Thursday, May 29, 2008

The enigma of Scott Walker

It's always nifty to 'discover' a new artist that you've heard whispers of but never experienced. Scott Walker is a name I've heard about here and there over the years but never really paid attention to, until I saw the enthralling documentary "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man" a couple months back. Now I'm a big fan.

PhotobucketScott Walker was one of the Walker Brothers, a crooning Brit pop kind of band back in 1960s with songs like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." He had a brilliantly resonant voice, full and lusty, although that early material was pretty much your standard "moon in June" love songs. But when Scott went solo, something happened to him. He developed an interest in classical music and particularly in the work of Jacques Brel, whose sleazy and decadent anthems foreshadowed the work of Lou Reed.

A string of almost flawless solo albums spun out – "Scott," "Scott 2," "Scott 3," and "Scott 4," featuring a mix of Brel covers and Walker's own esoteric work. There's nothing quite like this stuff – very much of its late '60s/early 70s time, it's densely orchestrated but has a haunted heart. It's kitschy upon first listen, but then something in it grabs you and won't let go. Walker's work clearly influenced David Bowie, Radiohead and many others. The most amazing instrument of all is that voice, resonant and sonorous. His readings of Jacques Brel tunes are astounding, over-the-top and catchy in a strange and seedy way. Hearing this smooth silky voice sing lines like "And if I joined the social whirl / Became procurer of young girls / Then I would have my own bordellos," it's like a man out of time. Walker was going in directions few popular crooners did in the late 1960s.

PhotobucketBut after that string of albums, he kind of faded away. A few less inspired works which didn't feature his own songwriting, a perfunctory Walker Brothers reunion, and only two or three albums in the last 30 years. But the sporadic albums that have come out have been increasingly strange stuff, as the reclusive Scott goes digging into the dusty corners of innovation. It's a remarkable transformation – imagine, say, Neil Diamond suddenly swerving into avant-garde classical music and Krautrock. Listen to 1995's "Tilt" and the 1970s "Scott" albums, and other than that remarkable voice, you'd never know it was the same artist.

By the time you get to 1995's "Tilt," it's like descending into someone's dark dream – like an opera performance with an industrial music backing, Walker's increasingly surreal vocals swirling in and out of cacophony. It's less tuneful and hummable than his earlier work, but it casts a kind of strange spell as mood music. It's as far from "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" as you can get.

I'd definitely recommend any of his "Scott" series for anyone interested in baroque and theatrical pop. As the work gets weirder and stranger it's more of a challenge, but the constant thing throughout is that amazing voice, the voice of an artist who's constantly reaching in new directions.

The "30 Century Man" documentary does an excellent job of following Scott's journey. Here's a trailer:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I was born in the wagon of a travellin' show

Don't want to do the tedious post about why I'm not posting, so here's some content! With Bonus Cher! Hurray!

• The great bathroom disaster of 2008 is oh-so slowly being fixed... We've filed an insurance claim on the damage to the house, so cross fingers we might get somewhere with that, and the plumbing damage is due to finally be fixed tomorrow. In the meantime, I've scaled back my "this is a global disaster" point of view and taken happy pills, remembered it's just an excuse to remodel the bathroom, no one died, and we're enduring plastic tarps in the shower and not noticing the bathtub is barely affixed to the floor!

Photobucket• Read the nifty Phil Spector biography, "Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise And Fall of Phil Spector," by Mick Brown, and came away with a new appreciation – and disgust – with the legendarily weird record producer. Years ago I had an affinity for the ultra-stuffed sweet sound of tunes like "Be My Baby," "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" or "Unchained Melody" (I was a teenager during the summer of "Ghost" after all). The best of Spector is like impossibly rich chocolate cake – so sweet and overpowering but still stings you where it counts. In some ways I wonder if the "Wall of Sound" was a one-trick pony, a kind of approach that never much worked past the '70s, although you see hints of the Spector touch in groups today like Arcade Fire. My personal favorite Spector work is his solo Beatles' production jobs on John Lennon's "Imagine" and "Plastic Ono Band" and especially his work on George Harrison's marvelous "All Things Must Pass." His touch could be cloying and too much Spector is like eating a dozen Pixie Sticks – how many soaring choirs and chiming guitars can we get in? – but Brown's book is fascinating as it shows how Spector developed that influential sound and the monomaniacal focus that it required. Clearly (as if his ongoing murder trial didn't show) Spector is a very sick, creepy man despite his talent – after 1968 or so, he was creatively pretty much washed up, past his peak and has spent the last 40 years trying to make a comeback, locked up in the prison of his own head. And wearing freaky wigs. Whatever you think of the man – and I have to admit I don't think a lot – there's an epic grandeur to some of those songs you can't ignore.

