Kris and Adam Sitting In a Tree, D-E-B-U-T-I-N-G…

November 27, 2009

After thrilling the nation week after memorable week on “American Idol,” Kris Allen and Adam Lambert are back in the spotlight with their respective debut albums, “Kris Allen” (guess whose that is) and “For Your Entertainment.” I got to hear both their CDs in the last couple of days, and I was glad–and very relieved–to find that I generally liked both.

First, let’s get the negatives out of the way. It becomes clear pretty early on that a lot of songs on both albums followed the Mad Libs template, i.e. “Kris/Adam, this song is how we want you to sound like, so just fill in the few blanks we left for you.” Neither Kris nor Adam succeed in breaking out of the formulaic boxes that were designed for them and becoming true creative artists. But that’s of course understandable; the months of AI spotlight shouldn’t make people forget that these are their first albums, their first artistic baby steps in their career.

And now for the good. Kris and Adam both step up to the plate and deliver with their vocals. Kris manages to sound both sweet and strong throughout, while Adam displays a remarkable versatility, handling pop, rock, electronica, and what else have you with a cool confidence. And as much as a lot of the songs sound like “boxes,” they’re also very pretty and well-constructed boxes much of the time. They may not be life-changing, but the songs are certainly good enough to bop your head and enjoy yourself to. It’s good, sweet, solid pop (pop rock for Kris, a pop variety pack for Adam), no more and no less.

Here are my favorite tracks from both albums. “I Need To Know” is the one song which strips away all the glossy production and pares it all down to the piano and Kris’ voice. It’s simple and beautiful. With Adam, “If I Had You” is the song where Adam seems to be having the most fun and just being himself, not trying so hard to be the next coming of Freddy Mercury.

I Need To Know – Kris Allen

If I Had You – Adam Lambert

P.S. As for Adam’s whole American Music Awards brouhaha, I like what Adam had to say afterwards: “I’m not a babysitter.”

(Top 101) #72. A Jealous Heart Is a Heavy Heart – Damien Jurado

November 27, 2009

There is a kind of music that I like to call Lumberjack Rock. It’s the kind of dark (lumbering, if you will) folk music played by guys who sound very lonely, like they’re living out in log cabins in the middle of nowhere with only their guitar and the nighttime stars to call company. The quintessential Lumberjack Rock artist would be Bonnie Prince Billy, he of great anthems to slit your wrist to (one upcoming on the Top 101). And right on his heels would be Damien Jurado.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what Damien looked like until I found his photo for this post (and he DOES look kinda like a lumberjack!). But I know I could pick his voice out anytime; the desperation, the yearning would always give it away.

“A Jealous Heart Is a Heavy Heart” begins with the lyrics, “I woke up with Death at my window, singing ‘Come out, come out with me,” and yet, it’s actually one of the more hopeful songs in his catalogue, believe it or not. It’s tortured and bleak, but it’s achingly beautiful throughout, and when Damien gathers up all the courage he has left in his ravaged heart to tell his beloved, “Grow old with me,” it’s a moment when time stands still. Again, it’s that yearning, that so-sweet-but-it-hurts-like-hell yearning that we know all too well.

A Jealous Heart Is a Heavy Heart – Damien Jurado

Book Reviews: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Foreign Student, Open

November 27, 2009

Freedom, it does taste so sweet. My aunt and I are now safe and sound back home. The sky has never seemed so blue. The TV has never been more interesting. The floor that I sleep upon (not unusual in Korea) has never felt so comfortable.

My mother is here as well, staying at Aunt #3’s house (my mom came to get knee surgery since operations are a whole lot cheaper in Korea). We all gathered for lunch yesterday, and my mom prepared the shrimp and roast beef that she had smuggled in from the U.S. Yum, yum, indeed.

After getting more than hours of sleep last night, the whole hospital sojourn is already starting to feel like a faraway dream we all had. And now that I’m no longer there, it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. I did feel very useful, especially with my current unemployed-bum status. And I did get in some quality reading on that tiny green bed next to my aunt’s. So, I present the latest edition of the Tommyland Book Reviews!

** THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY – Thorton Wilder **

Okay, I actually read this book back when I was in California. It was the last book I read before getting on the plane; sorry for the late review. It’s kind of a theological treatise, as a Peruvian friar analyzes the circumstances of a purely random, tragic accident (the collapse of the eponymous bridge and the resulting deaths of five people that happened to be on it) to see if he couldn’t discern a deeper reason that would indicate God’s will at play. The story essentially boils down to the whole free will vs. determinism debate that people have wondered about for ages (personally, I’m not sure, but I tend to think that in this world, it’s pretty much ‘S*it happens,’ but God makes it up to us big-time in the afterlife).

