2.28.2009

DOCTOR WHO

Growing up, I was a fan of the original British television series Doctor Who, with its eccentric hero, amazingly low-budget monsters and special effects, and unique sense of humor. After this series went off the air (running from 1963-1989 it remains the longest consecutive-running science fiction show ever), it was followed by a very weak Fox tv movie in the 1990s -- and then, in 2005 the BBC launched a new Doctor Who series. Impressively, this latest series manages to keep what made the original series enjoyable while adding new elements and a surprising amount of drama to the series.

The hero of Doctor Who remains the Doctor. As in the original series, the Doctor is an alien, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), a ship that looks like a blue police telephone box and is much larger on the inside than the outside. The Doctor is several hundreds years old, has two hearts, and when about to die can regenerate, altering his personality and appearance. (The Doctor in season one was played by Christopher Eccleston, replaced in seasons two through four by David Tennant.) He's also pretty egotistical, very odd, absolutely brilliant, and uses a sonic screwdriver for innumerable uses. The Doctor travels with a companion or two, loves to meddle, and always tries to make things better.

This time, though, things are darker. We learn that the Doctor's species was wiped out in a war with the Daleks, leaving the Doctor as the last of his species. His virtual immortality adds a level of pathos to his relationships: as he tells one companion, "You can spend the rest of your life with me but I can't spend the rest of my life with you." And for all his good intentions, tragedy often follows the Doctor closely.

Doctor Who sports an excellent cast. As the first Doctor, Christopher Eccleston combines the new Doctor's sense of loss and optimism very well. David Tennant is a very worthy successor, bringing both a more quirky personality and a less forgiving one as well. There's a great variety in the companions. Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is a spirited young woman who brings out the best in the Doctor. Martha Jones (Freeman Agyeman) is a more professional person, training to be a doctor, with an unrequited crush on the Doctor. And Donna Noble (British comedian Catherine Tate) adds a very silly side to things while never letting the Doctor get away with anything. (This show also introduced Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who went on to be the star of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.)

As a science fiction show, Doctor Who has more than its share of monsters and exotic locales. There are numerous critters from the original series -- Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans -- as well as original creatures from lethat statues that feed on time to the mysterious Ood. Of course, being able to go anywhere and any time opens up a, er, universe of possibilities that Doctor Who uses well. The Doctor and friend have travelled to the end of the universe, met William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, visited an impossible planet (where they may have met Satan), battled werewolves, and saved countless lives.

The plots of Doctor Who also have nice deviations from what could have been a very routine series of stories. "Father's Day" is the touching tale of what happens when the Doctor takes Rose back to the day her father died -- and the horrible consequences of what happens when she saves him. "School Reunion" has the Doctor meeting up again with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), one of his companions from the original series. And the Doctor and his companion are almost supporting characters in the episodes "Love and Monsters" and "Blink."

There are times when Doctor Who can get more than a bit silly, and there's more pseudoscience and technobabble in a single episode than in an entire series of any Star Trek series. With that in mind, the newest Doctor Who is a fun show, an enjoyable romp through time and space that can sometimes surprise with its depth.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.25.2009

Eliza Carthy, Dreams of Breathing Underwater (Topic Records, 2008)


From the perspective of a fan of English folk music, Eliza Carthy has royal blood. Indeed, she first came to prominence singing and fiddling in Waterson: Carthy with her parents Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, both of whom were stars in the English folk scene well before Eliza was born. Most of her solo recordings have been folk albums as well, but every so often she makes an album where her adventurous streak comes out in full force. Such is the case with her latest effort, called Dreams of Breathing Underwater.

The album begins strongly, with the song "Follow the Dollar," a commentary on young people obsessed with pop culture. Carthy plays a souped up tenor guitar, and deftly blurs the distinction between the chorus "follow the dollar all the day" and the Irish lilt "fol lol the doh fol the day." From there, Dreams of Breathing Underwater jumps around the musical map. "Two Tears" staggers along like a Tom Waits song, only with better singing. "Mr. Magnifico" combines salsa horns with a story narrated by Tim Matthew with a thick brogue. "Like I Care (Wings)" has a Caribbean feel, complete with a hyper ska chorus. The album closes with a sing-along standard with the strange but fun title "Oranges and Seasalt." To go with the diverse musical styles, Carthy and her songwriting partner Ben Ivitsky both play a variety of instruments on the album. While I could certainly understand if some listeners would have liked to hear more of Carthy's fiddling, Carthy and Ivitsky never sound overmatched on whatever instruments they play.

