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2011/08/29

Crowded House | Together Alone

By Jav Rivera

Music is miraculous for the mind.  It can produce extraordinary images in dreams and help recall past memories.  My life is full of music and I honestly don’t know who I would be or how I would handle my day-to-day without it.

In 1993, Crowded House released their multi-platinum album entitled “Together Alone”.  It’s both intimate and expansive.  One song makes you want to hold onto the person or thing you love the most and another makes you want to kick open a door and bounce from wall to wall.  It’s a complete album and in my opinion Crowded House’s best.

L-R: Mark Hart, Paul Hester, Neil Finn, Nick Seymour
New Zealand band Crowded House was famous in the 1980s with classic hits such as “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong”.  Front man Neil Finn has a rich history in music including stints in previous band Split Enz and solo work with his brother Tim (who has also contributed much to Crowded House over the years).  Their music is mostly lead by Neil but "Together Alone" appears to be a more collaborative effort utilizing the rest of the band's incredible talent: Paul Hester on drums, Nick Seymour on bass and multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart.

Their music is categorized as rock, pop rock, alternative rock, and new wave.  “Together Alone” is distinctive from previous albums with its use of multi-layered guitars and tribal influences.  The tribal sound can be heard in such tracks as “Kare Kare”, “Together Alone” and “Private Universe”.  It’s also closer to a concept album rather than a collection of pop tracks.

L-R: Hester, Seymour, Hart, Finn
In fact, the only real pop-rock track is “Locked Out”.  The music video unfortunately had a low amount of screen time in America but could have introduced the band to a new and younger audience.  It’s a great rock tune with a dirty electric guitar and melodic vocals.


And despite the rock energy of “Locked Out”, the album also includes tracks like “Walking On The Spot”, a tune lead by gorgeous vocals and a calming piano.  “Pineapple Head” is similar in mood but differs with its use of mandolin. “Private Universe” is romantic and worldly with its use of deep, echoic percussions and tightly strumming acoustic guitars.

One of the first singles released from the album was “Distant Sun” and it’s this track that has the ability to connect with the most diverse of groups.  It’s simple and heart warming.  Neil Finn has a unique ability to write seemingly straightforward and yet meaningful lyrics.  His style has inspired my writing for decades and continues to do so.  The entire album can be summed up with one line from “Distant Sun”: I don’t pretend to know what you want, but I offer love.


I’m not sure how a line so simple can be so powerful but Finn is a master of this style.  Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed studying the methods of literature, especially for lyrics.  My conclusions all point towards the more simplistic a sentence the more impact it makes.  Think of your favorite lines for a song or even dialogue from a film and notice the simplicity.  An example is Frank Darabont’s film The Shawshank Redemption with Andy Dufresne’s line: Get busy living or get busy dying.  It’s an incredible line that sums up everything that Andy has strived to learn about his life.

Neil Finn
The album concludes with the track “Together Alone” and reintroduces the tribal elements found sporadically within the album.  It utilizes a New Zealand Māori choir, which helps bookend the album with a spiritual flavor.  The song ends in a heartfelt chant and leaves you ready to start back at the beginning with “Kare Kare”.  It’s the album’s starting point and an ode to Karekare, a small coastal settlement in northern New Zealand.

Album Cover
“Together Alone” is as fresh today as it was in 1993.  It remains one of my all time favorite albums and continues to inspire ideas and induce feelings.  It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it’s gentle, it’s ferocious, it’s innovative, and it’s one of a kind.  And in this case, it isn’t just good for the mind, but also for the heart.  A stronger recommendation I cannot give.

For more information about Crowded House visit their official website: www.crowdedhouse.com

To hear samples of, or to download, “Together Alone” visit the album’s iTunes link here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/together-alone/id16555461

TRIVIA: “Together Alone” was certified Gold* and Platinum** by the RIAA in several countries including: Australia (Platinum), New Zealand (Double-Platinum), Canada (Gold), Spain (Gold), UK (Double-Platinum).

*Gold = 500,000 units sold, **Platinum = 1,000,000 units sold.

2011/08/20

The IT Crowd: Pounding Into the Future!

By Jav Rivera

Not long ago I was introduced to the UK television series The IT Crowd.  After a few episodes, and after my side hurt from laughing, I realized I hadn’t enjoyed a TV series this much and this consistently since the time that Seinfeld was originally on the air.  And like Seinfeld, this series has a perfect ensemble cast: Jen (Katherine Parkinson), Moss (Richard Ayoade), Roy (Chris O'Dowd), and Douglas (Matt Berry), all of whom have had great success on this and other projects.  It’s no wonder the series has won several awards including: 2009 BAFTA Best Situation Comedy, 2009 British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Actress Award (for Katherine Parkinson), and many more.

