Archive for May, 2013

[50/50] Song #33: “Hold Me Now”

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Song #33: “Hold Me Now” — Thompson Twins (1984)

220px-Thompsons_into_the_gap

Um, yeah. I did have hair like that. Rat tail, guilty as charged.

The ’80s are easy to make fun of, especially the fashion. Often deservedly so. You can blame MTV but they were really just enablers. Still, you could find artists at that time whose hairstyles and earclips met their overly-earnest songwriting skills at least halfway:

If you want to find a quintessential ’80s band, however, look no further than the Thompson Twins. Originally, ironically enough, a seven-piece from England, Thompson Twins were a look in search of a sound, which they eventually found after paring down to a trio. Dismissed as mere hairstyles and lightweights by the British music press (pretty damn funny when you think about it), they still went on to considerable, albeit short-lived success, thanks to their huge hit “Hold Me Now.” The song benefited from particularly lush production values and the trilling reverb of a bank of percussion instruments (including the xylophone) not usually heard on a pop hit, and it holds up exceptionally well, even today. Certainly better than the haircuts.

It’s also rather sweet and pathetic, in that puppy-dog way that only sad 20somethings can convey. It doesn’t help that “Hold Me Now” was everywhere the semester after my college girlfriend dumped me. However, she’s not my go-to thought whenever I hear it; we were long done by the time Thompson Twins showed up on tour at IUP late that spring — coincidentally around the time their song peaked in the Top 40, meaning we saw them at the very apex of their career — and they put on one of the funnest live shows I ever saw. They were on top of the world and knew it. It also didn’t hurt I had a great date that night. Unfortunately, like their opening act, the trivia question Re-Flex, Thompson Twins never escaped the 1980s.

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[50/50] Video Game #3: Marble Madness

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Video Game #3: Marble Madness (1984)

mm1You are a marble. All you want to do is roll downhill and cross the goal line before time runs out. In your way are killer slinkies, acid amoebas, mean black marbles, and bottomless cliffs in an existential landscape. Essentially Marble Madness is a surrealist version of that wooden marble maze game everyone seemed to have as a kid. You could also race against another player, which (if you’ve been reading this blog at all) you know means you could KNOCK YOUR BROTHER’S MARBLE INTO THE ABYSS!

At a time when fighting and shooting games were all the rage, Marble Madness was a joyful outlier, a simple race against the clock over a not-so-simple landscape. The bright isometric grid, absurdist maze and idiosyncratic soundtrack guaranteed it was exactly the sort of game you’d expect me to go crazy over. The arcade version used a heavy trackball instead of a joystick, giving this abstract video game a visceralness other titles lacked. (Despite being exported to home consoles, smart phones and emulators, this lack of a heavy trackball meant the ports were always a pale imitation of the original experience.)

It was also unique in that the game ended when you finished the last race. It should be noted, though, reaching the final level was extremely difficult, and in spite of all the quarters I dropped in this pit over the years, I never managed to get to the final maze. It remained maddeningly just out of reach.

[50/50] Comedy #3: “The Producers”

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Comedy #3: “The Producers” (1968)

producers68_de_02Comedians are like athletes (and, arguably musicians) in that they do their biggest, boldest and best work when they’re young. Physical comedy needs strength and endurance, natch, but there is also a certain kill-your-gods snarkiness when you’re younger that lends itself perfectly to satire. With a background in Vaudeville and Broadway, Mel Brooks became the boss of genre spoofs in 1965 when he created the ultimate spy send-up “Get Smart”* — which, like it’s absurdist cousin Green Acres —has aged particularly well thanks to the reliability of all bureaucracies to remain perpetually bat-shit inane.

 

Brooks would go on to make over a dozen big screen comedies, all but a few big hits, but none funnier than his first, “The Producers.” As he did with the Western in “Blazing Saddles!,” Mel Brooks lovingly destroys the Broadway musical, while mocking Nazis, ’60s counterculture and Hollywood with perfect pitch. It is (still) politically incorrect, broadly outrageous and really damn funny. Plus, like any great Broadway musical, you always leave the theater whistling the theme.

The Nazis in Busby Berkley-style chorus line (the overhead swastika is a particularly inspired touch) is just one of its many bold transgressions. Now considered “a gold standard for all in-your-face comedies that pile on more ‘tasteless’ scenes than you could shake a shtick at,” Roger Ebert once said that being there when it first came out in 1968 was to “witness audacity so liberating that not even There’s Something About Mary rivals it.” Still does.

 

*Other than Star Trek, “Get Smart” was our favorite show when we were kids, and to this day my Dad still calls my brother and I “chief” a la Don Adams

[50/50] Short Story #3: “The Days of Solomon Gursky”

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Short Story #3: “The Days of Solomon Gursky” — Ian McDonald (1998)

410197Truly one of the more ambitious short stories ever, “The Days of Solomon Gursky” focuses on a scientist who discovers a form of immortality and follows his career over the next, oh, 40 billion years or so, dropping in on him during seven key days. This “one week” in the life of the character is both a play on the English nursery rhyme “Solomon Grundy” and a re-envisioning of the creation story from the book of Genesis. McDonald crams dozens of scientific concepts onto each page, daring you to keep up as he skips from idea to idea on the long arc of Gursky’s adventure to the end of the universe and beyond. And yet, thanks to the pathos at the core of the story, the frantic pace of “Days” has genuine gravity: Although he has reshaped reality in his own image, Solomon Gursky cannot find the lost love of his life, who once sacrificed herself helping humanity escape from a losing war in deep space.

