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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hometown boy does well for himself half a world away

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2008 at 3:37 PM

You may not have heard of Jero before -- I didn't until just yesterday -- but he's a rising singing sensation who grew up here in town. He just happens to be bigger in Japan than he is around here -- but not in the way countless rock bands are, when they want to make ridiculous claims of grandeur. He's big in Japan because he sings in Japanese.

Jero was born Jerome White, Jr. and raised in Pittsburgh and attended Pitt, getting a degree in Information Science. While all that was happening, though, he was working on something else -- a singing career in his grandmother's native tongue. Now he's releasing high-ranking singles in Japan as an enka singer. Word has it -- and who are we to argue -- he's the first well-known black enka singer.

Here are a couple videos for you to peruse: one straight-up music video and another in which he's being discussed on Japanese TV -- are they laughing WITH him or AT him? We may never know.

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Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2008 at 2:35 PM

Most performances I've seen in the Andy Warhol Museum's small theater space have been of high quality, but mostly compelling in a chin-scratching kind of way. Like, say, Joanna Newsom, Matmos, Richard Hell reading his poetry, Girl Talk making a handful of CMU students studiously approximate dirty dancing -- you get the idea. None of these experiences prepared me for last night's performance at the Warhol by St. Vincent, a.k.a. multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark and her band.

Opening with "Now Now" from her 2007 Beggar's Banquet release Marry Me, Clark tore into the song with a force the recorded version barely approximates, and left audiences agape from that point on. Joining her onstage amid the "psychedelic forest" props were a drummer, a bassist, and a violinist, all of whom also navigated additional instruments and triggered myriad samples and effects. For her part, Clark mainly coaxed alien sounds and ornate counterpoint from her red hotrod of a guitar; for "Marry Me," she swept into Elton territory on the keys. And crooned. And batted those eyelashes.

With her scrappy guitar heroics, dual microphone approach (one offering a more old timey sound), complex arrangements and indie cred, it's tempting to think of St. Vincent as Feist, Jr. (Feist put on a similarly impressive show a few months back at the Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.) But for my money, St. Vincent offers a more eccentric vision and virtuosic accomplishment -- if I had to cast a vote for one of them as the next Bjork, it would be for St. Vincent.

My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is that while Clark never seemed to break a sweat despite the ambitious production taking place, you still occasionally saw the nuts and bolts. And despite her wide-eyed, charming-story-telling persona, there was plenty of showbiz magic helping things along, not least of which is the simple fact that she's gorgeous. (And yes, I'm reasonably sure she knows that we know that she knows that we know she's stunning.) But if the standing ovation and shit-eating grins on the audience's faces afterwards were any indication, nobody minded a bit.

The opener, Foreign Born, didn't fare quite so well, but put up a helluva fight. Playing hearty guitar-based folk-pop with the occasional Richard Ashcroft wail and David Byrnian dance-moves, they attempted to update their throwback sound with some prerecorded samples and tracks deployed by their drummer's laptop (who appeared to be a former member of Alabama.) Whereas St. Vincent's obvious backing tracks and triggered samples blended in for the most part with her set's overall arty aesthetic, Foreign Born's combination of archetypal guitar-rock purity with a fucking laptop was a bit jarring. More that that-- it just wasn't cool, dudes.

Check out these upcoming performances at the Warhol's Sound Series (seating is limited, so get tickets in advance):

 

Fri., March 7 Akron/Family with Megafaun

Fri., March 21 The Slits (legendary riot grrrl, punk/dub) with Shellshag

Fri., March 28 Beatrix Jar (Minneapolis-based circuit bending duo), with Margaret Cox & Michael Johnsen

Fri., April 11 John Vanderslice with Spanish Prisoners

Tue. April 15 American Music Club

Fri., April 25 Stars of the Lid with Christopher Willits

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2008 at 7:25 PM

No one on council wants to speak out against city councilor Bill Peduto's effort to limit campaign contributions, at least not yet. But no one is rushing to vote for it, either.

Peduto's bill, which would limit campaign contributions to local candidates, is discussed at length in this thrilling 3,000-word City Paper account. And it was discussed further, at only slightly greater length, during a Feb. 26 public hearing at city council.

