Archives for August 2012

New “Sitcom” Whitney, Come Back ‘Married With Children’, All Is Forgiven.

People have often wondered what would happen if you gave 100 monkeys a typewriter and an infinite amount of time. Well, now we know what you get if you give it to just the one, and tell it that it has less than ten minutes to come up with something funny.

Everything in America seems to be one extreme or the other. Either they have so little interest in exploring anywhere else in the world that they don’t even own a passport. Or, they’re the most widely travelled and richly cultured individuals on the planet. There doesn’t ever seem to be anything in between. It’s either red state or blue.

On the one hand you get South Park, The Simpsons, Curb You Enthusiasm, Letterman, Conan and the Larry Sanders Show. But then on the other, there’s The Nanny, Rosanne, Married With Children, Mike and Molly, and now, Whitney.

It’s only when you see Rosanne and Ellen DeGeneres guesting on the Larry Sanders Show that you’re reminded of quite how sharp and funny they both are, and what wonderful comic timing they both have. So how do you explain the sitcoms that the networks created for them?

What a strange beast television is. It hungrily gravitates towards the brightest and most charismatic individuals it can find. But before it allows those that it discovers their 15 minutes, it insists that they dilute everything it was that they were first attracted to about them.

So that when the shows they build around them eventually air, they’ve been rendered entirely impotent. And they’re washed away in a tide of mediocrity and dragged to the murky depths in a sea of platitudes.

There’s no situation in Whitney. Unlike say Married With Children, which is a show about a couple, who are married, but, and here’s the catch; they have children!!! Or The Nanny, which is a show about a nanny, but she has a funny voice!!! Whitney’s not about anything.

Nor could it in any way, and however vaguely, be considered to be even remotely comedic. I await the episode in which they talk at length about whether their toilet seat should remain up or down.

Yet I’ve no doubt that the comedienne that it’s constructed around, Whitney Cummings is both smart and funny. She must be to have secured her own show.

So I hope she’s not been reduced to drinking all the money that they’re paying her in a fit of depression. Because the show that bares her name is alas, about as funny as watching your youngest child being carefully eaten by a particularly vindictive polar bear who appears to be watching you out of the corner of its eye.

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Frank Ocean’s Pitch-Perfect Debut Album “Channel Orange” Soars.

 

Ever since they arrived so very loudly in the hood a couple of years ago, everyone has been wondering who it was that would emerge from the Odd Future collective.

Not withstanding all the bombast and sheer noise, it was obvious that someone would raise their head above the parapet, and it was sort of assumed that that person would be their unofficial lead singer, Tyler, The Creator.

But his official debut solo album Goblin (actually his second, and they all of them release a steady stream of mix-tapes) was surprisingly unimpressive, and was reviewed earlier here.

But with the arrival of Channel Orange, the official debut from Frank Ocean, we have our answer. This is the real deal, and so, clearly is he.

Truth be told, he’s not really part of the Odd Future gang, but hooked up with them after they’d already come into being to act as their sort of unofficial mentor. He’d moved to LA five years beforehand after Katrina had devastated his home town of New Orleans.

By the time Odd Future formed he’d already established himself as a successful jobbing song writer, producing work for, amongst others, John Legend and Justin Bieber. You can read more in Jon Caramanica’s excellent New York Times profile here.

Channel Orange charts the same kind of confessional RnB territory that Drake mined in last year’s, whisper it, somewhat over-praised Take Care. But whilst the baring of his soul is once again the impetus for the album, there is a lot more going on here than that. Ocean is clearly a far richer writer than Drake, and the panoramic vistas he evokes are significantly broader.

The characters that people “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” for instance, are clearly related to those that drift through Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal Less Than Zero, and to some of those you find more recently in the colourful short stories of Junot Diaz. This is a world where existential angst is played out against a backdrop of urban ennui.

The latter by the way features Earl Sweatshirt, the other individual of substance to emerge from Odd Future.

But as Sacha Frere-Jones notes in his New Yorker review here, the emotional heart of the album is “Bad Religion”, performed here on the Jimmy Fallon Show. It’s also one of the few tracks that alludes to his much discussed sexuality.

Demonstrably, he’s as impressive vocally as he is compositionally. And his ability to cooly move in and out and master any number of genres, and to marry them effortlessly with pitch-perfect production all add up to spell just one thing; Prince.

Ocean is a major find, and this is comfortably one of the albums of the year. 

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Dirty Projectors’ New Album “Swing Lo Magellan”, More Musical Chores from Brooklyn, NYC.

Dirty Projectors are another in that line of bands who go to a great deal of trouble trying ever so hard to impress. And although you don’t have to come from Brooklyn to be part of that gang, it certainly seems to help. Get those beards a ready for some serious stroking.

Sure enough, their latest album Swing Lo Magellan arrives festooned with praise, much as its predecessor Bitte Orca did.

The boys from Pravda gave it a hushed 8.8 on Pitchfork, here. And you’ve that sense of obligation as you listen to it, that this is something that you really ought to be appreciating. But once again this is an album that refuses resolutely to do anything as mundane as actually engage.

Instead, all you get as you listen to it is the impression that the smartest boys in the class have been locked into their favourite science lab with a bunch of old 80s vinyl, some early Orange Juice, Thomas Dolby, a bit of Heaven 17, and told to find as many mathematically interesting ways of building on their sonic structures.

The results are certainly never dull. But every time a melody threatens to raise its head, it’s ruthlessly beaten down with a fantastically complex time signature. Or the kind of melodic undermining favoured by Thelonious Monk. Or just some good old fashioned, atonal dissonance. And it’s hard not to find yourself wondering, any chance of a tune?

