Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Genius of Entourage

I wouldn’t call Entourage a great show by any means.

I’m pretty sure you won’t see it on any top 10 lists of the all-time greatest TV shows anytime soon. The writing at its best is solid, but not superb. The acting is mediocre outside of Jeremy Piven, whose portrayal of super agent Ari Gold is downright legendary (a character that can, and should, be put in the discussion for a top 10 list of best TV characters ever). Out of the seven seasons aired so far, only the first three can truly approach greatness.

But, while Entourage isn’t great, it is genius.

This Sunday marks the beginning of the show’s eighth and final season, which ties it with Curb Your Enthusiasm as the longest running show in the golden era of the HBO original series. Yet, while no one would really put Entourage on par with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Dexter, Breaking Bad or Mad Men as one of the best shows of the generation.

So how does a show that’s not great qualify as genius? Because despite the sometimes horrible acting and lazy writing, it remains one of the most popular and most watched shows of the past decade or so.

What creator Doug Ellin has done is basically made a reality show that isn’t reality. Entourage is the story of four guys from the streets of New York who chase the American Dream to Hollywood. Nothing more, nothing less. There are no mysteries and plot twists a la Lost, there is no grand social and political commentary like we saw on The Wire. Instead, it’s just the everyday lives of four guys from Queens.

And if America loves to watch anything, it’s someone else's story that could just as easily be their own.

Entourage is a reality show with a bigger budget and better writers. It lets people sit down for 30 minutes, watch the story, and gets them out. Ellin in essence followed around a budding movie star with a camera and recorded his day-to-day life. He made an “alternate-reality” show set in modern day L.A.

At its best it was a supremely witty, gripping drama. At its worst, it was a jumbled cameo-fest with no direction. But even throughout the lows, the show kept you interested in the lives of Vinny Chase and the boys.

Good or bad, the viewer wanted to know what happened next; and that is the true measure of any TV show: can you keep people coming back? For seven seasons, despite the criticisms and flaws, Entourage has done just that.

Now, even without mob bosses, drug wars, a mysterious island (or even critical acclaim), people will flock back yet again for the final eight episodes to see the conclusion of the gang’s story.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Play Them Songs: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - 'Mojo'

I am a huge fan of classic rock. I mean I LOVE it. Led Zeppelin changed my life. But, as a personal rule of sorts, I don't buy new CDs by "old" artists. This stems from an experience I had in high school. For reasons still unclear, I decided to buy Aerosmith's 2001 release Just Push Play -- and it was awful.

However, a few weeks ago I was at Best Buy and saw that Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' new CD, Mojo, was only $10. So I picked it up.

Mojo sees Petty and his boys go back to Petty's Southern roots with a blues-infused rock and roll record. Right from the start, with "Jefferson Jericho Blues," Mojo displays an upbeat, guitar-driven foundation that continues throughout with tracks "Candy," "U.S. 41" and "I Should Have Known It."

With a few slower numbers to balance itself out, Mojo makes for a fairly solid listen. It isn't Petty's best, nor does it have any signature standout singles that have made Petty so famous. But what it gives you is a different side of Petty.

If you listen to Petty's library, you'll hear a very tight, very focused band that takes a very professional approach to their music. The case can even be made for calling Petty a perfectionist, if you recall the tale of how Petty broke his hand punching a wall after becoming frustrated while recording the song "Rebels" on the Southern Accents album (of course, drugs are also to blame for the incident).

Mojo, on the other hand, presents Petty and the band at arguably their most relaxed. While it doesn't posses the raw swagger of someone like The Rolling Stones, the blues influence does give the album a very laid back vibe.

It's not perfect, but the album is a gratifying listen for any Petty fans looking for something fresh. Plus, it got me to repeal my ban.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cycle of CDs: The Lemonheads - 'It's a Shame About Ray' (1992)

Yes, the first song I ever heard by the Lemonheads was a cover that they did. It truly defined them for me, though, at least for at least a little while. Their version of "Mrs. Robinson" was great for various reasons: it was already a popular song, it gave the band a chance to let people know their style, and they did a hell of a job of putting their spin on it. I really regret not putting it on my list of favorite covers.

And, I pretty much of bought It's a Shame About Ray because of that cover song.

The Lemonheads, almost as their name implies, were (and still are on most counts) just a perfect, sweet, pop band. Most folks will label them as indie, rock, or alternative, but that's not the case. They are pop.

