Sunday, April 27, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: April

It's not the end of April, but we've had the last Sunday, which is good enough for me. "American Boy" managed four weeks at number one, and now we move on to...

Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, "4 Minutes" (20 April 2008 to present, two weeks and counting).

Madonna's built a career around collaborating with fashionable producers, usually with successful results, and if anything the surprise is that it's taken her this long to get around to working with Timbaland. After all, he's worked with everyone else. He's probably made a record with my granny. I'll have to ask her the next time I see her.

This is an odd song. Musically, it's really growing on me. Lyrically, it's bordering on gibberish - I think it's meant to be one of those awful "let us dance together, it is the most important thing ever" things, and even that doesn't come across very clearly. And as for the video... well, it's a bit of a mess, isn't it? They've put a lot of work into those special effects, but the result is just rather confusing.

Still, I like it. And it has the odd distinction of taking five weeks to climb to number one - something that was virtually unthinkable a couple of years ago, but seems to have become possible again thanks to the word-of-mouth nature of download sales. It didn't actually get a physical release until week six, and for that matter, the single had been on the charts for the better part of a month before the video came out. It's an unusual, slow-build marketing strategy which seems to work.

So - what else have we got this month?

- As if to prove my point that Kanye West has a staggeringly erratic sales record in the UK, his new single "Flashing Lights" bombed out at number 29. True, the video has been deemed unplayable on daytime TV (it features a woman in lingerie bludgeoning Kanye to death with a shovel, although it's very tastefully shot). But "Homecoming" didn't have a video at all when it was released as a UK single, and it still made the top 10. People just don't like this one very much, I guess.

- Australian singer Sam Sparro got to number 2 with his debut "Black and Gold", which is a classy little number. This guy might be on to something; we're probably overdue for a revival of adult-oriented electropop.

- Here's an interesting piece of repackaging. Following Robyn's recent renewed success, British labels have apparently been hunting for other Swedish acts along the same line. And they've come up with Petra Marklund, who records as "September" - a name that I suspect probably works better in Swedish. She's on her fourth album in Sweden, but she's never troubled the attention of the British before now. Frankly, videos like this probably didn't help.

So the UK record label has decided that a different tack is required. Here's what they came up with - presumably in association with the Latex and Neon Marketing Board.

It's... well, it's a bit tacky, let's be honest. And it's a bit sub-Kylie. But it's a better fit for the song. Incidentally, one of Robyn's videos was also re-shot for the UK market, although if you ask me, the Swedish version of "Be Mine" was much better than the tedious-night-at-the-youth-club British video.

- The British are always keen to jump on a new bandwagon, and since our top 40 is based on sales instead of airplay, it's surprisingly easy for MySpace buzz to translate to chart positions. As a classic example, here are the Black Kids, a Florida band who have never made the US chart - in fact, I'm not sure they've ever even released a record in their home country - but still got to number 11 here with "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You."

This is perhaps the indiest thing I've heard in years - I keep expecting a Chart Show caption to come up, telling me that it's number 8 on the indie chart below the Pale Saints - but it's a grower. And it has girls shouting, which is always good.

- Sometimes the music press are right when they seize on a band, and the Arctic Monkeys were an example of that. Now lead singer Alex Turner has formed a side project, the Last Shadow Puppets, with Miles Kane (who's in a band called the Rascals, which you're now supposed to say in a knowing fashion, as if you had heard of them before now - they've released two singles, neither of which made the top 75, although something tells me that'll change).

Their debut single, "The Age of the Understatement", got to number 9; the album entered at number one today. And it's good stuff; the Scott Walker-style orchestral backings really bring out another side of their songs. The single sounds like a sixties pop band doing a western theme, so naturally the video has them wandering around Moscow in the snow... No, I don't quite get it either. But it works, doesn't it?

You know, Alex Turner might actually be everything people claim for him.

Backlash 2008

Traditionally, Wrestlemania is the WWE's biggest show of the year. Backlash is the one that comes next. It's not an enviable position on the calendar, and as the name suggests, it's generally treated as a sort of epilogue to Wrestlemania. That's what we have tonight; it's a mixture of loose ends and generic PPV filler. Luckily for me, it's on Sky Sports 1, so I get it anyway.

