Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man (A Movie Review)

Successfully answering the question "What if Spider-Man was a generic, mid-grade young adult novel?"

I don’t recall if I had any expectations about The Amazing Spider-Man when it was released. I do recall that whatever interest I may have had in the movie disappeared once I read Ty Burr’s negative review of it for the Boston Globe. According to Burr, the film was essentially a lesser rehash of the Sam Raimi-directed/Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies with bad dialogue, cruddy special effects, and a wasted cast. He suspect the movie was probably made so Sony could hold on to the film rights for Spider-Man. This is supported by how it’s mercenary nature bled through every aspect of the film. As a consequence of this profoundly negative review, I gave the movie a skip and didn’t really think about it that much since then. But, I recently had an opportunity to see it, thought “Why not?”, and gave it a shot. So what’s my takeaway?

I didn’t hate it as much as Ty Burr did. I also didn’t like it nearly as much as Roger Ebert, who gave it a surprisingly glowing review where he praised the film’s action scenes and rather relaxed pacing. Despite some strong elements and a good cast, I mostly found The Amazing Spider-Man to be...frustrating more than anything else. For starters, the movie is a reboot (at least technically speaking) of a series that was only a little over 10 years old at the time. Much of that first half of the movie spends its time going over material that this movie’s target audience is likely already familiar with, if only in a general sense. I realize that the movie wants to be as accessible as possible and not just assume the audience already knows Spider-Man’s backstory well enough that they can just skip it or gloss over it. That is, in of itself, not a big problem, especially since The Amazing Spider-Man wants to establish a different status quo than the earlier films and, if nothing else, be its own thing separate from the Raimi-directed movies.

However, this desire to make themselves distinct from the Raimi movies often ends up backfiring on them. The movie makes several changes to how Spider-Man’s origin story plays out. Most of them, like how Peter encounters the spider that gives him his power and how he first reacts to having powers, are fairly minor, mostly differing in terms of specific details. The changes they make aren’t bad, per say, but hey do feel a little arbitrary and unnecessary.  Again, it seems like an attempt to make the film not feel like a complete retread of first Raimi movie, which is fine. But this is undercut by how some of them pay off. For example, The way that Peter reacts to getting his powers is played for both for horror and for comedy, but doesn’t succeed at selling either feeling very well. When his new powers cause him to stick to bathroom sink and accidentally tip it off the wall, it works okay, but comes off as more goofy rather than actually funny. Similarly, when the film shows how painful and weird the changes that Peter goes through when he first gets his powers are, it ends up being too brief to have any real impact for the audience. They just end up feeling like difference made for the sake of being different, without any significant weight behind them.

And then there are the changes that really don’t work. Such as how Uncle Ben dies and how that affects Peter’s motivation and his decision to become a superhero. While I’m not a huge Spider-Man fan personally, I do like him enough that I have opinions about how what makes him an interesting character and how he should work within a piece of fiction. And, as far as I’m concerned, Spider-Man has some pretty good motivation and backstory: being a selfish jerk who only cares about himself got one of the most important people in his life killed and trying to make up for that by being a superhero is what drives him. Now, broadly, that is what happens here, but there’s one big difference that significantly changes the character of Spider-Man and how the audience view him.

In this film adaptation, Uncle Ben getting killed has nothing whatsoever to do with Peter being Spider-Man. Which, as far as I’m concerned, completely misses the entire point of what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man.

