Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup: Hunger Games, Girls, Wilco, Mr. Burns

I guess I've just been having too much fun this summer at my new job, but rankings on my blog of my pop-culture intake have suffered in the past month. Apologies, dear readers. We'll just have to take a quick roundup/catch-up.

The Hunger Games: I read this back in early June when I was vacationing on the Outer Banks. True beach reading. It's a formulaic story, written in a truly sophomoric style and voice. Needless to say, I couldn't put it down. Author Suzanne Collins takes unforgettable heroine Katniss Everdeen through a survivalist battle worthy of the best reality-TV plot lines.
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Girls: So far, I've made it through the first 8 of 10 season-one episodes. This is another can't-put-down pleasure. The HBO series takes us deep into the not-so-deep minds of the 20-something generation, barely surviving, arguably employed, and down-and-out in New York City. Lena Dunham brilliantly leads the cast of aimless youngsters through a version of 90210 with a seriously funny and edgy edge.
***** out of ***** stars

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: My season tickets at DC's Woolly Mammoth have been good to me over the years. And I was super-excited going into this season, with an apocalyptic (fun!) theme coursing through every production. But this has been a real let-down of a year. I think Woolly is losing its way by, if possible, trying just a little too hard to be creative and different. The second act, the actors, and the premise are all fairly strong in Mr. Burns. It's several decades into the future and the only culture left among the survivors of a global collapse is the memory of The Simpsons. But the story is often sooo slow and convoluted, and it fails to shed insight into the Simpsons' episode that the actors discuss. A real pop-culture miss.
*1/2 out of ***** stars

Wilco: The band's recent performance at Wolftrap in Vienna, Virginia was another in a long line of great shows I've witnessed (I saw the first of a two-night stand there). Nels Cline added new guitar solos that displayed his increasing prowess as the greatest rock player alive. And the shifting styles keep multiplying for Wilco, which started as an alt-country band, and now often sounds like something between Radiohead, Billy Bragg, The Beatles, and Sonic Youth. Speaking of Sonic Youth, that band's guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, opened and, like his new album, was spectacularly catchy.****1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jackson's First Tall-Buildings Themed Weekend in New York City

I forgot to write about my spring trip to New York City with my buddy Peter, when we stayed at a hotel overlooking the World Trade Center and took in a bunch of comedy, including a 1:30 a.m. show at the Comedy Cellar with Al Madrigal and a taping of two John Oliver specials. 
Reasonable hotel options appear to be a theme these days in the Big Apple. Jackson and I took the Amtrak up to meet Rachel this weekend, who is working there for the week. At $125 a night on Priceline, we found the fun Hudson Hotel, in which our room was the size of a cruise-ship bedroom but we had access to a beautiful, funky, and trendy 15th-floor roofdeck, another garden bar and lounge, and a great location on West 58th and 9th Avenue.
This was billed as a "tall buildings weekend" and Jackson, at nearly five-years-old, is the perfect age to have his first NYC experience. I think it really made an impression on him. He asked several times on the train ride home when we would next return there.
Things went as planned and the little guy did not complain about walking all over the place. 
Friday night consisted of walking from Penn Station through Times Square and to our hotel. Saturday was fun in the wonderful Central Park water play area before heading to Rachel's work in East River Park in the Lower East Side. Jackson and I took a bike ride for about six miles along the extensive trails between the Manhattan Bridge and 25th Street. Then we had delicious Indian food with our friend Lori (she's a Jackson fave). Sunday was an easy trip up 30 Rock (thanks co-worker Elizabeth for the recommendation) with no wait and easily a much better use of time than waiting in the always-long lines at the Empire State Building.

And we're back in DC. Why I'm not already asleep, I'm not sure. Goodnight.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Best New Albums: July 2012

This is a new monthly feature introduced last month. You can stream all the albums mentioned here for free at this Spotify link, which I keep updated.

Best Album of the Month:
Guided by Voices - Class Clown Spots a UFO. OK, so by now you know I'm crazy about Robert Pollard's little band of merry fuzz-pop pranksters. How can you not know? Pollard and/or GBV have a new album in my "best new albums of the month" just about ... um ... every month. This one is a challenge well worth puzzling over.

Best of the Rest:
Santigold - Master of My Make-Believe. After a four-year break following her 2008 debut, I wasn't sure I still liked Santigold. But this is hard to not like. And hard not to shake your booty to.

Moss Icon - Complete Discography. Political raunchsters from Annapolis credited by some with shaping punk. They have a sense of melody in the Fugazi vein that few others have approached.

Cornershop - Urban Turban. A catchy blast of sunshine psychedelia that captures all of the joy and orchestral majesty of the band's 90s indie smash "Brimful of Asha."

Golden Bloom - March to the Drums. A nice EP's worth of power pop mixing the sounds of several of my favorites like Wilco and Ben Kweller.

Colourbox - Colourbox. This is a seductive blend of soul, reggae, and urban contemporary that isn't usually my cup of tea. I not surprisingly missed it in the 80s. But I'm glad I discovered this new reissue.

Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania. Billy Corgan has shed every original bandmate and left a trail of pretty stinky recent albums, but this one is very close in style and tone to his 90s classics Gish, Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Pisces Iscariot.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Beatles Live in 1966 Concert is Online and Hot!

Considering how much I love The Beatles, it's amazing how infrequently I've watched really good footage of the band playing live. Most of what I've seen has been them playing in black-and-white to loud crowds that almost completely drown out the performance. I happened upon this stunning half-hour video of a full concert in 1966 at Budokon Stadium in Tokyo.

