Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Thirteen

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“As influential in that decade [the ‘70s] as The Beatles were in the prior one.”-The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Led Zeppelin

“Like it or not, this guy’s going to be around for a while.”-Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone, on Morrisey, in a review for The Queen is Dead

The examination of music in all its incarnations (or at least as many as the three list contributors have decided to throw at me) that has made up this column to date has already allowed us to discuss the legendary status we tend to bestow on rock musicians and the sort of style, behavior, and philosophy that tends to be called “punk rock.” This week, along with the examination of the four albums I have been served up, I want to look at the iconography of three different “groups,” try to determine what makes each of them unique and how the band’s we look at today fit into them, and finally, what they have given music in general. This week on My Year in Lists, let’s take a look at the rock band, the avante garde “collective,” and the “alternative” band.

I have already spent enough words (for the moment anyway) on how musicians become legends and how we tend to mythologize them until they are rendered somehow larger than life. This is certainly true of solo artists, and in fact Jimi Hendrix was the reason I originally mentioned the phenomenon in this space, but it is arguably even more true of bands. Think of The Beatles and you are sure to think of the rivalries and divergent intentions that drove them apart. This is the only reason that anyone still remembers the name Yoko Ono as far as I’m concerned. When you think of the quintessential rock band, there are certain things that are unavoidable. Perhaps central to this idea is that the band will party incredibly hard, creating a wave of completely insane tour stories in their wake. Part of being a rock star is getting to do completely insane things and reasonably expecting no consequences as a result. If you’re a rock star, doing ridiculous shit all the time is right there in your job description.

Perhaps no band encapsulates this idea better than Led Zeppelin. Formed in 1968, the band consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones. Considered the progenitors of hard rock and heavy metal, the band refused to release any singles in the UK, as they preferred to develop “album oriented rock.”

The band initially got together as Page’s prior band The Yardbirds fell apart. The Yardbirds played their final gig in July of 1968 in Bedfordshire, England but were still committed to several dates in Scandinavia. It was left to Page and bassist Chris Dreja to form a new line-up to fulfill the obligation. Page went to Terry Reid to become the new singer, but he declined, recommending Robert Plant instead. When Plant joined up, he suggested bringing in John Bonham on drums. And when Dreja eventually dropped out to become a photographer (later taking the picture that appeared on the back of Led Zeppelin’s first album) John Paul Jones contacted Page about the vacancy.

Upon returning from their Scandinavia dates, the band began recording as The New Yardbirds, until receiving a cease and desist letter from Dreja, who claimed Page was only authorized to use the name for the Scandinavian dates. Their new name came from a joke Keith Moon made when Page suggested the formation of a super-group containing Page, Moon, John Entwistle, and Jeff Beck. Moon supposedly quipped that the outfit would “go over like a lead balloon.” The group dropped the ‘a’ in lead at the suggestion of manager Peter Grant to prevent “thick Americans” from pronouncing it “leed.” The balloon was changed to zeppelin to create a more theatrical name, a combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace.

The band’s first three albums were hugely successful and influential (though Led Zeppelin III was released to mixed reviews initially). During the tour for Led Zeppelin II, the band developed their now legendary reputation for excess, including the “shark episode” that allegedly occurred at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle on July 28, 1969. Though the occurrence of the event has never been confirmed, it is alleged that some members of the band or their entourage (the story usually claims it was John Bonham or road manager Richard Cole) had a red haired girl tied to the bed and proceeded to penetrate her with a fish, either a shark, a mudshark, or a red snapper (Cole claims it was the latter, to match with her red hair, and also ensures that the woman was consenting and enjoyed the act). Regardless of what happened that night, Zeppelin was later banned from the hotel after catching some 30 mudsharks (you were allowed to fish from the windows of the hotel at that time) during a stay in 1973 and leaving them under beds, in closets, on elevators, in hallways, in bathtubs, and virtually all over their rooms.

By the dawn of the 1970’s Led Zeppelin was one of the most commercially successful and influential groups in the world. The band began to wear flamboyant clothing, travel on a private jet nicknamed The Starship, and rent out entire sections of hotels (including the Continental Hyatt House in LA, which fans of Almost Famous will recall was known as the Riot House). They have since become the subject of many of rock and roll’s most famous stories of debauchery including John Bonham riding a motorcycle through a floor of the Riot House, the utter destruction of a room inside the Tokyo Hilton that resulted in a ban from the hotel, and, oh yeah, that time they maybe fucked a girl with a shark.

This sort of reputation has become a part of the rock and roll mythos, and part of being a true rock legend is having a slew of stories about your insane excess, complete debauchery, and eccentric habits both sexual and otherwise. To be a “rock band” the way we like to romanticize the term, it is necessary to be just a little bit insane in one way or another, to party hard, to live hard, to break the rules, or in some cases to just break the hotel room you’re staying in.

Led Zeppelin released their fourth album, and Collin’s pick this week, on November 8,1971 with no indication of a title or band name on the cover. The band was tired of being called “overrated” and “hyped” by music magazines and intended to prove their music could sell itself without a name attached to it. The album is most commonly referred to as IV (which is what I’ll be calling it), but is also known as Four Symbols, The Fourth Album, Untitled, Zoso, Runes, and Led Zeppelin IV. And in case you’re curious, it answers the age old question, “would an album by any other name rock as hard?” with a full throated yes.

The album is one of the best selling of all time, tying Pink Floyd’s The Wall for the third best selling album in the United States. IV is filled to the brim with classic Zeppelin songs, and true to their intent of making “album rock,” it flows together incredibly well. The second track “Rock and Roll” remains one of the band’s best known songs. Reportedly written during a jam session, it is one of the few Led Zeppelin songs where all four members share a composer credit.

The album also features easily the band’s most well known and well regarded song, one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded, “Stairway to Heaven.” Written by Page and Plant, the song is a perfect mixture of mysticism and cynicism, acoustic and hard rock, melody and meaning. Allegations of Satanic influence and backward masking aside (though personally, I think the idea that the band had a pact with the Devil just makes the song even more rock and roll) “Stairway” is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, open to endless interpretations (including the time I used it in high school English as an allegory for Dante’s Inferno and the protagonist’s spiritual ascendance toward his beloved Beatrice) and only becoming enriched by repeated listens.

“Misty Mountain Hop” is a medium tempo rock song opening with John Paul Jones on electric piano. The song is seemingly about an encounter with the police after smoking marijuana in a park, but the Misty Mountains, to geeks the world over, also appear to be a reference to The Hobbit. I’ve never been a huge Tolkien man myself (I have plenty of other geek obsessions to fill my time), but I fully support a little Bilbo Baggins in my rock and roll. “Going to California” is a wistful folk song in contrast to the rest of the album’s heavy rock sounds. Plant describes the song as summing up the period in his life when the band had just formed and he was struggling to find himself “… in the midst of all the craziness of California and the band and the groupies…” Whatever the origin, the song is a quiet respite in the middle of a raging storm, an introspective moment on an album more focused on epic grandeur than on the wheel’s spinning in the minds of the band.

The final track on the album, “When the Levee Breaks” is a return to that storm. Originally written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 as a reaction to the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi flood of 1927, Zeppelin transforms the song into a darkly epic rocker with a distinctive drum beat, driving guitars, and a wailing harmonica, all meant to symbolize the relentless storm threatening to break the levee. Even though the song is currently being tarnished by being featured in the trailer for Zack Snyder’s newest abomination Sucker Punch, it retains its power as a near perfect closer to an excellent album.

The band disbanded in 1980 after the death of Bonham, but their reputation continues, as they remain the second best selling band of all time in the United States (behind The Beatles of course). Zeppelin are the forefathers of heavy metal and hard rock, influencing Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Queen, Rush, The Ramones, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and existing as one of the best examples of an iconic rock band at the same time.

Turning our attention now to the slightly more nebulous idea of the “avante garde collective,” we look at The Residents, who have released 60 albums since 1972. The individual members of the group prefer to remain anonymous, instead keeping the focus on their artistic output. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats, and tuxedos. Their albums are generally deconstructions of Western popular music and/or complex conceptual pieces composed around a theme, theory or plot. They are noted for their surrealistic lyrics, experimental sound, and disregard for conventional musical composition. Over the next three weeks, we will examine seven albums by The Residents, all picks by Tab, and along the way try to wrap our heads around avante garde music and its place within the larger musical spectrum.

The Residents supposedly hail from Shreveport, Louisiana where they met in high school in the 1960’s. In 1966, the members allegedly headed west to San Francisco, breaking down and choosing to remain in San Mateo. All information pertaining to the early days of the band is provided by The Cryptic Corporation (the organization that serves as a “front” for the band) and may be entirely invented. The band began making tapes in 1969, refusing to let a complete lack of musical proficiency stand in the way. Little is officially known about the groups early output (there are rumors that they created anywhere between two and hundreds of recordings in these early years that remain unreleased).

