Thursday, February 28, 2013

AI Recap: The Perks of Being Marketable...

It's Week 2 of the "sudden death" rounds, when the judges already have their list of people who are going to make it and just go through the motions of humoring the contestants listen to 10 singers in a group and then have to make "brutal" cuts to send only five to the top 20. Honestly, next year, why don't we divide the singers into two groups: The Chosen Ones, and Talented Cannon Fodder?

Watching the introductions of the contestants, I swear that Zoanette looks like a reject from RuPaul's Drag Race. Man, oh man.

First up was 19-year-old Melinda Ademi, an emigree from Kosovo who auditioned in Season 10. She sang Nobody's Perfect by Jessie J (the same song Angela Miller sang last week), and it was far from perfect. I could tell what she was trying to accomplish, and her voice has a nice smoky tone, but I thought she sounded shouty and hoarse. Keith said it sounded as if her nerves got on top of her, but praised her raw potential and talent. Nicki trotted out her whole "ladybug" thing again, and said the whole time Melinda was singing, she was remembering Angela's performance last week. (Ironically, following Angela's performance last week, all Nicki could talk about was the original song she performed the week before, but I'll bet these judges aren't counting on someone actually writing down their words.) She said she liked it, but didn't love it, and chided her for singing two Jessie J songs over the course of the competition. Randy was unimpressed, while Mariah noted she heard a "waver" in Melinda's voice, and wished her all the best of luck in the competition, an affectation she repeated several times.

Candice Glover who was inexplicably cut during Vegas Week last season (watch her group number from Vegas last season and see what I mean by "inexplicably"), looks facially a little like Queen Latifah, and certainly could be considered an early favorite. She sang Aretha's (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman, a song that, in my opinion, will never be sung better than the way Kelly Clarkson did during the show's first season. Candice did a great job in parts of the song, a good job in others, but she definitely is one of the strongest vocalists in the competition. Keith gave her a standing ovation, and then serenaded her, telling her that the way she sings proves she is a "natural singer." Nicki said Candice was definitely born to sing, called her voice one of the strongest in the competition, and said that her confidence sets her apart. She also wondered how Candice could have been cut last season, and Randy explained, "It was a different time." (Which is Dawg for "We had a different agenda.") He said that Candice is one of his favorite contestants but said her performance, while good, wasn't the best she's done on the show. He encouraged her to go for it vocally, to "do things only you can do." Mariah called Candice a "bona fide singer," but interrogated her as to whether she was responsible for the arrangement and some of the notes she hit. Whatever, Mariah.

Fifteen-year-old Juliana Chahayed is an absolutely adorable girl, who comes from a musical family where every one of her siblings plays instruments and/or sings, and her father sings in both Arabic and English. She went acoustic, playing the guitar and singing a mellow, ethereal version of Demi Lovato's Skyscraper. Her voice has a little bit of Jewel in it, a little Imogene Heap, a little of a lot of those wispy-voiced troubadours popular now. Her voice wavered a little but I found it rich and tremendously unique, and loved her intonation. But the judges were not listening because they already had their minds made up hearing something else, apparently. Keith said she was struggling with pitch throughout the song, but he loved the purity of her voice and called her "totally real." Nicki praised that Juliana already had a signature tone to her voice at only 15, yet said she seemed very timid, and wondered if that would work against some of the "bigger voices" in the competition. (Why do we need 80 big voices? If you want a female winner, and know how popular Taylor Swift and others are, why not pick a 15-year-old and get people to vote for her?) Randy praised the honesty in her delivery and applauded Juliana for "giving us exactly who you are." Mariah said her voice had an angelic quality, almost celestial, and called her vulnerability a beautiful thing to witness. And then Randy had to go and spoil things by saying, "At 15 look at what Juliana has done, Ryan Seacrest couldn't have done it at 15," to which Ryan replied, "I can't do it at 22." Ha.

Petite Jett Hermano (cool name, BTW) took a page from Shubha Vedula's book last week, singing a slow, almost sexy version of Rihanna's Only Girl (In the World) while accompanying herself on the piano. (Season 10 contestant Ta-Tynisa Wilson sang this badly, and luckily, there's no video proof of it.) I really liked her voice and what she brought to the song, although it was a little boring at times. Keith loved her unique arrangement, called her musicianship fantastic, and praised her for "bringing out the sex in the song" in a different way than Rihanna does. Nicki liked the arrangement but felt the song never came to a climax. Randy—completely contradicting his criticism of Shubha last week (go figure)—told Jett he was disappointed she didn't get up halfway through the song and rock it. He and Nicki argued as to whether the restraint in her performance was good. Mariah called Jett "a unique addition to the contest" (tepid praise), said she enjoyed the first half of the performance, and told Jett that she "wasn't sure where you'll go in the competition," but "good luck with the rest of this thing." (Meaning, Jett, pack your knives and go. Sorry, wrong reality show.)

Cristabel Clack used to tour with a gospel group, and is a happily married mother of three. And she's 29, which is, like, 50 in American Idol years. She talked for far too long with Ryan about how she got nervous just before going to Vegas, but God assured her everything would be all right, and she had a place in the competition. She sang Alicia Keys' No One (which Season 8 contestant Felicia Barton sang), and I thought the rasp in her voice was really interesting, although sometimes it sounded like a hiccup. Randy gave her a standing ovation. Keith called it a fantastic performance and praised Cristabel's crazy potential, Nicki said she loved the song for Cristabel and loves the rasp in her voice, but thought it got a little out of control. (Agreed.) Randy said that while the song was overperformed in places (like the last few overlong runs), she was "on point," and called her a "racehorse singer," who allows herself the freedom to just go vocally. (Now, I'm no expert on women, but I don't think you should ever liken a woman to any kind of horse.) Mariah said that she would "like to hear what you do best," so "please come back and sing some more for us." Huh?

The first word I wrote down when I saw Aubrey Cleland was "beautiful." She sang Beyonce's Sweet Dreams (which last season's runner-up, Jessica Sanchez sang, although you can only find the studio version of the song online), and I liked her voice and presence a lot, although she didn't wow me. But she's hella nice to look at. Keith called Aubrey a "balance of poise and fire," and said she had great fire in her voice. Nicki admitted to being obsessed with Aubrey, and said that for the first time, someone sounded and looked the part. She said she'd sign Aubrey to a contract right now, because she looks the part and sounds the part. Randy said, "I'm obsessed with me, and you, and the other judges, and a little bit of Ryan Seacrest." He told Aubrey that during the auditions he said she was one of two contestants he'd sign right away because she is so marketable. He told her she looked amazing, she commands the stage, and has the "whole package," although he thought the song didn't have enough "moments." Mariah told Aubrey, "you're limitless," and said "I hope you continue with us, because, you're, limitless." (Great critique, Mariah.)

Rachel Hale who came thisclose to not making it into the top 20 (she was chosen in a sing-off), sang a spirited, awesome version of Nothing but the Water by Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. (Love them, by the way.) She has a great, rich-sounding voice, and a lot of personality, and I thought she knocked it out of the park. Once again, the judges didn't agree. Keith said he felt the song "got on top of you in parts," but loved her spirit. Nicki wanted to know where all of Rachel's confidence came from, since she's always been "my cute little ladybug." Rachel explained that she had been praying a lot for confidence (which caused Nicki to quote from MC Hammer's Pray), and Nicki said she was excited she came alive. Randy exclaimed, "Prayer works!", and then said he was happy that she brought her energy. Mariah praised Rachel's smile, but said "we may have heard you more on other songs." Unbelievable.

