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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 22, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Tom Chaplin, Idol, Night School

The Graham Norton Show on BBC America is the best talk show on American TV, in large part because the British understand what makes an interesting chat show.

With the American format, one guest at a time has a one-on-one chat with the host. The conversation mostly consists of the host prompting the guest to tell whatever was planned. If it's a comedian, the host sets up the comedian's punchlines. If it's an actor, they try to arouse interest in whatever movie or album the guest is there to promote.

We're used to that. There's nothing wrong with that. Many times my wife and I have made a decision about going to watch a new movie in the theater because of clips and conversation on talk shows.

The Graham Norton Show does all that ... and more. Instead of the guests coming out one at a time, most of them come out together right at the beginning. They interact with each other. They converse with each other. And that's usually the best stuff in the show.

Like American talk shows, the Graham Norton Show reserves its musical guest for a slot near the end of the show. And because I watch the show on TiVo, I usually listen to the singing long enough to realize that I hate it or, best case, I'm bored with it. So I fast forward to the end of the number, when the performer comes to the couch and chats briefly with Norton and the other guests. Sometimes they're amusing.

Last week, we got the Christmas show -- there's a time delay, and besides, why not watch a Christmas chat show in March? What surprised me was that the musical number was a Christmas song by Tom Chaplin.

No, me neither. Tom Chaplin only had one solo album prior to his Christmas album, but it was a big deal in Britain, where he was already known for his work with the pretty-good band Keane. In America, he's only starting to emerge; his current tour in the US is in small venues.

But that's fine. His music is intimate anyway, and except for the fact that moronic concert attenders in America always stand up so nobody can see the performer from a seated position, a smaller house will be right for hearing Tom Chaplin perform.

What does he sound like? His voice may actually remind you of some of the songs of the Beatles, partly because of the accent, partly because of the relaxed tone quality.

Many of his songs on his album The Wave are very good. None are awful. In my opinion, this puts his album way above most recent albums by other artists.

(The days of the great albums are pretty much over. When you measure current albums against, say, Tapestry, Ladies of the Canyon, Judith, Carney, or Tea for the Tillerman [by, respectively, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Leon Russell, and Cat Stevens], you realize that most albums today are just a bunch of songs. And sometimes less than that.)

I think Tom Chaplin is worth listening to on both albums; I recommend one of the best tracks on The Wave, "Worthless Words." But the reason I'm talking about him here is because of the Christmas song he performed on the Graham Norton Show.

It's called "Midnight Mass," and you can watch the official video, with pets, here: http://people.com/pets/tom-chaplin-midnight-mass-video/

Or you can watch his Graham Norton Show appearance here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2j4fsXlPLlw

Watching and hearing his performance on the show, this became one of my favorite new Christmas songs ever.

I've ordered the sheet music from Musicnotes.com, where you can get the music transposed into various keys. Since I don't have Chaplin's falsetto, this is quite helpful.

Thus you are warned: Next Christmas, I'm probably going to sing this, and you might get trapped into hearing me do so. Protect yourself: Listen to Chaplin's performance now, so you'll know how this thing is supposed to be performed.

Do you see how valuable this column is? I have just reviewed, for your amazement, pleasure, and possible purchasing: The Graham Norton Show; Tom Chaplin's two albums, The Wave and Twelve Tales of Christmas; two videos of "Midnight Mass"; and the transposable sheet music website Musicnotes.com. I also mentioned five revelatory old albums that will make you feel the inadequacy of most albums of the past twenty years.

Along the way, I found out that Leon Russell is dead. I hadn't heard the news when it happened a couple of years ago. He was way more important to me, musically speaking, than others whose death excited more widespread grief. Between the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker, the songs he wrote that Karen Carpenter recorded (most notably "A Song for You" and "Superstar"), and his own powerful yet quirky performances, he is an important part of the soundtrack of my life.

I also learned, earlier today, that artist Paul Cadmus, a favorite painter of mine, died in 1999. I was more surprised to learn he had been born in 1904. He was still alive when I first saw his work, but I had no idea how very old he was.

Looking up one thing leads to finding out more information. (And don't look up Cadmus's work if you're offended by nudity and unpleasant images; I don't claim that my taste in art fits with anybody else's.)

*

I'm sure you've all seen the Subaru Forester commercial in which a man is cleaning trash from the car, and each item triggers a memory of his children at various stages of life. It's quite moving. I got teary-eyed.

But I'm still a dad. I couldn't help thinking: He sure waited a long time to clean the litter out of that car.

*

So after one year without American Idol, it's back -- this time on ABC.

When the show was canceled by its originating network, Fox, I felt that it was an understandable decision. But I was disappointed because, with judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr., they had finally found a balance of smart, musically experienced, kind, and genuinely helpful judges.

