Friday, November 30, 2012

Au Natural in Ubud: The Beauty of Green

I've always considered myself to be a diehard urbanite with no significant fondness for the great outdoors. But after decades of living in concrete jungles, Ubud has got me rethinking that particular self-categorization. As I prepare to leave after two days on this side of Bali's paradise, I'm realizing that I haven't eaten a single meal completely indoors since my arrival in Indonesia on Monday. This from a guy who always picks the table on the side of the entrance with functioning AC!

No, I'm not about to pack up my tent and go camping anytime soon (the fragrant nature air can be hard on my allergies, which is why I've begun using a nasal decongestant again for the first time in months, and I don't wear mosquito bites well), but it's hard not to appreciate the beauty of the natural world when you're in a place where pretty much everywhere you look, there are gorgeous shades of green. (Minus Monkey Forest Road, Ubud's main tourist drag, still enjoyable, but for reasons that have nothing to do with natural wonders or anything green.)

I'm still not sure how I feel about peekaboo bathrooms that are partially exposed to the elements (as has been the case in both hotels I've stayed in while in Ubud). I could live without geckos climbing the walls and mosquitoes hovering around me while I'm brushing my teeth, or doing whatever else one might do while in a bathroom. But I'd rather share my loo with wildlife (minus cockroaches!) than a human, and it helps that both of my private loos in Ubud have been so much more spacious than those cramped, mildewy ablution chambers that one often finds in traditional four-stars-and-under hotels. Also on the plus side, there's no light quite so flattering as the natural kind.

I haven't yet come up with a positive spin on why just about every eating and drinking establishment in Ubud insists on having cover versions of golden oldies for a soundtrack. Why settle for a recording of a Joan Osborne manqué remaking Steely Dan's "Do It Again," or "Careless Whisper" sung by a woman who is obviously not George Michael, when I can hear the real deals on my iPod? But in the general scheme of things, that's a minor quibble. And there's always Laughing Buddha Bar, which must be the only place on earth where one can hear Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on a Reggae Woman" (the original version) followed by a live band offering a rendition of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" that Thom York might actually enjoy.

If I didn't have to head over to Legian today to spend the weekend in a five-star luxury hotel that I'm reviewing for a freelance assignment, I could easily pass my remaining five days in Bali basking in the green glow of my reinvention as a mountain man of leisure. This hotel had better be amazing, or when I reach the beach, as I look out at the blue horizon, I won't be able to get my mind off of the green I left behind in Ubud.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My First Impression of Ubud: Happy At Last in Bali!

It may not be easy being green, but I'll never tire of looking at it!
There's nothing like good old friends who travel, too.

If it weren't for one of mine, I might not be where I am now. Months ago (circa May 17, to be kind of exact), when I first started toying with the idea of going to Bali and asked for suggestions of places to stay/visit, she offered the following glowing review of Ubud:

"I really, really loved Ubud. Not sure what it'd be like for an extended stay, but every time I went (5 days max), I wish I'd stayed long. Extremely relaxing - the spiritual center of Bali, and very zen - but enough of a city center (if small) that you wouldn't be totally bored (full disclosure: you might get *kind of* bored). I had an amazing time just chatting the night away with expats I'd meet at random restaurants."

It's a good thing I trust her opinion, or who knows where I'd be right now? Granted, by the time I left Seminyak today around noon, the place was beginning to grow on me. It started yesterday evening with happy-hour sunset drinks at Cocoon, a bar and restaurant overlooking the beach, and lively conversation with Adam, a British expat from Devon who has been living in Bali for five months now while teaching music. By the time my head hit the pillow last night, I was no longer dreaming of my escape to the mountains of Ubud but still excited about phase two of my Bali experience.

The bustling "city" scene as my private driver took me through and out of Seminyak today at noon, though, left me praying for a miracle on the other side. The sight of an elderly woman in her 70s doing housework in front of her home, topless, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, would have been much more of a "moment" had I not been stuck in nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic only meters away from her flapping boobs.

Eventually, we left congested Seminyak behind and were on the road to Ubud, about an hour or so away. I can remember the exact moment when I whispered to myself, "Now this is more like it." It was shortly after we pulled out of the silver factory, where I had a guided tour and learned that the people who actually make the jewelry have to study for three years before they get to spend all day in a glorified sweat shop playing with fire. (I was assured that they are paid nicely for it.)

Suddenly, the terrain started to change, and the road became curvier (up up up, down down, up up, down) and more curved. Lush greenery and rice fields alternated with quaint villages full of traditional Balinese homes with pointed tops and people burning things outside (photos coming soon, once I'm not too busy enjoying the scenery to bother taking them). For the first time since my arrival in Indonesia two days earlier, I saw more locals roaming the streets than loud singlet-wearing Australians. Even the still somewhat heavy traffic seemed calmer.

When I arrived at Kori Ubud Resort & Spa, and, for the first time in Bali's great outdoors, I was neither hot nor bothered, I knew I was in for an experience far removed from the beach bustle of Seminyak. The combination of rain and thick vegetation not only made the afternoon temperature bearable, but it made me feel like I'd somehow lucked out and scored a pad in the middle of the tropical rainforest. And since there were only around 25 rooms, I knew I was in for the semi-solitary experience I'd been craving since my arrival in Bali.

The only downside: No Wi-Fi outside of the restaurant and reception area, which is the only reason why I'm not 100% committed to more than one night in Kori Ubud (though I'll be in Ubud for at least two). If my first impression holds, though, I doubt that I'll miss being connected 24/7 too much, not with all this green to look at.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Argo"

1. The obvious way to make a movie based around the 1979-'81 Iran hostage crisis, which is the first big world news story that I'm old enough to remember in semi-detail, would have been to focus on the hostages. It was a risky move for Ben Affleck, directing his third feature film, to make them almost an afterthought in Argo and instead tell the story of the six U.S. Embassy in Tehran workers who got away (sort of). But it's the relative obscurity of their story -- along with Affleck's confident, straightforward direction and the creative liberties he takes with history (no way did that airport chase actually happen!) -- that give the story so much of its tension and spark. We sort of know how its going to turn out, but maybe, just maybe, we fear as the militants close in on the escape party of seven, they won't be so lucky.

