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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tune of the week: Air France - No Excuses

No Excuses - Air France

Perfect track to perk-up a sleepy lethargic morning. Pure pop headiness with handclaps, breathless/atmospheric vocals and synth anthem riffs. I don't really know much about this Swedish band, but I do think that Pitchfork's review of the EP is spot-on. The word they use to describe Air France's sound is "Balearic" - named after the anthemic brand of disco/dance that emerged from the Mediterranean islands of Ibiza, Corsica, Marjorca, etc. Despite the fact that my musical tastes have developed rather eclectically throughout the years, I have a real soft spot for individuals who are able to craft blissful pop gems. Perhaps it's a sign of my age, but the over-produced synth goodness of pop from the 80s and 90s are sounds that still appeal to my ears these days.

Speaking of nostalgia, Serene and I were lamenting the demise of Chris Ho's column "Pop Life" in The Straits Times. If you are like me, and grew up in the shadow of Chris' music recommendations, you might want to read his swan song article if you haven't. I've reproduced his eloquently written, dignified but rather bittersweet farewell below.


The Straits Times (Singapore)

July 25, 2008 Friday

My musical send-off;
Singer Joni Mitchell will always be in my blood, even as I mark the end of this column next month

BYLINE: Chris Ho, poplife


LENGTH: 794 words

T.S. ELIOT may claim that April is the cruellest month of the year but, to me, the cruellest is August. Come next month, this column of mine will cease to exist.

No big deal I know, but for a sentimentalist like me, it marks the end of this column's 25-year run, a long time for something as ephemeral as pop.

I remember when I first started this column, David Bowie was just crossing over to the mainstream with Let's Dance and Eurythmics were creating waves with Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This.

It was a time when my somewhat academic approach towards writing pop was deemed suitably edifying a perspective to lend credence to the subject, which was rather undervalued at the time. I was just thankful that studying literature in university gave me good background mileage in 'practical criticism' to appreciate poetic words.

It is no secret that my principal love has always been singer-songwriter music. After all, it was Joni Mitchell who gave me my 'great rock 'n' roll send-off'.

With her powerful lyricism and brave experimental style in the mid-1970s as primary influence, I felt I had connected with the very core of what rock 'n' roll is. Very simply, it is about being free with an eye on redemption. It is somewhat inexplicable a vibe, because you really have to feel it in order to know it.

With Mitchell's musical blessing, I felt I could ride with the bravado of Bowie, the punk of Iggy Pop, the decadence of Lou Reed and still take on the wild wonders of New Wave-dance-alternative-hardcore and whatever left-field noise or extreme metal there was.

To this day, I still live and breathe Mitchell (at least, all of her great work till 1979) for she is 'in my blood like holy wine', along with Jackson Brown, Tim Buckley and not a few others.

If my taste in music had, through the years, appeared esoteric or unfathomable, it is only because I am as much a 'trainspotter' as I am a dedicated supporter of great substance.

For what good is following the ever- changing tide of fashion or flavours-of-the- month if one is not blissfully grounded by the subliminal wow of true heavyweights?

Simply put, I follow trends to know what not to follow or buy into, and by 'true heavyweights', I do not mean what the collective consensus deems critically essential for the average consumer.

I have always prided myself in seeing what slipped through the cracks. For instance, I still uphold that Jhelisa's Language Electric is the 1990s' feminine equivalent of Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Goin' On. And that Billie Ray Martin's Deadline For My Memories is the unique Joni Mitchell-meets-Donna Summer foray into Studio 54's shuttered VIP-room of dire romantics.

By the way, did I ever tell you my self-propounded theory that Mitchell lost her greatest muse the day she stopped working with bassist Jaco Pastorius?

If all that seems insignificant, I am proud to recall that way before any big-time music rag (read: Rolling Stone, New Musical Express, the like) raved about REM, this column had called attention to the then-unknown band by way of their indie debut Chronic Town.

Not to mention Red Hot Chili Peppers, Los Lobos, U2... Some readers may remember more, but 25 years is too long to now capture in one breath.

And if all the Mitchell-talk renders me limited in outlook, I assure you I have ventured into a spectrum far wider than expected: from Judy Garland to Judas Priest, DJ Hell to Darkthrone, Johnny Cash to Butthole Surfers, Peggy Lee to Dick Lee.

In fact, I am guilty of being a stylistic scavenger hunting down all in search of that X-factor called great music.

