the Buzz for June 2012


The Newbeats — “Bread and Butter”
(from The Imus Ranch Record II) — Bread and Butter - The Imus Ranch Record II

“Oh God, I don’t know. I think about it though. And I absolutely think about, you know, things like: the importance of eating bread while you’re at my age, because we’re all trying so hard to be thin, you know? We’re all trying so hard to be healthy and thin, in an era where there is the greatest bread in the world. We have never had bread like this, in America or anywhere else! In New York, in L.A. today, you can get bread that’s as good as the bread in Paris! And we should not avoid it, because it might not be what we die from: too much bread.”

— the late great screenwriter / director / essayist Nora Ephron — who passed away earlier this week at age 71 following a largely silent bout with leukemia — speaking with Charlie Rose in 2006. (The question Rose posed which prompted Nora’s brilliant digression: “What do you think will be the first line of your obituary?” And I’m not sure why I found Ephron’s response to be so touching and so powerfully amusing, except that I happen to share my life with a man who I’d wager can very nearly count on one hand the things in this world he reveres more than a quality hunk of warm, freshly-baked bread, so I can at least kinda sorta understand the origins of her relatively singular line of thinking. Fare thee well, Nora, and nothing but best wishes to your friends and family.)


Mary J. Blige & Julianne Hough — “Any Way You Want It”
(from Rock of Ages [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]) — Any Way You Want It - Rock of Ages (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

I had already fallen out with many a critic this month over the rampant, gracelessly gleeful bashing of the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, who makes his hotly-anticipated return to dramatic series television this weekend with the premiere of HBO’s The Newsroom. See, I suspect that, because Sorkin has now overseen a couple of dynamic, dynamite programs that are focused on the inner workings of television — ABC’s late-’90s hybrid masterpiece Sports Night and NBC’s magnificent mid-aughts flameout Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — and because in said series, Sorkin has had some not-so-nice, not-so-veiled commentary for those who make their livings writing about the medium, most of the advance reviews of Newsroom that I have taken the time to read have seemed to be less critiques of the actual show than they are critiques of Sorkin himself, whose work is marked by several easily-mocked signatures (crackling, whip-smart dialogue; scenes of actors walking fast and talking faster; impassioned, electrified, idealistic speechifying on any number of relevant topics, as though it’s such a crime against creativity to present characters within the framework of a story who — gasp! — want the world to be a better place than it currently is and who take steps, however small or meek, in an attempt to make that happen) and whose brain operates on a plane so far above theirs (and, hell, all the rest of ours). (It bears noting that many of these same writers have been sharpening their knives for Sorkin ever since NBC and Warner Bros. essentially forced him out of The West Wing in 2003, and you could just see them rubbing their hands together and laughing wickedly when Studio 60 crashed down in flames four years later.) Naturally, one is led to believe that many of these people are simply seething with jealousy because Sorkin is leagues smarter than they are and, furthermore, is never afraid to present his work as though he knows this fact; ergo, the hysterical harangues centered on the way Sorkin writes rather than what he writes. Aaron certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but this hoary horseshit nonetheless drives me mad.

Here’s what else makes me crazy: film critics who seemingly believe that their possession of a black-and-white byline means they can no longer enjoy the singular thrill — the thrill that, if we’re lucky, we all first experience as children — of spending two hours in a dark, enclosed room full of total strangers (who, when everyone is doing it right, are just as primed and excited as you are) training ours eyes on a ginormous white screen and surrendering our minds to an ever-unspooling series of moving pictures whose lonely, only reason for existence is not to teach us a history lesson, nor to make some statement — be it grand or bland — for or against the wavering whims of society and/or the human condition, but simply to make us smile for a spell. I can’t even begin to speculate what exactly any of the writers who thoroughly trashed the film were expecting to see when they sat down to watch Rock of Ages, Adam Shankman’s feather-light but enormously fun film adaptation of the smash Broadway musical. A pleasant patchwork of surprisingly well-aged ’80s guitar rock tunes — among them, Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” (presented in the film as a marvelous mash-up with Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”), and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” — fashioned into a story of a star-crossed pair of impossibly gorge whippersnappers chasing dreams and destiny amidst the loud razzle-dazzle of Sin City (a.k.a. Hollywood, circa 1987), Ages never presents itself as the second coming of Gandhi; it’s just a hilarious high-concept popcorn flick, a couple of easy, breezy hours you won’t mind never getting back, a film that never stops winking at us to make sure we know that it knows it, too, is always in on the joke.

