Music Monday: Such Great Heights

March 31, 2008

The Postal Service

Cleveland doesn’t have an indie or alternative-that-isn’t-Smashing Pumpkins stations, so this song filtered down to me in commercial form. It was released in 2003 by The Postal Service, but I first heard it on the Garden State soundtrack and then (as a cover) on that infamous kaleidescope M&Ms commercial. I didn’t really think much of it at the time.

Then Andrew sent me a YouTube link for the above vid a couple of months ago, and I instantly recognized the song. But what I recognized wasn’t — again — The Postal Service. What tugged at my mind was a jangling ditty I’d heard by piano virtuoso Ben Folds.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in the past few hours trying to decide which version I like better. The original is more clipped and polished with an electric edge.

I think the video is worth mentioning. Remember when Mr. Rogers used to take us to the peanut butter factory of the cotton mill to show us how those things were made? Well, I’m not sure if the PS vid was filmed in a real microchip lab or if some set design engineer deserves a raise, but The Postal Service uses some very nice shots to give us a new spin on the old Earth-as-dirt-under-a-giant’s-fingernail chestnut (think the big pull-back shot at the end of Men In Black).


Ben Folds

He’s a genius. I’ve always had a man-crush on Ben Folds, and here we get so many things to praise: Starting with his awesome glasses, hitting his frenetic piano-key-jamming performance, and wrapping up with the improvised percussion.

After a lot of reflection, this is my favorite version of the song (to date). It’s by far the most dynamic in it’s highs and lows (see what I did there?) and I really think the piano is an underused tool. With so much being done by synthesizers, you can sometimes forget how great that deep, rolling concert piano timbre is. Plus, he adds the word “shit” where it should be.


Iron and Wine

This cover was released right on the Postal Service single in 2003, and it’s my least favorite of the three (I know, Wiki-heads, there are some other covers but I haven’t tracked them down). Iron and Wine blatantly try to yank my emotions around with that angsty whisper-over-acoustics tactic I hate. That’s led to a legion of 14-year-old amateur guitarists posting their YouTube odes. Ugh.

Sadly, it works so well as a soundtrack mood piece that I can’t just blow it off entirely. Oh well.


Week of Cartoons – Day 7: Animal-themed superhero team grab bag

March 28, 2008

thunderhobbit.pngFROM JASON’S BABYSITTER’S HOUSE — In a production studio basement somewhere in America, animators were throwing darts at a board covered with animal names.

ThunderCats was a smash hit. SilverHawks saw modest distribution. What kind of animals could they mutate into man-shapes next? THWACK! That dart stuck straight into fish, and TigerSharks hit the air. Rankin/Bass might as well have made LightningDogs, PlatinumPumas, or RhinoWolves.

The dying animation company needed a hit, and it didn’t really get one in TigerSharks — except that it strung along a legion of bratty fans like me, who curled up in a bean bag chair at the babysitter’s house in Salem, Oregon, every day after school to watch the epic tales Rankin/Bass churned out.

It turned out ThunderCats had the greatest staying power (I see the logo on the t-shirts of overweight, balding, middle-aged men all over the place today). TigerSharks, unfortunately, only had a one-season run and that marked the death knell for Rankin/Bass.

It’s too bad, because the company gave us some of the greatest Christmas and geek movies of all time, including those old stop-motion favorites: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Jack Frost.

Surprisingly, the very same production house that gave us Lion-O, Jaga, Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, WilyKat, WilyKit, and Snarf also gave us the animated The Hobbit movie and its successor, The Return of the King. It also made The Wind In the Willows, the Jackson 5ive cartoon, and several Pinocchio and Oz incarnations.

But I’ll always love Rankin/Bass for those three legendary, formulaic, afternoon cartoons:


ThunderCats (1985)


Part 2 | Part 3

You know this one. Feline heroes tag-team to take on Mumm-Ra, the immortal Egyptian-ish sorcerer. At times, the animation is very darkly reminiscent of comic book panels, but at others it’s almost Hannah Barbara in quality. ThunderCats was more or less a He-Man clone — right down to the magic swords, mix of tech and magic, and demonic henchmen. There was also a huge roster of unique “manimals” populating Third Earth, some aiding and some attacking the ‘Cats.

The pilot/origin story are linked above, telling how the ThunderCats fled their home planet, Thundera, and crash-landed on Third Earth with the Mutants of Plun-Darr in pursuit. Lion-O starts as a young child, but after waking from a long cryogenic sleep discovers he’s aged and wards off his enemies with the Sword of Omens.

Awesomesauce.


