Monthly archives: June 2007
"Flight of the Conchords" and Stealth Humor
If there can be said to exist a weak spot in my judgement when it comes to comedy, it is that I have a susceptibility to over-the-top mugging at the expense of jokes more underplayed. This is why I have a soft spot for Freddy Got Fingered and once wrote that "Twenty Good Years" had some funny bits to it. I enjoy scenery-chewing, and to be frank I get more than a little annoyed at standups like Jon Stewart who smirk even as they're delivering their own material. I would much rather see someone try too hard for a laugh than seemingly not try at all.
This seems like a good point to again mention that I hated Napoleon Dynamite. Loathed it with a focused intensity. Part of this loathing was inspired, like Cartman in that two-parter "South Park" all about the "Family Guy" manatees, by people's uninformed assumption that it would be "the sort of movie" that "a guy like me" would like. Well, what sort of movies are those? Cheaply made, amateur-looking unfunny ones? What kind of guy do you think I am, anyway?
That's why it's kind of a surprise that I like HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" so much. The show is so low-key the leads often don't seem fully awake (especially the monumentally passive, half-heartedly bearded Bret McKenzie, who blinks funnier than a lot of people speak) but its overall tone of lazy diffidence is completely broken up and put into needed perspective by beautifully conceived and shot musical numbers. If you have trouble figuring out why an argument between McKenzie and his bandmate/roommate/life partner Jemaine Clement about whether hooking up in the same room as your ex is more or less startling than the sudden switch-on of a lamp is funny (it is, but in a low-key way) certainly the duo's spirited performance of "Part-Time Model" will allow you to laugh happily and unambiguously. It makes sense in line with writer/actors McKenzie and Clement's Tenacious D-like recastings of their own personalities that The Conchords only seem fully alive when they're playing their music. Musical sitcoms don't exactly have a long tradition of television success but with the limited run and extended production time HBO allows "Flight of the Conchords" could catch on for a couple of very funny seasons. So long as Clement and McKenzie, who are clearly far more multiply talented and motivated than their onscreen personas suggest, keep bringing the songs.
Why Is Fake Work Real Fun?
I stayed up into the wee hours last night planting potatoes. And tilling soil. And clearing branches, and cultivating strawberries, and pampering my sheep. I'm completely absorbed in my latest rental from the invaluable GameFly service, the Nintendo DS version of the venerable handheld farming sim Harvest Moon.
What I'm spending all of my precious free time on is, paradoxically, a full-blown toil simulator. You can't die in Harvest Moon, but you can pass out from exhaustion, and I have been working my poor little knapsack-wearing avatar like a slavedriver. Cesar Chavez would not approve. The other "day" a little kewpie doll blonde stopped by the farm to invite me to the duck festival, and I was all like, get out of here, I have to plow.
Harvest Moon might be a little bit of an extreme example, but I imagine most folks with even a little bit of video game experience have been through the same thing, whether micromanaging the existences of their Sims or poring over columns of attribute numbers in Madden franchise mode. In the PC game Civilization, which I have been playing obsessively a couple times a week without interruption since roughly 1992, I have probably dedicated a few real-time months of my existence to directing little settler units around in circles building tiny railroads and irrigation channels.
Everybody's working for the weekend... so we can go home and do virtual work on our XBoxes and PlayStations. Truly this is the best of all possible worlds.
Elsewhere: I'm pretty jaded after years and years writing about music, so it's seldom indeed I write a complete rave about a live performance. So you should pay attention to what I had to say about Manu Chao's show at Red Rocks for Billboard:
Chao's chief strength is his ability to cherry-pick the best elements from musical traditions all over the world, and in terms of stage presence, he's definitely adopted a demonstrative, Latin American-influenced fixation on leaving no audience members attached to their seats. At least two of the musicians in Chao's five-piece backing band were employed predominantly for their skills at fist-pumping and otherwise inciting the near-capacity crowd to frenzy. The seemingly inexhaustible 45-year-old frontman did not stand still from his opening "Qué paso?" through multiple encores....
