Part 7 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me
By far, Tommy is the oldest album on my list. The ’70s and ’80s are entirely unrepresented, but this rock opera from 1969 was always an obvious one for me to include.
The reason? Story. Every album I listen to, I try to tease out a storyline, even if one clearly was never intended. The idea that a collection of songs should be more than that, should be bound together and greater than the sums of their parts, undoubtedly stems from hearing Tommy in my childhood.
That might not be the case if Tommy actually told its story a little better. There are plenty of gaps to be filled in by the listener; official movie and musical versions of Tommy even interpret some events differently. What exactly happens that prompts the titular deaf, dumb, and blind boy to suppress his senses? What is the actual mechanism behind his eventual cure? What is it he does afterward that earns him a throng of followers?
Because of that, of course it seemed like any other album could be just as narratively rich – you just had to fill in the gaps. The lines between rock operas, concept albums, and plain old everyday albums can be a bit fuzzy. Shoving songs onto a record together simply because they were the ones you had recorded recently? Ugh. Lazy.
Musically, Tommy is an impressive set of compositions. The five-minute “Overture” introduces just about every theme you’ll hear – you know, like overtures generally do – and instrumentals “Sparks” and “Underture” reiterate them. The breakout hit “Pinball Wizard” was famously written to appeal to a single critic, but for my money, the album reaches its peak charm with “Sally Simpson”, a complete story in itself. After getting injured basically throwing herself onto a stage where Tommy is preaching, the rest of her life is summed up in two lines:
Sixteen stitches put her right and her Dad said ‘don’t say I didn’t warn yer’.
Sally got married to a rock musician she met in California
How could you hear that and not take up guitar?
What? It’s July. It’s the 25th. Roll with it.
My latest streaming TV binge: Chuck, the 2007-2012 show starring Jim-from-The-Office lookalike Zachary Levi as an underachieving computer technician in a big box electronics store who gets the CIA master database loaded into his brain.
That’s not a spoiler; it’s the series concept. Plus the show ended two and a half years ago. Spoilers are below, however.
To say Chuck was formulaic might be a little unfair. Part of its charm was remixing action and comedy tropes with a bit of a wink. However, there were definite ingredients that showed up with extreme consistency. The frequency of requirements noted here is a bare minimum.
Once per episode
Slow-motion pan of female character
Chuck appeals to guys. Dweeby guys, presumably. An ordinary dude suddenly becoming super-important is a common fantasy and even more common story. And of course this ordinary dude eventually wins the badass hot girl.
On Chuck, the prize is the main character’s CIA handler, Sarah Walker. As such, she is frequently the subject of quarter-speed beauty shots, hair blowing around her, drop-everything rock music accompanying her every stride, camera caressing her from the feet up. Occasionally she got a break, though, to let Chuck’s sister or some other guest star enjoy the ogling spotlight.
Prominent placement of sponsor logo and/or product
Did you know that Subway provided what is euphemistically called in the industry “promotional consideration”? That means they helped fund production of the show in exchange for being seen on it. It actually can help add some realism if it’s done subtly enough; why wouldn’t employees of a retail store regularly grab lunch from the sandwich shop nearby? Why wouldn’t the onsite computer techs of Buy More’s Nerd Herd drive practical, inexpensive, reliable Toyotas?
On the other hand, why wouldn’t Chuck work for the Geek Squad of Best Buy, after which the setting of the show is clearly modeled? Mixing fake and real brands makes both stand out all the more obviously.
Once every 2-3 episodes
Character lovingly describing sponsor’s product
…especially when it’s more than just a logo here and there. At one point, a character anticipating becoming a father extols the virtues of the Toyota Sienna minivan to his wife, exactly as naturally as is done in commercials. And way more than once, the ingredients of a Subway sandwich are performed like poetry.
At the end of the series finale, Subway straight-up purchases the Buy More, for some reason. Along with Greendale Community College in Community, it makes for quite a bizarre real estate portfolio.
Truly skeezy and criminal behavior passed off as humorous
Fellow Buy More employees Jeff and Lester provide “comic relief”, defined as “using consumer spy equipment to watch women without their knowledge” and “literally licking their lips and touching themselves when hitting on female customers as soon as they walk in the store”. This is cute, not creepy, because gosh, boys, right?
For a bonus round, Lester finally faces some consequences when he’s actually arrested for piping car exhaust into the store’s break room. The reasoning behind this plan is too stupid to go into, but he ends up nearly killing someone. Since that wasn’t his intent, though, the victim declines to press charges and he’s out of lockup tout de suite. I’m pretty sure that’s not how attempted murder prosecutions work.
Once per season
Stunt casting for major roles (preferably with obvious referential quote)
Timothy Dalton was undoubtedly Chuck‘s biggest recurring ham, but for winks at the audience, it’s hard to beat lines the writers gave to Linda Hamilton and Scott Bakula, Chuck’s mom and dad, respectively.
Bakula survived four years as the hapless captain of Enterprise without uttering his Quantum Leap catchphrase. Fans begged those writers to put it in. They threw in holodecks and Borg and Ferengi but they resisted cute quotes. Sarah Connor didn’t even SAY that line.
Also, be sure to completely waste Ben Browder’s talents and nerd cred in the third-to-last episode of the series.
MacGuffin given to somebody else (but not a woman if you can possibly avoid it)
The big CIA database is called The Intersect. It’s originally loaded into Chuck by showing him a rapidly-changing series of images, displayed on a computer screen after being sent to him via email. Later versions are loaded via computerized glasses.
Turns out, the human-installable version of The Intersect was invented (and used) by none other than Chuck’s father. Other long-term human Intersects included ally-then-baddie Daniel Shaw; ally-then-baddie-then-ally Hartley Winterbottom, a colleague of Chuck’s father who was turned into the evil Alexei Volkoff for years before the Intersect was removed; and Morgan Grimes, Chuck’s goofy best friend. Noticing a pattern?
