April 24, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Contestant's Choice / One Hit Wonders

For those inclined to keep track of these things in terms of gender, this is the second all-female final four that Idol has had, and there's never been an all-male final four. More important, though, it is by a long shot the most talented final four ever, and none of the remaining contestants would be an embarrassing winner. (Which isn't to say that I don't have my favorites, of course.) And with a competition as close as this, there's no room for error.

And since the first round tonight is free choice for the singers, there's not much excuse for it, either. And even the second round -- One Hit Wonders, a new theme for the show -- offers enough choices that no one's being forced into a style that doesn't suit them.

So, theoretically, it should be a good night. Let's see, shall we?

The rundown:

Amber, "The Power of Love" -- The opening verse is weak; when you're the only sound being heard and we still can't tell what you're saying, you're in trouble. But once Amber hits the verse and gets to belt with no subtlety whatsoever (and what could be a better Celine homage than that?), her voice sounds fine. At this point, though, "fine" may not be enough. And the arrangement, which is rather more sluggish than the original, isn't helping.

Candice, "Find Your Love" -- I don't know that Idol has ever had a contestant whose song choices are as consistently unexpected as Candice's, and she has a knack for finding something interesting even in a fairly blah song like this. I think I could set my iPod on Shuffle and give her the first twelve songs that came up, and she'd turn them into a fabulous album.

Kree, "It Hurt So Bad" -- "I get to dance," Kree tells one of the kids at Children's Hospital, and then she plants her feet, never taking more than two steps in any direction. But musically, this is the equivalent of a 2-foot putt for Kree, and it's a strong performance. It never gets the oomph it needs to be a thrilling one, but it's the best we've heard so far. On the other hand, Idol voters do not always respond to obscurities like this one.

Angie, "Who You Are" -- For all the volume and power, that felt easier and more effortless than anything she's done in weeks, and the quiet moments were particularly good. I don't know what the magic is about her and the piano, but she goes from a C+/B- singer on her feet to a B+/A- singer at the keyboard. She could win this thing if she never leaves the piano again.

For Round One: Angie, Kree, Candice, Amber.

Next, a pair of officially non-competitive duets as palate cleanser and time killer:

Kree & Amber, "Rumour Has It" -- There are many songs, y'know, that have been written as duets. So why bother doing this, which isn't really a duet at all? It's another case of singers performing next to, instead of with, each other; I heard only one phrase of five or six notes with any harmony at all. They both sounded OK, but it was a lot of effort with no real point.

Candice & Angie, "Stay" -- At least they seem to realize that they're both on the stage, and there's some attempt at interaction between them. But the song doesn't really suit either of their voices, and their styles are so different that they never find a comfortable blend.

Amber, "MacArthur Park" -- There is no point to doing this song if you don't have the full seven minutes to devote to it. Every time she hits the big long high note, it starts fine and slowly sinks flat. And she doesn't have the skill (or, I suspect, the drug experience) that it would take to sing all the "sweet green icing" stuff as though it actually meant something. A blah moment.

(Were I sort to nitpick about the spirit and the letter of the rules -- oh, hell, you know that's exactly the sort I am -- I might suggest that when the theme is "one-hit wonders," you are at least skirting the spirit of the thing to do what is clearly more of a Donna Summer version than a Richard Harris version.)

Candice, "Emotion" -- Even Candice can't convince us that there's a real song here, and it's a bad fit for her. The appeal of the Samantha Sang version was that airy, ethereal voice, and Candice's voice is too much for the song (at least not without changing the arrangement more drastically than has been done here). It's like trying to pick up a feather with a bulldozer.

Kree, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" -- It was a lovely string of notes, and I continue to marvel at the clarity and force of her upper register. But it was entirely devoid of emotion, and wasn't communicating anything beyond "these are pretty notes." In her defense, I don't think anyone's ever been able to communicate any emotion with these hippy-dippy lyrics, but that's not much of a defense. It's been a round of bad song choices so far.

