Wednesday, January 31, 2024

My favorite music EPs of 2023

In recent years, it seems EPs (shorter music releases than full-length albums) have proliferated. Artists don't want to take all the time to put together 10 or 15 songs so they get 5 or 6 and shoot it out to the public. But that process may be getting even more adapted to shorter attention spans. There weren't that many EPs released in 2023. There were tons of singles though. No matter, here were my favorites of the EP breed:
  • Geese's 3D Country is one of my favorite albums of the year, and 4D Country is an accompanying EP that may be the freakest entry into the yacht-rock genre ever.
  • Duff McKagan's This is the Song is very similar to prime-era Guns n' Roses, leaning heavily on the ballad-y styles of "November Rain" and "Civil War." 
  • Spoon’s Memory Dust is pretty inconsequential, but it’s still Spoon and the song “Silver Girl” jams. 
  • GROUPLOVE's Eyes provides a couple pop gems and a couple Flaming Lips-ish party tunes; the band keeps on pleasantly surprising. 
  • You will remember Dexys Midnight Runners from "Come On Eileen," but the band has been releasing a recent string of killer weird and undeniably intriguing releases, the latest being My Submission, that I would urge everyone to at least try to like it. 
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
     provide a boom of fun on Mindsets, especially on “Rear View Mirror.” 
  • Soccer Mommy's Karaoke Night is an entertaining collection of covers by the likes of Pavement, Sheryl Crow, and R.E.M. 
  • Mickey Dolenz's Dolenz Sings R.E.M., on first glance seems far from essential and just curious. I didn't want to include it on this list. But it is indeed pretty darn good - just like if the Monkees played R.E.M. songs!

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Michael J. Fox is a real inspiration for people with Parkinson's

I was intrigued to watch STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie on Apple TV because I wanted to learn more about his Parkinson’s, which we have been testing my dad for recently. And while his shaky legs and hands and current struggles with that are a really interesting part of the movie, I found his rise to fame from an active and under-sized trouble-maker with bad grades in Canada to three years of struggle in the slums of Beverly Hills before finally landing on his feet as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties to be equally touching.

Hardly anyone believed in Fox in terms of having the skill to play what would go on to become, I think, his greatest role. But when the show was performed to test audiences, he slayed them and became an obvious star. It wasn’t long before Steven Spielberg called. Fox would work days at Family Ties and go directly to the Back to the Future studio site all night. For three-and-a-half months, he would experience confusion at times as to which set he was on and wonder “how could any of this shit be any good?”

When Back to the Future was at number one at the box office, Teen Wolf was right on its tail at number two. He won best actor for a comedy for Family Ties at the Emmys at the time too. It was like Actor Beatlemania, and he was hanging with all the coolest actors in L.A.

With his Parkinson’s, all his activity and busy-mindedness have possibly made it tougher for Fox to adapt to his new life. His personal trainer in the film says it’s difficult for him to slow down and his mind gets going faster than his body can handle, making Fox prone to falls as he walks. The trainer repeatedly says to slow down. The way his wife (Tracy Pollan, who he met through their roles in Family Ties) and son and daughter interact with him is beautiful, as they laugh at how he hardly responds to texts. They don't treat him differently because of his iconic status or his Parkinson’s.

Fox was in his late 20s when he was diagnosed, and he told himself, “how can I have this old-persons’ disease?” He had to take lots of pills and didn’t eat a lot. He drank alcohol to escape the situation. Siskel and Ebert start to regularly pan his work. 

He admits he was an alcoholic, but has now gone three decades without a drink. After a couple of years of difficulty adapting to abstinence, Fox got back into TV, with Spin City, and his life began to get back on track. Still, he constantly fretted about when he would need the next pill and what would happen if the last one wore off while he was in the middle of acting. 

Fox knew there was no way out of Parkinson’s. He would punch holes in walls. He had to tell people who would tell him to be careful that “there’s no being careful. You get Parkinson’s and you trip over shit and you fall down.” He finally disclosed his disease on national TV to Barbara Walters. “If you look at me long enough, you get used to it,” he says. It’s kind of an “Axl Rose” thing, he adds, recommending that people envision “Paradise City” when they look at him. Kids would say, "will you quit moving around?” And he would say “I’ll give it a shot.”

He decided he wanted to be in the world and not have Parkinson’s force him to hide from the world. He and Muhammad Ali testified on the Hill and continued to raise the importance of the issue and for finding a cure. 