Check out this incredible setlist, and watch the band, with a couple of lead vocal performances from George and even one from Ringo:

Rock and Roll Music (John)
She's a Woman (Paul)
If I Needed Someone (George)
Day Tripper (John)
Baby's in Black (John and Paul)
I Feel Fine (George)
Yesterday (Paul)
I Wanna Be Your Man (Ringo)
Nowhere Man (John)
Paperback Writer (Paul)
I'm Down (Paul)

The Big Year is Not Funny, But Also Not Bad

The Big Year is the movie all birders have been waiting for all their lives. With Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson joining forces, the real birders out there are no longer fringe enviro-nerds but rather have been immortalized to look like comedy superstuds.

The funny thing is that this movie is not a comedy. The only line that made me laugh was when a woman non-birder agreed to go on her honeymoon to a remote Alaskan island and gets attacked by birds as she holds her gut-soaked $250 scarf, angrily attempting to clean it outside. Wilson exclaims to his fellow onlooking birders, "Hitchcockian."

But the lack of humor is probably what makes this Hallmark-like classic tick. The three stars, attempting to see or hear the most birds in a calendar year in order to be named something called "The Big Year" champ, have heartwarming backstories. The premise seems ludicrous early in the movie, but by the end, it would take a hard cynic to not appreciate the passion they each have for their birding hobby.

That said, we must be a nation of hard cynics because The Big Year, despite its mega star power, pulled in a fraction at the box office of its cost to produce. It is by no means a bad movie. It's more like an indie with big stars and big expectations. If it were simply an indie, it would probably have been really highly praised.

*** out of ***** stars

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Magnet Prints My Letter About Evan Dando of The Lemonheads

In this day and age in which I get almost all my magazine subscriptions and books on my iPad, it's still somehow thrilling when a magazine arrives by snail mail.

My very favorite magazine, a music-related one called Magnet, arrived the other day and I was reading the letters-to-the-editor section when ... lo and behold ... halfway through reading one letter, I glanced down at the name of the writer and it was ... me!

I had completely forgotten even writing the letter. This is the second time since Magnet recently rebooted as a monthly (rather than six times a year) that a letter of mine has been published. I was making the case for Evan Dando of The Lemonheads to get a little more love for his brilliant pop art, despite a semi-incoherent recent interview he granted to Magnet.

Here's my letter, and thanks for printing it, Magnet!
I'm not sure Neil Ferguson's piece on Evan Dando is totally fair, although I like his quote from Ben Lee about how the Lemonheads' leader's voice is beautiful honey reminiscent of Frank Sinatra. Dando is no doubt quirky and eccentric, but that is simply part of the many allures of the man and his vastly underrated musical legacy. I've hung out with Dando several times after shows and he is a total sweetheart. He even let me play his acoustic guitar after a show last year in Arlington, Virginia. It's refreshing to see a rock star act curmudgeonly and "real" around a fine journalist instead of spouting athlete-like cliches.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Andy Griffith and My Dad's Tape Recorder

My dad grew up in North Carolina and an early brush-with-fame story he likes to tell me is that Andy Griffith, who died this week at age 86, was his high-school speech-class teacher in 1952.

The part of my dad's story that I love is when Andy -- who insisted upon being called "Mr. Griffith" by his not-much-younger students -- asked to borrow my dad's tape recorder to practice his stand-up comic routine.

From page 606 of the 1952 Montgomery Ward catalogue
My dad says he may have been the only one in all of Goldsboro (other than the radio station) to own a tape recorder. He had ordered it from Montgomery Ward, and Griffith kindly returned it to my dad when he was done with it.

The last time my dad chatted with Griffith was in 1959 on West 45th Street in New York City. He was on his way to a matinee performance of Destry Rides Again. Andy played the title role and it was a smash success. Andy saw my dad first and shouted "Mackie!" My dad said it was amazing that Andy remembered a student's name from six years earlier. My dad talked about the new job he had just started teaching in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And Andy said he had really hated teaching high school.

Another small detail to that story is that I was convinced, when my dad first started telling that story, it wasn't a tape recorder but rather a typewriter that Griffith took a likin' to. But my dad is adamant that it wasn't a typewriter (which he says everyone but him had in 1952, whereas a tape recorder was much more rare), so I suppose he's right.

From the USA Today obituary:

Odds are for many of you, the very name "Andy Griffith" calls to mind that image of Andy and Opie (a young Ron Howard, one of the most adorable children ever to amble across a TV screen) with fishing poles over their shoulders. And not just the image; surely you're also humming that theme song?

Play Video
Play Video
Watch a clip of Andy on 'The Andy Griffith Show.'

As Sheriff Andy Taylor, Griffith perfectly embodied one of America's favorite archetypes: the seeming country bumpkin who's actually smarter than anyone around. The difference with Sheriff Taylor was that there was really nothing bumpkinish about him. What marked him as stupid, to those visiting Mayberry from the outside, wasn't the way he behaved or thought, but the way he spoke, that slow, soft drawl peppered with country aphorisms.
The writers often played up that contrast between Andy's soft speech and sharp mind, but never in a mean way — "mean" was not a part of the show's vocabulary. And neither were politics. At a time when the urban North and the rural South often seemed to be two separate but equally angry countries, The Andy Griffith Show was neutral ground, a place were we could all indulge in a little nostalgia for a more leisurely paced life.
For that, you can thank Griffith, who set the show's gentle, understanding tone. Even his by-the-books, exposed-raw-nerve of a deputy Barney Fife— so brilliantly played by the inimitable Don Knotts— couldn't rile him, and Barney could have riled a saint.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Where the Colors of Fireworks Come From

Everyone enjoy the fireworks tonight.

To help you be "in the know," here is a helpful chart from a kids science and tech museum in Minneapolis. Courtesy of Boing Boing.