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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top Albums of 2015

Another year of great music has passed, and 2015 was a banner year for this consummate mélomane. My annual year-end list of favorite albums (15 for '15) is once again dominated by women, but three solo male artists, one band, and even a "various artists" compilation crept in this year. So, without further delay, following is my list of the best albums of 2015 in descending order from #15 to my #1 pick (which will be a surprise to no one).


#15 – Various Artists / 80’S RE:COVERED

Ok, I’ll admit it. This one’s an odd choice to kick off my annual list of favorite albums. A compilation album…of covers…by 80’s artists? But, yes, it’s just that good. If names like Curiosity Killed the Cat, or Johnny Hates Jazz, or ABC, or Go West, or Wang Chung bring back great memories of zipper shirts and parachute pants and binge-watching MTV (like, when the network used to play music videos 24/7), then this album is your nostalgic wet dream come true. The concept is simple: 80’s artists—with their original production teams—covering their favorite songs from any other era…in their distinctive 80’s style. Fun, huh? Oh, it’s lots of fun to hear Samantha Fox take on Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” or Heaven 17’s version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or Kim Wilde’s take on The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”. It’s a glorious throwback and contemporary treat at the same time to hear Belinda Carlisle cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and Kim Carnes take on The Rolling Stones classic “Under My Thumb”, while Go West goes modern with its take on The Killers’ “Human” and ABC covers Radiohead’s “High & Dry”. Making this albums of covers even more eighties-tastic is that following the dozen newly-recorded covers are twelve remixes of the same songs!

80’S RE:COVERED is, like, totally tubular…to the max! Pop it in your Walkman and listen to it while you work on your Rubik’s Cube.

#14 – Hurts / SURRENDER

Three albums in and you’ve likely never heard of English synthpop duo Hurts – and that’s a shame. Despite the fact that singer Theo Hutchcraft and synthesist Adam Anderson had top ten success with their first two albums – HAPPINESS and EXILE – in their native United Kingdom (as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Finland), the duo’s closest thing to a US connection was a gig supporting Scissor Sisters on their UK arena tour in late 2010. On their third album, SURRENDER, Hutchcraft and Anderson craft a set of hooky and infectious pop songs with a distinctive, synthetic orchestra sound. The result is a euphoric collection that calls to mind the highly-stylized aesthetic of 80s artists like Johnny Hates Jazz, Go West, and – on slower moments – Swing Out Sister. 

#13 – Kelly Clarkson / PIECE BY PIECE

Terrible cover notwithstanding, Kelly Clarkson's PIECE BY PIECE is a first-rate pop-rock collection and solid addition to her growing catalog. While highlights for me include the decidedly 80's retro vibe of "Nostalgic" and "Good Goes the Bye", the sassy soul of "Bad Reputation", and the Sia-penned bombast of "Invincible", the standout here is "Run Run Run" with John Legend. On the first half of the latter, the production is stripped way down with Clarkson's award-winning pipes taking center stage accompanied only by Legend on piano, reminding us of why she was able to rise above her televised singing competition roots to the rank of a true artist.

#12 – Adam Lambert / THE ORIGINAL HIGH

The one-time AMERICAN IDOL runner-up continues his career winning streak with this third album, his first under the Warner Bros Records banner after parting ways with original label RCA (reportedly over creative differences after Lambert balked at the label’s insistence on him recording an album of 80’s covers). Longtime fans will relish the glam-rock theatrics and booming vocals that remain intact here, while appreciating that the extravagance and excess of previous efforts have been markedly toned down in the capable hands of Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellback. On the sets softer moments, Lambert croons longingly about sex, drugs, and James Dean, suggesting that he’s capable of slipping on the same hazy Hollywood summer-tinted sunglasses as Lana Del Rey. But, ultimately, Lambert is a house diva at heart – and his producers know it judging from the throbbing basslines of standouts like “Evil in the Night”, “The Light”, and the title track. The album’s best – and most unexpectedly satisfying – moments come when he blends his penchant for carrying a rhythmic thumper with some restrained sultriness, as evidenced on “Underground” and the deluxe edition bonus track “After Hours”.

 #11 – Madonna / REBEL HEART

Madonna proved (once again) that rumors of her cultural irrelevance were grossly exaggerated with her (lucky) thirteenth studio album. Using “Living For Love” as the bridge to leave the cold EDM sound of the HARD CANDY and MDNA era behind, the music icon wisely grounded REBEL HEART in a decidedly more pop-oriented landscape and the results are nothing short of dazzling. There’s a surprising delicacy at play here reminiscent of her softer BEDTIME STORIES days on tracks like “HeartBreakCity”, “Joan of Arc”, and the stunning “Ghosttown” (easily her best track in a decade).  The album seems divided thematically between Madonna’s softer and more rebellious sides and the stark juxtaposition works surprisingly well despite all the hands in the production pot here. Framed by simple folk guitars and churchy piano strains, the melodious “heart” tracks contrast sharply with the contemporary electro grooves of “rebel” tracks like “Best Night”, “Holy Water”, and “Inside Out”. Mixed in for good measure—and harkening back even further into the Madonna catalog—are the bubblegum levity of “Body Shop” and the reggae beat of the No Doubt-ish “Unapologetic Bitch”. The title track is the most revelatory—and possibly most authentically biographical—glimpse into the real Madonna we’ve ever had, with her singing clearly and confidently with unabashed nostalgia about the price she’s paid for her non-conformity.