The ending is really touching and shows his family supporting Fox as they all walk down the beach together. He lurches along and it makes you think about how important it is to take care of your loved ones who, as Vampire Weekend sings in the end credits, “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” Fox is a stunning example of someone who can inspire all those touched by Parkinson’s.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 29, 2024

Reliving our pandemic Colorado ski trip at Copper Mountain

Our extended weekend at Copper Mountain - about an hour west of Denver along I-70 - has been a perfect escape from the post-holidays doldrums. We arrived late Wednesday night after an uneventful day of flying from BWI and got to ski Thursday through Sunday, with a morning of skiing still ahead tomorrow before flying back late into BWI.

Being back at Copper helped us relive the month we spent skiing there during the heart of the pandemic - in December 2020 and January 2021, but that time we stayed a 15-minute drive away and this time we were at the base of the mountain. The two-floor condo was as close at it gets to the Super Bee lift and Christy Sports, where I demoed possible ski choices to replace my ancient but beloved ones. It provided a comfortable and very pleasant setting for my family, our neighbors the Jones’, and my son’s friend Caio.

We didn’t see much of the teens, who were off on the hardest runs and the terrain park and also went to the Woodward skate and scooter facility. These videos show what my son is up to. Meanwhile, I took it pretty easy most of the time, as a casual but proficient skier who mainly likes to do the groomed blues, a few black diamonds, and good helpings of trees and moguls, especially with my 10-year-old daughter, who is a bit of a daredevil herself.

It’s nice to have a great condo because after skiing each day, there’s not much you want to do but eat, drink a little beer and whiskey, and veg out. That said, we also hit the ice rink, dinner with friend Sasha at JJ’s next to our condo, the snow maze, a beer and pool playing one night at the pizza joint in Center Village, and ample candy buying.

I’m already getting excited for our return trip to Copper in the spring.

Friday, January 26, 2024

RIP Purty Mouth Man

Herbert Coward is not a name anyone knows. But his short, albeit horrifying, performance is one of the most memorable ones I can think of in cinema history. Upon stumbling across four Atlanta businessmen on a white-water rafting trip set in Georgia in the 1972 classic Deliverance, Coward, playing the character listed in the credits as Toothless Man, and his mountain buddy force Ned Beatty’s character to strip to his underwear and “squeal like a pig” while he’s violently sexually assaulted. Meanwhile Jon Voigt’s character is tied to a nearby tree and, as they figure out what to do with him, Toothless Man says, “He got a real purty mouth, ain’t he?”

Coward died this week at age 85 when his vehicle was hit by a truck in western North Carolina. Also deceased alongside him were his girlfriend Bertha Brooks, a chihuahua, and his pet squirrel. The truck driver survived.

Coward was interviewed in recent years and noted that he was illiterate and could only write his name. He said he learned his lines for Deliverance by listening to them on a tape recorder. Star Burt Reynolds had remembered seeing Coward working at an Old West-themed amusement park in North Carolina and suggested he have a role in the movie. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Eminem’s real life powerfully depicted in 8 Mile

It had been many years since I’d seen one of my favorite music-genre movies, and now that my son is a big fan of rap, it was a perfect opportunity to watch Eminem’s 8 Mile again.

As I watched, much like with Prince’s movie Purple Rain, I was wondering what elements had come from Eminem’s real life growing up in Detroit and what parts of the story were fictionalized. A little research reminded me that almost all of this story was truly based on the rapper’s life, including:

The poverty depicted offered a lot of glimpses into the way he was brought up.

The rap battle competitions were truly how Eminem often spent nights out with his friends. He did eventually shine, like in the movie, and it was not easy for him to become a big star because he had been pretty shy about his abilities.

He did truly struggle with romantic relationships as a young man, just like the one depicted with actor Brittany Murphy (who died of pneumonia in 2009, seven years after the movie was released).

Romantic relationships weren’t Eminem’s only struggle. The one depicted with his mom in the movie was real, and I definitely remembered a lot of that in the news coverage on how his mom was a mess and picked really lousy people to hang out with.

He had real-life problems with his friends as well, with betrayal playing a significant role.

And of course the struggles he had attempting to be a white rapper also happened too. It made him struggle with his identity and place in the world for a long time.

All this is to say that 8 Mile really is the story of Eminem. And a great story it is.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Sports Illustrated, Pitchfork, and skiing provide great examples of the need to adapt to an always-changing world

News this week that Sports Illustrated has fired its entire staff and Pitchfork has been folded under GQ's operations is not exactly shocking, but it is very sad and yet another sign that mainstream, reliable journalism will get just a little bit harder to suss out. I had read SI since I was a little kid, always looking forward to the brilliant long-form journalism that "illustrated" so many compelling sports stories.  

The news reports have not been framed as total endings of these two esteemed publications, but the writing is clearly on the wall. And it's a big problem, especially because, for example, kids are getting their knowledge from often suspect social-media accounts and adults are internalizing and espousing information from their Facebook feeds and elsewhere that is from unknown or unreliable sources.

