Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tis' the Season

As you're all well aware, for the last two years I've been posting monthly music lists, each spotlighting a particular year in music. That will resume next month with my year-end look at 2010, but for the holidays I'm doing something special:

As much as I love this time of year, it's hard for me to enjoy Christmas music. My family immerses themselves into the holiday spirit, so much that they find my distaste bewildering. I'll help put ornaments on the tree and set up lights outside the house without hesitation, but they can't understand why I make a beeline out of the room whenever I hear Der Bingle belt out "White Christmas" for the 5,000th time.

One local radio station here in Chicago, 93.9 "Lite FM," plays Christmas music around the clock this time of year with an absurd amount of gusto. They've been known to switch out their usual playlist of soft rock and power ballads for "Jingle Bells" as early as November 2nd; this year, however "Lite FM" showed some restraint and held off until the Thursday before Thanksgiving. For a lot of Chicagoans this is their soundtrack to the season, including the Allard household. What makes this so aggravating for me is that it's the same 15-20 songs played in a continuous loop; it's the same version of "O Tannenbaum" played every year, followed by a strangely toothless R&B rendition of "Sleigh Bells" --Natalie Cole, I think-- and so on, and so forth. They even throw in a live rendition of Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" every now and then so they don't alienate their non-Christian listeners.

Worse yet, a lot of these songs reek of contractual obligation. The majority of the pop stars that record Christmas songs cut these tunes because they have to, and the effort shows. There's this antiquated rule in the music industry that most (if not all) major label artists have to record an Xmas song or album at some point in their record deal. This is not to say I hate all Christmas music or that certain artists don't rise to the occasion; in fact, there are four essential CDs that help me break up the banality.

My favorite is arguably A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, the 1963 compilation by which most holiday records are compared to. These 13 tracks capture a zeitgeist of sorts; you have Spector at the peak of his powers, all the artists featured (Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals) brought their A-game, and it defies the novelty-song mentality that Christmas music harbored until that point. If the Brill Building is a little too quaint, might I recommend the late '80s compilation A Very Special Christmas? Granted, that CD spawned a legion of sequels, most of which are pretty hit-and-miss, but it's hard to beat the original.

If you're looking for something more ethereal and spiritual, look no further than George Winston's beautiful 1982 recording December. I discovered this disc during my public radio days, when I was scheduling a Sunday morning new age/ambient music show. AllMusic calls it "the mother of all solo instrumental albums"; that borders on hyperbole, though the recording itself is nothing short of wonderful. I cannot recommend a single track from December because they're all great. It was also around that time that I came to truly appreciate Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Considering how many times I've heard the song "Linus and Lucy" over the years, Guaraldi's best-known work (now 45 years old!) almost feels like a guilty pleasure. The instrumental version of "Christmas Time is Here" is an eloquent centerpiece; paired with the decidedly romantic "Skating" --the only other original composition on the album-- I have to let my guard down and absorb the warmth that Guaraldi, his trio, and collaborator Lee Mendelson have to offer.

Outside of the four albums I mentioned, the number of individual Christmas songs I like can be counted on one hand. The jazzophile in me smiles whenever I hear John Coltrane's 13-minute workout of "My Favorite Things," the rare hard bop tune that surpasses the original Broadway recording. Steve Allen's composition "Cool Yule" has been covered by every jazz singer and musician worth their salt; since Louis Armstrong popularized the song in the mid-1950s, however I'll give his version the thumbs up. As for pop songs, my discussion begins and ends with Phil Spector; the mad genius saved one last morsel of holiday magic for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as evidenced by 1973's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)." The slow wind-down of the Vietnam War takes a backseat to the song's inherent message: Christmas is a holiday of peace and goodwill, and in troubling times may we overcome fear and animosity.

