To think I used to write a 350-500 word review for Splendid every week. Oh, I had grand plans to revive such a practice on this blog, with the allure of being able to review whatever I wanted to.

But I admit I’m rusty. And it’s been an awfully long time since I heard a new album that was either absolutely stunning or, on the other hand, a spectacular disappointment. Just about everything’s been in between: lots of good stuff, but little of it truly great. So, I offer some capsule reviews in a blatant copy of a format practically invented by one of the “Other People” in my list o’ links…

TORI AMOS The Beekeeper

I’m still convinced that her last album, Scarlet’s Walk, a response to America post-9/11 in the form of a mythical travelogue, is (gasp!) better than Little Earthquakes. So what to make of this inevitably ambitious, packed to the gills follow-up? Her concurrently released book, Piece By Piece, offers some insight into individual songs, but I haven’t gotten much out of the conceit of how she’s grouped them into six “gardens” apropos of the album’s track listing--just chalk it up to typical Tori silliness, I guess. This is a good, sensible album, though--once you give the songs (all 19 of ‘em) time to sink in. Sure, she could’ve pared it down to 12 or 14, but apart from wispy closer “Toast”, I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t have something going for it. Even the lyrically decrepit “Original Sinsuality” contains one of her prettiest melodies evah. Cynics complain that her music’s too safe now; they are, no doubt, probably some of the same fools who damned Boys For Pele back in the day for being too weird. Sigh, the gal just can’t win, even when she constructs (in the best, Kate Bush-like way) both novel mini-epics (the rollicking, soulful “Witness” and the creepy-crawly title track) and pop songs as effortlessly gorgeous and tight as “The Power of Orange Knickers”. A-


I so want this to be my favorite album of the year, and maybe with time and patience, it will. For now, it’s conceptually impressive at the very least. He has a wonderful (if polarizing) voice, but as moving as these songs are, I’m not humming them to myself three days (let alone three hours) later. Two grand exceptions are “Hope There’s Someone”, which leads off the album with mournful piano-and-voice before reaching a spine-tingling, tempo-shifting crescendo; and the glorious “Fistful of Love”, a horn-filled blue-eyed soul lullaby that is my favorite track of the year thus far. So, I’ll give the other eight tracks a few more spins and let you know if he transcends the hype. B+

FIONA APPLE Extraordinary Machine

I was going to wait to write about this until you could buy it, but that’s looking less and less likely an option. Besides, it’s been so widely disseminated all over the web (and received so much play on my iPod) that I can’t not talk about it. First off, it’s not as astonishing a leap from When The Pawn… as that one was from Tidal. But, you only have to compare this one’s centerpiece, “Oh Sailor” to “Sullen Girl”, a melodically similar Tidal song, to get a sense of her accomplishment. On first listen, it immediately strikes you how the chord changes, vocal inflections, and ever-so-slightly drunken piano riffs in the new one seem light years beyond the very capable models in the earlier one. The title track (one of two first leaked last summer), is still definitive, oozing damage and defiant proficiency like a sinister monologue inappropriately submitted for a Disney musical. The rest convey a genuine, if prickly talent not necessarily too good for this world--just too problematical for a major record label. Good for her. A


Finally, she quits folksinging herself into a corner. Ever since 1998’s fine Little Plastic Castle, when she was teetering on the edge of selling out, she’s remained fiercely independent, but has lost coherence, gradually obscuring the catchy melodies that made her a folk-rock icon (no one can do it on persona or attitude alone). Opening herself up to an outside producer (Joe Henry) brings her back, at least partially. Not as potent as her peak work, though you could put the very best songs (“Modulation”, “Recoil”) on a mix tape with stuff from Out of Range and Not a Pretty Girl and neophytes wouldn’t flinch. Those who’ve suffered long and hard with her, however, will sense the welcome older/wiser vibe the new ones exude. B+