I've been watching this show far too long, so I hate when contestants trot out their sob stories. We've all had a challenging life in one way or another. Breanna Steer's family had their house in Louisiana destroyed by Hurricane Isaac. She sang Jazmine Sullivan's Bust Your Windows, and for me, there was a lot of attitude, not a lot of vocal range. Keith admitted he had dated a girl who busted the windows out of his car a long time ago (as he caressed the "Nicole" tattoo on his arm), and said that he liked the vibe of Breanna's performance. "Work it, Miss Little Ladybug," Nicki exclaimed, and told Breanna that she was another contestant she'd sign right away. She suggested that Breanna and Aubrey form a vocal group with "two sexy-looking girls" and they'd be famous. (What show is this again?) She called Breanna believable, said she had her swag, and was "sexy on a stick." Randy praised Breanna for "representing Louisiana from day one" (he's a proud Louisianan, you know), and said she was the other contestant he'd sign right away. He called her the whole package, and said she brought so much drama to her performance, Keith thought she'd actually bust the windows out of his car. Mariah also trotted out the m-word (marketable) and said she was so glad contestants could choose their own songs.

Before self-proclaimed "country girl" Janelle Arthur hit the stage, I said, "The show wants another Carrie Underwood, and this is who they want to win." Janelle sang Lady Antebellum's Just a Kiss, and it was, well, unimpressive. Singing a song solo that is usually performed by a band rarely works, and it didn't here. I just thought the whole performance—vocals, star quality, personality—fell utterly flat. Keith said the song had a limited melody, so it gave her no chance to really soar. Nicki said that she was excited to see Janelle and Zoanette—"my two little babies"—but said the performance felt a little bit flat. She said Janelle seemed disconnected, but said, "If it was up to me, you'll go through." (So what's the point of performing then?) Randy said that Janelle was his favorite country singer in the competition, and chalked her performance up to "just one of those nights." Mariah said she was "definitely a fan," and that she's rooting for Janelle. (So at least two better singers have no chance because you like Janelle? Twice now I've seen her perform and twice I was unimpressed.)

As I mentioned last week, I only started watching this season just before the top 40 was named, so I didn't get the chance to see much of Zoanette Johnson outside of her train-wrecky final solo performance. Apparently she and her family left Liberia when she was two (as opposed to Melinda's family, who fled Kosovo just a few years ago). She sang Circle of Life from The Lion King, starting out with the African chanting part of the song. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, although it certainly wasn't as good as the way Jennifer Hudson performed it during Season 3. I found it utterly theatrical, though, which apparently is bad for guys but not for the women. Keith, Randy, and Nicki gave her a standing ovation. (Does Mariah not believe in standing ovations, or are her dresses too tight to stand without assistance?) Keith said, "Kudos to the Queen of the Jungle," and said that part of what makes Zoanette special is he has no clue what she's going to do next, and wonders if she does either. Nicki said, "Who gonna check you, boo? You just served it." She called out how amazing it is that Zoanette's family made it out of Liberia and that her siblings could hear her sing, and talked about how lucky she and Zoanette were that they were people who had nothing, but they were able to "get out of the country alive." Randy said, "It's not whether the notes are right," and honestly, I don't remember a thing Mariah said but it clearly was as unexceptional as everything else she says.

Time for the judges' decisions. Quick question, though: It's Season 12. Is there anyone that's fooled by the fake-outs anymore, or the judges' babbling? Can't they afford some new scripts by now? Anyway, Zoanette made it through, Melinda and Juliana didn't. "Marketable" Aubrey made it through, Cristabel didn't. Candice made it through, Jett didn't, and if you were paying attention, you'd know that "marketable" Breanna would make it before she walked out there, so they could put the two country singers, Rachel and Janelle up against each other. Despite being outsung and outperformed by Rachel in every way, the judges stuck with their script and put Janelle through. Unbelievable. So far I'm not nearly as wowed by these female contestants as the producers think we should be.

So, the top 10 female contestants are:

Tenna "Teena" Torres
Adriana "Don't Call Me Jessica Sanchez" Latonio
Kree "Melanie Lynskey" Harrison
Angela "Original Song" Miller
Amber "Meh" Holcomb
Candice "Triumphant Return" Glover
Aubrey "Marketable" Cleland
Breanna "Marketable 2: The Remix" Steers
Janelle "More Kristy Lee Cook than Carrie Underwood" Arthur
Zoanette "I Can Outcrazy Fantasia" Johnson

Tonight, we'll see if any of the guys with talent make it through. That means you, Nick Boddington.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I don't listen to the radio that often, because radio stations tend to overplay the heck out of songs. It got to the point where I couldn't listen to certain songs for a while because I heard them on two, maybe three stations, all at the same time.

One song that was seriously played into the ground was Adele's Rolling in the Deep. (Most of her recent songs—no matter how good they are—tend to be played ad infinitum.) Of course, you can understand why, given her vocals, the great melody, and the angry yet not Taylor Swift-ish lyrics. While many singers have attempted to cover this song, most have failed because they lack Adele's vocal power or the world-weariness she brings to the song.

John Legend, however, succeeds, with this a cappella version. I'm a huge fan of his and think his voice is just fantastic in general, but I think he fuses soulfulness and scorching power in this cover. He doesn't do anything really unique or special, but it doesn't matter.

Give it a listen:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: "Wise Men" by Stuart Nadler

Stuart Nadler's terrific book explores the complex relationship between father and son, and how spending one's life trying to be something other than what is expected can be emotionally crippling. It's also a book about the powerful hold unrequited love has over you, and like Ian McEwan's Atonement, it's also a story of how a snap decision made in the heat of the moment can have life-changing implications.

Hilly Wise is a teenager growing up in New Haven when his father, Arthur, an ambulance-chasing attorney, lands a major case following a tragic plane crash. The case makes Arthur one of the wealthiest and most famous attorneys, reviled by airlines and other businesses, and sought after by individuals whose lives have been affected by tragedy. In the summer of 1952, Arthur moves his family to a beach house in the small town of Bluepoint on Cape Cod, where his law partner, Robert, also moves to an adjacent house on the property. Arthur and his wife easily settle into the life of the newly rich and powerful, but Hilly struggles.

In Bluepoint, Hilly meets Lem Dawson, the black man whose job it is to care for the Wises' house, and although Arthur discourages it, Hilly strikes up a tentative friendship with Lem, borne partly out of sympathy for the way his father treats Lem, partly out of curiosity and loneliness. Hilly finds himself falling in love with Lem's troubled niece, Savannah, although he is unsure exactly how to express his affection. And in one moment, a decision that Hilly makes has shattering consequences for all of them.

Years later, an adult Hilly, working as a reporter, tries to track Savannah down, in an effort to satisfy his longing and his curiosity at how her life turned out, as well as to assuage his guilt. But picking up where you left off—especially in a situation like this—is more difficult than one would imagine, and his relationship with his father once again leaves everything awry. And all of these feelings, and all of the familial history, continues to follow him through the rest of his life.

This is a powerful, well-told story about love, guilt, resentment, and trying to escape your destiny. Nadler does a great job creating a compelling story that transcends these familiar themes, and while Hilly at times seems a little too spineless and sad-sack, and Arthur seems to be a bit of a caricature at times, the narrative packs a resounding, emotional punch. Some of the plot you'll see coming, some you may not, but it's a story that will fascinate you, frustrate you, and ultimately, move you.

Friday, February 22, 2013

AI Recap: For Awkward Turtles Everywhere...