Angie, "Cry Me a River" -- There's a bit of a mismatch between Angie's vocal, which feels very contemporary, and the arrangement, which is certainly somewhat updated from the 50s, but still feels a bit old-school. Still, it's a reasonably good performance, and comes off maybe even a bit better than it deserves simply because it's a good song in a round of lesser ones.

(If you remember how big Julie London was in the 50s, you might wonder what this song is doing here in a one hit wonder round. But as big as she was, she wasn't successful in a top-40 pop charts way, and this was indeed her only such hit.)

For Round Two: Angie, Amber, Candice, Kree.

For the night: Angie, Kree, Candice, Amber.

For the season: Candice, Angie, Kree, Amber.

Let's send home: As long as it's not Candice, I won't complain too loudly. I'd probably send home Amber, but I think it'll be Kree.

April 23, 2013

MOVIES: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012)

This movie disappeared fairly quickly when it was released last fall, but it was highly praised by a lot of critics in their year-end lists. It's directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose screenplay is adapted from his novel, which has been wildly popular with teens in recent years.

It's another version of a fantasy that is strangely common among authors who were misfits as teenagers -- the gang of misfits who come together, discover that they have everything in common, and learn that they're not such misfits after all. I call it a "fantasy" because, wish-fulfillment novels to the contrary, such things almost never actually happen. (I blame the whole damn thing on the stop-motion Rudolph Christmas special, and this movie even has an explicit reference to the Island of Misfit Toys.)

Our central misfit this time is Charlie (Logan Lerman), who hopes to make just one friend on his first day of high school. It takes a few days longer than that, but he does eventually fall in with a small crowd of fellow misfits, headed up by two seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, sporting a most erratic American accent).

You could probably write most of the script yourself from there. Charlie falls for Sam; Patrick falls for Charlie; and by the time the year's over, Charlie's found the strength to confront his Dark Secret.

What, you thought you were going to get away from this without a Dark Secret? Oh, heavens, no. And when this one arrives, it comes almost entirely out of the blue in the last half-hour of the movie, and it's a really cheap bit of exploitation.

But as hopelessly predictable and unrealistic as the story is, the acting is extremely strong. The three principals are terrific, and I would imagine that this movie is going to lead to roles in bigger movies for all three. (Watson, of course, has plenty of big movie experience already.) The supporting adult actors aren't given much to do, and have been filled with a cast who are really overqualified for what are glorified cameos -- Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack.

If you are less annoyed by the cliche nerd fantasy plot than I was, you might enjoy this movie a lot; even if it does drive you nuts, you might still get enough pleasure from the acting to make it worth seeing.

April 22, 2013

MOVIES: The Croods (Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders, 2013)

The animated film The Croods takes a strong cast of voice actors and strands them in a predictable story, and the animation isn't interesting enough to compensate.

Our heroine is Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), a teenager who is chafing under the restrictive rules laid down by her father Grug (Nicolas Cage). Grug lives in constant fear of the world, and keeps the family holed up in a cave except for absolutely necessary hunting trips. "Never not be afraid" is his motto.

The Crood family also includes mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), dimwit son Thunk (Clark Duke), elderly Gran (Cloris Leachman, giving what is rapidly becoming the only performance anyone will allow her to give as the mean old lady), and feral toddler Sandy.
Eep ventures out of the cave one night and meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who is rather more evolved than Eep's family, and who warns that the world is about to end. (We get a planet-view shot that tells us the "end" is the separation of the continental plates, which isn't historically accurate for the era of cavemen, but if you're looking to The Croods for historic and scientific rigor, you've got bigger problems than I can help you with.) Reluctantly, the Croods join guy on his trip to a safer place.

From there, the story's predictable: Eep and Guy fall for one another, Grug and Guy bicker over the correct approach to life and to their journey, and everyone gets a big helping of redemption in the end.