• Unabashedly stolen from Big Plastic Patrick: What was the #1 song the day you were born? Find out. Me? "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," by Cher. Which is where my blog headline today comes from. It is perhaps the finest moment of Cher's life. And I'm counting the Oscar there.

On the other hand, my son Peter will grow old knowing the #1 song on the day in 2004 he was born was... "Slow Jamz" by Twista featuring Kanye West & Jamie Foxx. And this is why everything new is awful.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why I feel like Tom Hanks in 'The Money Pit'

So we were feeling so very good about the house we bought six months ago. All the first-time homeowner jitters, but so far, it had been smooth sailing and everything's groovy. Until last weekend, when we discovered our entire bathroom floor is rotting out beneath us due to a very slow leak inside the wall behind the shower. This is what it looks like under the house:

PhotobucketArgh, argh I say. I won't get too much into it here, but basically, we had a home inspection done and this got missed, mostly due to our own stupidity. The leak is totally undetectable from inside the house and you have to crawl under the house for 30 feet or so to see the damage. Our inspector couldn't get under the crawlspace because of all the junk left there by previous owners and we waved it off. We made the fatal mistake: We assumed it was OK. Now, we get to renovate our entire bathroom!

We made a classic first home-buyer error, it seems. The leak has been going on for YEARS apparently unbeknownst to anyone as the rot is extensive, taking out much of the floor and joists underneath. I was actually stunned speechless when I discovered the damage.

Anyway, we're moving past the kicking ourselves in the head business and on to fixing it. After a plumber replaces the entire shower plumbing arrangement tomorrow, my father-in-law and I will pull up the tub and replace much of the floor, which will occupy much of my free time in the next week or two. I've been looking for an excuse to flex my non-existent handyman skills, anyway, so here we go. Without Granddad's very much appreciated help we would be far more up a creek than we are, as hopefully we can avoid using expensive contractors and the like to fix this mess. Either way, though, it's gonna take a bite. That's what you get for thinking you got a fine deal, I guess.

But ... it could've been worse:

Sunday, May 18, 2008

60 minutes with Junot Diaz

This week's event for the cool crowd is the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, the big NZ book festival which as well as local authors gets some pretty great overseas talent including Richard Ford, J.M. Coetzee, Amy Tan, and many more. I managed to make time to check out one of this year's speakers and a favorite writer, Junot Diaz, who spoke in an hour Q&A Friday night.

PhotobucketJunot Diaz's debut short story collection "Drown" came out in the mid-1990s and wowed the literary crowd. I remember reading it circa 1997 and being blown away. It was a fusion-charged, electric mix of tales of immigrants in New Jersey and their native Dominican Republic. It was a book that stuck in your head, but Diaz was silent long after the buzz passed. More than a decade later, Diaz followed it up with last year's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," a novel which combines the true tale of the Dominican dictator Trujillo with the tale of an outcast D&D playing, comics-reading ├╝ber-nerd and his strange destiny. It snapped up the National Book Critics Circles Award and the Pulitzer Prize -- so much for sophomore book slump. One critic called it "an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas."

In Auckland, Diaz seemed uncomfortable to be up on stage being questioned, but warmed up after a while into a pleasingly rambling, grumpy presence, who gave us lots to chew on on the nature of storytelling. He talked about the writer's life (and the sobering sales figures even a Pulitzer Prize winner deals with in the illiterate world today), and even, prompted by an audience question, went off on a tangent comparing Alan Moore's Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan to the effects of Caribbean dictatorship. When was the last time you heard a Pulitzer Prize winner pimping "Watchmen" to an audience? Very cool.

PhotobucketIf you haven't read any of Diaz's work, go give "Oscar Wao"' a read. Imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez run through a Quentin Tarantino filter, perhaps. His snappy Spanglish lingo and pop-culture dropping slang make it breezy, while the greater subtext about Dominican society and the nature of dictatorships gives it heft for re-reads. Like Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon, Diaz has the knack of channeling a diet of '70s pop culture ephrema and using it as a toolbox to craft compelling deep fiction – a generation that grew up on Jack Kirby as well as "real" books.

