Monday, January 30, 2012

Music Review: Hit the Lights - Invicta

This article was first published at Blogcritics

"Earthquake," the first video from the pop-punk rockers Hit The Lights' upcoming album Invicta, has hit the net.  Shot at a variety of stops on the band's recent fall tour, the tune tones down the grit and fires up the pop.  It is about as accessible as you can get and keep your punk credentials, and it is a fairly accurate representation of the kind of music you'll find on the new album.  There are songs that lean further to punk, and songs that lean more to pop, but nothing that really goes all the way in either direction.

Omar Zehery, Hit the Lights' guitarist, explains:  "The songs definitely have pop elements to them but we made a conscious effort to make sure they weren't too polished either."  Front man Nick Thompson adds: "We weren't trying to shy away from pop-punk, we just tried to be ourselves and write honest music."  What they produced is a menu of new material that is sure to please old fans and likely to produce new ones.  If it doesn't quite reach the grandiose goal Thompson says the band was aiming for--"the goal for this record was to be epic," it does manage its lesser aims.  "We just wanted everything to sound powerful and for it to be the type of album you can listen to over and over and hear different things."

"Invincible," the album's opener using the band psyching up to take the stage as a metaphor for attempting to achieve great things. It is the kind of anthem sure to get audiences up on their feet at the beginning of any concert.  "Tonight we jump from greater heights; we're invincible, and it starts/Take the stage, feel the blood rush through your veins, take a chance."  "Oh My God," which closes the album is about as close to classic punk as the band delivers.  "Oh my god," the song ends, "I've found Hell in you."  Other punk leaning tracks include "Gravity,"  "Take Control," and "Float Through Me" which opens with some interesting guitar work.  Both feature big guitar and percussion. 

Prettier, and I use the word advisedly, songs like "So Guilty," "Get To You," "Faster Now," and "Should've Known" would have a hard time passing as punk.  Other than a power passage or two, they could well be the stuff of American Idol pop rock.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, simply they are a far cry from the punk aesthetic. 

Joining Thompson and Zehery are Dave Bermosk (bass/vocals), Kevin Mahoney (guitar) and Nate Van Dame (drums).

If you're looking for Dead Kennedys, you might want to look elsewhere.  But if you like your pop rock with an edge, or if the Sex Pistols take it a bit too far, you may want to give this new Hit the Lights album a listen.  Sample the "Earthquake" video, it will give you a good idea of what the rest of Invicta is like.   

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music Review: Scorpions: Comeblack

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Currently embarked on what the band has announced as its final tour before retirement, the Scorpions have put together an album of new recordings of their greatest hits combined with some covers of the sixties bands who inspired them, as they say, to follow their dream.  They see Comeblack</i>, the new album, as a kind of encore for their diehard fans.  Perhaps it is nostalgia, but it is a parting gift many of us will treasure.

Of course, the band's own songs have already been recorded several times, but you can never have too much of a good thing.  Classic power ballads like "Wind of Change" and "Still Loving You," to say nothing of their iconic anthem, "Rock You Like a Hurricane," never grow old, and the band's new recordings makes you wonder why on earth they are even thinking about retirement.  Front man Klaus Meine has the kind of rich voice that echoes with passion, and it seems like a fine wine to have grown richer with age. The guitar work of Rudoplh Schenker and Matthias Jabs is as good as it ever was, and that is just about as good as it gets.  This is a band that can still send the chills up your spine with the whistling opening bars of "Wind of Change."

Of the thirteen tracks on the album, seven are Scorpion hits.  The four additional songs are "Rhythm of Love," which opens the album, "No One Like You," "The Zoo," and "Blackout."  The rest are the covers.  Certainly, there are those who would have preferred more of the band's own music, but it is something of a treat to hear them put their own take on some of the other landmarks of rock.  Songs like Ed Cobb's "Tainted Love" originally done by Gloria Jones and T Rex's "Children of the Revolution" get a hard rock treatment that takes them in a dynamic new direction.  Small Faces' "Tin Soldier" starts quietly, but it gets to rocking very quickly.

"All Day and All of the Night" echoes the Kinks until you get to the break for the guitar solos when it begins to break out. The cover of "Across the Universe" is more like an homage to the Beatles than an attempt to put the band's own spin on the tune.  The album ends with The Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday."  Somewhat subdued at the start, it ends with some exciting harmonies that give the song a nice twist. 

