Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ten Years of Music: A Mix

Well, it's almost a new decade, and looks like the jury is in on what the 2000s will be called: the Aughts. Calling it 'the Aughts' is fine, but for many people it could also be 'the Noughts' - this decade was not an easy one for many people.

So I've made this mix. It's a reflection on ten years of gains, ten years of losses, and ten years of music. It's one of the few mixes I've made, so I hope it went well -- I spent three or four hours on it, including some very last minute changes.




The mix begins with "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by Stars -- the only song I ever intended to begin with; "When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire" is a beginning both auspicious and pretty emotional, when you think about it -- and ends on an upbeat note with "You Belong With Me", a Taylor Swift cover by Butch Walker. Along the way, there are some dramatic ballads, some heartfelt folk, some hits (and soon-to-be hits), and the mix's centrepiece: Tori Amos' remembrance of 9/11, "I Can't See New York".

Remember, this mix was made to be listened to in order, but if you want to listen to individual songs, all power to you.

Happy New Year to you all! I hope the next year -- and decade -- is a good one. Cheers!

See you in 2010,
Paul

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Why Half-Blood Prince Was Not As Terrible As You Thought It Was

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of taglines used every year by production studios, hoping to draw audiences to their films. There is also one that, although it is never used, is the most implicit:

Read the book. See the movie.

It's obvious that the primary demographic for any film based on a previous work is, ideally, the fans of the adapted material. There are, of course, exceptions (how many people do you think saw Da Ali G Show before watching Borat?) but, star power aside, people will largely go to see an adaptation if they have some familiarity with the source material. These same people will also, if an adaptation decides to present ideas or scenarios outside of what the source provides, react with the same vitriol normally reserved for sports spectators.

This is what happened to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a film that so many I know walked away from deeply disquieted, and the same film I walked away from with the sense it was the best Harry Potter film since Philosopher's Stone, the first in the franchise. Now that we're a comfortable distance away from the film's arrival in theatres, it's worth looking at again, through more objective eyes.

The most vocal complaint people had with the film was that it dared to present a world not completely in sync with what was in print -- "That wasn't in the book!" is what I imagine many had in their heads as they left the theatre. Is this an adaptation's sole purpose? Yes and no: Yes, because some familiarity should, ideally, be established -- and often is in these sorts of movies, perhaps as a reward for those viewers that want to feel like they got their money's worth.

No, because a film is not a book. No, because it doesn't have to be wholly faithful to the original. (If you want the source material regurgitated, go to the source material.) No, because there is only so much one can put into a screenplay, much of which can't just be gratuitous character camoes for the fans. You see where I'm going with this?

Half-Blood Prince dared to take liberties with the source material and did so without sacrificing the soul of the book, which deals with Harry's further maturation as a character, something that every single adaptation since Chamber of Secrets has failed to do. That film failed, largely, because Chris Columbus wasn't yet ready to let go of the sense of wonder that Harry's world in the first book contained, wasn't yet ready to let the series enter the darker areas of the imagination it needed to traverse.

Alfonso Cuaron tried to make up for his predecessor's hesitation in Prisoner of Azkaban by featuring a radically-revamped Hogwarts and much darker colour palette, but became wrapped up in visuals that deviated too far from the heart of the action (as the infamous "scene with the pumpkins" illustrates). Goblet of Fire favored visuals that spoke loudly and carried a big stick over plot or character development, which seems to be a recent weakness of Mike Newell: his next project after Potter was the misguided Love in the Time of Cholera. Order of the Phoenix was, at last, a step in the right direction, which made me very happy that its director, David Yates returned for Half-Blood Prince, taking a bloated and maudlin book (yes, I said it) and cutting it down to its basic elements while reminding viewers that a film series does not have to be a slave to the books from which it is derived.

Really, Harry Potter is the ideal example for anyone looking to study the relationship between book and film; the only other recent franchises based on a book series were The Lord of the Rings and Twilight, and no-one really complained about them -- something due, I suspect, to how easy it is to do the plotline of Rings (which, frills aside, has one of the simplest plots of 20th-century literature) and the fanaticism surrounding Twilight. With Potter, frankly, nobody's going to be happy, especially with Book 4 and onwards -- there's just so much in there.

Half-Blood Prince waded through the dark jungle that was the source material and found the diamonds, and scenes that have purists on edge contribute to the overall film, which is a prelude to the epic 2-part film that will be Deathly Hallows. Considering how repetitive the endings of Books 6 and 7 are, and how the alteration in the ending of Half-Blood Prince's film -- effectively setting the tone for a darker, bleaker seventh installment -- caused some to gnash their teeth, consider Half-Blood Prince a teaser for future alterations to be made to the source material. I'm sure it would make those watching the Harry Potter films to see near-exact replicas of the book happy to have every film in two parts, but money can only go so far.

Instead, consider what we have, a film that has its faults (doesn't every film?) but is actually the most successful film since the first to preserve the heart and soul of the original story while creating an entertaining experience, even for those that have no idea what a Muggle is.

Yes, there was the scene with the Burrows. Yes, the kiss didn't happen exactly how it did in the novel.

Is it still entertaining, and preserves what Half-Blood Prince is: a very dark coming of age tale?

