“He’s dead, Jim”

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Even to a non-Trekkie, there has to be a sense of wonder that what was clearly sci-fi in the 1960’s was realized on a mass basis in the 2000’s – namely the “communicator.” 

It’s easy to forget that at the time, we were tied to the handset by a spiral cord that always got twisted, and it wasn’t uncommon for there to only be one phone in the house.  For a time, my family had a “party line” which meant we shared a phone number with another family.  Shocking, eh?

40 years makes a difference.

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For laughs, someone has gone to the trouble of mimicking the communicators for the iPhone

Spiffy, eh?  If that doesn’t work for you, try the Bluetooth Communicator for a few extra pizazz points.

Fiction then, reality now.

Well, how about the Tricorder, the gizmo that “Bones” McCoy used to detect health signs?  Or that Spock used to detect life form readings or elemental composition?

Well, we’re not quite there.  Yet.  But progress is being made, including using handheld ultrasound devices to test for foodborne pathogens and, with high intensity ultrasound, to wounds.  Cool stuff.

 

The units are not entirely remote, but Vscan is a darned interesting product, which you can see if you have patience to watch the videos.

 

 

I think to some degree we’d all like a device to wave over our bodies and tell us what isn’t working, or, and perhaps more encouragingly, everything that’s working well.  Especially if it can done quickly, without a doctor’s appointment, and without accompanying copays or 3rd party rationing.

We’ll see.   Research continues on other Star Trek “technologies” as well.  So, which would a 21st century technophile choose first?   Nanotech enabled cloaking, painless injections (hyposprays), transparent armor (deflector shields), or a Type II phaser sold at your local Wal-Mart?  Hmm.

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Laugh Tracks

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When I watch TV, and there’s a funny moment, I have two possible responses. 

1) Laugh out loud.

2) Don’t laugh. 

Some might consider the second option to be “not laughing.”  But here’s the thing, if someone is in the room with me, I’m much more likely to laugh out loud.  If I’m alone, I already know it’s funny. So why bother vocalizing it?

I’ve noticed lately that I tend to laugh during The Big Bang Theory.  Courtesy of the DVR, I watch this as often with someone as I do without.  In both cases, I laugh out loud.  Have I changed?  Is the show just outrageously funny?  Or do I laugh just to startle the cat from his couch back slumber?

Remember Happy Days, All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy?  Among other shows, these were sort of the Golden Age during which I watched a lot of TV.  These were pretty darned funny and played for multiple seasons.  My generation, in some ways, grew up with them. Something that they all shared were laugh tracks. 

In the early days of television, laugh tracks were added to situation comedies to recreate the live theater audience experience. A laugh track, sometimes called “canned laughter,” was placed in the recorded program following a joke or a funny scene to prompt the home viewer to… yep, laugh.

I do wonder about the psychological influence of these insertions.  Do laugh tracks make the viewer think the moment is funnier than it actually is?  Do they cover up lame writing?  Do they make you feel more certain about your sense of humor because a crowd is laughing with you?   Or, have the studios so “dumbed down” our ability to appreciate comedy that we have to be told when there is a moment that we should have found to be funny? 

As the present TV lineup is heavy on forensics, police/legal dramas, sci-fi, reality cauldrons, or “I Wanna Be a Star” competitions, there are precious few opportunities for laughs.  The Big Bang Theory makes up for that.

I normally don’t do this, I hope you’ll understand.  But for the purposes of this blog, I counted the laugh tracks in their most recent episode, “The Justice League Recombination,” admittedly a pretty funny episode.  I’d say the following statistics are accurate +/- 2 per segment.

  • Opening segment – 28
  • First segment – 56
  • Second segment – 58
  • Closing – 4 (although, very lengthy tracks)

That’s an astounding 146 laughable moments.  From CBS’ own site, this particular episode is 20:29.  (Thank you, again, DVR…).  Okay math fans, that works out to:

7.12195122 laughs per minute!

(extra digits provided for the satisfaction of fans of the show)

Further analysis is demanded.  Just how funny is this?

