Dramatic License

A weblog of thoughts, inspirations, experiences of, in and about live theatre, film, television, literature and other media.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Review - CMT Crossroads: Sugarland/Bon Jovi

It is not apparent from the reviews posted here that I have not always been a Country music fan. In fact, with the exception of pop crossover songs by Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Lonestar and the ubiquitous trailer trash wedding standards "Friends in Low Places" and "Achy Breaky Heart," I did not even listen to Country music from 1980 to 2005. I listened to everything but Country music. I started with Billy Joel and Dan Fogelberg then moved to AC/DC and Pink Floyd in high school. I had a three or four year affair with Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge after college. From 2000 to 2005 I listened to nothing but Contemporary Christian music. I have always listened to classical music while writing. But I would not even think of listening to Country music.

I grew up in a time when music was highly genrefied. As high school students in the 80s we were expected to listen to a narrow range of music that defined our particular group to which we belonged in our schools. As I matured, I realized that this was an absurd notion. As I discovered in college, it is possible to appreciate a wide range of musical styles, yet I still resisted Country music for 25 years. The whole Garth Brooks era completely passed me by, so when I hear a Garth Brooks song now, it’s probably for the first time.

In America, we like to have things specifically delineated for us. Not so in other countries. Peter Furler, lead singer of Christian rockers Newsboys, said in an interview once that where he is from, Australia, there are no distinctions between this kind of music or that kind of music. There is just music. And that is how it should be. Yet I still resisted listening to Country music.

Then I discovered CMT - Crossroads. One night in late 2004 while surfing the cable channels I ran across Pat Benatar on CMT singing what sounded like a Country song. I vaguely remembered her putting out a somewhat Country-styled song shortly after 9/11, but this song she was singing did not sound like that one. I decided to watch the rest of the program. Pat Benatar, after all, was a favorite of mine from high school. It turned out that she was performing on Crossroads with Martina McBride and that was Martina’s song, "Independence Day" that she was singing. I was floored later in the show when Martina sang "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." I was soon hooked and began listening to Country music within days.

I like Crossroads. But, there are good Crossroads episodes and there are bad Crossroads episodes. The best episodes are the ones where the pop/rock artists and the country artists are equally familiar with each other’s music. The worst episodes are the ones where one or the other is totally unfamiliar with the music of the artist they are performing with.

The Keith Urban/John Fogarty Crossroads was a bad episode. Keith knew John’s music inside and out. He even played John’s music better than John. John, it was clear, had no clue what Keith Urban was all about and it showed in the performance. The Martina McBride/Pat Benatar Crossroads was a good episode. Martina was thoroughly familiar with Pat’s music. She was once the lead singer of a rock band that covered Pat Benatar tunes. Pat was probably not as familiar with Martina’s music as Martina was with hers, but it was clear that she and husband, Neil Geraldo, did their homework before going onstage. They are clearly consummate professionals and it showed in their performance.

The Sugarland/Bon Jovi Crossroads was another good episode. It was clear that each band knew the other band’s catalog very well and appreciated each other’s musical styles. Admittedly, Jon and the gang only had one CD to familiarize themselves with, but they obviously took the time to do their homework before taping the episode.

I had been trying to catch this episode since it first aired in October, but was unsuccessful due to job and production schedules. The other night, I finally caught the last half hour of the episode. I glued myself to the set to watch two of my favorites performing together.

I tuned in during the middle of "Wanted: Dead Or Alive," a country-styled rock song if ever there was one. Jennifer Nettles has an incredible rock-edged twangy voice that blends beautifully with Jon’s gritty Jersey rock voice. The harmonies and traded lines were amazing: raw, emotional, and expressive. I was particularly pleased to hear Sugarland’s fiddler playing the guitar solo in Richie Sambora’s stead.
This was followed up by a very passionate duet rendition of "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" in which Jennifer and Jon shared a stage moment that could only be described as the musical concert equivalent of an orgasm. Either Jon Bon Jovi is really THAT good an actor, or he was really into Jennifer as he sang to her. Sambora masterfully took over the solo duties from the steel guitarist. After the song, Jon joked that Kristin Hall had jokingly called the Jennifer - Jon pair "Jonnifer" which is appropriate for these two vocally and emotionally matched lead singers.

There were only two songs left in the show by this time, but they were well worth waiting for. "Have A Nice Day" was beautifully rendered as a country rock anthem with the "folkie" Sugarland musicians rocking just as hard as the former "hair" band. I especially loved the "heavy metal mandolinist," Kristian Bush, trading licks with Sambora. He proved that it’s not the size of the instrument that counts, but the music in it. Defiantly holding up the Bon Jovi tour angry menacing Kool Aid logo in his best heavy metal pose was the best finishing touch possible.

This, unfortunately, was where Jennifer showed her inexperience. Unlike the smooth, polished subtle acting performance of Jon earlier in the show, Jennifer was way over the top in her expressions on this number. I have noticed this in her videos and other live performances on other programs. Jennifer is a fabulously beautiful woman with a great voice, but she needs to learn how to smooth out her physical performance. She is too wide-eyed and overly passionate at times. She gave the lead singer equivalent of a "chewing the scenery" performance on "Have A Nice Day." With audiences of 20,000 at a vast distance, this might work, but with the close-up magnification of the camera, it is way too much.

