Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Rough Guide to New TV: Fall 2010 Edition

I have always welcomed the beginning of September with a real tinge of excitement. As a kid, I learned quickly that September didn’t just mean going back to school: it also promised the new fall television season. At the centre of this excitement would be TV Guide’s special Fall Preview edition, its digest-sized volume extra-thick with glossy photos and enthusiastic descriptions of every new upcoming network program of the year. The photos that accompanied the shows followed a strict pattern: sitcoms all smiles or fists raised in faux conflict, cop dramas all scowls and intensity, prime-time soaps smouldering sideways glances. And I loved it all—eagerly turning back the corners of the pages of shows I would plan to watch. On those pages, all shows were equal—all promise and hope, for that spare moment, before the first episode aired.

Perhaps that palpable aura of possibility is why (no doubt to my mother’s dismay) I would dutifully collect the Fall Previews, year after year—taking care to keep them from the trash bin as the week came to an end. By the time I left for university, I probably had a dozen years’ worth tucked away on the top shelf of my closet. I have no idea where my small collection ultimately ended up, but I wish that I could flip through some of those pages now—and take another glimpse into a world where, for a brief instant, The Charmings and Manimal stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cheers and Hill Street Blues.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Capturing a Spirit: John Mellencamp's No Better Than This

When I first read about John Mellencamp's No Better Than This last fall in Billboard Magazine, I was pleased to learn two things: First, that Mellencamp was recording a new album with producer T-Bone Burnett; and second, that it was going to be produced in mono.
Burnett has a knack for presenting older, familiar voices in a new way. As Robert Plant said about his Raising Sand recording with Alison Krauss, it's akin to having the Mississippi swamp mixed with the English countryside. Clearly, he was on to something. This time, Burnett lets the studio do the work for him by putting John Mellencamp in the same room with the band using one microphone and a mono tape deck (a quarter-inch Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape machine in fact). The result is as sublime as anything Burnett has produced and Mellencamp has written. The songs ring out of the misty swamp like candles in a dark room.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Raising Caine: Michael Caine in Harry Brown

The late film critic Pauline Kael once said that Michael Caine, in acting terms, is what Jean Renoir was in directing terms. What she meant, of course, is that their technique is invisible. "The goal of Caine's technique seems to dissolve all vestiges of  'technique,'" she wrote of his role as the aging English professor in Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983). "He lets nothing get between you and the character he plays." That's been true in many roles over a very long career.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Life's Roads: Luke Doucet and the White Falcon's Steel City Trawler

Luke Doucet is a musical memoirst who tells stories of his life and where he's at in it through his songs. But he also tells stories that are universal, stories that almost anybody can relate to (struggles, fears, successes, failures, ideas, lusts). He has the ability to adopt different genres (rock and roll, country or New Wave) depending on what story he is telling. This has resulted in many compelling musical journeys.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mixed Blessings: Stratford Festival's Kiss Me, Kate & The Tempest

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s current productions of Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate and William Shakespeare’s drama The Tempest highlight the limitations of what can be done with sub-standard material. While the two plays are impeccably, even superbly, directed and acted, they’re still not representative of their creators’ best work.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Intimate and Satisfying Deeds: Pegi Young's Foul Deeds

Pegi Young’s Foul Deeds is a very satisfying album. (Pegi Young's music career has traditionally been seen in the shadow of her famous husband Neil. Yet she has written her own songs and released a few albums featuring members of Neil's band.) But it’s sad to learn that Ben Keith, the long-time pedal steel guitarist who died July 26, 2010, has turned up on Foul Deeds as his last recorded statement. After a good career in Nashville as sideman and studio musician to such greats as Patsy Cline and Faron Young, Keith was hired to play on Harvest (1972), one of the most beloved albums in Neil Young's catalogue. Listening is the most important element to good musicians and Keith's ears were second to none. His work on Foul Deeds is exceptional in giving the record a sound and musical quality that's "in the pocket." Keith's style and tone supports the singer and the song while fueling the tempo. "Side of the Road," featuring Neil Young on harmonica, makes the case.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doing The Right Thing: New Orleans Five Years Later

Spike Lee evenhanded and upbeat? Yup. In If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise – a four-hour HBO documentary timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – the famously feisty filmmaker refuses to go all Kanye West on us. Maybe George Bush doesn’t care about black people, as the hip-hop artist suggested during a subsequent televised benefit concert, but that theory is not espoused in this cinematic work. Instead, the narrative traces every major issue – disparities in education, health care, housing and employment, as well as neglect, police brutality and, of course, racism – with equanimity and a satirical perspective.