In the original comic, and the Raimi movies for that matter, Peter has already become Spider-Man when he first encounters Ben’s killer and infamously refuses to stop him for incredibly petty reasons. I like this! It helps emphasize how Peter isn’t using his power in any particularly special way outside of getting famous and making money. It’s a blatantly selfish use of his gifts and when it ends up biting him in the ass and indirectly causing the death of one of the most important people in his life, it gives his change of heart and behavior far more weight. In this telling, Peter fails to stop the thief for equally petty reasons, but it has nothing to do with his powers, being Spider-Man, or anything even vaguely related to that aspect of his life. Furthermore, he only becomes Spider-Man and goes after the thief in order to get revenge. I think that being motivated by guilt and wanting to use his powers for more productive reasons than “make money” is one of the thing that make Spider-Man an interesting character. Removing that aspect of the story and failing to replace with anything even slightly as compelling is a big failing on the movie’s part. It just ends up emphasizing that this film seems to have been made largely so Sony could keep their film rights and not because anyone involved particularly cared about Spider-Man and what kind of stories you can tell with his character.1 In addition to all this, it also serves to make Spider-Man a less distinctive character in another way. Tell me: does a hero who becomes a costumed vigilante driven by vengeance because he witnesses a loved one get murder in front of him sound familiar? It should. It’s the origin story of Batman, one of the most enduring and popular superheroes of the 20th and 21st centuries and main character of what was, for a while, the highest grossing superhero movie ever made. Look, there are a lot of ways that you can change Spider-Man origin story to make him an equally, if not more, compelling character than he already is. Turning him into Batman isn’t one of them.

This leads to another of the film’s issues, which is that the movie clearly takes a lot of cues from various of movie adaptations of popular young adult novels. In particular, this means a more melodramatic tone, a greater focus on the more “teenage” aspects of Peter’s character (i.e. whenever he fights with his aunt and uncle, his angst over his missing parents, etc.), and a romance plotline that seems to be given more prominence that it probably needs given that this is (at least in general) an action movie. Now, none of this is a problem by itself, as this is a movie about a teenage superhero and all of those elements can work in a setting like that without any problem. It might even help the movie, as YA tropes and the concepts could be used to highlight and strengthen the aspects of Spider-Man and his world that would already pretty YA-compatible in the first place (again, teenage superhero). Unfortunately, the YA-derived aspects of the film aren’t particularly well done. Instead of helping the movie, it just makes it feel like the creators took a generic young adult-oriented superhero story, changed all the names to their appropriate Spider-Man equivalents, and didn’t even try to rewrite anything so it felt more distinctly like a Spider-Man movie. As a consequence, the movie often feels very generic. Not necessarily bad, but also lacking a real identify, which ends up significantly hindering the movie. It almost suggests that the studio came to the rather condescending conclusion that the primary audience of teenagers and young adults would watch any superhero movie they put out so long as it resembled other popular movies that appealed to that age bracket.

Aside from these story issues, there are some weird structural problems that movie has. For one, the whole movies feels needlessly drawn out. It spends a lot of time going over Peter’s motivation and backstory. Apart from one brief action scene that mostly played for comedy, almost an hour passes before he gets to put on the Spider-Man suit and do anything remotely resembling, you know, actual Spider-Man behaviour. Swinging around, making dumb jokes, hassling criminals, etc. Now, this would not be a problem in of itself...if the movie were about three or four hours long or if this was the pilot to a longer TV series. As it stands, the movie is only a little over two hours with credits and spending half the movie going over character beats that the audience is likely to be already familiar with doesn’t do it any favors. Worse yet, all this early character-building and plot set up is just...okay to watch. It feels very workmanlike, competently made without having an particularly spark or punch to it. It’s not painful to sit through, but it does feel like time that could have been spent on almost anything else instead.
Another issue is that, ironically, the second half of the movie feels very rushed.2 Once Peter becomes Spider-Man, it speeds through a how bunch of plot and character development. This includes setting up and developing the main villain, exploring Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy and her dad, Captain Stacy, dropping hints about villains and plot lines that are going to pay-off in future sequels, examining the effect of being Spider-Man on Peter’s relationship with Aunt May, how the public reacts to Spider-Man, and it just never ends. It’s like the movie suddenly realized it had spent too much time on the pre-Spider-Man story and had to go through everything else as quick as it could so the movie could still clock in at about two hours. This is compounded by the apparent shift in the genre at the center of the movie, which makes the film feel unbalanced. As it stands, the movie watches like half of a teen drama movie and half of an action movie that were badly edited together rather than a successful blending of the two styles.

