March 25, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: songs from birth years

...or in other words, it's 80s night again! Well, OK, Michael takes us back to the 70s and David A bumps us into 1990, but it's mostly a trip back to the 80s. It's a night of extremes, with a few very good performances and a few absolute disasters.

The rundown:

Ramiele, "Alone" -- There are pitch problems throughout; she suffers from the standard female Idol problem of inaudible low notes; and she's oversinging the chorus painfully. Yes, she's got a wide dynamic range, but she's not a rocker, and this song does not suit Ramiele at all.

Jason, "Fragile" -- Jason is determined, it seems, to see how far one can go in this competition purely on being pleasant. He's falling into something of a musical rut, consistently choosing mellow songs that don't make any great musical demands ("Hallelujah" being the only real exception to date). Tonight, he's so breathy that it's nearly impossible to understand the words; since the song is Sting at his most pretentious, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Syesha, "If I Were Your Woman" -- Technically superb. The opening is calm and powerful without being pushy; even the big notes are large without feeling forced (as opposed by Ramiele earlier in the evening). There's still something missing in terms of personality, and I wonder if Syesha is this year's LaKisha -- marvelous voice and the charm of a robot.

Chikezie, "If Only for One Night" -- He's not a natural balladeer, and he looks nervous throughout; in his final closeup, he looks flat-out terrified. He's also lost all of the personality and spark that he's had in the last two weeks.

Brooke, "Every Breath You Take" -- If Jason is determined to find the limits of "pleasant," Brooke will tell us how far one can go on sincerity. After the false start (which Brooke gets away with in a way other contestants might not, precisely because it plays into her earnest image), she delivers a perfectly competent performance that never really comes to life.

Michael, "We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions" -- This is the first time I've had a sense of who Michael is as a musician; it's the most authentic performance he's given. Aside from a few flubs on the high notes of "Champions," it's his best performance yet. And I still don't care, because he still projects absolutely no personality, charm, warmth, or energy.

Carly, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" -- Maybe just a touch shouty at the very peak of the song, but on the whole, a terrific performance, nicely controlled throughout.

David A, "You're the Voice" -- Again with the inspirational uplift from David, who is quickly becoming the most disappointing contestant of the season. It's a perfectly adequate performance, but the song is a bore, and David's not an interesting enough singer to overcome the limitations of the song.

Kristy, "God Bless the USA" -- I didn't think it was possible any more to sing this song without irony, but by god, Kristy does it. The judges are right that it's her best performance thus far, but I am flabbergasted by the song choice; with an entire year's worth of music to choose from, Kristy chooses this treacly bit of jingoism?

David C, "Billie Jean" -- He knows his style and his range better than anyone else in the competition, and he's becoming a serious contender for the title. The performance is excellent, and the money note at the end is particularly impressive.

For the night: David C, Syesha, Carly, Kristy, Brooke, Michael, David A, Jason, Chikezie, Ramiele.

For the season: Carly, Brooke, David C, Jason, Syesha, David A, Chikezie, Kristy, Michael, Ramiele.

Deserving to go home: Ramiele. No one else is even close.

March 18, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Beatles songbook

A slightly broader focus this week, with the singers allowed to choose songs written by only Lennon or McCartney, and the Harrison songs up for grabs as well. Unfortunately, the results are mostly disappointing.

The rundown:

Amanda, "Back in the USSR" -- As ever, Amanda doesn't really sing the song so much as she clubs it to death. It's a loud, ugly, vulgar shriek; her pitch is just slightly off, most noticable when she's not quite in unison with the backup singers. She's also tending to pull the mike away from her mouth before she's actually finished singing the phrase.

Kristin, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" -- Now Kristin finds her sultry, seductive side? It's an odd emotional disconnect from the song, which she never really seems comfortable with; she's more nervous than we've ever seen her, and she misses the final cutoff entirely.

David A, "The Long and Winding Road" -- Not his best performance -- it never quite catches fire -- but it's solid enough, and his voice is as lovely as ever. He's a bit too free with the rhythm for my taste, occasionally seeming to drag behind the beat.

