Friday, March 26, 2010

Doug Spata's iPod - 2010, Part 2

Here are five more songs to finish off my playlist:

6. Blame It On the Boogie, The Jacksons.   When Michael Jackson died in September, I was one of the many people who was shocked by the news.  And when the radio was flooded with Michael's songs, I discovered this little gem.  I think it's been overlooked because it's not a Jackson 5 song and it wasn't on a solo album. It was by The Jacksons - an in-between project that didn't get as much recognition.  Still, it's a fun disco tune with a great bass line and fun harmonies.  And you can really hear the joy in Michael's voice as he takes the lead on this one.  He really had fun with this song.

7. Human by The Killers.  I first heard this on the radio and thought I had discovered a new song by The Cure, but was surprised to learn that it was from The Killers, for whom I previously did not care.  That soaring melody got me first but the ambiguous and cryptic lyrics really drew me in.  "Are we human or are we dancer?"  My interpretation is that he's talking about the cathartic moment where an artist transcends the physical and becomes indistinguishable from his or her art as a pure force of creativity.  I've been fortunate to experience that several times and it's the goal for any musician, artist, dancer, poet, or performer.  To witness it as an audience is amazing as well.

8. Every Day I Write the Book by Elvis Costello.  Speaking of really good lyrics, here's Elvis Costello.  He's comparing being in love to writing a book and keeps coming up with clever ways to spin the metaphor further and further.  I like that the music doesn't compete with the lyrics - it's just a cool, simple groove that isn't over-embellished or over-produced.  The music is great and the lyrics are great and they come together to make something really special.

9. It Must Be Love by Madness.  This half of the list is really leaning on the oldies.  Kids, Madness was a ska band from England back in the 80's.  They were a lot of fun and influenced people like Gwen Stefani and Dave Matthews.  This wistful, romantic song is one of their best, with honest, sincere lyrics, a strong backbeat, and a really fun arrangement.  I adore the pizzicato strings (via keyboard) and that fantastic bass line with the triplets just brightens my day.  In fact, all the elements - piano, bass, drums, horns, xylophone, keyboards - are such wonderful elements independently that it gives the whole song a loose, improvisational feel while still holding together as a whole.  Just like two people in love - separate but one, independent but working together.

10. Speakers Funk by Giant Panda. These guys made my list last year and I had to include them again.  They have a great flow, a strong focus on the music, and they keep the old-school style alive.  And it's a song about music - about the joy of finding a great new song and listening to it in your car at high volume.  And really, that's a great summary of this list.  I hope you've found some of that joy for yourself!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Doug Spata's iPod - 2010

 Last year around this time I posted an iPod playlist and the response was overwhelming - I got TWO comments.  From people I didn't even know!  Makes me feel like the next Julie Powell.  I've expanded my iPod contents, so I thought it was time to do it again.  And to make things even more appealing, I'm going to include video links.

1. We Are Golden by MIKA.  Last year I discussed MIKA's song "Lollipop" and hoped that his next album would be just as good.  Well, interwebs, I had nothing to fear.  His second album may be even better, with even stronger melodies, more acrobatic falsetto, and bolder arrangements.  The album opener is a call to arms for eager, ambitious youth everywhere.  This song makes my heart jump.

2. Single Ladies by BeyoncĂ©.  I am fascinated by this song.  The vocals are okay and the video is pretty good, but what amazes me every time I hear this one is that it uses polytonality.  There are two different key signatures going on at the same time - specifically, she's singing in E Major and the music (the synth bassline) is in E Minor.  This is a level of harmonic complexity unheard of in pop music and is usually found in the work of avant-garde modern composers like Philip Glass.  In fact, it's a technique that my favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, used in The Rite of Spring.  Lots of rock musicians hover around the fringe of music and consider themselves cutting-edge innovators, but here's mainstream BeyoncĂ© putting them all to shame.  Amazing.

