Showing posts with label Pop Diary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pop Diary. Show all posts

Friday, October 15, 2021

Pop Diary: Maid, Natalie Bergman, Meet Me at the Hop

What I'm watching, hearing, drinking, etc.

Maid (Netflix). Margaret Qualley's performance in the title role is the best thing about this limited seres about a young mother's desperate efforts to make a home for her daughter and a new life for herself after becoming trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend. Fleeing for safety, Alex has no money, no job, no home and no one to help her.

As Alex, Qualley is frustrated, angry and lost, but also smart, warm and surprisingly funny. I was ready for this show to be a long, grim slog that highlights all the ways in which our so-called safety net fails to help people while ensnaring them in bureaucracy that prevents them from moving forward. Yes, the show is all of that, but it's also richly human and humorous.

When Alex loses a job, or a place to live, or when the housing she does find is contaminated with black mold that so sickens her daughter that she can't go to daycare, meaning that Alex can't go to work to pay for housing (or daycare), we feel her distress, but also share in her appreciation of the absurdity of it all.  How much more f-ed up can things get? Quite a bit more, actually.

On top of her own challenges, Alex's mom (played a little too much by Qualley's real-life mom, Andie MacDowell) is mentally ill, off her meds and in need of care. Her estranged dad is no help, and the ex-boyfriend keeps turning up to make things that much more difficult. Portions of the series enter more conventional TV territory via some of these side dramas, but improve whenever Alex is the focus. 

Through the course of the show, we're thoroughly caught up in her many challenges, rooting for her success and more sympathetic to others going through challenges like this. It's an important show for that last reason, and a richly moving one thanks to Qualley's portrayal of Alex, who seems completely real. How could you not want her to succeed?

Natalie Bergman - Mercy.  Jesus rock on Jack White's Third Man label? I guess so. Bergman's LP is unashamedly spiritual and full of praise for the divinity she sees as having led her out of depression following the deaths of her dad and stepmother, who were killed by a drunk driver in 2019.

The songs exhort us to talk to the Lord in times of need, ask Jesus to shine His light on us, and shower Him with praise, and it all works fantastically as contemporary indie pop. Whether you enjoy it or not likely varies on how open you are to Bergman's message, but I like it quite a bit. It's melodic, different, thoughtful and it has heart. Test here:

Meet Me at the Hop (Bear Family). Another big bang for the buck from Germany's excellent reissue label. So much to like here: R&B from Lavern Baker and Hank Ballard, doo-wop from the Flamingos and the Three Pennis, teen rock from Fabian and Ricky Nelson, and instrumental grit from the Viscounts. It's like having a stack of nickels and access to a great jukebox. It'll send you, even if you were never there.


Friday, September 24, 2021

Pop Diary: Brandon Eder Ensemble, Bogie and Bacall, St. Elsewhere

What I'm hearing, watching, reading, drinking, etc.

Brandon Eder Ensemble - Cape Cod Cottage (Bandcamp). Eder's work was a Spotify epiphany for me early in lockdown and I've been keeping up with him ever since. 

His compositions are unique - pastel-hued with lovely melodies set to precise, evolving rhythms. The pieces sound almost electronic, yet are played by live musicians on mainly acoustic instruments. Some of it reminds me of Zappa's lightest and most melodic instrumental compositions, but there also are elements of 1970s jazz and soundtrack music. Some of it sounds like something you might've heard backing one of those short films of birds or plants they included in early episodes of "Sesame Street." 

This latest release comes along with a backstory: It's supposedly made up of lost compositions by Edward Blankman, "a retired dentist who wrote elegant, minimalist jazz in obscurity circa 1970." But all the titles carry Eder's name, indicating that he's just having a little fun pretending to be someone else. It does sound minimal and elegant, though. Have a listen:

Bogie and Bacall (HBO Max). We've been enjoying old movie nights the past couple of weeks. Must be fall. Tucked away in the TCM area on HBO Max (which is really hard to find), we landed on first "Key Largo" and, the following week, "To Have and to Have Not." My wife and I'd seen these movies before, of course, but it was the first time for our daughter, who enjoyed both. Both are briskly paced, well directed (by John Houston and Howard Hawks, respectively) and sharply scripted. The chemistry between the leads is undeniable and, in the famed "whistle" scene in "To Have and To Have Not," smoldering. If you're looking for something classic to watch on a dark, crisp evening, either of the would be a great choice. 