One laugh per 8.42465753 seconds!

Where else are you going to find that kind of comedic value?  You shouldn’t be able to watch this show and not find something that’s funny!  And, with a minimum investment of time.

It took me an episode or two to warm to this show, but, yeah, now I look forward to it each week.  But with all this preoccupation on the viewer side, it’s interesting to see how this impacts the actors, who have to be that funny and that fast, whether by dialogue or animations.  And then, the practiced crew has to anticipate a laugh track before continuing on with each scene.

Yeah, give it a try.  It’s not the same episode and probably not as funny, but I’ll take what I can find.  You be the judge.  Where’s the humor?

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Ryan Bingham – Lucky Star

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I generally like artists who record for Lost Highway Records, a label that tends towards alt-country, Americana, folk derived music.junky-star  I also like airplanes.  And, I like highly discounted CDs at Best Buy.  “What the heck?  I haven’t taken a blind stab all year, and it’s only $7.99!” 

Four months later, I’m finally writing a review.  Bingham won an Academy Award for his theme song for The Weary Kind, which also won Jeff Bridges an Oscar last year.  That credit aside, Bingham is not a household name, by any means (You apparently have to appear on “American Idol” for notoriety in the 21st century).  Junky Star, his third solo release, immediately put me off a bit.  It had the cool cover picture, and it had the credit of being produced by T Bone Burnett, who excels at capturing music and presenting it on a worn plank stage somewhere in Appalachia.  But I wasn’t prepared for Bingham’s voice. 

Call it raspy.  Or grizzled.  Or ragged.  Or, perhaps raw… open-sores-in-the-throat raw… and add a few shots of Jack Daniels.  And the music?  Capable… appropriate, even.  But not exactly foot tapping or adrenaline rousing stuff from the backing band known as The Dead Horses.

Junky Star is a study of the understated.  Despite the… I’ll use jagged… edge to Bingham’s voice, he uses the resulting… pop and hiss? … to provide more than a little atmosphere to each of his fairly dark, hard-lived narratives.  Tales of being shot dead, living amongst junkies and stars on the Santa Monica Pier, being societally invisible as the losers in the fortunes of life… it’s road house stuff.  All is not bleak, but even where hope is found (“Depression,” “Yesterday’s Blues), it’s among ample difficulties.  But don’t equate this to a study in despair; while there isn’t redemption to be found, hope and perseverance play throughout.

“Direction in the Wind” channels a societal shift ala Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, at once not as compelling as those artists but far more authentic than Springsteen could ever muster beyond his “Glory Days.”

I’m at the point where I like this CD a good bit.  Bingham’s voice wears (appropriately…) on you, as the nuances of the echoing bass, the occasional cutting harmonica, or, the rare insertion of an electric guitar with attitude entangle the listener with each tale.  Delayed gratification can be a very rewarding quality to music.

Still, like another T Bone Burnett production, Jakob Dylan’s Women + Country, what’s lacking is something to change the pace.  There are different tones, to be sure, but there’s not an adequate release from the weight of it all.

Recommended Songs: “The Poet,” “Hallelujah,” “Yesterday’s Blues”

3 of 5 STARS

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Harry Potter – The Deathly Hallows Part 1

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I’ve read the books, and I’ve enjoyed the movies, despite the necessary abbreviation of the plots .  The Harry Potter series will never challenge The Lord of the Rings for translating literary fantasy into screenplays, but they’ve been decent overall.

I’ll review this movie in two ways:

1) Visually:

The latest chapter to me, can be summed up with the below picture:

Yep, that’s Harrison Ford captured back when he was still relevant to popular culture.  Episode 5 - The Empire Strikes Back (were the later movies really worthy of being listed as episodes 1-3?) was a great movie, wasn’t it?  We tackled Imperial Walkers, met Yoda and Boba Fett (before he was unnecessarily edited into the revised Episode 4 years later), flew through the cloud city above Bespin, found out that you’re born into a family rather than choosing them… wait, I’m reviewing the wrong movie! 

