Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Charlie Brown Christmas



Only, dear readers, the greatest thing to do with Christmas ever.

AIRDATE: 12/9/65

STORY: Charlie Brown is depressed. Christmas is slowly but surely losing its luster thanks to rampant greed having taken the emphasis off the peace-love-and-understanding ideology inherent from the holiday's conception and onto more modern, tangible concerns, ie, presents and the nonstop receiving of. No matter where he shuffles his stout frame, Charlie Brown is bombarded with insouciant avarice, be it Snoopy's doghouse gaudied-up for a "Lights and Display Contest", Lucy's hunger for land, or--most galling of all--his baby sister Sally's apple-cheeked desire for cold hard cash.

A trip to Lucy's psychiatrist booth is about as helpful as going to Baltimore to kick a heroin habit. She displays an impressive knowledge of phobias, and then suggests Chuck serve as the director for a Christmas play the gang is putting on. The prospect of authority cheers the neurotic blockhead, but it is not to last. His peers would much rather dance than learn their lines. Having given vent to his frustration, Charlie Brown is sent out to retrieve a suitable tree for the stage show. Amid a lot filled with pretty-yet-fake trees (all glitter and glamor, clutter and clamor), his eyes and heart gravitate towards a pitifully sparse plant that looks like it couldn't withstand the weight of a single owl. Intent on giving it a loving home, he picks out this sad little tree and takes it back to the auditorium.

Unsurprisingly, the other children shower derision upon Charlie Brown's selection. Humiliated and dejected, a careworn Charlie finally wonders aloud, with the pain searing his voice, if anyone knows the true meaning of Christmas. Calmly, Linus takes center stage and recites Luke 2:8-14.

A heartened Chuck takes the tree home. However, his attempt to decorate it--a single red ball from Snoopy's prizewinning domicile--bends the tree forward, so that it arches over onto the snow. "Everything I touch gets ruined", laments poor ol' Charlie Brown. Not long after, the other kids gather 'round. Still feeling the warmth of Linus' wisdom, they reappraise the little growth and strip the doghouse bare to dress it up. Within mere seconds, the tree is beautiful, with streaming garland, shining bulbs, twinkling lights, and approximately 300 more needles.

This miracle manifest overwhelms Charlie Brown and he leads a rousing chorus of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".

It doesn't get much more perfect than that. 10

MUSIC: The soundtrack, performed with enviable swagger by the Vince Guaraldi trio, is beyond a great Christmas album and just a classic album period. This is music that can be enjoyed in July, with the masterful interplay of piano, stand-up bass and drums practically elevating the notes off the sheet music with every song.

Everyone knows the iconic "Linus and Lucy", but "Skating" should be equally acclaimed for accomplishing no less than the evocation of a light snowfall over a frozen pond. I get a total body chill just hearing it. Both versions of "Christmastime is Here" (vocal and instrumental) are bittersweet and instantly memorable. The redone classics are distinct and tasteful.

Easy-going, virtuoso jazz music on a children's program is one reason CBS thought this special was doomed to fail. The soundtrack does not bubble under, nor does it flow gently beneath the action. It drives whole scenes, acting as parenthetical dialogue, and in certain sequences--the legendary dance, the tree hunt--it is blared, not setting the mood so much as setting it down square in the middle of the action.

When people who can't even stand Christmas music love these songs...10.

ANIMATION: A sore spot to this day for Lee Mendelsohn and Bill Melendez; the latter actually wanted to redo the show several years after the premiere to patch up the flaws, but was wisely vetoed by Charles Schulz. The mistakes are multitudinous but not ruinous: a couple odd edits, inconsistent flesh color, varying depictions of exactly how porous the tree is. Honestly, you could watch the special over ten times and not notice most of what makes the animators cringe.



Here, Lucy's booth goes from "real in" to just "in". Animation boo boo, or did Charlie Brown's whining inspire a loss of enthusiasm?



Hmm, you'd think DIRECTOR should be on the back of the chair...later on, though, it is.

None of it should detract from the beautiful colors and adorable renderings (the facial expressions in particular are as impeccable here as in the strip; Schulz was a genius at drawing a face that "spoke"). 9.5

VOICES: Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Chris Shea as Linus, Tracy Stafford as Lucy, Kathy Steinberg as Sally, Geoffrey Ornstein as Pigpen, Karen Mendelsohn as Patty, Sally Dryer as Violet, and Ann Altieri as Frieda. The voice acting equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees, all of them beyond fabulous in this special, all of them 10's. (The role of Joe Dugan being filled by Chris Doran, who gets a mere 9 for dual Schroder and Shermy action.)

Robbins and Shea are still without peer throughout 50+ Peanuts specials, both for their characters and for any of the characters. Their deliveries are sweet and sincere, instantly imbuing cartoons with heart and soul. Charlie Brown really is upset, he really does care about more than seeing his name on a present; and Linus, well...you could witness a million one ministers intone any score of biblical verse and never feel the peace and comfort in your heart you did when Linus recites Luke 2:8-14.

(Note that several of the kids could not actually read and had to be told their lines by Bill Melendez then cued for delivery. This explains why Sally is so hilariously hiccuping.)

THIS IS WHERE I DO THAT ONE SECTION FOR THE GOOD STUFF ONE SECTION FOR THE NOT-SO GOOD STUFF EXCEPT THIS TIME IT'S ALL GREAT STUFF, I MEAN I DON'T KNOW WHAT KIND OF CONTRARIAN LITTLE BITCH YOU THINK I AM

As opposed to many moments in Peanuts specials which I think should be cultural touchstones, A Charlie Brown Christmas is chock full of brilliance that has become part of a shared culture.


Virtually everyone in your life worth a damn--and many others who may in fact not be--knows the "Charlie Brown dance scene". Youtube explodes with homemade videos featuring different audio over the visuals (and almost all of them awesome; search "Hey Ya Peanuts" and get ready to cry from laughter, if you haven't found it already). Absent Lucy and featuring three characters who do not appear otherwise (siblings 5, 3 and 4), this is a sequence that never fails to inspire wild laughter in children and adults. There is the absurdity of a random dance party when the kids are supposed to be rehearsing a nativity scene, the further ridiculous spectacle of a goddamn dog rocking out the guit, and the fact that with one notable exception (see below), no one you know dances like this. If they permit asylum inmates a Christmas soiree, maybe. But among the alleged sane, no.



Pigpen, the physical manifestation of Charlie Mingus' blood.



5 brings the insuppressible shoulder shrug, while his sisters teach the whole of Deadhead Nation how to enjoy themselves at the gigs.

Here we have three fantastic moves. One day, I'll imbibe enough wine to imitate these for a group of people and not charge a performance fee.

Frieda is doing the "midget toss", Shermy is impassively "Frankenstein"-ing, and Violet, well...I like to call that bit of derring-do "The Pit Sniffer". (Yeah, I know, you got a better idea, put it in the comments.)



Sally's just kind of shuffling, but geez, she just looks so happy. Linus is the only one that is peforming a dance that people still actually do (even if only at high school reunions): the mashed potato. And he is doing it while holding onto the blanket.



"Pwned by own dog, I can't stand it!"



Cultural osmosis has assured that every scrawny little Christmas tree is forever known as "a Charlie Brown tree". It's a part of the national vocabulary. It has its own Myspace page. Try not to be shocked at the announcement that it will run for president, or when you realize that it stands a really good chance against Ron Paul.