Oh, and his next book? It may take 10 years, but Diaz let slip that it might just be about... "Killer robots who happen to be Dominican." I am so there.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Miscellany: Will Elder, silly sequels and "Once"

Photobucket• Aw, nuts: The utterly mad cartoon genius Will Elder is no longer with us, dead at the age of 86. In the hundred years or so of the cartoon medium, I would have to peg Elder as the single funniest cartoonist we ever had – best known for his work in Mad, Little Annie Fanny and Goodman Beaver, some of the funniest comics the '50s and '60s ever saw. Together with partner Harvey Kurtzman, Elder would pack every single molecule of his art with way-out gags, going for sheer quantity over anything else – and his rubbery, detailed art was fantastic, wonderfully suited for his parodies of Superman, Archie, King Kong, et cetera. With Kurtzman, he basically created the spirit of Mad Magazine that still spins along today. More than 50 years later, his work still holds up as a pinnacle of the art form - even if you've never seen an episode of the old TV "Dragnet" you can still get a grin at his utterly insane riff on stiff Joe Friday's detective skills. Dang, dang funny stuff and pretty much every cartoonist who picked up a pen with the idea of being funny in the past 50 years owes something to him -- but very very few could do it with his skill. The great coffee-table art book "Will Elder, The Mad Playboy of Art" from a few years back is a fantastic tribute to his life and work. Rest easy, great jester. Photobucket
(*And go read my pal Will Pfeifer's own post on Elder for a far more eloquent memorial and some more excellent Elder art samples!)

• Unwanted movie sequel news #1 - Donnie Darko 2, aka S. Darko: Um, no, no, no. We don't need this. Or to use Will Elder to frame my feelings on the matter:

Unwanted movie sequel news #2: Point Break 2 -- Dammit, you don't mess with Johnny Utah. The original, is, of course, the finest movie ever made as I have written. Don't despoil it. As Keanu would say, "Whoa."

• Watched the lovely little Irish movie "Once", which picked up an Academy Award for Best Song a couple months back. Humble and charming, it's a sweet almost-romance about a struggling Irish musician and the Czech girl who becomes his artistic muse, and it's one of these small movies that just sticks in your head after seeing it. It doesn't have a bone of irony in it, and somehow that's what makes it so nakedly emotional and great. Frames frontman Glen Hansard is particularly fine in it, one of those musician types we've all met who have their head halfway in the clouds most of the time, his eyes intense with imagined tunes. The music is surprisingly intense, and although most of the The Frames' music I've heard is good but not great there's a couple of songs from this soundtrack I can't get out of my head. Well worth seeing if you're a fan of music or sweetly subtle love stories.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The history of rock: The Replacements 1981-1984

PhotobucketLots of people think of '80s rock and they think hair metal, Boy George and that moonwalking guy. But the '80s also brought us a band that endures, the rangy junkyard mutts of the Replacements, a scrappy bunch of Minneapolis yokels who turned from aspiring punk rockers into crafters of some of the most perfect yearning pop songs you'll ever hear. They summed up rock 'n' roll's essence – one minute mean as a feral cat, the next capable of a moment of dizzying emotional clarity that grabs you right in the spleen and doesn't let go. And as the years pass, the Replacements' brief spin through rock history just looks better and better.

The Replacements' first four albums – Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, Hootenanny and Let It Be – are the subject of a sprawling new reissue program from Rhino Records. They've been re-released before, of course, but these comprehensive sets, overseen by longtime Replacements manager and producer Peter Jesperson, are a must-have. Over these four discs you see "the Mats," as fans know them, rise from young bratty punks to gifted rock prodigies – the learning curve is astounding.

A lot of times I find ballyhooed "remasterings" seem to just make the music louder rather than better. But Rhino's excellent job here wipes off several layers of murk on the old original issue CDs I have – stripping the Mats back to their garage-band essentials. You can practically hear the sweat flying off their hair and beer bottles clinking, and there's a spacious feeling to the music now. I came away with new respect for the late Bob Stinson's fiery lead guitar. Each disc comes with lengthy essays in the liner notes. Oh, and did I mention the plentiful extra tracks – 27 spread across the four discs. The new tracks run from rickety demos recorded alone by frontman Paul Westerberg to undiscovered gems.

