Friday, May 30, 2008

Mushrooms and hotels

Quiet weekend ahead. A mild inner-ear infection thingy is messing with my sense of balance so I'm going to skip the Wire show at the Seaport tonight. Dang, especially since my colleague Mike Wolf is deejaying. Come to think of it, my schedule has been oddly quiet lately. I have to admit spending way too much time catching up with a couple of series on DVD: Jericho and The Grand.

I'm only halfway through the first season of Jericho, set in a small Kansas town isolated after nuclear explosions hit several US cities, but one thing puzzles me: The people in Jericho spend a lot of time shooting the breeze at the local bar and waiting for help to arrive. This passivity is just weird—why don't they drive out or fly out (there's a small airport strip) to see what's actually happening? I'm not sure if this is a huge writing flaw or if it's a depressingly prescient way to describe how Americans would react to such a catastrophe. Are we living in such a coddled country that people would only worry about how to refrigerate their beer if a mushroom cloud went up in the next state? Don't answer that…

The Grand is a ten-year-old two-season British series set in the titular Manchester hotel right after WWI. It looks sadly cheap in that stereotypical UK-video way, which flattens everything, but the plot picks up quickly, the characters all have intricate shadings and the first season ends with a true shocker, making it easy to overlook the pallid aesthetic. The Grand is written by Russell T Davies, who's turning out to be one of my very favorite small-screen scribes—he's also responsible for the original Queer as Folk, the superb miniseries Bob and Rose (in which a woman and a gay man fall in love), The Second Coming (Jesus appears in present-day Manchester—or does he?) and the revived Doctor Who.

Look elsewhere

I just posted a li'l something on the SundayArts blog about spoofs of high culture, from Bugs Bunny's Rabbit of Seville to French and Saunders' take on La Dolce Vita. There's linkage galore so make sure you have some time before diving in.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Moscow all dreams come true

Is Moscow the 2008 capital of pop? All signs point east.

First, Russia wins the Eurovision Song Contest. Okay, Dima Bilan's song "Believe" is a ridiculously dull ballad that was only redeemed by a staging that included tight white pants and ice-skating. Still, a win's a win. (Eurovision freaks all know that runner-up "Shady Lady", by Ukrainian star Ani Lorak, deserved to triumph.)

Second: You and I, a movie in which t.A.T.u plays a large part, is about to hit the screens—even though it's likely to be the small screens as it has "straight to DVD" written all over it. Based on this trailer, however, it also has "straight to the top of the Dilettante's Netflix queue" written all over it: bad Russian accents, lesbionic (sub)text and pop music are three of my main requirements for a movie. Oh, and Mischa Barton too. How did Roland Joffe know?

Of course this is a bad fit for the director of such un-pop movies as The Killing Fields and The Mission, but it's also exactly why You and I looks powerfully alluring. Plus, who would have thought the auteur of Total Recall and RoboCop would deliver Showgirls? Joffe is no Verhoeven, but I'll be pretty happy if You and I merely is a tenth as good as Showgirls.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Goodbye to all that

This week in the SundayArts blog, I hail the downtown luminaries getting together to say goodbye to Florent, the meatpacking district restaurant that for almost a quarter century was a haven for a freak scene now gasping for air.

Typically, the restaurant's closing is due to rising rents, and coincides with the Sex and the City movie—the moment the SATC gals went cruising W 14th Street was the moment that neighborhood went south. Today, it's a vile emporium for luxury goods, an altar to the conspicuous consumption of overpriced objects. The sight of people lining up outside the Apple store first thing in the morning, so they're first to get in when it opens, is enough to make me choke down some bile.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Turn off the idiot box

Turn off the idiot box! No, dear readers, this isn't aimed at you—you can watch as much as you want. And it isn't aimed at myself either, for that matter, as I'm looking forward to catch up with a pair of Morris Engel movies and season 1 of Jericho this weekend.

The person who really should turn off her TV and start paying attention to the world outside is New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley. Now I realize Stanley is actually paid to watch TV but today's review of HBO's Recount, about the Florida debacle during the 2000 presidential election, indicates a baffling lack of understanding of that pesky reality-based world we live in, and the relative importance of events.

Stanley has often been mocked for accumulating corrections, mostly due to stupid but relatively minor mistakes. That I can live with, sort of, because as an editor and writer I know how easy it is to get details wrong. But there's a bigger problem at work today.

The review starts by saying the recount "was historic and historically awful, until the Sept. 11 attacks wiped away much of the anguish and slapstick. For a while, at least, the Florida vote count seemed as trivial and irrelevant as the results of the Henley Regatta after August 1914."

