Thursday, February 28, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: February

Basshunter stayed at the top through to 17 February, for a total of five weeks - surprisingly long for a record that I'd initially had down as a one-off novelty hit. Perhaps that sort of thing is coming back into fashion.

Or maybe it's just going to be a year of really odd number ones, because next up is...

Duffy, "Mercy" (17 February onwards, two weeks and counting).

This rather charming sixties throwback is another surprise hit. It's Aimee Duffy's second single - the first was "Rockferry", which got a limited edition physical release last November, but subsequently crept to the dizzy heights of number 45 on the strength of download sales, which didn't exactly suggest that a massive hit was round the corner. But then, "Rockferry" wasn't as catchy.

Duffy has been floating around on the margins for a few years, and has a slightly odd CV. Back in 2003, she came second in S4C's Welsh-language Pop Idol clone, Wawffactor. Then she drifted around the Welsh-language circuit for a while, before singing on some album tracks for the indie-dance outfit Mint Royale (the people who brought you "Don't Falter" and "Show Me", neither of which feature Duffy, but they're worth linking anyway).

Then, she signed to Polydor and started recording with the on-again off-again duo McAlmont and Butler, who are probably best remembered for "Yes", which scraped the top ten in 1995, and which YouTube only has in dodgy live versions and this out-of-synch video. Obviously, their influence hangs heavily over "Mercy."

"Mercy" is a great record, but it's the sort of great record that doesn't usually make number 1, so I'm pleasantly surprised that it's doing so well. What we might be seeing here, with Duffy and Adele, is the belated record-industry reaction to Amy Winehouse's success, and an attempt to get More Stuff Like That on the shelves. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Since it's a quiet month, let's take a quick look at other vaguely noteworthy stuff on the February charts. NB: "noteworthy" does not necessarily imply "good."

As if to prove that the new chart format really does allow for slow climbs, Nickelback have spent four months inching their way up the chart all the way to number two (before dropping again) with "Rockstar." Personally, I think the video wears thin after a couple of viewings, and there's not much else to it. But it's been years since a record has climbed the chart this slowly, which makes it notable.

Along similar lines, Kylie Minogue has taken over two months to reach the top 5 with "Wow", which started selling on downloads after she sang it on the X-Factor final last Christmas, long before any promotion for the single began. Might be for the best, because although the track itself is pretty good, the video is lousy - though in fairness, it had to be salvaged in the edit suite when they discovered that the original strobe lighting was unbroadcastable due to the Ofcom rules on epilepsy. Despite the long, slow climb, the single was still only bounced into the top ten when it got a physical release, so perhaps the CD format isn't quite dead just yet. It's now been over twenty years since Kylie released her first single, "I Should Be So Lucky." (That production hasn't aged well, has it?)

Hot Chip made number six with "Ready for the Floor", the first single from their third album. That's a mainstream breakthrough for them. (Their previous best, "Over and Over", only got to number 27.) I'd previously figured their tentative, middle-class, electropop as a bit too artschool for really big hits, but after a few listens, this really grows on you. And the video gives people a reason to give it a few listens.

Let's just hope they licensed the rights to that costume.

Wet Wet Wet's "Weightless" is the first successful attempt to exploit the new chart rules, making number 10 on the strength of pure gimmickry - and then plummeting out of the Top 75 the next week. Basically, under the new chart rules, every version of the same song counts as the same single. So you can download as many live versions and remixes of the track as you want, and as far as the chart is concerned, it's all the same thing. ("Valerie" disclaimer: Okay, only as long as the artist credit is the same.) Wet Wet Wet released this frankly mediocre single in multiple live versions, radio edits and demo tracks, and their fans seem to have made multiple purchases.

It's basically the same trick that led to format rules being introduced on the singles chart in the 1980s, after Frankie Goes To Hollywood released "Two Tribes" in seven staggered formats. Hopefully it won't catch on; the fact that they only got a single week in the Top 75 suggests it's perhaps not worth the hassle.

Goldfrapp's "A&E"... there's not much to say about this, but it made number 10 and the video is fantastic. They'd got into a bit of a rut with their last few singles - "Strict Machine" is a classic and all, but how many versions did we need? Fortunately, "A&E" sees them going off in a new direction. This almost reminds me of mid-tempo Erasure.

And finally, one last chart quirk. The Utah Saints are putting out a remix of their 1992 single "Something Good." You know, the one that goes "Utah Saints! Utah Saints! U-U-U-Utah Saints!"and samples Kate Bush.

Okay, time hasn't been kind to the video. Look, it was 1992, we didn't know any better. But it's still a good record. Don't know why it needs a remix, really. Nonetheless, it's now turned into this little slice of choreography hell...

