Saturday, November 12, 2005

Kelly Clarkson - Because of You (2005)

* (of four)

First season "American Idol" champ Kelly Clarkson's new power ballad is a serious made-for-Lifetime estrogen fest. Scarred as a little girl - what, like eight years ago? - by witnessing her mom's romantic anguish and abuse, the song's protagonist has grown up to be a shell of a woman. ("I watched you die / I heard you cry every night in your sleep / I was so young / You should have known better than to lean on me.") She's so messed up she's picking godawful songs to record and release as singles. Domestic abuse sure is a bitch.

And, obviously, we're not treated to a video so tongue-in-cheek self-referential as to cast mean "Idol" judge Simon Cowell as the flashback daddy. No, this is transparent, heavy-handed shit, and it's totally meant to be taken seriously. Clarkson is in a fight with her boyfriend, who takes a framed portrait of the two of them and rears back to hit her with it. But the moment freeze-frames, and Clarkson steps back from the situation, literally - she spends the rest of the verse backing up while singing into the camera, which moves along with her. Clever, director Vadim Perelman, clever.

Clarkson eventually ends up side by side with her childhood counterpart while watching Mom pop pills and act depressed and watching Dad pack his suitcase and back the car out of the driveway For Good. There's even a cliche-drama moment where Dad flips over the coffee table during an argument and storms upstairs with Mom running after him. The song builds to a cacaphonous climax (it surprises me not to learn "Because of You" was written by former band members of Evanescence) while a second-unit Clarkson emotes from a black soundstage. Oh, the delicious fucking anguish.

Alan Jackson - The Talkin' Song Repair Blues (2004)

*** (of four)

Traditionally, I've never given two shits about country music. In fact, the only country videos I think I've ever reviewed are VH1 crossovers from Shania Twain and Faith Hill. If not for my friend Jason - a musician, songwriter and singer who has vast knowledge of all types of music and is currently traveling to Nashville every few weeks with his guitar-playing partner in attempts to break into country music. So far, Jason and Joe have played showcases and met with executives and song lobbyists. Jason's retellings of these meetings and the Nashville country culture closely resembles Jackson's "Talkin' Song Repair Blues."

Nashville people will listen to your demos and issue you instructions for lyric revisions based on the quality of the writing, the politics of country radio and the overall code of ethics for country music. Which is an opposite checklist for that of hip-hop lyrics - no demeaning women, no badmouthing America and no goldurn cussing.

Jackson focuses more on the lyrical-quality side of the standard Nashville critique to aspiring songwriters. In the song, a country artist's car breaks down, and he's told a bunch of mumbo jumbo by the mechanic - who then reveals himself to be a wannabe country songwriter himself and comes to Alan for advice.

Some of the funnier lyrics, to be appreciated by prose and lyric writers alike: "I know you've been using a cut-rate thesaurus / 'Cause your adverbs have backed up into your chorus / Now your verse is runnin' on verbs that are way too weak." It's a tad bit cutesy, Jackson's copping and reworking of condescending car mechanic speak, but as a song gimmick, it works straight through to the end. The whole thing is an inside joke but not too inside.

Jackson spends the video lip synching outdoors in a mustard-colored suit coat and white straw cowboy hat, while Anthony Clark and Mike O'Malley (both of the sitcom "Yes, Dear") act out and mouth the lyrics as the musician and the mechanic. For two sitcom stars, though, the video's a tad bit subdued - nothing too zany or wacky here. There's no straying from the task at hand, which is to bring the clever-ass lyrics of the song to the forefront.

The more I give country a chance, the more I appreciate the intelligent, tongue-in-cheek gems that dwarf the heavy-handed, apple-pie, flag-waving shit we usually get from Nashville. And it fucking kills me to admit it.

Wreckx-N-Effect - Rump Shaker

*1/2 (of four)

Wreckx-N-Effect was the brain child of R+B producer Teddy Riley, who apparently poured his heart and soul into this pinnacle of one-hit wonderhood. I was an idiot and bought the entire album - paid like four bucks for a used copy, but still, it's a definite one-hit wonder CD. One guess what song is Track One.