PhotobucketStart with debut Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, in its original 1981 release 18 tracks of high-speed would-be hardcore, a sloppy and cheeky combination of punk and pop that felt like it drew equal inspiration from the Sex Pistols and Cheap Trick. It's all tremendously fun and cartoony anti-authoritarian rock with titles like "I Hate Music," "Shutup," "Careless" and the first great song by the band, "Shiftless When Idle." While it's raw and ragged compared to the band's later work, it all still holds up a lot better than other nearly 30-year-old first albums.

Sorry Ma also gets the wealth of bonus material in the reissues – 13 new tracks, including the extremely crude but spunky first demos the band used to get a record deal. After all the thrashing, hearing Westerberg alone on the country-fried B-side "If Only You Were Lonely" is a lovely evocation of his often underrated later solo work. There's even a rambling rehearsal "Basement Jam" that puts you right there in the dirty cellar, missed cues, made-up lyrics and more. Geez, the Replacements were young – bassist Tommy Stinson was all of 12 years old when the band formed – and cruising through their first four albums is like watching the difference in someone between their freshman and senior year of high school.

PhotobucketThe Replacements' second disc was the EP Stink (as in, "The Replacements..."), a mere 8 tracks over less than 20 minutes that continued the quasi-hardcore slacker zeitgeist with more tunes like "God Damn Job" and "White And Lazy." By now, though, you're starting to see the wink in these speedy songs, and some real talent lurking behind all that teenage angst. Toward the end of Stink you get hints the angry-young-turk thing is running its course. It's a real shock to find the album winding up with the polished gem "Go," which has all the yearning power of the Mats at their best. A handful of extra tracks added to the new Stink include shambling covers of "Rock Around The Clock" and "Hey, Good Looking." Motley fun, and they make me wish that some of the legendary Replacements live bootlegs of the era might sometime get an official release. In their shambling and obnoxious drunkenness, the band could often be the best and worst band in the world on the very same night.

PhotobucketHootenanny is where the Replacements explode. Astoundingly, it was only their second full-length album, but it's miles ahead of Sorry Ma. "They were clearly bursting at the seams with ideas and inspiration," writes PD Larson in Hootenanny's new liner notes. "Seemingly nothing was too crazy to try once." If you want to pinpoint the moment when The Mats went from good rockers to perfect pop tunesmiths, it's about halfway through Hootenanny and the sublime "Within your Reach." Westerberg puts together all the pieces he's been slowly assembling and creates a song that speaks to anyone and everyone. There's no joking here, only a nervous skittering drum machine beat and stinging guitar soaring through the tune like a lost airplane. Hootenanny is filled with marvelous little moments, such as in the snide and resigned "Color Me Impressed" when Westerberg sighs, "Everybody at your party / they don't look depressed." Several outtake bonus tracks include the rowdy sketches of "Junior's Got A Gun" and "Ain't No Crime", with the band working out their power trash fetish.

PhotobucketAnd then came 1984's Let It Be. Naming your third album after the Beatles' swan song takes either artistic confidence or sheer screw 'em guts. The Mats had both by this stage, coming up with a tremendous disc that's regularly called one of the best of the 1980s. There's sheer gold on this album track after track – "I Will Dare," "Sixteen Blue," "Androgynous." The band hasn't given up their bratty, loud side – witness "Gary's Got A Boner" or Kiss cover "Black Diamond" – but clearly Westerberg is looking toward loftier goals than being a soundtrack for beer bashes.

In their final albums, the Replacements would sink a little too much into sentiment – especially after hard-partying Bob Stinson was kicked out of the band – but on Let It Be, they find a perfect balance between rock and heart. "Unsatisfied" is perhaps the Replacements' best moment to date, an every-man anthem response to Mick Jagger's "Satisfaction." "Look me in the eye and tell me / that I'm satisfied," Westerberg wails over a track that builds in momentum to a heartbreaking climax. It's hard to believe this is the same band that was singing "I hate music / it's got too many notes" just a couple years before. Bonus tracks added to Let It Be include excellent outtakes "Perfectly Lethal" and "Temptation Eyes," which wouldn't be out of place at all on the album itself, plus a fun cover of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy."