Let's see: A rigged voting procedure in Florida led to a rigged count; that in turn led to an abuse of power by the Supreme Court, which put in office a dangerously inept president who in a few years' time would wreck the American economy and turn into a criminal of war (which is what people including the Hague tribunal call those who knowingly flaunt the Geneva Convention). Of course that bit of "slapstick" was "trivial and irrelevant"! Stanley's reaction truly boggles the mind.

Our ace critic then proceeds to imply that the recount would have remained some kind of cute footnote until HBO's "deliciously engrossing" film reminded us of the hoopla. Reading this in the subway this morning, I had to put down the paper for a minute; I wanted to see what Stanley would come up with next but needed to collect myself, not throw the Times out the window.

Good thing I kept reading, because I got the pleasure of choking on carefree asides like "Life is unfair, especially when retold in dramatizations of recent history." How easily does blithe sarcasm seep out through the walls of privilege… Sometimes the unbearable glibness of being a Times critic is just too much for us readers—and citizens—to withstand.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Folk on!

My preview of tonight's Paganfest at BB King's is out in Time Out New York. (Make sure to scroll down the piece to listen to streaming songs.) Seriously, this show cannot come fast enough! When the daily grind brings me down, nothing compares to a horde of folk-metal rockers to soothe my spirits. And tonight's selection is choice: Eluveitie, Tyr, Ensiferum and Turisas, all tops in their subgenre. This will be the perfect antidote to the boring little indie-scenesters in skinny jeans and Converses who crowd our stages. I'll be at at my regular BB spot, right behind the soundboard; drop by and say hello.

Also in TONY this week, a preview of a nifty little Aussie punk band named The Time of the Assassins, playing a trio of NYC shows this week and next.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oil and water

Last night I had the privilege to hear a surprisingly mediocre version of "Tonight" by none other than stars of stage and television Kristin Chenoweth and Raúl Esparza—and backed by the New York Philharmonic at that. You'd think, Okay, they are not the ideal interpreters for this particular song but they're pros, they can pull it off, plus the Phil will make it all sound great. And yet it was a three-minute puzzlement. Chenoweth, fresh from Bernstein's demanding "Glitter and Be Gay," didn't seem quite back on her feet and felt out of breath, while Esparza felt out of sync. Add an utter lack of chemistry that was only underlined by the final, pandering kiss and there you have it: a demonstration of egos smothering a song.

The number was part of a program titled Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers and put together by Marvin Hamlisch, who also conducted. Hamlisch did a lot of talking at the beginning but stopped midway, much to my relief: there's only so much cornball even I can take ("I remember in the 5th grade, P.S. 9…"). The Phil's musicians sat there, some of them probably thinking "I played in North Korea and I'm back for this?"

Some of Hamlisch's choice were pretty odd considering he had the frickin' Phil at his disposal. How hard would it be to choose numbers that are not only famous but also have arrangements that make full use the orchestra? "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables? Don't think so. "Vanilla Ice Cream" from She Loves Me? Cute but slight.

In addition, this may be nitpicky but can a medley (of My Fair Lady) be a showstopper since, well, it's a medley and so isn't in any actual show? Can an overture (of A Chorus Line) count as a showstopper since by definition the show hasn't quite gotten under way yet? Not to mention that the overture in question was by none other by Hamlisch himself, who got to play his own music with a really expensive toy. All right, that particular overture was actually cut from the show so it was fun to hear, and I realize the overtures for, oh, Gypsy or South Pacific, are being played the way they should be on Broadway right now, but still, something like "Carousel Waltz" could have been added to balance the self-satisfaction inherent in Hamlisch Plays Hamlisch.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The fresh sounds of hardcore

If you're in New York, set your dial to 93.9FM Monday at 2pm; you can also listen live on the web on the WNYC site. I will be on Soundcheck to discuss why it's so hard to find women who rawk hard these days. Oooh, incendiary!

Speaking of rawk, it erupted as if from some broken sewer pipe at Southpaw this past Wednesday when the reunited Negative Approach hit Brooklyn. And hit it did. Holy cow! NA was a classic Detroit hardcore combo that formed in 1981 and released an album on Touch & Go in 1983. For me the main draw in seeing the band now was singer John Brannon, whose post-NA project was Laughing Hyenas. I saw them a couple of times back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and back then I loved the interplay between Brannon's vocals and Larissa Strickland's guitar; they were uneven (and could get too dirgey for my taste) but at their best, the Laughing Hyenas were a worthy American answer to the Birthday Party. Unfortunately they also had a similar penchant for self-destruction, with heroin abuse turning into a big problem. Strickland, who had started as a singer in Detroit's L-Seven (not to be confused with LA's L7), died in November 2006 of a prescription-drugs overdose.