But before we get to the matches, let's pause to consider the current state of the WWE's announce teams. For those of you who don't actually watch wrestling, this might call for a little explanation. Even though Raw, Smackdown and ECW are basically the same show with different names - they even have the same set - nonetheless they each get a separate commentary team. One guy does play-by-play, the other does colour. It's a well-worn format. But finding six decent commentators appears to be beyond the wit of the WWE.

Raw is fine. Raw has Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. Lawler is a perfectly acceptable colour commentator when he isn't drooling over the women - which, at his age, long since passed "sexist" and entered the realm of "downright creepy" - and thankfully, the WWE have apparently told him to pack it in. Ross is the best commentator in the business, perhaps because he has credibility; if it's bad, he won't try to tell us otherwise. He's so good that the WWE continue to use him on their flagship show despite the fact that he doesn't fit the corporate image at all - he's a middle aged man from Oklahoma with a partly paralysed face. But he's so good at his job that he holds on regardless, and the periodic attempts to shift him always fall through.

Smackdown, until relatively recently, had Michael Cole and JBL. Cole is not fantastic, but he's perfectly adequate as a foil for a good colour commentator. He was fine with Tazz. He was fine with JBL. But now that JBL has returned to active wrestling, Cole is partnered with Jonathan Coachman. Coachman is actually pretty good as a heel manager, but he's a lousy commentator. The show increasingly features aching stretches of embarrassing silence - and that's saying something, considering that it's taped. The WWE have apparently figured out that this isn't working, as the Wrestling Observer reports that Mick Foley has now been offered the job. He's not the greatest colour commentator in the world either, but he'd be a massive step up from Coach.

And then there's ECW. Until recently, ECW had Joey Styles and Tazz, both of whom were associated with the original, indie/alt ECW. Tazz has matured into a very good colour commentator. Styles has had more of a rocky ride with the WWE. His style never really fit in with their programming, and they never got his sense of humour. In an attempt to fit in, he's been neutered to pointlessness, but he was still adequate. However, Styles has now been moved into the website team, and reportedly he's genuinely delighted to be away from that awful show. But in his place, we have Mike Adamle from the original run of American Gladiators, a man refreshingly untained by any knowledge whatsoever of the product. And when I say "any", I mean "any."

He doesn't know the names of wrestlers. He doesn't know their moves. He doesn't know that when you make contact with your partner to change places, that's called a "tag" - he spent an entire match calling it "touching out". He's staggeringly incompetent, and the joke wears thin pretty quickly. Is this a storyline, or have they lost their minds? I give him a month, unless he improves dramatically.

Anyway. Let's move on with the matches...

1. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. Triple H v. John Cena v. JBL. Last month at Wrestlemania, Orton unexpectedly won and retained his title. I suspect this is probably the end of the road for him; he's run out of challengers, so it's time for a change. And if he loses the title, he could always jump to Smackdown, which is short on top-level heels.

JBL seems to have been added as filler to stop this being a straight rematch from last month. I can't see him winning. Cena was champion for most of last year. So it's probably Triple H time, and actually, it's been long enough since his last major title reign that the time has probably come to cycle back round.

This was originally announced as a one-fall match, but for some reason they've changed it to elimination rules. Those are usually better, if you ask me; they give the match more focus as it goes on. I think this will be good, and they'll get a decent title change out of it. I think they protect Cena with a screwjob elimination, to save him as a strong challenger; Cena/Triple H is a feud with some promise for the summer.

2. World Heavyweight Championship: Undertaker v. Edge. Undertaker won the Smackdown title from Edge at Wrestlemania. This is Edge's rematch. He won't win. And that's about all you can say about it, really.

They had a good match last month, so this should be good. The main question is whether they want to keep the feud going any longer; Undertaker is desperately short of credible heel opponents, and that may force them to do a screwjob finish in order to set up a third match in May.

