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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 2, 2003

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


Country Words & Music, Finding Nemo, and Chocolate Mousse

There are a lot of reasons to want music in your life.

For instance, some ambient or New Age music do a great job of providing "white noise" so you can sleep through someone's snoring ... or so I'm told.

There's music that makes your body twitch, your feet tap, your arms flail, and all the other movements that are, when done by someone other than me, called "dancing."

There's music that sweeps you away with power and melody and involves your mind as well as your emotions by the interplay of rhythms, timbres, levels of loudness, and vigor.

There's music that you play just to impress other people with how sophisticated you are.

There's music that you put up with because you don't hate it quite enough to make it worth reaching over to change stations on the radio and it'll only last another minute or so anyway.

There's music that keeps you from going insane during the daily commute. It saves lives.

I've heard people say that "pure" music, like "pure" mathematics, is the best use of the art.

And maybe that's so. But music and poetry began together -- because the first musical instrument was the human voice, singing words. Probably words like, "Be quiet, little baby, while the sabertooth passes by" or "I'm interested in mating and I'd like it to be with you" -- you know, pretty direct, pragmatic lyrics.

And when music and words are well composed and well combined, they make a third art that isn't pure music and isn't pure poetry -- it's pure song.

When I was young, the best songs were being written for Broadway shows -- they had a story to tell. Nobody ever did it better than Rodgers & Hammerstein, though Lerner & Loewe, Jule Styne, Bock & Harnick, Jones & Schmidt, and many others contributed great songs that were part of wonderful shows.

But Broadway was already getting feeble as a source of great songs by the time the heart of words & music moved to folk-pop songs with the careers of songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Dan Fogelberg, and Carly Simon.

Not that rock&roll wasn't producing a lot of songs -- but they were rarely about the words and music. Much of it was about rhythm and movement, and while deep (or shallow) emotions might have been stirred by such songs as "Innagoddadavida" and "Light My Fire," let's not pretend that there was any great artistry or deep thought or even cleverness in the words.

Then came disco. Songs disappeared.

Alternative music didn't help. While the words were often interesting and sometimes clever (case in point: Jane Siberry's "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog"), the music was often deliberately ugly.

Even one-time great songwriters like Billy Joel and Elton John (at least when he worked with Bernard Taupin) and Carole King and Carly Simon seemed to dry up as dance music ruled.

As for rap, let's just say that while it's good for many things, it doesn't compete for the most effective blending of words & music into songs.

But a funny thing happened.

The center of gravity of words & music moved back to the place where it had its earliest roots in America: Country music.

And that's where it is today.

Country music is where you find the best songs, the ones that unashamedly deal with every part of life -- songs that make you laugh and cry, that make you remember love and pain and loss, friendship and loneliness.

If America has any songwriters laureate -- who speak to the people as a whole, and address great national issues with the voice of the people, it's country music -- they'll probably be found in country music.

Of course there are also good songs being written elsewhere (and I've reviewed many of them), but when you want songs where the lyrics matter and the melodies are singable, your chances of finding them are much better on a country station than any other.

Two of the great women's anthems of the past few years came out of country: Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Happy Girl" is the ultimate I'm-not-going-to-be-depressed-ever-again song, and the Marie Sisters' "Real Bad Mood" corners the get-out-of-my-way-if-you-know-what's-good-for-you market.

Tracy Byrd's "The Truth about Men" is partly tongue-in-cheek, but nobody ever wrote a better entry for the men's side of the musical battle of the sexes.

But when the battles are over, it's hard to think of any genre of music that could sustain such a song of unashamed fatherly love as Lonestar's "My Front Porch Looking In."

Country music does tend to speak for folks who can say, in the words of that song, "The only ground I ever owned was sticking to my shoes." But think about it -- this is music for people who don't think being cool is all that cool, for people who recognize that getting married and having kids and raising them right and loving the people around you might just be the secret of happiness, not to mention the foundation of civilization.

I know people who would call lyrics like "I've seen the paintings from the air / Brushed by the hand of God / The mountains and the canyons reach from sea to shining sea / But I can't wait to get back home / to the one he made for me" sappy and sentimental.

But you know what? I think when you compare that song with any number of sentences that include phrases like "aesthetic distance" and "naive identification" and even "foundation of civilization," I think there's more truth per square inch in the country songs.