As you might have heard once or twice, this season, American Idol really wants a female winner. While I'm fairly certain Nigel Lythgoe's powers don't run to the ability to block the phone lines of every tween and teen girl in America, what the show can do is not advance any male contestant that could legitimately be considered a contender. But before I shout sabotage, let's see what happens next week.

Nicki was sporting pink hair last night (question from the couch: "Does she dye her hair every day?") and Mariah decided to class things up a little by wearing a blue gown. Ryan asked Mariah what impressed her about the ladies' performances (sigh) and she blathered on about raw talent and it was impossible to eliminate anyone (yeah, I don't think so). When they introduced the 10 guys performing tonight, I swore Johnny Weir was in the lineup, but then I learned it was someone called JDA. (I'm not slow on the uptake, I purposely skipped the audition episodes this season.)

Paul Jolley, a good-looking country singer, was first out of the gate with his rendition of Keith Urban's Tonight I Wanna Cry. (For the love of Simon, was there no other country artist you could pick? It's like when someone sang When You Believe in Hollywood for Mariah.) I think Paul has a great big voice, and definitely hit some bigger notes than Keith does in the song, but maybe that's part of the song's charm, you know? Keith said he was honored that someone sang one of his songs, and told Paul he has a really great voice but he shouldn't underestimate its quality by overperforming. Nicki (I don't know if I'll ever get used to her monotonal delivery) said that Paul's earlier performances won her over more and called his eyes "theatrical." (Read: gay, especially based on the female judges' comments about other singers.) "Yo, yo," Randy began, "So, I mean, very risky proposition singing one of Keith's songs with him sitting there." He said the performance wasn't all perfect, but told Paul he has potential. Mariah said, "I guess I feel different from other people on the panel, in that I thought it was an intimate performance at the start." She liked it but agreed he might have oversang a little bit.

Last year's himbo, Johnny Keyser, finally made it to the stage, after being cut in Vegas last year and then being teased as one of the possible contestants the judges would resurrect. (They picked Jermaine, who was, of course, kicked off the show for criminal issues.) Johnny placidly sang Jason Mraz's I Won't Give Up, and most of it was on key but bland. (I actually paid more attention to the return of the cute, hat-wearing guitarist, if I'm being honest.) Johnny is precisely the type of contestant that would have thrived in earlier seasons, the good looking guy with an okay voice. (See: Tim Urban, Chris Richardson, etc.) Keith called Johnny's performance the best he's sung, and said there were moments of nervousness but moments he was in the groove. (I'm going to start a Keith Urban "effortless" count, since he says that of everyone. It was even in one of the commercials. And yes, he said it of Johnny as well.) Nicki told Johnny he looked "real sexy tonight," and gave him kudos for being "nicely groomed." She told him he doesn't have the greatest vocals, but there's something "masculine" about him. (So Paul was theatrical, and Johnny is masculine. Following along?) Randy, too, told Johnny he doesn't have the greatest voice (nice thing to think about during a singing competition, no?), and "for me (for you), it was just ok, not a lot of moments that made me say, 'Wow.'" Mariah said "I don't want to get in trouble with my husband," but also praised Johnny's masculinity. (Did I miss it when he did pushups or whipped out his d--k during the commercials?) Ryan quipped, "I'm glad there's finally some masculinity on the stage."

Don't worry, Ryan. The testosterone is about to dissipate.

Can I just ask, WTF was JDA? Seriously. I'm the last person to criticize people for being exactly who they are, but really? This was one of the 20 best male contestants this season? He looks like a mash-up of Johnny Weir, Marilyn Manson, and Kynt, one of the pair of "dating goths" on Season 12 of The Amazing Race, and he was wearing some sort of sleeveless top and a pair of palazzo pants I swear I've seen at a few weddings or bat mitzvahs. He "sang" Adele's Rumor Has It (and by "sang," I mean crawled all over the stage and made pouty faces). Keith told him he was "certainly right at home in Vegas," and applauded JDA's originality and humility, although he wished the performance seemed a little less rote. Despite everything I just said about JDA, I was a little offended that Nicki addressed him as "Miss Lady," and told him to "work it, girl." ("Gotta represent the gays," he replied, as Ryan faded into the woodwork.) She told JDA he was a superstar performer and praised him for singing to everyone in the audience, although she called his vocals "a little whiny." Randy explained that the vocals weren't good because he was so keyed in on the performance, but told him to "think more about the vocal—it's a singing competition." (Unless you're masculine like Johnny.) He also said the performance didn't feel original. Mariah said he didn't waver vocally, and said, "Your brand of masculinity and whatever it is you want to call it, whatever you're giving us was sexy." Umm, not in the slightest. Ryan quipped, "We haven't seen this much glitter since Adam Lambert's season." (That's right, Ryan, poke fun at the gays and chest bump Johnny backstage just to make yourself feel better.)

Kevin Harris seems like a nice guy, a loving father (who wore two bowties to represent his two sons) with cool dreads. He's just not that good of a singer, mostly, evidenced by his boring performance of Bryan Adams' (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, which Kimberly Caldwell sang in Season 2, and Anoop Desai sang in Season 8. Sure, he hit some good falsetto notes, but whatever. Keith said Kevin range is "crazy," although he said he had mixed feelings when performers "flip out vocally" by packing too many notes into songs. Nicki told Kevin, "Every single choice you made was perfection," and she loved every single thing about the performance, even calling it the first voice that was "100 percent tonight." Randy said they'd have to agree to disagree, as he called the performance "karaoke, not exciting." He told Kevin, "If you want to show what you can do as a singer, pick a better song than that." Mariah babbled for far too long and said nothing.

Next up: Lenny Kravitz (in his Let Love Rule days) meets Milli Vanilli, or Chris Watson. Really good looking guy, who apparently has made long headbandy things his signature, and strutted around the stage singing Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, using one or maybe two notes. Again, seriously, people? This was one of the 20 best? Keith said that the show is partly a "connection competition" (umm, no), but his voice wasn't the best, despite his confidence. Nicki called him, "the prettiest man I've ever seen," and said she wanted to marry his vibrato. She told Chris she was obsessed with him and loves him, and that she doesn't know what he's been through, but when he sings, she hears pain and struggle. (I hear no vocal range, but I'm no famous rapper.) Randy said, "I love you the person, but the song goes nowhere." Mariah made some irrelevant comments, the most egregious of which was, "You don't have the best voice but other things override it."

Eighteen-year-old Devin Velez worried me when he started singing Beyonce's Listen. (As an aside, for an amazing version of this song, check out Miss America 2010 Caressa Cameron's version.) Devin has a really great voice but absolutely no stage presence, and didn't appear to have much of an emotional connection to the song. But he did switch to Spanish in the middle of the song, which was kind of cool. Keith brought his "effortless" count to four, saying, "That's the way to do it!" Nicki said Devin did an amazing job and called his switching to Spanish "a smart choice." She said he was "a nice looking guy with a nice spirit." Randy gave him "big props" and said it was amazing, and Mariah said she could see Devin critiquing himself during the performance and making changes, and she can't wait to see what a producer can do with him in the studio.

Elijah Liu definitely looks like a boy band escapee, with his popped jacket collar and blond streak in his artfully mussed hair. I applauded his unique song choice, Bruno Mars' Talking to the Moon, and while it sounded good in his middle register, his falsetto was practically non-existent, which is a problem in a song that actually has falsetto in it. Keith admitted it was a shaky performance vocally, although he said "you look like a freaking pop star," and called him current and relevant. Nicki said, "I don't care about the song, I want to have your babies." (Gross, but he's 18, so I guess it's okay?) She told Elijah she would sign him today, he's so marketable. (I guess. I mean, this is the age of AutoTune, no?) Randy said the vocal wasn't great and didn't have any "moments." Mariah praised Elijah's "New Edition-y feel," and also said he was extremely marketable, and she liked the fact he was Mexican and Chinese. (I'll take Random Feedback in a Singing Competition for $1000, Alex.)