You bet it is.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Back on Boxing Day

Greetings, everyone! Hope you had a peaceful holiday, whatever your traditions are -- if you've been fighting your way through shopping malls to find the perfect present, I hope you emerged (relatively) unscathed with what you wanted. If you've been cooking non-stop, I hope you're taking a breather. If you've been entertaining relatives, I hope all went well. And if you've been caught in a snowstorm, have hope: you will get home soon.

I've been taking a break from the blog myself, induced by general holiday madness and the soporific effects of eating turkey (mostly the turkey). But I'm back, and plan on picking up the White Album Redux project again, which I have music for but haven't got round to posting.

I've also been listening to music. I got a great new pair of headphones, with sound isolation and everything, and it's a refreshing change from my earbuds. ("Wait it Out" by Imogen Heap is playing now, which could have been a great Christmas single -- speaking of which, did you hear about Rage Against the Machine claiming top spot on the UK Christmas singles chart in an attempt to knock The X Factor artists from their perennial throne? Personally, if there was one band I'd expect to hit #1 on Christmas, it wouldn't be Rage Against the Machine.)

In other unexpected news, you've probably heard by now about
the woman that attacked the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve. She attempted the same thing in 2008, which makes me wonder why she wasn't stopped from entering the Vatican in the first place. (Human error, I guess; having been there, I can attest to the huge numbers that pass through its entrances, and plenty of people wear red.)

I also had the pleasure of watching the first part of the new two-part Doctor Who special, the plot of which gives unexpected a whole new meaning. It's called The End of Time, and I don't think the production team is kidding: the fate of the universe does not look good. (The End of Time concludes on New Year's Day.)

It's almost 2010, and I guess some changes are due, in keeping with the new year: if you've stopped by the blog recently, you may have noticed my new Sites of Note , a heavily revised version of my Blogroll section. In keeping with my nifty new slogan, links are now divided into Opinion, Culture, Books and Music, categories which are, as with most things, not necessarily exclusive.

Favorites for me include PopMatters, one of the best sites for opinions on everything pop culture, as well as Cultural Learnings and McNutt Against the Music, two outstanding blogs -- one deals with television, the other with music.

Outstanding as well is Storytellers Unplugged, where thirty writers (one for each day of the month) contribute thoughts, opinions and advice on the life of an author. It's funny, fascinating, and highly recommended for anyone that's a writer (or isn't, and finds reading about writers/writing equally interesting). The blog of Neil Gaiman-- who I met last week, and will probably blog about soon -- is also a great read, warm and witty, smart and compassionate.

That's it for this post, but rest assured, more will come!

Until next time,

Paul

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The 20 Best Albums of the Decade

Well, the 2000s -- Noughts, Aughts, whatever you want to call them-- are almost at their end, and it seems fitting to address how much great music there was in a list of some sort. Make no mistake: compiling this list was a huge labour of love, and for each of the 20 albums on here there are at least 20 I took off. (There's a list at the end of some notable runners-up, if you're interested.) If you have any suggestions about albums that didn't make my list, feel free to leave a comment.

Here we go.

20. Nelly Furtado, Folklore
19. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head
18. Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope
17. Anjani, Blue Alert
16. Nicole Atkins, Neptune City
15. Sarah Slean, Night Bugs
14. Clare and the Reasons, The Movie
13. The Clientele, Strange Geometry
12. Beck, Sea Change
11. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
10. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
9. The Fiery Furnaces, Widow City
8. Leonard Cohen, Live in London
7. Pink Martini, Hey Eugene!
6. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
5. Radiohead, Kid A
4. Tori Amos, Scarlet's Walk
3. Kate Bush, Aerial
2. Bob Dylan, Modern Times
1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

How Does My List Stack Up?


Notable Runners-Up:

  • Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2, or, The Last Remains of the Dodo
  • Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • Daft Punk, Discovery
  • Lupe Fiasco, The Cool
  • Melody Gardot, My One and Only Thrill
  • Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
  • Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering

Also-Rans:*

  • Backstreet Boys, Black & Blue
  • Ciara, Goodies
  • Britney Spears, Oops!...I Did It Again
  • Celine Dion, Taking Chances

*Not really.

20 Best Albums of the Decade: #1

1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)

Illinois, an epic 22-song masterpiece with the titular state as inspiration, confirmed Sufjan Stevens’ complete control of his musical abilities. Shifting from jaunty pop (“Chicago”) to heartbreaking ballads (“Casimir Pulaski Day”), often within the space of a single track, Illinois remarkably never felt disjointed or uncontrollably ambitious. Stevens treated all of his lyrical subjects (the Sears Tower, murderer John Wayne Gacy Jr., etc.) as equally personal, no matter how villainous or inanimate; the result led to a set of remarkably specific yet all-encompassing songs. Arriving as it did, at the halfway point of the 2000s, Illinois mirrored the world as it existed in the year 2005: a little scattered, a little bruised, but ready to stand together and see through the rest of the decade.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #2