The show ended with a live version of the duet, "Who Says You Can’t Go Home?" Spent and sweating, Jennifer and Jon offered up a gift of a song for the hometown fans, the recent video for which celebrates the efforts of Habitat for Humanity. What a great way to end a great high-energy show.

CMT needs to continue producing high-quality Crossroads episodes such as this one and needs to keep a close eye on how professionally the performers work toward understanding each other’s music while preparing the production. CMT should never let any of the performers, rockers or country musicians, sandbag and phone in a performance. Attention to this kind of detail will yield a continually satisfying product such as this episode.

**** out *****

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Review - Jasper County by Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is back on the market, well the music market, that is. And I say, welcome back, Trisha Yearwood. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s been well worth the wait. Jasper County is a great addition to both Trisha’s repertoire and the world’s music collection as a whole.

There’s little wonder why this woman captivates Garth Brooks. She is the epitome of the real girl-next-door that every country boy ever fell in love with. I could see myself having been a classmate of hers and getting together with her today for a cup of coffee and conversation. But it is her exceptional voice that makes her who she is today. Jasper County is a great showcase for that voice.

From start to finish, this CD balances great up-tempo rockabilly, with blues and power ballads that stick with the listener long after removing the CD from the player. It never gets bogged down in slow motion.

“Who Invented The Wheel” opens the CD and touches deeply and passionately on signature themes in country music. It’s a song about loss and longing and the desire to blame external factors for our unhappiness. Recorded as a blues melody, it is a perfect opener for the CD and one of the best on it.

Despite its unusual second line to set up a forced rhyme, “Pistol” is a great rockabilly song about falling in love with the wrong kind of man. Doing what a good country song should do, “Pistol” attacks a social issue with wit and humor.

“Trying To Love You” is the first of the two pop ballads that have already made a splash on country radio, the other being “Georgia Rain.” Both are marked by soulful and passionate lyrics over memorable melodies with strong lyrical and melodic hooks. While “Trying To Love You” can and possibly will be covered by many other artists, “Georgia Rain” is as personal to Yearwood as “Mississippi Girl” is to Faith Hill or “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is to Loretta Lynn. It is not likely to be covered by anyone else soon.

“Trying To Love You” explores the depths to which we will go to love someone. “Rain” is a great reminiscence of youth gone by done without any of the maudlin wishing to return to the old days. Both are capable of pop crossover success and offer a brief respite for the listener to catch a breath between rock and blues songs.

“Standing Out in a Crowd” is one of the better songs about difference written and recorded in recent years. Personal and not preachy, “Standing” makes its point without making accusations. In order to become one of the crowd, we must embrace our difference and enjoy our standout qualities.

Perhaps my favorite song on this CD is “Sweet Love.” This one is what sexy is all about. It is suggestive and provocative without being blatant. This is a hot song about a hot relationship. I love the arrangement and the sultry style on this one. It puts me in the mood. I love that Trisha invokes both Carly Simon with the line “Anticipation got me waitin’” and Dr. Hook with the ad lib spoken line, “You can leave your hat on, baby.” This is that kind of hot, sexy, sultry, steamy bayou song.

Garth Brooks lends vocal talents to the harmonies on “Georgia Rain,” but not to be overlooked is Ronnie Dunn’s distinctive voice on “Try Me.” This would have been a good song about sticking with it despite doubt without Dunn’s vocals, but with them it is a great musical piece. Not only lyrically and musically sound, but passionate and pleading because of the blending of these two rich soulful voices.

Not to be overlooked are the little traditional country gems “River of You” and “Baby Don’t You Let Go.” Both put one in the mind of sitting on the front porch on a Saturday night with the family singers playing and singing sad and fun songs while the kids dance barefoot in the front yard. Then there’s the pop-styled “Gimme The Good Stuff,” which positions Trisha to compete with Martina McBride for the title of “The Voice.”

Unlike so many CDs today that close with a thoughtful ballad, Yearwood closes this one with a fun rocking honky-tonk song, “It’s Alright,” which leaves the listener wanting to hear more. After listening to this one, I’m ready for my CD player to start all over again with “Who Invented The Wheel.”

After four years away from releasing new music, I’m surprised that there are only eleven songs on this CD. However, these are eleven solid songs. Too often artists put out fifteen or more songs on a CD with only five worthy of being played over and over. The introduction of the CD made me long for the days when artists put out an album with only nine or ten songs. All of those songs needed to be the best they possibly could be, so artists only put their best efforts on an album. Jasper County harks back to the old days of only releasing the best music possible on a concentrated collection and is well worth the brief time it takes to listen to.