Free spirit Charlie Askew showed off his belt that he got from JDA, and admitted to practicing with a golf club so he could get used to the feel of the baseless microphone he'll be using. He sang Elton John's Rocket Man, which Jon Peter Lewis sang in Season 3. There were moments where his voice sounded cool, and moments where his performance seemed like an outtake from This is Spinal Tap, all weird notes and movements and spinning around. Nicki gave the performance a standing ovation. Keith said Charlie seemed like "Freddie Mercury had a love child out of Woodstock," and praised Charlie's "fearless unpredictability" and originality. Nicki told Charlie, "I want to cradle you in my arms," and that he was a rock star. Randy said, "I don't know where I am, or what's going on," because he thought the performance was a bit "stage school," but, he said (somewhat facetiously), "Who cares about the singing?" Mariah said she "lived for the song choice" but although she loves Charlie she has liked some of his other performances better. He has this annoying habit of replying to everything the judges say, and spouting non-sequiturs during their feedback. At one point, he pulled out his turtle necklace, holding it aloft and proclaiming, "This is for awkward turtles everywhere."

Jimmy Smith looks ready to make a country album right now, with his curly locks and blandly good looking face. He sang Raining on Sunday by Keith Urban(!), and it was fine, not outstandingly good or bad. Keith again said he was honored that Jimmy sang one of his songs (although he admitted it is a Radney Foster song originally, which was pretty awesome of Keith to do), and thought he did a good job. Nicki said it was a good vocal but she was a little bored, "perhaps because I was thinking of something else earlier." Seriously? Randy said Jimmy looks like Robert Plant but sings country, making "a mixed bag that didn't work." Mariah said it wasn't Jimmy's best vocal "but there's something about you America should see."

The minute Curtis Finch, Jr. stepped on stage I took an immediate dislike to him. Something about his smug pompousness turned me off, and while he has a very good voice (and knows it), his smug, overperformed, hammish delivery of Superstar (more Luther Vandross' version than The Carpenters') annoyed me. (This song, of course, was Season 2 champ Ruben Studdard's signature, and Scott Savol sang it in Season 4. Keith said Curtis' performance was really lovely, that it was overperformed in parts but his voice is beautiful. Nicki said something annoying I didn't even write down, Randy called him one of the best singers in the competition, but cautioned him to try and "keep it young," since he's only 25. He said Curtis was "kinda dope but old fashioned." Mariah said, "I wouldn't even begin to critique you," despite the fact she's being paid millions of dollars to do that, and called his voice and his musicality "top notch."

Time for the judges' decisions. I honestly had no idea what they would do for most of the contestants, and the judges said they had one split decision, which would require Jimmy Iovine to break the tie. (He practically leaped out of his chair, he was so excited to be utilized.) Curtis made it through (Nicki even chided him, saying, "Stop with the act, you know you're through."), Jimmy and Kevin were cut. To the surprise of no one, Elijah made it through (and Nicki was handed a booklet on sexual harassment from the show's legal department), and JDA did not.

The judges' split decision, it was announced, was regarding Paul. Jimmy called him a good singer who chose the wrong song, saying, "You sang a Keith Urban song as if you were auditioning for Phantom of the Opera." (Again with the "theatrical" barb.) He cautioned him about oversinging but said he should make it into the top 20. Chris, although pretty, didn't make it, while Charlie did. And then it was down to masculine Johnny and bilingual Devin. Now, in the show's earlier days, this decision would have been a slam dunk for Johnny. But in this season, especially when they don't want any guys the female audience might find dreamy, the decision went to Devin.

All in all, I couldn't quibble with their top five. I just hope next week's guys' performances are much better (come on, Nick Boddington and Lazaro Arbos), and we don't have to hear how amazing the ladies are. But we will. Ad infinitum. Till next time, America...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

AI Recap: Get Outta My Head...

I'll tell you, I really struggled with whether or not to commit myself to watching and recapping another season of American Idol. I mean, they kept Randy Jackson on the judges panel after weeks of rumors that he'd be put out to pasture transitioned into an "advisor" role, and I was such a huge Phillip Phillips phan (ha ha) last season, why not end it all on a high note?

But no, my friends, the need to snark won out over all else. So I'm back for Season 12, y'all! Oh, and if you haven't heard, they want a female winner this season.

In an effort to stack the top 10 with the contestants they want prolong the excitement as long as possible, this season has two weeks of "sudden death" rounds, or, as a fluffy-haired, tieless Ryan referred to it, "One song, one chance, no mercy." (Maybe I've been reading too many dystopian novels, but I wouldn't mind a "Hunger Games"-type singing competition.) Last night, 10 of the top 20 girls sang for the judges, and the judges will pick five of them. Tonight, the same thing will happen with 10 of the top 20 guys. And next week, the same thing will happen for the remaining groups.

When the judges were introduced, Nicki was once again sporting blonde hair that made her look a little like Janice the Muppet, Keith looked like he might have paid a visit or two to Nicole Kidman's plastic surgeon, and Mariah looked less than enthusiastic, a fact she reinforced when Ryan asked her if she was happy about the fact they'd have to cut contestants. She basically said, "Umm, no."

Oh, by the way, there's been a huge buzz about the ladies this season. In case you hadn't heard.

First up, Jenny Beth Willis, a 17-year-old from Owensboro, KY. She chose to sing Trisha Yearwood's Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love. It was an odd song choice for me (plus I'd never heard of it so I didn't know how good of a job she did), and vocally it was good in some parts (like the last big note) and rough in others. Touchy-feely Keith said he had mixed feelings about Jenny Beth's performance because it showed her "effortless confidence" yet it wasn't the best song for her. Nicki said she didn't come alive to the end, and even said that the "audience was more excitement (sic) than you were." Randy decided not to pull any punches, said it felt a little "jerky," like she was out of sync with the band, and while the last note was great, the rest of it wasn't. Mariah—whose frustration at being last to speak grew as the night went on—started her critique with, "Oh, dear." However, she called it a "very nice performance," but said she wished Jenny Beth would have been "more dynamic" with the verses. However, "the last note was a stone winner." All in all, not great.

Next up was Tenna Torres (darn you, Torres family, for spelling this child's name "Tenna" but pronouncing it "Teena"), from Queens, NY, who apparently disclosed during her auditions that she went to Camp Mariah as a child. Seriously? What activities did they do at this camp, hit vocal runs and practice wardrobe malfunctions? (It's actually a summer learning program for underprivileged children sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund. Take that, Larry.) Anyway, Tenna (ugh) sang Natasha Bedingfield's Soulmate (another song I'd never heard before), and looked like a circa-1980s singer from Star Search. I thought her tone and vocal choices were interesting but wasn't ultimately blown away by it. Keith said the song "required a lot of control, which you mostly had." Nicki (who started with this affectation where she'd address each contestant in her fake British accent) asked Tenna, "Why are you sad?" She explained it was a sad song, so she was trying to get into it. "You're scaring me," Nicki said. (You're scaring me, Nicki.) Nicki then said that her fans were apparently mad at her for saying Tenna had a good voice during the auditions (because, you know, Nicki is the vocal yardstick against which everyone should be measured), which was weird feedback to give a contestant. But she said she loved the performance, although she said that her hairstyle aged her, and advised her to "cut it all off, go bald." Randy said, "To me, this is the start of the night!", then called the performance, "95 percent perfect." Mariah said she "didn't want to be redundant," but praised Tenna's vocals and said that she hit great notes without even trying.