"Rump Shaker" came on the heels of "Baby Got Back," but where Sir Mix-a-Lot's video was knowingly campy, Wreckx-N-Effect tries to look their thuggiest while rapping from a beach during Black Spring Break. One of them is wearing black spandex shorts, while another sports the R. Kelly bandana/sunglasses and a third has donned a purple wetsuit.

But the girls - the rump shakers themselves - steal the camera's attention. My favorite is the one in the orange bikini who's standing ankle deep in the ocean, pretending to play the song's synth loop on the saxophone. There are at least two closeups of the orange-bikini slowly mouthing the lip of the sax. And there are dozens of other anonymous dancers whose entire essences are summed up by closeups of their asses shaking or their titties jiggling or, in one particularly amusing slo-mo shot, a bucket of water sloshing across their flat bellies.

This song's kind of fun when you're fifteen and the lyric, "Since you got the body of the year, come and get the reward / Here's a hint: It's like a long, sharp sword," still makes you giggle. But it doesn't wear particularly well, and I have a feeling Teddy Riley himself doesn't claim it as one of his babies anymore. Like a long, sharp sword indeed.

Mazzy Star - Fade Into You

*** (of four)

I have a friend named Emma whose number-one preset on her car stereo is the Michael Bolton station. Which spits out all the adult-contemporary classics - and about fifteen way-too-heavily rotated current chart-sitters - you love from Gloria Estefan, Kenny G, Richard Marx and Queen Of Bitches Celine Dion.

Celine, by the way, sings an obnoxious newer ballad called "Have You Ever Been In Love" that Emma enjoys without irony. ("What's wrong with the lyrics? 'Have you ever been in love'? That's a legitimate question. I like it. The words are good.")

So I burn and stash CDs all over Emma's car with the music I know we can both agree on, and a prime example is the haunting 1994 stoner-rock track "Fade Into You" from Mazzy Star. Who proceeded to sink without a trace.

Too bad, too. I loved the groove of this song - Portishead meets grunge-pop - and always longed to hear more from Mazzy. But somehow in the eleven years since its release, I've never spotted a copy of So Tonight That I May See in a used-CD shop for cheap. Maybe it's just that good. Or maybe it just didn't sell any fucking copies.

Either way, I have the Kevin Kerslake video for "Fade Into You" on precious VHS and can visit it any time I want. Keeping with the heavy-lidded, molasses-slow feel of this ethereal ditty, Kerslake's shots are all in slow motion, colors washed out in blues and reds and lots of browns.

Mazzy Star - girl singer and beatnik guy band - are out in the dessert, rolling down an abandoned highway and occasionally stopping so the guitar player can sit on the roof of the car and strum aimlessly. There's also night performance footage in the desert and plenty of shots of the singer standing alone, staring out into nothing and just generally acting like a lost puppy. It's all sooooo trippy, man. Sooooo trippy.

Notorious B.I.G. - Warning

*** (of four)

My favorite Biggie song of all time - well, all three albums - is this tale of a hustler being woken up ("Who the fuck is this / Pagin' me at 5:46 / In the morning / Crack'a dawnin' / Now I'm yawnin' / Wipe the cold out my eye / See who's this pagin' me and why") to be told by a friend that some dudes the hustler used to party with have found out he's rich and are coming to get him. To stick him for his paper.

The song of course ends with Biggie bragging about his arsenal of weaponry and fleet of Rottweilers ("And I feed 'em gunpowder / So they can devour / The criminals / Try'na drop my decimels"). The guys try to break in, and each spots a red dot on the other's forehead just before Biggie pulls the trigger.

The end part is left out of the PG-rated, MTV-ready video, though, you can be sure. In fact, Biggie re-recorded the vocals with friendlier euphimisms for murder, racial slurs and drugs, but a dozen or so words - and an entire sentence - still doesn't make the cut. (Among them: "Windpipe.") The new chorus, "Why they wanna stick me for my paper," rings particularly awkward.