Chance Likes to Watch, John Likes to Surf
Let's get the only non-ambiguous thing about HBO's new "John from Cincinnati" out of the way first: This show is doomed. If the pay-cable network couldn't find a way to force people to sit down and pay attention to "Carnivàle," which was equally ambitious but much easier to watch, I don't know how they're going to feel about the ratings returns for David Milch and Kem Nunn's new show. Maybe they don't care at all. Conspiracy theory alert: This review suggests that HBO was delighted to have an escape hatch from having to pony up for another season of the very costly "Deadwood," which for all its acclaim had an audience consisting predominantly of print TV critics and wannabes like myself. In ten years see if we're not calling "Deadwood" the premium cable series equivalent of the Velvet Underground, the show hardly anybody watched but all those who did went on to become television writers.
The early reviews of "John from Cincinnati" make for an illuminating read. Without question, this is the kind of show which requires a lot of external research, since no answers whatsoever are forthcoming during the progam's running time. For the Sunday night premiere, HBO tacked on at the end a brief interview with David Milch that made if anything even less sense than the pilot. The funny thing is, for all of these critics' protestations of having no idea what "John" is supposed to be about, the reviews read remarkably similarly, be they positive or negative. I think that's probably because it's a lot easier to try and deal with "John" at a surface level than open up the deep black can of worms of what it all means. If professional television writers get a headache just considering this, it's hard to imagine "John from Cincinnati" connecting with a mass audience. So here's the easy way out: You summarize the plot, such as it is, which will make the show sound like a ponderous, howlingly pretentious mess (which, OK, yeah, it kinda is) and then you're done with it. If you did anything that might encourage people to watch, chances are you might have to write about it again, and that would be hard.
Well, I'm going to stick with "John from Cincinnati." Maybe I'll even have the kind of smashing insight that our entrenched television pundits have all passed on offering. As I wrote just a few hours ago, I was prepared to hate this show, due to its connection with the premature burial of "Deadwood." And the pilot didn't do itself any favors. After spending so much time with "Deadwood" I was prepared for any number of two-character scenes that didn't move from Point A to Point B in the traditional small-screen narrative style. Likewise, it didn't much bother me that certain of the characters were possessed apropos of nothing to begin speaking entirely in epigrams. That's David Milch's style, you either take it or you leave it. Granted, "Deadwood" had a lot more of a logical basis for a cast of characters that didn't so much have conversations as exchange soliloquies. In the 19th century, before television and radio, men's words were their reputations; Abraham Lincoln became a national political figure largely on the basis of newspaper transcripts of his debates with Stephen Douglas. If you go back and read the personal letters and speeches of famous Americans from the period in which "Deadwood" was set, needless grandiloquence and tortured allusions (especially to classical Greek and Roman works) were just the style of the times.
As for present-day Imperial Beach, California, that's a bit of a stretch. Some suspension of belief will just have to be maintained as to why characters like surf-groupie lawyer Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson), damaged gay lottery winner Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston), and especially ex-cop and bird fancier Bill Jacks (Ed O'Neill) fulminate for paragraphs at a time with the fluency and force of E.B. Farnum at his sweatiest. But in my estimation one of the things that is most compelling about "John" is the way that many of the characters speak and behave as if they are existing in entirely different universes even when sharing scenes with each other. For a lesser talent than David Milch, you would take this as a sign of incompetence, but Milch is quite up front about his desire to challenge people's very experience of reality with "John from Cincinnati." The show is perilously ambitious, but for all of its opaque dialogue, extraneous characters, and crippling inconsistencies in tone, I kind of like it. Television is a different medium from film and music, because of the way that productions continue to develop and change and respond to the reactions of their audiences. When a musician has too many ideas for his own good and no real coherent plan for tying them all together, the result is usually a mess with isolated highlights, like Quadrophenia, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, or Springsteen's The River. Most great filmmakers have that one that got away, a movie where they weren't able to rein in all of their competing ideas within the limited amount of time they had to shoot them and the finished product has few if any redeeming values. "John from Cincinnati" has that feeling at its outset, but it's far from being a completed work. If he gets a chance Milch has a chance to pull this mess together into something special.
