Friday, September 30, 2005

The Night Stalker (2005 redux): Eh, shrug...

The original Night Stalker TV series holds a very dear spot in my heart.

It covered the adventures of Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin), a hard-nosed scrapper of a newspaper reporter who zeroed in on stories that skirted the bizarre and supernatural, much to the chagrin of his eternally flustered editor, Tony Vincenzo (played by the eternally-blustering Simon Oakland). Week after week, Kolchak chased scoops involving vampires, zombies, werewolves, and all manner of other unexplained phenomena, only to be consistently thwarted in his attempts to deliver the truth by the skeptical (and occasionally conspiratory) authorities.

The Night Stalker was one of the first TV shows to hurl supernatural boogeymen into modern urban life, and it was a freaky mix. That collision of the monstrous with the mundane made the show scary as hell, a lesson not lost on Chris Carter, the creator of another beloved TV fantasy--The X-Files.

The key to the original Night Stalker's success was McGavin. The veteran actor's probably best known to modern audiences as the gruff-but-loveable dad in A Christmas Story, but Kolchak is his character for the ages.

Carl Kolchak navigated his world with the hyperkinetic bulldog verve of a Preston Sturges character. He was a quick-witted, somehow endearing mug who barrelled into danger with more gumption than common sense. And every episode ended with McGavin's declamatory narration as he pounded out the last few lines of his latest supernatural adventure on his old manual typewriter, in the dark, with most of the menaces he reported still on the loose. This effective close to each installment gave the show a real journalistic urgency, and it scared the pants off of yours truly with delicious regularity.

So how does the new Night Stalker fare? All nostalgia aside, it pales.

The new model sports a well-produced surface, serviceable writing, appealing (if lightweight) leads, and in its defense it does try to be a different animal than its predecessor. One of the problems, however, is that it doesn't try hard enough to distinguish itself from Night Stalker's most well-known spiritual progeny.

The male/female partnering of Kolchak (played by Stuart Townsend, late of Queen of the Damned) and a fellow crime reporter (Gabrielle Union); the redemptive motivation behind Kolchak's dogged pursuit of the (supernatural) truth; the obligatory untrustworthy government officials; and Vincenzo being softened up a la Agent Skinner; all of these elements smack of The X-Files, flavored with Splenda (the new Stalker is the brainchild of former X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz). And, honestly, in an attempt to sustain a mood of ambient supernatural dread, the new show largely eschews the jarring shocks and jumps that made the original so frightening. Such tomfoolery would be too undignified, I guess (God, how the premiere episode ached for a sense of humor).

In the end, though, there's something missing from the center. Townsend has charisma (I actually enjoyed his flamboyant work in the putrid-but-fun Damned), but he and Union just don't feel like hardened, seen-it-all reporters. The original Kolchak would've left these two overly-earnest and attractive kids in the dust en route to the next bizarre mystery, wisecracking all the way. Hunting monsters ain't kids' stuff, y'know.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

OK, it's a TRIPLE feature...

...the opening, opening band at the C!BR/Bloodhag show, the Dead Vampires, looks to be a hoot as well. Check out their website, and get to the Funhouse extra, extra early.

There. I feel better now.

Sci-Fi Death Rock Double Feature at the Funhouse Tomorrow...

Somewhere, there's an alternate universe where Philip K. Dick is a struggling teenage kid who gets a job at Chuck E Cheese's.

One day, he's surrounded by a swarm of pizza-sauce-encrusted moppets and bored out of his skull. Looking to take the sting of mewling rugrats out of his ears, he sneaks out of counter duty to scam a quick hit of weed in the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator.

While he's in the fridge toking away, the apocalypse hits. It's the Big Kahuna, a Hammer-of-Thor thermonuclear salvo that levels almost all of the country, and vaporizes all of the restaurant's human occupants. Except for Phil.

The dazed pizza-counter jockey staggers out of the walk-in refrigerator to survey the devastation. All of the kids and their parents are piles of powdery ash, and the restaurant (fridge unit excepted) is charred wreckage.
But off in the corner, under the last vestiges of the building's structure, is the Chuck E. Cheese robot band. Some of the automatons retain their mammalian appearances, albeit singed and warped by the nuclear winter. But the atomic blast has singed the fur and exterior off of the largest one. And a funny thing has happened.

Somehow, the radiation has imbued the Chuck E Cheese robots with independent thought. And now, they're ready to rock.

