Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"I feel like an Asian Branch Davidian."

Lots of cringeworthy moments from tonight's Glee, people.

But first, a disclaimer: Ya see, I do love me some Glee. It's practically written into how gay men are programmed circa 2010. I've seen some of the butchest, most masculine men start gushing about Glee, and suddenly the yards of taffeta come spilling out of their mouths. Every episode has a wild, "cheer spontaneously" moment. But every episode, without fail, also has a moment where a part of me dies inside. But tonight's extravaganza was...uh...I think I spit up in my mouth more than a little. To wit:

- Finn. In a bright red shower curtain floor-length dress and red glitter cat eyes, looking for all the world like a reject from the Hall of Justice. Because that's the best way he can think of to express his ultimate theatricality and save poor Kurt from imminent brutality by a couple of chunky football thugs. GAWD. Even Zan and Jayna and their pet monkey were cringing. (Freaky coincidence: the pet monkey's name is Gleek. Fact!) Just so you know, my ideal of theatricality would be Hugh Jackman, in any role he's ever done. Shirtless, preferably.

- Finn, pt. 2. Every time he yelled out the word "faggy" at Kurt.

- Rachel. Singing "Poker Face" accompanied only by piano with her newfound mom. Because between the two of them and their kaleidoscopic knowledge of decades of worthy Broadway tunes, the one song that really sums up their feelings for each other is a fucking Lady Gaga song released just this past year. I wanted to crawl into a hole every time they both sang "puh-puh-puh-poker face."

- Puck. Singing "Beth" (which...wow...didn't realize it was such a pretty tune) to Quinn, then asking her afterward to name her/their baby Beth, and for him to be there for the baby's birth. Ennhh...squirm...

- Quinn. For agreeing to Puck's groveling. Also could NOT take her emotions seriously. I can't take anyone seriously who wears four-inch day-glo pink eyelash extensions and bats them with mock pathos.

- Kurt. For designing that hideous get-up that would have been his and Finn's new shared bedroom. Gay interior designers the nation over gasped and collapsed on their fainting couches in horror. And for actually having something he called a "privacy partition." Gag. And finally, for declaring said room a great mixture of masculine and feminine. There wasn't anything even remotely masculine in that place, except for Finn. Then Kurt's dad, who, I've just heard, has been nominated by God for the title of Best TV Dad Ever.

- Will Schuester. And for that matter, the writers. For making a Lady Gaga-inspired show. (No Gaga fan, I.) Redeeming quality? There were only two Gaga songs. Other redeeming quality? Balanced out by two Kiss songs.

Sorry, Glee. Normally you're great, but aside from some brilliant one-liners (like this post's title), tonight was just skwudge.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guilty pleasures galore!

MMMBop - Hanson: I flew into Minneapolis one early June afternoon in 1997, got picked up by a guy I had just started dating, and this hummer came on the radio. I called it: at once, it was going to be the most loved, most hated, and most overplayed song of the summer. But apparently I was really, really late on the draw. It was already #1 in the nation, and would be for nearly two months. Deservedly so. Unabashed, unadulterated bubblegum fun, fun, fun, and one great antidote for the angst and flannel of the early-mid 1990s. "MMMBop" singlehandedly paved the way for the resurgence of the post-Nirvana boy bands and a myriad of guilty pleasures, including...

I Want It That Way - Backstreet Boys: I wanted to hate this one. I could NEVER get behind New Kids on the Block (let alone that lamefuck NKOTB reunion), and I figgered this was just another incarnation thereof. But sitting in Portland traffic one late spring afternoon a few years later (and damn, PDX traffic SUCKS considering it ain't all that huge a city), this breezy tune hit my speakers, and I've seldom been hooked so hard. Honestly, everything that's right and good and perfect and dreamy about boy bands is right here, and if you don't like this song, you probably will never get the whole boy band thang. My infatuation hit epic levels one day in 2007 when I drove to and from work playing ONLY this song. Replay, replay, replay. It was the aural equivalent of a large orange/vanilla soft-serve ice cream cone (I have the immortal Pat's Twist-o-Cream from the late '70s to thank for that memory. RIP.) And I ain't the only one who loved this one. Rolling Stone apparently placed this beauty ahead of "Good Vibrations" in a list of the best summer songs of all time. Much consternation and wailing ensued from the boomers, but for sheer enjoyment, I agree - "I Want It That Way" blows even that classic out of the water.

When You Close Your Eyes - Night Ranger: I won't deny the NR lovers their "Sister Christian," which is epic. But this one is truly my favorite. The video did it for me. Learning about love in the back of a Chevrolet? Phallic guitar wank-o-ramas? Drowning your sorrows at the bar and imagining your lost love is standing right there? This one might have out-Desert Mooned "Desert Moon," even, for sheer cliches. As anyone who watched MTV back in 1983 will attest, these guys ROCKED. There was a lot of competition to be the biggest big hair band back then (Ratt, Def Leppard...hell, Ozzy himself), and maybe Night Ranger didn't quite make it to the top of the heap, but they put up a damned good fight. (If you like both those songs, you HAVE to get Night Ranger's Greatest Hits.)