The cast helps a lot. Newcomer Greyson Fletcher is winning and natural as 13-year-old rising surf star Shaun Yost. One of the problems you can see for "John from Cincinnati" going forward is a lack of emotional connection between the audience and all of the ponderous exploration of the fundamental nature of reality. Fletcher is the panacea. Just go back and watch his timing and facial expression in the pilot when he pointedly uses the past tense after his estranged, junkie father asks him how sixth grade is going. Brian Van Holt is immediately compelling as the unfortunately named Butchie Yost, Shaun's loser dad and a guy who took his corporate-crafted image as famed pro surfer "The Beast" a little too close to heart. Since this is a Milch piece, everywhere you turn there is another one of those character actors who never disappoints -- Jim Beaver, Garson, Luis Guzman, Jeremy Howard. O'Neill (whom I prefer to think of as one of David Mamet's repertory players rather than as Al Bundy) is flat-out-riveting, and pro surfer Keala Kennelly has an authentic ease as an apprentice boardmaker at the shop the Yosts run. Things are a little more troublesome with the nominal leads. Bruce Greenwood's Mitch is frustratingly passive for a legendary patriarch, and as his irritable wife Rebecca De Mornay doesn't make a single right choice in the pilot presentation that doesn't involve wardrobe. That said, wow, no woman pushing fifty ought to fill out a pair of jeans like that.
The biggest problem with "John from Cincinnati," actually, is John from Cincinnati. I don't have a huge issue with the concept of the character or the casting of Austin Nichols, but Milch needs to dial back the idiot-savant dialogue catchphrases. A lot. It's not his usual M.O. to be this unsubtle and repetitive. With so many characters able to deliver great lines and Milch eminently capable of filling their mouths with pretty words, why is so much of the pilot script dedicated to John saying the same few lines over and over and over and over again? If John doesn't learn to be more of a strong, silent type in the next few episodes, I'm going to lose a lot of my initial goodwill for his show. As for now I much prefer the literal parrot in the cast, Bill's Lazarus-like pet Zippy. Give us a kiss!
In the final analysis, I think I had a positive response to the idea of "John from Cincinnati" as a series despite the shaky pilot for one counterintuitive reason. The show doesn't promise us anything. This isn't a "Lost" or "Heroes" situation where all of the mysteries are supposed to pay off in some meaningful logical way after a certain amount of time. You will get out of this show exactly as much as you are willing to put into it. There aren't a lot of television shows like that around. Of course, one of them was "Deadwood," which had to die so that this show could be born, but let's not hold it against "John from Cincinnati." The deck is stacked against its survival as it stands.
Nice One, ESPN
The game recap for Game 2 of the Spurs-Cavaliers series gives away the big question about the "Sopranos" finale. Why? Why? I was planning on catching up with the show on DVD this summer and I was hoping to shield myself from the ending. I shouldn't have to avoid every site on the Internet to do so, right?
Update: Maybe I was a little quick to judge there. It was the Associated Press story, not ESPN's, and they've already replaced it with more in-depth recap that manages to remain "Sopranos" spoiler-free.
AP writer Tom Withers, you're on notice.
HBO's Big Night
Tomorrow is a big night for HBO, in more ways than one. Of course, "The Sopranos" is airing its long-awaited finale. I for one will not be tuning in. A while back the show stopped being a warped take on family dynamics and turned into the self-aggrandizing adventures of competely unredeemable people. I've never liked gangster movies, and resisted watching the show for a while because of that. People kept telling me it was different, and without a doubt, the first season stands as one of television's great achievements. Like its protagonist, the show never quite recovered from the death of Tony's mom. The momentum kept it going for a while, but after the death of Big Pussy, I lost interest. In the later seasons, the storytelling made too many incorrect assumptions to hold on to my interest. This is exemplified by the interminable Adriana storyline. Why did the writers possibly imagine we would care if that shrill, annoying, entitled zero bit the dust? Hell, I would have pulled the trigger myself if they'd let me.
Big numbers for "The Sopranos" are not in question. What HBO really has to be on pins and needles about is the following program, the debut of David Milch's new series "John from Cincinnati." The network has a lot riding on "John" being received well, since it essentially killed "Deadwood" when Milch wouldn't change his work habits to accomodate both series running at once. Tim Goodman is already on record as saying that the new show is a disaster, but there has been better buzz elsewhere. I'm too huge of a "Deadwood" fan not to tune in, but going by the description alone, it doesn't sound like much of a crowd-pleaser. It's a noir thing about a commune of surfers of Milch says "we hope to explore the ways we oversimplify our idea of reality." I hope it's not a bunch of inconclusive, intellectually masturbatory new age nonsense, but it sure does have that vibe.