The Hype Williams video, too, is disappointing. Oh, it's opulent and letterboxed and blinged to the gills, but it's a literal visual depiction of the song. Which means, we see Biggie waking up - yes, shirtless, and bookended by a pair of hot females - to take a phone call, while Puffy delivers the news from his hot tub while swinging around an open bottle of Cristal. Then Biggie processes this info and issues his response while - as the video progresses - sitting in his dry sauna, eating a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch*, brushing his teeth and hunching behind his office desk while Puffy's on the other end of the phone, driving around the city with his top down.

The "red dot on your forehead" sequence, which served as closure to the song, is gone, and in the PG world of MTV, there's not much Hype can do to dress up what essentially is the same old rap shit - emphasis on property, gambling, drinking, hot women. And you see a lot of Biggie boob and gut. Which doesn't help.

What could have been an avant garde, Pulp Fiction-esque bringing to life of some sparkling hip-hop prose and storytelling ("There's gonna be a lotta slow singin' and flower bringin' if my burglar alarm starts ringin'") is a standard big-budget video with no conclusion. Still better than most of the shit around, though, so it gets the three-star rating.

* = Logo blurred by MTV, of course. You know, it's odd to learn at the age of 27 that Notorious B.I.G.'s favorite breakfast cereal is my favorite childhood breakfast cereal, although unlike me, he probably didn't spend the rest of the day whining about how the tan-colored balls of sugar and starch cut the shit out of the roof of his mouth.

J.D. and Jay-Z - Money Ain't a Thang

*** (of four)

Allow me to confess two reasons I'm a huge geek. First, and most obviously, I like this pompous, softball song and video. Second, and more incriminatingly, I just went into my roommate's bedroom - waking up his girlfriend in the process - to snatch his iPod so I could synch up my EP-mode VHS copy of the "Money Ain't a Thang" video with the uncut album track of the song so I could hear it in crystal-clear CD quality without any MTV content censorship. Even more incriminatingly pathetic, it's midnight on a Friday and I'm sitting in my bed with my 2001 Fujitsu on my lap and a naked, 25-watt stained-glass novelty bulb illuminating my room. Keep in mind I am a 27-year-old college graduate.

The concept of the video? These fuckers have money to burn, money to toss out their goddamn car windows. It was an audacious concept during the boom of the Clinton economy, and it's even more audacious statement in the mid-zero-zeros, when thousands of our fellow countrymen are homeless due to natural disasters. And, instead of volunteering in the soup kitchen and donating old clothes to the less-fortunate*, Jay-Z's dumping a gym bag full of hundred-dollar bills on the hood of Jermaine Dupri's Ferrari and offering the ladies "ice" to chill down their martinis. The "ice" is a handful of uncut diamonds Jay-Z drops into the girl's drink and, while impressive, it should be noted that the "ice" does not lower the temperature of the martini one degree.

J.D. has been a multiplatinum producer since the age of 17, so he does indeed have money to burn and toss out windows. In the video's intro - when he's lounging around the pool with Jay-Z and just kind of muses, "You know what? I think I'm gonna direct my next video, even though my ideas are stupid" - you get the feeling it's not much of a fictionalization. And, yeah, in case you're wondering, Dupri's ideas are pretty stupid. But, for some overindulgent reason I can't quite put my finger on, the whole experience is a humongous guilty pleasure.

In a vain effort to prove he's some kind of blueblood, Dupri spends an entire verse racing a high-class lady on a galloping horse out at a rustic country club somewhere. Then Jay-Z and Dupri race each other in convertibles on a two-lane country road while waving stacks of money around. This showboating attracts the attention of a redneck Rosco, whose cruiser can't quite catch up to the pair of rappers. I don't want to give away any exciting surprises, but by the video's end, dozens of bales of hay are destroyed and Rosco is mighty frustrated. ("Tarnation!" screams the flustered Sheriff Coltrane.)