Additionally, none of this meshes well with the movie’s attempt to be a kind of  “Spider-Man’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1,” what with introducing a love interest that knows Peter is Spider-Man and Captain Stacy dying, as well as doing a surprising amount of set-up for both future sequels and the now cancelled Secret Six movie that Sony was clearly hoping this series would lead to. As you might guess, most of this doesn’t work very well due to the aforementioned pacing issues. The whole things comes off as being just crammed full of various badly-executed highlights from Spider-Man’s long history as a comic book character. Case in point: having Captain Stacy die is indeed a dramatic climax to the movie, and is a famous enough bit from the comics that you can buy multiple collections that contain that storyline, but it probably would have worked better if we hadn’t first met him only an hour or so before he kicks it. Why not save his death for a sequel or at least introduce the character earlier in the film so his death has actual impact? Similarly, while Curt Connors/The Lizard’s motivation is explored during the movie, it feels rather haphazard and thrown together in a way that makes a lot of what drives the character seem underdeveloped and not terribly compelling as a result.3

However, I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is all garbage; if it were that bad, I wouldn’t have bothered writing such a lengthy review. There are good things about the film which prevent it from being a complete slog, although they do make it a little frustrating instead. Most of the cast seem to being doing the best they can with the roles they have. In particularly, Andrew Garfield does an excellent job as Peter and Spidey. He really captures the kind of smart-alack energy that helps makes Spider-Man superheroics so fun to watch and read. Another highlight is Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who make the couple seem real and believable and give the early scenes of the movie some nice, if perhaps overly drawn-out, dramatic heft.4 There’s also quite a bit of talent behind the camera as well. In addition to well regarded director Marc Webb, the movie was co-written by Zodiac writer James Vanderbilt, two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, best known for writing the screenplays of the Harry Potter movies. (Though one does wonder if some of the movie’s flaws may be a product of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” kind of problem.) Beyond that, most of the film’s action scenes are very well done and a lot of fun to watch. Unlike so much of the film, which are often content to present this Spider-Man story in the most bland and generic terms possible, the fight scenes seems to have been made by people who wanted to focus what makes Spider-Man unique and choreograph fights that you could only see in a Spider-Man movie. They never feel strongly derivative of any of the recent Marvel Studio movies that the film so desperately wants to be and actually succeed at being their own thing. If you are a fan of solid action film making, you may want to seek the movie out just for those sections, which were by far my favorite parts of the entire movie.

Sadly, those highlights aren’t enough to save the film. I can’t really recommend The Amazing Spider-Man. In the end, the few things that it does well can’t make up for the many flaws the movie has. You might seek it out if the actions scenes sound like your thing or if you’re just interested in seeing adaptations of well-known stories play out, but there isn’t a lot else to commend. The movie doesn’t even have the benefit of being part of a popular franchise anymore, as Sony is rebooting Spider-Man yet again following the relative box-office failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the agreement they reached with Marvel Studios to have Spider-Man start appear in Marvel Cinematic Universe films. The Amazing Spider-Man simply remains a strange, vestigial stump from a franchise that tried to build itself up far too quickly and ended up destroying its own future before it really got off the ground.



1 Ironically, Sony seems to have had the same motivation for making this movie that Peter had to become Spider-Man in the comics: to make money with little regard to the consequences.
2 Curiously, this is a problem this movie shares with Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four movie, an equally disappointing Marvel adaptation that has many of the exact same issues despite not having any overlapping creative people.
3 Also: not a big fan of the Lizard’s design here. Aside from looking a little too much like either Voldemort's green cousin or one of the Koopa’s from the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie, I miss the reptilian snout that he usually has in the comics and cartoons. It was a nice design choice there and its presence here may have helped the movie, if only in a very minor way.
4 That said, their presence does feel like some kind of weird stunt casting, given the ratio between their own star power and how much they appear in the film. Plus, Sally Field is basically wasted on what ends up being a pretty minor role in the overall movie.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Some brief thoughts on "Parasyte -the maxim-", episode one