Michael, "A Day in the Life" -- Not a song to be condensed to 90 seconds. The performance is what we've come to expect from Michael: The vocals are reasonably solid (though the falsetto on "Lords" is badly botched), and he is utterly devoid of the charisma that might us care.

Brooke, "Here Comes the Sun" -- The song needs a bit more energy than she's bringing to it, and she's painfully awkward moving about the stage. The performance is dull and empty, and in the post-song segment, she's excessively apologetic and deferential to the judges in a way that I found very unappealing.

David C, "Day Tripper" -- I could have done without the voice box break, but otherwise this is a fine performance; the song and the style suit David very well. Simon raises the one note of concern, which is that David is on the verge of seeming like a one-trick pony.

Carly, "Blackbird" -- We haven't heard much of Carly's lower register before, and it's quite lovely, a nice departure from the usual problem of Idol women, whose low notes tend to disappear. The performance is marvelous, finding all the emotional notes of the song while remaining relatively understated and subtle.

Jason, "Michelle" -- There's a thin line between laid-back and lethargic, and Jason is on the wrong side of it tonight. He gets a bit better as the song goes on, but it's his least interesting performance by far.

Syesha, "Yesterday" -- The arrangement is simple and lovely, and this is Syesha's best vocal performance yet. I wish she hadn't belted the words "something wrong" -- it destroyed the intimate mood that she created in the rest of the song -- but that's a question of style and taste, not of talent. She even opened her eyes occasionally.

Chikezie, "I've Just Seen a Face" -- He's trying rather obviously to copy the stylistic range of last week's "She's a Woman," and this attempt isn't nearly as successful. The slow half has too little energy, and the fast half is frenzied, with lots of pitch problems.

Ramiele, "I Should Have Known Better" -- Not a song that lets a singer show what she can do, is it? Ramiele seems uncomfortable moving on stage, and she's trying to pump more big-note drama into the song than it can sustain.

For the night: Carly, Syesha, David C, David A, Jason, Chikezie, Brooke, Michael, Ramiele, Kristy, Amanda.

For the season: Carly, Jason, Brooke, Chikezie, David A, David C, Syesha, Michael, Kristy, Amanda, Ramiele.

Deserving the trip home: Amanda or Ramiele, by a long shot over anyone else.

March 16, 2008

MOVIES: The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson, 2008)

Small-time London hood Terry (Jason Statham) is trying to make an honest living, working in a run-down garage. But when his old friend Martine (Saffron Burrows) comes to him with a plan to rob a bank -- all the security systems will be turned off for a few days, she says -- he can't resist one last shot at easy money. Of course, Martine's motives aren't as selfless as they seem, and everyone has an agenda of his own.

The Bank Job is a slick piece of entertainment. The most pleasant surprise is that the robbery isn't the climax of the story; the aftermath takes up nearly half of the movie, with various local thugs and lowlifes out to get back their stolen property. For those who prefer to avoid such things, there is a fair amount of violence, and while much of it happens offscreen, it still has a visceral impact, and I found myself wincing more than a few times.

This isn't the sort of movie that calls for Oscar-caliber acting, but Statham and Burrows both do fine work within the limitations of the genre. There's also a solid cast of supporting actors; particularly good are Richard Lintern as a British intelligence agent and David Suchet as "the porn king of Soho." (The cast of minor characters in this movie is huge; kudos to casting director Lucinda Syson for using actors with distinctive enough faces that it's relatively easy to keep track of everyone.)

The story is loosely based on an actual 1971 bank robbery, and I'd love to know how much of what we see is real and how much is the writers' imaginative conception of what might really have been behind the robbery. The climax of the story gets a bit confusing at moments, with perhaps one too many crooks chasing after Terry, but the multiple storylines are tied together very neatly at the end. All told, a worthwhile afternoon at the movies.
So, after several weeks of dealing with assorted health problems, including surgery some weeks back, things are finally starting to return to normal chez IWOH. I'm heading back to work tomorrow, after three weeks of recuperation, and a few days back, I ventured out to the movies for the first time in too long. (The Bank Job -- post to come.) Posting should be returning to normal levels by the end of the month. It's nice to feel like a person again.

