Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Edwardian talking heads

Preparing to go on vacation is both exciting and overwhelming; in other words, not much time to update this blog. Until I get back in full action, here's a link to my review of Harley Granville-Barker's The Madras House at the Mint Theater.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


When they were around, in the late 1970s, the Runaways were often perceived as Kim Fowley's puppets (because young girls couldn't possibly write their own songs) and described as jailbait (they were all in their teens and total bad girls—ie, they taunted boys and played rock & roll). But their influence has outlasted the middle-aged male critics who used to make fun of them, and their music has aged surprisingly well, as I was reminded at a fun, affectionate tribute by the Stay-at-Homes at Magnetic Field Saturday night.

The Stay-at-Homes are made up of local vets who recreate almost all of Live in Japan—which, luckily, happens to be my favorite Runaways album. Tammy Faye Starlite, who goes through three costumes as singer Cherie Currie, even included the stage banter. But things really hit a high point at the very end, when the Stay-at-Homes tackled the awesome "Dead End Justice," an epic story-song that matches "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" in overblown rock-osity ("On the planet Sorrow/There is no tomorrow"—amazingly enough, this poetry did not seep out of Jim Steinman's brain). I never thought I'd hear "Dead End Justice" live one day, but there it was, in all its tawdry glory.

MP3s The Runaways "California Paradise" and "Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin" (both from Live in Japan, of course)

Coda: While Joan Jett is looking increasingly sad as an aging fetish mama playing Bud Light rock, Cherie Currie's now a professional chainsaw carver. She sells her sculptures, so if you're wondering what to give me for my next birthday… (Hint: think raccoons).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's on!

For way too many of us, February means one thing: the real beginning of the national selection rounds for Eurovision. And this year already looks like it's going to be a feisty one—Lordi's win in Athens last year has obviously unlocked a lot of "why the hell not?!?" pent-up Eurovision energy. There's talk of Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker participating for the UK, Denmark has just selected a statuesque drag queen and as I've mentioned before, the mighty Ark has entered the Swedish competition, Melodifestivalen (MP3s of several 2007 Melodifestivalen songs can be found here). Even perennial loser Poland has come up with a good tune that boasts a total Gwen/Fergie vibe—exactly what you'd expect from Poland, right? (Although that country has given us the awesome Kasia Stankiewicz so it obviously has pop potential.) If Portugal, which usually is Poland's peer in terms of Eurovision wretchedness, somehow brings out something half-decent, it'll be a sign that Helsinki will be the most hotly fought contest in years.

Now things are heating up in France, where France Télévisions has set up a better selection system than usual. This year, each of the channels making up the public group is picking two candidates within an assigned genre, before the Eurovision entry is chosen at a grand final in March. The most encouraging part is that the entries tend eschew the boring consensual slow-to-mid-tempo crap that's plagued the French selections this past decade; not so good, however, is that France is still far from even nearing the Scandis' particular genius at catchy melodies. Hasn't anybody heard of anthemic chorus and strategic key changes over there?

France 2 is meant to represent variété. Estelle Lemée zooms out of the gate with a fairly strong ’60s-flavored number (though the chorus should be a lot more wow) and an even better visual identity. Estelle and her handlers also understand the importance of gay gay gay backing dancers at Eurovision. Now that's progress! BZR and Cheb Hamid have a good song and the little scenario they play out in the video is sorta fun, but they're definitely not variété, and hasn't the turbo-ethnic genre run its course at the main contest? And what's up with wearing a Brazil soccer jersey? Come on! My bet is on Estelle here.

France 3 looks to be embracing kitsch as well as its assigned genre of "nouvelle scène française." Les Vedettes' "Vive papa!" is written by indie icon Katerine (who recently had a freak hit with the brilliant "Louxor j'adore"). They work a latex-cheerleader look and the song isn't bad, but I'm afraid this brave attempt at over-the-topness is too amateurish. Les Fatals Picards' "L'amour à la française" is a lot better, and non-French speakers should be aware it's sung in a fake American accent. Too inside-jokey to work in Helsinki perhaps.

France 4 (rock and rap) is going with Les Wampas, an old-school—or perhaps just old—punk band that also had a freak hit a few years ago with "Manu Chao." True to form, the chorus of "Faut voter pour nous" goes "You gotta vote for us! Les Wampas are going to win Eurovision!" Alas, history tells us that self-aware songs don't do well at the contest, even when they happen to be great, as was Telex's "Eurovision." And "Faut voter pour nous" is far from great, or even good. France 4's other pick, MAP, performs a rap with violin and accordion in French. Not a chance.

Of the two France 5 pop picks, I prefer Jennifer Chevallier, whose mid-tempo R&B-flavored "Mon étoile" is actually fairly catchy. Among my favorites with Estelle Lemée, and one of the few who'd stand a chance at the showdown in Helsinki (though I'm not sure if the interracial angle would play for or against her at this point). Charlotte Becquin is backed by a girl band, and god knows those are rare in France. In the video they act up a certain lesbo vibe, which is novel enough at Eurovision to score points, but would be a lot more believable if the girls didn't look like they have no idea how to play their instruments. I mean come on, even Vanilla Ninja could play!

Finally, RFO, true to form and mandate, goes the world route, which should really please those who think the multiracial soccer team doesn't represent "the real France." Medi T's "On and On" starts with the national anthem before turning into a bouncy party anthem with the usual lyrics about how we're all the same despite being of different colors and how dancing unites the world. Good thing most Eurovision viewers don't understand French. Valérie Louri's "Besoin d'ailleurs" is relatively stark but not bad. Its problem, shared by all the other songs here, is the absence of a cathartic chorus. As long as French songwriters can't come up with one, we'll never win, simple as that.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Radio radio

I haven't been on the radio in a while and I've really been missing it. (Ah, catching a few zzzz's on the WFMU futon after an overnight slot, waiting for the first morning bus from East Orange to Port Authority…) Fortunately I'll get a fix tomorrow, February 13, starting at 2pm, when I guest on WNYC. If you're in the NYC area you can listen at 93.9 FM or 820 AM, or you can stream the show live from the station's website anywhere in the world. Former Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard, now at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, is another guest. We'll discuss the concept of guilty pleasures, especially as they apply to music.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sondheim Follies of 2007

I'm always surprised when Sondheim's music is referred to as cold and brainy—which is almost every time it's referred to. It's never struck me that way; it's not as if we're talking about dry modernist compositions after all, or if his shows don't concern themselves with matters of the heart. What Sondheim does is mostly avoid cheesy sentiment, and that alone passes for glacial detachment in the overheated world of musical theater.

The cliché about Sondheim was trotted out yet again in the Times' review of the Encores! version of his 1971 masterpiece, Follies: "The brittle shield of ice that was once widely believed to encase anything Stephen Sondheim wrote continues to melt apace…this “Follies” definitively tears off the stigma of cerebral chilliness that was attached to it when it opened 35 years ago." But it's easy to melt an inexistent shield of ice. I mean, who would ever think that the heartbreaking "Losing My Mind," probably the best-known song from Follies, is emotionally distant? And that number is far from being an oddity in the Sondheim catalog.

Anyway, on with the show. It's plain that the Follies a few thousand people were lucky enough to see this weekend was exceptional. Casey Nicholaw did a bang-up job with the staging and choreography, and special props to Ken Billington's extraordinary lighting, which made the ghostly younger cast appropriately monochromatic, even when they happened to step up to center stage to interact with their older selves; the effect was akin to a b&w movie character suddenly being dumped into a color picture.

But what really made the production exceptional were the performers, notably Donna Murphy (betraying hairline cracks in Phyllis's regal composure), Victoria Clark (particularly touching when evoking Sally's wasted life and heartbreak), Christine Baranski (our most naturally gifted comedienne, nailing all of Carlotta's lines and doing an impressive job—save for those tricky last notes—on "I'm Still Here") and JoAnne Worley (a scenery-chomping ringleader in the fabulous "Who's That Woman"?). While the number didn't get the most heated applause at the performance I saw, I loved Clark's version of "Losing My Mind," which I even preferred to Barbara Cook's (this is akin to saying that the earth is flat to hardcore showtune fiends).

Someone on All That Chat theorized that the current crop of female musical-theater stars may be the strongest ever, and I find myself in agreement. Of course there have been tremendous powerhouses in the past, but now the numbers are impressive: We can see the likes of Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Bernadette Peters, Christine Ebersole and Tonya Pinkins on a regular basis. (I'm not a huge fan of Audra McDonald but she definitely has her admirers. ) Add a whole bunch of young 'uns working their way up through the ranks, such as Anika Noni Rose, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Laura Bell Bundy and Leslie Kritzer, and we're in really good shape. Now if only we could get exciting new composers to match… but please don't bring up Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The singles hour

The Village Voice has just published its annual Pazz & Jop Poll. Dylan comes up on top (yawn) with TV on the Radio nipping at his heels (zzzz…), while "Crazy" wins the Golden Toaster for single of the year.

