New obsessesion: Flight of the Conchords

January 29, 2009

FROM JASON’S YOUTUBE — The obsession has lasted three days already.

Good laughs are hard to find these days; once you get past the miserable sea of fart and sex jokes out there, there’s not much left. My single criterion for all sitcoms and comedy acts: They have to be damned clever.

That’s why snarky, off-beat shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock caught my attention, and recently I’ve noticed the same low-fi buzz that surrounded both has encompassed a new act — The Flight of the Conchords. After hearing the show’s title bandied around all the right circles, I decided Tuesday to check out New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk/comedy duo, and I still can’t rip my eyes and ears away from their nerdy pun-and-run musical humor.

The first vid I pulled up on the ol’ YouTube was titled “Mermaids,” and I had no bloody god-damned clue what to make of it. It was a strange dorky brew of uncool nightclub cliches, ukulele, and groan-worthy wordplay. But it all came across as gut-wrenchingly funny:

I had to have more, and the next vid I loaded up was the clincher. After seeing this double punch of philosophically-confused robots and a binary solo, I was a Conchord groupy.

Look no further for proof that comic timing is just as important as any other part of the joke. I mean, “Come on, sucker, lick my battery” wouldn’t have had nearly the same punch except that it was slipped in at just the right time before Bret launched into the Robot Boogie.

Octave-switching can also be especially funny, especially when combined with completely uncomfortable lyrics like:

Well sometimes It gets lonely and I need a woman,
And then I imagine you with some bosoms.

In fact, one time when we were touring
And I was feeling really lonely,
And we were sharing that twin room in the hotel,
I put a wig on you while you were sleeping,
I put a wig on you.
And I just lay there and spooned you.

Yeah, bro-mance is funny.

Of course you don’t even need words if you can summon the pure visual power of a 1980s angry Kevin Bacon musical movie montage, like Bret did. Seriously — who picks Footloose as a target for parody these days?

These hilarious kiwis have translated their stage show into an HBO sitcom, which just launched its second season last month. Now, I really don’t care to order up any premium cable channels, but I am ready topay for the two-disc seasone one set of Flight of the Conchords, which can be found on Amazon.com for just $20 and change.

Oh, and if you are reading this, HBO execs, look how great an advertising avenue YouTube is for your product. You’ll be getting money for me because some “pirate” posted your intellectual property for free.

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Music Monday: The Gandharvas and The Commodores

December 29, 2008

The Gandharvas — Watching the Girl

I grew up in New York state, right across the St. Lawrence Seaway from Ontario, Canada. So most of my youth was spent listening to Canadian radio, which is required by Big Brother law to broadcast a certain amount of nationalistic propaganda made-in-Canada media content.

Living now in the heartland of America, it’s strange to casually mention any number of Canadian bands — Barstool Prophets, The Tragically Hip, The Gandharvas — and get slackjawed stares in return. A few here and there remember Our Lady Peace, but nobody in Ohio has heard of Econoline Crush or Cowboy Junkies.

So here, American friends. Let me act as an ambassador for my penguin-eating, maple-syrup-snorting, hockey-puck-humping, bomber-hat-and-flannel-wearing cousins in our 51st state to the north. Let me share with you a taste of the boys from London, Ontario, the pride of Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge.

Even in the band’s height (they broke up in 2000, shortly after I headed to college in the Great Lakes Region) they didn’t grab a whole lot of airtime. Watching the Girl seemed to ignite a red-hot fan base for about a month, and then it was gone — which is strange, considering how I always thought its artistic invocation of Norse (Ouroboros) and Greek (Sirens) mythology was extremely attractive.

The Commodores — Lady (You Bring Me Up)

My father is a short, compact, curly-haired white man of German and English decent. If he slapped a yamika on his head, he could easily pass for a rabbi. But that never stopped him from thinking he was black, at least when it came to his LPs.

His vinyl collection (still very much in use to this day, and I am hoping to inherit it) is built around prog rock classics like Styx’s Grand Illusion and, strangely, soul brothers like The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.

When I was little, he would crank up Brick House or Easy and dance around in a pitiful white man’s mockery of rhythm. The memories of that dancing still burn.

But now that I’m quickly approaching 30 and have lived through a full generational cycle of musical styles, a horrible truth is sinking in: My father, though I rail against the idea, had excellent taste. Lady (You Bring Me Up) probably isn’t the coolest song I could have mentioned here, but Dad would be able to tell you it’s got tight composition, a jumpin’ signature bass line, and just the right mix of brass to make it indelibly good, and a more or less permanent fixture on my iPod.


Music Monday: Louis Jordan

December 22, 2008

jordanMore than Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, or Elvis, Louis Jordan (1908-1975) is responsible for rock and roll.

Back in the 1940s, he fused boogie woogie and big band sounds to create “jump blues,” an up-beat kind of bebop that he crafted with both alto sax and his outrageous lyrics.

In a time of barbaric racial divide, Jordan demolished segregation on the charts by hitting the Top 10 on both the white and “colored” lists, selling about four million records. With help from his band, The Tympany Five, he had 54 singles on the charts in the 40s alone. Eighteen of them his number one.

I’m a child of the 80s, and far removed from those old rock-jazz roots. The first I stumbled on Louis Jordan was on hearing a cover of Knock Me a Kiss in 1996’s Swingers (one of the few times I’ve liked Vince Vaughn).

As soon as I heard it, I had to have the song. It took a long time to find it, mainly because YouTube — not even MP3s — didn’t exist at the time. When user-submitted video content started hitting the web, very few Jordan videos were among them, and authentic vids of many of my favorites (Saturday Night Fish Fry, Beans and Corn Bread, Knock Me a Kiss) still can’t be found.

