Screen Savor: Miscellany

I don't know what's more frustrating about my lack of ability to post — the fully written pieces that pile up, or the notes that get jotted down on of-the-moment material and never fleshed out because their moment has passed. This mélange covers some stuff I've been enjoying on TV, on disc, and even on the Interwebs when the connection allows (that is, rarely). I'm hoping to have some recent movie reviews up before the year is out, although I've hardly seen all the year's acclaimed films yet.

Because it's long and Blogger has been cooperating more than usual, I've again set up a jump break to the post's dedicated page, wherein you'll find thoughts on Saturday Night Live, Larry King, and The Sing-Off, with more to come... soonish; I'd originally written "tomorrow" but it's now past then and I'm taking another break from the headaches of technical impediments.

I'm really happy that SNL now has three great female utility players in Abby Elliot, Nasim Pedrad, and new addition Vanessa Bayer, at least theoretically letting Kristen Wiig be used more sparingly and more effectively. I'm still not sure why Michaela Watkins was let go last year, and I miss Jenny Slate — her "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" would've brought a welcome old-school Saturday Night feel if Andy Samberg's Lonely Island crew weren't monopolizing the show's short-film slots (which is me talking out of my elbow, since despite reading a fair bit about behind the scenes at SNL over the years I have no knowledge of any particular production politics, and of course all the cast members regularly take on outside TV, movie, and web-video projects these days).

Elliot's great Angelina Jolie impersonation made a cameo on this past Saturday's episode, visiting Taren Killam's questionable Brad Pitt — the first time she did it, I actually thought for a moment that Jolie was doing a walk-on cameo; it's still hard to believe that that's Abby Elliot. And Brayer revived her instant fan-favorite ahreallycool Miley Cyrus impresion. Pedrad's best character is Bedelia, the sweetly awkward teen who prefers to hang out with her parents, but this time around her recurring bits were limited to Li'l Blaster (yes, I have to look these names up) alongside Jason Sudeikis's DJ Supersoak in one of the extreme-concert-event commercials — full of the usual awesome non sequitur band names and general weirdness (these have to be written by the same folks who come up with material for Bill Hader's Stefon on Weekend Update) — and Kim Kardashian, alongside Bayer and Elliot, in "A Holiday Message from the Kardashians". It wasn't as funny as when the trio showed up as Kim ("the pretty one"), Kourtney ("the smart one") and Khloe ("...") on Weekend Update a couple of weeks before, but it had a few worthy laugh lines; I'm amazed that there was no "Ho, Ho, Ho" joke, however.

This week's host, Jeff Bridges, invited Cookie Monster to join him in the monologue, a nice capper to Cookie's SNL campaign. How did they not do any Tron jokes, though?

Larry King ended his CNN talk show last week after more than 25 years. I'm not sure I ever watched a whole installment, but I've seen enough to know that the jabs at King for not always having as firm a grasp on the proceedings as one might expect are not entirely based on out-of-context clips — indeed, he's famously said that he prepares as little as possible, but calling Ringo "George" during an interview with the two surviving Beatles (George not being one of them) is taking that a little far.

My favorite goof on the venerable Mr. King is The Kevin Pollack Chat Show's Celebrity Larry King Game. Pollak is the actor, comedian, and now Internet talk-show host whose impression of William Shatner has been publicly proclaimed by Shatner to sound more like Shatner than Shatner sounds like Shatner. I could listen to Pollak read the telephone book — as Christopher Walken, at least, although it's even more fun to hear him, as Walken, recite "Three Little Kittens". I haven't seen much of KPCS, and the list of episodes has grown considerably since first I bookmarked the link to share, but most of the shows are archived for your browsing pleasure, with the King Game segments broken out and alphabetized by guest. If I could run video right now, I'd make some recommendations, but you're on your own, as you are hunting down any clips here that don't work since I can't verify their viability.

I finally got to watch the fourth and next-to-last episode of The Sing-Off after the blackout that struck last Wednesday. For the half-dozen or so friends who share this interest with me (yet don't comment about it) here are my notes — no pun intended, in direct contrast to the words that the writers put in the mouth of host Nick Lachey (which is more like "no pun appreciated"). My writeups of previous episodes have been added to my original post on the show.

The episode opened with an ensemble rendition of Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends". Honestly, I wanted to hear Jerry Lawson sing the whole thing — or maybe the frontman of Street Corner Symphony. While the collective sound was impressive, the leads' styles were too disparate for this to really work as anything other than variety-show anthem.

For these last rounds of the competition, the remaining five groups first performed medleys from superstar pop acts and then, after being whittled down to four, performed songs hand-picked by the judges.

