Wednesday, June 29, 2011

GLEE: "Funeral"

I really should finish these up, since I have these two episodes I still haven't posted about. Again, it's been so long now that I have to go based on my notes, but it should be okay.

I loved when Santana said that Finn sings and dances "like a zombie who has to poop." It was all I could think about while watching him sing and dance during these episodes.

Jesse St. James has come on as a consultant to the glee club to help them beat Vocal Adrenaline. He tells them Vocal Adrenaline's stragety: find the best singer and highlight them. That was certainly clear last year. I was bothered by their "Bohemian Rhapsody" last year when it was 90% Jesse singing, and everyone else just dancing around. But Jesse is clear in this episode that's how they do things, and he wants to do the same here. And rather than just give the solo to Rachel (wouldn't that be suspicious?), they decide to hold auditions. Finn has been insulted enough and doesn't want to audition.

We finally meet Becky's mom in this episode. Becky wants to join the glee club because Sue has kicked her off the Cheerios. Mr. Shue turns her down as politely as he can because they are gearing up for competition. I was taken aback by this whole thing at first, but was at least glad that it meant the end of the exploitation of Becky as Sue's lackey. And then we learn why Becky was fired; Sue's sister has died, and Sue can't be reminded of it. Throughout this episode we are going to get a weird mix of cuddly Sue and mean Sue. Since last year's softening of her character, the writers have been walking this bizarre tightrope of how to maintain her demeanor. Is she warm and understanding, if distant, or is she horrible and belligerent? This episode manages to have an excuse to be both.

Remember when I didn't understand what the big problem was with April Rhodes a couple episodes ago? Remember I said that Will could just do the show during the summer? Well, he apparently took my advice because that's what he's planning to do. And it makes perfect sense. He hasn't told the kids yet, though.

The center of this episode is the auditioning for solos. I like that there was a sign-up sheet, and Rachel signed with a gold star, recalling the pilot. Auditions take place in an empty auditorium with just Mr. Shue and Jesse at a table. Jesse took a class in reality show judging before he flunked out of school, so he comes at this thinking he's Simon Cowell.

First up is Santana. She performs "Back to Black" and it's all right. I thought at times she sounded a little like Emiliana Torrini (the chick who does "Gollum's Song" at the end of The Two Towers). At least it wasn't another lesbian love song. Jesse doesn't think much of it.

Next up is Kurt, and as you would guess he's singing a showtune written for a female. In this case, a great song: "Some People" from Gypsy. I thought that the arrangement was too high for Kurt. It sounded slightly high to me as it is, and Kurt ends up having problems in his upper register during this song (not sure whether to belt or go falsetto). Having said that, he has some fun with his choreography, ending with a great slide at the end. Jesse is weirded out by him doing a girl song. I will say, Kurt shouldn't ALWAYS do girl songs (though they usually get the best ones in musical theater). He also says that if Kurt is going to take on a song like that which has been nailed by legends like Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone, he needs to really hit it out of the park, and he didn't. Mr. Shue thinks he did a great job (of course he does). Kurt is angry and offended by Jesse's comments. But he's right. He didn't nail the song. It was good, but was it good enough? It was a very Simon Cowell thing to say.

Next up is Mercedes. She comes on with a powerhouse performance of "Try a Little Tenderness". Mr. Shue is blown away, and lays the praise on thick ("Thank you so much for letting me hear that!"). Jesse calls her out for being lazy. There was no choreography, she just stood at the mic. He then asks whether she's willing to really work a song until it's perfect for nationals. She counters that her music is spontaneous and she just comes out and does her thing. Jesse argues that's not good enough. Again, he might be a little harsh here, but from what we've seen of Mercedes this season, IT'S TRUE. She is lazy. She thinks everyone should just bow down to her while she gets to the mic and does her thing. She needed some reality.

Finally, Rachel is up and she decides to sing the finale from Funny Girl. It's not bad. Jesse has no criticism for her. And therein lies the obvious bias. He is pulling for her and has been from the start. I agreed with his prior criticisms, but there must have been something in Rachel's performance to pick out. For me, it's that whenever she sings a Streisand song, she feels the need to effect a "Barbra" voice. She gets an accent and mimics. She shouldn't hide behind that; this isn't imitation, it's performance.