SilverHawks (1986)

I love Batman Beyond, but I think DC was stealing character designs and tech ideas straight out of SilverHawks. Super-powered costumes with armpit wings, inhuman strength, and a host of gadgets? Sounds the same. What set the two apart was that Terry McGinnis was wearing a suit while Quicksilver, Bluegrass, The Copper Kid, Steelheart, and Steelwill were actually bionic beings who sacrificed part of their humanity for their new machine bodies.

Okay, so Mon-Star is a bit of a transparent “yeah, this is the bad guy” name. But the show wasn’t going for subtlety — just pure 80s buddy cop adrenaline and explosions. It slapped you over the head with its police-in-space mentality, going so far as to make one character more or less a Texas ranger wannabe.

Do I need to point out the R2-D2 whistles and warbles that Copper Kid used to communicate? No, I don’t think I do.


TigerSharks (1987)

This one was really obscure.

TigerSharks aired as part of The Comic Strip, which I could swear aired on the USA Network, though I’m not positive. It was a long time ago. I could only watch it at the home of the lady who babysat me on Saturday mornings while my mother was at work, and it shared a tiny fraction of a half-hour slot with three other short ‘toons (Karate Kat, Mini-Monsters, and Street Frogs) in a strung-together-serials kind of way.

There’s not much to say about TigerSharks, for a few reasons: 1) It was so unabashedly a re-skinning of ThunderCats, 2) there were so few episodes produced before it was canned (like tuna), and 3) the only depth it had was under water.

Basically, a bunch of human crime fighters could jump in a special tank that temporarily mutated them into mer-fish-people-guys (a mako shark, a walrus, a dolphin, an octopus chick… A SEA HORSE?!). Their submarine could leave the planet of Lion-O Spaghetti-O Water-O and venture into space.

I’ll let it go at that.


Week of Cartoons – Day 6: For Tax Reasons

March 27, 2008

FROM ANDREW’S LAZY MIND — Jason and I share a similar love of animations from For Tax Reasons studios, which consists of Ben Levin and Matt Burnet. Well, this past week they have released two new videos, and we’re almost sexually excited about it.

The first one, H.P. Papercraft, continues their series following three young geeks in their adventures and tomfoolery in the world of anime, D&D, and vidjagames. The second is a music video for a punk song by Ben Weasel. I highly suggest you check these out as they are full of roflwaffles.

Honestly, these guys are funnier than anything we’ve seen on traditional *shudder* television in years (with the exceptions of Arrested Development and Boston Legal). We agree that if this went on Cartoon Network this week, it would generate millions in ad revenue. And the creators would deserve it.

Together, they capture the geek ideal perfectly. They give us characters caught in a revolving door of intellectual superiority and cultural awkwardness, and they make us both pity and praise them. That’s because we are these dorks; we talk just like them and do the same stupid stuff with the Intarwebs.

Seriously, give Ben and Matt money. Now. Fiddlesticks — my retainer! Enjoy.


H.P. Papercraft


Space

Ben Weasel – Got My Number

Space

IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


Space

Re: IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


Space

Re: IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


Space

She She She She’s A Bombshell


Week of Cartoons – Day 5: Muppet Babies (1984)

March 27, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S RUNAWAY IMAGINATION — If you think you’re too manly or cool to watch Muppet Babies, then you’re probably just an asshole with low self-esteem.

Sure, it was about toddlers modeled on felt puppets. So what? Muppet Babies was brilliant because it was the Robot Chicken of its time — and it had a heart of gold.

The Jim Henson Company (operating under the umbrella of Marvel, surprisingly enough), strung together pop references like candy necklaces. The writers spoofed Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Adventures in Babysitting, Conan the Barbarian, Lawrence of Arabia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Oliver Twist, E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Miami Vice, The Lone Ranger, Peanuts, The Twilight Zone, and Family Ties.

And that’s just going from memory. There were a lot more.

In case you missed it, Muppet Babies ran for six years on CBS. At the height of its popularity, the station ran three episodes back-to-back-to-back. Even after the show was cancelled, CBS kept it in reruns until 1992.

The ‘toon followed young versions of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Skeeter (Scooter’s twin sister who was invented just for the show), Rowlf, and Animal. Sometimes they were joined by Bunson and Beaker, Bean, and one time by Janice. They all lived in a nursery and were cared for by a faceless woman called Nanny, who wore green-striped, knee-high socks.

Gonzo was by far the best of the cast. His schtick was bringing the bizarre, the red herring-ed, the geeky, and the sci-fi to the show. When everyone else was imagining pretty traditional or mundane things, he was way out in left field with the most oddball and deviant ideas, and I always identified with that.