There was a time when I considered the Scorpions a guilty pleasure.  I was unlikely to admit how much I liked their music.  Listening to Comeblack makes it clear that there was nothing to feel guilty about.  There are few rockers that can play with more abandon than Schenker, Jabs, bassist Pavel Maciwoda and drummer James Kottak, and I can't think of any vocalist I would rather listen to than Klaus Meine.  If this is indeed the last of the Scorpion's encores, they are leaving the stage with at least some of us wanting more.  If you have to go that's the way to do it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Pains: A Parody, by The Harvard Lampoon

This article was first published at Blogcritics
I suppose it says something about contemporary American culture that some of the most popular works of fiction among adults in recent years are book written for children and young adults.  First there was Harry Potter.  Then there was Katniss Everdeen.  Between the two I would guess they've outsold all the serious adult fiction that was published over the same period.  It would be a lot easier to find an adult who has read The Hunger Games than one who has even heard of let alone read A Visit From the Goon Squad.  With the motion picture version of the first of the books in the Suzanne Collins' trilogy ready to fill the gap left by the retirement of the Harry Potter franchise sometime in March, The Hunger Games is about to find an  even broader audience.  After all there are always those who wait for the movie. 
The time then, it would seem, would be ripe to take another look at this particular manifestation of the phenomenon—a look perhaps a bit askew.  And who better to take that look than the authors who have previously done the job for Harry Potter, the staff of the The Harvard Lampoon?  It may be that parody is not the sincerest form of flattery, but it surely is the sincerest recognition of popularity.  Why bother writing a parody of something nobody is familiar with?  Parody only works when readers know what is being parodied.  Harvard Lampooners know a target when they see it: thus The Hunger Pains.
Like The Hunger Games, The Hunger Pains is the story of a teen age girl, Kantkiss Neverclean, who replaces her younger sister as one of her district's combatants in an annual duel to the death between youngsters from all regions of a dystopian future world ironically  called Peaceland.  Unlike Katniss who is both smart and resourceful, Kantkiss is both silly and clueless.  She stumbles from one absurdity to another, in an environment where the absurd is the norm, and she stumbles her way to victory, all the time playing up to the cameras that are, in typical reality show fashion, following the contestants around.  
Most of the cast of The Hunger Games is here to be ridiculed as well.  Peeta Mellark, the son of the local baker and her partner in the games, becomes Pita Malarkey, a tubby dependant glutton.  Haymitch Abernathy, the last winner of the Games from her district and her mentor, becomes Buttitch Totalapathy, a compulsive gambler.  Effie Trinket, her liaison with the games organization becomes Effu Poorpeople.  There's no point giving away all the jokes. You get the idea, and if you like this kind of thing, you'll like The Hunger Pains.  It is filled with puns, one liners and non sequitors.
Unquestionably there is a lot of funny material in this book, but parody works best in small doses.  At 157 pages, it loses some of its zest.  Still, fans of The Hunger Games, with a sense of humor, will probably gulp the whole thing down in a couple of hours, just as they romped from cliff hanging chapter to cliff hanging chapter in the original.  One thing for sure, The Harvard Lampoon has captured and skewered all of the ticks that have endeared Suzanne Collins' trilogy to adults young and not so young.  So let the games  begin, or as the Notalks might say: "Ah se, leh ah Gaes bega!"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Music Review: Henrik Stadler - Brains on Fire

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you're into the kind of long form experimental free jazz that aims at an aesthetic that takes the music beyond any of the conventions that limit an artist's musical vision, you want to get hold of composer pianist Heiner Stadler's two disc release ,Brains on Fire.  If you like jazz that looks as much to the innovations of modern classical composers as it does to jazz innovators like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, Brains on Fire offers eight tracks recorded originally between 1966 and 19474 that will literally blow your mind.  If, on the other hand, your taste runs to something less avant garde, Brains on Fire is more than likely not for you.

Heiner Stadler is not exactly a household name.  Born in Poland and raised in Germany, he emigrated to the US when he was 23.   He settled in New York where his unique musical vision attracted a host of collaborators.  His 1978 Tribute to Bird and Monk which features an ensemble of experienced talents like Reggie Workman and Stanley Cowell was lauded by Downbeat.  He has been cited as one of those composer/arrangers taking the lead in the crossover of jazz and classical music.  His music has been compared to others "responsible for shaping, a new, intelligent, post-free jazz," musicians like Anthony Braxton and Alexander von Schlippenbach. 