2. Bob Dylan, Modern Times (2006)

More than anything else, Modern Times proved age is not necessarily related to the quality of one’s musical output. From the opening notes of the rollicking “Thunder on the Mountain” to the eight-minute epic “Ain’t Talkin’”, Bob Dylan demonstrated that, nearing the age of seventy, he possessed as much energy and desire for experimentation as artists decades younger than him did. Borrowing from sources as diverse as 19th century folk and 20th-century pop (“When the Deal Goes Down” directly quotes a song by Bing Crosby), Modern Times showed North America as viewed through the eyes of one of its greatest songwriters, a land where the past, while constantly in the shadow of the present, was never far behind.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #3

3. Kate Bush, Aerial (2005)

After the birth of her son in 1998, enigmatic British singer-songwriter Kate Bush largely vanished from the spotlight, intending to raise a family free from the pressures of celebrity. Twelve years passed, and in 2005, Bush returned with the critically acclaimed Aerial, a double album. The first disc, A Sea of Honey, addressed a variety of lyrical subjects, with the stunning “A Coral Room” (addressing the death of her mother) and “Joanni” (about Joan of Arc) among the highlights; A Sky of Honey, the second disc, was a conceptual suite presenting the day’s shift from morning to night. Aerial, whether Bush shifted into a flamenco-inspired interlude halfway through “Sunset” or based a song on the number Pi, showed a seasoned artist at the height of her musical and lyrical powers.








20 Best Albums of the Decade: #4

4. Tori Amos, Scarlet’s Walk (2002)

While the tragedy of 9/11 led many artists to offer musical responses exploring the aftermath of the event, few were as daring as Scarlet’s Walk. Drawing on her Cherokee heritage and experiences during her 2001 tour, Amos created a “sonic novel” told through the eyes of an alter-ego named Scarlet, exploring a period of America when the nation’s masks— and gloves— were off. Beginning in Los Angeles with the arresting “Amber Waves” and ending in Washington DC with the emotional “Gold Dust”, Amos balanced warm, enveloping melodies with lyrics both pointed and poetic, especially on “Your Cloud” and the title track. The result was an album as soothing as it was thought-provoking, and easily Amos’ best work of the decade.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #5

5. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)

Kid A, Radiohead’s first album after the critical and commercial success of OK Computer, found the group taking a dive into electronic music’s deep end, finding a new way to explore frontman Thom Yorke’s common lyrical themes of paranoia and alienation in the process. From the unsettling, incoherent babble of “Everything in Its Right Place” to the anxiety of “Morning Bell” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, Kid A ushered in the new millennium with a musical message that, while easy enough to listen to, also hinted that the worst was, perhaps, yet to come.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #6

6. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005)

Fiona Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine, was a work that, for the longest time, seemed as if it would never be released. Originally recorded in 2003 and then abandoned, the album was revisited in 2005, with many of the songs given radically different arrangements in the process. The wait paid off: songs like “O’Sailor” and “Not About Love” sounded simultaneously timeless and modern, and the album as a whole possessed a vibrant and appealing feel, making Apple’s rightful return to the spotlight a well-deserved one.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #7

7. Pink Martini, Hey Eugene! (2007)

Throughout the decade, Pink Martini consistently proved to be fearless in redefining the boundaries between jazz and world music. With its adventurous arrangements, Hey Eugene could very well be seen as the group’s manifesto, moving effortlessly from shimmering originals like “Everywhere” and “Cante e Dance” to inventive takes on covers like “Tempo Perdido” and “Bukra Wba’do” (sung in Arabic). The album spanned the globe and yet, despite the staggering variety of cultures on display, never once felt careless or contrived.







20 Best Albums of the Decade: #8

8. Leonard Cohen, Live in London (2009)

Driven by the depletion of his bank accounts by a scheming manager, Leonard Cohen— who had abandoned touring years earlier— embarked upon on a worldwide and critically acclaimed tour throughout 2008 and 2009. Live in London, captured over two nights at London’s O2 Arena, served not only as a snapshot of the tour itself, but as an indication of the enduring power of Cohen’s music. The songs on the album sound fresh and revitalized, as does Cohen's voice. Live in London could confidently be labeled not only as a great live album in general, but as one of the best live albums of all time.





20 Best Albums of the Decade: #9

9. The Fiery Furnaces, Widow City (2006)

The Fiery Furnaces’ music and lyrics in the 2000s were often as concrete as they were convoluted, and Widow City best exemplifies their complex nature. A collection of sixteen songs that began with “The Philadelphia Grand Jury”— a seven-minute ode to everything from conspiracies to being sued— the album veered off in countless musical directions while retaining its own internal logic. As with many Fiery Furnaces albums, Widow City was unified by its aggressive, guitar-driven sound and stream-of-consciousness lyrics (particularly on “Navy Nurse” and “Clear Signal from Cairo”), and delivered a listening experience unlike any other.







Wednesday, 16 December 2009

20 Best Albums of the Decade: #10

10. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (2006)

Any album based on a Japanese folk tale carries with it a great degree of ambition, but on The Crane Wife, The Decemberists smartly tempered their ambition (particularly for ten-minute-long epics) with frontman Colin Meloy’s unassuming voice. As a result, The Crane Wife succeeded on both a personal and conceptual level; while “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” and “Sons & Daughters” were musically inventive, they remained relatively straightforward where lyrics were concerned. The Crane Wife ably demonstrated that for a group to succeed as much as the Decemberists did in making the past contemporary was no small feat.








