Monday, April 30, 2012

A Baker’s Dozen of Soulful Tunes to Start The Week...

      1.     Old Songs – Betty Wright & The Roots sing about the virtues of old school soul (and love) on this track from their recent album/collaboration, Betty Wright: The Movie (2011).
      2.     Finally Falling - White soul singer Mayer Hawthorne gets into his Motown groove on this tune from his sophomore disc, How Do You Do (2011).
      3.     Sugarfoot – Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears do their best James Brown on this song from Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! (2009).
      4.     Love That Girl - Raphael Saadiq channels equal parts Eddie Kendricks (of The Temptations) and Curtis Mayfield on this number from the excellent The Way I See It (2008).
      5.     Concrete Blues - The Revelations featuring Tre Williams mix R&B & the blues on this title track from their 2011 album, with a touch of the sound of Bobby “Blue” Bland.
      6.     One of Those Days  - Felix Cavaliere (lead singer of The Rascals) and Steve Cropper (famed guitarist for Stax Records & The Blues Brothers) turn up the funk on this track from their album, Nudge It Up a Notch (2008).
      7.     Tighter – Haunting soul ballad from Fitz & The Tantrums’ debut album, Pickin Up The Pieces (2010).
      8.     Longer & Stronger – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. Great song from the recent B-sides & rarities collection, Soul Time! (2011).
      9.     Stoned Love – After the departure of Diana Ross, the Jean Terrell led version of the group had a hit with this one; from the album New Ways But Love Stays (1970).
      10.  Shake - Phat Phunktion grooves it up on this tune from Soul Juice (2005).
      11.  Little Bit of Feel Good – British soulster Jamie Lidell gives in to his inner blue-eyed soul shouter on this number from Jim (2008).
      12. You & Me – Obscure soul gem from Penny & The Quarters, used to great effect in the film Blue Valentine (2010), and featured on the soundtrack album.
Bonus Track: Tell Mama – Etta James from The Essential Etta James. The one & only Etta.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A "Power Pop 15" Playlist

A playlist of fifteen power pop tunes for you to explore. This isn’t a complete overview of the genre or its artists, just a sampler of some personal favorites. Feel free to add comments or your own suggestions below:

1.    Matthew Sweet – I’ve Been Waiting. A wonderful ballad from his classic album Girlfriend (1991). A great record from start to finish; there's not a bad song on the disc.
2.    Cheap Trick – Come On, Come On. You could pick any number of songs from CT for a list like this, but check out this number from In Color (1977), which has turned up on a couple of power pop compilations.
3.    The Orange Humble Band – Down In Your Dreams from Assorted Creams (1997). A supergroup featuring Mitch Easter (a producer for bands like REM & Marshall Crenshaw), Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and Daryl Mather of The Someloves. The song is one of the highlights of this excellent album.
4.    Badfinger -  No Matter What from No Dice (1970). One of the best power pop songs from one of the greatest power pop bands ever.
5.    Jellyfish - All I Want is Everything. Queen meets Cheap Trick meets The Beatles on this track from the pop-tastic Bellybutton (1990).
6.    Nazz – Open My Eyes from Nazz (1968). Todd Rundgren’s early band rocks this track with some blazing guitar and swirling vocals and production. Recently covered by The Bangles on their 2011 release, Sweetheart of The Sun, which was produced by none other than Matthew Sweet.
7.    The Merrymakers - April’s Fool. These power pop masters from Sweden only released two albums, but they’re both fine examples of the genre. This song (featuring Abba-esque keyboards and Beatlesque harmonies) is a highlight of their 2nd release, Bubblegun (1997). Co-leader David Myhr just released his solo debut, Soundshine (for more on The Merrymakers & Myhr, see reviews elsewhere on this blog).
8.    Raspberries – Go All The Way from Raspberries (1972). Eric Carmen & the boys plead with their girl, to…well….go all the way on this classic tune.
9.    Will & The Bushmen – Book Of Love. Led by Nashville based singer-songwriter Will Kimbrough, this group has a nice alternative-ish, jangly 80s sound. This song can be found on 1989’s Will & The Bushmen.
10.  Big Star - When My Baby’s Beside Me from #1 Record (1972). Alex Chilton (a former member of The Box Tops) along with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens, practically perfected the modern power pop sound with this record.
11.  Brendan Benson - A Whole Lot Better. A member of the Raconteurs alongside Jack White, Benson has also been turning out wonderful pop/rock solo albums since 1996. This is the rocking first track from from 2009's fine album My Old, Familiar Friend. Benson just released his latest disc, What Kind of World, this past week.
12.  Fountains of Wayne - Someone To Love. These guys been making great music since they formed in the mid 90s,  and are best known for their Cars-influenced hit Stacy’s Mom. This fantastic tune is from 2007’s Traffic & Weather.
13.  L.E.O. – Distracted from Alpacas Orgling (2006). A group of indie music stars, including Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers, Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish, and singer-songwriter Bleu, formed this band to pay tribute to the sound & style of Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra. The album sounds like a cross between ELO & The Traveling Wilburys (crossed with a bit of rockabilly) and is a fun listen.
14.  Marshall Crenshaw – For Her Love from Field Day (1983). A standout song from Crenshaw’s underrated sophomore disc.
15.  Bill Lloyd – Lisa Anne. Best known as half of the country duo Foster & Lloyd, Bill has also recorded some fine pop/rock albums as a solo artist. This is one of the best tracks from Feeling The Elephant (1986).