See, it goes back to at least part of my theory on cover bands -- they used to be a great stepping stone for bands to get their start and to learn their trade before doing it themselves. It wasn't shameful or dull. People, not very different from today, like to go out and hear a band play their favorite songs. Forty and fifty years ago, though, popular songs played on the radio were actually good. The Beatles were a pop band. So were Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Chuck Berry. Who would be ashamed to play Beatles covers, even if it was "I Want to Hold Your Hand"? Somewhere, I would venture to say just after Michael Jackson peaked, pop music became disgusting, simplifying its music, its words, and its range. Our culture, on the whole, became dumb. What would a cover band have to play now that is considered "popular"? Miley Cyrus? The Black-Eyed Peas? Katie Perry? Those are usually names I see on the Top 40 Lists.

I've digressed. True, guitar-driven pop music still exists, though, and it's still as good as some of the original pop music of the late Fifties and Sixties -- you know, back when bands played their instruments and at least wrote some of their songs.

That's where The Lemonheads fall in the musical spectrum for me. And, It's a Shame About Ray is a wonderful, guitar-driven, pop record. I'd go so far to call it a masterpiece of its time if it wasn't for "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon," which isn't bad. It just sounds lacking compared to the rest of the tracks.

But, oh my God, the rest of the CD? I've never gotten tired of it.

First of all, the sentimental tracks are just beautifully made, no matter their content. Take "My Drug Buddy," a tale of two friends (I like to assume one of them is a girl), who are friends due to their shared interest in drugs, maybe beyond. "Hannah and Gabi," a cute tune of beginnings and doubt, has one of my favorite lines on the entire record ("Though it wasn't hard or far/I walked you to your car").

The rockers are just plain fun. The opening, hectic riff of "Rockin' Stroll" starts the album off perfectly. "Kitchen," another song of romantic beginnings, can't be beat, either, especially with lines like, "I'll tell you things I know you like to know/Treat me to cake every night" and "We repeat the same stories/But, of course, never in front of friends/How it all started in the kitchen/Remember the time when you said we could wait a while?/You'd let me know when you changed your mind/Yeah, I was sad for some time."

Add that to the fact that Juliana Hatfield played bass and sang idealized backing vocals for the album, and you've got a collection of songs that you'll want around forever.

Nevermind Evan Dando's dick-and-douche personality in his live shows. Forget the cover, which was originally included only as a bonus track. You'll get addicted to the simple greatness that is The Lemonheads with this one CD.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cycle of CDs: Hole - 'Live Through This' (1994)

When I was sixteen or thereabouts, I hung out with these older folks around our incredibly small town. It was a tiny commune of people who were "cool." At least, that's the way I looked at them before I "joined" the group. Looking back, I don't think any of us considered ourselves to be cool at all; we just liked to do the same things, i.e. drink, and we liked to listen to a lot of the same music. We tried our best to keep each other abreast of bands and songs.

In that group was an even smaller subgroup of two older girls that I thought were just the hottest things ever. For one reason or another, they took me up as a friend and I was sometimes allowed to hang out with them.

Anyway, they loved Hole. They thought Courtney Love was the shit. When I was around them, we would listen to Live Through This constantly. Since it was almost always on cassette tape, we would listen to all of side one, flip it, and listen to all of side two while riding around and finding cemeteries to haunt. I would've liked the CD on my own. That's my theory, anyway. The fact that they were jamming it at all hours in Tiny Town, U.S.A. like the roll n' roll, bad-ass bitches they were certainly didn't hurt.

I recently double checked myself, though, to see if I would still like it. I got the CD out and put it in the car for a couple of days. I just let it play straight through, just like the old days.

My conclusion? It's still flawless. It is a rock masterpiece, easily, that is roughly themed around doing drugs and having to furiously grow up due to several obstacles, many of which center around a baby entering one's life. Just polished in just the right spots, perfectly raw in all other areas.

Look, forget the contraversy of whether Courtney wrote all the songs or not. She would've had to have been influenced by Kurt, right? Of course! She was married and lived with him for years. Did he write some of the album? Take a listen to Hole's first. It's similar to Live Through This; her latest work reflects that she has some talent, even if it may be fading. Honestly, I don't know.

More importantly, I don't care. If he did write some of it, that's fine. The album is still a motherfucker. It would be very different if she didn't (or couldn't) play her own instrument(s). She did, as far as I know -- that's usually not the argument I ever hear against the album. For more on that type of controversy, scroll down and read the third-to-last paragraph here. There are your rock gods for you, tweens.