2. Here's the difference between an actor like Ben Affleck and one like Brad Pitt. Although I liked Argo a lot more than I did Moneyball, Pitt's performance in the latter allowed Billy Beane to come across as a fully conceived character with a complicated inner life, while in Argo, Affleck's CIA specialist Tony Mendez (like Beane, estranged from his wife, with a child to whom he's endearingly close) is more of a heroic archetype. Thanks to Affleck's inherent likability, we care what happens to Mendez, but the portrayal doesn't really provide him with any truly distinguishing characteristics (other than that he's a pretty nice guy who smokes a lot) the way, say, Don Cheadle did with the similarly heroic Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

3. Affleck must have a great appreciation and respect for TV actors because he populated his movie with so many of them: Emmy winners Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), along with Tate Donovan, Victor Garber and Damages season-four costars Chris Messina and John Goodman. Blink and you might miss Adrienne Barbeau, who played Bea Arthur's daughter on the '70s sitcom Maude and pops up here as an actress in fake-film-within-a-film Argo. Her participation is a neat bit of historic parallelism since circa 1980, Barbeau became a B-movie star and a B movie star after her appearance in the horror classic The Fog.

4. I wasn't surprised to find out that George Clooney was one of Affleck's Argo co-producers. While watching, I kept thinking of The Ides of March, and not just because I was waiting for Phillip Seymour Hoffman to pop up. Like last year's Clooney-directed film, Argo is a taut political thriller with a talented ensemble, a concise story, very little excess fat and a minimum of aftertaste. You'll remember it in the morning, but you probably won't still be thinking or talking about it.

5. The fake-movie-within-the-movie premise that drives the plot and Affleck's comical scenes with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood players reminded me of Project Greenlight, Affleck and Matt Damon's this-is-how-you-make-a-movie foray into reality TV. Remember those days, around the time that Gigli and Jennifer Lopez were nearly ruining Affleck's career? I guess you could say he was just warming up for the best that was yet to come.

Monday, November 26, 2012

My 6 First Impressions of Bali

The view from my fourth-floor balcony at the Haven -- aiming away from the pool
1. Cool! I've landed in airports down by the water before, but I can't remember another time when I've had such a clear view of it taxiing down the runway to the gate. The only thing missing is a dramatic mountain range in the background, but those rolling hills will do. Expectations: High!

2. I was worried that people in Bali wouldn't be as nice as they are in Thailand, but my concerns are proving to be for naught. So far so welcoming. Interestingly, from the Balinese couple sitting next to me on the AirAsia flight (both of whom work in local hotel management) to the taxi driver who takes me to my hotel, everyone wants to know what I do for a living. When I say, "I'm a journalist," you would think I just revealed that I've walked on the moon. When did we become so impressive?

3. Everyone also seems quite surprised to hear that I'm from New York City. (Is it right that I still stay that -- even though I haven't actually lived there in more than six years?) Much to their disappointment, they don't seem to get many American tourists in Bali. It's nice to be wanted somewhere outside of the U.S.! They do, however, get tons of Australians because of the island-country-continent's proximity, which is good news to me. (My great big soft spot for Aussies remains as great, big and soft as ever.) Expectations: higher!

4. Uh oh! What's going on here? Where are the rock formations? Oh yeah, this isn't Krabi. It's Bali, a place that more than a few people have described to me as "paradise." More than a few also warned me about the tourist trap known as Kuta, and whoever said I'd hate it was right. Too bad we have to drive through it on the way to the Haven Seminyak, my hotel, which I hope is far far away from this maddening crowd. Unfortunately, my hopes are dashed when the taxi driver pulls over and stops as motorbikes continue to fly by. This will be my home for the next two nights?

5. The Haven came highly recommended on Agoda.com (a "Fantastic" 8.3 rating), and I do love the Melrose Place set up in which the balconies of the rooms overlook a courtyard with a swimming pool in the middle. But in the absence of Andrew Shue and Grant Show lookalikes to ogle, when I step outside the lobby, I want to see water, mountains and/or a great big rock formation. (Yes, the Vogue Resort & Spa in Krabi has spoiled me for good!) What do I get? A Circle K convenience store -- and it doesn't even have as good a selection of goodies as the 7-11s in Bangkok. Hopefully, the hotel's private beach that the bellman proudly tells me about ("It's 15 minutes walking, probably 10 for you because you look like you work out," he said) while showing me to my room will make up for the lack of breathtaking scenery so far.

6. The bacon cheeseburger that I have for lunch in the hotel restaurant because I'm too tired and hot to go looking for local food almost does. Juicy, perfectly seasoned and creating just enough of a mess, it's possibly the best one I've had since my sister and I used to go to Flaky Jake's in Orlando to have custom-made burgers every weekend when I was a teenager. If Bali can do this with a burger, imagine what it can do with its own cuisine. Bali, there might be hope for you yet!

And according to several people I've asked (and a few I haven't), I might find it in Ubud, Lombok, Lovina, Lembongan and/or Gili. Any place that comes with that many recommendations deserves to be judged on more than six first impressions. Stay tuned. It may not have been love at first sight for Bali and me, but I've still got plenty of time to fall.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

White-on-Blond Racism: Another Side of the Other Sexual Discrimination

I recently met an American tourist in Bangkok who offered a variation on the main racist theme I've been hearing for the better part of the last two years, first in Melbourne, later in Bangkok. He summed up his sexual/romantic inclinations thusly: "I'm into Asians and black guys. I'm not attracted to white guys at all." Sexually and romantically speaking, he had no use for them, barely noticed them at all.

I was as shocked as a slightly jaded person who's heard just about everything can be. It wasn't because his announcement was so unusual -- as I said, I've heard it almost all -- but because as he was making it, he was looking at me as if I should have been impressed. While he talked, he seemed to be thinking, How cool is it that I'm so open-minded? But what's so open-minded about taking an entire race, even if it's the one that's most desirable among gay men in Bangkok, putting it into a box and tossing it into the dumpster?

I wasn't impressed. Nor did I jump for joy because his preference for Asians and black guys meant I had a shot. I was appalled in the way I generally am whenever I encounter so-called "rice queens" and "chocolate queens" (distasteful tags invented to describe unfortunate gay countercultures). Had he subbed "black guys" with "white guys" in the first sentence and "white guys" with "black guys" in the second, would he still have expected me to do a happy dance? Just because I made it into the "in" column didn't mean I was going to applaud a comment that still made me uncomfortable.

"Ah, reverse racism," I insisted, waiting for the age-old excuse.

He didn't disappoint: "That's just my preference."