Bonus Video!  Here's a great duo called Pomplamoose doing their own version of Single Ladies with more traditional harmonies:

3. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger by Daft Punk.  Yet another fantastic dance tune with a lot of musical innovation to offer.  First: the hockett.  THE HOCKETT!!  Oh, interwebs, the use of hockett in this song makes me grin uncontrollably.  They present the first melody (on beats 1 and 3), then they present the second melody (on beats 2 and 4) then they combine them to make a whole new melody.  I loves me some good hockett and anyone who has played my music knows my infatuation with combined melodies.  Especially in Wait your Turn, A Hero's Welcome, and the accompaniment parts on Las Mariposas Exoticas.  The second innovative thing about this song: after the hockett section, it takes on the form of a theme and variations.  The traditional verse-chorus-verse form of most pop songs is thrown out the window in favor of a form favored by the likes of Brahms and Mozart.  Brilliant.  Have a listen:

4. Yeh Ishq Hai from the movie Jab We Met.  I came across this song while I was doing research for a new composition and used it as a reference point for Bollywood style.  The music is absolutely enchanting.  I love hearing the tabla drums and other Indian instruments, but the style is just right for my Western ears.  I've never seen the movie and I have no earthly idea what she's singing about, but I've seen the word "Ishq" show up in so many Bollywood song titles that I can only assume it means "love." It just proves that a good melody can communicate in any language.

5. Little Secrets by Passion Pit.  Not a lot of innovation here - it's just a really catchy song with a great beat, fantastic melodies, a killer synth part, and (like We Are Golden) a wonderful use of childrens' choir.  And y'know what?  That's perfectly okay.  Music doesn't have to be innovative to be great and this song is simply a whole lot of fun on its own terms.  Also: I heard the song before seeing the video and had an entirely different image in my head of how the band would look.  The song took me by surprise and then the band surprised me again.  Enjoy!

That's five songs - enough for now.  I'll think about another five for a different post.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Facebook Link

If you've been to this blog before you'll notice something different today, right there on the right side of your screen.  It's a link to my Facebook page!  And that microscopic guy leaning up against the Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile is me.  I've been on Facebook for about a year now and recently discovered that I can create a link over there from this blog.

So if you'd like to be my Facebook friend (that's right - friend.  None of this impersonal "fan" stuff) click over and send a request.  Just be sure to let me know that you got there from here so i know that you're not spam.

And, hey, while you're out exploring the Interwebs, maybe check out my regular website too.  It gives a lot of information, answers some FAQ's and has links to MP3 downloads and YouTube videos.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Videos

Well, Oscar Season is over and I can re-focus this blog on music.  Before I tell you about some of the thing I've been up to in the past six weeks, here are some new videos.

First up is a performance of Mambo Incognito in Plano, Texas:

Now, I've seen and have participated in plenty of concerts in school gyms.  It's just a fact of school scheduling and resources and, to be honest, the acoustics are often more flattering than in auditoriums.  I have not, however, seen an audience in the bleachers and the orchestras filling the floor.  Look at all those orchestra students!  Looks like those teachers are doing something right.  The performance is really good too.  Great job, kids!

Up next is Gauntlet, performed at Hanahan High school for an unnamed All-County concert.

Excellent tempo.  As I've written before, one of the biggest problems I hear with Gauntlet is the tempo.  It requires a fast tempo, but faster is not better.  Take note - this is how it should be done.  I don't know who the conductor is here, but she got it just right.  Also, great style on the middle section.  Way to go!

Next is a performance of Elementals as a quintet performed by the Naomi Hasan violin studio in Madison, WI.

Orchestras and classes come in all sizes, so it's not uncommon to hear the same piece played by a band of sixty or a chamber ensemble.  Admittedly, some pieces work better than others when reduced down and I think Elementals is one of them (though a bass added to the mix wouldn't have hurt).  This appears to be a group of adult students and I think that, for the most part, they did a fine job.  I don't mean to sound disparaging, but the 'cello was off.  I'll give him the benefit of the doubt - maybe his pegs got knocked out of tune before going on stage or he was sight reading (I've done some sight reading in performances before).

Finally, let's hear Las Mariposas Exoticas, performed by the Lanier Middle School Philharmonia:

Fantastic.  The orchestra did such a great job here and I'd like to point out the excellent use of the harp.  There's no harp part in the original version and the part they came up with was very tasteful. I love the harp and wish I could write more for them, but harps in school ensembles are rare and it's not cost-effective to write for them most of the time.  And in my experience, harpists can't stand playing piano parts - they're such idiomatically different instruments that it's hard to play one on the other.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Oscar Post-Mortem

The dust has settled and the score is Doug: 14, Oscar: 5  That's 74% - my best score in a long time and markedly better than last year's 61%.  It's also even with Entertainment Weekly's score.  Here's how it turned out.  My correct picks are bold.

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker
Best Adapted Screenplay: Precious
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Costumes: The Young Victoria
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Effects Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Best Score: Up
Best Song: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart
Best Animated Feature: Up

The Sound categories could have gone either to Avatar or The Hurt Locker and I just picked wrong.  Also, I underestimated the effect of 3D technology in the Cinematography category.  As for the Screenplays, I just underestimated The Hurt Locker and Precious.  On the plus side, I correctly picked Best Picture, Director, and all the acting awards for the first time ever.  I've finally figured out how to choose a Best Song, and I had the Artistic awards under control.