Some of the landscapes are lovely to look at, and there is one spectacular scene involving a giant flock of flying pink piranha-bugs, but much of the animation is drab. The action scenes never quite provide the necessary thrills, and as you watch, for instance, the opening family hunting sequence, you can't help but think how much more crisp and precise the timing would be if it had been done by Pixar or Aardman.

The cast is generally good, though Reynolds doesn't have quite enough energy. Cage is the standout; who would have guessed that literally making him a cartoon would have brought out his subtle side?

If you have kids who must be entertained, this will probably do the trick, but if you can talk them into waiting to see it on cable or DVD, you'll save some money.

April 21, 2013

MOVIES: No (Pablo Larrain, 2012/US 2013)

The Chilean film No was one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. It's a movie about an advertising campaign, and if that has you envisioning a sort of South American Mad Men, lord, are you in for a world of disappointment.

In 1988, under domestic and international pressure, dictator/president Augusto Pinochet agreed to a national election on whether he should continue in office for another eight years; it was to be a simple yes/no vote, and No tells the story of the campaign for the "no" side.

Each side was given 15 minutes of uninterrupted TV time each day to present its case, and the multiple anti-Pinochet political parties turned to TV ad writer Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) to help create their campaign. The politicians wanted to do a dry, scary recitation of the facts -- this many people executed, this many people "disappeared," this many people exiled -- thinking that this would be the only chance they'd ever had to present that case on national television.

Saavedra argued that facts, especially depressing ones, wouldn't "sell" and that the campaign was sure to lose with that approach. Instead, he proposed a peppy, optimistic campaign built around a sappy jingle ("Chile, happiness is coming"), imagery of picnics and rainbows and happy children, and bad Laugh-In sketches.

That conflict, and that clash of styles, would have made a really interesting movie, but it's dismissed in about ten minutes so that we can watch lots of the ads and be fed a tepid thriller plot about whether Saavedra's family is in danger as a result of his work. Also pushed to the background is the tension between Saavedra and his liberal friends, many of whom believe that the election is rigged, and that by taking part, Saavedra is only lending legitimacy to an inherently corrupt process.

Chile voted to get rid of Pinochet (it's really not a spoiler if it's a 25-year-old historical event, right?), but -- and here is one of the movie's major flaws -- we're not told anything that convinces us that this campaign is at all responsible for Chile's vote to oust Pinochet. This lack of information, to be sure, is not the fault of the filmmakers -- I would imagine that a regime as repressive as that of Pinochet was not a hospitable place for pre-election polling -- but it does leave us feeling that we've watched a lot of sound and fury without knowing what, if anything, it accomplished.

The look of the movie is interesting; it's shot using cameras and film stock from the 80s, so the period footage, including ads from the "no" campaign, blends seamlessly with the new footage. But that is the most interesting thing about the movie, which ignores its most promising ideas in favor of letting us hear the "Chile, happiness is coming" jingle about 18,000 times.

MOVIES: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013, Derek Cianfrance)

Cianfrance's followup to Blue Valentine tells a three-part story about fathers and sons, and how the sins of the former are visited upon the latter.

We begin with Ryan Gosling, playing a stunt motorcycle rider who travels with a small carnival. During the carnival's annual visit to Schenectady (a Mohawk word which translates roughly as the movie's title), he drops in on Eva Mendes, with whom he'd had a one-night stand during his last visit. His relationship with her and her family, and his attempts to win a more permanent place in their lives, make up the first chunk of the movie.

For the second chunk, we abruptly shift focus to Bradley Cooper, a local cop, and follow the beginnings of his rise through the police (and local political) ranks. This is the most hackneyed piece of the movie, a tired story of corrupt cops and the superior officers who choose to remain blind to their behavior.

