Thursday, September 18, 2008

A new endangered species: music critics

I recently attended a forum about the future of (professional) critics that was held at the USC Annenberg school for Communication. A number of top critics were on the panel, including LA Times music writer Ann Powers and EW's Chris Willman. For the most part, the writers lamented the decline of readership in the Internet age and how the general devaluation of critics in print publications.

I recently wrote about this phenomenon and so David Browne, formerly head music critic for EW, and now a full-time author (most recently of the definitive Sonic Youth biography
"Goodbye Twentieth Century") sent along the following trenchant observation about the state of music criticism:
"Hey Stephen: Very interesting piece--I was wondering when someone
would write about the decline in music critics in the same way they've
covered the falloff of film and TV critics. Consider yourself a
pioneer! I bet lots of people will read this--and then write their own
versions. So good for you.

I would add one note to the piece: The problem with music criticism
isn't just the influx of Internet voices--it's the fact that those new
voices are actually opinionated. "Music criticism" in most print
publications is, to me, dead. It's over. Everything is three-stars and
up. Everyone champions everything. When was the last time you read a
mixed review of a major new release in RS, Blender, Spin, Paste, etc.
etc.,,etc.? It's very, very sad. At least the Stereogums and blogs
of the world will tell you if something is good or sucks. No one else
does anymore."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pure animal magnetism

The album art for Metallica's new album, "Death Magnetic," is fantastic. So is the music for the most part. I know that they're the grandfathers of death metal, but isn't it time that these guys found some new lyrical themes now that they're in the forties? Still, it's good to hear these guys returning to what they do best.

Full review (as well as reviews of new albums by The Verve and David Byrne + Brian Eno) here.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Good news about 'Good News'

Kate Atkinson, author of "Case Histories," a book Stephen King dubbed "the best mystery of the decade" in EW, is about to release her new book, "When Will There Be Good News?"

In my review of the book, I wrote: "As with the previous two installments, 'Case Histories' (2004) and 'One Good Turn' (2006), Atkinson’s latest mystery is the literary equivalent of an MC Escher drawing in its labyrinthine, yet holistic, architecture."

The rest of the review, here:

I interviewed Atkinson 2 years ago about what she was reading, watching, and listening to then. Her answers, here.

And the Oscar for best actor goes to ... Mickey Rourke?

Over the past 24 hours, the various agents representing Lorenzo Lamas, Jean Claude van Damme, and the two Feldmans -- Corey and Haim -- have been repeat dialing Darren Aronofsky's phone.

Ok, I can't state that's 100% true, but it's certainly possible now that the director of "The Wrestler" has miraculously done a Lazarus on Mickey Rourke. The all-but-forgotten actor can afford to swagger once again now that he seems certain to get nominated for Best Actor. (Just imagine what Aronofsky could do for Mike Myers' career.*)

"The Wrestler" has won top honors at Venice. And it arrives at Toronto heralded by reviews in Variety and The Reporter that, between them, pretty much drained the dictionary of every known superlative in the English language in describing Rourke's performance. (Rourke was the best thing in "Sin City," too, but no one recognized him in all those shadow-obscured facial prosthetics.)

So, on paper at least, strong contenders for Best Actor 2009 seem to be: Rourke, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt. Given that these things are really a popularity contest that come down to carefully orchestrated electoral campaigns -- the McCain/Palin ticket really needs to hire Rogers & Cowen to see how it's done -- The Golden Boy will walk away with it for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Unless, that is, the mega-megabudget film turns out to be as much a flop as "Meet Joe Black." The press -- and Gil Cates -- will be praying that Angelina Jolie will also walk away with gold on the same night for "The Changeling." That storyline would trump even Phelps's 8 medals. (Don't worry, the Jolie-Pitts can more than afford the 8 babysitters they'll need for the night.)

Marisa Tomei, meanwhile, seems to be dishing out some sweet revenge to everyone who claimed she unfairly won an Oscar. Her once-promising A-list status faltered soon after and it seemed her lot would be a lifetime of Lifetime TV movies. Instead, Tomei is going for broke at this stage of her life, taking off her clothes and taking on unglamorous roles in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and now "The Wrestler." (The balding blabbermouth in the trench coat at the front of the ticket line? That'll be George Constanza.) I expect we'll see Tomei back on the red carpet at the Kodak theater next year.

* Quentin Tarantino, the patron saint of lapsed careers, has reportedly offered Myers a role in "Inglorious Bastards."

Friday, September 05, 2008

What does your iPod say about you?

My friend Robin over at Cinnamon and Honey recently picked up on a feature called "What Does Your Music Say About You and Do You Care?" You can see her answer to the questions, which she originally picked up from Licensed to Blog. In the meantime, I thought I'd settle down on the couch with my iPod for some self analysis:

If someone new were in your car, what song on your player would you be quickest to skip out of embarrassment?
Why, the Best of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Lesbian Seagull," of course! Ok, I'm just kidding - that's not on my iPod. (Maybe that fake answer is my way of softening you up for my real answer ;-) It would probably ZZ Top's "Woke Up With Wood." Yeah, I'm blushing, too.

What song or songs is/are most “atypical” on your player?
Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Warriors of the Wasteland (remix version)." The only reason I have this -- and this tells you how geeky I am -- is that my all-time favorite guitarist, Gary Moore, played on that record as a session musician and I'm a completist of all Moore's prolific work since 1970.

