Sunday, February 27, 2005

So, it's Christmas Day in Los Angeles - a/k/a Oscar night.

Best Actor's a gimme, of course, Jamie Foxx (but Al Pacino, not even nominated, deserves it). Best Actress will go to Hilary Swank, but should go to Imelda Staunton's wrenching performance in Vera Drake. Supporting Actor looks like Morgan Freeman; my vote'd go to Clive Owen's lacerating performance in Closer (Thomas Haden Church very close behind). The hardest to call might be Supporting Actress: I think it may end up going to Cate Blanchett's fine take on Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, but I'm still rooting heartily for Sideways's Virginia Madsen.

I think the screenplay trophies will, as they should, go to the writers of Sideways (adapted) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (original). Best Director deserves to go to Martin Scorcese, but I worry it'll go to Clint Eastwood. Similarly, I think Million Dollar Baby is going to win Best Picture, though I hope it's Aviator. [My own best of '04 was Sideways, which will go into history as a classic, but I don't see it winning.]

Let's get Rocked, y'all.

I've gotta do this wrap quickly, because the Oscars start in half an hour (as of this writing).

Michael Radford's take on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice isn't a great film, but it's very good. Lynn Collins gives a stunning breakthrough peformance as Portia (in a role that's not easy), but the real draw here is Al Pacino. He gives an utterly masterful performance as Shylock in what could have been either very scenery-chewing or very phoned-in. Pacino is neither, but is so nuanced, bringing out every drop of tragedy in Shakespeare's moneylender. Not only is this one of Pacino's finest performances - ever - it's the finest lead acting of 2004, hands down. Yeah, I said it: Pacino should have been nominated for Best Actor, and he should be winning tonight. A-

Maria Full of Grace isn't a great film, either, but it's also very good. Joshua Marston won the IFP award last night for best First Feature, and I'm not sure he didn't deserve it. Catalina Sandino Moreno is a very deserving nominee for Best Actress for her screen debut, a performance that's very subtle and incredibly moving. She plays a young and pregnant Colombian woman who, to make the money she can't at home, agrees to work as a drug mule to New York City, carrying 62 rubber pellets full of cocaine in her stomach on a transcontinental flight. It's a very moving film and a very intense one as well, and is out on DVD, so you've got no excuse not to see it. A-

And then there's the film which has become the front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor, and deserves a sum total of none of those awards: Million Dollar Baby. It's good, yes, but I'm not sure I'd call it very good - and it's certainly not excellent nor in any way the Best Picture of the year. Clint Eastwood is a good director capable of brilliance (Unforgiven, of course), but he doesn't reach it here. This is a very manipulative piece of emotional tearjerking which includes some very good performances, foremost among them Hilary Swank. She should be nominated, but she shouldn't win. Morgan Freeman gives us nothing in his performance we've not already seen, and Clint's Best Actor nom - especially considering Paul Giamatti was snubbed again - is a bit absurd. The script is very good, and I liked Clint's own score quite a bit. But this is not one for the ages. B

Saturday, February 26, 2005

For months, I've meant to post this; it's the best unsolicited email I've ever received about my blog.

About half an hour ago I took an ambien and typed I AM A CRUNK HO into Google and your blog came up-- jesus, you are fucking brilliant!


Speed round:

Memo to Kyle Orton: the new facial hair's not working. But here's hoping your arm works just as well as always during the combine.

A marvelous waste of time: the Oscars database, totally searchable and endlessly fascinating.

Considering what a disaster this basketball season's been for Purdue - both men and women - and the trials and tribulations we Pacers fans have had to endure, it's so nice (and about time) to see the Pacers getting hot again.

Dudes, I can't quit listening to Rush's Power Windows. For real.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The pretty damned brilliant Ken Tucker, until recently Entertainment Weekly's TV critic (and the best reason to read the mag), is now - yup - a blogger. Hallelujah!

John Chaney fucked up, big time. It's sad, because this one decision by Chaney will definitely tarnish his coaching legacy.