I’ve been looking forward to this show since I heard it was being made a few months ago. I’ve been a fan of Hitoshi Iwaaki’s original manga ever since I read Shaenon Garrity’s review of it (http://shaenon.livejournal.com/40665.html#cutid1) way back when and was excited about seeing an anime adaptation. Surprised, since you don’t see a lot of 90s manga getting adapted in this day in age, but excited non-the-less. As a result, I had some expectation for the show when I started watching the first episode.
Of course, those expectations consisted of:
1. There would be lots of horrifying body transformations and violence
2. There would be weird humor involving the sentient hand-thing
And I was not disappointed.
For those who haven’t seen the show or read the comic, Parasyte is about Shinichi, a Japanese teenager, who wakes up one day to find that an alien parasite has burrowed into his right hand and taken control of it, allowing said parasite to turn the hand into whatever amorphous blob it needs said hand to be. Shinichi is, understandably, a little off put by this, but puts up with it for the sake of not being taken in by the authorities or having to chop off his hand. Sadly, the parasite doesn’t know what exactly its deal is, other than it was planning to take over Shinichi’s brain rather than his limb and tries to find another one of his species in order to get some answers. This ends…interestingly.
My first thought on seeing the show was that all the character designs had been updated and cleaner up some, as Iwaaki, while an excellent artist when it comes to body horror and similar grotesquities, is only okay at drawing people. Admittedly, these redesigns weren’t as major as I thought they were, but everything a little nicer looking regardless. Happily, the more gross parts of the show are still done in the same wonderful style as the manga, which means stuff like this:

It’s great.
I’m also just happy to see that this show (at least for this episode) has at least a pretty good budget. All the a animation for the parasite stuff is great to look at and I REALY hope that it maintains this level of quality for the rest of the episodes.



As it is, it’s been a while since I read any part of the manga, so  I can’t comment to much on how the story’s being adapted and such, but I had fun and, frankly, that’s all that they part of me that still think’s John Carpenter’s The Thing is mankind’s greatest achievement wanted. So here’s hoping I like next week’s too.


                                                 (Awww. It's cute. Sorta) 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Iconblivious: Frank Sinatra - The RCA Years

I'll Be Seeing You (Bluebird RCA, 1994)

1. I'll Be Seeing You; 2. Fools Rush In; 3. It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow; 4. The World Is in My Arms; 5. We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me); 6. Dolores; 7. Everything Happens to Me; 8. Let's Get Away from It All; 9. Blue Skies; 10. There Are Such Things; 11. Daybreak; 12. You're Part of My Heart


Frank Sinatra & Tommy Dorsey – Greatest Hits
(RCA Victor, 1996)

1. Night and Day; 2. Imagination; 3. I'll Never Smile Again; 4. Blue Skies; 5. The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else); 6. Fools Rush In; 7. Stardust; 8. In the Blue of Evening; 9. Polka Dots and Moonbeams; 10. Without a Song; 11. This Love of Mine; 12. I Think of You; 13. Once in a While; 14. How Am I to Know?; 15. The Sky Fell Down;

Sinatra had been kicking around the music business for a while as a singer for various bands and orchestra before eventually catching a break and becoming the singer for Harry James’ Orchestra, which led to his first released commercial recordings in 1939. While touring with James, he was noticed by Tommy Dorsey, who asked to be one of the singers with his orchestra. Sinatra accepted, debuted with the orchestra in 1940, and started to make a name for himself, both for his talent as a singer and for his good looks, which earned him fame as a teen idol. He would leave Dorsey’s orchestra to try his hand at being a solo star in 1942, but not before recording around 5 CDs worth of material with Dorsey. These songs would be the start of his real evolution as the talented singer he would become and be remembered as.

Listening to this material, the first thing you notice is that…well…

Frank doesn’t really sound like Frank yet.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still clearly Sinatra, but he sounds noticeably different than I would in his 50s/60s prime. Most of this is due to his age: he sounds very youthful on these songs and it certainly fits the teen idol image that he had at the time. More importantly, it’s clear, at least on the earlier songs, that Sinatra hadn’t hit upon his signature style yet. The confidence and brash attitude that’s so prominent in his later recordings hasn’t been developed yet. Instead, he sounds more like any other crooner from the period, especially Bing Crosby, who was clearly a major influence on Sinatra. As someone who’s way more used to Sinatra’s later material, it’s a really weird effect. Kind of like seeing a picture of someone who you only know as an older adult when they were a kid.