Those are examples of the many, many needs for the U.S. to implement media literacy in school curriculums so that, for example, we can all be spouting a lot less questionable misinformation to each other all day every day.

Another thing that is dying a bit in this country - like once-reliable media - is skiing, because snow has become so sporadic as weather patterns become different and more unpredictable. But that was not the case Saturday, when our family drive our kids and some of their friends to White Tail in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania near the Maryland border. It's about 90 minutes from home, and then it took us an hour in traffic for the last mile just to get to an over-full parking lot. I waited in the car for about another hour after that to wait for a parking spot to open up (and to deal with a dead battery in our friends' minivan that we borrowed) while the others got out and started skiing. The lift lines were nuts and it truly seemed that everyone in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia-Pennsylvania area had shown up to hit the slopes. Once getting past the base lift, however, it was pretty fun on the side mountain with the shorter lift lines and the more difficult runs, especially as the afternoon wore on. The crowds thinned because it was bitter cold and the Baltimore Ravens were playing in the football playoffs. 

The world and humans evolve very slowly, and we've moved slowly in the face of many difficult changes. Ski resorts will look very different in 100 years because of climate change. There will no doubt be some difficult times in the years ahead as those industries figure out how to adapt to changes in snowfall patterns and locations. Likewise, media and journalism has gone through monumental change in recent decades and we as humans have not figured out how to consume a much faster, voluminous, and constant flow of information yet. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Mean Girls teaches important bullying lessons but feels a little unnecessary

Mean Girls, which I saw last weekend in the theater with my 10-year-old daughter, is a good thing to do on a rainy afternoon with your 10-year-old daughter. It's a breezy adaptation of the 2018 musical that was an adaptation of the 2004 Lindsay Lohan-led movie that was an adaptation of the 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes.
I liked it, which is saying something because I generally don't like musicals - even though I co-wrote Wiener Sausage: The Musical! - but it also seems like a money grab with no real purpose for existing. The only real differences from the earlier classic movie include songs bursting out of the same dialogue as before (and none are particularly memorable other than the "I Am Regina George" number) and some things cleaned up to be less offensive to a slightly more evolved audience. One of the best things about it is, in fact, the way it opens the dialogue a bit more on how bullying and being mean are not helpful to anyone, and it seems young girls like my daughter can truly benefit from that conversation being more out in the open. (I ask her sometimes if there are any bullies in 5th grade, and she has so far always said no, which is impressive, since I remember after-school fights being a routine happening when I was an elementary-school kid.)
Probably the main draw to see Mean Girls for me was Reneé Rapp, who is exceptional in The Sex Lives of College Girls, and is a pretty perfect meanest of the mean girls. I think she's an upgrade from 2004's Rachel McAdams. The other characters that were a pleasure in the new version were Auliʻi Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey as the weird kids who attempt to help Cady Heron (played admirably, if not as well, as Lohan by Angourie Rice) fit into her new school and also Jon Hamm, brilliantly playing a P.E. teacher on the sex-ed beat.
While the strictly-entertainment side of me says this is a rollicking good time, the critic side of me laments the new Mean Girls' lack of originality or adding much of anything to earlier versions, the plotless and not-catchy songs, the lesser illumination of the characters' personalities and motivations, and all the boring plot points about social media.
3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

What it was like growing up in record stores, via Peter Jesperson

Peter Jesperson worked at Minneapolis record store Oar Folkjokeopus when Paul Westerberg of local troublemaking band The Replacements dropped a demo tape off for him to check out. That legendarily turned Jesperson into “the Mats' first fan” and he went on to champion and navigate them into lots of gigs and a record deal. This and other tales from a lifelong career as a band manager and record-label owner (of Twin/Tone Records) punctuate his new autobiography called Euphoric Recall: A Half Century as a Music Fan, Producer, DJ, Record Executive, and Tastemaker.

In the foreword, famed rock journalist David Fricke writes about meeting Westerberg for Rolling Stone magazine's first feature on the band - my fourth-favorite behind The Beatles, Guided by Voices, and Pavement. Fricke asks Westerberg if he could ever imagine his band winning a Grammy and the singer says he had actually thought about what he would say: “Thanks - and blow it out your ass. Where were you when we needed you?”

Jesperson also worked closely with several of my other favorites, including Soul Asylum, R.E.M., and Drive-By Truckers. Like so many of us rock diehards, he traces his passion for music back to when he was nine, at a friend’s house watching The Flintstones, when they overheard the friend’s sister playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. It was the Big Bang. 

When he became old enough to seek his first job, in 1970, his one requirement (although not at all his parents’) was that he would not have to cut his long hair. It hit him, when he noticed the ushers at a Leon Russell concert, that he could work at the Guthrie Theater. In 1972, working through the publishing house where his dad worked, he began distributing Britain’s New Music Express magazine in Minneapolis. Both of these jobs happened while Jesperson was still in high school, and he could do them in part because he was in an independent-study program that gave him freedom during some school days. He was 19 when he got the job at “Oar Folk.”

