Archive for June, 2002

Deep Blue Funk – Let’s Face It

As some of you may be aware, I record experimental dance music under the name Deep Blue Funk (Web page at http://www.ampcast.com/deepbluefunk). I’m currently working on a new album for Deep Blue, and I’m looking for people to record something for me.

The album is called Let’s Face It. The legend on the cover reads “Let’s Face It… ...It’s a Pro-Choice Album.” I’m looking for women to record some small monologues and a few lines that will appear as drama tracks and/or samples in the music.

If you’re interested, you can e-mail me at deepbluefunk@jazzandjava.com.

Saturday, June 29th, 2002

Love Hina

Author: Ken Akamatsu
Genre: Manga, Romantic Comedy
Publisher: Tokyopop
Cost: $9.99
Rating: ** (2 out of 4)
Availability:Widely Available

There’s nothing all that original about Akamatsu’s Love Hina, when you think about it. Sure, the storyline features a geeky guy in a house full of gorgeous women, but that describes almost all of the romantic comedy mangas to come to America from the land of the rising sun.

Keitaro Urashima is our hapless, dimwitted geek of a hero. It seems that our friend Kei made a promise to his childhood sweetheart that they would meet again one day at Tokyo University. The idea that if two people who love each other attend Tokyo University together, they’ll live happily ever after. Or study engineering. The book isn’t quite clear on that point.

Years later, Kei takes the entrance exam for Tokyo U – and fails. Miserably. Rather than settle for another school and disappoint his long-lost sweetheart (whose name, even, is lost to his memory [get the feeling this guy is yutzier than your typical yutz? I do.]), Kei opts to become a “ronin”. No, not a warrior for hire. This isn’t Lone Wolf and Cub. He becomes a college prep student, attending special classes to get him ready to pass the entrance exam.

Then he fails the exam a second time.

This is all explained in the first two pages, by the way. There’s still plenty more plot to go around. Or maybe not, come to think of it.

Kei has been kicked out of the house by his parents, and seeks refuge at his grandmother’s hotel, the “fabulous Hinata House!” When he arrives there, his grandmother is nowhere to be seen. Like any decent family member, he decides to take a bath. This leads to a difficult-to-describe misadventure with a naked woman walking into the bath.

It appears that when the hotel started to lose business, Granny converted it to a girls’ dorm – neglecting to mention this fact to her family. Especially to her virginal ronin grandson.

Through a turn of events that could only happen in a manga (or in its anime adaptation), Kei becomes the landlord of the dorm – in charge of the living conditions for five beautiful young women. And, of course, being the only male in the house, two of them promptly try to seduce him(!). Then we get a nice 183 pages of the usual sex-farce screw-ups and romantic comedy blow-ups, including a nicely-telegraphed notion that one of the women – Naru – is actually the girl that Kei made that promise to, long ago. By the end of the first volume, Naru and Kei are probably the only two people involved in the story (character or reader) who don’t see it coming a mile away.

Part of the problem with Love Hina is that Kei is not really somebody we want to see succeed. There’s the fact that he’s an out-and-out yutz. I don’t know about you, but I feel that there’s a certain level of schlemiel that justifies mercy killing. Especially in entertainment. The book at times can feel like an extended version of the torturous Mary Tyler Moore party episodes, as Kei gets involved in one embarrassing misunderstanding after another – and gets to see every single girl in the house naked at one point or another.

There’s also the fact that Kei develops an unwilling crush on Shinobu, a 12-year-old resident of Hinata House. Yes, 12. That’s as in 10 – 11 – 13… figure out what’s missing. This is a lesson in how to kill most readers’ sympathies quickly. Not many readers are quite ready to accept pedophilia as a harmless trait in a main character. Not many of the ones who aren’t named Humbert, anyway. While Kei is troubled by his attratction to Shinobu, he isn’t anywhere near as troubled as his Western audience will be. Even with the idea that this attraction is going nowhere, it adds a creepy edge to the romantic comedy that detracts from the humor of it all.

So, let’s see. Competent artwork and some funny stuff, accompanied by an unoriginal storyline, an unsympathetic main character, and a disturbing undertone all add up to a book that you might enjoy reading – but there are better things out there. Much better.

Before I forget to mention it, I should tell you that this book is part of the “100% Authentic Manga” line from Tokyopop. That’s translated manga that’s printed in its original order – right to left. Don’t worry. You get used to it. Just don’t try to read Moby Dick the same way. There’s a mistake you don’t make twice.