Part three begins with a "fifteen years later" title card, and our new central characters are the sons of Gosling and Cooper, played respectively by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. The complicated relationship between their fathers becomes an issue between the boys, leading (but, of course) to A Terrible Tragedy.

The performances are fine, though DeHaan and (particularly) Cohen are, even by Hollywood movie standards, far too old to be playing 16-year-olds. Cooper is particularly badly served by the 15 year time jump, looking too old in the first half of the movie and not old enough in the second half.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that each of the three sections has enough story to justify a full movie of its own. Part of why the stories all feel so cliched, I think, is that we're rushing through them and hitting only the obvious narrative high points, instead of giving each story the time it needs to breathe, time that would allow for characters and situations to be developed beyond the superficial. We've got six or seven hours of movie stuffed into 140 minutes.

And with all of the new financing and distribution options available to directors these days, it's increasingly hard to justify making a movie that is either too long or too short for the story it wants to tell. Within the last year, we've seen major directors go outside the feature film world to tell longer stories -- Jane Campion's done a 7-hour miniseries for the Sundance Channel; David Fincher's produced a 13-hour series for Netflix -- and surely after the rapturous reception of Blue Valentine, Cianfrance could have found some such alternate home for this project. As a feature film, though, it feels sadly cramped and familiar.

April 20, 2013

MOVIES: The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012/US 2013)

(I've fallen behind on movie posts, but hope to get caught up this week on posting about what I've seen recently.)

The Sapphires is an Australian movie about four Aboriginal women -- three sisters and a cousin -- who get a job entertaining the American troops in Vietnam. Chris O'Dowd stars as their manager, who teaches them to sing soul music instead of the country they'd been doing.

The women are all appealing, and each is given just enough of a personality that we can distinguish one from another; Jessica Mauboy, as the lead singer of the group, delivers perfectly nice performances of Motown standards that are entertaining in precisely the same "half a step up from karaoke" way that American Idol can be. And O'Dowd works his charming Irish guy shtick -- it's a bit discouraging that it already feels like shtick, given that he hasn't really been around all that long -- with his usual gentle charm.

There are a few minor feints towards social conscience, with backstory about the horrific way that Australia treated Aborigines in the 20th century; rather clunky parallels are drawn to the American civil rights movement.

The Sapphires is almost never a surprising movie, nor is it a terribly amibitious one. It aims no higher than to be 90 minutes of amiable entertainment, and it achieves that goal quite nicely.

April 17, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Songs from birth years / Divas

With Lazaro's departure, we're guaranteed the first female winner since Jordin Sparks in season six, and the first all-female finale since season three (Fantasia Barrino over Diana DeGarmo). The themes tonight are a mix of old and new -- the perennial favorite "song from the year I was born" and the first appearance of "divas" as a theme. Hard to do that one with men still in the field, I suppose.

Even more important than gender, though, this is the most talented final five the show's ever had. While I think that Candice and Kree are the favorites, one never knows what to expect from Idol voters, and it should be an entertaining season from here on out.

The rundown:

Candice, "Straight Up" -- Not a song choice I'd have expected from Candice, and not a song I would have thought worth bothering with, but she gives it a serious re-imagining, treating it as a jazzy nightclub number with a Latin flair. It's light, breezy, and surprisingly charming. A delightful surprise.

Janelle, "When I Call Your Name" -- A nice performance, I suppose, though some of the lyrics are too breathy to be understood. She's not going to be our winner, but Janelle has a fine career ahead of her as the opening act for some semi-retired country singer in Branson.

Kree, "She Talks to Angels" -- One of those tedious rock songs that confuses cryptic lyrics for profundity, and things aren't helped by Kree's uncharacteristically mushy enunciation. One of her worse performances.

Angie, "I'll Stand By You" -- Mentioning her connection to Boston comes off as a cheap bit of begging for pity votes, and it wasn't necessary, because the performance is strong. I always like her better at the piano, and she's in fine voice tonight, delivering an emotional performance that is her best of the season.

