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!

Pitch Perfect Is Pretty Great

pitch perfect posterPitch Perfect might be far from perfect, but I still thought it was a seriously enjoyable film. The only thing I knew about this movie going in was that it was about a group of female singers and that’s pretty much it. I had no idea it was set in college — most of the women in the film are nearing or over 30, though that doesn’t really bother me — or that Anna Kendrick was the main character or any of that. Yet, I still really enjoyed this movie.

I wonder, though, if you might have to be predisposed to this kind of flick to enjoy it. It shares more than a passing resemblance to Bring It On. In fact, I’d put those two movies in the same sub-genre with Fired Up and Stick It and that’s a group of films that I enjoy. I guess it’s basically just a sports movie featuring women and sports I’m not familiar with handled with a solid sense of humor. I’m not sure what this sub-genre should be called, but someone should coin a killer term.

Anyway, Kendrick’s a college freshman who wants to move to LA and start paying her dues in the record industry so she can eventually become a producer. Her dad’s a professor who wants her to get an education. For a while she has no interest until he makes her a deal saying that if she joins some kind of campus group and still doesn’t like it, he’ll help her move out and follow her dream. She winds up joining the school’s all female a cappella group, the Barden Bellas, and things move on from there. They have a rivalry with the all-male group (The Treblemakers) that gets interesting when Kendrick’s love interest joins that group. There’s also the Glee-style structure of hitting regionals and semi-finals and whatever.

You can tell from watching this movie, that the director’s cut was probably about four hours long. It feels robust and full, but also like some bits might be missing. We never quite find out why Kendrick is so mad at her dad (though it is better explained in an extended version of a scene on the Blu-ray). There were also scenes with the sexy English or Australian upperclassman DJ at the school radio station and a few other dangling plot points, but even with all that, I still found this to me an incredibly entertaining and fun movie. I’m also okay with not having every single possible detail about a person’s life even though I’m watching only a 2 hour segment of it. That’s how life is and I feel talked-down-to when every small detail is laid out for me.

I have a confession to make that might also contribute to my liking of this film: I was a pretty big fan of my college’s a cappella group the Owtsiders (we went to Ohio Wesleyan University, which was often shortened to OWU, get it?). Just about any time they had a concert I’d go. They always seemed to be having such a good time, it made me wish I could sing. I think the filmmakers did a good job of capturing not only that onstage presence, but also the kind of weird fandom a group like this can engender (seeing the smallest hint of myself in Benji was a little creepy). The sense of fun I got from the Owtsiders was on screen both in the performance scenes and the one where Kendrick breaks and reveals that she, like me, knows the words to Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA.”

More than being clever and funny, the movie makes me want to care about Kendrick’s character. I can relate to people with walls up who don’t want to let anyone in for fear of being hurt. I can relate to trying to be so self reliant that you actively shy away from interacting with people. I get her as a character to the core, of course it helps to understand her when all her favorite songs are about being bulletproof.

There was one funny thing I noticed about the cast of this film. While the women are all doing their things and doing it awesomely (Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp and Hana Mae Lee kill it), the dudes all reminded me of more established actors. Adam DeVine is doing Jack Black in his performance as Bumper. There wasn’t a moment he was on screen that I wasn’t thinking about Barry from High Fidelity, but douchier. The bigger guy that plays McLovin’s sidekick (I’m still not clear what either of them had to do with the clubs as neither of them was actually in one of the groups) was doing his best Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family impression. Even our two sympathetic mail leads at least seemed like existing characters. Jesse (Skylar Astin) looks like Dane Cook and Shia LaBeouf’s love child and Ben Platt has a minor Napoleon Dynamite thing going on as Benji. I’m not saying these guys all tried to be like other performers, but these things popped out to me while watching the movie. Lastly, Utkarsh Ambudkar looks exactly like my friend Kevin which is a little creepy.

So, no, Pitch Perfect is not a perfect movie. It’s not completely original, the cast is way older than it probably should be and some scenes were probably kept in in service of song and dance numbers instead of story, but as a whole I think it really works. If you’ve been burned by the unevenness or downright silliness of Glee, don’t let it keep you away from this movie. If you love Glee, well, you’ll probably dig this movie too. Also, if you like fun, you should dig Pitch Perfect. After writing this, I actually kinda want to watch the movie again…

Christmas Stories: 12 Of My Favorite Christmas Records Of All Time

It doesn’t feel completely accurate to say that my wife and I like Christmas music. We freaking love it. We both come from homes that celebrated old school classics as well as newer material. As a result we have a pretty solid and impressive collection of Christmas music. In fact, we actually have an iPod dedicated specifically to Christmas music. When my wife got a new iPod, we took her old mini (which very appropriately is green), cleared out all the old stuff and loaded it up with holiday tunes. As soon as Thanksgiving’s over, we pop that bad boy on and dig those tunes until Christmas. I figured it would be a good time to lay down a list of some of my favorite records to listen to around this time. Hit the jump to dig these crazy tunes. Continue reading Christmas Stories: 12 Of My Favorite Christmas Records Of All Time

Supergroup Showcase: John Legend & The Roots

THE PLAYERS: John Legend (vocals) and The Roots (everything else)
THE STORY: Inspired by his experience campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, John Legend decided he wanted to make a record with The Roots that reflected how he felt at the time. They got together, recorded a series of covers and one original track and the results was the 2010 album Wake Up! (via Wiki).

