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In Grandaddy’s world—one that should be readily recognizable to the rest of us in this troubling decade—things are always breaking down, machines and humans both; there’s nothing sadder than a vacant lot, except for the people who live on its periphery; love and beauty can be found, but only in the moment; and each moment is precious, because moments are all we have.
WEAKEND PLANNER’S MIDYEAR HOME-ENTERTAINMENT CENTER
In Which Our Crocked Editorial Staff Spews Out Half-Formed, Sub-Literate Opinions on Six Months Worth of Good Stuff

At the midway point of 2003, we give you in excess of 7,500 words on 18 albums (including two stunners that have yet to find a home), 20 selected tracks and 13 DVDs (all in all, it’s been an outtasite six months for shiny round things—artistically, that is), along with seven TV series, four music books and several watering holes—each section thoughtfully arranged in alphabetical order. The pile of crap below is so enormous, in fact, that it may take you the entire three-day weekend to get through it—and if that’s what you choose to do with your free time, you’re almost as pathetic as we are for cranking out this steaming mound of drivel. We’ll get this started with a somewhat less than upbeat assessment of the recent pop-culture spectacle…

GLASS HALF-EMPTY AT HALFWAY POINT
The first six months of 2003 in movies, music and sports (especially from the vantage point of a Knicks/ Islanders/Mets/Jets fan) have been perhaps the most desultory in memory. Popular culture has produced a series of lowest-common-denominator, heartless spectacles like The Matrix Reloaded and too few like the masterful ensemble work of A Mighty Wind and George Hickenlooper’s unexpectedly moving Rodney Bingenheimer doc, The Mayor of Sunset Strip. Neither of them aims for the fences, though both hit their admittedly modest marks on the nose. Similarly, The White Stripes’ inspiring Elephant (V2) is far and away the best album of the half-year, which means the much-maligned city of Detroit can now boast the world’s greatest rock band as well as the best rapper. On the LP, Jack and Meg White turn the elemental into the universal by artfully rearranging the building blocks of rock & roll; only the Led Zeppelin live DVD/CD package can approach it for sheer visceral impact. Other midyear faves include Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief (Capitol), with its remarkable risk-taking; Lucinda Williams’ wrenching World Without Tears (Lost Highway); Pete Yorn’s ruminating, tuneful Day I Forgot (Columbia); the smart ’burban pop of Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin); old school Noo Yawk City troubadour Jesse Malin’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction (Artemis); Rooney’s winsome Top 40 homage (Geffen); Yo La Tengo’s simmering Summer Sun (Matador) and Cat Power’s insinuating You Are Free (Matador). Roy Trakin

ALBUMS
While Roy’s endorsement of the year in music may be less than ringing, collectively we’ve found a lot to like about the following stack of LPs, accumulated during the course of the last six months.

Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick/Touch and Go): Too bad Jack Bruce came up with “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” because that title would fit practically everything this veteran, Tucson-based duo has come up with over four albums. When guitarist/singer Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino go widescreen, as they do here on “Black Heart,” the sweeping vistas evoked by the music fall somewhere between Sergio Leone and John Ford. At the other extreme is the instrumental “Attack El Robot! Attack!,” which tumbles out with the trash-heap wackiness of Tom Waits. But this album also reveals Calexico’s new “pop” side: “Not Even Stevie Nicks…,” with its to-die-for chorus hook, and “Quattro (World Drifts In)” find Burns’ ethereal tenor and Convertino’s insistent drumming powering accessible yet alien concoctions that sound like they’re coming out of a border-town jukebox in some parallel universe. This supremely accomplished and distinctive album is a real sleeper, marking Calexico’s maturation as a world-class entity. Bud Scoppa

eastmountainsouth, eastmountainsouth (DreamWorks): The singer-songwriter duo of Kat Maslisch and Peter Adams come by their mastery of American roots music honestly—they hail from its epicenter (she from bluegrass Mecca Clinch Mountain, he from Birmingham). The astonishing thing about the pair’s major-label debut, though, is its seamless blend of old and new. Adams and Mitchell Froom juxtapose banjos and bouzoukis with loops and beats, and the result is a ravishing, timeless album. Starting with an exquisite take on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” ems follow up with incandescent originals like “You Dance, “ “Too Soon,” “So Are You to Me,” the updated spiritual “Rain Come Down” and the breathtaking “Show Me the River.” This is one for the “year’s best” list.
Simon Glickman

Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will (Reprise): Remarkably, save for the departed Christine McVie, the trademark elements that once made this band Big Mac are fully present nearly three decades later on their triumphant reunion album: Lindsey Buckingham’s feverish acoustic picking and ferocious electric riffing; his anxious yelps abutting Stevie Nicks’ brooding alto; Mick Fleetwood’s big, snapping snare, teasing the backbeat from behind; John McVie’s spare, emphatic bass lines; and those rolling midtempo songs, with their tantalizing setups, thrilling payoffs and shredding raveups. Buckingham’s “Bleed to Love Her” and “What’s the World Coming To” rank with his best songs, while Nicks has never done better work than “Everybody Finds Out” and “Running Through the Garden.” While the album would’ve benefited from the removal of a few of its 18 tracks, Say You Will is the storied group’s strongest collection of songs since Rumours, and its most sonically audacious work since Tusk. —BS

Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin): Jersey alchemists Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood do “that thing they do,” artfully mining pop-rock history for the band’s label debut, its third album overall and first since ’99’s Utopia Parkway. The initial single, “Stacy’s Mom,” offers a teen fantasy of a Mrs. Robinson-type with precision new wave melodies and harmony-laden chorus lines that kick. These narrative snapshots of the modern world include a guy killed by a cellular-phone explosion (the Weezer-like “Mexican Wine”) and a Bowiesque glam-rocker about the anomie caused by technology (“Little Red Light”). From the Simon & Garfunkel folk-rock of “Valley Winter Song” and the blue-eyed soul harmonies of “Halley’s Waitress,” to the straight-ahead honky-tonk of “Hung Up on You” and the “I Am the Walrus” sprawl of “Supercollider,” pop music this winsome and smart deserves a place on the airwaves…and the charts. Roy Trakin

Grandaddy, Sumday (V2): In Jason Lytle’s world—one that should be readily recognizable to the rest of us in this troubling decade—things are always breaking down, machines and humans both; there’s nothing sadder than a vacant lot, except for the people who live on its periphery; love and beauty can be found, but only in the moment; and each moment is precious, because moments are all we have. Sumday, the fourth album by Lytle’s band, Modesto, CA’s Grandaddy, is a contemporary fable of palpable melancholy, luminous imagery and unexpected beauty, with mortal dread in every note and syllable. On its most poignant songs, “Lost in Yer Merry Way,” “The Warming Sun” and the existential anthem “Now It’s On,” Lytle, with his eye for telling detail and a voice as delicately nuanced as the edge of a feather, shows himself to be a worthy acolyte of Neil Young. This is heady, heavy stuff. —BS

The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music (American/Lost Highway): While the Gary Louris-led band has shown considerable stylistic range (especially with the souped-up rock & roll of 2000’s underrated Smile), they remain masters of harmony-rich country-rock, as their seventh album demonstrates. The Jayhawks are above all a song band, and Rainy Day Music is one of their richest collections. Among the memorable tunes are the metaphysical lament “Stumbling Through the Dark” (co-written by Matthew Sweet), a zeitgeist-capturing song that opens and closes the album, the unabashedly sentimental “All the Right Reasons” (a potential country hit), the textured, tasty rocker “Tailspin” and the poignant, harmony-powered “Save It for a Rainy Day.” Considering his sizable and dazzling body of work, it’s time to acknowledge Louris as not simply a worthy inheritor of the Byrds/Burritos legacy but as a significant artist in his own right, and on his own terms. —BS

Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont): “I hope this letter finds you crying,” Joe Pernice sings on “Number Two,” over a characteristically lovely melody. “It would feel so good to see you cry.” That brief passage, found in the concluding cut of the Pernice Brothers’ third album, encapsulates the merger of bitter melancholy and uplifting beauty that makes the music of this single-minded band so essential. This time out, Pernice has expanded the Byrds/Beach Boys/chamber-pop palate of the two earlier albums, to winning effect, giving a nod to the Smiths on the galloping “One Foot in the Grave” and evoking early New Order on the breathless and shimmering “Sometimes I Remember.” With that trademark catch in his throat and a tenor as sweet and sultry as Joao Gilberto’s, Pernice has quietly emerged as one of the very best vocalists in contemporary pop-rock—and no rock-based writer-artist is capable of making music so lilting. He and his band deserve a much wider audience. —BS

Liz Phair, Liz Phair (Capitol): Some of Phair’s longtime fans see this as a sellout, and I really hope they’re right. But if for some reason you’re allergic to ear candy, that’s not my problem. Though she fully embraces her inner pop queen here—especially on four killer collaborations with writer-producer team The Matrix—and sings with a clarity and beauty only hinted at previously, PoMo icon Phair remains a provocateur. (Or is that provocateuse?) Amid the heavenly choruses, dense walls of guitar and stacked harmonies are some decidedly raunchy lyrics. Yet they're given weight by the high emotional stakes, as on the infatuation anthem "Why Can't I," the slammin' "Extraordinary" and the Oedipal ballad "Little Digger." Meanwhile, I predict some genuine howls of outrage over the sunny, strummy pop ditty “H.W.C.” from certain tightly buttoned people—despite the fact that its rather, um, visceral refrain serves a perfectly tender sentiment. With additional production by pop geniuses like Michael Penn, R. Walt Vincent and Phair herself, the album is a joyous leap into the mainstream that leaves her wit, grit and humor intact. —SG

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol): The first time through the art-rock commandoes’ sixth album, you might not notice that the slippery grooves, jarring transitions and otherworldly soundscapes largely emanate from guitars, electric bass, drums and pianos played conventionally, so confounding has the band’s aesthetic shell game become. While the tools they employ here may be more standard than those used on Kid A and Amnesiac, the confrontational attitude the band displayed on those two albums is, if anything, further amped up, as Thom Yorke and his mates react to a threatening world in which the center will not hold and (dis)information overload has reached critical mass. Much of the album is at once assaultive and despairing, and yet the band and producer Nigel Godrich now and then allow the black clouds to part, revealing passages of musical clarity made all the more dramatic by their disturbing surroundings: the thrilling “There there,” in which Radiohead sounds very much like the great rock band the world wants it to be; the lovely if disquieting mood pieces “Sail to the Moon,” “I Will” and “Scatterbrain”; the elegantly simple “A Punchup at a Wedding,” in which Yorke weaves a downright catchy vocal melody over a nearly unvarying progression paced by an irresistible bass figure. Will Hail to the Thief continue to resonate as The Bends does, or will it remain attached to the anxious period that inspired it? I have no idea. All I can say at this point is, the more I play it, the more listenable it seems—but that doesn’t make the experience any less unsettling. —BS

