Thursday, August 28, 2008

The X-Axis State of the Nation Address

Okay, first things first: the X-Axis is taking a couple of weeks' break. I'd planned to do this week's reviews before leaving, but it turns out that UK stores aren't getting their books until Friday, so that's out the window.

The X-Axis will be back on 14 September. Well, around 14 September, anyway. There or thereabouts.

The July sales column is written, and Heidi will no doubt post it at the Beat while I'm away. I might also knock off a preview for Unforgiven if I have a spare moment. We'll see.

Now then: State of the Nation stuff. The X-Axis is, I think, lumbering its way towards another format change, although I haven't quite figured out just yet what that should be. Basically, though...

The website is really showing its age. It started back in 1999, and the current design dates from 2002. It's completely unwieldy, a chore to update, and it needs a major overhaul, which I have neither the time nor the knowhow to do. Posting all the reviews at once on a Sunday night, plus the added hassle of updating that website, is taking an inordinate amount of time, and it's hugely inconvenient. This really has to stop.

I'm also seriously considering making a jump to buying trades instead of single issues. They're cheaper, they're easier to store, they've got no adverts - they're a superior format in every way. Obviously, that would create a gap of several months while I waited for the publication schedule to catch up. Not quite sure what we'd do about that. I might keep buying the X-books in single format and just buy everything else in trades. And before somebody suggests it: no, I'm not going to torrent them.

Anyhow, one way or another, we're looking at a shake-up, and one that probably involves leaving the current website behind in favour of a much more streamlined and flexible X-Axis. That might be a blog, reviewing the books one at a time when it's convenient to me. Or it might be rolled into something else entirely. (And yes, I do have a "something else entirely" in mind - but it's too early to say anything more about that.)

As for the Indexes, you're highly unlikely to see any more of them, but I have a project in the works which covers similar territory. It's been in the works for quite a while now, I know - and if the weekly X-Axis stops taking up so much of my time, it might actually get finished...

Monday, August 25, 2008

The ITV Chart Show Indie Chart

YouTube never ceases to amaze me. Randomly following up some links, I've stumbled upon what seems to be an archive of several years worth of the Chart Show Indie Chart.

British people of a certain age have fond memories of the ITV Chart Show, a weekly show consisting entirely of videos linked by the finest graphics that daytime television could afford in 1990, and adorned with fabulously uninformative "trivia" captions. But these were the days when almost nobody had MTV, so the Chart Show tried gamely to cover everything. This meant a weekly specialist chart, cycling between rock, dance and indie.

But the Chart Show aired after the Saturday morning kids TV shows, and the rest of the hour was standard pop music. And this was the dark days before Britpop, when British indie music meant people like Swervedriver and Chapterhouse. The resulting television was captivatingly incongruous. What other kids TV show would play the likes of the Drop Nineteens - let alone this?

Later years saw things get a bit more commercial, but it was still a weird intrusion into daytime TV - and therefore awesome.

You couldn't make the Chart Show these days - what's the point, when MTV Hits, VH1 and TMF are all perfectly happy to play the Top 40 in full several times a week? But at times, I miss the days when everything had to be crammed together into a single awkward bundle.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 24 August 2008

This week, two issues of X-Factor (one Secret Invasion crossover, one Layla Miller one-shot); Young X-Men completes its first arc; and Vertigo launches the heavily-promoted Air.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 17 August 2008

Not much to write about this week, but we've got the first issue of Secret Invasion: X-Men, and an X-Men Origins one-shot about Jean Grey.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Summerslam 2008

Summerslam is notionally one of the four big shows of the year (the others being Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble and Survivor Series), but at least in recent years, this has been less a reflection of the quality of the card, and more to do with the fact that they've been using the name for 21 years. That buzz of familiarity aside, it's just another show. And this year is a particularly lacklustre effort, with a bunch of matches that seem to have been put together by drawing names from a hat. One understandable factor is that head writer Stephanie McMahon had a kid a couple of weeks ago, and presumably has other things on her mind right now. Another element is that the WWE seems to be going through one of it's occasional bouts of gratuitous unpredictability (i.e., total randomness). But there's little sign here of any direction, except for storylines which were set in track ages ago.

1. Hell in a Cell: Edge v. The Undertaker. I normally open with the title matches, but frankly, none of them are particularly notable this month. So we have a topsy-turvy show where the world champions are wrestling in the midcard, and the show is headlined by what the WWE clearly hope are dream matches.

This is Undertaker's return match after taking a couple of months off. The story is that after Edge married Smackdown's figurehead general manager Vickie Guerrero, and she discovered he was sleeping with the wedding planner, she brought the Undertaker back in a fit of pique. Undertaker hasn't appeared on TV at all to promote the match, and instead the storyline has focussed on Edge going mad and turning on all his former allies.

