Separated at birth?

Here’s just one piece of the endless tidal wave of Hannah Montana-branded garbage currently filling store shelves (snapped a pic of this “tin” at a local Walgreens):

And here’s the late Cesar Romero as the Joker:

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View-Master’s 1952 New York City – 3 of 4

While the signs have changed many times over the years, Times Square is just as identifiable today as it was in 1952.  Of course what seems to have changed is the sheer volume of lights – this image looks positively subdued compared to the garish displays of consumerism seen in the Square today, but I imagine it was still pretty impressive back then.

Times Square, c. 1952 (View-Master)

There’s some businesses I can’t make out, but others are hard to miss.  The ones I can get are:

  • Chevrolet (dead center)
  • Kinsey Blended Whiskey (under Chevrolet)
  • Pepsi-Cola (two below Kinsey)
  • Astor Hotel (on the left – it was demolished in 1967)
  • Capitol Theatre (bottom left)
  • Loew’s State Theatre (right of Chevrolet – the original closed in 1987 and was demolished in 1990)
  • Bond (apparel chain, very nice display on the right)

Album reviews: Backyard Tire Fire & The Week That Was

A pair of new albums from both sides of the Atlantic have found their way into my rotation this week.  From the good ol’ U.S. of A comes Backyard Tire Fire‘s The Places We Lived (Hyena Records), the followup to last year’s excellent Vagabonds and Hooligans.  Stylistically, this album shares many traits with its predecessor but is definitely not a rehash.

Checking in at just over the half-hour mark, frontman and guitarist Ed Anderson and company (brother Matt on bass, Tim Kramp on drums) get right down to business with the deceptively simple title track.  It didn’t make a strong impression on me when I first listened to it, but days later the main guitar riff was still rattling around my head, a tribute to Anderson’s songwriting.  The integration of synths and chimes (not to mention a brief, Beatle-esque trumpet part) into the song is a welcome touch.

The album boasts other strong songs, my favorites being “Shoulda Shut It” and “How in the Hell Did You Get Back Here?”.  The former is a rich, mid-tempo Wilco-like number that sounds like it could’ve been part of the Vagabonds and Hooligans sessions, while the latter is balls-out rocker that will probably sound phenomenal live (should BTF choose to include it in their set).

In contrast to Vagabonds, The Places We Lived is heavy on slower, piano-driven songs, a creative direction that may alienate some fans.  That’s not to say guitars aren’t still a big part of the BTF sound, they’re simply a bit further down in the mix compared to past efforts.  What is undeniable is that due to their presence and also to the band’s devotion to analog recording methods, this album exudes a warm, down-home vibe.

What holds this album back from overtaking Vagabonds as the group’s best work is the inclusion of a couple of decent tracks that don’t feel fully formed (“Everybody’s Down” and “One Wrong Turn”), and a feeling of sameness on some of the tracks.  There is, however enough strong material here to make The Places We Lived worth getting, and getting into.

Track listing:

“The Places We Lived”
“Shoulda Shut It”
“Everybody’s Down”
“Time With You”
“Welcome to the Factory”
“How in the Hell Did You Get Back Here?”
“Rainy Day (don’t go away)”
“One Wrong Turn”
“Legal Crime”
“Home Today”

The second album up for review is the eponymous debut of Peter Brewis’s new project, The Week That Was.  Brewis is a name that should be familiar to fans of quality indie music.  He and brother David co-founded Field Music in 2004, and released two outstanding studio records.  They stopped being a band in 2007 and are now a brand, allowing the brothers to pursue their musical muses without the restrictions they felt being in Field Music placed on them.

David was the first to release a new album from the Field Music brand School of Language, the superb Sea From Shore.  Now it’s Peter’s turn with The Week That Was (Memphis Industries), released last week in the UK and this week in America.  It’s definitely a darker and more complex effort than I expected, but it is a totally satisfying one as well.

A lot of comparisons have been made between this album and early ’80s efforts from Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, and while I have never bothered with Kate Bush I can buy the Gabriel references.  The heavy percussion and guitar stabs of tracks like “Learn to Learn” and “Scratch the Surface” recall Gabriel’s third album right and Abacab/Mama-era Genesis away.  Field Music’s signature sound is all over this record, however, just in slightly skewed form.  Think of the moodier and denser tracks from Tones of Town and you’ll get the idea.

