Tuesday, 29 September 2009
For anyone that's had the good fortune to watch Being Erica's season premiere (and what a premiere it was) and hasn't caught up on last season yet, the abrupt change in format "Battle Royale" presents may be a bit of a shock.
For those that have watched the first season, it shouldn't be a surprise that, after the mildly unorthodox "Being Dr. Tom", the show's writers have decided to return to the show's original format with what could best be described as a "classic Being Erica story"; in this case, revisiting yet another of Erica's failed relationships, this time with fellow camp counselor Malcolm Abrams (played by an actor that looks strangely like Ivan Franco from "Erica the Vampire Slayer", only more built).
The episode itself had a slow and rather frustrating opening (although after last week's dramatic first few minutes, anything would seem dull). The "Previously on..." sequence was paint-by-numbers at best, and the opening scenes with Ethan and Erica were cute but, aside from Erica suggesting Ethan move in with her, lacking in character and plot development.
Things picked up when the couple was invited to a family reunion at the parents', which was a convenient way to reintroduce us to some of the main characters. Erica's sister Sam (Joanna Douglas) married the irritating Josh (Adam MacDonald) last season, and a subplot from last season hinting at tensions between them has been swiftly resurfaced. We were also reintroduced to Erica's parents, Gary and Barbara Strange (John Boylan and Kathleen Laskey).
All seemed well until some of Erica's aunts and uncles began hinting at marriage and Ethan freaked out. The resulting conflict led to a visit from Dr. Tom, who promptly sent Erica back in time to try and understand why Malcolm dumped her for a fourteen-year-old (and why she promptly engaged in a back-and-forth conflict with him, culminating in Erica being sent home). Without giving too much away, the scene Erica was sent back to upon arrival in 1992 was brilliant, and one of the best moments of the episode.
The rest of "Battle Royale" was largely devoted to Erica and Malcolm -- Dr. Tom had a small cameo, but he had such a large role last episode you wouldn't expect anything else -- and culminated in a revelation that made Erica truly understand his side of the story.
All in all, "Battle Royale" was a good episode, and it worked well in establishing several major characters and their arcs for the rest of the season. The transition from "Being Dr. Tom" to a episode structure more in keeping with the show's traditions was a little awkward, but the show should be running smoothly come next week.
-"Till It Happens to You" by Corinne Bailey Rae was used very well, especially during the scene of Sam and Josh in the car and the scene of Brent and Julianne in the River Rock offices.
-The idea of Kai (who is this guy, anyway? I thought his name was Andrew!) being reluctant to discuss his therapy with Erica is interesting, but I got the feeling the actor portraying him hasn't quite found his footing on the show; Julianne suffered from a similar predicament in the previous episode.
-The subplot of Brent trying to get Julianne fired is a good one, although it isn't really apparent what damning evidence he has to go on. Perhaps a scene relating this was left on the cutting room floor?
-The counselor talent show (if that's what it was) in Erica's past was somewhat bizarre and didn't seem to add much to the episode, except for being a place where Erica and Malcolm could meet. Regardless, the sight of Erica trying to imitate her fellow counselors' moves was actually fairly entertaining.
-The scene with the "intruder" in the woods was a bit of a toss-up for me; keeping in mind the budget cuts CBC had this year, I wasn't even sure if the "intruder" would actually appear. The moment where Erica and Malcolm glance around desperately, panicking, was decently written and acted -- such scenes are the stuff of poorly-written slasher flicks, not a thoughtful show like Being Erica.
With such a drastic change in format from the premiere to the second episode, whether we'll get another episode like "Being Dr. Tom" -- or the rest of the season will continue in the same way as the first -- is anyone's guess.
With the first two episodes of Being Erica's new season, CBC appears to have won some sort of battle, but as of yet it's still unclear if they truly have, in fact, won the war.
Saturday, 26 September 2009
I really wanted to write about Dan Mangan (whose new album Nice, Nice, Very Nice is one of my recent favorites) but the videos of him on YouTube weren't to my liking, and then I considered Fiona Apple for an hour or two, but this week has, to be honest, felt like a long hike (in Winnipeg, it's been unbearably hot) and Apple's music is not the sort of thing you want to mark the weekend with, especially the weekend of such a brutal week as this.