The giant Skeleton Chuck E 'Droid rips Phil off his feet, slapping a dog collar around the would-be author's neck. The machine's metallic mandibles shove a gnarled metallic mask over the poor kid's kisser, and a guitar into the teen's pale and trembling hands. A hollow, tinny voice emerges from the hulking robot:

"You will rock. And you will rock, NOW."

There's a more concise bio of Captured! By Robots on their website, but I like to imagine a more fatalistic backdrop for 'em. Anyway, they'll be touching down at Seattle's Funhouse (one of this town's best sweaty punk clubs) for some metal machine mayhem tomorrow night. I saw them (him?) about two years ago, and I'm still reeling. Again, think Chuck E. Cheeses' in Philip K. Dick Hell. With an industrial-metal backbeat.

AND get there early, because opening for this robotic rock onslaught is Seattle's own Bloodhag, a quartet of sci-fi book-lusting hooligans who pump out the most volcanic death metal you've ever heard. The 'Hag bring the noise in full librarian regalia (refer to the lovely Lilly Warner-shot photo above if you don't believe me), and if you're looking for reading material, lead growler J. B. Stratton hurls sci-fi paperbacks at the audience. Beneath Stratton's Disembowelled-Orc-on-Crystal-Meth snarl lurk some trenchantly hilarious lyrics, all about science fiction authors. And beneath the central conceit is a sharply-played audio assault and a zealot's fervor for book-learnin' rock audiences. If you profess any love for sci-fi, literature, or loudness, you need to be there. Bloodhag call themselves edu-core. I call 'em gods.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

God Bless The Brian Jonestown Massacre

I've always been open-minded enough to give stuff a second chance. And showing that consideration for the Brian Jonestown Massacre has made me a very happy boy.

I picked up their 1998 CD, Strung Out in Heaven, for a tidy $2.25 (including shipping--God bless you, eBay) a little over a year ago on a whim. My initial take: decent--but far from essential--revivalist stuff; a little bit of pre-1970 Stones, a touch of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, some retro-psychedelia a la Echo and the Bunnymen, some shoegazer swirliness, and some pretty uneven singing.

But three or four perfect classic rock songs lay buried on Strung Out. Simply put, they wouldn't leave my head. Something told me to explore further, so when Tepid Peppermint Wonderland, a two-disc Brian Jonestown career retrospective, hit record shelves last year (on sale for eleven bucks, no less--God bless you, Easy Street Records) I took the plunge.

Now I get it, and I'm hooked, baby. Straight up and down.

What Anton Newcombe (the BJM's frontman, songwriter, producer, and archetypical nut) is doing ain't reinventing the wheel. You'll get no argument from this corner that there's nothing new going on in the Brian Jonestown Massacre's universe. But I'll argue to the death that the result is some great rock and roll; ragged, sawed-off-shotgun erratic, but frequently, gloriously right.

Tepid Peppermint Wonderland provides a dynamite introduction to the band (much better than the polished but less-satisfying Strung Out in Heaven). The first disc, especially, brims with tons of shoulda-been hits, from decadent and sloppy Stones-y rock ("Who?") to joyous post-punk ("Vacuum Boots") to epic guitar mantras ("She's Gone"). And I dare anyone reading this to find a better, more perfect two minutes of pensive pop heaven than the magnificent "It Girl". Folks introduced to the band through DIG (the documentary featuring the BJM and their pals/rivals, The Dandy Warhols) might also be surprised to find out that Newcombe possesses a sharp sense of humor to back up his hooks, too; "All Around You (Intro)" is a really, really funny Stones parody, and you can't argue with the amusingly snotty (and brilliantly-titled) "Talk Minus Action=Sh%t". The 2005-model Mick and Keith'd give their dentures to write songs as strong as these.

The second disc sags slightly with a couple of live tracks that showcase Newcombe's Achilles Heel; his singing. He possesses a maddeningly inconsistent set of pipes. One minute he's showcasing a bracing Jagger-esque yowl or an affecting Brit-inspired croon, the next minute he sounds like a tone-deaf eleven-year old singing along with Exile on Main Street.

But ultimately, that very inconsistency goes hand-in-hand with one of the band's strong suits--unpredictability. I like not knowing whether the next track on a typical Brian Jonestown disc is gonna be two minutes of pop bliss, four minutes of trashy garage rock, eight minutes of hypnotically sensual psychedelic throb, or twelve minutes of Anton Newcombe literally standing on a streetcorner yelling about God and Buddha like a dotty old loon with a sandwich board. There are undoubtedly more original bands out there, but few of 'em offer such a wild ride from record to record.