Apparently, 17-year-old Adriana Latonio is the show's first contestant from Alaska. Really? The pint-size cutie belted her way through a soulful rendition of Aretha Franklin's Ain't No Way, and while her vocals were fantastic, the best part was seeing Randy and Mariah sing along with the background vocalists. Keith and Randy gave her a standing ovation, and Keith said, "Now the night has started!", calling the performance "so damn good." Nicki referred to Adriana as a "little ladybug," asked if she was Filipino—begin Jessica Sanchez comparisons now—and called her "poised and ready." Randy "loved it, loved it, loved it," saying she was "born to do it," and Mariah rated the performance an "A+." I agree with Mrs. Cannon on that one.

Louisiana psych nurse Brandy Hotard was up next, and she chose to sing Travis Tritt's Anymore, a song Kimberly Caldwell sang in Season 2 (are you really surprised I know that?). I love the song and love to sing it, actually, but it's not a knock-your-socks-off type of song, despite a few big notes, which I thought she did well with. The judges weren't wowed. Keith said Brandy's voice was really good but said she suffered from "emotional connection inconsistency," because she wasn't reacting properly to the song. Nicki told Keith to "get out of her head" (I wonder if Nicole Kidman started getting into her To Die For persona when the icky flirting began), and questioned why Brandy was smiling while singing "My tears no longer waiting." She knocked Brandy's "pageant delivery" of the song (truth be told, she is a former top 10 contestant at Miss Louisiana), and then doomed her with a Paula-esque, "You look beautiful." Randy got his chance to start spouting ridiculousness because he said Brandy's song "didn't tell me enough about who you are...who am I looking at?" Mariah said she didn't notice Brandy smiling, she just saw "a beautiful girl singing," and told her "when you open up your voice in mid-register with the vibrato, it's a million-dollar note." She also encouraged her to record an album of classics, because she reminded her of a beautiful classic country singer from the past. (Of course, no one pointed that she might not get the chance to record such an album if she didn't make it into the top 10, but who am I to quibble?)

Seventeen-year-old Shubha Vedula (rewind to Randy's foul-up from the auditions, "What? Shula Vedula?") decided to shake things up with a rendition of Lady GaGa's Born This Way. She started out on the piano, singing a soulful, slow version, then got up and started singing uptempo. Did she throw a few too many runs in there? Maybe. Was it overly ambitious? Perhaps. But isn't the show looking for unique artists they can market? Oh, wait. No, they're not. The crowd really went wild, and Keith awkwardly said, "Well, it's all about the audience voting." (Which, of course, it isn't this round.) He called her performance "confusing," but said he loved Shubha's voice despite that. Nicki said there was so much going on, calling Shubha a "mashup of Christina Aguilera and that Gangnam Style guy." (Ouch.) Randy said he'd come to Shubha's defense, praising her unbelievable potential at age 17, but said she didn't need to hit runs on every note, and he would have loved it if she had stayed at the piano for the whole song. Mariah agreed with Randy, saying it seemed less forced at the piano. But, she said, "There's something about your voice—I can't pinpoint it—but I commend you." You could tell that Shubha thought the judges' reactions would be different than they were.

Background singer Kamaria Ousley was up next, singing a fairly horrible rendition of Kelly Clarkson's Mr. Know-it-All. She tried to change the song up a little too much and it just didn't work at all. Keith said he didn't think she ever found her emotional connection. Nicki said she was "nicely styled," but said that she "never noticed the throaty, twangy thing" in her voice, and didn't know if it was something Kamaria threw into the performance for "a little swag." Randy said it was Kamaria's worst performance of the season, saying it didn't work from the start, and there was "nothing redeemable about it." Ouch. Mariah said she was marketable, that a producer could put her in a studio and make a record, but somehow that didn't come off as a compliment.

Melanie Lynskey's doppelganger, Kree Harrison, sang Patty Griffin's Up to the Mountain, which Crystal Bowersox sang in the Season 9 finale. (It would have been her single, in fact, had she won.) Kree was really fantastic, and I find her voice so magnetic, so unlike many of the relatively generic country singers this show tends to pimp. (Heck, one might be coming up next week, in fact.) I'd like to believe she's really as humble as she seems. Keith and Nicki gave her a standing ovation, and Keith praised her "effortless believability" and said she is authentic. Nicki said she'd be very afraid if she were any of the other female contestants after Kree's performance. She told her that "every time you sing you make love to the song," that "even though you're fully dressed, something about you is so sexy." Randy called her a "natural born singer," and Mariah called the performance "beautiful to watch," and said she "sang the hell out of the song." I look forward to the wardrobe help Kree will get, because she looks like she just rolled out of bed.

After a quick shout-out to former (female) winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, who won Grammys earlier in the month, and another plug that perhaps one of this season's women could follow in their footsteps (can we dial this "a girl must win" frenzy down just a little, please?), Angela Miller, of the original song that blew the judges away last week, took the stage. With about 200 pounds of hair, she sang Jessie J's Nobody's Perfect. She's got a great voice, but I thought the song was a little too "look at me hit these notes" and seemed disjointed. Keith praised her "big, big gift" of a beautiful voice. Nicki told "Angie" she loved her, and went on for far too long about her song from last week. (Oh, but they're only judging on tonight's performance, remember.) She then said "America is witnessing the building of a superstar." (Hyperbole much?) Randy called her "the real deal" and said "she's going places." Mariah, too, talked only about the original song she sang last week.

Single-monikered Isabelle was next, and she talked about how she lost a lot of weight when she was a teenager. She sang God Bless the Child. I thought it was really good but it seemed very old-fashioned, almost (dare I say) pageanty. The judges talked about how she "overcame such struggles" and now is a role model for so many people. (Wait, isn't this a singing competition?) Randy praised her big voice and huge talent, but called the song "old-fashioned, like something you'd hear at a beauty pageant." (So Randy and I are on the same page. I have no words.) Mariah told Isabelle, "Your vocal is selling you, and your heart is selling you."

Rounding out the night was young Amber Holcomb, who was cut during Vegas Week last season. She sang My Funny Valentine, which the sensational Melinda Doolittle took on in Season 6, as did Constantine Maroulis in Season 4, and Matt Giraud in Season 8. When I first listened to it, I didn't love it, but after watching it back, I like what she did with the song. She definitely has a great voice. Keith, Randy, and Mariah gave her a standing ovation. Keith praised Amber's technique, saying she made it look easy, and said that she took an "old-fashioned song and made it seem interesting." Nicki called the vocal "A+++" (take that, Mariah), but wondered if Amber's "inner shine would shine through the television." Randy said it would. Mariah said she wanted to smack Amber because it was so good, that she loved her interpretation and can't wait to get her in the studio to make a record.

Left with nearly 30 minutes, you knew they'd drag the decisions out. The judges' chairs (with them seated) rose from underneath the stage, and one by one they revealed their decisions. The judges were unanimous (apparently sort of), so they didn't need cranky Uncle Jimmy to break any ties. Jenny Beth Willis and Brandy Hotard were sent packing (although the judges all praised the latter's work as a psych nurse), then Randy went into his whole "it's such an emotional night for us as judges, blah blah blah" before telling Tenna Torres she made it into the top 10. (Didn't agree with that choice.) Mariah tried telling Kree Harrison she never liked her as a singer, as if that could fake her into believing she didn't make it. (Mariah, the acting thing didn't work in Glitter and it doesn't here.) Isabelle was given the bad news, then Angela Miller got the good news, as did Amber Holcomb. For some reason, they let Kamaria Ousley give a speech before the judges sent her home, saying that she couldn't hear herself during rehearsal and couldn't hear herself during the performance, but she understood. (Kamaria, I heard you, and it wasn't pretty.)

