Friday, November 27, 2009

The Chaotic Beauty of a Trail-Blazing Music Critic

When music critic Robert Palmer (not the singer Robert Palmer, of "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" and "Addicted to Love" fame) asked Jerry Lee Lewis why he thought playing rock n' roll would damn him to hell, the piano fireballer responded, "I can't picture Jesus Christ doin' a whole lotta shakin'."

In his 1985 review of Madonna's first tour, Palmer noted that she was "backed by a competent but rather ordinary touring band and she simply didn't sing very well. Her intonation was atrocious; she sang sharp and she sang flat, and the combination of her unsure pitch and thin, quavery vocal timbre made the held notes at the end of her phrases sound like they were crawling off somewhere to die. This woman needs to see a good vocal coach before she attempts another tour. And one hopes that the next time she performs [at Radio City Music Hall], she will have learned not to toss tambourines into the air unless she's going to be able to catch them."

Palmer was an ardent supporter of punk, but in 1978 he disdained the Ramones as "a one-joke band. The Ramones do not project passion, they play dumb in order to look cool. And they have circumscribed their music to such an extent that the only thing it effectively satirizes is itself. They are the kind of joke one tires of very rapidly."

These are the kinds of fascinating nuggets sprinkled throughout the early pages of Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer. It collects Palmer's writings as the New York Times' first-ever music critic, as the editor of the record-review section in Rolling Stone, and from the many books he wrote. It's a book well worth skimming.

By an obituary writer in the Boston Globe when Palmer died in 1997: "I was so charmed by his writing, his knowledge, and his obvious love for the music that I treated [his book Deep Blues] as a Bible, reading each chapter and then buying every record it mentioned."

I can't imagine a better compliment for a music critic.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Away We Go Depresses and Uplifts

Away We Go is the most touching offbeat comedic romance drama you'll see this year. John Krasinski from The Office and former SNLer Maya Rudolph have perfect chemistry as an unmarried couple awaiting their first baby but lost as to where to raise the little one.

They travel from place to place looking for the right acquaintances to give them signs for where to settle. Many of the supporting actors are wacky and add the insanity to Krasinski and Rudolph's cute, yet just edgy enough, lovey-doveyness. Jeff Bridges and Catherine O'Hara are brutally hilarious as Krasinski's ridiculously selfish parents. Driven away from that scene, the couple consider Phoenix before Rudolph's old boss, played by Allison Janney, and her husband (Jim Gaffigan) drive them away with their loud-mouthed frankness to their children.

The real show stealers, however, are Maggie Gyllenhaal (Adaptation, Secretary, Donnie Darko) and Josh Hamilton (Alive, Kicking and Screaming, The House of Yes) as a couple in Madison, Wisconsin, with very strange views on parenting. The 10-minute scene in their stroller-less home is classic.

The soundtrack by the relatively unknown Alexi Murdoch is stellar, in a depressingly beautiful, Nick Drake kind of way. And Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame directs.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Can Already Smell the Turkey in the Oven

The Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade was quite impressive this morning. They pull out all the stops for the two-and-a-half-hour celebration of turkeys.

Actually, a few more huge balloons would be cool, but there were a decent amount of big ones. Nothing to compare with Macy's however.

I liked the Scooby Doo and The Mystery Machine van, and all the dancers from various cultures were very American Idol and fun. Jackson loved it too, and we even let him eat one Dum Dum Pop.

King Dork Adds to the Post-John Hughes Literary Legacy

Having recently loved the book (and mildly liked the movie) I Love You, Beth Cooper, I felt like diving back into high-school-themed territory. King Dork, by former Mr. T Experience musician Frank Portman, was just the antidote.

Although not nearly as good as Larry Doyle's classic tale, Portman nevertheless fills his book with charm. "King Dork" is the name protagonist Tom Henderson gives himself, although the rest of his high school knows him (if they know him at all) as Chi-Mo, short for "child molester," even though Tom is no child molester.