Only it isn't just a preference. Saying, "I like dogs better than cats," is stating a preference -- just a preference. You haven't completely ruled out cats as being useless, even if you think they are. You've simply said that given a choice, you'd pick a dog over a cat. "I love dogs, but I don't like cats," however, is not just a preference. It's direct dismissal, which is the general idea behind racism and prejudice.

In human terms, it's the equivalent of "I don't like white guys" or "I'm not attracted to white guys" -- whether it's said by a white or a non-white person. And in terms of being racist, it qualifies as much as saying you don't like "black guys," "Asian guys" or "Latino guys" -- though nobody I know has ever said he doesn't like Latino guys. (For the record, I'm saving black-on-blond racism for another day since it's a far more complex topic with centuries of complicated history.)

"White guys" covers such a massive range of looks and nationalities (including, technically, Latinos) that to say you aren't attracted to them at all suggests that you're so busy clinging to your "preference," dismissing "white guys" out of hand, that you don't even bother to open your eyes, your mind, your heart, and look around. That's prejudice right there! It might not be hate speech, but that's just a subcategory of racism, not its definition.

Yes, I'm fully aware that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But if someone says, "I think black people are inferior to white people," is it not a racist statement just because that person has spun it as an opinion and not as fact? If you're going to go around spouting potentially inflammatory opinions, at least be man -- or woman -- enough to own them along with all their ramifications.

What's more is that when someone says, "I don't like cats," no one's feelings are likely to be hurt, not even a cat's. But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living in this world should know that race is a loaded topic, much more so than hair color and eye color, which is why the American tourist in Bangkok would have been flirting with prejudice and bigotry (if not quite taking them to bed and sleeping with them) even had he said, "I prefer Asian and black guys to white guys." It may not be an overtly racist comment, but to what end does someone even say something like that? Are there no other preferences that can be declared when talking to someone who has most likely spent his entire life being judged and/or discriminated against because of the color of his skin?

I could have lived with "I prefer brunettes to blonds," or even "I don't like blonds." The latter is actually something I may have said myself once or twice in passing, referring not to white guys but to actual hair color. People like to defend racial sexual and romantic preferences by equating them with preferences for a certain hair or eye color, but that's ridiculous. Race is simply not the same as hair or eye color, nor is our reaction to it on par with how we respond to hair and eye color.

I'm pretty sure the cliched assertions that "gentlemen prefer blondes" -- which happens to be the title of a classic 1953 Marilyn Monroe movie -- or that "blondes have more fun" (used by Rod Stewart as the title of his 1978 album) haven't left scores of brunettes feeling unwanted, unloved or unfun. But consider what would happen were you to substitute race for hair hue: If Spike Lee were to call his next film Gentlemen Prefer Black Women, how much controversy do you think would ensue?

As I've said before, all sexual preferences are not created equal.

That said, we can't help what we like and what we don't like, right? No, we cannot, but we owe it to our evolvement to try to understand why, especially when it involves something as significant as an entire human race. Furthermore, we're each responsible for what we say, and we have to accept how people respond to it. It's the flipside of freedom of speech, which some seem to think makes them exempt from being called out on their comments.

Just because the American guy with a thing for Asians and blacks shuns the white European male that's so in-demand in Bangkok, among both locals and foreigners, doesn't mean he's any more enlightened or accepting than someone who says, "I'm not attracted to Asians" or "I'm not attracted to black guys," while refusing to even consider ever dating or sleeping with one.

It's still racism, only with a different target.

How Did They Get a 6 Year Old to Do That in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"?

It fitting that Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, is being touted as a likely Best Actress Oscar nominee, the youngest ever, in an Oscar season when 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is the frontrunner so far for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. (For the record, she was just 7 when she finished filming Beasts.) Wallis's Hushpuppy is Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old character Lawrence played in 2010's Winter's Bone, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination at age 20, 11 years younger and relocated from Appalachia to the Louisiana bayou.

Beasts also contains elements of Moonrise Kingdom (a story told mostly from a child's point of view, a big storm as a major character) and The Tree of Life (a mix of grim reality and fantastical history and an alternately loving and stern father), with bits and pieces of Sounder, Adaptation and the story of Noah's Ark thrown in, but somehow it remains a unique viewing experience.

Some might carp about its social shortcomings -- stereotypical angry black dad, meteorological disaster as a conduit for cinematic sentimentality -- but that's kind of beside the point. Yes, Wink could be seen as a stereotypical angry black dad (one part James Evans, one part George Jefferson, no parts Cliff Huxtable -- if you want to go there), but Beasts is not a film about race. The two main characters -- Hushpuppy and Wink -- easily could have been played by white actors, or Hispanic actors, or Asian actors, to similar emotional effect.

As for the idea that Beasts sentimentalizes poverty or the loss of one's shelter to the elements, just because the movie doesn't dwell on the dark side of life in the "Bathtub" doesn't mean it presents the bayou slum as a place anyone would want to visit, much less live in. Beyond its setting, though, Beasts is a fairy tale, one that's told through a little girl's eyes. On a universal level, it's a story about community. On a personal level, it's about a motherless child (and that adjective -- "motherless" -- and not the things Hushpuppy sees and endures, pretty much defines the character) discovering the world and trying to make sense of it and come to terms with all the scary things in it. It's more likely that a 6-year-old girl would see a tropical storm the way Hushpuppy sees it and not as the hook for a New York Times op-ed piece on race and poverty.

That's not to say it's a perfect movie. In fact, were it not for Wallis's centerpiece performance, I, too, might have strained to give this non-political movie political context. Like Dwight Henry, who plays her onscreen dad, Wallis is a first-time actor, but she's more of a natural than Henry, whose delivery sometimes sounds a little stilted. She's a child-acting rarity: adorable and cute, although at times she's seems to be trying to be the opposite. She doesn't talk a lot in the movie -- her thoughts are revealed mostly in voiceover -- which could either be evidence of her shortcomings as an actress or her potential for greatness.

Maybe first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin used the voiceovers as insurance in case Wallis's line readings came across as awkward or inauthentic. (They don't.) But then, when Wallis doesn't have the spoken word to fall back on, she has to convey Hushpuppy's inner life with facial expressions and with silence -- a feat she pulls off every bit as expertly as Oscar winner Jean Dujardin did in The Artist last year.