The material on these CDs, from what I can tell, paints a pretty good picture of the kind of music Sinatra and Dorsey made during their three years together. Both of the CDs have the same kind of material on it in terms of mood, tempo, feeling, etc., even if they only share two songs between them, and they illustrate what Sinatra and Dorsey did best (or, at least, what they were most famous for).  Of the 25 songs found between these albums, only 8 or 9 can really qualify as being upbeat in any way. Tommy Dorsey was nicknamed “The Sentimental Gentleman” and the songs here show why. Slow, moody, romantic ballads seem to be the band’s forte and dominate both discs. There are upbeat tunes, to be sure, but at least as far as Dorsey’s work with Sinatra goes, ballads tend to win out over more up-tempo stuff. Not that this is bad: Dorsey and Sinatra excel at these kinds of ballads, made with lush arrangements and filled with the kind of elegance and glamour that people associate with Hollywood movies and other entertainment from around the same time. Everything has a kind of glow to it, like it’s being beamed in from another, softer universe where romance was the worst problem anyone had to deal with. (Of course, given that this stuff is relatively light entertainment from early 1940s America, that’s pretty much EXACTLY what it’s supposed to sound like, so…good job, guys).

That said, a part of my wishes that Sinatra and Dorsey had done more upbeat stuff, if only it meant getting more stuff like “Let’s Get Away From It All.” Have you heard “Let’s Get Away From It All?” Cause you should.


It’s some good shit. Admittedly, this is less of a Sinatra/Dorsey song and more of a shared spotlight for several singer who were working with Dorsey’s band at the time (including Connie Haines and mixed-gender vocal group The Pied Pipers), but still, it’s SO GOOD. Everything just blends together so nicely. I kinda wish Dorsey had done more songs like this. All the singers here sound really nice together and I’m surprised Dorsey didn’t do more of these (to my knowledge at least).

The CDs themselves are about what you’d expect for short, inexpensive compilations. They’re both pretty basic: CD, case, and a small booklet/inlay in the front.  I’ll Be Seeing You has a fold-out strip made up of 8 panels, 4 on each side. One side is taken up by the cover art and a 3 panel-long publicity photo of the This Song Is You box set. The panels on the other side are made up of the track listing (on one panel), the liner notes, (on two panels), and a short written ad for the box set that lists all the songs and fancy swag that it comes with. The track list is well done, as it gives the usual writing and publishing credits, as well as when the songs were recorded and what, if any, other singers sang on the song other than Sinatra. The liner notes themselves, written by Will Friedwald, are short, but not too bad. They briefly cover the popularity of the Dorsey/Sinatra pairing and how working with Dorsey ended up influencing Sinatra’s singing style. In a touch I particularly like, it notes that the songs selected for the CD were specifically chosen to be a mix of big hits and more forgotten tracks. It also talks briefly about previous reissues of the Dorsey/Sinatra material and why this reissue improves on the earlier ones. The biggest weakness of the notes is that it’s clear that they’re meant to function more as an ad for the This Song Is You box set and not as much as an independent piece of writing. The relative sparseness of the liner notes certainly makes the box set’s notes, touted as being a “100 page full color book with many rare photos and memorabilia…[and] two major essays and complete studio sessionography” seem all the more appealing just for their (probably) deeper analysis of Dorsey and Sinatra’s music.

The Greatest Hits CD is more or less the same and has, if anything, even sparser information. Of the six panel booklet, one panel is given to the liner notes by Chick Crumpacker, which give a brief overview of Sinatra and Dorsey’s career together and a short biography of each man. Two more panels have the track list, including the songwriting and recordings date information and the credits for who worked on that particular reissue. The booklet and CD case also advertises other CDs in RCA Victor’s jazz-centric “Greatest Hits” line, which this CD is a part of. This suggests that this particular compilation was primarily aimed a neophytes, who would be drawn to the famous names on the front and the spiffy Al Hirschfield caricature on the cover, rather than more seasoned Sinatra/Dorsey fans.