Carthy can really sing as well, and her vocals shine on songs like "Rosalie" and a cover of Rory Macleod's "Hug You Like a Mountain." As she's gotten older, Carthy's voice has taken on more of the jovial warmth that Norma Waterson always brings to her songs. (I suppose she might find the insinuation that she's turning into her mother a bit unsettling, but I mean it as a compliment.)

Eliza Carthy is never dull with her music, and it's always worth a few listens to hear what she's been up to. Dreams of Breathing Underwater is worth more than a few listens, as it's one of her strongest albums to date.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


A live performance of "Like I Care (Wings)"



Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review

FUTURAMA: INTO THE WILD GREEN YONDER

I've always been fascinated when television shows deliberately end, as it gives the creators a chance to wrap things up as they want. Futurama ended (twice) on television, then Matt Groening and company had four direct-to-dvd movies announced, with the last one effectively ending this series. So now we have the ending in Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder. I just wish it was more consistent.

Once again, it falls to slacker and idiot Philip J. Fry (Billy West) to save the universe. After an accident gives Fry uncontrolled telepathy (only stopped by the tinfoil hats he wears through most of the movie), he's contacted by a secret society and learns of some green energy that created life through the universe, the mysterious Dark One that caused the extinction of millions of species, and the Encyclopod that has the DNA of these species. This all ties in to the universe's largest miniature golf course.

Leo Wong (one of many voices done by West) wants to pave over Mars, implode a star, and make the aforementioned giant miniature gold course. This plan is protested by such "eco-feministas" as Leela (Katey Sagal) and Amy Wong (Lauren Tom), who want to stop Leo. Leela also carries around a voracious Martian leech that is the last of its kind. And the rest of the cast and (Planet Express) crew are here as well.

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder is billed as "a feature-length spectacular," yet it feels like a series of episodes tied together. (An unnecessary storyline -- where Bender (John DiMaggio) romances the wife of the Don of the robot mafia -- takes up most of the first third of this movie.) There are a few fun cameos, such as Penn Gillette as himself and Snoop Dogg as a Supreme Court justice (!), and lots of the jokes get chuckles. There are also the usual extras, including a fake documentary where Lauren Tom does everything in Futurama and "Zapp Brannigan's Guide to Making Love at a Woman."

To no surprise, the end of Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder leaves an opening for more episodes, DVD's, or even a future-length movie. I'd welcome more episodes, but if they go with a movie or more DVD's, I'd hope for a more solid storyline.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

2.19.2009

Snow Patrol, A Hundred Million Suns (Polydor, 2008)


A decade into their career, Snow Patrol have established themselves as one of the most popular bands to emerge from Scotland. The quintet consisting of Gary Lightbody (vocals and guitar), Nathan Connolly (guitar and backing vocals), Paul Wilson (bass), Jonny Quinn (drums), and Tom Simpson (keyboards) first came to my attention with their cover of John Lennon's "Isolation" on the Instant Karma album for Amnesty International, but they were already enjoying a major commercial breakthrough with their 2006 release Eyes Open. Now they return with a new CD called A Hundred Million Suns. Like its predecessor, the new album has some good tracks and is worth a few listens, but left me thinking the band is capable of better.

A Hundred Million Suns hits its best stride with the single "Take Back the City." The song is introduced with a driving acoustic guitar, but Lightbody really strikes gold with the bridge -- "It's a mess, it's a start, it's a flawed work of art." Most of the album follows a basic formula of mid-tempo rock, with a few ballads and occasional outbursts of heavier music thrown in for variety. The group gets really ambitious, though, with the closing track "The Lightning Strike," a three-part song cycle that runs over sixteen minutes. It reflects a surprising amount of daring on the band's part, and each of the three parts is compelling enough on its own to make the whole strong, in spite of the length.

Snow Patrol seem to be making a career out of being consistently pretty good. I suppose that could be taken as a backhanded compliment, but I do like them, and I think A Hundred Million Suns is a step forward for them. I just feel that they're one ingredient short of really taking their music to the next level. I'm not sure what the missing piece is, but I hope they find it.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"Take Back the City"

The Plush World of H.P. Lovecraft

Horror author H.P.Lovecraft has created some of the most terrifying, bizarre eldritch horrors known to mankind. He also had a keen sense of humor, so I think he'd appreciate that many of his horrors have been transformed into plush toys. Below are the ones in my collection.

Cthulhu, arguably Lovecraft's most famous creation, is described thus: "A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind." The traditional portrayal of Cthulhu looks something like this:



However, many years ago at the Compleat Strategist in NYC, I came across this adorable version:


Who could resist an eldritch horror like this? But this handmade rendition of Cthulhu was far from the end of the plush horrors awaiting fans. Toy Vault http://www.toyvault.com/ created this more accurate rendition of Cthulhu:






They've used this version of Cthulhu as the basis for several versions of the big critter, from a secret agent to a Halloween edition.