Friday, June 21st, 2002

Josie and the Pussycats: Music from the Motion Picture

Artist: Josie and the Pussycats, feat DuJour
Label: Sony Music Soundtracks / Epic / Riverdale Records / PlayTone Records
Genre: Movie Soundtrack
Rating: ***• (3 1/2 Stars out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

It’s got cute movie stars on the cover, clutching instruments and wearing cute kitten ears. And there’s no chance that anybody will miss the bold block letters declaring “JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS”. So you might as well face the music, so to speak. Yes. You do have this album on your CD rack. And you should be proud to admit it. Yes, I said proud.

Not proud of your kitschy pop-culture chic. Not proud of your scornful mockery of that paragon of youth conformity, Archie Comics. Not proud of your taste in cute, punky rock stars. No, not proud of any of this. Proud, instead, of your good taste in melodic rock that is actually fun and somewhat original.

It may be hard to believe, but Josie and the Pussycats has some of the best songwriting to come out of 2001. It’s true. The screenwriters were closely involved in the writing of the music, as well. And their sharp sense of words and play comes through in the lyrics.

The album consists of songs performed by two bands – Josie and the Pussycats, and the latest pop sound – DuJour. The Pussycats make up most of the music, performing tracks like “3 Small Words,” “Shapeshifter,” and a punky cover of “Money.” DuJour sings two tracks, the boastful “DuJour Around the World” and the sly “Backdoor Lover” (a song that is funnier than it deserves to be with such a sophomoric title). The differences in the sound are dramatic. DuJour is poppy and harmonious, complete with drum machines and digitized loops. You can feel N’Sync taking notes. But it’s Josie and the Pussycats who drive the album. The girl-next-door vocals laid over a melodic punk line show off the amazing guitar chops behind the fictional band’s sound.

And I can’t really say enough about the lyrics, which are fun to sing along with and actually have some thought behind them. They show a sense of the language that is missing in most of the pop music published today. An amazing feat, considering that some of these songs were written exclusively by the screenwriting team – who had never written lyrics before.

Speaking of that screenplay, did I mention that it’s good? Clever, sharp, biting – at times a bit campy. That’s worth checking out, too.

Don’t let the ears fool you. It’s fun. And it’s all right to be silly. Isn’t it?

By the way – the album loses half a star. Why? Because Alan M. had some music in this show, too! Where are his songs? You’re telling me that the “Hottest Guy in Riverdale” isn’t worth putting on the soundtrack? For shame.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2002

Haunted

Artist: Poe
Label: WEA / Atlantic
Genre: Alternative
Rating: **** (4 out of 4), Essential
Availability: Widely Available

It took five years for Poe to return to the new release shelves, from her first effort Hello to her latest, Haunted. Along the way there were delays, the re-recording of tracks, and scheduling foul-ups by her label. All told, it was a long, hard road from one album to the next.

But in the end, it’s all worth it. Hello was a strong initial effort, well-equipped with amazing lyrics, dynamic production, a strong funky sound, and powerful rock chops. An album that defined Poe as more than an angry-girl wannabe—much more. It established her as a musician, an artist, and a truly innovative voice.

Haunted, gladly maintains that image.

The first thing you have to realize about Haunted is that it’s a concept album. Unlike Hello, which was your fairly standard rock album (easy to divide into singles and well-balanced, but obviously intended to stress specific songs), Haunted takes on a form that not many albums in recent years have dared to try. Concept albums are not always easy to divide into singles (although Haunted has already spun off singles of “Walk the Walk” and “Hey, Pretty” with some success, and the title track wound up in Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows). They tend to have a flow from one song into the other, and they tend to balance the songs so that one song does not take the focus of the entire album. In general, this translates into lower sales – but a higher quality of work.

Haunted builds itself around a series of recordings of Poe’s father, Tad Danielewski. Through sampling her father’s voice and mixing in dialogue recorded to represent her youngerself, her mother, and her brother, Poe gets to build the conversations that she never had.

The result is a rock album that translates into an emotional experience – a ride through one woman’s relationship with her father. From the opening line, “I thought you should know, Daddy died today” to the final moment of “It’s okay, you can go now,” Poe opens up deeply personal moments with her music.