In other college hoops news, did you realize that we're a mere 16 days away from Selection Sunday? Keep an eye on the bubble teams. And whatcha think - can Illinois head into the Dance 33-0?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Speed round:

About damned time. They only, like, practically created the concept of Crossroads. [Second item down, and you're damned right I'll watch.] [Actually, it's about time for the first item, too, of which you may recall I'm a big fan.]

My pal Gaz and I have challenged each other to see who sees the most films in a theatre in 2005. The rules: they have to be films we've not seen before, and they can't be revivals. You can track our progress here. And while you're at it, check out the ol' Gazzer's website; he's remodeled, and it looks loverly.

Odd choices regarding who'll induct who at next month's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies. What does Springsteen have to do with U2? And nothing against Neil Young, but couldn't they have found, oh I don't know, a woman to induct the Pretenders? Someone like Shirley Manson, perhaps?

Full review coming, but suffice it for now to say that the much-hyped LCD Soundsystem elpee is well worth your hard-earned dough.

Yeah, I'm excited about tonight's Project Runway finalé. Kara Saun looks like the winner, but I wouldn't count Jay out. I'll be honest, though: I really just want to hear the two of them rip Wendy to shreds.

And it's finally stopped raining.

Subjects for further review: "Ice of Boston" by The Dismemberment Plan

The singer tries to pass it off, but there's a very certain poignancy, beauty and sadness to this tale of an all-too-solo New Year's Eve. Fortunately, the twin-guitar attack of the song's chorus backs it up firmly. But for all of its pouring-champagne-on-my-naked-body and commentaries-on-Gladys-Knight-and-the-Pips-lyrics, this is still a sad song, one that gets me right here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"Another Night." "Runaway." "Come and Get Your Love."
Ladies and gentlemen, don't call it a comeback: it's Real McCoy, blogger. Boo-ya!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

There are few things better than cruising along the freeway at 85mph while playing Rush so loud your ears will inevitably ring after you turn off the stereo with the windows down even though it's only 60 degrees (at 7:30am, no less) so that your arms have goosebumps on them, to remind you that you're blissfully, marvelously, tremendously alive.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

DeBarge weren't always perfection by any means, but when they nailed it - and I'm talking about their ballads here - to paraphrase Stacy Lattisaw, they fucking nailed it to the wall. Their 20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection best-of brings together 6 slow(er) songs and 5 uptempo, labeled 'Smooth' and 'Groove' respectively, to cement their legacy, and does a better job than you might expect.

First and foremost: the four brothers and one sister named DeBarge were not like the Jacksons nor the Jets in that they were writing and producing their material from day one. The four selections not written by at least one DeBarge sibling are all from 1985 and '86 - the lesser part of their short time as a group - and are largely negligible. [And of those four, three are on the "groove" side, which is essentially throwaway.] The strength of El(dra), Randy, Mark, Bobby and Bunny was always their balladry, and that's what shines here.

Based on its use as a sample, you may be (without realizing it) most familiar with 1985's "Stay With Me," produced by El and written by Mark; its main piano riff was used as the backbone of both The Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance (Remix)" and Ashanti's "Foolish." If that's the only way you've known the song, however, you've been missing out on a sweetly-sung, gorgeous piece of balladry. "Won't you come stay with me, because I love you so?" El asks, and, well, why wouldn't you? Come-ons don't come much prettier.

Their streak of huge (R&B) hits started back in '82 with "I Like It," which justifiably topped the Black Singles chart for 5 weeks. A slow'n'easy pledge of devotion (well, near-devotion at least - you can tell he's been hooked) spotlighting El's fierce falsetto and some classic keyb underpinning, "I Like It" features another element key to DeBarge love: a surprisingly hard-poppin' bassline. Seriously, this bassline could stand up to any Gap Band record from the same era, and what's so great about it is that it catches you off-guard; ballads aren't supposed to have basslines like that.