A few missteps like groaners “Bitch I’m Madonna” and the unlistenable “Illuminati” kept this one just shy of my year-end Top-Ten but it’s in no way a snub. With REBEL HEART, Madonna proves that she’s a pop artisan of the highest caliber who delivers her most satisfying music when she focuses on structured pop arrangements. She seems to have finally learned that her continued relevancy will come from remaining true to her genuine artistic self instead of importing trendy chart styles from hot production teams.

#10 – Grace Potter / MIDNIGHT

Relegating bandmates The Nocturnals to the sidelines for her first solo outing, Grace Potter impresses with this slick pop-rock collection. Having proven herself as the dynamic lead singer of the aforementioned rock-soul outfit, Potter belts and struts with gleeful abandon on this terrifically fun set of smart, rhythmic AOR confections. Wisely, producer Eric (Queens of the Stone Age) Valentine keeps Potter's powerhouse vocals central against the musically eclectic palette he creates for her. Even amidst the overblown propulsive percussion and New Wave funk, Potter still manages to howl and growl with a gritty rawness that should keep fans of the Americana authenticity of her work with The Nocturnals happy. While highlights include “Hot to the Touch”, “Alive Tonight”, and “Delirious”, the standout track here is the uber-funky “Your Girl”.

#9 – Jess Glynne / I CRY WHEN I LAUGH

You’ve likely first heard this English powerhouse fronting Clean Bandit’s international hit “Rather Be” (included here for good measure) last year and—if justice prevails—you’ll be hearing a lot more of her in the coming year. Stepping out into her own with this relentlessly uplifting debut, Jess Glynne seems poised for stardom with this piano-centered collection of musical optimism. There’s a decidedly happy, gospel-like feel throughout I CRY WHEN I LAUGH with tambourine-shaking, hand-clapping, and backing choirs packed into each song, most of which fall thematically into the idea of one’s inner strength overcoming tribulation. Glynne’s husky alto is nicely contrasted against the effervescent disco strings and jaunty piano riffs on the majority of the songs, while the Adele comparisons are inevitable on the slower tracks like “Take Me Home” and the acoustic “My Love”. Standouts include the ebullient “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”, bouncy “Hold My Hand”, house-thumping “You Can Find Me”, and the so-sappy-but-somehow-it-works ballad “Saddest Vanilla”, in which she and duet partner Emeli Sandé play two women whose hearts get broken in an ice cream parlor.

# 8 – Rob Thomas / THE GREAT UNKNOWN

The consummate pop-rock craftsman returns with a third solo outing and he comes bringing hooks aplenty. From swelling, insistent anthems to contemplative power ballads, Thomas delivers a cohesive set of toe-tapping, head-bobbing AOR guaranteed to have you singing all the way to work and back again. Thomas excels at that middle-of-the-road classic pop formula, from the catchy hooks to the universal lyrics, all wrapped up in a slick and well-polished production. It’s ear candy through and through, with a sincerity and familiarity that’s the equivalent of musical comfort food. And no one does it better than Thomas, his vocals always strong and clear, emoting and emphasizing on all the right notes. Highlights from THE GREAT UNKNOWN include his gorgeous duet with new vocalist Rooty on “Paper Dolls”, the disco pulse of "Things You Said", the electronic horn stabs of “Absence of Affection”, and the jaunty midtempo rocker “Not Like You Told Me”.

 
#7 – Lana Del Rey / HONEYMOON

Wistful catatonia reigns supreme on Lana Del Rey’s sublime third album. This first-rate set remains awash in the moody musical equivalent of film noir that captured fans’ hearts on the songstress’s first two efforts, with tortured lyrics, melancholy string arrangements, and Del Rey’s now-trademark slurred vocals ably setting a mood of faded glamour and unhappy Hollywood endings. Gorgeously languorous, HONEYMOON seemingly combines the worlds of Del Rey’s BORN TO DIE and ULTRAVIOLENCE to create a hybrid world where the musically murky soundscape is best heard through a dreamy, auditory gauze. Whether she’s reciting a specifically abstract passage from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” over a sparse, science fiction-like score during the interlude to “Religion” or covering Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to avant-garde perfection, Del Rey is taking chances here on HONEYMOON unseen on earlier efforts. That those musical gambles are so subtle as to be easily missed by the casual fan is what makes them feel like rewards for our loyalty to the hardcore fatalist femme fatale. An excruciatingly exquisite addition to the gloomy chanteuse’s growing songbook. Highlights include: “Music To Watch Boys To”, “High By the Beach”, “Freak”, and “24”.

#6 – Jimmy Somerville / HOMAGE

Somerville has never sounded better vocally or more in his element musically than he does on HOMAGE, an unabashedly ebullient collection of pure old school disco goodness that feels completely authentic but never outdated. Worth digging out the bell bottoms and platform shoes for such highlights as "Back to Me", "Lights Are Shining", and "This Hand". Easily gives Jess Glynne’s I CRY WHEN I LAUGH a run for the most shamelessly happy album of 2015.