Amber, "Without You" -- This theme always brings at least one cheat, so here's Amber (born in 1994) singing a song from 1970, theoretically justified by the Mariah Carey remake. And it's not working; the low notes are too low for her, some of them so much so that she's re-writing the melody to avoid them. She sounds fine once she gets to take the chorus up the octave and belt the high notes, but for this song to work, you have to sing the entire range of it well, and she doesn't.

For Round One: Angie, Candice, Janelle, Amber, Kree

Candice, "When You Believe" -- There's an interesting paradox at work here. The Mariah/Whitney school of diva singing is built, in large part, around the slightly exhausting athleticism of the performance -- the runs, the flourishes, the high notes, the frills -- and the "how did they do that?!?" awe it inspires. Candice does all of that stuff, and does it very well, but it sounds so easy that some of the thrill of seeing it done is lacking. The fact that there's so little apparent effort disguises to some extent just how good she is.

Janelle, "Dumb Blonde" -- Where's the playfulness, the fun, the joy that Dolly would bring to a song like this? Janelle's giving us no subtlety, and her vocal has a harsh edge to it that is odd for her. A bad stumble.

Kree, "Have You Ever Been In Love" -- The big high notes are lovely as ever, but the rest of it is tapioca-bland, and her face looks pained and uncomfortable. She's having such a bad night that I'm wondering if that pinched nerve from a while back is still bothering her.

Angie, "Halo" -- One of the things I'm realizing as this round goes on is just how boring contemporary diva singing really is, and here's a fine example. It's well done -- the notes are in tune, the runs properly placed, the big belty notes big and belty -- but it doesn't go any deeper than the technique. It's the triumph of style over substance.

Amber, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" -- She's at her best with songs like this; she brings to them an elegant refinement that shows off her voice very well. Unfortunately for her, the world of current pop music doesn't have much use for elegant refinement.

For Round Two: Amber, Candice, Angie, Janelle, Kree.

For the night: Candice, Amber, Angie, Janelle, Kree.

For the season: Candice, Kree, Amber, Janelle, Angie.

Let's send home: Tough call. Candice is the only singer who had two good performances, and she only solidified her lead over the pack. Amber and Angie had one strong performance each, and on a weak night overall, that should be enough to keep them around. I'd expect Kree and Janelle to be the bottom two, and while Janelle has certainly been the weaker of the two overall, Kree had a very bad night, and I won't be surprised if she gets the boot. As for the save, my bet is that the judges use it to save Kree, but not to save Janelle.

April 10, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Bacharach & David / Songs We Wish We'd Written

Five women and Lazaro head into the first two-songs-apiece week, and we're getting two separate themes.

Round one will be songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The show hasn't had a Bacharach night since Season 1, and that was devoted to all of Bacharach's work, not just the "and David" part. His songs have popped up on other nights, and because they are generally harder than they look, performances tend to be either thrilling or disastrous.

Round two will be songs the contestants wish they'd written, which is a broad enough theme that there will be no excuse for poor performances. That does not mean there won't be any, of course. (Hi, Lazaro!)

The rundown:

Angie, "Anyone Who Had a Heart" -- Very pretty strings of notes, and she handles the tricky rhythms and melodic leaps well. I would have liked more emotion, or some variety in dynamics, to make it more than just a series of pretty notes. There was a bland sameness throughout.

Amber, "I Say a Little Prayer" -- A few sour notes scattered throughout, and she gets lost in her own melisma as she comes back into the final chorus. And like Angie -- I suspect this will be a theme in this round -- she's put in the time to get the rhythms and (mostly) the notes right, but at the expense of thought about what the song means.

Lazaro, "Close to You" -- He did his best. It really wasn't very good.

Kree, "What the World Needs Now Is Love" -- The first performance to depart significantly from the familiar arrangement, which in itself is ballsy, since the arrangements are such a key part of how we think of those songs. Like the other women, Kree's a touch too smooth and bland, but she's putting more personality into it than they were, and the unaccompanied intro is lovely.