20 Best Albums of the Decade: #11

11. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2007)

In 2007, Amy Winehouse established herself as an international presence and took the world by storm with a refreshingly modern take on ‘60s girl-group pop and Motown soul— all thanks to Back to Black, on which disarmingly honest lyrics (“Rehab”, “Love is a Losing Game”) met music that smartly tipped its hat to its predecessors before going along on its own merry way. While recent events have suggested Back to Black could be Winehouse’s last album, it still stands, proudly, as one of the definitive musical statements of the decade.








20 Best Albums of the Decade: #12

12. Beck, Sea Change (2005)

The music world was generally shocked when Beck, known previously for his sarcastic lyrics and complex melodies, released Sea Change, a stripped-down and emotionally honest record, in 2005. Sea Change’s inspiration— a difficult breakup— led to the album’s tracks, especially “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Paper Tiger”, possessing a simplicity that nevertheless seemed fresher and more inspired than the rest of Beck’s extensive catalogue.








20 Best Albums of the Decade: #13

13. The Clientele, Strange Geometry (2005)

A love letter to the Clientele’s native London as much as it was to a physical relationship, Strange Geometry displayed one of Britain’s most heralded indie bands at its best. Alistair MacLeod’s wistful falsetto helped imbue songs like “Since K Got Over Me” and “Geometry of Lawns” with a sense of nocturnal regret. As well, the half-spoken, half-sung “Losing Haringey” and poppy lead single “(I Can’t Seem To) Make You Mine” expanded the Clientele’s musical palette, challenging the boundaries of the indie genre in the process. Excellent music to listen to in the late hours of the day.







20 Best Albums of the Decade: #14

14. Clare and the Reasons, The Movie (2007)

With The Movie, Clare Muldaur and her band the Reasons crafted an album of songs that, simply put, defied easy categorization— while many (such as “Cook for You” and “Love Can Be a Crime”) were, musically, an homage to the 1930s, those same songs were brought into the present by Muldaur’s strikingly modern lyrics. Nowhere was this contrast more evident on opener “Pluto”, which lamented Pluto’s loss of planetary status over glittering strings and plucked double bass, and the quiet despair of “Science Fiction Man”. While jazz and its many variations entered the pop and indie worlds throughout the 2000s, few indie albums explored the personal and cinematic sides of the genre as successfully as The Movie.







20 Best Albums of the Decade: #15

15. Sarah Slean, Night Bugs (2002)

Night Bugs, Sarah Slean’s major-label debut, showed the young artist possessed the musical and lyrical maturity of a seasoned performer. The album’s songs, rooted in a love for poetry and jazz, sparkled with clever arrangements (“Drastic Measures”, “Dark Room”) and inventive lyrics (“Book Smart, Street Stupid” and the closer “Bank Accounts”) as theatrical as they were restrained. Setting the bar extremely high for the rest of her career, Night Bugs gave the hope that artists of the same caliber as Slean would continue to appear throughout the decade.







20 Best Albums of the Decade: #16

16. Nicole Atkins, Neptune City (2007)

Musically, Nicole Atkins quickly established herself as a bit of an odd duck; she labeled her work as ‘pop-noir’, but attracted attention from heavy metal labels before her eventual signing with Columbia Records. Neptune City solved the question of genre by placing the focus firmly on Atkins’ powerful voice, with ballads like “The Way It Is” putting her vocals at centre stage. The album was musically solid as well: “Brooklyn’s on Fire” and “Party’s Over” used blues and soul as a basis to explore wilder, less conventional melodic structures. The result was one of the most exciting debuts of the decade, and a strong introduction to one of contemporary music’s most talented artists.







20 Best Albums of the Decade: #17

17. Anjani, Blue Alert (2006)

With Blue Alert, Anjani Thomas, whose unique blend of jazz and folk had previously attracted the likes of Leonard Cohen, established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Merging spiritual and secular themes, Blue Alert found beauty in the commonplace through its minimal instrumentation and Thomas’ honest, elegant singing— particularly on the startling title track, "Innermost Door" and the Celtic-tinged “The Mist”— taking listeners on a journey entirely its own.











20 Best Albums of the Decade: #18

18. Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope (2006)

Begin to Hope, the third album from Regina Spektor, showed an artist unafraid to embrace the mainstream while retaining her idiosyncrasies. Deceptively lightweight songs like “Fidelity” and “On the Radio”, as well as the mournful "Lady" and thunderous “Apr├Ęs Moi” (on which Spektor sang in French and Russian) gave Begin to Hope diversity and a much-appreciated cohesion. Funny, often poignant lyrics and confident musicality led to one of the most intelligent, and catchiest, pop albums of the decade.









20 Best Albums of the Decade: #19

19. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

Whether you love or loathe Chris Martin, A Rush of Blood to the Head was undeniably Coldplay’s masterwork. Written at a time when the band itself was at the brink of exhaustion, the album challenged Coldplay’s previous reputation as romantic balladeers (and little else) with the dark opener “Politik” and the stunning “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face”. Quieter moments (“Green Eyes”, “Amsterdam”) and obvious singles (“In My Place” and the inescapable “Clocks”) balanced more experimental material, providing a listening experience that, for such a young band, surprised with its nerve and maturity.