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Hunger Games: A Heroine Emerges In A Bleak Future World

Bestselling books are often adapted into movies, and fans of the novels always await the film versions of their favorites with some trepidation. The literary success of author Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games trilogy virtually assured there would be a movie adaptation, especially after the box office hits in the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises. The Hunger Games is set in a post apocalyptic future, where North America is now called Panem. The country is separated into 12 districts, ruled by the rich & elite from an area known as The Capitol. As punishment for a rebellion by the districts, an annual event called The Hunger Games is held. Each district must send one boy and one girl, aged 12-18 (chosen via lottery) to participate in a contest of skill & survival. The event is televised, and only one participant can emerge the victor of the competition. To win, you must kill or be killed.

The film follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar nominated for 2010’s Winter’s Bone) as she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the games.  Along with Peeta Meelark (Josh Hutcherson), the boy chosen from her district, she travels to The Capitol and is prepared for the games by a previous winner, Haymitch Abernathy (well portrayed by Woody Harrleson) as well as an assortment of other advisors. The reality TV genre is pointedly satirized, as each contestant is interviewed prior to the start of the games, and competes for “sponsors,” who will provide them with supplies during the competition. There’s also a healthy amount of bets placed on the contestants during the show, based on their skills, likability and the ratings they’re given during training.

Once the competition begins, Katniss must face the fact that she may have to kill to win the day. Peeta reveals that he has feelings for her, which further complicates her decision about how to proceed. We follow her and the other contestants, as some form temporary alliances in order to survive longer, and others are killed outright. Katniss even befriends a young contestant named Rue. Those running the games also throw several extra challenges in the way of the contestants during the games. While trying to stay alive and avoid needless killing, Katniss becomes something more than a mere competitor. But her choices may have long ranging consequences.

Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) and cinematographer Tom Stern (with the rest of the crew) do a wonderful job creating the look of the bleak future these characters inhabit. This is an unflinching, brutal world, and little choice is left to the “have-nots” but to do what the wealthy ask of them. There’s a real emotional resonance to Katniss’ journey, captured in the excellent screenplay by Ross, Billy Ray and author Collins. Lawrence fully embodies the Katniss of the novel, and the supporting cast is perfect, including Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the TV interviewer and host of The Hunger Games, and Donald Sutherland, smoothly evil as The President.