So I decided to go with Sufjan, and I'm glad I did, because if there's one artist that can be calming and celebratory, hilarious and heartbreaking (often within the same song), it's him.
Listen to "Chicago" and you'll see.
That's a song from his 2005 album Illinois, the second entry in the Fifty States Project, a self-imposed goal of his to write an album about each U.S. state. It's also the album I was introduced to Sufjan through, and (maybe because of this) it's also my favorite.
Here's another song from that album, the stunning "Casimir Pulaski Day" (which is not my favorite, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!" is, but I'll let you discover that song on your own):
A year later Sufjan released The Avalanche, a collection of songs that, for one reason or another, hadn't made Illinois. Some of the tracks were, to be honest, fairly disposable, but I can't fathom why b-sides like the deceptfully simple title track weren't included on his previous record.
As you may have guessed from listening to the previous three songs, there is a fairly deep spiritual undercurrent running through much of Sufjan's material. That undercurrent fully revealed itself on 2004's Seven Swans, an album with song titles like "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands", "In the Devil's Territory" and "The Transfiguration". Its combination of quiet, spiritual pieces and darker, more expansive melodies is most evident in "The Dress Looks Nice On You" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (inspired by the Flannery O'Connor short story), both found below.
Two of the most fascinating (and occasionally frustrating) aspects of Sufjan's musical career are his occasional forays into the realm of electronica (his first two albums, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, are the best examples) and his willingness to expand upon and reinterpret other artists' work. At times, these two facets come together in mysterious and brilliant ways, like in his cover of "You Are the Blood", a song that is originally by a band called Castanets --but you couldn't tell it from Adam after Sufjan got his hands on it. Take a listen.
Another gorgeous cover Sufjan did was for the soundtrack of the film I'm Not There of Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells". It's much better than his cover of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris", which relied too much on the original melody. Whenever I listen to this song, I get the image of a sunset parade through a small prairie town occasionally interrupted by sirens rushing to a hospital emergency or car accident. It's that good.
By listening to the songs I've provided, I hope you've come away from this Saturday Spotlight with the sense that Sufjan Stevens is, as I stated before, a genius; and even if you don't think he's worthy of that particular title, you can't deny he's remarkably creative.
What's next in the cards for Sufjan? He's releasing a string quartet version of Enjoy Your Rabbit in October called Run Rabbit Run, and a CD version of his performance piece The BQE soon after. Personally, I'd prefer it if he returned to the Fifty States Project, but that's the thing about Sufjan -- he follows his muse wherever it goes.
And in a day and age when muses are so often tightly controlled and restricted by external forces, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Until next time,
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
DISCLAIMER: The following contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Being Erica has become one of the few shows on TV (along with Doctor Who and Lost) that I actually try and keep up with. I started watching the show online this summer (mostly driven by curiosity after someone commenting on a National Post article called it "the best show this season on either side of the border") and quickly became engrossed by its intriguing characters, excellent plot, and well-developed story arcs.
The show stars Erin Karpluk as Erica Strange, whose life had hit rock bottom when we first met her in Season One. An allergic reaction from hazelnut-flavoured coffee (a ridiculous device the show thankfully jettisoned early on) led her to meet Dr. Tom (Michael Riley, who was also on Alice in Wonderland, a show I wish I had paid more attention to). Dr. Tom recognized Erica's distress and offered to be her therapist, with a twist: he sends her back in time to deal with her regrets.
Does it always work? No. and that's what makes it interesting. However, thanks to her new therapist, Erica has found herself a Junior Editor with River Rock Publishing and patched things up with several old friends (and enemies), so she can't be that bad off. Right?
Season One ended with the excellent episode "Leo", in which Erica asked Dr. Tom to send her back in time to face her biggest regret -- her brother Leo's death. Dr. Tom warned her that she couldn't bring Leo back from the dead -- for Erica, the temptation was too much to bear, and for Dr. Tom, it was the last straw.
Erica also made up with her on-off boyfriend Ethan (Tyron Leitso). The morning after, however, Erica woke up, opened a door in her apartment and, to her bewilderment, stepped into a white-walled office with a theme best described as Urban Antarctica.