That wild-card quality carried over to the BJM's recent live gig at Neumo's here in Seattle on September 9. Newcombe's current roster of musicians were almost docile in their subservience at first (then again, if you've seen DIG, you can't blame 'em). The man himself, by contrast, was prototypically rock-and-roll in his inebriation, his between-song patter veering sharply between drunken inanity and insolent wit (his rant on our Commander-in-Chief's inability to "even eat a f#*&ing pretzel properly" generated paroxysms of intended laughter). Once the music started, though, Anton Newcombe was a pure, committed viaduct for the groove. The primal rhythms and eddying walls of cinematic guitar noise immersed him as fully as they did the audience, and his bandmates relaxed considerably about a third of the way into the set, shucking their timidity and seriously cooking by the time the nigh-two-hour show careened to a close.

Silly as the guy comes off sometimes, there's no question that Anton Newcombe believes 110% in what he's doing. And like James Barrie's fictional man-boy Peter Pan, sometimes the BJM's leader looks like a frickin' idiot. But in an age where lock-step new wave revivalism and calculated diet punk pass for dangerous, the Brian Jonestown Massacre's old-fashioned shambling rock and roll freakshow is downright liberating. And catchy as holy hell.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Sixty Years of Pop Music in 90 Minutes

I love the primal power of a guitar chord as much as the next knuckle-dragger, but there's something uniquely inspiring and entertaining in the simple, timeless intertwining of singing voices in harmony. If it's done right, acapella singing can hopscotch genres and entertain with more versatility than even the most adroit rock musician can muster. And Bodacious Ladyhood do the (mostly) acapella vocal tango splendidly.

All Girl Band, the trio's current cabaret show, runs at Thumper's in Seattle, Fridays and Saturdays until October 1; I was fortunate enough to catch it last week, and I'm glad I did.

If you don't have a lot of patience for vocal-group shenanigans, fear not: The Ladyhood are one step ahead of you. Their set wryly touches on many of the format's cliches with knowing and loopy humor, even as they deliver the song selection with panache and passion. Andrews Sisters covers come a dime-a-dozen with vocal groups, but this ensemble playfully poked fun at that inevitability before unearthing a hilarious Sisters obscurity ('Strip Polka') and singing the hell out of it.

The remainder of their program last Friday bounced easily between doo-wop (a fun 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love'), swing ('Route 66', done to a cucumber-cool T), Broadway (well-chosen selections from A My Name is Alice and Guys and Dolls), Bacharach (a sublime and tight cover of 'Say a Little Prayer'), and even prog rock (BL's lush remake of Spock's Beard's 'June' totally beat the stuffing out of the original). They delivered several songs by Northwest acapella loonies Uncle Bonsai with relish, and their cover of Moxy Fruvous' 'Kick in the Ass' was flat-out hysterical. Even through the silliest material, none of the guffaws came at the expense of vocal finesse.

All three women--sopranos Carolyn Hastings and Loretta Deranleau Howard, and alto Jenny Buehler--are solid singers individually, and their distinctive pipes each added something to the mix. Hastings held the high end with angelic purity, Howard provided gospel belter's fire in the middle, and Buehler's creamy low notes lent nuance to the bottom end. Deanna Schaffer's fine ivory-tickling fleshed out the sound in all the right places. In the end, though, the ensemble's the thing, and all three voices interwove with un-self-conscious ease.

A really great acapella group can make even the most marginal pop song sound good. And these women reconfigured a Phil Collins song enough to make it palatable to me. That, my friends, is sheer flippin' genius.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Beautiful, Beleaguered New Orleans

As I write this, Hurricane Katrina has wreaked unholy havok on New Orleans. The devastation is nigh-total: God knows how much of the Big Easy is submerged in flood waters, and hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people are feared drowned. Like so many people, the whole horrible tragedy is incomprehensible and overwhelming to me.

If you haven't done so already, give some money to the Red Cross, or any one of the many charities attempting to help those in need. These charities--and the people suffering in the Big Easy--need it desperately.

I'd be moved enough by this tragedy in and of itself (as I and so many others were during the horrendous tsunami earlier this year). But New Orleans seeped into my soul on a completely personal level. I'm utterly in love with the town. And for me, watching the newscasts on Hurricane Katrina's devastation has been tantamount to keeping vigil at my old lover's bedside as the reaper's scythe whistles agonizingly close to her head.

