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September 27, 2009

Bogie and Roscoe

Bogie waits in the background, content to let the young and impetuous Roscoe investigate the latest foolishness from their human "Master." (Click on image for larger version)

Posted by Mike Lief at 01:05 PM | Comments (1)

Seen in my backyard

Spider mites have spun a gossamer, dew-dappled blanket over the purple-leaf plum tree's blossoms, which have rather mysteriously begun to bloom as the leaves start falling at Summer's end. (Click on image for larger version)

Posted by Mike Lief at 01:01 PM

September 25, 2009

The Commitments

The Commitments is one of my all-time favorite films -- and I almost didn't go see it when it came out back in '91. I was working at the New Jersey Herald, when Stacy, a college pal, called and said it was time for us to catch a film, and she was picking some Irish flick about unemployed Dubliners trying to put together a soul band, based on the best-selling novel by Roddy Doyle.

To say I was less than interested was an understatement, but Stacy was not to be denied, so we went ... and as soon as the movie was over I walked into the Sam Goody's nearby and bought the soundtrack.

Directed by Alan Parker, The Commitments featured a cast of talented actors who had been cast as much for their musical ability as their acting chops; the director was intent on filming the performances live, not lip-synched to previously recorded tracks.

The standout is the lead singer, Declan "Deco" Cuffe, a disgusting pig, as one of the girls says, but what a voice! Even more amazing, Andrew Strong was only 16 when he played Deco. Strong's father was a voice coach working on the production; when he heard that Parker was having an open casting call, he encouraged his teenage son to try out for the part, which he handily won.

Monday morning I walked over to the entertainment editor at the paper and asked if she had the press kit for The Commitments; she did, and handed it over. It contained a glossary of Irish slang to help American critics navigate their way through the often-impenetrable working-class Dublin vocabulary.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott told why The Commitments was his St. Patrick's Day film pick (above), and I agree with his take: It's the kind of movie you want to watch when you feel a little down in the dumps. I've seen it countless times, and it never fails to make me smile and brighten my mood.

As for the performances, I think they're just great. While some might consider it heresy of the first order, I actually prefer Andrew Strong's covers over many of the original versions. And it's still mindblowing that he's only 16 in the film. In the clip above he's performing "Try a Little Tenderness," and just singing the hell out of it.

Actor Robert Arkins played the manager of the band, and, despite his musical talents (he was an established musician when he made the film), his only on-screen performance was in the music video for the movie (above).

I'm not alone in my fondness for The Commitments; it's been seen by more than 1 billion people since its release, and has been voted the most influential Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by (who else?) Jameson Irish Whiskey.

The soundtrack has been in or near my CD player pretty much since the summer of '91, which is another indication that I'm not kidding when I tell that I really, really like this flick. Check it out.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:26 PM | Comments (1)

September 10, 2009

A good shine is a thing of beauty

I first learned how to shine a pair of shoes the right way back in boot camp; the recruits spent hours with little cans of black Kiwi polish, old t-shirts and cottonballs, arguing over the merits of water versus spit as we smoked and squinted, peering closely at our handiwork, gauging if it was good enough to get us through inspection.

The habits and techniques learned almost thirty years ago have become second nature, including lacing shoes the regulation way: right over left, right over left -- for no discernible reason, other than that was the way our drill instructor told us to do it.

I even have my old horsehair brush, black with three decades of polish, to use on my wingtips.

If, however, you despair for the sad state of your bedraggled brogans, check out this link for tips on getting a good shine. And don't forget to read the comments, where a fellow who served in the Household cavalry mounted regiment in London tells you how the Brits get it done.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:08 PM

September 07, 2009

The most successful recording artist in 2008 ... is who?

Why do I like country music? Because of songs like this -- and the performers who write and sing about how much they love and respect their parents.

Taylor Swift is a teenager who writes most of her songs -- and co-writes the rest -- making her anything but the pre-packaged, country version of Britney the Trainwreck. And Swift also seems to be a pretty nice person, as the above video and song seem to show.

She's also a tremendous success. Slate's Jody Rosen has the 411, from an article about Swift's recent concert at Madison Square Garden:

Over the past couple years, Swift has been a one-woman bulwark against the complete implosion of the record industry. In 2008, she was the biggest-selling artist in America, with combined sales of her 2006 self-titled debut album and her 2008 release Fearless topping 3.6 million. This year, Fearless has moved another 1.6 million copies; its sales totals are second only to the Michael Jackson compilation Number Ones. Swift has released eight singles, all of which have reached the country Top 10 and the Top 40 on the pop charts. She's had four No. 1 country singles; her latest hit, "You Belong with Me," climbs to No. 2 this week on the Billboard Hot 100.

