Sunday, December 21, 2008

Media Potluck Holiday Feast Volume 1 (2008)

Christmas music is everywhere this time of year. Since the beginning of November, the air has been littered not with the cheerful dust of snowflakes, but a mess of mediocre audio. Certainly classic recordings have their charms, but the classics are over played and mainstream holiday songs are mostly of flimsy facades of holiday cheer over less than inventive songwriting. As a genre, Christmas music is very limited. It takes a lot of creativity to create a truly stand-out holiday song. Throughout the years, many brave and artful souls have undertaken the challenge, either to render the cliches warm and heartfelt again, or simply to turn the whole concept on its head.

I'm pleased to present you with a new holiday tradition: Media Potluck's Holiday Feast, a collection of worthy holiday tunes to make the festivities more merry, bright, and palatable - complete with track-by-track commentary! These tracks are the very best of holiday music; from blatantly Christmas-related, to commentary on the hectic gift-giving season, or simple celebrations of wintertime. Some tracks are more common than others, some are quite eclectic, all of them guaranteed to give you a break from dross of the shopping mall sound system.

Enjoy Media Potluck's Holiday Feast Volume 1 now in podcast format HERE.

Media Potluck's Holiday Feast Volume 1 (2008)

1) Shirley Walker - “Winter Reveries [Excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1]”

A beautiful and mysterious-sounding wintery bit of classical music from the Barry Levinson film, Toys. The film deserves a Media Potluck article all on its own (check back later this month). It's an incredible holiday film that's watchable any time of the year. This song appears in the opening scene of the film and leads into the following track, "The Closing of the Year." Shirley Walker, who serves as conductor on this track, was a frequent collaborator with Danny Elfman and is perhaps most notable as the composer of the entire score for Batman the Animated Series and its spin-offs.

2) The Musical Cast of Toys Featuring Wendy & Lisa - “The Closing of the Year"
Along with John Williams' "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone, "Closing of the Year" is a Christmas song so smartly composed that it gained an existence past the film that spawned it. Though lesser known than the aforementioned track, "Closing of the Year" has since been recorded by opera-types as a holiday tune and occasionally gets airplay on holiday stations. It was written by mega-producer Trevor Horn and score composer Hans Zimmer who jointly crafted Toys' wonderful score and soundtrack. Wendy & Lisa are the musical duo once a part of Prince's Revolution. Since the late 80s they've released their own albums (their fifth came out a year ago) and have written a number of television scores. This version of the song comes from the Toys soundtrack album and blends in from the first track. The extended single is longer and features vocals by Seal. Check out the video of that version HERE.

3) The Smashing Pumpkins - “Christmastime”
The Smashing Pumpkins are an unlikely source for a heart-warming Christmas hit, but they delivered one. This track was released in 1997 for the third installment of the A Very Special Christmas compilation series. Whereas major artists such as Paul McCartney and Elton John made new holiday hits of the cheery party variety, the savage, alt. rocking Pumpkins did just the opposite. The low key, harmonic styling of "Christmastime" was a direct product of the era the band was heading towards with their electronica-influenced 1998 album, Adore.

4) Jethro Tull - “A Winter Snowscape”
In 2003 prog rockers Jethro Tull released a full-blown Christmas album. Though this may seem odd to the casual eye, Tull released a Christmas song as early as 1969 and other Christmas songs, or winter-themed tunes ever since. The album features new recordings of these tracks as well as new songs. This track is an instrumental composed by Tull guitarist Martin Barre.

5) David Bowie & Bing Crosby - “Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy"
In 1977 David Bowie appeared in Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, a television special, and sang a duet with the acgingcrooner. Often referred to as one of the weirder moments in television history, it's something that has to be seen/ heard to be fully understood. The "Peace on Earth" portion of the duet was written especially for Bowie who in actuality was none too fond of "Little Drummer Boy". This song is among several Christmas tunes parodied by the cast of Adult Swim's Venture Bros. and released online. Check those out HERE.

6) Mark Mothersbaugh - “Snowflake Music [From Bottle Rocket]”
A short instrumental track used in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore. The original version of this track appeared in Bottle Rocket, Anderson's first full-length film, and his first collaboration with Mark Mothersbaugh.

