The Music Box: Lotusflow3r & Tambourine

prince-lotusflower3-mplsound-elixer1 Prince is an artist I’ve never been overly interested in. I missed out on the Purple Rain-era (I knew the Milhouse line “So this is what it’s like when doves cry,” long before I knew the song) and by the time I was paying attention to pop music, he was in the middle of changing his name to a symbol and other silly activities I didn’t care about. A few years back, I found Purple Rain for a few bucks at a mall record store and decided to give it a shot. It’s been a while, but I wasn’t impressed. My memory is that the singles were as solid as they’ve always been, but the other tracks were pretty unimpressive.

So, when my pal Jesse sent me 2009’s three disc set of Lotusflow3r, MPLSound and Bria Valente Elixr for my birthday I wasn’t sure what to think. Then, I hit a point last week where I wasn’t feeling podcasts and figured I’d give it a shot, especially after seeing the artist’s recent appearance on New Girl. Holy crap, these are great records!

My problem with Purple Rain — again, if memory serves, which it only does about half the time — was that the non-hit songs felt stale, antiseptic and maybe too produced or electronic. I’ll give it another listen and see if those thoughts still hold up, but that’s what I went into these two records thinking. Instead, I was treated to an awesomely funky, guitar-filled pair of discs packed with songs I can see myself listening to over and over again. From the opening guitar calisthenics of the first track “From The Lotus” to the killer “Crimson & Clover” cover and beyond, I was sold right away and kept getting surprised by how much I loved these two records.

Originally, I skipped over Elixer, but after listening to these albums for a second time and writing most of this post, I figured I should give the third part of this trilogy a listen. Bria Valente has one of those classic female R&B voices that those of us who came up in the late 80s and early 90s remember as being super prominent. Those records weren’t my thing back then, but I found myself enjoying these tracks for their mix of quality vocals and diverse backing tracks that go from slow jams to funkadelic and back again. As far as I’m concerned, the funkier this record goes the better everyone sounds. I’m not sure how often I’ll be jonesing for this kind of listening experience, but I like keeping it around just in case.

tift merritt tamourine After intentionally listening to the Prince discs, I figured it would be a good time to reach into The Music Box and go the random route again. This time I pulled out Tift Merritt’s 2004 album Tambourine. As with many of the Music Box discs, I knew nothing about this going in, popped it on and gave it a listen.

Merritt’s sound reminded me a lot of Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure if that’s altogether fair but they’re both women singing country-tinged songs about their life experiences, so that’s where my head was at. With that comparison in mind — and the fact that they do sound sonically similar at times — I had trouble really getting into these songs. I think the person-playing-guitar-and-singing-quietly thing just isn’t all that interesting to me in the first place. I love that people do it, but it’s not always something I want to listen to unless the songs are super original, hit me in a truly emotional place or do something really interesting with the backing tracks.

When Merritt and company pick things up on tracks like “Wait It Out” and the title track, I’m in, but those wound up being a bit too far and few between for me to keep this one in the collection. Hopefully someone at the library will find it and dig the heck out of it though!

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Series Premiere: About A Boy

about-a-boy-nbc

As you can tell by the lack of posting last week, I got pretty swamped with work. When I get swamped with work, I have less time to blog and get sleepier earlier. In other words, I have less time to not only write about things, but also wind up falling asleep about four minutes into things (sorry Alien).

Anyway, we did watch the Olympics pretty much non-stop and I found myself enjoying them for the most part. I’d like to see robot judges comparing moves to Platonic ideals in judged sports, but we’re at least two years away from that. After the games on Saturday, I was surprised to find myself watching NBC’s new half hour comedy About A Boy.

When I first started seeing previews for this show, I was pretty skeptical. I read the book back in 2012 followed quickly by the movie, both of which were emotionally powerful looks at two strong adult forces and the child in between them who’s trying to figure out which elements to bring into his own life. The story is funny and heavy and a really tough but satisfying ride. So how would all that translate into a half hour sitcom?