All the while, director Darren Grant cuts to shots of J.D. and Jay-Z rapping in front of a palatial plantation and, true to the 1998 hip-hop scene, rapping in front of three rows of identically dressed fly girls dancing in a too-bright room with washed-out colors. Ridiculous, overblown and supremely watchable.

* = Which would make for one goddamned exciting hip-hop video, to be sure.

Read my original 1998 review of "Money Ain't a Thang" by clicking here and scrolling down to #58.

Jay-Z - Hard Knock Life

**1/2 (of four)

This is a supreme example of how a song and video you despise the first few hundred times you hear/see it can eventually win you over and earn the right to be played voluntarily and even purchased. Yes, after a string of Jay-Z bashing in my video reviews that lasted years, I finally broke down and purchased an $8.99 used CD copy of Volume 2: Hard Knock Life a year and a half ago at a store called Slackers. I'm not sure if it was a sudden realization, but I wore down. I had to admit I was wrong about Jay-Z not being talented and individual. And I'm sure my ex post facto approval of him helps the Jiggaman sleep better at night, so it's a win-win situation.

I think my big issue with "Hard Knock Life" was the fact that a self-proclaimed thug was sampling a main theme from one of the honkiest musicals of all time, Annie. Really, okay, I'm sure anyone of any race who grows up in poverty and despair can identify with the curly red-headed orphan and fantasize about having their own Daddy Warbucks or Phillip Drummond or George Papadapolous. But do I really need to see a perky nine-year-old girl with her hand on her hip sashaying down a ghetto street while lip synching to the decades-old kid's choir rendering of "It's a Hard Knock Life"? It undermines a touch of credibility and is just, really, when it comes down to it, rather gay.

But Jay-Z isn't in pimp mode here and he isn't in badass mode. He's in humble, respect-your-roots mode. I could go out to the living room and connect my computer to the Internet and do a little research and see if Jay-Z actually went back to his old neighborhood to shoot the "Hard Knock Life" video, but... um... I'm a lazy bastard. So let's just say the fictional Jay-Z character in the video is going back to visit his fictional childhood spots and leave it at that.

This Steven Carr effort is really just a collection of neighborhood shots with lots of real extras, either looking sexy and confident or defeated and weathered - no in-betweens here. And what starts as a hotass Mya doppelganger walking down the sidewalk lip synching to the kid's choir turns into a series of perky children of both genders. (Hey, Steven Carr, give me Mya back!) If it is a fictional Jay-Z in a fictional neighorhood, it takes away from the effect some, but either way it rings genuine and actually kinda folksy for someone who's sold his glamour image so freakin' hard for so long.

Curious to read my original, zero-star review of the "Hard Knock Life" video? Click here and scan down to #22 on the countdown.

Mark Wills - Back at One

** (of four)

God, this was the big trend for awhile, wasn't it? Country artists doing covers of R+B songs. That was all music needed - a twangy version of Tony Rich Project's "Nobody Knows," or, worse, John Michael Montgomery's nod to All-4-One with "I Swear." Add to the list this late-1999 version of Bryan McKnight's "Back at One," released to country radio while the original was still #2 on the charts.

I like McKnight and all - I think "Anytime" is one of the best slow jams of the '90s - but "Back at One" does not represent his finest work. The chorus reads like a bad episode of "Sesame Street," with its one-two-three nursery rhyme chorus structure and horrible, horrible lyric, "Four: Repeat steps one through three." But somehow the whiny histrionics of McKnight's original, the bridge in particular, translates unexpectedly well to the country medium. I'm sober and wide awake, and I think this version is better than the original.

The video's an exercise in stodgy mediocrity, though. Wills spends the duration of the video in a series of snazzy suits while lip synching from a big, empty house. The director even duplicates the Mariah Carey "Vision of Love" video by placing Wills in front of a big square window with a fake sunset passing by in the background. Oh, and he rides a doorless elevator which lists off the numbers of the floors as Wills is singing "One... two... three... four..."