So does the book shed light on this age-old issue? To be honest, I have to say a big, fat “No.” The friar never fully comes to understand why the victims had to die–especially a female assistant and a young boy whose voices are pretty much neglected altogether. So that came as a big letdown. However, the three main stories that make up the book are fascinating once you stop looking for philosophical enlightenment and just look at them as mere stories. Wilder has a way with characterization and describing complex relationships–his depiction of a mother that loves her daughter so much that the daughter ends up hating her is painfully on point. So, to sum up the book: Enlightenment 0, Engrossment 1.

** THE FOREIGN STUDENT – Susan Choi **

A mysterious foreigner with dark secrets from his homeland. A young woman whose flightiness is a front for a penchant for making rash and destructive decisions. They meet on a college campus, and their lives intertwine in a way neither of them ever expected. The set-up sounds pretty awesome, exactly the kind of book that I would be drawn to. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. I like Choi’s writing style, which is a bit eerie almost, lending a lot of scenes a cool, dreamlike quality. But the main character of Chang (aka “Chuck”) never quite fully takes shape. He is supposed to be haunted by his horrific experiences (torture, upheaval, betrayal during the Korean War), but he comes off a timid simpleton too much of the time to grab your interest. The woman and her back story (dysfunctional family, statutory rape) are far more interesting, and the unbalance leaves the two characters’ relationship rather unfulfilling.

** OPEN – Andre Agassi (and one gosh-darn good ghostwriter) **

My mom brought this one from America and gave me to me at the hospital. It’s pretty sizable, but I ended up finishing it in a day. Yes, it is indeed that good. Up to this point, I thought Martina Navratilova’s autobiography, Martina, was the best tennis biography ever, but it’s time to move over, Martina. Shockingly, Andre Agassi–yes, THE Andre famous for crowing “Image is everything”–casts all caution to the wind and lays everything out there for the world to judge.

First, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Andre’s father was, and presumably is, pretty much a psycho who decided before Andre was born that Andre would be a tennis player, don’t question me and do what I tell you, son. Andre, while obviously talented, hated, hated, hated living his life for tennis, and it led him to have all kinds of issues. Fortunately, he went on to find a new father figure in trainer Gil Reyes, and Andre later found his greatest happinesses by becoming a father and building a school for underprivileged children.

It all makes for fascinating stuff, but what makes Open great and not just good is in the surreal, often gossipy details of Andre’s superstar life. I won’t spill too many details, but Andre’s stories of his teenage pranks at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy, reasons why he couldn’t stand rivals Becker, Chang, and Connors, his hairpiece issues, Gil laying the whoop-ass on people who dare smack about Andre, his seemingly pre-destined union with Steffi Graf, and my personal favorite story of what happened when Andre’s dad and Steffi’s equally combative father finally met each other for the first time. Trust me, the pages are practically gonna turn themselves (I should also mention Andre’s ex, Brooke Shields, who comes off a poignant and surprisingly perceptive figure).

I was never a big fan of Andre (he did do and say a lot of bratty-stupid things back in the days he had hair), but I have to say, I did develop a new respect for him. He’s being pretty much slaughtered in the press for his crystal meth use, but I’d urge people to read the whole book before they come to any judgment. It’s definitely a troubling aspect of his journey, but no one could deny that it’s a journey well worth writing (and reading) about.


November 24, 2009

I have declared mutiny, jumped ship, gone AWOL, what have you. Around 12:30, with the lights off and everyone asleep, I slipped away from my aunt’s bedside, put on my coat, walked down three flights of stairs, and exited the hospital. I had hit the wall.

I have been at the hospital almost every night for the last week, including the last three days in a row, and today, I started feeling stir crazy for the first time. There wasn’t any real, concrete reason. My aunt’s final diagnosis was, while not perfect, still pretty good. Although it turned out my aunt DID have clear cell carcinoma (the trickier and more-prone-to-returning form of endometrial cancer), it was confirmed that they had caught it at Stage 1A, which is pretty much the earliest possible, so our main doctor and the hospital’s radiologist both agreed that my aunt wouldn’t need further treatment, neither radiation nor chemotherapy. Despite the good news, I felt frustration and a kind of panic attack growing from somewhere within me, and I knew I had to get out of that bed and out of the hospital to rejoin the world outside, if only for an hour or two.