ERASURE Nightbird

They’re going to outlast Depeche Mode at this point. A comeback album that doesn’t really sound all that different from their vintage stuff, and it’s a comeback precisely because at times, it nearly matches their best stuff. I’m not expecting to hear “Breathe” or the surging, Abba-tastic “Here I Go Impossible Again” on my radio today, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to find them in high rotation along with “Chains of Love” and “A Little Respect” way back when. Unfortunately, there’s the rub: how relevant is a band that are at their best when they repeat themselves? Not very, but though this sympathetic love letter to longtime fans fails to innovative or surprise, it rarely disappoints. B

IVY In The Clear

Five albums in, this underappreciated trio has their formula down pat: chiming guitars, subtle electronics, Dominique Durand’s arresting, tuneful Nico coo, and smart, terse hooks that idealists believe everyone should know. Here’s another ten concise songs that split the difference between the lush, dreamy cadences (“Nothing But the Sky”, “Ocean City Girl”) and ecstatic, organic dance pop (“Thinking About You”, “Tess Don’t Tell”). After the lovely but uneven Long Distance and the marking-time covers album Guestroom, this is easily their best since Apartment Life--not that they’ll ever top that rare, perfect album. But any band with such a formula that still produces music this compelling ten years in should record for at least another ten. A-

AIMEE MANN The Forgotten Arm

Her knack for snappy, literate pop was mysteriously gone (if not entirely forgotten) on 2002’s alarmingly dull Lost In Space. This isn’t exactly a return to the brilliance of her first three solo albums--I listened to it on her website a few times but haven’t exactly rushed out to buy my very own copy just yet. Whereas her songs used to crackle and sigh with all these weird layers and multiple interpretations, now they’re all simple and transparent. This time, they form a narrative of sorts (revolving around a junkie boxer and his girlfriend in the early 70’s), and you can at least sense the ambition that went into it, not to mention how the final songs resonate like those on a concept album should. But her melodies, which were never that varied to begin with, seem more lazy and samey. Sometimes that’s an advantage, as the majestic, rocking “Clean Up for Christmas” agreeably recalls “I Should’ve Known”. Still, as much as I want to like this, I can't deny that success (even on such a meager scale) has sadly diluted her venom and drive. B-



Even though it seems like a fairly conventional dialog-rich character study on the surface, this is really a strange, complex little film, if subtly so. It tells parallel stories of two ex-lovers: Nora (Emanuelle Devos) and Ismael (Mathieu Almaric). Nora's a single mother who is about to be married to Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin), a successful if dour businessman. Her father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), has just found out he has terminal cancer.

Meanwhile, Ismael is a talented, if unhinged concert violist who has been committed to an asylum. There, he begins an impulsive affair with a fellow suicidal patient, Arielle (Magalie Waloch). Most of this actually plays out like the comedy to Nora's impending tragedy. The two stories eventually entangle when Nora asks Ismael (rather than Jean-Jacques) to legally adopt her son, Elias (Valentin Lelong).

This is the basic plot, but KINGS AND QUEEN veers all over the map, making room for cameos (Catherine Deneuve appears as a weathered yet demure psychiatrist), flashbacks (we learn about the accidental death of Elias' father, Pierre (Joachim Salinger) via memories and possible dream sequences), supporting characters who occasionally steal the show (like Dr. Devereux (the wonderful Elsa Woliaston), Ismael's imposing therapist) and surreal, diverting scenes that seem apropos of the main story.

However, on the whole, Arnaud Despelchin's film is not all that random. Although it often veers between screwball comedy and something approaching grand Shakespearian melodrama, smooth enough to the point where it doesn't feel at all jarring, KINGS AND QUEEN is an intricate set of narrative and atmospheric rhymes--listen for the latter in the musical cues. At 150 minutes, it's about a half-hour too long, but that final half-hour is the film's strongest, especially when the focus is on Ismael (Almaric's performance is nomination-worthy), his family (who are barely seen up to that point), and the touching, masterful conversation he has with Elias.



In my final semester at Marquette, I have to take an elective or I’ll be two credits short for graduation. I pick a class on the history of jazz taught by Dr. John A. Grams, a broadcast journalist professor. Fittingly, he structures the course like a live radio show, lecturing to backing tapes that bring us up to speed on everything from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.