Portman is great at building his characters and much less focused on plot. And his ability to get inside a teenager's head is his true talent. Tom stumbles through life, keeping himself happy by creating band names and album covers and titles with his friend Sam Hellerman. They eventually become known at their school for their actual music-making (or at least the publicity materials related to their music, such as provocative song names about teachers). Tom spends the rest of the time obsessing over the cause of his dad's death, why "Little Big Tom" is such a dorky step-dad, why his mom is so spaced out on drugs and cigarettes, why all the adults in the world are so consumed with Catcher in the Rye, and why he's able to eventually score some pretty hot chicks.

Will Ferrell's production company has secured the rights for a film version to be released in 2011, so we haven't heard the last of King Dork. And I'm definitely impressed enough with Portman's writing that I'll check out his new book, Andromeda Klein.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How Not to Get to Sesame Street

Lisa, Lucy, Meredith, Jack, Mike, Julia, Rachel, Jackson and I witnessed what must have been the most poorly organized Sesame Street-related event ever today at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.

The moment captured in photo to the left was the definite highlight. That's the REAL ELMO and, as you can see, Julia was on her best behavior and Jackson couldn't believe he was sitting that close to his hero.

Otherwise, this was a 40th-anniversary "party" aimed at adults but marketed for kids. So while the MC lady repeated told the kids to be quiet (a silly and impossible task) and even suggested that parents take any rowdy children outside for a break, everyone suffered through a program in which the puppeteers of Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Zoe, Prairie Dawn and the real-person Maria talked about how they became involved with Sesame Street (although the soundman never turned up the mics loud enough for anyone to hear anything) and audience members asked a never-ending litany of inane questions that could have been answered on the Web in two seconds.

By the time we got around to singing a couple of songs from the show, everyone was pretty fed up and had lost the energy and initiative to join in. By the time they confusingly announced that we should get in separate lines for book signings and pictures with the puppets (in what appeared to be a downstairs bathroom area), I bailed on the crew in time to walk to Georgetown to catch the second half of the Steelers-Bengals game at 51st State Tavern. My Steelers lost 18-12.

Just one of those days ...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sacha Baron Cohen Scores Another Direct Hit With Bruno

When Borat came in on my recent list as the 10th funniest movie ever, it did so with a heaping helping of shocking offensiveness. Just the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen has created an equally classic work of art with Bruno is cause for celebration. I don't know if this largely-panned movie is better than Borat, but it's darn close.

Considering that one of the first movies my dad took me to (behind my mom's back) was Blazing Saddles, I figured it would be OK for my 2-year-old Jackson to watch a bit of Bruno. Bad idea. (We've come a long way since the late 1970s, and this makes Mel Brooks look like Elmo.) No more than three minutes into the film, Bruno's penis was being sucked into a clear Dustbuster. Jackson's eyes were quickly covered and he was whisked off to bed.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. In the movie, Bruno's sassiness is contagious. Each time you start to moan about how tasteless many scenes are, there comes a twist in which you can't stop crying-laughing for minutes on end.

Some highlights of the story of the gay journalist who goes on an epic and heartfelt search to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler:" his flirtatious (to say the least) interview with politician Ron Paul (poor sucker), his (hilariously lengthy) delusional miming of a sex act, his sociologically relevant interviews with psychotic parents of child models who will agree to anything to get their kids hired, his attempts to become straight, his run-in with a dominatrix with a vicious whip, his son O.J., his dwarf lover. I could go on.

Just watch it. And leave your ability to be offended by Bruno far, far away.

***** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 11

Close Lobsters - Foxheads Stalk This Land (1987)
Best new/old band
Touchstones: The Church meets The Clash
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Meat Puppets - Sewn Together (2009)
Mellower, completely enjoyable
Touchstones: Symphonic Meat Puppets meets Classic 1980s Meat Puppets
****1/2 out ***** stars

Matthew Sweet - Altered Beast (1993)
Underrated power-pop classic
Touchstones: The Raspberries meets Television
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend (1991)
Slightly overrated classic
Touchstones: See above
**** out of ***** stars

Miss Derringer - Winter Hill (2009)
Emotional, big pop-punk
Touchstones: Blondie meets Hole
**** out of ***** stars