Janelle, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" -- Barely serviceable karaoke. Pitch problems throughout, and the highest notes (the second "HERE TO RE-mind you") were woefully under.

Candice, "Don't Make Me Over" -- The first performance tonight that makes me believe she knew the song before the week began. What amazes me about Candice is that for all her power and force, it feels so easy; her mechanics and technique are impeccable

For Round One: Candice, Kree, Angie, Amber, Janelle, Lazaro.

Angie, "Love Came Down" -- Meh. Perfectly pleasant, and being at the piano helps her, but this is more interesting as vote-getting strategy than as a performance. Do one obscure song by a Christian music act, and it's an interesting choice; do a second one, as Angie's doing here, and it's a carefully considered tactic.

Amber, "Love on Top" -- Some of those very high "ooh-ooh" notes are impressive, but on the whole, this style doesn't suit her, and she doesn't look comfortable with all the dancing about. Nothing horribly wrong with it, but it's not very interesting.

Lazaro, "Angels" -- He did his best. It wasn't very good.

Kree, "Help Me Make It Through the Night"-- Lovely. There are a few moments where it feels like she's deliberately overdoing the twang and the country break to remind us that she's a country gal, but on the whole it's a simple and understated performance.

Janelle, "The Dance" -- That last long note wobbles rather precariously, and she's singing the song as if it actually were an Important Philosophical Statement, instead of a tolerably well-written Sunday homily. But it's certainly an improvement over her first round.

Candice, "Lovesong" -- Stunning. Flawless.

For Round Two: Candice, Kree, Angie, Janelle, Amber, Lazaro.

For the night: Candice, Kree, Angie, Amber, Janelle, Lazaro.

For the season: Candice, Kree, Angie, Janelle, Amber, Lazaro.

Nothing terribly surprising tonight. Candice is clearly at the front of the pack; only Kree can come close to her. It's a tight three-way race among the other women for third. And Lazaro's presence has long since passed from amusing to embarrassing.

Let's send home: Even by the low standards that Lazaro has set for himself, his performances tonight were weak; the first one was among the worst performances Idol has ever seen. If anyone other than Lazaro is sent home this week, it will be a travesty, and a crippling blow to whatever credibility the show has left. If that happens, I think it will be Janelle who is voted off, and I don't think the judges will save her.

April 07, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, April 7

David Robertson, conductor
Orli Shaham, piano

The program:
  • Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
  • Mackey: Stumble to Grace
  • Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
Unfortunately, I had to leave today's concert at intermission, so didn't get to hear the Pictures at an Exhibition, but the first half of the concert was quite delightful.

David Robertson conducted, and the program opened with Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which were full of glorious orchestral color. As is so often the case with the Phil, the horns made a particularly fine impression. Robertson played the Interludes without pause between them, which made the mood shifts between them feel uncomfortably abrupt.

The new work on today's program was Steven Mackey's piano concerto Stumble Into Grace; the soloist was Orli Shaham, who happens to be Robertson's wife. Mackey and the Robertson-Shahams happen to have children of about the same age, and the overarching metaphor for the concerto was a child learning to walk, progressing from timid, tentative gestures at the beginning to full on virtuosity (a triple fugue, no less) at the end of the piece.

Mackey and Shaham took part in the pre-concert talk that the Philharmonic does before each concert. By "took part," I mean that the host introduced them, asked one question, and didn't say another word for twenty minutes as they completely charmed the audience with anecdotes about the piece's origin, tales of their friendship, and discussion of Mackey's musical influences in the piece. And those influences are wide-ranging; Mackey describes his cadenza as a Beethoven bagatelle filtered through Vince Guaraldi, and also mentioned Thelonious Monk and Andre Kostelanetz ("don't tell anyone, or my career will be over").