Blame me for sounding egotistical, but my biggest regret in not being able to write this column anymore is the thought that from here on, no one is going to bother much about Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris. These artists, I believe, are now the true torchbearers of the Mitchell legacy.

Or, what if no one here recognises the great music of our own local players - from the late Michael Isaac to the new Max Shanti? Perhaps the world has changed, especially when John Mayer is now 'God' and Tori Amos seems to be the singer-songwriter goddess of them all.

What do I know? Except that this is a given directive of an exit for me in view of life's many changes. In particular, this one you are holding with a capital L and the exclamation suffix.

Well, this Pop Life has no big exclamation to end but a sad goodbye and a trite rationalisation that all pleasurable things do desist.

Relieved of the trite, I shall revel in my treasure trove of pop, punk, metal, country, folk, dance, ambient, jazz and rock to light the rest of my days.

May you be touched by your own Mitchell to seek a pop-life that is both gratifying and redeeming.

Best wishes always from me, an ardent music fan.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hellboy flashback

Jude and I really enjoyed Hellboy- he almost never watches a movie twice at the theatres but he did with this one. It's a very different superhero movie from The Dark Knight- a happy hodgepodge of a whole bunch of genres, witty dialogue (who knew a Barry Manilow song could be so funny? Oh wait...), and a lovable grotesquery of creatures that could only have sprung from the imagination of the gifted Guillermo del Toro- in other words, all-round rambunctious good fun :)

So as we were watching the credits roll, the name "Luke Goss" jumped out at me. He plays Prince Nuada in the movie and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out where I've heard the name before. Plus, it's not like I could recognize the actor behind all that make-up. It bugged me for a while and then I promptly forgot all about it until a couple of days ago when I decided to revist it again. And that's when I discovered why the name rings a bell. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Luke Goss circa 1988, a.k.a. one-third of the now defunct British boy-band (of sorts...), Bros!! I kid you not! To prove that this is all for real, check out what I found on YouTube- their incongruous "When Will I Be Famous" video:

Talk about aging gracefully (so rare for '80s stars...)- how did the dude get from this:

to this:

to this??

Quote of the week

Decision-making — whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry — isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.

From an op-ed in the NYT by columnist David Brooks titled "The Culture of Debt".

Monday, July 21, 2008

An unstoppable force meets an immovable object

He makes Jack Nicholson's Joker look like a birthday clown.

It was a truly demented, terrifying and ghastly portrayal of the character, like some avatar of pure, distilled, meaningless hate. I actually found parts of his performance difficult to watch because it was so frightening. This is a villain who refuses to be psychologized- there is no method to his madness, no rhyme and even less reason for his cruelty, because as Alfred cleverly intuits, he's someone who just "wants to watch the world burn..."

But the thing is, for all the brilliance of Heath Ledger's take on The Joker, I think the media has overlooked the movie's other inspired performance- Aaron Eckhart's. Harvey's bleak descent into Two-Face was interminably sad because you were watching it unfold right before you, as Jude always says, like watching a car crash in slow motion. Seeing the hopeful righteousness give way to ultimate vengeance and anger was like witnessing another piece of of Gotham's continued decay. True, the Joker's failed "social experiment" with the two ferries suggested some hope for the crumbling metropolis, but that he managed to corrupt its shining star casts a pall over whatever salvation Gotham might have hoped for.

At the end of the day, unlike Batman Begins where the focus was more on the seething underbelly of Gotham and the sordid human brokenness of the city, The Dark Knight is about its citizens and what makes them fall apart within. Whether its a senseless desire for mayhem and destruction, the loss of a loved one, or a realization that to be a city's savior is to be its enemy, the movie pushes the boundaries what we expect of and need from our heroes and villains, questions the various shades of gray that separate good and evil, and may have forever redefined what a great comic-book movie is from now on.

I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me... You just couldn't let me go, could you? I guess this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of righteousness . . . and I won't kill you because you're too damn fun. We're going to do this forever.
- The Joker to Batman, The Dark Knight

[For an exceptionally good article on the various incarnations of Batman and how the latest movie matches up, see this Salon piece.]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Serendipitious find- The Watchmen (2009) trailer

So as I was snooping around different websites and news articles trying hard *not* to read anything related to the new Batman movie, I came across something from Empire about a trailer for the new Watchmen film. Apparently, to capture the same audience demographic of comic-book-to-film fans, the trailer will be played during previews prior to The Dark Knight.