Baby Got Back - Sir Mix-A-Lot: No real comment on this song. I just wanted a reason to type "callipygian" in a proper context. Callipygian, callipygian, callipygian.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers

Pop quiz: You're the leader of a critically revered band, and fans drive for hours, sometimes days, to see your band perform. But the first two albums you release flop, and aside from these few trickling fans, NO ONE knows you. Your band is falling apart member by member due to internal strife, and you still have a contractual agreement with your record company. Whaddaya do?

If your name is Alex Chilton, apparently you indulge in self-destruction. You get drunk and wasted a lot, show up at the studio while still wasted, slur your singing, sometimes play like crap, and fuck with the producers who are trying to salvage what chaos you have wrought, so that your third album is all but unapproachable - and certainly unmarketable. But your efforts at self-sabotage are foiled by a few things. You write some really, really good music that withstands the barrage of shit you run it through. And on some songs, you actually care that what you create is worthwhile, even beautiful at times...and it shows.

Some of the best music ever created - especially great pop music - sounds effortless, perfect, totally meant to be. Third/Sister Lovers is practically the antithesis of that concept. This sounds like it took a Sisyphean effort to create, and you can hear all the evidence of heads banging against walls that won't budge, of unbelievable exhaustion, dejection and pain, and of lives (and a band) irretrievably falling apart. Somehow, the music survived, in some cases barely intact. Somehow, it made it past the producers. Somehow, a company convinced its shareholders or board members that the album was worth releasing to the public...four years after the fact. And somehow, this album found its way into some young musicians' hands - a few of whom ended up being very influential, popular, and willing to drop the album's name. (For example: Peter Buck of R.E.M. once compared it to well-known classics like Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exile on Main Street.)

Is Third/Sister Lovers really the classic that so many admirers make it out to be? I don't think so. It's much more inconsistent than its two predecessors. It's definitely easier to appreciate than like. Third/Sister Lovers is NOT where one ought to start with Big Star. It takes a long time to get into a lot of this stuff, and it's best to go at it on a song-by-song basis, rather than digesting the whole album at one sitting. Here's some of the best stuff:

1) "Kanga Roo" - One of the tougher songs on the album to get into, but man, what a mindblower. It sounds like it's a warped transmission radioed in from some underwater ice planet, with random misfiring cowbells, way-overdubbed drums, and space-age guitar feedback. Then suddenly, it all resolves in a gorgeous crystalline minor chord in the choruses, with Alex soaring vocally through the stratosphere. "Kanga Roo" may be the best song on here...and it's been covered gobs of times since.

2) "Jesus Christ" - Here's the closest you'll get to a straight-ahead pop song on here. Begins with a warped piano ditty that sounds like an overplayed cassette tape that's about to spit its contents out of the tape player. But the song is solid guitar pop, almost a relief to listen to amidst the wreckage of the rest of the album. And interestingly enough, it's a completely sincere paean to Jesus Christ.

3) "Holocaust" - My God...this is the sound of ultimate depression. Alex can barely slur "Your eyes are almost dead, can't get out of bed, and you can't sleep," as a funereal piano plods behind him and ghosts moan in the background. Otherworldly, it's so sad.

4) "For You" - The only original song that Alex didn't pen for this album, written and sung instead by Jody Stephens, the drummer. Romantic chamber pop heaven, utterly beautiful.

5-7) "Blue Moon", "Nightime", "Take Care" - And the chamber pop heaven continues, with "Nightime" taking the honors for being the most scintillatingly gorgeous and having the best lyrics. (Love at first sight was never expressed better than "Caught a glance in your eyes and fell through the skies." Meanwhile, Chilton's unburnished negativity rears its head later: "Get me out of here, get me out of here. I hate it here, get me out of here.") "Take Care" is an anguished farewell, ending the (original) album on the most uncertain of chords played by fragile gossamer strings, completely unresolved.

8) "Downs" - How deranged did Big Star get? How willing was the rest of the band to follow Alex down the rabbit hole? Witness this mess of piano, steel drums, out-of-tune...uh..."singing," and nearly indecipherable lyrics. No surprise, this one was not on the original album. Still, it's kinda fun.

Hmm. Maybe that was the big deal about this album. It was a crystal-clear vision of how fucked-up a band could get and still turn out great music. On that level, Third/Sister Lovers is an unqualified success. It's just hard to plod through, that's all.

And here ended (at least, for a few decades) one of the most frustrating and sad stories in pop history. As I said before, this band proved that life could be a shitstorm of unfair. But man, they turned out some great stuff in the meantime, and their influence on popular music lies up there with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, and Led Zeppelin. With just three brilliant, essential albums.