He was loving being a record-store clerk. One of his many contributions there was to convince the owner Vern that it shouldn’t just be an "album" store but should stock 45s as well. And those little records - especially the ones by The Beatles that weren't on the band's full-length albums - became big sellers.

A major moment came in 1972 when Jesperson saw Big Star’s first album in a discount bin at another store for 99 cents. At that price, he decided to give it a try. It blew him away on the first listen (as it did to me many years later).

When he realized his radio DJ job, in which he didn’t even pick the music but rather just programmed it, was a dead end, he accepted Vern’s offer to become a full-time store manager. Jesperson’s stories about working at Oar Folk, which was becoming a core part of the “Haight-Ashbury of the Twin Cities,” bring back fond memories of all those hours I spent in record stores as a young man, listening to records in Vintage Vinyl and browsing books and magazines in Streetside Records. I have never been much of a consumer, but man could I buy music and books when I was younger. I would beg my friend Chris Honeck to take us to St. Louis and one of my favorite memories was buying Pavement’s Wowee Zowee the day it was released and blasting it in Matt Wilson’s truck all the way back home into Illinois.

Jesperson writes about the many in-store performances he managed, including the Ramones and Talking Heads. After being at the store for a decade, as he became manager of The Replacements and road manager for R.E.M., he was realizing his time there was coming to a close. 

I can't wait to read the rest of this book, espcially the chapters on the Replacements and R.E.M. If I don't buy a book, I read them on Kindle and the Libby library app. The full version of this isn't available on those systems, but I discovered a different app called Hoopla that I downloaded, connected to my library, and borrowed Euphoric Recall in full for three weeks.

Read my second and third articles about this book as well.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Essential Tennis looks like THE guide to making necessary improvements

The top roadblocks keeping people from playing their best tennis are time, age, athletic ability, and money. (It can cost $50,000 annually to raise a top-level junior player!)

But the biggest obstacle of all - according to Ian Westerman, the author of 2022's Essential Tennis: Improve Faster, Play Smarter, and Win More Matches - is likely the ball! That’s because our obsession with focusing on hitting a good shot with the right arc and speed and to where we want can keep us from focusing on having good movement and swing techniques. Focusing on results and the ball also tightens us up. 

His coaching philosophy is that, “for every aspect of tennis, there is one element that’s more important than any other. If you can make even a tiny improvement in that element, you will become a better player much faster than if you focused on other things.” He notes, for example, that there are a dozen things to do to make your forehand better, but instead try to pick one element to focus on. For example, you can notice when your opponent is out of position and don’t change technique but rather hit the ball into the open court.

(Bonus advice to me from Coach Matt at College Park JTCC is to, on my second serve, swing faster and keep my head up to keep it popping. This has been working and my second serve looks better and more accurate than ever before. It's also helping my first serve, which I can now rely upon to be a true weapon and hit it harder and more accurately than ever, without tightening up worrying that I'll make double faults.)

Back to Westermann, he writes that self assessment is essential to any hopes of improving. To that end, setting up a camera while playing is really helpful to finding where improvement is needed, otherwise we’re just guessing. Along those lines, keep a journal while playing and jot down objective notes about what went well and what needs improving. Also take a few notes about your opponent, his strengths and weaknesses and how you would approach playing him the next time.

All of this advice comes from just the Introduction in the book. I can’t wait to keep reading it (and writing about it) because I’m already suspecting it’s the best tennis-instructional guide out there. In my past several matches, I’ve implemented the bit about focusing only on hitting the ball where my opponents aren’t and I’ve notice my serve getting better and my shots getting more powerful and successfully mixed. I haven’t lost. 

Tonight I’ll be playing "match play" in this league at the JTCC, on chalky clay courts, where we usually play about one set of doubles or singles before rotating to the next opponent. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ll add that I haven’t lost any singles matches since I started absorbing the advice of this book.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Britney Spears journeys through an awful support system into redemption

Britney Spears has lived with just about every move covered in the press. So her new autobiography The Woman in Me is more of a retelling of everything we already know. That said, when all the stories we've read in the tabloids are added up in the same place, it really is quite the epic American tale of a very sad life that moves from humble beginnings through the horrors of a captive and "I'm a Slave for You"-like fame into what appear to be redemption in the end.

It's a great story and will surely be made into a movie someday. Britney's simplistic writing is a little hard to stomach at times, but she seems to always be clear and direct, and that helps make it a very breezy and enjoyable read. It's different than a lot of rock bios in which the record labels play the bad guys; here, it's her family. 

In my summary of the first half of the book, I gave it a 4 out of 5 stars at that point. I'm bumping it up overall to 4.5 out of 5 stars.

With her relationship with Justin Timberlake and her marriage to Kevin Federline having both fallen apart, the second half keeps marching forward, keeping the faith. Here are the most interesting tidbits to me:

  • Britney writes that she was a little depressed after two years of having babies in her belly and suddenly not having them there to protect anymore, unleashing them into “the world of jockeying paparazzi and tabloids.” When she demanded that her wooden floors in her L.A. mansion be swapped out for all white marble, Britney realized that was the moment she became “bossy” and “weird.” She thinks back now about how she should apologize to those contractors. Her spiral at that point was on full display through the tabloids to the public.
  • She says that, in hindsight, while she was a good person and innocent and “a bad dresser,” Justin and Kevin were very clever and knew much better how to play the industry games - and they played and manipulated her right along with it. Those two ruined her in a way that she never trusted people again after knowing them.
  • Paris Hilton was really nice to Britney as she went through these hard times. The two of them became party friends, but Britney notes that it was never as wild as the press made it out to be. Yes, she did like to drink, but no more than any other twenty-somethings. And the only drug she ever took was Adderall, the ADHD pill that made her feel a little high but mostly less depressed.
  • The reason Britney ran into a salon and infamously buzzed her hair was that she was telling the world - and especially Federline for not letting her see their boys - to “fuck off.”
  • She goes on for a while complaining about how bad her parents are - her dad basically claiming he alone was the Britney Spears Corporation and her mom writing a gossipy book about Britney in the heart of her daughter’s darkest times - as the famed conservatorship begins to take shape. Her parents even got back together in 2010, with her mom seemingly happy that Britney’s dad now had a “job” running the conservatorship. She said her parents watched Criminal Mind every night. “Who does that?,” Britney asks.
  • After starting a wildly successful residency of 248 shows in Las Vegas, her dad sent her to drug rehab in Malibu for a month because she was taking over-the-counter vitamin supplements, and she was given an allowance of $2,000 per month, and told what to eat (nothing yummy). She took her dancers out one night and her $1,000 payment bounced because she didn’t have enough in her spending account.
  • Around the time she met her latest husband, Sam Asghari, her parents made her start going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings again. But she writes about how good she had been all along. Great even. Pretty much totally together. This was the point she looked at her parents and realized she was basically in a cult, with her alcoholic dad as its leader.
  • After a decade of being completely restrained by her family, Britney began seeking out examples of women she wanted to be like. Reese Witherspoon became a great example for her. Britney was already a naturally nice person, like Reese, but adding Reese’s strength and standing up for herself was the added spark she needed.
  • Thrown back into rehab in Beverly Hills by her dad, she was actually on Prozac, which she had taken for years. They took her off that and put her on lithium. Even though she hadn’t told her fans she was locked up again, one nice nurse showed Britney one day that her loving fans had started a #FreeBritney campaign. Her fans just seemed to have an innate sense about Brit.
  • When Covid hit, she had just started getting into comedians and learning how to add more humor into her own style, and then she started listening to self-help books all the time and also making jewelry. She finally decided she never wanted to see her family again.
  • She finally got out of her conservatorship and hadn’t been doing music for a while until Elton John called her, they struck up a friendship, and then recorded an updated version of “Tiny Dancer” called “Hold Me Closer,” which became a #1 smash.
  • Soon after Britney and Sam announced that she was having a third kid, she miscarried and had to “un-announce” the pregnancy. 
That is where the book ends. Since its publication, she and Asghari divorced and Britney has mostly been laying low, other than publishing this book. It will continue to be interesting where her story goes.

Friday, January 12, 2024

The biggest disappointments in music releases for 2023, part 2

Continuing with my year-end music favorites, I'm starting it off with the less favorites. You can check out the first part of my biggest disappointments of 2023, and take a look at the rest here:

  • I've been a fan of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, but Sticks and Stones doesn't have much to grab me. 
  • I loved the movie, but other than Lizzo and Dua Lipa's contributions, Barbie The Album isn't very good. 
  • Carly Rae Jepsen's The Loveliest Time has a few catchy pop numbers, but it breaks a surprising string of excellent bangers with a more meh affair. 
  • Sufjan Stevens’ Javelin has one or two really good songs - and it's near the top of a lot of year-end best-of lists - but it’s mostly boring and not as much of an event as his usual releases. 
  • Drake's For All the Dogs has a handful of strong songs but it's mostly an over-loaded and overly hateful mess. 
  • I really like Ash, but half of Race the Night is awesome and half is unlistenable. 
  • The Streets' The Darker the Shadow the Brighter the Light shows a rapper I used to love not having grown much. 
  • Car Seat Headrest's Faces from the Masquerade is a live album that doesn't add anything of value to the band's fairly impressive catalog to date.
  • I like the title track, but I can't imagine when I'd ever need to listen to Peter Gabriel's i/o ever again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

RIP Lacey Underall

When I was a kid, my friends and I watched Caddyshack over and over again. We must have watched it 10 times at my friend Dewey's house alone. Sure, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield were the main draws. But there's no doubt Cindy Morgan, who died recently in Florida at the age of 69, played a role in bringing us back to our repeat viewings of the classic 1980 comedy.

I have to admit I haven't thought of her name as an actor in a very long time, if hardly ever at all. But I've never forgotten her character's name. As the niece of the stuffy and out-of-touch Judge Smails (Knight), Lacey Underall struts around Bushwood Country Club with an air of youthful freshness and dangerous (at least to the judge and his friends) sex appeal. Of course the judge would never suspect his perfect niece of being the wild child he eventually discovers her to be. Some of her scenes are the most iconic ones from the movie: emerging from the pool in her white bikini, verbally sparring with new-age golfer Ty Webb (Chase), and the flings and flirtations she has with young Danny and others at the club. quoted Morgan: “We were absolutely having the best time possible. It was a challenge certainly working with four of the funniest men on the planet, and there was quite of bit of improvisation. It was the longest and best party I’ve ever attended.”

I was never much of a fan of her biggest other role, Tron, but many people share an equal amount of praise for that Jeff Bridges' flick as I do for Caddyshack.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Pineapple Street might be the start of making Jenny Jackson our modern Jane Austen

Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson makes the shortlist of my favorite novels read in 2023 alongside two Adrian McKinty books (The Island and The Chain) and Hidden Pictures by Jason Rekulak. Jackson's debut novel could certainly be accused (and was, by some critics) of being shallow and predictable. But I found the story of two daughters and their sister-in-law in Brooklyn Heights navigating their ultra-wealthy families to be a funny, gripping, and eye-opening coming-of-age tale about finding one's own path despite the not-always-obvious ways that wealth can stunt people's growth.

The New York Times wrote, "The novel often feels catty and shallow, filled with gossip and one-dimensional characters." Yes, there is cattiness and gossip, but maybe that's why I liked it so much! That's the stuff that I found to really work at building our understanding of these characters. And author Chris Bohjalian says it well in the Times: “It’s the novel Jane Austen would have written, if Jane Austen lived in Brooklyn Heights in the 21st century.”

As to the characters:

  • There's Darley, the eldest daughter who gave up her career and inheritance for motherhood and isn't always sure she's made the right decision. 
  • Then there's Georgiana, the rebellious daughter, whom we meet when the book opens with her selfishly and obliviously bumping an old high-school classmate's drink with her racquet while she beelines out of a coffee shop. She's my favorite, probably because she has some of the same qualities as me, like being the youngest sibling and being passionate about tennis. She starts to date a married co-worker, which turns into a major situation, to say the least. 
  • And finally there's Sasha, a middle-class New Englander who married Darley and Georgiana's brother. Those two do not exactly welcome Sasha into their snobby world of riches, and that storyline opens some excellent explorations of class and elitism by Jackson.
The author, too, is kind of a fascinating character, having publishing her first novel while working as a vice-president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She learned the ropes in the fiction and publishing-house trenches, and I think she nailed it.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 8, 2024

L.A. Confidential is a reminder that great noir is hard to beat

Back in the 1990s, when the words "Kevin Spacey" were still a good thing, L.A. Confidential was one of my favorite movies. The last and maybe only time I saw it was probably 1997, when it was released. So I rewatched it recently and can confirm that it still holds up as a classic, 5-out-of-5-stars film. Much like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, L.A. Confidential combines a backdrop of a city that I'm constantly fascinated with and so many elements of noir that hover eternally in the City of Angels.

Rewatching it got me thinking about what makes L.A. Confidential so noir? The term is thrown around a lot and so I wanted to think a little more deeply about why I'm attracted so much to stories that have strong elements of noir and pulp. In general, the sun-soaked palm trees and beaches provide such a gorgeous veneer that when you peel back the layers and see dark things happening, like the Charles Manson murders or the early-Hollywood debauchery projected in Brad Pitt's Babylon, the contrast is striking and compelling. L.A. fools us while it lures us. 

