Friday, September 23, 2011

That's me in the corner: Farewell, R.E.M.

R.E.M. have called it quits, which saddens me -- not as much as it might once have, perhaps, but it's still worth taking a moment to remember how great they were at their zenith.

I know there's a lot of wags out there who expressed surprise they were still together, that the general consensus is that they peaked with 1992's "Automatic For The People" and it's been a slow downhill slope ever since, but I don't care what anyone else thinks -- they remain one of the finest bands of the last 30 years, and their influence can be felt on countless acts.

It's hard to be a band that makes it to that blockbuster level of a U2 or a Pearl Jam or Rolling Stones. Inevitably, you fall off the peak a bit. Name a band that sustains a 20+ year career of constant critical and commercial success, and it'd have to be a pretty small list. R.E.M. was a fluke as a mainstream success -- they were more comfortable in the shadows, in the cult icon category with people like their idol Patti Smith.

Like most things, I was a bit of a late bloomer to R.E.M. -- I didn't discover them until 1989's "Green," and it was appropriate that I discovered them in my first year living in Mississippi. In the early days, they were definitely a Southern band, steeped in kudzu, gothic mystique and fog. Someone in my college dorm was giving away some of his CDs and I snagged "Green." I remember playing one track over and over again that seemed directly written for me, freshly moved from the West Coast to the deep South -- "I Remember California," of course.

There was a big hoo-rah in the rock world around 1992 or so over who was better -- U2 or R.E.M. It's never been a contest for me. While U2 are grandiose, epic and often a bit overblown, R.E.M. were a cult band who briefly became mainstream through the sheer power and craft of their songwriting. Even now, 20 years on, I listen to the chiming mandolin chords of "Losing My Religion" and it still sounds fresh and peculiar on the thousandth listen, the urgency and murky universality of Stipe's anguished lyrics ringing true.

I love their entire career, which carved an arc from hushed Southern poets to stadium-filling anthems to the more hushed, emotionally open balladry that dominated their later work. Michael Stipe's gift as a lyricist, especially in the early days, was combining elliptical lyrics with heartfelt sincerity -- a song like "Fall On Me," "What's The Frequency Kenneth" or "Driver 8" could've been about anything, whatever you wanted it to be. Some of their more populist songs like "Everybody Hurts" or "Shiny Happy People" might've felt like sell-outs to the fans of the mumbling Stipe era, but even they had a dash of that R.E.M. mystique to them. R.E.M. never sounded like anybody but themselves to me.

I'd stick with them through thick and thin -- while they haven't released a truly great album since 1996's underrated, experimental "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," I usually found at least a few songs to like on their later work. I loved the hit singles like "Losing My Religion" but also the rare numbers like the soundtrack number "Fretless" or "Out Of Time's" sadcore masterpiece, "Country Feedback." 2001's "Reveal" I find particularly strong, with a gorgeous wanderlust on songs like "All The Way To Reno" and "Imitation of Life." They could disappoint toward the end -- 2003's "Around The Sun" was a dull bore -- but honestly, I don't feel like R.E.M. ever embarrassed themselves. Perhaps they chose to retire a bit later than they should have in order to get the proper amount of appreciation -- but I think in the end R.E.M. will be remembered as one of the giants of the "alternative rock" era.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Angel-a-Thon: Season 4

It’s hard to top a peak. The third series of “Angel” was such a taut, exciting ride that season four had a lot to live up to. And while it’s rarely rotten, Angel’s penultimate series falls a bit short.

There’s great momentum at the start of this season, as the cliffhangers of Series 3 are wrapped up and the apocalyptic Beast comes to town, raining fire on the streets and blocking out the sun. There’s a real sense of danger and drama in these early episodes – the Beast is by far the most inhuman villain the series has had, and it really seems nothing can stop him. The various psychodramas continue as Angel bonds and brawls with his bad-boy, instantly teenaged son Connor, Wesley works his way back from his dark exile into redemption (it’s amazing what a bad-ass Alexis Denisof has become as Wesley, especially when you view his first few appearances way back in “Buffy”’s third season), while Fred and Gunn wind down their increasingly annoying relationship.