The story has true depth & emotional resonance amidst the action elements, and there are well-drawn characters & interesting situations. While the film can’t quite capture Katniss’ inner monologue (which is such an integral & evocative part of the novel) the movie truly is an effective adaptation of the book. Jennifer Lawrence is a star to watch, and deserves all the fame the success of this film is bringing her. In fact, I also recommend Winter’s Bone, if you haven’t seen it; that film is also well worth watching, and Lawrence is excellent in it. As for The Hunger Games, there are already plans to film the second & third novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing them. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction or fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy The Hunger Games.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Time Traveling With Stephen King

What would you do if you could change horrible events that occurred in the past?  That’s the intriguing premise behind Stephen King’s excellent novel, 11/22/63. Jake Epping is a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. He’s teaching a GED course, and one of his students, Harry Dunning, writes a heartbreaking essay about “the day that changed my life,” for a class assignment. Harry’s a learning impaired janitor who works at the high school. His essay talks about night his father killed his mother and siblings with a hammer and wounded Harry.  Jake is touched by the story, and befriends the man.

One night, Jake is having dinner at a local diner, when the owner, Al Templeton, shares a secret with him. Back in the diner’s pantry, there’s a portal that leads to 1958, and Al’s been traveling back in time. The portal always takes you to the same moment in 1958, and when you return to the present, only two minutes has passed. Al, who has cancer, had been planning to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s even lived in the past for a while to gather information. But his illness is preventing him from completing the mission, and he wants Jake to do it for him. Al believes this is a pivotal moment in time, and stopping Oswald will fix a lot of things that are wrong with the world today.

Jake tries a sample trip to the past, and is amazed to find Al’s story is true. He goes on a test mission to prevent Harry’s father from killing the family, and partially succeeds. But there are consequences to his actions in the present. Still, he agrees to kill Oswald, but will have to live in 1958 under an assumed identity and await his arrival in Texas. We follow Jake as he takes a job as a teacher in a small town named Jodie, and begins a romance with a fellow faculty member. Meanwhile, the specter of Oswald, and the murder he will have to commit to change history, haunts Jake. And what if killing Oswald changes the present for the worse?

That’s the basic plotline of this well-paced, interesting and suspenseful novel. It features King’s usual well-drawn characters and realistic dialogue. It’s a bit of a change of pace for the author, though there are a few cameos from other characters from the King universe for fans. In his afterword, King cites the novel Time After Time by Jack Finney as one of his inspirations, and if you’re familiar with that classic time travel story, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book. King and his researcher, Russ Dorr, did exhaustive work looking at books, historical documents, newspaper archives and ads from the period, and King also met with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to discuss the novel, and the implications on history if Kennedy had lived. The details all feel right, and make the story that much more believable.

This is an engrossing “What If?” story about one of the most tragic events of the 20th Century. King’s usual flair for telling a fast-paced, engrossing story with relatable characters is intact. The author has received some of the best reviews of his career for the novel, and The New York Times selected it as one of the top five fiction books of 2011. Even if you’re not a fan of King’s usual horror fare, 11/22/63 is worth reading. All the monsters here are real, and in some ways, that’s a lot scarier than Pennywise the Clown from It, or the vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The “Seven” in Space

There have been countless re-workings of Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai (1954), including the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960). In 1980, master B-movie producer Roger Corman (hoping to cash in on the success of the Star Wars films) served up a science-fiction version of the tale entitled Battle Beyond The Stars. As the film opens, Sador (John Saxon, veteran of a galaxy full of genre movies, including Enter The Dragon and the original Nightmare on Elm Street) is a ruthless warlord who shows up in orbit above the planet Akir (named as an homage to Kurasowa), whose peace-loving people are farmers. He threatens to use his ultimate weapon, a “Stellar Converter” on the planet, unless the people surrender to him, and turn over their crops. He leaves a small ship in orbit of the planet to guard them, and promises to return to pick up his tribute in a few days.

What can they do? Shad (Richard Thomas: that’s right, John-Boy of The Waltons) volunteers to recruit mercenaries to help them fight. He fires up an old ship and heads into space, where he meets up with Nanelia, the daughter of an old ally of his people. He also encounters an intergalactic trucker from Earth nicknamed “Space Cowboy” played by George Peppard (The A Team) and Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Gelt, who’s on the run and tired of his life as an assassin. A few aliens join the fight; Sybil Danning (in quite the form-fitting costume) as the warrior St. Exmin of the Valkyrie; the group consciousness known as Nestor, and the reptilian Cayman of the Lambda Zone, who has a score to settle with Sador.