 Besides selections previously released on vinyl, the new CD release of Brains on Fire includes three works never released before.  Of the eight tracks, seven are Stadler originals and one, the cunningly titled "Bea's Flat," is a Stadler arrangement of a Russ Freeman composition written for Chet Baker.  Stadler himself plays on only five of the pieces—four with a quartet and one with a sextet.  The sextet opens the first disc with "No Exercise." Stadler is joined by Workman on bass, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Tyrone Washington on tenor sax, Garnett Brown on trombone and drummer Brian Brake.  Owens and Brown are back in the sextet for "The Fugue #2" which closes the second disc; they are joined by Joe Farrell on tenor sax, Don Friedman on piano, Barre Phillips on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums.   Recorded in '66, this is the oldest piece on the set, and in formal innovation it is a clear illustration of the Stadler crossover.  

The quartet consists of Stadler, Workman, Washington and drummer Lenny White.   Of their four tracks, Stadler says that "Heidi" is "one of the most satisfying performances I've initiated in its coherent integration of the written and the improvised." "Love in the Middle of the Air" is a twenty minute duet between Workman and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, which has the young singer showing the chops that were to make her a star.  "Bea's Flat" is a 1974 recording by The Big Band of the North German Radio Station conducted by Dieter Glawisching.  The variety of ensembles emphasizes the adaptability of Stadler's compositions and arrangements.

Fairly exhaustive liner notes are the work of jazz critic, Howard Mandel.  If anyone can explain the essence of Stadler's art, Mandel is the man for the job.  Still even he advises listeners "to let the music wash over you and to absorb as much as you can instead of analyzing the format." 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Chaser

At the risk of being a Johnny-come-lately, I would like to join the chorus in praise of what the South Korean film industry has been achieving in recent years.  Films like Bong Joon-ho's Mother (2009) and Kim Ji-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010), have received plenty of critical attention, both for their absurdist mash up of violent themes with wacky comic elements and their fundamental technical skill.  These are film makers who have studied the kinds of things Hollywood has been doing so successfully for years and found a way to go them one better. They can compete effectively with our local product aesthetically, and they would more than likely find a greater popular audience if it weren't for issues of language. 

If, on the other hand, you can live with subtitles, there are some mighty impressive films waiting for you.  Take for example Na Hong-jin's 2008 thriller, The Chaser.  This is a film which combines equal parts recognizable Hollywood tropes with innovative twists enough to create something both comfortably familiar and entertainingly novel.  There are fast paced foot chases, but unlike Daniel Craig speeding after cars on foot in Casino Royale, in The Chaser people actually have to stop to catch their breath.  There is a cute little child who gets attached to the hero, but who doesn't quite get away unscathed.  There are vicious fights which actually leave bloody marks on people.  The hero is a cynical ex-cop who has become a pimp, while the villain is a youthful homicidal maniac who seems to go about his business with a childlike innocence.  Prostitutes ply their trade but the only nudity is the middle aged paunch of one the customers.  This is a film that plays havoc with your expectations.

Like many of the other Korean films, it creates an aesthetic that mixes the horrific with the absurd; that combines Keystone Kops comedy with Chainsaw Massacre gore.  It gets you smirking at ridiculous policemen by the dozens falling over each other as they go off in all directions, most of them wrong, until you are suddenly faced with the ominous results of their ineptitude.  It doesn't shy away from bloody violence. The squeamish will clearly need to turn away.  It is macabre in the best traditions of the grand guignol. 

If the ineptitude of the authorities is also intended as a political critique as some have argued, it is a critique that may well have some resonance for American audiences as well.  Police are not only inept, they are less interested in bringing a serial killer to justice, than they are in using his capture to cover up their failure to protect a local politician from an irate protester.  They are willing to break all the rules to protect their reputations, but even with violating all sorts of civil rights, they are unable to do their job effectively.  And after all, the most effectual character in the film is a pimp.  This is a picture of a social order that has gone in the wrong direction.

The Chaser was director Na Hong-jin's directorial debut.  He has since added the critically acclaimed The Yellow Sea to his filmography, a film in which he uses some of the same actors he used in The Chaser.  Kim Yoon-seok who stars as the pimp  plays a mob boss.  Ha Jung-woo, who plays the serial killer, stars in the 2010 film as a cab driver in search of his wife and framed for a murder he didn't commit.   
This article was first published at Blogcritics

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Music Review: Maynard Ferguson - New Sounds of Maynard Ferguson and Come Blow Your Horn

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If trumpeter extraordinaire Maynard Ferguson came along just a little too late for the height of the big band craze, the heyday of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and the like, he got there just in time to catch the wave well before it died, in plenty of time to make a name for himself with jazz lovers all over the world. 