St. Elsewhere (Hulu). Meanwhile, my wife and I went down another wormhole, binging this 80s classic. I was a big fan during the original run, but she'd never watched it. 

So edgy and innovative at the time, the show now can seem clunky, cheesy and sometimes laughably bad. But when you keep the context in mind - how different from, and more realistic than - this show and "Hill Street Blues" were from other series at the time, it's hard not, still, be impressed. 

The series did take risks, and did a lot of things differently from shows that had come before, paving the way for things with "E.R.," "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Homicide" and, ultimately, series like "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad," but it also frequently relied conventional, predictable TV plots. It was a creature of it time, standing on familiar ground, while also breaking it.

Going back to the source as been fun. Although there's some stiff acting here and there, the excellent performances of Ed Flanders, William Daniels (stealing every scene he's in as the acerbic Dr. Craig), David Morse, Ed Begley, Jr., and a young Denzel Washington all hold up. And, damn!, Howie Mandel was great as Wayne Fiscus - a completely natural and very funny actor. It's a pity he hasn't done more series work, apart from bad game shows and talent contests.

We're late in season 2 right now, I think, and it's addictive. We've been watching an episode most nights. Next up "Hill Street Blues"!


Friday, September 17, 2021

Pop Diary: Reservation Dogs, Only Murders in the Building, Catenary Wires

What I'm hearing, reading, watching, drinking, etc.

Reservation Dogs (FX).
This is my household's new favorite show and right now it feels like the Best Show Ever.

Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, and reflecting the gentle absurdity and fundamental kindness of Waititi's best work ("Boy," "Jojo Rabbit"), it focuses on four Native teens living in Oklahoma and the adults around them.

Getting out and going to California is the sole aim of the teens. They want to get away from poverty, away from rival "gangs" (actually, just other kids as mixed as they are), and away from the sadness of a friend's suicide. But with each episode, we see how California is just a phony dream. It's not as human, real and funny as where they are right now. 

The mystical mixes with the mundane. A deer lady kills male chauvinists in their muscle cars. Kids steal a chip truck. A cowardly warriors materializes to offer advice. There's a paintball shootout and a creature in the woods with glowing eyes. A girl takes her drivers' test and winds up in a shootout accompanied by her former basketball coach. The world developed here and the characters that inhabit it are unlike any other we've seen on television and we want to see more and more. A beautiful, moving and hilarious show.

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu).
Another one we're loving watch unfold. As a kid who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, I'm wired to love anything that has Steve Martin in it. Even more so with Martin Short included. But my high school-age daughter, who knows third key cast member Selena Gomez better than either of the Martins, is liking it, too. And why not? It's light. It's funny. It's charming and a bit unpredictable (I won't spoil an early superstar guest appearance). 

Selena and the Martins are occupants of a luxurious but fading Manhattan apartment building called the Arconia who join forces to solve the murder of a fellow tenant. Each of the three is hooked on a true crime podcast, so they kinda know what they're doing, or so they think. Hi-jinks ensue, but they're witty more than silly, although there's some great physical comedy on display, too, proving that Steve still has his chops, as when he juggles a frozen cat that falls out of a neighbor's freezer. How can you not want to watch now?

The Catenary Wires - Birling Gap. I love the vocal blend of co-singers Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey in this band, which specializes in a sort of classic British pop that includes elements of folk and light psychedelia with a dollop of 80s indy here and there. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but good, solid songs with strong melodies and lyrics. Highlights include Fletcher and Pursey's delightful traded vocals on "Mirrorball" (her: wispy and tuneful; him: baritone-ish and dark); the bouncy sing-song sunshine pop of "Always On My Mind," and the baroque pop of "Cantenbury Lanes." Anglophiles with a love of Beatles, Kinks, XTC, Stone Roses and such will dig this. Here's a sample:


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Pop Diary: 1971; Everything's Gonna Be Okay; Alter Ego

What I'm watching, hearing, reading, etc.