Many of the ‘big ideas’ in this story echo those found in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but with a serious bent. McDonald’s writing is just as often poetic as it is prose — think “The English Patient” — giving it a different feel than most sci-fi dealing with nanotechnology, genetic engineering, custom-made planets and pan-dimensional beings. You can find a pirated version of “The Days of Solomon Gursky” online, but this is one story worth tracking down.

[50/50] Album #35: “Move Like This”

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Album #35: Move Like This — The Cars (2011)

I’ll say the same thing I said when this record came out:

the cars alt cover“The simple fact that I can write a sentence with the phrase ‘new Cars album’ is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s actually a solid, catchy record is a minor miracle. 24 years after they called it quits, a sudden impulse overtook Ric Ocasek, and he decided to get the band back together one more time. Maybe he was feeling old, or, more likely, Ocasek didn’t want the awful “Door to Door” to be The Cars’ swan song, but whatever the reason,  — OH MY GOD THERE’S A NEW CARS ALBUM.

“Granted, it isn’t perfect: Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, is sorely missed. It was Orr’s voice that carried the band’s ballads, and Ocasek isn’t up to the task, straining to match the gossamer tones the songs need. That said, Ocasek’s writing is as beat and whip-smart as ever, and the overall effect is incredible. They somehow managed to pick up their original sound, as if they had stepped out for a smoke instead of taking a quarter century break, with songs that both recall their biggest hits and feel completely new. In it’s review, the AV Club said, ‘considering how many other bands have tried to make modern versions of classic Cars songs, it’s nice to see the original article doing it better than most.’”

“This isn’t just a nostalgic cash grab by a bunch of old dudes playing at new wavers. Ocasek’s lyrics in particular are world worn, a generational coda to the capricious cool of their top 40 hits. As one critic said, ‘Sad Song’ is the bookend to ‘Let’s Go’ and ‘My Best Friend’s Girl,’ as though it’s sung by the same character thinking about how much he’s learned since. And ‘Hits Me’ is clearly penned by a guy who been through it all and just wants to get to next week. It is their darkest album since ‘Panorama.’

“And, still, it’s a joy. My brother saw them perform in Philly (at the Electric Factory no less) and said, while they weren’t a great live act they were never a great live act. Yet, it was absolutely clear these four guys were just plain happy to be on stage and playing together, and that reenergized youthful enthusiasm — along with a fans who felt the same way — made for a great show. While it would have been good to see them one more time, I’m just happy I’ve got one more Cars album to listen to, one that fits perfectly along side their very best stuff.”

[50/50] Song #34: “Beautiful Girl”

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Song #34: “Beautiful Girl” — Peter Droge & the Sinners (1996)

beautifulgirlsAs I mentioned near the close of last week, you can’t go wrong putting “Beautiful Girls” in your Netflix queue. The movie gets a burst out of the gate with the song that plays over its opening credits, the twangy “Beautiful Girl” by Pete Droge. Droge seems to be a quintessential singer-songwriter, whose overly earnest folk rock never quite achieved the velocity to escape the Seattle scene on its own; however, thanks to a few fortuitous connections, some of his songs have appeared in a bunch of movies you might have heard of. Hey, whatever else, he’s still the guy who hit it out of the park with “Beautiful Girl.”

“Clear for Departure”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Here’s a piece about my dad I wrote for this week’s issue of the Indy

http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/clear-for-departure/Content?oid=3641693

[50/50] Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator” (1982)

Star_Trek_-_Strategic_Operations_SimulatorLet’s just put it this way: my brother and I own a copy of this game.

The 400 lb. arcade version.

[50/50] Comedy #4: Blazing Saddles!

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Comedy #4: Blazing Saddles! (1974)

Speaking of morons…

Mel Brooks didn’t just deconstruct the movie hero in “Blazing Saddles!” — he completely destroyed it. It’s amazing anyone was ever able to make another Western after Brooks and crew were done lovingly trashing every trope in the genre. His sendup of racism, sexism and every other -ism also means “Blazing Saddles” is the most quotable movie you can never actually quote in public.

Seriously, can you imagine this comedy getting made today?

Blazing_saddles_movie_poster

In another case of curious timing, PBS is all over Mel Brooks this week with a new documentary on the comedian. He also popped up recently on Fresh Air for an extended interview

[50/50] Short STory #4: “The Marching Morons”

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Short Story #4: “The Marching Morons” — Cyril M. Kornbluth (1951)

TheMarchingMoronsCity565Like Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”? Love Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”? Then you’ll probably like the story that inspired both, “The Marching Morons.” In Cyril Kornbluth’s wicked satire, a con-man from the 20th century is accidentally put into suspended animation and wakes up centuries hence. He finds a future where the lowest common denominator has won and everything is loud, obnoxious and stupid; a planet where smart people, who only had one or two children, are vastly outnumbered by the idiots who bred like rabbits — ie, a world full of Kardashians. Ironically, Kornbluth’s protagonist comes off as someone who watches too much Fox News himself, but the cautionary tale is redeemed by a dark, twisted ending worthy of the Twilight Zone. You can read the whole stoopid thing here.*

*Bonus points for also apparently inspiring some of the ideas in “Robocop.” “I’d buy that for a dollar!”