In 1971 the group sent a reel-to-reel tape to Hal Halverstadt at Warner Bros., since he had worked with Captain Beefheart, a personal hero of the group. Halverstadt was not impressed, calling the album “okay at best.” Because the band had not included a name on the return address, the rejection slip was addressed to The Residents, which quickly became the band’s name. The Residents’ first performance was at The Boarding House in San Francisco in 1971. That same year they released a tape entitled Baby Sex. The original cover for the tape was a silk screened copy of an old photo depicting a woman fellating a small child. Only considered artistically rude at the time, the cover would today be viewed (rightly) as child pornography.

The band released their first album and Tab’s first pick this week, Meet The Residents, in 1974. The cover of the album is a parody of Meet The Beatles! with the faces of each member of The Beatles defaced in some way. EMI and Capitol Records threatened to sue, but it is rumored that George Harrison and Ringo Starr loved the cover and both bought copies. Later re-releases changed the cover but kept the parody going on the back, listing The Residents as “John Crawfish, George Crawfish, Paul McCrawfish and Ringo Starfish” with illustrations of the sea creatures wearing early Beatles suits. The original pressing sold only forty copies in its first year with most being returned unopened, and it’s no wonder. Meet The Residents is an aggressively alienating work from the start; strange, cacophonous, and seemingly surreal for oddness’ sake alone.

Endlessly weird and certainly hard to recommend, Meet The Residents actually begins to work on repeat listens, building slowly from brief sonic experiments (the first six tracks are all under two minutes long) and slowly accruing emotional power as the songs get longer. The opening track “Boots” is a riff on “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” with the lyrics being repeated throughout while ambient sounds and wails interlude. The song ends with a piano drone that leads directly into “Numb Erone,” a piano beat that qualifies as downright catchy by The Residents standards. The album continues like this until “Rest Aria,” which, with its mournful, dour piano that slowly allows a multitude of other sounds to spill in, comes off as shockingly melodic.

The back half of the album is full of longer, more expressive songs, from the jazzy and dark “Infant Tango” which would feel at home in Tom Waits' repertoire, to “Seasoned Greetings,” a song with subtle and shocking emotional power. Downbeat and depressive in a resonant way, the mostly instrumental song is clearly supposed to express the loneliness that can be felt during the holiday season, ending with entreaties to the whole family to have a Merry Christmas. It feels like a cynic’s slow realization of the meaning of the holiday, and as the album’s penultimate track, it does the job of adding emotional resonance to an album that could have felt hollow otherwise.

While the second album we’re examining from them this week, Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? wasn’t released until 1984, it was the result of a project the group began in 1972. The group wanted to shoot a film called Vileness Fats, telling the story mostly through music. The film would have been about a village under siege by bandits stealing their meat supply, forcing them to subsist on vegetables. The leader of the bandits is, unbeknownst to the villagers, their own leader. The village hires Siamese twin tag team wrestlers to be their saviors while the wrestlers deal with an Indian Princess whose lovers always die. Sounds like a surreal version of Seven Samuraito me.

Despite shooting over 14 hours of footage, the film was never finished. In 1984, the movie was edited and released as Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? with the album serving as the film’s soundtrack. The title track is a decidedly creepy introduction to the world the group is developing, while “Adventures of a Troubled Heart” has a more atmospheric feel to it. “The Importance of Evergreen” is a repetitive funhouse melody that becomes darker before settling into a jazz beat and concluding with an eerie spoken-word piece. Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? feels less accomplished than Meet the Residents, but that may just be because it was never properly finished.

Considering we’ll be spending two more weeks with the band and many more on the experimental movement over the course of this year, I feel it would be premature to attempt to determine what makes up an iconic avante garde band, but suffice to say that an anonymous collective working on surreal movies and putting out dozens of albums while only appearing in eyeball helmets, top hats, and tuxedos has to fit the bill.

After watching the “alternative” movement build from the punk underground over the past thirteen weeks, I have a decent idea what makes an iconic alternative band, and it’s an outsider vibe that allows the band to feel like society’s rejects even as it attains mild to moderate critical and commercial success. Formed in Manchester in 1982, The Smiths are a perfect example of this conception of an alternative band. Centered on the songwriting partnership of vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, the band was rounded out by Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums.

Their self-titled debut was a huge success, as was the much more political follow up Meat is Murder (guess what the message was). Their third studio album, and Ashley’s pick this week, The Queen is Deadwas released on June 23 1986 and is popularly regarded as The Smiths’ best album. The title track, based on a song Marr had written in high school, is a rollicking opener aimed to announce the band’s return from a brief hiatus.

“Frankly Mr. Shankly,” written by Morrissey and Marr is reported to have been addressed to Geoff Travis, head of the band’s record label Rough Trade. Travis admits the line in the song about “bloody awful poetry” is a reference to a poem he had written to Morrissey. “I Know It’s Over” fits nicely into The Smiths standard feeling of romantic melancholy, telling the story of a dejected man reeling from the end of a relationship he intellectually knows never really began in the first place.

“Cemetry Gates,” misspelled presumably because of the way Morrissey pronounces the word, is another song that fits directly into the band’s wheelhouse, about two people fleeing from a sunny day by hanging out in a cemetery, reading tombstones, discussing Keats and Yates, and debating the fairness of mortality. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” my personal favorite song on the album, is perhaps the apex of Morrissey’s angst-ridden lyrics, about two lovers driving together to escape their lives, perfectly satisfied by the idea that they will die together in a car crash.

The closing track on the album, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” opens with a fade in and out before finally fading back in to create the effect of opening a door, closing it, then opening it again and entering a room. The song is often singled out for the fact that Morrissey took a beautiful melody by Marr and wrote such a funny, frivolous song over it.

Called the most important alternative rock band to emerge from the British Independent music scene in the ‘80s, the band has influenced a number of alternative rock bands including James, the Cranberries, Belle & Sebastian, Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Libertines, Suede, and Blur.

The rock band becomes iconic often through excess and debauchery, the avante garde band by stepping as far off the path as possible, and the “alternative” band by branding themselves as outsiders, loners who just want to be accepted. Each of these paths leads to mythologizing, and each is created more by our collective imagination of what a band in that mold might be like than what the bands who contributed to the image actually were like. Whether by rocking out and defiling women with sea creatures, by hiding out and creating works of imminent strangeness, or by standing off to the side hoping someone will notice their pain and sadness, each of these bands contributed to our idea of what a band of their type should be like, and in the process, solidified their place in the annals of music history.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:
David Bowie details The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Residents mess with our ideas about pop music on The Third Reich ‘N Roll and Duck Stab, and Dinosaur Jr. is worried that You’re Living All Over Me.

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

Chris' Comics Corner

The Avengers #11
Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: John Romita Jr.

"For the once and future Captain America will not let the world die this day."

Wow. That was easily the best issue of Bendis' run on the newly relaunched Avengers title to date, and I say that as a fan of the book and its current direction.

As the most epic and Avenger-y of the Avengers line of titles, Avengers needs to be the holy $#!% world ending crisis book, and from time itself breaking apart in the first arc, and the infinity gems being collected by a guy way over his head in the current story, Bendis has definitely delivered. Bendis juggles a huge cast here, but their presence is demanded by the stakes of the story he is telling, and he does a good enough job of giving small moments to a wide array of background players, as well as bigger moments for the stars of this story, namely The Hood, Thor, Hulk, Steve, Iron Man, and Xavier.

John Romita Jr. is one of those quintessential Marvel artists. His renditions of so many different characters are considered to be among some of their most iconic, so I can think of few artists better suited to drawing this very impressive assemblage of Avengers. Romita Jr. illustrates this issue almost entirely in splash pages. This is a technique I'm usually not a fan of as it is often used to unnecessarily pad an issue at the price of actual plot progression (I'm looking right at you New Avengers Vol. 1 Issue #16). However this time around, it really worked.

The big pages emphasized just what a big story this was. Each page moved the story along, and showcased jaw dropping, wide screen action sequences. And not having to draw multiple panels really allowed Romita Jr. to put the necessary details into the crowd shots that would have suffered had he needed to draw 6 different panels of about a dozen or so super heroes each page.

Bendis' usually verbose style is somewhat reigned in this issue. The Watcher's narration adds to the feeling that the stakes could not be any higher, and while the narration does at times spell things out the reader might've been able to infer, again, in this particular instance it actually kinda works, and highlights just how cool a lot of these characters are.

The issue ended on a phenomenal (and very satisfying) twist cliffhanger that I can confidently say will leave me counting down the weeks until the next issue drops.

Grade: A-

Thor #621
Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Pasqual Ferry and Salvador Larocca

"Hah 'Boy.' Only I get to call him that."