Beyond the music (which is stitched together pretty flawlessly, crafting a pitch-perfect aural mosaic of the era from which it springs forth), the saving graces here are the performances. Yes, indeed, Tom Cruise goes a soupcon over the top as aging rock god Stacee Jaxx (taking his motivational speaker role from Magnolia to a whole new level of self-deluded megalomania), but, as the aforementioned star-crossed young ‘uns, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta make for affably harmless leads, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is a slow-burning riot as a buttoned-up bible-thumping bitch-on-wheels with the heart of a man-hungry minx beating beneath her bountiful bosom. And the riveting revelation here is Blige, tearing the roof off the joint as a bittersweet blues-mama who owns a high-class strip club into which our hapless heroine stumbles on an aimless rainy night. I don’t know how deep into the planning stages Blige is on her next album, but her bewitching voice — still oozing with soul, no doubt, but also burning with gravel and grit — slides so seamlessly onto these percussive, primitive gems, one becomes certain as Ages struts toward its money shot that Miss Mary could totally have given Ann Wilson and Lita Ford a run for their considerable money back in the day. (No jokes, here: if Blige decided her next project should be a Pat Benatar covers record, I swear to Jesus I’d be the first fool in line to buy ten copies the day the album dropped.) And if you axe me, any critic who can honestly say he or she wasn’t tapping his or her toes throughout the entire duration of this film’s running time needs to dig deep and try like hell to rediscover what made them fall head over heels for the uncompromising magic of movies in the first damn place.


Not before — and scarcely since — has television created a pop culture phenomenon on the level of CBS’ classic prime-time soap Dallas, which ruled Friday nights around the globe and, in many ways, epitomized and perfectly encapsulated the American ethos of the 1980s for much of its unprecedented thirteen-season run. (Indeed, at its delirious peak in the early part of the decade, some ninety million viewers sat glued to their television sets captivated by the scandalous exploits of the Ewing family and their friends and foes, and salivating over the ever-churning plot’s next wickedly delicious twist.)

Only two cast members stayed aboard the Dallas express for the entirety of its run: Larry Hagman, whose dastardly, devilishly charming oilman J.R. Ewing would become an instant classic television character; and Ken Kercheval, who, as J.R.’s ever-embattled bitter rival Cliff Barnes, often gave the audience someone with whom they could relate amidst the larger-than-life backstabbing and brilliant chicanery. And as brought to life by two astoundingly fine actors, the fabulously frothy feud between J.R. and Cliff helped lure the audience back to Southfork week after torturous week.

After a two-decade hiatus, TNT has commissioned a ten-episode reboot — or, as Dallas principals prefer to call it, a “continuation” — of the classic series, which premiered last week to stellar ratings and uncommonly glowing critical notices. And though the updated Dallas now focuses primarily on the impossibly gorgeous (natch!) Ewing offspring, Kercheval — who returns as Cliff in episode three, airing this week — advised me when we spoke by telephone recently not to count out the so-called “old guard” quite yet.

BRANDON’S BUZZ: For the five people out there who never saw the original Dallas, or who have slept in the past twenty years, give us a quick primer on the hows and whys of Cliff Barnes.

KEN KERCHEVAL: He’s a nice guy. He’s a real nice guy, Cliff. People would say I was a bad guy, but I’ve always contended that if it weren’t for J.R. and all of his devious ways, Cliff wouldn’t have to — Cliff only defends himself as best he can. I just [never saw] Cliff as a bad guy. But then again, I don’t know; with this new show, I’m not so sure I’ll [still] be able to say that.

You know, I heard – I think it was Linda Gray — say that when she was back on set, it was only as if she had worked with everyone just six months ago or so — did you find that to be the case as well?

Oh yeah. Yep, it was almost like we had had a holiday, a Christmas vacation, and then came back to work. Seriously!



Jason Mraz — “I Won’t Give Up”
(from Love is a Four Letter Word) — I Won't Give Up - Love Is a Four Letter Word (Deluxe Version)

You well know I try like hell to keep this space a Mraz-free zone, but I owe Sherry Ann one, because I very nearly forgot her birthday yesterday, and she always looks forward to her annual tribute here on the Buzz. (In my defense, I had a wild and woolly week at work, and while I had seen it coming on the calendar earlier in the week, the significance of the date almost got lost in the hectic shuffle. She should take heart, though: I also missed my mother’s birthday last month, and it didn’t dawn on me for a full two weeks, so this really isn’t so bad at all by comparison.) So much love from A and me (and 70,000 of your closest friends here on the Buzz!), Sherry Ann, and here’s hoping you have a magnificent day after your birthday.