Moss (Richard Ayoade), Jen (Katherine Parkinson), Roy (Chris O'Dowd)
The show boasts some of the finest actors and writers, as well as its creator Graham Linehan who also created the shows Father Ted and Black Books, both of which are award-winning series. The IT Crowd follows the day-to-day activities of Reynholm Industries's two IT Technicians (Roy and Moss), their supervisor (Jen) who knows next to nothing about computers and a boss (Berry) whose sexy shenanigans has tainted his public image.

Moss (Richard Ayoade), Roy (Chris O'Dowd), Jen (Katherine Parkinson), Douglas (Matt Berry)
I was concerned when Denholm Reynholm, (the boss played by Christopher Morris in season one), was replaced by new boss Douglas in season two.  But my fears were laid to rest once I watched the episode entitled “Return of the Golden Child” where Douglas first appears.  I quickly fell in love with Douglas and more so with actor Matt Berry.  Imagine a Shakespearian actor overdramatizing the simplest things.  Honestly, I don’t know how the rest of the cast can remain in character when they’re around him.  It’s proof of how incredible these actors are, especially Parkinson who has several awkward and humorous scenes with Berry.

Denholm (Christopher Morris) and Douglas (Matt Berry)
It is Berry, in my opinion, who made the series reach to a new level of greatness.  Morris should be commended for his work as well and for being so humble about being replaced.  He even appears in another episode with Berry.  It should also be mentioned that Morris has gone on to great things including directing his feature debut, Four Lions.

The series is best enjoyed in order but if the first couple of episodes don’t convince you, I’d like to recommend my top 6 favorite episodes.

#6: “The Red Door” (Season 1, Episode 4).  In “The Red Door”, we are introduced to Richmond (played by Noel Fielding), a Goth co-worker who has been cast down to the basement as punishment for his “Gothicism”.  Richmond’s history is explored in hilarious flashbacks narrated by none other than Richmond himself.  The relationship between him and Denholm goes from nurturing to shame.  It’s a great character study of a very weird, loveable person.

Richmond (Noel Fielding) 
#5: “Jen the Fredo” (Season 4, Episode 1).  It’s Jen’s turn to shine as she takes on the job of Entertainment Manager for Reynholm Industries.  And despite everyone’s warning that she’s not the right “man” for the job, Jen is determined to prove them all wrong.  Of course what she doesn’t know is that she’s basically taking out clients for a “good time”.  She quickly realizes she may be in over her head but Moss comes to her rescue in a very unexpected way.

Jen (Katherine Parkinson)
#4: “The Final Countdown” (Season 4, Episode 2).  Moss’s intelligence is put on display after he wins his way onto a famous game show.  He’s the top contender and is later invited to join a rare club that celebrates the show’s contestants.  Meanwhile, Roy is confronted with an aggressive window washer and an old schoolmate with no manners.  And Jen finds herself obsessed with finding out about Douglas’s super secret meetings.

Moss on The Final Countdown
#3: “Men Without Women” (Season 2, Episode 6).  Jen wants to spread her wings when she’s asked to become Douglas’s personal assistant.  Sexual harassment ensues.  Meanwhile, Moss and Roy enjoy their freedom by completing their list of things to do when Jen’s not around.  One of the highlights of this episode is their use of montage editing.  And of course Douglas’s advances are always a thing of hilarity. 
Douglas and Jen
#2: “The Haunting of Bill Crouse” (Season 1, Episode 5).  Jen wins Employee of the Month…well…not really.  But she thinks she does; everyone else thinks she died thanks to Moss’s spur of the moment fib.  Her recent date, Bill, starts spreading rumors about his scary yet sexy experience with Jen.  Roy attempts to flirt with a girl on the 7th floor named Julie or Judy but finds out he's been flirting with the wrong girl.

Judy (Cheryl Fergison)
#1: “The Speech” (Season 3, Episode 4).  Douglas meets the “woman” of his dreams.  Jen wins Employee of the Month.  Fortunately for Jen it’s real this time. Unfortunately, she has to give a speech in her area of expertise.  Of course she knows nothing about her area of expertise so Moss and Roy come in to save the day (kinda) when they explain The Internet to her.  This episode once again utilizes the art of a great montage and Barry's new relationship with April is a thing of classic comedy.