To be honest, I prefer Christmas-related TV. One of the few things in pop culture that can make me dewy-eyed is when the Peanuts gang lights up Charlie Brown's sad little tree, than start humming "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." The burning of the toys in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" comes a close second. Plus, if it weren't for Christmas, I'd have never seen "The Simpsons." When that first episode aired in December 1989, my parents turned the TV on and sat me down on the couch thinking, "well, it's a cartoon. This should keep him quiet for a half-hour." Little did they know... ;)

I circle my calendar every year for David Letterman's Christmas show, which relies heavily on a series of so many tried-but-true traditions, you wonder why they do the same thing every year as opposed to just repeating an episode from 20-odd years ago. As familiar as they are, those traditions feel strangely fresh: Paul Shaffer's imitation of Cher singing "O Holy Night," Darlene Love's majestic live workout of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Jay Thomas' Lone Ranger story, and Dave and Jay's "quarterback challenge" to see who can remove the star from the studio tree with an accurately tossed football. Of all those rituals the Lone Ranger story has the most minimal connection to the holidays, yet its easily my favorite of the four. Every year since 1998 or so, the actor formerly known as Eddie LeBec describes a wacky encounter he had with Clayton Moore in mid-1970s North Carolina, and with each passing year his brush with celebrity adds a little bit of exposition building into an ingenious payoff. If you don't believe me, check out this clip from last year's holiday broadcast.

Christmas is not for another 3 1/2 weeks, but the world around me is so immersed in the holiday spirit that I may as well send my early glad tidings to all my friends on this site. May your cards be delivered on time, may the wait at checkout stay under 10 minutes, may the tree in the living room not shed too much, and most importantly, please stay warm.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Thanks... and No Thanks

Don't let the uptick in tinsel and decorated trees outside shopping malls fool you: this week is Thanksgiving. For the sixth year in a row (yes, sixth) I present by annual "thanks" and "no thanks" lists, acknowledging the positive and negative aspects that dictate my daily life with minimal context. There are so many things in life we often take for granted like food and shelter that may seem like a luxury to some, but there are also the little things that boost our morale and give us a reason to wake up in the morning. Without being too perfunctory, I want to take this opportunity --like I have every November since 2005-- to focus on the minutiae.

Thanks: long-form improv, the triumphant return of Conan O'Brien, my continued success in football pick'um, a Blackhawks Stanley Cup, the Chicago Bears' inexplicable 7-3 record, the necessity of living on a budget, and most importantly, the support of my classmates, friends and family during trying times.

No Thanks: underemployment, office politics, the slow death knell of non-biased reporting in cable news, the never-ending hubris of my state government, trading half of the aforementioned Stanley Cup roster, Brett Favre, and still not being able to afford grad school or an apartment.

Finally, in the wake of yesterday's invasion please keep the people of South Korea in your thoughts and prayers. Illinois State University is "sister schools" with the Dong Ah Broadcasting College outside Seoul, and I have several friends that study and teach ESL there. One must hope that North Korea's attack does not snowball into something far worse.

Next Week: my love-hate relationship with Christmas music.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Random Notes, November 2010

+ Any time I don't discuss my improv misadventures is too long. Right now I'm in level 4 at IO, which means I'm about three months away from my next class performance. My teacher is Lyndsey Hailey, one of the most highly sought-after actresses on the Chicago improv scene and a really awesome chick. You've probably never heard her name before, but may you have seen the back of her head on occasion. She was Sophie Bush's stand-in on the second and third seasons of "One Tree Hill." In class, we've been working on Del Close's famed Harold technique --a long-form improv style that is too complicated to explain here-- with a focus on scene openings and montages. Would it be redundant to say I'm having a lot of fun?

But that's not all, folks. On Sunday afternoons I have improv with Lynz, but Monday nights are for writing. As I've mentioned before, my teacher is Nate Herman, a writer for SNL during the Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo years and the guy playing the wine steward in this 1982 sketch. The majority of my classmates knew beforehand about Nate's credentials, and as such most of us were too nervous to make small talk until our second or third week. Being an SNL expert of sorts, I've been especially sheepish about asking questions, but he's shared a few stories from time to time. In Writing 1, we mostly covered the art of the late night monologue joke and everything that entails (desk pieces, Jon Stewart-style rants, etc.), and in Writing 2 we've working on penning SNL-type sketches. Last week's homework was a commercial parody, and now we've moved on to movie and TV show spoofs. Nate is a very grounded, jovial guy, and he's been a pleasure to have as a teacher.