The Week That Was is actually a concept album, dealing with the twin strands of crime and our relationship with mass media.  It was inspired both by Brewis’s self-imposed one-week retreat from television and by the crime fiction of Paul Auster.  The problem is that with only a half-hour to tell its story, the album is more about ideas and impressions than a concrete story.  But that’s a minor inconvenience when weighed against the music, which is highly rewarding.

While there are not as many “wow” moments on this album as there are on Sea From Shore, The Week That Was is the rare album that actually does get better with subsequent listens – so those seeking instant gratification should look elsewhere (more immediate songs like “The Airport Line” and “Scratch the Surface” not withstanding).  Now that two excellent post-Field Music albums have been released, I can confidently declare that the future looks bright for fans of all things Brewis.

Track listing:

“Learn to Learn”
“The Good Life”
“The Story Waits for No One”
“It’s All Gone Quiet”
“The Airport Line”
“Yesterday’s Papers”
“Come Home”
“Scratch the Surface”
“A Waltz in the Park” (bonus track exclusive to eMusic)

Video bonus!  Check out the promo clip for “Scratch the Surface”, directed by (and starring) Peter Brewis:

GFS at the Movies: Tropic Thunder

The fact that a movie like Tropic Thunder not only exists but is doing well at the box office is refreshing for two reasons – first because we live in age of political correctness run amok, where works of mainstream art are neutered beyond recognition lest they offend anyone; and because it’s proof that genre spoofs don’t have to be nothing but an endless parade of tired and already dated sight gags and pop culture references (I’m looking at you Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, etc.).

Tropic Thunder is the type of film National Lampoon might have produced back in the day when they were culturally relevant and not resigned to making movies for sexually frustrated twentysomethings.  It was instead directed and co-written by Ben Stiller, who I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with for the most part since his clever and short-lived TV show.  With this film, he has redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes (until the inevitable Meet the Parents 3 at least).

This movie-within-a-movie concerns the making of Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam War pic that is itself based on the memoir of Sgt. John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte).  It stars an unlikely cast featuring nearly washed up action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), intense Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedic actor Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black), hip hop/commercial mogul Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and the fresh-faced but otherwise unremarkable Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

Filming quickly falls behind schedule, helped not in the least by petulant talent and a botched pyrotechnics shot that fondly recalls the opening of the Peter Sellers classic, The Party.  When the film’s producer profanely chews out greenhorn director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), Tayback convinces him that the only way to get things back on track is to immerse the pampered actors in a real jungle combat environment.

I won’t get into the plot any more than that, but you can probably guess that things predictable backfire on Cockburn.  From here, the movie becomes less a spoof and more a direct and broad comedy.  And while the main cast acquits themselves nicely, Tropic Thunder eventually (although perhaps not intentionally) becomes a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., who displays some fine comedic chops as a way-too-serious actor who seems to be a goof on Russell Crowe.  Some of the movie’s funniest moments revolve around the touchy issue of a white actor taking the place of a black one (in this case, not through blackface but through skin pigmentation surgery).

But what actually drew me to the movie in the first place is the ridiculous controversy over its portrayal of people with “intellectual disabilities”.  And I’m here to tell you that while I can see where the protesters are coming from, they’re way out of line here.  It’s a damn comedy, and the scenes in question take up maybe about 10 minutes out of the whole film.  And while I may not use a line like “never go full retard” in Bible discussion group, I laughed hard at it anyway.

But with or without the controversy, I can highly recommend Tropic Thunder.  It’s not a comedy classic, but it’s still damn funny and manages the increasingly uncommon feat of being raunchy and clever at once.  Oh, and it features a cameo appearance that, if you haven’t heard about it yet, is totally unexpected and an ace bit of casting.  I won’t give it away here, but the actor’s name is listed in the tags for this post.  Yet another bit of redemption…

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Venture Bros. wrapup: “The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together (Part II)”

I think I’m gonna need some more time to process the season 3 finale of The Venture Bros., but for right now I can’t help but feel a bit let down. I think that’s because Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer haven’t yet figured out what they really want their show to be.  Do they want it to be an homage/parody of the action/adventure genre, or do they want to fully invest in their own universe and mythology?