There have been other milestones. No female artist has had as many hits from a debut album since Billboard began keeping an album chart in 1964. This year, Fearless held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart for a total of 11 weeks, the longest run in a decade. Three of Swift's singles have topped two million mark in paid downloads, a first for a country artist. And so on.

Slate's weekly Culture Gabfest podcast featured a segment on Swift, with a couple of participants confessing a surprising fondness for Swift's tunes, which inspired mirth and disbelief from the other hipsters. Slate columnist Dana Stevens posted this response to the podcast, as well as her colleague's account of the concert she attended, saying that she found listening to the young singer's album to be "unexpectedly moving."

Top 10 hits by 19-year-old country-pop starlets aren’t usually high in my iPod rotation, so no one could be more surprised than I am that I now know several of Swift’s songs by heart. (Stephen Metcalf, the Gabfest’s host and resident curmudgeon, can be heard gagging in the background; he and Jody are currently engaged in a Taylor Swift smackdown over at the podcast’s Facebook page.)

It could be that I’m so far outside the age demographic for T-Swift fandom that I’ve circled back around and entered it again. Even before watching that clip of the 15,000-girl campfire singalong at the Garden (or getting sniffly at "The Best Day," her insidiously catchy tribute to her mother), I found that I was listening to Swift as a parent: touched by her youthful talent, worrying about how she’ll negotiate the transition from teen phenomenon to adult professional musician, and hoping to God that when my daughter is 15, she’ll be listening to something like Swift’s “Fifteen” and not whatever the equivalent of Britney Spears will be in 2019. Better yet, maybe my girl will be writing her own earnest ballads about freshman anxiety.

Whether you like her music or not, it's great to think that Swift's success as a singer-songwriter (as opposed to a pneumatic lip-synching doll) could inspire the next generation of girls to pick up a guitar and learn to play.

Is there a more likable performer on the hit parade? And for once, to say that she's a positive role model doesn't feel like someone's blowing smoke.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:57 AM

September 02, 2009

Forza 3 and GT5

The latest generation of console-based games feature graphics that are often hard to distinguish from reality. Sometimes I can't tell at a glance if I'm watching computer-generated game footage or actual film of a real race. This video features a look at the upcoming Xbox 360 game Forza 3, with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how they manage to make the cars looks so realistic.

Although Sony's PS3 hasn't managed to loosen the Xbox 360s stranglehold on the hearts and minds of the vast majority of gamers, it too features a platform-specific racing game that has enthusiasts salivating: Gran Turismo 5.

Ignore the unrealistic pedestrians and focus on the cars and the scenery, the lens flares, the way light plays over the compound curves of the bodywork. It's almost impossible to believe you're watching a game.

And lest anyone tell you that this videogame stuff is for kids, think about this: the videogame business is generating profits that can only make movie moguls green with envy. According to the New York Times:

Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest iteration of the hit video game franchise, racked up first-week sales of $500 million, Take-Two Interactive, the game’s publisher, plans to announce on Wednesday. The report exceeded the sales expectations of analysts.

The company is expected to report it sold six million copies of the graphically violent game, 3.6 million of them on the first day.

Half a billion dollars in its first week of sales. That's some serious money, folks. With next to nothing spent on advertising, either.

Unfortunately, I don't own a PS3, so I'll have to get my GT5 jones out over at a friend's house. But as for Forza, it's time to get a four-point safety harness installed on the couch.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:13 PM

The Fab Four flies high -- in mono

I used to love The Beatles; I can remember what I was doing when the local DJs announced they were breaking up back in '70: Filching a cigarette from a classmate's older brother (Marlboro Reds), beneath the watchful gaze of a Beatles poster. I was seven years old.

When I got out of the military in the mid eighties and headed to college, CDs were all the rage, and I began buying the Fab Four's output on those shiny discs, glorying in the scatch- and crackle-pop-free sound, liberated from the old, scratched-up records and played-to-death cassettes. But I didn't realize that the stereo recordings were not how much of their early work was recorded, nor how the band meant it to be heard. A new rerelease is providing fans a chance to hear the Beatles like never before -- and spend some cash, too.