They had also stopped promoting rivalries among the judges. (The low point was when they tried to involve emcee Ryan Seacrest in pointless arguments with Simon Cowell.)

And in the latter years on Fox, Idol had cut way back on the "how sad" auditions. The practice was to let two kinds of auditioners through to the panel of famous judges: The very good, and the excruciatingly bad.

If you wanted to be guaranteed television time, all you had to do was be (a) awful and (b) vain, arrogant, and then either hysterical or abusive after you were rejected.

This latter group had virtually disappeared from the audition shows by the end of the Fox run.

So now, I'm sure you're dying to know how the new ABC show stacks up to the Fox version.

The good news is that right now, in the audition phase, American Idol has retained all the improvements from the latter seasons of the Fox version. There have been (in the first three episodes) two truly awful auditions, and one of them was in the arrogant category, where she was absolutely sure that the judges didn't give her a golden ticket to Hollywood because they were jealous of her talent.

They were not.

The two awful auditions justified the cost of our TiVo because we could fast-forward through them once we understood that we were going to be screamed at, with no attempt at making actual music or singing intelligible songs.

But apart from those two, all the auditioners were credible singers, and some were wonderful. Not only that, but several of them sang original songs.

Usually, auditioning for the Idol judges with a song you wrote yourself is a terrible idea. Kind of like authors who illustrate their own books (or illustrators who write the story to fit their illustrations). Very few people are as good at songwriting as they are at singing, or vice-versa.

But to my amazement, several of the singer-songwriters had written very, very good songs. And the judges, who all write at least some of their own best songs, were quick to recognize real song-writing ability.

So now it's time to talk about the judges. Lionel Richie is the senior judge, with a career spanning decades and including an astonishing number of wonderful songs that he wrote and performed, solo or with The Commodores. He has learned a phenomenal amount about the music biz, and his advice to auditioners is excellent.

The pop diva, Katy Perry, was someone whose name I had heard -- but never knowingly her music. It turns out that I actually admire her singing very much -- she's got a beautiful and powerful voice. She also has written, not only songs to perform herself, but also songs for other artists, like Nicky Minaj, Selena Gomez, and Kelly Clarkson.

It was amusing to learn that she started her career as a Christian singer named Katy Hudson (copies of that self-titled album are now going for nearly a hundred bucks). I also must say that her recent decision to go blond and cut her hair very short was an outstanding one.

Then there's country singer Luke Bryan. I used to be very current with country music, but it's been several years now that I've lost touch, and those years apparently included Luke Bryan's entire career.

On Idol, he's charming and kind and funny -- though we've seen that Katy Perry isn't always amused. To me, though, what matters is the Luke Bryan has a strong, perfectly tuned voice. He's genuine country in that he sings the way he talks; and his songwriting skills are excellent. I've listened to his music obsessively for the past few days and I'm not tired of him yet.

So we have three judges who deserve our attention, because they can do, and have done, everything that the contestants are expected to do. And when judging, they are all scrupulously honest about where each singer is, in terms of skill and originality; yet their criticisms are always expressed with kindness and civility, even when a particular auditioner tries their patience.

There are funny moments, which, though they appear spontaneous, seem to me to be scripted; I may be wrong. There was the young man who, in his early twenties, had never yet kissed a girl. Katy Perry invited him to kiss her cheek, but on the second go, she turned her head and caught him on the lips.

Some people have complained that if a man had pulled that trick on a female contestant, it would have been an obvious case of sexual harassment, so that if Katy Perry were a US Senator she would have to resign.

Others, more rationally, have complained that with this stunt she had deprived him of his "special moment" with someone who really meant something to him.

To which I respond: True, but let's not succumb to the current trend of completely rejecting something because we find a reason to criticize it. The quick, tricksy kiss hardly qualified as a real kiss; he still can have his first real kiss with a person of his choosing. Meanwhile, it was a fun moment, and he took it like a champ.

However, it is worth noting that Katy Perry is more flirty with contestants than any of the previous judges have been, while Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan are not flirty. Perhaps this is because there really have been a lot more amazingly good-looking male singers than particularly beautiful female singers. But Katy Perry really needs to rein it in.

When she's critiquing and encouraging people, she's a pro. And certainly having good looks has never been known to hurt a singer's career, so it's worth mentioning that she has consistently been the best-looking woman in the room.

What matters is that they are equally encouraging to not-so-attractive contestants who are very talented. Several quite-overweight singers auditioned, but most of them had the chops to get a golden ticket, and a few of them were among the most talented. As a quondam fat guy myself, I always appreciate it when someone has the skill to be so impressive as to overcome the negative bias that heavy people always face in our thin-loving society.

