Friday, December 19, 2003

AWARD TOUR, CONTINUED: I know somebody out there is feeling hard-pressed, right this very moment, for a last-minute gift idea. Something low key, but rich and satisfyingly complicated. Something light-hearted, but heartfelt. Maybe something thoughtful, but funky. Yes? Yes. Here it is:

Lyrics Born has a new record out.

If you haven't heard of him, he's a longtime champion of the Bay Area hip-hop scene, working often with the Quannum / Solesides crew that has spun out DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Blackalicious and such like. With Quannum cohort Lateef, he also forms half of Latyrx. Like the rest of Quannum, Lyrics Born has and does reliably provide worthy, fun, intelligent tracks that take the time and effort to say something . . . Good stuff that leaves you thinking and feeling better for listening to it. His new disk, the first LB solo effort, is no exception.

It's called Later That Day, and you can find some other positive write-ups here and here. And here's a short interview.

Lyrics Born and Later That Day officially get my 2003 'Bout Damn Time Award for the solo album that I've been waiting for the longest. Ever since I heard "I Changed My Mind", in fact, and more so since I saw him open for DJ Shadow downtown last year.

Lyrics Born is a mellow visionary who can keep it humorous, spirited and insightful in verses about the day-to-day difficulties in real-world America: insomnia, telemarketers, phone trees, insufficient funds and begrudging payment of income taxes. I did not stop smiling the whole way through this disk. Chumps who dismiss this effort as "backpack hip hop" should be forced, A Clockwork Orange style, to listen to Prince Paul's last joint until they wake up and smell who the joke is on. I only wish half of the mainstream was a third this worthy, and await its righteous correction.

If you're in the Bay Area, Lyrics Born will be at The Fillmore on January 10, 2004 with Blackalicious. (I'd give you a link for that venue, out of an abundance of local pride, but all they offer is a chance to get on their mailing list. Punks. No info; no promos; no previews; no schedule; nothing but an address.)
SHORT-FINGERED VULGARIAN WATCH: Just when you thought television had finally evened the gap and put enough rich folks on television to balance out the rest of us, Donald Trump's The Apprentice debuts January 8.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

WHAT A DRAG IT IS GETTING OLD: Defying doctor's predictions and any number of dead pool entries, Keith Richards -- a man who famously once said "I'd hate to have to go around thinking of health and shit like that" -- turns sixty years old tomorrow.

Richards has said he would like his epitath to read as follows: "Fuckers! I told you I wasn't feeling well."

Happy birthday, Keith.
IS THAT NEXT DOOR TO THE ASS-MART? Rob Sheffield does me one better today in explaining the greatness of Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)":
It kicks so much ass, more ass than I have to offer it. In fact, that song kicks so much ass that it totally exhausts my ass resources, forcing me out to the 24-Hour Ass Depot to pick up some more ass, so, like, that song can kick it some more. You know what I'm saying?

JUST HAPPY TO BE NOMINATED: There were a lot of excellent contenders in the category of Best Reality Television Host/Judge of 2003. Two veterans of the genre excelled again -- The Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan, still does the best fake-out "actually, you're still in the competition" face on television, and Survivor's Jeff Probst had what may have been the funniest line of the reality year (and please, tell me what I'm forgetting), when, as described by TWoP's Miss Alli:
He levels his eyes at Jon. "Give me the state of affairs of this tribe." "Awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome. Happy tribe," says Jon, every bit the idiotic drunk. Jeff nods and glares at him. "That's it -- good tribe, couldn't be happier," Jon says, grinning like the pickled nitwit he is. Back to Jeff, still glaring. Without breaking his game face, Jeff looks straight at Jon without a trace of amusement and says, "Are you loaded?" It's really hard to explain how totally, preposterously awesome Probst was at this moment unless you saw it yourself -- he managed to pull off a flawless combination of disgust, fury, and...something else I can't quite put my finger on.

But this was not a year for veterans. Six newcomers made their marks this year, and each ought to be recognized. Each set the tone for his or her show, making viewers care about something they otherwise might have ignored, or not appreciated. First, the runners-up:
Tyra Banks, America's Next Top Model. Modeling is hard work. Tyra was professional, demanding, classy, funny and not very difficult to look at. Not only did she host but also exec-produce, making what could have been trashy and exploitative instead completely engrossing.

Debbie Allen, Fame. Even though the show failed down the stretch, becoming a second-rate American Idol rather than a first-rate 21st century show, Debbie never let me down. As I wrote in June, "She's wonderful on the show as its creator-host-denmother. She's supportive yet tough, and always enthusiastic. She's like Paula Abdul, minus all the flaky new-age bullshit, and plus a lot of talent."

Paul Hogan, Joe Millionaire. Why he's listed: season one. Why he doesn't win: season two.

Ted Allen and Carson Kressley, QESG: Yes, we all see the shark. Doesn't matter right now, because both men brought both sage advice and fun to a show that could've been too campy, too stereotypical or just plain boring. Carson was tv's breakout star of the year, and those of you who know me know just how much of a Ted Allen fan I am. So for someone to top them both, s/he had better be good.

And this winner is . . . . (and frankly this is 90% on merit, 10% on You People Need To Watch This Show And I Know You Didn't, Shame On You) . . . Robert K. Oermann, from Nashville Star.

It's easy to be lazy as a music-talent judge on tv -- get a few catchphrases ("Yo, Stevie is hard"), cop a dismissive attitude, or just be uncritically supportive of everything you see. But not Oermann -- or, for that matter, his fellow Nashville Star judges. No, Oermann brought an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, plus a true love of country music, and was thoughtful, supportive and wise all season long.

My favorite example: Week 4, when the competitors were asked to countrify a pop song. Sweet Brandi Gibson, a 21-year-old small town girl, chooses Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You". Yeesh. And this is what Oermann said to her afterwards: "I'm sorry, Brandi. You're not a victim. You're a real live woman and you shouldn't be singing that co-dependency shit."

Brandi cried. The next week, Oermann said after her performance, "Brandi, I'm sorry I cussed in front of you last week. I apologize; you're a lady and I didn't mean it," and put three dollars in the 'cuss jar'. Total class.

All season long, Oermann used criticism to suggest ways for the performers to improve by being true to themselves, rather than just bringing them down and turning himself into the star of the show. And when he was enthusiastic, he meant it. It is possible to be critical without being mean, and to be entertaining without resorting to shtick. Oermann and the Nashville Star crew turned a genre of music I generally ignore into must-see tv, and today's gold star is for him.
SPECIALIZATION OF . . . LABOR? What if I told you an enterprising young obsessive compulsive with escapist, anti-social tendencies could make over $100k a year without ever leaving his apartment? What if I told you he could do it without starting a porn-site or running ebay scams? What if all he had to do was play video games really, really well?
DON'T HATE THE PLAYER: It's been an interesting year for NFL-related controversy, particulary NFL player-related controversy . . . and player ego-related controversy. And fines for player ego-related controversy.

So I would like to present this year's award for best end-zone stunt resulting in a fine by an NFL wide receiver.

"Joe Horn", you're thinking? Naw. Look down at the bottom:

"Also Tuesday, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson was fined $10,000 by the NFL for retrieving a sign from behind a snowdrift and holding it up after a 10-yard touchdown catch Sunday. Johnson's sign read: 'Dear NFL: Please don't fine me again.' "

Mmmmm... now that's a fine worth paying. Delicious.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

BECAUSE EVIL IS BAD, AND GOOD . . . ISN'T . . . Taking this year's awards for innovation in super-heroism and excellence in the use of free time, please welcome Angle-Grinder Man! Would you like to know more?
FREE MUKTUK! (AND/OR WILLY): In a strange end to the strange life of the planet's most celebrated not-a-fish since Moby Dick, reports came in today about the demise of Keiko, the cetacean sensation who starred in Free Willy.

Believe it or not, they buried him. Obviously to prevent ravenous fans from making a celebrity muktuk of his noble remains.

In the grand scheme of things, burying a sea mammal in the frozen tundra strikes me as about as appropriate as knighting Mick Jagger, (and/or using a captive whale to make a movie about why whales shouldn't be kept captive). But actually, it does nicely sum up the contradictions that are layered into our species' all-too-human treatment of this single, long-suffering creature.

Considering the whole sordid story, I speculate that Keiko may have been the first non-human animal to directly experience irony. He may even have died of an irony overdose . . . they just called it pneumonia.

(And if you think this was a tendentious bit of windy commentary thinly linked to it's alleged subject, check this dude out.)

Monday, December 15, 2003

RANDOM TRIVIA: Name the only person to win both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.
AND THE WINNER IS: Continuing with our absurdly popular end-of-year roundup, I feel the need to recognize a winner in the category of Most Deteriorated Cultural Icon of 2003.

In a year in which an already-deteriorated Michael Jackson was felled by the Bashir documentary and criminal charges, and in which Madonna managed a trifecta of generating a widely-ignored-and-panned movie, book and album in a single twelve-month span, plus the New York Times suffering embarassment after embarrassment after embarassment, it's hard to pick just one winner.

But I'd like to do so anyway, because this was the year that Saturday Night Live fell into the shitter again.

Come on: name one memorable sketch from this season. One that provoked a laugh from actual humor, and not just a smile of recognition.

Two main factors has led to the show's swift decline, so far as I can tell:

1. Will Ferrell. It's been a year and a half, and they haven't been able to replace the most versatile, reliable performer since the late Phil Hartman. Hell, they haven't even been able to replace Tracy Morgan.

At a time when the show has never had as good a group of female performers in Dratch-Fey-Poehler-and-especially-Rudolph (except when they had all four, plus Gasteyer), the men are weak -- and Jimmy Fallon still, especially, sucks. When you don't have talented white guys to anchor the show, you can't do a lot of mainstream topical humor effectively, and it shows.

2. Smugness and Cycles. SNL is cyclical, and every once in a while, you need to dump out the old and freshen the blood. Sometimes you need to start from scratch, as they did in 1985 and 1995, in order to find the new talent.

(At the very least, no one -- and this means you, Darrell Hammond -- has any reason to stick around for a ninth season.)

Because what happens when people stay around too long is exactly what you're seeing now: even talented people like Tina Fey start coasting on attitude and a sense of entitlement-to-laughs, and not good writing. Have you seen Weekend Update lately? She's now playing the role of "Tina Fey, Sassy Anchor", rather than actually being the Tina Fey we all fell for a few years ago.

Cast members now try to make each other laugh (see Sanz-Fallon, any week), rather than the audience, and have totally exhausted their library of recurring characters. I mean, does the world need more Darrell Hammond-as-Chris-Matthews? More Donatella Versace?

Even when new talent is brought in, like Fred Armisen and Finesse Mitchell, it's not like they're given anything to do, given the current star system that says that Jimmy Fallon can do whatever he wants, even if he's not funny doing it. Their SNL stays will be as memorable as those of Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller and Siobhan Fallon -- and that's if they're lucky.

It's time for Lorne to take out the trash and start all over again, again. He's good at it. Let Maya Rudolph have her film career, and let us hope for the best in 2004-05. This season's already as good as over.
LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY SING! Our good friend Sarah Weinman insists that you visit the groovy Frank's Vinyl Museum, which features some of the more outlandish recordings ever committed to vinyl.

Go ahead: listen to Muhammad Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, Bill Cosby crooning Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or, yes, The Odd Couple Sings.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

MY SPOILER-FREE THOUGHT ON SURVIVOR 7: Second-best of all the seasons, topping even Marquesas and Australia, but not the original. A tremendous final immunity challenge because of what was said, and capped off by a tribe member who played the jury perfectly to earn a victory one might not have expected. (And a winner who, well, see the Comments, and I'll say something spoilerish -- but only peek after you've seen the episode.)

What worked? Two great narrators (Rupert and Jon), one great villain, good twists, and perhaps the season with the most strategic game-playing (and discussion thereof) by the most competitors. Mark Burnett is constantly tinkering with the game to prevent a mass-Pagonging and ensure fluid alliances; this time, as with last season, it worked.

No one was just out there for a vacation, or to make nice. They came to win the game, and knew that doing so meant a lot of mental hustle and an occasional deception. From Savage to Ryno to the woman who reminded me so much of former SNLer Melanie Hutsell that it frightened me, just a fun cast all around. It made for great television.

For those who haven't seen it yet, rest assured that Johnny Fairplay's grandma did make it to the reunion special.

Now, bring on the All-Stars!
AWARD TOUR '03: So, as I mentioned in passing a week or two ago, I figured that rather than wait for everyone else to come up with Best-of-'03 lists, that we could see what we could do on our own in a variety of categories. Some, like today's, will be fairly traditional, but then once Survivor's over, voting for Favorite and Least Favorite Reality TV Participant of 2003 will surely soon commence, and various media/culture related categories (Most Self-Important Blogger of the Year?), plus whatever other categories you might suggest.

Anyway, for now, and until you're bored with it: Song of the Year 2003, and in a year where rock pretty much disappeared, the ones that come to mind for me are as follows:
"Crazy In Love", Beyoncé Featuring Jay-Z. If I'm voting for one song, it's probably this. For the chinchilla, for Van Exel, for Beyoncé's range. And, yeah, for the video.

"The Seed v. 2.0", The Roots f/Cody ChesnuTT. Cody makes it clear that he'll screw anything that moves, and the hook on this song is so catchy that you just might spread your legs for him too.

"Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)", Panjabi MC f/Jay-Z. Yeah, Jigga again, and for all the reasons stated previously.

"Hey Ya!", Outkast. I mean, the song makes no sense whatsoever, but it's got more layers than a wedding cake and just makes me smile.

"Gossip Folks" and "Work It", Missy Elliot. Missy brings it even when she ain't speaking words -- it can be backwards or gibberish, and it doesn't matter. Why you act dumb like "uh, duh"?

"Six O'Clock News", Kathleen Edwards. A woman pleads for her boyfriend to end a standoff with the police. It's heartbreaking. "Peter, sweet baby, where'd you get that gun? You spend half your life trying to turn the other half around." (See the video here, or a live performance here.)

Justin Timberlake. Pretty much the whole album. Clipse and J. Timberlake? Yo, how heavy is that? From "Senorita" to "Like I Love You" to "Rock Your Body" to "Cry Me A River", just a fantastically produced, great pop album.

"Stacey's Mom", Fountains of Wayne. Because it's about time The Cars came back.

Tell us what songs made you stop twisting the radio dial and compelled you to listen this year.