In all, only nine movies won Oscars (not counting short films and documentaries): The Hurt Locker: 6; Avatar: 3; Precious, Crazy Heart, and Up: 2 each; The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, and The Young Victoria: 1 each.

I thought it was a great show and that the hosts did a fantastic job and it only ran over by about five minutes.  Not that there weren't problems. I'm not sure why a giant set piece made of lampshades kept appearing.  I could have done without the clips explaining why short films matter and what goes into sound mixing and they spent way too long recapping the Governor's Banquet.  Also, did we have to introduce all the Actor and Actress nominees one by one AND have co-workers eulogize them AND then list them again before handing over the trophy?  Way overkill.  Tom Hanks had the right idea when he presented Best Picture - we've had little features about each nominee throughout the night, just open the envelope and get on with it. 

But what everyone is talking about is the pop-locking street dancing to mostly percussion-less orchestral Best Score nominees.  The dancing was good and the music was nice to hear, but the two together were surreal and incongruous. It wasn't as egregious as the Debbie Allen-choreographed tap dance routine to music from Holocaust and war bovies back at the '98 awards, though. Also, what was with that loud woman who Kanye West-ed one of the Short Film winners?

The biggest surprise of the night: Fisher Stevens won an Oscar!  The ubiquitous '80's actor produced the Best Documentary Feature. You may remember him from Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2, Reversal of Fortune, or from his TV appearances on Medium, Lost, Numb3rs, and Ugly Betty.

I'll let other, more qualified bloggers dissect the fashions in detail, but my favorites were Meryl Streep in classy white, Penelope Cruz in deep red, and Sandra Bullock in a shiny gown that seemed to change colors, depending on where she was standing.  The only thing wrong there was her lipstick.  My least favorites were Sara Jessica Parker's shapeless shower curtain, Diane Krueger's fluffy panda dress, and JLo's gown, which actually wouldn't have been too bad if the had eliminated the huge ruffles running up her left side. As for the men, it's nice to see a return to classic bow ties after years of straight ties on the red carpet.

I thought the presenters did a great job - especially Tina Fey and Colin Ferrell with their "actors vs. writers" argument.  The same could not be said for Cameron Diaz and Steve Carrel's flat banter.  There weren't any amazing acceptance speeches this year.  At least not on the level of Halle Berry or Tom Hanks.  I think everyone expected a lot from Mo'Nique and she kept it short and subdued.  Jeff Bridges rambled a bit but it was really heartfelt and sincere, acknowledging his father as a chief influence on his life and career.  Christoph Waltz has received a lot of awards this year and in each acceptance speech he shows a great facility for spinning long metaphors.  This one was astronomy-themed.

Overall, it was a great night and I really enjoyed the whole Oscar season.  I'm not sure if anyone read any of my posts or if they just disappeared into the interwebs, but they were fun to write.  I'll go back to writing about music here, so if you have been reading, please stick around.  And, of course, I'll be discussing the 83rd Oscars in January 2011.  Thanks, all!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5 Answers

21. "It's even, but it ain't settled. Let's settle it."

c. Paul Newman in The Color Of Money

22. "If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we'd have a lot more nuns running around."
a. Sean Penn in Milk

23. "The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won't happen again. "
a. Grace Kelly in The Country Girl

24. "It's a mountain. The hardest piece you could Everest play. "
b. Geoffrey Rush in Shine

25. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop. My sister and I were headed straight for the top. My sister and I earned a thou a week at least, but my sister is now unfortunately deceased."
c. Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago

Friday, March 5, 2010

Final Oscar Picks

The Oscars are this Sunday evening on your local ABC station!  If you're like me, you'll tune in to the red carpet coverage well ahead of time (E! usually starts up around noon).

Before I get to my list of final Oscar predictions, I have some great news!  Entertainment Weekly came out with their own predictions recently and, except for one category, we both picked all the same winners.  Even The Young Victoria for Best Costumes, which surprised me!  For Original Screenplay they picked The Hurt Locker (on the basis that it's the favorite for Best Picture and the Best Picture usually takes a screenplay award) but I picked Inglourious Basterds because... I thought it was a better screenplay.

EW has a great Oscar prognosticator and they traditionally have a better record than I do (except in 2004 when I rocked it out and blew away their score *fist pump*). I figure it's because I'm either too stubborn to reconsider my picks or I veer from my initial instincts at the last minute.  But because they pick every category and I opt out of the Documentary and Short Film categories, EW has more to lose than I do.