In much the same way that even an early-'80s devotee of R&B might not anticipate hearing a piano intro like that featured on "Love Me In A Special Way," which comes off very gospel in its construction (thanks to songwriter/producer Eldra). This classic's also got a harmonica guest spot from (who else?) Stevie Wonder, and strings arranged by Claire Fischer, who did the same on many of Prince's records. El's voice here is clear as a bell's peals cutting through the morning air, and the arrangement's kept nicely clean, the better to hear the lyrics of l-o-v-e. The song is the quasi-title track from 1984's In A Special Way (an album given an astounding A+ review by Robert Christgau, one of the chief pieces of rockcrit that made me wanna do what I do), the album which also gave the world "Time Will Reveal."

Besides sporting another one of those shocking-in-its-day basslines, "Time Will Reveal" also has a melody sturdy as California redwood, so fine that Teddy Riley remade the song with BLACKstreet on 1996's Finally as the retooled "The Lord Will Reveal." [Thanks to Riley's acumen as a producer and arranger, the song lost none of its beauty in the transition.] This is yet another DeBarge smash which highlights El's heartbreakingly lovely falsetto, as well. Tellingly, no uptempo tracks from this album appear on 20th Century Masters; I'd tell you that it's simply because that was never the DeBarge strength.

One such song from early in their career makes an appearance here, 1982's "Stop! Don't Tease Me," their first charted single (it scraped its way to #46 on the R&B chart). It's workmanlike and mediocre and best, frankly, and also shows why Eldra's brothers were backup singers (their contributions on the song's chorus - well, some things are better left unsaid, or in this case, unsung). It's not surprising that it took the song's follow-up, "I Like It," to truly launch DeBarge as an act worth paying attention to.

Also on the 'Groove' "side" (it's a CD, people) are the vile Diane Warren-penned, Richard Perry-produced "Rhythm of the Night" (sadly and unsurprisingly, their biggest crossover hit, which thanks to Perry sounds like a tepid Pointer Sisters single), the equally weak "Caribbean"-inspired/Warren-penned (and she certainly deserves all of the blame here) "The Heart Is Not So Smart," and the solo El smash "Who's Johnny" (also from a lame soundtrack, but better than you likely recall; further discussion here).

But there's another song found here which is a little surprising: 1985's we're-about-to-spin-El-off-as-a-solo-artist single "You Wear It Well," credited to "El DeBarge featuring DeBarge" (shades of "Wham! Featuring George Michael," anyone?). Lyrically, it's a total throwaway, not even a patch on Rod Stewart's '72 hit of the same name. And El unfortunately slips into a vaguely annoying "cutesy" kinda voice on the song's bridge. But something about the song's arrangement just crackles and pops with energy in spite of itself. [Interestingly, the song was cowritten by El and his future D'Angelo-in-training brother Chico.]

Of the songs I've not covered, "Who's Holding Donna Now?" is pretty in its bland way and entirely songwriter David Foster's fault, and "All This Love" you should most certainly know already. [It's in the canon, it's so classic.] Hopefully, one of these days, Universal will get around to remastering 'In A Special Way' at least, if not 'All This Love' as well. Until that happens, this comp will get you by and may open your eyes. Because the blinding brilliance of their great ballads more than compensates for the mediocrity-at-best of the rest, DeBarge's 20th Century Masters gets an A.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2004 Grammys.

801pm: Every time I think I can't possibly hate Black Eyed Peas more than I do, I'm proven wrong.

804pm: Every time I think I can't possibly love Gwen Stefani and Eve more than I do, I'm proven wrong. "Rich Girl" is an utterly perfect mutant-pop song.

806pm: The bf: "How far is heaven? Far enough away that God doesn't have to listen to this crap." We are aligned in our loathing of Los Lonely Boys, who, frankly, aren't lonely enough.

811pm: Do we need Franz Ferdinand more now, or could we have used 'em more back in '81?

812pm: Notice that Gwen and Eve had the good sense to keep themselves out of the horrid opening-closing medley.