The lyrics on Hole's second album are stout, man; it doesn't matter if you are male or female. Who can't relate to high school being a factory to keep everyone formulaic -- a place where you'd do anything to fit in -- especially when said with such beautiful brashness? ("Well, I went to school/In Olympia/We look the same/We talk the same/We even fuck the same.")

Haven't we all dealt with self-conscious issues, even if they aren't quite drug induced? ("I am/doll arms/big veins/dog bait/Yeah, they really want you/They really do.")

Surely you've been jealous, right? ("Was she asking for it?/Was she asking nice?/If she was asking for it/Did she ask you twice?")

I'm telling you, haters, subside with the did-she-or-didn't-she-write-it shit and embrace this raging, wonderful, rock n' roll record.

In fact, when I first saw/heard this video on MTV, I was sold, even if those cool chicks had already somewhat sold me on Live Through This:

Sorry that it skips, but you get the idea.

Editor's Note: This is number thirteen of a series of essays where the author takes a look and listen into every CD he has in his collection.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cycle of CDs: The Flaming Lips - 'Transmissions from the Satellite Heart' (1993)

The evolution of MTV's programming amazes me. In bad move, worse move, to horrid move, MTV went from a place to catch some varied music and an occasional funny show to being the channel that brought us the unwatchable shit known as "The Jersey Shore." (I judge people who claim with pride that they watch this crap.)

Back in the day, MTV was still devoted enough to music to incorporate it into their programming. Remember "Remote Control," which brought us our first sight of a young Adam Sandler? How about "Beavis and Butthead"? I watched Beavis and Butthead from almost day one -- I remember catching them late night in a hotel room in Mobile and laughing while loving the music. I found them funny, 'till they wore out their welcome in my house. But, before that day, they played the recent, odd-ball videos and commented on them from their couch, much like my friends and I did. Even when the stopped being funny, I'd still tune in to see if they'd play "Punk Rock Girl" or an awesome Violent Femmes tune.

That's where I first saw The Flaming Lips with their psyhed-out crazy, if not interesting, "She Don't Use Jelly" video. It was catchy. I sang along. I loved it. About half of my friends did not. I went out and bought the cassette tape. Hell, as it turned out, the whole tape was amazing!

It started out with a bit more serious song, if not equally as fun. "Turn it On," with its talk of supporting radio that plays things totally different than corporate stations, sort of predicted what MTV was going to become ("If it ain't got no relation/To all those other stations/Turn it on").

The album, as a whole, is a joyful one that perfectly tempers its loud, boisterious, original rock with the sporadic slower songs.

The thick riffs on here are loud and crunchy as if they are played from a wall of Marshall stacks. They also stick with you for you to hum along to on a summer day.

Sure, the Lips would go on to be praised for their later albums (they deserved it, too), but I always will love this one. A full theme had yet to emerge for the album as a whole, but I still think that the theme of fun prevails. Summer music from a time when MTV gave a shit about artists rather than the almighty, shitty-show dollar! Can you imagine that now? Grab it, 'cause I know you got it, and turn it on.

Editor's Note: This is number twelve of a series of essays where the author takes a look and listen into every CD he has in his collection.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cycle of CDs: Ryan Bingham - 'Roadhouse Sun' (2009)

When I first heard Ryan Bingham's song "The Weary Kind" for the movie Crazy Heart, I wasn't impressed. I thought that the movie people had gotten it wrong; they could've found a better song. It was bland to me. (Trivia note: that's Bingham in Bad Blake's back-up band in the bowling alley scene of Crazy Heart.)

Then I caught Ryan Bingham on the episode of Austin City Limits with The Drive-by Truckers. I thought, "Shit yeah. That's more like it." He was backed with a great alt-country band, was wearing a cowboy hat with Converse All Stars, and sang better songs than "The Weary Kind." So, I ordered his CD.

Bingham has that voice that I like. It's very much in the vein of Ben Nichols of Lucero. What's lacking is his songwriting. He's good, don't get me wrong. And this album has some great stories, lines, and music; however, you know deep down, he's yet to write his best song.

One of the standout tracks is "Dylan's Hard Rain," which references the Bob Dylan classic while reflecting on the current state of America. I especially like the line in it where Bingham considers the idea of legalizing weed: "On the border of Tijuana/People are growing truckloads of marijuana/Maybe someday our friends will be American farmers." Not bad.