Here's the amazing thing: Singers are almost always allowed to finish their songs, and if they aren't, the cut-off point makes sense in the music -- they aren't stopped in mid-phrase, most of the time.

I began watching Idol in season 3. I had heard about the previous seasons -- especially during the controversy over Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken. Nothing about the concept of the show interested me, until, while channel flipping, I ran across a dialogue between Fantasia Burrino and Simon Cowell. It was Fantasia who sold me on the show, and I watched regularly from then on.

In that third season, most of the contestants weren't very good. Some of the men couldn't sing on pitch; many of the women either couldn't belt or they had no head voice, so they were limping along with half a range. This trend continued for many years.

But this year, every single contestant we've seen get a golden ticket is competent. They can find the right note and stay in tune; they have strength throughout their range. There were several guys with good falsettos, and one whose falsetto voice was gorgeous, and integrated seamlessly with his regular voice.

And the majority have unique qualities as well as basic competence. Judging from the contestants that the judges have most admired, this is going to be a season of outstanding talent.

Of course, at this point we have no idea whether they're going to continue some of the lame practices of the Fox Idol. For instance, I can do without all the gosh-wow interaction with "mentors," most of whom give dreadful advice to the contestants. The only excellent mentor was Harry Connick, Jr., and as far as I remember, no contestant ever followed his advice -- to their detriment. If they skip the mentoring nonsense entirely I'd be happy.

Keith Urban was an outstanding judge, and Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr., were his peers. I thought at the time that they were the best possible panel for this singing competition, and therefore I was skeptical about the ABC Idol's panel.

But I think Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan have the potential to be every bit as good. They are all excellent performers and songwriters, and they have already shown the ability to recognize talent and accomplishment among the contestants.

The production staff -- including the screeners who selected the auditioners that the judges actually met -- are doing outstanding work, and the producers are making good decisions as they shape what kind of show this is going to be. The old Gong Show sensibility of the audition phase of the Simon Cowell years is gone completely, to the benefit of the show.

Now, if you want to watch a pleasurable singing show, Idol meets that expectation. You aren't watching for train-wreck performances; you're watching because you're going to be impressed by the singing of people who often have quite interesting and touching stories.

So my conclusion is this: If you're completely tired of the whole American Idol phenomenon, I suggest that you give this new version a try anyway; you may find that the emphasis on high quality will win you over. And if you were disappointed when Idol ended on Fox, be reassured: This new version really is American Idol, and this panel of judges is going to give us a good show all season long.

Meanwhile, I've had the pleasure of sampling Katy Perry, getting all nostalgic about Lionel Richie as a soloist and with the Commodores, and discovering (and bingeing on) the first-rate country music of Luke Bryan. Thus I have broadened my horizons while indulging my nostalgia.

*

I really liked the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher and the sequel as well. I was also disgusted by the anger of fans of the Jack Reacher novels, who were outraged that someone as short as Cruise was cast as a character whom the novels pointedly depict as a big guy -- six foot four of solid muscle, so that chairs are in danger when he sits on them.

I finally got around to listening to a Jack Reacher audiobook -- Night School, by Lee Child. And yes, Child makes mention of Reacher's size several times in the book, so that the complainers had a point. (But they were also wrong; no role is ever diminished in any way by being played by Tom Cruise.)

The premise of Night School is pretty cool. It's not easy to write a compelling mystery when you have a character who is a still in the military (the novel, published in 2016, is set in the early 1990s) and yet needs to have a lot of freedom to investigate a crime.

The novel begins with Reacher receiving a medal in a private ceremony, whereupon he is given orders to report to a school. Such assignments in the military are not rare -- I have a good friend who went to a civilian graduate school as a major in the Air Force, and the military operates many schools of their own.

But it turns out this school has only three students in it, because it's not actually a school at all. The CIA has learned from an informant in Hamburg, Germany, that a group of Islamic terrorists are about to acquire something from an American seller for the asking price of $100 million. They have no idea who the American is, or what he's selling -- but they soon learn that the terrorists are going to meet his price. That means that whatever it is, it's big.

How do you investigate when you have no information except the asking price? Here's where Lee Child really shines. The mystery is deep and important, and yet nobody leaps right to the right answers. Every scrap of information is painstakingly acquired, and there are others who are seeking the same information in a race against time.

We also spend some time in the viewpoint of the American who is selling the high-priced item(s). We learn that he is dreaming of buying a ranch in Argentina, a huge spread that he plans to rename after Sugar Land, Texas, where he grew up.

We also follow the terrorists' messengers, and their stories are interesting and engaging; some of the most effective surprises in the novel come from them.

There are believable villains who are as scary as the villains in the Jack Reacher movies, which is hardly a surprise; there's also a German chief of detectives who is more cooperative than the Americans deserve.