It does briefly threaten to come to life with track 3, “Gun Has No Trigger”, the video for which you can see here. But like “Two Doves” from Bitte Orca, all that does is give you a sense of what might have been.

As those two tracks show, the band’s front man David Longstreth has gathered together three fantastic female vocalists. What a pity he doesn’t make more use of them.

Instead, all he sounds like is a teenage boy trying to impress the girls with all the many things he knows and is all too eager to tell them about, at great length. When all they want is for him to engage with them, emotionally. 

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The New Yorker Magazine, A Beam of Light Illuminating Innumerable Worlds.

The New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer resigned in July, after eventually being forced to admit that a number of the quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan in his best selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works had been made up by him.

You can read about it here in The Washington Post, or you can get the full account of precisely how he was unmasked by the man responsible, Michael C. Moynihan, in his fascinating piece in The Tablet, here.

Inevitably, some people have suggested that this could be as damaging for The New Yorker as Jayson Blair was for The New York Times after similar behavior there.

But Lehrer’s “lies” were in his best selling book, not the magazine. And if anything, what both cases point to is how increasingly difficult it is to get away with that kind of dishonesty in this day and age. Especially when you write for a publication like The New Yorker, which is so justly famed for the quality of its writing and the meticulous care with which each and every piece is put together.

I’ve been subscribing for about ten years now, and I waft about the place in a permanent state of wonder at the quality of each and every issue.

The July 9th and 16th edition for instance contained the following (there are 47 issues every year so some of the holiday issues cover two weeks, instead of the usual one):

There was a fascinating if inevitably depressing overview by Dexter Filkins of where Afghanistan is after ten years of US occupation, and what’s likely to happen there after they leave in 2014.

At over 10,000 words long, there are few if any other publications in the world prepared to provide their writers with that kind of window, and to give them the funds needed to conduct the sort of research a piece like that demands.

Then there was a piece by Michael Specter on Oxitec and the genetically modified mosquitos that they’ve released into certain carefully controlled environments in the Caribbean and, now, in Brazil. These have been genetically designed to self-destruct.

What will the unforeseen consequences be of releasing creatures created by man in the laboratory into the environment? On the other hand, very unusually, mosquitos appear to exist for the sole purpose of reproducing.

They don’t seem to be part of anything else’s diet, and the only creature they seem to rely on is us. And they’re responsible for half the deaths in the history of humanity. So surely the possibility of eliminating them is something to be welcomed?

Nathan Heller had a piece on the uber-hip TED talks and their messianic advocates.

And there were wonderfully illuminating and quietly moving extracts from the diary kept by the American writer Mavis Gallant as she struggled to balance being a woman, a writer, and an American trying to eek out a living in the detritus that was left of Europe in the aftermath of the II World War.

Then there are their stable of critics. Anthony Lane on cinema, Alex Ross on classical music, Judith Thurman on fashion and Peter Schjeldahl on art, to name but four of their unflappable titans. Plus the financial page, their Shouts and Murmurs (Joel Stein was particularly funny in this issue), their cartoons and of course their fiction.

It’s a slow week when I manage to finish reading an entire issue in any given week, and the short story that they publish is usually, alas, an inevitable casualty. But I make an exception for William Trevor, Junot Diaz (who had a piece in the following issue), Alice Munroe, Colm Tóibín and any of the older pieces by Updike or Nabokov that they occasionally publish.

It is by a country mile the best written, most meticulously researched and impeccably curated publication in the world. And at a little over $100 a year for a subscription, it’ll cost you barely two Euro a week. If you’ve any curiosity at all, about anything under the sun, you should treat yourself now.

And so what if you don’t manage to finish reading it (or even opening it) every week. Your read and unread copies will be greedily welcomed by friends and family alike.

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The New Norah Jones Album “Little Broken Hearts” Sings.

For the usual five minutes there in the autumn of 2001, all the talk was about an intoxicating songstress who managed to deliver grown-up pop, infused with Nashville and gently draped in the soft velvet of candle-lit lounge.

But then Norah Jones went and did something unforgivable. She released a debut album the following February that went on to sell over 20 million copies. This she compounded by taking her overnight fame with a casual shrug of the shoulders. And if all that weren’t bad enough, she had to look like that.

None of which is terribly fair. It’s hardly her fault is hers is the sound that ends up lining the walls of every boutique, lift and shopping mall in the western world.

Nonetheless, there was a sense that when she teamed up with Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) last year, she was quietly trying to ever so slightly distance herself from the Norah Jones of old.

She’d been called in by Burton to provide vocals for three of the tracks on his Leone/Morricone inspired Rome (reviewed earlier here). And unsurprisingly, given how well that turned out, the pair have teamed up officially now to jointly produce her new album, Little Broken Hearts.

The other ingredient in the mix, as the title suggests, is a gal called Miriam, and it’s she and what she gone done that has ended up giving Jones something to get her teeth stuck into.

Well it ain’t easy to stay in love, if you can’t tell a lie, So I’ll just have to take a bow, and say good-bye, she sings on the second track “Say Goodbye”. And as the album progresses, her bitterness gently rises to the surface until eventually, Miriam is unmasked.

As Sasha Frere-Jones notes in his review of it in the New Yorker here, she manages to deftly walk the line between taking her music to the next step, but doing so without alienating her loyal, not to say vast fan base. In this regard, Burton in the ideal, indeed the only choice to act as her foil.

As ever then, plush, lush, rich velvet, but with an edge.

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