If Wallis were 10 or 15 years older, Lawrence's Oscar-night competition would be even tougher than Hushpuppy is in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Burning Questions: Pop Music Mysteries That Kept Me Awake Last Night

1. I've been well aware of One Direction's ascendant popularity for many months and even wrote about the British vocal quintet in April for my OurStage Pop column, but did I miss the group's coronation as the new princes of pop? (Move over, Bieber?) How did OD's second album, Take Me Home, sell 540,000 copies in its first week (making it the act's second No. 1 album of 2012 and the year's third-biggest debut, behind Taylor Swift's Red and Mumford & Sons' Babel), more than the November 13 releases from Drake collaborator the Weeknd (86,000), Soundgarden (83,000), Christina Aguilera (73,000), Green Day (69,000) and Susan Boyle combined? Quick, can you name at least one One Direction member -- the cute one? Is there a cute one?

I think I've been living on the other side of the world for so long that I wouldn't know a Western global pop sensation if it banged me on the eardrum, but when did these guys get to be bigger than Justin Bieber, whose Believe sold 166,000 less than Take Me Home in week one? Maybe the lack of Bieber buzz in Bangkok should have been a clue: He's on his third hit single from Believe, and I've yet to hear any of them playing anywhere around town. I can't say I don't occasionally catch snippets of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" and "One Thing" here and there (even at DJ Station, where pop divas and Maroon 5 generally rule), but then I still hear Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" everywhere I go, and her Kiss couldn't even cross the 50,000 line in its first week.

2. Speaking of prepubescent pop, more than a decade ago, when 'N Sync was the One Direction of its day, did anyone dream that the other Justin (Timberlake) would go on to become a both a bankable and highly sought-after actor with the names David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and the Coen Brothers (directors of his next film, Inside Llewyln Davis) on his acting resume? Despite his growing rep as a thespian (he was one of my favorite things in The Social Network -- the Rooney Mara scenes were the other), I still prefer him as a pop star. I can't help but feel cheated because of his musical inactivity. And by his marriage, too: I'm sure Jessica Biel is a great girl, and I know we can't help whom we fall for, but I wish Timberlake belonged to a more exciting celebrity coupling.

3. If Lana Del Rey would leave the shady-lady persona on her video sets and act naturally elsewhere, would it help her get a bit more street cred? I'm convinced that "Ride," the Rick Rubin-produced first single from her new EP Paradise, would be considered the future of pop were it a Cat Power song, or had it been released on a black label and popped up, uncredited, at the end of the next episode of Revenge. If the woman singing the song didn't always run around looking like she just spent 12 hours in hair and make-up, she'd probably be more universally acknowledged as a serious artist and possibly even be a real contender for one of the Grammy credibility-boosting left-of-mainstream spots in the 2012 Best New Artist line up -- the ones that I'm convinced are going to go to Frank Ocean, Emeli Sandé and/or the Lumineers (joining virtual shoo-ins Carly Rae Jepsen, fun. and Gotye).


4. Am I the only one who didn't even realize that Susan Boyle was releasing a new album on November 13 (Standing Ovation: The Greatest Songs of Stage, a collection of Broadway show tunes)? Her fourth album in four fourth quarters debuted on Billboard's Top 200 album chart at No. 12, six notches below Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby. Maybe she'd be more competitive if she had released a sequel to 2010's The Gift instead, or maybe (hopefully) she's simply almost over.

5. How did Soundgarden get its new album, King Animal, the band's first in 16 years, to sound both totally 2012 and like a proper follow-up to 1996's Down on the Upside that could have been released a few years later, without seeming to be stuck in the '90s or just doing it for the kids' approval? As the guys proved in Melbourne last February, Soundgarden still rocks. King Animal won't be replacing Badmotorfinger in continuous heavy rotation on my iPod anytime soon, but "Taree" will make a nice companion piece to "Pretty Noose," "Burden in My Hand" and "Blow Up the Outside World," Down on the Upside's trio of great singles.


6. Why am I struggling to care about "Woman's World," the first single from Cher's upcoming studio album, her first since 2001's Living Proof? She's one of my all-time favorite performers, and her voice is in excellent shape, but listening to it, I can't help but wonder, It took the better part of a decade to come up with this? For better or worse, "Believe" will go down in history not only for being Cher's biggest hit and umpteenth comeback, but also for kicking off pop's Auto-Tune craze. Topping it was always unlikely, but I was hoping for something more than standard dance-pop with a rainbow flag on top. (Fun fact: Cher's 1998 comeback single, "Believe," shares its title with Justin Bieber's latest album, while her 1979 comeback single, "Take Me Home," shares its title with One Direction's.)


7. Kelly Clarkson is a bonafide pop star, with 10 Top 10 Hot 100 singles in 10 years, so why does it still seem too early for her to be putting out a best of? I have a hunch: Because she's yet to tap her full potential as an artist. Now that she has an album full of greatest hits, I wish she'd toss her increasingly stale pop-rock formula aside and record the killer stripped-down folk-pop album I know she was destined to make and probably would have with 2007's My December, had Clive Davis not intervened.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey Tunes: 10 Songs for Thanksgiving Day

Fourteen years ago, in 1998, I spent Thanksgiving Day in Queens, N.Y., at the home of my then-boyfriend's big sister and her family. As we sat around the turkey feast, we each listed everything we had to be thankful for that year. I was pleasantly surprised that no one in attendance mentioned anything having to do with material possessions, a lucrative job or random physical attributes. We were all about love, peace and harmony that day, that year, and that, I suppose, was one more reason to be thankful.

I can't recall everything that was on my list, but I'm pretty sure I forgot the one thing for which I'm grateful every year: music.

Happy Thanksgiving Day! Love, listen and enjoy!

"Kind and Generous" Natalie Merchant If you have one person you can sing this to, then you've already got more to be thankful for than most.


"I Want to Thank You" Alicia Myers When you talk about thank-you songs, you can't not mention a certain early '80s R&B classic.


"Thanks for My Child" Cheryl "Pepsii" Riley Why spend only Mother's Day being grateful for the second greatest love of all?

"Thank You Every Day" Deee-Lite Thank God for the early '90s!


"Thank You World" World Party Another reason to be thankful for the early '90s: World Party's pair of near-perfect psychedelic pop-rock albums, 1990's Goodbye Jumbo and 1993's Bang!. YouTube is not allowing me to post this Jumbo track, so click here to listen and to watch.

"Thank You World" The Statler Brothers Right back at them! And I'm thankful to the Statler Brothers for providing the soundtrack to a significant chunk of my formative years.