Which left us with one stool and two contestants, the 17-year-olds, Shubha Vedula and Adriana Latonio. They're apparently best friends, and Shubha talked about how they'd keep in touch no matter what. Then, to the surprise of no one, Adriana was told she made it into the top 10, and Shubha was cut. I would have put both of them into the top 10 and cut Tenna, but what can you do?

Tonight? Ten of the top 20 guys sing. I wonder if they only put the bad singers into the top 20 to guarantee a female winner. Hmmm...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My favorite performances of 2012...

I know this post is kind of belated given it's almost the last week of February, but with the Oscars coming up on Sunday night, I thought I'd round up my favorite performances of the year. (And if you haven't already seen it, I recently compiled my list of my favorite movies of 2012 if you're interested.

First of all, here are my picks for the best performances of the Oscar nominees:

Best Actor—Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln: What more can be said about the best performance of the year, perhaps even the last 10 years? And this from a man who has already created one of the most indelible performances in recent film history, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Apparently Liam Neeson was considering playing Lincoln, and while he would have been good, I can't imagine anyone else losing themselves so fully in a role as Day-Lewis did. If he doesn't receive his third Best Actor Oscar on Sunday night, there is something terribly, terribly wrong.

Best Actress—Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty: Chastain, who appeared in five films in 2011 and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in The Help, gives a quietly ferocious performance in Kathryn Bigelow's tale of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Playing Maya, a dogged CIA agent determined to find the 9/11 mastermind, Chastain sinks her teeth into this role without overacting, but easily runs the gamut of emotions. I don't think she'll win an Oscar (although I hope so), but I expect one is on the horizon.

Best Supporting Actor—Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained: Some say Waltz's virtuoso performance as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz is a retread of his Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds. I disagree, but even if it was, this man had me marveling at his every line, every gesture, every nuance. While much of his performance is played for laughs, there's a brave tenderness underneath as well. It would be nice to see him play something completely different in his next pairing with Tarantino, but for now, just relish in this performance.

Best Supporting Actress—Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables: The weight loss and haircut notwithstanding, Anne Hathaway's brief but emotionally riveting performance as Fantine pleased diehard fans of the musical and moved neophytes to tears. While some have said an all-singing performance shouldn't be allowed to win an Oscar (much as Jennifer Hudson's winning turn in Dreamgirls), watch the movie and if you can set aside her phenomenal singing, you'll see some pretty darned impressive acting alongside it. I'd be shocked if she doesn't pick up an Oscar Sunday night.

Here are some additional amazing performances from this past year:

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour: Two legends of French cinema teamed up for beautiful but emotionally devastating performances in Michael Haneke's Amour. Playing the long-married couple Georges and Anne, whose lives are torn asunder when Anne's physical condition begins to deteriorate, each occupies a piece of your heart. Riva, who very well may win an Oscar, brings amazing dexterity to a woman in emotional and physical decline, while Trintignant, inexplicably overlooked for an Oscar nod, is the true soul of the movie.

Richard Gere, Arbitrage: I had hoped Richard Gere's brilliant performance as a multimillionaire businessman whose professional and personal life are rapidly disintegrating would net him his first Oscar nomination, but that was not meant to be. This is a nuanced performance, full of shadow and light, and while you may not like his character, Gere's portrayal makes you root for him far more than you would in real life.

John Hawkes, The Sessions: Playing real-life poet Mark O'Brien, whose body was destroyed by polio but not his mind or his spirit, Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) spends the entire movie lying flat on his back, head contorted to the side, sometimes confined to an iron lung. His portrayal of a man so determined to lose his virginity in his mid-30s that he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) is sensitive, humorous, and downright moving, and should have been nominated for an Oscar.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook: Is it fair for Lawrence to be so talented at such a young age? The girl who was on fire brings raw emotion and power to her performance as Tiffany, a somewhat unstable young widow who uses sex to console herself, yet finds herself unable to seduce the one man she really wants. The entire cast of Silver Linings Playbook is fantastic, particularly Bradley Cooper, but Lawrence is the one you remember most.

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone: Sure, this movie about two damaged souls (one physically, one mentally) was kind of a downer, but Cotillard's performance was one to savor. Playing a whale trainer severely injured in a freak accident, she not only demonstrated physical dexterity, but emotional dexterity as well. Her character is so determined not to be vulnerable that she doesn't realize just how vulnerable she is.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Dinner" by Herman Koch

Are children truly destined to repeat the sins of their parents? Are parents' protective instincts so ingrained that they'd stop at nothing to ensure their children's futures aren't harmed? These questions are addressed in Herman Koch's intriguing yet frustrating novel, The Dinner, which has sold millions of copies in The Netherlands (where Koch originally published the book) and across the world.

Paul and Claire Lohman have agreed to have dinner with Paul's politician brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, as they do from time to time. Always wanting to impress, Serge chooses a trendy restaurant at which you can rarely get reservations unless you call months ahead, the type of place where the host explains the origin of every ingredient, and the food is expensive and fussy. It's the last thing that Paul and Claire want to do, but they have an important topic to discuss.

After the talk about vacations and the latest Woody Allen movie has died down, after a prolonged emotional outburst or two, and even a photo request from a restaurant patron and his daughter, the discussion hits its target. Both couples have a 15-year-old son, and the two have been involved in a horrific act of violence which has sparked a police investigation and affected each boy differently. Each couple has a very different idea of how things should proceed, but one couple is far more determined to ensure their son's future is protected.

The core idea of this book is tremendously intriguing, and Koch draws out the suspense as he reveals detail after detail, much like peeling an onion. What the boys did is so disturbing that it's fascinating—and repulsive—how the parents are treating what has happened. The dynamics of the two couples, borne by both the protective nature of parents and the resentment of brothers, is very interesting; what remains unsaid is just as compelling as what is. My frustration with this book, however, is it takes far too long to get to the discussion about how to address what the boys have done. The narrative meanders all over the place, and while everything it touches on—Paul's own history of violence and anger, his fractured relationship with Serge and Babette—is relevant, I just wanted to know what would happen and found everything else a little distracting.

You may be able to predict some of how the book will conclude, but I was surprised by part of it as well, and I didn't feel it all worked. I can't figure out whether Koch, too, is commenting on the fierce instincts of parents and the lawless nature of teenagers today, or whether he believes, as he has Paul express, that some people deserve to be victims.

For me, The Dinner had tremendous potential that wasn't quite realized, but it is still a book worth reading, for both the way Koch lets the plot slowly unfold, and the shocking nature of the story. I would just keep in mind that the plot moves as slowly as dinners often do, and much like some dinners, it might not completely satisfy you in the end.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

Roberta Flack's hit song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, is an iconic 1970s hit (although it appeared on her 1969 album, First Take). It was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty for Me, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1973. Flack's beautiful voice begins in a quiet, almost spare way, and builds to a beautiful crescendo.

I've always loved this song—music, lyrics, and Flack's soaring vocals—but, as always, I appreciate a good cover. Which is why I've enjoyed this somewhat faithful version recorded by Welsh band The Stereophonics, with the Jools Holland Orchestra. Lead singer Kelly Jones might not have the pipes Flack does, but I still really like their version.