"The Internet"
The show has an endless amount of quotable lines and original comedic moments.  To try and recreate this is impossible, which is probably why the US remake failed.  Hopefully no more attempts to Americanize the show will occur.  This is British humor with universal comedy – too perfect to change.  Like Seinfeld, The IT Crowd has something that rare shows have: the ability to watch repeatedly.  The more you watch it, the funnier it becomes.  I’ve lost track on how many times I’ve watched this series, let alone these specific six episodes.

Roy, Jen, Moss and Douglas
The show currently has four seasons and a fifth has been commissioned. Until then, add The IT Crowd to your Netflix queue (which is also available on streaming) and join Jen, Moss, Roy and Douglas in their office shenanigans.

For more information on the show and to view behind-the-scenes videos visit their official website here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-it-crowd

And look for their official game located here (warning: it can be a bit addicting): http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-it-crowd/articles/the-it-crowd-game


TRIVIA: In addition to their success on The IT Crowd, here are some projects that feature the cast.

2011/08/15

The NeverEnding Story

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless



I was absolutely mesmerized by The NeverEnding Story as a little girl.  Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the film was released in 1984 and starred a talented young cast: Noah Hathaway as Atreyu, Barret Oliver as Bastian, and Tami Stronach as the Empress. Shot largely in Germany during one of their hottest summers in decades, the story revolves mainly around these three characters.  Bastian is a young boy coping with his mom’s death.  On his way to school one day, he’s chased by bullies and ducks into a book shop, where he happens upon a book with a strange symbol on the cover. The shop owner warns him that it’s no ordinary book; unlike other stories where you leave the action as soon as you stop reading, this one is not as easy to walk away from.  With an incredible backstory like that, Bastian caves to temptation, of course, and “borrows” the book as soon as the shop keeper is distracted by a phone call.  Arriving at school after the first bell has rung, he goes up into the school’s delightfully creepy and cobwebby attic to take a look at the mysterious book.  As a storm starts to rage outside, Bastian becomes engrossed in the saga of Atreyu, a young warrior, and his struggle to defeat the Nothing, a mysterious force that’s destroying the land of Fantasia.  Atreyu is given the Auryn by the Empress of Fantasia; the same symbol on the front of the book Bastian is reading.  As Atreyu and his horse Artax journey through Fantasia, searching for the Nothing so that it can be stopped, Bastian realizes that the shop owner was right: this is one story that he’s become part of in more ways than one.
 
The NeverEnding Story is filled to bursting with captivating characters.  Near the beginning, Atreyu meets a group of Fantasia residents fleeing the Nothing, including the appropriately named Rockbiter, who has a taste for limestone.  Deep Roy (who, through modern special effects, later starred as all of the Oompla-Loompas alongside Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory“) is Teeny Weeny, whose traveling companion is a racing snail.  There’s also the nervous Night Hob and his giant bat.  As Atreyu continues on, he meets Morla, the Ancient One (who speaks only in the third person and resembles a gigantic tortoise), and the constantly bickering duo Engywook and Urgl, who direct him to the Oracles, hoping he can find answers to aid him in his quest.  However, it’s Falkor, the “luck dragon”, and G’mork, an evil creature that has secretly been trailing Atreyu throughout his journey, that really add another dimension of good versus evil to the storyline.




Trailer for The NeverEnding Story

As a little girl, I was following in Bastian’s footsteps when I watched this movie; I was so enmeshed in the world of Fantasia that I felt like I became part of the story too.  I’m sure that I identified with Bastian, content to curl up with a book and lose himself in imagination, longed to be brave and fearless like Atreyu when confronted with terror the likes of G‘mork and the Nothing, and sympathized with the Empress, who could only sit and watch as her world literally crumbled around her.  It was that promise of something  magical being just on the horizon that appealed to me too though, and the idea that even a regular kid could do amazing things.  Looking back, the film probably even helped shape some of the things that I still believe in: hope, faith, and the power of loving family and friends to help one through the most grueling challenges.  As an adult, I was almost afraid to watch the movie again.  I didn’t want to break the spell.  The film had had such an impact on me and was such a truly fond memory that I hated to risk ruining that by seeing it through grownup eyes.  I finally caved a couple of years ago, and I’m not sorry that I did.  Yes, the special effects that once were so powerfully magical pale in our current world of CGI illusions.  It was also a little strange to remember what a big crush I had on Atreyu when I was younger.  I flatly refuse to watch any of the sequels, but my fascination with the original film has lingered after all of these years, and there’s still so much of its enchantment that hasn’t worn off.  In fact, I hope that there’s always at least a tiny part of me that forever believes the Empress when she says that things “can arise anew from your dreams and wishes.”