It’s 1:36 A.M. now, and with a KFC chicken sandwich newly devoured within me and a computer at my fingertips at this Internet cafe, I feel a whole lot better. As much as I love my aunt and the rest of my family, the truly defining trait of my character is the overwhelming need for freedom, the freedom to live my life the way I want to. Although I wanted to help my aunt and be there for her the way I was, I could also feel myself growing dim and starting to suffocate, unable and unwilling to breathe someone else’s air for too long. So I am here, to breathe in a few more gulps to save me from drowning before I return to my aunt’s bedside. As Joni Mitchell said it so well, “We love our lovin’, but not like we love our freedom.” I hear you, Joni. I hear you.

Help Me – Joni Mitchell

In Sickness And Health…

November 21, 2009

My aunt had her operation on Monday. It was, in a word, terrifying. That is, for everyone except my aunt herself. She was sleepy and pretty much dazed all morning, and I think she was actually kind of smiling peacefully when the orderlies came to take her. My other aunt, my uncle’s wife, and I were on the other hand all pretty much wrecks inside. I dare any atheist and agnostic to remain that way while they–or a loved one–is lying there on a stretcher being wheeled into the operating room. I think my thoughts for pretty much the whole day and night can be summed up into this: “Dear God, dear God, please, please, please, please.”

I am glad and very relieved to say that things are progressing about as well as could be expected. The doctor deemed the operation a success (basically, he took out the endometrium, mammoetrium, ovaries, and the lymph nodes in the area to make sure the cancer has nowhere to spread to; it took about 5 hours), and although we have to wait for the final results, there were no visible signs of cancerous growths, indicating that the cancer was caught at a very early stage (thank the Lord!).

My aunt had a tough time the night of the surgery (hello, painkillers!), but by the next day, she was gingerly walking the halls. She’s been continuing to feel better since then, although things were a bit anxious for a couple of days, because she wasn’t expending the gas they pumped into the stomach for the surgery. She was feeling bloated and uncomfortable, and there was even talk of putting a tube up her nose (I’ve had that done before, and trust me, it is just as terrible as it sounds) before she finally delivered what we were referring to as her “gas baby” yesterday morning. So with that “miracle birth,” my aunt has been able to start eating again, first watery gruel (yum), then porridge, and tonight, she’ll be having her first bonafide meal since last Sunday.

Through it all, my aunt has been handling things with admirable composure. Like I mentioned before, she’s a full-on Catholic, and she’s convinced that God lulled her into a state of peace right before the surgery to protect her. My other aunt–of a more pragmatic kind–thought that the doctors had doped her up with something in the IV, but the doctors told us they didn’t. Who knows? I’m just glad that things are going along okay (we just have to wait for the final analysis results to make sure she has the more common form of endometrial cancer and not the more serious type).

All of this has been a major learning experience for everyone involved. As for me, here are some things that I’ve learned:

1) The female endometrium and mammometrium, once taken out, looks just like a big slice of lasagna with a little tunnel in the middle (the doctor showed us photos of everything he took out in full digital color glory).

2) Staples are even more useful that we knew. They didn’t use thread to stitch my aunt’s stomach up; instead, the cut was stapled shut. They’re gonna take them out before she leaves the hospital; I don’t know how, though, as I can’t imagine they’ll be using the staple-remover tool!

3) Hospitals are a lot like airports. They’re both places full of emotions, people crying, people laughing as they head out, people that are tired and cranky with balled-up joints from being cooped up in narrow spaces. Still, you also see sons, daughters, husbands (no wives, as this is the ob/gyn ward, all the patients are female, and lesbian marriages are not legal in Korea), and friends by the patients’ side helping them in various way. And I’m gonna take this chance to pat myself on the back here, too; it turns out I’m a pretty darn good hospital assistant. Backrubs, fetching water, walking companion, more backrubs (my thumb joints are still sore), I can do it all. I’m thinking of leaving my resume at the hospital…

4) Doctors and nurses should be applauded at every turn, the nice, humane ones anyway. My aunt’s two main doctors and group of nurses have been awesome, but we’ve seen a couple of other doctors for other patients who seem cranky and overworked or just too vague when it comes to dispensing information. Humanity, it’s a very important trait.

Cancer – My Chemical Romance

The Iconic Showdown: MJ vs. Madonna

November 14, 2009


Starry, Starry Night

True icons do not come along too often. Jesus was an icon. Paris Hilton wishes she were. When it comes to popular music, I would say that only five artists really make the list no questions asked: Elvis (natch), The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. Cases could be made for Aretha, Joni, the Rolling Stones, Prince, and Mariah, but I don’t know; they’ve all got serious creds, but there’s still wiggle room for doubt, while the first group are unquestionably in like Flynn.

