Here's what I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past week.
READING: Shawn Levy's "Paul Newman: A Life," which I just reviewed for the books section of The Christian Science Monitor. The bottom line: Levy, a film critic for The Oregonian, has penned an eloquent and perceptive eulogy that chronicles Newman’s journey from movie stardom to American icon.
Levy’s exceptionally detailed research yields numerous amusing anecdotes about the actor who made movie studios glad they'd shifted over to color motion pictures. The biography includes dozens of stories about Newman’s effect on women. (One went fishing in a trash can for the actor’s discarded apple core.) Levy's insights as a movie critic make for a fascinating journey through the actor's filmography. Though Newman wasn't blessed with an innate chameleonic instinct, he diligently worked to incorporate method acting techniques to his craft. He thrived on the discovery process of rehearsals before each shoot and became the quintessential example of the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation in this scene?”
The biography also gains considerable mileage from various recollections of Newman's elaborate -- and expensive -- pranks on set. During the filming of Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill" in Calgary, Levy recounts how Newman hired a helicopter to drop flyers in the area for a party at the house Altman was staying. And, later, he had a local disc jockey record a fake call for 2,500 extras to report to the set the next day -- with the promise of $155 for each actor. Newman then broadcast the tape on radios around the set, as if it was a local broadcast. "Bob just turned white," Newman said.
Clearly, Newman was the one guy who could have out Punk'd Ashton Kutcher.
Some newspaper reports claim that Joanne Woodward is "furious" and "upset" about "Paul Newman: A Life" because it casts light on the actor's two year affair with a journalist. Take those stories with a pinch of salt since they quote unnamed sources. In any event, Woodward needn't fret. Rather than sensationalize the scandal, Levy refrains from offering up prurient details -- and, since he interviewed "the other woman," I imagine he has plenty of salacious fodder left in his notebook. Woodward couldn't have hoped for a more eloquent and respectful biography of her late husband.
I've also just picked up "For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis" by Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell at my local library. There are many distinctive album sleeve artists I've admired over the years such as Neon Park (Little Feat, Frank Zappa), Carl Glover (Marillion, Porcupine Tree, No-Man), Mark Wilkinson (Marillion, Fish), Roger Dean (Yes), and Hugh Syme (Rush). But Hipgnosis were the masters and innovators of vinyl art that was by turns surreal, cinematic, and open to endless interpretation. (My favorites: The art for Led Zeppelin's "Presence" and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here.")
The book is more than a coffee table portfolio of the covers -- though it is that, too. It includes essays by Floyd's Nick Mason and artist Peter Blake as well as in-depth recollections by Thorgerson and Powell about they created unforgettable covers for records such as Wishbone Ash's "Argus," Bad Company's debut, Paul McCartney & Wings "Band on the Run," Peter Gabriel's "III," and many more. (To see some of those covers, check out this enjoyable 10-minute EPK interview with Powell.) I'm endlessly fascinated by one of their earliest images for the debut album by Toe Fat. (See it here, but prepare to be perplexed and mildly disturbed.)
Next up: Alain de Botton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," but, before then, I'll try squeeze in a debut novel called "Woods Burner" by John Pipkin. My favorite book reviewer, Yvonne Zipp, tells me it's based on the true story of how Henry David Thoreau set fire to 300 acres of forest, though she tells me there's more to it than that.
WATCHING: At the cinema, Star Trek proved to be a great start to the blockbuster season. Character driven, exciting, a perfect length, and a wholly fresh take on the franchise.
I just watched the first episode of "The Bachelorette" on ABC. I'm hooked. But nothing compares to my current TV obsession: "Damages." I just started watching it 7 days ago and have raced through season 1. I'm kicking myself for not discovering it sooner. The end of episode 1 alone has so many twists that you'll be reeling and will immediately want to watch episode 2. Very stylishly filmed, brilliant plotting, and Glenn Close is riveting as a hard-ass, manipulative lawyer who, one suspects, could outwit even the scheming Benjamin Linus in "Lost." Close's character is evenly matched by the heroine (and moral center of the show) played by Rose Byrne. And who knew Ted Danson could play evil so convincingly and so humanly?
My wife, Kim, and I saw a magnificent concert by Doves this past weekend. I saw them on their very first tour (their support band back then were The Strokes!) and, while the band is hardly well-known, they've managed to build a sizable fanbase without much airplay over the years. Saturday's show at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles hosted over 2,000 concert goers, a loud and enthusiastic crowd that was matched by a loud and enthusiastic band. (Johnny Marr was in the audience, though I didn't spot him.)