Finn wants to be nice to Sue, and he suggests the glee club plan the funeral. She agrees, only so that she doesn't have to do it. We learn that the sister's favorite movie was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory, so it's a Wonka-themed funeral. There's even a chocolate fountain. ...Can I just ask, has anyone ever been to a themed funeral? I love it when she first walks in the door, and the music is the exact same bit of score (those first notes of "Pure Imagination") that are used in the movie when the door to the Chocolate Room opens.

The club performs "Pure Imagination" at the funeral. It's not bad, but it sounds like it's too high. Why raise the key? It leads to the guys having to strain out the upper notes. It's not a power ballad, they shouldn't have to shout the lyrics. I also am having a problem in general with the group singing simple songs as if they are modern day pop songs. Just trust your voices and the song; you don't have to sing like Boyz II Men.

I have in my notes "good break-up scene". I guess this must be Finn and Quinn in the car. I thought it was a good dramatic scene. And I also wondered whether Kurt and Blaine will end up getting a good break-up scene. After all, can we really expect them to be together forever? Wouldn't that overly mythologize the gay experience?

The auditions are tearing the group apart. There is jealousy and anger among all those who tried out. Mr. Shue has final say over who wins the solo. Jesse thinks it's in the bag for Rachel. But instead Mr. Shue fires Jesse and says to forget the solo thing. They will do original songs again and work together as a group. Then everyone magically hasn't a bad word to say to each other. What?

I'd also like to add that Nationals are VERY soon, and you have no idea what your set list will be? In real life, you'd be rehearsing the same songs over and over to get them right. This winging-it approach will not garner them a win, nor should it. Just like Mercedes, it's lazy. They should have at least ONE number locked down. But no, they are going to write another song? Why not just do "Loser Like Me" again? Nobody there will have heard it! It will be new to THEM. And this is a problem with the competitions in general. Glee doesn't want to repeat itself, so they never perform songs that we see them rehearsing. At least in the first season there were story reasons behind that. But the unreality is starting to catch up with this show.

Sue lets Becky back on the Cheerios and apologizes. That's nice. I hope Becky doesn't go back to being mindless lackey. Oh, and Sue says that she's pursuing her dream of running for the House of Representatives. Hey, that's a dream of mine too. Sometimes anyway.

And then the worst news of all... Terri is moving to Miami! NO! Terri, this show needs you!

Songs in tonight's episode:
Back to Black
Some People
Try a Little Tenderness
My Man
Pure Imagination

Next episode: The season finale with Nationals in New York. Will a new location make for a good episode? If you're reading this, you've probably already seen it and can answer that question.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

They Got Him

I turn on the TV this morning to find that the FBI has finally captured Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston crime lord who's been one of our most wanted for a long time. Wow things sure are getting done these days. First Osama, then Bulger. Also curious how America's Most Wanted gets cancelled, then some of our most wanted are found (not saying there's a corollary, just think it's funny happenstance).

It used to be there were things you took for granted as absolutes here. The Red Sox will never win a series, Whitey Bulger will always be out there somewhere, etc. But now that the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup, it seems our sports teams have all been good again recently. Now they got Whitey Bulger. I don't know how to live in such a world. What's next, a clean Charles River?

I kid of course. Good job, FBI.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Obama 2012

I'm watching the Republican presidential debate right now, and it's growing clear to me that we're looking at another 4 years of Barack Obama. That's assuming he runs for re-election, of course. If the Democratic party starts from scratch, it might play out differently, but the gathering of eight potential Republican candidates is not looking good. Mitt Romney is not a good candidate to my mind, certainly not as a Republican. Can any of the others beat Romney? I'd say no. A couple have a shot, but it's tough. And then can any beat Obama? At this point, I'd say no.

I'm not a Republican. I'm an un-enrolled voter with Libertarian leanings. To me, from a somewhat objective standpoint, it's a bad omen when the most attractive candidate seems to be Ron Paul.

Right now I think is a golden opportunity for some charismatic and brilliant independent candidate to campaign hard for the job. Because even though it's early, it's looking to me like the writing is already on the wall. I would love it if an independent candidate actually won the Presidency and proved that the whole silly partisan way we've been running elections in this country can be circumvented. I consider our present system at worst unconstitutional and at best bad for America.