Then there's the Gug: "It was a paw, fully two feet and a half across, and equipped with formidable talons. After it came another paw, and after that a great black-furred arm to which both of the paws were attached by short forearms. Then two pink eyes shone and the head of the awakened Gug sentry, large as a barrel, wabbled into view. The eyes jutted two inches from each side, shaded by bony protuberances ovegrown by coarse hairs. But the head was chiefly terrible because of the mouth. That mouth had great yellow fangs and ran from the top to the bottom of the head, opening vertically instead of horizontally." Creepy, eh? But not quite as much when it looks like this:




This monster's jaw actually opens halfway down its torso. I'm just glad it hasn't devoured my plush wombat.


Finally we come to that accursed tome, the Necronomicon. Written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon is a source of information on the Great Old Ones, innumerable monsters, and spells and alchemical concoctions. It is the stuff of fictional legend, not to mention "real" copies ranging from simple paperback editions to a coffee table book illustrated by H.R. Giger. Thanks to the folks at ToyVault, it's also a Preschool Pillow Book!


There will doubtless be new editions of the Necronomicon released, but this will be the only one that comes with a hand-puppet and squeak toy. What more would the cultist who's young at heart want?




James Lynch,
Still waiting for a plush figure of H.P. Lovecraft himself

SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS + LIVE SPARKS by Graham Parker

The 1970s brought the world of music both new wave and punk, and the two musical styles have never merged as well as on Graham Parker's album Squeezing Out Sparks. The added Live Sparks and two bonus songs are nice icing on this musical cake.

Squeezing Out Sparks sets its tone from the opening song "Discovering Japan." This introduces the omnipresent electric guitars, combination of personal feelings and social commentary, and raw poetry infused with anger. This is true for most of the songs here, ranging in topics from the "problem" with women in town ("Local Girls") to the fake emotions between lovers ("Passion Is No Ordinary Word"). Even the powerful "You Can't Be Too Strong," a song about abortion, manages to work in cynicism and brashness along with its sentiment. By the time Parker wraps everything up with "Don't Get Excited" you feel like you've experienced a tremendous social journey. Parker's lyrics and singing are supported by an all-around great band.

When Squeezing Out Sparks was released in 1979 Arista also released Live Sparks, collected radiocasts of Squeezing Out Sparks (played in the same order as the original album) along with a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and the energetic "Mercury Poisoning." While the live songs sound almost identical to the studio versions, the two bonus songs are a very well done -- who knew you could sing along to a song about dying from industrial pollution? -- and make Squeezing Out Sparks + Live Sparks an outstanding album.

Overal grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.15.2009

...Around


"You have a story." This line from the film ...Around, based on the life of writer-producer-director David Spalto, summarizes the life of a filmmaker as a young artist, homeless man, and struggling New York City resident.

Doyle Simms (Rob Evans) leaves his good buddy Logic (Marcel Torres) and unsupportive family in Jersey City to become a filmmaker in New York City. However, the NYC of ...Around is both wonderful and depressing, a place where opportunity and failure go hand in hand. Doyle makes it into film school -- while living on the streets.

Simms strikes up a friendship with philosophical homeless man Saul (Ron Brice) and tries to start a romantic relationship with Allyson (Molly Ryman), a fellow struggling artist. Over the space of four years Doyle survives on the streets, gets an apartment, returns home to NJ a few times (and regrets it each time), survives on numerous credit cards, works several unfulfilling jobs, and even sometimes thinks about his film.

...Around is the debut film from David Spalto, and it contains both promise and rough edges. The movie is a homage to New York City, yet it shows how rough the city can be on people. But there is some awkward dialogue, cliches pop up frequently (such as a character actually miming removing a person's emotional "mask"), and protagonist Simms spends 90% of the movie as the cool dude with a clever and sardonic line for everything (much like Jim in the tv show The Office). There is some genuine honesty that shines through near the end, but there are also scenes that feel artificial. ...Around is a decent movie, less idealized and less polished than many takes on Manhattan -- and on the aspiring artist.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

2.14.2009

The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Communion (Yep Rock Records, 2009)


With their strong 2001 CD Behind the Music and their even better 2004 follow-up Origin, vol. 1, Sweden's The Soundtrack of Our Lives established themselves as one of the best, if not the best, rock bands of the current decade. Sure, singer Ebbet Lundberg's lyrics could get hokey at times, but the psychedelic power rock backing supplied by Ian Person and Mattias Bärjed on guitar, Martin Hederos on keyboards, Kalle Gustafsson Jerneholm on bass, and Frederik Sandsten on drums was just so good that it didn't matter. Despite no official release for four years, the band has kept very busy writing and recording new material. They had originally planned on making an album called Origin, vol. 2, but wound up shelving the songs they already had in favor of putting together a massive, 90-minute double album called Communion. Pulling it off was no small accomplishment, but like most double albums (and many single CD's that run past fifty minutes), it's hard not to wonder if a little bit less would have been a lot more.

