even say it's probably their best lead single since Very. It's the killer melody of the whole "Boy it's tough getting on in the world" bit that seals the deal. They're right to say that it doesn't sound like anything they've done before, although the percolating rhythm vaguely recalls "Can You Forgive Her?"

If we needed another sign that Yes may be the proper pop-tastic successor to 1993's Very that the pre-release buzz had wrongly suggested 2006's Fundamental would be, the animated video is at least a small one, as it recalls the computer-generated beauty of Very singles such as "Liberation." This homage to side-scrolling video games is beautifully and cleverly constructed; it's arguably weird but undeniably inspired.

The U.K. gets the album on March 23; the U.S. has to wait until April 21.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pet Shop Boys vs. Flo Rida

Item number one:
My reaction to the Pet Shop Boys' new album being titled Yes: No.

I seem to be in the minority of fans who dislike the title, but it feels like they're not even trying. For something in the affirmative, I'd go for a title such as Definitely. Pet Shop Boys, Definitely. It's more true to the spirit (holy trinity?) of Please, Actually and Very.

Apparently this album will drop in the U.S. on March 24, and that works out quite nicely: It's my birthday. : - )

Item number two:
I'm as much about silly pop songs as the next music fan who never grew up, but it hurts my music-loving heart to see something as asinine as Flo Rida's "Low" become the number one song of an entire year. It was bad enough to see the song sit atop the Hot 100 for 10 weeks, and to see it as Billboard's number one song of the year is an insult to music, particularly all the great stuff that never gets radio exposure. But that's coming from someone who started to feel my love affair with the top 40 was out the window around the time "Rump Shaker" sat on the top five.