In any case, this debate wasn't much of one. More like a "who can claim he espouses the most conservative Christian ideologies" popularity contest. I'll keep my eye on one or two of them, but it doesn't seem like most of these people can think enough for themselves. And who was that woman there? She proved with every word out of her mouth she had no business being on that stage.

And while I'm on the subject, I'd like to implore all candidates in all future debates to just SHUT UP AND ANSWER THE QUESTION. Stick to your time, DON'T pull that "can I just respond to that question five questions ago?" DON'T twist everything into a way to take up time talking about your pet issue ("I don't support that policy, but I do support jobs!"). But most of all, and I know this is sticky, don't waste your time pandering to the voters or the folks asking questions. We KNOW you appreciate the military service of the veteran who just asked you a question. Guess what, so does everyone else on that stage. So stop wasting 5 minutes thanking his family for his service and just ANSWER HIS QUESTION. That speaks far more than your platitudes that you think make you look good.

Of course in the end it shouldn't really matter since the President is elected by Electors. But as we go into primary season, to me it looks like the only hope the Republicans have is if the Mayans were right; if we're all still around for 2013, I see another inauguration for President Obama in our future.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thank You, Alamo Drafthouse!

If you are a cinephile, at some point in your life you've probably heard about the Alamo Drafthouse, a chain of movie theaters in Texas (and one in Virginia) that want you to have a great movie-going experience. I've always thought it would be nice to see a film there. Recently there was a screening of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a six-course meal served throughout the day. That's just cool.

Now, there's a new reason to love them and want to go to Texas: their no tolerance no talking or texting policy. Apparently one self-entitled patron wasn't happy about the policy which got her kicked out, and led to their new PSA which they are running before all their movies.

Alamo Drafthouse claims that she was warned twice before they threw her out, so don't feel bad for her. I've once actually yelled at kids talking and on their phones in a movie. This PSA makes me happy. So no one ever kicked you out every other time you've done it in every other theater? Doesn't make it right. Most theaters have a nominal "no texting" policy. These guys just had the guts to do something about it. Everything really is bigger and better in Texas!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Surf's Up

Long Promised Road

Disney Girls (1957)

Lookin' at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)

Till I Die

Friday, June 3, 2011

Great Albums That Never Were

In this edition of Macaroni Waffles, I'm going to point out a few rock albums that should have been some of the greatest projects ever, but for various reasons didn't happen and didn't come out as planned.

5. Bob Dylan's acoustic '80s album -- the 1980s were for the most part not good to Bob Dylan's music career. Despite some success with Infidels and the fact that the songs on Oh Mercy are so good, there is a lot to dislike. I mean, there's good stuff peppered here and there, but a string of forgettable stuff. His worst albums come from the mid-1980s. Somewhere around 1985, Dylan had said that he thought his next album would be just him on guitar and harmonica again. As a kind of break from the thing he was doing at the time with horn sections and back-up girls and lots of musicians. When the next album came out, only one song fit that description. The rest of the album, Empire Burlesque, was an overproduced disco-sounding thing that mostly didn't work. A perfectly good song, "Someone Got a Hold of My Heart" was rewritten into a passable one that opened the album. And the final acoustic song, "Dark Eyes", is good, but doesn't feel like it belongs with this record. If Dylan had done the acoustic thing he wanted to originally, it would have hearkened back to his albums of the early 1960s and been fascinating. Imagining "Dark Eyes" sitting amid other tunes like it is tempting. As it is, Dylan would only briefly do acoustic folk again for his albums of covers in the early '90s, particularly Good As I Been to You. And he would never return to it.

4. Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash -- Sorry to have Dylan on here twice, but this is another one that I just can't get over sometimes. In the late 1960s Cash and Dylan got together and recorded songs with the intent of releasing a joint album. Unfortunately, the only track we ever got was a reworking of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country". It's not a bad take on the song, though it loses a little bit of something. And unfortunately, there are bits where some lyrics are blown in the take that got used. Still, the idea of their voices coming together is an intriguing one and I wish more of those sessions were released. I think a couple others might have been in various places or bootlegs, but the project as intended never materialized.