I’d already been listening to some jazz at that point--mostly better-known artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald. Because of his music for the Peanuts specials, I’d also heard a fair amount of Vince Guaraldi. Naturally, the class encourages me to give people like Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and especially Stan Getz a second listen. I never become much of a jazz aficionado; it’s a genre I simply admire, a pond I’ll dip my little toe into now and then. Still, one rainy, warm summer night, having moved back home for the summer, I listen to Coltrane’s epic rendition of “My Favorite Things” in my candlelit bedroom, and everything sounds perfect and impossible to recapture--the angular piano riffs, the endless variations of the song’s original melody, the gentle raindrops like sympathetic daggers against my windows.

This year, the music press takes a disparate circle of artists (most notably The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy), groups them under a new genre, “Electronica”, and proclaims it as the next big thing. It doesn’t blow up like rap, alt-rock or grunge, but MTV begins airing a late night program called Amp that consists mostly of videos by these acts, and I latch onto it--not entirely for the music (although I’m putting more effort to look beyond the mainstream than I ever had before); I’m more interested in the videos themselves.

A few film classes will make you look at everything differently, and I’m excited by a lot of the stuff Amp shows. I admire Spike Jonze’s clip for Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”, which features a guy walking New York streets, blaring the song out of a boombox, dressed in dog costume, with everyone else absolutely unfazed by that last component. I also like Michel Gondry’s clip for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water”, a poetic, perplexing exercise in split-screen symmetry. Seeing such inventive, crafty music videos is almost vindication for all the times people have told me my tastes were weird. See, there’s great, exciting art out there, and I’ve found it!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to take credit for discovering band or video X; nor do I want to entirely turn my back to the mainstream. But at this age, for the first time I’m discerning and questioning what makes something cool. I’m also figuring out that I need friends who are open to seeking out music and movies beyond what everyone else is listening to or watching.

Before I leave Milwaukee in late August, I spend the summer working in retail again. You’d think the most hellish parts of it would be the miniscule pay, awful hours, and so much time wasted trying to look busy. You’d be correct, but having to listen to top 40 radio eight hours at a time was nearly as vile. To this day, I can’t stand to hear “One Headlight”, “You Were Meant For Me”, “I Believe I Can Fly” (which I already loathed) or “How Bizarre” because WTKI incessantly drilled them into my consciousness that summer; “MmmBop” squeaks by now because I haven’t heard it in years.

I see Blur and, oddly enough, Ringo Starr (and His All-Starr Band, of course) at the same venue within the space of a month. I also end up driving out to Alpine Valley two Saturdays in a row to see Phish (see 1996 for my brief obsession with this band) and the H.O.R.D.E. (whatever the hell that stood for) music festival, which mercifully did NOT include Blues Traveler on its roster that year. Instead, Neil Young headlined, with sets by Beck, Ben Folds Five (responsible for my favorite album of that year, Whatever and Ever Amen) and Morphine, a bass-sax-drums trio I’d heard of before but instantly loved live, and no wonder: they were based in Boston.

I move out East with a handful of cassette dubs (many of them featuring homemade loose-leaf paper sleeves) to tide me over until the rest of my belongings arrive three weeks later. Even though new Steve Wynn and Pizzicato Five albums are released around the same time, I wait very patiently to purchase them until I have something to play CDs on. Meanwhile, the cassettes tide me over. To escape my tiny, box-like apartment, I often walk all over this strange new city, and end up listening to two particular cassettes a lot: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and Ani DiFranco’s Dilate (where I’d even neglected to write down song titles on the sleeve!). I still think of this frightening, exhilarating time whenever I hear these two albums.

Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, I pick up a cut-out bin cassette of Saint Etienne’s So Tough at a resale shop blocks away from the Fleet Center. I listen to the ecstatic, swirling uplift of “Mario’s Café” and “Avenue” as I stroll through the North End, holiday garlands lining the streets and intersecting the autumnal, late afternoon sun, and everything seems brighter, shinier and a little more sublime.



Originally produced for (but never shown on) Italian television, director Marco Tullio Giordana's six hour miniseries has a cinematic sweep and scope that translates successfully as a theatrical release.