Brannon seems to be doing fine now, and he still has one of the most amazing sets of pipes in rock, a sandpapery growl that can strip paint off walls. On Wednesday, NA showed it had lost nothing of the ferocity that made them a dangerous band 25 years ago. The pit was a chaotic mess and I had to fumigate my clothes after getting home—the beer had literally been flying. I have to say, however, that the guys slamming into each other weren't in the flower of youth. Either NA hasn't turned into a cult that can attract new fans, or the newbies didn't dare face off with the middle-aged meatheads pawing each other in front of the stage (and sometimes on it). The biggest of them all was a humongous mohawked steroid case who at one point seized the bassist's mike to sing along—and turned out to have a little pipsqueaky voice, even though he tried his darnedest to sound tough.

Here's the opening song in its entirety:

Opening band Clockcleaner, a bit of a Dilettante fave, did a short but efficient set that included the awesome "Vomiting Mirrors" and ended with a Negative Approach cover. Nice. Also nice: When frontman John Sharkey, being his usual obnoxious self while testing the reverb on his mike, was pelted with a full cup of beer. It was that kind of night.

Negative Approach "Can't Tell No One" (from Negative Approach EP, 1982)
Negative Approach "Tied Down" (from Tied Down, 1983)
L-Seven "Clear Vision" (1983)
Laughing Hyenas "Candy" (from Merry Go Round CD, 1987/95)
Laughing Hyenas "Hitman" (from Life of Crime, 1990)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rigor Mortier

Because I have all this free time, I translated parts of an interview Gérard Mortier gave on French public radio a couple of weeks ago for the SundayArts blog. You can read it all there. (Thanks to Night after Night for the shoutout!)

Mortier is the incoming manager of New York City Opera but I think what he has to say would be a good read for anybody with an interest in culture—and cultural politics. Plus don't you want to hear about his plans with David Lynch?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Second Life of Chris Marker

For his latest exhibit, at a museum in Zurich, artist and filmmaker Chris Marker (La Jetée) has created a retrospective of his work that you can visit on Second Life. French weekly mag Les Inrockuptibles even interviewed him there and offered this guided tour to the virtual showroom. This is particularly apt for Marker, film's equivalent of Thomas Pynchon in terms of mystery (he doesn't let himself be photographed and his name is a pseudonym). His Second Life name: Sergei Murasaki. You can see his avatar, which is of course his famous cat Guillaume, in the interview.

Les Inrocks offers some good music videos on its website, including some of artists playing unplugged in what looks like the office's conference room. Check out the ever-lovely Barbara Carlotti performing the title track from her new album, L'Idéal, and also covering Madness.

Flying high

My piece on the excellent French troupe Compagnie 111, soon to be at the New Victory, is in the new TONY. I cannot recommend these guys enough, as their hybrid form of acrobatic stagecraft is quite rare in NYC. Plus they have read Oskar Schlemmer and Heinrich von Kleist, whose theoretical writings on the theater are hugely influential in Europe but ignored by American directors—which may provide the beginning of an explanation for the lack of purely visual acuity among them.

On the SundayArts blog, you can find my thoughts on the Tony nominations.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

It's the little things

Another post on the SundayArts blog, this time about the joys of seeing the same thing over and over again. Usually not my favorite pasttime (I never re-read novels for instance, and am loathe to see a band too often) but it turns out there are benefits to revisiting some works or acts.

Rocking the contest

As we inch closer to this year's Eurovision Song Contest (May 20-24 in Belgrade), fun news keep trickling in. My favorite right now: Jean-Paul Gaultier is going to be one of the commentators on the French broadcast. Gaultier is clearly on a pop roll, having just done the costumes for Kylie's new tour, and I can't wait to hear what he has to say about the contest's traditionally, er, daring fashion.

I actually think this is going to be a superior vintage for Eurovision. I wasn't feeling it last year but Belgrade is going to deliver the goods.

First of all, there's now so many participating countries that there are two semi finals, each with 19 contestants, in addition to the five countries automatically in the run (France, the UK, Germany and Spain + host Serbia). Considering a large proportion of these entries are from Eastern Europe, which is known for an often dicy relationship with good taste, that's a whole lot of opportunity for hot messes.