20 Best Albums of the Decade: #20

20. Nelly Furtado, Folklore (2003)

Three years after her introduction to the world with Whoa, Nelly! (which spawned the Grammy-winning single “I’m Like a Bird”), Folklore showed a mature but no less adventurous side of Nelly Furtado, whether she blended hip-hop and Portuguese folk music on “Fresh Off The Boat” or challenged the melting pot of American culture on lead single “Powerless”. While it was hardly as commercially successful as her debut, Folklore was a thrilling blend of contemporary music and centuries-old tradition, challenging North America’s fixation on the present and ignorance of the past.










Friday, 11 December 2009

Barbara Walters: An Update

Well, I watched Barbara Walters' Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009 special Wednesday night. Considering the relative mediocrity of this year's selections, I wasn't expecting much for No. 1, but when it was announced I could only think of one thing.

Michelle Obama? Really?

Granted, she's definitely "fascinating" in a sense -- she's the President's wife, after all -- but for her to be labelled the most fascinating person of 2009, well, I don't know. It seems a bit like a rehash of last year -- when her husband (sensibly) took first place -- and makes me wonder if this is the beginning of a trend. Will the Most Fascinating People for 2010, 2011 and 2012 be Malia, Sasha and Bo?

The interviews themselves were actually pretty good. To my pleasant surprise, the inductees I'd originally raised eyebrows at -- like Jenny Sanford -- reaped the best sit-downs. Even if Barbara Walters couldn't resist a plug for Sanford's upcoming book.



And here's part of her sit-down with Michelle Obama.



What do you think? Was Michelle Obama the most fascinating person of 2009?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Oh, Barbara, a change would do you good

Fascinating... or just media-savvy?

That's the question I was asking myself after finding out about Barbara Walters' ten most fascinating people of 2009, nine of which were revealed today on MSN.com. While Walters claims she wanted this year's list to be "more adventurous" than last year's (a veritable snoozefest, as far as I'm concerned), this year looks to be more of the same. And by same, I mean "ingeniously engineered in order to appeal to multiple demographics who wouldn't watch Barbara Walters in anything otherwise."

Let's look at the list, shall we? Note that these haven't been released in any sort of order. They're boring enough as it is.

Lady Gaga
No surprise here. Gaga was definitely one of the most interesting, if not fascinating, people of the year. She's actually talented. And, unlike Adam Lambert, she knows which buttons to push -- hence why she met the Queen of England.

Would Lambert be even let near the Queen? Are you kidding me?

Tyler Perry
This one seems strange at first, until you consider Walters is shrewd, shrewd, shrewd and wants to tick off as many demographic boxes as possible. More boxes equals more viewers. And everyone wants that.

Jenny Sanford
Who? Oh, right, she's the wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who had an affair with that Argentinian woman. Now I know who she is.

Adam Lambert
I wonder what Walters will ask him about.

Sarah Paliin
So far, she's the only person this decade to make one of these lists twice. Expect a plug for Going Rogue. Expect a question about Alaska. Expect a gentle denial that, no, she won't be running for President in 2012. Expect her to wear red.

Michael Jackson's children
She could have just gone ahead and interviewed Paris, the only one of the three that actually did something notable this year. According to MSN, Walters will also air footage from an interview she did with their father. Is the This Is It soundtrack really not selling well enough?

Kate Gosselin
Be still my beating heart.

Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck... what exactly has he done this year?

Brett Favre
Another one of those box-tickers. Nothing to see here.

BUT WHO WILL BE NUMBER ONE?
Barack Obama
Walters said she wanted a "more adventurous" list this year, so I don't think Obama will be no. 1, as he made the list at the same spot last year. However, considering that Palin made it this year as well, who knows?
Chance: Somewhat slim, but unsurprising if selected.

Tiger Woods
The whole car incident happened less than a month ago, so I don't know if he'd even be considered. Plus, what else did he do this year?
Chance: Slim.

Rihanna
Picking Rihanna would be smart, but sobering -- I don't know if being assaulted by Chris Brown is necessarily something you would call "fascinating".
Chance: Moderate.

The Heene Family
I don't know if they deserve any more publicity. I'm sure Walters is smarter than that.
Chance: Slim.

Well, that wasn't any help, was it...

GRASPING AT STRAWS:
Some Actor or Something
Some Actress or Something
Some Musician or Something
A Member of the (U.S.) Government
Some Athlete or Something
Some Author or Something
Someone No One Has Heard Of

Based on what the rest of the list looks like, my bets are on the latter option.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

White Album Redux: 3. Glass Onion


To be honest, I'm not really in the mood for talking about "Glass Onion", mostly because I have a bit of a head cold and the song is just so cynical. I mean, there's this great, positive feeling you get with "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence" -- and "Glass Onion" kind of ruins it, like someone crashing a very lovely party, drinking all the wine and eating all the food.

Well, not exactly that. But you get the idea.

---

Not very many people have covered "Glass Onion" in comparison with other songs on the White Album -- anyone's guess why, really -- which meant that I had to settle for a Beatles cover group. Not that I dislike Beatles cover groups or anything (they can be quite nice) but I'm not one for pure mimicry.