You can look at my own poll here, with the caveat that the results change every week. For the sake of convenience, I'll post MP3s of my top ten singles of 2006 as they appeared in the Voice. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

1. Margaret Berger: "Samantha" Berger was no. 2 on Norwegian Idol, which tells you everything and nothing. A typical Scandi-stomper, "Samantha" is from her second album, the unusually (well, not for a Scandi-pop album, actually) good Pretty Scary Silver Fairy.

2. Bodies Without Organs: "Temple of Love" Yet again BWO entered Melodifestivalen, the Swedish selection process for the Eurovision Song Contest, and yet again they didn't make it through. A shame, for I bet this gloriously old-fashioned explosion of homo energy would have done better in Athens' than Carola's tired entry. And speaking of tough competition, the Ark is entering Melodifestivalen this year, with a peppy Bay City Rollers–style number titled (despite the fact that it suggests anything but) "The Worrying Kind". Go Ark!

3. Cassius: "Jack Rock" Acid lives with this track from Cassius' latest album. Every time I listen to it, I picture an expedition going up Mount Everest: The track climbs up to a plateau and takes a rest at base camp 1; then it climbs some more, and settles down at base camp 2; more climbing, more resting, and so on. The wonky piano and Rolling Stones woo-hoo's take it to the summit. A perennial treadmill tune.

4. Girls Aloud: "Something Kinda Oooh" I included all three of Girls Aloud's studio albums on their respective years' top-ten lists but had to interrupt that impeccable run because their 2006 release was a greatest-hits collection. Fortunately it did feature this new recording. As usual with Xenomania productions, the song has an unpredictable structure: very brief vocal intro, then the chorus, then the verse, and of course a pneumatic bridge to die for. And also as usual, we get the best genius/stupid lyrics a mega-selling girl group has to offer: "Something kinda ooooh/Jumping on my tu-tu/Something inside of me/Wanting part of you/Something kinda ooooh/Makes my heart go boom boom/Something inside of me/Wanting what you do/Something kinda ooooh/Bumpin' in the back room."

5. The Gossip: "Standing in the Way of Control (Soulwax Nite Version)" The Gossip has always shot itself in the foot with the cruddy sound on their recordings. I don't care what people say: It's their refusal to hire a decent producer that's hampered their career, not Beth Ditto's weight and politics. Last year they finally scored a semi-club hit thanks to the Belgian brothers in Soulwax—and an actual bass line.

6. Jamelia: "Beware of the Dog" One of two 2006 hits to cannibalize the synth-pop 1980s. Ruthlessly efficient.

7. The Killers: "When You Were Young" Like the other big drama queen in Vegas—that'd be CSI—the Killers are big, bloated and self-important, with a teeny-tiny ounce of winking self-awareness. This song is U2 for those who loathe U2.

8. Melody Club: "Last Girl on My Mind" A few years ago, Melody Club was slated to play a Swedish showcase at CBGB; they cancelled at the last minute because they got the opening gig on Kylie Minogue's European tour. Still no US release for Sweden's all-male answer to Blondie, but its third release is full of nuggets like this one. The lyrics make the latest Arcade Fire and Decemberists albums sound like the work of fussy librarians: "You're keeping your legs crossed, honey/Like a good girl should/Who's smearing your lipgloss, honey/ Come on take me by the hand." Any guy who mentions lipgloss in a song ranks high with me.

9. Rihanna: "SOS (Rescue Me)" I hesitated listing both this and "Beware of the Dog" because they're so similarly exploitative and so similarly exemplary of a dearth of ideas. Alas, both were lodged in my head in 2006. Rihanna also contributed to the canon of great pop lines with "I'm the question and you're of course the answer/Just hold me close boy 'cause I'm your tiny dancer."

10. Kate Ryan: "Je t'adore" Textbook Europop. The biggest shocker of 2006 for trü-pop fans is that Kate Ryan didn't make it past the semi in the Eurovision Song Contest. "Je t'adore" is so good that in the weeks leading up to the showdowns, us fans were taking bets as to whether she'd win it, place in the top three or in the top five. I was certain that at last Belgium could step to the podium. Oh well… Take it away, Katrien Verbeeck!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A simple plan

I love B movies with a high concept and a low budget, where the director packs 90 minutes—the optimal length for a B movie—with as many variations as possible on the core premise: Cube (strangers must escape from a deadly, always-changing maze); Cellular (kidnapped woman randomly dials and reaches slacker's cell phone; he has to remain on the line while trying to locate her); Phone Booth (the reverse: while in phone booth random man gets call that a sniper is watching him and will shoot if man tries to leave the booth); Descent (women go down cave; mutant creatures hunt them down); Joy Ride (pranksters punk psycho trucker via CB radio; he hunts them down). And that's just recentish ones.