In that office was a mysterious woman that seemed to know more about Erica than she was letting on. Naturally, Erica wanted to know who she was...
"I'm Naadiah. Your new therapist."
And just like that, the show changed.
-"Being Dr. Tom", the season premiere, picked up exactly where "Leo" left off and could very well be one of the best episodes so far (and for a show of this caliber, that's saying a lot).
It's hard to estimate when my jaw first hit the floor, but I think the scene where Erica returns to her apartment and Naadiah follows her would be a good place to start. Ever since Season One ended, I've had the suspicion that Naadiah is a step up on the "therapist ladder" (if something like that exists) from Tom, and the nonchalance she showed at entering the apartment of one of her patients seemed to justify my thoughts.
Naadiah had a significant part to play in the episode, which, as the title suggests, largely focused on Dr. Tom's character. It was hinted in interviews leading up to the premiere that Season Two would expand its focus to include those around Erica, and "Being Dr. Tom" certainly delivers. It's a dark episode (coming as it does after the emotional "Leo") but has moments of genuine humour to balance out (Erica having to mix a Harvey Wallbanger from memory was one of the funnier moments). The episode's ending also hinted at further expansion of the Being Erica universe; in particular, the notion that Drs. Naadiah and Tom may not be the only therapists out there...
If "Being Dr. Tom" was any indication, this second season looks to be of equal or even higher quality than the first -- the writers aren't afraid to take the show in new and surprising directions, and I look forward to all the questions the premiere raised being answered in the weeks to come.
- The "Previously on..." sequence this episode had the difficult job of summarizing an entire season's worth of episodes in about a minute -- and it passed with flying colours.
- Although Michael Riley as Dr. Tom was the real star of the show, Joanna Vannicola made Dr. Naadiah far more emotional -- and funnier -- than we ever could have guessed. I hope she makes another appearance, and soon.
- There are some interesting things going on at River Rock this season -- in particular, Erica being put in charge of a book that her friend Brent (Morgan Kelly) desperately wanted to edit looks to have major repercussions later on. As well, David Fox, returning in his role as the aggressive self-help author Frank Galvin, will provide some much-needed comedy in this season's darker moments.
- The scenes with Erica working at the Coyote Ugly-type bar were a little bewildering at first -- I, too, was asking Dr. Tom's question "So why are you working here?" -- but it's always fun to watch a character that occasionally verges on being judgmental have character lapses like this.
- The ending was fantastic, although the vanilla syrup scene seemed a little hackneyed; regardless, the revelation that followed more than made up for it.
- Is it just me, or did Erica's boss Julianne (Reagan Pasternak) seem icier than usual -- was it because of her much more jubilant appearance later on in the episode? (Let's face it, if you had two scenes that dramatically different in one episode, you'd probably be sullen too.) And since when has she called anyone a "River-Rockian"?
- It wasn't made entirely clear what Erica's emotions were after doing some online research about Dr. Tom after the last rooftop scene, I found -- after watching the episode again, I understand what the audience was intended to feel, but at the time it didn't seem clear enough to me.
- Ethan needs more character conflict, stat. While I can understand the need for him to be a rock in the sea of confusion surrounding Erica, Dr. Naadiah could fill those shoes just as well, I reckon. Bringing back his ex-wife Claire doesn't seem like a possibility (although you never know), so I hope the show's writers have something else up their sleeve.
And there's episode one! Keep your eyes peeled for my recap of episode two, "Battle Royale", coming soon.
Until next time,
Saturday, 19 September 2009
(Note to any writers out there -- whatever you do, when you get an idea, write it down. You will forget it, and regret it for the rest of your life. Trust me.)
Now that I've apologized sufficiently, time for another Saturday Spotlight, this week courtesy of Winnipeg's own Chantal Kreviazuk. Her rise to fame is interesting because she signed on with Sony as a vocalist without having performed a single show live. (If I recall correctly, she sent them some lyrics, and the rest, they say, is history.)