5. The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- I know what you're thinking: "What are you talking about? They released Sgt. Pepper! It was the best album ever!" This is true. But the Sgt. Pepper that we got wasn't quite the one originally planned. Firstly, the track list for side one changed. This isn't an uncommon thing. Track lists often change as artists figure out where they want things, or record companies demand changes. Part of the concept to Sgt. Pepper was for each track to segue into the next, like it was a concert. This happens quite successfully at both the beginning and end of the album. Now, as Lennon said most of his contributions could have gone anywhere. I actually think the first REAL concept album is The Who Sell Out. But I digress. Originally, the slightly different order of the first side was designed for more of that segue sense. In the end, it doesn't make much of a difference, but for example the little organ bit that opens "Fixing a Hole" was to segue off of "Mr. Kite", if I recall correctly. Furthermore, three tracks originally recorded for the album didn't make it on. "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were rushed out when EMI demanded a single. They work fine off the album, but definitely have the same sound. And George's "Only a Northern Song" wasn't released until included in the Yellow Submarine film, leaving poor George only one song on the album.

However, none of this really compares with the biggest crime of the original release: it's stereo mix. The album was planned for monophonic sound. It was all mixed for mono. Understand, this was not unusual at the time. Heck, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys preferred it (due to his deafness in one ear). Especially when experimentation with tape loops and sound effects and all became part of the sound, doing a stereo mix meant having to figure out how to spread the sonic experience across that gulf. The album was always meant to be released in mono, but at the last minute someone at EMI I think wanted it in stereo. If I'm recalling correctly, a small number of albums were pressed in the original mono mix, and are rare collector's items today. So a rushed stereo mix was put out, which mostly consisted of putting all these vocals on one side and all these on another side. That's why it's so easy to make karaoke versions of Sgt. Pepper's songs just by playing with the balance. For example, turn on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and switch it all to the left (I think it's left), and all Paul's vocals disappear. It's a great album, but a bad mix. In the 1990s a special edition mono release of the album was planned, with collectible packaging, but it never got released. It would not be until the Beatles "remasters" appeared a couple years ago that the original mono mix would get a proper release.

2. The Who, Lifehouse -- The great fabled project of Pete Townsend. This was to be his follow-up to the smash rock opera Tommy. It was more audacious in concept, with some fantastic songs. There was supposed to be an accompanying movie with it. Footage was shot of the band playing live. There was this whole added element of an audience essentially living with them at the theater, which never really worked. In the end, the project got out of hand and was never properly nailed down. No one besides Pete seemed to really understand it, and as the group tells it, he had trouble communicating it fully. But one theme that is evident is that of the meaning of life being a musical note; it had this great cosmic scope that the music inspired us and bound as all as the inspiration for our music but also for civilization. It encapsulated an idea very present in 1970s rock that music would save us all. The story was a futuristic world where everything was waste (hence "teenage wasteland"). Most of the songs ended up released on Who's Next. The greatness of the songs from the Lifehouse project translated to what many believe to be the best Who album. But the album as released also suffers from losing some of that original context. It's an irresistible opening to the album to start with "Baba O'Riley"'s synthesizer. But that's not where the story starts. Lyrics like "Out here in the field I fight for my meals" seem a little silly out of context. Townsend has stated that his intention behind "teenage wasteland" being about literal waste, not about "getting wasted" is not usually understood. Similarly, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is a fantastic rock song, and an obvious album closer. But it's not really the closer. The appropriate closing song is "The Song is Over". This track ends with a little epilogue about a single note "playing so free". It sort of sits there with no context on the album and then is overshadowed by "Won't Get Fooled Again". But originally, as I've said, that was the whole point. The line was a call back to another song that was recorded but didn't make the album, "Pure and Easy". It begins the story like a fairy tale: "There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by." Then the story segues into the rise of civilization and the quest to understanding the note. And without that song, "The Song is Over" loses so much of it's power. I personally think that "Pure and Easy" just wasn't recorded properly for the song. There's too much in that recording. I think it should have started basic and then the instruments come in gradually. Instead, the track we finally got released on Odds and Sods starts with the drums like a standard rock song. It was just wrong conceptually for what Pete was saying, I think. But that's just me. Anyway, while "The Song is Over" does still end with a bit of irony, it's not the harsh joke of "meet the new boss/same as the old boss". It just plays out into something of a hopeful tomorrow. And that's a better closer.