Of that exclusive group, MJ and Madonna stand out; they really were the most famous, the most infamous, the most talked-about, the most publicity-obsessed, the most video-savvy, the most bizarre, the most interesting, the starriest stars pop music has ever seen. At the Video Music Awards, Madonna talked about the things she had in common with the late Michael, bringing up their Midwestern upbringings and their large number of siblings. There’s actually something else of interest that they share: they’ve both had twelve #1 hits on the Billboard charts. So it’s without further adieu that I present you the Battle of Number Ones between these two timeless legends. Twelve rounds to the finish: who will reign supreme? Let’s find out.

ROUND ONE: Ben (1972) vs. Like a Virgin (1984)

Michael’s career of course started with his brothers, and the Jackson 5 actually hit #1 with their first three singles. Michael sporadically recorded solo records on the side, and “Ben” became his first #1 when he was just 13 or 14 years old. On the other hand, Madonna was a full decade older when she scored her first #1 hit with “Like a Virgin.” It really was the record that unleashed the Madonna phenomenon onto the world, much of it thanks to her writhing-on-the-floor rendition at the VMAs. Interestingly, some people have noted the similarities between the beats of “Virgin” and MJ’s earlier smash, “Billie Jean.” Madonna herself emphasized the connection by throwing in a couple of lines from “Billie Jean” when she performed the song during the Virgin Tour.

Winner: Madonna. “Ben” is sweet, but it’s on the edge of being syrupy. “Like a Virgin,” in contrast, was a lioness declaring herself to the world.

ROUND TWO: Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough (1979) vs. Crazy For You (1985)

It was seven years after “Ben” that MJ really came into his own. His Off the Wall album established himself as not only a solo artist but as a man, not a boy. “Don’t Stop” is a disco classic showcasing MJ’s falsetto. For Madonna, “Crazy For You” was just the continuation of Madonnamania, while also surprising many who didn’t think she had the vocals to pull off a slow ballad.

Winner: It’s a close one, but Madonna takes it again. There’s a reason why the disco craze didn’t last. It just doesn’t age well, especially compared to a sexy ballad.

ROUND THREE: Rock With You (1979) vs. Live To Tell (1986)

This is by far the toughest round yet. Both songs are truly amazing. MJ finds a midtempo groove on “Rock With You” and rides it into pop heaven, while Madonna had to reach deeper than she ever had for her darkest song yet.

Winner: Madonna by a hair. “Live To Tell” is arguably the most emotionally affecting song in Madonna’s canon, with probably the best lyrics she’s ever written.

ROUND FOUR: Billie Jean (1983) vs. Papa Don’t Preach (1986)

“Billie Jean” marks the point when Michael undeniably became the King of Pop. He broke down every barrier there was, simply by making music that was too damn good to resist. Meanwhile, Madonna was busy creating a political firestorm over her teen pregnancy saga.

Winner: Michael. I like “Papa” just fine, but it doesn’t hold a candle to “Bille Jean.” Even now, the thumping bass kicks in, and the song has you in the palm of its hand.

ROUND FIVE: Beat It (1983) vs. Open Your Heart (1987)

Michael’s grip on the world continued with the anti-violence “Beat It” while Madonna was courting controversy yet again, this time by playing a stripper (I think) and kissing (innocently, I think) a boy on the lips in the video for “Open Your Heart.”

Winner: Two in a row for Michael. I actually find “Open” to be one of the most annoying Madonna singles ever. It’s a bit too repetive, and her vocals come off too bratty (not sexy-bratty, which would be good, but just bratty).

ROUND SIX: I Just Can’t Stop Loving You (1987) vs. Who’s That Girl? (1987)

Hey, we’re actually at the same time for both MJ and Madonna! (I was feeling like the guy in the Time Traveler’s Wife for a while) In 1987, we found MJ making sweet love to Siedah Garrett (who would later be Madonna’s back-up singer on tour!) and Madonna singing in Spanglish for the sake of a box office disaster of a film.

Winner: Michael again. “I Just Can’t” is a simple love song, but his vocals are creamy and dreamy, while “Who’s That Girl” is so forgettable that it was actually later left off of her Immaculate Collection CD. (It’s gotta be the first time in history that a #1 hit was left off of a greatest-hits album.)

ROUND SEVEN: Bad (1987) vs. Like a Prayer (1989)

With “Bad,” MJ returned to fighting gang violence with the power of group choreography, while Madonna was busy pissing off the Vatican in “Like a Prayer.”

Winner: Madonna in a no-brainer. “Like a Prayer” was Madonna at her very best, controversial but clear-eyed, sexy but with substance. Meanwhile, “Bad” was so over-the-top both as a song and a video that it came off like a Michael Jackson parody instead of the real thing.