Blame my wife for this particular infatuation. Rita took a work-related trip to New Orleans about four years previous, and insisted that someday, she'd drag me there. She spoke of the Big Easy in almost biblical terms, as though her experience there had somehow transformed her. And she insisted that it'd have the same effect on me once I visited. How right she was.

We went to New Orleans together in June of 2004. It was one of our first real vacations ever. Rita and I had just shucked a massive debt off of our shoulders, and wanted our first big trip to be something special. It was.

I won't bother prattling on too long here. My intent is mostly to share some of the pictures and random experiences I enjoyed as a visitor to this magical city. Maybe some part of me hopes that someone perusing this is moved to help with this disaster in some small way. Or maybe, summoning up these cherished memories of this embattled region represents my own personal prayer at the head of my endangered lover's sickbed.

We stayed at the Magnolia Mansion, a beautiful restored bed and breakfast on Prytania Street in the Garden District. The two-hundred-year-old house was once a vanity gift to a rich socialite, and in World War II harbored the local branch of the Red Cross. The then-current proprietor, a tan and smiling woman in her early '40's named Holly, made a lucrative living as a touring Tina Turner impersonator. She was the second of many colorful characters we met during our stay (the first was the insane but inexplicably charming Cajun-accented cabbie who shattered a land speed record driving us from the airport to the Mansion).

The Garden District was intoxicatingly beautiful, with houses every bit as grand and lovely as our lodgings dotting the neighborhood for miles. Obscenely lush flora grew naturally, and in lovingly-manicured gardens, all along the neighborhood, the air thick with the aroma of southern flowers, fresh-cut grass, and earth. The heat and humidity cast a heady haze over us the whole time. During our stay, it felt like time had lazily sipped down several mint juleps. Days didn't pass; they ambled along to humid and warm fade-outs, only to rise the next morning like a weary but beautiful woman still mildly buzzed from the previous night's libations.

The Garden District maintained its stateliness top-to-bottom (even the abandoned and condemned homes in the neighborhood were ravishing), but Bourbon Street and the French Quarter sported no such illusions. If the Garden District was New Orleans' regal socialite, the French Quarter was her scruffily sexy and playfully randy party-girl sister. Ornate railings bracketed the second stories of the tightly-clustered buildings like worn-but-artful metal cobwebs. The streets smelled of moist cement and mortar. Strip clubs dotted Bourbon Street, and it was weird to see so many wholesome-looking tourists (some with impressionable children in tow) looking on impassively at the many pictures of men and women in all manner of sexual contortion and congress. And there was plenty of liquor to augment the physical debauchery; many of the bars sported what looked like Slurpee machines with deceptively sweet and tasty pre-mixed slushy drinks that went down like candy, only to hit your head like a sledgehammer minutes later.

Most importantly, though, the French Quarter's taverns, clubs, watering holes, and restaurants came to life at night with music. On our evening treks to Bourbon Street, every corner we turned revealed another joint with some local band playing Dixieland jazz, blues or Zydeco. You walked in, sat down, had a drink (or two, or more...), and got to revel in the pure, butt-shaking joy of musicians doing their thing for the love of their art and their audience, free of pretense. It felt timelessly, beautifully right--magical and perfect.

No other place I'd been to before or since offered its visitors a more abundant and delightfully decadent selection of food, all steeped in historic tradition and served with love. And spice. Lots of spice. Every third shop at the French Market sported racks and racks of locally-produced hot sauces, with dozens of cups for the sampling--absolute Nirvana to this spice-a-holic. Eating at the Court of Two Sisters in the heart of the French Quarter was like stepping back a century--a Dixieland jazz trio played tunes while patrons sipped momosas and ate a buffet composed of items like Duck a l'Orange, Jambalaya, and fresh crawdads. Even the hole-in-the-wall eateries offered terrific, stick-to-your-ribs food. My favorite meal may have been the hearty, spicy bowl of chicken and andouille sausage gumbo I got at a modest little diner between stops on our plantation tour. Cafe du Monde offered the creamiest and most divine cafe au lait I'd ever drank, and sitting in that world-famous coffee shop, sipping that lovely java and dipping soft beignets (Cajun donuts) into its amber warmth constituted one of the trip's great small pleasures. Small wonder that I came back to Seattle nine days later hauling around an additional five pounds.