Born in Canada, he moved to the States in 1948 and played in a number of bands before joining up with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1949.  It wasn't until 1956, after some years with Kenton and a stint in Hollywood, that he was called to New York to front a band to play at the famed jazz club, Birdland.  This marked the beginning of a career as a big band leader that lasted off and on until his death in 2006 even as economics made touring a large ensemble a costly venture.  

Real Gone Music, a newly formed reissue company announcing that it is "dedicated to combing the vaults for sounds that aren't just gone—they're REAL gone," will be releasing a single CD containing two albums Ferguson recorded with his big band for Cameo in 1963 after leaving Roulette records.  New Sounds of Maynard Ferguson first came out in April and Real Gone's reissue includes a previously unreleased bonus track, "The Song is You."  The second album, Come Blow Your Horn, was originally released in September of '63.  The two albums along with the bonus have a total of 21 tracks. Extensive liner notes by Bret Primak provide an excellent guide to the music and the performers. 

New Sounds offers a playlist of classic big band tunes played with style and showcasing the high register that Ferguson is famous for.  It opens with the Billy Strayhorn favorite made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Take the "A" Train."  It includes an inventive arrangement of Ray Noble's "Cherokee," best known in the Charley Barnet version (Ferguson had played with Barnet when he first came to the States); this version is a tour de force for the alto sax of Lanny Morgan.  Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump and the Tommy Dorsey theme song "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" round out what seem like a set of tributes to the big band era. 

There is a funky arrangement of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" which features a nice interchange between Morgan and Ferguson.  Ferguson shows off his mellow chops as well as his high notes on an elegant rendition of the traditional "Danny Boy," and "Bossa Nova De Funk" takes the band in another direction and features the song's composer Willie Maiden on tenor sax. 

The tunes on the Come Blow Your Horn album, except for a six minute romp through "Chicago That Toddling Town," are less well known.  The title song which ends the album was written for the Neil Simon play of the same name.  Then there is the theme from TV's Naked City and a couple of pieces from films.  The "Anthony and Cleopatra Theme" from the Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton Cleopatra has Ferguson playing at the top of his game, and maybe at the top of his range. Elmer Bernstein's "Blues for a Four String Guitar" is from The Caretakers, and according to Primak the composer conducted at the session.

Maynard Ferguson may never have achieved quite the popular fame of a movie star trumpeter like Harry James, but jazz fans have long recognized his technical virtuosity and emotional brilliance.  If you like big band music, you'll love this CD.  If you haven't paid all that much attention to the big bands, this CD will make you regret what you've been missing. Maynard Ferguson can play with the best of them, and he put together a band that swings.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Music Review: Jamie Ousley - A Sea of Voices

If you like your jazz smooth and tuneful with a surprise or two here and there, you may want to take a look at A Sea of Voices, a new album by double bassist, Jamie Ousley.  Ousley is a professor of jazz bass at Florida International University in Miami and tours internationally with the trio who joins with him on most of the tracks on the album.  Recently named "Best South Florida Jazz Musician of 2011 by Boca Life magazine, he has played with the likes of jazz legends Benny Golson, George Shearing and James Moody.  Back Home, a previous release, was named "Best South Florida Jazz Release of 2010," by the Palm Beach Post.

A Sea of Voices is something of a concept album. Ousley explains that he was looking for a way to "give back" with his talents and "make a tangible difference in the world" with his music.  The album was intended as a not for profit venture to benefit the environment.  All of the ten tracks on the CD are water inspired compositions chosen presumably to emphasize the need to protect water resources.  All profits are to be donated to Sunshine State Interfaith Power and Light, an organization dedicated to mobilizing faith communities in Florida to care for the environment.  Ousley says: "I could combine the worlds of diverse faiths and jazz to benefit a common cause that we can all unite behind."

The album's ten tracks are a mix of Ousley's own compostions, a classic from the American songbook and a few tunes you wouldn't expect on the typical jazz compilation.  Of the five pieces written by Ousley, the smoking hot "Steam" is the highlight.  "Hymn of Tides," which opens the album, features a cascading piano that echoes the tidal movement and "Loving Beauty" shows off the trio's lyrical sensitivity.  Joe Davidan is the pianist and his work is stellar.  Austin McMahon handles the percussion.  "With You" shows what the group can do with a Latin American beat and "Holy Water" has a spiritual hymn like quality.  While I must confess I'm not quite certain how "Loving Beauty" and "With You" relate to the water theme, I'm certainly glad they got themselves included.