Here's my final list of Oscar predictions:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up In the Air
Best Cinematography: The Hurt Locker
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Costumes: The Young Victoria
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Effects Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Score: Up
Best Song: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart
Best Animated Feature: Up

You'll notice that I'm predicting a pretty even distribution of hardware this year, with four Oscars each to Avatar and The Hurt Locker, two each to Up, Inglourious Basterds, and Crazy Heart, and one each to five other films.  Except for Visual Effects and maybe Supporting Actress, I don't think there's any category that has a solid lock this year and I'm most apprehensive about my picks in the Score, Costumes, and Screenplay categories.  I'm predicting the first ever female Best Director, the third-ever African American Best Supporting Actress (after Hattie McDaniel and Whoopi Goldberg), and the fourth-ever Austrian to win an Oscar for acting (Paul Muni, Louise Rainer, and Maximillian Schell were the other three). Also, if The Hurt Locker wins the big prize, it will be the lowest-grossing Best Picture in Oscar history.

Enjoy the show!  Happy Oscar Night, everyone!

Best Picture

By now you know that this year, the Academy is trying something new (or rather, something very very old) and named ten Best Picture nominees.  The idea was that by opening up the category, there would be more room for popular movies (rather than the usual serious arty fare) which would lead to more general interest, which would lead to higher ratings for the Oscar broadcast.

Well, we got ten nominees and at least the first part worked.  Popular movies were, in fact nominated alongside the serious critics' favorites.  Has that led to heightened interest in this year's awards? Not that I can see.  Will it lead to higher ratings? Maybe. Probably not.

Anyway, the nominees are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up In the Air.

If there were only the usual five nominees this year, I really don't think that The Blind Side, District 9, UpInglourious Basterds, or A Serious Man would have made the cut.  The rest are just the kind of thing the Academy likes - one populist pick, a dark horse, a quiet foreign production, and a couple of strong, serious contenders.  Normally, there's no room for feel-good fluff, allegoric sci-fi, cartoons, or talky, hard-to-categorize ensemble action spy films.  Of course, with this year's weird new voting rules, it really could go to anyone.

Realistically, though, there are two serious contenders: Avatar and The Hurt Locker.  Both are big action movies with puzzling titles, but I think voters will gravitate toward The Hurt Locker because it has more genuine soul and pathos.  Avatar's electronic blue monkey-cat puppets might be visually dazzling, but no motion-capture performance can ever compare to real-life acting in actual locations.  Many hearts will be broken, but I think The Hurt Locker will take the top prize.

In case you're curious: If it were entirely up to me, the Best Picture nominees would be The Hurt Locker, Up, Star Trek, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.  I also found Paranormal Activity extremely effective.  And I'd give Inglourious Basterds the trophy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Serious Man

The film A Serious Man is about a man who is serious.  Very serious.  Oh, so serious all the time.  And he wears glasses.  And stands on a roof.

Okay, I didn't see A Serious Man, but I have an excellent excuse: I hate the Coen Brothers' movies.

What?  You can't hate the Coen brothers!

Oh, but I do.  And it's not like I haven't tried really hard to like them.  I've seen 10 of their 13 movies and have disliked every single one of them.  I kept going in thinking "maybe this is the one I'll like" and I kept coming out disappointed.  I don't find their comedies funny and  I don't find their dramas compelling  Their characters are always greedy, idiot losers or cloyingly naive half-wits whom I wouldn't want to spend time with in real life and certainly don't want to root for in a movie. 

But you HAVE to like the Coen brothers!

I don't HAVE to do anything.  Just because their movies are considered "classics" and critics fall all over themselves to praise everything they do doesn't mean I'm obligated to like them.  I know it's blasphemous to say that I dislike everything they've ever done, because movie-lovers everywhere are SUPPOSED to love these movies without question, but I'm tired of being told what I'm SUPPOSED to like.  Enough, I say.  I'm done with the Coen brothers - they've failed me for the last time.  And this is a big deal, because I've seen every Best Picture nominee of the past 15 years.

But this one is different!

That's what they said about No Country For Old Men, Fargo, The Lady Killers... no, it's just going to be pathetic, greedy loser characters who do contrived, idiotic things in a "quirky" way and spout overwrought colloquial dialogue while being filmed at odd angles.  Done.

They won Best Director and Picture for No Country.  Doesn't that mean that they're good?