                                               The Empress and Bastian

{If you decide to watch the film, see if you can decipher what Bastian yells out into the storm when he throws open the window in the attic (I didn't figure it out until I was an adult). Also, check out The NeverEnding Story’s page on IMDb.com for a lot of fun trivia from the film.}

2011/08/08

Trashcan Sinatras

by Jav Rivera

I was in high school when I first heard Trashcan Sinatras on the radio. I was in my room, up late as usual, reorganizing my furniture when “Hayfever,” the single from their 1993 album I’ve Seen Everything, came on.  Sadly, it was the only time I heard them on the radio.  I did see them on MTV months later when they were featured in a Beavis and Butthead episode.  But with their combination of acoustic and clean electric guitars, they couldn’t compete in the US with the verging Seattle scene of what would soon become grunge music.

Davy Hughes, John Douglas, Francis "Frank" Reader, Paul Livingston, Stephen Douglas
Scottish band Trashcan Sinatras formed in the late 1980s and after some line-up changes, they released their debut album Cake in 1990.  They’re described as an indie-pop band but alternative rock influences and even retro 60's pop can be heard throughout their albums.


Although they’ve had various band members, the line-up that has recorded the majority of the their music includes Frank Reader (vocals), John Douglas (guitar), Paul Livingston (guitar), Stephen Douglas (drums), and Davy Hughes (bass).

Cake has a very acoustic-pop sound and some of this style echoes into their next few recordings.   The album successfully distinguished them from other music at this time and helped create a strong fan base.  “Obscurity Knocks” and “Even the Odd” stand out among their best compositions on Cake.  "You Made Me Feel" is my absolute favorite from this album and has a calm pace to it.  The ending sounds a bit like Burt Bacharach.  Cake is a strong album with a lot of fan favorites but it also feels like it's been written by a band with their best work just around the corner.

CAKE (1990)
Their follow-up, I’ve Seen Everything, had a more solid production and much better song craft.  It also sounds like a band experimenting with their own unique blend of pop rock.  The guitars strayed into rock with "Bloodrush" and the bluesy "One At A Time."  The album still stayed in the realm of acoustic pop but their sound was incredibly enhanced by the use of orchestration.  Overall, their style became more innovative. Suggested tracks: “The Hairy Years,” “Earlies,” “I'm Immortal” and "I've Seen Everything."  “Easy Read” got most of my attention because of its use of somber lyrics and inspirational music.  It begins like a folk song with just an acoustic guitar and Frank's voice.  An electric guitar, along with the full band, takes over with a new riff.  On the second chorus, the string orchestra simulates the main guitar riff and adds a level of sophistication.  The entire album is a work of art and has inspired me many times over.  The album sounds like the mentality of a small indie band harnessing the aesthetics of a well-established composer.

I'VE SEEN EVERYTHING (1993)
A Happy Pocket was released in 1996 and though it was less experimental, it was by far more innovative and even romantic.  They slowed down Lulu’s hit song, “To Sir, With Love” and created something extremely touching.


Other suggested tracks: "Make Yourself At Home," "How Can I Apply?," "Twisted and Bent," "Unfortunate Age" and one of their most beloved tunes, "The Therapist."

A Happy Pocket would be the last studio album they release for nearly a decade.  And those of us in the United States had to order this album as an import since it was never released here.  For us, Trashcan Sinatras practically disappeared from the public’s eye.  They rarely did concerts (most, if not all, performances were outside of the US) and despite releasing live albums, covers and b-sides, they hadn't produced anything new.  It was later revealed that they had been writing new music and several new songs had been recorded by 2000.  They weren't happy with the music's dark, dismal sound so they scrapped these recordings and started from scratch.

A HAPPY POCKET (1996)
It wasn’t until 2004, that they finally put out the follow-up album, Weightlifting, which mostly showcased them as a delicate band.  As my friend said, “These guys age like fine wine.”  The album kicks off with full on rock song, “Welcome Back.”  The rest of the album comes down a bit and tunes like, “Country Air,” “Got Carried Away,” “What Women Do To Men” and “Usually" all have well-crafted music and alluring vocals.  Never has Frank Reader sounded so warm and reminded me much of his voice on “To Sir, With Love.”