The concerto is a fine piece that I think would reward repeated hearing. The "Guaraldi bagatelle" cadenza has a lovely groove, and Mackey uses quarter-tones to interesting effect; the piece opens with a small group of string, who have been tuned slightly flat, making the piano's first clunky chords seem out of tune, and a few of the harp's strings are tuned either sharp or flat throughout.

It doesn't, I think, grab you as instantly as Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing, which the Phil played a couple of years back, and which has been one of the highlights of my years of Philharmonic concerts. But to those companies who are still making CDs: They would make a delightful pairing, and a look at Mackey's list of works shows several pieces -- a cello concerto, a double concerto for violin and electric guitar -- of the right length to fill out the disc.

April 04, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Classic Rock

A day late getting to this week's show, thanks to the demands of life. The results will be known by the time I finish watching the DVR'd show, but I promise not to peek.

It's Classic Rock tonight, and "no ballads," says Ryan. That makes this the third week in a row in which music that the contestants might actually remember from their own lives is off limits. Are they any more likely to find songs they actually know already than they did during Beatles and Detroit weeks? Let's find out, shall we?

The rundown:

Burnell, "You Give Love a Bad Name" -- Ouch. This was never going to be Burnell's strongest night. His crisp enunciation and tastefully eccentric phrasing are wildly out of place in this song, though he makes an admirable attempt to put a little growly rasp in his voice on the chorus. Not the horrific embarrassment it might have been, but he's clearly uncomfortable, and he'll be glad to have this night behind him.

Angie & Lazaro, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" -- Angie draws the short straw for this week's duets/trios. She and Lazaro aren't really singing with each other so much as they're singing beside each other; there's no connection at all. She's the perkiest little rocker in the Miss Teen Peoria 1982 pageant, he's struggling to hit notes far too low for him, and there's a patch in the middle where they both forget the words entirely. To his credit, there are a few scattered notes where Lazaro's tone has a richness and depth that's entirely new, and for those few brief moments, he doesn't completely suck.

Kree, "Piece of My Heart" -- It's very well sung, but on the bland side emotionally. Where's the anger, the passion, the fury? If Kree has a weakness, it's that she sometimes coasts on her ability to hit big, impressive notes rather than dig deeper into the song to actually say something with them. Pretty notes are not enough, and that may eventually be her downfall. Probably not for another week or two, though.

Burnell & Candice, "The Letter" -- That was nice. I liked that. I had a big dumb smile on my face all the way through. Two marvelous voices, singing a song in a style that suits them both, having fun doing it. A shame Burnell couldn't have done that as his solo. (Mariah, weirdly enough, complains that they should have done something more R&B. On Classic Rock night.)

Janelle, "You May Be Right" -- That was surprisingly good, and she managed to give it just enough of a country-rock feel that it didn't seem completely alien to her. There was far more power in her lower register than I think we've heard from her before. The phrasing was a little more tidy and prissy than a real rocker's would have been, but not shamefully so.

Lazaro, "We Are the Champions" -- He did his best. It wasn't very good.

Amber, Janelle, & Kree -- "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" -- This song doesn't work at all as a trio; hearing one person plow through those long rat-a-tat lines of lyrics is half the appeal. The performance is blandly adequate, but not any more than that.

Candice, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" -- Very nicely done. Now I'm wanting the producers to throw her some other curveball -- country or Rat Pack or Broadway -- to see if there's anything she can't do at least reasonably well.

Amber, "What About Love" -- Like Burnell, Amber is giving us a karaoke performance in a genre she's not comfortable with and hasn't figured out how to make her own. This isn't quite as awkward as Burnell's song was, but she's pushing too hard for volume and she sounds strained all the way through.