From the tantric opening song "Babel On" to the anthemic closer "The Passover," TSOOL lay the psychedelia down extra thick on Communion. When I saw them in concert a few years ago, the person sitting next to me said she described them to a friend as "stoner prog, but in a good way;" if anything, that description applies even more to Communion than it did to the previous records. Virtually every song hearkens back to the rock of the late sixties and early seventies, and the whole album has a spacey, trippy feel to it. The album does hit more than it misses, though. Highlights from the first disc include a livened up version of Nick Drake's "Fly" (I believe that's the first time they've covered anybody on an album), a brilliant power pop track with the strange title "Mensa's Marauders," and the scorching "Distorted Child." The second CD is noticeably mellower than disc 1. This wouldn't be a problem at all if it were treated as a separate album, but if you're already starting to wear out by the end of disc 1 it can drag a bit. Still, "Flipside" and "Utopia" are strong tracks worth repeated listens, and there's also a very nice acoustic instrumental called "Digitarian Riverbank."

The one real problem with Communion is that there's just so much music that it's hard to digest all of it. A really effective double album needs to hit the listener in many different ways, like The White Album and Exile On Main Street do, or have a strong unifying theme to build the songs around, like Quadrophenia does. I don't fault The Soundtrack of Our Lives for their ambition, but Communion couldn't quite sustain the momentum for a full ninety minutes. They could have easily held on to a few of these songs for the next album, or just gone with the best fifteen tracks, and I think the album would have been more effective as a result.

Communion does not come out on CD in America until March 3, but it's already available for download. It was released throughout Europe in late 2008.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


A live performance of "Mensa's Mauraders."

Coraline

"Be careful what you wish for" is a cliche, but quite often a very valid one. It's also the basis for Coraline, a creative and visually stunning kids' movie from the folks behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is a spunky young girl who just moved and couldn't be more depressed about it. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too absorbed in their work to pay any attention with her, and they're also dull. Next-door-neighbor inventor kid Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) annoys Coraline with his chatting, and the only other housemates are a pair of old heavy actresses named Miss Forcible (Dawn French) and Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders), eccentric acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) who trains mice for a circus, and a mangy old cat. And they all call her "Caroline" (except for the cat).

But someone has left Coraline a doll of her, and soon Coraline finds a sealed door in a room. This door goes to a long circular passage, which leads to a parallel world! In this new world everyone has buttons for eyes, but otherwise everything seems better than Coraline's old world. Other-Mother cooks delicious meals and plays lots of games, Other-Father is a creative genius whose garden even resembles Coraline, the toys are all alive, Wybie never speaks, and there are amazing shows put on for her.

But all isn't well. That mangy cat walks freely between the two worlds, and in the other world he speaks (voiced by Keith David), warning that this seemingly perfect world is a trap. And there's something horrible Other-Mother wants Coraline to do to stay in the other world forever...

Adapted from Neil Gaiman's novella of the same name, Coraline is a really fun movie. Director Henry Selik has a good ear for how the grownup world feels for a child, and what that child's ideal world would be. The voicework here is first rate, and the animation is beautiful (plus the 3-D works tremendously!). The story ultimately boils down to a kids' game, but Coraline remains a plucky and spirited heroine. If you're in the mood for a darker fairytale, or you liked The Nightmare Before Christmas, then go see Coraline.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

2.10.2009

Jouhiorkesteri, Nikodemus (Kanteleen Ääniä, 2008)


The jouhikko is a primitive bowed lyre indigenous to Estonia and eastern Finland. It was relatively common in those regions from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, and has been revived in more recent years as interest in Finnish folk traditions has increased. While similar in size to a fiddle, its overall sound is generally harsher and more dissonant. As a result, jouhikko music is something of an acquired taste. The group Jouhiorkesteri consists of four Finns singing and playing the jouhikko. On their album Nikodemus, they try to bring the instrument into the present.

Most of the tunes on Nikodemus go back more than a century, although a few more recent tunes and one original composition are included as well. The music works best on the more primal, droning tunes for which the agressive-sounding jouhikko is well suited. The album's one original tune "Rackelbacka," for example, is a very nice example of a primitive but effective melody that sounds really good played on several jouhikkos plus a Jew's harp. Other times, though, it felt as if Jouhiorkesteri were asking a bit too much from the instrument. The slow, stately seven minute march "Voi Minuu Poloinen Poiga" just didn't seem to fit the instrument well at all.

