7/29/2015

Getting the Poison Out: The End of 'Californication'

Thanks to Netflix, and a year after everyone else—anyone who was still watching, that is—we’ve managed to settle the unfinished business we had with Californication, mainly to play catch up with seasons 6 and 7. As it turns out, unfinished business is one of the major themes of the final season. That and how increasingly over-the-top and devoid of much resemblance to reality the show had become. Let’s face it: there are ladies’ men and then there’s Hank Moody (David Duchovny). And no 40-something writer, no matter how attractive, gets that much ass for free. Sure, he has that self-destructive, bad boy streak than many women find irresistible but it’s just too much in this case. It’s almost as if your suspended disbelief has to pause and get its bearings.

Season 6 is a ridiculous rock and roll journey almost redeemed by the luminous Maggie Grace (‘Lost’) and a bonafide rock legend: Sex Pistol Steve Jones. But “almost” is the key word here since the plot lines are as atrocious as the bad accents and scenery chewing by most of the guest stars, not to mention the least accurate rock star-types seen this side of a Amish after school special. (The likely concoction of someone who quite possibly may have confused This is Spinal Tap with an actual documentary.) Oh, and Hank's best friend and agent Charlie (Evan Handler) pretends to be gay so he can sign gay clients. Yes, the results are disastrous and not as funny as anyone might’ve hoped. And Rob Lowe as Eddie Nero is exhausting and not in a good way. Whew.

Season 7, as we mentioned before, revolves largely around loose ends: the end result of one particular instance of Hank’s past sexual proclivities; Charlie and Marcy's (Pamela Adlon) marriage; and, of course, the on-again off again romance between Hank and Karen (Natascha McElhone). Their daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin), as always, represents the show’s emotional center and her appearances tend to imbue the proceedings with a bit of heft. But we don’t see much of her, since the show has veered too far off the silly end to employ Becca’s gravitas. Lowe as Nero makes a brief and unnecessary appearance but the guest star slot is redeemed by the return of Jones, as well as the welcome arrival of Michael Imperioli and Heather Graham. (The less said about her character's son Levon…)

Californication ends in a way that Hank Moody himself may have deemed lame: with a series of whimpering clich├ęs that bear no relation to the lunacy of its previous episodes. As if someone in the show’s hierarchy finally had enough with the shenanigans and abruptly decided it was time to wrap it all up. Just like Hank, one assumes.

Your Movie Sucks, Too

ROGER EBERT 
A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck 
[Andrews-McMeel-2012]

Because the late Roger Ebert was a lifelong film critic he had first hand awareness of the pitfalls of sequels. And because he was one smart dude he knew enough not to make the same mistakes he’d witnessed time and time again on the silver screen, when it came time to publish a sequel to his fabulous compendium of crappy flicks, Your Movie Sucks [Andrews-McMeel-2007].

Five years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Chicago Sun-Times reviewer brought more of the same wit and snark to this bunch of reviews as he did previously, as well as a heartfelt expression of ‘But, why?’ to many films which should never have been made or originated from an inspiring spark and were simply botched in the execution phase. Both humorous and eye-opening, A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length is that rare sequel that delivers. Didn’t expect anything less.

7/24/2015

Just Say No: A Lifelong Fan Walks Away from Yes

[For the first time in the history of “5” the royal we” will be put aside. This is personal.]

I used to be a real hardliner about artists retiring once, in my estimation, they had become artistically irrelevant—which I define as releasing mediocre material nowhere near the quality of their artistic heyday and simply cashing in on their past—but in recent years my stance has softened considerably in this regard. Hey, if people want to pay good money to see _____ perform, who am I to disagree? I’ll just be over in the corner if somebody needs me.

So, why has the news that Yes plan to soldier on without Chris Squire, founding member—the last of those, btw—and sole constant presence throughout the band’s history, bothered me so much? To the point that I’ve engaged in heated discussions online over the subject. (Chill, dude.) Part of it has to do with the fact that I unapologetically expected much more than dexterous mediocrity from a band which has meant so much to me. And that’s what the music they’ve made from 1991-2014 has been: well-executed dreck. So, the death of Squire coupled with fans who tell me they’ve been listening to Yes for decades and that they consider the last quarter century of Yes music to be of respectable quality, has made it obvious to me that I need to STFU, walk away and leave these folks to enjoy their Krokus* version of Yes. Cheers.

* [Krokus is a Swiss metal band which has soldiered on without an original member in their lineup for decades, long after their creative and commercial peak, with diminishing returns.]