WEIGHTLIFTING (2004)
The album also marked Trashcan Sinatras' first US tour in nearly a decade.  One stop (their first to my knowledge), was at Chicago's Double Door.  I was in the front row with my video camera having been hired to help videotape the concert along with two other gentlemen.  Unfortunately, the concert never made it to DVD.  But it was an honor to videotape them that night. And it was an honor to meet most of the band and even shake hands with Stephen Douglas despite my nervousness as I fumbled to introduce myself.

And as you might guess, I was honored a couple years later when I was hired to author a concert DVD for them.  I was so happy when I got an email from Frank Reader thanking me for my help (I'm still amazed by that).  The DVD, entitled Midnight at the Troubadour, was released in 2006 and includes two other performances. It's available on their website which is listed at the end of this article.

MIDNIGHT AT THE TROUBADOUR (2006)
In The Music, their latest album which was released in 2009 (2010 for the US), is a much more mellow album than any of their previous releases.  I must admit that when they released their single “Apples and Oranges” several months before the album came out, I was concerned of how slow it was.  But in the context of the album, it makes sense and fits perfectly.  Other suggested tracks: "I Hung My Harp Upon The Willow," "Easy On The Eye," "The Engine," "Should I Pray?" and "I Wish You'd Met Her."
IN THE MUSIC (2009/2010)
In the Music may not have as much edge as its predecessors but it’s a solid release with amazing songs.  It's especially commendable because they’re not trying to recreate previous albums and at the same time not trying to reinvent themselves.  They come across as a band willing to grow while keeping their knack for producing extraordinary albums.

So as I think about that late night when I first heard "Hayfever," I think about how much Trashcan Sinatras have affected my life and how much of their music brings back fond memories.  And I think about how much more they will affect me.  I can only hope this article inspires people to discover one of my favorite bands.  It truly is an honor to write this article.

For more information on Trashcan Sinatras, visit their official website here: www.trashcansinatras.com. And to check out their music, visit iTunes.

TRIVIA: The episode where they appear on "Beavis and Butt-head" is entitled "True Crime" and can be found on Season 3, Episode 13 (www.imdb.com/title/tt0859221).

2011/08/02

The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

It’s always a happy surprise when I discover wonderful art in unexpected places.  The poetry of Pablo Neruda was one of those discoveries for me, tucked into a rerun of a '90s era TV show that I watched every once in a while.  I just so happened to catch an episode in which a character recited a few lines of a beautiful Neruda love poem.  My interest piqued by that small excerpt, I was on a search to find the entire piece.  Oddly enough, I don’t know that I’ve run across it yet, all these years later; by now, I‘ve forgotten the lines recited.  It’s not important any more though.  Lucky for me, someone writing an episode of a TV show was a fan of his work, and I was introduced to it in turn.



Pablo Neruda was born in Chile in 1904, and had already become an accomplished poet by the time he was seventeen.  In adulthood, he was appointed as a Chilean Consular and spent time in Asian countries.  He also traveled to Spain, where he became friends with Spanish poets, including Frederico Garcia Lorca.  When his friend Lorca was killed by Facist forces in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, Neruda was pulled into political activity.  A decade later, back home in Chile in 1947, Neruda published a letter that accused the Chilean president of betrayal, and Neruda was forced to go into hiding because he was being pursued by the police.  During this time in hiding, he wrote Canto General, one of his most celebrated pieces of work.  In following years, he would travel, continue to write and eventually became a Chilean ambassador to Europe in 1971.  It was that year that Neruda also won the Nobel Prize for Poetry.  Not long after, having battled cancer, Neruda passed away in 1973.

Ever a writer, bits and pieces of his life and feelings found their way into Neruda’s work, even as the possibility of cancer was beginning to creep in, as shown in “Fear“:

“Everyone is spotting oddnesses/ in my innards, suddenly shocked/ by radio awful diagrams./ I don’t agree with them…I am afraid of the whole world,/ afraid of cold water, afraid of death./ I am as all mortals are,/ unable to be patient.”

It’s that lyrical honesty that’s part of why Neruda’s work appeals to me so much.  He also had a wry sense of humor that makes it even more endearing.  A good example of this is in his poem “Bestiary”:

“Fleas interest me so much/ that I let them bite me for hours./ They are perfect, ancient as Sanskrit,/ relentless as machines.”

The one regret I have is that I’m not quite able to read Neruda in his own words.  The volumes of his poetry that I have are the original Spanish, side by side with English translations.  It’s torturous to be able to read just enough Spanish to know that certain lines aren’t translated exactly verbatim.  This hasn’t stopped me from enjoying his poetry over the years though, and to keep going back to it like a visit to an old friend.