Normally, I'd say that the Undertaker was bound to win his return match, but given that the focus has been on Edge's character change, and the fact that the writers seem to be going through an "avoid the obvious ending, even if it's the only one that makes sense" phrase, I wouldn't rule out Edge winning. Match should be good, but we've seen these two many times before, and I've never been a big fan of cage matches.

Incidentally, the final push for this show on Friday's Smackdown was edited off the UK airing altogether, for god knows what reason (isn't this show supposed to be PG-rated in America?). If anyone knows what Sky found so offensive that they weren't prepared to air it at quarter to midnight, do tell.

2. Batista v. John Cena. Completely random pairing of the two main good guys on the current Raw roster. This had the potential to be a big deal, but they've thrown it together in a couple of weeks with no real build, and the buzz just isn't there. The build has largely consisted of them telling us time and again that this match has been six years in the making, which nobody believes. It should be a perfectly decent match, and with Cena still getting divided reactions, they should get some heat for it. It's been suggested that Batista is on his way to a heel turn (not a bad idea in itself), but this isn't the night to do it - whatever he does against Cena, he's likely to get cheered by a large section of the crowd. I'm going for Cena to win; makes more sense all round.

3. WWE Title: Triple H v. The Great Khali. This is the Smackdown title match, and it hasn't been very well promoted. Triple H is Stephanie's husband, so he's presumably had other things on his mind. That makes this a schedule-filling match between proper feuds, and perhaps explains the otherwise baffling choice of Khali as an opponent. Khali is a genuine Indian giant, of limited mobility and less talent. Getting a decent match out of him is very difficult, particularly if Triple H insists on it being a long one (which is his usual preference). If they keep it short, it might hit the dizzy heights of average. Triple H is almost guaranteed to retain, unless he's belatedly decided to book some paternity leave.

4. World Heavyweight Title: CM Punk v. JBL. To general surprise, CM Punk is still the Raw world champion, despite a string of inconclusive defences that have generally made him look like a bit of a loser. This only really works if you're a heel, and Punk is meant to be a babyface. Apparently they're aiming for "underdog", but they've missed the mark. To be an underdog, he needs to weather the storm and beat bigger opponents by exploiting their mistakes - not get beaten up for ten minutes straight before retaining on a technicality.

JBL may well have been selected as an opponent on the fringes of the main event, who can give Punk a much-needed decisive win. But Punk already beat him up decisively on Raw on Monday. And that's odd, because in the WWE's formula, when the champion beats up the challenger just before the show, he's probably losing. Still, I can't imagine them putting the title on JBL, so I suspect they're just teasing the Internet. Punk retains in a middling match.

5. ECW World Title: Mark Henry v. Matt Hardy. God help us. Mark Henry, still billed as the world's strongest man, is a huge bloke who isn't especially good at the "wrestling" side of thing. Since the draft a couple of months ago, Matt Hardy is the top name on the ECW roster, and he's obviously getting the title sooner or later. The question is whether they do it now, or build to a rematch down the line. Matt's "never say die" character, and typical WWE booking philosophy, would say rematch. But this is likely to be a mediocre match at best. So I'd say put the title on Matt Hardy and move on to a more promising feud with somebody like John Morrison.

6. Intercontinental Title & Women's Title: Kofi Kingston & Mickie James v. Santino Marella & Beth Phoenix. Comedy intergender tag match, with Kingston's IC title and Mickie's women's title both on the line. So if the heel team wins, Santino gets the IC belt and Beth gets the women's title. Kingston is a promising rookie, inexplicably cast as a Jamaican despite the minor technicality that he's from Ghana. Mickie and Beth are two of the better wrestlers in the women's division. And Santino Marella was introduced as a wrestler from the crowd who won the Intercontinental Title in a fluke open challenge, before bombing in the underdog role. Re-invented as a delusionally arrogant Italian dork with a ludicrous accent, he turned out to have a flair for comedy which has justified his position on the roster despite middling wrestling abilities. I presume it's somebody's idea of a joke that his entrance video - which would normally be a montage of his great wrestling moves - is now mainly footage of him talking and reacting.

Santino and Beth are doing an odd-couple gimmick, with Beth as the straight man, unable to figure out quite what she's doing with this ridiculous loser (who can't even beat her, let alone most of the guys on the roster). It's a good act, I think there's a fair chance they win here, the angle being that Beth does all the work and Santino insists on acting like he's a proper champion. Possibly too early to take the belt off Kingston, but as long as he wins it back in a re-match, it'll be fine. This could be good, as comedy segments go.

7. Jeff Hardy v. Montel Vontavious Porter. Random pairing of two guys on Smackdown who weren't doing anything else. This feud has been built largely around some segments aimed squarely at internet fans, which assume that we all know Jeff Hardy's house burned down and that he's been suspended for recreational drug use in the past. Heaven only knows what the kids must make of it. Still, they ought to work well together, and I can see this being a good opener. MVP probably wins, because there's more mileage in this one.