"Pilgrim" Eric Clapton Though we can thank the 16th President of the United States (currently being revived to Oscar-caliber effect by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln) for making Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863, if those earliest settlers hadn't landed at Plymouth Rock, chances are you'd be at work today. So be thankful to them, too.


"Indian Reservation" Paul Revere & the Raiders I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the second most unfortunate aspect of colonial times on Thanksgiving, since Native Americans played such a crucial role in the first T-Day. The way they were treated by the U.S. forefathers would rival slavery for sheer shamefulness had the Native Americans been totally defenseless.


"Wild Turkey" Lacy J. Dalton I've never been particularly fond of Thanksgiving's centerpiece meat, and I can live without the man-meat version, too.


"All Is Full of Love" Bjork No, it's not a "thank you" song, and there are no turkey cameos in the lyrics or in the video (which happens to be one of my favorites of all time), but in the end, what more do we have to be thankful for than being all full of love, whether it's romantic love, friendship love, family love or self love.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Would Nina Simone Feel About Being Resurrected in Zoe Saldana's Body?

Some time ago, there were reports that Aretha Franklin was so keen on having Halle Berry play her in the story of her life that the Queen of Soul personally approached the Oscar winner to urge her to take on the role. As daring an actress as Berry might be, she wasn't sure if she was up to that particular challenge. After all, she said in at least one interview that I read, she can't sing.

I'm not sure if Zoe Saldana has any singing talent, but I certainly wish she'd taken the Halle Berry high road when she was offered the role of Nina Simone in the upcoming story of the late singer's life. She could have spared us another potentially crummy biopic and herself the controversy over her casting.

The controversy has been brewing for several months now, but it's only now garnering significant play in the press. The beef: The light-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress looks absolutely nothing like Simone, who died in 2003 at age 70, and casting her in the role only further perpetuates the racism that has stained Hollywood for years. An anti-casting petition that was launched at Change.org three months ago has so far received nearly 10,000 signatures, and even Simone's daughter Simone Kelly has entered the fray, posting her own commentary on her mother's Facebook page.

"My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise (Zoe Saldana) is not the best choice."

Hollywood has long taken great liberties when casting actors as famous people. Daniel Day-Lewis, a Brit, is currently receiving raves and may possibly win a third Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln. His fellow Oscar-winning Brit Sir Anthony Hopkins has been nominated twice for playing U.S. presidents -- Richard Nixon in 1995's Nixon and John Quincy Adams in 1997's Amistad. For the former, director Oliver Stone didn't even try to make Hopkins look like Nixon. (He'd cast an actor, Josh Brolin, with at least a passable resemblance to George W. Bush in W, 11 years later.) Nor did Ron Howard and his make-up team for 2008's Frost/Nixon attempt to turn Oscar nominee Frank Langella into a dead ringer for the 37th president of the United States.

It's not every day that you luck out and find an actor like Jamie Foxx, who can transform himself into Ray Charles (for his Oscar-winning performance in 2004's Ray) with dark glasses and a period suit. Or one like Helen Mirren, who had the regal bearing and the physical qualities to convince us she was Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen and win a Best Actress Oscar for her effort. Or one like Denzel Washington, who can convincingly embody civil-rights leader Malcolm X (in 1992's Malcolm X) and boxer Rubin Carter (in 1999's The Hurricane), winning Oscar nominations for both, without major physical alterations

Sometimes you get actors like Will Smith and Angela Bassett -- nominated for playing Muhammad Ali in 2001's Ali and Tina Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do with It, respectively -- who, despite being dissimilar to the icons they played in every way except for skin color, succeeded by capturing the essence of their real-life characters. I always thought Reese Witherspoon was too uptown to be home-spun June Carter Cash -- the role that won her the Best Actress Oscar for 2005's Walk the Line -- but at least that girl could sing.

Marion Cotillard didn't have to in 2007's La Vie en Rose (she lip-synced to Edith Piaf recordings), and she looks no more like Piaf than Meryl Streep resembles former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (or Julia Child, for that matter), but for both, the power of make-up worked wonders and paved the way to their Best Actress Oscar triumphs. It wasn't much of a stretch to accept either in the roles.

No, in general, actors don't have to look like the real people they're playing. They don't even necessarily have to be the same ethnicity: Anthony Quinn, a Mexican-American, won the second of his two Oscars for playing French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin in the 1956 film Lust for Life! But the case of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone comes with its own special set of circumstances, not only because of Simone's appearance -- dark-skinned with strong ethnic features -- in contrast to Latina Saldana's, but because of the history that the film will presumably chronicle.

I'm not as familiar with Simone's story as I should be (which is one of the reasons why I was so excited about the biopic when Mary J. Blige was attached), but I do know that racism was a major component of it and that Simone was one of the black musicians who played a key role in the civil-rights movement. It feels so disrespectful and wrong to cast a half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican actress in the role when you've got a black female thespian as perfect for it as Viola Davis roaming the streets of Hollywood. And what about black singers like Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Rowland, Brandy, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Blige, who could possibly do for Simone what Oscar nominee Diana Ross did for Billie Holiday 40 years ago in Lady Sings the Blues? Ross, incidentally, was darker skinned and more "ethnic" than Holiday. How's that for progress?

I imagine Saldana, the talented costar of megahits like Avatar and Star Trek, was cast because she will give the film more white appeal, thus increasing its box-office potential. That makes me wonder why no one thought to offer the part to Beyonce, who is as much of a draw. At least that girl can sing, too. In order to assume Simone's physicality, Saldana will wear prosthetics and an Afro wig, and the power of skilled make-up artists will be called upon to give the light-skinned actress a darker complexion.

Isn't that pretty much the equivalent of black face? No way would Simone ever have been down with that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Defense of Rihanna

Poor Rihanna. She'd be damned if she didn't, and she's damned because she does. If she had taken the Ke$ha musical route after being beaten by her now-ex Chris Brown in 2008, singing about getting wasted on whiskey and having casual sex, everyone would have dismissed her as being too shallow. (I once read a review of Kylie Minogue's 2007 X album, her first after being treated for breast cancer, that slammed it for not even broaching the subject of her battle with breast cancer, as if anyone wants to hear a frothy-pop queen like Minogue singing about that.)

By tackling the topic of her abuse head-on, referencing it repeatedly on the albums she's released since then and even occasionally inviting her abuser to sing along, Rihanna has set herself up for accusations of being something worse than shallow: irresponsible, a fool and a bad role model (more for forgiving Brown in real life than for anything in her songs), one of the those stupid girls that an artist like Pink chews up and spits out for breakfast.