A couple of summers ago, Jude and I re-read the single-release issue of The Watchmen in one sitting, but he's the bigger fan, so this is for him :) Like my future brother-in-law, PZ, said last night, many film adaptations of comic books and graphic novels have become increasingly sophisticated and high quality movies in and of themselves (Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, and most recently, Hellboy II, are perfectly fine films on their own...) This trailer is visually stunning, and coupled with the Smashing Pumpkins' "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning", the whole experience of watching The Dark Knight- previews and all- looks set to be a phenomenally mind-blowing one!

[click for link to Apple Trailer]

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Darkness falls...

[click for an enlarged version of my favorite portrait of Heath the Joker]

Not since... okay, not since I-don't-know-when have I anticipated a movie so badly. It opens tomorrow and we have tickets to watch it on Saturday. I told myself I'm not going to read any reviews or reports of it until I've seen it for myself. Let's see how well that goes.

Oh be still my beating heart...
In a small, windowless side-room stand a pair of costumes. In one corner, hanging from a sturdy, metal frame, is the new-look batsuit, all matte-black mesh and unyielding hard-plastic carapace, the first to allow the moody crime-fighter to actually turn his head. Impressive. But in the corner to its left, draped simply over a headless mannequin, is something far more exciting. Its a tatty, threadbare get-up, a dark-green waistcoat over a grey shirt, with a dark green tie at the collar. Purple trousers hang below and a long, angular purple coat sits on top. The ensemble's completed by a pair of purple gloves and a silver fob chain dangling from the belt. Its part Vivienne Westwood, part Alexander McQueen, part thrift-shop grunge. And its entirely The Joker.
-from Empire Magazine, "Heath has created something quite terrifying" (Dec 2007)

Brought to you by the letter F and the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4

[Inspired by Dark Orpheus's post.]

Jude and I have long been fans of Feist and loved her performance at the Blind Pig when she was in Ann Arbor in 2006. When her video for "1-2-3-4" first came out, we were so taken by it that Jude had blogged about it here. It continues to be one of our favorite music videos, if for nothing else, the choreography, her exuberance and the fact that it was probably all done in one take. Now that's masterful...

Anyways, Feist has now joined the legion of some of my favorite artists who have appeared on Sesame Street. Her appearance is scheduled to premier in August but thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the clip got leaked which is how I'm able to share with you this delightful wonder of her counting with monsters, penguins and chickens! I'm not sure how to convey the sheer awesomeness that is the video except to say that I've played it several times since this morning and my day is all the brighter for it! See if you can pick out the different points at which they've recreated elements from the music video... :)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Things I'm surprised I haven't eaten yet...

Even though it's been only a little over a week since I've been home, there are some things I'm almost outraged that I haven't gotten round to eating. I'm usually militant when it comes to hitting all my favorite food joints within a week of coming back, so the fact that I haven't yet consumed almost all of everything I've been dying to eat this past year is virtually sacrilegious...
1. Chicken rice (!): For the past few years, this has almost always been the first local food I eat when we return. For some reason, it's been 10 days, and I haven't even come close to a chicken rice stall. (Crossing this out thanks to my dearest dad and Yet Con Chicken Rice!)
2. Bak chor mee: When it comes to this dear humble noodle favorite, only the best will do. And nothing says welcome home like a bowl of vinegary, savory, springy noodles with pork and dumplings like Tai Wah does it.
3. Hokkien mee: Hello, where have all the good Hokkien Mee stalls gone?
4. Peranakan food: While it's fairly easy to find or recreate Chinese food back in A2, Peranakan food is a whole other ball game altogether. A fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking, the spices and ingredients of Peranakan cuisine are not only unique to the region, it also involves painstaking steps that are just a tad intimidating. But I do love it so and can't wait to have my fill before I miss it again for another year.
5. BBQ chicken wings: Ask Jude, nobody loves them BBQ chicken wings like Serene Koh :)
6. A good seafood meal from Palm Beach: And not just because it's family... Think delicious, succulent steamed prawns, the freshest fish lightly dressed in soy sauce, and the most luscious chilli crabs you will find this side of South-east Asia. I think I'm blogging myself into a virtual frenzy here...
7. Fish-head bee hoon and har jeong kai (shrimp paste fried chicken): This may not very appealing, but oh trust me, a more comforting combination of tasty soup noodles and greasy deliciousness you will not find.
8. My mom's hae cho (prawn and pork rolls): Ok, this just means I need to work my "but-I-haven't-been-home-in-a-year-and-I-do-love-you-so" wiles more :)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Questions to the drivers of that black Lexus RX and the silver BMW 7 Series convertible