815pm: Memo to Queen Latifah: that red dress makes you look like Star Jones. Lord, her opening is awful. Does she really think she's channelling Henny Youngman? And since you already lost your Grammy, do we have to hear you perform?

818pm: Hearing Pinetop Perkins' name not even 20 minutes into the show makes me very happy. And how damned cool is the combo of Travolta and Steven Tyler?

821pm: Me: "Loretta Lynn is sitting next to Jack White."
The bf: "Yeah, they've got 'a pitcher to go' under the seat."

831pm: Oh, fuck. I mean, oh, fuck. As if Alicia Keys' pull-out-the-stops (yet subtly!) perf of "If I Ain't Got You" wasn't enough, she brings out Quincy Jones to conduct and Jamie Foxx to duet on voice and piano to do fucking "Georgia On My Mind." Foxx really is pretty amazingly talented. And Q is still one bad motherfucker.

834pm: Why is Adam Sandler wearing a polar fleece? Is it cold at the Staples Center? And - what?! Prince beat out Usher for R&B Male? And didn't show up?!

841pm: Uh oh, Bono's speechifying in the intro to "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." The song is a bit limp, methinks, apart from its chorus, but I do love how Edge's guitar still chimes so gorgeously. "Sometimes," by the way, became U2's second consecutive #1 in the UK today, the first time they've ever pulled off back-to-back charttoppers. They're lucky that the Elvis single they had to beat was the totally limp "Wooden Heart." And Bono, would you lose the fucking cowboy hat?

850pm: Billie Joe Armstrong: "Rock'n'roll can be dangerous and fun at the same time."
Shame you're neither, Green Day.
The bf, again, gets the last word: "They've become so fucking respectable," he says disgustedly.

856pm: Can we have Ellen back as a host, if we promise to be good? Please?

858pm: Me: "Is this [Marc Anthony and J.Lo's duet] a Univision telenovela?"
The bf: "I think it's a new season of 'Newlyweds.'"
Ms. Lopez's gown is one of the ugliest dresses I've ever seen, and Mr. Lopez has got way too much greasy kid stuff in his hair.
The bf: "No, his hair has to be as shiny as her gown ... I'm just a little worried that I might be watching a commercial for Levitz furniture."

904pm: Gretchen Wilson sounds almost stilted singing "Free Bird." On the contrary, Keith Urban singing "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" sounds fine and makes perfect sense. Even money on Urban becoming the new Garth, in that he can do arena rock, '70s schmaltz, and hard country in virtually the same breath. But since when is "Fooled Around" considered southern rock? And oh dear Lord, "Ramblin' Man" couldn't be more out of Tim McGraw's key if it was written that way. This performance is just as messy as last year's "salute to funk," but that one at least had OutKast and George Clinton. The finalé of "Sweet Home Alabama" works a charm, though - I mean, who can't sing that?

917pm: Ellen was funnier in less than 60 seconds than Latifah's been all show - but, unfortunately, she wasted it on introducing, yep, Latifah.

921pm: I am appalled that the goddess Tyra Banks has to appear on stage with the vile Hoobastank. If you haven't heard, America's Next Top Model 4 premieres the first week of March! Woo hoo! Best New Artist is, no surprise, Maroon5. Why am I not surprised that they beat out the likes of Kanye and Gretchen? Four words: Hootie and the Blowfish. Blandness wins this award, especially where men are involved. The good news is that in 5 years, we'll only remember Maroon5 the way in which we remember Darius Rucker's band of merry men today.

927pm: Mario Batali's engaging in some naughty reparteé with Alton Brown during Battle Chocolate! Oh, sorry, we flipped to Iron Chef America during the commercial.

930pm: Do you realize that Quentin Tarantino brought The RZA as his "date"?
I hate to say it, but God bless Green Day for actually repping rock'n'roll at the Grammys. I want, badly, to hate "American Idiot," but honestly, it's a pretty great pop-punk nugget.