Here are a few that are definitely worth watching:

Beware

Jordan was reportedly married five times, so he purported to know all about the vices of manipulative women. Sure, the song is a little misogynistic. But take it from another married guy — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.

And if you go for a walk, and she listens while you talk / She’s tryin’ to hook you.

If she grabs your hand and says, “darling, you’re such a nice man” / Beware, I’m telling you.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby

I put this in Jordan’s three best songs. It’s simple. It’s short. But it’s got a very catchy melody and a smoky trumpet hook that’s impossible to resist.

Of course, the grammar is loathsome, but if you can forgive Horse with No Name, you can forgive Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.

Caldonia

This song is arguably more about Jordan’s personality than musical merit. It’s wrapped around what we consider today to be a very elementary bass line, but where it shines is in its indictment of the title woman’s faults, and Jordan’s insistence on loving her anyway.

I mentioned he was a little sexist, right? To prove I can be just as bad, I’m going to say the cheesecake on the piano sure had some nice gams.

Knock Me a Kiss

This song is terrific, but I had to cheat to find a version worth posting. This isn’t Louis Jordan’s rendition, but Ina Ray Hutton’s 1943 performance tour to US military installations.


Music Monday: Beggin’

December 15, 2008

Let me say this first: I absolutely adore late-60s music, especially the doo wop and soul. Until recently, though, I never paid attention to the groups or the history behind the music — just the singles.

What surprises me is that so many groups I had assumed based on vocal styling alone to be black were, in fact, very white. The Four Seasons (maybe because I often confused them with The Four Tops) fell into this group.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — Beggin’

The Four Seasons belted out Beggin‘ in 1967, right as the group was overshadowed by Frankie Valli’s exploding solo career. The song doesn’t get a lot of modern air play on the oldies stations I listen to, and that might be in part because it never climbed higher than number 16 on the Billboard top 100 even when it was first released.

I don’t know why. This song is terrific, with its dirty back-up vocals over the loose piano keys. It’s got that same dark, velvety tone as The Turtles or The Grass Roots.

Adidas Originals House Party commercial

I hadn’t heard this song in a long time, and then while flipping through channels I heard it revamped with a lot of bass and a heavier snare. It was an advertisement for Adidas, with The Four Seasons track revamped by French dance musician Pilooski (see the video below for his full edit).

Some of my friends in the British Isles have informed me this song was big there last year, was overplayed on radio and in clubs, and is hated by a large section of the populace. To the haters: I assure you it’s new to my ears, so bear with me.

Pilooski — Beggin’ (Remix)

Apparently, the song was released in June 2007, but I never heard it — maybe because I rarely listen to radio. Truth is, I like the pseudo-retro 50s clothes and dance moves almost as much as the music. I really wish we would see more old 50s and 60s songs — especially Motown grooves — updated like this.

Video edit commissioned by 679 Recordings

I don’t know if either vid aired stateside, but there were two versions of the Pilooski edit. This one almost looks like Flash — pretty low-budget — and remixes the Seasons’ own dance moves across a surreal landscape with trees of snapping fingers.

Madcon – Beggin’

Norwegian rappers Madcon definitely ghettofied the tune in 2007 with a blaxploitation aesthetic and added rap breaks. Once again, the best part of this video is the dance routine, which just screams “Jackson Five meets Good Times.” If you can get past the irritating XBox 360 product placement, then there’s an extremely sexy three-second shot starting at 3:07.


Music Monday: Daft Punk and James Brown

December 8, 2008

1. Daft Punk – Something About Us

2. James Brown – People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul

Both of these tracks have relaxing, funky syncopation, and both have been in constant rotation for the past month or so on my iPod. Something About Us is an overlooked Interstella 5555 track has just the right low-keyed mix of 70s soul and electronic masking for my taste. People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul has all that brass I like so much, with competing trumpets.

Both do something I normally hate – they get a little repetitive in theme. But in these two specific cases, there is a driving groove that erases that problem. I’ve found myself loading these two up to get me moving in the morning, to push me through the mundane chores I’ve been doing to keep sane whilst unemployed.

BTW, I have a job lined up in two weeks. It’s nothing flashy – billing – but it will help pay my bills.


YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.


Spore Creature Creator leaked, my night consumed

June 15, 2008

The Spore Creature Creator Demo has been leaked ahead of time (it’s supposed to launch June 17). Download and try it out. The thing has some kinks, takes some getting used to, is fun to play with, and generally helped me waste two hours tonight. The number of creature parts is limited, but there’s enough there to help spawn a few thousand variations of xeno-whatsits.

I’ve got to say — if the rest of Spore is as engaging as this tiny little portion, it will be well worth the price. So far, I’ve only gotten to play with the tinker-toy part. I can’t wait to get my hands on an actual free-roaming environment with some of these bad boys and see how they interact with other animals.

It will be interesting to see what traits succeed with Spore’s sharing mechanism. What works better in a swamp — lobster claws, insect mandibles, or primate hands? Is speed more important than brute strength? Can a venom spitter beat a serrated horn? Can cyclopians survive well? Are tactile adaptations a sure way to get a dominant species? How much difference do color and markings make?

I can’t wait to see how detailed and in-depth the game designers have gone. I’m usually the kind of guy to wait until the first price drop to buy a game, but I’m getting this one on launch day. Already, I can see it combines everything I loved about Legos with everything cool about evolution. Take that, creationists!

EDIT: Andrew here. Just thought I would add one of my creatures that I created today: