Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pop Evaporation: Walk the Moon, fun., and Foster the People

     Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” played during the spring on our major Contemporary Hit radio station, Q102, and the extraordinary WNKU, which is Adult Album Alternative, though they’re trying to mix in more mainstream material.  It’s a catchy, cute number that wasn’t too distinguished until I saw them play it in a concert on Palladia.  Their energy and attractiveness were more appealing on TV than in their pictures on the CD or in the recorded performances of their songs.  What set them apart was that they were from Cincinnati and they were gaining national attention.

     Their album Talking Is Hard (2014) has some strong singles, especially “Different Colors” and “We Are The Kids.”  With their focus on youth and what it craves, Walk the Moon both celebrates and subversively critiques its largest listening demographic.  What surprised me about my students was they knew the songs, but didn’t realize the band was local, and they were mixed in how they felt about them.  I don’t know if that was because they picked up on the ambivalent thematic undertones of the album’s lyrics or if they just didn’t like some of the songs.

     Walk the Moon has a similar sound to two other recent groups that hit it big:  fun. and Foster the People.  fun. started around the same time (2008) as Walk the Moon, though the members had been in other bands and had a few years on the Kenyon College students inspired by The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” (1983).  Some Nights (2012) vaulted fun. into major stars and lots of Grammys, which are awards somewhat indicative of little that lasts.  Foster the People formed in 2009 and leapt out of the commercial and critical gates almost immediately with Torches (2010) and its first single “Pumped Up Kicks.”

     Nate Ruess, lead singer and songwriter for fun., possesses a signature voice that’s nasally and feels sharp.  He’s been a proponent of auto-tune, which was pragmatic, but it surprised me.  He’s also working on a solo album, which concerns me.  Some band lead singers – Grace Potter, most recently, and Mick Jagger – need the interplay with the rest of the group to generate the greater excitement.  Others have gone solo to success (Paul McCartney, John Lennon) or a far greater profile, such as Michael Jackson or Chaka Khan.  Pete Townshend and Stevie Nicks were able to do both, but they’re still better known for their group work over their solo careers.  Will Ruess’s career take off and will he keep fun. going?

     Foster the People, led by former jingles writer Mark Foster, hit its peak with “Pumped Up Kicks” because the subject matter of a school shooter was off-set by the bright, cheery melody.  The moment I first heard them on Saturday Night Live, I wanted the album.  However, I didn’t give their second album much more than a cursory listen in a record shop.  That sense of moving on to the next thing, which doesn’t sound any different from the last, big thing, is the downfall for pop.  Country, hip-hop, Americana, and rock generally thrive because fans are attracted to the artists and the genre sound, rather than the beat and a specific single.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

When a Solo May Be a No-Go: Grace Potter

     Grace Potter recently released a solo album Midnight.  She has been the lead singer and multi-instrumentalist for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who’ve been around since 2002.  After a decade of touring and releasing independent records, they hit it big commercially and critically with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (2010).  It featured two killer singles, which were “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Oasis.”  They returned two years later with The Lion the Beast the Beat, which had “Stars,” but held together probably better as an album, rather than as a collection of singles.

Grace Potter On Her Own
     Potter was responsible for most of the songwriting and the press focused almost exclusively on her because she’s physically very attractive and she exudes a positive, almost relentless energy.  There was controversy because she changed her look from jeans to dresses, but like Sheryl Crow pointed out years ago, John Lennon changed his look constantly and that never seemed to be such a big deal.  Although Potter has been compared to Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and other blue eyed blues rock singers, her most apt forebears are Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.  VH1 shrewdly put them together for Divas Salute the Troops in late 2010.  

     The Wilson sisters, while stars, have always placed themselves within the context of a band.  That give and take musically has been a primary reason that they’ve moved between the rock, blues, and pop genres.  Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have also covered these styles.  Here’s the rub:  Potter collaborates with Eric Valentine as a songwriter and producer on this solo album, but it doesn’t possess any sense of interplay. While bands record their albums through a series of tracks in the studio, they still generate a collective energy.  This has been true for Potter’s work with the Nocturnals, but the back-up players on this album sound generic; they might as well be computer generated.  

     The songs are catchy and “Hot to the Touch,” “Your Girl,” and “Let You Go” have a late ‘70s early ‘80s rock vibe, which is attractive in a retro sense until I remembered that it was also the high point of ‘corporate rock’:  the period when most major rock-pop bands sounded almost interchangeable as they battled in the Top 40.  I felt I knew where each song was going in the first twenty seconds and found myself singing along.  Neil said everything sounded like something he’d heard before.

Grace with The Noctournals
     In conclusion, it’s a salve to Potter’s artistic ego to try something on her own, but she comes alive when she’s the front woman for a band, rather than with a solo spotlight. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cuban Pete Sandwiches…Robust, Hot and Sweet

Cuban Pete Sandwiches on Court Street
     When one takes over a space once occupied by Tom + Chee, one must have the hope that the business will have the 
same success.  By borrowing the same menu format and applying it to some Cuban family recipes, the potential is certainly there.  The interior has been splashed with lime green and orange to erase all the red and yellow.  A friendly staff added to the appeal.

El Cubano
     Eric and I met on a Friday for lunch (it's open for breakfast also) to check out one of my favorite cuisines.  Our go-to for Cuban food has been Havana Rumba in Louisville, so our standards are high.  However, on a recent visit there I sampled their El Cubano Sandwich and I wasn't wowed.  So, I was ready to put Cuban Pete to the test.  I found his to be what i consider the perfect Cubano.  There were two things that were key…the bread and an unassuming mustard lightly glazing the cheese.  Eric wasn't as happy with his Special 

Apple Butter Cuban
Apple Butter Cuban with turkey and goat cheese substitutes.  It made me wonder about Pete's other variations including one made with goetta.  We'll leave that one for another visit as well as the other sandwiches and salads.  The side of Plaintains was on par with HR, but the Cuban Missiles (Croquetas) were a mouthwatering filling of puréed ham and mozzarella.  I could have made a meal out of them.  They reminded me of the ham croquettes at Bill Knapp's.  Each sandwich is served with a handful of lightly caramelized popcorn adding to the sweetness present in almost everything we sampled.  Our Café Con Leches were no exception.  I asked for mine sweetened, but Eric confirmed that even the regular was sweet enough.  This was my kind of place! 

Cuban Pete Sandwiches Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Harlan Coben: MISSING YOU

    I’ve been meaning to read Harlan Coben since seeing Guillaume Cadet’s 2006 movie version of Tell No One (Ne Le Dis à Personne), which was as close to a modern updating of Hitchcock as anything in the past two decades.  Sarah and I were meeting and I noticed she had Missing You (2014) on a shelf.  She kindly lent it to me.

     Missing You moves lighting fast because Coben cuts between two plots:  NYPD detective Kat Donovan seemingly reconnecting with an old flame on an internet dating site, and a bizarre kidnapping scheme.  Although there is a complex series of events that pull both of these stories together, Coben has fashioned the various plot elements with expert precision.  The two major female characters compelled my attention and I found myself reading very late to figure out the nefarious scheme that drives the modern variation on damsels (and dudes) in distress/chase section of the plot.

Harlan Coben

     Coben conveys the parochial oppressiveness of a generations-old Catholic neighborhood with telling details, especially the number of children per household and what that might mean.  He also ramps up a sense of horror about online dating.  It will make most readers think twice about online messaging and safety in meetings.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Enthralling and Hilarious BUYER & CELLAR at Ensemble

     Ensemble Theatre has nailed a number of one-person shows over the years and it does so again with the hilarious and quietly unsettling Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins.  It demands a confident, strongly energetic performance to make it work.  Director Lynn Meyers smartly cast Nick Cearley, who maintains an almost laser-like focus built on a strong classical technique while performing six different parts with an effervescence that displays his joy onstage.  Brian c. Mehring’s set, lighting, and projections become presences – almost characters – in themselves and that lends another level to exploring the play’s themes.

The Book That
Inspired the Play
     Alex, the narrator, is an actor who finds himself unemployed because of an unfortunate incident at Disneyland.  He takes a very peculiar paid position, which doesn’t require acting per se until he decides to create a narrative for a doll that’s for sale.  I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to spoil the story’s surprises.  Some audience members may know ahead of time that a very famous diva plays a major role in the proceedings.  The script hilariously starts off with a metaphysical note explaining that this is a fiction and that these are characters andt are not ‘real’ people.  True, but it’s the star-struck aspect of the story that will draw audiences in, as it does Alex, like a moth.

     Tolins points up the American addictions to celebrity gossip and rampant consumerism.  What does it mean when a person’s self-image trumps how they connect with other people?  Or is that the downside to stardom?  When a person’s possessions become a replacement for their experiences, what does that say about their humanity?  Meyers teases out that ambivalence without ever sacrificing the surface charm.  

Nick Cearley*
     Cearley has seemed glib in the past, but never here.  He can be elegant, fabulous, and flamboyant, but he’s always honest and he never repeats or wastes a gesture; it’s an incredibly crisp and intelligent performance and there wasn’t a moment where I was confused about which character he was playing.  As Tolins writes in his script, Alex won’t be impersonating a certain star.  Cearley suggests her, but goes deeper into showing the incandescent charisma and the crippling narcissism that fight to control her.

     Though Meyers paces the show perfectly and Cearley displays almost perfect pitch, it’s a one-person, one-act play that’s about ten minutes too long.  I don’t know what could be trimmed or cut and it won’t be since this is not the world premiere, but it’s the only cavil I have.
*Photo from ETC website

Buyer & Cellar runs through November 1. 2015.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Entertainment Weekly: So long and goodbye, though I loved you

My Subscription (1990 – 2005), R.I.P.

Entertainment Weekly- Issue I with K.D. Lang
     I started reading Entertainment Weekly in the local grocery store magazine aisle when I was unemployed and didn’t think I could afford to buy it.  My Mom started my subscription as a gift.  I loved it because nothing else was on the market that covered movies, television, pop music, books and computer software (at that time).  It also connected popular culture with what was happening in current events.  Its trenchant and hilarious comment upon the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings was to cast all the major (Thomas and Anita Hill) and minor (various senators, etc.) players as they’d appear in an A-list Hollywood movie, a major network mini-series, and a Lifetime movie.  
!990s Music
     Where EW took off in the early ‘90s was in being able to handle the three major genres of popular music:  Rock (and Indie rock), Hip-Hop, and Country.  Rolling Stone writers could only really handle rock, Spin could critique rock and rap, but no one was seriously considering country.  EW was the first mass market magazine to present Garth Brooks just as he was turning into the number one singing star and the many others coming out of Nashville.  There were countless times when I’d read about an album or a new musical act in EW and think I should check it out.  It did not approach classical or jazz and it flirted with world music as a genre, but dropped it by the mid ‘90s.  It also dropped anything to do with computers, which was smart because Wired could present something that was broader than initially imagined and which required an entire industry to understand its importance.

Lisa Schwartzbaum
     EW had a remarkable stable of writers at its inception that was comparable to Esquire in the ‘60s including Ken Tucker covering TV, Owen Gleiberman handling movies, a number of good book and music reviewers, and the MVP Lisa Schwartzbaum, who could write about anything in popular culture with joy and wit.  In the ‘00s, Stephen King provided “The Pop of King” column.  I looked forward to it because it was impossible to know what he’d write about next.  His easy-going, but somehow slightly curmudgeonly air, leavened his extensive knowledge of English language highbrow and pop culture forms and his expertise in examining what was artistically and commercially significant.
Few made as big a deal about it, but I thought it was as classic as Pauline Kael’s reviews from 1967 – 1980.  

Blockbuster Movies
     EW had (and has) some blind spots.  It covered theatre only sporadically, but it’s tough to get a handle on a form that is most innovative and excellent in many different cities around the U.S. while only NYC gets the attention for its tent pole productions.  Movies were always put first even as television was more popular and emerged by the late ‘90s as more creative.  EW bought into the big studio crap wrought by Hollywood after X-Men (2000) and Spiderman (2002) became blockbusters and producers and directors turned to comic books as their salvation with instant storyboards.  The indie film movement that EW championed in the ‘90s was left in the dust by the mid ‘00s.

Stephen King Exit
     I began to sour on EW after King’s column concluded, Schartzbaum left a couple of years later, followed by Gleiberman, and writers like Mark Harris were no longer being asked to write columns.  The newer writers weren’t as knowledgeable (nothing pre-dates 1985 in their world and 1967 is Reviewer Year One to them) and the editorial pieces began obsessing about everything since its 1990 inception.  The overall look of the publication changed from sensible and readable with some classic covers such as the Seinfeld ensemble posed like The Beatles and, a decade later, a stunning shot of Julianne Moore for the year end round up.  In the last couple of years, the font is practically unreadable, the photographic reproductions are so muddy they look like something out of a bog, and the layout is purely fugly.  Parochial schools did a better job with mimeographed publications back in the early ‘70s (as I’ve said, an era that no longer exists for the current writers).  Most of the covers pander the latest Hollywood dregs.