943pm: No, it wasn't Latifah's dress that made her look like Star Jones, it's her hair. The headband is not working.
Why is it, the bf opined, that every time there's a "salute to gospel," "I'll Take You There" is hauled out like a hoary old warhorse? Because it's the only gospel song most white people know, I replied. The fact that Kanye's rapping to his record - no big live choir, no live band - is a colossal disappointment. And could someone please take the cat out of Mavis Staples's throat? Now that The Blind Boys of Alabama are singing "I'll Fly Away" with John Legend in front of a coffin on a church set, it really feels like one big minstrel show. Kanye, has anyone ever acquainted you with the concept of hubris? And the angel wings are really, truly embarassing.

951pm: Presenter Ludacris: Grammy winner! If Rap Album goes to the Beasties, I'll be livid. No, it's Kanye, of course. The bf: "At least he took the wings off." With each passing day, I like Kanye a little bit less. I just wish he'd keep making good records and shut the fuck up.

955pm: How many performances can be called "once in a lifetime"?

959pm: I can't wait to hear what they have to say about the Grammys on Best Week Ever.

1004pm: Melissa Etheridge fucking rocks, and is so perfect to be up there singing "Piece Of My Heart." And how do you love the balls of her, rocking with no hair due to her recent chemo for breast cancer. Sometimes, lesbians do get it right. [Doesn't hurt that she's clearly having the time of her life.]

1013pm: You have no idea how close "Live Like You Were Dying" came to making my P&J ballot. [It finished #16 on my year-end list, but today probably would be about #12.] Tim just gets richer and richer as an artist as he ages and grows.

1022pm: I loved Here For the party more, but I'm nonetheless happier that Van Lear Rose won Country Album. Not to mention that Loretta and Jack need to take their comedy act on the road.

1028pm: There's something about the spareness, the almost jazziness of John Mayer's "Daughters" that I love without reason. And those lips of his need my cock between them.

1031pm: I think we're legally required to give U2 a Grammy on the broadcast every year or they'll stop hanging out with U.S. Senators, or something. Larry Mullen, Jr. has finally crossed the line from looking eternally young & cute to looking like a gas station attendant. Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten that many, many of us don't care about the whole U2 concert ticket imbroglio.

1040pm: It's telethon time, time to take it until it hurts! Bono, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, how-medicated-is-he? Brian Wilson, Alicia (standing in front of Duff McKagan!), Scott Weiland (sounding oddly operatic), Billie Joe, Tim (performing on stage for the third fucking time tonight), and Steven Tyler (equipped with maracas) are collectively making my ears bleed. Alison Krauss gamely plays fiddle, while everyone's backed by Velvet Revolver. Plus, "Across the Universe" isn't a particularly good song to begin with. Why the fuck would anyone want to pay to download this nightmare?

1045pm: I'm tired of being emotionally jerked around by Stevie Wonder, of feeling like I should applaud any time he breaks into spontaneous song on stage at an awards show. How about you make a good album one of these days, Stevland? Wait, John Mayer wins Song of the Year?! The bf: "Stevie read [the braille] wrong, didn't he?" Some people might look back at 2004 at think of "If I Ain't Got You" or "Live Like You Were Dying" as the best song of the year, but "Daughters"? No friggin' way.

1055pm: Usher's "Caught Up" sounds thin and uninspired as a single - but live, fleshed out with a full band (horn section! four-count-'em backup singers!), it's like almost anything he touches, golden. To hear James Brown call Usher "the new Godfather," well, what can you say to that? Their pairing on "Sex Machine" is utterly magical, and makes perfect sense.

1101pm: Just like with Song, "Here We Go Again" is basically no one's Record of the Year. No one's going to remember it years from now, especially as a single. I hate to sound so cold hearted, but this won a Grammy - this Grammy - because Ray Charles is dead. [Norah Jones's prescence doesn't hurt, but is largely irrelevant.] Oh, and you can damned near bank on Genius Loves Company taking Album of the Year. He's dead, remember?