1. I understand that you would like very much to take my parking space after I move, but what good does it do you or I if you position your car in front of the space in which case, I can't get out?!
2. Maybe you couldn't see me from way up there in your fancy, gleaming car, but what is the point of signaling to switch lanes only after you've started to butt into my lane, nearly killing me?
3. Is it too much to ask that you at least appear to try to make an attempt (I'm not expecting a lot, clearly...) to thank me when I let you switch into my lane anyway even after you tried to kill me? (Or maybe you did, and I couldn't see you from way down here...)
4. Why is it that you use your signal indicators with so much restraint but not your horn?
5. Do you realize that if you tailgate me and heaven forbid that I would then suddenly brake with no prior warning, that your precious car would require a more expensive repair than the humble little Mitsubishi that I'm driving?

I hope your driving experience was as pleasant as mine, Messrs "We're-driving-expensive-luxury-cars-and-hence-have-more-rights-than-you-the-little-common-folk".

Monday, July 07, 2008

Home vs. blogging

What is it about being at home in Singapore that gets in the way of blogging? It's almost like I'm uninspired to blog- OK, maybe "uninspired" isn't quite the right word, "unmotivated", perhaps. It surely doesn't have to do with time, since it's been so nice taking a break from work these past few days and just spending time with the family, during which I could have easily found some time to blog if I wanted to.

It probably also has little to do with the lack of things to blog about- I could have told you about my first data collection session with a class of ten-year-olds (which went extremely well, except for one rather precocious kid who kept asking how old I am. Apparently, telling me over and over that I look 20 is supposed to be a compliment- which it would have been had it not been so weird..), or the excruciating heat and humidity I had to endure as I ran my first 8K through MacRitchie Reservoir over the weekend (if I can survive keeping up my running regimen here, I really might be able to survive the Detroit Half). Or maybe you would have liked to read about the fiasco otherwise known as Serene Koh's attempt to renew her student visa? (who still requests for cashier's orders these days?? The American Embassy in Singapore, it would seem...). And then there's the insane storm of a meal my sister and I whizzed up tonight- anchovy-onion pasta, glazed ginger ale carrots, Parmesan-crusted fried lamb chops with tzatziki, and a banoffee pie thrown in just in case we weren't in enough of a food coma.

At the end of the day, I think blogging has become our way of updating our friends and family here about our lives in A2, but since we're now home and a "hey you!", "why are you late?", and "what *is* that you're wearing?" are just a text message, phone call, or shout down the hallway away, it's almost like there's little need to blog. Of course, there are those of you who are now on the other end- our friends stateside- who pop in once in a while to make sure we haven't fallen off the edge of the world. Don't worry, we'll make sure to update as often as we can. Hope you guys had a great 4th July weekend!- I can't believe Kobayashi lost the hotdog-eating contest again- c'mon, dude! Asia represent!- and that returning to the grind of work today has been forgiving after all that partying, BBQ and fireworks!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

At last...

I've never hated to be in Chicago. Until 2 days ago.

So I'm home. Finally. After 48 harrowing hours of flights delayed, cancelled, re-routed, terminals mixed up, plane engines ingesting birds (no, I'm not making this up...), sad airport hotels, flights across Detroit, Chicago, D.C. and Tokyo. A journey that would have taken 22 hours (not that *that* isn't long enough in itself) took me close to 50. Considering that everything that could go wrong on an international flight did go wrong, until I was physically holding all my bags and walking towards Jude and my sis last night, I was convinced something else was going to go awry, I would have a nervous breakdown, and then lose my mind completely.

But all is well now- I'm on the same soil as Jude and my family, I did my first session of data collection this morning (I know, why?...) which went extremely well, am having a relaxing lunch at home with poor Sam who has the day off from school because of a bad viral flu, and I think I'm recovering part of the little bit of sanity I lost over the last 2 days. I feel impending jetlag creeping up upon me, but I'm home, and really, *I* could be the one down with the viral flu and I would still be happy :)