It really pains me to say this, but Thor #621 is a very disappointing conclusion to Fraction and Ferry's debut arc on the title. After four straight issues of build up showcasing just how bad-ass and unstoppable the World Eaters are, the actual showdown between them and the Asgardians couldn't have been more anti-climactic.

Between last issue, and this one, the fight lasted about an issue and a half, and most of that was Odin and the World Eater's king having a very static and slightly confusing grappling session. Fraction's solution to the crisis comes off as a deus ex machina because he didn't adequately establish and explain the "rules" he references in this issue. Yes he spent a lot of time in the first issue establishing how the World Tree was a way of interpreting reality, and how nature abhors a vacuum, but he never touched upon how the World Eaters moved between realms, how they were tied to the World Tree and thus trapped in it when it was severed, and how something like that could even be severed to begin with! Maybe this is something more die hard Thor fans can explain to me, but as a very intelligent, and longtime comics reader, I think the creative team has a problem on their hands if I'm lost at the end of their first, introductory story arc.

The solution also seems like it is too easily achieved, as there is only a handful of scenes showing Thor's attempt to sever the World Tree, and the art fails to make what should be an assembled horde of invaders look very horde like, and at times makes it very confusing to figure out what is vexing Thor, and what gives him his second wind. Pasqual Ferry is assisted by a rush finish job from Salvador Larocca which ends up doing no favors to either artist. Ferry has an inimitable style, and while Larocca is a great artist in his own right, his style is too realistic when contrasted against the fantastical visuals we've come to expect from Ferry and demanded by this story.

After the immensely cool idea of the Asgardian Blood Legion was introduced last issue, I was expecting much more in the way of fantastical Matt Fraction ideas of how gods would wage war, rendered beautifully by the fairy tale esque pencils of Pasqual Ferry. Instead of seeing the Asgardians and assembled creatures of the world tree battle for their very survival, we got Thor and Odin duking it out with a handful of invaders. That plus how quickly the battle is ended completely undercut the tension of the story and the menace of the antagonists so masterfully established in early chapters.

This arc really felt like it could have used an extra issue to make the battle feel as grand as it should have been, and with Fraction and Thor moving into a new title with a new #1, with a new artist (Mighty Thor, it's a jumping on point to coincide with the movie, Coipel's drawing the first arc, Ferry is back for the one after), there's no reason Marvel couldn't have let Ferry take all the time he needed to finish the story and make it look just as polished as its first act.

On a positive note, Fraction really knows how to write Asgardian dialogue, and the story ended on a really satisfying beat.

Grade: C-

Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #8
Publisher: DC
Writer: Peter Tomasi
Artist: Fernando Pasarin
Event Watch: War of the Green Lanterns Part 3

"…Beware MY freaking power--Guy Gardner's might!"

Well, three issues into DC's second biggest Summer blockbuster event and we've already stumbled. Not a good sign. This was a very exposition heavy issue serving mainly as a recap for things that readers of the GL books should already know. And if they didn't, well, there has to be a more artful and concise way of catching people up, cuz I've never had a fight quite as fact filled and informative as the one that Guy and Hal have in this issue.

Eventually the verbal argument gives way to fisticuffs, and I really hope this isn't the Hal and Guy schism that was foretold in prophecy over a year ago, because it just boils down to the influence of Paralax and a rehash of the fight between John and Kyle last issue. At the story's end Hal and Guy free themselves from Paralax's influence but are left in a situation possibly even more dire than that of John and Kyle.

Pasarin does a really nice job with the Green Lantern combat, however a few sequences were a little confusing, most notably at the beginning of the issue with the large number of Green Lanterns arriving to ambush Guy and Kilowog.

I really like Tomasi, and I've enjoyed the direction of this book, so I'm gonna chalk this issue's weaknesses up to Tomasi really wanting to catch readers up on the events of all the GL books before the real fireworks start in the crossover. Despite this weak opening chapter, I am still very excited to see where this story is going.

Grade: B-

Detective Comics #875
Publisher: DC
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Francesco Francavilla

Of the nine comics I purchased this week, four of them employed a heavy use of flashbacks. This one utilized the technique the best. While at first glimpse the flashbacks have little connection to the story in the present, they are none the less engaging and gripping. And by issue's end, the connection between past and present is revealed, and hits you like a punch to the gut.

Detective Comics splits it's focus between arcs centered on Dick Grayson's Batman illustrated by Jock, and standalone stories featuring Commissioner Gordon illustrated by Francavilla. This story is the latter, and I am really enjoying the narrative split, as both protagonists take different but equally fascinating approaches to their roles as Detectives, and Snyder adds in little elements to keep the stories connected despite the fact the both stand on their own exceedingly well.

I can think of few creative teams that do a better job of setting a mood of suspense and horror. Take the opening two pages which have no purpose in the story other to set the mood. The horrifying visual metaphor beautifully rendered by Francavilla, illustrates just how rotten a city Gotham really is and sets the proper tone for the rest of the issue. And I for one am really enjoying this Avian motif Snyder is sticking with. Francavilla really knows how to mix nostalgia, horror, and suspense to give Snyder's story the pacing and tone that it needs. His art is absolutely gorgeous. Retro, and noir tinged, you almost can't help but hear the soundtrack from your favorite old detective movies when you look at his spreads. I would particularly call your attention to the double page spread where Gordon's face fades into some of the more disturbing memories of his son. And I would be remiss in not mentioning Franavilla's color pallet which emphasizes bright blues and oranges to distinguish the different time periods and seasons, making these pages a feast for the eyes.

It's a real shame for Snyder and Francavilla that they are working on this book around the same time that Grant Morrison is still writing a bat book, because otherwise Detective would easily stand out as the best book of the line. As it is they will have to settle for a dead heat, in which some months Morrison's book, is the best bat book, and sometimes theirs is. And going toe to toe with Grant Morrison and holding one's own is no small feat indeed.

Grade: A-

Read more Chris' Comics Corner here

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review to Be Named Podcast #5: Matt Weiner vs. AMC

Sam, Jordan, and Ashley discuss the contract dispute that's keeping us from getting our Mad Men fix this summer, who's the real bad guy in this fight, whether Sally Draper will eventually trip on acid and throw herself out of a window, and manage to fit another reference to The West Wing into a completely unrelated podcast.

Got comments about this podcast, or questions you want Sam and Jordan to answer? Well let us know! Follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here), or shoot us an e-mail at

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Michael Bay

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“I know you’re new to the whole human experience, but there is one universal truth: you never give a woman your credit card!”-James McCord (Steve Buscemi), The Island

Michael Bay is a name not to be thrown out likely in circles of cinephiles. Widely disliked, and occasionally passionately despised, he is a director serious movie fans prefer to either dismiss or deride. In fact, I have often heard news of the commercial success of one of his films heralded as a sign of the end times of film as an artistic form. I did not choose to do a column on Michael Bay because I like his movies (that is certainly not the case), nor did I make the decision lightly. Some of his movies run nearly three hours, and, especially in the case of Pearl Harbor, that can be a torturous experience. I wanted to do a column on him in an effort to make a point about the auteur theory I don’t think I’ve communicated so far: it does not take quality into account. A director is called an auteur not because they make consistently good films, but that they make films that are consistent. In fact, in the early days of the theory, it was a common practice to examine a director’s worst films to see if the technical elements, personal flourishes, and thematic concerns remained consistent even if the film wasn’t very good. And so, in a flurry of masochism and to illustrate the point as best I know how, I have undertaken to peer beneath the smooth, shapeless veneer of Michael Bay’s films and examine them for the consistency that would be required to call the man, easily among my least favorite directors, an auteur.

I want to look at three aspects of his films, all shockingly easy to identify if you’ve watched any or all of them, and from those make the argument that Michael Bay should be considered an auteur, even though he should also be considered a manipulative, shallow, childish and misogynistic hack. That last point is probably as good a place as any to begin our examination of Bay as an auteur. For a man that traffics in blockbusters packed with gorgeous women and what I’m sure he would call “sexually charged situations,” Bay is surprisingly, even disconcertingly timid about the down and dirty practice of (dare I say it?) the sex. To Michael Bay, women never seem to become actual characters with actual motivations. In one of his films, women are objects: you can ogle them, sure, but you aren’t really supposed to have sex with them.

This is laid out very clearly in the Bad Boys series. The first one has Tea Leoni, whose best friend is a hooker she accompanies on a job and sees murdered (perhaps because she engages in the most shameful practice in a Michael Bay film), in a constant parade of shockingly short skirts and high heels. Objectified to an insulting degree throughout the movie, Leoni never actually has sex in the film. In fact, no one does. It is constantly referred to that Will Smith’s Mike Lowery has a lot of sex and is a total playboy (because that means he’s cool, right?) but we never see him have sex, nor is it implied that he has any during the movie. And his partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) just complains for the whole run time about how his wife never has sex with him. Burnett’s wife is one of my least favorite cinematic tropes (and one I have ranted about before), the shrewish wife who is so horrible to her husband there is no way he would ever stay married to her. Not only does she withhold sex from him, she does it because he has to work late. In Bay’s view, women are there to get in the way of you doing cool shit with your bros, not to actually have a real relationship with.