Sam Roberts, We Were Born in a Flame (Universal): This young dynamo from Montreal obviously considers rock & roll dance music, and the immense visceral pull of his wondrous debut album emanates directly from its nonstop grooves. Roberts’ rhythm guitar powers these 13 tracks with a pull that is downright gravitational; apart from drums, he plays nearly all of the instruments, and their combined force brings a torqued-up intensity to the record reminiscent of Who’s Next, no less. Yes, he’s a neoclassic rocker—echoes of Revolver and “Gimme Shelter” lurk in the songs as well—but Roberts’ formalism seems tribal, not studied, with choruses that rise up like chants, sweaty and abandoned. I defy you to sit still for “Don’t Walk Away Eileen,” with its staccato beat in the manner of Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, the irresistible “Brother Down” or the breakneck epic “Where Have All the Good People Gone?” Roberts has got the rhythm in him, and he aims to put it in you. —BS

Rooney, Rooney (Geffen): In the capable hands—and voices—of these young Angelenos, cranked-up guitars and choirboy harmonies go together so well that it makes you wonder why so few bands even attempt the combination. But Rooney has its own ideas about what works. Fronted by Robert Carmine (the 20-year-old kid brother of Rushmore and Phantom Planet’s Jason Schwatrzman), the four-year-old band craftily melds the staccato grooves of The Strokes and the overdriven guitar-pop of Weezer with deftly pulled-off musical moves derived from the sacred texts of rock (these guys are serious students), applied to songs whose primary model seems to be early-’60s Brill Building pop. Carmine and Taylor Locke’s glimmering guitars fly in close formation on “Stay Away,” with its girl-group chorus melody, and the rollicking, Cars-like “I’m Shakin’.” Best of all is the opener/first single “Blueside,” which is cut from the same gorgeous cloth as the Raspberries’ archetypal power-pop hit “Go All the Way”—a comparison I’m sure Rooney won’t mind at all. —BS

The Thorns, The Thorns (Aware/Columbia): The self-titled album from the trio of Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge is an unabashedly lovely and tuneful affair on the surface whose musical intricacy and dramatic depth reveal themselves progressively, through repeated listens. The three career solo artists got together for this project when they discovered that their voices just happen to produce a magnificent blend. Consequently, the three collaborators wrote and arranged their material with vocal harmonies in mind; as a result, the record achieves a sort of formal perfection of the sort rarely heard since the 1970s. But the attention to aural architecture doesn’t mean they’ve neglected drama: The first single, the Sweet-led “I Can’t Remember” is a breakup song of immense poignancy (“Many could live on what we have wasted/All because we never knew how much we had”); opener “Runaway Feeling,” initiated by Droge, inhabits prime Tom Petty territory; their cover of the Jayhawks’ “Blue” does the brilliant song full justice; “No Blue Sky,” with Mullins in the foreground, has a drop-dead gorgeous payoff; and Sweet’s “Now I Know” packs more bittersweet beauty into 1:50 than many acts manage in their careers. A couple of the 13 songs are mere cotton candy, leading some reviewers to conclude that the album is lightweight, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. OK, so it’s not a perfect record, but it’s addictive nonetheless—sounds to me like the ultimate summertime companion. —BS

Steely Dan, Everything Must Go (Reprise): When mulling the many phases of ’Dan—from “Brain Tap Shuffle” through “Third World Man,” on to “Cousin Dupree” and now the new stuff—one can’t help but marvel at the difference a couple of decades can make. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, quite naturally, seem to see things through a longer lens in their post-Gaucho work (including the 2000 Grammy winner Two Against Nature; we’ll call it Steely Dan 2.0) than they did before. Sure, “These tabs look iffy—you say they’re good/Let’s roll with the homeys—knock on wood” (“Slang of Ages”) is a far cry from “Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail/Those test tubes and the scale/Just get it all out of here” (“Kid Charlemagne”), but what isn't? Yes, they seem not to care to hone their lyrical and musical themes to the surgical edge of yore, but these are surely very different times in the principals’ lives. And whether they actually are or not, they sound as if they’re enjoying themselves. The collection’s coherent sound is established from the getgo by the goofball blues “The Last Mall” and sly tale of remorse “Things I Miss the Most,” but the two most fully realized ’Dan creations here (by pre-2.0 standards) are the slinky “Green Book”—a mysterious tale of composite lust which finds our heroes trading way-out licks—and the hilarious, gorgeous “Pixelene,” which poses as an outtake from Fagen’s Kamikiriad. Both power the album’s killer second half, which is punctuated by the moody title track, a gallows-humor vehicle sporting telltale bridge: “We gave it our best shot/But keep in mind we got a lot/The sky, the moon, good food and the weather/First-run movies—does anybody get lucky twice?” The truth is, they already have—and so have we. Jon O’Hara

White Stripes, Elephant (V2): Recorded over two weeks in a studio full of vintage gear, the Whites’ latest rarely departs from the stripped-down intensity of the pair’s breakthrough, White Blood Cells. It’s just better. Jack White’s vocals and fretwork are bolder, and the extra touches (baroque keyboard parts, a guest vocal by indie queen Holly Golightly and even something that sounds like bass) are genius. What most distinguishes Elephant, though, is that the rough and the smooth go together better than ever. Blazing rants like “Seven Nation Army,” “The Hardest Button to Button,” “There’s No Home for You Here” (in which stacked-harmony “ahhhs” go head-to-head with squalling feedback), “Little Acorn” and the garage-punk magnificence of “Hypnotize” segue beautifully into such charming, melodic fare as “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” and my favorite, “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” In the latter, true to the title, White ponders the question of how to win the approval of his beloved’s mom. And your mom says you better have this record. —SG

Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway): This is a complete return to the form of 1998’s Grammy-winning breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The music world would be a lot more interesting if this was the “country” represented at the top of the charts, but there’s no accounting for mass taste. If there were, everyone would hear this legendarily difficult artist evoking Neil Young on the plaintive, opening “Fruits of My Labor,” while proving equally at home with the swaggering, gender-bending, Stonesy “Bleeding Fingers.” Toss in a devastating, “dirt under your nails” take on the underbelly of domestic poverty in the shrugging despair of ”American Dream,” and, on just a couple of listens, you have 2003’s first contender for album of this or any other year. —RT

Pete Yorn, Day I Forgot (Columbia): Far from succumbing to any sophomore jinx, the disheveled, half-shaven romantic has taken his influences and combined them with the confidence only success can bring, turning out a splendid follow-up to the freshman promise of the now-gold 2001 album, musicforthemorningafter. This is the following day, which provides the maturing singer-songwriter with a clean slate and a rekindled desire to tap into those bittersweet pop memories without allowing them to overwhelm you. It’s also a chance for Yorn to further explore the ’80s Anglo-rock textures of forebears R.E.M., U2 and Psychedelic Furs on the first single, “Come Back Home.” With Ramones/Only Ones emopunk (“Burrito”), Beatlesque whimsy (the George Harrison-inspired “When You See the Light”) and even the mournful strains of vintage Neil Young (“Turn of the Century”), the result has an optimism and vulnerability impossible not to embrace. —RT

UNSIGNED/UNRELEASED
Super Human Strength: I had a realization while blasting the rough mixes of the upcoming album from this L.A. rock trio: Other bands are pussies. It’s not just that Super Human Strength could bench-press most of the self-pitying riff-mongers currently choking the charts. And it’s not simply that SHS are men enough to pour passion, integrity and melody into their pummeling, adrenalized tunes. Wic Coleman is a bespectacled bruiser of a dude with a biker’s heart, a poet’s soul and a survivor’s sense of irony; his raspy, lived-in voice conveys the pain, humor and hard-won independence of his finely crafted songs. And what songs they are: the barreling, obscenely catchy “Only Guessing,” the volatile “Anything You Want,” the rueful “Burned Out,” the slam-dunk “Top of the World,” the epic “Pressed in Wax,” drug-cooking sing along “The Basement Song” and the elemental, propulsive “Repeat It” are my favorites, but there’s not a bum track in the batch.  For those of you who crave influence equations, SHS has been described as “Foo Fighters meet Elvis Costello.” However you break it down, it’s great.
Simon Glickman

Dan Wilson: The first solo project from the former Semisonic frontman contains what I believe to be Wilson’s strongest assemblage of melodies yet—melodies that swoop and soar to their thrilling resolutions, allowing him to open up his pure, pitch-perfect tenor in the unabashed way he’s kept under wraps since Trip Shakespear. Several of these tunes—“Against History,” “Hello Stranger” and “Free Life,” for starters—exhibit an exhilarating propulsiveness while carrying a payload of vivid imagery. Others sound like latter-day standards: the secular gospel song “Come Home Angel,” with its contemporary metaphysical intimations, recalls “Let It Be”; “Honey Please” and “All Kinds” might’ve been ripped from the hallowed pages of the Great American Songbook; the ballad “Sugar,” sung with Sheryl Crow, is impossibly poignant. If this duet appeared on Crow’s next record, it would be a hit; in this Norah Jones-infused world, I believe it would win over record buyers, no matter whose name precedes the “featuring” in the credit. Bud Scoppa

RIP THIS JOINT
There’s an old axiom (frequently voiced during the Vietnam era) that bad times bring good music, and the new music I’ve come across in the first half of 2003 does seem to possess a palpable sense of urgency, which seems like a natural artistic reaction to the now-pervasive awareness that the only certainty is uncertainty. Here’s a CD-R recipe plucked from the bounty of compelling tracks that have appeared so far this year, as three cagey rookies make it clear that they can keep pace with my handpicked team of seasoned veterans.
Bud Scoppa

HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
The Roots, “The Seed (2.0)” (4:28)
2.   Sam Roberts
, “Brother Down” (4:25)
3.  
Dandy Warhols, “You Were the Last High” (4:49)
4.   Radiohead, “A Punchup at a Wedding” (4:58)
5.   Fleetwood Mac, “Running Through the Garden” (4:36)
6.   The Thorns, “I Can’t Remember” (radio version) (3:08)
7.   Rosanne Cash, “Beautiful Pain” (2:52)
8.   Rooney, “Blueside” (3:19)
9.   Fountains of Wayne, “All Kinds of Time” (4:20)
10. Wilshire, “Special” (3:02)
11. Steely Dan, “Things I Miss the Most” (3:58)
12. Calexico, “Quattro (World Drifts In)” (remix edit) (3:17)
13. Dan Wilson, “Cry” (4:21)
14. Radiohead, “There there” (5:24)
15. Grandaddy, “The Warming Sun” (5:45)
16. Sam Roberts, “Where Have All the Good People Gone?” (4:24)
17. The Jayhawks, “Save It for a Rainy Day” (3:10)
18. Pernice Brothers, “The Weakest Shade of Blue” (3:08)
19. Dan Wilson w/Sheryl Crow, “Sugar” (4:23)
20. The Thorns, “Now I Know” (1:56)

DVDs
Isn’t it about time you started renting some of those offbeat little movies that made 2002 such a strong year for cinema? Every one of the following 10 will leave a lasting impression.