In their lifetime the Replacements were critics' darlings and a lifeline for a small, dedicated fan base. By the time word was getting out about them, they broke up in 1991. Rhino's dazzling restoration and expansion of their first four discs – and the second set coming this fall – make a valiant case for them possibly being the best band the '80s ever spawned. If you've never heard the Replacements before, it's never too late to start.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The campaign that never ends

Yeesh. Cheerful thought of the day: Can you believe it's still six months until the November presidential election?

Photobucket...I've kept my yap shut about the primaries for a while now as, despite what the chattering pundits have been telling us, there really hasn't been much to say. In my eyes, Barack Obama basically won the race when he won Virginia back in February. Since then, it's been a whole lot of sound and noise about a result that was barely in doubt. Hillary Clinton is far too flawed and reviled a candidate to ever win the White House. Too much baggage despite her good intentions. Honestly, when the stupid stuff a guy's pastor has said becomes a major issue, you know they're reaching for ammo against a very good candidate. What's next -- Obama's dentist had a DUI?

And frankly, while no politician is ever going to be perfect, Hillary Clinton lost me for good the minute she accepted right-wing assassin Richard Mellon Scaife's endorsement of her in Pennsyvlania. Scaife is one of the major men behind the hunting of Bill Clinton for everything from Whitewater to Paula Jones, and a prime mover behind the impeachment. And then he endorsed Hillary over Obama in his newspaper. For Hillary not to basically stand up and tell him to stick his endorsement where the sun don't shine shows a lack of courage and principle on her part. Instead, she embraced it. Yeah, politics, strange bedfollows, et cetera, but y'know, I'd have more respect for her if she had refused it, or say, forcefully repudiated the idiots out there who still say Obama's a Muslim. I feel like she'll do anything to win, from a pandering, disavowed gas tax holiday to using tactics Karl Rove would love to go after Obama.

For a little while there back in January/February, I was actually really pleased with press coverage of the campaign, when there were a dozen or so viable candidates running and nobody knew what would happen. Maybe this time we in the media would live up to the job, rather than lower down to it. But once it settled into an Obama/Clinton/McCain round robin, we pretty much gave up on substance and settled for trivia and personality coverage – which has its place, but not dominating endless news cycle after news cycle like it has. When was the last time we saw a series of stories on the candidates and the issues?

Despite what you've read, disputed primary seasons are nothing new. Parties used to battle "all the way to the convention" quite often, even as recently as Carter/Kennedy in 1980 and Reagan/Ford in 1976. The last 20 years or so, it's been more of a coronation than a fight for most nominees after the first few weeks. But what's new is the never-ending news cycle, 24 hours a day of cable news and infinite terrabytes of Internet to fill. Newsmakers hate, hate dead air and blank copy, so we've had endless somersaults of logic and hyperbole trying to fill the air in a period of the campaign which, when you get down to it, hasn't really been all that much hard news.

Anyway. Clinton is finished, whether she accepts it with grace or with a gasping death rattle – there is no way for her to win without using every dirty trick and procedural twist in the book. Deep down she knows it – look at the footage of her after the win-that-was-really-a-loss in Indiana. She gave Obama a hell of a fight, but in the end his message - solipitisic though some might find it - meant more than hers. Now it's on to November, and maybe the press corps can take a wee break after Clinton makes her final speech.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Yank's Humble Guide to Kiwi Rock (Part I)

PhotobucketSo May is New Zealand Music Month! New Zealand has its own big and diverse music scene, as sprawling in its own way as any other country's – pop, punk, R&B, rap, opera, Maori tunes, you name it, it's all down here down under.

Unlike my wife Avril, I didn't grow up with New Zealand music, and so I've been kind of exploring it with a prospector's eye. Recently tossing together a mix disc of some of my favorite NZ music songs got me looking at the spectrum of NZ music. A really cool set of 6 CDs that came out a few years ago are "Nature's Best," which is the top 100 songs of all time in NZ as chosen by kiwis. Great sampler of NZ music.

Here's a totally non-comprehensive handful of some of my favorite NZ bands that appeal to my narrow post-punk/indie rock kinda sensibilities – the ones I've discovered so far, that is. This is hardly all-inclusive – I'm not really into hip-hop or acts that are imitating limp top 40 American music , and there are a lot of acts who are quite famous in NZ music industry that I still barely know like Dave Dobbyn, Bic Runga, Th' Dudes, Dragon and Chris Knox, to name a few. I'm still figuring it all out!