If I attempt to review "John from Cincinnati" without first taking the time to clear the decks of my thoughts about the ultimate fate of "Deadwood," that's all I'll end up writing. So here is what I think. There is absolutely no way one or two two-hour movies can wrap up the story of "Deadwood" the way matters currently stand. The series' chief strength is the way it strings together a whole number of scenes that seem initially meaningless and unimportant only to have them resonate more and more strongly upon each-reviewing. It's not my usual habit to stay absolute mum about a show I love so much, but I haven't written hardly a word about the third season because past experience with the first two suggests it will take five or six complete re-viewings on DVD until the full richness of Milch and his cast's accomplishment comes through.
"Deadwood" by no means is a show that could run forever. The whole premise of the show is dependent on the ephemeral nature of perfectly lawless societies like the one that has sprung up around the mining camp. The story of the show is that of how a unique place and time, a true historical/dramatic outlier, a petri dish for the worst impulses of men, rapidly and inevitably is drawn back towards the center. It's no coincidence that the show's pilot involves the arrival of the first lawman in town, and that the first season largely deals with the fallout surrounding the final days and death of Wild Bill Hickok, a paragon of an already fading way of life. The second season's story showed the current power-holders in the town gradually beginning to make efforts to compromise with external forces in a bid to maintain their positions of privilege. And the third season has begun to demonstrate why this can't work. So much on "Deadwood" is underplayed or implied that you could contruct an argument that the story doesn't need to end -- we can read all of what's going to happen from the text already laid out in front of us. This is may or may not be true. But it seems to me as if the show has a natural stopping point after one or two more 12-episode seasons.
For my part, the existing seasons are such a beautiful example of long-form storytelling that I would rather see no future "Deadwood" at all than a made-for-TV movie. It just wouldn't be right. Too many adjustments to the show's pace and style would have to be made, and I don't think the results would end up leaving anyone, let alone David Milch, very happy. They really ought to do two more seasons, and if it makes me a bad person hoping that "John from Cincinnati" flops resoundingly so that can happen, then I'm a bad person.
Only Universal HD reruns of "Northern Exposure" and the fact that each third-season "House" only gets better each additional time I see it is sustaining me in the lean weeks immediately following the end of the television season. The NBA Finals aren't going to be much of a consolation, either, as I suspect the Spurs-Cavaliers series will be essentially a rerun of the Spurs-Jazz Western Conference Finals. Cavs win Game 3, San Antonio takes the rest.
There is one low wattage new show that I am provisionally leaving on my Season Pass list, which is the ABC serial "Traveler." Like Fox's rapidly shuttered "Drive," this was a show that was originally developed for last fall's pilot season when "Lost"-style mystery-dramas were all the rage. "Traveler" isn't as far-fetched as "Drive," as aimless as "Smith," or as patently contrived as "Kidnapped," but without a peep of press or network attention it has about as much chance to make it past its initial order of eight episodes as Eric Snow does of being Finals MVP. If you manage to make it through the establishing section of the pilot, there's some fun to be had with "Traveler," grading on a heavy summer-replacement curve. Three recent grad school graduates are in New York planning a cross-country road trip when the most instantly dislikable of the group disappears in the wake of a museum bombing for which the two remaining leads are instantly made chief suspects. Trying to follow too closely seems futile, but there's some sort of "X-Files" style government conspiracy going on, and our two young protagonists can trust... no... one... as they attempt to prove their innocence and discover the true identity of the vanished title character. "Traveler" benefits from an assured visual style set forth in the pilot by veteran TV director David Nutter ("X-Files," "Supernatural," "Entourage") and some material-elevating performances by pros Viola Davis and William Sadler. Unfortunately, two of the three leads are almost unbearably unpleasant and the one who isn't, Matthew Bomer as Jay Burchell, isn't up to the task of carrying the show by himself. If "Traveler" was deliberately structured as a limited-run series, with all of the answers forthcoming within this brief summer run, I would recommend it more highly. It certainly delivers on the explosion and car chase fronts and is the rare our-heroes-are-on-the-lam show where the law enforcement characters aren't complete unredeemable pinheads. But I want to sucker punch the odious Logan Marshall-Green in the junk every time his Tyler Fog stops sneering for ten seconds to deliver a line of dialogue and as supposed cypher Will Traveler the breadth of subtext Aaron Stanford can muster is raising his eyebrows significantly at regularly spaced intervals. Happy summer, America!