About a Boy (Universal): If you missed the Weitz brothers' charming, but never sentimental, version of Nick Hornby’s novel, by all means rent the DVD/video. The American Pie guys bring the requisite light touch to the story of a cynical perpetual adolescent (Golden Globe-nominated Hugh Grant at his most charmingly self-effacing) taught the responsibilities of adulthood by a misfit surrogate son (a most effective Nicholas Hoult) he employs as a decoy to pick up single mothers. Grant, whose behavioral ticks were so annoying in Two Weeks Notice, here uses his stuttering, aw-shucks persona to bring out the shallowness of the character through his first-person narrative.
Roy Trakin

Igby Goes Down (MGM/UA)/Secretary (Lion’s Gate): These two impressive indie features, directed, respectively, by newcomers Burr Steers and Steve Shainberg, avoid the stereotypical pitfalls of the majority of today’s non-major-studio fare by tackling a pair of eternal topics with fresh new eyes and postmodern irony. IgbyCatcher in the Rye meets The Graduate—deals with the alienation of youth (including the requisite drugs and sex), while SecretaryThe Night Porter crossed with Last Tango in Paris—is a black comedy about the eroticizing of the workplace (complete with kinky S&M). More importantly, the two films boast career-making performances by up-and-coming stars Kieran Culkin and Maggie Gyllenhaal. RT

The Man From Elysian Fields (Gold Circle): Slingblade creator and Rodney Bingenheimer documentarian George Hickenlooper’s noirish L.A. fable offers a variation on Sunset Boulevard. Call it Colorado Blvd., as struggling Pasadena novelist Andy Garcia makes a Faustian bargain with a Satanic Mick Jagger, playing an update on his role in Performance as the craggy-faced, world-weary head of a slightly rundown Hollywood male-escort service. Some fine co-starring work by E.R.’s Julia Margulies as Garcia’s long-suffering wife, Olivia Williams (Sixth Sense, Rushmore) as the ultimate femme fatale, James Coburn as a Pulitzer-winning novelist who is rapidly dying, Anjelica Huston as Jagger’s last remaining client and Michael Des Barres as a feckless male escort. The film’s focus on the difficulties of making a living by being creative, the relation of fiction to life and a fascination with class structure is rarely found in American cinema. RT

Punch-Drunk Love (Columbia Pictures): This tortured romance, which may or may not be a figment of lead character Adam Sandler’s imagination, is like the tribute to Robert Downey's Putney Swope in wunderkind director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, where a coke deal goes down to the scattered sound of exploding firecrackers. This time, that anxiety is stretched out over the film's entire 89 minutes, as you restlessly wait for something to happen. The almost unbearably neurotic love story features Sandler as a self-loathing, self-abusive toilet-plunger salesman who wears a shiny blue suit throughout, obsessively collects pudding packages for the bonus frequent-flier miles and meets his soulmate in the equally devoted, all-forgiving fantasy figure given flesh by Emily Watson. Anderson dismantles the conventions of boy-meets-girl, exploring the hidden rage and pain inherent in any passionate coupling. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—my wife thought it was “weird”—but those tuned in to the anxieties of forming relationships in a modern world where accidents can (and will) happen out of nowhere will appreciate the movie’s dark-toned palette. Painted with deep reds and blues, which often blur into psychedelic hues, Punch-Drunk Love explores those areas of the human heart that defy words. When Paul Thomas Anderson says love hurts, he not only means it, he makes you feel it, too. RT

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Miramax): This Philip Noyce film, gorgeously shot in the director’s native Australia, tells the story of three little girls who escape a “re-education colony.” They’re refugees from the Aborigines’ Stolen Generation, children who were partially Caucasian and therefore marked for reacclimation to the prevailing white culture. Struggling to overcome a society determined to eradicate the native culture, these girls to return to their family, escaping a fate no child should ever face, using little more than their wills. At its core, Rabbit-Proof Fence is really a morality play about the justifications we make for the things that we do that we know aren't right. Looking at what happened to these children—and to thousands of other children were torn from their families, never to be returned—where the wrong is so obvious and the justification so thin, it makes one question everything in one's life. And that's the good news…
Holly Gleason

The Ring (DreamWorks): This remake of a Japanese film gets its scares out of suggestion and anticipation, in the manner of The Shining and Sixth Sense, rather than Scream-like gore, and does so masterfully. Naomi Watts, so spellbinding in Mulholland Drive, provides a well-defined, extremely desperate protagonist; she obviously has a taste for offbeat films. I don’t actually know whether her character gets out of the movie alive—during one especially scary scene, we were jolted by a small earthquake that felt like a bomb had gone off nearby. At that point, we decided to finish the film in broad daylight. Bud Scoppa

Roger Dodger (Artisan): First-time writer/director Dylan Kidd’s brutally hilarious coming-of-age tale has the sharpest dialogue of any film in ages and a memorable performance from Campbell Scott, who’s absolutely sensational, as is the handheld camera work. Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Barkley are wonderful as well in key supporting roles. This is a true sleeper; grab a copy and watch it ASAP. —BS

Spirited Away (Disney): This Oscar-winning Japanese anime is a stoned classic on a par with Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz about a young girl who loses her parents in a deserted amusement park that turns out to be a halfway house for ghosts. With startling visions like people turning into pigs and a big-headed, mole-ridden witch and her giant diapered baby, director Hayao Miyazaki creates a world all its own of unusual meticulousness and shimmering, psychedelic images. Even on your living room TV, the DVD jumps out of the screen in sharp, 3-D, Escher-like geometry. The stock fairy-tale plot is just an excuse for a series of dreamlike scenarios that unfold like a kaleidoscope. This is one cartoon that’s not just for kids. Two-disc set includes Japanese TV making-of feature. —RT