Angie, "Bring Me to Life" -- Hmmm ... one of these songs is not like the others, boys and girls. It's not only of a different generation than the Classic Era, it's not nearly as interesting. As for Angie, I don't know if it's about posture or psychology or what, but she always sounds better to me when she's at the piano; the first thirty seconds of this were marvelous, then she stood up and it just became another series of very pretty great big notes. Meh.

For the night: Janelle, Candice, Kree, Angie, Amber, Burnell, Lazaro.

For the season: Candice, Kree, Janelle, Angie, Amber, Burnell, Lazaro.

Let's send home: It really should be Lazaro, and based on overall performance, there is no excuse for sending anyone else. But Burnell's performance tonight was bad enough that I fear he is in serious jeopardy. The question is whether the quality of the duet with Candice was enough to save him.

April 02, 2013

BOOKS: The Bughouse Affair, Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini (2012)

Muller and Pronzini are surely the most successful husband-and-wife team working in the mystery genre. Each has a long-running series character -- Muller's Sharon McCone, Pronzini's Nameless Detective -- and each has received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. This collaboration is the first volume in a projected new series.

Our heroes are former Secret Service agent John Quincannon and former Pinkerton employee Sabina Carpenter, who work together as private investigators in 1980s San Francisco. As the novel begins, they're working on separate cases. Sabina is trying to identify and locate a female pickpocket who's been striking local amusement parks; John is trying to solve a string of home burglaries. It will, I suspect, surprise no one that the two cases are more closely connected than they originally seem.

The novel's most interesting supporting character is an eccentric Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes, and who involves himself as an unwanted assistant in the firm's investigation. He's an amusing accent for one story; I don't think it would work, though, to make him a regular character, as seems to be threatened at the end of the story.

The historical setting is less interesting than I'd hoped, and it's notable mostly for making me feel that Muller and Pronzini had spent a lot of time researching criminal terminology of the era (or maybe they just went to a Ricky Jay show), and were determined to show off every last bit of it. The endless references to dips and cutpurses and yeggs and scruffs grow tiring after a while.

I was also distracted by the disparity in how the characters are identified. Chapters are titled according to the point-of-view character, either "Sabina" or "Quincannon," and it's not clear why it's first name for her and the more formal, respectful last name for him.

The story itself is moderately entertaining, but not up to the level I've come to expect from Muller (I'm less familiar with Pronzini's work). Pleasant enough book, but not so strong that I'm likely to seek out further installments in the series.

BOOKS: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)

Each year, the American Library Association awards several awards for excellence in literature for children and young adults; the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are the oldest, and thus the best known, of the group, but the newer awards are beginning to gain their own prestige. And one of the big winners this year was this novel by Sáenz -- one of several runners-up for the Printz Award for excellence in YA literature, winner of the Pura Belpre Award for literature celebrating the Latino cultural experience, and winner of the Stonewall Award for literature relating to the LGBT experience. The book more than lives up to that level of honor and praise.

The setting is El Paso in the late 1980s, and Ari and Dante are 15 when they meet at the local public swimming pool. There's not a huge amount of plot; the novel is simply the story of their developing relationship. It's very nicely written, and Sáenz has an interesting way of developing characters and relationships through absence or separation -- Dante's family moves out of town for several months; Ari's father is an emotionally withdrawn Vietnam veteran; Ari's older brother is in prison, and though he's never actually present in the book, his absence is an enormous factor in the family dynamic.

There's a growing body of coming-of-age literature for and about gay kids; most of it is still about white kids, which makes this book a much-needed addition. The boys' ethnic and cultural identity as Mexican-American isn't the primary thrust of the story, or of who they are as people, but it's more than insignificant background, and it helps make the characters feel like more specific individuals than we often get in this sort of book.

If anything felt off, it was that Ari seems to be a very late sexual bloomer. I can understand being repressed enough for various reasons that you don't recognize or identify yourself as gay, but this kid barely seems aware of himself as having any sexual feelings at all.

That's a small quibble, though, and more than outweighed by the strengths of the book, which is fine stuff indeed.