In Bad Boys II, super-player Mike Lowery has an actual girlfriend Syd (Gabrielle Union) but seems to only want to make out with her. And even that is too much for his partner, who just happens to be Syd’s brother. A subplot of the film is how angry Marcus gets at Mike for dating his sister. Fortunately, by the end of the movie he has made peace with the incredibly chaste relationship. This trend is almost perfectly exemplified by a scene in Bad Boys II where our heroes admire a dead woman’s fake breasts. The only nudity you will see in a Michael Bay film comes removed from any worry that you might actually have to have sex afterwards. The only time the two characters seem to be comfortable discussing breasts is once the woman possessing them is dead and they can be lewd over her corpse.

Whether they are pregnant wives left to worry about their adventurous husbands, like Vanessa Marcil in The Rock, sheltered daughters torn between their love for Dad and their desire to actually have an adult relationship like Liv Tyler in Armageddon (she’s also left on Earth while the men, and one shockingly de-sexualized woman go to blow up the big asteroid), or stuck doing a “woman’s job” like nursing until they get knocked up by a protagonist like Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor, the women in Bay’s films are caricatures at best, and objects the rest of the time.

Michael Bay deals with relationships like he’s a 14-year-old boy guessing what they might be. He’s too horny to deal with women as actual people, so the idea of them as naked objects takes over, but he’s also too immature to have put thought into what he might actually do if a willing girl showed up naked on his doorstep. Girls are still things of fantasy; dealing with them as sexual beings in and of themselves is uncomfortable if not just icky. Bay may be most like Lincoln Six Echo, Ewan McGregor’s character from The Island. He likes Scarlett Johansson obviously and from the very beginning, but because he’s a clone, his sex drive and knowledge of the act has been completely removed, so his attraction to her remains stunted and chaste for most of the film’s run time. He literally doesn’t know what sex is, which seems to be the best position for a Bay protagonist to be in (to be fair, McGregor and Johansson do actually have sex by the film’s end, but only right before he leaves her to go blow up some shit, in spite of the fact that she is a better fighter).

There is a slight shift in this in Bay’s last two movies, the first two installments in the probably endless Transformers series. Megan Fox actually gets to fight giant robots, date Shia LaBeouf (apparently she wants that), and care about being in an adult relationship (though by the definitions of the film, that means she wants LaBeouf to say “I love you”). As a counter balance to this nebulous progress, though, she is objectified far more than any other female lead, from being bent over the hood of a car in the first film to being even more bent over a motor cycle in the second one. I could probably write the rest of this column on the downright creepy state of arrested development Bay seems caught in when it comes to relationships, but instead, let’s look at some other signs of his stunted growth.

Michael Bay, like many a rebellious teenage boy, has trouble with authority figures. In Bad Boys, its internal affairs, who apparently wants to investigate our heroes for some vague and never really defined reason. Because this is a Michael Bay movie, the investigation never goes anywhere and what would be investigated is never really defined, but that isn’t really the point. Bay’s movies don’t have plots so much as they have some idea what a plot should look like; they are less concerned with conflict than with the fact that if somebody doesn’t start shooting at somebody soon, things might get boring. And if there’s one thing Bay never wants, it’s for a movie of his to get boring.

In The Rock, the whole plot is set in motion because Ed Harris’ army man decides to take over Alcatraz and hold San Francisco hostage in order to extort the government out of money they didn’t pay to the families of soldiers who died on black ops missions. Sure, Ed Harris takes 80 hostages and threatens to release biological weapons on a huge city to get what he wants, but this is only because Uncle Sam and all the greedy politicians in Washington refused to pay money to the families of dead soldiers. So who is really the bad guy? Also, John Mason (Sean Connery), the man who has the knowledge of Alcatraz needed to stop Harris, is a British spy illegally detained by the government because he knew too much.

In Armageddon, the only reason the world isn’t completely destroyed is because Bay’s heroes are a rag tag bunch of criminals and misfits who just won’t follow the rules, man. At one point, the President orders some general (Keith David, always fun to have around) to detonate the nuke on the asteroid, in spite of the fact that every scientist in the room is saying that will only kill everyone they sent up there and then ensure the destruction of mankind. Fortunately, head of NASA Billy Bob Thornton is a rebel who cuts communications to keep the bomb from detonating. Later, leader of the drill team Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) has to strangle the shuttle’s pilot (William Fitchner) for a while to keep him from blowing everybody up. The government, in Bay’s view, is full of selfish and stupid bureaucrats who will ruin everyone’s fun unless they are stopped. Even in Pearl Harbor where Bay has to go easy on the government because he’s constrained by reality, the polio-stricken and wheelchair bound Roosevelt has to literally stand up to force his cabinet to realize the severity of the attack.

The final tendency I want to discuss probably seems obvious, yet still needs to be laid out as a consistent aspect of Bay’s films: the “more is always better” approach he takes to making them. One can say a lot of terrible things about Bay’s movies, and I have, but the charge it is most difficult to levy against him is that his movies are boring (with the exception of Pearl Harbor, because Jesus that movie is long and boring). His movies are over-stuffed with action to the point of sheer gluttony. The Island plays out like a two hour long chase scene, with barely enough time for exposition between all of the car chases and exploding helicopters. Before things even really get going in The Rock (which is my pick, if forced, for Bay’s best movie, a nearly meaningless distinction akin to picking out the rotting food that tastes the best) we have an attack on a military base, a bomb scare, and an insane and ridiculously long car chase through the streets of San Francisco that has so little to do with the actual plot, it might have been thrown in there because Bay realized the movie would be too short without it.

Michael Bay is so successful, in my estimation, not because he makes good movies (he clearly doesn’t) but because he makes consistent movies. When a Michael Bay movie is released, if you go to see it you know exactly what you’ll get. You know there won’t be any plot to speak of, sure, but you also know you’ll see scantily clad women, gun fights, car chases, and explosions. And perhaps just as importantly, you know you’ll see A LOT of all of that. Bay makes terrible movies, and though I’ve never met the man personally, an analysis of his work tells me he’s probably not a great human being. He’s immature, simplistic, misogynistic, shallow, and by all measures, a hack but his movies are absolutely and completely his. The mind behind Armageddon, Bad Boys, The Island, and Transformers may be a simple one, but what it puts up on the screens is a personal expression, whether we like it or not. Michael Bay’s movies have personality, even though that personality is one that I fervently dislike and wish didn’t exist. I don’t love any of his movies (though I can definitely say that some are more enjoyable than others), but I see why so many people do. You know what you’re going to get when you see a Michael Bay movie, and he delivers it so consistently, it is impossible not to consider the man an auteur.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

Note: Whose Film Is It Anyway? will go on indefinite hiatus after these final three installments.

4/10:Aaron Sorkin

4/24: Christopher Nolan

5/8: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Random Pop Culture Question of the Week: Cliches We Still Enjoy

Random Pop Culture Question of the Week is a bi-weekly journey into the headspace of the Review to Be Named gang, in which a pop-culture question is posed, answers are sought, and discussions are generated about issues and hypotheticals from throughout the realm of pop culture.

This week’s question comes from our own Jordan, who asked,
What tired trope or overused cliche still works for you? What keeps it fresh or funny or affecting enough that it doesn’t annoy you even with endless repetition?
With that question in mind, here are the responses from several Review to Be Named contributors. Comment and let us know what we missed!


As the resident comics contributor, I’ll offer up a comics related answer. The trope that I will always love and probably never tire of is “the old order changeth” issue, or the team gathering issue. What I’m referring to is a common practice in team books such as The Avengers, or The Teen Titans, where most of an issue, (usually the first issue of a new creative team’s tenure on a title, or if it is a new book, the #1 issue, or first story arc) is devoted to a character or small group of characters going around to gather the various members that will comprise the team. Yes these issues tend to be pretty formulaic and if you’ve read one, you definitely have a good idea of what to expect from every subsequent type story, but I for one always enjoy these team building stories and probably always will. It’s a great opportunity to introduce your characters to new readers, to tease what the team dynamic will be for the series, and it allows the writer to really explore the strengths and flaws of their characters in justifying why they are right for or why they want to (or don’t want to) be on said team.