All the new songs sounded even better live. The heavy bottom end of the drum sound gives the songs more weight. "Jetstream" was an incredible opener and even more dynamic the way it added layer upon layer to the song. Early highlight of the night was "Winter Hill," which oughta be a future single. "10:03" was more explosive than a discarded cigarette in a 1930's Zeppelin. "Greatest Denier" is definitely my top pick off the new album, "Kingdom of Rust."
Funniest moment of the night was when someone in the audience yelled to Jimi Goodwin, "Slap da bass," a reference from the recent comedy, "I Love You Man." The bassist/frontman didn't get the reference but responded, "Slap the bass? If do that I'd turn into James Brown and they'd @&$#ing fire me!"
Best song of the night was the jubilant "There Goes the Fear," which ended with Goodwin and Andy Williams bashing away at the same drum kit while Jez Williams played cowbell. (I turned to Kim and, in my best Christopher Walken imitation, said, "more cowbell.")
LISTENING TO: The annals of rock history are littered with ridiculous band names such as Prefab Sprout, Hoobastank, Spandau Ballet, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Chumbawumba, Mr. Mister, and Chickenfoot, the new supergroup comprised of Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith. (What, exactly, is a Hoobastank? Does it require a gas mask to handle it?)
Bat for Lashes (l.) belongs in the ridiculous name category. Bat for Lashes isn't actually a band, it's the name adopted by British singer Natascha Kahn. Daffy name aside, she's a very exciting artist whose two primary influences are Kate Bush and Bjork, my two favorite female vocalists. As such, Khan's music is otherworldly, slightly avant garde, and infectiously melodic. Like those two vocalists, Khan has her own unique voice that is wonderfully expressive. Alas, Khan doesn't have Bush's literary talents and so her lyrics share Bjork's penchant for fantastical gobbledigook with lines such as, "When I get hurt / been in the jungle / where's my bear to lick me clean." I'll be she has interesting dreams.
Khan's second album, "Two Suns," expands on the sparse dynamics of her debut, "Fur and Gold." Plug in your headphones and check out the three tunes on her MySpace page -- "Glass" is one of the greatest songs I've heard this year and "Daniel," an ode to "The Karate Kid," has been widely hailed as one of the year's best singles. (See it performed on Letterman here.)
My current playlist also includes David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," Elbow's live performance of "The Seldom Seen Kid" with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Joni Mitchell's "Heijira," No-Man's new EP, "Wherever There is Light."
I've also been delving deeper into the back cataloge of Shearwater, the greatest band of this decade on the strength of the past two albums alone. Truly special. (Not heard of of this band from Austin? Here, as an introduction, is my review of their 2008 masterpiece, "Rook." )
Before Shearwater fully channeled its Talk Talk influences on its past two albums, "Palo Santo" and "Rook," the band was still honing its sound. Shearwater started as a sort of splinter offshoot from Okkervil River and that band's leader, Will Sheff, was a member of Shearwater just as Shearwater's leader, Jonathan Meiburg, was a member of his. The two have now amicably parted ways. But Shearwater's early records, "Thieves" and "Winged Life," are a compromise of Meiburg and Sheff's very different writing styles.
Even though Meiburg (r.) hadn't yet asserted his own vision, there are many hints of what was to come on "Winged Life." The opener, titled "A Hush," is a forefather of the lush Shearwater sound of today. "Sealed" is another such track, its mellotron as moody as Meiberg's vocal. Midway through, the song suddenly unfurls its sails and the effect is utterly glorious and then, just when you think that was the climax of the piece, it violently shifts gears for a wrecked, yet melodic, coda. Again, a classic example of the direction the band was heading in. Another fave: "The Kind" floats on a current of mellotron. But the track I can't get enough of is "Whipping Boy," which is as a groovy, banjo-led song with great drumming by Thor Harris. It ends with Thor trying his patented violin bow between the xylophone feedback effect.
I'm also listening to the band's "Thieves" EP, which opens with "I Can't Wait," a genteel acoustic folk song that bursts into an impassioned chorus. "Mountain Laurel," a soft banjo track, is still a worthy regular on the band's set lists.
First, though, you really need to go check out "Rooks" or "Palo Santo." Don't just take it from me - see this review, and this one, and also this one.
You'll thank me later.