Talk to Her (Sony Classics): Challenges Far From Heaven as the most visually striking film of 2002 Pedro Almodovar is a master of color as well as character, and virtually every shot in this extremely strange but utterly engaging film is suitable for framing. Gorgeous. —BS

Y Tu Mama Tambien (IFC Films): Along with Amores PerrosAlfonso Cuaron's paean to sensual exuberance and the folly of youth has the verve to stand up to “Team America,” marking the official start of Mexico’s Nuevo Wavo. Quite possibly the best movie of 2002. —RT

MUSIC DVDs
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (Ryko/Palm):
An alt-rock, PoMo version of Spinal Tap, this feature-length Wilco documentary offers a completely up-to-date view of the current gridlock between art and commerce as it grinds to a halt amidst a shrinking music industry. Artfully filmed in black and white by photographer/filmmaker/recording artist Sam Jones, the movie offers a Let It Be-styled look at a band in the eye of their own creative storm. The convenient narrative arc includes the firing of a founding member and getting dropped by their record company, only to find themselves at the center of an absurd bidding war. One of the best inside looks at the process of making and selling music you'll see, this is both an ironic take on the innocence of making art in a capitalist society, and a celebration of music for music’s sake. Band leader Jeff Tweedy goes from being unable to scrape up more than $6 to buy his kid food in a convenience store to signing a contract in which the band receives three times as much from the very same conglomerate whose label just dropped ’em. If a band this faceless has a movie as compelling as this one in them, the possibilities are endless. Roy Trakin

Led Zeppelin DVD (Atlantic Records/WSM): These recently unearthed performances include a 1970 show at London’s Royal Albert Hall and songs from the July 1973 Madison Square Garden appearance not included in The Song Remains the Same. There’s also footage from a five-night run at London’s Earl’s Court in 1975, as well as a gig at England’s Knebworth Festival just one year before the death of John Bonham broke up the band. The revelations come in the earliest footage, with 19-year-old, bare-chested, crotch-bulging Robert Plant and demonic guitar-slinger Jimmy Page still innocents, the solid rhythm section of underrated bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham anchoring the bottom. We see the group literally turning the blues into da blooze as they invent what soon became the cliches of heavy metal, which are still in effect more than 30-odd years later. As the band matures, Plant grows hair on his chest and stomach, Plant’s guitar explorations get more and more diffuse, Jones is revealed as the group’s multi-instrumental secret weapon and Bonham ages 20 years in four, going through some of the most godawful haircuts in rock history. By the time they get to “Stairway to Heaven,” the entire enterprise seems bloated and self-conscious to the point of parody, but it’s never less than a riveting spectacle. —RT

TiVo OD
These are the best of times and the worst of times for TV programming; could any two efforts in the same medium be further apart than Six Feet Under and Fear Factor? But for the several generations of Americans that have grown up with the tube as a ubiquitous part of their lives, TV’s perceived function isn’t necessarily to provide the most elevated artistic expression (although, thanks in large measure to HBO, it frequently does); sometimes, in fact, we crave mindlessness—and nothing does mindless better than television. Here’s a sampling of the more intriguing televised fare of recent months.

American Dreams (NBC): My favorite series to debut during the 2002-2003 season follows the lives of a Philadelphia family as they’re buffeted by the events of 1963, the year of the JFK assassination and the emergence of the Beatles. Because NBC scheduled the series at the family hour of 8-9 p.m. Sundays nights, the very bad things that threaten various family members in every episode never actually befall them, and that’s fine with me—I get enough of that in the news. The show’s primary focus is on the teenage daughter Meg, who becomes a regular on American Bandstand (Dick Clark’s company produces the series, which features actual footage from the seminal music-focused TV show). Sixteen-year-old Brittany Snow, who plays Meg, steals the show. The way the camera loves her, it’s instantly apparent that she’s a star, and it’s worth watching the show just to watch her. Another effective element is the use of current artists to play historical ones; Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton are among those who made guest appearances, but the most memorable cameo was turned in by India.Arie as Nina Simone. —Lenny Beer

Kingpin (NBC): The Mexican drug cartel’s answer to The Sopranos—or, as Howard Stern dubbed it, The Sombreros. Plenty of edgy shit and lotsa cocaine references, but its network origins mean it has to stop just this side of the darkness of its gangland predecessor. Actually, it’s closer to Dynasty or Dallas than it is to HBO’s family saga, and the characters aren’t as easy to identify with, but the talented Latino actors and the moral ambiguity made it a welcome addition to the primetime schedule. Dream On’s Brian Benben as the harried plastic surgeon in debt to the cartel is the series’ comic relief, while Twin PeaksSheryl Lee, as title character Miguel Cadena’s scheming gringo wife, adds some Anglo spice to the mix. Roy Trakin