March 11, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Lennon/McCartney songbook

Faced with the songs of Lennon and McCartney, front-runners stumble and underdogs shine on a night filled with unpredictability, shuffling the leaderboard.

The rundown:

Syesha, "Got to Get You Into My Life" -- There are some minor pitch problems early on, but Syesha's bigger problem is one of communication. Her eyes are closed throughout, which means that no personality comes through and there's no sharing with the audience. It makes her a very opaque performer, and it's difficult to connect with or enjoy her singing.

Chikezie, "She's a Woman" -- The love-it/hate-it performance of the night, a loopy mix of bluegrass, rock, and R&B. Chikezie takes total command of the stage, delivering a high energy performance that's technically top-notch. I could have done without those odd stuttering bits in the chorus, but the bluegrass intro was fabulous, and I enjoyed this one a lot.

Ramiele, "In My Life" -- Every breath Ramiele takes is audible, and she takes a lot of them -- most of them in places where there's absolutely no musical or grammatical justification for them ("There are places I'll [gasp] remember..."). It's a pretty enough performance otherwise, but it's instantly forgettable. If she survives to next week, Ramiele desperately needs to do something light and fun.

Jason, "If I Fell" -- The judges seem to be getting a little tired of Jason's sensitive coffeehouse vibe, but it's still working for me. I thought the song choice was perfect, and the performance beautiful, with a few moments -- the break into falsetto on the word "pain," for instance -- that gave me goosebumps.

Carly, "Come Together" -- Technically, it's a superb performance. It's very polished and confident, and she's extremely comfortable on the stage. I can't say, though, that there were any moments that really grabbed me; nothing made me say "wow."

David C, "Eleanor Rigby" -- It's certainly not the revelation that his "Hello" was last week, and I don't know that the world needed a moody rock version of the song, but if we did, this will do, I suppose. There are some pitch problems, and he's shouting a bit in spots, but it's not horrible.

Brooke, "Let It Be" -- Lovely. Brooke is completely connected to the emotion of the song, and that comes through to us with perfect clarity. One of the high spots of the season so far.

David H, "I Saw Her Standing There" -- Randy nails the problem: The song is far too simple to withstand all of the ruffles and flourishes that David is piling on it. Not only that, but he doesn't look comfortable on stage. An awkward performance on all fronts.

Amanda, "You Can't Do That" -- The arrangement works surprisingly well, and the aggression of the song is ideal for Amanda. She still can't enunciate, and her voice is still an ugly rasp, but this is as good a performance as we could have hoped for from Amanda.

Michael, "Across the Universe" -- There's nothing wrong with this, I guess, but it's dull and not remotely memorable. Michael needs to find his charisma fast if he wants to survive more than another week or two.

Kristy, "Eight Days a Week" -- The judges hated it; I thought it was absolutely charming. We saw more energy, more life, more spark from Kristy than we've ever seen, and the performance was great fun.

David A, "We Can Work It Out" -- The low notes at the beginning are inaudible, but that's the least of David's worries. He clearly hasn't learned the song, forgetting the lyrics in several spots. It's an embarassing performance.

For the night: Brooke, Jason, Chikezie, Kristy, Carly, Amanda, David C, Michael, David H, Syesha, Ramiele, David A.

For the season: Brooke, Jason, Chikezie, Carly, David A, Kristy, David H, Michael, David C, Amanda, Syesha, Ramiele.

Deserving to go home: Syesha or Ramiele.

March 05, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: women's semifinals, week 3

The women tackle the 80s tonight, and though there aren't any moments of genuine excitement to be found in their performances, there are no moments of horrible embarassment, either. Tonight each shows what she does best, which was much needed after the inconsistent performances of their first two weeks.

The rundown:

Asia'h, "I Want to Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me" -- It's a comfortable, relaxed performance; I'm still not sure whether or not I like the throatiness of her voice, which sounds a bit strangled at moments. Not an exciting or especially memorable performance, but solid and pleasant.

Kady, "Who Wants to Live Forever" -- Technically, her best yet; it's generally in tune, and she's audible throughout. But her voice is too small, and her personality is much too small, to give the song the intensity and the drama it demands. She also has a bad tendency to get very hissy with "s" and "sh" sounds at the ends of phrases.