#5 – Seinabo Sey / PRETEND

If Mary J. Blige and 80’s Brit-soul ensemble Soul-2-Soul had a lovechild, her name would be Seinabo Sey. PRETEND is a genre-defying debut, an enticing fusion of transatlantic pop, soul, and EDM that reflects the singer’s Swedish and Gambian heritage. Drawing from her dual musical roots (her late father was the renowned Gambian musician Maudo Sey), the 25-year-old singer and songwriter creates an evocative sound that’s wholly and uniquely her own—no small feat in the crowded and highly imitative pop landscape of today. Combining deeply introspective lyrics with ambitious, pop-friendly arrangements (courtesy of Magnus Lidehäll, who’s done work with Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Britney Spears), PRETEND is an eclectic collection drawing from a grab-bag of influences and adorned with trip-hop beats, EDM and Afropop flourishes, and ghostly choruses. It’s simultaneously soulfully accessible and dramatically boundary-pushing. Sey retains marvelous control of whatever musical background she’s placed up against, demonstrating an enviable versatility and ease singing everything from stomping gospel-tinged anthems to sweeping piano ballads alike. This album (and artist) are true discoveries meant to be savored in their entirety. Highlights for me include the poetically soaring “Burial”, Sey’s musical response to the death of her father in 2013, the percolating title track with its killer bass-like synthesizer punches, “Poetic”, the somber “Sorry”, and the dizzying musical frenzy of “Words”. Oh, hell…they’re all standouts. Devour this one whole.

#4 – Andra Day / CHEERS TO THE FALL

Looks like we’ve found the missing link between Adele and Amy Winehouse in this 30-year-old San Diego native and one-time Stevie Wonder discovery. On her sterling debut, CHEERS TO THE FALL, Day’s jazz-trained vocals wrap effortlessly around soulful pop melodies and the result is downright intoxicating. Although the effect is akin to being transported back to a smoky, 1950’s cabaret with the raspy-voiced, pompadour-coiffed Day wearing her influences – namely, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Etta James – proudly, her sound is awash in nostalgia without ever feeling dated. NPR’s Katie Presley aptly characterizes the juxtaposition: “[Day] cultivates an aesthetic with clear reference points in the past, but she tells stories firmly rooted in her present. It's a jarring and compelling combination.”

Indeed it is. This is the one debut of 2015 that must not be missed.

#3 – Brandon Flowers / THE DESIRED EFFECT

The Killers’ frontman once again proves he may have come to musical prominence in the wrong decade, wearing his 80’s influences proudly on his artistic sleeve on this second solo album. THE DESIRED EFFECT is a masterclass in that era’s wonky production artifices and lyrical heavy-handedness – and it suits Flowers to perfection. Most impressive, for all the album’s chugging piano lines, orchestra hits, hand-clap snares, and New Wave synth-disco flourishes – all musically equated with the signature sound of a past decade – Flowers and producer Ariel (Haim, Charli XCX) Rechtshaid make it sound contemporarily relevant and authentic. Lyrically, Flowers is still all Springsteen-esque wanderlust, shift work, open highways, and small-town imprisonment, a theme hammered home when he generously samples Bronski Beat’s classic SMALLTOWN BOY (which, if it didn’t sound 80s enough, includes a brief spoken-word cameo by Neil Tenant of Pet Shop Boys) on the standout track “I Can Change”. THE DESIRED EFFECT is lyrical earnestness intersecting with production grandiosity, and the result is an entirely organic sound in which the charismatic, eternally-optimistic Flowers has never sounded more in his element. Highlights: “Can’t Deny My Love”, “Lonely Town”, and the rollicking “Diggin’ Up the Heart”.

#2 – Melanie Martinez / CRY BABY

Generally not a fan of the concept album, but Long Island native Melanie Martinez's brilliant CRY BABY is an easy exception. Loaded with childhood metaphors and similes, this bitingly insightful, surrealistic musical fairy tale plays like a maniacally macabre children's storybook. Martinez is a mesmerizing blend of Lana Del Rey and Lorde, and her debut collection of songs set against a pastel-Goth backdrop of growing up amidst familial turmoil makes it one of the best alt-pop bows in recent memory. Musical incisors for the brain. Color me officially infatuated with Ms. Martinez.

#1 – Adele / 25

Adele’s career pause may have seemed interminable but as her much-anticipated new album proved, good things come to those who wait…and wait. And then wait some more. Luckily, the intervening years between her juggernaut 21 and the new (juggernaut-ier) 25 have been kind to Adele. Her magnificent voice actually improved following that nail-biting laser microsurgery on her throat in 2011, adding four additional notes to the top of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. On 25, she cements her reputation as a musical old soul, with songwriting and vocals that belie her age (now 27). All the pathos that defined 21 remains intact with plenty of nostalgic piano-bar ruminations to accompany almost anyone’s future break-up or life’s regret. While the smash “Hello” has already inspired countless cover versions, among the album’s other highlights are the jubilantly syncopated gallop of “Water Under the Bridge” and the soulful Danger Mouse collaboration “River Lea”. Adele remains one of the few contemporary vocalists whose voice can elicit actual emotion from recipient ears, as future tear-jerking classics like “When We Were Young” or “Million Years Ago” or “All I Ask” prove. Welcome back, Adele. We’ll likely be celebrating your return through 2016 and beyond.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Forever My Girl

Today I said goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever had – a blessing in every sense of the word and one who enriched my life in every way possible. My beloved Sydney crossed over the Rainbow Bridge late this afternoon amidst much tender stroking, soft kisses, and too many tears to count. Her beautiful life ended much in the way it began, with her two Dads marveling over her intrinsic exquisiteness. Much like our hearts threatened to burst with love on the day she came home to live in that A-frame house on Longwood Road almost fifteen and a half years ago, so too did they threaten to burst with grief today as she gently slipped from our lives.  