Still, I can't fault Jouhiorkesteri for trying. The jouhikko is a very interesting instrument, and can give faster-paced tunes more of an edge than a regular fiddle can. The slower pieces on Nikodemus didn't work quite as well, unfortunately.

Overall grade: B-


reviewed by Scott

2.09.2009

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT: THE COMPLETE PORTFOLIO



With the tremendous popularity of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, it's no surprise that these collections of scantily-clad swimwear-wearing women are making their way from magazines to coffee table books. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: The Complete Portfolio is the latest collection, offering minimum words and maximum photos.


The format of this photo collection is pretty basic: a self-photo from a model, the photographer's comments on the model, several pages of the model's swimwear attire, then the model's comments on the photographer. It's a pretty simple and repetitive formula, and there are no surprises: The photographers talk about what makes the model exceptional, and the model says why the photographer is so talented.

But is anyone interested in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: The Complete Portfolio for the words? This collection has 18 of Sports Illustrated's most recent swimsuit models (the most famous being Marisa Miller) in locations as varied as Maui, Israel, the Cayman Islands, St. Petersburg and Caneel Bay. Once your eyes get past the models, the natural beauty in each photograph shines through as well.


I'm not sure what makes this book "complete," as it seems more of a collection of their most recent models. (There are other collections with "superstars" of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issues from years past -- more for me to review!) As with the annual issue, the text here is pretty basic and an exchange of compliments between photographer and subject. That said, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: The Complete Portfolio is a wonderful collection of truly beautiful photographs.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.07.2009

Lordi, The Arockalypse (The End Records 2006)


Lordi are a Finnish heavy metal band who have built up a reputation based on their outrageous theatrics. They basically start with the approach that made Kiss famous -- namely, make the music serve the spectacle and not the other way around -- and take it to its logical/ridiculous extreme. They perform, and make all public appearances, disguised as hideous monsters straight from a cheesy horror movie or a bad nightmare. Bizarrely, this formula won them first prize in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 with the song "Hard Rock Hallelujah." Containing references to "the day of rockoning" and "the arockalypse," this song would serve as the centerpiece of Lordi's 2006 CD The Arockalypse.

My favorite part of The Arockalypse is actually the introduction, a mock newscast about a monster invasion. Two news crews fail to survive long enough to finish their reports, and then the broadcast is taken over by the head monster, voiced by Twisted Sister's Dee Snider. Snider warns us "puny humans" that our dominion of earth is about to end and that we should join them or face the consequences. He finishes his speech with the announcement that "This is... the arockalypse!".

And then the music kicks in. Rather loudly, as you might expect. As odd as it may sound, Lordi actually have a philosophy. Rock has lost its way, and Lordi are here to return the loud guitars, the theatrics, and the monstrous horror elements to their proper standing in the pecking order. With that in mind, the lead-in song "Bringing Back the Balls to Rock" ably serves as their statement of purpose. The opening line "Welcome class, here we come, we kick your ass, that's lesson one" is the first of many memorably tacky lyrics that run through the album. The hits just keep on rolling from there. The singer Mr. Lordi (his real name is Tomi Putaansuu, but I doubt he uses that name often) growls out the lyrics, and makes a point never to sound too pleasant. The music is actually pretty formulaic 80's-style heavy metal, with an excess of keyboards dampening the monstrous effect they were presumably aiming for. It all comes across as an act, but with the right frame of mind the act is very amusing. Personally I found it hard to resist singing along to "We're the Kids Who Wanna Play with the Dead," but perhaps I'm just loopy. I suppose Lordi could get some accusations of misogyny for the song "Who's Your Daddy," but when you're dealing with a band who pass themselves off as hideous monsters intent on dominating the world, you can't really expect too much along the lines of chivalry. (Besides, it's the catchiest song on the album.)

Liking Lordi requires having a sense of humor. The Arockalypse is a tough album to rate, as its not inconsiderable entertainament value has little to do with the actual quality of the music. Although I suppose if you think that rock needs the balls brought back to it, the music on The Arockalypse might appeal to you on a more serious level.

overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott


Lordi performing "Hard Rock Hallelujah" to represent Finland in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, they won.

2.06.2009

Phineas and Ferb

Ah, lazy summer days, when two kids can create cold fusion machines, travel through time, and build massive inventions in an afternoon. This is the world of Phineas and Ferb, a cute cartoon directly aimed at kids.