This video's actually not that bad, especially since the group in question brought string players and a flautist on stage. It's nice, having that classical flourish at the end, like in the original. I don't know if many people covering the song would have even bothered to find a flute.

Here's Ed Turner and Number 9, with "Glass Onion".


White Album Redux: 4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da


December is finally upon us, and considering how cold it is outside, the next instalment of my White Album Redux project couldn't have come at a better time.

The fourth song off the White Album is "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", a happy, idyllic song about a couple and their love for each other. It's often dismissed as silly and unimportant (one of the worst songs ever, even), yet I think, at the same time, it's a song we're not meant to take seriously. After the cynical "Glass Onion", it's a breath of fresh air.

The song itself is intentionally disposable, and that's -- paradoxically -- why it's so endearing. A cover of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", with its unabashedly jubilant lyrics and cheerful nature, can really only be done justice by someone like the Muppets. And they do.

Here are the Muppets, with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da".


Friday, 27 November 2009

1000 Hits!

It's official: my blog has had one thousand hits. Exciting, eh? The standard course of action would be to give you all some story about how I started this blog four months ago on nothing but a smile and a shoeshine, but I'm not, so you can breath easy now.

Rather, I figured we should celebrate, and since the blog's taken a musical turn in the past while (we are in the midst of the White Album Redux Project, after all), what better way to celebrate than with some great music?

Kicking things off is the marvelous Chantal Kreviazuk, who performed "Souls" live at the Canada Day celebrations way back in the year 2000! Amazing what nine years can do.



Next, a pair of Nicole Atkins songs -- her cover of "Blue Christmas" (tis the season) for The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs and "Maybe Tonight" live on Later with Jools Holland. I haven't given her a Saturday Spotlight yet, but she is so worth checking out. I can't stress this enough.





I found out about this next group through Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe radio show, and have been an ardent fan of theirs ever since. Their harmonies are spine-tingling. This is the song that started it all -- here's Dala, with "Sunday Dress".



Aren't they stunning? Amanda Walther almost looks like a young Joni Mitchell.

Speaking of Joni, you might be aware of a great tribute album to Saskatchewan's favorite daughter (yes, it sounds corny, I know), called River: The Joni Letters. Organized by Herbie Hancock, everyone from Norah Jones to Leonard Cohen lent their vocals to covers spanning Mitchell's illustrious career. It even won a Grammy for Album of the Year!

Below are Melody Gardot with "Edith and the Kingpin" (covered by Tina Turner on the album) and Corinne Bailey Rae, who does a stunning version of "River".





Finally, here's Sara Bareilles with a laid-back, off-the-cuff cover of "Oh! Darling" by the Beatles, from the album Abbey Road -- recorded, as luck would have it, at Abbey Road itself. Hope you enjoy.



Thank you to all that have visited Paul's Winnipeg over the past few months! Without you, there wouldn't be this post. 1000 hits... Let's hope for one thousand more.

Until next time,

Paul

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

White Album Redux: 2. Dear Prudence

After many months of unseasonably warm weather, winter has finally come to Winnipeg, and the reaction has, quite frankly, been mixed. Having green (or almost-green, or greenish-yellow) front yards in, say, mid-November stirred something deep and disquieting in our souls, made us feel uneasy -- but, on the other hand, we could actually go outside without donning a parka.

But we take it in stride, us Winnipeggers; we're used to being the butt of one too many weather jokes, especially when we go to Vancouver and it's just been -5o degrees Celsius in some areas of the province.

Still, it could be worse, we reason. We could be living in Saskatchewan.

---

That sense of optimism is what I always think of when listening to "Dear Prudence", the second track off the White Album. Inspired by Mia Farrow's daughter Prudence (who stayed in her room reportedly meditating instead of enjoying the nice weather), the song was composed during the Beatles' stay with the Maharishi and has to be, in my opinion, one of their most popular songs, mostly for its cheerful and exuberant personality. I was even in a musical called Dear Prudence once, but that's another story.

For the 2007 movie Across the Universe (which you either loved or hated -- I loved it), "Dear Prudence" was reimagined as a slowly building anthem, driven by guitars and quiet atmospherics, and was played during a particularly visually stunning part of the film.

The song was cut short in the film, unfortunately, so I've decided to go with the studio version. Here's the cast of Across the Universe with "Dear Prudence".


Sunday, 22 November 2009

White Album Redux #1: Back in the U.S.S.R.

Some forty-odd years ago today, what is regarded as one of the best albums by the Beatles and one of the most musically eclectic albums ever, the White Album, was released.

In celebration of the sheer diversity of styles presented on the White Album, I've decided to embark upon a little project. I will post, in order, each song reinterpreted in a way I find particularly interesting or unconventional. I'm calling it the White Album Redux.

Are you ready? Put on your headphones, turn up your speakers, and take a magical mystery tour (sorry, couldn't resist) of one of the greatest albums of all time, radically reinterpreted.

Here we go.

1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
As far as openers go, "Back in the U.S.S.R." is a pretty good one. It doesn't give an indication of what's to follow, but that's fine -- the White Album is a journey, in my opinion, meant to be traversed without expectations.