Imagination is what Muppet Babies was all about. You’d see the Muppets’ fantasies as if they were real, like daydream sequences but with more substance. They would imagine flying through space. They would imagine building their own amusement parks. They would imagine being in dark dungeons or running from monsters — and they would react as if every single situation were real.

Looking back, this show was tremendously liberating and formative to me. The lessons were obvious: Think for yourself. Don’t be embarrassed to have a rich fantasy life. Creativity is a virtue. Childishness and complex, adult ideas can co-exist. It’s okay to be weird. Ideas can be fun and philosophically deep at the same time. Don’t always take things at face value.

Typing this now, I’m starting to realize this cartoon — this silly children’s show — may have had a strong influence on my early cognitive development, and that could explain a lot about why I’m a professional writer today. Imagination is a right-brain function and that hemisphere is associated with intuition, synthesis, creativity, art, emotion, language, problem-solving, and analysis of conceptual relationships. Those are the tools of my trade.

Of course, you can’t talk about Muppet Babies without discussing mixed media. The show would use live-action footage from movies and television — often from old public domain films or documentaries — right along with the animation. One running gag had Gonzo open the nursery closet to find a live action setting behind it, like Dracula or Alex P. Keaton. Internet legend has it that all of these licensed shots are why the cartoon hasn’t made it to DVD yet.

I would buy all of the seasons. Until then, a couple of awesome people have uploaded lots of episodes to YouTube for us to enjoy. Here are a few links:

Where No Muppet Has Gone Before
Out of This World History
Journey to the Center of the Nursery
The Great Muppet Cartoon Show
Muppet Land


Week of Cartoons – Day 4: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985)

March 26, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

jayce.jpgFROM JASON’S DETACHABLE CIRCULAR SAW — From the golden vineyards of France came Jayce et les Conquérants de la Lumière. You probably didn’t see it, even when it was imported to the US and translated to English in syndication.

Imagine taking He-Man and Transformers, putting them in the Large Hadron Supercollider in Switzerland, and bashing them together. Ta-da. You’ve got Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

This is more than just a little coincidence. Executive producer J. Michael Straczynski was a former Masters of the Universe writer and went on to do The Real Ghostbusters and Captain Power. The ‘toon’s writers also had hands in Inspector Gadget, She-Ra, MASK, and Centurions.

The premise has some pretty familiar elements: In Eternia a universe where sorcery is used alongside interstellar travel and advanced battle machines, an experiment goes wrong and radiation from a supernova mutates plants into sentient beings known as the Monster Mind. The leader of the Monster Mind, Skeletor SawBoss, drives the plant people toward galactic conquest.

The only thing standing in his way are the Masters of the Universe Lightning League, led by Prince Adam Jayce. With help from a space smuggler known as Han Solo Herc, a wizard called Obi Wan Gillian, a telepath named Teela Flora, and a wisecracking magical robot living suit of armor named C3-PO Oon, Jayce tries to defeat the forces of darkness.

Opposing him are Saw Boss’ henchmen, who can Transform change into a tank, Megatron a giant gun, a flying flail, and an AT-AT a four-legged transport.

Luckily, Jayce and company have all kinds of cool vehicles to help fight the Monster Mind. And guess what? The toys were for sale! You could own them! I had four of them! Wow! Who’s ever heard of a cartoon that has merchandising tie-ins? It was revolutionary.

The toys were amazing, though. Their schtick was that they disassembled and you could switch the parts out — all kinds of wheels, treads, buzz saws, lasers, torpedoes, grappling hooks, drills — you name it. The more you bought, the bigger and cooler custom Wheeled Warriors you could build. Mattel executives, you are geniuses. The toys didn’t really morph, though; that was left to Transformers and MASK.


Week of Cartoons – Day 3: TaleSpin (1991)

March 25, 2008

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

talespin.jpgFROM JASON’S AIRSHIP FORTRESS — Who is this Baloo of whom you speak? I thought Don Karnage was the star of the show. If we’re being honest, TaleSpin was all about the air pirates.

Plunder & Lightning is the TaleSpin origin story, telling how boy scoundrel Kit Cloudkicker defected from Karnage’s clutches, teamed up with ace pilot Baloo, and saved Cape Suzette from a rain of laser fire and looting.

The show isn’t exactly steampunk, but it’s set in a timeless 1930-ish oceanic world with anthropomorphized bears, apes, tigers, pumas, and dogs. Looking back, I can’t explain how relieved I am that TaleSpin wasn’t just a Jungle Book spin-off set in India and featuring Mowgli. What we got was far superior and reminds me less of Rudyard Kipling and more of Indiana Jones.

P&L hit the TV in 1991 as part of the Disney Afternoon and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animation Program. I didn’t care about that; all I wanted was more kinda-noir hijinx. Boy did it ever deliver. It could have gone wrong — Baloo and Kit could have just zipped around against blue skies with zany, fluffy plots.

