March 31, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: top iTunes downloads

Theme? We don't need no stinkin' theme; it's iTunes downloads night, which means an odd hodgepodge of songs from the wannabes.

The rundown:

Anoop, "Caught Up" -- There something strange going on in the sound mix, because Anoop's enunciation has never been this incomprehensible, and tonight every word is vanishing. The performance certainly has energy, and I don't hear any glaring wrong notes or technical flaws, but he can't do much to make a dull song interesting.

Megan, "Turn Your Lights Down" -- Her phrasing actually sort of makes sense here, and there are some surprisingly pleasant moments. But as always, she's pushing too hard, trying to get a bigger sound than her voice can really produce, and all she's getting for her effort is a wide, wobbly vibrato. If she'd relax and accept the limitations of her voice, she'd sound a lot better.

Danny, "What Hurts the Most" -- Very nicely done. Smart song choice that plays well to his style and vocal strengths. It's a relatively restrained performance for Danny, with no obvious technical problems, and while I'm not getting goosebumps or anything, it's a solid piece of work.

Allison, "Don't Speak" -- Yeah, there are a few minor pitch problems in the chorus, but there's passion and commitment to her performances that almost no one else is giving us this year. She's got the confidence of a singer twice her age, and she's the one I look forward to hearing each week. (Whoever put her in that dress, though, should be shot.)

Scott, "Just the Way You Are" -- The tempo is ever so slightly too slow, giving the whole thing the feel of an uphill hike through molasses. Aside from that, it is exactly the performance you'd expect when you hear the words "Scott" and "Billy Joel" -- serviceable, polite, and boring.

Matt, "You Found Me" -- Trying to be a rocker gives his voice an unpleasant harshness, and the beginning is too low for him; he's having trouble keeping the bottom notes in tune. Not his best effort, and I fear he's likely to wind up at the bottom of the pack again.

Lil, "I Surrender" -- Now that's more like it. Yes, it's still that giant voice, but there's subtlety and restraint in the mix, too, in a way that reminds me vaguely of Shirley Bassey. What's still lacking, I think, is a strong emotional connection to the material; there is something a touch robotic about the performance. (The bit with the kids after the performance is a shameless bit of "please keep her" on the part of the producers.)

Adam, "Play That Funky Music" -- I can't stand his voice, especially in the upper register with which he's so pleased; it's a harsh shriek that grates on my ears. As for this week's persona, Adam 5.0 is no more real or sincere than Adams 1.0 through 4.0 were; he continues to be a hammy actor playing the roles of various bad pop singers. I know we're stuck with him for weeks, and I dread every minute.

Kris, "Ain't No Sunshine" -- Oh, hell, yeah. I had a big dumb goofy smile on my face all the way through that. (Well, I could have done without the gratuitous falsetto note at the very end.) Fabulous performance, by far the best of the night.

For the night: Kris, Danny, Allison, Lil, Anoop, Matt, Megan, Scott, Adam.

For the season: Kris, Danny, Allison, Anoop, Lil, Matt, Adam, Megan, Scott.

Deserving to go home: Since Adam clearly won't be leaving, I'll settle for either Scott or Megan.

March 26, 2009

BOOKS: The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness (2008)

Oddly enough, more post-apocalyptic young adult fiction, and an interesting back-to-back read with the Collins.

As this one begins, Todd is just days away from his 13th birthday, on which he will, by Prentisstown tradition, become a man. He will be the youngest, and the last, man in Prentisstown, as all of the women were killed shortly after his birth.

Prentisstown has not had a happy history; it is, as Todd has been taught, the last surviving human colony on New World, and the handful of men who survived the war with the planet's alien inhabitants lead a difficult existence. That existence is made even harder by the Noise, one of the side effects of the alien bioweapons. The Noise makes the thoughts of all men in Prentisstown audible to one another; privacy is a thing of the past. (Even some of the larger animals can now speak, and generate Noise of their own.)

But the history of Prentisstown is not exactly as Todd has learned it, as he discovers when he finds a mysterious silent spot in the Noise outside town, and his foster fathers immediately pack him up and tell him to leave town, running as fast as he can. It is, of course, awfully hard to run away from people who can hear your every thought.

Ness isn't always successful at laying out the true history of New World and Prentisstown; it's hard to create a world plagued by the Noise and simultaneously allow the entire town to somehow have kept these secrets from Todd for all of these years. But the chase is an exciting one, and in the town's preacher, Aaron, Ness gives us a top-notch villain.