7) The Darkness - “Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)"
A comedic rock track from modern Brit glam rock outfit The Darkness. The comedy aspect of the song may fall on deaf ears without a little morsel of information, so allow me to educate: "bell end" is slang for the head of the human penis.

8) Chris Squire & Alan White - “Run With the Fox”
Chris Squire and Alan White are two members of Yes. Following the 1980 breakup of the band, these two continued working together and attempted to form a supergroup with Jimmy Page called XYZ (Ex-Yes and Zeppelin). The project never panned out and in very short time Yes reformed. Between those two events the duo released one track – "Run With the Fox" an unusual, but spirited holiday tune that can't help but conjure up visions of various animated films about quadrupedal woodland animals.

9) Crash Test Dummies - “Jingle Bells”
In 1992 folk rockers the Crash Test Dummies released a Christmas single of their rendition of "The First Noel". The version was traditional but made distinctive by lead singer Brad Roberts' very deep voice. Years later this spawned a whole album of traditional Christmas song re-renderings, including this track. If you ever wondered what "Jingle Bells" would sound like if sung by pagan tribes or demons, well, now you do. The album is amazing, pick it up HERE.

10) mc chris - “Evergreen”
Adult Swim personality and rapper, mc chris, renders a charming portrait of the dead-beat drug-addled youths who work part-time at Christmas tree tents. If you like your holidays full of laughs and cuss words, this is the song for you.

11) Bob & Doug McKenzie - “The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas' legendary comedy duo, The McKenzie Brothers perform their stumbling and confused rendition of a holiday classic. Hoser accessories such as beer, back bacon, and toques replace the original song's golden rings, French hens, etc. Endless fun. Last year, a full animated video was made for the song in preparation for the long-awaited Bob & Doug animated series which premiered this year.

12) Grand Buffet - “Stocking Stuffer”
Grand Buffet are a Pittsburg-based rap duo specializing in synthcore beats and head-scratching, mirth-making rhymes. This tale of one young man's encounter with Saint Nick is sure to warm your heart.

13) Tom Tom Club - “Il Est Né”
The funky, dancey husband-wife team of Talking Heads members Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth present a chill rendition of a traditional French Christmas carol. In 2002, "Il Est Né" and another track, "Christmas in the Club", were made available for download on Tom Tom Club's website. The tracks were taken down after the holidays passed and didn't return again until 2007, when they released a single called Misletunes. The single features both tracks and the CD version features two additional mixes of "Christmas in the Club".

14) Kate Bush - “December Will Be Magic Again"
A magical Christmas song from the likewise enchanted Kate Bush. It appeared on a single in 1980 and has appeared on finer Christmas compilations ever since. There are two versions. The version featured on the Holiday Feast favors a caroler sound, while the other rendition has a more minimal production and starts with chanting. The latter was featured on the 1979 BBC television event, The Kate Bush Christmas Special, you can watch that clip here. The TV special has recently been rebroadcast on the BBC, but a commercially available version has yet to surface.

15) Loreena McKennitt - “Snow”

McKennitt spins the words of Canadian poet Archibald Lampman into a Celtic ballad of wintertime beauty. What better expression of Christmas' roots than a pagan-esque worship of nature and perhaps the winter solstice?

16) Spinal Tap - “Christmas With the Devil"
From their second (real) album, 1992's Break Like the Wind, Spinal Tap explores how Satan celebrates the yuletide spirit. Here's a hint: it involves BDSM.

17) "Weird Al" Yankovic - “Christmas at Ground Zero"
Continuing comedic variations on the holidays, we move to the master of musical comedy: Weird Al. His "Christmas at Ground Zero" aptly plays upon the 1980s' paranoia of impending nuclear holocaust and attempts to dress up the scorched black remnants of humanity with tinsel and Christmas cheer. Truly there's a bright side to everything.

18) Run-D.M.C. - “Christmas Is"
The lesser-known of Run-D.M.C.'s two Christmas singles. The first was "Christmas in Hollis" (1987). "Christmas Is" was released in 1992 and is a fantastic product of its time, discussing the consumerism of the holidays. A choice example is the kid's Christmas list at the end: "yeah, that's right - give up the dough. I want my Ninja Turtles, I want my bike, I want my Sega Genesis, I want my Nintendo, and turn my mommy lights back on!"