     Oh well, one hates to dwell on the negative.  In its prime (1995 – 2008), EW was right up there with the best magazines of various eras.  Unfortunately, it’s hit a rough patch that may be its New Normal.  Rolling Stone hasn’t recovered since the U.S. found idealism too expensive in 1980, Esquire hasn’t located a new mojo since the late ‘70s when the last of its significant writers licked up the gold of the West Coast, and Living might as well have given up after Martha Stewart served her prison term.  Two major magazines have somehow kept it together:  The New Yorker, probably because it’s such a literary behemoth and O because Oprah still keeps her eye on where it is and how that relates to how it started.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Will Two Terrific Performances Be Beautiful Losers in MISSISSIPPI GRIND?

     It’s been a while since we’ve caught Ryan Reynolds in a movie and since Mississippi Grind is the latest work by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, we thought why not?  Boden and Fleck’s Half-Nelson (2006) focused on a young middle-school history teacher, who was also a coke addict.  Though intelligent and grimly gutsy, it offered a ray of hope at the end.  Mississippi Grind follows the journey of two small-time gamblers as they navigate the middle, looking to catch a break.  

Reynolds and Mendelsohn
     Ryan Reynolds as Curtis, the charming, younger “tall leprechaun,” and Gerry, the older, desperately addicted hangdog played by Ben Mendelsohn, plan to enter a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.  Curtis states a refrain about the journey, rather than the destination – he’s a roamer who can no more connect or settle down than Gerry can guarantee a winning streak – and that sets the tone for the story.  It’s a buddy movie that owes a lot to Altman’s California Split (1974), but Gerry is more frightening than those earlier characters because he seems like so many middle-class Americans that have fallen over the economic edge in a system set up for others.  Curtis seems like a number of lucky people who decide to try self-destruction as a way to feel something.  Both actors are unassumingly sensational:  Mendelsohn’s skin tone and wrinkles change according to his level of despair and Reynolds’ seductive eyes and elegant scruff can’t overcome his  willed anomie.

     Cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s clear, hand-held approach that can see every speck of dirt in a sylvan setting goes for broke here.  A number of American landmarks are rendered as simultaneously tacky and flat.  The various performers look exactly like people I’ve seen in regional casinos and I’ve wondered about their stories as I’ve watched them blanking out in front of video screens and hanging on the next dealt card.  I miss seeing what used to be the inevitable older woman with an oxygen tank that sat smoking automatically.  The lack of smoking is a major difference since the Altman movie as is the reduced liquor intake.  Do wine and beer drinkers gamble like this?  

Sienna Miller
     I wondered who was Curtis’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Simone before remembering Sienna Miller was in the credits.  I don’t know if Miller will be a star because she vanishes as a personality into the parts she plays.  She never looks nor moves nor sounds the same from role to role.  Simone sees through Curtis, but doesn’t know how to reach him.  Analeigh Tipton plays Vanessa, the younger escort, and her incredible eyes betray that she sees all, but gets only part of it.  There’s a bit with a magic trick that’s both darling and sad.  Alfre Woodard has one scene with Mendelsohn as his loan shark and she conveys the woman’s personal and professional existence with warmth and menace; together, they seem to be in the middle of a long-term dance in which they keep stumbling over each other’s feet.  Why do loan sharks make bets on losers?  What do they get out of it?   Robin Weigert pierces as Gerry’s ex-wife that he visits and tries to betray again.  Singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman shows up for a small, profound scene and matches up perfectly with Reynolds.

Marshall Chapman 
   Neil thought it was too long.  It meanders and the dialogue has a looseness that feels natural – actually, it’s like one of Cassavettes’ color movies like Husbands (1970), though not as indulgent.  I thought the last ten minutes were unnecessary, though they offer greater hope than if they were cut.  I found the movie indelible, but I don’t know if Reynolds’ name can attract enough attention.  It would be a shame if this were overlooked during awards season, but it doesn’t shout out for acclaim.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love in Later Life: Works by Ruth Rendell and Kingsley Amis

     Both The Girl Next Door (2014), Ruth Rendell’s penultimate novel and Kingsley Amis’s Booker winning The Old Devils (1986) present a group of married, retired friends reuniting after many years.  In both cases, one of the main plotlines examines heterosexual love between widowed and divorced partners that may have felt a passion for each other at a younger age, but never acted upon it.  These relationships either effect major changes or are the results of internal re-examination.  Characters are reinvigorated because they sense they haven’t time to waste.  