There is a really nice arrangement of Irving Berlin's "How Deep in the Ocean" by Davidan.  And then there are the surprises—the songs you don't expect on a jazz album.  Cold Play's "Swallowed in the Sea" begins with an ominous sounding bass intro and takes the song in a quite interesting direction.  Country classic "Rocky Top" gets a decidedly non-country treatment, and then there is a haunting version of the iconic folk gem, "Shenandoah" with an almost mystical vocal by Nanami Morikawa.  Carlomagno Araya is percussionist on "Rocky Top" and "Swallowed in the Sea."  The last piece on the album is "Alfonsina y el Mar," and it features Gabriel Saientz on piano. 

All in all A Sea of Voices makes for some very fine listening.  It speaks well for the state of jazz around the country.  There is more excellent music around than you might suppose.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Friday, January 13, 2012

TV Review: An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List, the second installment of what looks to be a growing franchise for the man with the round head, Karl Pilkington, debuts Saturday, January 21 at 10:00 PM on the Science network.   The series which runs for eight episodes through March 10, once again documents the ludicrous adventures of the hapless Pilkington as he roams around the world dealing with an array of torments arranged especially for his delightful anguish by his own personal devils, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.  This new series has the eternally duped Pilkington older and a little wiser, but not nearly wise enough. 

Pilkington is harassed into agreeing to another round of adventures from a bucket list of things to do before you die, but only if the rules change, and he gets to decide where he goes and what he does.  Of course, the very idea that he would expect his tormentors to follow any rules he set up is just another reason he makes the ideal butt for Gervais and Merchant.  They may have to do a little more convincing and conniving, but only a little.  He doesn't have to do anything on the list he doesn't want to do, but the things he does choose never seem quite what he thought they would be.  A twist here, and suddenly what seemed simple, becomes more complicated, more frightening; a twist there, and it becomes more humiliating.  Certainly, there will be those who find no delight in Pilkington's humiliation, but just as certainly there will be those that can't get enough.  And since the first series was the Science network's highest rated show, there must have been the latter aplenty.

In the first episode Pilkington chooses what seems to be a harmless stunt from the list.  He will spend a night alone on a desert island. The desert island, it turns out, is not quite the exotic paradise he might have hoped for.  Along the way he has to deal with bungee jumping, land jumping, arse boarding, native dancing and some skimpy native costuming.  Pilkington's unease as he tries to explain himself to the local tribesmen without insulting them is the stuff of high comedy; his dancing in a foliage adorned jock strap is  about as low as comedy gets. 

The second episode has him traveling to Russia to hop aboard the Trans-Siberian Express.  He starts out happily content in a first class compartment, only to find himself booted into third class, cramped into a tiny middle bunk bed.  Along the route, he gets buried alive by Russian healers, wrestles with a Mongolian heavyweight and gets a ride in a centrifuge.  Finally he ends up in China, the place he announces he hated most after his first visit.  This time he visits a dwarf village, and he likes it much better.  So much better that he puts in a call to Gervais' buddy Warwick Davis, a dwarf himself for some politically incorrect badinage. 

Much of the humor in the show comes from Pilkington's oddball ideas about the world, the things he sees and the people he meets.  Volcanoes, he opines, are useful places to get rid of unwanted furnishings.  Happiness, he says, is like a cake; too much and you get sick of it.  A bathroom is a great place for some 'me' time, a place where your girl friend won't walk in on you.  He seems to take his nonsense so seriously that is difficult not to laugh at him.  

Future episodes have him in Thailand getting made over by the lady boys, wing walking on a plane in the US, taking a ride on the world's steepest roller coaster and meeting a gorilla after a journey through a tangle of African forest.  At times, the humor seems a mite mean spirited if not downright cruel, but then this is a Ricky Gervais project so it would seem that viewers should have a fairly good idea of what to expect.  Besides, mean spirited or not, the show is funny.  So be warned, if watching the humiliations of silly man is not your idea of fun, this is not a show for you.  If you don’t mind a good laugh at an"idiot's" expense, tune in on the 21st.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

TV Review: Downton Abbey

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Whoever thinks there is any truth to the idea that you can put lipstick on a pig, but you can't. . . .had better think again.  Some pigs not only wear their lipstick well, it turns out they get a lot of people forgetting their porcine roots entirely.  Two cases in point:  first, there is the British import just premiering its second season in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre, Downton Abbey; second there is the homegrown award winning series recently announcing its breathlessly awaited fifth season, Mad Men.  Turns out you can take what has been one of the least respected TV genres, the oft ridiculed soap opera, set it back in the past, dress it up with some fancy period costumes, and viewers will not only eat it up, but so will critics, and when push comes to shove, they'll win themselves an award or two.  People who wouldn't have been caught dead watching General Hospital or As the World Turns will be tuned into PBS with breath baited.  They will be looking forward to March, the announced date for the return of Mad Men, with feverish anticipation.