Amanda, "I Hate Myself for Loving You" -- Another "best so far" performance; she's actually singing instead of just shrieking at us, and it's (mostly) on tune. But I still have a hard time getting past the sheer ugliness of her voice, and she has the sloppy enunciation of a barroom drunk at 2 am.

Carly, "I Drove All Night" -- This performance is definitely more about demonstration of technique than about personality or charisma, but as such it's quite good; points off for the major bobble at the very end, though, when she has to gasp for breath to hit the highest note on the word "inside."

Kristy, "Faithfully" -- The judges are right on to point out the country edge to her voice, which gives the song an unexpected sweetness that works well. The big notes at the end are a bit off, but on the whole, it's a charming piece of work.

Ramiele, "Against All Odds" -- OK, we get it. Ramiele can do the soft-to-loud thing very well. Whoopee. Randy nails the big problem: we can see her thinking. And she's so busy thinking and preparing for each perfectly placed pitch that not an ounce of charm or pizzazz comes through. She'll survive to next week, but she desperately needs to do something lighter and higher in energy.

Brooke, "Love Is a Battlefield" -- Last night, it was David Cook; tonight, it's Brooke who gives us an unexpected reinterpretation. The guitar-only accompaniment is very effective, and Brooke held my attention throughout with a lovely, memorable performance.

Syesha, "Saving All My Love for You" -- Some of the same problems as Ramiele, really -- the technique is fine (though there are scattered pitch problems), but it's all technique and not much personality. It's like a very good Whitney impersonation.

For the night: Brooke, Carly, Kristy, Amanda, Syesha, Asia'h, Ramiele, Kady.

Deserving those Top 12 spots: Brooke, Carly, Syesha, Kristy, Ramiele, Asia'h.

Deserving the trip home: Kady and Amanda; as with the bottom two guys, it's not even close.

March 04, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: men's semifinals, week 3

And we trudge into another decade. The 80s give us a rather mediocre night from the men, who select an assortment of (mostly) dull songs and (mostly) don't do much with them.

The rundown:

Luke, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" -- Maybe it's his experience as part of an a cappella group, but Luke doesn't project much personality, and he absolutely cannot take charge of the stage or the audience. His voice is whiny and unassertive, and the performance never rises above the competent.

David A, "Another Day in Paradise" -- Awful song choice; the judges are right to suggest that he needs to do something more lively and cheery. He also desperately needs to break the habit of licking his lips after every phrase, which is getting very distracting. He sings the song well enough -- there are some scattered pitch problems -- but it's his least interesting performance yet.

Danny, "Tainted Love" -- It's clear now that Danny is deliberately courting the Sanjaya audience. He's a better talented singer than Sanjaya, certainly (not that that's saying much), but he's trying to bully his way through the competition on pure attitude, and he doesn't have the talent to back up his grandiose diva persona.

David H, "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" -- The overly breathy low notes, the bellowing of the high notes -- he's going for higher levels of melodrama than he can get away with, and it's not pretty. A serious letdown after last week.

Michael, "Don't You Forget About Me" -- I still don't much like Michael's voice, and his nervous bouncing about on stage isn't helping him any, but this is the best he's been yet. The song suits his voice, and even if he still looks jittery, he sounds more confident.

David C, "Hello" -- Ballsy reinterpretation that works surprisingly well. This arrangement fits his range and style absolutely perfectly, and he sings the heck out of it. Not a style that I would choose to go back and listen to again, but impeccably done for what it is.

Jason, "Hallelujah" -- In my opinion, the most overexposed song of the last decade, so major kudos to Jason for making it sound fresh and interesting again. He bobbles the falsetto at the end, but there's so much vulnerability in the performance that the bobble may actually be more effective than hitting the notes would have been.

Chikezie, "All The Man That I Need" -- The song's been so badly chopped up that it's barely recognizable, and though Chikezie's in reasonably good voice, it's not an interesting or a memorable performance.

For the night: David C, Jason, David A, Michael, Chikezie, David H, Luke, Danny.

Deserving those Top 12 spots: David A, Jason, David H, David C, Chikezie, Michael.

Deserving the trip home: Luke and Danny, by a large margin.