Where he falters is in his repetitiveness. Even within his verses, he repeats a lot of the same lines that aren't particularly the strongest in the song ("When the day is done/I was born a bad man's son").

His slow songs are really slow, too. They are a nice break from the rest of the CD, but they do tend to bog the album down a little.

The production is great, though, and the music is fantastic.

It's a good effort, but it's not the best thing in the world. If you like country or alt-country, you'll like Bingham's Roadhouse Sun. You may not like all of it, but it has some really great moments. I'd be willing to hear more.

Editor's Note: This is the eleventh of a series of essays where the author takes a look and listen into every CD he has in his collection.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cycle of CDs: Damien Jurado - 'Saint Bartlett' (2010)

It didn't take long after being introduced to Damien Jurado that I was sold on him as a favorite musician. A friend happened to hear his music being played in a record store. He liked it, bought it, and brought it to me to listen on a visit to Tuscaloosa. That album was Where Shall You Take Me?

Fast forward several years ahead and a few albums later, and we have Jurado's Saint Bartlett, his most recent release. I picked this up on the day of his show last week, and I'm glad I did, as he played the entire album from start to finish with a band that did an excellent job of layering the songs without stepping on the important aspects of Jurado's work: his vocals and his words.

The album is like that, too. This is as good as production gets. In it, you can pick up ambient sounds, odd instruments, and beautiful noises; however, none of it takes away from the songs.

If you like Jurado, you do because of his knack of turning the plain, ordinary thoughts into things of extremely haunting beauty. The amazing thing is that he absolutely never goes cliche. You just won't find overused phrases in any of his works. He is a master at using simple words and having them sound brand new, and I think he does this by not overdoing any one particular thing.

Jurado is probably most famous for his brief snippets of life and bringing out the depth of their normalness. There's always a hint of sadness in Jurado's work that truly sticks with you; for exammple, even we tries to go positive, he just can't help but bring it back down to Earth ("I wish that/I could float/Float up from the ground/I will never know/What that's like").

That tinge of sadness prevelant throughout his songs doesn't depress you, though. It lifts you up and helps you to know that we're all the same -- it's the univeral notion that great authors accomplish consistently. Jurado's work is equally consistent, too; I've yet to hear a CD of his that wasn't great.

I honestly could go on and on about him. I'll just leave you with it, though. Go to his myspace and listen to some of his new tracks. Like an urban John Prine, he gets what life is. Maybe more importantly, he also gets what life isn't.

This is a master at work. I cannot stop listening. If he and his songs aren't an argument for the support of local record stores, I don't know what is.

Editor's Note: This is the tenth of a series of essays where the author takes a look and listen into every CD he has in his collection.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Not-So-Weekly List: My Top 5 Concerts

There are few feelings in life better than seeing a band you absolutely love live in person. Everybody remembers their first… actually, I don’t. I was about three and my parents took me along with them to see Alabama and The Charlie Daniels Band. I imagine it was awesome, though.

Seeing your favorite band live is a rite of passage among American teenagers. It gives older generations a chance to relive their youth. A good rock and roll show can change a life in such a profound way – young kid sees favorite band, buys guitar next day, grows up and forms Nirvana (I don’t know if that’s how that actually happened, but it feels right).

(On the flip side, the profound change could also be: teenage girl goes to concert, meets teenage boy, 20 years later their child finds out they were conceived at a Poison concert. Rock and roll means well…)

Reading Blaine’s excellent CD-reminiscing series got me to thinking about the many concerts I have seen in my life, and I tried (damn hard as it was) to come up with the best concerts I have ever seen/remembered.

Honorable mention:
Al Green, Little Richard, B.B. King. Pier Six Pavilion, Baltimore, summer 2007 – Reason #45436 I love my mother: earlier that summer, she plainly states to me over dinner one night, “Hey, I have two extra tickets to see B.B. King, Al Green, and Little Richard in August. Wanna come?”

City Stages 2008. Birmingham, summer 2008 – Among the many wonderful acts I saw that weekend: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Roots, The Wailers, Shooter Jennings, and the Dexateens. Oh, and I managed to get backstage for Al Green.

5. Lucero. Bottletree CafĂ©, Birmingham, summer 2008 – I had heard a Lucero song or two via my roommate at the time, and they piqued my interest. But then she invited me along to this show, and Lucero completely won me over. Packed house, everybody singing at the top of their lungs, loving every minute of it, and the band gave the love right back.