I can't believe there hasn't yet been a Japanese noise band named "Spectacular Super Colossal".

They can animate a thousand more Lucy and Schroeder scenes and never surpass the "Jingle Bells" run.


I can't tell you how many times I've repeated the irrepressible Pigpen's self-appraisal: "On the contrary, I didn't think I looked that good."




In my estimation, there are two overly religious pop culture totems that atheists just can't deny. First, "Spirit in the Sky". Sure, the idea of a souls ascension into some hyper-idealized cloud kingdom may make some people wretch, but come on, is that guitar riff not fucking boss? Is the tone not nasty as a Baltimore alley? (Damn, I need to back off Charm City already.) Similarly, Linus' matter-of-fact recitation of the angels visitation unto shepherds upon the birth of Christ will bring tears to the eyes of a hardcore nonbeliever with a dog named Camus and a poster showing Christ being beaten with spiked bats by elderly women.

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Final note here. In 2000, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Peanuts, CBS ran a retrospective hosted by Walter Cronkite. Among the clips shown was the one depicted in this capture:



In the version that is always aired, and appears on the DVD, all that you can hear is Schroeder's piano, then nothing, as he stops to glare at the unwelcome canine. Snoopy finally quits his jig and slinks off, red-faced. No sound whatsoever. In the Cronkite-hosted retrospective, however, you can clearly hear Snoopy's feet beating a fevered pattern against the piano. You can then hear his gulp of embarrassment, and when he crawls off to lick his wounded ego, a pained groan is very audible.

What happened to that audio? Is it from the initial airing? If anyone knows, please share the knowledge.

I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown




Thirty-eight years after the legendary A Charlie Brown Christmas first hit the airwaves (and three years past the death of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz), Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelsohn hit the strips once again and concocted another gleaming holiday treat, one poking out over the stocking with a running time of 41 minutes, a veritable epic length for this canon.

AIRDATE: 12/9/03

STORY: Rerun Van Pelt is the typical youngest child. His little life is filled with subservience (to the whims of his bike-riding mother), sarcasm (both to and from his older siblings), punishment (via the school principal) and seemingly-mysterious rejection (the mom again). His rebellion consists of the quick wit of youth combined with a hunger for time spent unbridled. Rerun's face is never more flush with juvenile joviality than when he is at school cutting and pasting with all the passion of a rogue pirate or warning big sister Lucy of his potential for wrath.

The only thing that could make the smallest Van Pelt happier would be to own a dog. He is enthralled by Snoopy (who isn't?), begging Charlie Brown for temporary access to the magnific beagle. Knowing he can't expect to just "borrow" Snoopy at whim, Rerun's entreaties to his mother intensify. Her only response is "Wah wah wah". Rerun is unable to argue with the logic. An offer to purchase the World Famous Beagle is shot down when Charlie Brown recites an asking price of 10 million dollars. Snoopy may or may not have been insulted by the figure.

When a Christmas letter from his emaciated, desert-dwelling brother Spike arrives, Snoopy is sent into a wild fit of dancing and bleating. Rerun is almost as giddy to learn that Spike will be visiting his sibling; instead of having to spend any money, he can just adopt the behatted nomad.

As with most relationships however, be they between a boy and his girl or a boy and his dog, what starts out as idyllic romping ends just as suddenly (if in this case amicably). Spike goes back to Needles to renovate his cactus, and Rerun makes do with occasional quality time with Snoopy. 10

MUSIC: The soundtrack blends in fantastically, putting the emphasis on the action on screen. 9

ANIMATION: The lines and colors are crisp without being generic; after a few preceding programs where odd white borders were given to Lucy's hair and Snoopy's ears, there is nothing jarring here. The end result is a "new traditional" look, unbeholden to trends of modern animation, while smartly tweaking tried-and-mostly-true designs. 9

VOICES: Corey Padnos and Hannah Leigh Dworkin reprise their roles as Linus and Sally from Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales. Given a full-length to exercise their vocal skills, both are notably improved this go-round. 8 and 9, respectively.

Ashley Rose Orr does a wonderful job as Lucy, hitting all the right notes. The best Lucy voicing since Charlie Brown's All-Stars, for sure. Her expressions of annoyance, wonderment, concern and--yes--crabbiness are pitch-perfect. 10. Adam Taylor Gordon is a solid Charlie Brown, not quite the peak of "blah" that made Peter Robbins truly awe-inspiring, but just possessed of enough grand blandness for an 8. Shame about the three first name things, kid.

Schroeder, Franklin, Pigpen, Violet, and an unnamed schoolmate of Rerun all make brief appearances, none particularly noteworthy. Which is as much a good thing as bad, really.

Last and so far from least that the light from least would take 97,000 years to reach the Earth is Jimmy Bennett as Rerun. Many casual observers (may or not be fans, mind) looked at the decision to base a Peanuts special around Rerun with bemusement. "Who?" they wondered, heads all cocked like thoughtful puppies, until the inevitable "What's Happening?" joke, which not even they thought was funny coming out of their own mouths. Finally they decided that "they must be really desperate for ideas over there."

Actually, a TV special revolving around Rerun was not surprising to any faithful readers of the strip--in fact, many of them embraced it much like they learned to adore the free-spirited scamp himself as he came to grace many of the best Peanuts panels produced in the last 10 years of its run, transformed from a mere "rerun" of his big brother into a character drawn more uniquely within the thought bubble than outside of it.

With no true precedent to live up to, Jimmy Bennett gives a top 5 voice-acting performance by a child of all-time. In the great tradition of Peanuts on television, he sounds just like a real kid, regardless of whether or not all of the words he speaks are ones he fully understands. Far from being daunted by the inimitable Schulzian word play, his delivery is so assured and his inflections so evocative, it seems Jimmy is treating this high-pressure assignment like mid-May recess. Infectious and electrifying, an undeniable 10. If you didn't like the character in the strips before, Rerun as presented here may cause you to go back and reevaluate.

COMING UP, "DOMINICK THE DONKEY"

The only times that "making it rain" is acceptable...




Rerun, in the throes of play with Snoopy, lets out a "Happiness is a warm puppy."

Rerun's letter to Santa Claus inspires rare concern from Lucy. You can hear the moral dilemma raging inside of her as she creaks out, "I think there's something I should tell you...." But Rerun remains insistent that he can undercut parental tyranny with a well-worded plea to Annual Gift Man. Lucy uses evasive questioning in lieu of flat-out ending her little brother's childhood: "Do you really think Santa Claus will bring you something Mom doesn't want you to have?" Rerun's immediate response: "Oooh! Supreme Court stuff!" So brilliant; who wrote like this for children? Charles Schulz. Who needs to sell a t-shirt bearing those four words? Gawker.com. Oh yes.


Snoopy siblings flashback! I think Olaf was actually eating some broken table leg near the end there.


Thurston Moore wrote "The Ineffable Me" for Kim Gordon to sing as Snoopy. Truth in every letter of the preceding sentence!

AND AFTER THAT, "THE CHRISTMAS SHOES"

Spike's arrival at the Van Pelt home means not only does Rerun have a buddy, but Lucy has a project. Since the desert dog is "thin as a promise", she dedicates herself to fattening him up. Her first order of business is to put him in bed and bring him milkshakes. Linus protests when he notices Spike's "hospital gown" is in fact his security blanket. Lucy sternly informs Linus that this is a health issue, and concern over personal property must take a backseat. This sequence is fine, but it makes me wince at the thought of what could have been.