When I first saw this cover, several years ago, I knew it was something special. It's from the 2001 comedy Heartbreakers, starring Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as a mother-daughter team bent on one thing: enchanting men and, after a sufficient period of time, trapping them in a situation so incriminating that there's really no other option for the male to be sued. It's a good movie.

At one point in the film, Sigourney Weaver's character pretends to be Russian in order to woo a wealthy millionaire played by Gene Hackamn out of his money. He takes her out to a Russian restaurant with live music, and she has to sing a folk song for everyone, like any good countrywoman should. Of course, she doesn't know it.

After grasping at straws for a moment or two, inspiration hits her, and the result has to be seen to be believed.

Here's Sigourney Weaver, with "Back in the U.S.S.R."

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Being Erica: Season 2 Retrospective

The fact that Being Erica was picked up for a second season seems like a no-brainer, considering the cliffhanger season one ended on. Since then, we've had an excellent premiere ("Being Dr. Tom") that shook up the show's format, several so-so episodes ("The Unkindest Cut", "Under My Thumb"), and a few episodes that could, in some sense, be called failures ("Cultural Revolution" and "Battle Royale"). Remarkably, the show pulled itself together, and, from "A River Runs Through It... It Being Egypt" onward, its storylines were clear and compelling.

Last night's finale gives us a chance to look back at what was a sophomore season that had its highs and its lows. Consider this an awards show, if you will -- it's the Oscars, but without any mystifying double-hosts or inexplicable Snuglis (Ellen DeGeneres, I'm looking at you.)

1. Best Actor:
-Michael Riley ("Dr. Tom")
-Morgan Kelly ("Brent Kennedy")
-Sebastian Pigott ("Kai Booker")
-Tyron Leitso ("Ethan Wakefield")

AND THE WINNER IS... Michael Riley. Was there any doubt? Sure, Morgan Kelly is good, but not great, and while Sebastian Pigott really developed over the course of the season, he didn't improve enough, in my opinion. Of note: "Paoa Can You Hear Me?", of course, "Being Dr. Tom".
Runner Up: Morgan Kelly.

2. Best Actress:
-Erin Karpluk ("Erica Strange")
-Reagan Pastornak ("Julianne Giacomelli")
-Joanna Douglas ("Samantha Strange")
-Kathleen Laskey ("Barbara Strange")

AND THE WINNER IS... Surprise, surprise! Reagan Pastornak has made Julianne one of the best characters in the show, someone with real depth and emotional vulnerability (that could be just because of the writers giving her good material, but who knows?) Erin Karpluk, unfortunately, has been cursed with one too many insipid Carrie Bradshaw-style voiceovers. Of note: "Shhh... Don't Tell", "What Goes Up Must Come Down", and "The Importance of Being Erica".
Runner-Up: Erin Karpluk Kathleen Laskey just hasn't had enough to work with this season.

3. Best Supporting Actor
-Jeff Seymour ("Thomas Friedkin")
-John Boylan ("Gary Strange")
-Adam MacDonald ("Josh McIntosh")
-Dewshane Williams ("Dr. Fred")

AND THE WINNER IS... While there hasn't been very much for the men to do this season, Jeff Seymour has been consistently on top form, especially in "Shhh... Don't Tell".
Runner-Up: John Boylan, although he didn't have much time in the spotlight.

4. Best Supporting Actress
-Paula Brancati ("Jenny Zalen")
-Vinessa Antoine ("Judith Winters")
-Grace Lynn King ("Meeri Khan")
-Tatiana Maslany ("Sarah Wexlar")
-Joanna Vannicola ("Dr. Naadiah")

AND THE WINNER IS... Unsurprisingly, the women in the show are all very strong characters, and it's hard to pick just one. But Paula Brancati deserves the award for "Shhh... Don't Tell", even if she was the focus of the awful "Cultural Revolution".
Runner-Up: Joanna Vannicola (the more Naadiah the better, I say), but for only being in two episodes, Tatiana Maslany has impressed me. I'll call it a tie.

4. Best Supporting Actor
-Dewshane Williams ("Dr. Fred")
-David Fox ("Frank Galvin")
-Jon Cor ("Zach Creed")
-Billy Turnbull ("Dave")
AND THE WINNER IS... David Fox. Dewshane Williams is too emotionally impervious for my tastes.
Runner-Up: Dewshane Williams.

5. Best Episode:
-"Being Dr. Tom"
-"The Importance of Being Erica"
-"Shhh... Don't Tell"
-"Papa Can You Hear Me?"

AND THE WINNER IS... "The Importance of Being Erica". A season finale so perfectly nuanced, so perfectly blended together, with the right amount of mystique and comedy to balance Erin Karpluk's character drama. Exquisite.
Runner-Up: Two this time. "Being Dr. Tom" and "Shhh... Don't Tell."

6. Worst Episode:
-"Battle Royale"
-"Cultural Revolution"
-"The Unkindest Cut"
-"Under My Thumb"

AND THE WINNER IS... "Battle Royale", although it was almost a three-way tie between it, "Cultural Revolution", and "Under My Thumb". However, considering the episode's position after "Being Dr. Tom", it just felt like a letdown, an episode that contributed nothing to the show, character- or plot-wise. Of special note: the awful "intruder in the woods" scene and the pointless talent show.
Runner-Up:"Cultural Revolution"

What do you think? Is Reagan Pastornak really deserving of a Best Actress-style award? Was "The Importance of Being Erica" the best episode of the season? Will Tyron Leitso ever learn to emote?

