Music Thursday: Jack Johnson and Echo & the Bunnymen

May 29, 2008

Jack Johnson — Rodeo Clowns

It’s an overused device, sure, but imagine for a second that Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Tony Hawk had a lovechild. It would probably look a lot like Jack Johnson.

I first got turned on to Johnson through G Love, who featured Rodeo Clowns and Jack on his 1999 album Philadelphonic. The syncopated acoustics are just low-key enough to trigger visions of morning-after-prom sunrises or 11 p.m. tiki lounge acts. That’s fitting, since Johnson is Hawaiian. I think it’s that island mentality that appears to me. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere far away from a body of water.

Another thing that I like about his music is that it’s always so understated. He has a habit of singing close to the mic, which lends a bit of intimacy — perfect for a love song or soulful disclosures about loss and healing.

I also recommend Flake and Better Together.

Space


Echo & the Bunnymen — The Killing Moon

For years I confused Echo & the Bunnymen for The Cure. That’s not a bad thing in my book.

Both bands are products of the post-punk move into the early 80s movement that would eventually become alternative. And both Robert Smith and Ian McCulloch sport periods of very pointy hair. But moreover — in case you haven’t noticed — I have a crushing weakness for very dark new wave ballads, and the Bunnymen deliver with The Killing Moon.

The single from the Liverpool boys’ 1984 album Ocean Rain didn’t exactly catch fire in the States until much later than The Bunnymen were hits in the UK. But as America gradually grew more aware of The Smiths and Joy Division, the band gained a foothold on top 40 radio. It even provided a niche for psychedelic hold-overs not quite ready to embrace the goth aesthetic.

Check out The Cutter and Bring on the Dancing Horses.


Music Monday: Silversun Pickups and Reel Big Fish

May 19, 2008

Silversun Pickups — Lazy Eye

This video is 1980s-a-licious. I suppose everybody goes through this as they grow up, but it was shocking to see some of these old styles come back into fashion. There’s the girl’s bob haircut, the leather jacket, the long hair and striped shirts, the teen dance club. The entire thing reminds me of Some Kind of Wonderful (Andrew and I agree Lea Thompson was haaawt back in the day).

But the song stands on its own, too. It’s got that laid-back bass line that always gets me in the groove, and it gradually escalates in the middle to a primal scream. Enjoy.

Space.


Space.

Reel Big Fish — Take On Me

Forget for a minute that this song headlined the Basketball soundtrack. I went to great pains to find a video sans Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Instead, focus on how catchy Reel Big Fish managed to get this remake of A-Ha’s classic 1985 video (which Andrew and I love — it’s undoubtedly the best of the early MTV videos from back when the channel had actual music). Radio never really treated ska as anything more than a fad, and some (Andrew) would argue that’s just fine. Not me. I think horns are horridly underutilized, and I often wish we could fall back on the good ol’ days when Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire actually got respect for playing technically superior tunes.

God, I hope my father never finds this blog and reads that last sentence. He’s blare those two groups non-stop on a record player when I was growing up, and I made a show of hating his music. I’m never going to change my tune about Barry Manilow, though, Dad.


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 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