Pretty well actually. The first episode is basically a condensed version of the book/film minus the mother’s more intense emotional problems. Basically Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) and his mom Fiona (Minnie Driver) move next door to Will (David Walton). Marcus is very much his earthy mother’s son, but that’s lead to some trouble at school. He winds up forcing his way into Will’s life where the two start becoming friends, something Will uses to his advantage, but eventually comes to realize is mutually beneficial.

By speed skating through the source material, the first episode (which you can watch on NBC.com) might have felt a little quick and off balance, but it also seemed like a good way to jump right into the series. It’s about this kid and these two adults and them all trying to live around each other and figure out the world. I think this cast is well equipped to handle that challenge. Driver pulls off the struggling single mother who also has a strangely positive outlook on the world while Walton seems ready to take on Will’s life which goes from completely detached emotionally to (hopefully) immersed in relationships with others. But the real pressure lies on Stockham’s shoulders who needs to have the kind of innocence that leads a pre-teen to sing a One Direction song at the talent show and dedicate it to his mom because he knows it will make her happy, but also the knowledge that the world doesn’t always react positively to such things. I think he’s got it and am interested to see how things pan out with this show.

Trade Post: Madman Volume 1

madman vol 1Madman Volume 1 (Image)
Written & drawn by Mike Allred
Collects Madman #1-3, Madman Adventures 2 #1-3

Madman’s one of those characters that achieved legendary status in my mind long before I read a single issue featuring the character. Not long after getting into comics I soon discovered Wizard which turned into my main source of news. While the mag mostly featured mainstream superhero comics, they’d also occasionally talk about indie books being done at the time. I remember reading about everything from Hepcats and Box Office Poison to Hellboy and Madman in the issues. Between that and Madman’s appearances in Kevin Smith films and the action figure aisle thanks to his Graphitti Designs figure, he seemed like a big deal.

As it turned out, my first real foray into the wild world of Mike Allred’s Madman wouldn’t come until I started working at Wizard. I believe I picked up a few of the Superman/Madman Hullabaloo issues when they came out, but don’t remember much of the experience. During my tenure at Wizard, though, Allred moved the book from its longtime home at Dark Horse over to Image where he not only started reprinting the original stories, but also kicked off a pretty mind blowing new one. I quickly fell for the new series and was on the hunt for the reprints.

I even got lucky and scored a copy of the first of three trades featuring the original stories. I read it at some point and dug it like crazy. Later someone passed me the third volume. Great! Only one more to go…cut to five or six years later and I finally have the second volume in my clutches. There’s no great story to the acquisition, I had some extra scratch thanks to my recent birthday, decided to buy myself some trades and figured it was a good time to close that gap. With all three books together, it seemed like the proper time for a read through.

Technically, the first volume consists of two three-issue miniseries’, but really, each issue is its own tale. The first three introduce us to a mysterious figure dressed in a white superhero costume who can read some minds when he touches them. He seems like a pretty good guy, but also goes off the handle every now and then. At least he feels bad about it. That first series introduces us to a lot of mainstays from the book who show back up in the second series, Madman Adventures. This feels more like the traditional Madman I’m familiar with from my later readings. Instead of dealing with clone monsters or murderous wannabe mayors, Madman goes on dates, travels through time, fights robots and helps save a 2,000 year old alien all while working with his mentor Dr. Flem and the increasingly brainy Dr. Boifford. The two books also kick off one of my favorite romantic relationships in comics: Madman and Joe.

When I first started hearing about Madman and maybe saw a few pieces of art here and there I got the idea that the book was filled with fun, retro imagery and light stories. While I was dead-on with the former, I was pretty far off on the later. In fact, the character of Madman is all about dichotomies. Even his name is a misnomer for the most part. This is a person with no sense of his self in the beginning of this book who can read other peoples’ minds with a touch…sometimes. In the first mini he rips a guy’s eye out of his face and chomps on it, in the same trilogy of issues he wonders why he can’t drop F-bombs. And while the art might make you think you’re looking at a cartoony book that’s all bright colors and fun, that’s only half the case. The other half finds our hero contemplating huge questions like “Why am I here?” and “Why can’t we fly?”