+ Early last week, Broadway Video confirmed what most SNL die-hards had been expecting to hear but didn't want to: there will be no further complete season DVD sets. In their press release, Lorne Michaels' underlings admitted that licensing for the musical guests' performances had become too expensive and unwieldy. Season 5 (the last with the original cast) arrived in stores almost a year ago, which meant the dreaded Season 6 would've been next in line. The licensing excuse is not a complete lie, though it feels like an exaggeration; Aretha Franklin and James Brown's estate might've drawn a line, but I can't imagine the likes of Kid Creole and Ellen Shipley playing hardball. (Who are they? Exactly.)

First of all, how do you market the worst 13-episode schneid in the history of the most beloved late night variety series of all time? Secondly, Lorne has all but disowned the five-year period (1980-85) in which he wasn't associated with the show, and repeats from that era rarely air anywhere, except maybe on Canadian television. Thirdly, had this set made its way to Best Buy, bootleg tape-makers would lose their only means of income, and that guy who posts Year 6 clips on YouTube would be forced to interact with the rest of society. (Addendum: when I told Nate the news, he quipped "Oh shoot. I was really hoping to get some seven-cent royalty checks.")

+ How's fantasy football going? I'm glad you're not asking. Both teams are 3-7 after Week 10, and any prospect of a turnaround is slim to nil. I've never had any roto teams in any sport struggle like this before, though sometimes I wonder if I was overdue for a comeuppance. This week, however was a unique abnormality; both of my opponents had three Eagles starters, one guy owned Michael Vick, and in spite of his career-defining performance I beat both teams. As some of you know, I'm doing okay for myself in the TV.com picks contest --I've been hovering in the top five since Week 2, and now I have a tenuous share of first place-- but I'm ready to chalk up the 2010 fantasy season as a wash.

Next Week: my sixth annual "thanks/no thanks" list.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When Brady Got Bunched

This should probably be my last straight political blog for awhile:

In a highly-contested race pitting two candidates nobody liked against each other, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was elected to a full term on Thursday. The announcement couldn't make me feel any more lethargic. Some of you will recall that I had a glimmer of hope for Pat Quinn when he was first sworn in two years ago; with one former governor in the pokey and another awaiting trial at the time, Quinn symbolized a clean break. If Rod Blagojevich was our Nixon, than Quinn was our Gerald Ford. Sadly, that comparison turned out to be somewhat ironic during Quinn's two years in office thus far. A man who built his reputation as a pro-union, anti-corruption rabble-rouser, Quinn has been a doddering and indecisive leader. He's still not corrupt, thank goodness, but he has a tendency to declare platforms without ever acting upon them. Quinn spent his younger days irking and hectoring the establishment, and now that he is the establishment, he doesn't know what to do with himself. What Illinois needs is a Superman, a savior, a mensch. What we have now is somebody's meshuggah old uncle.

As much as I disliked Bill Brady, I will give him credit for one thing: he broke the "collar county" chokehold. A Bloomington native, Brady had no connection to the strong moderate-GOP base within the Chicago suburbs. Since the Chicagoland area is far and away the most densely populated part of the state, and the collar counties house nearly half of Illinois' registered Republicans, the majority of their candidates have been natives of the suburbs or had strong political ties there. Jim Ryan and Judy Baar Topinka, the two cherry-picked candidates that lost to Rod Blagojevich, hail from Elmhurst and Riverside respectively. This year, when the suburbanites couldn't agree upon Kirk Dillard or Andy McKenna in the state primary, the two candidates cancelled each other out and Brady squeaked by with a mere 193-vote lead. This is not necessarily the fault of the candidates, but it's evident that the Illinois GOP as a whole is still struggling to get on the same page; the wedge that divided the collar county Republicans with the rest of the state during George Ryan's scandal-plagued term as governor has not been bridged yet. Brady dutifully served the interests of central and southern Illinois --or at least tried to-- but for northern and Chicagoan Republicans, he was their only legitimate option against Quinn.

When I discuss current events on this blog, I usually come off sounding cynical and exasperated. However, I'd like to think that Illinois' darkest days are behind us. From the bottom of my heart, I hope in spite of his narrow victory that Pat Quinn gets his act together. He's taken his licks from the demanding Chicago media and rightfully so. When two major newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama two years ago give the thumbs-up to your Republican opponent in a heated race, you might want to tweak your game plan. Stop putting your words before your actions, stop whining about potential tax increases, and above all work for your constituents. Even if Quinn sounds like somebody you wouldn't like, the Land of Lincoln could do a lot worse... and trust us, we have.