7/18/2015

Your Valuable Hunting Knife: A Brief Guided by Voices Primer

You may have heard of these guys, but have yet to experience the saga that is Guided by Voices up close and personal. Maybe you’ve been a tad gun-shy. Sure, who can blame you? Aside from the baffling origin story—30-something schoolteacher and a rotating cast of beer-fueled buddies record British Invasion-influenced, minute-plus, fascinating tunes in a basement, on boom boxes and 4-track tape machines, toiling in obscurity for a decade—there’s the weird song titles; the crushing low fidelity of their first eight albums; the huge catalog...take your pick. After all, the Robert Pollard-led outfit’s body of work is staggering in sheer size—22 studio albums, 17 EPs, 39 singles, 6 box sets(!) and 6 compilations, in addition to various split EPs and singles—as well as reverence and reputation. But we’re here to help.

Because it’s been a bit of a GBV listening marathon ‘round these parts lately—aided in part by reading former bassist Jim Greer’s book on the band, Guided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll—coupled with our desire to share our love for the Dayton, OH indie rock institution and lo-fi avatars, we started wondering what could be the gateway album for neophytes. This led to putting together a primer on how to immerse oneself in Uncle Bob’s best known exploits. And so here we are. (Note: we’ll be focusing on the studio albums exclusively. You can do the rest of the digging yourself. That’s half the fun anyway, right?) So, shall we?

Where To Start:
There’s some choice stuff among the early albums, but some people you just can’t start ‘em off on a lo-fi tip. Meanwhile, Do the Collapse [TVT-1999], although a solid record, is quite polished and overly produced—what’s up, Ric Ocasek?!—so it’s not the most accurate introduction for a newbie. The Rob Schnapf-produced Isolation Drills [TVT-2001] has the highest quality sound to quality song ratio in the GBV catalog (“Unspirited”, “Glad Girls”, “Privately”) which makes it a perfect starting point. It’s also the studio album that comes closest to capturing the energy of their legendary live shows. (Isolation Drills features Elliott Smith playing keyboards on a couple of tracks.)

1997’s Mag Earwhig! [Matador] is the big anomaly in the band’s catalog in that Pollard fired the prior incarnation and replaced them with Cleveland’s Cobra Verde, lock, stock and barrel. As such, the lone ‘Guided by Verde’ album is a muscular one, chock full of great tunes (“Sad If I Lost It”, “I Am a Tree”, “Bulldog Skin”) and should be your next stop.

What’s Next?
Once you are certain this band is to your liking and you are willing to withstand some hardcore lo-fi recording, it's time to move on to what was thought to be the band's final album, one noted for both its songs and the insouciance behind the making of the album itself. Recorded on portable 4-tracks and boom boxes, the lo-fi, basement sound of indie rock landmark Bee Thousand [Scat-1994] (which includes the classics “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Gold Star for Robot Boy”, as well as "I Am a Scientist"), was more the result of financial constraints and dissatisfaction with proper recording studios than an aesthetic (which they fully demonstrated later on when they came into actual recording budgets and name producers) and further proof that great tunes can't be stopped, no matter the circumstances. Named during a marathon weed smoking session—its title approved by Uncle Bob for its resemblance to famed Who guitarist Pete Townshend—this tribute to the British Invasion and Pollard’s “four Ps”: pop, punk rock, progressive rock and psychedelia, remains the single most beloved piece of GBV's musical output.

Even though the success of Bee Thousand led to signing with Matador and, consequently, exposure to a much larger audience, GBV chose to stick to their lo-fi guns and came up with an almost equally stunning followup to its predecessor in Alien Lanes [Matador-1995], home of “A Salty Salute”, “Game of Pricks” and “Motor Away”. Quite the tour de force, Alien Lanes is along with Bee Thousand, the foundation upon which the GBV mythology is based.

What to Avoid:
Every GBV record has gems, but leave the 6 albums from the 2012-2014 span of their reunion for absolute last. (The band first broke up in 2004, went on an extended hiatus, reunited in 2010 and then broke up abruptly in 2014.) Collectively, they sound like the band is trying too hard to capture their "youth" and not being too convincing at it, either. English Little League [GBV-2013] is probably the best among that latter bunch.

The Rest:
Devil Between My Toes [Schwa-1987] Sandbox [Halo-1987] Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia [Halo-1989] Same Place the Fly Got Smashed [Rocket #9-1990] Propeller [Rockathon-1992] Vampire on Titus [Scat-1993]  Under the Bushes Under the Stars [Matador-1996] Tonics & Twisted Chasers [Rockathon-1996]  Universal Truths and Cycles [Matador-2002] Earthquake Glue [Matador-2003] Half Smiles of the Decomposed [Matador-2004] Let's Go Eat the Factory [GBV-2012] Class Clown Spots a UFO [GBV-2012] The Bears for Lunch [GBV-2012] Motivational Jumpsuit [GBV-2014] Cool Planet [GBV-2014].