Tone Audio's Bog Gendron reports:

[E]very Beatles album through The White Album was mixed with the purpose of being heard in mono. Capitol’s remasters mark the initial occasion of Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for Sale being available on disc in a stereo mix; the converse is true for Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles. Finally, the mono editions of Help! and Rubber Soul also include the original stereo mix, which makes comparison listening that much easier.

Without diminishing the value and impact of the stereo editions, which blow away their 1987 digital predecessors in every imaginable facet, the mono discs are where it’s at for experiencing the Beatles in the most “authentic” manner. (Officially, no compression or de-noising was used on the mono mixes; a sum total of less than five minutes of de-noising graces the stereo editions.) Specifically, the group’s early records tend to sound unnatural in stereo, as the hard panning seems forced and artificial—which, in actuality, it is. In mono, the Beatles’ music thrives from ultra-dynamic front-to-back layering that, intentionally or not, often gives the impression of a stereo mix. The changes wrought by the remasters are dramatic.

Please Please Me is distinguished by a previously vacant fullness, richness, and enormity. There’s discernible air and echo around the swooping vocals on “Misery,” and resolute imaging on “I Saw Her Standing There”—quite a thrill. And the bottom end—quite possibly the single-biggest enhancement on all of the remasters—registers with a forceful thump rather than a dull, empty thud. No longer an undefined aural morass, “Twist and Shout” explodes with a clean yet musical clarity, the singing more distinctive and immediate, the instruments possessing true timbres and resonant clatter. And who ever notices the expressive “Yeah!” at the end of the take?

Similarly, the mono With the Beatles unfolds with ear-bending vibrancy and liveliness. The rolling vocal harmonizing on “All My Loving” astounds. Across-the-board upgrades in airiness, dimensionality, depth, size, and Paul McCartney’s vastly underrated bass lines are detectable on every song. And whether it’s the now-noticeable presence of the piano or the wonderfully rattling chords on “Money,” or discernible rhythmic rumble on “Hold Me Tight,” the record has received a startling facelift that even Hollywood’s most expensive plastic surgeon wouldn’t be able to configure. With the band long faulted for being too sweet, the mono remasters open up space for the argument that the Beatles possessed an edge—if not a slight mean streak (witness the 3-D imaging of “No Reply” off Beatles for Sale).

Vocal precision, smoothness, and extension become even more pronounced on Help! and Rubber Soul. Ditto for the realistic bottom end, long absent on most Beatles recordings. McCartney’s bass and Ringo Starr’s percussion ride side-by-side, and smart albeit illuminating shades and accents—the tambourine on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the twangy pitch of the guitar strings on “Ticket to Ride,” the breathlessness of Lennon’s singing on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the natural fade-out on “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Lennon’s sucking of air through his teeth on “Girl,” the barbershop-quartet swoons during “Michelle”—emerge with breathtaking clarity. Enmeshed with the song as a whole, Starr’s Hammond organ playing on “I’m Looking Through You” now comes across as an integral part of the arrangement.

Revolver marks the point at which the mono-versus-stereo debates begin to get interesting. Admittedly, the backward tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sound cooler in stereo. In addition, stereo is how most listeners are accustomed to hearing music; for some, mono seems bare. Yet all that’s sacrificed with the latter versus stereo is a larger soundstage, a perceived sense of “hugeness,” and the security of familiarity; mono mixes exhibit an organic presence, naturalness, purity, and outright musicality that render moot any tradeoff. The horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” have never emitted such boldness or pizzazz; the transparency of the chords during “Here, There and Everywhere” and movement of the bounding piano in “Good Day Sunshine” are utterly staggering. Pure genius.

For kicks, comparing the 1987 digital issue of Sgt. Pepper’s to the new remasters lends perspective to just how awful the former are, and how amazing Capitol’s 2009 entries sound. Whereas the previous edition of the landmark record comes across as tinny, lifeless, shrill, flat, and canned—to the extent where listeners are forced to mentally fill in parts they think (and know) should be present—both versions of the revised Sgt. Pepper’s present the album as an entirely new adventure filled with immense detail, holographic soundstages, authentic studio dimensions, and shocking instrumental and textural surfaces that heretofore have been missing in action. Tracks such as “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” seemingly float on an ethereal bed of studio effects, with tremendous top-to-bottom frequency extension revealing trippy surprises such as bells, wood blocks, congas, and various other percussive trinkets that possess a reach-out-and-touch presence.

I must confess a fondness for their earlier stuff, so I'm actually pretty interested in hearing -- or re-hearing the albums in their mono mixes.

There's more discussion of the later albums at the Tone Audio site. Check it out.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:35 AM