Instead, the animators put the Sea Duck in dog fights and swooping dives against some of the most incredible cloudscapes you’ve ever seen and actually made you afraid for the characters’ safety on a regular basis. There were also airships, robots, mad scientists, and diminutive Soviet warthogs.

The show was a bundle of pure awesome.

Baloo was an oddity: In a time when muscled action heroes like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were cashing in, Baloo was a fat, reluctant adventurer. The pear-shaped bear wanted nothing more to laze in his hammock. He was also a bumbler; his only redeeming qualities were his loyalty to friends and his flying skills.

Kit was awesome, zipping around on his aerofoil and playing Robin to Baloo’s huggable Batman. But I always thought the name Kit Cloudkicker was suspiciously too much like Luke Skywalker. Admittedly, I’m always one to see Star Wars parallels lurking in the shadows.

There are also quite a few Star Trek links to TaleSpin. Tony Jay, the voice of Shere Khan, appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Campio of the planet Kostolain, who was engaged to marry Lwuxana Troi, mother of Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi.

R.J. Williams, who voiced Kit Cloudkicker in TaleSpin, was also on TNG as Ian Andrew Troi, Deanna’s father.

Legendary voice actor Frank Welker (Megatron from Transformers), who has more than 550 acting credits on IMDB, helped out in TaleSpin, too. If a cartoon aired without his help, the universe would probably explode. I hear his IMDB resume is almost dense enough to collapse and become a new star. By the way, Welker appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager as a random alien in 1998.


Week of Cartoons – Day 2: The Best of Marvin the Martian

March 24, 2008

marvin01.jpgFROM JASON’S SECRET BASE ON THE RED PLANET — Okay, so I’m cheating. There were only ever five original shorts made starring Marvin the Martian, so a “best of” list is really damned stupid.

Marvin was created by (who else) Chuck Jones in 1948 for Haredevil Hare, which I dislike intensely because the prototype for Marvin’s voice is horrid. It’s a stupid, almost meek voice — not the superior nasal condescension we’ve come to love. You can still watch that episode on YouTube, but I refuse to post it here.

Marvin’s never named in the old shorts; he was supposedly called Commander X-2 around Warner Brothers but his name changed when the company decided to start marketing him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had instant appeal to kids like me, who were obsessed with outer space and serialized sci-fi.


Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century

Here it is, right at the top — the absolute best Marvin cartoon, and the only one starring Daffy Duck (and Porky, for that matter). The rest star Bugs Bunny, but I think Daffy’s righteous rage is awesome.

The Earth’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is dangerously low. It’s up to Duck Dodgers to go to Planet X and claim its resources in the name of Earth. The only problem is that Mars sends a certain conquerer as well.

Incidentally, the Martian flag is a red circle on a white background. This proves conclusively that Martians are Japanese. And at 5:53, is that an interociter?


Hare-way to the Stars

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This is the one that gives Duck Dodgers a run for its money. Bugs wanders into a rocket by accident and gets blasted to an Escher-esque world of glass pyramids, antennas, and zig-zagging red space platforms. By a stroke of good timing, he interrupts Marvin just as our Martian legionnaire is getting ready to use Illudium PU-36 to destroy the Earth (it’s blocking his view of Venus).

Apparently, Martians are very long-lived, because Marvin says he’s been working on PU-36 for 2,000 years.

This episode is all about futurist concept art depicted in a very 1960s World’s Fair style. It also features the just-add-water aliens on scooters, which is a priceless sequence.


Mad as a Mars Hare

Astro-rabbit Bugs Bunny is tricked into exploring the surface of Mars and runs into a stubborn native who doesn’t want the red planet befouled by Earthlings. Marvin gets the drop on Bugs but accidentally misfires his time-space gun, mutating Bugs into a Hulk bunny.


The Hasty Hare

Vodpod videos no longer available.

General E=mc² sends Marvin with Commander K-9 on a mission to bring back one live Earth creature to Mars. Bugs Bunny is once again his target and succeeds in the first minute or so in making Marvin say, “You have made me very angry!”

How Buck Rogers can you get, you ask? Well, Marvin and K-9 break out the ACME straight jacket-launching bazooka.

Also, I just want to point out that at the end, when Bugs offers to sell a flying saucer with only 3 billion miles on it, that means the ship has traveled 0.00051 light years. Of course, at its closest, Mars is only 36 million miles from Earth (or 250 million miles at the greatest gap in the planets’ orbits). That means that theoretically Marvin’s ship could have gone from Mars to Earth 83 times already.