But the thing is, lots of countries are throwing caution to the wind this year, and not just the ones from behind the old iron curtain. Just think: Ireland is sending a puppet named Dustin the Turkey (careful this video could make your head explode), Spain a comedian doing the Chiki Chiki dance, France is singing in English for the first time and Belgium just came up with an invented tongue. And of course we have classics: Latvia is sending a bunch of guys dressed as pirates, Finland rocks hard again, Ukraine has selected one of its leggy pop babes, Ani Lorak, with a song titled "Shady Lady" (which somehow seems so Ukraine) while Russia is banking on Dima Bilan with a track produced like Timbaland (also so Russia in its nouveau richness). As for Sweden, it's playing it relatively safe with Charlotte Perrelli, who actually won in 1999 under the name Charlotte Nilsson.

All bets are off!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Knighting Kylie

According to Reuters, Kylie Minogue was made a Knight of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et Lettres) by the French Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, yesterday.

First, Kylie was thanked for "the cultural pleasure she has given French people." Then, Madame Albanel praised the Singing Budgie thus: "Princess of pop, uncontested queen of the dance floors, you are a sort of Midas of the international music scene who turns everything she touches into gold, from records to micro-shorts. Even if it isn't the part of your anatomy which is the most often praised by the media, you have a big heart."

I could not have put it any better.

In other Kylie news, she's acting that big heart out in the season premiere of Doctor Who, playing an interstellar cocktail waitress and, I have to admit, looking not all that good. Worth checking out though.

Rising to the challenge

I was tagged, I was tagged! And being a good girl, I am doing what Steve "Night After Night" Smith requested.

Here's the assignment:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I reached up above my desk and what came up was Dawn, Dusk or Night, Yasmina Reza's book about Nicolas Sarkozy and his presidential campaign. It could not be more appropriate. I mean, the head spins. Here are the three sentences, with paragraph breaks, returns and indents intact:

"To be the favorite, what a disenchantment for a lover of adversity.

Talking about his team:
They have no right to complain."

One, two, ka-POW! If only Hillary Clinton had a Yasmina Reza to follow her around the campaign trail…

David Cote, Judy McGuire, DJ El Toro, Michaelangelo Matos, Franklin Bruno: you are on!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Voulez-vous Scandi?

A triple-bill of Swedish deliciousness is rolling into town. You can read my preview of this week's two shows by El Perro del Mar, Lykke Li and Anna Terheim here. My only question is: Why couldn't they get Jenny Wilson and Marit Bergman to make it an Ozzfest-like marathon? There are music links at the end of the review, so here's a couple of videos of the ones that got away: Jenny Wilson's "Let My Shoes Lead Me Forward" and Marit Bergman's "Adios Amigos," which has got to be among the most exuberant videos I've ever seen.

Interestingly, I hear that of the three playing in NYC, Ternheim sells the most in Sweden while the other two are relatively confidential—but the roles are reversed here, and she's opening the bill. It's always fun to see which artists don't do squat at home while exporting well. I remember that Tahiti 80 would sell out Bowery Ballroom and do long US tours while nobody had ever heard of them in France; same for M83 when it started, or that new rock band the Teenagers.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

La French Idol

What, Paula Abdul is out to lunch? Really? No matter: Anybody with taste knows that pretty much all the Idol series are fun except for the American one, sinking into irrelevance and ridicule with every passing week.

I've written about the French iteration, aka Nouvelle Star, before, and a new season has been under way for a few weeks now. Most notable is the presence of three new judges, with only one leftover from the previous years' group. (If only American Idol had the sense to follow that lead and rejuvenate its jury…) Among the newbies is singer Lio, whose "Banana Split" remains one of my favorite pop hits ever.

Let's check out some high- and lowlights of the current season. Sit down, relax, grab a cold drink—this is going to take a little while.

• The cast covers "Umbrellas." Not so great, but typical of the group sings popular on Nouvelle Star.

• Cedric (white shirt) and Kristov (dark shirt) cover "Une femme libérée," a 1984 hit by Cookie Dingler (ayee!). Could these guys' pants be any tighter? It's a wonder they can sing at all. Note that blondie isn't a member of the jury but the show's version of Ryan Secrest.

• Thomas performs "My Sharona" in passable English; there seems to be progress on that front, though us Frenchies are still far from Scandi-style ease.

• Someone has the balls to tackle Piaf's "Hymne à l'amour" and redefines "lightweight" in the process. Poor Axelle…

• Pretty cool group performance of "Dis Moi" by the trio BB Brunes. Significant detail there: the guys play guitar.

• Official sign that it's time to retire "Toxic." Wretched, like a third-rate Jamiroquai. Forget what I said earlier about the French getting better at English.

• Another great thing about Nouvelle Star: They cover really recent hits, like this Vanessa Paradis song from just a few months ago. Still, Axelle messes it up by meowing some of the worst "lalala's" I've ever heard.

• Wow, Thomas goes after Franz Ferdinand! Again, this material selection would not have a snowball's chance in hell, otherwise known as American Idol.