Thursday, May 21, 2009


When I was a kid in Baltimore, one of my favorite TV shows was a local offering called The Bob McAllister Show (yes, the same Bob McAllister who later became the host of Wonderama). In addition to the usual helping of cartoons, McAllister also featured live action sequences in which the star dressed up as a superhero and did various ridiculous superhero things. It was funny, in the broad, slapstick way of children's entertainment, but what I remember most the amount of time I spent trying to figure out how they did the special effects. Some were fairly easy — for the “flying” sequences, McAllister was simply strapped to a board on a truck and driven around, an gimmick any seven-year old could figure out — and some weren’t (who knew from blue screen at that age?), but overall it made for a significant formative experience. My curiosity about special effects had made me aware that storytelling was a process, and it could be just as interesting, and far more instructive, to focus on how a tale was being told than merely to follow the plot.

Whether this was the first step toward a career in criticism or simply reflected a natural predisposition to analysis is a chicken/egg question I’ll leave to others, but for whatever reason I can’t help but think about the things I listen to, look at, or read. And while that sometimes leads to understanding larger truths about a work, it can just as easily leave me irritated by questions about plausibility, logical consistency and the like. Instead of being intrigued by the mechanisms that facilitate the narrative, I’m distracted by the clanking of their machinery.

Which brings me to Wall-E, a Pixar feature many critics felt was one of last year’s best films. It’s not hard to see why; the film is visually sumptuous, consistently amusing, beautifully paced, and blessed with an appealing cast of characters. It even has a nice moral about the evils of materialism and mindless, endless consumption.

It just doesn’t make sense, is all.

Even if you ignore the way the story scales the whole of human existence down to one city and one spaceship, and accept the notion that robots not only have emotions but fall in love in accordance with heterosexual human norms, the film still asks its viewers to swallow a lot of absurdity. Some of that is simply the price of making the characters more appealing (read: human-like). For instance, there’s no reason a robot would flinch or shudder the way Wall-E does, but because those gestures telegraph emotion, they’re a useful tool for the writers to express Wall-E’s feelings. So we overlook them. There are also some elements that exists as exaggerations in the service of a larger point. Take the opening sequence, in which the camera pans across a city in which half the towering buildings turn out to be, upon closer examinations, huge piles of stacked, compressed garbage. As cartoons go, it makes a powerful image, but think about it for more than a second and it seems utterly implausible. If there really were that much garbage lying around this city, wouldn’t the streets have been several stories deep with trash? And if so, how could anyone living there have possibly made it to Buy N Large, much less to one of the massive space ships that shuttled humankind off the planet?

Still, there are other plot points that simply disregard logic. Start with the Axiom. We’re to imagine this spaceship as the ultimate luxury cruiser, offering robot-assisted entertainment and relaxation to all aboard. At a casual glance, it seems a reasonable product for Buy N Large to offer, but ask yourself: What’s the economic model here? If no one on the ship is creating income, who’s paying for everything? (And how, after seven centuries in space, could the ship still be producing tons of garbage every day? Is there some sort of matter-generating machine on board?) Even the basic social interaction seems implausible. For instance, there’s a touching sub-plot that arises after Wall-E inadvertently tears two passengers away from the all-encompassing video screens that have defined their soft, fat existence. Finally seeing the world around them, they meet and fall in love, which is apparently a novelty on the Axiom. Cute, sure, but if everyone is leading an isolated, electronically-assisted existence, where did the babies in that nursery come from? How could the ship’s population have continued for all those centuries? And, creepier still, why are there no old people or children, just infants and generic adults?

And so on. Of course, it’s not hard to find similar flaws in any other work of fantasy or speculative fiction; the variations on “there’s no sound in space” may be as infinite as space itself. In that sense, the real irony of Wall-E is that if the animation had been a more cartoon-y, I doubt I would have been bothered by half those things. Render a story in ink, with all the natural exaggerations and simplifications that come with the creations of pen and brush, and it’s amazing how easy it becomes to swallow all sorts of silliness, from interstellar railroads to galaxy-traversing battleships. Make it look real, however, and people will expect it to conform to the rules of reality. 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Idol Evenings

As a critic, I try to make a point of not allowing suppositions or presumptions colour my opinion. If I’m to review something, I make a point of not arriving with my mind made up ahead of time. It’s only fair. 

In my personal life, I’m not always so diligent — especially when it comes to choosing how I spend my leisure time. As a result, I’ve spent the last eight years happily avoiding the phenomenon that is American Idol. Oh, sure, I’ve been aware of the show; I was familiar with the judges and the winners and the basic format, so I knew all about William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar and But I never had to watch the show, so I didn’t. 