3. ECW World Heavyweight Title: Kane v. Chavo Guerrero. Kane won the ECW Title at Wrestlemania by pinning Chavo in five seconds - which, to be fair, got a bigger reaction than they would have been likely to get by doing a proper match. This is Chavo's rematch.

I'm not quite sure about this one. Logic says Kane retains, but Kane as ECW champion is a bit weird, and I can see some possibilities in having Chavo regain the title with the help of his La Familia group. This bizarrely eclectic grouping consists of Chavo, Vicky Guerrero (his aunt) and Edge (her boyfriend), along with three flunkies. If they're losing Edge/Undertaker, then it makes some sense for them to win against Kane. We'll see. I'm picking Kane, but I wouldn't be shocked if Chavo wins.

The match... sounds like a godawful style clash, to be honest. Kane is much bigger than Chavo, which makes for an odd match when Chavo's meant to be the heel.

4. United States title: MVP v. Matt Hardy. Matt Hardy returns from a lengthy absence due to injury, and picks up his feud with United States champion MVP where it left off. As you'd expect, an interruption of many months hasn't done it any favours. Still, Matt and MVP have had some good matches in the past, and I'm sure this will be fine.

There are two ways they can go with this. If they want a lengthy feud between the two over the summer, then MVP wins to set up a string of rematches. Or, if they're worried about the desperate shortage of main event villains, MVP loses to Matt right now, freeing him up to challenge for the world title.

Actually, there's a third option: MVP beats the heroic Matt Hardy decisively, keeps his title, and goes on to challenge the Undertaker as the reigning US champion. That would make no sense at all and would bury Hardy six feet under - but poor Matt has a habit of getting his legs chopped out from under him for no good reason, so I wouldn't rule it out.

On balance, I think MVP wins. There's at least a couple of rematches in this before Matt finally gets his title.

5. Shawn Michaels v. Batista. This is an epilogue to last month's Wrestlemania match, in which Shawn Michaels pinned the legendary Ric Flair and ended his career. Batista isn't happy about that and thinks Shawn should have thrown the match. Shawn says Flair wanted him to fight, and he did the right thing. Hence, fight.

Or at least, that's where they were going at first. They've meandered off the point into a general squabble about obscure events from Shawn Michaels' past continuity - no doubt fascinating if you remember him break up with tag team partner Marty Jannetty in 1992, but a bit less immediate than the perfectly adequate "you should have thrown the match" feud. Nonetheless, this is probably the match that's attracted most interest from wrestling fans.

For some odd reason, Chris Jericho has been added to this match as special referee. Technically, that's three babyfaces in the same match, but Jericho has been acting a bit strange lately, taunting both competitors, and seems to be on the verge of turning heel. Jericho's inclusion suggests that we're getting a storyline match, and that the finish probably involves him turning on somebody and costing them the match. A heel turn for Batista isn't out of the question either, as the crowds have generally been siding with Shawn in this feud.

I'm expecting a good match; Shawn loses after Jericho screws him, and the two of them go on to have a feud on Raw, which should be fantastic.

6. The Big Show v. The Great Khali. Giant versus giant, in a match which should demonstrate the awesome gap in ability between the two. Khali, bless him, is just a big lug with not much more to him. The Big Show, on the other hand, happens to be quite talented anyway, and can have really good matches when he puts his mind to it. This will not be one of them, because almost nobody can get a great match out of Khali - not without the sort of bells and whistles that they won't get on the undercard.

Khali is taking some time off after this show, which virtually guarantees the Big Show winning.

7. Six women against six other women. You want names? Oh, alright. Deep breath. The babyface team is Mickie James (who won the Women's Title out of nowhere on Raw two weeks ago), Maria (Playboy cover girl, not great), Ashley (Playboy cover girl, utterly useless), Michelle McCool (not great either), Cherry (1950s sock-hop girl whose matches mostly consist of her whimpering in a corner) and Kelly Kelly (has her moments, but generally not very good). So that's one decent wrestler out of six. Good luck, Mickie!