19) Phantom Planet - “Carol of the Bells”
A compelling synth-rock version of the most famous Christmas instrumental of all-time from the band best known for having had Jason Schwartzman as their drummer and writing the theme song to The O.C.

20) Ben Folds - “Bizarre Christmas Incident”
Piano-rocker Ben Folds details a none-too-pretty encounter with the corpse of Santa Claus on Christmas morning. Allegedly the song was composed for the Grinch film, but was turned down. Too explicit? Perhaps. This song first appeared on Maybe This Christmas, a counter-culture Christmas compilation that lasted three albums between 2002-2004.

21) Shogo Sakai - Snowman
Every installment in Shigesato Itoi's video game series, Mother (called Earthbound in the US), has featured the "Snowman" theme composed by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka. It's been reworked several times in the past. This version appears on the soundtrack to the final installment of the series, Mother 3, and was arranged by that game's composer, Shogo Sakai.

22) The Band - “Christmas Must Be Tonight”
From The Band's 1977 album, Islands. "Christmas Must Be Tonight" is a soulful retelling of the birth of Christ. No gaudy evangelicalism, just beautiful music and a tale for the ages.

23) My Morning Jacket - “Xmas Time is Here Again”
And so ends the album with an easy-going meditation of harmonies and jingle bells from Southern rockers My Morning Jacket. This song if off their Christmas EP, My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style, released early in their career, between their first and second albums.

Happy holidays, Internet

- Cap & Nick

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Silicon Dream (1987-1995)

"Rambo in studio one kills an alligator
Arnold Schwarzenegger's son beats the terminator"

My friend Chad showed me what he feels may be the next big internet sensation. These are several videos from German synth-pop group Silicon Dream. It is definitely a product of the culmination many artist who came before the groups and its main member, Klaus Munzert.

I am extremely surprised this music is from 1987, this sound is definitely reminiscent of what was going on in Italo Disco the early 80s. But who am I to judge!

Here is a 2007 interview with Klaus Munzert.

Andromeda reminds me a lot of the Pet Shop Boys song Pananero.


- Nick

Monday, December 15, 2008

Repo Man (1984)

A week or two ago, my brother called me up with some news that he stated was about to make my day. Needless to say, it made my year. What was that news? The announcement of the sequel to 1984's cult classic Repo Man. The sequel, entitled Repo Chick and slated to be produced by David Lynch, will be the first return (in film at least) to the Repo Man franchise by director Alex Cox since the film's original release.

My obsession with Repo Man began before I knew it was a cult classic, or that I would one day be writing about weird underground films on a blog for the hip internet masses. I was introduced to this film back when the only source of influence on my tastes was my father. I remember watching this film on TV with him a number of times as a child. I would go to school and try to explain the plot to my friends, only to receive looks of complete confusion: "See, there is this car, and in the trunk is this alien thing that lets out a bright glow and vaporizes people and only leaves their shoes."

Of course at that age I was unaware of all the small subtleties within the film - the fact that the "alien" in the trunk might actually be a neutron bomb, or the nods toward the nuclear war scare of the 1980's.

The film opens with our protagonist Otto, a down and out punk kid living in the bright and rusted landscape of east LA, losing his job and befriending a strange group of repo men (who are all named after beers - Bud, Lite, Oly, Miller). They end up looking for a 64' Chevy Malibu being driven by a crazed scientist named J. Frank Parnell, who claims to be the inventor of the neutron bomb (which may explain what is in the trunk). Also looking for the car are a set of cheapskates called the Rodriguez Brothers, as well as an organization known as the United Fruitcake Outlet (U.F.O.) that believes the trunk holds aliens (another explanation for the bright glow), and government agents. Amidst all the searching are machine gun fights in hospital stairwells, contemplations of a cosmic unconsciousness, car repossession, the "repo code," and a who's who of the 1980's punk music scene (both in soundtrack and actors).