4. Powerman 5000 w/ Shinedown and Reach 454. Shakey’s Bar, Hershey, PA, summer 2003 – Reading that lineup, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “uhhh… say what?” Let me explain: I was 19, and still in my “I really love mosh pits” phase – and it really didn’t get any better than a Powerman 5000 pit. Also, they were probably my favorite hard rock band at the time, and happen to be really cool guys. Below is a picture of myself with lead singer Spider (little brother of Rob Zombie), in the summer of 2006, when I had the pleasure of meeting the band at an exclusive XM radio show in D.C. But I digress...

The bar had a ceiling about two inches above your head. The amps were stacked high and wide. It was about 103 degrees, so before the show even started everybody was covered in sweat. After one unmemorable band (Reach 454), some little unknown band took the stage and really caught everyone’s attention (little did anyone in the audience know they just saw a band who would go on to make two platinum albums).

Then Powerman took the stage. For the first four songs of their set, the ENTIRE crowd was a mosh pit. You didn’t have a choice. Bodies collided, sweat poured, ear drums burst. We assaulted by rock and roll for an hour and a half. After the show everyone just stood there, as if waiting for the roof to collapse because we sure as hell couldn’t find anything better outside the bar than what we just witnessed.

Bonus story: On the way back to my friend’s apartment in York, PA, we stopped at a Denny’s to chow down at about one in the morning. The four of us were all still soaking wet, and the restaurant was ice cold. We devoured our Grand Slams while shivering like the dickens, yelling at each other because our ears wouldn’t stop ringing for a week. We couldn’t have gotten more “oh my god, look at those crackheads” looks even if we busted out a pipe and sparked up right then and there.

3. Alabama Farewell Tour. Hershey Park Stadium, Hershey, PA, summer 2003 – I grew up listening to Alabama and nothing else. It’s all my dad would play in his vehicle, and it’s all I would listen to in my room. I’ve seen them more times than I can count. So naturally, there was no way I was going to miss their last tour. About 30 minutes in, Randy Owen informs the crowd that there is lightning on the way and we have to break for safety. 30 minutes roll by. An hour passes. 90 minutes gone by, and nothing but rain, thunder and the sky falling. Finally, while ignoring the pleas of those wanting to give up and go home, I hear the crackling of a P.A. system. They tell us the show will go on. The boys from Ft. Payne get back on stage, and finish their entire set, time be damned.

I’ve seen them play tighter shows. I’ve seen them with the cowboy from the second season of the Real World opening. I even got to go on stage with them once. But that show will forever stay with me because of their dedication to their fans; and appropriately enough they finished with “The Fans.” The only reason my favorite show from my favorite band isn’t #1? They didn’t play “My Home’s in Alabama,” and I'm still disappointed to this day.

2. Crush Cancer Benefit, featuring Dexateens, Model Citizen, Carroll County Picture Show. Egan’s Bar, Tuscaloosa, AL, spring 2009 – For the first time ever, Egan’s asked me to pay a cover. But, it was for a great cause, so I didn’t mind one bit. What I didn’t know was that I would get a show I would’ve gladly paid $50 to see. Model Citizen opened and blew the doors off the way they always seem to do, almost daring those who followed to even come close to their performance. CCPS followed and gave everyone a breather.

Then awoke the sleeping monster that was the Dexateens live at Egan’s. I had never seen them there before, and I probably will never get to again. But their show that night reassured me that rock and roll is meant to be loud, fast, and oh so dirty. It was nasty, it was sweaty, and it was everything our parents warned us about. After the show I ended up at someone’s house shooting guns in their backyard, then drinking whiskey in their hot tub. Any other night that would’ve been the highlight. That particular night it seemed like a formality.

1. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers w/ The Black Crowes. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD, summer 2005 – Earlier in this post, I mentioned the concert as a rite of passage. If you grow up around Baltimore, you absolutely must see a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Physically, it’s a huge amphitheater tucked away in the woods. Spiritually, it’s where a young adult growing up in central Maryland goes to experience life at its fullest… by dying. I don’t know who started it, or why; but when you see a show so amazing that it makes you forget the life you knew before you heard the opening note, then you’ve died at Merriweather.

In July 2005, my friend Ben and I went to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers play with opening act The Black Crowes. We danced in the mud with complete strangers. We drank overpriced beer, smuggled liquor and euphoria. We sang arm-in-arm with whoever was in reach. I was even told “you look like a guy who knows about some shrooms.” (I didn’t.) We compared stories with other concert-goers. We wished it would never end.

We died.