Noir elements of L.A. Confidential include:

  • Spacey, Guy Pearce, and Russell Crowe are perfect in their roles as LAPD detectives. They each have their dark sides and very different ways of operarating but the filmmakers succeed in getting the audience to identify with each of them and cheer for each of them in different, disorienting ways.
  • Kim Basinger is the prototypical noir temptress, tough and gorgeous and more than willing to mix things up a bit. She's key to encouraging the suspenseful building of tensions between the detectives.
  • James Cromwell plays the honorable chief of the police force who is surprisingly pulling the darkest of the dark undercurrents along in the story. Again, where good seems apparent is really where the darkness and decay lie.
  • There's a lot of smoking in noir. Sometimes you can only see characters through a haze of cigarette smoke. It's a little different when you're reading pulp, but even then, the smog can sometimes seem to be lifting off the page. That adds to the mystery and characters' hidden motives often prominent in noir writing.
  • Along with the fog, it will often be raining at night (after a full day of almost brutal sunshine) as a way to punctuate the lost hopes and dreams around every L.A. corner. I recently stayed one night in a Santa Monica garden apartment that was so depressing it almost felt like a murder had been committed there (or at least an actor had decided to finally thrown in the towel there) within hours of my arrival. 
  • Sometimes we get distorted camera angles, or the camera will even tilt, as a way to throw us off the beaten path.
  • Darkness, betrayal, and cheating are all elements of L.A. Confidential. It almost leaves the audience with a hopeless sense that there is no escaping society's many corruptions.
All that to say, watch or re-watch it if you can. Noir might just be the best thing around.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Chuck Klosterman takes us back to what the 1990s means, Part 2

Chuck Klosterman has become one of the icons of contemporary pop-culture commentary. His latest, The Nineties
is an essential overview to a decade worth remembering through his eyes. Here are some of my favorite takes from the second half of the book. You can also read my takeaways from the first half.
  • “What seems weird now didn’t seem weird then … for example, that Pauly Shore spent much of the nineties as a bankable movie star.” All five of his move viewed today are “astoundingly insipid.” At the time, The Weasel hitting it huge was just what it was, it made sense somehow.
  • Presidents, like Shore, were also celebrities. In fact, they are always guaranteed to be celebrities, no matter how lacking their accomplishments might be, for all time. Day-to-day policy-related news the presidents make is largely forgotten in the future as people come to only remember, perhaps illogically, the men themselves. Bill Clinton, for example, will always be remembered as a serial adulterer, primarily for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. People who didn’t live through the nineties will never embrace him, especially in the post-#MeToo era. Another way he might be remembered is his embrace of centrism, which could be seen as setting the scene “for pretty much every dilemma of the twenty-first century (including the election of Donald Trump).” Part of Clinton’s centrism came from his consultant Dick Morris, who polled Americans and really only cared what undecided voters in those polls said, all the while keeping Clinton very close to those answers as part of their “Bridge to the 21st Century” messaging.
  • American Beauty was highly acclaimed as the best, Oscar-dominating film of 1999, but it no longer holds up in terms of content. Kevin Spacey plays a middle-aged suburbanite who fantasizes after his daughter’s 16-year-old best friend. This is taken to be a standard fantasy of married men at the time. Meanwhile, his wife, played by Annette Bening, is seen as cold for having an extramarital affair. The problems loudly examined in the film are “micro-concerns” at best for today’s younger audiences and it’s probably “the last time in history such problems would be considered worthy of contemplation.”
  • The Y2K problem that fascinated people throughout 1999 was based on a theory that was posted on a digital message board in 1985. People and the press were so frenzied that people truly thought elevators would start dropping through their chutes, for example, and the federal government updated their computers at a cost of $8.5 billion. Some ended up saying it was an example of preventative science doing the best possible job, but it’s tough to tell if there really ever was any type of real threat.
  • Looking back at the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the three events had terrible ratings and Gore kind of looked like the loser in hindsight. While Bush could barely express cogent thoughts on the topics, Gore’s sighing and grimaces and condescension at Bush’s clear idiocy made him look like a jerk while Bush came off looking ok to the low-brow masses. The announcement of an old arrest for drunk driving just a week before the election didn’t even stop people from preferring to have a beer with Bush than with Gore, according to a survey taken at that time by the Sam Adams beer company.
  • To recall just how close the Gore-Bush election was (although Al Gore did win the popular vote by a half a million): if just 1 percent of the people who voted for third-party candidate Ralph Nader in Florida - just in one state, Florida - the Supreme Court chaos would have never happened and Gore would have simply won.
  • Klosterman ends his book by looking at the headlines on September 10, 2001 and noting how markets all had their own news and journalism. Sure, there were some overlapping stories - such as the previous day’s NFL scores, the latest from the Chandra Levy murder, a suicide bomber in Israel - but there were still no viral stories or trending celebrities. “The world was big. The country was still vast. You could just be a little person, with your own little life and your own little thoughts. You didn’t have to have an opinion, and nobody cares if you did or did not.”
  • The next morning, as papers arrived on people’s doorsteps at the same time as 19 men passed through airport security at four airports with box cutters and the eventual result of killing 2,977 people … “the nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”
This is a very entertaining book, and enough time has now passed since the decade that most of us have probably largely forgotten the events or at least they have become somewhat blurrier. So it’s partly a nostalgia trip, but also a substantial contribution to placing the 1990s in context as the end of a fairly long era, mainly due to massive technological change in mass communications.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The biggest disappointments in music releases for 2023, part 1

I've been releasing a massive summary of the year's music each year for a long time now. These lists include my favorite 100 or so releases, best reissues, best EPs, and other categories. It's kind of unwieldy and sometimes I've been still adding finds late into the spring of the next year, long after the barrage of other top and favorite lists that come out in December and January. I've actually thought that's not a bad strategy - to keep my list away from the crowd.