Split into three-hour halves, the first part opens in a sun-drenched Rome in 1966. Two brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) have plans to take a post-graduation trip with friends up to Northern Europe before heading off to University in the fall. However, their attempt to help Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca) a young woman wrongfully placed in an asylum, go awry, and the brothers set off on wildly divergent paths. Both undergo radical transformations: Nicola becomes a psychiatrist and something of an activist, meeting his wife Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco) during the flooding of Florence and eventually settling in Turin. Meanwhile, an increasingly troubled, taciturn Matteo joins the army and later, the police.

As we move forward through the Turin student riots of 1974, Italy's economic recession in the 1980s, and into the past decade, connections between seemingly disparate characters and events become apparent. There are many tragedies: deaths, abandonment, assassinations, and for more than a few characters, emotional barriers erected by an inability to express one's self and comprehend life's changes. Yet, through all these tense moments, Giordana's film manages to project a warm, inviting glow. The early idealism suggested by the title gives way to a tender, yet unsentimental nostalgia. The final half hour echoes moments from the film's first hour with resounding beauty.

Compared to similarly lengthy, ambitious projects like Belvaux's THE TRILOGY or even ANGELS IN AMERICA, THE BEST OF YOUTH is positively old-fashioned. There's little particularly innovative about the structure or presentation. Still, it's all executed magnificently, with a good cast (especially Lo Cascio and Bergamasco) and screenplay. This is a historical epic suffused with the intimacy of a family-centered drama like THE GODFATHER. Approach it like a great novel, one well worth your time and dedication.



Behold, the Internet. I log on for the first time ever in January, although I’d had an e-mail account for a little over a year at that point (only accessible at Marquette through stations of antiquated black-and-green screened DOS computers). This doesn’t change what I listen to so much that it gives me a better sense of what’s out there and how I can obtain it. Album release date schedules, charts, and, most importantly, information about my favorite artists via their websites are suddenly available with a few clicks of the mouse.

This means no more sojourns to various magazine racks all over town to thumb through a two-week old copy of Billboard. However, it also heightens my anticipation for new releases. I circle calendar dates weeks, sometimes months in advance, counting down the days until I can head over to The Exclusive Company or Vibes to pick up a freshly minted copy of Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid, Steve Wynn’s Melting In The Dark, Luscious Jackson’s Fever In Fever Out, or The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings (yes, I actually bought this last one on the day it came out, so enamored of Wish was I at the time).

I also briefly latch on to Chalkhills, an online XTC discussion group. I timidly never post anything on it, but seeing the next digest appear in my inbox somehow soothes me. I love reading what others have to say about my then-favorite band, which at that point was in the midst of a seven-year strike with their record label (and wouldn’t release any new music until 1999.)

A seismic shift is occurring in my life, and it only partially has anything to do with music. After taking a few film studies classes for a minor, I’m less certain I want to be a journalist. I also take a critical writing course that spring and discover a talent for film and music reviews (my assessment of I’m With Stupid earns raves from my professor, who has never heard of Mann) that far surpasses my interest in straight-arrow newswriting and reporting. I briefly consider transferring to the University of Minnesota to study film full-time, but chicken out and stay where I am to get the degree I’ve already put copious amounts of sweat and stress into earning.

In the fall, I take a magazine publication course and have to come up with an idea for my very own periodical. I have a wonderful dream where the house I grew up in on 12th Street has been inexplicably transformed into a used record store, and I see this as a sign. My magazine will be a tome for vinyl collectors, and it will be called VyMonthly (the bi-monthly vinyl magazine). A silly title in retrospect (Vinyl Monthly scans better), but I was 21, okay?

Speaking of which, I don’t take advantage of too many opportunities that come with being legal. A certain friend drags me to Summerfest four or five times, mostly to hear Midwestern fixture/novelty songwriter Pat McCurdy. While I enjoy McCurdy, having a beer or a wine cooler in hand doesn’t enhance the whole concert-going experience in any positive way for me. I see my third (and final) Violent Femmes show on the Fourth of July, and start spending more of my disposable income on movies instead of live shows.