It isn't out yet. But it's charted already, presumably because of people picking up the original and another remix that's available on a compilation album. That means one of two things: either the promotion for the new single has just made people buy the old one, or when this actually comes out, it's going to be big.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 24 February 2008

This has been a ridiculously hectic weekend (and week), but fortunately it's also a very quiet week for comics. So, this week, the final issue of Cable & Deadpool. And, by way of comparison, Deadpool's guest starring role in Wolverine: Origins...

Monday, February 18, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 17 February 2008

This week: Jason Aaron and Ron Garney take over Wolverine; the new X-Force series launches; the Next Issue Project brings us Fantastic Comics #24, a mere 66-and-a-bit years after issue #23; and Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch arrive on Fantastic Four.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Way Out 2008

No Way Out, the WWE's February pay per view, has historically tended to be a filler show. For years, the WWE calendar ran like this: the Royal Rumble in January decided who would get the title shot at Wrestlemania in March/April, so you got two or three months of build for the big match. When No Way Out was shoved into the middle, it wasn't immediately obvious what should happen at the show - especially as they stuck to the format of determining the Wrestlemania main event in January.

When they split the promotion into two shows, that helped somewhat. They had two world titles, and two world title matches to fill - so one of them was determined at the Royal Rumble, and the other one at No Way Out. But this year, they're making a peculiar effort to push No Way Out as a major show in its own right. I'm not altogether sure why.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Edge (c) v. Rey Mysterio. Or maybe not. Last month, Edge defended his title against Rey in a perfectly acceptable filler match. You'll recall that with all the major contenders trying to get the title shot at Wrestlemania, Edge needs somebody else to fight in the meantime. Rey Mysterio, the number 3 hero on Smackdown, is being plugged into that role. He will not win. His only function is to keep Edge occupied for a couple of shows until the real challenger emerges, and to have entertaining matches while doing so.

Unfortunately, Mysterio tore his bicep on Wednesday, during a tour of Chile. They haven't been able to address that on TV, because this week's shows were taped before the tour. There's an obscure article on the WWE website acknowledging the injury, but you really have to hunt to find it. Apparently Mysterio is intending to wrestle injured, which means it'll probably be very short, and Edge will win with some sort of injury angle to explain Mysterio's absence from TV.

2. WWE Championship: Randy Orton (c) v. John Cena. Now this is strange. John Cena, you'll recall, was Raw's champion up until last October, when he suffered a pec tear and had to take several months off. He vacated the title which (after a night of chaos) ended up on Randy Orton. Given the recovery time for pec surgery, Cena was expected to be out until at least the spring, and quite possibly later.

Then Cena showed up as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble, won the match, and (theoretically) won the title shot for Wrestlemania. This might just about have made sense; they could keep him out of the ring for a couple of months while his recovery continued, leading to the big comeback. But instead, Cena has offered to take his title shot this month in order to get the title back as soon as possible. The storyline has Orton, understandably enough, accepting that challenge in the hope that Cena's not 100% yet.

While the story just about makes sense for Cena and Orton, it makes absolutely no sense for the company. If Cena really is fully fit to go after this little time, the man's a machine. If he isn't, he's risking re-injury. What's more, Cena/Orton is a match that makes sense and would work for the Wrestlemania main event. Why do it in February? The answer seems to be that for reasons of internal politics, Triple H must be in the Wrestlemania main event, which is a very bad reason indeed. Hunter/Cena and Hunter/Orton are both weak main events for Wrestlemania - although he might not see it that way.

Having got to this point, the sensible thing to do is a non-finish, setting up a three-way next month between Cena, Orton and whoever wins the qualifying match. But they shouldn't have got to this point in the first place. Both guys will work hard and the match will probably be good... unless Cena goes down with a fresh injury after five minutes.

3. ECW World Title: Chavo Guerrero (c) v C.M. Punk. It seems they've finally abandoned any pretence that the ECW Title is a "real" world title, and started booking it as a midcard belt. That makes more sense, really. Nobody truly thinks it counts as a proper world title, so characters just sound a bit silly when they pretend otherwise.

CM Punk lost the title to Chavo Guerrero on free television a few weeks ago, setting up an angle where Edge's faction control both the Smackdown and ECW titles. There's no point in having Chavo lose the title back at this stage, and Punk has been beating him decisively for the last few weeks, which is usually a strong signal that he's going to lose on PPV. Supposedly, Punk wavers in and out of favour with the WWE - on the one hand, they recognise that the crowd likes him, but on the other hand, they regard him as an indie wrestler who isn't quite up to scratch technically. Hence his strange, on-and-off presentation on ECW.

Chavo and Punk have wrestled plenty of times on the weekly ECW show and I have no particular interest in seeing it again. The match is always middling-to-good, but let's move on.