But let it not be thought that Haunted is just another artsy, high-concept album that belongs to a purely academic level of music. No, Haunted still shows that Poe can rock. She can croon her way through soft, sweet ballads (“Spanish Doll”), slither through a funky, bouncing rhythm (“Lemon Meringue”), rock hard and fast (“Could’ve Gone Mad”), and snarl out sexual single-entendres with abandon (“Not a Virgin”).

Haunted is an astounding sophomore attempt. A strong, vibrant rock album – and so much more, as well.

Thursday, June 6th, 2002

Alice

Artist: Tom Waits
Label: Anti
Genre: Jazz, Theatre
Rating: **** (4 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available / eMusic Download
(Sign up for eMusic – get 50 free mp3’s)

Alice, called “Tom Waits’ Lost Masterpiece.” Apparently, it’s now found.

Tom Waits originally wrote the music featured on Alice for a Robert Wilson play in 1992, but it took until 2002 for the music to be released to the public. The piece is supposedly based on Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Caroll) and his relationship with Alice Liddell (yes, that Alice).

Of course, your guess is as good as mine as to how these pieces actually relate to that plot. All I know is that I love the music.

Alice in part sees a return to Waits’ earlier days as a singer/songwriter, with most of the pieces more closely reflecting the jazz ballad style of Closing Time than the extreme experimental blues of Mule Variations. Once again, Tom Waits’ whiskey-soaked voice seems to come from behind a piano somewhere in the corner of a smoky bar.

You can hear the years of smoke and licqour in Waits’ voice, and the late nights on seedy streets in the lyrics. He can range from wistful romanticism (“Flower’s Graves,” and “Lost in the Harbour”) to bizarre, off-kilter Vaudeville humor (“Table Top Joe”). Try to picture a cabaret act fresh from an engagement in Hell, and you can begin to capture some of the spirit of Tom Waits.

Which is not to say that Waits has completely abandoned his taste for bizarre experimentation. Alice is not without its disturbing moments. “Kommienezuspadt” experiments with percussion-driven sounds and Police microphone vocals, while “We’re all Mad Here” toys with dissonance and growled lyrics. And Tom Waits continues his work with spoken-word and found sound in “Watch Her Dissapear.”

As with any Tom Waits album, Alice is about impossible to sum up. But for those who know and love Tom Waits from any phase of his career, there’s something on this album that you’ll enjoy.

Wednesday, June 5th, 2002

Blazing Arrow

Artist: Blackalicious
Label: MCA
Genre: Hip-Hop
Availability: Widely Available

Blackalicious never fails to impress. Their sound is original in a genre too often plagued by theft and self-reference.

It could have something to do with Gift of Gab and his crystal-clear delivery, making even the fastest and most complex raps sound simple. It could have something to do with Chief Excel and his amazing DJ skills. It could be that they’re an act that actually pushes the boundaries of Hip-Hop instead of waiting for somebody to innovate.

It definitely has to do with the fact that Blackalicious has more to talk about than just passing the Courvosier. In a world of gold, gats, and gangstas, Blackalicious chooses instead to encourage open-mindedness. It’s a point of pride with Gift of Gab that his lyrics are never straight gangsta.

And it could also have to do with Blackalicious’ ability to be incredibly loopy when they want to be. The title track samples Harry Nilsson’s “Me and my Arrow,” and “Chemical Calisthenics” is a fast-paced rap about basic compounds, protons, electrons, and neutrons. “Nowhere Fast” features Gab pulling out all the stops as a procrastinator with high hopes.

So many times, I’ve heard people make the declaration that “Rap is not music.” Blackalicious, however, proves time and again that it can be, when it’s not bogged down with shoddy production, unoriginal lyrics, and the desire to close in on current trends. Blackalicious deserves a place on any music enthusiast’s shelves.

Wednesday, June 5th, 2002

Gates of Eden

Author: Ethan Coen
Genre: Fiction, Short Story Anthology
Publisher: Rob Weisbach Books
Cost: $24.00 (Hardcover), $12.95 (Softcover)
Rating: *** (3 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

To get it out of the way, yes. It’s that Ethan Coen – the one who, with his brother Joel, has created such stellar films as Fargo and O, Brother, Where Art Thou?

Gates of Eden is a series of short stories. Many people who have read this book and cared to comment on it have chosen to compare it to the Coen Bros.’ filmography – and with good reason. The stories share that same loopy sense of black humor that drives every one of the Coen Bros.’ best films.