Like a lot of posts, I’m going to kick this one off with a story from my past. It’s not too long, so don’t worry, I’ll get to the music shortly. Like a lot of colleges, my school Ohio Wesleyan University held a yearly concert on campus for the students called SpringFest. I never actually went to one because I either didn’t care or had something better to do (seeing Everclear with my buddy Jeff instead of watching The Counting Crows). But there was one year that I really wanted to attend and that was when The Roots were playing. I’d never actually listened to the funk/hip-hop group’s records at that point, but I knew of Questlove from that hilarious Chappelle Show skit with him and John Mayer and the band from my buddy Toth who’s always been a lot more tapped in than me. I was all set to buy my ticket after Easter, but on the way back to school after heading home for the weekend, I got a crazy speeding ticket. Money was tight in college and the speeding ticket completely wiped me out, so I couldn’t go to the show. Wah wah.

Fast forward to modern times. Jimmy Fallon scores Conan O’Brien’s old spot on Late Night and he makes the ingenious decision to hire The Roots as his house band. Not only did he instantly score the best band in late night, but also gave me and millions of other night owls the opportunity to become familiar with the group. After being so impressed by their chops I went out and bought one of their albums Phrenology, but it’s more of a slick hip-hop record and that’s not what I was looking for. I wanted something a little more soulful and funky. I didn’t have to wait too long because, soon enough, Jimmy was talking about a new record featuring an epic team-up of soul singer John Legend and the band called Wake Up!

I didn’t run out immediately and buy the album. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw the digital version on sale on Amazon for $5 that I bit. Man, what a fantastic use of a Lincoln. Like The Roots, I’ve long admired and appreciated John Legend from a distance either through live performances on TV shows or guest spots on other records, but I never jumped in and got one of his records. Wake Up! seems like the perfect entryway to both bands but also offers up all the soul/funk/rock/hip-hop stew that I could want from this collaboration. As far as supergroups go, these are two great tastes that taste great together, almost like they’d been playing together for years.

I even dig the fact that they went after lesser known songs to cover for the most part. I’m no soul/funk aficionado, but even I have heard “Wholy Holy.” The rest though are mysteries that feel both historical and fresh at the same time, making me want to check out the originals. It should come as no surprise that every track on the record had me bobbing my head along to the groove. Heck, it even calmed me down as I wrote this post in a coffee shop right next to a pair of teenagers who couldn’t keep their paws off of each other and kept playing with the girl’s hair RIGHT NEAR MY COFFEE. Okay, well, it didn’t calm me down too much I guess.

If you’ve never gotten into but always been curious about soul music of the 60s and 70s, The Roots or John Legend, Wake Up! is essentially the perfect mix of all three. The record can act as a gateway, but also stands as a fantastic, sometimes funky sometimes mellow but always sonically pleasing  listening experience for pretty much any kind of mood. Feeling down? This record will cheer you up. Feeling good? You’ll feel even better. Seriously, the original track “Shine” is really helping to calm me down about those teenagers. They left by the way. Good thing too, or I was going to blare Husker Du in their ears. In conclusion, Wake Up! is a rad record, but it will not help you chase away teenagers who won’t stop playing with their hair. It will probably just make them want to make out, which is far worse. This ends the review as well as the cranky old man portion of the proceedings today.

Casting Internets

Super awesome excellent congratulations to my buddy Sean Collins and his wife Amy for welcoming in their daughter Helena to the world!

I worked on a piece for Marvel.com about Black Panther’s costumes, go check it out.

Someone needs to show the Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark people The Producers. There’s a way out, guys!

John Cryer went on Conan in response to Charlie Sheen’s “troll” comments. Good stuff.

I wish Doug Mahnke was doing interiors on Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown as well as pretty much every other comic. Flashpoint is getting curiouser and curiouser. (via The Source)

After watching nearly every Bond movie (I’m SO close) and disliking the 1966 Casino Royale it’s interesting to hear that an earlier version of the script would have been a lot more faithful to the book. (via /Film)

Alec Baldwin gives Charlie Sheen some advice over on HuffPo. Thanks to the missus for the link!

NME laid out the set list for the upcoming Foo Fighters cover record (actual vinyl) called Medium Rare. Looks like an interesting mix, if I can track a copy down and dig my turntable out, I’ll bite.

Finally, I’m not sure what to think about Sublime putting out a new record. I’m kind of not sure what the point is, especially if you’ve already got Long Beach Dub All-Stars. Anyone hear or see them live? (via Rolling Stone)

Santana & India Arie Cover “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

I haven’t really spent a lot of time with Santana’s current stuff. I have a copy of Supernatural that I found on the free table at my old job (I really miss the free table), but haven’t given it much of a listen. When I heard he was doing a cover record called Guitar Heaven in his current style by grabbing different artists to sing on different tracks I wasn’t super excited. Then I saw the video for his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with India Arie and Yo Yo Ma and I think I’m converted. Gotta love that the guy can still play so well and knows solid artists like India to team up with. Hey wait, is Rob Thomas on the new record? That could be a deal breaker.