The heart-wrenching decision was made on Saturday morning after conferring with my ex. As some of you may remember from social media posts a few months back, Sydney’s health had been steadily slipping. In addition to a sudden onset of complete vision loss, the veterinarian discovered a tumor of unknown origin and severity near her rectum. That tumor continued to grow and started to bleed with increasing regularity in recent days. Her overall skin integrity started to decline as well, with small growths and scabby areas appearing in spots where hair had fallen out.  Vinny and I discussed that her quality of life was starting to slip now, with no discernible reaction to being outdoors (which was always certain to set her tail wagging) and increased difficulty navigating around his house in her darkened world. A slip down the stairs, a fall off the bed, aimless wandering and bumping into things…not good signs. Although she remained responsive to touch right up until the end, it appeared to us that her overall awareness of her surroundings was gradually diminishing.
See, Sydney was only the second dog I ever had. My first – a floppy-eared Miniature Schnauzer named Scuffy – was a birthday present for my eighth birthday and we were inseparable in the way only an adopted only child and his dog could be. As I grew into adolescence and then young adulthood, my youthful exuberance for the life before me took center stage and Scuffy, whom I still loved dearly, faded a bit – without intention or malice – into the background. She became less “my” dog and more the family dog, with my Dad and then stepmother becoming her everyday constants while I experienced life on my own out in the larger world. And although I was almost 200 miles away when Dad called to say that he’d had to put Scuffy down, the stab to my heart – grief mixed with a new sensation of guilt for all those later days lost with my childhood dog – was palpable. To this day, my warm memories of that scrappy little Schnauzer who served as my constant childhood companion and amateur show dog in summertime 4-H fairs is tempered by my guilt of not being there to say goodbye to her at the end. In fact, it haunts me at times.

So when Sydney came into my life, I made her a promise on the very first day we met that I’d always be there for her. I still remember the late April day in 2000 when my dear friends Lisa and Brianne, together with our late friend Jeffrey, all conspired to visit a local pet store (before it was not politically correct to patronize them) called Puppy Deport in Port Jefferson while Vinny was at work, unaware of what we were up to. We had talked intermittently about getting a dog and were eyeing the Cocker Spaniel as the chosen breed. But I had a long history of “surprising” Vinny with furry companions – beginning the month after we met when he was greeted with two little fur balls who would come to be named Branigan and Bam Bam, both stray kittens found underneath my stepmother’s garage.
“Happy Father’s Day”, I remember announcing on the day they were presented to him.

Two more kittens would come into our lives during those first years together. The first, a gray and white kitten who we dubbed Chapman, was found clinging to a tree by a former roommate and moved into the two bedroom apartment (our first after moving out to Long Island) we shared with her and our two cats. When she split, Chapman stayed behind. A few years later, while Vinny was home painting the interior of the townhouse we had moved into (Yaphank, 1993), a simple trip to the grocery store resulted in Moyet, a fiery little ball of mischief who I gingerly placed on the kitchen counter before calling Vinny downstairs.
“Don’t be mad”, I said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen and caught sight of the latest member to our growing family.

But Vinny was never mad, always melting immediately after the requisite eye roll, as if to say: You did it again, didn’t you?
So on that late April day, as my friends and I meandered through the Puppy Depot, I knew two things in my heart: I was going to find my second dog that afternoon and Vinny would not be mad. Not really. Or at least not for long.

I told the pet store staff that I was in the market for a Cocker Spaniel and they readily presented me with several squirming, licking, panting specimens for my consideration. Let’s face it: All puppies are pretty damn cute and irresistible, and I probably would have been happy with any one of them. But something kept telling me “No, that’s not the one” with each successive puppy I held and so I kept on wandering deeper into the Puppy Depot.
About thirty minutes in, I passed a cage with three puppies. Two – I couldn’t tell you the breeds this many years later – were pressed against the front of the cage, vying for my attention with whimpers and wagging tails. But it was the third – a doe-eyed little Cocker Spaniel with champagne-colored fur and matching freckles on her white nose – that caught my attention.

“That’s a Cocker, isn’t it?” I asked the attentive pet store clerk, pointing to the cage.
The clerk nodded. “Yes, but you don’t want that one. See the freckles on the nose? You’ll never be able to show her.”

Show her? I thought to myself. Did I look like I was shopping for the next entrant into the Westminster Dog Show?
With gentle defiance, I instructed the clerk to let me see her.