The beauty of Madman is simply how beautiful Allred decided it should be. It’s gorgeous to look at. Few cartoonists on the planet hold a candle to Allred in most fields. His wife Laura is perfectly suited to color this big, bold book. And yet the beauty isn’t just in the look of the book, it’s also in the words and the themes and all the wild, emotional places Allred decides to explore.

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Air Raiders

This commercial for Air Raiders toys has everything I would have loved as a kid: killer animated opening, perfectly  80s theme song, tiny figures in vehicles and playsets! It’s a wonder, really, that I never discovered these toys as a kid. Much like Dino Riders, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, these are basically in the same family as M.A.S.K., a line I loved as a kid. Tiny toys with vehicles was my jam, gang. You add air-powered projectiles and avalanches and this really would have been a home run, but I just never knew about it. In fact, I don’t think I even knew it existed until I did a feature for ToyFare a while back. 

We Want Action: Run (2013)

Run-2013-Movie-Poster Every week or so I spend too much time scrolling through the new movies that show up on Netflix Instant. There’s usually a new release or two of interest and then any number of weird other selections I find myself wondering about. Run, or Street Run as it was apparently called overseas, had me with one work: parkour.

I’ve been fascinated by parkour or free-running since grade school when my pal Jimmy said he saw something on MTV about this thing called freestyle walking. We never tried anything too crazy like the flips and tricks you see in YouTube clips or movies like District B-13, but we had some goofy fun with it now and again. Years later I found out more about how crazy and intense parkour could be. It fits right in with my love of watching over-the-top dance movies or even the Olympics where I enjoy seeing people taking control of their bodies and doing things I’d wind up in a hospital for just thinking about too long.

So, as you can imagine, when I read about this movie about a parkour criminal kid starring Adrian Pasdar from Heroes and Eric Roberts from The Expendables, I was pretty easily sold. To elaborate a bit on the plot, Pasdar plays the father of William Moseley’s character, a high schooler who uses his free running abilities to steal for them because dear old dad keeps them nomadic. After screwing up a job, Pasdar decides to move them back to New York City so he can settle an old score with Roberts who plays a mob boss. While there, Moseley makes friends with a crew of kids who also happen to know parkour and he winds up falling for the main kid’s sister. There’s even talk of a parkour competition which really made me think this was going to turn into the free running version of Step Up or whathaveyou, but that was not to be.

I actually really enjoyed this film. During the day, the shots look pretty fantastic. At night the obvious digital photography gets a little grainy which is too bad, but I’m guessing director Simone Bartesaghi didn’t have mountains of money to play with. Still, I thought they did a lot with what they did have which includes a cast that did a pretty solid job of being both highly athletic and believable. Sure, some of them are a bit wooden, but I’ll trade that for actually seeing an actor’s face when he or she is doing crazy flippies. I also enjoyed the story which had classic crime and sins-of-the-father motifs along with some solid high school romance/friendship stuff. All of this lead to one of my favorite moments in the movie when the high school parkour kids explain Bruce Lee’s “Be like water” philosophy which probably isn’t in a ton of high school movies these days.

But Run isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s a huge pacing problem during most of the chase scenes which make up most of the action (hence the We Want Action header as opposed to Friday Fisticuffs). It seems like from watching the opening scene that initially shows off Moseley’s character’s skills that he should have easily ditched the cops who were chasing him and yet they were constantly on his tail. There’s also the matter of style over substance. I get that parkour’s about expressing yourself through physicality which is awesome, but when you’re using it to go save a kidnapped family member or two, maybe don’t spent so much time hopping over barrels and whatnot. As a whole, shoehorning free running into activities like dates and whatnot might come off as corny, but I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic because I was cool with it.