Also going over the airwaves to little to no fanfare at this time are the last handful of episodes of Aaron Sorkin's failed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." I held out hope for this series long after anyone else did, but even I have to admit that Sorkin completely buckled on this one. Overly sensitive to press criticism and fluctuating ratings (much like his proxy on the series itself, Matthew Perry's Matt Albie), Sorkin tried to retool the show two or three times on the fly and only ended up taking a show that began with one of the most fully realized, self-assured pilots I've ever viewed and turning it into something barely worthy of a retrospective DVD release. While it may be true that people simply weren't going to buy into the idea that the decisions being made by television comedy writers are worthy of the sort of life-or-death tension with which Sorkin infused "The West Wing," the showrunner would have been better off sticking to his guns and allowing the strength of his actors' performances to gradually make viewers care about all the network boardroom mishegoss. Instead the show first lurched towards romantic comedy, which wasn't a very good idea due to its not being particularly funny and the brittle, neurotic characters sliding right into very tired storyline patterns. Then "Studio 60" shifted into a more kinetic, ensemble inside-baseball show (more "Sports Night" than "West Wing") which didn't work either since to the modern TV watcher there really isn't all that much mystique attached to how television shows are made. We have our DVD special features for that.
I don't think there would be any way of framing the major plot threads of the first (and only) season of "Studio 60" that wouldn't be stupid. Perry's character gets hooked on pills! Bradley Whitford falls in love with Amanda Peet's network president even though she's pregnant with another man's baby! (Peet's pregnancy is one thing Sorkin couldn't control, but since her Jordan McDeere was utterly redundant under the vastly more assertive presences of her bosses played by Steven Weber and Ed Asner, they could have excised the character without missing a beat.) The allegedly Christian comedienne played by Sarah Paulson gets a movie role where she plays a crazy cokehead murderer! Nathan Corddry's character's brother is a soldier... who gets captured by the Taliban! I'm unsure whether Sorkin was flipping off the network or the Americans tuning out his show in droves (or simply mailing it in), but the show almost never worked after the first few weeks. Give all available credit to Timothy Busfield for maintaining dignity on a sinking ship; his harried director Cal had almost all of the good moments of the back end of the year, including the really fine episode with the blacklisted former "Studio 60" writer, the only midseason episode to demonstrate Sorkin's former mastery of the format. I hope Matthew Perry finds a better vehicle for his underexposed dramatic chops before too long. As for Bradley Whitford, so long as Sorkin is working, he'll be OK.
I recognized a pattern in a random sequence of shows I was watching earlier this week off of my two DVRs and my DVD collection. For some reason I kept coming across episodes involving dual roles and doppelgangers. There was the "Northern Exposure" oldie "Jules et Joel," with Rob Morrow playing both the familiar Joel Fleischman and his small-time hustling, possibly imagined twin Jules. There was the goofy "South Park" Halloween episode "Spookyfish," which while not beating a deeply unfunny menstruation gag into the ground involves a sweet, helpful Cartman from an alternate universe with a goatee and sharp, obvious line down the middle of the screen whenever he and the regular Cartman are in the same shot. Struggling to get through the early seasons of "Star Trek: Voyager," I had my spirits lifted mildly by "Faces," which splits B'Elanna into component Klingon and human halves and features one of the single creepiest scenes in all of "Star Trek" lore, where a hideously disfigured mad scientist grafts a dead Voyager crewman's face onto his own to better woo the fully Klingon Torres. Then there's the "Stargate Atlantis" installment "Duet." I'm not sure whether it's the inverse or the obverse or the whatever of an evil twin plot, but it concerns two people's consciousnesses being shared in one body. Another established sci-fi trope for sure, but as usual, "Atlantis" manages to take well-digested material and put an entertaining spin on it, highlighted by the delightful spectacles of David Hewlett swanning about like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and finally smooching Paul McGillion full on the lips. Man, these Canadian actors, they just give and give and give.
Fun with "Idol," One Last Time and... Where Do We Go from Here?
Well, what do you do with your barely-established television commentary site after the TV season is over? That is the question. A quick scan over Entertainment Weekly's list of summer series reveals nothing of particular interest until August. I did TiVo the first couple episodes of "Traveler," but after all the time I wasted on "Drive" I don't know why I would bother expending any mental energy on a replacement series doomed before it even premiered. A certain part of me wants to dedicate at least a week's writing time to breaking down the various outfits of the RGX Body Spray girl, but that happens to be the same voice that I endeavour quite strenuously to keep out of my music and television writing.