And when the pet store clerk shrugged and placed that freckled-nosed pup in my arms, it was – as the cliché goes – love at first sight. We locked eyes – hers always sorrowful and sweet, mine quickly welling with tears – and then she rested her head against my chest and exhaled deeply. She had picked her owner; she was home.
That story is often repeated amongst my group of friends who were there that day and we laugh at the memory of Brianne nearly screaming from the sheer cuteness of the scene as she exclaimed, “Oh, my God! She looks like you!” I can still recall – with great detail – the immediate sense of urgency I felt at needing her to come home with me that day and the sense of horror when the cash machine Lisa drove me to would only dispense half of my new puppy’s sticker price. I’ve always been blessed with great friends – and Lisa is no exception, quickly taking out her own bank card to lend me the balance.

The freckle-faced puppy came home with me, a rainbow-colored bow adorning her neck. When I heard the crunch of gravel from Vinny’s car, I met him at the front door with a familiar refrain.
“Don’t be mad…”

We named her Sydney, after my favorite red-haired vixen on Melrose Place played by Laura Leighton. I am, after all, always and unapologetically a pop culture junkie. The rest of Sydney’s story is a decade and a half chock full of wonderful memories, each one coming back to me over the last few days as I prepared myself to carry out my last act of love in helping this beautiful creature make her final journey.
Sydney running across the green lawn of our Middle Island house, chew toy in mouth…

Sydney taking her first swim in Lisa and Brianne’s pool, plunking down into the water after slipping off the first step…Brianne shrieking in the background while Lisa and I howled with laughter…
Our refrigerator loaded with “Sydney” magnets from anywhere and everywhere we ever traveled…Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, Boston, Florida, Belize, to name a few…

The way we’d laugh at how Sydney developed this soft little “woo-woo” sound to indicate her impatience at having to wait for her meal-end treat of table scraps. I smile thinking about how she wooed louder and louder the harder we laughed. And how we laughed until our stomachs hurt…
The way we nicknamed her “Woobie Girl” shortly after bringing her home…a nickname that would stay with her throughout her life…

Sydney moving with the speed of light to pilfer an unsupervised hot dog off the table during barbecues…
Sydney rolling around gleefully in the grass after just returning home from the groomers while her fretful Daddy carried on about the money he’d just spent…

Cuddling in the bed with Sydney as a puppy and as an adult, the soft feel of her fur between my fingers, the warmth of her body pressed against me…
Sydney’s gentle kisses on my nose and mouth, the intoxicating smell of her doggy breath…
The look of happiness on Sydney’s face and dance of joy she did whenever one of us came home from work…

The very last sight of Sydney taking her final, gentle breaths – under the kindly supervision of Dr. Kevin Lynch,  the veterinarian who  has cared for her since the day we brought her home – while  Vinny and I wept and wept and wept, knowing that we were doing the right thing but hating every second of it…

**
This morning, I awoke to the sound of torrential rain. It was as if the universe was in perfect synch with my emotions, weeping torrents of tears with me for what was to come to pass this afternoon. It was a fitting tribute to Sydney, courtesy of Mother Nature. The weather only heightened my sense of overwhelming melancholy, and I found myself thinking of my failures when it came to my sweet Sydney. I hope the majority of her memories of me are good ones and that she’s forgiven me for the times when I may have raised my voice in frustration – not over her, but more likely some inconsequential human problem for which she was the vessel that received my angry tone or impatience.  

I hope Sydney forgives me for splitting with her other Dad, hoping that she never felt for a second like I abandoned her, understanding that she went to live with one Daddy and not the other because we both agreed that she shouldn’t be split up from her younger brother, Kirby, or little sister, Zoe. I hope she knows somehow that even though I often went to bed crying during the ensuing years because I missed having her in my everyday life so much that leaving her with her other Dad and doggy siblings was genuinely done in what we both believed to be her best interests. I hope Sydney knew that her daddies’ split from each other eventually brought two more wonderful people who loved her unconditionally into her life, her “stepdads” Ot and Brian. I hope she felt the four of us gathered around her yesterday to say our goodbyes and spend one more afternoon with her. After a good portion of her adult lifetime spent adhering to strict dietary restrictions due to some persnickety kidneys, I hope she enjoyed her special meal today – steak and Teddy Grahams. Something salty, something crunchy-sweet for her taste buds.
I hope she heard every one of my heartfelt thank you’s – for her unconditional love, for her affectionate, gentle disposition, for her sense of humor, for her compassion and companionship, for her sixth sense in knowing when I needed one of her sweet kisses or a random woo-woo. And I hope, as she slipped into her sweet hereafter this afternoon, that she sensed how much her other Dad and I loved her and that choosing this time for her to make her journey across the Rainbow Bridge was not done lightly or for any kind of human convenience and only to ensure that she never went out in severe pain or suffering of any kind. She deserved infinitely more than that, and I was determined to keep that promise I made to her on the first day we met – that she would never suffer and that I would be with her at the end.