You must be thinking that these Sony people must have had a lot of faith in Kreviazuk to give her a recording contract, and when her 1997 debut album Under These Rocks and Stones hit the shelves, you can bet some of them were nervous. I can hardly blame them, given the situation.
Did she deliver the goods? Well, listen to "Surrounded", and see for yourself:
Kreviazuk's second album, Colour Moving and Still, came out in 1999 and is my second favorite work of hers (my favorite is Ghost Stories, but we'll get to that later). In my opinion, the most accomplished song on the disc is "Far Away", a soulful ballad that had an equally beautiful music video released. You can see it below:
It's clear that Kreviazuk has a great voice and is impressive on CD, but how is she live? Well, take a listen to "Blue" (also from Colour Moving and Still) and tell me what you think.
Chantal took a bit of a break, releasing her next album in 2003. What If It All Means Something is considered her "breakout" album in a sense, because it contained hit singles like "In This Life" and "Time" that gave her a wider audience in the US; however, its produced sound worried some fans about the direction Kreviazuk's music was taking. Chantal herself expressed frustration with how some of the songs were handled in the studio -- justifying the fans' concern -- but that same production led to great songs like "Waiting", which you can hear below.
Following What If It All Means Something's release, Kreviazuk began a period in which she had two children and co-wrote hit songs for many artists (Kelly Clarkson and Gwen Stefani among them). Perhaps this time away from the spotlight helped her when it came time to record Ghost Stories, her fourth and (in my opinion) her best record. The producer, her husband Raine Maida, put not a single guitar on the album, leaving room for Chantal and her piano to breathe... and does it show.
Here's the lead single, "All I Can Do".
And here's the second single from that album, the terrific "Wonderful", performed live.
To end this post, here's one of the best songs on Ghost Stories (and in her entire repetoire), "Waiting for the Sun". Please enjoy.
Until next time,
This made me think of a number of things -- first, if this metaphor existed anywhere else (and if so, "Pinball Wizard" by the Who takes on a new and very interesting meaning) -- and, more importantly, the fact that, even though you see pinball machines around, no-one seems to be using them.
Why is this? Well, it would seem that pinball machines, like bumper stickers and shopping malls, are another part of the old American culture that has been quietly fading away. But, of course, it's more complicated than that; everything from the education of children to the recent H1N1 crisis has contributed to their downfall.
The basic goal of pinball directly contradicts what 21st-century children are taught, and what adults have learned as well throughout the years: Don't do anything that doesn't reward in the end. Use your time wisely. Keep your eye on the prize.
To be blunt, there is no prize in pinball: you insert a quarter or two, flick a ball around and then, if you're lucky, get a high score. It's easy to see why people aren't playing pinball: what's the point of playing if you don't get money, or anything else, in return? After all, there are better things to be doing in the summer, like setting up a lemonade stand with your sister or brother. Now, that brings in the dough.
This mentality is the reason why arcades no longer have their own buildings, and are now incorporated into movie theatres, bowling alleys, airports, etc. -- generally, anywhere people have to wait. But you don't see people -- you don't see kids -- at these arcade spaces either. If they are, it's usually in very small numbers. Why aren't they taking advantage of these areas can be summarized with one word: H1N1.
Actually, to be honest, H1N1 is only the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to this sort of thing. Americans have been terrified about their health -- and the health of their children -- for years, reflected in the upsurge in sales of Purell and other hand sanitizers. Would there have been as large a demand for Purell before West Nile Virus? Before SARS? I don't think so.
The point is, arcade spaces (and the play areas in McDonald's too, for that matter) are rarely cleaned and, if they are cleaned, not cleaned enough, or well enough, to be effective. (It's no wonder PlayPlaces weren't included in the new McDonald's blueprints; who wants to risk having a birthday party and picking up the medical bills afterwards?) Franchises that thrive on this sort of setup -- Chuck E. Cheese's comes to mind -- are now extinct or a novelty, the spaces they once inhabited transformed into warehouses and country-western bars. (I should know... there's one in Winnipeg.)