Also: Shawn Michaels speaks. Yes, that's right, they're advertising a talking segment for a pay-per-view. Shawn Michaels is feuding with Chris Jericho, and he's out with an eye injury (which seems to be in part a storyline justification for some genuine eye problems that are visible if you're watching closely). Shawn is going to show up and tell us whether he'll be able to return and face Jericho again. (Hint: yes.) There's obviously going to be some sort of angle with Jericho. This looks like a compromise to get Michaels and Jericho on an otherwise weak show without messing up the pacing of their storyline.

Worth buying? Um.. it's a bit average, frankly. I don't see this one doing particularly well.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: August 10

Oh god.

That, of course, is Katy Perry, "I Kissed A Boy" (10 August 2008 to date), which got rid of Kid Rock after a single week. What a godawful record.

Okay - musically, it's not bad, if a bit sub-Girls Aloud. Mind you, it's co-written by four people. One of them is Perry herself. But the others are Max Martin, Dr Luke and Cathy Dennis, who are practically a pop songwriting juggernaut. Martin wrote "Hit Me Baby One More Time", and many others of that ilk. Dr Luke (or Lucasz Gottwald to his mum) has written for people like Avril Lavigne and the Sugababes.

Cathy Dennis is a one-woman song factory, responsible for everything from "Can't Get You Out of My Head" to "Toxic". If you don't pay attention, and the name rings a vague bell, then yes, it's the same Cathy Dennis who had a string of second-tier hits about fifteen years ago (the biggest being "Touch Me", which got to number 5). Her chart career goes all the way back to this guest vocalist spot from 1989.

Ah, the eighties.

Anyway, when you hire those three to co-write a single, you're really wheeling out the big guns. And they've come up with... a half-decent song, but one with lyrics so inane that you can't help squirming. "I kissed a girl and I liked it / The taste of her cherry chapstick"? That's the worst line I've heard in years.

Perry is a former Christian artist, which only serves to make her look even more mercenary. The UK mercifully missed out on her debut single, of which the less said the better. God, the more I learn about this girl, the less respect I have for her.

But the single isn't even physically released yet, so it's probably going to be number one for a while. More's the pity.

There is, of course, a precedent for faux-lesbianing your way to the top of the UK charts, in the form of Tatu, who were a thousand times better. Well, sporadically. Mainly when Trevor Horn was working with them.

And that's as good a reason as any to cheer myself up with the English and Russian language versions of "Not Gonna Get Us" - a fascinating compare-and-contrast in censorship standards. YouTube has a whole load of different edits of this video, presumably reflecting standards around Europe, but the UK one is by far the most conservative.

Here's the original Russian video. Sensitive viewers may wish to note that there's a photo of a naked child for a second or so, in a particularly glaring bit of censor-baiting.

Now, for the English language version, they didn't film a new video, so the editor had to do his best with the one in Russian. So that meant all the lip-synching had to go, for a start. Or be edited around. And the naked child's right out. And didn't Ofcom just ban "My Favourite Game" by the Cardigans because it promoted dangerous driving? Best move anything remotely dodgy to the end so that broadcasters can fade it out. (Actually, I'm pretty sure there's an even more conservative version around than this, but leave that aside.)

Behold an editor in the throes of desperation. I particularly like the first half of verse two, made up entirely of shots of wheels and stairs. And the broken glass effect, used to obscure the fact that they're lip-synching to the Russian lyrics.

YouTube also has this third version, which uses the English soundtrack, and the Russian video, plus extra graphics translating the Russian lyrics (though you can't see them very clearly, because somebody has thoughtfully subtitled the whole video again in Spanish). The naked child is also partially obscured. Not sure where this one came from. Somewhere that speaks Spanish, presumably.

Anyway, they're all infinitely better than Katy sodding Perry, aren't they?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

X-Axis comments thread: 10 August 2008

This week, Cable #6 sees an unexpected turn for the better; NYX returns for a miniseries; Wolverine: Killing Made Simple is another random Wolverine one-shot; and The Authority is relaunched, yet again, for a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Quantum of Solace

This week's Adam and Joe Song Wars feature: theme songs for The Quantum of Solace. You can hear them both here. Adam's is good. But Joe is feeling so inspired that, for once, he's made a video for his. One of his best, I think.

I'll say it again: why aren't they on TV?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: August 3

Another change at the top. Dizzee Rascal lasted four weeks with "Dance Wiv Me", holding off Basshunter's "All I Ever Wanted" and, perhaps more interestingly, McFly. McFly are a boy band in the mould of Busted, who write their own material, and have a good ear for a chorus. But somehow, their records seem to sell exclusively to their fans, who buy them in the first week. So they have a weird tendency to enter at number one and then plummet.