My sweet, one-of-a-kind Sydney is gone now as I type this through tears that feel like they may never stop. It’s times like this where I happily push my agnosticism to the side and believe with unwavering certainty in a place described in that infamous Rainbow Bridge story, where Sydney is young again, her legs strong and steady, her eyesight restored.  A place where the sunshine always beams down on her – catching the red highlights in her fur – and gentle breezes caress her beautiful face. In my mind’s eye, I see her meeting Scuffy for the first time and being reunited with Branigan and Bam Bam and Chapman and Moyet, their animal kingdom differences cast aside and all of them playing happily through endless sunshine-filled days and cuddling together under starry moonlit nights. In the sweet hereafter that I want – desperately – to believe in for Sydney, all dietary constraints are gone and she has a never-ending supply of doggy treats and hot dogs.
Most of all, I hope those last lines of the Rainbow Bridge story prove true. That someday, when my own days are done, that I’ll be reunited with her, that she’ll be there to greet me with wagging tail and endless kisses like she did all those times I walked through the door after work.

 I want – no, need – to believe this today more than anything else in the world:
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....

***

Goodnight, sweet Sydney. I’ll love you and keep you in my heart forever, my unforgettable Woobie Girl.
Sydney Liaguno-Pers
February 26, 2000 – June 15, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lying and Dying in ‘Cry_Wolf’ (2005)

A few years after SCREAM reinvigorated the slasher in 1996, competition shows were all the rage on American shores. Physical prowess and endurance were rewarded with large cash prizes and instant celebrity on shows like SURVIVOR, which bowed in May of 2000, and THE AMAZING RACE, which debuted a year later. Likewise, talent was rewarded with cash and – more importantly – opportunity. Talent manager Simon Fuller – onetime manager of The Spice Girls – saw an opportunity to create records and ratings and created a little show called POP IDOL in the UK in 2001 and its U.S. counterpart AMERICAN IDOL a year later in which the winner (and runner-up in most cases) received a lucrative recording contract and an unprecedented launching pad. Aspiring filmmakers found similar opportunity on PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which was created by Alex Keledjian and had the marquee-caliber names of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon producing. The winning filmmaker of PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which also bowed in 2001, was given the chance to direct a feature film.

This seemingly random history lesson in reality competition shows adds an important footnote in framing the inception of CRY_WOLF, which has its roots – financially, at least – in this early period of competition craze. Aspiring filmmaker Jeff Wadlow, a Dartmouth and USC grad and nephew of Katie Couric – won the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition, an Internet contest co-sponsored by Chrysler and Universal in which he and his producing and writing partner, Beau Bauman, were given a mini DV and a laptop and ten days to shoot and edit a brand new short film featuring a Chrysler car. Based on their success in making it through to the top five, the next round of the competition included a two-month filmmakers boot camp-style residency during which they shot a five-minute presentation piece called LIVING THE LIE, a modern-day retelling of Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf, starring Topher Grace and Estella Warren. That short was pitched to a panel of industry professionals at the Toronto Film Festival and snared them a feature production deal with Universal and a million dollar budget.

The resulting CRY_WOLF, released in September of 2005, essentially serves as Wadlow’s calling card to genre fans, with an impressive box office return on his modest budget of $10 million domestically and another $5.5 million internationally.

The story – co-penned with Bauman – centers around Owen, a British transfer student to the autumnally resplendent campus of Westlake Preparatory Academy. Owen quickly falls in with a group of privileged mischief-makers who meet at night in the boarding school’s chapel to play a strange variation of the Russian party game Mafia in which a designated shepherd secretly chooses a wolf in the group while the rest are deemed sheep. As the players try to guess the identity of that round’s wolf, each sheep has to make a convincing case / defend his or her honor while the designated wolf hones his or her casual deception skills to avoid detection. Essentially, the best liar wins. Collective boredom – so often the catalyst for subsequent slasher mayhem in movies like this – causes the group to raise the stakes, expanding the playing field to the entire school by creating an elaborate mythology about a fictional serial killer, tying it to the recent real-life murder of a local girl, and sending it out to the student body via an email that quickly goes viral.
  
Before you can log onto your AOL, instant messages heralding the imminent arrival of a killer matching the group’s description begin popping up on Owen’s computer and the rumor co-conspirators find themselves seemingly stalked like sheep for the slaughter. Red herrings abound as Owen and company try to figure out the masked Wolf’s identity – from a creepy caretaker who’s conspicuously loitering on the fringes of almost every crowd shot to Jon Bon Jovi’s (requisite rocker locks intact) smarmy chess-playing journalism instructor to an chunky fellow student ousted from the roguish clique during the last late-night round of their lying game.

Although Wadlow has a clear affinity for the slasher, with elements of genre classics like APRIL FOOL’S DAY and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME evident, CRY_WOLF is surprisingly timid for a slasher with the director favoring plot manipulation over archetypal formula trappings. While the film’s minimal gore and low body count might seem like a natural non-starter and the ambitiously labyrinthine plot twists and turns will ring decidedly more Agatha Christie than John Carpenter, this rather inventive giallo-style psychological murder-mystery-horror-thriller (how’s that for sub-genre specificity?) gets points for attempting to bring some ingenuity to the genre’s tired clichés.

Where CRY_WOLF might lose points in terms of comparison against slasher films of the golden era 80’s, it ably gains more than a few when viewed through the post-modern lens established with Wes Craven’s seminal SCREAM. But while Craven looked inward and laughed boisterously outward at his source material, Wadlow looks inward but subtly winks with an almost indiscernible twitch of his eye at the genre’s predecessors from which he drew inspiration. The self-reflectiveness of CRY_WOLF is simultaneously better integrated and sharper than SCREAM’s meta elements, in effect paying a greater deal of reverence to the slasher fan.