If arcades were to make a comeback -- although it doesn't seem likely -- they would have to compete with new-fanged "gaming centres", the newest birthday destination where groups of pre-adolescent children play Super Mario Kart on Wiis and eat snacks. It's smaller than an arcade (so there's no chance of your child getting lost), and there's an actual staff, so it stands to reason that the equipment is well-maintained and, more importantly, clean. (I've also noticed movie theatres advertising "play your games on our big screens" lately; they must be realizing that traditional arcades just don't cut it anymore.)
So, what do we make of all this? In a world where individualization and the personal experience is king, games like pinball, unfortunately, are without a home. They're not communal (like Rock Band or Guitar Hero), they don't have any rewards, and they don't have online play.
It's interesting how the demise of pinball says so much about North Americans and the way the world is moving. Will there ever be a time when, having realized our obsession with the self has gone too far, games like pinball come, slowly but surely, back into fashion?
I wish I had an answer but, unfortunately, it's hard to say.
Saturday, 12 September 2009
The group began, surprisingly enough, as a rock band named Christmas (you can see some of their videos here) that released three albums in the 80s and, finding little critical or commercial success, radically revamped their image to become Combustible Edison. I, Swinger appeared shortly after in 1994, and had far more success -- critically and commercially -- than the Christmas albums ever did.
Here's the video for one song from that record, the groovy "Millionaire's Holiday":
One of the drawbacks of being a fan of a band like Combustible Edison is that footage of their live performances is few and far between (as are colour photos, the only one of which I actually like is included at the end of this post). However, some television station in Massachusetts chose to film a performance way back in 1992 -- and while the quality isn't stellar (this was the early Nineties, after all) it's still one of the only ways to witness what a great act Combustible Edison was live. Here's the opening number of that concert, the B-side "Summer Samba":
While I, Swinger certainly was successful, one could argue that the band really got their big break when they were asked to compose the score for the 1995 comedy Four Rooms. The film itself received mixed reviews, but the accompanying soundtrack was met with acclaim, expanding the band's audience. One of the songs from the soundtrack, "Vertigogo", was even considered for a Best Original Song nomination at the Academy Awards, but was eventually disqualified because its lyrics apparently made no sense (you can read about that here). The video for "Vertigogo" is below.
After recording the Four Rooms soundtrack, Combustible Edison began work on their sophomore effort, Schizophonic. In my opinion, it's not as good as their other albums, but you can listen to the songs "Morticia" and "Lonelyville" and make a decision for yourself:
Any worries about Schizophonic's quality were quickly dispelled when the group released what is arguably their finest work, The Impossible World, in 1998. Full of spacy instrumentation, clicks and whirls, the album displayed Combustible Edison's lyrical and musical abilities at full maturity. Take a listen to "Pink Victim" and, hopefully, you'll see what I mean:
So, you may be asking, what became of Combustible Edison?
Well, after The Impossible World's release, the group split up (it's never been specified why) and moved on to other careers. Nevertheless, their catalog stands testament to a band that took the somewhat outdated lounge-jazz genre firmly into the late 20th century while showcasing a flair for experimentation that set them apart from other lounge revival groups that emerged in the same period.
We may not have the band together, but having their music is the next best thing.
Until next time,
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Ellen DeGeneres is dancing her way into the fourth judge's seat on American Idol.
Fox announced Wednesday that the talk show host and comedian, who admittedly has no formal music experience other than a passion for tunes, would join Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi for the ninth season starting in January.
Yes, it's official: Ellen DeGeneres is joining Simon, Randy and Kara at the judges' table. No joke. It's either the worst or best news in the world, depending on who you ask.
Personally, I've always viewed DeGeneres with a critical eye ever since she managed to single-handedly ruin the 79th Annual Academy Awards with her vaccumming and her picture-taking and her Oscar-statue Snugli. But that's just my opinion.
What will DeGeneres bring to the position, you may ask?
"Hopefully, I'm the people's point of view because I'm just like you," DeGeneres said on her show. "I sit at home and I watch it, and I don't have that technical. … I'm not looking at it in a critical way from the producer's mind. I'm looking at it as a person who is going to buy the music and is going to relate to that person."
So she'll be critical and nice. Uh-huh. Is that even possible, considering that DeGeneres is replacing (and will, in the mind of the viewer, be the "new") Paula Abdul, a woman that may not have intended for her entire arsenal of comments to be reduced to generic niceties, but a woman whose public image, once warped into such a caricature, forced her to make such statements?