4. Raw Elimination Chamber: Triple H v. Shawn Michaels v. Chris Jericho v. Jeff Hardy v. JBL v. Umaga. The first of two Elimination Chamber matches, with the winner moving on to face the WWE Champion at Wrestlemania. The Elimination Chamber is a rather convoluted cage match, which almost reminds me of something rival promotion TNA would come up with. (For those who don't follow wrestling and yet are still inexplicably reading this: TNA is notorious for inventing gimmick matches with rules that take five minutes to explain, such as their "King of the Mountain" match, a reverse ladder match also featuring pinfalls, eligibility criteria and a penalty box. Amazingly, they're convinced that this is a good idea, and they keep running it on a regular basis.)

The Elimination Chamber is basically a steel cage match with six wrestlers. Two start in the ring, and the other four start in little pods inside the cage. Every five minutes, a pod opens at (cough) random. Elimination occurs by pinfall or submission (at which point they have to open the cage to let guys out, rather spoiling the image). After five guys have been eliminated, the last man left is the winner.

The WWE think the Elimination Chamber is a really fantastic signature match, and something that might take over from the slightly tired Hell In The Cell gimmick. I've always thought that it sounds like a Victorian toilet, but they don't seem to have noticed that.

The Raw match is actually pretty good, on paper. You've got six credible contenders, and the weakest of the bunch is probably JBL, who's still perfectly fine. The crowd is likely to get behind Jeff Hardy, who is bumping along the boundary between headline act and midcarder. Having Jeff win and advance to Wrestlemania in the biggest match of his career would not be a bad idea at all, and would probably draw money. Personally, I'd do that, and have Triple H in the Ric Flair match next month. But I don't expect that to happen; more likely, Triple H wins, and moves on to a lacklustre Wrestlemania match because that's just the way things are.

5. Smackdown Elimination Chamber: Batista v. The Undertaker v. MVP v. Finlay v. The Great Khali v. Big Daddy V. God help us. This doesn't look good at all. The giant Great Khali is virtually immobile and was never any good to start with. Big Daddy V is just a large fat guy, who doesn't actually win that much, and who's never been any good. I'm not sure quite what you do with these guys - conventional wisdom seems to be that you have them enter last in order to minimise their contribution, but that begs the question of whether they'll actually fit in the pods. I'm inclined to think you get them over with as soon as possible, but that still means a good ten minutes of awfulness.

Once they're out of the way, the match should improve. But this will pale in comparison to the Raw match, to the point where it's a very bad idea to do it at all. Undertaker will almost certainly win and challenge Edge at Wrestlemania - they're both undefeated on that show, and I think this could well be the year for Edge to break the streak while it still means something. (It surely can't be that long before Undertaker shuffles off into semi-retirement.)

This is as good a place as any to note that the CW network cancelled Smackdown last week, and the show isn't being renewed past September. It's actually one of their better rated shows, but apparently it doesn't fit the target demographic. The WWE don't have another network lined up yet, and they're limited by existing contracts in terms of which networks they can approach. It's virtually certain that Smackdown will end up moving to an inferior network - I've heard MyNetworkTV and Bravo seriously described as options.

Smackdown is also presently suffering from another bout of the WWE's recurring delusion that Jonathan Coachman is a good commentator, or even an adequate one. With JBL returning to wrestling, Coachman has taken over as colour commentator, and has been unremittingly awful. Painful silences and banal truisms abound. Even Michael Cole, who isn't that great himself, seems openly embarrassed. Coach is fine when he's playing a comedy heel - in fact, he's quite good in that role - but he's one of the worst commentators imaginable.

The last time this happened, when they had Coach doing lead commentary on Raw, it lasted about two months before they bowed to the inevitable and brought in Joey Styles to take over. Place your bets now on how long Coach lasts. And pray we don't get Mike Adamle. But it's not like they don't have better options on the payroll; even Josh Matthews would be better than Coach.

6. Ric Flair v. Mr Kennedy. Finally, another match in the "Oh god, this really isn't working, is it?" storyline, in which Ric Flair must retire the next time he loses a singles match. The crowd doesn't seem to buy it, and I suspect they won't buy it when he loses either. What they should have done was a story in which Flair lost one of these matches and was allowed to come back to avenge his loss in one last match at Wrestlemania. That would have worked. Too late now, though. Flair wins, the match is probably ropey, and the whole thing is buried so far in the undercard that it doesn't seem important at all.