For the rest of her career, Rihanna probably will have to live under a microscope with a far less forgiving lens than the ones used to magnify the actions of your average pop star. Every word she sings, every breath she takes, every move she makes, we'll be watching her, listening more closely than we'll ever listen to anything that comes out of the mouth of her BFF Katy Perry, viewing her through the prism of that one incident and its aftermath. The physical scars may have healed a long time ago, but she'll never be able to put it completely behind her -- so why not just put it all out there instead?

When she sang the hook of Eminem's Grammy-nominated 2010 smash "Love the Way You Lie," she fielded criticism for glorifying domestic violence, but many of her critics seemed to miss the point of the song. The same people who defended Eminem's apparent gay-bashing in some of his lyrics by rationalizing that he was merely ranting in character, perhaps failed to see that Rihanna was singing in character, too -- an abused woman who keeps going back for more. Whether Rihanna is one of those women should have been beside the point, if they were judging the song on its musical merit and not the person singing the hook. Repeat abuse victims exist; they're a sad fact of life and a far more interesting protagonist for a pop song than a girl who wants to party all the time.

If it had been Beyoncé, who's happily married to Jay-Z and presumably has never had to deal with domestic violence, people might have cheered on her creative genius, but Rihanna made the mistake of getting her ass kicked by Chris Brown. Yes, I said it. Some are treating her, the victim, like she's done something wrong, whether it's forgiving Brown, calling Brown the love of her life (as she recently told Oprah Winfrey), working with Brown, and/or still alluding to The Incident in song four albums later. (I wouldn't go so far as to call Rihanna and Brown a modern-day Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but it's interesting that despite the violence in that relationship, it's largely considered to be one of Hollywood's greatest romances. Nobody ever criticizes Taylor for marrying Burton twice and remaining devoted to him to the end, possibly because we never got to see the physical evidence of their blowouts.)

Yes, there are allusions to The Incident all over Unapologetic (more than on any post-Browngate Rihanna album since 2008's Rated R), and one song, a duet with Brown called "Nobody's Business," that basically demands that the public minds its own. While I can't say that I've forgiven Brown for his transgressions, I also realize that it's not really my place to forgive him. I wasn't the one he brutalized in the car that morning. It's up to his victim, not us conscientious objectors, to decide if and when she will forgive Brown.

As for the criticism that it's disingenuous and contradictory to flaunt personal details and then demand privacy, let he or she who is not a walking contradiction cast the first stone. Life is messy, and so are emotions. There is no rule that says the latter have to be consistent, in life or in song. If a female singer wants to withhold sex on one track and give it up freely on the next, that's her prerogative. Just because Rihanna is open about her experience with Brown doesn't mean she has to welcome public judgement and condemnation for her ongoing professional and possibly personal relationship with him.

She certainly isn't the first woman to give her abuser a pass, or the first person to have a hard time getting over someone who isn't worth the effort. One review of Unapologetic had the audacity to compare Rihanna's relationship with Brown to Stockholm Syndrome. It's an interesting angle, but it's also indicative of the overarching criticism that's being leveled not so much at Rihanna the singer as Rihanna the person in the largely negative reviews of Unapologetic, most of which have still been in the three-stars range, as if the critics recognize the musical merit of the album but just can't bring themselves to like it because of its divisive -- or as they would say, "icky" -- lyrics.

You'd almost think she wrote all her own material. Never in the history of pop music has a singer been so vilified for the lyrical content of an album largely written by other people -- tellingly, mostly men. Few female songwriters might be willing to write lines as brutally frank as "Felt like love struck me in the night/I pray that love don't strike twice" -- which sung by Beyoncé or Pink or Kelly Clarkson, might be interpreted as referring to love's ability to wound -- and hand them over to a public victim of domestic violence.

It reminds me of "Miracle," the 1991 single that Babyface wrote for Whitney Houston, who, incidentally, had her own experience with domestic abuse. Babyface once told me that although Houston chose to think of it as a song about self-love, a sort of "The Greatest Love of All Part 2," he wrote it as an anti-abortion anthem, inspired by someone he knew who was considering terminating a pregnancy. Only a man would go home and write a pop song gently condemning her!

I wonder what Babyface would write for Rihanna. Most of the reviews I've read of Unapologetic linger on the lyrical content as if the reviewers were so busy reading the lyric sheet that they barely paid attention to the music, which is far more bold, inventive and interesting than anything being released by the other leading ladies of pop.

Maybe that's because Rihanna chose to seek producers outside of the tried-and-true few being passed around by most of her peers. Perhaps it's because seven albums into her career, Rihanna still feels like she has so much to prove. You don't call your album Unapologetic if you're completely comfortable in your skin or with your place in the pop firmament. Defiant or defensive? I'd say a lot of both. But Rihanna is only 24. Let's give her a little bit of time to figure it out. 

10 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching "On the Road"

1. I can't believe it's taken so many decades -- five and a half, to be exact -- to finally commit as landmark a work as Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road to the big screen. It's been many years since I read the book, and I'd forgotten about its homoerotic content, which the film nicely captures. Several times I expected the male characters to start kissing, and Dean Moriarty's declaration of brotherly love to a chilly, suited-up Sal Paradise near the end of the movie, is one of the most touching screen scenes I've seen all year.

2. I swear I didn't plan this: Before watching On the Road (which is already out in the UK but won't be released in the U.S. until December 21), the last film I saw was Moonrise Kingdom. A Cannes contender like On the Road, Kingdom was co-written by Roman Coppola, whose father, Francis Ford Coppola, is one of On the Road's executive producers, and who, according to Wikipedia, once co-wrote an On the Road screenplay draft with his dad. He's also listed in the movie's closing credits.

3. Although I had yet to begin traveling extensively when I read the book, even back then, I could relate to Sal's desire to see the world and meet interesting people in order to fuel his creativity. One of the problems with the way he's portrayed in the film, though, is he's too much a spectator and not enough a participant. Things happen around him; they don't happen to him or because of him. A college professor of mine once said, "To be a good writer, you've got to lead an interesting life." Note that he didn't say, "You have to watch someone else lead an interesting life." Kerouac, for whom Sal is a stand-in, certainly didn't do that!