Randy Travis's "Three Crosses" tells a simple truth, but one that a lot of people spend a lot of time forgetting.

Steve Holy's "I'm Not Breakin'" gives voice to real commitment in love.

And Lacy Dalton's classic Survivor album is filled with tough songs to inspire people through hard times.

These are songs you can take into your life. Perhaps because these so many country songs seem to have been written by people who are living real lives, or at least still talk to folks who do.

*

With all the rave reviews that Finding Nemo has been getting, you hardly need to hear my opinion.

But when has that stopped me in the past?

Let me just start by saying that all the positive reviews are true. This is Pixar's best movie -- and that's saying a lot, because they haven't had a clunker yet.

This is also Albert Brooks's best performance in years. Brooks is at his best and funniest when he isn't the star of the show -- like Marty Feldman or Eugene Levy, he shines as a sidekick.

In this ensemble show, however, Brooks's I-can't-believe-things-have-gotten-this-bad-already attitude doesn't feel nebbishy, it feels like the strength of humble decency.

The surprise of the show, however, is Ellen DeGeneres. I found her TV show unwatchable, because her comic shtick was to get into embarrassing situations and then make them even more infinitely humiliating by all her clumsy efforts to extricate herself.

There's only so much vicarious humiliation I can stand before I have to change channels. After a while, simple decency makes you turn away.

In this show, DeGeneres plays a part that isn't her stock characters, but that gives her a chance to show her real acting chops. Dory, a fish with chronic short-term memory loss, is absolutely hilarious. And the animators, incredibly enough, managed to capture aspects of DeGeneres's face, so you find yourself recognizing her on the screen and not just the soundtrack.

But ... a fish with short-term memory loss?

The amazing thing about Finding Nemo is that the writers (Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds) have found a wonderful balance between remaining true to what fish-eat-fish life is like in the Darwinian ocean (not to mention the human-ruled fish tank) and making an entertainment that humans can enjoy watching.

I mean, of course fish can't actually carry things, and they don't discuss child-rearing or join twelve-step programs like the hilarious sharks, but Finding Nemo is still a lot closer to life in the ocean than, say, The Little Mermaid.

Which leads to a mild warning. While nothing gory is ever shown, the movie begins with the death of Nemo's mother -- and all his hundreds of siblings -- before he is even hatched. And beneath all the comedy (the audience, including me, absolutely roared with laughter many times during the nearly two-hour show), this film is dealing with issues of loss, of love between parents and children, that are deeper and truer than most live-action films that make the attempt.

You don't have to have children to watch this movie, any more than you have to be a nun to enjoy Sound of Music or a barefooted cop to enjoy Die Hard.

*

If you haven't tried them yet, head for the freezers at the supermarket and look for the new line of Haagen-Dazs "Desserts Extraordinaire."

We're talking seven amazing ice creams. A couple of them are off limits for us -- my wife is allergic to alcohol, and there's a bit of real rum in the Bananas Foster, while we have no taste for the coffee in Café Mocha Frappe.

The Creme Brulee dares to name itself after my favorite dessert on earth -- and measures up pretty well. Strawberry Cheesecake has bits of graham cracker crust, and there's chocolate cake in the Chocolate Raspberry Torte.

But the two flavors that are the biggest hits at our house are the simplest: French Vanilla Mousse and Chocolate Mousse.

For years, my favorite chocolate ice cream was the incredibly light Chocolate Mousse Royale at 31 Flavors. But after years of brilliance, the folks at Baskin-Robbins suddenly changed the formula, got rid of that marvelous lightness ... and then, not long after, simply removed it from their menu.

Well, I no longer need to mourn for what is lost and gone. Haagen-Dazs has matched what 31 Flavors once had. And maybe, just maybe, topped it.

Of course, I'm already bracing myself for what happened with the Godiva ice creams -- within months they eliminated the Ivory Chocolate Chip flavor, which was the best chocolate chip ice cream ever sold anywhere.

I think whatever food I love the best is always the one the manufacturers get bored with ...

At least they're still creating fixes for my happiest cold-junk-food addiction: Guilt-Free ice cream sandwiches. They're simply the best available on the market right now, regardless of the calories. (And believe me, I'd eat just as many of them if they were five hundred calories each instead of just 95.)


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