Take, for example, the ingenious way Wadlow fashions his villain and the murderous legend surrounding him – with his victims carefully constructing him themselves using a well-established predetermined slasher criteria that includes visual image (orange ski mask, camouflage jacket), a favored weapon (hunting knife), modus operandi (lots of stabbing, disembowelment, and tongue removal), and catchy moniker (The Wolf). In essence, Wadlow makes his teen slasher fodder here complicit in their fates in that they give actual life to their killer through their careful assembly of his traits and then unleashing him onto the world through their elaborate Internet rumor.
 
Even the politically correct exaggeration of the ethnic diversity of Wadlow’s liars club, while adhering to the slasher’s requisite roll call of stock characters – the do-gooder hero/heroine, the love interest, the jock, the airhead, the slut, the rebel, the token black guy – is a marvelous nod to the self-reference necessary in the post-modern slasher film. But the best in-joke that Wadlow sets up beautifully is in the false foreshadowing of the teens planning to leave their prep school campus for a weekend of unsupervised debauchery at somebody’s remote lake house — and then don’t – is a delightfully clever middle finger to formula and a giant wink to the hardcore fan base. Of note, as well, is Wadlow’s subversion of the pervasive Final Girl trope, tasking Owen with the duties of last boy standing.

From the underscore in the title of the film, which prefigures the electronic communication that’s central to its plot, Wadlow’s other notable achievement with CRY_WOLF is his simultaneous use and subversion of technology within the slasher blueprint. While on the surface it might seem like modern technology – cell phones, Internet access, instant messaging – might dilute the sense of isolation necessary to create tension, Wadlow subverts that idea and proves that it’s access which is truly scary and imperils the film’s victims. Tapping into audiences’ well-founded fears of anonymous online interaction being a conduit for danger, technology here is more detriment than saving grace, with the teens essentially granting the killer access to their world through their high-tech gadgets and gizmos. Death by virtual invitation. Wadlow uses the same technology that would traditionally be used to expose the killer and again subverts its use to one granting the killer subterfuge by allowing him to lurk within the anonymity of the Internet, his computer screen as effectively cloaking his identity as his ski mask. Even the seemingly innocuous use of an iPod and a cheap pair of ear buds – here successors to the precedent blunders of forgotten keys, dropped flashlights, and inopportune underwear-clad excursions into rainstorms – prove to be dangerous miscalculations in Wadlow’s information-age slasher.

Although there’s no one amongst Wadlow’s group of apathetic teens who invent a knife-wielding psycho for giggles with whom to readily sympathize, at least the cast of CRY_WOLF is a few grades above average, with Julian Morris (whose genre credits now include SORORITY ROW, DONKEY PUNCH, and TV’s PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) taking up lead as final boy Owen; standout Lindy Booth (of WRONG TURN and 2004’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake); and Jared Padalecki (of HOUSE OF WAX, 2009’s FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot, and television’s long-running SUPERNATURAL) being the most distinguishable of the teens-in-peril. Cameo appearances by vets like Gary Cole (of the excellent THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN remake, TV’s THE GOOD WIFE, and myriad other credits including the mid-nineties series AMERICAN GOTHIC) and Anna Deavere Smith (NURSE JACKIE, THE WEST WING) and the aforementioned supporting turn by Bon Jovi (who’s dabbled respectably in acting over the years with a supporting role in the submarine drama U-571 opposite Matthew McConaughey and a ten-episode arc on TV’s ALLY MCBEAL among other credits) lend the needed adult gravitas.

Visually, the film hits all the right notes, with daytime scenes washed in fall-like oranges and reds lending to the academic atmosphere and nighttime interiors inside campus buildings rendered in the appropriate shadows and murk. Of particular note is an impressive scene set in a cavernous library equipped with energy-saving motion-detector lighting that’s used to excellent effect.

The main question that niggles at the film’s detractors seems to be whether genre eventually overwhelms ingenuity or vice versa. Arguably, for some, CRY_WOLF is a serviceable slasher flick disguised as a mystery-thriller; for others, it’s a mystery-thriller disguised as a slasher. Either way, most would agree that the film itself is (pardon the obvious pun) a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it’s left open to debate what clothes it’s wearing. 

Light on gore with a lower than expected body count, CRY_WOLF still deserves its passing grade based on the ambitiousness of its intricate storyline and its underappreciated degree of shrewd self-referentialism. While fundamentally a clone-like composite of every slasher that came before it – like many a good slasher are – CRY_WOLF gets an “A” for effort in trying to step out ahead of the pack. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Slashback: Family Matters in 'American Gothic' (1988)

With poster art that parodies Grant Wood’s famous painting of the same name, this late entry in the 1980’s slasher boom was more likely to be first discovered amongst the cluttered VHS rental shelves of a video store than in a proper cinema despite being given a modest theatrical release in the spring of 1988.

Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo topline this slice of Canadian schlock as the psychotic scripture-spouting parents of a backwoods Bible-fearing family of three middle-aged adults with childlike minds and decidedly adult homicidal tendencies. Grown daughter Fanny (Janet Wright) wears her hair in pig tails and totes around a mummified baby in a veiled bassinet; pudgy son Teddy (William Hootkins) has a childish temper matched only by his adult libido; and giggling son Woody (Michael J. Pollard) is a taunting tattletale.  
When three irritating yuppie couples charter a plane for a weekend camping getaway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds after the synthesizer-heavy opening credits before their prop plane’s engine sputters out and the requisite emergency landing strands them on a generic forest-shrouded island of dubious derivation. After establishing that the plane won’t start and the radio won’t work, the hapless slasher fodder set out in search of help, instead stumbling upon the Rockwellian farmhouse of Ma and Pa (the actual character names!).

Although the six ill-fated travelers of AMERICAN GOTHIC are chronologically older than their high school and college-age slasher film predecessors, advanced age does little to aid in the development of internal alarms even after they step into the timeworn time warp of Ma and Pa’s parlor and break bread with the family.
What follows is a by-the-numbers slasher, with dashes of incest, necrophilia, and infanticide thrown in to sweeten the carnage casserole. Like all good slashers, AMERICAN GOTHIC is requisitely cliché-ridden and fans will find much comfort in the film’s essentially intact formula, right down to its killer tagline: The family that slays together stays together. The inventive kills here mimic childhood games – murder by swing and jump rope, eye gouging with a toy soldier's bayonet.

Then – after the largely forgettable cast is systematically slaughtered by the murderous trio of siblings – AMERICAN GOTHIC does something interesting with its final girl, veering from the obligatory chase scene and into the decidedly more grindhouse-gothic territory of early 70’s films like TERROR AT RED WOLF INN. Lone survivor Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) – who we know from flashbacks is of questionable sanity herself following the bathtub drowning death of her baby and a stint in a “clinic” of indiscernible origin – seemingly snaps and is adopted as Ma and Pa’s fourth “child”. Now dressed as Fanny’s clone in shiny black Mary Janes, pink-gingham dress, and pigtails, Cynthia seems right at home with her new wackadoodle family – at least until it’s bath time for Fanny’s baby mummy. Flashing back to her own baby’s death, Cynthia re-snaps and struggles with Fanny for the baby, whose mummified head is ripped from its body in the ensuing scuffle. Baby mummy’s beheading earns Fanny a bloody bludgeoning with a galvanized steel tub and each remaining member of the family their own Cynthia-style comeuppance. Like many a final girl before and after her, poor Cynthia is left abandoned – both physically on the island and mentally in her own mind – to stew in her own insanity, cradling and cooing to her (dead and decapitated) baby mummy.
Although Director John Hough was no stranger to genre fare, having directed THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980), and THE INCUBUS (1982), he never manages to balance the dark humor with the requisite chills necessary to ground the slasher mayhem – and the result is an uneven film that never quite gains a firm footing in either comedy or horror. Still, AMERICAN GOTHIC does manage to achieve the camp factor of the earlier MOTEL HELL in spots when it isn’t dipping its toes into the completely absurd.  Steiger and DeCarlo – questionably slumming it here – chew the scenery with particularly gleeful abandon, later incarnations of Farmer Vincent and his sausage-making sister, Ida. Wright, who bears a passing resemblance to MOTEL’s late Nancy Parsons, is chillingly good as Fanny – putting to rest the question of what would have happened if John Waters ever decided to remake WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BAY JANE? with an adult Shirley Temple in the lead.

Interestingly, Hough may have actually been ahead of his time with AMERICAN GOTHIC and its twisted take on religion and family values years before the evangelical political galvanization here in this country. Although remake-weary audiences are loathe to endure yet another slasher film reboot, reimagining, or recalibration, the timeliness of Hough’s – and screenwriters Burt Wetanson’s and Michael Vines’ – source material may be ripe for some restyling.
By 1988, the golden era of the slasher film had begun its inevitable pop culture fade, retiring for its eight-year nap before SCREAM would re-awaken it, refreshed for at least awhile. Even diehard fans of the popular sub-genre knew it was time to give the slasher a rest when the imitators were being imitated, when films like AMERICAN GOTHIC ripped off earlier HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-offs like JUST BEFORE DAWN and HUMONGOUS.

On the surface, AMERICAN GOTHIC is equal parts corny and well-worn, but – at least on repeated viewings over time – the film washes over like a hallucinogenic fever dream.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 14 Singles of 2014


2014 was another banner year in music. And while women (once again) largely dominated my forthcoming list of favorite albums of the year, several gents sneaked their way into my musical consciousness, landing in my annual list of favorite singles. Without further comment (these catchy tunes can speak for themselves, after all), here's my countdown of the Top 14 singles of 2014:

14. "Blame" / Calvin Harris featuring John Newman


13. "This Is The Love" / Spandau Ballet


12. "The Epilogue" / Crosses (†††)


11. "Got Love" / Tove Lo


10. "Don't Wanna Dance / 


9. "Travesty" / Jimmy Somerville


8. "I Was Gonna Cancel" / Kylie Minogue


7. "Ghost" / Ella Henderson


6. "Uptight Downtown" / La Roux


5. "Cannonball" / Lea Michele


4. "Jealous" / Nick Jonas


3. "Digital Witness" / St. Vincent


2. "Fever" / The Black Keys


1. "Sing" / Ed Sheeran


More year-end favorites to come!