Ethan Coen delights in taking the average schlub and the hard-boiled tough and mixing them together. His stories feature a boxer who can’t seem to land a punch, a deaf private detective, and a rogue investigator for weights-and-measures – among others. In a heartbeat, Gates of Eden can move from nostalgia over long-past childhood days (“The Old Country”) to the bizarre, fish-out-of-water humor inherent in the Mafia moving in on Minneapolis.

It is, in fact, this wide-ranging sense of style that is perhaps Eden’s greatest failing, as well as its greatest triumph. While one delights in the variety in one writer’s style, it makes for a series of stories that’s just slightly uneven and off-kilter. The characters are delightfully grotesque, but there are times when one doesn’t know whether they’re supposed to be or not. There are moments when you see a twist coming a mile away – which means, of course, that it shouldn’t – only to watch it happen, anyway.

All told, Gates of Eden is a fun read. It wobbles with a sort of punch-drunkenness, but it stands on its own two feet. The comparison to films like Barton Fink is unavoidable – it’s the same author, and it will most likely appeal to the same audience who loved it.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2002

Ragnarök

Author: Myung-Jin Lee
Genre: Manga, Fantasy
Publisher: Tokyopop
Cost: $9.99
Rating: (0 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

I’ve been a manga fan for a few years now, and one of the complaints I generally hear from people who haven’t read much of it is that manga is all “Eyes, cleavage, and speed lines.”

Ragnarök could definitely convince somebody that this was true.

Ragnar̦k follows the adventures of busty warrior Fenris Fenrir on her quest to find the reincarnated Balder, the fallen god. With his help, she hopes to change the world by making sure that Ragnarok comes to pass. Meanwhile, the gods have sent out their valkyries in an attempt to make sure that all of those who could cause Ragnarok are destroyed Рthereby ensuring the gods will remain in power for another 1000 years.

There’s also a story about Chaos, his partner Iris, and fortune-hunter extraordinaire Lidia and their adventures. Presumably, this will tie in nicely with Fenris’ storyline in a later volume.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s wrong with Ragnarök as a book. I could point first to the predictable fantasy storyline. This reads like one of the many series to be based on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and not one where the players were particularly creative. Characters telegraph their alignment with every line they speak.

I could point second to the way that Ragnarök insults its reader’s intelligence. Footnotes abound, crowding the pages with information that could, in fact, have been picked up by any reader who was even half paying attention to the story or with any inkling of knowledge concerning Norse mythology.

Third, I would probably point to the art – which is capably executed, but still clumsy. Yes, the characters are solid and the backgrounds detailed. But the way in which everything is rendered piles up black line after black line. Somewhere in the muddle, you actually lose everything in the frame except for the eyes and cleavage of whatever buxom adventurer or goddess is currently featured. The speed lines are so frequently used as to be worthless, and the pages are so crowded that they might as well be solid black ink.

Fourth, I would point to weak, under-developed characters. Fifth would probably be something to do with the way the series unapologetically twists mythologies to be whatever the author needs them to be. Sixth would involve the stuttered, weak feel of the english adaptation by “New York Times Bestselling author Richard A. Knaak.” Seventh would by my failure to care about anybody and everybody featured in the book. Eighth would be the obnoxious, overdone humor.

And yes, I could continue on. But honestly, I think it’s fair to just sum it up and say that there are a lot of reasons that I dislike Ragnarök, but there’s one major reason.

It could have been so much better.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2002

Harlem Beat

Author: Yuriko Nishiyama
Genre: Manga, Sports
Publisher: Tokyopop
Cost: $9.99
Rating: *** (3 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

The sports manga is a fairly popular genre that doesn’t get much print in the United States. After all, the market for comics is very rarely the sports market in America. But in Harlem Beat, Tokyopop (a division of Mixx Manga) has brought over a truly entertaining tale – and it is currently the only sports manga published in the U.S.

I don’t typically like sports stories – it seems odd to me to sit around reading about people playing sports. Almost as odd as watching them play those sports on TV. To me, the value in sports is to be found in the playing of them. My first encounter with Harlem Beat was as a regular feature in MixxZine – one of the first manga magazines in the states to try to duplicate the “phone book” style of true Japanese manga. MixxZine apparently stopped publication shortly after publishing the third chapter of Harlem Beat, but the story made a good enough impression on me that I felt compelled to pick up the first volume of the series when i saw it on the shelves.