In terms of political drama, the meeting was about as gripping as ... as ... well, as reading a 3,000-word City Paper account about campaign finance reform. Less than two dozen people attended. Most of their testimony was brief, routine, and made by the usual suspects -- pro-reform groups like Common Cause and the League of Young Voters. (A rare spark was provided by Avenging Libertarian Mark Rauterkus, who referred to county officials as "law-breaking scum" for having ignored a law county council passed five years ago to put campaign contributions on-line. In order to prevent the city from similarly ignoring its own limits, Rauterkus suggested adding teeth to Peduto's measure. Contributors found exceeding the limits, Rauterkus recommended, should be denied any chance to receive city contracts or remittances until the officials they contributed to left office. Rauterkus also suggested creating a "Scarlet Letter" list to publicize the name of violaters.)

Only one speaker, representing the Allegheny County Labor Council, opposed the bill, citing fears that limiting labor contributions would stifle the voice of working people.

Ordinarily, you might take the lack of fireworks as a good sign. But Peduto's measure is facing something worse than contentious opponents. He's up against studied indifference.

Only two council members -- President Doug Shields and councilor Darlene Harris -- were actually absent. But it was hard to tell the difference. Throughout the hour-long hearing, only one councilor, Ricky Burgess, asked a substantive question about the measure. (I'd tell you what it was, but trust me: Not knowing is more exciting than the question or the answer itself.)

Other than that, Patrick Dowd asked inquired about the make-up of a task force Peduto had convened on campaign financing in 2004; Bruce Kraus pledged to "do my due diligence" and to be "open to further solutions"; and Tonya Payne groused about how public hearings and post-agendas needed to be scheduled more conveniently. ("Really, you're asking us to bump our calendars," she told Peduto.) Councilors Jim Motznik and Dan Deasy spoke nary a word.

But really, why would they? Why would anyone speak in front of a room filled with supporters of the measure? Who wants to be the person to champion the right of developers to give $5,000 checks to local officials? Even labor, whose lone voice against the bill might be enough to kill it, did so with little fanfare. Labor Council president Jack Shea didn't appear himself; he sent a factotum who spoke along with the other unscheduled speakers. 

Peduto was unbowed, of course. "You can count on one hand" the number of cities that have no limit on campaign contributions, he told his colleagues -- and many cities had measures much stricter than those he was proposing. "It is modest reform; it is not radical reform," he said of his bill. He pledged to hold another special council hearing in the future.

The prospect of another council discussion probably didn't thrill Peduto's colleagues. But the debate figures to get more interesting as time goes on.

I got the sense that the measure's supporters were, in fact, already trying to call out at least one councilor. Julia Nagle, who spoke on behalf of the Peduto-friendly League of Young Voters, seemed to direct many of her remarks to concerns Dowd raised in City Paper's aforementioned thrilling story. She even addressed fears that reformers assume campaign contributions were "nefarious" ... an adjective Dowd used in the CP piece.

I may be reading too much into Nagle's remarks, in hopes that she -- or anyone, really -- read my story. But it's no secret that friction between Dowd and Peduto supporters is mounting by the week. Nor is it terribly surprising, even though Peduto has previously backed Dowd as a fellow reformer. Nearly a year ago, a local political consultant told CP that trouble was likely in store between the two. (Dowd "knows how to work within the system better," he told us, whereas "Peduto's nature is to ... make his call and say, 'This is right.'")

So far the worst fears of Peduto's camp -- that Dowd would support Jim Motznik as council president this year, for example -- haven't materialized. But Dowd has been skeptical of the campaign financing reform, and it's hard to see this issue resolving itself amicably. Peduto clearly isn't going to let it drop, if only because he sees it as a litmus test for who the real reformers are. However we end up financing our politics, a Bill is about to come due.

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British couples compete to run restaurant

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2008 at 1:57 PM

To hold us over until Bravo's Top Chef returns -- March 12, in the City of Big Shoulders -- armchair chefs and restaurateurs can follow along with BBC's Last Restaurant Standing. It doesn't have one-quarter of Top Chef's inter-personal dramas and gasp-out-loud challenges, but it has its charms.