Apparently dissatisfied with their record company, McFly didn't renew their record deal when it ran out, and went off to form their own label. And then gave away their new album free with a Sunday newspaper. Well, it worked for Prince. Kind of. Their comeback single, "One for the Radio", is an odd beast - a strangely defensive, "why don't you like us" song. Or rather, a "why do you pretend you don't like us when we're so clearly great" song.

It entered at number two, and the dropped the next week... to 21. That's horrible. In a period when the kids are complaining that chart movement has slowed to a crawl, McFly have the sort of mobility that would have been astounding even a few years ago. And it's downward mobility. Oops. Odd, really, because it's not a bad pop single.

Anyway... our new number one.

Kid Rock, "All Summer Long." (3 August 2008 to date, one week and counting.) Even though it's taken a month for this single to reach the top, its success still comes as a surprise. Kid Rock has been around for years, and in America, he does pretty well. But he doesn't sell abroad. The USA is usually pretty good at selling its pop culture around the world, but there are still little genre holdouts which are so American that the rest of the world just kind of writes it off as local music for local people. The faintest hint of country and western usually does it, although particularly insular hip-hop feuds can also pull it off.

You don't get much more American-Local than Kid Rock, who has only two previous UK hits to his name, and hasn't troubled the Top 75 in almost eight years. "American Badass", his previous biggest hit, only made it to number 25 - possibly because the wrestling fans were picking it up, as the Undertaker was using it as his theme music at the time. (And if you think that's ludicrously inappropriate... remember this?)

But somehow, "All Summer Long" has been an international hit. According to Wikipedia, it's currently number one in Austria, German, Ireland and Switzerland, and doing well in Australia, Holland and Sweden. As you probably know, it's based on "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Werewolves of London." It's one of those records where I can see the appeal, but it doesn't do much for me; most of the best bits are sampled.

I don't see it staying at the top for long. The obvious challenger is Katy Perry's thuddingly crass "I Kissed A Girl", in which the cash-curious singer expresses her approval of flavoured chapstick. The record company rush-released it on Thursday when a clone cover by somebody called Nicki Bliss started picking up sales on iTunes, and it charted at number four on the strength of three days' unadvertised sales. That kinds of suggests it's going higher next week, unfortunately...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Mamma Mia

Sweet Jesus.

Well, we went to see Mamma Mia.

As everyone knows, this is the film version of the stage musical which takes a bunch of Abba songs, lashes them together with twine and sticks, and grunts "See, we have made plot." And the plot, specifically: Sophie is getting married but she wants to know who her long-lost father is. So, going through her mother's diary, she comes up with three contenders, and invites them all to her wedding. They all show up, and chaos follows.

It's a remarkable film. Partly, it's remarkable because it's such an old-school musical. Everyone walks around in groups of three so that members of the chorus can pair off at the end. Chunks of it are shot on the most obvious stage set imaginable. Nobody makes musicals like this any more. When they make musicals at all, it's stuff like Chicago. This is the songs of the seventies, filmed in the style of the fifties.

But mostly, it's remarkable because of the bizarre casting. It's a celebrity karaoke night which you won't believe until you see it, and probably not even then. If you thought "SOS" was a great song, just wait until you see Pierce Brosnan get his hands on it.

The strange thing is, there already was a musical by Benny and Bjorn from Abba - Chess. Nobody wants to revive that, perhaps because it isn't camp enough. But it's got a couple of good songs in it. It's got "I Know Him So Well." It's got "One Night in Bangkok." It must be okay, surely?

Instead, we have a strange frankenstein film, assembled from bits, shamelessly contrived, and utterly, utterly ridiculous. I spent the first half with my jaw hanging open (literally, mind you), unable quite to believe that this could possibly be a real thing. The first half is utter crap, but it's so awful that it's worth seeing just to verify that it really happened.

After that... well, there are some songs halfway through with the less well known cast members, which doesn't have quite the camp charm. And then it has a stab at genuine emotion and pretty much loses me entirely. I kind of lost interest in the last third, to be honest. I mean, it comes down to this: if you want me to laugh along at how ridiculous this project is, I can come along with that. If you want me to care about the characters... are you mad? Are you insane?

It's not like I have a problem with this sort of thing. I saw the Take That musical a while back and I thought it was surprisingly decent. It had a better story than Mamma Mia, that's for sure. But this... it's terrible, frankly. The appeal lies largely in the camp factor of how ridiculous the concept is, and, y'know, it takes me about 40 minutes to digest that joke and move on with my life.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 3 August 2008

This week, Wolverine: Origins finishes the origin story of Daken; X-Men: First Class guest stars Machine Man (well, mostly); X-Men: Odd Men Out exhumes some unused Dave Cockrum fill-in stories; and Mike Carey has a novel out.