Both of these CDs are technically out of print, but you can pick up inexpensive copies on Amazon and most other online marketplaces. (In store purchasing will, of course, be more of a crap shoot.) I could recommend The Essential Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as a good in-print alternative to these two CDs, but I don’t think I can REALLY recommend a Sinatra/Dorsey CD that doesn’t have “Let’s Get Away From It All” on it. And, of course, the true die-hard can track down the out-of-print, but still fairly easy to find This Song Is You box set, which does away with the whole track list problem by just including everything. If you like this style of music and can find it for a nice price, I’d almost recommend going that route. (Buyer beware, though: This Song Is You came out when cassette tapes were still regularly sold and plenty of the cheaper copies floating around are of the cassette version. If format like that is the kind of thing that’s important to you, be wary if you decide to buy.) But again, unless you know of some particular favorite from that period, almost any compilation will do. No matter what songs are on it, you’ll still get that smooth, glowing Sinatra/Dorsey combination. And really, isn’t that why you’d buy one of these albums anyways?

I find it interesting/telling that that 2-disc Essential set only has a little over half of the songs that appear on I’ll Be Seeing You and Greatest Hits combined. That’s often the trick with these older, pre-33 & 1/3 album acts: their songs, while not always completely interchangeable, were often pretty samey. It’s sometimes more important that Sinatra, Dorsey, & Co. are performing A slow, romantic ballad rather than a PARTICULAR slow, romantic ballad. It also shows, in a certain respect, how little the specific track listings of CDs focusing on this era of Sinatra’s career matter. Each one only bothers to include one of the two biggest hits of Sinatra had with the band (“I’ll Never Smile Again” on Greatest Hits, “There Are Such Things” on I’ll Be Seeing You) and the success that a song had in the 1940s seems to have had little impact on whether or not it would be selected for a CD track list.[1] This is exacerbated by the fact that, well, this isn’t really a well-remembered period of Sinatra’s career in the first place. Unless you were listening to it as it came out in the early 1940s or are a real fan of Sinatra and/or Dorsey and/or big band music in general, you probably don’t have any strong feelings on a specific song that appears on any of these CDs. There aren’t any songs from this period that everyone would expect to be on it, no early ‘40s equivalent of “My Way.” However, don’t let that deter you from seeking out this music. It’s well worth listening too, even if Sinatra and Dorsey are better at capturing a certain kind of style than crafting a specific pop song that only they could have come up with.

(Fun fact: some of this music was mastered from glass parts. Didn’t know you could record sounds to glass. The More You Know!)


[1] Of course, determining what qualified as a hit in American music prior to 1954, when the Billboard charts as we know them first got organized, is a crapshoot at best. Even the best (and, until very recently, only real) source I found, Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories 1890-1954, admits that its findings were cobbled together from a variety of sources and involved a certain amount of guess work and approximation to make any of the information useful.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Iconblivious: Frank Sinatra - An Introduction

Blues eyes, blue background. Makes sense.

Frank Sinatra. The Voice. Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. Plus, I imagine, a whole other host of nicknames that haven’t survived the years or, at the very least, aren’t very flattering. Easily one of the most successful and famous of the pre-rock pop singers, Frank Sinatra certainly qualifies as an icon even if you’ve never heard a single note that he sung in his almost sixty year long career. He managed to evolve with the times, going from being a teen idol in the 1930s and 1940s, to a more mature and sophisticated singer in the 1950s and onward.

Or, at least, so Wikipedia tells me.