What song(s) on your player turns you on?
You mean, like, in a Marvin Gaye dim the lights and let's get it on kind of way? Ooh, er... Well, it would have to be something by Kate Bush. My favorite female singer (just edging out Bjork, Joni Mitchell, Liz Fraser, and Toni Childs) exudes velvet sensuality in an unusually intimate, yet unself-conscious, way. As I type I'm listening to the title track of her late-career masterpiece, "Aerial" (one of the great albums of the 00's), and the track "Nocturn," about a moonlit swim is unbelievably sexy and segues into the title track, which has a downright carnal backbeat and a feral vocal at the end. Natacha Atlas's voice can have a similar effect! Maybe because I always remember her sultry belly dance at Wembley Arena when Atlas +Transglobal Underground supported Page & Plant in 1998.

If you wanted to get a member of the opposite sex in the mood, what song would you program to come on when they are in the car?
A romantic song by Marillion. The British band's singer, Steve Hogarth, rivals Robert Plant as my all-time favorite vocalist. His voice has a "zero to 60 in just 4 seconds" effect on many women because, well, he not only has an incredibly beautiful voice but he really lays himself emotionally bare on record. Listening to him is an uncommonly intimate experience because it's obvious he's feeling the lyrics and not faking it. Here's a 1993 track that could set the mood... (Free Marillion plug: go here and download Marillion's playful and unbelievably catchy new single for free at the bottom right corner - no email address or registration required.)

What is the longest song on your player?
Porcupine Tree's "The Sky Moves Sideways (alternate version)." It's over 34 minutes long which means that I practically have to schedule an appointment in my Outlook calendar to listen to it. Come to think of it, I might have a bootleg version of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" that comes in at 42 minutes somewhere.

What do you think is the silliest song on your player?
I head straight for Frank Zappa. How about "Stink Foot," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," or "St. Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast"? I have more outlandish, and unmentionable, Zappa tunes in my CD collection...

What did you most recently add to your player?
"Everything that Happens Will Happen Today," Brian Eno + David Byrne's longawaited followup to their 1981 classic, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." And, at first blush, I am smitten with this new collaboration, which is a radical departure from the last record. Wow! A few days before that I bought a King Crimson recording of a concert they played last week.

What did you most recently delete?
The Beatles "Love" album. It's good, but familiarity breeds, etc....

What is your favorite song on your player that is from a movie?
It's a tossup between John Williams's "Superman March" and Thomas Newman's theme from "American Beauty." And if I currently had any Ennio Morricone on the Pod, I'd have to completely reconsider my answer to this question.

Is there a song on your player that is only there for someone else’s benefit?
For my ears only... (that's not the title of a Bond theme tune, btw.)

What song or artist do you find yourself skipping most frequently and therefore should probably delete?
Amadou & Mariam. I love this Malian duo, but I have overplayed their tremendous "Dimanche A Bamako" album.

Without cheating, start your player and list the first 10 songs that come up in random play.
So far, my answers haven't showcased the sheer diversity of music on my player. So, please don't let down iPod:

"Days" (David Bowie)
"Ataronchronon" (Boards of Canada)
"City Headache" (Scott Matthews)
"Hands Born Dirty" (Joseph Arthur)
"You Don't Need Anyone" (Marillion)
"Stars" (Ulrich Schnauss)
"Turn Me Loose" (It Bites)
"High (live)" (The Cure)
"Trains" (Porcupine Tree)
"All Sweet Things" (No-Man)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

These devils wear Prada

Here in L.A., where entertainment-related billboards turn streets into gaudy arcades, no current advertising campaign snags more eyeballs than CW's "Gossip Girl." The movie-screen posters are simple: Portraits of young hotties in steamy situations straight out of the Zalman King pornbook. The accompanying taglines, acting as come ons, are lifted from media reviews of the show: "Every Parent's nightmare" -- The Boston Herald; "Very Bad for you" -- The New York Post; "Mindblowingly inappropriate" -- The Parents Television Council. (I got a kick out of the jab at the PTC, the advocacy group that lobbies for TV censorship under the guise of protecting -- what else? -- the children.)

Though clearly not aimed at a 3osomething person, the ad campaigns almost persuaded me to tune into "Gossip Girl" tonight. Well, that and the presence of the not-unattractive star, Blake Lively. But I just couldn't pull the remote-control trigger. Fact is, even Robin Leach would be hard-pressed to care about a show about the lifestyles of the (young) rich and famous. Truth is, I've been thinking a lot lately about how today's youth-targeted television is worryingly smitten with materialism and wealth. From "My Super Sweet 16" to "The Hills" to "90120," we're supposed to care about protagonists who can afford to pour Verve Cliquot into their cereal and spread their toast with caviar. In the case of "Gossip Girl," the pretty teens face problems such as relationship squabbles, treacherous affairs, and the rise and fall of bitchy queen bees. Ooh, life is tough in The Hamptons.

The belated return of "90210" is a reminder that shows about the wealthy have long been with us. Why Aaron Spelling built an entire empire (and an indoor bowling alley in his mansion) on such fare. But in this golden era of television when so many shows boast smarter writing, bigger ideas, and story arcs as complex as an A.S. Byatt novel, is it too much to expect more substance than materialism from programs aimed at teens?

Obsession with wealth and its accoutrements are very much embedded in US culture, of course. That aspiration is apparent in every flash of diamand-carated bling that one sees on the fingers, wrists, and ears of inner-city youth. But how about a teen-oriented show about ordinary folks that seems more in touch with these times of Obama populism? How about a show about working-class people (and, no, I'm not calling for a return of "Married with Children"). After all, the greatest show in television history -- "The Wire" -- was so compelling precisely because it presented a multifaceted understanding of the underclass (both cops and street-corner drug dealers) and the very real difficulties they face. There's innate drama in the desperation of people who live from paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, defenders will doubtless claim that "Gossip Girl" shows that even money doesn't bring happiness. But I very much doubt that the creators of "The O.C." have given us "The Great Gatsby 2.0."