In fairness, I should mention that I don’t watch much TV, period, and seem incapable of the sort of every-episode viewership shows like Idol demand. (It’s even worse with serials; despite valiant efforts and a lot of VCR programming, my wife and I have failed to ever see a full season of the Sopranos, MI5, or 24.) I should also add that, apart from a few performances by Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson, I’ve not been particularly impressed by the post-Idol work of any of the finalists. 

After watching both of this week’s episodes, I have to say I feel utterly vindicated in my presumptions. It may have been “rock and roll week” on Idol, but the performances didn’t rock my world. If anything, they left me in despair, wondering in what world the evening’s performances would have been considered rock.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by looking at the positives.

There’s no disputing the level of musicianship on the show. The performances may not have been to my taste, but there was no shortage of ability on stage. In fact, it would not be exaggerating to suggest that each of the contestants had, overall, better chops than the singers whose work they were covering. The one exception here would be Danny Gokey, who clearly cannot scream as well as Steven Tyler. Or James Brown, Paul McCartney, or several dozen others I could name. But the ability to scream does not seem to be something they look for in Idol contestants (as opposed, say, to in audience members), so we’ll let that pass. 

So why didn’t that surfeit of technique strike me as being a virtue? Yes, Adam Lambert showed plenty of power and conviction when he sang “Whole Lotta Love,” and his high notes were rock solid. They were also carefully massaged with vibrato, something that made Lambert’s performance seem smoother and more like “great singing” than what Robert Plant did on Led Zeppelin II

But “Whole Lotta Love” isn’t supposed to be “great singing.” It’s supposed to be raw, nakedly powerful, bluesy and elemental. Frankly, it sounds better without the vibrato, which is one reason Plant always seemed more of a great rock singer than the more polished Freddie Mercury.

And the sad thing was, Lambert’s performance was by far the best part of the show. 

Allison Iraheta’s version of “Cry Baby” was an admirably athletic rendition of the Joplin oldie, and managed to convey a hint of emotion despite Iraheta’s apparent belief that feeling the blues means singing as hard as you possibly can. (Although I blame Joplin as much for this.) She was similarly full-on in her duet performance with Lambert, but at least the material — Foghat’s hard-grinding “Slow Ride” — supported her exertion. She shouldn’t have been cut, but was. 

Kris Allen, who looks like a K-Mart knock off of the young Michael J. Fox, sang “Come Together” as if he’d never heard the Beatles’ version. That’s some sort of accomplishment, surely, but not one I’d care to applaud. The original was preternaturally cool, twisting a Chuck Berry car race lyric into a series of stoned non sequiturs, but Allen felt more comfortable playing it hot and funky, and ended up making the classic cover band mistake of ruining a tune by trying to improve on it. He also joined Gokey for a trainwreck rendition of the Styx tune “Renegade,” and let’s be honest here — if “Renegade” is what this show considers “classic rock,” no wonder I didn’t like it. Still, Allen made it through both looking cute and Fox-y, and that was enough to ensure his return. 

As for Gokey, well … words fail me. I understand that he’s a big audience favourite, but I don’t get it, at least not on a musical level. The rasp in his voice, which presumably passes for character in Idol-land, actually worked against the melody in “Dream On,” and there was a strange tenseness to the performance, as if Gokey saw the song as some sort of terrifying personal challenge — which, given how he handled the final note, was very likely the case. Factor in his less-than-awesome share of the Styx tune, and I came away from Tuesday’s show wondering how this guy ever made it to the finals. 

Then, on Wednesday, Ryan Seacrest showed one of the Ford “music videos” (read: commercials) the finalists had made, and suddenly all became clear. Gokey has a perfect jingle-singer voice, gritty enough to vaguely recall Michael McDonald, but otherwise utterly lacking in character. And sure enough, each of the others sounded equally at home in the ad, hitting their mark every time and singing with the perfect degree of bland professionalism. It was as if they’d each found their calling. As Seacrest might have put it, they were home.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Live or Memorex

There's a fair amount of footage online from Britney Spears' concert at Mohegan Sun, where a fan got onstage during "Womanizer." The great thing about this clip (the kid turns up at 2:20) is that Spears is clearly screaming at the intruder, yet no scream is audible.

Oh, for the good old days, when singers at least sang along to their pre-recorded tracks...