Post a comment, and tell me what you think.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Saturday Spotlight: Imogen Heap


Well, I'm back from a bit of a break from blogging (how's that for alliteration?) -- self-imposed, I'm afraid, due to having more work than you can shake a stick at needing to be done and leaving little time for the things I love to do, like blogging.

But I'm here now, and rest assured, I'll have more going up each week than just a Saturday Spotlight from now on. A Being Erica mid-season recap and a review of Moulin Rouge - The Ballet are already in the works.

But enough about that -- let's get to the music.

***

Imogen Heap is, quite frankly, the sort of artist that doesn't fit well into boxes; she shatters genre barriers with the same force as someone like Tori Amos or The Beatles. You could call it "electronica", you could call it "pop" -- what Ms. Heap makes is music, in every sense of the word.

She released a debut album called I Megaphone in 1998, but it was with Frou Frou, her collaboration with Guy Sigsworth, that her career arguably began. Their first (and only) album, Details, was well-received upon its release in 2002 -- but it took opener "Let Go"'s inclusion in the Garden State soundtrack two years later for the mainstream to take notice.




The inenvitable thing about a collaboration like Frou Frou, however, is that sooner or later people assume Heap just contributed vocals and Sigsworth did all the heavy lifting -- which is as far from the truth as you can get. It seems fitting, then, that her second solo album would be called Speak for Yourself-- a record produced, orchestrated and financed entirely by herself.

The album's sales rose significantly when "Hide and Seek" was played during a critical moment in teen drama The O.C., sparking enormous interest in Heap and her music. (Note: A recent hit by Jason DeRulo, "Whatcha Say", sampled the song; Heap's fanbase seems to be divided over its quality.)



Speak for Yourself offered a few more hits for Heap, like "Goodnight and Go" and the breathtaking "Headlock", which had an equally captivating video to match.



One of the constant criticisms directed at artists like Imogen Heap is that their music, which owes much to its structuring in the studio, doesn't always translate well in a live setting; however, with her inventive recreation of songs like "Just for Now", in which an awe-inspiring level of layers is used to create a unique experience, Heap has proven her critics wrong.



Ellipse, her most recent release, came out in August; since then, she's gained plenty of (well-deserved) attention for her innovative songwriting process and eclectic musical taste, something which first single "First Train Home" has in spades.



Finally, here's her recent cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (seems fitting, what with Halloween and all), which takes the song and completely transforms it, reminding the listener of Heap's powerful voice and incredible musicianship. Hope you enjoy.



Until next time,

Paul





Saturday, 10 October 2009

Saturday Spotlight: The Clientele



Well, Winnipeg was hit by a snowstorm yesterday afternoon, an event which appears to have been a surprise (or so I've heard). With most of us turning up the heat indoors, it seems appropriate that British indie-pop quartet The Clientele release their latest album-- the warmly-titled Bonfires on the Heath-- around this time.

I found out about The Clientele through the wonders of poking around iTunes -- a similar process that led to my discovery of Combustible Edison -- and began listening to their 2007 album God Save the Clientele. The disc wasn't perfect (some of the songs were a bit too melancholic for my tastes), but songs like the uptempo "Bookshop Casanova" with its great hook and charming music video won me over pretty quickly:



The Clientele was originally made up of Alasdair MacLean (on vocals and guitar), Mark Keen (on drums), James Hornsey (on bass) -- Mel Draisey (on violin, percussion, backing vocals and keyboards) joined later. After recording an album's worth of material without attracting interest from record labels, the album was shelved and the group released a variety of singles instead. These singles were later collected to form the 2000 release Suburban Light, an album that was recently listed as the 80th greatest album of the decade by Pitchfork, a UK music magazine known for having high standards when it comes to reviewing music.

Listen to "6am Morningside" and "An Hour Before the Light" and decide for yourself if it deserves that sort of recognition:





Three years later, the group's "proper" debut album, The Violet Hour, was released. As the name would suggest, it's an album perfect for those late summer nights where the overall atmosphere can sometimes take precedence over lyrics -- "House on Fire" and "Voices in the Mall" are lovely songs, but you can't really make out what's being sung.





The Violet Hour was followed by what I consider their best work thus far, the 2005 album Strange Geometry. It's an album partially about London and partially about getting over the end of a relationship, as the first two tracks, "Since K Got Over Me" and "(I Can't Seem To) Make You Mine"-- which was featured prominently in The Lake House-- make clear.





Mel Draisey became a Clientele member as of God Save the Clientele, and her contributions have been greatly appreciated, giving songs like Bonfires on the Heath's "Harvest Time" a richer, fuller sound than much of their pre-God Save the Clientele's output.



To be honest, The Clientele produce such unassuming music that, for a time, I completely forgot about them and that I enjoyed their music so much. Hopefully this Saturday Spotlight has been as much a lesson to you as it has been to me: if you hear a great band, don't forget they exist; otherwise, they could just as easily slip through the net.

Until next time,

From a very chilly Winter-- I mean Winnipeg,

Paul