But the heart of the novel is, of course, Jack Reacher himself. His compassion for those who have taken risks in the cause of humanity (it really is the human race at stake) is balanced with Jack Reacher's equal willingness to kill whoever needs killing.

The only false step is the rather detailed sex between Reacher and the National Security Adviser, who is an attractive middle-aged woman. While they seem to have enjoyed themselves, the sexual activity is not even slightly related to either the story or even the characters themselves. We learn nothing about them through these spur-of-the-moment liaisons. If I hadn't been listening to an audiobook, I would have skimmed forward until the story began again, not because I have any particular dread of sex scenes, but because they were boring.

But they don't take all that much time, and the rest of the novel is an intelligent mystery. In fact, it's that very intelligence that makes the book move rather slowly at times. There are moments of action, but surprisingly few of them until near the end of the book.

In other words, Night School is a true detective novel rather than a thriller. A movie version of it would be a thriller, because it would move through the detection process far more quicky, so that the moments of violence would occupy more of the audience's attention.

But since the Tom Cruise movies have all taken place after Reacher left the military, it's doubtful that anybody's going to film an adaptation of a story about a years-younger Reacher. Cruise couldn't plausibly play the character then, and the story can't move forward in time, because the story absolutely depends on having people who were in the army in the 1950s still being alive and in the military in the 1990s. Besides, the situation could only have existed in the first few years after German reunification.

The narrator of the audiobook, Dick Hill, does an excellent job -- especially because he's required to speak in several languages and with several different accents.

I've recently read (on Quora) somebody's impassioned essay on why it's absurd and offensive that when characters in a movie are speaking Russian or German to each other, the actors usually speak in English -- but with heavy Russian or German accents. As this writer pointed out, they could have had the Germans speak German, with subtitles; or speak English, but without an accent, since the conceit would be that the characters were speaking their native language to each other.

But using accented English to signify that the characters are really speaking German is a time-honored tradition. Audiences are used to it. Unlike opera-goers, we like to hear the dialogue in our native language. So when Dick Hill brings off the accents with clarity and subtlety, he is to be commended for it, I believe.

I have to say that Child seems to have done an excellent job of researching what was going on in Germany (and Hamburg in particular) during the years right after unification. I'm impressed by his ability to not only research but also make social sense of history. While nobody would class this as a historical novel, it actually is one, and an excellent one to boot.

If you've been wanting to sample a Jack Reacher novel, this is a very good starting place, I think, particularly because it's not close to the movies in time. It's Reacher in his mid-thirties, when the U.S. Army still had authority over him. So it'll be fairly easy to separate him from the Tom Cruise performances.

In a way, Night School sets a standard of smart mystery-writing that few thrillers can meet.

When David Baldacci's characters Robie and Reel in End Game are required to investigate the disappearance of their friend and mentor code-named Blue Man, these trained assassins are out of their depth. Investigation isn't really in their skill set. So Baldacci concentrates on the danger -- people are murdered left and right, Robie and Reel are constantly getting shot at or shooting, and they're both captured more than once. The result is an excellent thriller and a pretty good mystery.

This means that Baldacci's End Game is very fast-moving -- the job of the book is to be exciting first, smart second. Lee Child's Night School, by contrast, is about investigation. There's real danger, but most of the time, the hero isn't in danger, he's simply flummoxed as he tries to figure out -- or simply guess -- what's really going on.

King and Maxwell in Hour Game are required to solve a mystery, but they are explicitly presented as novices in the area of investigation. They're trained to fight and kill, not to investigate.

Both Night School and End Game are excellent books; they're just not the same kind of book, even though they might seem to be. If you want a thriller that contains a mystery, read the Baldacci; if you want a mystery that contains some thrills, read the Child.

*

Not to complain, but last year winter ended very nicely in January. Everything bloomed and we had a long and lovely spring.

This year, we keep getting good spring weather for a week -- followed by snow. Well, I'm not sure Greensboro is getting snow, but the inches are piling up in Lexington, Virginia, where I happen to be right now, and classes have already been canceled at the school where I teach.

And this is March. In Minnesota, nobody expects to have spring fully underway in March. But in the American South, spring is supposed to come early and stay long. Let's get this straight, please, and give the snow a rest till next winter.

Of course, we all know that any oddities in weather are caused by carbon dioxide emitted by human burning of fossil fuels. Even when the oddity isn't warmer but cooler weather than expected. Because, like, it is known.

(And for those who get it, yes, that was a deliberate Game of Thrones reference. In Game of Thrones, we all know that winter is coming. What isn't coming, in 2018, is a new season of Game of Thrones. Who do the writers of the HBO series think they are, delaying like this: George R.R. Martin?)

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