Nine couples have each been given a space (in the charming exurbs around Oxford) and a budget to open and operate a restaurant; the theme, design and cuisine is up to them. The contestants have created an assortment of Euro- and American-style ventures, but so far, just two have proved most intriguing. On the good side is the bright, colorful bistro offering food from Ghana (yummy-looking stews); the tarnished side of the coin is the ordinary English mom-and-son who in ordinary England cannot get a restaurant offering ordinary English food to function.

There are the usual tears from stressed contestants, tight-lipped snipes from peeved customers and, for comic relief, the Mutt-and-Jeff team of newlyweds who just don't get it: She's an American "actress" with an irritating "bubbly" personality perpetually set on 11; he's a dour little dude who regularly abandons his kitchen to noodle away on his jazz drums.

The whole custard-burning, wine-sloshing, fork-dropping stress-fest is presided over by well-known chef and restaurateur Raymond Blanc. His French-accented English is just this side of unintelligible, and he's a dead ringer for whatever character actor gets the role of dyspeptic French chief of police in European thrillers.

The pace of Last Restaurant is glacial compared to its frantic American cousin. One episode is spent presenting a night of custom; last week's added challenge asked the contestants to add special cocktails and desserts to their menus. After Blanc and his team of testers determine the three lowest-performing restaurants, a special challenge, such as hosting a private party on a fixed budget, is set for the following week's episode. At this rate, we'll be cooking well into summer.

But the relaxed pace lets us enjoy the delicious small moments such as when the decidedly proletariat team made up of a prison chef and a bingo-hall worker can't think up a single cocktail, or when a reputedly top-notch home chef is forced to ask his hired kitchen help how to chop leeks. And when contestants are cut, they're sent packing in a mini-van. Oh, the disgrace!

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2008 at 3:26 PM

This week's Kate-centric melodrama about a borrowed/stolen/whatever baby and a three-minute murder trial was straight from the daytime soaps. I was hopeful for this season: I dug the flash-forward idea last season teased us with, but I have to concede we're off the rails now. This is some magical deserted island that manages to add more and more people, and these flash-forwards are verging on parody: Hurley's muscle-car chase; Sayed's new Euro-trash assassin role. All we're missing is an alien abduction, and the previews for next week's episode could be hinting at a rescue helicopter-UFO encounter

So, let's take a crazy space-time detour of our own. I've been re-reading the 1970s adventure-in-real-life classic Alive, by Pier Paul Read, about that famous plane crash high in the remote Andes, and I can't help marking some similarities to Lost. What happened in Lost -- survivors of an unrecovered plane crash make a new life -- is an event with no parallels in real life but for this one widely known account.

In 1972, a Fairchild plane carrying 45 passengers, most members of a Uruguayan rugby team, crashed in the Andean wilderness. The outside world gave them up for dead, but the survivors -- who dwindled from about 30 to 16 -- simply made the best of it for 10 weeks. Besides rock and snow, they had nothing but the remnants of their small plane, and thus converted every scrap of it into shelter, clothing and tools. (See photos at the official Web site.)

But unlike on Lost, there were no Dharma Initiative food reserves, no bountiful jungle and no teeming ocean. The Fairchild wreckees survived on melted snow and by eating their deceased fellow passengers, who, as luck would have, remained well preserved in the snow. Understandably, it was this distinction that, upon their eventual rescue, made an interesting news story into an international blockbuster. 

But, despite this anthropophagic detail we'll not soon see on primetime TV, a mumber of similarities to Lost emerge in the account of the 10-week ordeal. Having likewise dropped out of the sky, the Fairchild survivors have no exact idea where they are, nor which way civilization may lie. There are frustrating subplots involving a transmitter and arduous treks to find it; snatches of info about ceased searches to find them heard on intermittent radio-news reports; sorties to find an escape; an out-of-nowhere bizarre event that wipes out a number of survivors; and, on the outside, a few dedicated relatives who never give up searching. (Days of searching the wrong part of the Andes results from taking tips over the phone from a Dutch psychic. Lost doesn't have a lock on responding to weird visions.)