Then it’s back to Akir, where they prepare for a showdown with Sador and his forces. Can the villain be defeated? Who will survive the battle? Will St. Exmin pop out of her costume, to the delight of teenage boys (and their Dads) everywhere? We’re not talking classic drama here, folks, but this is enjoyable Saturday matinee moviemaking. Director Jimmy T. Murakami keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and does a lot with the small budget to make the movie look like it had a bigger one. Thomas is a little bland at times in the lead, but the supporting actors enjoy their roles (and indulge in a bit of scenery chewing) including Vaughn in a virtual reprise of his character from The Magnificent Seven. Trivia fans take note: look for Jeff Corey, who appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cloud Minders,” in a small role as Zed, Marta Kristen (Judy of Lost in Space fame) as Lux, who takes a shine to Peppard’s character, and a brief cameo by Julia Duffy (pre-Newhart) as an ill-fated woman captured by Sador’s forces.

The film has some interesting talent behind the scenes. Producer Corman is well known for giving a lot of actors, directors and other crew members their first jobs, and Battle Beyond The Stars is no exception. When the original art director on the project was fired, a young model maker named James Cameron was promoted to work on the special effects & production design for the film. That’s right, James Cameron of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar fame.  The rousing music is by James Horner, who later scored Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Apollo 13 and Braveheart, among many others. The screenplay is by Oscar nominated writer/director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) who used the money he made writing scripts for Corman to help fund his own first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7.

Corman would later re-use some of the effects sequences & music from this film in some of his other productions, including Space Raiders (1983) and Sorceress (1982), so even if you haven’t seen the movie before, you may feel like you have. Battle Beyond The Stars is a decent popcorn film that you'll enjoy a bit more if you’re a sci-fi fan, or are familiar with its influences. I have to admit, I saw this at the local drive-in during its original release (with my younger sister in tow, thanks to my Mom), and it's always been kind of a guilty pleasure favorite for me. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, with a decent assortment of extras, including an audio commentary by Corman and Sayles, and an interview with Richard Thomas.

Here's a link to an ad for the DVD & Blu-ray release of the film, featuring the original trailer. And remember, like St. Exmin says "Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Myhr's “Soundshine” Swirls, Pops & Crackles Brightly

In my last post I wrote about the power pop genre, and extolled the virtues of Sweden’s The Merrymakers, and their 2nd and final album, 1997’s Bubblegun. The former co-leader of that band, David Myhr, has now released his first solo record, Soundshine. It’s a joyful, unabashed love letter to the pop & rock of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Starting with the Beatlesque opener Never Mine, you’re awash in hummable melodies, great hooks, and sparkling arrangements. Looking for A Life, Get It Right and Cut To The Chase have an 80s flavor, with a touch of New Wave. Then there’s I Love The Feeling, which sounds like it time warped off a 70s AM radio station, and the Jeff Lynne-ish Got You Where He Wanted, one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Myhr’s love of these eras of music really pours forth on the disc. He’s not just paying tribute - he’s working his own magic on these genres and creating wonderful new music. There’s not a bad song on the record;  Don’t Say No is another 70s style song; it's an upbeat “things aren’t so bad” number. Loveblind is a joyful paean to love that practically begs you to sing along. The One is a beautiful ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on a McCartney solo album.

The album wraps up with a trio of tunes: we go back to the 80s again with the poppy, guitar driven Wanderlust, and the alternative-ish Icy Tracks, which comes complete with a psychedelic-style fadeout. Then Myhr ends up in back in Fab Four territory with Ride Along. These are melodic, charming and most of all fun songs, played with energy, charm and joy. This is a power pop classic, and I hope Myhr will tour in the US to support the release, so we can see this material performed live. Soundshine is shimmering, catchy, summer-y pop and I highly recommend it.

Here are links to the music videos for Got You Where He Wanted and Looking For a Life from Soundshine.