Add Marc Evans' My Little Eye to this canon of satisfying popcorn cheapies. Five people must remain in an isolated, snowbound house for six months—while each of their move is webcast 24/7, à la Big Brother—in order to win $1 million; if one leaves, they all lose. But is there someone outside? Director Evans takes the classic "and then there was none" model (prime example: Alien), wraps it in a reality-TV aesthetic and adds a dash of The Shining for flavor. The barely-above-average acting doesn't help, but the claustrophobic atmosphere is pretty successful on a skimpy budget.

Even more intriguing, Evans' latest film, Snow Cake, has recently come out in Europe and seems to have a tentative release date of April in the US. On paper it looks like a total Hollywood-style weepie with extra-crispy casting: Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman, Alan Rickman as a grieving man and Carrie-Anne Moss as the neighbor who's bound to help Rickman—what? Love again, perhaps? Recover his taste for life? I foresee dignified non-hugging, Evans being British and all.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Turning gold into lead

Yes, that transmutation (granted, not that rare in the arts) is what David Byrne achieved Saturday night at Carnegie Hall: He managed to make a disco musical about the life of Imelda Marcos uninteresting.

On paper, Here Lies Love, about the former Muse of Manila and First Lady of the Philippines had it all: the shopping obsession, the trips to New York discotheques, the various official functions, such as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. That, and the fact that Byrne is a clever guy who kept referring to dance music and Studio 54 in interviews. And yet Here Lies Love was worse than bad: It was a crushingly boring exercise in bland, middle-aged taste. In concert form, it was like watching a beige Crate & Barrel couch for two hours.

Where to begin…Part of the problem may well rest in the very definition of the project: Is it a song cycle or a musical? Using Joan Almedilla and Ganda Suthivarakom to sing the parts of Imelda Marcos and her housekeeper Estrella Campos, respectively, indicated a certain musical-theater ambition of creating distinct characters. Alas, this was not reflected in the lyrics, which are heavily narrative, devoid of any personality and of the wit one has come to associate with Byrne himself. At one point he remarked that the words in a song's first verse were taken directly from Imelda's high-school yearbook—"this is reportage," he dryly added to the crowd's knowing laughter. But reportage, you see, does not automatically make compelling art. Things flowed more naturally when Byrne himself reprised a couple of the songs previously performed by the women: If he just sang all of Here Lies Love himself and called it a song cycle, it might actually work better.

It's symptomatic of the project's timidity that Byrne pointed out at the end of the evening that there hadn't been a single song about shoes, because Imelda's footwear obsession was discovered only after her fall. Right, but if we wanted reportage, we'd read the newspaper. A show requires a certain amount of unhinged vulgarity, which unfortunately is the one word that least describes Byrne's oeuvre. You can bet Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't worry about reportage when they wrote Evita.

That singular lack of over-the-top glee was reflected in the music itself. For the first 15 numbers, Byrne and the two lead singers fronted a four-piece band. Most numbers were perfunctorily funky. If you're going to mention Studio 54 when talking about your show, you'd better understand that classic late-’70s disco mixed a deeply ecstatic nature with stupefying musical precision; both were missing at Carnegie Hall. (On his website, Byrne describes "Dancing Together" as "Imelda’s philosophy of why she needs to be beautiful for the Filipino people. A song about the exciting world of socialites, celebrities and expensive items." And yet listening to the song, you'd think he'd never heard Chic.)

At last, a string and a horn sections came in for the final five songs—typically, after the big Studio 54 number! Even though their charts were rather primitive and not used particularly well, they did add a welcome luster to the overall sound, as well as more questions: Why add the extra players so late? When two of the numbers were reprised at the end, they did have the strings and horns—so why weren't they used the first time around? The great disco musical still needs to be written.

For a master class in the orchestrated mix of ecstasy and precision, Byrne might want to listen to these two protodisco tracks, remixed to epic lengths by Tom Moulton. Poetry in motion.
MP3 Detroit Emeralds "Feel the Need in Me" from A Tom Moulton Mix (Soul Jazz)
MP3 Eddie Kendricks "Keep on Truckin'" from A Tom Moulton Mix (Soul Jazz)

I guess we can add David Byrne to the ever-growing list of pop/rock musicians struggling to cross over into musical theater. Randy Newman came close with Faust, a show I believe got an unfair shake and needs to be reeavaluated. Significantly, it's Duncan Sheik, the one whose solo career was rather perfunctory, who's made the most convincing transfer with Spring Awakening. Go figure.