Note: due to the nature of this series, the reviews may tend to be more in the first person than you are used to with music criticism.
Bill Shatner returns to his true calling, music! For this go around of Tag Team, antiMusic critic Travis Becker teams with guest critic Marc Wiggins to take a listen to Has Been.
Shatner - Has Been
Travis Becker's review
Novelty records, more often than not, tend to end up like nasty car crashes. They can be fun to ogle at a little, but ultimately they’re not such a good thing. It’s hard to expect much more than a novelty record from an established actor and notable cult figure, such as William Shatner, especially after hearing his late sixties foray into popular music. His new release, Has Been is not quite the loungy spoken-word tour de force that “The Transformed Man” was, but it’s still enough to make you giggle like there are Tribbles in your shorts and squirm like you’re watching “The Last Prom.”
The almost Rain Main-like pairing of Ben Folds and William Shatner does not feel like an “in” joke in the way that Shatner’s early effort did and it probably suffers some from the fact that Leonard Nimoy has yet to release the follow up to his own smash hit, the “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” In other words, there is no context in this day and age for the record to feel witty or snickering. The songs, which were mostly co-written by Shatner and a bevy of guest singers and musicians, are stronger as a whole and there are no cover tunes this time around. The main effect of this lack of familiar material, however, is to make Bill’s intentions all the more vague. Is this album a joke or has the skipper of the starship Enterprise actually decided to forego future Priceline endorsements and the inevitable T.J. Hooker feature film in favor of becoming a pop singer a la Regis Philbin? Unfortunately, no answer is forthcoming.
Clearly some of the compositions are tongue-in-cheek and are meant to be so. The contribution of Henry Rollins is a perfect example, it amounts to Hank and Captain Kirk blowing off steam about lousy music and getting old, but it’s obvious that the intrepid listener is meant to laugh. Not so with the collaborations with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson which come across way too serious to be lumped in with the “Henry the Vth Elegy” of “Transformed Man.” Indeed, the track, “That’s Me Trying,” could easily find a seat on the bench of a Ben Folds album with its all to real sentiments of love, loss, and the inability to communicate with the ones we love. It’s “Brick” without the Yuletide abortion.
In the end what can you say about a new
William Shatner album? Did the world need it? Probably not.
Does it have virtue in its own way? Sure it does. It’s a record
that you can throw on during parties and get a good laugh, or while you’re
driving to a Star Trek convention to get you in the mood to meet George
Takei. It’s not the roadside collision that most novelty albums are,
heck it’s barely worth calling the state troopers for this little paint
swap. The only serious wreck that’s any threat from this release
is the very real danger of hearing the song, “You’ll Have Time” while driving
and then laughing so hard that the car careens into a ditch. Only
then will you understand the poignant message of that song.
Marc Wiggins' review
William Shatner is a geek and that is meant in the best way. Though he is best known as Captain Kirk, he is perhaps the most successful of television show leads to overcome his character type-cast. Instead of associating him with Captain Kirk, I'm more inclined to smile at the cornball & self-effacing Priceline commercials and his famous appearance on Saturday Night Live where he jokingly told obsessed trekkies to get a life. That SNL skit actually stirred up a bit of a controversy because some people took it as Shatner insulting a devoted following of his show's persona. Personally, I think they misunderstood where he was coming from and a little unforgiving of the fact that he sometimes just simply has an off-the-wall sense of humor. He wasn't insulting a TV show's fanbase in as much as he was making fun of himself and the notion that so many people took so much interest in something he was a part of.
Bill Shatner took some heat from that now famous skit, jokes about his hair piece, countless stabs at his exaggerated mannerisms & speech rhythms from comedians and actors, and some mean spirited commentary from fellow Star Trek cast who competed for screen time. Rather than being bitter or defensive about it, Shatner seemed to take it in good humor and even take an element of truth in those observations and turn them around to his favor by poking fun at himself. Though he did get a much better hairpiece.
In that process of recognizing criticism and then having fun with it, it seems that maybe Shatner has figured out something about life that we can learn from. Rather than perpetuating the old glory days of a Starfleet Captain, expressing bitterness over a type-cast, or shrinking from criticism, he's moved on and even made all of that a part of who he is. Nowadays, Bill seems to be expressing himself in good humor and without pretense. He's fun to watch and maybe it's because here's a guy who enjoys the hell out of himself. Shatner strikes me as a guy who makes every day a fun experience and doesn't waste too much time on the downside of things. For a guy in his 70's, he seems to do a much better job at a taking fresh approach at life than many people much younger than himself. This guy is taking life by the balls and enjoying everything it has to offer.
This leads us to Bill Shatner's new CD, Has Been. In it, I was expecting an extension of parody we've all seen in his Priceline musical performances or the horrible albums he cut in the 60's. I was surprised and delighted to hear much more dimension and a level of introspection that many artists who set out to convey but don't quite achieve. In "Has Been," there are many fun songs as well as some haunting ones. All of them actually make you think long after you hear them.
Thankfully, Shatner doesn't actually sing but rather speaks melodiously in his distinctive tone while backed up with the creatively diverse music of Ben Folds. All of the lyrics are written by Shatner with exception of the last song which interestingly is the only song that addresses his role in that famous TV show. Each song is distinctive in subject matter and style but, as a whole, gives the listener a unique and better understanding of the artist. This CD is more than a novelty and you may well find yourself often popping it in your player and not skipping over several tracks to get to the good ones as you would with many other CDs.
The first song, "Common People," kicks off the CD in a hilariously fun way. We, the listener, are obviously the 'Common People,' but the song pokes fun at those who place themselves above us. The next song, "It Hasn't Happened Yet," immediately jumps into introspection that many of us can identify with--- the fear of failure and hoping to finally reach the point of success that that we think others would be proud of. Next is the slightly morbid, "You'll Have Time," which is sung in gospel and repeats the line, "your 'gunna die." It's a cautionary statement about not wasting your life, and there's something fun about blasting this song in your car and making people turn their heads in your direction with a 'What the Hell?' expression on their faces. Following this is the very introspective, "That's Me Trying," which is Shatner trying to reconnect with the daughters he was not around enough for.
Then comes a break with a very haunting haiku devoted to Bill's wife and the moment he had found her floating in their pool after her suicide. This is followed by "Together," which is a pretty melody about his love for his wife. Next is "Familiar Love," which is a love song and the only track I tend to skip over in the numerous times I've played this CD. Things immediately pick up with "Ideal Woman," which is a hilarious song about the perfect woman but there's always something that isn't quite so perfect.
"Has Been" is a fun song about the do-nothing critics who take glee at the failures of the famous or formally successful who can be famous again because, unlike the frustrated critics, they'll keep taking chances. Next is "I Can't Get Behind That," which is a diatribe duet with Henry Rollins about the ridiculous things in life. A fun thing Shatner can actually get behind is "so-called singers who can't carry a tune and get paid for talking", you gotta love it!
The CD closes with "Real" which is a great country western 'sing-along' song about celebrities not being any more enlightened than their fans and how they can't save the world just because they're famous.
Has Been is
a great CD on many levels by an unlikely artist. It's fun to listen
to but with the diversity of subject matter, it will make you think about
life and yourself as well as appreciating Bill Shatner in a way you've
never before. In playing this CD for a friend, his words summed it
up quite nicely, "Wow, there's more to this guy than I had thought."