In the original strip, Lucy is bringing Spike a milkshake and Linus raises a fuss over his blanket. Just like in this show. But Lucy's response is far different, and far truer to the character: "Shut up, stupid! I'm nursing him back to health!"

Classic Lucy. And these lines, unchanged, would have had me in hysterics had they been animated. But I understand the decision to leave them out, even as I find it an unfortunate compromise. The tone of this special is not brusque or crabby; it is lighthearted throughout. Lucy's admonishment would have left a gray cloud in its wake for the more sensitive children watching at home. Peanuts on 21st century television is smoother than in the decades previous, treated with anti-irritant cream before it can appear for the approval of uninspired, overanalytical, small-minded networks. And even then it manages to be better than anything on Nickelodeon since that channel ruined Ren and Stimpy lo those many years ago. Go figure.


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I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is a fantastic special that ABC has aired every year since 2003, indicating a welcome push by the network to make this a standard. Despite some bits that drag (thinking Snoopy as Santa here, also the animation of Spike's fateful bike ride with Rerun's mom), you could do so much worse than to give three-quarters of an hour over to this surprisingly vital effort.

Woof.

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown


In time aired and title given, this is as close to a sequel to the original classic as could be. The Peanuts brain trust was wise to allow a healthy distance between the two shows, however; 27 years. Dayum! A young man could be born, raised in a broken home, become addicted to hard drugs, blast off to rock and roll superstardom on a failing O-ring and then plummet back down to Earth causing a crater six feet deep in all that time!

AIRDATE: 11/27/92

STORY: Just like its superior predecessor, ICA features a Christmas play. However, the program is being directed by invisible teachers, not a risible blockhead, so goodbye emaciated tree and alien dancing, and hello punctuality and adherence to the script.

Some filler runs at the beginning help familiarize us with the idiosyncrasies of who will prove to be the shows main characters (and arguably the most idiosyncratic characters in the Peanuts universe): Sally, Peppermint Patty and Marcie.

Each girl has their role in the upcoming play. Sally is to portray an angel. Naturally, she frets and flits over her hardly singular role, which requires nothing more wearying than donning a pair of wings and crying out, "Hark!" You'd think she was about to audition for Lady Macbeth.

Marcie has landed the sugar plum role of Mary. Meanwhile, Peppermint Patty (who had yearned for the chance to play the mother of the Christ child) is relegated to tottering around in a bulky sheep costume that features suspiciously Snoopy-esque ears and no visible mouth hole.
A fun story that borrows liberally from the source material. 9

MUSIC: 9. Unspectacular, but still better than anything you'll hear on shows targeting the nubile demographic these days.

ANIMATION: Lots of deep reds and browns, with the more unique characters (Marcie, P. Pat, Peggy Jean) providing almost-intrusive splashes of bright hues. 10

VOICES: A weird bit here--the Wikipedia page for this special does not list who vocalized Peppermint Patty or Charlie Brown. The end credits show two names not cited on that page, Jamie E. Smith and Mindy Ann Martin. Assuming the Jamie is a boy (not unheard of), Smith may have done Charlie Brown, and Mindy Ann Martin would have handled Peppermint Patty. Of course, the opposite could be just as true.

Regardless, it is amazing to my ears how in more than a few of the latterly Peanuts specials, the kid emoting as Charlie Brown--titular character, may I remind--is so weaksauce. 7. Deanna Tello does a much better job as Peggy Jean. 8. The Van Pelts are passable in secondary roles: 8 for Marnette Patterson's Lucy and 8.5 for John Graas as Linus. In what might indicate a fascinating hidden backstory, two young girls are credited for Sally: Jodie Sweetin and Brittany Thornton. I'd sooner find an eyelash in a bowl of Grape Nuts cereal than discern the difference in Sally's voice, though; a near show-stealing 9.

Near, I say, because we still have the most innocuous lesbian idols this side of the Indigo Girls: Peppermint Patty and Marcie. They are the stars, truly; however much Charlie Brown's blah tries to enervate the proceedings, the girls are right there to push things forward with nervy irreverence. A 9 for Patty (shy perfect 'cause I hold every Peppermint Patty up to the bar set by Linda Ercoli) and 10 for Lindsay Benesk's wide-ranging Marcie.

A STOCKING HANGS, STUFFED WITH THANGS

Several themes from A Charlie Brown Christmas are gently revisited here, mainly in the segments leading up to the main story.

There is Charlie Brown's concern with the increasing commercialization of the season. Near the start, this seems a distant memory as we see the youngest existentialist walking door-to-door in the neighborhood hawking rather paltry wreaths. Goodness of his heart, direness of his straits, or has the round-headed hero just resigned himself to yet another inevitability? We later learn he is trying to save up money to buy a red-haired girl named Peggy Jean a lovely pair of gloves. (No, she's not that red-haired girl. This is the girl who mistakenly believes Charlie Brown's name is in fact "Brownie Charles", thanks to his lovestruck word-mangling.)

As it turns out, the generous spirit has not flown from Charlie Brown. Minutes later he sits by as his sister churns out a letter to Santa full of unblinking, malice-free greed. "Christmas", she states repeatedly, "is about the joy of getting." Her disbelieving big brother tells her, equally repeatedly, that the true essence of the holiday is "the joy of giving." Sally finally brings the debate to a halt: "Like wow."

Linus' infamous Christmas speech also reappears, albeit completely tossed on its ass. As he sits on an armchair with Bible in his lap and Sally at his side, he starts to read from the sacred text. "And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field..." But instead of a rapt audience temporarily stripped of their earthly trifles while they stand in the midst of immortal wisdom delivered by a mortal being, Sally speaks over Linus, lobbying complaint after complaint at the great expenses incurred at Christmas. Overwhelmed, Linus finally faints.

Sally's shining moments involve her worry over the play. She approaches her brother with her concern that she will forget her single line as he twiddles with his hockey stick (oh, give it a rest, pervs). When the spotlight finally casts over the littlest cherub, she promptly blurts out: "Hockey stick!"

However, the bulk of what is truly awesome about It's Christmastime Again comes from the interaction between Patty and Marcie, a top-notch comedy duo to rival Abbott and Costello or, even better, French and Saunders.

"Sweetie, don't be mad because my bean bag is styling on you! Additionally, the calibrations are in my possession as well!"

Among the stories borrowed from the comic strip is a segment in an opera house, which many fans will note was fodder for some of Schulz' funniest later-period material, as he had no shortage of witty, goofy, almost-incidentally sublime dialogue for the girls to share. Here, Marcie explains how the "Hallelujah Chorus" is the most exciting part of the opera, a climactic event for which the audience is expected to stand. A nonplussed Patty responds: "Standing is exciting?"

More than just a li'l simple, the Peppermint Gal is resolute in her quest to avoid intellectual activity on her Christmas vacation. In this case, she's ducking a book report on War and Peace. Seems her grandfather (unwittingly? Heh) put the fear of millions into her by passing along the following "truism": "If you read too many books, your head will fall off!" Friend to the end, Marcie puts the tome in Patty's hands and steps behind her, hands firmly placed on either side of her head to prevent tragedy.