Here's The Stereophonics' version of the song:

Here's the classic, with the amazing Ms. Flack:

And, for a bonus version, just because I've always been a huge fan of his, is American Idol Season 7 winner David Cook's version:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book Review: "Bear is Broken" by Lachlan Smith

As much as I love reading new books by my favorite authors, I really enjoy finding new writers, new voices to savor. Lachlan Smith is such a find, thanks to a recommendation from Amazon. His first thriller (the start of a series), Bear is Broken, might not break any new ground, but his characters are well-drawn and compelling, and I look forward to reading his future work.

It's 1999 in San Francisco. Leo Maxwell just found out he passed his bar exam. He has always lived in the shadows of his older brother, Teddy, a defense attorney beloved by the city's criminals and reviled by the police and those in positions of authority who have crossed his path. One day while Leo, Teddy, and his entourage are at lunch, just before Teddy is supposed to deliver closing arguments in a spousal abuse trial, he is shot in the head, in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Yet the shooting is so well executed (no pun intended), the shooter gets away without anyone seeing him. And Teddy lies in a coma, with a bleak prognosis—if he even survives.

Leo realizes that because Teddy made an enemy of the police, they're not too eager to track down the shooter. Torn between wanting to become the lawyer he knows he can be—like Teddy but perhaps without the questionable ethics—and wanting to find out who tried to kill his brother, Leo starts digging into some of Teddy's cases, and finds himself coming face to face with an odd assortment of clients and others with whom Teddy had relationships. At the same time, Leo struggles with his feelings for Teddy (who took care of Leo after their father was imprisoned for their mother's murder) and unresolved feelings for Teddy's ex-wife and ex-law partner, Jeanie.

The more Leo tries to uncover the truth, the more trouble he seems to find himself in, and the more uncertainty he faces. At points in the book, he's pretty much convinced everyone in Teddy's life had something to do with his attempted murder. But the scattershot approach to investigation doesn't help him—it only threatens his potential law career, and his life.

I really enjoyed the depth Lachlan Smith gave to Leo's character, and the way he fleshed out the details of his relationship with Teddy and others. While the outcome of the book isn't necessarily surprising, there was enough uncertainty about who to trust that made the book compelling the entire way through. And while there may have been one red herring too many (I guess Smith needed to set up some threads for the next book in this series featuring Leo), it didn't detract from the book's appeal.

This isn't quite a legal thriller, and it isn't quite a mystery, but it is a well-written and fascinating book, so if you like those genres, give it a try.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive is one of the ultimate disco songs, and it's amazing how much staying power it's had over the decades. This 1979 anthem of empowerment and survival certainly helped resurrect Gaynor's star power after her first hit, Never Can Say Goodbye, hit the charts in 1974.

The band Cake was a staple of the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s. Their quirky beats and vocals were on terrific display in songs like 1996's The Distance, Never There and Let Me Go in 1998, and 2001's Short Skirt/Long Jacket. They brought their trademark style to a 1996 cover version of Gaynor's hit, and while it's vintage Cake, it doesn't veer too far from the original.

Here's Cake's version:

And for a trip down memory lane, here's the incredible Ms. Gaynor's version:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: "The Promise of Stardust" by Priscille Sibley

Wow. Here's a book that will make you think, and make you want to discuss it with others.

Matt Beaulieu has known his wife, Elle, since right after she was born when he was two, as their families were close friends. He's loved her since he was 17 and she was 15, and although they weathered many challenges to their relationship (there were years they barely spoke), they finally had everything they've always wanted—except a healthy baby.

One day everything changes. Elle sustains a severe brain injury in a freak accident and will never be able to recover. Knowing how much she feared being kept alive by machines after watching her mother die of cancer when Elle was a teenager, Matt prepares to take her off of life support. And then he finds out Elle is pregnant again, despite her inability to carry a baby to term. He knows how much this child would have meant to Elle, and how much she would have wanted to fight for it, but he faces a difficult decision—should he keep her alive on the off chance the baby is able to survive, despite the fact she never wanted to be kept alive in this way, or should he let her—and their unborn child—go?

Matt's decision is further complicated by the fact that members of his and Elle's families come out on both sides of the issue. Some want Matt to do everything he can to keep Elle alive, especially if there's a chance the baby can survive, while others feel he is contradicting Elle's most fervent wishes and is simply blinded by his grief. No one feels as strongly toward the latter than Matt's mother, Linney, who was Elle's godmother and her mother's best friend. Convinced she knows better than Matt what Elle would have wanted, this emotional battle is taken to the courtroom, where the case becomes a bellwether for pro-life and right-to-die advocates, and the effects ripple far beyond one family.

Switching back and forth between the present and reminiscences of Matt and Elle's relationship through the years, this is a thought provoking, emotionally powerful book. While it clearly leans toward one point of view on this issue, it doesn't discount the views of the other side, and it illustrates how the issue blurs the lines between whose interests should be thought of first and foremost in cases like this. Priscille Sibley has clearly done her homework, and she also has created a beautiful love story between Matt and Elle, one that choked me up from time to time.

Many of the reviews I've read of this book have likened it to a Jodi Picoult novel. While I don't think that's a necessarily negative comparison, I don't think it's entirely accurate either. Sure, at the heart of this book is the question about whether or not a woman should be kept alive if there's a chance she could deliver a healthy baby, but I feel that Matt and Elle's relationship, how they nurtured and challenged each other, is as much a focus of this book as the controversial issue.

In the end, I don't know if this book breaks any new ground, but that doesn't matter. For me, it was tremendously compelling (I read the entire book on a flight from Albuquerque to Washington, DC) and beautifully written, and that's more than enough. I don't know where you stand on this issue, but I'd encourage you to read this with an open mind—and a full heart.

My favorite movies of 2012...

Okay, so I know that a year-end best-of list is a little tardy given it's early February, but here's the deal. I'm not a movie critic, so I don't have the option to see every movie that's released in time for Oscar consideration before the end of the calendar year, plus I don't live in New York or Los Angeles, so many of the "big" movies don't make it here until some time in January. So humor me, please!

We saw 45 movies that were technically released in 2012. The truth is, we saw very few awful movies, a lot of reasonably good ones, some really good ones, and some pretty freaking fantastic ones as well. I couldn't pick just 10, so you'll have to settle for a list of my 15 favorite movies from last year. For the most part, I tried to review every movie I saw, although I didn't get to a few I saw earlier in the year. When I did write a review, you'll find a link to the full blog post.

In random order, my favorite movies of 2012 are:

Les Misérables: Well, of course. It was one of two movies I had been anticipating since they first announced the casting, and despite all the hype, and the fact that I have seen the musical more times than I can count, the movie more than lived up to my expectations. Beautifully filmed (at times even a little disturbing), spectacularly sung and acted by nearly everyone in the film (cough, Russell Crowe, cough), and it made me sob more than a few times. Almost certain to net Anne Hathaway a Best Supporting Actress Oscar later this month, I hope it makes a star out of Samantha Barks, who made her film debut as Eponine. Read my original review.

The Hunger Games: This was the other movie I absolutely couldn't wait to see, having devoured all three of Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy. Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) brought Collins' vision to life so vividly, with exceptional performances depicting characters exactly the way I pictured them. Jennifer Lawrence dazzled as Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, while Josh Hutcherson overcame the objections of tween girls all over the world as he skillfully inhabited the character of Peeta Mallark. Cannot wait for movie number two, Catching Fire, later this year.