In high school I visited the local video store where I grew up, and found a copy of the film on VHS for sale as they purged their collection. For the next few years I would watch it religiously. This film contains elements that I am uncontrollably attracted to and have found in several other films - They Live, Terminator, Miracle Mile, Blade Runner, etc. All these films deal with Los Angeles in the 1980's: solitude, doomsday, all while featuring the unmistakable aesthetic of the time. The worlds in these films are filled with chain link fences, bright pavement, dark alleys, fluorescent lights, the Second Street Tunnel, and feelings of helplessness and isolation in a city populated by thousands.

I don't know if I was born with some kind of natural draw toward such themes, or if the influence came directly from my father. Most likely it is the latter. But while he watched these films strictly for entertainment's sake, I have taken my observations to the next level by placing them on par with other respected pieces of art. All of these films, especially Repo Man, speak to a different audience and culture than most films but should be respected for their own merits.

Repo Man contains several strange elements that run throughout. One of the first and most noticeable is the labeling of products, or the lack thereof. Most products in the film are labeled simply with what they are, underlined by a blue line. For instance "Beer" or "Food." This may be a commentary on consumerism or just an interesting aesthetic choice. At one point Miller, the repo shop's mechanic, spouts an eloquent speech on how we all share a "cosmic unconsciousness" which allows us to pick up on others' thoughts subconsciously:

Miller from Repo Man:
"A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."

Later in the film a painting on a diner window can be seen advertising a plate of shrimp. Repo Man is full of small details like this that one might miss if not careful: like a man playing the part of one of the repo men's wives in the background of a party, or Jimmy Buffet as an FBI agent. The film contains a thick weave of slight variations on the norm that creates a world seemingly close to ours, but wholly different.

But it isn't just these small visual cues that I identify with. I find Otto's growth in the film to be an interesting subject. Otto begins as a punk kid kicking a can on the side of the street, and changes into a conservatively dressed repo man whom repossesses cars and gets paid to sell out his fellow citizens who have landed on hard times like himself. Repo Man seems to look with a skeptical eye on the punk lifestyle that sprouted its existence. In one scene, Otto comforts his dying friend Duke in the wake of a convenience store shootout. Duke, who has spent the entire film pulling small time robberies, coughs up blood and wheezes from a shotgun blast to his torso:

From Repo Man:
Duke: "The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am."
Otto: "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me."
Duke: "Yeah, but it still hurts."

While Otto aligns himself with the same background as Duke, it is obvious Otto has changed and grown away from where he began in the film. Otto forces Duke to accept responsibility for what he has done instead of laying the blame on those around him, like so many that I grew up with. The film reveals the natural progression of the many who choose this lifestyle (or just kids in general) from angst filled youths to mature adults who can channel their aggressive feelings of injustice towards making actual change, like becoming activists or artists who can motivate people and bring to light important social and political issues. Just as Alex Cox has done with his film.


Nuclear War. Of course. What else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof. Repo-ing people's cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture which had elected so-called "leaders" named Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything -- all life on earth -- to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters. J. Frank Parnell - the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb - was the central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox Harris, is the centrepoint of the film."
While I love other films that deal with nuclear war, like Dr. Strangelove, the themes of such films don't seem quite fitting for an audience of early 1980's punks, artists, and "outsiders." It may sound stupid to point it out, but I feel it is an important aspect of Repo Man, films of this nature, and art in general. Artists take a subject like nuclear war and make it their own. They claim it for their culture and respective lifestyles.

I have been waiting for and dreading a sequel to this film for years. On the one hand, I want to see what became of Otto, as the film ends in a strange climax. I want to know what was in the trunk or if Bud lives, and so on and so forth. But on the other hand, I feel that the answers to any of these questions would ruin the integrity of the original film. It would be like sitting next to Leonardo as he painted the Mona Lisa. It would be fantastic to dispel all the rumors surrounding this painting - but do you really want to?

Despite the presence of a Repo Man sequel coming to film, I can supposedly already find my answers in a graphic novel just released entitled Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday. I remember reading about this book on Alex Cox's website years ago, but had the idea that it was an abandoned project. Looks like it has finally come to light.

According to IMDB, a sequel was attempted in 1997 but failed. It is documented in the film A Texas Tale of Treason.