Like Collins' Hunger Games, this is Book One of a larger whole; unlike Collins, Ness ends his Book One mid-stream, with none of his major plotlines resolved in any significant way. I always find that annoying; I want there to be some sense of completion or resolution when I get to the end of a book.

March 25, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Motown night

Guided by Smokey Robinson, who may be the most uncritical mentor in Idol history, the wannabes offer a mostly listless evening of Motown greats, picking up only at the very end with a couple of fine turns from Danny and Allison.

The rundown:

Matt, "Let's Get It On" -- This song needs to ooze testosterone, and Matt's just not up to it; he's a nice boy playing at being a sexy man. (The prim sweater and tie don't help.) And on Matt's performances in general: His falsetto is not as interesting or impressive as he thinks it is.

Kris, "How Sweet It Is" -- I still want his enunciation to be cleaner, but I like the laid-back vibe, and with the exception of that awful last note, I love that he doesn't oversing or push too hard. Not an earthshattering performance, but very pleasant.

Scott, "You Can't Hurry Love" -- Even after he picks up the tempo, Scott's performance is unrelentingly polite and tepid and dull; the occasional outburst from the horn section and the hard-working backup singers are the only things that give it any life at all.

Megan, "For Once in My Life" -- Her pitch is still a mess, and she has the oddest, choppiest sense of phrasing. But I disagree with the judges and think this was a good choice for her -- the song's always been halfway to cabaret anyway -- and while I can't say I liked it, I hated it less than anything else she's done.

Anoop, "Ooo Baby Baby" -- The melody on those short verses is deceptively angular, and Anoop's not entirely sure of it; the falsetto stuff in the choruses is pretty, but in a bland way that I'm not going to remember when the show's over.

Michael, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" -- Utterly lacking in desperation, and without that, he might as well be singing "Frere Jacques." And he needs to wipe that damn smile off his face; it is not the appropriate facial expression for every song.

Lil, "Heatwave" -- When you have a big voice, one of the challenges you face is that of moderation. Lil fails that challenge here, bludgeoning us through the entire performance. It's not so much a song as it is an assault. (And while it has nothing to do with her singing, I must sadly note that not every woman can pull off a shimmy dress.)

Adam, "Tracks of My Tears" -- When ninety percent of the song is in falsetto (and a pinched, harsh falsetto at that), then you've pitched the song too high. It's the prettiest singing he's done, by a long shot, but Adam still feels more like a bad cabaret act than like a pop singer. The judges' praise is excessive to the point of absurdity.

Danny, "Get Ready" -- Finally, some oomph, some passion, some energy comes through. He still looks a bit awkward on stage, especially when dancing with the backup singers, but the singing is fine, and more interesting than anything else we've heard tonight.

Allison, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" -- I think Allison has a stronger sense of who she is as a singer than any of the other contestants; she's making smart song choices each week. Her enunciation is a bit sloppy tonight, but notice how (in contrast to Lil, for instance) the big note at the end is big without being oppressively so, or feeling forced. Good, solid performance.

For the night: Danny, Allison, Kris, Anoop, Lil, Matt, Adam, Megan, Michael, Scott.

For the season: Anoop, Danny, Allison, Kris, Lil, Matt, Michael, Adam, Megan, Scott.

Deserving to go home: Scott or Megan.

BOOKS: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008)

Post-apocalyptic young adult fiction.

In what appears to be a sadly degraded eastern United States, the capitol city of Panem holds a tight grip on the residents of the twelve districts. One of the principal tools is the Hunger Games, a bread-and-circuses event in which each district is forced to send two "tributes" -- one boy and girl in their teens -- to participate in a days-long fight to the death. The winning tribute and his or her district will be showered with extra food and glory for the next year.

No one from District 12 -- one of the poorer districts, corresponding roughly to present-day Appalachia -- has won the Games in years, and 16-year-old Katniss doesn't think much of her chances. But she's got experience living off the wild, and stronger survival skills than even she realizes.

I liked the first half of the novel the best; Collins does a very nice job of setting up the world in which the Hunger Games take place, and of depicting the elaborate preparation that the tributes go through before the Games begin. The story flattened out a bit for me once the Games actually began, and especially once Collins threw in a deus ex machina rule change that drastically changes the story from one of survival skills to one of emotional conniving. (Her brief attempt to undo her own deus for a cheap emotional thrill is an even worse mistake.)