All signs pointed to the latter as season 2 progressed, and that was reinforced this season with so many plot- and backstory-laden episodes.  The laugh-out-loud moments decreased in general this year, but the payoff was ostensibly a series of richer stories and an opportunity to appreciate the show with more than ironic detachment.

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Album cover of the week: Down on the Upside

In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that Down on the Upside was a signal that Soundgarden was at a musical crossroad, and might not be long for the world.  While there were quite a few good songs on the album, it was not nearly as focused or unified as previous efforts.  In fact, less than one year after releasing the album in May 1996, Soundgarden called it quits.

And while Down on the Upside does show the band slipping from the creative and commercial apex of their 1994 megahit, Superunknown, it is a worthy entry in the Soundgarden canon.  And for my money, the cover art here is the best of the band’s career.  While the imagery is simple, what makes this a great cover is the excellent composition and color scheme.  The typeface, which appears to be identical to the one used on Superunknown, isn’t great but does the job.

And as far as I can tell, the silhouetted band members are (l to r) Kim Thayil, Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron.

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Tiki Barber goes nuclear at the Olympics

Warning: This video is not for anyone easily offended by derogatory words concerning female anatomy.

Curious?  Yeah, I thought so.  I haven’t watched a second of MSNBC’s Olympics coverage, but I think I need to start right away.  Particularly for the “Olympic Update” segments featuring co-hosts Tiki Barber and Jenna Wolfe.  Tiki, as most of you probably know, was a running back for the New York Giants until 2006, when he retired under less than friendly terms with the team.  They of course went on to win the Super Bowl without him at the end of last season.

That’s what Wolfe is alluding to at the beginning of this clip.  Pretty nasty dig for the situation I must say.  But then Tiki took it to a whole ‘nother level with his supposed slip of the tongue.  It’s at the 28-second mark:

Wow.  Just wow.  There is no way that was accidental, and Wolfe knows it.  Notice how she can’t even look at Tiki after his remark.  Now that’s interesting television, people.

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Retrotisements – Burger King ’76

You wouldn’t know it these days, but it is in fact possible to market fast food to black Americans without acting as if they all loved either lame rap or watered down R&B; or as if they all spoke whatever the hip, urban vernacular of the day is (yes, I’m aware of just how painfully white that sentence makes me seem).

And I have the proof right here, in the form of two vintage Burger King print advertisements from 1976.  There’s no pandering or awkward attempts to integrate African-American culture here.  Well, perhaps a small one in the first ad (can you spot it?).

1976 Burger King "Have It Your Way" African-American advertisement

1976 Burger King "Have It Your Way" African-American advertisement

Your eye may first be drawn by those groovy fashions, but I immediately took note of the old-school wood decor found in BK establishments of the time.  Sadly, that wooden sign and many like it are either rotting away in landfills or were burned.  The pattern shirts share the same fate, if we’re lucky.

(Image credit: I nabbed these from the aptly named Flickr set, 1970s Era Ads Targeting African American Consumers.)

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Still More Mysteries of the Universe

Dietz & Watson Philadelphia Scrapple

Take out the 's' and you've got the idea.

(For other mysteries, check out here and here.  Or don’t.)

  • Surely there are some ugly mermaids out there — why hasn’t one ever been represented in a movie or TV show?
  • Does anyone in this country really give a rat’s ass about the Olympics?  I mean, outside of the basketball team and Michael Phelps, can you name five American athletes on this year’s squad?
  • Could I avoid a vehicular homicide charge if I run a pickup with one of those rubber testicle trailer hitch cover things off a cliff?
  • How is it there are still men on this planet who don’t understand that if you are in a men’s restroom and there is more than one open urinal, you always leave at least a one-stall buffer?
  • What’s the point of having a self-serve machine at the post office if it’s so damn complicated for most people that it has to be staffed with a window clerk?
  • At what point did America go from the Land of Plenty to the Land of Way Too Much? (see picture above)