The friction caused by their wildly varying roles in the school play is even riper for laughs. Take the scene where Marcie informs Patty that the teacher has selected the bespectacled girl for the lead role. Patty is completely oblivious, yammering on and on about how much she wants to portray Mary, and how ideal she would be for the part, sandals and all.

"I like the part where the angel Gabriel talks to me."

"Why would Gabriel talk to you? You never listen."

Gut-busting as Marcie's burn is, Patty's protestations once the teacher informs her of the decision are just as breathtaking ("Mary didn't wear glasses!")

Backstage, Peppermint Patty's recalcitrance towards her meager part practically bleeds through the absurd get-up. Can she be blamed for having Sally-like panic? (As Marcie reminds her, in a patient trill that cracks me up every time I hear it, all a sheep has to say is--"Baaaaa".) Inevitably from a girl who wears shorts in the winter, she fails spectacularly. Once the sheep takes centerstage, she blurts out every noise made by every animal but the sheep.


The blanket of "HA"'s is never not funny. It is as reliable a Pavlovian tool for laughter as Redd Foxx falling backwards or the Kenneth character from 30 Rock.


UNDER YOUR TREE, A BUCKET OF PEE

Not much to bitch incoherently about here, folks. Just an unfortunate paucity of Snoopy (oh, I hear the applause of the purists! Is that Ken Tucker leading the room?)

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For me to tell you that this is one of the great "lost" Peanuts specials, a consistently funny joy to sit through, but yet it's only ranked third among the four Christmas programs--well, that should hep you to the awesomosityness of the remaining pair. So check back tomorrow for the runner-up and please, dress weather-appropriate!




Thursday, December 20, 2007

Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales

Welcome, weary shoppers, to the first of a three-day review extravaganzmatasm. Across this 72-hour period, I will thrust you into the land of Termina, where you will hunt down a stolen ocarina and use it to play an ethereal lullaby that will permit you to move back and forth through the three days in a quest to save the world from a rapidly descending moon. Wait a second....

*hits Internet*

Ah, that's better. This peculiar chunk of the week is dedicated to the four Peanuts Christmas specials (yes, there have been four). Rather than go chronologically--rather anticlimactic here--I will proceed in order from least to most impressive overall program.

So grab the cookies and milk/egg nog/wine/vodka (just don't mix the beverages) and enjoy.




AIRDATE: 12/8/02

STORY: Created solely to fill in the remaining time in the hour after ABC showed the unedited A Charlie Brown Christmas, this is a series of vignettes taken straight from the strips, broken up into five segments centering around a different character.



The great beagle plays Santa; tries to partner up on the ice with a recalcitrant Lucy; half-heartedly extends the olive branch to that cat next door.



As the title card indicates, the most thoughtful li'l folk composes a missive to Santa; and falls for a girl who keeps changing her first name.


Linus' would-be paramour writes to "Samantha Claus"; listens to Linus babble biblical; and has a moral dilemma over a Christmas tree.


The most self-centered of the children fails to see the point of year-long altruism; hangs onto Linus and Schroeder; and argues with baby bro over whether or not gifts to sisters are commanded by the Bible.


Chuck Biz scribbles to Santa; waits with Sally to catch a glimpse of Annual Gift Man; and helps baby sister through a particularly befuddling experience.

Good ol' dependable Peanuts; nothing is changed from the source material, so no weak attempt to appeal to a newer generation weaned on video games, horrid NickToons, and trans fat. A solid 8. I applaud the concept and execution of this holiday hodgepodge, and what's more, Charles Schulz also wrote a fair amount of Great Pumpkin-related strips that never made it into the Halloween special, including a great run where Peppermint Patty falls under the spell of Linus' fantastic myth. If so inspired, Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelsohn could cull a good 25-minute show from those.

MUSIC: Wisely, the soundtrack revisits Peanuts standards both holiday and otherwise. When a show starts out with "Skating", that's a good show. 10

ANIMATION: Crisp, with tight lines and standard coloring. Nothing too bold to detract from the action. Special nod to Schroeder on the ice in Lucy's segment, looking splenderiffical in a green wool cap and green-and-black striped sweater. 7.5

VOICES: This is where the score drops a bit. Wesley Singerman does Charlie Brown to the tune of a 6, basically with no personality in his delivery, and a refusal to clear his throat. Hannah Leigh Dworkin (here we go with the full names again!) is only slightly better (6.5) because she at least shows some range (meaning from nails-down-a-chalkboard to makes-nails-down-a-chalkboard-sound-like-a-flute-pattern). Schroeder is voiced dully by Christopher Ryan Johnson (6). That is the fate of anyone who does Schroeder. They're just gonna sound dull.

Corey Padnos does a little better as Linus (7), but I still have my qualms with old boy; see below.

Tim Deters is hilarious as Rerun. Drastically different from the voicing of just one year later given by Jimmy Bennett, the littlest Van Pelt here has a bully's rasp and kindergartner's grasp of English. Score an 8, with a full extra point for the mammoth struggle that practically manifests itself onto the screen as each successive sentence escapes his mouth.

Serena Berman does a nice Lucy (8); firm and even-pitched. The way she nonchalantly utters, "Look, beagle" is great. But would you could you should you believe that the top voice acting performance is from Lauren Scheffel as..."Her". Yes, the girl in school who infuriated a smitten Linus with her revolving door of first names. With an almost-adult enunciation and vocal tone, Scheffel scores a 9, transforming a throwaway character into the standout.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, I BOUGHT YOU A WII!

Sally was a goldmine in the strip. No voice vacillations in animation can take that away. As such, she scores twice here for her proud lack of guile: first, seeing Snoopy come home after having his headwear pulled down over his body by an unamused Lucy: "There's a stocking cap coming up the street!" Then, she visits her brother as he tries to doze off to share a recent vision--sugar plumes dancing in her head.

"What are sugar plumes?"

"Pieces of round candy", Charlie Brown explains, forming an "o" shape with his fingers.

"Oh good. I was afraid I was freaking out."



Snoopy does a neat twist that turns his head into a shrimp cocktail.



That book is either about an animal as Santa or all those early Christmases at the Von Erich house.

Another fabulous reading moment comes when we see Linus lugging around a tome with "Holy Bible" written boldly on the front. I wish they'd made it the Luther Bible instead, a li'l shout out to Germany and a bird-flip to the King James diehards.

Let's take a moment to give it up for some fantastic glares!







My face twists similarly whenever I pass by a Wal-Mart.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, I BOUGHT YOU A PLAYSTATION 3!

Really, only one part of this show rubs me wrong, and you can see Linus in the midst of it in the capture immediately above. After Sally has called him her "Sweet Babboo", blanket boy snaps and yells, "That is so stupid! That is so humongously stupid!"

It seems a sizable crustacean crawled into his largest orifice and spawned, 'cause Linus got 'tude for days. Bill Melendez' direction to Corey Padnos: "Sound like a total twat, kid!" Linus readings require flowing subtlety, not this forced annoyance. Chris Shea wept; then he opened the mail, saw his check, and got over it.

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Well, I actually saved the best for last. And it also involves the middle Van Pelt child.

When Linus' attempt to send "Her" a greeting card fails (no such address), he reaches the end of his rope and wearily concedes defeat. This mercurial little girl is not to be his. But as he holds up the returned envelope, the eagle-eyed viewer will spy a delightful in joke.



Like you thought they could have lived anywhere else!



Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The 25 Greatest Video Games of All-Time

(This is a highly personal list. Influence and popularity were not absolute criteria for making the grade. Replay value and memorable gameplay experience were the most crucial factors.)

1. Super Mario 64 (N64)
2. Super Metroid (SNES)
3. Goldeneye (N64)
4. Metroid (NES)
5. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)
6. Ninja Gaiden (NES)
7. Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES)
8. Tekken Tag Tournament (PS2)
9. The Legend of Zelda (NES)
10. Super Mario Kart (SNES)
11. Snoopy vs. the Red Baron (PS2)
12. Dig Dug (arcade)
13. Kid Icarus (NES)
14. Metroid Prime (Gamecube)
15. Excitebike (NES)
16. Mega Man (NES)
17. Breakout (Atari 2600)
18. Wii Sports (Wii)
19. Super Mario Brothers (NES)
20. Vanguard (Atari 2600)
21. Defender (Atari 2600)
22. Duck Hunt (NES)
23. Soul Calibur (Dreamcast)
24. Space Jockey (Atari 2600)
25. NHL '94 (SNES)

By system:

Nintendo Entertainment System: 9
Atari 2600: 4 (the Atari 2600 was the center of my relationship with my older brother. This is why you have no idea what the hell Space Jockey was/is, but it made it onto my list.)
Nintendo 64: 3
Super Nintendo Entertainment System: 3
Playstation 2: 2
Nintendo Gamecube: 1
Sega Dreamcast: 1
Nintendo Wii: 1
arcade: 1

Yeah, basically it's Shigeru Miyamoto's world; we just press reset on it.

By franchise--

Mario: 4 (will be 5, once I have Super Mario Galaxy)
Metroid: 3
Zelda: 2

Smash Brothers could have been the fifth Mario; that was a tough one to omit. But I have no qualms over leaving off Majoras Mask or Link to the Past, Zelda fans. The latter is a great game, but I'm not sitting in front of my Nintendo Wii, wishing there was just some way I could get my grubby hands on that cartridge all over again and play it until the cows go back to the Lon Lon Ranch. (Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, has reaffirmed its grip on my "quality time", a grasp I relinquished some years ago after deciding I'd sooner successfully mate chickens with salamanders than conquer that goddamned water dungeon.) Majoras Mask is a fantastic concept, very intense and maddening in the time and effort it requires of the gamer. "Maddening" being a frequently delightful word in the world of video games, actually. If the graphics and gameplay combine to create an undeniably addicting experience, no quest is too difficult, no enemy too persistent, no dungeon too reliant on boots. This is why Ocarina wins in the Zelda universe. I would rather spend countless hours exploring the vast expanse of Hyrule than spend determinate hours wandering around North By Northwest Stopwatch Town, or whatever the hell, gathering up enough rubees so's to buy some aspirin at Ye Olde Rite Aid to cure this pounding headache.

Wait, aspirin? Uh oh...that's not a mask! That's an allergic reaction!




Thursday, December 13, 2007

Peanuts Is Timeless, Pt. 10: Know Your 'Nuts

Dropping Peanuts references around like finely-decorated Easter eggs is, without fail, fantastic. It lightens any mood and indicates higher minds at work. Peril still exists, however--no matter if you're a pro athlete, coach, politician, musician, or bum with a blog, anyone who invokes the magical universe of the pen-and-ink li'l folks runs the risk of futzing up a potentially potent simile, metaphor or joke. Admittedly, I am a fanatic with a hard-earned encyclopedic knowledge re: Peanuts. Most people don't know about the spiky-haired 5; I know his sisters (3 and 4).

Peanuts has dual citizenship in the culture. It is a work so superficially appealing that it's wildly popular worldwide despite many of the people who watch the television shows, visit the amusement parks, and purchase the merchandise never having actually read more than a few of the original strips, if any. Said strip is itself a masterwork of expert minimalism that rewards repeated readings, a half-century epic so inextricably linked to the life of its creator, so brimming over with the fears and joys of one man, that it provokes instant empathy and becomes Art For Everyone. (What the Beatles were and are to music, Peanuts was and is to the daily comic strip: influential beyond measure, effortlessly revelatory, and beloved/appropriated by underground and mainstream factions. Art so brilliantly true, it straddles the line separating humankind from the Gods.)

That said, I'm not arrogant about being a Peanuts-head. I don't lament that it is not uniformly appreciated on the sublime level; a hardcore Snoopy collector who doesn't really care about any of the other characters is as valid as someone who smiles knowingly whenever I utter, "My mind reels with sarcastic replies."

Some people don't even know the name of the strip, and I seriously doubt that the majority even realize that the jaunty piano romp which has owned Christmas radio for 40 years is in fact called "Linus and Lucy", not "The Charlie Brown Song". With credit given to Ice Cube, LL Cool J and the countless other MC's who have given proper tribute in songs, it's hard to forget Young Zee in the Outsidaz song, "It's Goin' Down": "To my hoes I'm Snoopy, you be Woodchuck." I'm gonna say cannabis had a bit to do with this slip.

Then there are those lapses which suggest the possibility of arrested cranial development. These links are just two examples in which people express their belief that Snoopy's pilot persona is in fact called the "Red Baron". (Might I add that the Heather Bell article is otherwise a cool read, but that Chris Matthews being utterly clueless is about as surprising as Roger Clemens' name in the Mitchell Report.)

This I find to be damn-near galling. You shouldn't have to be an expert--or especially intelligent--to know that Snoopy (as the Flying Ace) hops on his Sopwith Camel to trade fuselage with his mortal enemy, The Red Baron. Why would Snoopy be a German World War I pilot? Do those who make this mistake think the Royal Guardsmen were singing about battles Snoopy had with himself in the skies? That his frequent cries of "Curse you, Red Baron!" was the World Famous Beagle indulging in self-loathing?

Snoopy is the World War I Flying Ace.



Merry Christmas, Pennsylvania politicians!


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Peanuts Is Timeless, Pt. 9--The Holiday Spirit Off With Decorations

Christmas brings a sackload of inevitabilities: annoying commercials on the television and radio; credit cards pushed to the limit; children reaching intolerable levels of whiny self-entitlement; holiday songs of dizzyingly uneven quality all over the dial; new films that strive to become entrenched alongside Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story in the annals of classic Christmas cinema; and, why yes, those same legendary flicks whose frames and quotes stick fast to our brains.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is pretty much the greatest thing TV has ever provided us, insofar as this season. Grinch is awesome; both the Frosty and Rudolph specials (Burl Ives!) are entertaining; but Chuck and his li'l tree remain capital, pure required viewing. ABC has already shown it twice this month, but I implore thee to buy it the three-DVD set that comprises all the Peanuts holiday specials, especially if you have young'uns. Sit 'em down and make 'em watch. If they don't like the shows, throw 'em out. (And I don't mean the DVDs!)

There are two other Peanuts specials to do with this expensive time of year: It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown (the latter still not really getting its due, four years after its premiere). Expect reviews of all three leading up to the 25th.

Yesterday I found a disgusting story on the Internet, yes, disgusting. Personally repulsive to my sense of decency. 23 times more gag-inducing than 2Girls1Cup on a loop.

This story from a Memphis news site reports a rash of theft of holiday decorations placed on and outside homes. This is hardly unique to any one area of the nation, but one woman's case stuck out.