PhotobucketCrowded House - Basically, the Beatles of NZ music. I first heard Crowded House back in 1988 or so long before I really even knew there was a New Zealand and I've long loved their gently melancholy pop music. The one NZ band most Americans know, and songs like "Better Be Home Soon" and "Something So Strong" still play on '80s radio stations today. Frontman Neil Finn has a real gift for melodic hooks and has a fine solo career aside from the House as well. Crowded House's hits collection "Recurring Dream" is just about all perfect songs in my book. (Also related: Neil's older brother Tim Finn and the very influential band they both were part of, Split Enz - who might be the Little Richard to the Beatles analogy. Or Jerry Lee Lewis.)

PhotobucketThe Chills - After Neil, my favourite NZ band I think. I first heard 'em on a tape my eventual wife made me back in 1993 or so, and they had a haunting, otherworldly quality. Fine pop music that was laced with an echoey, spacey aura that made it feel like amazing hit tunes from an alternate reality. Great songs like "Pink Frost," "I Love My Leather Jacket" and the self-explanatory "Heavenly Pop Hit" all muster up restrained elegance and a sprinkling of grit. Lovely stuff. Go get "Heavenly Pop Hits: The Best of the Chills" immediately.

PhotobucketSJD - A semi-veteran of the current alt-rock scene. Last year's album "Songs From A Dictaphone" won rave reviews and I picked it up recently. It's an eclectic, very '80s feeling kind of mix that's frequently quite beautiful, electronica-leaning tunes that have a confessional feeling, like "I Wrote This Song For You" or " Bad Karma In Yokohama." Kind of a distant cousin of Elliott Smith with keyboards instead of a guitar, maybe?

Shihad - Hard-driving alt-rock act that's quite big among the head banger crowd. I like some of their mid-90s work that my wife owns although not all of it's to my taste. Perhaps a NZ version of Soundgarden would be the best analogy?

PhotobucketAnika Moa - I saw her open for Ryan Adams a year ago, and she was great – doing the sensitive singer/songwriter thing, but with a wry and witty side. I only own her second album, and it's pretty good, although she was actually more spunky live I thought. There's a lot of similar girly singers here (Bic Runga perhaps the most famous) but Anika's the only one who's grabbed me so far.

Liam Finn - The son of Neil, so you know he's kind of like the Julian Lennon of New Zealand. Actually, his debut solo album, "I'll Be Lightning," is quite good, slightly askew power pop with a raw, garage-band edge to it. There's a lot of dreamy Finn/Crowded House influences, but run through an alt-rock filter and it's all a very promising, hook-filled debut.

Flight of the Conchords - Wrote about them quite recently, and just last week they stunned by having their first album debut at #3 on the US Billboard top albums chart - which turns out to be the top New Zealand artist debut ever there, even outdoing the mighty Neil! That said the album is good if not quite great - basically a soundtrack to their HBO TV series but not much new stuff, which is a bummer. It feels a bit more like contractual obligation than artistic leap. Great versions of folk-joke stuff like "Robots," "Leggy Blonde" and one of my favourites, the highly goofy "Bowie."

PhotobucketThe Clean - The big grandaddies of the alt-rock NZ scene and their 2-disc "Anthology" is an excellent primer for anyone interested in post-punk; a big influence on bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo. Formed way back in 1978, and their songs like "Platypus" and "Tally Ho" have a kind of ramshackle fuzzy beauty, like the Velvet Underground through an antipodes filter. It's got that kind of faraway strangeness the best of kiwi rock I've found has, like a pub-rock singalong composed entirely of arty rock fans. Definitely one to check out if you're interested in "the scene".

...And that's just a start, mate! I could easily put together a "part II" of this sometime soon as I delve more into the mysteries of Kiwi rock history. Cheers!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Movie review: Iron Man

Photobucket"Iron Man" is here. And abandoning any pretense at being critically impartial, I've got to say – "Iron Man" rocks. It's a near-perfect summer movie confection.

The latest in the never-ending line-up of comic book-films is right up there with the first couple of "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" movies in my mind, a perfectly balanced combination of character, humor, action and whiz-bang special effects. The storyline is your basic origin tale, with a plot that's fairly predictable, but it's the quirks and small tweaks director Jon Favreau and a smart, snappy script add that make "Iron Man" fly.