One of my favorite examples of this type of story is Brad Meltzer’s first arc on Justice League of America. This arc featured Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman sitting down in the Batcave with a head shot of just about every superhero running around the DCU to have an extensive conversation about just who should be invited to join the new Justice League. All the while, a mysterious villain sets events in motion that attracts the attention of a number of other heroes who come together by following the threads of a larger conspiracy. A lot of fans panned this arc as a boring snooze fest, and yes, there really wasn’t a lot of action to speak of until the arc’s penultimate sixth issue, but I for one don’t really ascribe to that kind of thinking. Yes I like a great action sequence, but even more I enjoy good character work. And seeing the DCU's most iconic heroes thoroughly analyzing and debating their peers lead to a whole lot of great character insights both about the heroes they were discussing and about the big three themselves. But a new Justice League was already forming without their assistance, and as we saw Green Lantern, Black Canary, and Arsenal (a twist on the usual trio of GL, Black Canary, and Green Arrow) chase down leads on their missing teammate Red Tornado, of Vixen's determination to retrieve the source of her powers after getting sucker punched by a couple C level villains, Meltzer revealed why these characters deserved to be in the League, and just how much chemistry they would possess as a team.

Since this was my question, I feel like I should have a direct, simple answer. Yet frequent readers of this blog should know by now that brevity is not my strong suit, so instead I have three answers this week. Deal with it.

First off, I will never get tired of that joke from old time-y movies and children’s entertainment in which a group of people running from the antagonist run one way down a hall and then immediately run back the other way. This comes up most often in Muppet movies and Scooby Doo, but no matter how many times I see it, I will always laugh. It’s just so completely absurd that I never get tired of it.

Next, because I’m a huge softy, I have to admit that the big speech at the end of a romantic comedy will pretty much always get to me, even if the movie isn’t very good (and a whole lot of them aren’t very good). My go to for a great example is the ending of When Harry Met Sally, but you can see examples of this in pretty much every romantic comedy ever made. Sure, it is a complete cliché, but something about the grand romantic gesture just warms my heart, whether I even like the rest of the movie it’s in.

Finally, I know I’m supposed to find the blatant anachronism jokes in shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and the British series Life on Mars (which I’m watching as we speak) really annoying, but mostly I just find them funny. When Mad Men does its “hey, weren’t things different in the ‘60s?” schtick (whether it makes the joke about everyone’s alcoholism or blatant misogyny) I generally just chuckle, probably because things were different then. From a critical perspective I know these are cheap jokes and that an over-reliance on them is bad writing, but it’s a dumb joke that for some reason just connects with me.


It didn’t take much thinking for me to find my answer. I will (most likely) never get sick of the tried and true trope of the Bad Boy who’s actually just a damaged softy. This is, of course, not at all surprising if you know me and my affinity for this type in real life. But for me, there’s something special in a guy with a hard edge who is actually just emotionally devastated from something in his past. Extra points if said man rides a motorcycle or is an artist or possesses startling intellect or comes from the wrong side of the tracks or forms an adorably endearing bond with a cute animal or child. Tears can help, but only in moderation, because there’s really nothing sexy about a cry baby.

For me personally, this goes back to James Dean and Marlon Brando, who both, really, were just sex on legs. I’m also thinking Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, and even Robert Pattinson in the much maligned (but really not so bad) Remember Me. While this character archetype is pretty typical in shitty RomComs, I swear I buy into it every time.


For this question I had to dig deep because, as I thought about which tropes I really enjoy, I came up empty. First let me get my secondary answer out of the way. I still have a soft spot for the buddy cop movie. One cop is by the book and the other is a rogue who is days away from retirement. They hate each other at the start of the movie and by the closing credits they’re like family. Still get a kick out of it from the likes of Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour. That’s a fun time at the movies as far as I’m concerned. But the trope that I really do love belongs to television.

The “will-they, won’t-they”, when employed with writers who have at least some foresight in terms of planning their show, makes me very happy. Maybe it’s a cheap way to get the audience invested in characters but it provides real emotional development over the course of a long period of time that works best in long form narratives like a television program. The best examples of this, off the top of my head are Jim and Pam on The Office and their original British counterparts Tim and Dawn, April and Andy on Parks and Rec, (kinda) David and Keith from Six Feet Under and lastly Donna and Josh from The West Wing. There are many others (Ross and Rachel) that I don’t really care about either because I didn’t watch the program or it was sloppily handled. But a good “will-they, won’t they” is a television trope I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twelve

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“With Rain Dogs [Waits] dropped his bedraggled lounge-piano act and fused outside influences—socialist decadence by way of Kurt Weill, pre-rock integrity from old dirty blues, the elegiac melancholy of New Orleans funeral brass—into a singularly idiosyncratic American style.”-Rolling Stone

“Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah.”-Tom Waits, to guitarist Marc Ribbon

“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”-The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’”

The Warlocks formed in 1965 after the splintering of a Palo Alto, California based jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. They played their unheralded first show in Menlo Park on May 5, 1965. A few people were there, but no one, the band included, remembers what they played that day. As The Warlocks got their quiet start in northern California, 3,000 miles away, another band calling themselves The Warlocks was getting their start in a high school auditorium in New Jersey. Maybe it was the magic of the name, but more likely it was the magic of the music. Because the names didn’t stick, you see. The east coast band would soon become The Velvet Underground . The west coast incarnation changed their name too, and debuted in San Jose, California on December 4, 1965 at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests with their new name: The Grateful Dead.

I’ve talked before in this column about our tendency to mythologize musicians and about how music can become a personal journey for the listener (that, in fact, is probably the none too subtle theme of pretty much every installment of My Year in Lists), but we haven’t yet really explored the idea of music as a journey for the musician. Perhaps that’s because it’s so obvious a point to make, but if I’ve learned anything from higher education, it’s that sometimes the obvious has to be said (and sometimes it has to be said for 20 pages, but I won’t subject you, dear readers, to anything that tedious). Music is an intensely personal medium, and when we connect to a particular album or artist, it can feel like they are making music just for us. It can feel like they are singing the songs of our souls.

But they aren’t. Sorry to burst your bubbles, kids, but unless you are the personal muse of some rock demigod (and if so, you should totally let me know about that), the music your favorite band is making is not about you, at least not explicitly. When I say music is a personal medium, I do mean that everyone takes their favorite music very personally, but more importantly, I mean that like all great art, music is a form of personal expression for the artist. If you happen to deeply connect with a band or a piece of music, that’s great, and that means the artist has done their job of expressing themselves in a relatable way. Yet while from a commercial standpoint connecting with a large audience is the point of making music, from an artistic standpoint it’s just one of the perks. The real purpose of music is to communicate feelings, ideas, worldviews, or experiences, to allow the artist to take what they’re thinking, seeing, and feeling, and transform it into a piece of art. And if people understand and connect to that, all the better.

Over the course of most artist’s careers, there will be an evolution (or in some cases a devolution)in the way that they express themselves, and probably in the way that they think about and experience the world. For any person or band who makes music for years or even decades, there are bound to be changes in style, substance, and sonic construction. In this way (and in many others) music is a journey for the people making it far more than it is for those listening to it. Band’s put their lives into the creation of music, and the journey that takes them on can often become their life.

That was certainly the case for the first members of The Grateful Dead, banjo and guitar player (and later ice cream flavor inspirer) Jerry Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Kreutzman. This core lineup (with the exception of McKernan) would stay with the band until the end, when Garcia died in 1995. For thousands of fans (called Dead Heads, for those not in the know), this band documented the journey of their lives (don’t believe me? Just Wikipedia any song by The Grateful Dead and see that the page tells you how many times the band played that song in concert over the course of their career), but over its three decades together, The Grateful Dead went on a personal journey. The band’s fans were welcome to come along, but they shouldn’t forget whose journey they were on.

The band released their self-titled debut in 1967. Three years later they released their fifth album, and Collin’s pick this week, American Beauty. The band began recording the album in August of 1970, just months after the completion of Workingman’s Dead. Following in the footsteps of that album, American Beauty is an innovative mix of bluegrass, rock, folk, and country that comes across as wholly original.

The opening track “Box of Rain,” was written by Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter and sung by Lesh, the first Grateful Dead song that featured him as lead vocalist. The music was written by Lesh because he wanted a song to sing to his dying father. Hunter claims the lyrics basically wrote themselves when he heard the song, which Lesh would practice singing as he drove to visit his father, who had terminal cancer. “Box of Rain” would be the last song the band ever performed live, the final encore at a concert in Chicago on July 9, 1995, shortly before Jerry Garcia’s death.

“Friend of the Devil” is an insanely catchy folk song about a criminal on the run from the police who gets a little help from Satan in his escape, only to find himself trailed by both Satan and the law as he flees home. This remains the band’s most covered song, and Hunter once commented, “that was the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.”