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. The assemblage of period clips here and the absence of talking head interviews interrupting them all is the plus of this look-back at when, according to the series' thesis, the Sixties became the Seventies. The minus is the jumbled, unfocused narrative and detours—such as an inordinate amount of time spent recounting PBS' early reality TV series, "An American Family'—that take us away from the musicians and their works. Still, it's worth a look if just for the performance footage alone, featuring the Stones (both Sly and Rolling), the Laurel Canyon crew, Marvin, Aretha and much more. Also, while there's no denying David Bowie's impact in the U.K. during this period, I think the series overstates his overall influence; it took the U.S. several more years to catch on to him. He only cracked the upper reaches of the American charts in 1975. 

Everything's Gonna Be Okay. You'd think it'd be impossible for Australian comic to top "Please Like Me," but here he is back again with another tremendously profound, hilarious and human series, which places him as an older step-brother care for two teen step-sisters, one of whom is autistic, after his father dies. There's nothing cheesy for feel-good about the situations or interactions in this comedy. It's very real: People being snide, petty, funny and loving—generally all a once.

Alter Ego #170. The newest issue of Roy Thomas' fanzine takes a deep dive into the career and influence of Jack Kirby—territory generally left to TwoMorrows' sister mag, The Jack Kirby Collector. There's a look at Kirby's role in the creation and look of Iron Man, Kirby's contributions to 1960s fanzines, the artist's horror comics work and an examination of Stan Lee's comments about collaborating with Kirby. Thomas, who had a sometimes uneasy relationship with the King (he was parodied as Stan's sycophant in Kirby's Mister Miracle series, where Lee way portrayed as the self-aggrandizing con-man, Funky Flashman) discusses his mixed feelings candidly while coming to the same conclusion as most of us: Kirby was the best of the best and the Marvel Universe as we know it wouldn't have been here without him.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Pop Diary: WandaVision, Summer of Soul, Jack Kirby's Fourth World

What I'm watching, reading, hearing, etc.

"WandaVision." Yes, I know I'm late the the party, but what a wonderfully weird and surprisingly moving series this is. It's the most thoughtful and creative Marvel has produced for the big or small screen to date, using parodies of American sitcoms from the 1950s to the present day as a way to dig into how avoidance of grief makes us all a little crazy. Many of us escape harsh reality by entering into the stories of people on TV. Wanda, however, has the ability to do what many of us would love to do ourselves: She goes straight through the screen, making her life a TV series, where the mood is light, the lame jokes funny and tragedy non-existent. And when reality does, inevitably, intrude, she responds with anger and a refusal to accept the truth, struggling to adapt to the way things now are. The series is brilliant, and a stunning showcase for Elizabeth Olsen's near-magical acting talents, demonstrating her ability to do just about anything, from light comedy and biting satire, to superhero action to tragic drama.

"The Summer of Soul." How could anyone forget about "The Black Woodstock"? Watching the amazing musical performances from Sly and the Family Stone, the Staples Singers, the Fifth Dimension and more, it seems improbable that anyone interested in pop music could be unaware of what went down at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. This was an event on par, or maybe better than, Woodstock or the Monterey Pop Festival. Yet, an intended public TV film showcasing the music never aired and the event faded into memory. In this new documentary, Questlove explores why. The answers are as predictable as they are shameful and disappointing: Ignorance of Black culture and disregard for what's meaningful to Black audiences by our media gatekeepers and the implicit racism that remains a cancer within American society. Interspersed among the mind-blowing musical performances are contemporary news clips and new interviews that demonstrate how rapidly everything was changing—musically, politically, culturally—then, but how little has changed, sadly, today. This is an important, rousing and affirmative film that makes its point while entertaining us and inspiring us with its music. The only thing that could improve it would be more complete musical performances. My hope is that we'll see those, too, and sometime soon. How about also giving us the concert film that nobody saw, in addition to this fine documentary about the event?

Jack Kirby's New Gods Epic. In celebration of the series' debut 50 years ago, I've made a summer reading project out of DC Comics' Omnibus collections of the King's Fourth World titles. I'm deep into volume 1 or 4 right now and am thoroughly swept up in Kirby's powerful art and relentless tide of incredible concepts and ideas. Yes, Kirby's often odd dialogue and "random use of quotation marks" requires the usual adaptation, but it all matters not at all after a dozen pages or so. He was, and remains, a master storyteller. People will be reading this in 50 more years, too, I believe. TwoMorrows Publishing's new "Old Gods and New: A Companion to Jack Kirby's Fourth World," which I just received as part of my subscription to the Jack Kirby Collector (but also available separately) will make this current re-reading that much more fun.