4. Hollywood must really be impressed by the work of director Walter Salles. (His 1998 film Central Station, another on-the-road movie, is one of my all-time favorites.) How else to explain why On the Road's most-tenured stars -- Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi and an unbilled-on-the-poster Terrence Howard -- signed up for such tiny roles. Mad Men's Moss, all fiery recrimination in her one extended sequence, and Buscemi (thanks to an unexpectedly raw sex scene with Garrett Hedlund's Dean) make the biggest impression.

5. Aside from his obvious appeal to big-name stars, I wonder why Salles got this directing gig. As a Brazilian, he was obviously up to the task of making a film about an excursion through rural Brazil (Central Station), but perhaps for the same reason, he doesn't quite capture the essence of late-1940s Americana, which is so crucial to the tone of On the Road. Hedlund's Dean and Kristen Stewart's Marylou, in particular, seem straight out of 2012, and aside from the jazz music on the soundtrack, unlike those excellent 1920s sequences in last year's Midnight in Paris, very little in the film gives it a strong sense of time and place.

6. What's with Hollywood's hiring of so many handsome young British actors to appear in its movies and TV shows (such as Revenge's Josh Bowman and Nashville's Sam Palladio) talking like Americans. In On the Road, I particularly enjoyed Tom Sturridge, whom I loved so much as Annette Bening's son in Being Julia, and his portrayal of Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsburg). He has a certain delicate sweetness and vulnerability that makes a strong impression, even when he's just on the sidelines observing, which is a crucial characteristic for Sal. Though Sturridge makes a great Ginsburg stand-in, nailing Marx's unspoken lust for wild and wildly unpredictable Dean, I sort of wish Sturridge, or The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield, another Brit mastering American accents in U.S. productions, had been cast as Sal instead of Sam Riley.

7. Riley, who, like Sturridge, is a talented Brit offering a more-than-passable American accent, is nice enough to look at, but whenever Hedlund, who makes his first appearance in the film totally nude, is onscreen, it's hard to look at anyone else. Still, as good as Hedlund is, he doesn't own and redefine the character of Dean Moriarty the way Jude Law did with Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It needed to be a little bit more of a star-making turn in order to explain why Sal would be so taken with him.

8. I wonder if Kristen Stewart is even just a little jealous of Jennifer Lawrence. Not only does Lawrence now have her own lucrative franchise with The Hunger Games, but she's also about to score her second Best Actress Oscar nomination -- and a likely win -- for The Silver Linings Playbook, all at the tender age of 22 (and a few months younger than Stewart).

9. My biggest problem with Stewart is that as an actress and as a celebrity, she's too low-energy, which is not a quality that should apply to Marylou. It shouldn't take cheating on your real-life boyfriend to make you seem sort of interesting. At least Stewart's got Robert Pattinson, a good guy who's willing to overlook a little on-the-set fling like the one that got them together while making the first Twilight movie.

10. Watching On the Road is sort of like being on a long road trip -- intermittently exciting, but usually just... driving. It plays more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive story told through a series of incidents. I wish the film had played up the two-guys-and-a-girl angle the way it was done in the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley (the book, not the 1999 film adaptation) or the 2003 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Dreamers, which is straight homoerotica with a female third wheel at its finest. Like Ripley, like The Dreamers, and like the book on which it's based, On the Road is best when it focuses on the dynamic between the two guys driving it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What Do People See When They See You?

"I hate to admit that I find your elusiveness motivating ;)"

I just received the text message above from someone I don't really know. He's one of those guys we all have floating around on the periphery of our life, the one with whom we always exchange "Let's get together soon" pleasantries, without actually intending to make it happen. The way I see it, if you really want to hang out with someone, you don't just talk about it, you just do it.

In this case, I've always assumed that our failure to launch was a mutual thing. In all the months that we've been flirting with the idea of going out, it's not like he's ever rung me up and asked, "Want to meet up for a drink?" Yet the insinuation of his text message was that it has been all my not doing.

If so, it certainly isn't intentional. I haven't been trying to send a certain message by not saying much at all. If my game plan had been to create an aura of elusiveness, I wouldn't even have known how to do it. I learned a long time ago that it's pretty futile to try to manage people or how they perceive you. No two people ever respond to or interpret any one action in quite the same way. Have you ever forwarded a text message or an email to several of your friends trying to get a read on the person who wrote it? How often do you get the same interpretation twice?

I once sent a text message to someone I knew better than the guy above: "Morning. How are you?" I didn't really have any ulterior motive in sending it, and once again, I wasn't trying to create any particular effect. I just wanted to say, "Morning. How are you?" Most people, I imagine, would have read it and chalked it up as a simple start-your-day-off-right greeting, but the person I sent it to, bringing all of his personal baggage to the table, suggested that I was trying to be aloof.

I felt honored that he thought I could be so calculating so early in the morning, but really, what's so aloof about "Good morning"? Was it the fact that I left off the "Good"? Don't songwriters do that all the time?

I didn't even bother trying to defend myself. Why give him more ammunition to use to misread me? He was going to think what he was going to think about me, and there was very little that I could do about it. Although I've never considered myself to be aloof, or elusive, I'm pretty sure these two guys aren't the only ones who have. But then there are as many opinions of me floating around as there are people to have them. A former boss once gave a speech about me at my last-day-at-work party, and he described me as "the most congenial guy you'll ever work with." Does that sound like someone who's aloof, or elusive?

What people see when they look at you doesn't necessarily have anything to do with you. Perhaps it has more to do with whether they exited the bed to the left or to the right that morning, or whether they woke up alone or with excellent company. How people respond to something I've written might have nothing to do with the actual words I use. As a blogger, one who's accustomed to getting reactions to what I write that run the gamut from loving it to loathing it, I know that's right.

This is why I once got so frustrated watching a friend agonize over a two- or three-sentence text message that she was sending to a guy she'd just met. Granted, this particular text message was in Spanish, and it was to someone who didn't speak a word of English (and boy, have I been there), so that created its own special challenge. Spanish is a language in which taxi drivers won't have any idea what you're saying when you say, "El Salvador," unless the accent is on the final syllable: El SalvaDOR!"

The way I see it, though, in any language, anyone who will construct a personality profile based on one simple text message deserves what he or she gets -- or doesn't get. In the end, this guy ended up breaking my friend's heart anyway, so all her effort was for naught. If only she hadn't bothered to respond to his first text message.

Speaking of messages that go unanswered, right after I received the text message above, a message showed up in my email inbox from a business associate I'd emailed months ago who'd never responded. He apologized for the delay. He'd only just seen the email a few moments earlier. To be honest, I'd forgotten all about it, though I probably spent days after I sent it coming up with all sorts of negative impressions he must have had about me.