Still, Katniss is a well-developed character, and the story is entertaining. The Hunger Games is Book One of a larger story, but Collins doesn't leave us completely dangling at book's end; there are plot lines and character developments waiting to be developed and resolved in the next volume, but the principal storyline of this volume does come to a satisfying end.

March 24, 2009

BOOKS: Spider Season, John Morgan Wilson (2008)

The eighth volume in the Benjamin Justice mystery series, and not a place for beginners to dive in, though probably essential reading for fans of the series.

If you think of a book series as one long book, and each volume as a new chapter in that mega-book, then Spider Season is that chapter that consists of nothing but exposition. There are lots of new characters introduced and new plotlines set up, all of which will surely play out in interesting ways in future volumes, but none of which amount to much in this volume. It's a meandering, digressive installment in which not a lot happens.

As Spider Season opens, Justice has just published a memoir detailing the scandal which forced him to leave journalism in disgrace (he faked parts of a story that won him the Pulitzer), and the memoir seems to be bringing all of the crazies from his past out of the woodwork. There's a former journalistic rival who's determined to find something in the memoir that she can use to destroy him for good; an old college acquiantance who's convinced that his relationship with Justice was far more meaningful than it actually was; the return of a beau who never quite became a romantic interest, but would very much like to; and a mysterious young man who begins stalking Justice (and if you can't figure out his relationship in about ten seconds, well, you don't read enough mystery novels).

There is a death, and it's one that will greatly sadden long-time readers of the series, but even that is handled in about as unexciting a way as could be imagined. Spider Season is a frustrating book. All of these characters and dangling plot threads will surely give Wilson lots to work with in the next two or three installments in the series; I just couldn't help wishing he'd found something to do with all that material in this book.

March 17, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Grand Ole Opry night

Country night can be an unpredictable evening on Idol, when underdogs rise and favorites fail in spectacular fashion. This year, though, the favorites generally shine.

Michael, "Ain't Goin' Down 'Til the Sun Comes Up" -- To his credit, Michael doesn't seem to have flubbed any of the pattery lyrics; unfortunately, only about half of them were comprehensible. He seems comfortable with country, though, and aside from the mumbling, this was a competent performance. Likely to leave him safely in the middle of the pack.

Allison, "Blame It On Your Heart" -- Very nice. Smart to choose a song that can take some rock edge and some punching up, and she's solidly connected to the song and to the audience. She's a lot of fun to watch, and I'm starting to think she's going to go very deep in this competition.

Kris, "To Make You Feel My Love" -- A small technical quibble: When he drops suddenly from high notes to low ("...made your mind up yet..."), all the power disappears from his voice. But that is a quibble, and this is quite pretty. There's not quite the emotional power behind it that a great singer would give, but it's a solid job.

Lil, "Independence Day" -- Well, she's not a natural country singer, and there is a tentative "just sing the notes" quality to it, especially in the verse. But every word can be understood -- crucial in a story song like this -- and damn, when that voice sails into the money notes in the chorus, you get carried away on those pipes.

Adam, "Ring of Fire" -- It's one of the great Idol debates: Are theme nights about asking the singers to demonstrate range, or are they about how cleverly the singers can shoehorn song X into their own style? I lean toward the former, so I hated this passionately. There was something oddly hypnotic about it, I suppose, but it had nothing to do with the Grand Ole Opry.

Scott, "Wild Angels" -- Exactly what I've come to expect from a Scott performance -- perfectly pleasant (except for the falsetto notes, which are out of tune), perfectly inoffensive, and perfectly dull. Surely he can't coast on the blind thing for too many more weeks.

Alexis, "Jolene" -- Pitch problems throughout, and where was that "soft side" Alexis wanted to show us? This was hard and brittle, and she was pushing so hard that I found it intensely grating. Not a pleasant performance at all.

Danny, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" -- The song is sentimental maudlin religious malarkey; songs like this are why some people hate country music. Can't fault the performance, though, which is powerful and controlled. It's the best of the night so far.

Anoop, "Always On My Mind" -- My first goosebump moment of the season. Absolutely lovely, with the sort of emotional intensity that we haven't seen much of tonight. I would buy that record.

Megan, "Walkin' After Midnight" -- It's the best I've liked her so far, but her syllables are oddly detached from one another -- there's not much flow or grace to her musical lines -- and her vowel sounds are somehow hyper-enunciated in a way that I find distracting.