But you know the story…  It picks up not too far later than the original Star Wars movie, then moves forward with a straightforward narrative that keeps us engaged because the Dark Lord of the Sith was last seen spinning through imagespace in his Tie Fighter – Advanced x1. And, at the end, Han Solo gets the ice treatment.  The result? We, the audience, are also put on ice until the next episode arrives.

Now, see the similarity to HP-DHP1

The Empire has stricken back.  Good guys are dying.   And like the Jedi, there’s precious few of them.  Bad guys hold positions of authority.  And worse, Darth Vader just gained the upper wand.  There’s no corbomite, but we’re just as much on ice at the “conclusion.”  Don’t you hate it when a movie doesn’t have a clear ending? 

Fear not, because below I’ve included a sneak peak from the final chapter where Hermoine has managed to gain the trust of “he who should not be named.”

2) Musically:

Look around the theater before the movie starts.  After all these years of Harry Potter was first introduced in 1997, it’s conspicuous that there are no longer any small children in the audience

Those children who were began this saga are now young adults.  That little girl enjoying The Chamber of Secrets is now a freshman at Ga Tech.   LIkewise, the actors have grown.  Long gone are the “gee whiz” discoveries about magic and and coming of age in the wizarding world.  It’s a dark and challenging time, when Harry’s heroes are being killed and friendships are few and tested.

When hiding from the evil powers that be and without a clear direction about what they should do, Harry and Hermoine draw strength from each with a dance, carving a single carefree moment.  It’s not a pivotal scene, but it reflects a tension that defines this chapter in the saga.  They’re adults, and the weight of the world has fallen on them.  Now, how do you put music to that?

Curiously, and very successfully, the director chose Nick Cave, an artist who tends to strike dark, gothic tones with lyrics about sin, death, violence and salvation, yet also about love.  His repertoire sings to an adult audience.  The song chosen for this scene is “O’Children,” written in 2004, which captures perfectly the mood of the moment… and this difficult chapter in the series.

"O Children" – by Nick Cave

Pass me that lovely little gun
My dear, my darting one
The cleaners are coming, one by one
You don't even want to let them start

They are knocking now upon your door
They measure the room, they know the score
They're mopping up the butcher's floor
Of your broken little hearts

O children

Forgive us now for what we've done
It started out as a bit of fun
Here, take these before we run away
The keys to the gulag

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Here comes Frank and poor old Jim
They're gathering round with all my friends
We're older now, the light is dim
And you are only just beginning

O children

We have the answer to all your fears
It's short, it's simple, it's crystal dear
It's round about, it's somewhere here
Lost amongst our winnings

O children

Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

The cleaners have done their job on you
They're hip to it, man, they're in the groove
They've hosed you down, you're good as new
They're lining up to inspect you

O children

Poor old Jim's white as a ghost
He's found the answer that was lost
We're all weeping now, weeping because
There ain't nothing we can do to protect you

O children

Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now
I see Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I'm free
I'm hanging in there, don't you see
In this process of elimination

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
It's beyond my wildest expectation

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We're happy, Ma, we're having fun
And the train ain't even left the station

Okay, but what does it sound like?

4 of 5 STARS

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Shannon McNally – Western Ballad

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Recently I received the above listed CD towards the release of which I made a small contribution through Kickstarter.  So, let’s get to it!

The CD starts off almost as well as I could hope.  “Memory of a Ghost” combines a great tune, great singing, and a playful musical mix that suits the lyric well.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that her collaborator’s (Mark Bingham) voice, playing the role of the ghost, is a bit muddied in the mix.  Next is “High,” a reverb soaked song about, well, feeling good, but more from joy rather than from indulgence. 

“When I Am Called” moves towards an Americana/folk style that contrarily holds fast to the guitar reverb.  Again, it’s a vocal showcase, though not a one blessed with a particularly deep lyric.  “Western Ballad,” the title track, is an Alan Ginsberg poem that invites speculation on the loss of love and the loss of life, punctuated by a military snare.  It’s not particularly cheery, and it’s an interesting choice for the album title, though not textually misleading as her style mixes folk, Native American elements, and, to my regret, Country (or as it used to be known, Country & Western).