By year’s end, I’m ready to leave Milwaukee. My roommates listen to too much Hootie and the Blowfish and I’m listening to too much Phish--a brief, strange fascination spurred on by a friend dubbing me a copy of A Picture of Nectar (their best album, and the only one I can listen to today without wincing). I don’t forget the sublime, moonlit summer night my friends and I spent climbing the rocks next to Bradford Beach by the lake, staring at the stars, singing selections from Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes. But I know it's time to move on, move away and seek out the unknown.



(Note: I wrote this before Tuesday night’s season finale, for if Rob and Amber won, I didn't think I'd be in the mood to write anything good about the show. But hallelujah, they lost, and Joyce and Uchenna, the most deserving of the final three teams, grabbed the grand prize. To what I've written below, let me add that luck, dumb or otherwise, is as important as any factor in playing this show's game.)

Often described as the classiest of reality TV series, The Amazing Race is a trip in both senses of the word. Following ten-to-twelve two-member teams as they race around the world for a million dollar prize, it entertains, sure, but it also informs and even enlightens at a level Survivor (much less faddish grotesques like The Bachelor) just can’t reach. Instead of centering on mob mentality and strategic alliances, TAR not only explores the drastically different dynamic of a team of two, but it also requires its contestants to constantly think on their feet: the goal is not merely to survive, but to persistently stay as far ahead of everyone else as possible through a tangle of physical, mental, and logistical challenges.

The show premiered in September 2001 to a public already skeptical of Survivor clones and variants (hello, Big Brother!) littering the airwaves. Ratings were abysmal, but the show managed to come back repeatedly as a summer replacement series. I started watching during the fourth season in 2003, remembered fondly by most fans as the one with Millie and Chuck. They had been dating for a dozen years, and being two good, conscientious Christians, they also both claimed to be virgins. Whenever a TAR team appears on screen, they’re ID’d with credits that give us their name and type of relationship (such as “Married”, “Best Friends”, “Father/Daughter” and the like). Inevitably, Millie and Chuck were always labeled, “Dating 12 years/Virgins”.

That chutzpah alone drew me in to the show, but I also took to the breakneck pace, exotic locales, increasingly more inventive/challenging tasks and most of all, the mounting tension at the end of each episode as teams reach “the pit stop” for that leg of the race (with the one in last place usually getting eliminated--or as some viewers like to say, “Philiminated”, referencing the show’s affable host, Phil Keoghan). Like the most effective reality shows, it felt more addictive each week as I spent time getting to know the remaining contestants.

TAR won an Emmy for Best Reality TV Show that September, which is probably what saved it from cancellation. It returned the following summer for a fifth season, and in a new Tuesday night slot, it finally acquired a sizable audience. Packed with a few new quirks (like the “Yield”, where one team can give an involuntary hour-long “time out” to another team of their choice) and a few quirkier contestants (Charla, the hell-bent midget who often accomplished twice as much work as her teammate, whiny, taller cousin Mirna), the show thrived, culminating in a season-ender that was as riveting as any suspenseful hour of 24 or CSI. The final three teams included Brandon and Nicole (bubble-headed Christian model couple), Colin and Christie (irritating, mean-spirited white couple) and Chip and Kim (goofy but decent, big-hearted black couple). Of course, you wanted perennial underdogs Chip and Kim to win, and they did in a masterfully edited and paced hour full of close-calls, cliffhangers, wise decisions and a fateful, triumphant Yield (directed at front-runners Colin and Christie, of course).

Now a genuine hit, the show won another Emmy and CBS made room for a sixth season on its fall schedule. Unfortunately, in this round, the show came perilously close jumping the shark. One glaring problem was that too many teams now consisted of impossibly good-looking interchangeable model/actor types. When all the other less photogenic teams (the most memorable being delightfully trashy pro-wrestlers Lori and Bolo) managed to get Philiminated first, it was hard to care for any of the young ciphers left standing. But another, more serious detriment to the show was a new, unwelcome fascination with what depths competitive human behavior could sink to. It began with Colin, the fifth season’s lil’ hothead, but reached an embarrassing peak with season six’s Jonathan and Victoria.