“Ripple” has more of a country feel to it, and quotes multiple times from the 23rd Psalm of the Bible (which somehow didn’t quell the anger of offended Christian groups who claimed for years after that the band was in league with Satan due in large part to “Friend of the Devil”). It was released as a B-side to the album’s single “Truckin’” which was recognized by the Library of Congress in 1997 as a national treasure. Written by Garcia, Weir, Lesh and lyricist Hunter, “Truckin’” is an apex of the Dead’s rhythms and instrumentations with lyrics referencing a raid in the French Quarter of New Orleans that resulted in the arrest of 19 people for drug possession, including the band. Their concert the next night was performed after the band posted bail. All charges were later dropped, except those against sound engineer Owsley Stanley, who was already charged with LSD production in California. The band uses their own troubles here as a metaphor for the constant changes and unpredictable nature of life.

While The Grateful Dead were forming bonds to last a lifetime in America, German band Kraftwerk were having some unity problems. Members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother split from the band in 1971, leaving to form their own band, NEU! in Düsselfdorf. NEU! was not commercially successful during its existence, but is retrospectively recognized as o ne of the founding fathers of krautrock (which would make a very interesting, if dissonant, Ken Burns special).

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in Hamburg, Germany in December of 1971. The opening track “Hallogallo” (a play on the German term for “wild partying” and the german word for “hello”) debuts Dinger’s motorik beat, a 4/4 drumbeat with only occasional interruptions. The album is filled with experimental electronic, with interludes that involve heavy tones of ambience.

“Sonderagebot” focuses more on ambience and brief interludes of noise, while “Weissensee” is more conventionally melodic. On first listen, NEU! didn’t do much for me sonically, but over the course of the week I came to identify with a lot of the subtle beats and intonations throughout its run. The album mixes early ideas of electronic music with ambience in a fusion that creates a more tangible feeling than some of the ambient music we have encountered so far (I’m looking at you, La Monte Young).

Still, it’s hard not to see their follow up, NEU! 2 (sadly not subtitled “The Squeakquel”) as sonically superior. Recorded in January of 1973 in Hamburg, the album feels like an improvement over its predecessor in virtually every way. The opening track, “Für Immer” can be translated as “Forever,” yet unlike some of the 11 minute tracks Tab has presented me with so far this year, it doesn’t seem to last that long. Instead, it has a constant propulsive energy combining the Motorik sound of Dinger’s drums and layered guitars by Rother into a droning (in the best sense) harmonic structure.

“Spitzenqualitat” also drifts away (slightly) from the electronic base of the band for a more traditional rock feel, bringing Dinger’s drumming to the forefront and leaving the electronic experimentations as complementary background noise. “Lila Engel” is a track ahead of its time, and would have be listed among the band’s most influential songs. Adding a vocal component to the music, it sounds very much like what we’ve already encountered from the late ‘70s, be it Joy Division or early Talking Heads. The track is more traditionally melodic than most of the rest of the band’s work, and in taking that step, the band managed a prescient sound that wouldn’t really be replicated for several years.

The band ran into financial trouble and had no money left to record the second side of their album, so they tried a risky venture that was critically decried at the time, yet would become one of the band’s most influential contributions to the music industry. They simply took their previously released single “Neuschnee/Super,” manipulated it at various playback speeds and created the now ubiquitous “remix” that today accompanies pretty much any pop single’s release. I am not, as a rule, a huge fan of remixes (they tend to feel redundant to me) but much of the album’s second side works and all of it certainly fits within the experimental aesthetic of the band. Of the bunch, “Neuschnee 78” and “Super 78” with their elevated speeds come off the best, though “Neuschnee” sounds almost as good as it’s sped up counterpart. “Cassetto,” which was the remix mangled in a cassette recorder works better as an idea than as a song, but even at its roughest, the halting repetitive track is almost hypnotic. NEU! went out on a limb due pretty much solely to financial straits and came away with a qualified success, a very strong album that has influenced numerous bands and the music industry as a whole.

I don’t know if the last five weeks we’ve spent analyzing krautrock have brainwashed me a bit or if NEU! is a band I will return to often in the months to come, but both albums are inventive, interesting, and immensely listenable once you land on the band’s sound wave. NEU! had a significant influence on David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, PiL, Joy Division, Gary Numan, Simpleminds, Radiohead, and much of the genre of electronic music, and in the process certainly changed my mind about (at least some) electronic and ambient music.

One aspect of mainstream music (and in fact, the aspect that makes it mainstream music) is its accessibility, yet this is not always the case with “alternative” music. In fact, the reason the label was created in the first place is because of the music’s tendency to be a few steps outside the mainstream. Such is the case with Tom Waits, whose voice is often the first barrier to people who hear his music. Critic Daniel Durchholz describes it as sounding, “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in a smoke house for a few months, then taken outside and run over with a car.” Waits is known for incorporating blues, jazz, and vaudeville styles into his music and occasionally lapses into experimental music verging on industrial.

Waits started singing and writing music at the age of 16 in 1965, but we will be examining him well into his career, after he had found his footing and turned out a string of phenomenal albums. In 1980, Waits married screenwriter Kathleen Brennan, who has often co-written with him subsequently and who he cites as the major influence on all his subsequent work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, who also became a huge influence on Waits’ work after 1980.

By the mid-1980’s, Waits was shifting away from the traditional piano-and-strings ballads of his ‘70s work and towards styles usually ignored in pop music, like primal blues, cabaret stylings, rumbas, theatrical flourishes, tango, early country, folk and Tin Pan Alley-era songs. By the time he reached 1985 and released Ashley’s pick this week, Rain Dogs, he was experimenting widely without ever stretching too far and becoming unlistenable.

A loose concept album about “the urban dispossessed” or New York City, Rain Dogs is the middle installment of Waits’ trilogy of masterpieces, between 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1987’s Franks Wild Years. The sonic narrative of Rain Dogs is equivalent to the perfect whiskey bender: beginning in a dark and seedy bar with black intent and shadows permeating your soul, and traveling down the spiral from shielded cynicism to wounded romanticism like all the best bender’s do. The opening tracks have the feel of a back alley carnival from Hell on a dark night, but by the album’s close, the sun has started to rise and hope has just barely begun to permeate the sorrow.

“Singapore,” the album’s opening track is a pitch-black sailor’s journey that literally sounds like a weary man of the sea scouring the bar to put together a ragtag crew for a very dark and spooky journey he prepares to embark on. “Cemetary Polka” doesn’t lighten up the sound a bit, and is a story about war profiteering by some very shady characters, with enough accordion to sound like a street bazaar from Hell.

“Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore” are songs you might hear in a dimly lit club of just the right sort at 2 am. Darkly melodic and passionately propulsive, the first is another of Waits’ dark stories about death, murder, and the devil’s work, while the second is a song about the redemptive power of the tango to a crowd of people who may not deserve the benediction they gain.

“Hang Down Your Head,” the only song on the album not solely written by Waits (he co-wrote it with Kathleen Brennan) is the turning point of the album, a more upbeat, if still sorrowful request for another chance based off the old song “Tom Dooley” with lyrics altered but melody remaining consistent. “Time” feels like the type of song Waits was singing in the ‘70s, a quiet ballad that foretells the different direction the album will take on its second side.

As a rule, side two is (slightly) less dark in its subject matter, as if the night is slowly melting away and hope begins to poke through the darkness, though sorrow remains at the heart of the music. The title track opens side two with a lighter, more accessible look at Waits’ nightmarish storyteller side, with the pitch-black sensibility intact but the melody allowing for a but more playfulness than the opening tracks of the album suggested.

Waits has remarked that “Blind Love” is one of his first country songs, a simple ballad positing that the “only kind of love is blind love.” Waits is never better than when he sounds like a wounded romantic trying to work through his emotional scars and find a way back to happiness, as he does here. If this is what country is supposed to sound like, I may have to give the genre another try. “Walking Spanish” is pure fun, a catchy jazz beat that finds Waits talk-singing over a standard jazz improvisation.

“Downtown Train” has become one of his most well known songs, mostly due to the hit cover by Rod Stewart. It’s a simple love song, a plea for the chance to take the titular train to see a beloved late at night. The album closes with “Anywhere I lay My Head,” giving off the feeling that the protagonist has finally found peace. The song, and the album, end with a riff on New Orleans style funeral brass; things must end, but maybe there can be a joy even in that.

Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 14, 2011, accepting the award by saying, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with…like it’s a bad thing.” He has also announced that he has begun work on his next studio album. Waits may have made it to the Hall of Fame, but for him that’s just one more stop on his journey.

Music can move us all, whether we serve as the guides or get taken along on the ride of our lives. Music is a form of expression and a form of understanding. Music is simultaneously the soundtrack to our lives and the journey itself that each of us is on, heading ever forward into uncertain territory with only our past as a guide.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Led Zeppelin can count to IV, I get to retire my umlaut as we return to the United States to Meet The Residents and let them ask us Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? and we hear some bad news when The Smiths tell us The Queen is Dead.

