News and Notes
Bubble & Scrape
Sebadoh is generally synonymous with Lou Barlow's beautifully wrought anthems of love and longing, yet it's the juxtaposition of those mostly mid-tempo songs with Eric Gaffney's breakneck blasts of chaos that makes Bubble & Scrape so special. Jason Loewenstein completes the equation, stepping up and delivering songs that somehow complement both his bandmates. Unfortunately, Gaffney left the band after Scrape and Barlow and Loewenstein gradually merged their songwriting styles into a more cohesive, but less interesting sound.
Out of Sight
Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel is clever, sexy, and truly shines when it asks its superbeautiful actors (George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez) to play awkward. Clooney's a prison escapee who should be doing just about anything to avoid Lopez, a federal marshal. Yet, in perhaps the movie's most touching shot, spotting her from inside a departing motel elevator, Clooney inexplicably raises his hand and waves. Of course, Soderbergh's talent has always been bringing odd characters to life -- the kind more likely to sit beside you in a movie theater than flicker up on the screen.
Tell Me About It
Standing out against the ever-growing crowd of advice columnists, Carolyn Hax dispenses wisdom for the under-30 crowd in The Washington Post's "Style" section every Friday and Sunday. In both her newspaper columns and her online chats, she delivers no-nonsense advice with a dollop of humor, often adopting the voice of the advice seeker. Yet, perhaps most impressive of all, Hax's ruthless pragmatism allows her to deftly avoid any hint of moralizing -- an approach that readers on both sides of 30 are likely to appreciate.
Michael Lewis, author of last year's The New New Thing, offers a sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking tell-all about the "Big Swinging Dicks" at Salomon Brothers during the torrid 1980s bond market. The madness of Wall Street is clearly on display here and, like a car wreck, it's both frightening and fascinating at the same time.
Producer extraordinaire, Owen Bradley originally created the Nashville sound by supplementing traditional strings of steel with the catgut of violins, and ivory of the piano. He came out of retirement to revisit some of the high points of country music on Shadowland. The velveteen vocal cords of k.d. lang, the self-professed reincarnation of Patsy Cline, truly do them justice, evoking memories of AM country radio and the jukebox at the all-nite diner.
In 1964 Michael Apted made a television documentary called Seven Up -- a conversation with a group of 7-year-old schoolchildren from all strata of British society: rural and urban, black and white, East London orphans and public school swells. Checking back every seven years, the filmmaker created Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, and 35 Up. The latest installment finds the group smaller in numbers and greater in years. They deal with their own children growing up, parents dying, goals met or dreams recalibrated, all with vitality still intact. It's a powerful testimonial to the transforming power of friendship and, ultimately, to the value of the examined life.
The Complete Plays
As seen in the film Prick Up Your Ears, the short life and violent death of Joe Orton makes a fascinating story in itself. But his true legacy is this collection of seven plays. From the early radio script The Ruffian on the Stair to the masterful farces Loot and What the Butler Saw, Orton displayed a rude wit and keen ear for dialogue that prompted one London newspaper to dub him "the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility."
There's nothing better than a perfect pop song, especially when it comes along at the perfect moment -- like a miserable January morning in Detroit when you're crawling through rush-hour traffic and a gem like "Girlfriend" crackles over your cheap car radio. The air seems warmer, the traffic looks lighter, and the day feels like it could turn out to be a victory.
Like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Pee-wee's Playhouse was an award-winning children's show. But this short-lived series was so inventive and unusual that it captured the hearts of kids and adults alike. With a bag of tricks that included puppets, cartoons, and giant underpants, Pee-wee managed to strike a balance between wide-eyed innocence and winking innuendo. The show was abruptly cancelled in 1991 after Herman (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida movie theater.
Japan at War
America's conflict with Japan in World War II is often distilled into two events: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. This remarkable oral history gives us a detailed picture of a society that experienced the war in all its enormity. The stories include those of children who built bombs without knowing it, starving mothers who sent rice to their sons on the front, journalists imprisoned for reporting the war truthfully. Together, they form an incredible account of a nation's people torn asunder by a war of their own making, told in their own words.
Something to Write Home About
Great melodic punk is getting hard to find these days. Thankfully, Kansas City's Get Up Kids haven't let the post-Green-Day glut of sound-alike SoCal pop-punk deter them. Generally lumped into the Emo category, the Kids produce a glorious mix of crunchy power chords, melodic bass lines, and drums pounded as only a hormone-laden post-adolescent can. The lyrics are charmingly self-obsessive, but let's just chalk that up to too much testosterone. Be sure to catch them before they grow out of it.