New Orleans viewed death with the same easygoing nature that it welcomed so many of the earthly delights that precede it. The graveyards and cemeteries held many beautiful tombs and statuary, as well as evidence of the strangely harmonious relationship between voodoo and christian iconography. A curious combination of creepiness and comfort often accompanied the graveyard tours.

The natural surroundings of New Orleans and environs always felt exotic and otherworldly, a sensation that the heat and the humidity amplified. There were the lush swamps of Louisiana, their primal gnarled trees clothed in succulent green moss; and there was Oak Alley Plantation in nearby Vacherie, LA, a spectacularly grand Southern mansion whose walkway was lined with some thirty massive oak trees. Even the Laura sugar plantation in Vacherie , a pretty but humble structure sitting peacefully in the middle of a massive field of lush green grass, gave off this vibe.

The animal life furthered the atmosphere of the exotic. Dragonflies flitted staccato all over the grounds of Laura and Oak Alley, irridescent and alien-beautiful. At one point, a meadow at the larger plantation was dotted with what seemed like a few dozen of the insects glittering in the sun. In a moment of strange synergy I held my arm out, and one dragonfly hovered above his brethren, alighting on my fingers like an old friend for several seconds before ambling back to rejoin his comrades.

We got an eyeful of the wetlands' natural beauty, and the most charismatic and scary of the swamp's denizens--the alligators--on our Louisiana Swamp Tour. Before we even hopped onto the boat a gator sauntered out of the water and stood within ten feet of us. No barriers, no fences, just some air between me and Rita and it. Of course, the photo opportunity was too irresistible to let something as mundane as common sense stop us. The tour, which took us through thick swamplands for nearly two hours, put us literally an arms' reach away from these massive reptiles, and we marvelled as a family of nearby raccoons tempted the fates to snatch random morsels away from the 'gators.

In the wake of all of the natural destruction in the area, I wonder how many of the swamps and natural ecosystems will endure. And I realize with great sadness that the city that I fell in love with is, at best, forever changed. Frequently over the course of our visit last year, I found myself reflexively touching the plants, the grass, the trees, and the walls of those beautiful buildings. I'd never felt so strong a need to do that on a vacation before, ever. It was as though I wanted to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible; maybe the intensity and urgency of this tactile reassurance was prescience on my part. Or maybe, like any smitten suitor, I just wanted to drink in any sensory connection I could obtain from my dear New Orleans.

Mostly, though, I think of the people we came into contact with during the trip. A spiky-haired kid from Ohio waiting tables at a garden district restaurant told us that he was drawn by the siren call of the Big Easy to become a resident just months before. Josette, the retired schoolteacher who took us through several of the cemeteries, was a classic steel-magnolia southern belle, outwalking and outlasting people 1/3 her age as she took us on a long walking tour to see graves. One tour bus driver, a huge man whose big baritone suggested Ralph Kramden channelling Barry White, listened with a veteran's patience as so many of us tourists huffed, puffed, and lamented the heat. He looked back at us with a sidelong grin and drawled, "It's only June...this ain't hot."

Many of the guides on our treks to the plantations and swamps were natives of N'awlins who'd ventured to other parts of the country--New York, California, etc.--to go to school or forge a life elsewhere, only to find their hometown pulling them back. But the common thread in our contact with all of the people of the region was their easygoing friendliness; they truly loved sharing their home with strangers. Not in any ingenuous or superficial way, but in a totally natural, unforced manner that epitomized that old cliche: southern hospitality. I look at all of the beautiful pictures Rita took, of a magical region that made such a profound impression on us. Frequently I wonder what has become of all of these good people who made Rita's and my trip so very special, and hope and pray that at least some of my beautiful beleaguered lover's children are healthy and safe.

One night on our trip, while we waited for the rickety streetcar to take us back to the Magnolia Mansion, a rainstorm burst out of nowhere to saturate us in warm sheets of New Orleans rain. Up in the sky, lightning began illuminating the surging and restless clouds, and the whole pulsing mushroom mass looked like something from Fantasia. News reports pegged it as one of the more powerful storms of that season; in person, it was terrifying but beautiful (and sadly, it resisted Rita's attempts to capture it on camera).

At the time I naively thought my love for New Orleans shielded both Rita and I from the elements that frequently battered the city. In retrospect, that storm looks less like a freak anomaly, and more like the most tenuous and temporary of truces between man and nature. Would that Hurricane Katrina might have offered the beautiful Big Easy--and her citizens--such a reprieve.