1113pm: It's not a good sign when you're just getting to the annual death roll after the show's already supposed to be over.

1116pm: Let me make something clear: Ray Charles was fucking amazing, an artist like none other - and I know that's cliché, but he busted every cliché you could lay in his path. Having Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston tribute him is perfect, simple and beautiful. [Memo to Bonnie: another album anytime soon?] I'll just be glad once the Oscars are done (i.e. Jamie Foxx wins Best Oscar), and we can end RayFest '04-'05. [And to make something else clear, I do think Foxx deserves that Oscar that's likely already got his name stamped on it.]

1126pm: What'd I tell you?

Yes, I know, it's been a week again since I posted. Are most regular bloggers single, with simpler lives than I've got? Having a partner, having a nearly 2-hour commute (that's both ways combined), plus any kind of social life - and not being to post at work - make for a thinner blog.

Of course, the big rockcrit/geek news of the past week is Pazz & Jop '04. To my shock and awe, one of my comments was published this year, yay! Three of the albums on my ballot placed in the top 40 (Loretta Lynn at #3, M.I.A./Diplo at a surprising #23, and Sonic Youth, sneaking in at #37 with the lowest points-per-voter average in the top 40); my lowest was #306 Dykehouse. I have lots of various thoughts about the results, and things I didn't say; maybe I'll get 'em said at some point while they're still relevant.

Picked up a pair of albums this week, and they're both superb. Lee Ann Womack's There's More Where That Came From is a stunner, a classic country record largely circa 1970 with great songs, great production, and above all, sterling singing from Ms. Womack. This is the album we've been waiting a decade for her to deliver. I also nabbed the 20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection best-of by DeBarge, a short (11-track) collection hitting all of the important, high notes of their all-too-short career. Their uptempo singles were so-so, but their ballads - oh, their ballads (see "Stay With Me," "I Like It,"

Of course, tonight's Grammy night. I've not yet decided if I'll blog the proceedings (which, of course, we on the west coast get on tape-delay). I know I'm watching for some of the performances (Usher and James Brown, hello!) more than for the awards, which will likely be a mishmash of artistic and commercial concerns. And a bunch of "we're sorry you died" awards for the late, great Ray Charles.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Subjects for further review: "You Are My High" by Demon Vs. Heartbreaker

Those damned Frenchies just fuck house music all night long, don't they? Thank God someone still does.

Subjects for further review:
"Raise Up" by Petey Pablo
"Freek-A-Leek" by Petey Pablo
"Goodies" by Ciara featuring Petey Pablo

"Raise Up" is a great single because PP sounds hungry, and because Timbaland crafted him a classic track underpinned by a drunken-sounding string loop. "Freek-A-Leek" isn't great - or, in fact, any good - because PP sounds like he thinks the world owes him, now, and because Lil Jon could've made that track in his sleep. On "Goodies," meanwhile, PP appears to have no role other than to provide the obligatory rap break in an R&B club record. He's utterly replaceable and irrelevant here - which, sadly, seems to be his status in the rap world these days, after starting out with such a promising single only four years ago.

The judge noted that one plaintiff in the case, Curtis Woolbright, is the son of an interracial couple who moved to California in 1966 to marry. She said California then was the only state whose courts had ruled that interracial marriage prohibitions were unconstitutional. But meanwhile, monsters like this couple can marry in any damned state they please.

Irony, please come to the white courtesy phone. Human rights, there is also a call for you in the lobby.

Change takes time, but it happens.

Michael Thomas Ford's second novel, Looking For It, is at the least on par with his first (2003's Last Summer), and is at times better. This tale of a group of gay men lookin' for love in you-finish-the-lyric in a small upstate New York town isn't Proust by any means. This is commercial gay fiction - but it's quality commercial gay fiction, fairly breezy, and perfect for airplane (or beach) reading (hey, I live in southern California, cut me a break). B+

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