Red-haired, pointy-nosed Phineas (Vincent Martella) and his tall, mostly silent stepbrother Ferb (Thomas Sangster) spend each summer day coming up with new things to do, from forming a one-hit-wonder band to making the coolest roller coaster ever. Their teenage sister Candace (Ashley Tisdale, of High School Musical fame) is obsessed with busting her brothers (when not swooning over Jeremy (Mitchel Musso), a teenage boy) to Mom (Caroline Rhea). However, no matter what Phineas and Ferb come up with, it's always gone before Mom shows up -- because of a platypus.

The boys have a pet platypus named Perry, who doesn't do much except occasionally chatter his teeth -- while they're watching. When no one's looking, Perry puts on a hat and becomes Agent P, a secret agent always assigned to stop mad scientist Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz (Dan Povenmire), who's usually out to either get rid of what he hates or conquer "the entire tri-state area!" And somehow in the process of stopping Doofenschmirtz, Perry manages to get rid of whatever Phineas and Ferb had done.

Phineas and Ferb is a fun little show. Almost every episode follows the same formula (and even has several lines repeated all the time), and the animation style is very simple. There are lots of laughs along the way, with some bizarrely funny lines ("How big was the monster, grandpa?" "Larger than a refrigerator, but not as large as a really big refrigerator") and the sort of wild creations that certainly appeal to kids. Did I mention that just about every episode includes some sort of musical number?

If you're looking for a little silly fun, tune into Phineas and Ferb. It's goofy, it's enjoyable, and it's definitely easier than putting together robot duplicates of yourself and your brother in an afternoon.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

video

We Started Nothing by The Ting Tings

Like many people, I first heard the Ting Tings on an iPod ad. Sadly, that quick format suits the band better: We Started Nothing has some interesting sounds that few songs can sustain, let alone the whole album.

We Started Nothing relies on the combination of singer Katie White and lots of synthesizers. Alas, neither deliver much: White doesn't so much sing as she speaks with attitude, while the music quickly becomes generic, with even a few funky bass lines getting overwhelmed by the synthesizers.

The Ting Tings certainly get around: In addition to the aforementioned iPod commercial, their music has shown up everywhere from movie trailers to the Victoria's Secret 2007 Fashion Show to the soundtrack to the movie He's Just Not That Into You. It's a shame there's little memorable on We Started Nothing.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch

2.03.2009

The Day the Music Died, 50 Years Later




By the beginning of 1959, Buddy Holly had reached a crossroads in his career. 1957 had been a very successful year for him and his backing band The Crickets, with songs like "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" cracking the top 5. Holly was no less productive or creative in 1958, but for some reason the luster had started to wear off. The acoustic ballad "Well.. All Right," for example, would eventually be regarded as a classic, but it fell through the cracks when it was released as a single in November. It would prove to be the last single Holly would record with the Crickets; Holly relocated to Greenwich Village in New York City with his wife. January 1959 saw the release of a solo single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." Just as "Well... All Right" foreshadowed folk rock by several years, the orchestrated accompaniment of "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" would not be duplicated by any rock artists until the second half of the next decade. By this time, Holly had been offered the headlining spot on a three week tour of the Midwest called the Winter Dance Party. Although his wife had just become pregnant, Holly decided that he needed to go, and recruited Tommy Allsup (lead guitar), Waylon Jennings (bass), and Carl Bunch (drums) to back him up.

California teen sensation Ritchie Valens was unquestionably a rising star. Only eight months into his recording career, Valens had already scored hits with "Come on Let's Go" and the classic double A-side "Donna/La Bamba." Valens' use of ethnic folk music and the Spanish language in a rock context on "La Bamba" was unprecedented, and the rapid acceptance of a Latino peformer by rock audiences would not be duplicated for a full decade.

Much like Holly's bandmate Waylon Jennings, J. P. Richardson was a popular disc jockey before he became a professional musician. Whether singing or DJing, though, he was known by his nickname "The Big Bopper." Richardson's radio experience gave him a keen understanding of how music promotion and publicity worked, and he figured out that TV was a resource that wasn't being fully tapped by other artists. His televised performances of his biggest hit "Chantilly Lace" were quite theatrical, with Richardson talking the lyrics of the song while on the telephone. Perhaps most significantly, he is credited with coining the term "music video," and he certainly intended to pursue the idea further if he got the chance. Like Holly, Richardson left his pregnant wife behind when he embarked on the tour.

Along with Holly, Valens, and Richardson, the Winter Dance Party line-up was completed by the Bronx doo-wop group Dion and the Belmonts. Holly's band would back up each performer. The tour commenced in late January, and things started to go wrong almost immediately. The tour bus broke down repeatedly, and even when it did work, its heater did not. To add insult to injury, the temperatures in the bitter Midwest winter frequently dropped below zero. While Dion recalls with fondness the long nights spent jamming with Holly and Valens on the back of the bus, the traveling conditions started to wear on Holly. Things got even worse for the tour when Carl Bunch got frostbite on his feet; one of the Belmonts was a competent drummer, and had to take his place.

