Monthly Archives: February 2015

Earworm of the day — Lately by The Helio Sequence

Nothing profound to say and no big write up but this 2008 tune from The Helio Sequence has been buzzing around inside my head and cropping up a lot on Pandora… Lately. Maybe it’s all that Portlandia I’ve been watching? Or maybe it’s just because these two guys are such talented and stalwart survivors of Indie rock — and the ever-mutating Portland scene in particular — that they deserve to be heard and heard often. This is an ideal gateway song for a band that rewards further exploration. Listen to it once and you’ll want to hear what else they’ve got.

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Felicity Jones

No, Felicity Jones didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar last Sunday. But anyone who’s seen her remarkably brave and touching performance in The Theory of Everything knows that the lovely young Englishwoman’s future is nevertheless guaranteed to be golden. Ms. Jones’ Jane Wilde Hawking opposite Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing, Academy Award-winning portrayal as her physically impaired astrophysicist husband, Stephen Hawking, gives the film its soul and its heart. Her work is subtle and never mawkish but still communicates a woman pushed to the very limit by her belief in selfless love, her sense of guilt and honor and the slow motion tragedy of taking care of a husband with incurable neuromuscular disease. By turns strong and shattered, the actress achieves that rare thing in film acting: a fully realized human being with whom anyone with half a heart can empathize.

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The 31-year-old Birmingham beauty began her career as a teen sorceress-in-training on ITV’s The Worst Witch and after 3 seasons she took time off to attend university. But acting remained her calling and she returned to it a young woman on a mission with an impressive run of supporting roles alongside major league actresses like Emma Thompson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helen Mirren. That steady work with top notch professionals eventually led to her own star turn in 2011’s dizzyingly romantic Like Crazywhere she played a British exchange student abruptly separated from her American lover when her visa expires.

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She was also carried away by love in 2013’s critically acclaimed Breathe In, where Ms. Jones was again an exchange student, this time falling for Guy Pearce’s married music teacher and leading him astray with her vulnerability, musicianship and big blue eyes. That same year she picked up a British Independent Film Award nomination for her very moving work as Charles Dickens’ secret mistress in the ambitious period biography, The Invisible Woman. Directed with a fine, restrained touch by Ralph Fiennes while he simultaneously portrayed Dickens, it was clear that Felicity’s portrayal of Nelly Ternen and her May-September romance with the great author confirmed a major acting talent reaching full maturity. The fact that she had now held her own and then some with Pearce and Fiennes in two consecutive pictures announced to the world that this was a young lady unintimidated and ready for big things.

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And what could be bigger than her breakthrough in The Theory of Everything with its massive success and resultant accolades? Now everyone knows Felicity Jones, not just British film buffs. And with several more films in post-production and a secure spot as one of Hollywood’s new, young A-list actresses this should only be the beginning. Between those eyes, that face and all that talent we’re sure to be looking at Felicity for years to come. Which suits us just fine.


Cars we want — Alfa Romeo 4C

There is something delightfully impractical about Italian sports cars. They seem to sacrifice any pretense of driver and passenger comfort for the overall thrill of intoxicating design and performance. And there is no Italian manufacturer that embodies raw style over practicality more than Alfa Romeo. The debut of the simply named but exotic 4C, their pocket pasta rocket, also coincides with the return of the legendary marque to the American market after a generation’s hiatus. That means it’s time for Alfa enthusiasts to celebrate anew. Sure, its seemingly reasonable under-$60k base price can easily swell to the mid-$70s with options like “radio” and “tires”. Nonetheless, it may be time to reallocate some profits from the ongoing bull market in order to put your assets into the 4C’s form fitting bucket seats.

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An attractively visible reinforced carbon fiber tub is designed to meet U.S. crash test standards but only boosts the imported 4C to a still-featherweight 2500 pounds because of the almost total lack of metal bodywork. The heavily turbo charged engine with an eyebrow-raising 21.8 psi pumping into the tiny 1.7 liter block kicks out 238 horsepower for an impressive 10.4 power to weight ratio. Put another way, this slinky pocket-sized supercar will go 0-60 in 4.3 seconds and can be cranked up to a top speed of 158. Which is bound to feel pretty fast in something only slightly bigger than a Gucci loafer.