Admittedly, my own knowledge of Sinatra, especially before I embarked on this project, was limited and basically amounted to the follow:
  • Sinatra was a famous old pop singer and died before I was especially interested in music.
  • He sang “My Way”, “It Was A Very Good Year,” a cover of The Beatles’ “Something,” “New York, New York”, a nice version of “The Christmas Song,” and “Blue Moon” (Which I only know because they play it on the radio in Fallout: New Vegas)
  • Took on some acting roles, which he was apparently pretty good at it.
  • Made a bunch of famous concept albums in the 1950s.
  • Helped kick off the whole “older artist does duets of iffy-quality with other, sometimes younger artists” trend.
  • Allegedly had ties to the mob at one point.
So, yeah, certainly famous by most cultural standards, but for someone my age, there’s a good chance that he’s less known for anything in particular and more just for being a famous, beloved American icon. Neither of my parents are Sinatra fans themselves, so I never heard it around the house, and the number of venues for hearing Sinatra’s particular brand of pop music in public was pretty limited come the 1990s/2000s/2010s. You don’t hear a lot of Sinatra on the radio these days and, outside of certain special occasions, you might, at best, run into his music because it was used in movie or because someone you know likes it. Not the best kind of exposure for an act that everyone “knows about” but which a lot of people don’t listen to regularly.

So, to get a better idea of what Sinatra’s music is actually like, I did a little research, picked out a few one-CD compilations, and at least tried to get a sense of how it evolved during his career. A lot of this amounted to comparing how many songs were on a specific CD and what whoever reviewed a given album on allmusic.com thought about it, but I think I managed to get a selection that would at least be informative, if not necessarily the best of all possible choices.

Broadly speaking, there are 4 distinct eras of Sinatra’s career: singing with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra for RCA from 1940-1942/43, his first major solo recordings for Columbia from 1943-1952, his Capital albums from 1953-1961, and his Reprise albums of 1961-1981. There are other recordings outside this, like his short tenure singing with Harry James’ Orchestra, an album down with Quincy Jones in the mid-1980s and, of course, the duet albums his did near the end of his career, but I won’t discuss these smaller pockets of material unless a compilation uses any of there material.

And now, it’s time to give these CDs a listen and see what, in fact, all the hubbub is about.

Next Time: Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra on RCA

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Iconblivious: What's It All About?

One of the great things about the modern age is that it's easier than ever to explore the art and entertainment of the past. Yes, YOU TOO can explore all those cool movies and books and especially music from the past that everybody went wild over then and still talk about to this day.

Of course, this is all nice and fine when it's for, say, a self contained piece of media, like a film or a short story, where if you want to find why its so revered you can just, you know, go read/watch/whatever it. Music, however, can present a little more of a problem.

Say there's a singer or a composer or something. And they're REALLY famous. Even people who don't care about the genre they preform in know who they are. However, for a lot people, they're just famous for being a famous person. They revered because of course they're revered, they're really talented and stuff. Which is fine, but it usually works better if you have some familiarity with their work. If the only reason you know someone is supposed to be good is because they keep popping up on "Best of All Time" lists, but you've gone most of your life hearing maybe a couple songs by them, then it loses some of its impact. And even if you want to correct that, who the hell do you go about doing it? Sure, you might get lucky and try to do it with someone who had a very short career, but most of people who achieve this kind of fame record for year and years. Decades, even. More material than most neophytes would want to bother with, just due to the shear volume of it all.

However, the neophyte does have one thing that can help: compilations. You know, "Greatest Hits" CDs and their ilk. But even then, how do you know if the CD you're getting is even any good, especially when there can be different CDs that cover the same period and ones from different companies with the same title but they have not material in common and why aren't half of these in print any more and oh god its like being stuck in a hedge maze

Point being, even that can get confusing, especially if you're knowledge of said performer is "They're Famous" and not a lot beyond that.

Which is where this series comes in. Iconblivious: where I look at short CD compilations of singers who I know about, but aren't familiar with their material, and see what there deal is. How do they measure up to what little I know about them? What surprises do I find? Are the liner notes any good or do they show that it's just some budget-line release with a famous name on it? And other topics. Compilations are limited to single CD releases, though some 2-CD ones may sneak in from time to time, depending on the circumstances. For now, I'll focus on the kind of material I personally don't know about, i.e. pop and jazz vocalists who's prime started before the 1960s, but that's not set in stone.

Will I find new music that I've been missing out on or will I deiced that these people appear to be famous for being famous for a reason? Only time will tell.

(Special thanks to Mike Anderson for coming up with the title.)