The tour reached the town of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2. Clear Lake had an airfield nearby, from which planes could be chartered. Believing that a quick flight to the next tour stop and a decent sleep in a warm bed would do him much good, Holly chartered a plane for after the show and tried to talk the other headliners into going in on it with him. Dion balked at the price of $36 per person. His parents always fought over money when he was growing up, and $36 just happened to be the cost of one month's rent for their apartment. He simply couldn't rationalize spending a month's rent on a 45-minute flight. Holly was intent at this point to give the other two seats on the plane to Jennings and Allsup, but fate intervened. Richardson had a bad cold, and Jennings graciously obliged him when he asked for Jennings' seat on the plane. Valens, also suffering from a cold, begged Allsup to give him his seat as they were packing up after the show. Allsup offered to flip a coin for it. He lost. As the bus was getting ready to move on, Holly started joking with Jennings. "Well I hope you freeze to death on the bus," he told him. "And I hope your plane crashes," Jennings said in reply.

At approximately 1 AM on the morning of February 3, 1959, the plane carrying Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper took off. It stayed in the air for no more than five minutes. Richardson was 29, Holly 22, and Valens only 17.

The events of that night, and the performers involved, have had an effect on popular culture that lingers on fifty years later. The most obvious example is Don McLean's extremely popular 1971 song "American Pie." The song chronicles the loss of innocence of rock and roll and youth culture, using the crash as its starting point and going through the sixties. Buddy Holly's music is undeniably great in hindsight, even if the chart success had already dried up for him. Kids in America may have stopped paying attention to him, but certain kids on the other side of the Atlantic hadn't. You could argue that no 50's musician, not even Elvis, influenced the British Invasion more than Buddy Holly did. The fact that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones both happily cited him as a primary inspiration speaks for itself, and there was even a group called The Hollies who named themselves after him. Ritchie Valens opened the door for Latino performers in much the same way that Jackie Robinson opened the door for black baseball players. His legacy can be heard in the music of bands like Santana and Los Lobos (even without the obvious movie connection). While The Big Bopper has never been deemed worthy of a major motion picture about his life, he too was a musical pioneer in some significant ways.

Indeed all three performers were ahead of their time, and still pushing the barriers when they died. Rock music has had far too many tragic days, but only the murder of John Lennon rivals this crash in the way it has moved those who love the music. Lennon at least had the time to realize his full potential as a performer, though. Holly was expanding his musical horizons faster than his audience could keep up with him, and had relocated to a place that would become one of the hotspots for musical creativity in the coming decade. The sixties would vindicate everything that Holly was trying to do, but he never lived to see it. Valens was just starting, and had shown much promise while being so young. Unfortunately, we can only speculate on how much music we lost that night.

Ultimately, though, the events of February 3, 1959 are worth acknowledging because Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson deserve to be remembered. All three had accomplished much in a short time, and all three shaped the course that rock music would follow long after they were gone. They each left an indelible imprint on music in ways that no tragedy can dim.

2.01.2009

Cosmic Encounter

Several alien races are competing to conquer the universe! They all want victory, they often need help in attacking or defending, and they all have a power that makes them unique. This is the Cosmic Encounter, now from Fantasy Flight Games.

Gameplay is deceptively simple. Each player has five home planets, with four ships on each planet.
(Ships on a planet make up a colony.) During a player's turn they get a ship from Warp (where ships go when lost), draws a system to attack, and goes after that player's planet in their system. Both attacker and defender can invite other players to help, but that has risks for both sides. If the helpers' side loses, the ships sent to help go to warp; if the helpers assist in attacking, they get a colony on the attacked planet too, and if they defend they get ships or cards for each ship that helped.

In each combat, both attacker and defender select an encounter card -- either Attack or Negotiate -- that are placed face down and revealed. If both are Attacks, the cards and helpers are totaled and the attacker wins if they have a higher total than the defender; defenders win ties or if they have the higher total. If both players play Negotiate, they have one minute to make a deal (swapping colonies or cards) or both lose three ships to Warp. And if only one side Negotiates, they lose -- but get to draw a random card from the attacker for each ship lost. (There are also a few other cards, Artifacts and Flares, that have their own game effects.) If a player wins they can take a second turn, then the next player goes. And a player can't get new cards until all their Attack and Negotiate cards have been used.