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Predictably for an Alfa, the 4C has plusses and minuses galore and it shows a definite split personality in terms of design attributes. With a laudable nod to purists, the car is equipped with a throwback fully manual steering rack that, while a bit of a handful in an urban environment, is sheer driving joy on any kind of twisty open road. It’s like going back in time to the golden age of roadsters. Likewise, the brake set up is super tactile in a less-is-more kind of way, making for almost balletic throttle to brake interplay. And the 4C is also classical in its mid engine layout, leading to exceptional balance and confident rotation through corners, a real driver’s car in terms of agility and unity with the road. And what gearhead wouldn’t love the over the top symphony of Latinate exhaust noises upon throttle application and gear shifts, not to mention the head turning only-from-Italy good looks?

But, as has been mentioned in nearly every review of the car, Alfa’s parent, Fiat Chrysler, has inexplicably declined to offer the 4C with a manual transmission, which borders on a criminal omission.

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Documentary view — Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Of all the legendary, cautionary tales of shoulda’ been contenders in Rock history perhaps none went on to have as profound an influence on future artists as Big Star. After all, the losers, beautiful or otherwise, are supposed to remain in the cut-out bins with a small but dedicated fan base of maybe a couple of hundred stalwart fans proudly fanning whatever flickering flame remains. But the funny thing about Big Star was that the couple hundred stalwarts who kept their flame alive after they never caught on the first time around were mostly rock critics and aspiring rock performers. And what happened in the intervening decades is that the music of Big Star, a truly lost band during the 70s, wound up being disseminated through a thousand music reviews and a thousand demo reels going forward to become something like an archetype, a touchstone for the entire Indie and Alternative Rock scene. It somehow became instant street cred to name check Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, to seek out the original vinyl of the band’s seminal albums back in the days where you couldn’t just hit up iTunes and own it in an instant, to lay down a ragged cover of “Back of a Car” during a gig. But beyond the entrancing complexity and slowly dawning greatness of their ostensible pop music, Big Star was also shrouded in mystery, with a lot of vague tales about record deals gone bad, mental illness and creative self-destruction. Which, of course, only added to their mystique. At long last, 2012’s comprehensive documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, shines a light on the mysteries that beguiled and bedeviled their fans for so many years. It also proves yet again that all that retrospective adulation was well earned, however bittersweet their career trajectory.

Formed in 1971 by Memphis natives Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the original lineup also consisted of drummer Jody Stephens (the only surviving founding member) and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton was already well established, having been a teen sensation as the blue-eyed soul frontman for The Box Tops, a well-produced outfit that clocked several hits including 1967’s classic Billboard #1, “The Letter” (later covered to even more dramatic effect by Joe Cocker). Chris Bell was a local kid dreaming of the Beatles and pop success, as well as an outlet for all the achingly beautiful and earnest compositions swimming around in his head. The result of their intersection was Big Star and their debut album, #1 Record, an unusally accomplished masterpiece with roots in the singer-songwriter ethos of the 60s but leavened with the angular hooks of British invasion power pop and more than a pinch of the Velvet Underground’s sonic subversiveness. Cuts such as “In The Street” (later famously covered by Cheap Trick as the title song for That 70s Show), “Thirteen” and “When my Baby’s Beside Me” spin gold from conventional romantic youth rebellion through the freshness of their composition and the unabashed belief in the power of the 3-minute pop single. As drummer Stephens wryly observes in the documentary, it could be said that by choosing such audaciously cocky names for their band and debut album they were tempting the Rock gods, as well as showing confidence (or hope) in their endeavor. But knowing Chilton’s later oeuvre, the implicit irony of such grandiosity seems entirely intentional.

Despite being universally praised by rock critics and industry mags, 1972’s #1 Record went nowhere fast due to the vagaries of bad timing and worse distribution. Continue reading