What summer does bring for the serious TV watcher these days is DVD sets, in all shapes and sizes and aspect ratios. As a freelance writer I face the same barriers to entry with regards to reviewing TV on DVD sets as I do video games; in brief, they cost money and I don't have any. Conveniently though the TV on DVD market has seemingly become supersaturated; between the steady drumbeat of archival releases and the rushed release of sets to help promote current series, there is way more out there on the market than any one reasonable human can ever hope to absorb. And Target sells stuff like the first season of "Bones" or the second season of "Veronica Mars" for less than $20 if you happen to catch them on sale. I don't have very much money, but I do have tons of free time and a Target right near my apartment. And I also have a pretty immense collection as it stands. To keep things relevant I think I'll largely be taking on either stuff that's fairly new to the market or older seasons of ongoing shows. But if you would be interested in other stuff, that's what the comments section is for. I'm going to get the random "Star Trek" episode flashbacks relaunched for sure, as they seem to be something to which a wide cross-section of readers respond. I'm about due for a "Deep Space Nine," it seems. Well, that's good, now I have an idea for what to write about tomorrow.
Today, though, we're going to wrap up our well-received "American Idol" coverage with a really fun little exercise I first conceived of way back in the semifinals. It didn't take very long at all for this virgin "Idol" viewer to realize that technical singing ability was about the last thing the voters at home responded to when it came to the "Idol" contestants. Surviving in the competition is all about finding an image or niche and working against the often-constraining weekly themes to keep that image prominent in voters' minds. (And it's also about not forgetting the words to the songs.) So, given my immense knowledge of popular music history, modest personal magnetism, and surprisingly supple falsetto, what song choices would I have made as a season six "Idol" competitor?
Semifinal Week One (Boys, Girls) Of course the real trick is getting invited to L.A. from the regional auditions and then getting through the brutal Hollywood week cuts to the semis. I have no idea whether the spectacle of an emaciated, sepulchral white-boy rock critic who looks like an elongated Bill Gates and sings like a young Curtis Mayfield would be a winning package or not, but Sundance Head came one week short of the Final 12. Clearly there is no accounting for taste. Anyway, for my imaginary first performance in front of the "Idol" house band, I'd do Smokey Robinson's "I Second That Emotion," partly because I can sing the hell out of it and partly because years of experience suggest to me that everybody in America likes that song.
Semifinal Week Two (Boys, Girls) During the semifinals, contestants have a lot more freedom to pick the songs that suit them. Even after five seasons of "Idol," this is an advantage that seemingly few singers have the savvy to exploit. My recollection of this period during this season was a lot of people either doing songs they felt fell in the same range as their successful performances during the auditions and Hollywood round, or doing songs they really loved without necessarily any consideration to whether they suited them as singers or not. Having already decided that my niche is the wacky falsetto guy, I need to pick a tune for the second week of the semis that will firm up my identity in the minds of the viewers while avoiding being pigeonholed the way Chris Richardson or Gina Glocksen did at this point. It's also never too early to start thinking about who my voting constituency is going to be. I can see a rather unusual coalition between younger kids who don't know a ton about music but respond to my enthusiasm and goofy, nonthreatening physical appearance and more mature adults who (like me) really take music seriously and can spot a fellow true believer from a mile off. For now, I want to concentrate on making sure every viewer knows who I am whether they're going to vote for me or not. So I'm going to do another song that highlights my falsetto while showing a very different part of my musical personality: Radiohead's "High and Dry."
Semifinal Week Three (Boys, Girls) By this point in the real semifinals, I had my mind pretty much made up as to whom the contenders would be, and I wasn't wrong but for one or two exceptions. If I'm any good at all, I should be safely in the finals by this time, so this is the week where I want to step out from behind my image a bit by singing a song in my normal vocal range rather than using my solid (though gimmicky) falsetto. Starting next week I'm not going to have anywhere near as much latitude in song selection so I want to pick one I'm 100% certain I can sell like nobody's business. My choice is Elvis Costello's "Alison," which is simply one of the prettiest melodies ever written and one that my modest baritone can really inhabit after years and years of practice. It's also worth noting that all of the songs I have picked so far have had lyrics selected to subliminally play on my vulnerable qualities. I'm self-aware enough to know I'm not going to win over voters with my sex appeal, so instead I'll court the female vote by playing on their maternal instincts.