Morrissey - Years of Refusal (2009)
Surprisingly energetic rock
Touchstones: Big arena rock meets Sunday-morning Smiths classics
***1/2 out of ***** stars

The Big Pink - A Brief History of Love (2009)
Thumping trance-y dancerock
Touchstones: Happy Mondays meets The Alarm
*** out of ***** stars

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Smash Hits at Jackson's 2nd Birthday Party

Here's a video from our very successful 2nd birthday party for Jackson this evening. It features a medley of Paula's sorta-jazzy rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," a Sprogs original called "Books About Monsters, and some mesmerized kids. Fun!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Typical Airplane Movie Junk: Up and I Love You, Beth Cooper

I had the pleasure of watching a couple of shoulda-been-better stinker movies on flights from Bangkok to Zurich and Zurich to D.C.

First up was I Love You, Beth Cooper, a flick I wanted to see because the book was so hilarious. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said about the movie, which consisted of a bunch of C-rate actors, including a dad that was a dead-ringer for a fat, older Ed Norton. Hayden Panattierre placed her poor man's Marcia Brady acting chops on full display.

The film was pretty true to the book and funny at times, except it was more PG than necessary (substituting a handjob for a kiss, for instance) and lacked the extraordinary characterization built up by author Larry Doyle.

*** out of ***** stars

Next was Up, a plodding and not very well told Pixar/Disney creation that got roundly positive reviews, probably because Hollywood critics have to sift through so much muck that this must have seemed vaguely likable by comparison.

The boring and under-scored action sequences occasionally give way to touching moments, like when the old man, Mr. Frederickson, realizes that he hadn't been the failure to his deceased wife that he thought he'd been. Characters like his dog can best be described as annoying. Kevin, the colorful snipe, and Russell, the boy scout, on the other hand, add some comedic value.

** out of ***** stars

Zurich Is Stained, But It's Still Pretty Cool

Five-dollar burnt pot coffee. (Or shall I say five franc?) Seventeen-dollar buffet breakfast with some strange meats on display. Six-dollar tram rides no matter whether you're riding for one stop or 30 minutes.

These are a few of the things that make Zurich, Switzerland a little unnecessary in general. Not to mention the German-accented formality and rigidity of so many of the denizens of what has recently been ranked the "wealthiest city in Europe" and the "sixth most expensive city in the world."

We arrived at 7 a.m. on Monday and were able to check in to our lovely hotel, the Leoneck, just up the hill and across the Limmat River from the city center. The hotel was organized around a theme of cows, so Jackson was happy.

Although we slept for much of our 30-hour layover, we walked all over the city in the rain. Apple celery vanilla soup, peppermint pea soup, and a cheesy pizza-like thing called a flambee were just the antidotes to warm us up at lunch. Then I had a delicious Swiss dish of rosti, potatoes with vegetables and sausage on top.

We saw the old convent with stained glass paintings by Marc Chagall and listened to the bells frequently ringing longly and loudly. Then on Tuesday morning, we caught the excellent tram from right in front of our hotel straight to the airport. Our plane then flew into the sky with the beautiful Alps bursting beneath us.

Homeward bound! We're ready to get there after more than three weeks of world travel.

Girls, Girls, Girls

Cool photos by my good friend Fran over at Pitchfork of my favorite new band Girls at Black Cat in D.C. last night.

I was scheduled to meet him, but jet-lag caught up with me after our flight from Zurich and I passed out until just about the moment the show was ending. Oh well, I'll have to wait to see the band when they get big and play Madison Square Garden.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lost in the Bangkok Market

We spent about six hours Sunday in the world's largest weekend market, Chatuchak.

I had accidentally withdrawn 200,000 baht ($600) out of an ATM, so we had stuff to buy!

Now it's time to board our red-eye to Zurich, Switzerland, where we have a 30-hour layover. Looking forward to cold weather, chocolate, and fondue (do they still make that stuff?).

Definitely needed more than one day at the start of our trip and two at the end in Bangkok. We didn't even get to see the glittering gold Temple of Dawn or the Siam Square "sci-fi megalopolis" skyscraper lights at night.

Westward ho!