Out of Order (Showtime): If this provocative five-part series had aired on the prestigious HBO, rather than the historically raunchy (if recently impressive) Showtime, it would be all the buzz, rather than a word-of-mouth discovery. Granted, lead characters Eric Stoltz and Felicity Huffman, as a screenwriting couple, are too deeply flawed to be particularly sympathetic, and the rest of the ensemble, which includes William H. Macy and Justine Bateman, is a twitching mass of neuroses and inflamed libidos. Further, the first two episodes weave all over the road, careening from social satire to Herskovitz-Zwick-style dreamlike impressionism to quippy voiceover shtick to Lithiumed-out contemporary tragedy. But eventually, what at first seems messy and over the top begins to make sense as the narrative unfolds; the creators (real-life screenwriting couple Donna & Wayne Powers, who penned The Italian Job, with its delightful Napster subtext) seem to be saying that only way to capture the scope of modern-day dysfunction is to hit it from all sides. The emotions coming out of these troubled characters seem honest, their missteps relatable. And, kids, the brilliantly shot ecstasy party in the first episode is the most vividly inventive evocation of the drug experience since Trainspotting. The acting is extraordinary, the writing incisive, the filmmaking frequently audacious. I hope it comes back next season. Bud Scoppa

Platinum (UPN): This one-hour series tried to do for the hip-hop record business what The Sopranos has done for waste management and Six Feet Under for funeral directors by juxtaposing the cutthroat nature of the workaday world with the mundane realities of middle-class life. The series’ pedigree is impeccable, with executive producers including Frances Ford Coppola and daughter Sofia (who co-created the series with writer/novelist John Ridley) and Six Feet Under’s team of Robert Greenblatt and David Janollari. The show’s initial run of episodes has been impressively realistic, as two brothers, one a straight-shooting family man (Barbershop star Jason George), the other a street-savvy hustler with his own posse (rapper Sticky Fingaz in an impressive turn), try to keep their Sweetback (nice Melvin Van Peebles reference) label afloat under pressure from competitors like Conflict’s ruthless female ruler Cox (whom N’Bushe Wright plays like a combination of Sylvia Rhone and Ruthless RecordsTamara Wright) and an old-school label exec (Tony Nardi’s sleazy, toupeed Nick Tashjian) who wants to buy out the company. In a tribute to the multiracial music industry, there’s also the brothers’ white Jewish schoolboy friend who runs the company’s finances (Steven Pasquale) and an Eminem-styled rapper named Versis (played by real-life Midwestern hip-hop artist Vishiss). —RT

Six Feet Under (HBO): The best show on television got even better this season, with enough delicious reality subplots to make even The Sopranos look like an overblown soap opera. One especially memorable episode encompassed laugh-out-loud hilarity (Michael C. Hall’s conversation with Freddy Rodriguez about ball-shaving, Peter Krause imagining his mother and wife as the same person, Frances Conroy’s belated sexual awakening), as well as heartbreaking angst (Lauren Ambrose’s amazing combination of self-confident bliss and terrified vulnerability, the Puccini opera sung at the funeral). The range of topics is almost as dark as real life itself. Creator Alan Ball has given us a canvas that does something only the greatest art can—emphasizing our common humanity and an inspiring acceptance of the universality of desire that transcends the barriers of repressive convention, while ruefully acknowledging its presence. This is black comedy with a shining light at the end of the tunnel. —RT

The Surreal Life (WB): What hath reality TV wrought? The nadir of celebrity culture arrived at midseason, as seven self-admitted has-beens shacked up in Glen Campbell’s onetime Beverly Hills mansion with hopes of jump-starting their moribund careers via such planned activities as camping out and putting on a talent show. If it were Survivor, the hapless, thoroughly self-involved Corey Feldman would’ve been voted off the island first, with an unctuous Hammer, a bloated and dazed Vince Neil, a creepily sexual Emmanuel Lewis and a shell-shocked Gabrielle Carteris not far behind. The former Beverly Hills 90210 star seemed caught between looking incredulous at how far she’s fallen and wanting to strangle her agent. The only thing that might’ve saved this short-lived series from being a total train wreck would have been Feldman and Lewis sharing their most intimate memories of Michael Jackson or Neil running them all over in a car. —RT

24 (Fox): Or as I like to call it, the most exciting six minutes on TV. In its second season, the show hurdled one cliffhanger to the next in the span it took for the ubiquitous commercials to come up, but in this case, you actually needed the breaks to catch your breath. While the overall plot was stunningly absurd, from moment to moment the intensity of Kiefer Sutherland and the crack supporting cast—with Dick Parsons clone Dennis Haysbert’s remarkable gravitas as President David Palmer a highlight—helped propel the proceedings forward at breakneck speed. And, like life itself, there was nobody you could trust. —RT

MUSIC BOOKS
Writing about music is a somewhat more viable pursuit than dancing about architecture. We have to endorse that hypothesis, because this is what they pay us (nominally) to do.

Donna Gaines, A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart (Villard/Random House): Gaines, a punk-rock version of Camille Paglia, is a veteran journalist and sociology Ph.D. whose 1990 tome, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, is considered a seminal work. Here, she spins a no-holds-barred, autobiographical tale of a nice, Jewish girl growing up twisted in Rockaway Beach. The Yeshiva student turned punk-rock Barnard prof sets out to forge an identity while fending with her overbearing onetime big-band-singer mother and a succession of three fathers, including the Kishka King of Brooklyn and a former jazz drummer. It all takes place against the backdrop of pop music mutating into rock & roll, as Gaines turns to outlaw forms like metal and punk, especially her beloved Ramones (with their Beach Boys-like celebration of her hometown) to learn to embrace her inner alienated child. Roy Trakin

Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney’s Books): Of all the people writing about contemporary music, no one does it more thoughtfully than Hornby, who makes his living as a novelist. If you read High Fidelity, you’ll recognize the tone and voice of Songbook from the first paragraph. The book, one of McSweeney’s limited-edition numbers, consists of 31 pieces, each taking a particular song as its starting point and going wherever the song takes the writer. The act of reading Hornby is akin to putting a table knife through room-temperature butter—the experience feels so effortless that you might be persuaded that Hornby’s writing is effortless as well. But don’t be fooled—writing this insightful and mesmerizing requires effort as well as talent. Truthfully, I’ve only had time to read the first two essays—on Teenage Fanclub and “Your Love Is the Place That I Come From” and Bruce Springsteen and “Thunder Road” (Hornby’s all-time favorite record), but I’m thrilled that 29 more await me, including a couple of songs for which we share a long-lived passion, the Beatles’ “Rain” and Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky.” The book is visually and physically beautiful as well, flat-bound, set in elegant two-column type and adorned with Marcel Dzama’s whimsical drawings. It comes with a CD containing 11 of the 31 songs, a nice, if inevitable, touch. Songbook is sold out on the McSweeney’s site, but I managed to find a new copy on Amazon with no problem. But time’s a-wastin’—only 15,000 were printed, and the price will surely go up as the supply dwindles. Bud Scoppa

Joseph Menn, All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster (Crown Publishing): It’s hard to believe less than three years have passed since the heyday of the groundbreaking file-sharing service that almost brought down the industry. L.A. Times technology reporter Menn, who had a front row seat, captures the roller-coaster ride in all its Barbarians at the Gate, technology bubble-busting absurdity. The inner turmoil at the company, the missed opportunities, the record industry backstabbing and the remarkable rise of founder Shawn Fanning to cult-hero status are all here, begging to be turned into a made-for-cable feature. Casting ideas: American Pie’s Jason Biggs as Fanning, Geoffrey Rush as Napster head Hank Barry, Powers Boothe as BMG booster Thomas Middelhoff, Screech from Saved by the Bell as Strauss Zelnick and, naturally, a feisty Kathy Bates as RIAA chief Hilary Rosen. —RT

Andrew Loog Oldham, 2Stoned (Random House U.K.): The onetime manager/producer of the Stones back in their glory days was one of the progenitors of the original Carnaby Street swinging London scene. This oral-history sequel to his first autobiography, Stoned, takes you beyond the ’60s to a three-decade-long hangover that ended up with Oldham living a self-imposed exile in Bogota, Colombia, which he still calls home. The tome is filled with details of those early recording sessions, which came to astonishing life on the recent ABKCO reissues, with testimony from and about the fellow travelers who took part in creating rock & roll history, including how he lost control of the Stones to Allen Klein. —RT

DENISE’S HALF-YEAR COCKTAILS
It’s the official halfway point of the year, and I’m left wondering, “Where the hell did the last six months go?” This has led me to reflect on my New Year’s resolutions and evaluate my progress thus far. My conclusions—I’m still single (but having a blast working on it), I’ve just scored a super-fab funky apartment and this social butterfly has been flitting her wings all around town—so besides my unfortunate close encounter with the pavement on the Venice Beach bike path a few months back, the first half of this year has been pretty good to me. Plus, my birthday is next weekend, and I also move into my new place, giving me two reasons to celebrate. Sticking with the theme (for once) of this week’s planner, I’ve chosen the best Los Angeles bars and cocktails I’ve found during the first half of 2003.

De’s Top Five Favorite Cocktails:
 Dirty Princess
1 oz. Crown Royal, 3 oz. grapefruit juice
Serve over ice in a cocktail glass and splash grenadine on top

Schwab A Wabba
3/4 oz. tequila, 3/4 oz. vodka, 3/4 oz. peach schnapps, 3/4 oz. blue curacao
Serve over ice with a splash of lemonade and orange juice and float Bacardi

Sexy Bartender
1 1/2 oz. Malibu rum, 1/2 oz. Midori, equal amounts of orange and pineapple juice
Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass

Slo Comfortable Screw Against the Wall
3/4 oz. Ketel One vodka, 3/4 Southern Comfort, 1/2 oz. sloe gin
Shake with ice, strain into martini glass, float Galliano on top and garnish with a cherry

Stoli Oh What a Night Martini
1 oz. Stoli Ohranji vodka, 1 oz. Chambord, 1/2 oz. lemon juice, 3 oz. orange juice
Shake with ice, strain into martini glass and garnish with an orange slice

De’s Five Favorite Los Angeles Bars:
Big Dean’s “Muscle In” Café—1615 Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, 310-393-2666. Located underneath the pier and adjacent to the boardwalk, this place is perfect for a few beers on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Firefly—11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818-762-1833. Co-ed bathroom and hot bartenders; what more does a gal need?

Good Luck Bar—1514 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, 323-666-3524. This small, ultra-hip bar is always packed with a trendy Silverlake/Los Feliz crowd. The Chinese motif and dim lighting offer ambiance other bars wish they had.
Lola’s—945 N. Fairfax, West Hollywood, 213-736-5652. More hot bartenders and Sex and the City viewing parties every Sunday makes this joint one of my faves.

Renee’s Courtyard Café—522 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-451-9341. This place is always packed with pretty beach dwellers, making it perfect for picking up and people watching.

Just in case any of you were wondering, my mystery man from last week did call, and let me just say that I’m happy I made my move and gave him my number, even if it meant I had to endure scathing e-mails after last week’s column from the guy I was on the date with. It appears that he did a little research, tracked down my column and was not pleased with what he read. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but there are some opportunities a gal simply can’t pass up. I hope all of you have a safe and fun-filled Fourth of July. Hopefully, I’ll be setting off some fireworks of my own. Until next week—hugs and kisses. Denise Bayles

Contributors: Simon Glickman and Roy Trakin, with Lenny Beer, Holly Gleason and Jon O’Hara

Edited by Bud Scoppa

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