But then it all kind of turns to custard. The writers apparently feel they have to keep one-upping the threat level, and so the Beast turns out to be a pawn of a now-evil Cordelia, who turns out to be yet ANOTHER pawn of the smiling goddess Jasmine. Really, the Beast could’ve been a solid enough protagonist to fuel the entire season, and the ridiculously labyrinthine plot by Jasmine is insulting to viewers (apparently pretty much everything that ever happened since episode one has been a part of the plan). But the worst misstep is how the writers abuse poor Cordelia, who’d shown the most fascinating growth as a character over the first 3 years, moving from selfish diva to selfless heroine. Her “ascension” at the end of the third season was tearjerking and yet very right.

But it’s all dumped on this year, as Cordy’s forced into an icky affair with Connor, gotten pregnant, turns evil, then is clumsily just written out of the series entirely. It’s a real shame that poor Charisma Carpenter goes out on such an awkward note (although fortunately, she has a better swan song in Season 5). Jasmine, played by “Firefly” star Gina Torres, is a character with potential – an ancient god who is bringing enforced world peace – but she never quite comes across right.

There’s still a lot to like in series 4 – we get the return of Angel’s evil alter ego Angelus, who’s sinister fun, and a guest appearance by Faith (Eliza Dushku) always provides a lot of energy. There's lots of great moments, but the meandering of the overall season storyline and the egregious waste of Cordelia do spoil it all a bit.

Best episode: In a season filled with dark twists and turns, it’s the lighthearted change of pace episode “Spin The Bottle” that provides some much-needed levity, and a chance for the cast to show how much the characters have grown. While the “everyone gets amnesia” plot is beyond cliché, it’s played out in a very fun fashion as we witness the return of bitchy high-school Cordelia, foppish Wesley and medieval young Angel and everyone bounces off each other in a nice locked-room mystery. It's a good showcase for the actors and just nice to get a break from the never-ending apocalypses. Runner-up: “Home,” the energetic season finale, which delivers a much-needed change of setting and mission for Season 5 and gives the entire mauldin, overlong Connor storyline a fitting, bittersweet sendoff.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rugby World Cup madness comes to town

In New Zealand, there's only one event right now -- the massive Rugby World Cup. If you're in America, you might not know much about this, but if you're anywhere else in the world, it's one of the biggest sporting events in the known universe.

We in the media have been preparing for this for months, and my colleagues in print and online at the NZ Herald have done an amazing job. It's a massive undertaking, and I have to admit knowing it's just the start of a 6-week, dozens of game tournament kind of makes you quake a bit. It'd be lovely if this was just for two weeks or something, but going on till the end of October? Egad!

In-between working on the website and the paper Friday, I'd duck out and check out the scenes outside the building. It was like every college football game I'd ever seen rolled into one roiling mass of people -- flags of many nations, screaming drunken boys, nervous tourists, honking horns -- it was fun but also rather insane. Nobody in power seemed to be prepared at all for the massive crowds. Clearly NZ has gone a bit rugby-mad.

Unfortunately, the big opening celebration Friday night was a bit of a debacle on several fronts -- after months of hyping Auckland's public transport system it failed badly, with stuck trains, cancelled ferries, even elementary measures like failing to close the city's major downtown streets until hours of traffic chaos had ensued. Downtown Auckland was pretty madhouse Friday night -- estimates of anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 people poured into downtown, which in a country of 4 million people is a HUGE gathering.

Yet there were pretty awesome moments -- the opening ceremony was amazing, the All Blacks won the first game against Tonga, the sheer energy was invigorating, and the gigantic fireworks ceremony -- apparently Auckland's biggest ever -- was stunning. A bunch of us climbed up on the roof of the Herald building for some stunning views of fireworks erupting from the Sky Tower and buildings around us.

It's hard to compare an event like this to something you'd see in the United States -- the US has never been a big player in the soccer, cricket or rugby international tournaments, so perhaps something like the Olympics is the only comparison. I've never been a huge sports guy, but you have to get swept up in it all. It is cool to see how tourists from the 20 nations have swarmed into town -- a peculiar mix of countries from rugby standards like England, Australia and South Africa to a dashing of proud Pacific Island nations like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji and then a few "what the heck" countries like Romania and Namibia.

While there's a certain sense of craziness and inconvenience to it all it's also kind of a cool thing to witness. You either ride with something like this or you waste energy getting annoyed at it. Right now for rugby-heads New Zealand is the centre of the universe. And for the next six weeks, it'll continue to be.