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Jordan's Review: 30 Rock, Season 5, Episode 18: Plan B

When 30 Rock is firing on all cylinders, there is pretty much nothing that can stand in its way. It becomes an almost perfectly timed dance of absurdism, slinging great plot lines and one liners like there's no tomorrow and never missing a beat. After last season's slope in quality, season five of the show has been a return to form, and "Plan B" is an almost perfect episode. I laughed so many times tonight I probably missed some jokes. This was a marvel to see, and just a blast to behold.

Tracy's African sojourn has gone on too long for the higher ups at Kabletown (for those who don't know, Morgan's absence these past few weeks has been necessary for health reasons) and TGS is put on "forced hiatus," a studio executive term for cancelled. As the staff flees to find other jobs, Liz realizes that she has no back up plan and that her agent has nothing for her since he caters almost exclusively to dogs. There are some great high minded jokes about how undervalued writers are in our society (including a stellar Aaron Sorkin cameo in which he delivers a walk and talk and prepares to prostrate himself for a gig), but mostly the plot allows for a lot of weirdness to creep in, which makes for some great stuff. My personal favorite is Kenneth's idea journal, which consists only of "bird internet."

The real gold here though is in the return of the always phenomenal Will Arnett as Jack's nemesis Devon Banks, who has lost his edge and become a house husband and father of gaybies. Anytime Alec Baldwin and Will Arnett get on screen together it is pure comic gold, a brilliant and lightning fast exchange of insanities and ego that is never less than hysterical. Jack hatches a scheme to save his new gay aimed network TWINKS (Television With Individuals Kinky Shaved) by hiring Devon to run things, knowing he will keep his nemesis on a short leash. Devon is at first reluctant, but soon leaps into action, impressing the CEO of Kabletown wit his baby and landing a promotion immediately. But Devon, unlike Jack, doesn't want to leave his family for his job. There's maybe a sliver of a moral here, which isn't necessarily the best territory for 30 Rock, as Jack decides to spend more time with his daughter, but mostly the show just lets Donaghy be Donaghy, out foxing Devon and winning the day, and it is a joy to watch.

30 Rock is great at what it does, and when its at its best, there's pretty much no stopping it. There's never too much to say about the best episodes of this show, beyond that its just hysterical, an endlessly enjoyable half hour of television that made me a little sad when it was over. Or maybe those were just tears from all the laughter.

Grade: A


-Thursday night is just an incredible night for comedy. Community, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Archer and Eagleheart all in one night (not to mention the stellar late night line-up of The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Conan that is on every night, but included in my Thursday line-up), and this was a great night for all of those shows. I actualyl hurt from laughter by the end.

-"I'm doing God's work here in Africa. Just yesterday I kicked two naked people out of a garden!"

-"Excuse me, GI, do you miss your girlfriend? I'm good at math." "So its not offensive."

-"If you can get through the audition without pooping, its yours."

-"Remember when a movie was just a fellow with a hat running away from a fella with no hair? "...No..."

-"Studio 60?" "Shut up."

-"Listen lady, a gender I write very well when the story calls for it, we make horse drawn carriages and the first Model t just rolled into town." Either Sorkin wrote his own cameo or the writers aped his style incredibly well.

-"These aren't babies..They're organ farms..."

-"The VC was everywhere, yes they were yes they were..."

-"I brought the sexy one too. His cheekbones are like granite."

"Its a toilet or a woman. Whatever you want it to be!"

-"Come, we live under the subway with the CEO of Friendster."

-"You want to party? Its $500 for kissing, $10,000 for snuggling."

Jordan's Review: Community, Season 2, Episode 19: Critical Film Studies

Community is a show about a group of people coming together, forming a family and trying to grow into better people. The show's second season has done excellent work making many of the "supporting" characters in the ensemble into more fully fledged characters and allowing everyone the space to develop. We've had Troy episodes and Pierce episodes, Annie episodes and Shirley episodes, and even a few Britta and Jeff episodes to boot. We've had some Abed heavy episodes this season (I would call "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" and of course "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" his moments in center stage this year), but for the most part he has stuck more to the background. Tonight, Abed got the chance to shine.

Abed is probably a difficult character for the show to write. He clearly has some issues (possibly an undiagnosed case of high functioning autism, as the show has alluded to before and does again tonight) and generally connects only through pop culture references. This makes him an ideal character for any time the show wants to do an arch take on a genre or rolls out a well used trope--Abed gets to be the character in those instances who comes right out and says what the show is getting at, giving it a meta layer (and sometimes two or three of them). Yet this also makes him some steps apart from the show's general themes and arcs. Every other character in the group is on a path toward becoming a better person, but as Abed himself pointed out tonight he, by his nature, stays exactly the same.

So to do an episode about Abed making progress (or, really, feigning it because he knows he can't really change that much), the show had to take the character somewhere he'd be comfortable. They had to put him in an elaborate homage. This episode was billed as the Pulp Fiction episode of Community, and sure, we got to see the cast in silly Pulp Fiction costumes and some great jokes about wanting to see what's in the briefcase, but this wasn't really a Pulp Fiction episode. It was a My Dinner with Andre episode. The show couldn't bill itself as such because most people (myself included) haven't seen My Dinner with Andre, yet this was a great way to deal with Abed's immobility and yet give him a chance to really connect. The conversation between Jeff and Abed is really great stuff, funny and moving and with a sense of realism that also doesn't take away from the homage that let's Abed have his "first adult conversation." It may all be an elaborate charade, but I think this really was Abed's first actual conversation. To get there he had to dress it up as a movie homage, but Abed and Jeff really connected.

This isn't one of the laugh-a-minute episodes of Community. The humor here comes more from strange pay offs to really long monologues being played entirely straight. Abed's monologue about Cougar Town was both profound and really, really silly. By the time he was declaring that he had pooped himself on the set at the "death" of the character he was playing (and the way he talked about it like the show was set in a place called Cougar Town) I was laughing really hard at the sheer absurdity, regardless of the fact that he was playing it totally state. In fact, it was funnier that way. And Jeff's slow, faltering confessions about his deep insecurities and fears that he isn't pretty enough were real and touching too...But the idea that he calls phone sex operators and pretends to be 400 pounds and once went trick or treating dressed as an Indian princess and didn't corrent people about his gender because they thought he was pretty is funny, even while its really sad. This was a dark episode of Community, but one of my favorite things about the show is that it can do episodes of so many types. This was a new style for the show to tackle, and it did so with shocking verve for how different it was from the standard.

I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say again that one of the reasons this show can get away with zombie apocalypses and claymation episodes is because it does episodes like this that remind us of the real heart that lies behind the show even when it gets wacky. If every season of this show can turn out a few half hours as powerful as "Cooperative Calligraphy," "Mixology Certification," and yes, "Critical Film Studies" it can get away with whatever zaniness it wants to throw out in the interim because I believe in these characters and in their relationships with one another. This is the episode where we see how close Jeff and Abed are, where Jeff's "cool" facade comes down and he reveals the damaged man behind it, because he trusts Abed as his friend. And he accepts Abed as well. When Abed opens up about his fear that he will be left behind because he cannot change like his friends, Jeff reassures him that he loves Abed and that he considers them close friends. Abed wanted a conversation, but more than that, he wanted a night with a friend he was afraid he was growing distant from, and so he constructed that the only way he knew how: by creating an homage to a movie about a guy who fears he is growing estranged from his friend.

Community does a lot of high concept episodes, and to an extent, this is one of them. Sure, on one level this is a long My Dinner with Andre episode. But on another level, on the one I think counts, this is an episode about what it means to be a friend, and the simple, beautiful humanity that can be found in that kind of connection.

Grade: A


-I like the touch of Britta working in the diner, but I also got the feeling this episode, as I have a lot this season, that the show doesn't really know what to do with her right now. Hopefully, they'll figure that out soon.

-"I'm hot and my balls are touching a zipper!"

-"Am I the hero or the love interest?"

-"Its a thirty minute film where the heroes like dancing, cheese burgers, and the Bible."

-"Chad had lived, Jeff. Chad had lived more than Abed."

-"He seduced me with his dark Chinese powers."

-"I doubt I'll ever forget my My Dinner with Andre dinner with Abed." Nor will I.

-"They said market price. What market are you shopping at?"

Chris' Comics Corner

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #156
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Event Watch: Death of Spider-Man Part 1

"Not again."

This issue marks two important milestones for this title. The first, of course, is the reunion of the creative team currently holding the record for longest uninterrupted run on a single title (this one as a matter of fact). Yes, Bendis and Bagley are reunited and it feels so good. Ultimate Spider-Man has had the good fortune of showcasing a number of very, very talented artists. But Mark Bagley was there first, and his style will always be the high water mark to which others are measured. From his expressive depiction of Peter and Mary Jane's flirty interaction in the diner, to his lithe and agile wall crawler following Captain America into battle, Bagley showcases all of the strengths that make him a quintessential Spider-Man artist.