The heel team is Beth Phoenix (the ex-champion, perfectly good), Melina (who's fine), Jillian Hall (stuck in a series of comedy gimmicks, but an okay wrestler), Layla (er... oh, the other dancer from ECW - well, she's better than most of the babyfaces), Victoria (veteran heel wrestler, and she's usually good), and Natalya (newly debuted heel wrestler, who also seems decent). So that's five decent wrestlers out of six. Huh. Didn't know they employed that many.

You can probably see, in that light, why they put the title onto Mickie James. She has five viable contenders - six if you add Katie Lea, who hasn't set foot in a ring yet, but is a proper wrestler with years of experience. (YouTube has several of her OVW matches, if you're curious.) Beth, on the other hand, basically had the option of wrestling Mickie James ad infinitum. The idea was presumably for Beth to lose the belt back to Candice Michelle, but she's injured, so it's time to move on.

This will be a mess. I would assume that the heels win, probably to set up somebody as a challenger.

Worth buying? Well, it's Backlash. A lot of it's recycled from last month. But Shawn/Batista should be good, Matt/MVP has promise, and both of the Raw and Smackdown title matches were decent at Wrestlemania. It'll be average to good, and there's a strong chance of a title change. But there's nothing much to really grab the casual fans.

X-Axis comments thread - 27 April 2008

This week: since there are lots of X-books out and not a great deal else, we'll look in on Uncanny X-Men halfway through its "Divided We Stand" arc; Wolverine: First Class goes to a Japanese restaurant (in the loosest possible sense); and X-Men: First Class seems to have woken up thinking it's a Grant Morrison comic.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 20 April 2008

This week, Wolverine: Origins finally gets around to defining Way and Dillon's take on Deadpool; X-Men: Divided We Stand catches up on the minor characters; and DC's latest relaunch of Titans gets off to a mediocre start.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pushing Daisies

It's been a long time since ITV ran an American import in primetime. Media Guardian have tentatively suggested that the last one was The Practice way back in 1999, and while I couldn't swear to that, it certainly sounds plausible.

Pushing Daisies is an odd choice to be the first show, particularly airing in a high-profile 9pm slot on Saturday. Traditionally, ITV weekend line-ups are, shall we say, a bit safe. It's the domain of talent shows, major films and the occasional football match. And Pushing Daisies is just plain odd. Not only does it have a bizarre premise about a man who can bring the dead back subject to certain conditions, but the style of the show is verging on magical realism.

They aired the first episode on Saturday night. I've seen good reviews for it, and I gather it did well in America. I can certainly see the appeal. It's unquestionably different, just as Twin Peaks was, but in a much happier, technicolor way. The creators apparently cite Amelie as an influence, and it shows. It's beautifully designed, and it creates its own fairy tale world. It's rare to see a comedy-drama with a visual style quite so distinctive, and which sets a tone so confidently and clearly. All this allows the show to get away with elements that might otherwise seem grotesque.

But I wasn't quite sure about it. I think mainly it's the pacing. Maybe future episodes slow down a bit, but the first one rattles through everything at breakneck speed. It all felt a little bit too hectic for the tone they were after, and it came across at times as a meticulous explanation of a complicated premise, leaving the characters little room to move. Perhaps that's why I ended up deciding that I rather admired the show, and yet didn't much care what happened to the characters. The whole thing is built on the idea of a romance between two people who can't touch, and the emotional connection wasn't really there for me.

I'll give it another chance, though. Perhaps it relaxes a bit once the heavy lifting of setting up the premise is out of the way.

Incidentally, did the original American version feature abrupt, sudden cuts to ad breaks, or is this just an unwelcome addition from ITV, who haven't aired an American show in so long that they've forgotten how to do it? It does the show no favours, whoever's fault it was.

The Kids Are All Right

Designing gameshows isn't easy. The BBC has run up a long list of Saturday night shows that clearly had the core of a decent idea, but somehow needed a bit of tweaking. And now they've got another one.

The Kids Are All Right is an early evening, adults-verus-kids quiz show. Perfectly good starting point. In fact, it's conceivable that somebody started off by saying "Why don't we do a game show with a team of adults taking on a team of kids?"