And I must confess not only was a sitting in front of my television for the arrival of the Downton Crawleys and their servants, but my own temperature elevated considerably at the news of Don Draper's imminent return.  Moreover, as far as the return of Downton Abbey is concerned, I wasn't disappointed.  It is two years later, and WWI is raging.  The episode opens on the Somme in the midst of the battle.  Clearly the stakes for the new season have been raised.  Social issues remain front and center, but now they are played out against a background of life and death.  The right dress for dinner and who serves important as it is is less important than it might have been two years earlier.  Class divisions are beginning to break down more rapidly.  The new world that was beginning in the first series is gathering steam.

There are still those who aren't ready to accept it.  The irascible dinosaurs like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played with a knowing gleam by Maggie Smith and the faithful butler, Mr. Carson may not  be quite ready to deal with the new order.  But, if it was only Matthew Crawley, the unwilling heir to the estate, who seemed to be ready for the changing social values in the first series, now there is a whole crew of converts.  Lady Sybil takes up nursing.  Lady Edith learns to drive and takes a hand in some local farming.  A chauffer can even look to make advances to the daughter of the house, and a lady kiss a farmer.  This, after all, is not a social tract.

To be sure, the major story lines are picked up with relish.  Matthew is now engaged, but Lady Mary has clearly had second thoughts about him.  Another romantic entanglement seems inevitable, despite new attachments showing up for each of them. Bates and Anna begin making plans for their future until his estranged wife shows up to make waves and the honorable valet sacrifices himself for the honor of the Granthams.  We can only hope, along with Anna, for his return. The duplicitous lady's maid O'Brien and the scheming ex-footman Thomas are working their way up to their old tricks. The dowager will continue to try to run things for the family, and Lady Grantham will assert herself gently.  It is the war, however, that dominates the first episode—the horror of battle, efforts on the home front, patriotic fervor and craven cowardice.  It looks to be a promising season: world shaping events with a dollop or two of soap.

Let's hope that Mad Men's return slated for March is as auspicious.  Those of us who have been feeding our addiction replaying the first four seasons on Neflix are impatient for news.  What happens to Don and Megan? Does the agency make it past the Lucky Strike disaster?  Will Betty and Henry stay together?  What happens. . . . well, there are a lot of questions, and like any good soap opera, if you can keep your audience salivating with anticipation, you've done your job.  Downton Abbey has done it; Mad Men  has been doing it for four seasons, there's no reason to suppose they won't continue.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: Liz Weston, The 10 Commandments of Money

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy, now available in paperback, is online financial guru Liz Weston's guide to building economic security in today's post real estate bubble environment.  It acknowledges that we live in a new world where what had been standard financial advice in the past is no longer valid and gives commonsense advice about the strategies and actions that offer the best opportunity for the good life.  Her advice seems practical, although it isn't necessarily simple.  More often than not it involves either a lot of homework for the individual or the help of a professional.  Still, there are steps an ordinary person can take and if one is willing to put in the time and the effort, Weston's "10 Commandments" would appear to offer readers a good shot at building and preserving the kind of nest egg that is part and parcel of the American dream.

After a short introduction in which she points out the failures of the past, the book is divided into ten chapters, each explaining in some detail the best way to handle finances as we move forward.  Her advice isn't necessarily original, rather it is often a compendium of strategies she has collected and sometimes modified from a variety of sources.  So for example, in the first chapter where she discusses creating a budget that will work in the "real world," she uses as her base the work of Harvard University's Elizabeth Warren.  Later when she talks about buying and selling real estate she refers to the work of Ilyce Glink.  She is always careful to acknowledge the sources of her ideas both in individual chapters and in an appendix which points to them and others for further study.

Among the topics she discusses are budgeting, credit, retirement, insurance and education.  She introduces each chapter with a statement about what had conventional wisdom, a statement about how that wisdom had changed during the bubble economy, and what the new rules should be.  On debt, for example, the old rule: "All debt is bad.  Pay it off as fast as possible."  During the bubble: there is no need to worry about paying off debt; there are better things you can do with your money.  The new commandment: pay off bad debt, use good debt.  Her basic thesis is that when debt is inescapable, as it seems to be for most of us, it is important to recognize that not all debt is equal.  Some debts are more expensive than others.  Some debts come with more dire consequences for failure to make payments.  Common sense then dictates which debts to pay off as quickly as possible and which to keep in abeyance.