Since originally writing this review, Trisha and Garth have recorded a duet, "Love Will Always Win," that will appear on both Garth’s CD of previously unreleased material and the re-release of Jasper County. I heard it twice today driving home from work from both my first and second jobs. I’m sad to report that it is not up to the same quality as the rest of the material on Jasper County. It is sappy and uninteresting. However, it will become a country wedding standard for decades to come.

**** out of ***** (for the original release) ***1/2 out of ***** (for the re-release)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review - Cheaper by the Dozen 2

My wife and daughter insisted on going to see Cheaper by the Dozen 2, so I consented. I expected to see a watered-down attempt at milking a franchise from a very successful first movie. I expected to be bored and not laugh at all. I was surprised. What I saw was a very funny, fast-paced and enjoyable, albeit somewhat predictable movie that is one of the better sequels I’ve seen in years.

In Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Tom Baker (Steve Martin) takes his family back to the old vacation spot only to find it a bit worse for wear (all right, it’s downright decrepit) in the face of outrageous competition from the new upscale resort built by his archrival and childhood nemesis, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy). However, Tom is determined to make this vacation as memorable as all the rest in year’s past.

The meeting between Baker and Murtaugh after more than four years triggers the old rivalry and Tom begins to feel like he is losing his children to the lure of all the neat stuff that Murtaugh is able to supply to his own brood of eight children. Against everyone’s wishes, Tom accepts Jimmy’s challenge to compete in the Labor Day challenge.

We begin with the graduation ceremony for Lorraine Baker, played by a far-too-thin Hillary Duff who looks more like her far-too-thin older sister Haylie than the cute, young Lizzy McGuire everyone fell in love with so many years ago, and Kate’s voiceover about letting one of the brood fly from the nest. From there we are off on a Baker adventure which includes trucking a very pregnant Nora (Piper Perabo) and her husband, Bud (Jonathan Bennett) with the cell phone surgically attached to his ear, off to the heart of cheese country, cramming Lorraine’s bed into her pup tent, a fireworks display at Murtaugh’s club, a re-hash of the dog and meat incident from the first movie, romantic hookups between Jessica Baker (Liliana Mumy) and Eliot Murtaugh (Taylor Lautner) and Charlie Baker (Tom Welling) and Anne Murtaugh (Jaime “James” King), and a fierce summer camp competition that ends in a frenzied race to the hospital to deliver the newest Baker family addition.

Despite the re-hash of the dog and meat incident, which is instigated by Tom and backfires on him incidentally, this movie is refreshingly free of the usual regurgitation of tired old jokes that many sequels glean from their originals. In fact, this is a very strong story about two families trying to come to terms with their patriarchs’ control needs. Murtaugh is an uber-control freak who pushes his children to excel beyond their means and despite thinking he has them under control is slowly losing that control over them. Baker, on the other hand, is a firm, loving but somewhat laissez faire father who feels he is losing his family, but in reality has very strong ties to them all.

Mixed in with the usual slapstick comedy of a Steve Martin vehicle are some great sight gags and one-liners delivered expertly by Second City alum Bonnie Hunt. After being doused with a pitcher of orange juice, Kate (Hunt) quips, “It’s just like Spring Break. I hope I win the contest” and upon seeing an exhausted Tom (Martin) sprawled out on the bed in full water skiing gear she turns to leave the room saying, “Ooh, let me put on a little perfume.” Lines that are professional enough to have been scripted, yet spontaneous enough to have been improvised on the spot. And Ms. Hunt still looks fabulous in a low cut “Hot Mama” shirt made for the likes of Carmen Electra.

Carmen Electra’s Sarina Murtaugh, Jimmy’s trophy wife, is the voice of reason in this movie. She admits to Kate that she has no idea how to manage such a big family and laments to her that Jimmy is pushing the children beyond their limits. Despite early impressions in the movie that she is nothing more than the bubble headed ex-actress who married the downright ugly Murtaugh for his money, she reveals herself to be a caring woman who only has the best interests of the whole family in mind, telling him that he had better change his ways if he doesn’t “want to start looking for wife number four.”

As soon as Tom accepts Jimmy’s challenge, unfortunately, the movie becomes predictable. We instantly know that Tom is going to go overboard in training for the event. We know that the Baker children are going to rebel and appear to let him down. We know as soon as Charlie and Anne meet in the forest that she is eventually going to drop a bombshell on her father. We know that despite their initial rejection, the Bakers are going to come through for Tom. We know that as soon as Nora’s water breaks in the canoe, Tom is going to abandon all competition for the sake of his family. Predictable, but reassuring. This is the way family life is supposed to be. How nice.

I was pleased to see a fairly fresh approach taken to the continuation of the Baker family saga that did not rely on reusing gags from the first movie, but was disappointed that there were so many predictable events along the way that were not cleverly enough revealed throughout. I was very pleased to see the story revolve around different children in the family than those focused on in the first movie. This one gives Liliana Mumy room to show what she can do. Maybe we can get the whole Mumy family together for another Lost In Space adventure.

I had fun and enjoyed myself on a lazy holiday afternoon following the New Year and recommend this as a great matinee movie. It is a genuine holiday confection.

***1/2 out of *****