The lovingly detailed production really makes you believe a man could cobble together a flying suit of armour; the grease, nuts and bolts show. Iron Man is a character I've long liked - some of the first comics I remember reading back in the '80s were from the great Micheline/Layton run - but he's been served poorly in comics in recent years. I don't even recognize the guy they have being Iron Man these days. Which is why "Iron Man" the movie is such ripping fun - it takes you back to the core essence of the character, a spoiled hyperactive genius playboy who becomes a hero, but who's basically still a boy with the biggest toys in the room. The storyline has been slightly rejiggered to examine the post-9/11 murky reality of the world, but not in an obtrusive fashion.

Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps the best superhero casting choice since Christopher Reeve. I love how he's matured from the wise-ass young punk into a battered, riveting leading man, and he simply IS inventor and gazillionaire Tony Stark. The tremendous presence he's shown in recent flicks like "Zodiac" and "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is here in spades, but honed into action-movie coolness. While the hard-living, flawed Tony Stark takes the piss out of traditional square-jawed superhero notions, Downey also wisely manages to keep his turn from being strictly comedy. He balances action and humor very well.

PhotobucketI don't want to spoil Downey's wonderful final line in the picture, given at a press conference, but to me it just sums up his wiseacre charm and the movie's entirely beguiling fanboy whimsy. While it's got darker moments, Downey's Stark is simply a less tormented figure than the Batman, Hulk, Spider-Man and Wolverine – and even Superman – than we've seen in the past couple of years. He digs being Iron Man. (As Downey says with a kind of stunned amazement, "Yeah, I can fly.") He combines the do-it-yourself heroism of Batman with a James Bond-like love of gadgetry.

Downey without a doubt makes "Iron Man" work, but he's backed up by a swell cast. Terrence Howard's role as sidekick James Rhodes is underwritten, but Howard brings a wry strut to it, while Gwyneth Paltrow's spunky Pepper Potts takes a fairly forgettable female sidekick role and makes it subtle, and sexy. Best of all is Jeff Bridges as villain Obadiah Stane, hamming it up tremendously. I usually associate Bridges with benevolent authority figure roles or gently befuddled goofballs, ala "The Contender" or "The Big Lebowski." But here, he channels his genial presence into genuine menace, with a shaved head that evokes Lex Luthor and a purr that quickly becomes a growl. Sure, I found his character's transformation a little drastic, but heck - it is a comic book movie after all.

PhotobucketDo I have a quibble or two? Well, sure, it's a little light on the action maybe, but then again so was "Spider-Man" frankly and I loved that too. Character is never abandoned for special effects. The story is Tony Stark's, rather than Iron Man's. The final battle sequence is a wee bit rushed compared to the leisurely build-up, but hey, it works for me. I have to admit that when Tony Stark dons the familiar "Mark 3" gold-and-red armor and starts flying about, I felt a rush of honest adrenaline and fanboy glee at seeing the comic become reality. Toss in all the nifty little "Easter eggs" for Marvel Comics fans like myself and you've got a comic book movie that's solid as Iron Man's armor. Check it out.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Shake, rattle and roll

PhotobucketReno is shaking lately. Quite a lot. Been watching this all from New Zealand a bit worried as we of course used to live just 30 miles from Reno for many years, up at Lake Tahoe, and my parents and many friends still live like only 90 miles or so from Reno in the California foothills. Hope this "earthquake swarm" doesn't indicate something much bigger in the offing.

Reno, Nevada isn't a place you think of earthquakes happening, although I remember when we lived in Tahoe we had a few 5.0 or so shakers – one happened when I was at a video store and knocked about half the videos off the shelf and I immediately worried everyone there thought I somehow did it. Another happened while we were sound asleep in our condo and an enormous WHUMPPPP woke us up. I was sure some idiot had run his truck into our building or something, as that's exactly what it felt like. No matter how often you deal with earthquakes, I don't think you ever quite get used to 'em.

Anyway, I hope Reno's going to be OK. Although it isn't the most elegant town in the world – casinos, sagebrush and strip malls set in the dusty desert edges, with the grand Sierra rising behind it – I've always felt an affinity for the "Biggest Little City In the World." I've never quite wanted to live there, but I often enjoyed visiting when we lived up at the lake. Neon and sprawling, but it's got an all-American spunky charm (much more so than the overblown and absurd Las Vegas, I think).