And like some of the Oceanic gang, most of those stranded in Andes are in some ways the least equipped for hardcore survival. Many of these young men are used to be taken care of, and overcoming their previously coddled lifestyles proves as challenging as finding sustenance. But the survivors are forced to build a community, assign jobs and acknowledge leaders. Not surprisingly, they endlessly bicker and make up just like our Lost gang. And like the Oceanic Six, upon their return, the Uruguayan survivors were hailed as heroes and became instant celebrities.

Read's exhaustive account of the crash, and subsequent survival and search efforts -- based on immediate accounts from the involved parties -- feels a bit dated in its style. But its matter-of-fact, if occasionally plodding, tone lets the reader conjure the horror, panic, tragedy and eventual exhilaration without resorting to sensationalism. 

Alive is a fascinating read on its own, but these days, it may also be useful as a real-life mirror to Lost's increasing silliness.

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Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2008 at 3:10 PM

I'm not sure what the Las Vegas odds were for Survivor: Micronesia all-star Yau-Man to go to at least the final four, but I bet a lot of people thought the elder statesman had a pretty good shot to go pretty deep in the contest.

He's a hard worker, very likeable and unassuming -- which is why he was so successful the last time he played the game. His knack for finding a hidden immunity idol at just the right time didn't hurt either.

But alas poor Yau was picked off early when a conniving Cirie turned her position as a swing vote into a position of power. Cirie wanted her former cast mate gone because she knew how powerful he could become late in the game. So as the odd girl out of two, four-player alliances she did more than just swing a vote, she changed the game.

She also showed that she could be a handful down the line and could have signed her own death warrant. Time will tell.

The show has started off slow, but I think this battle of all-stars vs. show fanatics is beginning to pick up steam. Thursday's football-style challenge was brutally tough and I hope it's a sign of things to come.

One early prediction I will make is that I think Joel of the fan's team may be on track to be the greatest player the game of Survivor has ever seen. The Phoenix firefighter is as smart as he is big and strong. In the games early days he's already playing for the finals. He's making and breaking alliances and changing the game early, almost daring his tribe mates to vote him off, but they can't.

The team would flounder without his strength and he knows it. Most people who play the game play a team game first and then an individual contest. Joel is the opposite. If he sees an alliance getting too strong, he breaks it up by voting one of the participants off. He's applying the same strategy that we all yell about at home -- "Why don't you vote him off now, before it gets too late," we scream at the screen. Being a super fan, Joel probably yelled that a million times and now that he's in the game he's employing a strategy that I think will be a sure winner -- it will at least get him into the final four.

 

Quote of the week: "I feel like I'm back in China surrounded by a bunch of dumb asses," All-star James when asked about his alliance's decision to vote off Yau-Man.

click to enlarge Yau-Man Chan
Yau-Man Chan

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Feb 21, 2008 at 6:04 PM

Get out your handkerchiefs: Tonya Payne is really really really sorry about nearly botching the historic nomination of August Wilson's childhood home.

Not so sorry, though, that she couldn't fault those who pointed out her failure

While she apologized for dropping the ball on designating the Hill District home of the famous playwright last year, our friends over at the Post-Gazette quote Payne grousing, "Political pettiness has [surrounded] me since the day I got here."

Awwwww. I'd have more sympathy for Ms. Payne if she hadn't brought a lot of that pettiness with her -- beginning with the night she won her office. Let's recall that Payne reportedly celebrated her 2005 victory over incumbent Sala Udin by showing up at his election party uninvited and stealing his cake (as reported originally by the New Pittsburgh Courier.) 

"It said, 'Sala, still the one,'" Payne told the paper. "So we wiped his name off and people ate it." Payne also added another cheap shot: "He had a case of champagne -- he didn't leave that."

Ha, ha, ha. Ha. Ha. 

It was a trivial episode, of course, but the story has stuck with me ever since. Payne's district is badly fractured, and instead of using her election victory as a chance to heal those wounds, Payne chose to rub salt in them. And then to brag about it in the paper.