Diana Ross Week While my favorite Diana Ross songs are the ones the Afghan Whigs have covered ("I Hear a Symphony" and "Come See About Me"), my strength isn't my sexy low-register croon like Greg Dulli but how high I can go (think Gene Ween). With that in mind I would have rocked Ms. Ross's world with a gender-bending version of "Baby Love" that with any luck would reach Sanjaya levels of watercooler relevance, but in a good way. If the "Idol" producers would allow me to perform in full gigantic-haired, ballroom-gown Supremes drag, I would totally do that, but somehow I doubt it.
British Invasion Week There is only one song I would even consider: "Twist and Shout." I have been singing it whenever I get dragged out to karaoke since my voice changed. I would definitely want to mount a Taylor Hicks-like performance where tons of movement on stage and bursting veins on my forehead made up for a few blue notes here and there. "Twist and Shout" isn't really a song you sing so much as howl, but I think it suits my good-time, music-loving, high-energy persona perfectly.
Gwen Stefani Week I'm not privy to the list of Stefani "influences" from which the Idols were forced to select back in March, but I think I can venture a few guesses from the body of work the real contestants put out that week. Most of the non-No Doubt songs people played were wishy-washy 80's rock things, like the Police and Cyndi Lauper. I don't know if Aimee Mann's 'Til Tuesday made Stefani's list, but they should have, and I need a week to cram in my absolute barnburner rendition of Mann and Elvis Costello's "The Other End of the Telescope," which is a bit of a curiosity I know but one of the few songs I can sing that makes me feel like a real musician if I survive to the end. With edits necessary to fit the tight "Idol" time constraints, I'd be in good shape. I don't know if Gwen would like it or not, but frankly, I can't think of very many people living or dead whose musical opinion matters less to me than Gwen Stefani's.
American Classics Week This is kind of a vague category, but the guest host was Tony Bennett, so that ought to give you an idea. I have to be careful here not to let my Costello obsession get in my way, since most of the songs I know well from the first half of the last century I know from E.C. covers. I've already done two of his songs and I expect to do a few more before it's all said and done. The nice thing about the style of crooners like Bennett is you don't necessarily have to have the pedal to the floor on every note, which means this is really a week I could surprise people. I'm picking "The Way You Look Tonight," since it was so beautifully sung by Jimmy Darren on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and I actually know the words. I'd have to transpose it to a key I could actually sing it in, but with Tony Bennett's assistance, how could I go wrong? Who am I kidding, I would totally have wasted all of my face time with Bennett trying to get him to sing the "Capitol City" song from "The Simpsons."
Latin Week Without a doubt, the most arbitrary and annoying category on the whole show. The real "Idol" Latin Week featured everything from genuine old Spanish-language standards ("Besame Mucho," butchered by Sanjaya) to regular Top 40 songs originated by swarthier-than-average vocalists (Blake's "I Need to Know"). And lots of Gloria Estefan. So what's a well-thinking music snob to do? Throw out really fantastic Manu Chao and David Byrne songs that are genuinely inspired by Latin rhythms because Chao (French) and Byrne (Scottish) aren't technically Hispanic? Or do a great Los Lobos tune like "When the Circus Comes" that has nothing specifically to do with Latin music but happened to have been originally performed by Mexican guys? Turning to a musician who has been both a genuine inspiration to myself and a pioneer in mixing south-of-the-border folk traditions with good ol' American indie rock, I'm nominating Alejandro Escovedo's "I Was Drunk." Of course, I'm sure the "Idol" producers would shoehorn me into something way less genuine and way less suitable for my individual style. I might as well suggest Ween's "Buenas Tardes Amigo" for all the good it would do me.
Country Week Now this is more like it. Nothing is more aggravating to me than people who categorically dismiss country music, which I love with a fervor, from Hank Williams to Uncle Tupelo. If anything I'd have too many great choices in a week where most of the other contestants would be shooting themselves in the foot with dire Nashville pop songs instead of genuine country. I've always had a special connection to Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces," for example. Or there's all of those wonderful tunes from Costello's Almost Blue album, maybe "Good Year for the Roses" or "Psycho." It would really turn the "Idol" world upside-down if I did something by Will Oldham ("Gulf Shores") or Jay Farrar ("Whiskey Bottle"). Overall I think a good compromise between the "Idol" definition of country and my own would be the Gram Parsons song "She," which is another one of my favorite all-time melodies and is perfectly suited for my range, with a golden opportunity to open up into falsetto on the bridge.