And that’s the musical style that we find ourselves with “True Possession,” which seems to be about finding strength in oneself.  I think, anyway, as lyrics were not included.  Nevertheless, it’s a song that I’d be interested in hearing with a more aggressive rock or blues attitude.  The over-the-top country guitar licks at the end of the song subtract.

McNally Letter

Next up is “Tristesse Oubliee,” which is sung entirely in French.  As the CD was recorded in New Orleans, I’m certain it has a personal meeting, possibly a forgotten sadness if Google was any help at all.   Despite its merits, I’m just one of those people that runs when I hear pedal steel.

“Thunderhead” would be my favorite song on the CD were it not for an unworthy refrain.  It’s a lilting song with a vocal style similar to Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve); it just needs a musical hook.  Perhaps she’ll revisit this styling in the future.  “Rock and Roll Angels,” despite its promising title, is a rather plodding C&W affair.  The timbre and nuance in McNally’s voice is suited to a number of styles – this one just doesn’t appeal to me. 

When I see “Toast,” I can’t help but think bread with butter… maybe some grape jelly if there’s time.  It might help if this song were titled “A Toast" or “I Toast” just to clear the expectations for people like who get preoccupied when 1 + 1 fall just short of 2.  It has fairly straightforward pop appeal and is an enjoyable song.

The militia snares return with collaborator/producer Mark Bingham’s “Little Stream of Whiskey,” … with a sort of C&W “good times” feel to it.  The best part of this song is that it stretches McNally’s voice to lovely effect.  The nuances when she descends to a speaking voice harken back to “The Hard Way” off her fantastic 2005 release, Geronimo.   Though, well, there’s that pedal steel again…

The CD closes with “In My Own Second Line,” a song which her producer says “reflects the affliction of madness to the degree that the singer is truly in their own world and in their own marching parade.”  I don’t quite pick that up, but it’s a suitable notion to close an effort that finds McNally delivering a more cohesive, relaxed, and enjoyable performance than when last heard on 2009’s uneven Coldwater

I don’t know that Western Ballad will win new fans, but it has a number of very good songs to strengthen her repertoire.   She certainly plays to her strengths, with a spacious acoustic landscape that lets the inflections in her voice be heard. I remain a fan, but admittedly hope that she finds a producer who will collaborate less and demand a bit more.  And, of course, one who doesn’t advocate pedal steel.

Recommended Songs: “Memory of a Ghost,” “HIgh,” “Thunderhead”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

Not an official video release, but it features the best song on the CD

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Zoltar Lives!

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new york photography nyc blog nat ma zoltar

You never know what will happen when you mess with palm readers, spiritualists, or, in Zoltar’s case, automated fortune tellers.  Zap!  It’s magic, and you just lost your childhood. 

Hey, it happened in Big.  It could happen to you.

We’re talking about spiritual forces here - God, Satan, jinn, angels, demons, gastrointestinal hiccups, or other inter-dimensional type cosmological forces.

All this is available to you for a low, low cost of… opening a Chinese fortune cookie.  A nickel.  A Ouija Board.  $20.  Your soul.  I’ll leave it to you to name what you’re willing to pay for a little magic in your life.  But people do, because Zoltar, in all his forms, (apparently) delivers.

Driving through Woodstock, GA on Hwy 92, it’s hard not to notice a particular billboard that pushes back at the night sky.  It gives me the creeps.  No, it’s not for a car dealership, and no, it’s not for a “gentleman’s club.”  It’s for a lawyer, and not just any lawyer, but a lawyer that promises magic.  He has a catchy phrase, but I’d prefer not to pay to defend my right to free speech.  Anyway…

Look at him… the flawless skin, the arched eyebrows, the blinding white of his eyes, the penetrating stare, the smug confidence imagein the set of his jaw, the forward incline of his head.  Yes, you see it too.  He wants to control your thoughts.  And he’s speaking to you. 