Worth buying? Um. Cena/Orton is probably good, and the Raw Elimination Chamber match should be fun. The Smackdown title match probably won't happen, the ECW match has been on free TV several times already, and the Smackdown Elimination Chamber will probably be mediocre at best. Luckily for me, this is on Sky Sports 1 in the UK. But as a PPV... er, no.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 10 February 2008

This week... well, this week would have been X-Force #1, but it's late. But Uncanny X-Men came out, and there's also a new ClanDestine miniseries from Alan Davis.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 3 February 2008

This week, What If? has a go at Spider-Man vs Wolverine - because god knows today's readership is crying out for a story based on a largely-forgotten one-shot which has been out of print for 18 years. Mind you, the comic's not bad. X-Men: Emperor Vulcan finishes the miniseries in a faintly baffling way. And Y: The Last Man completes its run.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: January

I wasn't initially planning to carry on these posts into 2008. I had vague plans to do the occasional chart-watch post flagging up particularly unusual or notable entries, but to be honest, the first few weeks of January were dull enough to put me off the idea. (Leon Jackson stayed at number one during the quiet period, as you'd expect.)

And then you get this...

Basshunter, "Now You're Gone" (13 January 2008 to present, 3 weeks and counting).

It's pretty mediocre, and the video does it no favours. It's the sort of dance record that mainland Europe was churning out a few years ago, but it now sounds decidedly dated, and frankly it's surprising to see it in the top 10, let alone doing this well. The genre hasn't been doing all that well in Britain more recently, and this record seems like a weird anachronism. It doesn't even have the benefit of an established fanbase. It's really quite strange.

But the song has a weird genesis, which sheds a bit more light on its success. Basshunter is a Swedish producer, Jonas Altberg.

Basshunter is a Swedish producer, Jonas Altberg. In his own country, he's an internet star. Notionally, "Now You're Gone" is the English language version of his debut single "Boten Anna." Except it isn't. Here's the original, with English subtitles.

"Now You're Gone" isn't even loosely a translation of "Boten Anna" - it's a completely different song set to the same tune. Apparently it originated in the Netherlands with one DJ Mental Theo, who is responsible for the English-language lyrics. The version released in the UK is, apparently, Basshunter's cover version of Theo's rewrite of Basshunter's own song.

The original song is about IRC moderation bots, of all things. To be honest, a literal English translation of the lyrics doesn't make it sound particularly great either, but I'm prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it works better in the original language. (Supposedly, there's some sort of convoluted pun about boats/bots and channels which is lost in translation.)

I can just about understand "Boten Anna" doing well in Sweden, as a quirky, tongue-in-cheek, novelty record. But the fact that it then spread to other non-Swedish-speaking countries is a bit of a mystery. And by the time it made it to Britain, the record had become a rather mediocre, if passably catchy, Eurodance track.

According to Wikipedia, Basshunter's other Europe-wide hit was "Vi sitter i Ventrilo och spelar DotA", which is basically more of the same. It concerns the age-old subject of using voice chat while playing Warcraft III map "Death of the Ancients". Something tells me that we can look forward to an Anglophone mangling of that record too.

No Country for Old Men

The conventional wisdom on No Country for Old Men is that it's a return to form by the Coen Brothers after a string of rather dodgy films. To be honest, I think that's a little harsh on their recent work. Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a bad film, it just wasn't up to the astronomically high standards of Fargo. Which is to say, it wouldn't look so bad if you weren't expecting genius.

Anyway, that won't be a problem with No Country, which is clearly back up to the standards of their best work. It's an adaptation a Cormac McCarthy novel which I haven't read, but supposedly it's extremely faithful - it's is streamlined for running time, but that's about it. The story is pretty straightforward. Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong, and takes the opportunity to make a break for it with the money. Hitman Anton Chigurh is sent to get it back. And there's an investigating sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones, whose main job is to be baffled and appalled.

Much of the film is essentially an extended chase, with Moss trying to hide the money and shake off Chigurh. Chigurh is by far the most striking element in the film - an utterly relentless pursuer who is more a force of nature than a straightforward lunatic. He doesn't kill people for fun, although he seems to enjoy toying with them in the process. Rather, in his own eyes, Chigurh is the hand of fate, hunting down people who have been marked for death, not just by his employers, but by the universe. It would simply be cosmically wrong not to kill them. He's an incredible villain, as he subtly makes the transition from being just another maniac to something truly inevitable.

All that was in the book, but it's easy to see why it would appeal to the Coens, who have always liked "unstoppable evil" characters. Still, for all the film's faithfulness to the source, it's amazing to see just how good the Coens really are at filmmaking. Even working entirely from someone else's material - albeit material particularly suited to their foibles - the skill and power of their storytelling is incredible.

All the details are there. Everything is perfectly chosen. They can take something which, for most directors, would have been a standard establishing shot or a point of view shot, saying nothing more than "This is where they are" or "This is what he's looking at", and invest it with more meaning just by the way they frame the shot and pace the editing - while still performing all the standard storytelling functions as well. It's the sort of film that brings home the difference between the merely adequate and the genuinely gifted. It flags up how often most directors fall back on hackneyed devices, when you see a film by people who have obviously put immense thought into everything.

This is a wonderful film, adapting a powerful story in a way that reminds me of what cinema can really do.