Picture This
Kino Makes the Case for Great Side Projects

I just got back from seeing two horrible movies.

The Jacket, with Adrien Brody and Kiera Knightley, is a stupid, convoluted mess, strung together by hacks who have somehow deluded themselves into thinking they have something to say. The ending is all heart, which should make up for a lot, but doesn’t. The plot contortions are so great that accepting them is nearly impossible, so when you get to the conclusion, things are happening solely because the script needs them to. I was excited to see this partially because Fish has a cameo, but his role is so small it’s almost invisible.

And Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, is a snoozer. You can tell where certain things are supposed to be funny, but nothing clicks. It’s a shame, because Chili Palmer is a great character, and he’s wasted in this flimsy, inflatable sell-out of a script. When you have John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn in your cast and they’re all out-acted by The Rock, then something’s wrong. The film is not Aerosmith’s finest hour, either.

We just escaped 2004, a horrible year for movies, and now 2005 doesn’t seem to be shaping up any better. I’m looking forward to A Scanner Darkly, Melinda and Melinda, Elizabethtown, Serenity and…um, yeah. My inner six-year-old is psyched for Star Wars, too, but that’s about it. Last year I fell in love with only three movies – Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the great Sideways. I also enjoyed the heck out of The Life Aquatic, I Heart Huckabees, Team America and Shaun of the Dead, and admired the skill behind Million Dollar Baby and Garden State. I argued the merits of Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, but don’t need to see either one again. The second half of Kill Bill was cool, too.

Everything else, probably 40 or so other movies I sat through, I’ve already forgotten.

It’s strange, though, that while movies have taken a nose dive, television seems to be finally waking up. I’m a freelancer these days, which means I have plenty of time to suck my brain dry with prolonged exposure to the idiot box. But I have to admit, some of it isn’t so idiotic this season. And I’m not even talking about HBO – the networks have finally come to their senses and delivered some really good scripted TV. I’d like to think it’s because of the Whedon Void – this is the first TV season since 1996 without a Joss Whedon show on the air, and the intelligence vacuum obviously needed filling. But whatever the reason, I’m digging TV right now.

For starters, if you’re not watching Lost, you’re missing out on one of the most intricate and puzzling TV mysteries since Twin Peaks. At first glance, it appears to be Lord of the Flies with adults, but there’s something creepier and much more fascinating going on. Lost employs an effective flashback device that focuses on one character at a time, and hence gives you little pieces of the connections between them each week.

Some of the episodes have misfired, but overall this show is excellent, and with the revelations of last week’s installment, it just got upgraded to can’t-miss status with me. Who knows how long J.J. Abrams and his staff can keep this going – and avoiding Twin Peaks Syndrome, in which a show teases out a mystery to the point where no one cares anymore, then reveals all and watches the ratings implode, is paramount – but I’m inclined to believe that there is a grand plan at work here. This show is going somewhere, and if the rest of the ride is as good as season one has been, then show me my seat and strap me in.

Wait… perhaps not a good image for a show about a plane crash. Scratch that.

Also kicking ass on Tuesday nights is House, Fox’s new medical drama. Yeah, another damn medical drama, but you know what? This one soars, thanks to the captivating performance of Hugh Laurie. His Gregory House is an abusive, confrontational, smug, self-righteous prick, but he’s also a genius, and he’s never wrong. Damaged people are always more fun to watch than blandly heroic types, and Laurie is a hoot. The dialogue crackles, the cast is perfect (especially Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard and, as House’s nemesis, Lisa Edelstein), and the plots are suitably knotty. But the attraction is just watching House be House.

Super-sized thanks to Jeff Maxwell for hooking me on this show.

What else? Believe it or not, The West Wing is picking up again, despite the writers’ apparent choice to give Jimmy Smits a shot at the presidency. He’s pretty awful in his role as Matt Santos, and as much as I don’t want a Republican in office, even in a fictional world, I’m pulling for Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick. Gilmore Girls continues to do what it does, wonderfully. This season the writers answered the will-they-or-won’t-they between Luke and Lorelai, and rather than killing the show, it’s energized it. And South Park just launched its ninth season with a doozy of an episode in which Mr. Garrison got a sex change, and his testicles were implanted in Kyle’s knees. (Don’t ask…) Oh, and The Daily Show is still amazing, night after night.

I don’t know what the hell’s going on with TV lately, but I’m loving it. Especially Lost.

* * * * *

I get so much crap (oh, so much crap) for plugging Marillion on this site. I don’t know why – some people act like they’re the only band I review, which is ridiculous. They’re not even the act I’ve reviewed most often. I just happen to think that this one band’s whole catalog is worth hearing, and suddenly I’ve guzzled the Kool-Aid and I have no objectivity. Weird.

So I’m wary of recommending anything to do with them, lest people think I’ve changed the name of this site to Tuesday Marillion 3 A.M., with the M. standing for Marillion as well. But my job, as I see it, is to seek out music that others may not have the chance to hear, and let those folks know if it’s worth their time and cash. I wouldn’t stump for the band if I didn’t think that their music would reward those who choose to sample it.

