Saturday, August 7, 2010

Going the Distance: Charnett Moffett's Treasure

The electric bass has always had a peculiar place in the history of jazz. To the purists, it’s sacrilegious to consider anything “non-acoustic” as having a place on the bandstand. Miles Davis changed all that in the late '60s after seeing Sly & the Family Stone play their heavy funk/rock mix in performance. Davis was the first musician, in fact, to welcome the electric bass into the jazz world to spite the critics and his fellow players. In doing so, he opened the door to the new sounds of “fusion”: incorporating rock, funk and jazz into the idiom. For young electric bass players who were attracted to the new sound, a whole world of opportunity was laid out. Consequently they had legitimate reasons to play with the best jazz artists willing to include them in the rhythm section. Stanley Clarke, Dave Holland, John Lee and the one and only Jaco Pastorius inspired a whole generation.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bummers in the Summer: Salt & Inception

Since I’m no longer reviewing movies regularly, it’s taking more time for me to catch up with new releases. In the past, I used to see things at pre-release press screenings before all the marketing hype (and their corollary reviews) kicked in. So before going to see Phillip Noyce’s hit espionage thriller Salt, I was already inundated with laudatory comments claiming Angelina Jolie as the top female action star in Hollywood history. Judging from the picture’s huge financial success at the box office, you can’t argue with the figures. But the questions left unasked are: Is anyone truly buying her performance, or even this movie?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pernicious Pacifism: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke and Julian Assange's WikiLeaks

While doing research into World War II for a writing project, I came across Nicholson Baker's non-fiction book, Human Smoke (2008 – Simon & Schuster), on the bargain tables at my local Chapters bookstore (it was a second-printing hardcover). Looking for a stand-alone source of quotes and thinking on the war while it was happening, Baker's work looked promising. The book consists of hundreds of short vignettes (the shortest 20-30 words; the longest 1 page) taken from letters, diaries, speeches, books, magazine and newspaper articles published from between August 1892 and December 31, 1941 (the first vignette is a quote from Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, and the last is by Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian-Jewish writer and diarist). The majority of the book covers the years between 1933 and 1941. Baker's thesis? If the Allies had not been so complicit, so blood-thirsty in their actions, and only listened to the pacifists, a peace treaty could have been established between them and the Axis powers. Because Baker is a pacifist, the book not only repeatedly argues that a peace treaty of some sort could have been established with the Axis powers (thus preventing the war), he also blames the Allies for much of what happened to cause the war to break out in the first place. Although, to be fair, Human Smoke doesn't let the Nazis off the hook, Baker's book does suggest that Roosevelt and Churchill were little different than Hitler.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Matrimonial Muddle: The Kids Are All Right

Perhaps I’m being politically incorrect, but The Kids Are All Right is not so all right with me when it comes to selecting an enemy. The otherwise lovely new Lisa Cholodenko feature, beloved by forward-thinking audiences across America, zeros in on a suburban Los Angeles married couple with two children. The partners happen to be middle-aged lesbians, each of whom gave birth to a baby conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor. The youngsters are now teens who decide to find their biological father. His sudden presence in their lives leads to a crisis.

Great premise. Terrific actors: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the moms, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the offspring, Mark Ruffalo as the unsuspecting third parent. Disappointing resolution.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Good Wife and United States of Tara: One Circle Opens Wide, The Other One Closes

Julianne Margulies in The Good Wife

Note: the following post contains spoilers for the recent seasons of The Good Wife and United States of Tara.

I was glad to see CBS’s very fine drama The Good Wife do so well in the recent Emmy Award nominations. It was a fitting recognition of last year’s best new network TV series and also a reminder that when they want to, the free channels can also match the quality of cable series and in the comparative case of United States of Tara, which imploded in its second year, surpass them, too.

(I was also pleased to note that ABC’s clever sitcom Modern Family dominated the recent nominations, as well, from among the new network shows that premiered last season, though I am baffled by FOX’s Glee, which had the most nods among the neophyte TV series. Well mounted as Glee is, it strikes me that this musical drama about a group of outcast teens who begin to discover themselves when they join their school’s fledgling glee club, isn’t doing anything that Fame, the movie and TV series, didn’t already do back in the early eighties.)

While Modern Family is the latest smart comedy to hit the airwaves (post-Frasier, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory), The Good Wife is the show that really reworks a tried – and tired – formula. (Modern Family, for all its many virtues, is following in the footsteps of several previous comedy series, such as The Office, both versions, and the short lived 1980 Helen Shaver/Beau Bridges series United States, by eschewing a laugh track and playing out as a mockumentary.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

You Can't Go Home Anymore: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Before the music press hype-machine begins to wind up, I had the chance to listen to the new Arcade Fire record slated for release on August 3, 2010. Usually anything that receives too much hype, particularly in the arts, annoys me to no end. But The Suburbs turns out to be a compelling concept album by Arcade Fire and it’s the band’s most personal statement yet about the aging process and personal loss. The band had already expressed some of the same themes on Funeral, their 2004 debut, namely the loss of ancestry and identity. On their follow-up, Neon Bible (2007), the group sang about the loss of spiritual idealism to the televangelists and bible thumpers of America. But this new album is about the loss of the neighbourhoods of their youth and the unfulfilled promises of the new century. For Win Butler, that loss includes long drives on the streets in the summer, putting a band together to cut a record in the basement (or garage), and it’s about the anxiety of high school and what to do when one is "bored."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama's Subway Dream: Randy Newman's "Sail Away"

Back on June 2nd, Paul McCartney performed at the White House for President Obama, the First Lady, Michelle and their two kids. The occasion was McCartney receiving the third Gershwin Prize For Popular Song from the President. As well as accepting the award, McCartney played a whole selection of songs. With Stevie Wonder, he reprised "Ebony and Ivory." He serenaded the First Lady with the obvious choice of "Michelle," plus had other invited guests cover his material. In top form, Jack White turned "Mother Nature's Son" (morphing it with "That Would Be Something") into something strange out of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Dave Grohl amped up "Band on the Run," Emmylou Harris brought a plaintive mournfulness to "For No One," and Elvis Costello revisited the shimmering "Penny Lane." The Jonas Brothers (no doubt brought in for the kids) surprised all with their dynamic rendition of "Drive My Car." Later, President Obama praised McCartney saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

Randy Newman.
But what if, with the success of that evening still ringing in his ears, Obama decided to celebrate an American performer who was equally worthy of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - say, Randy Newman. The evening might go like this: Newman turns up looking rather surprised to have been asked to perform (for the first time) in the White House. President Obama assures Newman that his kids loved his songs in Toy Story while Newman quietly suggests another more appropriate song. The President graciously tells Randy that it's his concert and in the new democratic spirit of the land he should play what he wants. Newman then takes his place at the piano which is situated under the photos of George Washington and his wife Martha. He begins nervously by introducing the number. "Years ago, I wrote this sea shanty for a short film that was ultimately never made," he began. "It was in the Nixon years so there wasn't very much money for this kind of thing." The audience laughs quietly in recognition of a time that had long passed. "But it's an Irish kind of tune, you know, like 'The Ballad of Pat O'Reilly.'" Everyone looks a little puzzled - especially the kids - since nobody knows the song. "Anyway, it's about a sea voyage that begins in Africa and it kind of goes like this."