In fact, the judging panel itself thrives on caricature. Reality TV viewers love their archetypes, and the success of American Idol's judging panel has led other competition-type programs, like So You Think You Can Dance and Britain/America's Got Talent, to follow a similar model.
First, there's the "critical" judge, who is usually British and provides someone for viewers at home to band against and boo. Simon Cowell (or, at least, his caricature) is the "critical" judge in its purest form -- Piers Morgan from Talent Dance's Nigel Lythgoe is similar, but far nicer, and Canadian Idol's Zack Werner does get some boos, but he hasn't developed a caricature like Cowell has.
Then we have the "harmless" judge, someone who isn't particularly edgy and can always be relied upon to provide middle-of-the-road commentary. The "harmless" judge doesn't have a particular culture or ethnicity attached to themselves like the "critical" judge does (mostly because, in the U.S., villains are often portrayed as having a British accent in TV and film), so they can range from Randy Jackson (who has been reduced to a slang-spouting, chain-wearing caricature through his work on Idol) to David Hasselhoff (whose comments on Talent are, befitting his archetype, harmless).
If the show follows a three-judge model -- and most do -- the third seat is filled by the "nice" judge -- Paula Abdul, Dance's Mary Murphy, Talent's Sharon Osbourne -- whose role on the panel is to be, in essence, someone for the audience to sympathize with (actually, now that I consider it, how is anyone supposed to sympathize with Sharon Osbourne, anyway?). This was particularly evident on Idol, where Abdul's constant battles with Cowell provided those at home with the perfect opportunity for taking sides. But I digress.
If a show goes one step further and adds a fourth judge, unless it had four judges to begin with (like Canadian Idol), well, that just throws a wrench in the works, doesn't it? That judge must assert their identity (and create a new archetype) in a model that rarely welcomes such changes with open arms. Should they be nice but harmless? Critical but nice? Or a blend of the three, which Kara DioGuardi, more than anything else, seems to be emulating thus far?
Ellen DeGeneres has, either wittingly or unwittingly, stepped into this tangled web -- and at this point, no-one knows what she'll do. Will she be, as one commenter said on the the CTV website, "witty, gutsy and compassionate"? Will she be Paula Abdul 2.0, forced into making Abdul-style comments by the archetypal weight that presses upon her shoulders (we'll have to see where she sits on the panel first, I suspect)?
Or will she be blinded by the spotlight, too afraid to be critical of a show that will give, most likely, a surge in popularity for both herself and her talk show?
There's a chance that, to DeGeneres, the Idol producers seem like a large horse with a golden, glittering gift in its mouth.
And, though I hate to be cynical, you know what they say about gift horses...
(Image from Wikipedia, originally taken by Alan Light.)
Sunday, 6 September 2009
Day One followed in 2004, and while it embraced a more guitar-based sound on some tracks, other songs-- like "Your Wish Is My Wish"-- proved that Slean and her voice alone could still produce beautiful results.
Unlike many artists, Sarah isn't afraid to adapt her songs for other settings. One of the songs she rearranges the most is "Lucky Me", which was originally a pop-rock number but works just as well when paired with a string quartet, as seen below:
Her last album released on a major label was The Baroness in 2008, an emotionally charged record that put much of its focus on Slean's piano and vocals. Here's the no-nonsense lead single from that album, "Get Home":
After leaving Warner Music, she teamed up with the Art of Time Ensemble (which reinterprets the work of Canadian songwriters) in 2009 to release Black Flowers, a collection that included songs by everyone from Leonard Cohen to Mary Margaret O'Hara. One of the best results of that pairing, "I'll Never Tear You Apart", even had a (suitably chilling) video made for it. Take a look:
Cheating lovers... bizarre images... this is turning out to be a very depressing One-Off Sunday Spotlight, isn't it?
Never fear, for I possess the cure! A double dose of hope, provided by a fun cover of Madonna's "Material Girl" and a joyous live version of "Day One" (both captured right here in Winnipeg, don'tcha know):
Until next time,