MJ--Trying Not To Look

ROUND EIGHT: The Way You Make Me Feel (1988) vs. Vogue (1990)

Michael returned to form here with perhaps his sexiest vocals ever. Madonna used an underground dance form to make herself into even more of an icon than she already was.

Winner: Madonna. Two awesome songs here, but how could anyone refuse M’s command to “strike a pose”? Just. Not. Possible. Plus, that whole “Greta Garbo and Monroe” rap is the best Madonna bridge EVER.

ROUND NINE: Man In the Mirror (1988) vs. Justify My Love (1990)

The message of “Man In the Mirror”: Don’t judge others. The message of “Justify My Love”: Don’t f*ck others, just me (and tell me all about how you’re gonna do it).

Winner: Michael. “Man In the Mirror” is one of his best songs, finding him clear-eyed and right on the point. Meanwhile, Madonna begins her sex-crazed downward spiral that will find her publishing a book where she’s sucking on toes, shaving off her eyebrows who-knows-why, humping Willem Dafoe on screen (I don’t really get why scrawny, slightly creepy Willem keeps getting called to do sexually explicit movies), swearing approximately 1,447 times on Letterman, and dating both Vanilla Ice and Dennis Rodman.

ROUND TEN: Dirty Diana (1988) vs. This Used To Be My Playground (1992)

Michael decides to rock out (a la “Beat It”) and scores his fifth(!) #1 from the Bad album. Meanwhile, Madonna releases a sad, delicate ballad from the League of Her Own Soundtrack right before she goes on her rampage and the public and the media both decide they’re sick of her.

Winner: It’s a close call, but I’ll go with Michael on this one. Neither song is all that great, but at least “Dirty Diana” has some life to it. “Playground” seems almost anemic in comparison.

ROUND ELEVEN: Black Or White (1991) vs. Take a Bow (1994)

Michael proves that a call for racial equality can be catchy as all heck (though the original video with the whole crotch rubbing and car smashing was one of Michael’s most baffling moments, which is definitely saying something). Madonna, no doubt sick of getting beat up in the press, tones down the raunch and instead goes for elegant tenderness with “Take a Bow.”

Winner: Yet another epic battle. Dangerous was really the last album when Michael still seemed capable of enjoying his music and his life. “Black Or White,” as political as its message may have been, was marked more by pure joy than anything else. Still, I can’t help thinking that it’s slightly edged out by “Take a Bow,” which is an absolute classic. Madonna’s vocals are perfect in the song, both sad and lush, and the melody is as pretty as they come. “Take a Bow” ended up being Madonna’s most successful single ever and almost single-handedly rescued her career (the artsy video also reportedly convinced Alan Pakula to cast her for “Evita”).

ROUND TWELVE: You Are Not Alone (1995) vs. Music (2000)

The final round, and what a way to finish things off. Michael delivers a classic ballad of his own with “You Are Not Alone” that even an icky video with a semi-clad Michael and his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley couldn’t mar. In “Music,” Madonna returns to doing what she does best, ordering all of us to get on the dance floor and boogie like we mean it.

Winner: It’s another tough round, but Michael takes it. “Music” is fun, but it’s really all icing and very little cake, while “You Are Not Alone” is just timeless.

FINAL SCORE: Michael Jackson = 6, Madonna = 6

Whoa. I swear, I did not pre-plan this. I actually predicted Madonna would win this showdown by a fair margin, as I do believe her body of work is superior to Michael’s (and pretty much anyone else’s, aside from my beloved Tori Amos). Still, I can’t help but be glad that it all ended in a draw, as the whole point of this showdown was to remember how plain awesome both Michael and Madonna were, are, and hopefully will be (looking forward to the unreleased vault of material, MJ!).

Michael Jackson Megamix

Madonna Megamix

(Top 101) #73. The Rose – Bette Midler

November 14, 2009

roseI am sure many people consider Bette Midler’s “The Rose” to be just another easy listening standby, just another harmless and brainless ode to love with lyrics full of cliches piled on top of each other. They may have a point. After all, the song basically compares love to a rose, which isn’t exactly the most original simile ever. However, may I re-direct you attention to the part where love is also called a razor that leaves your soul to bleed? Hmm, not exactly a sentiment often found on most adult contemporary stations, is it? The thing that makes “The Rose” great and not merely easy listening good is that it doesn’t flinch away from the dark side of love even as it celebrates the bright, shiny parts. Adding to this underlying grit is Bette Midler’s voice. Bette leaves no doubt that she’s no dopey-brained crooner; she’s a woman who’s accompanied Love to hell and back. So when she tells us that in spite of it all, she still believes in this razor, this river, this seed, this rose that is love, she empowers not only herself but also us.

The Rose – Bette Midler