Regina Spektor — “Small Town Moon”
(from What We Saw from the Cheap Seats) — Small Town Moon - What We Saw from the Cheap Seats

Spektor’s (largely) ass-chappingly irritating quirks and vocal tics continue to go full frontal on her just-released fourth album — which, praise be, hasn’t drawn the same outrageously ridiculous comparisons to my beloved Ms. Amos that her first three records did — but at least she’s leaping toward more relevant artistic territory this time around, as on this wistfully nostalgic piano-driven ditty about a wide-eyed young lass itching to break away. Think of it as a modern-day “She’s Leaving Home,” this one from the she‘s point of view.


Paul Simon (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo)
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
(from Graceland [25th Anniversary Edition]) — Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes - Graceland (Remastered)

I have written often in this space over the years about my disdain for the “deluxe edition” re-release, but urry once in a while, a recording comes along that truly merits the honor, and this week brings us one such special project, as one of the finest albums ever laid to tape returns to stores with a brilliant new expanded package just in time to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Just months after the likes of Queen and Rod Stewart had been royally castigated by their peers for playing sold-out shows at the notorious Sun City casino and resort in South Africa — then still ravaged by the racial segregation practice known as apartheid — Paul Simon willfully ignored the cultural embargo of the time (not to mention long-standing United Nations sanctions) and traveled to the country to write and record a handful of songs with some of the nation’s premier artists and musicians, the fact of whose existence Simon desired desperately to introduce to a mass global audience. (And it bears noting: after a pair of blistering commercial disappointments — 1980’s One Trick Pony and 1982’s Hearts and Bones — Simon himself was surely looking for away to reignite his own flagging career.) The result of all this toil: the Grammy-winning masterwork Graceland, an eclectic and helplessly endearing melange of Africa-inspired rhythms and beats that returned Simon to the top of the charts and very much helped give rise to the so-called “world music” phenomenon over the decade to come.

Graceland is back this week with a pristine four-disc box set and a more manageable double-disc edition, each of which comes packed with a bounty of bonus material — including rare demos and alternate mixes — and a DVD containing Under African Skies, Oscar winner Joe Berlinger’s piercing documentary about the harrowing creation of this landmark album; and, more importantly, about Simon’s bold choice to disregard the tempestuous politics of the day in an (ultimately worthwhile) attempt to illustrate that music truly is the universal language, and in the name of creating something much more enduring than the endless sniping of warring ideologies: art. (It’s a lesson we seem to keep needing to re-learn, again and again and again.) For sure don’t let this one slip through the cracks of your record shopping experience this week.


Adele — “Turning Tables” (from 21) — Turning Tables - 21

Years ago, in one of her all-time funniest observations, the brilliant Sherry Ann put forth a theory that George Michael must be from the classy, upper-crust area of Great Britain (because his accent is so gracefully refined and silky-smooth), and the Spice Girls must be from the dowdy, trailer-park area of the country (because, literally to a woman, their accents — at least back in the day — were always so screechy and nausea-inducing). And watching Matt Lauer’s interview with Adele that ran in prime-time last night on NBC (and, of course, flashing back on her Grammy-night coronation last February), I was struck dumb by the stunning disparity that exists between her singing voice and her speaking one, and left to wonder how on earth they can both spring from the same set of pipes. (Incidentally, if you ever run into Sherry Ann on the street, don’t let her slip away before getting her to unleash her oughta-be-world-famous Spice Girls impression; she does a virulently spot-on recitation of the hilarious “Anybody got any pay-puh?!” bit of dialogue from the otherwise regrettable Spiceworld film, and it’s easily among the top three funniest things I’ve ever heard.)


Kacy Crowley — “Nickel to the Stone” (from Anchorless) — Nickel to the Stone - Anchorless

“. . . little Mexican houses, vines of wire /

a gate that just don’t quite shut /

along the sides of a hopscotch square /

two girls listenin’ to themselves /

on a worn-out tape player /

‘We’re gonna be big stars /

if I could just get this pencil /

to rewind my tape that far . . . !'”


Adam Lambert — “Pop That Lock” (from Trespassing) — Pop That Lock - Trespassing (Deluxe Version)

On his just-released sophomore album, thankfully for us all, Lambert has dialed back the screeching banshee shtick that made him an instant favorite on American Idol three seasons ago, even as he has grown much more mischievously adventurous with his subject matter. (As blatant sexual metaphors go, this one’s fairly tame when stacked up next to Christina blathering on about her woohoo a couple of summers ago, or even the ever-scintillating invitation to stand under Rihanna’s umba-relly, but — dig this dude or not — isn’t there something rather viciously refreshing about the fact of a young, openly gay man crafting an entire album about, essentially, getting his, uh, groove on and sending said album straight to the top of the charts?)