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tomorrow's fish and chips paper

Blender was shuttered this week. The news wasn’t a huge surprise, given that Folio had reported in January that ad pages there were down 30.6 percent. Not a promising indicator, that. The issue currently on newsstands weighs in 72 pages, which is pretty close to a “mayday!” signal. So it was hardly surprising to hear that Blender’s new owners, Alpha Media Group, were pulling the plug.

What may come as a surprise to some is that Blender was a failure despite having a paid circulation of roughly 780,000. It wasn’t that the magazine couldn’t find readers; the problem was that it couldn’t find advertisers who wanted to reach those readers. One of the ironies of magazine publishing is that the larger your circulation, the more dependent you are on advertising, as printing and distribution costs become too high to be covered by the cover price. That’s why niche magazines with small circulation often survive while larger, mass-market titles fail.

I worked at Blender for about seven months, until I quit to move to Canada. I edited the reviews section, which was one of the magazine’s strongest features. Unlike most American pop magazines, which seem to treat the reviews section as an afterthought, Blender recognized reviews as a major selling point. Not everyone agreed with their approach, of course, and even writers who contributed to the section complained about the enforced brevity of the reviews (110 words while I was there, although they later ballooned up to 135). But there’s something about the discipline of short reviews that really focuses criticism, requiring the writer to make a point clearly and succinctly.

Thinking about the demise of Blender left me wondering just how many now-defunct publications I’ve written for over the years, so I decided to assemble a list. It’s roughly chronological and as complete as I could manage, although I’m sure I’m forgetting something:

New York Rocker
The Baltimore News-American
Standing Ovation
Guitar for the Practicing Musician
Guitar World Acoustic
Bass Guitar

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A little knowledge...

A little while ago, I came across an entry posted by Scott Woods at called Meme of the Day: It’s All About the Music, Man… It was essentially a selection of contrasting quotes, taken from the website’s archive of rock critic interviews, on whether or not it’s important for rock critics to know something about music. Naturally, there were quotes both pro and con, and probably the smartest comment was Jon Pareles’ commonsensical observation that, “A critic should learn as much about music as possible, from any angle that seems interesting music theory, history, psychology, literature, theater, acoustics, religion, dance, anthropology, film theory, pharmacology, economics, fashion, linguistics, electronics, sports, and all the other things that touch on music.” (And yes, for what it’s worth, I’m among the critics quoted.)

Anyway, I happened to be reading this while listening to listening to James Brown, and as such flashed on a comment that has bothered me for years. The piece was an essay Lester Bangs wrote decades ago for Musician magazine, called Free Jazz/Punk Rock. At one point, he’s discussing alto saxophonist James Chance, of the Contortions. Here’s the quote:

“And come to think of it, his sax work has a precursor in James Brown, too: that guy who stood up in the middle of the title cut on Brown's Super Bad album and took that horrible raggedy solo which probably got him fired.”

If you have only a passing familiarity with Brown’s “Super Bad,” it’s easy to see what Bangs is driving at. The solo, by Robert McCullough, is overblown and frenetic, eschewing the usual blues licks for something approximating John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach. Granted, McCullough played tenor, not alto, and his solo lacked the honking cacophony of Chance’s playing, but the point is clear enough.

Still, the last four words bugged me. Sure, I recognized that Bangs was riffing off Brown’s reputation as a disciplinarian who fined players for bad notes, but come on — what sort of control freak would fire a guy for “a horrible raggedy solo” and then release the track anyway? Logic should tell us that had that solo been a firing offence, we never would have heard it; the take would have been junked, and someone else’s solo would have been on the single.

Especially since the producer of “Super Bad” was James Brown himself.

For the record, McCullough — who joined Brown’s band at roughly the same time as the Collins brothers, Bootsy and Phelps — appeared on at least three more sessions with Brown after cutting “Super Bad.” He was ultimately replaced, in 1971, by St. Clair Pinckney. So no, he didn’t get fired for the solo.

But the most pointed refutation of Bangs’ point is on the record itself. Roughly four minutes into the original single, as McCullough starts in on a second solo, we hear Brown urging him on: “Come on! Come on, Robert! Come on, brother! Blow it, Robert! Blow me some Trane, brother!” How Bangs could have missed that is hard to imagine — perhaps he only half-remembered the track, and didn’t have time to re-listen before filing his piece? — but Brown’s exhortation to “blow me some Trane” suggests that he not only approved of what McCullough was playing, but was encouraging him to push the envelope.

Which brings me back to Pareles’ point. A writer who tries to “learn as much about music as possible” will be less inclined to let hyperbole lead to nonsensical statements, and that can only strengthen his or her writing. Had Bangs grasped that James Brown actually intended to merge avant-garde jazz and funk on “Super Bad,” he might have made connections that would have lead to a deeper understanding of the music, and a better essay overall. Instead, by assuming it to be an aberration, he squandered any potential insight on a joke. And not a particularly funny one, at that.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The curse of celebrity?