What really makes Cosmic Encounter unique are the aliens. There are fifty different aliens in the game, and they are all very distinct from each other. Some have great offensive powers (the Virus multiplies its ships and Attack card instead of adding them), some excel at defense (Macron's ships are worth four points each, Zombie ships never go to Warp), and some are variable. (Tick-Tock starts with 10 tokens, one comes off each time someone loses a battle, and if all 10 are gone they win.) They are color-coded into green, yellow, and red for different levels of complexity, so players can start with the "easy" aliens if they like. Each player gets two alien cards at the start of the game and picks one to be for that game. And if a player has less than three colonies in their home system, their power is gone unless they get three colonies in their system again.)

Cosmic Encounter is a terrific game. The rules are pretty simple, yet there's a great deal of strategy in both when to invite allies and when to go it alone, and what to do with cards you don't want to play but have to. The aliens make each game unique, and none of them guarantee a win: I thought I'd win with the powerful Virus, let I lost when someone had Machine and took turn after turn until they wore us down! The Fantasy Flight Games edition is colorful, functional (these ships stack much easier than in the last version), now allows up to five players, and has great art and histories for each alien. I could do without the "tech tree" option, but that's easily left in the box. For a fun, fast, and pretty unique game to play with a few friends, get Cosmic Encounter and find your inner alien!

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

Batman: The Brave and the Bold

The old DC comic book The Brave and the Bold paired Batman with a new superhero every issue. This is the basis for the new cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Too bad it's almost campy in execution.

The style of Batman: The Brave and the Bold is distinctively retro, from Batman's chiseled features to the swingin' jazz used as background music. Unfortunately, this retro attitude hearkens back as well to the silly Batman TV series with Adam West. The cartoon isn't quite as campy, but the Dark Knight who puts terror in the hearts of criminals is now a more generic crimefighter (voiced by Diedrich Bader).

There's also the setting of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. It's been argued that the Batman comics was weakest in the 1960s and 1970s, when Batman went from battling street crime and colorful criminal masterminds to dealing with super-powered baddies, aliens, and outer-space adventures. The weird adventures are all that show up here. None of Batman's traditional villains -- Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, Clayface, Two-Face -- make an appearance. Instead we have Batman having underwater adventures, outer-space travels, or on a dinosaur island.

As for the guest stars, they feel more like a blatant attempt at fanboy appeal than anything to add excitement. (Squeezing in an unrelated superhero appearance before the credits each episode doesn't help either.) The heroes appear just to join Batman in bashing heads, and having Bats as a loner while still working with a new hero each week doesn't quite work. Batman worked better as a JLA member on Justice League -- and best on the Batman Animated Series -- than here.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold may appeal to kids who like the colorful costumes and over-the-top action, but it's pretty weak for those of us who have found cartoons made as much for adults as for children.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch

THE SUBGENIUS PSYCHLOPAEDIA OF SLACK: THE BOBLIOGRAPHON by Rev. Ivan Stang

The Church of the SubGenius is a parody of almost every other religion out there. Every SubGenius member gets Slack: The universe owes you something for nothing! J.R. "Bob" Dobbs (a 1940s-style grinning head with a pipe) must be worshipped unconditionally (and sent money) so when the Xist aliens come to Earth on X-Day (July 5, 1998) all members will be taken aboard the saucers. The Conspiracy wants to steal your slack, and the Pinks follow conformity (but not conformity to "Bob.") Following the "teachings" in The Book of the SubGenius and Revelation X, Rev. Ivan Stang collects more teachings, stories, and bizarre illustrations of this church in The SubGenius Psychlopaedia of Slack: The Bobliographon.

Unlike the first two books, The Bobliographon is filled more with anecdotes and illustrations than "official" teachings. Chapters deal with such SubGenius themes as J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, what happened on July 5, 1998, and the Con. There are also whole chapters on fighting normalcy, why suicide is bad (I don't know why that one was necessary here), and how Earth and Mars got switched. The index includes an "Hour of Slack" radio sermon, catalogue, and "Sacred Calendar of SubGenius Saints" that includes fictional characters, porn stars, Godzilla monsters, comics, and more.

The Bobliographon is very similar to the first two SubGenius books -- and that's a good thing. The over-the-top, take-no-prisoners, us-vs.them approach of this "church" remains as silly as ever. ("Then why is it that when we try to celebrate a simple religious rite -- like the decapitation and head launching of a world cup golfer -- we have to use a fake plastic head to do it? The Christians got to fight to the death in giant state-sponsored arenas, but WE can't even launch our own heads!") There's plenty of indignation, contradiction, and demands for blind obedience (plus mailing them $30). This book is a quick, weird, and very fun read! Hail "Bob"!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch
(who will most likely become a SubGenius ordained minister)

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