Hernando resident Christina Fitzsimmons decided she will not let the thieves kill her Christmas spirit. She says a giant, inflatable Snoopy was taken from her yard, early Saturday morning. She put a sign in the yard informing her neighbors of the theft.

"I just wanted everyone to know it was stolen and it's wrong. You're stealing from kids..." Fitzsimmons said.

She says all that is left of the giant Snoopy are the extension cords and hooks. She says when she discovered it missing, she called police.

"I think it's disgusting. I have a three and a five year-old and they are like, 'is Snoopy gonna come back?'"
What bowels-dwelling monster(s) would deprive children of their beloved Snoopy? This entire travesty howls out for justice. Her neighborhood should take up a collection to buy her a new Snoopy decoration and even some other smaller ones (Hallmark has plenty of those Snoopy Santa plushes), so her kids can see that not only did Snoopy come back, he brought friends.

How oddly gushy of me. Well, damnit...it's not right at all.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Peanuts Is Timeless, Pt. 8

News of Warner Home Video acquiring the rights to Peanuts television specials from Paramount (but not, unfortunately, the four full-length features) has been widespread for months. Just recently, though, TV Shows on DVD revealed the first two releases and cover art for both.





To my eyes, this is some fantastic-looking artwork, doing a 180 from Paramount's conservative
realism. The colors are bold and the lettering grabs your attention. WHV is definitely designing with an eye for selling these not only to longtime Peanuts fans, but also to their children, who need desperate rescue from Dora the Explorer.

(The laughing Snoopy in the upper right corner pretty much seals the deal.)

For reasons known only to people who make more money than I do, the Valentine special is coming in January, to be followed by Easter Beagle in February. Yes, of course.

As far as extras, each contains the additional feature(s) that accompanied the Paramount DVDs, but Warner has added promising new material to these classics: for Valentine, "Unlucky in Love", which promises to examine the romantic lives of the Peanuts kids and explore how Charles Schulz' own views and experiences influenced the strip; for Easter, "In Full Bloom", a potentially rewarding look at the what the holiday signifies for the shows creators and fans. Why was I not invited to interview for this, is all I'm wondering.

As you can imagine, your humble blogger can't wait. These are just the first releases. Warner will be periodically doling out new, expanded editions encompassing all the animated specials, including the woefully short-lived Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show.


---------------------------------------------------------

I laugh when sports figures reference Peanuts, but I actually kinda fear for the children when the strip is evoked in intensely serious political matters.

“This is like Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football,” said John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations. “How many times are we going to go through this with them?”

Um, until the planet and all its inhabitants are annihilated? I wonder if Kim Jong-il has a slideshow of Dubya's faults at the ready....

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Four Days of the Factory: The Music of Shonen Knife (Day 4)

1997-2007

Wherein the girls lose a major label record deal and one-half of the songwriting team.

Brand New Knife (March 1997, Big Deal)

  1. "Explosion!"
  2. "Wind Your Spring"
  3. "Perfect World"
  4. "E.S.P."
  5. "Loop-Di-Loop"
  6. "Wonder Wine"
  7. "Magic Joe"
  8. "Fruits & Vegetables"
  9. "Tower of the Sun"
  10. "Keep on Rockin'"
  11. "Frogphobia"
  12. "Buddah's Face"
  13. "One Week"
  14. "Explosion!" (Japanese)
  15. "Wind Your Spring" (Japanese)
  16. "E.S.P." (Japanese)
  17. "Wonder Wine" (Japanese)
  18. "Fruits and Vegetables" (Japanese)
  19. "Tower of the Sun" (Japanese)
  20. "Frogphobia" (Japanese)
You got some brand new roller skates, I got a brand new knife...

So long, Virgin! Bye bye Svengali Porrazzo! Tin-eared scummo!

Welcome back, natural Knife!

"Explosion"--Very standard punky popsicle with a chorus that yearns for that great ice cream truck in the sky. And see, far be it from me to look for clues following the bands first release after their failed attempt at world domination, but...

Explosion! explosion!
if I leave it as it is and break away

Explosion! explosion!
I cant wait. there is no time anymore


Im very hungry. bring me something to eat

Im getting angry. destroy everything.
its like a battle field

"Wind Your Spring"--Gentle, sparkling pop with heartfelt lyrics almost hysterical in their basic truth. Another SK song that creases your face with a mile-smile, but it's pulling at your strings, not just nudging your sense of the ridiculous.

"The Perfect World"--Michie is right at home in this new, thoughtful milieu. "I listen to music to know that I am not alone/I read books to know that I am not alone." An American band does this, it charts high. Guaranteed.

"ESP"--Ah, back to the upbeat par usual. But the band takes care to not let the proceedings loosen up too much.

"Loop di Loop"--Gorging on carnival rides and food. It's 48 degrees outside right now and I want elephant ears. You see my dilemma!

"Wonder Wine"--Chords fall like ice sheets from roof slopes onto the pavement. Some unreal harmony on the choruses across this whole album.

"Magic Joe"--Hey, bulldog! You're the ugliest canine I ever seen. But Shonen Knife possess some of the most beautiful souls I ever heard.

"Fruits and Vegetables"--The pillow-soft backing vocals are a treat, but eh. First bump.

You'll notice throughout that I've kept other reviewers out of the equation, 'cause frankly, they all repeat themselves worse than they accuse Shonen Knife of the same thing. But for the BNK review on Amazon.com by one John Chandler, I make this notable exception:

"Fruits & Vegetables" is delightful, but they might want to shy away from food songs--that's Cibo Matto's turf.

Excuse me? Cibo Matto's first album was in 1995; Shonen Knife were doing songs about food far back as '83, and don't forget that nine years before Cibo Matto came out, SK recorded the greatest song ever about edibles, "I Wanna Eat Choco Bars". Journalists never do their fuckin' homework.

"Tower of the Sun"--The dual guitar intro is striking, and guess this song (another mid-tempo sway) needed the verve.

"Keep On Rockin'"--No band should be able to pull this off. Look at that title; any group in this day and age is going to stuff three minutes jelly-tight with irony and self-aware musings. But not Shonen Knife. They totally want to keep on rockin'. It's what they do. Unfortunately for listeners, they seem to be trying too hard, and the end result is like Spinal Tap meets the 5.6.7.8.'s.

"Frogphobia"--A classic jangly chord progression that gives off a whiff of Burning Farm. People who don't bop and bob and shimmy-shake to this song are one more rape-invoking turn at Halo 3 from helpless.

"Buddha's Face"--Another in a series that includes "Antonio Baka Guy" and "Cobra vs. Mongoose"; hold your horns up, f'real this time. The words concern eyeballs, melted brains and fat rats. "You've gone too faaaaaaaar this time". Gulp.

Believe it or not, this mosaic of wretchedness and damnation comes straight from the brain of Naoko.

"One Week"--I could totally see this on an episode of Sesame Street, with a group of kids playing soccer. Just cut out the end, where the girls repeat the title incessantly in feral Yoko Ono style shrieks. Which is the best part about it, so sucks for the kids.

Happy Hour (June 1998, Big Deal)

  1. "Shonen Knife Planet"
  2. "Konnichiwa"
  3. "Cookie Day"
  4. "Hot Chocolate"
  5. "Sushi Bar"
  6. "Fish Eyes"
  7. "Banana Chips"
  8. "Dolly"
  9. "Jackalope"
  10. "Gyoza"
  11. "Catch Your Bus"
  12. "People Traps"
  13. "His Pet"
  14. "Daydream Believer"

"Shonen Knife Planet"--So B-52's, this. Wild spacey self-referencing samples and the heartwarming motto, "Peace, love and Shonen Knife". Some say Naoko's naive, derivative, a shameless aper and stereotype-reflector who gives nothing back of substance.