     Devils is funny and charming and has an edge that still makes me remember it almost thirty years later.  Amis may be better known now for his first novel Lucky Jim (1954) and his comic take on the postwar British socialist state and what it meant for both the working and the middle classes.  He was the father of Martin Amis, also a comic novelist with one of the most extravagant, baroque styles imaginable while still maintaining a naturalistic setting (best bets:  Success 1978, Money 1984, Time’s Arrow 1991).  In later life, he turned into a roaring boor of a drunk, but his writing was still sharp and funny.

WWII Londoners

     The Girl Next Door examines a group of late septuagenarians living in contemporary London and its outer suburbs.  They’re connected because they spent their childhoods in the same suburb during World War II.  A pair of skeletal hands, not from the same person, is found by builders working on a new development.  Rendell lets the reader know early who has killed the couple as well as the identity of the female victim.  That mystery remains enigmatically in the proverbial back seat because she’s focused instead on showing people looking back over their lives.

     They have the sense that sixty years have passed very quickly because lives can be summed up in a few sentences, especially when it’s someone else’s.  Things become poignant when some of them either want or are forced to take risks and change their lives.  Some succeed and some fail, while set against the shadow of their eventual mortality, a theme more explicitly stated in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1959).  Rendell’s understated, witty style can somehow render intense grief with kindness and display a gallows humor about a sociopath.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pancake Pantry is Certainly One of the Finest

Pancake Pantry
     There are pancake houses, and then there are Pancake Houses!  You know what I mean.  Pancake Pantry, located west of downtown Nashville and adjacent to Vanderbilt University, is without a doubt one of the best we have found.  It holds a place in the rankings with Walker Brothers in Chicago, has a wider offering than The Original Pancake House in the Midwest, and is adventurous like the old IHOP when they were housed in A-frame structures with blue roofs back in the day.  Pancake Pantry began in 1961 and some things about it don't feel like they have changed all that much.

The Retro Menu

     It was the end of our stay in Nashville and we wanted to leave on a high note.  Monday mornings are hard enough to face, so a visit to Pancake Pantry would be our eye opener.  Eric and I had been there several times over the past two decades with a most memorable (and sad) morning there the day after Princess Di was killed.  The other four in our group were newbies so this was going to be a  big A.M. sendoff for them.

Banana Bread Pancakes
     Although one can order just about any side as accompaniment, pancakes are the main attraction.   I'm always torn as to what to order.  My choice that day was the Banana Bread Pancakes made from a batter filled with pecans and topped off with more of them.  Add to that their homemade Cinnamon Cream Syrup and I was in pancake
Blueberry Pancakes
heaven.  Martha chose the Blueberry Filled Pancakes served with a Maine blueberry compote and a dusting of powdered sugar (it tops a lot of different pancakes). If fresh picked blueberries are your thing, then this is your dish.  Stan had his favorite Silver-Dollars made with buttermilk.  It's the miniature size that's the attraction for him.
Caribbean Pancakes

Dale went with the Caribbean Pancakes that were topped with sliced bananas, pecans, shredded coconut and dusted with powdered sugar.  She enjoyed them thoroughly and so did some others when she shared.

Santa Fe Pancakes
Eric and Lori decided to go with the Santa Fe Pancakes whose recipe was shared with Pancake Pantry from the Village Smithy Restaurant in California.  They looked almost like mini frittatas filled with bacon, cheddar cheese and roasted green chilies.  He liked them, but he didn't love them as the stone-ground cornmeal batter was a bit dry and fell apart easily.  Unfortunately, that's the way that batter fries up.  On past visits I've enjoyed the Georgia Peach Pancakes (the compote filling is made at just the right time) and the Swiss Chocolate Chip for which I still cannot find any finer ones and really don't expect to do so.  Top them all off with great coffee and Southern hospitality service and that's what makes Pancake Pantry such a return magnet for us.

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