And then there’s the soundtrack. A year ago I didn’t understand what dub step was (it’s basically electronica/techno, but more annoying). Now I do and I’m old-man-sick-of-it. It’s not super-overwhelming in Run, but it is there and it will date this movie like crazy which is too bad because overall it’s fairly timeless.

I love being surprised by a movie I find on Netflix. Like I said when I wrote about Drinking Buddies, this is like heading to the video store, grabbing a tape I’d never heard of and being pleasantly surprised. I mean, this isn’t like when I randomly discovered The Warriors, but it was still a fun way to spend 90 minutes.

Quick Movie Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

drinking buddies poster In a lot of ways, flipping through Netflix’s Instant offerings reminds me of my days wandering through my local Family Video and checking out all kinds of movies based on very little information. I usually went by cover or familiar cast, maybe reading the description on the back and just giving all kinds of movies a shot. It’s basically the same thing with Netflix with a lot more landmines thrown in the mix.

When I saw the poster for Drinking Buddies, though, I was pretty sure it was something I’d like. Just look at that cast! Office Space‘s Ron Livingston! New Girl and Safety Not Guaranteed star Jake Johnson! Pitch Perfect‘s Anna Kendrick! And Olivia Wilde whose work I’m not really familiar with. I also didn’t know much about writer/director Joe Swanberg who took a very improvisational approach to this film, often just letting his actors go with a few story details and seeing what happened. Swanberg’s a big deal in the small budget subgenre called mumblecore which usually focus on super personal stories for the characters.

In the case of drinking buddies, Wilde and Johnson play co-workers at a brewery who are also good friends. They’re each in a relationship, Wilde with Livingston and Johnson with Kendrick, but a trip to a cabin soon breaks up the norm for them. I won’t get into spoilers — by the way, skip the IMDb trivia page for the film before viewing because it’s super spoilery in the main section — but the film essentially finds these two characters examining their relationships with one another and their partners.

As I mentioned above, I wasn’t very familiar with Wilde going into this movie, but I found myself really enjoying her character and performance. Of the group, I think she’s got one of the more complicated characters to play and she pulls it off. She’s really great at her job (which seems to be in PR or something along those lines), but doesn’t really have much of her life aside from that in order. Her relationship with Livingston feels like a placeholder even if she doesn’t want to admit it. And when you see her in her apartment, it opens up a whole house full of windows into who she is (the birthday cake thing made me cringe).

Overall I liked this film. The chemistry between the characters is spot on. You get why each person is friends with/connected to/in a relationship with the others and it all feels fresh. I don’t know how big a fan I am of the super realistic way the characters talk though. It might feel more real — people stutter, repeat words and get lost in thought all the time in real life — but that can be distracting in a piece of fiction. But if this improvisation format allowed the actors to better tap into the emotion of their characters, I can handle lots of “likes” and “ums.” The movie also doesn’t have a traditional arc when you think about it. At the end of it, you’re not really sure what’s up with any of the characters. Truths are told, but we have no real idea what ramifications the events of the film have. This also didn’t bother me too much, but I can see it being a sticking point for some. I think if you’re a fan of the actors — Jason Sudeikis is also in a few scenes — and are even remotely familiar with this style of indie filmmaking, I think you’ll dig it too.

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Knight Rider Impossibles

I don’t know how often I watched Knight Rider as a kid, but I sure loved the concept. It’s not the kind of show that I have distinct memories of, but how could a kid in the 80s not find something super cool about a guy driving around in a car that talked to him and could occasionally do awesome tricks?

Had I known about this LJN Knight Rider Impossible set, I probably would have been all over it. While I had a small bucket of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars and one of those orange tracks, they weren’t my main source of toy entertainment. Still, a track with a chargeable KITT that could do crazy loops would have been close to irresistible.