This is the kind of practical wisdom she dispenses throughout the book.  She points out the importance of early retirement saving by illustrating how contributions appreciate over the years.  She explains the importance of higher education, but points out that it is not necessary to buy more education than you need to meet your goals.  She guides readers through the morass of student loans, bankruptcy laws, mortgage options, insurance and even cell phone plans.  Although at times she seems to be repeating herself, since there is a good deal of overlap in some of the chapters, her writing is always clear and easy to understand. 

Each chapter ends with a list of actions readers can take to implement their goals, although some  of her advice seems easier to follow than others.  "Exhaust federal student loans before seeking private education loans," she advises at the end of the chapter of education.  She has already explained the advantages of federal loans in the meat of the chapter, so it is absolutely clear why she makes this recommendation.  On the other hand after explaining about the necessity for communication in her chapter about marriage, she points out that when conflicts arise, it is the problem that needs to be attacked, not the marriage partner.  Good advice, although sometimes human nature gets in the way.  

Of course, in the end, there are no rules that will work for everyone.  Generalizations are dangerous.  Individuals must evaluate each and every one of these commandments and apply them with care to their own particular situation.  Besides as this book, itself, demonstrates, yesterday's truisms may turn out to be today's fallacies.

Friday, January 6, 2012

DVD Review: Dr. Willoughby

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The British sitcom Dr. Willoughby which only ran for six episodes in 1999 on ITV deserved a better fate.  A backstage comedy with much of its humor played off stereotyped characters it is nonetheless a funny half hour with a lot more laughs than a lot of the comic fare you're likely to find on TV today.

The series stars Joanna Lumley, perhaps best known for Absolutely Fabulous, as actress Donna Sinclair who plays the eponymous heroine in Dr. Willoughby, a cheesy afternoon TV soap opera.  Sinclair is a bitchy aging diva with very few if any redeeming qualities.  She is demanding, rude and jealous of those around her.  She throws herself at younger men.  She is the kind of prima donna who is quite capable of sabotaging a young actress whom she feels is getting too much attention while stooping to stealing rolls of toilet paper from the supply room.  The contrast between the vain, conniving, and insincere Sinclair and the calmly competent surgeon she plays on the show is a big part of the fun. Sinclair may be every bit the cliché, still Lumley manages to make her come alive. 

Sinclair is surrounded by an ensemble of familiar back stage types.   There is the dim witted insecure co-star worried about his role on the show, the naïve ingénue, a womanizing executive producer, a trouble making cleaning lady and a producer whose greatest desire is to be somewhere else.  They are the kinds of back stage types that have long been the fodder for show business comedies. Dr. Willoughby is not a show that looks to mine new fields.  It may make a politically incorrect joke here and there, but by and large it sticks to the tried and true.  It is just as happy to get its laughs out of a raunchy joke as some shows would be from insight into character.  These are broadly drawn characters played broadly by a competent cast of talented actors.

Story lines in individual episodes revolve around things like Sinclair's jealousy over the amount of fan mail others are getting, her reaction to a scandal rag story about her, and her co-star's problems with his ex-wife's alimony.  In one episode Sinclair sneaks off for some cosmetic surgery leaving the rest of the cast thrilled at her absence and speculating about what might be wrong with her.  In another, she forces her producer to hire an inept young actor she fancies only to discover he's gay.  Sub-plots deal with things like late contract renewals and product placement.  If Dr. Willoughby doesn't quite rise to the level of shows like Ricky Gervais' Extras or The Larry Sanders Show, both of which deal with similar material, it does a nice job on its own terms.

The DVD from Acorn has all six episodes on a single disc which runs approximately 144 minutes.  Subtitles are available, but there is no bonus material.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Bar-B-Cue'n Blues

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Lovers of traditional blues will want to check out Bar-B-Cue'n Blues one of series of compilations of remastered recordings of some of the great blues masters originally scheduled for release last fall from Catbone Unreleased.  The album, like others in the series, features fifteen previously unreleased tracks by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters as well as some lesser known names, eight different artists in all, and while there will be those who might have preferred complete albums devoted to the individuals, it is hard to complain about the opportunity to listen to some very fine blues that might well have gone under the radar otherwise.  It's no use looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth organ. 

These are lovingly restored recordings worth checking out either for aficionados looking to fill holes in their collections or casual listeners looking for an introduction to the genre.  If there is anything to complain about, it is probably the liner notes.  Aside from a photo and some sketchy information about the performers—some of whom are not even represented on the specific album, there is no information about the specific tracks, either about the songs themselves or the performances.  A word or two about the date of the original and the musical accompaniment would have been welcome.  Still it is the music that's important, and there is a lot of good music.