Aside from a brief test in one male and one female agent, the only woman to ever become a human Intersect was Sarah Walker, and it took until the final few episodes of the series. Oh, and it wiped her memory so it was like her whole relationship with Chuck never happened, but after a day or two she’s all “Kiss me anyway!”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that space is the final frontier.” – Captain Elizabeth Bennett, U.S.S. Longbourn
Rummaging through my basement and garage recently, I uncovered two relics of the 1990s. One predicts the 23rd century while the other documents the turn of the 18th and 19th.
Both of these formidable entertainment juggernauts feature six VHS tapes, numbered with elegant Roman numerals. Both also star remarkably curly-haired men with lavishly pointed sideburns: pre-famous Colin Firth and between-acts William Shatner. Both Star Trek: The Movie Collection and A&E’s Pride and Prejudice make compelling cases for being the one item you bring to a desert island that is miraculously equipped with a VCR, television, and electricity.
But which video release is truly superior? Only an off-the-cuff, ludicrously uninformed listicle of specious comparisons framed as a pugilistic competition could possibly decide.
Round I: Mildew Resistance
Neither collection has survived two decades unscathed. With time and moisture come spreading fungus, and cardboard is particularly susceptible. While Pride and Prejudice showed less prevalent infestation than Star Trek, it had also been stored in a less humid area. Therefore, it is difficult to make a fair comparison.
Round II: Packaging Art
On one hand, we have the bedroom eyes of Jennifer Ehle and the aforementioned Colin Firth. On the other, we have a starship bursting out of a supernova or something. If that were the whole story, Star Trek would win easily.
But it goes even further than that. Flip each tape around and the image they form is all planetty and moony and stuff:
Not only that, the supernova burst wraps around each individual tape sleeve. It’s shifted on each sleeve so that everything still lines up. Bravo, illustrator. Bravo.
Winner: Star Trek
Round III: Packaging Shape
In a sane world, this wouldn’t even be a category. But someone had to go and be creative.
Yeah. Videocassettes are rectangular, so Pride and Prejudice takes the sensible option of putting them in a box that’s, you know, rectangular. Star Trek goes all parallelogram because THE FUTURE or something and screw your media shelf. No.
Winner: Pride and Prejudice
Round IV: Playing Time
Sorry, but yes, length matters. Each Pride and Prejudice tape is a mere 50 minutes long, for a grand total of 300 minutes or 5 hours of playing time. That barely gets you between coconut salad lunch and mashed coconut dinner on your desert island.
On the other hand, just watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture and falling asleep during the eighteenth shot of Kirk and Spock marveling at V’Ger’s glorious expanse can take up a whole day. All told, the six movies are 11 hours and 20 minutes long, not counting the time in between films shouting “KHAAAAN!” and “nuclear wessels”.
Winner: Star Trek
Round V: Promotional Bravado
Star Trek: The Movie Collection wastes little effort on pretending it is anything more than, well, a collection of Star Trek movies. Whatevs, Trekkies’ll buy it. But Pride and Prejudice is bold.
Now, it’s 2014, and Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, but this is not last year’s Blu-ray. This is the VHS release from 1996. According to Wikipedia, Jane Austen wrote the original version of the novel “between October 1796 and August 1797″. The 200th anniversary of when you started a rough draft is totally a thing, which means folks will be celebrating my one-page nonsense stories smashed out on a surplus typewriter in a mere 170 years.
Winner: Pride and Prejudice
Round VI: Trademark Assertiveness
Nothing affirms artistic achievement like the awarding of a registered trademark. Say something pithy, creative, and unique? Lock that phrasing down!
Or, uh, pretty much anything. Like a fictional ship that was named after a real-life ship, right down to initials that make no sense in their fictional context. Sure.
Winner: Star Trek
Overall Winner: Star Trek
It’s a close score, but Star Trek: The Movie Collection ekes out a 3-2 victory over A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. With good graphic design, copious content, and rigorous intellectual property protection, anything is possible. Take note, Hollywood.
Part 6 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me
When reviewing Fiona Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine, I said that When the Pawn had “made me feel like all my ex-girlfriends ever were yelling at me all at once. Moreover, it made me feel like I deserved it.”
I stand by that assessment from … cripes, nine years ago?
Okay, break for feeling old. Now, onto reviewing this album from a 22-year-old following her multi-platinum debut.
One is tempted to worry about Fiona Apple. Just about every other song, she vacillates between debilitating neediness and intense vitriol. She jumps from convincing herself “You’re all I need” over and over in opening track “On The Bound” to sarcastically telling off a suitor in “To Your Love” to lashing out at an abusive partner in “Limp” to romantic resignation at losing someone in “Love Ridden”.
She’s clearly had problems with at least one person paying way too much attention to her. Penultimate song “Get Gone” tries to deliver the message as plainly and simply as possible that she is not interested. Two tracks earlier, in “Fast As You Can”, the directive to go away is similar but the reasoning is quite different: she’s just too messed up.
Finally, in “I Know”, she’s willing to put up with being an unloved second choice. Girl’s got some serious self-esteem issues.
So yeah, as someone who’s sometimes crossed lines trying to get girls to talk to me, I can identify with the objects of Apple’s songs. And who hasn’t at some point felt totally unworthy of a particular (or any) partner?
When the Pawn excels at bouncing back and forth between rage and self-hatred, righteous anger and overwhelming shame. The target changes, but throughout, someone is given an emotional thrashing.
(Apple obviously does not play guitar as her primary instrument. Only a piano player would so recklessly pinball between keys like this.)
This came to me in a dream.