It's nice to be reminded that it really isn't always about me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why I Hate Music Snobs (and Jerks on Facebook!)

When did the Monkees become the musical equivalent of Shakespeare?

Apparently, at some point, when I wasn't looking or listening, an act that was essentially a 1960s boy band, complete with its own television series, became as worthy of reverence as the Beatles.

The other day my friend Lori updated her status on Facebook thusly: "Daydream Believer by the Monkees just came on, and I could burst into tears. Poor Davy Jones. What a beautiful song."

My comment: "Anne Murray's version of it is BOSS!"

Just in case you haven't heard it...


Apparently, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Murray's vocal talent. "Did this person just equate Anne Murray to the Monkees? Please tell me I didn't just read that," someone wrote two comments down.

"This person?" Besides the fact that I hate people who use Facebook as a forum to indulge in asshole behavior -- I recently had the misfortune of reading a pretentious political tirade by the friend of a Facebook friend after she'd had the audacity to compliment Barack and Michelle Obama's marriage -- Anne Murray is every bit as credible a musical talent as the Monkees, an act who, like Murray, didn't write any of its big hits.

Even if John Lennon hadn't called Murray's version of "You Won't See Me" his all-time favorite cover of a Beatles song, even if Elton John hadn't once said, "I know two things about Canada: hockey and Anne Murray," even if her 1980 single "Lucky Me" hadn't been the first 45 I ever bought, she'd be more worthy of respect from this guy who probably has never even listened to her music and reacted under the assumption that all country music sucks. (Click here for more reasons why we should all show some respect.)

Fair enough, to each his own. I don't expect everyone to like the same type of music that I do. But to suggest that Anne Murray, one of the most gifted singers and interpreters of song ever to step up to the microphone, is not worthy of mention in the same sentence as the Monkees is beyond ludicrous. The proof is in her music....

Five Anne Murray Songs That Are As Good As Anything the Monkees Ever Did

"You Won't See Me"



"Danny's Song"



"A Love Song"



"Blessed Are the Believers"



"Somebody's Always Saying Goodbye"


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rihanna Has Nothing to Be Sorry For on "Unapologetic"

Now this is more like it.

For months, we've been bombarded with new releases from pop divas in various stages of their careers, and although they've produced a few sparkling singles (Brandy's "Put It Down," Christina Aguilera's "Your Body," Ke$ha's "Die Young"), the albums, for the most part, have lacked any lasting luster.

Considering how mixed her 2011 annual effort, Talk That Talk, was, I really wasn't expecting Rihanna to be the one to shine like she does on Unapologetic, her seventh studio album. I was even less confident when the set's first single, "Diamonds" -- currently perched at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 and ready to fly to the top next week -- only made me want to listen to another "Diamonds," the one Herb Alpert featuring Janet Jackson took to No. 5 in 1987.



But now that I think about it, I should have seen Rihanna's creative renaissance coming. Though I haven't heard anyone else say it, she might be the most influential pop diva on the planet right now, which is quite a feat, considering that she's the only one who doesn't pretend to be a singer-songwriter or even a serious artist. Anyone who has heard "Let Me Go" on Brandy's Two Eleven, "Circles" on Christina Aguilera's Lotus, or "New Day" on Alicia Keys' upcoming Girl on Fire knows exactly how pervasive her influence has been.

Although others may ape her sound in order to increase their sales potential, it's hard to imagine any other pop princess singing the songs on Unapologetic. It's not so much that Rihanna is such a fantastic singer that nobody can touch her -- she remains limited in that regard, though she's improving -- but she's one of the most confident and unique performers ever to land on planet pop (at least this century). Everyone may want to sound like her, but she doesn't sound like anyone else.

Then there's the music, a state-of-the-art assault of modern pop sounds that still, for the most part, sidesteps any particular sound of the moment. Of the two David Guetta productions, only one, "Right Now," is a concession to the currently prevailing Eurodance-pop, with which, "Diamonds" aside, Rihanna has enjoyed most of her recent chart success. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the next single.

The other Guetta collaboration, the album-opening "Phresh Off the Runway," with its insistent buzz and sonic strut, is the musical equivalent of a killer outfit, the best thing he's done since "Sexy Bitch." "Numb," which features her "Love the Way You Lie" duet partner Eminem, leaves you anything but. It's everything -- cocky, in your face, booming -- that "Here Comes the Weekend," Pink's The Truth About Love collaboration with Eminem, isn't.

After the aggressive R&B/hip-hop-leaning production of its first half (and an interesting interpolation of Ginuwine's 1996 hit "Pony" on "Jump," which should be the second single), Rihanna and her assorted producers break out the test tubes on Unapologetic's ambitious second half, taking aural detours that are likely to divide fans who expect them merely to tick all of the pop boxes.

Ultimately, though, these are the songs, ones that don't really sound like what we'd expect from Rihanna, that leave the most lasting impression. The stripped, piano-driven sound of "Stay" would be right at home in a dive with dirty sticky floors, with co-writer, co-producer and co-vocalist Mikky Ekko challenging Rihanna to pursue -- and reach -- new vocal heights.

The disco soul of "Nobody's Business" is nothing we haven't heard before circa 1980, but it's jarring (and refreshing!) to hear Rihanna in such a straightforward musical setting that's doesn't care what year it is, and after his rapping stint on Brandy's "Put It Down," it's nice to get Rihanna's controversial ex and regular collaborator Chris Brown once again doing what he does best: singing. Next up, "Love Without Tragedy"/"Mother Mary" borders on psychedelic pop, while "Get It Over With," Unapologetic's best song, combines a shuffle beat, sweeping orchestral production and an inspirational message confidently delivered by Rihanna in a vocal performance that gets away with being almost jazzy.

The most remarkable thing about Unapologetic (besides "Get It Over With") is how Rihanna continues her tradition of being a two-faced diva -- one moment, she's a swaggering sex goddess, the next unabashedly vulnerable -- but this time, without being just either/or. Emotionally and stylistically, she's all over the place, but for all of the album's musical exploration, she never sounds like she's hiding behind masks, putting on whatever costume suits the song. If this Rihanna (all these Rihannas) aren't the real one, then she's a better actress than Battleship suggested.

Unapologetic is Rihanna's best album since Rated R (her pop masterpiece) because for all its machine-fueled sonics, Rihanna never sounds less than imperfectly human.