On a semi-related note, I want to apologize for my "teabagger" remark from last week's blog. Even though I had used the phrase in past entries --with tongue firmly planted in cheek-- certain people took offense to what some might perceive as a crude slang term. My facecious attempt at wordplay completely contradicted and negated a moment of serious political discourse, and I will be more cautious in the future.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Decision 2010: A Midnight Requiem

As I write this, I'm watching the election results on TV and online. Now that I typically post my blog on late Tuesday evenings, I can analyze and comment on the vote as it happens, which I couldn't do in 2006 or 2008. In years past, I broke down what was at stake in each election and what issues mattered most to registered voters ahead of time. However, I've been rambling on and off about the midterms for months now, so what I could've said would've felt repetitive and redundant.

+ Let me start off by explaining my whereabouts this weekend. I obviously didn't have the air fare to fly to DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity, but I attend the Chicago satellite rally for about 90 minutes. About 1,200 people showed up, some wearing Halloween costumes, a handful wearing patriotic colors. The live coverage from Comedy Central appeared on a 6" by 8" screen, and most of the musical segments in DC were muted so that some local activists could speechify at the podium. They also had two folk singers onstage and some comedian that I'd never heard of, but I was paying more attention to the satellite feed.

+ I first tuned into the news coverage just as the Republicans' takeover of the house was confirmed. It wasn't too shocking; though U.S. Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Linda McMahon, and Christine O'Donnell grabbed national headlines, the vast majority of the Tea Party candidates were aiming for the lower chamber, stealthily drumming up support in mostly rural, economically downtrodden districts. Paul won his senate seat handily over Jack Conway --I was expecting a much closer race-- but the biggest surprise for me was the red state takeover in Wisconsin. Not only did teabagger Ron Johnson trump liberal stalwart Sen. Russ Feingold, but the GOP also took over the governor's mansion and five seats in the house (and counting).

+ As I post this, the Illinois races were too close to call. Incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn carried the densely populated Cook County in a landslide, but he's only won two other counties in the state so far. Republican challenger Bill Brady has carried 80 other counties, though half of them have been determined by less than 10%. In the U.S. Senate race, Alexi Giannoulias and Rep. Mark Kirk are going back and forth for the seat that Barack Obama vacated and Rod Blagojevich tried to sell. (I do not foresee any of the aforementioned candidates garnering 50% of the vote, though.) With all the Tea Party hoopla, it seems strange that the very state where Rick Santelli staged his rant 21 months ago has mostly shunned far-right candidates. Locally, my representative Judy Biggert won re-election for the umpteenth time, which goes to show you in a year of anti-incumbent fervor that in some pockets of the country, it's still business as usual.

+ The news coverage has been exactly what you'd expect. They're smirking on Fox News, the talking heads on MSNBC are despondent, and CNN is a dogpile of partisan bickering. All the local stations are darting between victory and concession speeches, an almost pointless task considering the high number of incumbents retaining their jobs in Illinois tonight (Debbie Halvorson notwithstanding). Politically polarized outlets like MSNBC and Fox News pretty much puppeteered the elections this year, lobbing volleyballs of heresy to encourage controversy and spiking campaigns to put more emphasis on attacking opponents than ever. If you wanted blood, you got it.

+ So what happens now? A Republican majority in the house and a narrow Democratic lead in the senate will only create more gridlock in the short-term. President Obama intends to focus on the national deficit in 2011, but what will get accomplished is highly debatable. In some ways, there's a parallel between this year's elections and the 1982 midterms. That particular vote was a response to President Reagan's unpopular supply-side economic agenda, resulting in some fresh Democratic faces in both houses. What is happening right now is the same, only different; President Obama's stimulus packages drew the Republicans' ire and they rode the anger and frustration of their constituents to victory.

After I left my polling place earlier today, I turned on my car radio and this was the first song that played. I don't think there could've been a more fitting selection for a day like today. Midterm elections are a mess of minor victories and similarly arbitrary defeats. People that vote for change are deluded to think that progress will happen overnight, and in a politically divided America the ability to accomplish anything signifigant will take years, if not decades. It is your god-given right to elect your leaders, but this year I didn't see many choices. Nearly everyone that went to the polls won and lost something today. In short, you can't always get what you want.