WELL SHE ISN'T!

"Konnichiwa"--Look! In the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Flying V! So undeniable, so free, so buzzsaw, it is still the guaranteed first song of their concerts ("Welcome to our show/Let's have a good time tonight"). Drywall rockets itself from my bedroom walls when I play this on the stereo. Paint peels and a half-full water bottle vibrates toward the edge of a desk. Snatch it up, finish it off, get back to bein' a dork. I was playing Nintendo Wii when this song started up, and immediately the console switched from my golf game and automatically started creating Shonen Knife Miis. The Yamano sisters are gonna kick my ass in tennis.

"Cookie Day"--Ah crap, it's ska. Except it doesn't suck. That melody flip is so Fab. I let Snoopy peep this song and of course he loved it, but was careful to add that, "For some of us, every day is Cookie Day."

"Hot Chocolate"--Dig the pots-and-panned guit.

"Sushi Bar"--Remember the Presidents of the United States of America? 'Bout '95/96 or so, they had that pair of novelty goofball songs, "Lump" and "Peaches"? And printed media always abbreviated their name--POTUSA--and stoners giggled? Yeah. Anyway, they help out here on the chorus. Highlight of their collective life, no question, 'cause this refrain is so strikingly populist and inspirational.

"Fish Eyes"--Michie woke up one day with the eyes of a fish, and more songwriting talent than your favorite band.

"Banana Chips"--A clap-ecstatic rave-up with lyrics that pretty much sum this band up. "Banana chips for you/Banana chips for me/In the afternoon, banana chips and tea".

The Youtube vid for the Japanese version of this track features three pages of comments, the most telling being "I swear Shonen Knife must be high when they come up with this stuff." Nah, believe it or not, a band just made something creative and crazy and was sober throughout. I know, weird. It's what happens when you love to do something so much the natural rush through your central nervous system shoots the same (legal, free) chemicals we all have in our bodies up into the brain and sets off your imagination. Try it.

"Dolly"--Sleepy acoustic; sounds like a ship in a bottle perched on some too-high shelf.

"Jackalope"--Porno-wah and seeping organ. Passable postcard punk.

"Gyoza"--You listening, Cibo Matto? Y'all were good, but Shonen Knife is for the children! The hyperactive, sugar-shocked, bad TV-addicted children!

"Catch Your Bus"--There's something about the beginning that tugs at my hippocampus. The persistent notes over three-chord splash. I just can't place it! Very of its decade. Shonen Knife should write a song about a hippopotamus going to college.

"People Traps"--"Any number of people traps/In society". I feel you, KnifeFam. Help me stay safe.

"His Pet"--It's like "Iron Man", but not that good, now. I love when the Knife gets heavy with recently-sliced fudge, but the vocal tricks are uncalled for.

"Daydream Believer"--In the vein of "Top of the World", but c'mon--they were practically made to cover this. They service it like a South Prospect Street hooker. Is it superior to the original? Is Japanese food superior to Chinese? Yeaaahhh.

Strawberry Sound (February 2000, Universal/MCA)

  1. Buggy Bug
  2. Wild Life
  3. Nya Nya
  4. Gokiburu
  5. Super Big Black Bass
  6. CM Song (Commercial Message Song)
  7. Side Two
  8. Punk Rock Star
  9. Sesame
  10. Kaiki Game (Mysterious Game)
  11. Chinese Disco
  12. Mosquitoes
  13. Mayonnaise Addiction
  14. Synthesizer (Bubble Houkai) (Bubble Collapse)

The first phase of Shonen Knife is over; after Happy Hour, Michie Nakatani left the band. It is assumed the split was amicable. With a band so notoriously reticent, assumptions are often all you can make.

The transformation from three- to two-piece after 18 years did not stagger the sisters. They took the departure of their friend as an opportunity to do something critics increasingly derided them for not doing. They expanded their sound and experimented with instruments beyond the typical guit-bass-drums setup. The finalized album would be their best since Baka Guy.

"Side 1"--Nine-second intro. Dunno what video game they jacked for this, but I wanna play it!

"Buggy Bug"--Devil-running bass and a pest of a guitar pattern burrows deep into the brain. The solo departs from the clean lines and note-mirroring they're known to rely on, a maelstrom that implies some sick vermin orgy.

"Wild Life"--Smart and speedy...and in Japanese. Baby baby, fallin' in love...

"Nya Nya"--The title is the unrelenting hook, and a welcome recall of those "don't-give-a-fig" 80s, when SK would just throw some walkie-talkie transmission in a song about the solar system, or quote a department store catalogue and defy you to deny the validity of it all.

"Gokiburi"--Detective John Shaft races to the scene in a pink Cadillac, stopping by a fire hydrant in front of Kim's Music. He looks down and sees not spurting water but a pile of cockroaches streaming into, out of, and around a discarded taco. "This shit ain't fit for evidence control!" he spits out in undisguised disgust. "I'm-a hit up that Shonen Knife concert and then come back here and canvas the motherfuckin' neighborhood. Bitch betta have my Merzbox."

"Super Big Black Bass"--Not reminiscent of the Let's Knife original. It's faster, louder, and is in Japanese. Amazing how the band just hops back and forth from style to style on this album, from gnarled rock to playful roll.

"CM Song"--Hilarious. A parody of Japanese advert music that sounds like a sped-up sample of cats copulating on a Casio. The cincher is Naoko's whispered hook, "This is the CM song", completely aware of how brain dead everything sounds.

"Side 2"--We have now stepped into a New Age bookstore/massage parlor.

"Punk Rock Star"--Pithy. No, I don't have a lisp.

"Sesame"--Sounds like a Brand New Knife castoff but better. Naoko forgets better hooks than most songwriters these days have committed to record. This one is so deeply embedded in my brain I can smell the metal.

"Kaiki Game"--James Bond is back in the Orient! You Only Live Knife.

"Chinese Disco"--Clubby-type track. Cool.

"Mosquitoes"--"I am the mosquito sacrifice!" Holy crap on a crutch. As close as Shonen Knife will ever get to Slayer. You need to plunk down the 40-50 bucks an import copy will run you right now.

(And if that lightning-gallop drum part sounds too proficient to be Atsuko, well, it is...the late Mana "China" Nishiura hopped onto the stool for this one. She would later spend three years as the group's touring drummer.)

"Mayonnaise Addiction"--After the disorienting, stimulating "Mosquitoes", any subsequent track is going to sound weaker and non-sweaty. Even this nice Rubber Soul nod.

"Synthesizer"--Like Alan Parsons, but minus the games people play. Pure interplanetary economics. Naoko explained it thusly:

"It was 1990, the economic situation in Japan was very good. "Flower Expo '90" was held in Osaka. There was an entertainment using water (like Disneyland's water show) at the Expo. "Synthesizer" was inspired by the background music of the water show! And, around 1990 was in the middle of the good economical situation in Japan. Many companies spend much money to promote such kinds of events. I wrote this song in Boom to Bust years."