Matt, "So Small" -- I liked the quiet understatement of the first half much more than the overblown melodrama of the second half, and I do wish that Idol men didn't feel compelled to end every song with a dramatic falsetto note. Pleasant enough, but not especially memorable.

For the night: Anoop, Danny, Allison, Kris, Lil, Matt, Michael, Scott, Megan, Adam, Alexis.

For the season: Anoop, Allison, Lil, Danny, Kris, Matt, Michael, Alexis, Scott, Adam, Megan.

Deserving to go home: Alexis or Megan.

March 11, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Michael Jackson night

It's Michael Jackson night, and for the most part, we get reasonably good performances. There aren't any revelatory moments, perhaps, but it's an entertaining night.

Lil, "The Way You Make Me Feel" -- She's got great pipes, but this song doesn't need to be shouted all the way through. A little understatement, a little slinkiness, maybe a little seduction would be nice. Good start to the night, though.

Scott, "Keep the Faith" -- His falsetto notes are consistently out of tune, and his singing style is too tidy and polite for even so mild a piece of R&B as this. I've only heard him twice, but he's already locking down a spot in my brain as Mr. Nice -- nice guy, nice voice, nice performance. And nice isn't going to win this thing.

Danny, "P.Y.T." -- Forced, over the top, and working far too hard for far too little reward. Unpleasantly frantic. There's a good voice there, but this didn't show it off well at all. (The judges, on the other hand, are wildly generous with their praise.)

Michael, "You Are Not Alone" -- His vowels occasionally get a little pinched and nasal, but there's nothing terribly wrong with the performance. There's nothing terribly exciting about it, either, and I fear that Michael's lack of star quality and charisma will doom him rather quickly.

Jasmine, "I'll Be There" -- I have much the same complaint I had with Lil: Just because you can belt every note doesn't mean you should belt every note. That aside, though, it's a pretty performance, and she's got a sweet, appealing presence on stage.

Kris, "Remember the Time" -- The song is duller than dishwater, and Kris can't bring much to it; his dismal enunciation doesn't help. But there's energy to it, and he's not pushing too hard; it's an easy, comfortable sound. I'd be worrying, though, that it's not going to be memorable enough to get votes.

Allison, "Give In to Me" -- Claiming her niche as the blues-rock chick right off the bat with a solid performance. She's very confident on stage, and (unlike, for instance, Jasmine) she projects a maturity beyond her years. One of the strongest so far.

Anoop, "Beat It" -- A few minor pitch problems, but he certainly knows how to work a stage, and it's not a bad performance. Doesn't have the tense, paranoid quality or the aggression of the original -- a touch bland emotionally -- but it'll certainly get him through to next week.

Jorge, "Never Can Say Goodbye" -- Bland and instantly forgettable. I wonder (as does Kara) whether learning a new song each week in his second language will keep him from solidly connecting to the material. (He was much better in earlier rounds, when he could choose songs that he already knew well.)

Megan, "Rockin' Robin" -- There are one or two brief moments near the end when Megan's voice lightens up a bit and you realize what a charming job she might have done with this song. But instead she bellows and blusters through it as if it were a condemned building and she were a wrecking ball. A disaster.

Adam, "Black or White" -- Way too over the top and theatrical for me. He's not a rock star; he's an actor playing the role of a rock star (and playing it far too broadly).

Matt, "Human Nature" -- One of the few singers tonight who doesn't feel the need to overpower the song; it's a laid-back relaxed performance that is mostly effective, though the falsetto riffs in the middle did go on a bit too long.

Alexis, "Dirty Diana" -- I'm not fond of her voice, but it was certainly a passionate and committed performance with no glaring flaws. In the top half for the night, and she shouldn't have any trouble surviving to next week.

For the night: Lil, Allison, Matt, Anoop, Alexis, Jasmine, Michael, Kris, Jorge, Danny, Scott, Adam, Megan.

Should go home: Megan and Adam, but the judges' love will keep Adam around for a long time.

March 05, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Wild Card night

Wild Card Night, and the pattern of the semi-finals holds: The men are a lot better overall than the women, and most of the singers don't rise to the occasion.

Jesse, "Tell Me Something Good" -- well, that was unattractive. Mushmouthed enunciation, harsh and grating vocals, and a bad drag queen's notion of sultry -- there really isn't much good to be said.

Matt, "Who's Loving You" -- a vast improvement over his semi-final performance; the bluesy thing really does work for him. I still find his voice a bit on the thin and whiny side, but that might just be me.