It means that people have convinced themselves that the Emperors are wearing clothes.  David Lynch has never won Best Director or Best Picture and his are some of the most fascinating, personal, and compelling films ever.  Seeing them makes me want to see whatever he does next.  Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the greatest directors ever and he never won.  Same goes for Stanley Kubrick.  Martin Scorsese waited his whole life to win Best Director and finally won for re-making a Hong Kong action flick.  So no, a Best Director trophy doesn't mean that they're geniuses.

The Coen brothers make really smart movies.  Maybe you're just  not on their level.

EXCUSE me?  Them's fight'n words.  And I'll argue that point to the ground.  I don't consider The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona particularly "cerebral" and I found O Brother, Where Art Thou to be a dull and uninformed adaptation of The Odyssey.  No, I don't find any of their movies "smart" except in the sense that all their characters are so stupid as to make many viewers seem like MENSA candidates by comparison. A lot of this has to do with the "look" of their films, filled with weird camera moves and unusual compositions that make their stupid stories seem "artsy."  That's the work of their Director of Photography, Roger Deakins.  I have no beef with Deakins, other than the fact that he enables the brothers and covers for their insipid scripts.

So there it is.  I refuse to waste any more time and money on Coen brothers movies.   With only two nominations this year, A Serious Man is the least likely of the Best Picture nominees to win and I feel extremely confident that I'm not missing anything.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Best Animated Feature

I normally don't make official picks for the short films and documentaries unless there's a big standout in one of the categories.  This year, I'm determined not to fall into that trap and I expect my overall score to be the better for it.

EDITED TO ADD: The animated short A Matter of Loaf and Death is the fourth Wallace & Grommit short from Aardman and director Nick Park and is strongly favored to win.  I'm still not picking this category.

I'm also not going to make an official pick for Best Foreign Language film.  The first time I heard of any of this year's films was when they were announced on nomination day.  I don't even think most of them have been released in the US yet.

I will, however, make an official pick for Best Animated Feature.  The nominees are Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, and Up.  I really enjoyed Coraline, but it may be too dark for a win.  The producers of The Secret of Kells have made a point of not advertising it and without publicity, you just can't expect an Oscar.  Princess and Mr. Fox got some attention outside this category for their music, but Up leads with an additional four nominations, including Best Picture and Original Screenplay.  It's the clear front-runner and is poised to extend Pixar's unprecedented Oscar record.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Best Director

The nominees for Best Director are James Cameron (Avatar), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Lee Daniels (Precious), and Jason Reitman (Up In the Air).  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we have the fourth woman and the second African-American Best Director nominees and the first ever divorced couple (Cameron and Bigelow) up for Best Director.  That may be a first in any category, but I'm too lazy to research it.

Here's my take: Up In the Air and Inglourious Basterds were great, stylish films and are the unmistakably unique products of their directors, but their strength lies more in their screenplays.  Daniels is the least-experienced director, though he shows a creative narrative skill.  Really, though, it's going to come down to Cameron and Bigelow.  On one side is a big technical production involving an army of actors, computer animators, and computer power and on the other is a relatively smaller, though more intense, action film that cuts to the core of a handful of characters.  Let's face a fact here: Avatar is not Titanic.  It may be the new highest-grossing movie ever, but I don't think Avatar has the same deep cultural impact and fervent support as Cameron's previous Oscar juggernaut.  It's sure to take a handful of technical awards, but I believe that the Academy will make some history and recognize The Hurt Locker for its direction.  Bigelow has already won nearly every critics' award and the all-important Directors' Guild award, making her the favorite for the Best Director Oscar.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5

Match the actors with the quotes from their Oscar-winning roles

21. "It's even, but it ain't settled. Let's settle it."
     a. Denzel Washington
     b. Rod Steiger
     c. Paul Newman
     d. Tommy Lee Jones

22. "If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we'd have a lot more nuns running around."
     a. Sean Penn
     b. Dustin Hoffman
     c. Paul Scofield
     d. Jack Lemon

23. "The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won't happen again. "
     a. Grace Kelly
     b. Ingrid Bergman
     c. Joan Crawford
     d. Vivien Leigh

24. "It's a mountain. The hardest piece you could Everest play. "
     a. Burt Lancaster
     b. Geoffrey Rush
     c. Adrian Brody
     d. Jim Broadbent

25. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop. My sister and I were headed straight for the top. My sister and I earned a thou a week at least, but my sister is now unfortunately deceased."
     a. Mary Steenburgen
     b. Ginger Rogers
     c. Catherine Zeta-Jones
     d. Claudette Colbert