The callow son of a legendary politician is lured into running for the U.S. Senate. He soon realizes that he is in over his head and sinking deeper at every stop on the campaign trail. Director Ritchie uses biting humor and an incredible eye for detail to paint a decidedly unromantic and all-too-accurate picture of politics in the TV Age. Robert Redford is excellent as the candidate who wants your vote, but can't really tell you why he should have it.
Here's the story of an adventurous young frog who whips up a mysterious and potent concoction that sends him floating high among the clouds. Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Steig is ever the mischief maker, stirring up a tale that will launch even the most stoic reader into side-splitting convulsions, and lift the most jaded into a shimmering and starlit sky of wonder.
From day one, Terry Gilliam's darkly funny bureaucratic nightmare inspired praise, sparked controversy, and caused a fair amount of confusion. Happily, The Criterion Collection's DVD version of Brazil offers to clear the air. The three-disc set contains the definitive director's cut, Universal's infamous "Love Conquers All" edit, audio commentaries, interviews, and an hour-long documentary recounting the bitter struggle over the film's American release. It's an exhaustive look at a fascinating chapter in movie history and, ultimately, a powerful example of the real-life struggle between institutional thinking and human imagination.
Once the furor over the Sex Pistols died down, someone had to come in and take punk rock to the next level. No group stepped up with more raw energy than the Buzzcocks. Their searing guitars, sneering vocals, and razor sharp melodies led to a string of memorable hits. Collecting 25 songs, Operators Manual provides a complete summary for fans and an excellent primer for any band interested in doing the punk-pop thing just right.
A Short History of Byzantium
While most of us know of the Romans and Greeks, this richly detailed volume illuminates a history that is not part of our culture's general consciousness. Founded by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, Byzantium lay at the crossroads of the Christian and Islamic worlds. From strange religious movements and political machinations to sophisticated art and science, Byzantium was a complex cosmopolitan society. By the time you get to the last chapter and the sacking of Constantinople by the Ottomans, you'll shed a tear for an empire that spanned a millennium.
John Prine Live
John Prine only knows three chords, but he can write songs that make you wonder why anyone needed any more than that. From the first lines of "Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard," through the audience singalong of "Illegal Smile," to the story behind "Sam Stone," you'll age a lifetime in these songs. And if all you need is a celebrity endorsement, join Bonnie Raitt as she sings along with Prine on "Angel From Montgomery," yet another classic that you didn't know he wrote.
While the Media Nugget isn't exactly a clarion call to BUY MORE STUFF, every once in a while we lament the commerce-fueled environment in which we (and our featured artists) are forced to operate. Of course, when our regrets begin to flare up, nothing makes us feel better than a hot cup of tea and a copy of Adbusters, the "Journal of the Mental Environment." Written by a savvy cadre of self-appointed "culture jammers," the magazine and its companion website are a much-needed shelter from the corporate carpet-bombing to which we all seem completely inured. Do not miss their gallery of spoof ads.
Live at the It Club - Complete
This double-disc set features Monk's jagged playing in a quartet setting, showcasing the distinct blend of melody and dissonance in his compositions. Legend has it, when the mood struck him, Monk would rise from the piano and do a little dance. At several points during this set, the piano drops out while bassist Larry Gales, drummer Ben Riley, and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse lay down such a powerful groove, you can almost see Monk rocking merrily around the It Club.
Blade of the Immortal
In 1998, artist Hiroaki Samura won Japan's prestigious Media Arts Award for this ambitious manga. The series blends sophisticated illustration and paneling to tell the tale of a young swordswoman, devoted to avenging her parents' death, and a sly, unsentimental warrior, cursed with immortality. Intelligent and cinematic, Blade of the Immortal takes the classic samurai story and turns it on its ear.
In this strange, hypnotic tale, a hitman and a mute are both isolated from the world, and yet both find themselves falling in love. Some parts of the film are quite funny, while others are gut-wrenching; all are captured with bold and intriguing camera work. If your mind is open to something different, Fallen Angels will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
The Trinity Session
Here's a band that loves the Velvet Underground and Hank Williams, Sr.; that can turn a Bruce Springsteen cover into a trip through the darkest reaches of Robert Johnson's hell; that can make Quaaludes seem like a pick-me-up; and that seems like it's made up of pretty nice folks. Start with this album, then get Whites Off Earth Now, then spring for the live album, and then, well, don't stop.
The Little Prince
Written and illustrated by the heroic French aviator, this tender fable speaks as sweetly and deeply as it did when I first read it as a child. Reading it aloud this time, to another child, both the little prince and the narrator send shivers of love and wonder up my spine. The pictures thrill me. A window opens into the essential mind of a child -- delicate and true as a rose, wise and wild as a fox seeking a friend.