Megan, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" -- pitched too low, and the bottom notes disappear entirely; the high note at the end is badly off pitch. Also not a good sign that I spent the entire performance thinking how much better Katharine McPhee did it during her season on the show.

Von, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" -- when he can cut loose and belt, he sounds terrific, but the quieter moments at the beginning are all air, with no power behind them at all. He also seems somewhat stiff and over-rehearsed. Still, an improvement over his first performance.

Jasmine, "Reflection" -- lord, listen to how hard that girl is working. Everything is pushed so hard that it becomes oppressive; the quiet moments at the end, on the other hand, are very pretty. Overall, it's better than the other women so far, and it might be enough to get her through.

Ricky, "Superstition" -- he has a bad habit of letting notes die out without giving them their final consonants ("very superstitiou..."), but that's the biggest flaw. Good, solid performance, which isn't a surprise, given that he probably should have gotten through the first time around anyway.

Tatiana, "Saving All My Love for You" -- goodness, we just might have to put the Queen of Drama into the finals. A few pitch problems here and there, but she's got nice power, better low notes than the other women, and the performance is relatively restrained and tasteful.

Anoop, "My Prerogative" -- Fabulous. Well-sung, lots of fun, and he knows how to work a stage. Best of the night by a long shot.

(Hitting pause on the DVR to make my picks before the judges make theirs)

Deserving of the three spots: Anoop, Ricky, and Jasmine; but I think it's unlikely that the judges will pick more than one guy, given the already existing gender imbalance, so put Tatiana in for Ricky.

March 03, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: semi-finals, week 3

The semi-finals come to a close, and the night stands in for the three weeks as a whole; there aren't many disgraceful or embarassing performances, but there are also relatively few moments of genuine excitment. It's been a sluggish three weeks that don't leave me heading into the season with great anticipation.

Von, "You're All I Need to Get By" -- very pleasant -- a touch shouty, perhaps -- though the judges are more dazzled than I am. I'd never realized before just how much the original depends on arrangement and production.

Taylor, "If I Ain't Got You" -- the opening is pitched far too low for her; between that and her obvious nerves, she's having to gasp for breath far too often. Her voice is pretty enough, but there's nothing distinctive or interesting about it.

Alex, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" -- oh, dear. When he just sings, he's adequate, a competent semifinal-level singer. But then he puts on that growl, which doesn't feel natural at all, and he becomes a silly little boy playing at being a grown man. (You see the same thing, I think, in his oh-so-theatrical treatment of the mike stand.) It's a mess.

Arianna, "The Winner Takes It All" -- an odd song choice for a 17-year-old to begin with, and she's treating it with such melodic and rhythmic flexibility that it almost feels less like interpretation and more like she doesn't know how the song goes. An ambitious failure.

Ju'Not, "Hey There Delilah" -- quite nice. I like the mellow quality of his voice, and there are just enough hints of real power lurking there that I don't fear he'll be nothing but mellow (as was, for instance, Jason Castro). I wonder, though, whether a performance this low-key will get the votes.

Kristen, "Give Me One Reason" -- not the flashiest song choice (though those high notes at the end are a nice touch, and well done), but it's a fun performance. More than anyone else so far, she seems to be enjoying herself, and it comes across. A fine job. (The judges, I think, are a bit harsh.)

Nathaniel, "I Would Do Anything for Love" -- pitch problems throughout, with the opening being particularly iffy. The song needs a bigger voice than he can give it, and let's face it, it calls for a certain machismo that Nathaniel simply doesn't have. He's not going to get to the finals with that.

Felicia, "No One" -- there's a heaviness to her voice that I don't like, and not much personality or emotion comes though. Dull and forgettable. (The judges are wildly generous.)

Scott, "Mandolin Rain" -- A nice voice, and one wth a distinctive enough sound that he stands out from tonight's pack a bit. The performance isn't really exciting, but it's very good, which may be enough on a bland night.

Kendall, "This One's for the Girls" -- lots of pitch problems, and those high notes in head voice don't work at all. Charming personality, and very likable on stage, but not a contender for the finals.

Jorge, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- now that I liked. Terrific control, range, and power. It's the first time this season I've had the sense of someone who might deliver an exciting performance during the year.

Lil, "Be Without You" -- the song leaves me a bit cold, but I like her voice, and she's got tons of personality. By far the best of the women tonight, and she should easily get through to the finals.

Deserving the three spots in the Top 12: Jorge, Ju'Not, Lil.

Deserving a second chance on Wild Card Night: Scott, Kristen