On the Rocks had a stronger, cleaner blend than usual on their Elton John medley. The falsetto on "Bennie and the Jets" was somewhat lacking, but on the other hand while "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" isn't one of my favorites it was very well done. I was a little surprised that they included "The Bitch Is Back" on such a family-friendly show airing in prime time on network television.

In the first of a series of holiday snippets from the groups, we got a gorgeous take on "Joy to the World" from Committed before its impressive Usher medley. Wow... The bass was awesome, the percussion really worked, the sound was smooth and full, the transitions were top-notch — this was just fantastic stuff.

Street-Corner Symphony had the daunting task of sharing a Beatles medley and the judges were not entirely happy with it. Neither was I, not because of any technical deficiencies but because a little bit more energy or even abandon might have been welcomed. It's weird to say that this sounded "safe" — after all, some of the arrangements were enjoyably complex — yet it seemed to be lacking something, even as it was obvious just from their wardrobe selection that the group was moving out of their comfort zone a bit. "Eleanor Rigby" was a surprising, sophisticated choice, so they get points for that alone; meanwhile, the timbre of the lead's upper register, without breaking into falsetto, remains uncanny.

Next up were The Backbeats with a lovely version of "White Christmas" and then an ambitious Lady Gaga medley. They still have possibly the best vocal percussion around; Ben Folds rightly shouted out an "MVP award for the 'Paparazzi' groove." Once again they had nice ensemble work, although the lead vocals seemed soft, as they did with Street-Corner Symphony; sure enough, based on later performances, I think that it was a sound problem causing some mikes to drop out a bit now and then, rather than the fault of any of the singers. Back to the medley, I give the group bonus points for calling back to the first two songs at the end of the third without it sounding dippy as medleys are wont to do when that happens.

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town have already won, not just in terms of personal vindication — these gentlemen are twice or thrice the age of their competitors, Lawson having been lead singer of classic doo-wop a cappella combo The Persuasions before leaving the game behind for a spell — but in terms of the offers that are sure to come their way after it even if they're not crowned the champions. Their Otis Redding medley of "Sittin' on a Dock of a Bay", "Try a Little Tenderness", and "Respect" (yes, Redding originated it; Aretha Franklin just made it more famous) had great songs with great transitions and an effortless honesty that's hard to match. As Folds said, it's "the real thing."

The judges ended up sending On the Rocks home. As I wrote before, I'd have sent them packing on the first show, but it was admittedly a harder call at this point since their trajectory has trended up while Street-Corner Symphony hasn't always fulfilled its early promise. Symphony and Talk of the Town rounded out the holiday interludes with a peppy take on "Auld Lang Syne" and a soulful "Silent Night", respectively, but it was the next phase of competition that really blew me away.

Gospel sextet turned secular smoothies Committed were asked to do Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and nailed it. Passing along the lead could've easily been a gimmick, but it actually added to the performance in a way that wasn't just everybody getting to a chance to drive (except for the awesome bass). For a lark, incidentally, I decided to come up with my own suggestions for each group before the judges' choices were revealed, and I'd love to hear these guys take on Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" — maybe they'd throw in a little homage to Club Nouveau's cover while still making it their own and, hopefully, keeping the original's integrity alive.

The selection for the Southern men of Street-Corner Symphony was Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner" — a perfect choice handled perfectly. I couldn't help breaking into a big, goofy grin; as Stephen Stockman said, it was both playful and soulful. My choice for the group was James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face".

The Backbeats, formed by former members of collegiate a cappella groups in California, were asked to do Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide". I was stunned by how beautiful this turned out, having appreciated where the team came from and what they were doing more than really loving it the way I've been loving some of the other performances. With their emotional leads and choral sound I'd have selected Madonna's "Like a Prayer".

Each of these judges' choices turned out fabulously, but none better than Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town taking on The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun". I have no hesitation in proclaiming it better than the original; to quote Stockman, it was "soul-stirring". My choice for them, just to shake things up, was Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy".

I want albums from all four of these groups now and, given the quartet of amazing performances, was fairly flabbergasted that the judges would send any of them home before the finale. As it turned out, they didn't, and it didn't even feel like a cheat. The voting public's choice is probably being revealed right now and if another blackout doesn't hit I'll watch it on tape shortly. [Final update and semi-spoiler alert: Committed deservedly won.]


El Qué said...

I think I have a crush on Justin Bieber Percussion Girl. ^_^

Arben said...

Oh, Kevin Pollak cracks me the frak up. His Christopher Walken is fantastic. I gotta check out that chat show.