The second milestone is that this issue is the first official chapter of the "Death of Spider-Man" storyline (following what seemed like a year's worth of preludes and prologues). And while the creative team positively hums together, I can't help but feel a bit let down by this issue. Bendis scripts the hell out of the exchanges between Peter and MJ, and Peter and Steve Rogers. Bendis knows these characters well, and it is to his credit that as always he makes the dialogue, clever, engaging, and natural.

However the rest of this issue, namely the scenes at the Triskelion felt like very familiar rehashes of material from previous arcs: "Ultimate Six" and "Death of A Goblin". Certain beats play out almost exactly as they did in those stories, I even think a couple lines were reused.

I also have mixed feelings on the resurrection that occurs in this issue, first, because in a story entitled the "Death of Spider-Man", starting things off with a resurrection doesn't really lend gravity to the situation if the story is really going where Marvel wants us to think it's going. Secondly, while it is nice to see the return of an A-list character in the Ultimate Universe which has said goodbye to so, so many other A-list characters recently, if this is all we're going to get from him, I don't see why Dr. Octopus couldn't have been the driving force behind this arc instead of the character who returns. The Ultimate Clone Saga set Doc Ock up nicely as Peter's true arch nemesis as none of his other big bads ever came close to wounding Peter the way that Octavius did in that story.

I'm ecstatic Bendis and Bagley are back together, but this story is going to have to start treading new ground fast if it is to become the blockbuster that Bendis and Marvel are touting it as.

Grade: B (I was gonna go with a B-, but damn if I'm not just THAT happy to see Bagley back on this book.)

FF #1
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Steve Epting
Publisher: Marvel

"Everyone! Prepare for spatial tunneling… We have to find some new ideas."

The Fantastic Four is no more. In it's place stands the Future Foundation. Reed, Sue, and Ben are joined by their children Franklin and Valeria Richards, a whole group of super intelligent youngsters from various species, an android Dragon, Alex Power (from the power pack), Nathaniel Richards (Reed's long lost time traveling father and genius in his own right), the Amazing Spider-Man, and a surprise final addition who makes their presence known in a fantastic twist ending to this stellar debut issue.

Whole lotta character running through a book which used to boast one of the smallest teams in comics. And you know what? It really works. The more dangerous super heroics are still handled by the core group of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Thing, and Spider-Man, but Four Freedoms Plaza has a lot of new faces running around it. While this new group is more of a think tank, the familial tone that defines these characters and this title (be it a Fantastic Four book by any other name…) is still front and center, especially in the scene where the whole group sits down to dinner together.

I especially like the generational aspect now that Reed's dad has been thrown into the mix. Reed is used to being the final word on most science related situations, and also the patriarch of his clan. Having his equally brilliant father present is sure to alter this dynamic and opens the door to some interesting dramatic situations to explore. It was also nice to see the exchange between the three generations of Richards geniuses: Nathan, Reed, and Valeria.

Steve Epting is really getting a chance to shine on this book. His art has this very classic feel to it but with a darker, edgier undertone to it. I think that's exactly what this book needs right now. The death of Johnny is still weighing very heavily on everyone, especially Ben and Franklin, and the absence of the Human Torch makes the danger seem that much more palpable. Epting's pages have that clean, traditional super hero feel but there is also sadness in his characters, and maybe a hint of a forboding atmosphere throughout the whole issue. I think a lot of credit there should go to Epting and fellow inker Rick Magyar who just drenches certain sequences in much needed tone setting shadow.

If I had one complaint it would be the reintroduction of the Wizard as a villain, seeing how this book has been all about new ideas and looking to the future, and how the Fantastic Four's easy dismissal of him in Hickman's first issue set the tone for his run to date. However who am I to argue with the master plan that I know Jonathan Hickman possesses, I'm sure in the long run I will end up praising this move as sheer and utter brilliance.

The issue ends on a huge cliffhanger that is sure to lead to some major fire works next month, and undoubtedly throughout the year. As epic as it felt at the time, reading this issue makes me feel like Hickman's run on Fantastic Four, was just rearranging the pieces and setting things in motion for the true epic narrative to begin. This is a fantastic (couldn't resist) relaunch issue, and given the promise shown in this #1 as well as Hickman's previous work, this book will be a strong contender for my favorite series of 2011.

Grade: A

Green Lantern #64
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Publisher: DC
Event Watch: War of the Green Lanterns Part 1

"I turned your Manhunters against the Universe. Now it's time to do the same with your Green Lanterns."

Wow, this issue goes full throttle start to finish, and if you think things look bad for Hal at the beginning of the book, just wait till you get to the end.

I really have to commend DC for keeping a lot of the details of this story close to the vest. In the internet age where most story premises are leaked long before the books hit the shelves, I had surprisingly little pre-knowledge of this story or why the Green Lantern Corps would be going to war with itself (other than that it would have something to do with the mad guardian, Krona).

This issue picks up with Salaak being tasked to lead a group of Green Lanterns to arrest Hal for neglecting his duties, and conspiring with the leaders of the other various powered Corps. Things go from bad to worse when Krona makes his move against Oa and the Guardians of the Universe. Going into this story, I wondered how Johns could possibly top the enormously high challenges and stakes he established in Blackest Night. One issue in, I can confidently say, that won’t be a problem.

This issue marks a return to form for Johns. While his stories are as engaging and exciting as ever, I've noticed his dialogue suffering a little bit in recent months (possibly a result of the demands of his new day job as chief creative officer for DC comics). However, he is most definitely on his game this issue with the exception of one slightly expository exchange between Hal and Sinestro.

Doug Mahnke really gets to cut loose drawing aliens, alien worlds, and strange powers. His art dances over a wonderful line between high adventure and dark horror, which perfectly suits the subject matter of this title. He uses a number of splashes and spreads that really underscore the immensity of the plot developments but compensates by packing a lot of panels onto the other pages. Trust me, while any other artist's work might have felt cluttered using this technique, Mahnke's pages feel fast paced and packed with story.

This event is off to a very promising start, I look forward to seeing hot it develops, and how our favorite GL's of Sector 2814 weather this nasty new storm.

Grade: A-

Green Lantern Corps #58
Writer: Tony Bedard
Artist: Tyler Kirkham
Puslbisher: DC
Event Watch: War of the Green Lanterns Part 2

"Did you think it an accident I granted you the last power ring?"

And I didn't have to wait very long, because part 2 also went on sale this week. I don't normally buy this book, but I'm picking it up for the crossover with it's two sister titles which I do buy regularly. I have to say I am impressed by Bedard's handling of these characters and I think he is definitely capable of holding his own with Johns and Tomasi in the coming months.

This issue is a just as action heavy as part 1 was, if a little more focused on a tighter group of characters and fewer plot developments. There are some really exceptional character moments for Kyle and Ganthet in this issue, and by the book's end, John, Kyle, and Ganthet have found themselves in a situation even more dire than the one facing Hal.

Haven't seen much of Tyler Kirkham's work before this. Can't say I'm all that thrilled with his art. His figures are a bit too scratchy and blocky for my tastes. However I did like the ring Constructs he drew during Ganthet's fight with Kyle and John.

DC editorial has strongly hinted that this story isn't gonna end well for one of the four human GL's. And given this issue, I'd have to say that Kyle fans may want to brace themselves for some bad news in the coming months. But on the bright side it looks like he'll be getting plenty of spotlight in the meantime.

Grade: B+

Captain America 615.1
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Mitch Breitweiser
Publisher: Marvel

"Do you want to create a new M.O.D.O.K. or do you want to fight some idiot who thinks he's Captain America?"

Longtime readers of this column will remember my mixed feelings and frustrations with Marvel's .1 initiative. The books rarely seem to do what their intended purpose is: give a standalone story to inform new readers of what's been happening on the title and advance the plot for readers who have been here all along. While this issue fills us in on Steve's current status quo, and advances his story a bit, it really leaves out Bucky who at the moment is the titular character (though an impending movie release and the subject matter of this issue strongly suggest that might be changing soon).

The story is good, but it feels a bit repetitive. Steve catches wind of a new person taking up the mantle of Captain America and moves to shut him down before A.I.M. murder him, or worse (much, much, much worse). Brubaker handles the action scenes well and plays the two Caps off each other nicely, and even offers up a solid twist at the end. My only disappointment is that we already had a fake Cap running around in this title for like a year or two, and I believe it was only two story arcs ago that we saw the exit of that character. Let's give the fake Caps a rest for awhile huh?

Mitch Breitweiser on the other hand is thoroughly fantastic. I almost wish he was on the regular title. Nothing against regular Cap penciler Butch Guice, but Guice's style (and this might be an Inker's fault) sometimes seems too cartoony for a realistic espionage book. Breitweiser's pencils are thoroughly dark and gritty the whole way through.

Decent issue, but definitely could have done without another fake Cap.

Grade: B

Read more Chris' Comics Corner here

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