"Idol" Gives Back Week You'd think this would be another trap week for my imagined "Idol" campaign, but I have an ace in the hole. Amidst all of the schmaltzy garbage the other contestants would be piping out, how could I fail to completely destroy the competition with a soulful take on Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)"? After downplaying it since the Diana Ross show the falsetto would be back in force, the "Idol" band would be all about that ridiculous James Jamerson bass groove, and I genuinely find the song inspirational so it wouldn't be that difficult to channel the great Gaye's pleas for peace and understanding.
Bon Jovi Week Uh... pass? Bon Jovi sucks really hard, and his brainless bombast is a poor fit indeed for my more subtle approach. When you run into a stumbling block like this one, I think the Sanjaya approach is the correct one. Just be as over-the-top awful as you can muster, and hope sympathy and good hair (I have great hair) carry you for the week. It's difficult to pick the single dumbest Bon Jovi song, but I have a good feeling about "Bad Medicine." I think I could do that one justice.
Barry Gibb Week It was a really bad decision by the producers, in terms of keeping "Idol" watchable, making Gibb the guest coach for the first week when each remaining contestant had to perform two songs instead of one. Gibb has had a long, successful career and no one can take that away from him, but range isn't exactly one of his strong suits. LaKisha Jones, as you may recall, was completely adrift on her way to what was really the only surprise early ejection of the whole sixth season. That's why I don't feel too bad about stealing one of her song choices for the first time so far in this exercise. C'mon, I'm falsetto guy, I have to do "Stayin' Alive." If I had been one the contestants on the show this season, or another guy with a really good falsetto, I imagine the conversation after the Gibb show would have been all about how unfair it was picking a guy with a matching schtick to one of the contestants. For my other song? "Night Fever," probably. I don't know. Most Bee Gees songs sound pretty much the same to me.
The Final Three There's no way of guessing what the judges and producers might throw at me (although the safe bet is the tunes would be hideously inappropriate in both cases), but I know what I'm doing for my first free choice since the semifinals. I'm doing Beck's "Debra," in as lascivious and inappropriate a manner possible, very probably with leather pants. Even if it gets me voted off, the allure of doing that song, with the horn stings, the ad-libbed come ons, the insane Mayfield high notes (every one of which I can hit with aplomb) in front of the full "Idol" band with strings and horns and the kitchen sink is completely irresistible. This would be the climax of my whole "Idol" run, for good or for bad; if people don't like it, at least I went out my way.
The Finale I have to say, the format for the "Idol" finale as presently constructed is anticlimactic and lame. The contest-winning "hit single" that both finalists have to sing is almost guaranteed to be horrible, you know how I feel about reprises of past performances, and on the whole everyone has made up their minds about whom they favor well in advance of the actual last sing-off. So in the same way I passed on writing much about the real finale, I pass on theorizing about what my own choices as a contestant would have been. Honestly, I feel like I'm probably not good enough of a singer to make it that far, although qualitatively I'm just about as good as Blake Lewis (maybe even a little better, with the falsetto). The more pertinent question is how a delicate, solitary personality like myself would hold up after months under constant public scrutiny. There are definitely some people from the "Idol" field last season (Chris Sligh leaps immediately to mind) who appeared diminished as the contest went on perhaps for that very reason. I like to think that I would be able to overcome my distaste for being made the subject of public spectacle by taking full advantage of my complete indifference as to my showing in the overall competition. Blake took this to the bank, outlasting a lot of much better male singers by seemingly growing more confident and distinct with each passing week while most other contestants got boring. And with any luck I would be able to make the whole experience about something greater than myself. If there's anything that bugs me about the average "American Idol" finalist and semifinalist, it's their complete and utter lack of perspective. Here you are, biggest TV show in America, and the most interesting thing you have to say in an interview is that "MMMBop" is your favorite song? It would be tough sledding balancing a bit of an advocacy campaign (for myself, it would be mental health awareness) with efforts to remain lighthearted and likable, but I think it's a huge waste of a tremendous break going on "Idol" with nothing in your heart besides the first-week sales figures for your huge 19 Entertainment debut.
Performing that miracle, raising the living
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
westernhomes (at) yahoo (dot) com