A walking (or should we say running) horror show teeming with abuse (mostly verbal but sadly, some physical), J + V’s presence seemed more appropriate for Jerry Springer than TAR. It was Oh-my-God-what-a fucking-train-wreck fascinating at first, but became unbearably painful to watch over the following weeks. Viewers across the globe breathed a collective sigh of relief when J + V were mercifully Philiminated two-thirds of the way through the race (even good ol' Phil could barely conceal his contempt for them). However, their presence left a sour aftertaste, one that lingered up until the last leg, which resulted in a big empty victory for snotty, patronizing Freddy and Kendra.

TAR returned for a seventh season weeks later, and it really felt like a fresh new start. No models, no obvious basket cases, just eleven teams of mostly average-looking people, including two best friends from a rural area (boring description, I know, but it sounds better than calling them “hillbillies”), the show’s first-ever mother/son team, a gay couple (one much funkier and realer than bland, fourth season winners/clones Chip and Reichen), and another couple consisting of a former Gulf War POW (Ron) and a former pageant queen (Kelly, who could never give the previous season’s models a run for their money). It was certainly the most diverse slate of TAR contestants to date.

But look out, here comes Rob and Amber, last year’s Survivor All-Stars contestants who fell in love and dubiously scammed their way to that show’s million-dollar prize. It’s unclear whether they approached TAR or vice-versa, but their presence initially seemed like a gimmick and a bad omen. And while I’ve been praying that scheming, slimy Boston Rob and laughably useless Amber would get Philiminated from day one (and I’m guessing/hoping a majority of TAR’s viewers are with me on this), they do serve a purpose that adds to TAR’s drama and entertainment value: They are, without a doubt, the classic bad guys, the villains you love to hate. They haven’t let us down either, lying about available flights, stealing cabs, driving right past another team who had been in an accident and not even slowing down to ask them if they were all right. They obviously add tension to an already tense, kinetic show, and they give us a reason to root for (most of) the other teams. Without them (or anyone else in the villain role), TAR would merely be a travelogue and a bore.

Season seven has had its share of neat little surprises. Last-place contestants in the three non-elimination rounds now had to not only give Phil all their cash, but also their belongings except for passports and the clothes on their backs. In one episode, teams eventually reached Phil only to find out, ha-ha!, they weren’t at the pit stop, but only halfway through that leg of the race. In another, Gretchen (abrasively voiced female half of this race’s Requisite Elderly Couple) suffered an accident (on top of the frustration of having misread a clue) that would’ve destroyed any of the show’s less physically fit contestants, but displayed tenacity of a stripe that impressively kept her and her long-suffering husband Meredith in the running until the third-to-last leg.

At its best, TAR is breathless in scope and execution, using something as grandiose as a race around the world to explore decisions big and small that often have to be made within a split second. Furthermore, it gives viewers a sense of how sound some relationships really are (whether love, friendship or family-centered) when teamwork is needed to work through stressful situations. Although not entirely without some faulty wiring (how many times can all teams easily catch up to each other before it feels predictable?), it’s the rare competitive reality series where contestants don’t have to prove to the group or a leader figure (ie--Donald Trump on The Apprentice) why they’re worthy of the grand prize; they just have to prove it to themselves (and their partners) in order to excel towards the finish line.



If Guy Maddin's most accessible effort, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, failed to move you, I'm not even going to try to convince you to check out this hour-long film that was made roughly around the same time. Originally shown as a ten-part museum installation one had to fittingly view through a peephole, COWARD BENDS THE KNEE is one of Maddin's oddest (and most sexually lurid!) works.

It involves a dashing young hockey player named "Guy Maddin" (but played by Darcy Fehr) whose lustful appetite for "the joy, joy, joy of meeting someone new!" repeatedly lands him in hot water. Shot in the director's usual silent film homage style, it features such eccentric conceits as a beauty salon that doubles as a brothel by night, vamp seductresses with monikers like "Liliom" and "Meta", wax statutes that need to be fed, and quite a lot of nudity (both female and male).

Of course it's all nonsense, but even if it amounts to little more than a series of interrelated sketches, Maddin's editing is as intuitive as ever, and his narrative prowess continues to grow. This is undeniably one of his stranger efforts, but also probably his funniest (and sauciest) to date: a blend of German Expressionism and macabre horror, by way of Laurel and Hardy.