The story follows Nate Torres, a freshman at Johnan High School. As the story begins, he goes out for the Basketball team – explaining that he’s spent his life as a bench-warmer, first for baseball and then for soccer. In the freshman trials, when the team scouts the new talent, Torres makes a less-than-favorable impression. First he passes the ball back the instant he gets it, then when he’s told to play he begins driving down the court – the wrong way. Needless to say, while he is still allowed to train with the team, he’s never likely to see any time on the court. Instead, Torres is constantly being given custodial jobs.

Then, while out picking up supplies for the team, he runs into Mizzy – “The Basketball Queen.” Mizzy introduces him to the fast-paced world of Street Ball, played half-court with a single hoop and three-man teams. Torres sinks his first shot in a Street Ball court, and is instantly hooked on the feeling. He becomes resolved to be the best hoops player ever.

It’s hard not to like Harlem Beat. It’s silly, optimistic, and at times a bit ridiculous. But it’s irrepressibly energetic and fun. There’s something brilliant to a character who announces his slam dunks the way martial arts movie stars announce their techniques (“BARKLEY STYLE! IN YOUR FACE!”), and to a court owned by a mysterious uber-team (called “3-Slam”) where all comers get smacked. It’s like an extended after-school special—if after-school specials were actually fun and entertaining. Add to all of this the fact that the art is clean and professional – clear and easy to understand. The pages are not cluttered, and the layout suggests artists who actually know their business well enough to control pacing and flow through their drawings.

The volumes are compact, packing 200 pages into a pocket-sized book. If you’re not ashamed to be seen carrying a comic book (and it is, clearly, a comic book), it’s the perfect size to carry onto the subway, to the doctor’s office, or just to slip into your pocket and go anywhere.

Is Harlem Beat a masterwork of sensitivity and a triumph of the human spirit? No. Is it the greatest work of literature ever to grace the genre of graphic literature? No. Is it a fun read that will make you want to stick with it all the way to the end?

Definitely.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2002

Tips: Ideas for Actors

Author: Jon Jory
Genre: Non-Fiction, Theatre
Publisher: Smith and Kraus
Cost: $16.95
Rating: **** (4 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

As an actor, it’s very rare that I find a book that I feel is absolutely indispensible for the aspiring performer. Most books published on the subject of theatre are marketed as though they are definitive texts. They are “the” guide for actors, or the “ultimate” guide to theatre. More often than not, however, they are not all they are cracked up to be. They serve at best as additions to the actor’s toolbox – and you don’t always need your ratchet set. As a matter of fact, you may never need that magnetic hammer. And you might not even want that bizarre screwdriver that doesn’t fit any standard screw you would ever use. In short, these books are never the be-all and end-all – they’re something for you to read and accept or reject on your own.

Jon Jory’s Tips: Ideas for Actors is one of the few books on performance that I consider to be absolutely indispensible. For one thing, while the cover copy still suggests that Tips is the only acting book you’ll ever need, Jory’s text takes the position that this is just another addition to your tool box. And what an addition.

The idea is simple. You’re having a problem on stage? Flip through the table of contents. Practically every major problem you will ever encounter can be found in the list of headings – from Inner Monologue to Sense of Humor, from The Small Stage to Fighting Spirit, from How to Handle an Interview to handling Kissing or Nudity onstage. The “tips” range from the spiritual and mystical background of what it is to be “an actor” to the absolutely practical and simple matters of space, physicality, and light.

If you’re not having a specific problem, but you feel that you need some sort of inspiration or you could stand to find some area to improve upon (and you can always improve something), flip to a random page in the book and read it.

The way the book is laid out, each page is a single subject. Prop Acting is page 43. Finding the Light is page 67. Exiting is 82, The Arc is 11, and Kissing is 126. Each subject talks about the nature of the problem, what needs to be done, and suggests ways that you can deal with the situation. What do you do with your hands? Read about “The Toothpick” on 113 – it’s a tip that has helped me many times in scene work.

Jon Jory is perhaps best known for his long stint as the Producing Director at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, one of the most prestigious theatres currently operating in the United States. With Tips: Ideas for Actors, Jory has provided us with that rarest of objects – an absolutely indispensible guide for performers. If you’re an actor and you don’t have this book in your rehearsal bag next to Shurtleff’s Audition and Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theatre, you’re missing out on the lion’s share of acting tools.

Monday, June 3rd, 2002