"WASHINGTON ( -- Sen. John McCain's campaign today wasn't content with simply launching a new attack on Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama. The McCain team held a conference to further accuse Mr. Obama of being 'the world's biggest celebrity.'"

Aha -- that's the problem with Obama. People like him. And if the last eight years have taught us anything, being liked is not part of the job of being president.

Coming soon, the new campaign slogan: 

Vote for someone nobody likes. McCain '08.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Better Late Than...

This is a review from the Guelph Jazz Festival which was to have run in the Globe and Mail on September 11, but got bumped due to coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. Not that I'm complaining — the review of the Virgin Music Festival was bumped back, and coverage of the Canadian Opera Company's Ring Cycle and new opera house opening was also curtailed. There's only so much space, after all.

Still, it seems a shame to let the thing disappear into the ether. So here's what it would have said had the festival run some other week:

Steve Coleman and Five Elements/Gyorgy Szabados & Vladimir Tarsov
At the Riverrun Centre in Guelph Saturday

Reviewed by J.D. Considine

In the ’60s, after Ornette Coleman freed jazz from the shackles of chord changes, the avant garde embraced the notion of "free improvisation,"in which musicians spontaneously created music without any preset plans or material. Although occasionally transcendent, the results were more often chaotic, coasting on energy while studiously ignoring recognizable melody.

Perhaps that's why a growing trend in today's avant garde integrates pre-prepared themes and structures into what is otherwise an improvised performance. Steve Coleman, whose group Five Elements headlined a double bill at the Guelph Jazz Festival on Saturday, calls this collaborative approach "spontaneous composition," and it has huge advantages over the free-flowing cacophony of old.

But simply having a handful of themes and an organizing structure is not enough. It'’s also important to have a sense of balance and dynamics, and in that sense Coleman and crew would have done well to study their opening act, Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Szabados and Russian drummer Vladimir Tarasov.

Szabados and Tarasov (who were making their North American debut as a duo) are an unlikely pair of jazz dynamos. Largely unknown outside of Europe, the two look more like aging academics than cutting-edge improvisers, and are as grounded in the European classical tradition as they are in jazz. Indeed, elements of what they played — particularly the eloquent silences and melodic use of percussion — owed more to composer Pierre Boulez than to bebop.

Even so, the two made it clear that improvised composition doesn'’t have to sound random to maintain a sense of frisson. Although their hour-long first selection had its moments of roiling rhythms and untrammeled dissonance, there were also regularly recurring themes, ranging from a surprisingly tuneful triplet figure on Tarasov’s tom-toms to a vigorous, two-handed march from Szabados.

Not only did those elements anchor the performance in recognizable melody, their use subtly altered the way Szabados and Tarasov listened and responded to one another. There was a genuine sense of play to their interaction, a joyful intertwining of wit and discovery that drew the audience in and brought them to their feet, demanding an encore.

Coleman’s set, by contrast, seemed more like homework than recess. With the six members of Five Elements arranged in a semi-circle across the stage, each reading from a thick sheaf of sheet music, they looked ready for serious business, and after an opening salvo from Coleman'’s alto, serious business was what we got.

At first, the group — which, in addition to Coleman’s alto, included trumpet, trombone, bass, drums and voice —— focused on pulsing, rhythmically intricate drones (imagine Philip Glass as interpreted by a college lab band). Various solos emerged, and then a new sequence announced by a sort of disjointed bebop melody. Many minutes later, a new pulse pattern was introduced. And so on, for 90 straight minutes, with only occasional changes in tempo, dynamics or mood.

There were some standout performances. Singer Jen Shyu did an exceptional job of making the voice seem as much a jazz instrument as any horn, and her wordless improvisations were beautifully phrased. Trombonist Tim Albright was a revelation, delivering slyly virtuosic lines while maintaining gutbucket immediacy, while trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson occasionally evoked the ghost of Booker Little. And Coleman himself remains a strikingly original voice on alto, being both less harmonically oblique than Anthony Braxton and more obviously bebop influenced than Ornette Coleman.

But those bright moments accounted for maybe 40 minutes of the two hours Coleman and Five Elements played. The rest was cluttered and monotonous, offering little textural or harmonic variety (would it have killed them to change key occasionally?). It was, in short, a performance by the group and for the group, and the steady exodus during the second number spoke to just how much that self-indulgence tried the audience’s patience.

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