For years upon years the Lifehouse legend grew and festered. People wondered about what the original concept was, how the songs were integrated, what was the story. Finally in the last decade the BBC went to Townsend and they put together a complete version of Lifehouse. Now, it's not quite as it would have been with The Who, but it's Pete's story and his music. There is a highlights CD that's a little hard to find called Lifehouse Elements which has an extra track. But the only way to get the complete Lifehouse Chronicles was to buy it directly from Townsend's company Eel Pie. Unfortunately, that was a limited edition 6-disc set, and is no longer available on his site. So now the only way to hear the BBC Radio version of the complete Lifehouse is to hunt for it. It'll set you back some cash, but if you simply must hear it, there you are. Still, you can order the book of the radio script, so that's something.

1. The Beach Boys, Smile -- This is the grand-daddy of them all. The single most legendary album that never was. After Brian Wilson's brilliant Pet Sounds was released, his plans for the next album were more grandiose. He wanted to take The Beach Boys to higher levels, and really be respected for artistry. The Beatles were fond of Pet Sounds (and indeed, Wilson was fond of their Rubber Soul, leading to a kind of friendly rivalry). McCartney even came by when Wilson was working on one track, "Vegetables" and according to rumor Paul can be heard munching celery on the original track. Anyway, Smile was supposed to be bigger and better than anything before. To take The Beach Boys into new symphonic directions. The lyrics were poetic, written by Van Dyke Parks. The piece was to have a very American flavor to it, sweeping through the history of the nation with references to the American Indian and Plymouth Rock. At one point Wilson called his concept "a teenage symphony to God" as a rock album. "Good Vibrations" was released as a single and went to number one. And yet, there were musical themes planned that were really all going to feed into "Good Vibrations" as part of Smile. All the innovation of the single was to be nothing compared with what the album would do.

And then it all fell apart. Brian became obsessive about getting things just right. He worked and worked and worked on one track "Heroes and Villains" over and over and over again. Drug use and the weight of his genius were not a good mix, and he was coming apart at the seams. When McCartney played "A Day in the Life" for him, it was heartbreaking. Smile could have been THE album of 1967. And then Sgt. Pepper came out. He just sort of went insane. There was to be an "elements suite" to the album featuring pieces for Fire, Earth, Air and Water. Famously, Brian conducted the Fire sessions in a plastic fire chief's hat. He just went insane. To the point where he ultimately had a complete nervous breakdown. As years went by, he refused to get out of bed, getting fatter and fatter, ultimately reaching about 340 pounds by the early 1980s. The smoking, the cocaine, the enabling from his brother Dennis all took their toll on Brian and he wasn't the same for a good while. The group had to struggle on, trying to find out how to keep going and keep Brian involved when he wasn't himself. Brian Wilson's story is truly fascinating and horrifying. And inspired a great Barenaked Ladies song.

Come 1967, the Beach Boys did put out a record. As if in answer to the poor shell of what the project began as, it was called Smiley Smile. The title seems a joke, but appropriate for a diminishing of what the project was. This album included some songs from the failed project, but most stripped down re-recordings. Other Smile songs would continue to pepper the next five albums through Surf's Up, the title track being another Smile remnant. The promise of what could have been kept being dangled in front of us, and never in the full form it should have had.

Brian finally got back on his feet again, but the ghost of Smile never went away. For years it hounded the group. In the 1970s, the Beach Boys were signed to Reprise records with the hope that Smile would then be released, as part of the contract. When it wasn't delivered, $50,000 was deducted from the band's next advance. And so ultimately 2004 rolled around and Brian Wilson figured "enough is enough" and went ahead with a solo version. This recording is readily available. While it is basically a sense of what the album's sequence might have been, and gives the best idea yet of how the album would have sounded, it still isn't perfect. But it did win Brian Wilson his first Grammy award. It also led to Mike Love suing him, though the case was thrown out.

And yet, the song isn't quite over yet. The word this year is that the original Beach Boys Smile sessions will finally see the light of day with an official release this summer. Of course, the album was never completed, and some parts not recorded. We will never get the full 1967 Smile that existed in Brian's head. But we'll finally get to hear what all the fuss was about. A box set like this was rumored in the 1990s (several times), but never released. Finally, though, it is going to make some audiophiles smile. The album could have been an American masterpiece, fusing classical music with rock and roll and bridging that gulf from Sgt. Pepper to Tommy. At least now we can hear a hint of what might have been: the greatest rock album that never was.