In that spirit, here’s another Marillion-related disc that I quite like. If you’re one of those people who thinks that my critical abilities fly out my ear when I hear the band’s name, you can stop reading now.

Still here? Good.

I’m never sure what to think of side projects. If you think of a band like a family, then this sort of extracurricular musical activity can be seen as cheating, or as necessary therapy to keep the main unit together. A solo album is one thing – that’s one member of the family striking off on his own, making a statement. But a side project is one family member being welcomed into a different family, sharing a bathroom and maybe a toothbrush. Who’s to say he won’t like this new family better? Sure, he’ll call once in a while, send letters, but we’ll all know the truth.

When a band has been together for more than 20 years, like the four core musicians of Marillion have, those fears are abated somewhat. If Steve Rothery wants to do another Wishing Tree album, there’s little doubt that he’ll be back in the fold for the next tour. In a way, this is freeing, and the one member who seems to take the most advantage of this freedom is bassist Pete Trewavas. And you have to hand it to him – he has great taste in side projects.

First there was Transatlantic, a prog-rock supergroup if ever there was one. With the visionaries behind Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings (Neal Morse and Roine Stolt, respectively) taking the lead, and Trewavas and Dream Theater’s awesome drummer Mike Portnoy laying the foundation, there was literally nothing this band couldn’t play. They made two albums of complex yet hummable progressive wonderment, then split when Morse decided to follow God.

And now there’s Kino, a slightly less super-sounding supergroup, but only because their respective main bands are less well-known. In addition to Trewavas, Kino includes Chris Maitland (ex-Porcupine Tree) on drums, John Beck (from It Bites) on keys and John Mitchell (from Arena) on guitars and vocals. It’s almost a who’s-who of semi-famous British prog bands, including one (Arena) that was started by one of Marillion’s first drummers, Mick Pointer.

But you know, forget all that. That’s just music-fan trivialities, of no interest to anyone who isn’t a little bit anal retentive. It’s possible to hear Kino’s debut, Picture, as the work of a new band making its first album, and enjoy it on those terms. Hell, it’s recommended, highly.

Kino plays classic progressive pop, and if you think that the term “classic progressive” is a little oxymoronic, you’re right. Progressive doesn’t mean progressive anymore, it means long and complex and inspired by Yes and early Genesis. The difference between a truly progressive act like the Mars Volta and a prog group like Kino comes down to how transparent the influences are. Kino sounds like mid-period Yes, with the attention squarely focused on skill and melody. It’s complicated stuff, but nowhere near as tricky as Selling England by the Pound, and the longest song is nine minutes. (Most of the others are around four or five.)

Calling it classic prog-pop is not a knock, by the way. These are powerfully melodic songs, draped in analog synth sounds and oceans of backing vocals, and produced to a lovely sheen. There’s something refreshing about a group of skilled musicians who just get together and play, with no frills and no gimmicks. Picture is an album of well-written, grandly played pop songs. The aforementioned nine-minute opener, “Losers’ Day Parade,” is textbook songcraft – a fine riff, a strong melody, a Beatles break, some restatement of themes, and a glorious coda. It may make me old-fashioned to say so, but it’s also the best song I’ve heard yet this year.

Mitchell has a voice that reminds me of Ray Wilson’s – you may remember Wilson as the guy who replaced Phil Collins on the criminally underrated last Genesis album, Calling All Stations. Mitchell’s voice is low and rough, yet can leap into a shining falsetto when needed. Observe “Letting Go,” with its classic pop chorus, and then smile uncontrollably as Mitchell jumps up an octave for the title phrase. It’s gorgeous. He handles the ascending and descending melody of “All You See” like a champ, too.

Perhaps the oddest song here is “Swimming in Women,” a dramatic prog ballad about the journey of a million sperm. Seriously. It’s rendered in typically verbose prog language, and without the packaging you might not be able to decipher the meaning, but there it is: “Sinking or swimming, swimming in women, breaking like waves against the rocks, one million voices, too many choices, you’ve got to line them up against the wall, the stronger shall rise while the weaker shall fall…” It’s fantastic, by the way.

I haven’t really mentioned Trewavas, because he’s perhaps the least flashy bass player in prog right now. He does his job, and he does it brilliantly, never calling attention to his work. The same can be said for all of the Kino guys, actually – there’s no hook here except really good songs, played really well. Beck’s keyboards get the most workouts, but they’re like Tim Rice-Oxley’s synths for Keane – in service to the songs.

Picture ends with the brief, understated title track, which encapsulates the premise: this is ego-free progressive pop of the kind you just don’t hear anymore. Trewavas is right now back playing with his main band at their annual UK convention, but I hope he keeps Kino going in his free time, because Picture is superb. It’s not modern or cool-sounding in the slightest, nor is it ironic and wry, but pretending I don’t love this sort of thing for the sake of scoring indie points is foolish. This is impeccably produced pop music at its finest.

Next week, who knows. I may have the new Choir album by then – they’ve chosen to call it O How the Mighty Have Fallen, which means that if it sucks, they’ve already written the review for me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.