Now slowly cast your eyes in a clockwise motion around the perfectly spread deck of cards.  They’re amazing, aren’t they?   They’re even sorted by suit.  In order.  Now continue, but just follow the colors. Good, now again.  Good…  Keep listening to my voice.  You’re starting to feel very… sleepy.  Good...  And now you’re at rest, and… you trust me.  Listen carefully.  I’m here like magic.  And if you have a legal problem, I’ll make it disappear.  Remember that in your hour of need.  Now, when I count down from three, you’ll wake up.  Be calm and relaxed as the patrolman who is walking up to your car taps on your window.  He’s wondering why you’ve ignored the traffic light for the last two cycles.  Whatever happens, it’s okay.  You know who to call.  I’ll make your troubles… disappear! Three… two… one…

I’m not sure if the Supreme Court quite anticipated the evolution that marketing would follow when they determined that attorneys had the right to advertise (Bates vs. State Bar, 1977).  But when you’re in need, who ya gonna call?  Ghostbusters?

Of course not.  You’re going to call an attorney.  Given that most people rarely need a lawyer, how does an attorney attract your interest and pull you in as a client?  Clearly, Zoltar was inevitable.

And it’s not like my local Zoltar was first.  Other mesmerizers have preceded him.  See below?  Now, look deep into his eyes… and make that call.

*No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater or worse than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.

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Robert Plant – Band of Joy

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For those out of the know, Robert Plant was once Led Zeppelin’s lead singer.  His career afterwards began with a more polished radio friendly approach, which has since yielded in the past decade to include a mix of originals and covers.  While including rock and blues, he has increasingly pursued an “Americana” influence – mandolins, steel guitar, pedal steel, etc.  Or, roots music, of a sort.  Within that vein, 2007’s Raising Sand, a collaboration with Alison Krauss, won multiple Grammy’s but, to my ears, remained a dour affair due in part to the lyrics of the chosen songs.

Where to go then?

Band of Joy elevates Buddy Miller, a long time collaborator with Emmylou Harris and who was featured on the Plant/Krauss tour, to the role of producer and lead guitarist.  Instead of sharing vocal space with Krauss, Plant enlisted Patty Griffin to assume a backup role, adding a welcome vocal depth and another instrument, if you will, to the mix.  The ensemble is indeed a band of joy as they tackle the material with a consistent sound, yet tailored to the needs of each song.

What results is a much richer interpretation of obscure songs than Raising Sand.   Among the artists covered include Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, and an English band, Low.  The Low songs are the most striking in this set, with fuzz -heavy, reverbed guitars and a vocally nuanced delivery that might someday be background music for, oh, a movie scene that explores the psyche of a serial killer. 

All is not so dark, however.  “You Can’t Buy My Love” comes across as a respectable mid-60’s send up, and “Falling In Love Again” is a harmless song that might blend into a lengthy commercial free radio segment, regrettably without calling much attention to itself.   Still, it’s beautifully crafted. 

Elsewhere, the songs demand attention in one way or another, whether it’s the changing moods, Miller’s outstanding guitar, a helping of mandolin, Griffin’s backing vocals, or, of course, Plant’s vocals.  The only song that doesn’t quite deliver in execution is “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday,” but its selection may be the root problem.   The closer, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” is also not entirely successful, though an interesting venture in setting a 19th century poem to music.

As a listener, I don’t know where Plant’s influence ends and Miller’s begins.  Both deserve credit for a very thoughtful approach to each song.  I can’t help but think that the music was built around the way Plant chose to sing each selection, because there are many possible tones to interpretation.  While plant continues to reach for higher notes, he’s become practiced at using less to affect a more intimate narrative than his 70’s bombasts would ever allow.  A comparison of the opposing themes of “Monkey” (or, better, “Darkness, Darkness” from 2002’s Dreamland) to “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” proves Plant has interpretive range.

Is this an oldies album?  No.  This is a vibrant, winning effort from a musician who understands the combination of subject matter and the accompanying mood that the music should strike.  And he delivers. 

Recommended: “Harm’s Swift Way,” “Monkey,” “House of Cards”

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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