This brings us to the newest film, Repo Chick. Here is the blurb floating around the web:

"Repo Chick will unfold against the backdrop of the credit crunch and the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, where repossessions of homes, cars and other forms of property is at a new high. ‘The repo business has expanded to everything from boats, houses, aeroplanes, small nations...children[.]'"
Judging by this description, it appears this may be a sequel more in spirit and theme than directly, which I more than fully support. I just hope the film is able to conjure up the same feelings that the original does for me. Often times one goes into a long awaited sequel expecting a similar product, but finds that in the last 15-20 years the filmmaker has grown, changed, and wants to take the franchise in a new direction. (See Indiana Jones and Escape From L.A.) We will just have to wait and see.

Here are a few more facts I couldn't fit in:
  • The film was produced by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees fame.
  • The film includes two of my all time favorite actors. Harry Dean Stanton, Bud, appears in a plethora of 1980s films that I am sure you have seen, as well as showing up in Alien, The Green Mile, and Cool Hand Luke. And I went to high school with his nephew's son.
  • I am also a huge fan of Sy Richardson, who plays Lite. Sy is featured in several Alex Cox films and has a bit role in another 1980s sci-fi film favorite of mine, They Live. Supposedly Sy's character in Repo Man was the influence for Samuel L Jackson's in Pulp Fiction.
BUY IT: Amazon
HEAR IT: Amazon
READ IT: Amazon

- Nick

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Kate Bush & Cocteau Twins' Fruitopia Ads (1994-5)

Eclectic TV Ads Volume 2
In 1994 the Coca-Cola company debuted a bold, new bottled juice beverage line, Fruitopia. It wasn’t just a fruit drink; it was a concept, a gateway to a higher plain of flavor, the one path to real, ultimate thirst quenching. Coke banked on the early nineties’ Summer of Love nostalgia trip to market their Snapple-competing drink to Generation X’s wannabe hippie crowd. The result was a striking, psychedelic television ad campaign that made Fruitopia out to be a, like, totally mind-opening beverage, man.

The following 30 seconds will not inspire:
violent crime,
a religious experience,
conspicuous consumption.
It may, however, make you thirsty.

This was the ethos behind Fruitopia’s initial ad campaign. Trippy, kaleidoscopic images of fruit and swirling, gushing liquid primed your palate; while curious, consciousness-bending ponderings whimsically invited you to become that wild-eyed free-thinker you always knew you were. The ads were extremely eye-catching. I remember being mesmerized at the age of 10 by their hypnotic images and always eager to see what weird thing they’d say to me. As funky as the visuals were, they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if not for their accompanying music. Music so diverse, meditative, and, as it turns out, composed by none other than legendary songstress, Kate Bush.

All the 30 seconds spots from 1994 collected.
Just as filmmakers moonlight in the advertising world so too do musicians. It seems not so unusual that quirky, creative workhorses like Devo and They Might Be Giants would lend their talents to marketing, but Kate Bush doing advert work seems strange. Yet the Fruitopia ads were an appropriate fit for Bush's character and a worthy vehicle for her experimentation. You can tell she had fun coming up with the variety of sounds and toying with how much could be done in a 30-second time frame. During 1994 nine 30-second ads aired as well as a 60-second ad that played in theaters (featuring an extended version of one of the 30-second tracks). In 1995, during the Academy Awards, one additional ad aired. That's 10 total songs. Details, including all the weird Fruitopian messages, can be found here, and you can listen to the songs below.

Oddly enough, the ads with Bush's music never made it to her native England. Instead, the British Fruitopia ads featured music by Scottish dream rock big-shots Cocteau Twins and So-Cal up-and-comers The Muffs. None of the Muffs' spots have made it to the Internet but a Spanish ad with the Cocteau Twins can be seen here: offers downloads of their two Fruitopia songs:

FILE: Cocteau Twins Fruitopia Commercial 1
FILE: Cocteau Twins Fruitopia Commercial 2

One of the Cocteau Twins' Fruitopia songs was later remixed by Spooky, under the title “Hypo-Allergenic“, and appears on his Found Sound LP. As for Fruitopia, its ad campaigns were never again as provocative as the initial batch, and in 2001, the drink was taken off the market in the United States, but if your feeling nostalgic, Fruitopia can still be found in Canada, Australia, and a few other countries.

Please enjoy this thirst quenching playlist:

- Cap