Argo: Ben Affleck really came into his own as a director with this gripping, tautly emotional thriller about six State Department employees who escaped the Iran hostage crisis to take shelter in the Canadian ambassador's residence, and the daring yet outlandish effort undertaken to rescue them. Well-acted and terrifically directed, the movie is tremendously suspenseful even though you know what will happen. Affleck should have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (he should have for The Town as well, but the film deserves every accolade it receives. Read my original review.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Maybe it's because I identified far too well with the desire to fit in but never really feeling that way through most of high school, or maybe some of the wounds I have from those years have never quite healed, but this movie utterly knocked me out. Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his fantastic novel is poignant, funny, tragic, and enlightening, with fantastic performances from Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and, in her first post-Harry Potter "grownup" role, Emma Watson. May hit a little too close to home, but so worth it. Read my original review.

The Dark Knight Rises: Once you strip away the tragedy of the Aurora movie theater massacre, you realize that Christopher Nolan once again struck cinematic gold from the purported end of his Batman trilogy. It's the return of the players we love—Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine—along with the introduction of a new hellacious villain (Tom Hardy's Bane has the soul of darkness and the voice of Darth Vader), a new hero (the always amazing Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and some twisted new characters, including Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard. Beautifully done, bleak, violent, and hopeful. Read my original review.

Lincoln: Not thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis' breathtaking portrayal of our 16th president, which is so authentic you expect him to step off the penny, Steven Spielberg's movie is still a triumph. Whether it's because of passionate performances from Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) and Tommy Lee Jones (as abolition-supporting Thaddeus Stevens), the dialogue which is funny and surprisingly on target for today's politically charged world, or the way you get so invested in the film you still hope it ends differently, the movie is far more than a long history lesson. Far more entertaining and emotionally compelling, too. Read my original review.

Moonrise Kingdom: This charmer from the king of quirk, Wes Anderson, should have been on the list of Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscars. A sweetly odd little movie set in 1965 on an island off the coast of New England, the movie follows young Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a foster child struggling with fitting in with the other scouts, as he disappears one night to meet his pen pal, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who has run away from her tumultuous home life to meet Sam and set off on a new life together. Anderson gives the runaways' encounters the right amount of humor, awkwardness, and poignancy, that moment when you realize there is someone out there who feels exactly the way you do. The movie definitely has its slapsticky moments, but it also has a lot of heart. Read my original review.

Django Unchained: Combining an homage to the old spaghetti westerns with the blaxploitation theme Quentin Tarantino loves to revisit, Django Unchained is amazingly violent (more so than Inglourious Basterds but less so than Kill Bill), hysterically funny, surprisingly astute, and unbelievably foul-mouthed. The story of the unlikely pairing of bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the always magnificent Christoph Waltz) and Django, a slave (Jamie Foxx), on the hunt for Django's wife, who was bought by the odious plantation owner Calvin Candie (a loathsome Leonardo DiCaprio), the movie is a little too long but it's still worthy of a place in the Tarantino pantheon. Read my original review.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: "Fellow Mortals" by Dennis Mahoney

This is a book whose beauty and power crept up on me and took me by surprise. And I stumbled onto it while browsing in an actual bookstore, so I hope they don't all close, because how else am I going to find these gems?

Henry Cooper is a friendly mailman, always quick to lend a smile, even a hand. One beautiful afternoon while on his mail route on Arcadia Street, he lights a cigar (forbidden by his wife), and absentmindedly tosses his match to the ground. In just a few minutes, that careless action lights several houses on fire, damaging the homes of people he has come to know on his route. Henry actually saves some people from the fire, but that doesn't lessen the impact of what he has done, as a young wife is killed.

While on suspension from his job awaiting the results of an investigation, Henry wants nothing more than to help those whose lives he has affected. He and his devoted wife, Ava, take in elderly sisters Joan and Nan Finn, while they try to decide what to do next. While he is snubbed by some families, the one person he tries reaching out to most of all is sculptor Sam Bailey, whose wife, Laura, died in the fire. Sam is practically rudderless and unsure of what to do with his days, but he is revived by his work, sculpting mysterious figures from the trees near his house. Sam doesn't know how to react to Henry—he wants to be angry and hurt, even vengeful, but Henry's affability and his need to make Sam feel like he belongs wears him down.

Fellow Mortals is both a story about many different kinds of relationships as well as how people deal with the aftermath of a crisis. Ava is frustrated by Henry's openness and need to help those affected by the fire, but most of all, she wants to protect him from himself. There's the angry and overprotective neighbor, Peg Carmichael, who cannot forgive Henry and blames him for everything that goes wrong in her life. Billy and Sheri Kane, a young couple down on their luck both financially and emotionally find that the fire has damaged more than part of their home. And Sam tries to lose himself in his work while fending off advice from those who seem to know better.

This is a beautifully spare, tragic book. It has the potential to veer into melodrama but Dennis Mahoney's writing ability keeps the story engaging and surprising without sacrificing authenticity. At first there were so many characters to keep straight and no one seemed particularly sympathetic, but the story quietly grew on me, and really affected me. It's amazing how one simple, careless action has the potential to ripple throughout so many lives, and cause a chain of events to occur long after the first action happened. And one thing that truly appealed to me about this book is that there was as much power in what remained unsaid and undone as what the characters actually said and did.

This is a book that will make you feel, make you think, and maybe even make you cry. It's definitely one worth reading.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde" by Rebecca Dana

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Rebecca Dana dreamed of the day she would come to New York to pursue the glamorous life she knew she was destined for. Like so many young women influenced by Carrie Bradshaw's life in Sex in the City, Rebecca wanted to go to the right parties, wear the right clothes, date the right guys, and follow the right path. "I wish I wanted to fix cleft palates in Africa, but the truth is I wanted a glamorous life."

And once she settled in, she found a job as a columnist for The Daily Beast, and had the chance to attend the parties, wear the clothes, and socialize with the people she always dreamed of, plus she found the perfect relationship. But when the relationship suddenly turns sour, it leaves her confidence shaken and she wonders whether her life's ambitions were the right ones to pursue. She winds up moving into an apartment in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood with Cosmo, a lapsed Lubavitch rabbi who takes jujitsu classes and works at a copy shop while waiting for his green card.

As Rebecca tries to reconcile her job profiling fashion and society with the traditions of the Lubavitch community, she also struggles with questions of faith. A lapsed Reform Jew, she wonders whether she'd find fulfillment if she pursued God, religion, and marriage. But at the same time, Cosmo struggles with his own spirituality, as he tries to decide whether to continue pursuing his rabbinical ambitions or following his less ecumenical desires. The two live somewhat reversed lives for a while, with Rebecca exploring the Lubavitch religion and Cosmo eating bacon.

While Rebecca fancies herself a Carrie Bradshaw prodigy, in reality, she's a much more philosophical person. Her journey of self-discovery is sometimes humorous, sometimes reflective, and it shows her that her ambitions aren't fundamentally wrong and don't make her a bad person. "To understand this, you don't have to abandon your entire life, everything you ever wished for, and move in with a Xerox shop rabbi in Brooklyn, but in my case, it certainly helped."

I'll admit that I was first interested in reading this book because how could you resist one with this title? But I really enjoyed reading Rebecca Dana's writing, and getting immersed in her journey of self-discovery was really engaging and amusing. She's the type of person who you'd think would be totally underestimated, that someone who writes about fashion and gossip might be insipid and shallow, but her story was much more interesting than you'd expect. This isn't a heavy memoir, but it does touch on issues of spirituality and finding meaning in one's life.

"Our first dreams grip us tightest and can refuse to let go." But Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde proves that living your childhood dreams isn't necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes that realization is hard to come by.