Candy Rock (March 2003, Warner Indies Network)
1. Mass Communication Breakdown
2. Messy Room
3. Wonder Land
4. Seiuchi
5. Virtual Reality
6. Cross Word
7. Nazo
8. Monkey Brand Oolong Tea

Another import; I've heard it once, and burned the tracks I liked to CD-R because it just let me down so much. Calvin Johnson guesting on "Seiuchi" is about 15 years too late. If I can find the disc soon, I'll edit my review in.

Heavy Songs (October 2003, Confidential)

  1. "A Map Master"
  2. "AAA"
  3. "Golden Years Of Rock'n Roll"
  4. "Rubber Band"
  5. "Heavy Song"
  6. "A Boogie Monster"
  7. "Mushroom Hair Cut"
  8. "Whatever"
  9. "Pigmy Jerboa"
  10. "An Elephant Insect"
  11. "Computer Language"
  12. "Mango Juice (for George Harrison)"

"A Map Master"--More lovingly regurgitated Ramones, dealing with difficulty reading directions. Irresistible.

"A.A.A."--Or, "Ah Ah Ah". More accurately, Eh Eh Eh.

"Golden Years of Rock 'n' Roll"--Some Knife collectors on the Internet acted like Michie's exit was akin to finding out Naoko was a wartime geisha. Total hogwash.

I got news my favourite band
Would go on a reunion concert tour
So I went to a ticket agency
It was very high priced
But it's okay, it might be a precious time for me
It's all right, I can't wait to go

I took out their old records
From deep inside my closet
But my old record player
Didn't work very well
So I bought their newly released greatest hits CD
Oh how nice, now I'm ready for the show

Rock, rock
I don't hear rock music anymore
Rock, rock
All I need is .....
Rock, rock
I don't want techno anymore
Rock, rock
All I need is .....
Hello, golden years of rock n' roll
Welcome back to the twenty-first century

Finally the day of the concert came
And I was at the big arena
The band appeared on the stage
They look different than before
What happened to their long hair and slender bodies?
I was disappointed by their looks

But their live performance was
Fantastic, everybody there had fun
Two hours later, the show was over
I hurried over to buy something
Then I got a cool black short-sleeved tee shirt
Anyway, the music made me so happy

Cheer up! Cheer up!
Rock will never die
Cheer up! Cheer up!
Rock forever

Wow...I don't even know how much I would co-sign that sentiment, but they're forcing me to believe it. Nothing to decode (and you know how much I love my metaphor pin), nothing to feel ambivalent about. MWAUH!

"Rubberband"--Samples a comical rubberband effect. Powerful!

"Heavy Song"--Not really, though. Mournful organ and tapped cymbals, loping and hazy.

"A Boogie Monster"--Who ate a map master. I think. Maurice Sendak told that story before, anyway.

"Mushroom Hair Cut"--By-the-numbers rockabilly. What the hell happened to the "Strawberry Sound"?

"Whatever"--Legendary among fans as the first song penned (and sung) by Atsuko. It is cool, but goddamn y'all, curb ya dogs.

"Pigmy Jerboa"--Always makes me think of ex-Swan Jarboe. The piano doesn't though, very light on its feet and unjarring.

"An Elephant Insect"--This song features Ron Sexsmith, but shut up a second. A couple weeks ago Patrick and I watched an episode of Mythbusters where the hosts, Adam and Jamie, sought to either confirm or bust the myth that elephants are scared of mice. Setting up shop in the African wild, they rigged a dung with string so that when the pachyderm approached, they would yank the dung away to reveal a white mouse that had been hiding underneath. And wouldn't you know, that elephant backed off. Crazed.

"Computer Language"--A flashback to the morphing, exploratory sounds displayed on the last album, all found sound and hoarded menace pushed to the limits.

"Mango Juice"--A parenthetical tribute to George Harrison, who had recently passed. The udu strains now serve as the bands intro music at their gigs. Seiichi Yamamoto took time out of a daily schedule of seventeen gigs and four studio sessions to add some guitar flourishes.


Genki Shock (April 2006, Glue Factory)

Glue Factory? Isn't that where you send past-prime horses?

  1. "Introduction" – 0:41
  2. "S*P*A*M" – 3:33
  3. "Jeans Blue" – 3:06
  4. "Anime Phenomenon" – 3:58
  5. "Spider House" – 4:15
  6. "My Magic Glasses" – 4:20
  7. "The Queen of Darkness" – 4:49
  8. "Forest Walk" – 4:48
  9. "A World Atlas" – 3:35
  10. "Broccoli Man" – 3:35
  11. "Rock Society" – 2:31
  12. "Under My Pillow" – 4:27
  13. "Giant Kitty" – 4:35
Atsuko does double duty (bass/drums) on all but four songs, when future official member Etsuko Nakanishi takes over. For a tidbit that's sure to impress some people, Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 adds vocals on the next-to-last song.

The liners state it plainly: "No synthesizers".

Yeah, 'cause their presence totally fucked up Strawberry Sound! I don't know why they feel the need to offer that disclaimer.

"Introduction"--The refrain of "Big big, big cat!" mixed low for a half-minute or so. A self-solving mystery.

"SPAM"--A song decrying the enlarged penile horrors of "Speeuhyam" emails.

"Jeans Blue"--Meh to the feh.

"Anime Phenomenon"--Reminiscent of "Quavers", minus the deity-deafening drums. Shonen Knife doing a song called "Anime Phenomenon" was as inevitable as the new Wu-Tang album totally ruling.

"Spider House"--Heavy and pretty. There's mayonnaise on this grilled cheese sandwich, what?

"My Magic Glasses"--Your Average B-Side.

"The Queen of Darkness"--Charming, for sure. Brooding axe chops that make way for lollipop licks.

"Forest Walk"--To the C-side.

"A World Atlas"--Very helpful, one would imagine, to a map master. Compass bass provides respite.

"Broccoli Man"--Sounds like a smokey club where Shonen Knife are opening for a syringe that does spoken word.

"Rock Society"--That bassline is the freshest thing here.

"Under My Pillow"--Do I like it or not? I can't...D-side.

"Giant Kitty"--Ah, so that's where you got the intro from! Always recommended to end the album with the best track, even if it's not so advisable to have it be so far ahead of every other song it's like a different band showed up at the studio. Felines worldwide purr their appreciation at this buzzsaw homage. (And thank you, Naoko, for letting me sing the chorus from the crowd in DC last month.)

Fun! Fun! Fun! (2007, Blues Interactions Japan)



1. 重力無重力
2. Barnacle(ふじつぼ)
3. Flu(インフルエンザ)
4. Ramones Forever
5. Las Vegas
6. Birthday
7. ポップコーン(Popcorn)
8. クッキーたべたい (I want to eat cake!)
9. みなみのしま (Everyone's island)
10. おやすみ(Goodnight)

The 30-second snippets I heard on a Japanese online store sounded instantly more promising than Genki Shock, and seeing "Flu" and "Ramones Forever" live in November just made me antsier to hear the entire album. When I do, I'll put in a review.

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The moral of the Shonen Knife story is that over 14 albums, the "Osaka Ramones" can be safely said to have not overstayed their welcome. Nor can the charge of "samey" be thrown at them and actually stick.

The first three albums and Strawberry Sound are positive must-owns (even with the latter's hefty import price). None, bar Candy Rock, should be absolutely avoided.

I hope this has opened your eyes and ears a bit to the wonder world that is Shonen Knife. Or as I like to call them, Musical Velcro.