But also, my list is too big to read. So this year I'm breaking it up and will be unveiling it over the next several weeks. For now, let's start with the negative - the records that I thought were the biggest disappointments. Obviously, these are all artists I have a lot of love for who I don't think live up to their potential. I had a lot more in this category than usual this year, so here is the first half of the disappointments:

  • Ryan Adams
     puts out so much content that a release like this, covering The Boss's Nebraska, is more than anyone needs and also doesn't give anyone a reason to listen to it over the original. 
  • John Cale is one of the most reliable artists around, but the Velvet Underground member sounds like a retread of Interpol on MERCY. 
  • Quasi was a really cool band in the 90s, and there are some catchy tunes here, but mostly, Breaking the Balls of History is too overbearing with Sam Coomes' crunching keyboards. 
  • Deja vu: I'm not really sure what the point of Ryan Adams' Blood on the Tracks is, but it's among his worst albums. 
  • A couple of my 80s faves turn in some underwhelming performances with The Church's The Hypnogogue and The Long Ryders' September November. 
  • Mudhoney's Plastic Eternity is not bad but unfortunately doesn't do anything for me and doesn't have a single offering that would fit into their 50 greatest songs, so look elsewhere. 
  • Lloyd Cole is an institution with few missteps, but On Pain is a mediocre and minor synth-driven inclusion to his library. 
  • A grunge supergroup featuring members of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, 3rd Secret's 2nd 3rd Secret should be a little better than a Stone Temple Pilots album, so while it's ok, it's not great. 
  • ANOHNI & Antony and the Johnsons produce a messy letdown with My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross.
Stay tuned for the second half of this list.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Venice, Mulholland, Hollywood and more in our final hours in Los Angeles

Venice Beach Skatepark
After our misstep staying at a stinky AirBnB in Santa Monica on our first night in Los Angeles, we regrouped to get a refund and book the final night of our trip at the luxury Le Parc on Melrose in West Hollywood. It would prove to be the New Year's Eve climax to yet another perfect family-vacation day.

And it wouldn't have been our family without starting it at Venice Beach, and letting Jackson watch the famed Venice Skatepark on the beach for a bit. He only had his scooter with us and they are not allowed there. But I was pretty impressed that he said he would definitely get in and ride if it was allowed, without any worries about the hot-shot skaters and hordes of tourists watching. I always love hanging out in Venice and, after our walk, we headed to meet our cousins, a newlywed couple of musicians, at Gjusta on 3rd and Sunset for a tasty and fun outdoor breakfast.

I had to forego my planned celebrity-gawking stop of the O.J. Simpson murder house on Bundy in Brentwood so we could swing through the Culver City Skatepark. While Jackson scootered, the rest of us took a little climb up to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. We then killed a little time before checkin at our hotel by strolling the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You need about 30 minutes for that, unless you want to truly try to see all the stars on the pavement or want to spend more than the 10 minutes we did in the awesome Amoeba Music record store. At that point, we were more than ready to enjoy our hotel room for the rest of the night.

Venice Beach
The next morning we awoke to 2024 by playing tennis on the roof of the hotel, with magestic views of the Hollywood Hills and downtown L.A. After checkout, we wanted to make the best of our remaining hours on the West Coast before our 3 p.m. flight back to Baltimore via Phoenix. After grabbing some breakfast and snacks from Whole Foods and driving down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, we set out for a drive up the 405 to take winding and famed Mulholland Drive from west to east. Jackson read out famous addresses and we noted them as we passed the homes of Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, John Lennon, Madonna, and many others. As expected, most of the houses are well hidden behind gates and hills, but there are plenty of great sites and overlooks along the whole way, culminating in great views of the Hollywood sign at the Wonder View Trailhead.

Wonder View Trailhead

The three of us got In-N-Out Burger and Zoey got lunch at Ike’s Love & Sandwiches (which incidentally serves a John Ritter Burbank exclusive sandwich of fried chicken, wasabi honey mustard, and provolone). Then it was long, tired flights back home after a very successful family vacation.

Tennis at Le Parc on Melrose