However, there's a very good reason why you can't make that show. As I understand it, there are limits on the value of prizes that kids can compete for. And there are good reasons for that - nobody really wants to saddle an eight-year-old with the knowledge that he just cost his family £100,000 by getting a question wrong. So if you had the kids competing for the prizes, the prize value would have to be pitifully low. And that's not on.

So what they've ended up with is a sort of cross between Are You Smarter Than A 10 Year Old (the UK version of Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader, retitled for obvious reasons), and the daytime quiz show Eggheads. The premise of Eggheads is simple. Every day, a team of contestants take on a team of past champions from other quiz shows. The prize money rolls over every day until a team of contestants actually wins, which doesn't happen that often. The champions play for pride (which presumably means they get paid the same appearance fee whether they win or lose).

Now, Eggheads largely works. The house team are so spectacularly good - they racked up a 74-game winning streak last year - that the contestants are automatically the underdogs, and so you want to see them win. It's simple.

The problem with The Kids Are All Right is that it's putting a team of children in the same position, and no matter how clever they are (very, we're assured), they're still kids. Why would I root for a team of adults to beat them? That doesn't make any sense. A couple of the older kids have figured this out and have a tentative stab at playing the bad guy, but realistically, you're not going to get that from a nine-year-old, who quite understandably looks more concerned about getting the questions right.

In practice, judging from the first episode, most of the questions seem to be basic general knowledge or observation tests. The adults shouldn't have much of an advantage, but it also means that the kids don't get the opportunity to look smarter. However, the final round - which determines whether the adults get any money - is heavily weighted in the kids' favour. It's an elimination quiz where you win by eliminating all of your opponents. But as the kids outnumber the adults by seven to four, they really ought to win most weeks.

This sums up the problem with the show; the kids only need the numbers advantage because they wouldn't be dominant on a level playing field, and if they're not crushingly dominant, why on earth would I want to see a team of adults beat them?

Our host, the increasingly ubiquitous John Barrowman, seems equally perplexed about how he should be playing this. He explicitly wants the contestants to win. He can't be that harsh to a nine-year-old boy. But at times, he lapses into theatrical flourishes as if the kids were unstoppable foes. And yet they seem like more or less normal kids.

There's something to this idea; it feels like the concept ought to work with a bit of tweaking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be rooting for the kids, and the contestants should be the implicit bad guys. If you approach it that way, it kind of works; it just doesn't seem to be the show they think they're making.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 13 April 2008

This week: staggeringly slow, not just for the X-books, but across the board. Wolverine #64 is the penultimate chapter of "Get Mystique", but it's the only X-book out, so it'll have to do. And Number of the Beast is a WildStorm miniseries. See? Slow.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: March

So far, 2008 has been a remarkably slow year for turnover of number 1s. Which is probably a good thing; after years of everything being determined by release schedules, it's actually become vaguely meaningful to be a Number 1 single again.

"Mercy" by Duffy stayed at the top until 23 March, for a total of five weeks. And now...

Estelle featuring Kanye West, "American Boy." (23 March onwards, three weeks and counting).

Once again, this is a little unexpected. Estelle Swaray has been around for a few years. There was an attempt to push her as the next big thing in 2004. That got her three relatively minor hits, of which only "1980" even vaguely sticks in the mind.

This didn't exactly set the world on fire, and she hasn't been seen in the charts since 2005. That's particularly odd, because she released a single from this album at the end of last year, and missed the top 75 altogether. Frankly, I'd never even heard of "Wait a Minute" until now, but it does exist, it did get a full release, and pretty much nobody bought it.

The success of "American Boy" can probably be ascribed to three things. It's had much better promotion. It's got Kanye West on it, who's a much bigger star. And it's a sunny, mainstream R&B song with a decent hook. Whether this is going to translate into sales of records that sound like "Wait a Minute", I'm not convinced. This might be the breakthrough hit she's been after for years, or it might just be a one-off hit which doesn't sound that much like her other material.

To date, "American Boy" has reached the dizzy heights of number 124 in America.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 6 April 2008

This week: New Exiles completes its first story arc (not that you'd notice), and Young X-Men launches. Yes, I know there's a lot of other stuff out as well, but I'm afraid I don't have the time right now...