The album opens with Chicago bluesman, Billy Boy Arnold's "Catfish."  Arnold, who has worked with the likes of Bo Diddley, is also represented by "Dirty Mother Furriers,"an almost seven minute swinging electric romp with lyrics that won't make it on NPR and "Sweet Miss Bea."  Harmonica virtuoso James Cotton—"Superharp," according to his website—has two tracks: a sweet blues, "So Glad I'm Livin" and the up tempo "You Know It Aint Right."  There's some boogie woogie from Jimmy Reed, "Boogie in the Dark" and an old home "Gone Fishin."  Trumpeter Jack Milman's "Tom and Jerry" is an easy going instrumental, although this is one of the tracks where it would clearly have been nice to have the names of the members of the ensemble.  Rock and roller Little Richard shows up with "I Don't Know What You've Got," not quite as flamboyant as some of his pop hits.

Then there's the big three.  Muddy Waters does "I Feel So Good" and "All Aboard," a song that echoes the train.  Howling Wolf's "Louise" is a classic and he adds a playful "Built for Comfort."  The album is rounded out John Lee Hooker's "Sally Mae," introduced with a throbbing guitar and a six and a half minute blast of blues improvisation on "Should Have Been Gone."

What Bar-B-Cue'n Blues lacks in depth, it certainly makes up for in variety.  It gives listeners a nice mix of representative artistic home cooking.  These are the folks that have worked in the roadhouses and the bars; they know the fields of Mississippi and the streets of Chicago.  They are the "blues" collar workers, and it is a shame that some of these names are not even better known.  An album like this only serves to illustrate how large the field of really fine blues musicians is.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Hurt Machine, by Reed Farrel Coleman

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Hurt Machine is the seventh in Reed Farrel Coleman's Moe Prager detective series, and given the opening in which the sixty plus Prager announces just after a pre-wedding party for his daughter that he has been diagnosed with cancer, it may well turn out to be the last.  Bur when his ex-wife and partner turns up at the party and asks him to look into the murder of her estranged sister, an EMT who had been disgraced after she and her partner refused to aid a dying restaurant worker, Prager is embroiled in a complicated chain of events that has him dealing with her colleagues in the fire department angry that she has given them a bad name, reluctant witnesses and old friends eager to help with his investigation as he tries to find her killer.  There are a lot of discoveries to be made, and just when you think you've come to the truth, there's something else to discover.  Coleman is very good at keeping readers guessing.

Set mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Coleman is almost as adept at creating a sense of place as a master like George Pelecanos is with Washington,DC.  Brooklyn especially almost functions as a character itself.  Whether he is talking about the boardwalk at Coney Island or the newly upscale Park Slope, the Belt Parkway or Stillwell Avenue, stickball or ring-a-levio, this is as realistic a portrait of Brooklyn as you are likely to come across. He knows the finer points of Nathan's French fries and the subtleties of Brooklyn pizza.  He knows the bars where the firemen drink and those that cater to the ordinary locals.  If writers are able to stake a claim to a locale, Coleman has a good case for making Brooklyn his own.

Grown old and sick, Prager is no rough guy private eye.  He is as likely to collapse from too much to eat and drink as he is from fighting with some younger tough.  There are women, but his current girl friend is in Vermont and the young beauties he comes across in his investigations call him grandpa.  Still, if he is not now what he has been, the years have brought him what the poet calls the philosophic mind.  He has a knack for putting his insights about the human condition and life in general in pithy, almost epigrammatic, tidbits of wisdom.  "It is the great folly of humanity, the search for self- knowledge and significance."  "Time to think is life's Petri dish." "Only in retrospect is life a simple series of easily connected dots."  The book is filled with this sort of philosophizing.

Nonetheless, Prager is committed to finding the truth.  It is almost as if he is looking for one last moment of action before what might be the end.  Like Tennyson's "Ulysses," it's not too late to seek a newer world.  He is dogged in his pursuit of the murderer, what he has lost in physical power, he makes up for with the street smarts he has gained over the years.  Still he is old, and there is always a question about how he will hold up and whether he is equal to the task.

The problem I have coming to a book like Hurt Machine without having read any of the others in the series is all the references to people and events that seem to have been treated in the earlier novels.  I have the feeling that everything would be more meaningful to me if I understood more about the relationship between Prager and his ex, if I knew more about Nathan Martyr who turns up as a restaurant owner late in the investigation, or if I knew what happened to Prager's first wife.  While I am bothered by not knowing as much about such things and many others, it is worth noting that the Hurt Machine is quite good enough to make me want to read the first six to find out what I've been missing.