In fact, this story is one reason I give some weight to claims that Payne did neglect the August Wilson nomination on purpose -- just to stick it to Wilson's relatives (including CP columnist Kim Ellis). Ordinarily, I'm disposed to dismiss that kind of conspiracy theory. (I'm a liberal, so I naturally want to believe the best of everybody.) But sticking it to rivals unnecessarily is how Payne celebrated her win; why would she govern any differently once in office?  

What's sad is that things could have been so much different. Payne was the rare politician who could win the endorsement of both the local Democratic Party and the local chapter of Democracy for America, the Howard Dean-iacs who sought to revitalize the party and the country from the grass roots up. And while it's easy to forget now, a lot of people saw Payne as a reformer, a change from business as usual. Udin, the incumbent, was seen as a patsy for the mayor Tom Murphy. Payne won in part by playing on community suspicion that he who neglected his own district while supporting new sports facilities and other big-ticket development projects.

Stop me if these accusations sound at all familiar, Ms. Payne. And remember that revenge, like a victory cake, is a dish best eaten cold.

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Posted By on Thu, Feb 21, 2008 at 3:45 PM

It'll be good when they winnow down the women, because they seem so much more similar than the men. Blondes with great teeth -- just how many of them are there? Once again, our plucky contestants struggle through tunes that were hits when their parents were children, one good-time-great-oldies 1960s groaner after another.

The night's promised extra drama was that there was consumption or something goin' round the studio, and that these gals would be gamely crawling out of their death beds to be here. Didn't see much evidence of it, and I think contestants do themselves no favors being so free with excuses on Day 1. 

 

* Kristy Lee opened with a forgettable version of "Rescue Me."

* It was "Say a Little Prayer" for Joanne, the former plus-size model. There was something off in her voice that I couldn't put my finger on -- it was as if her vocals had a bad auditory "aftertaste." Judges also seemed to sense this, but were no more articulate.

*Aliana -- one of the toothy blondes. Not much of an impression but will likely survive this week because others were worse.

* Amanda. The biker-nurse is this season's freak performer, and I mean that in the best way. AI has a long glorious history of seeing the oddballs who defy the show's purpose -- to find a bland marketing entity -- so the stars could align for Amanda. Her nun's-habit black-and-white hairdo needs a shake-up, but I gave props for back-combed rat's nest. "Baby, Please Don't Go"; the patchwork jeans and push-up bra; the blues-mumbling: She looked like she tumbled out of some 1970s Sunset Boulevard dive, and I mean that in a good way, too.

* Not so Amy, who turned in a pageant performance of "Where the Boys Are." She could be going there very soon.

* Brooke, of the lovely mermaid hair, burbled through "Happy Together." For me, karaoke-ish and I'm getting a weird Dyan Cannon vibe from her.

* Alexandréa, or "Alex Andrea" did as funky a version of "Spinning Wheels" as one can when touring with Up With People.

* Kady had me snoozing through "Groovy Kind of Love." Her dull delivery made groovy kind of love sound like a bad thing.

*Asia'h took a pretty big chunk out of "Piece of My Heart," and gets the prize for biggest hoop earrings of the night (and there was some competition).

* Tiny Ramiele tackled a huge song, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," Dusty Springfield's signature heartbreaker. Ramiele acquitted herself well on vocals, and though like most of these young'uns she doesn't have the real-life woe to really wring the misery out, at least she didn't smile through it. (Beaming joyfully through sad songs is a perennial misstep.)

* "Tobacco Road" made its second appearance on American Idol (that bald-headed dude Phil Stacey did it last year) so Syesha didn't get extra points for picking an oddball song. Still, it's always a risk with voters to perform a lesser-known and not-exactly-catchy tune. On the upside, she can sing, and she has an awesome smile.

* Carly, the sorta Irish girl closed out, and suddenly, suddenly her earlier and yet-to-be-mentioned-until-now $2 million recording contract with MCA was disclosed. (Thank you Internet and blogosphere that unearthed all this recently.) With that awkwardness out of the way -- though I still can't help thinking it's not fair the producers picked a gal who's had a shot vs. the world's saddest Brit-pop teen who lived in his car -- Carly channeled mid-career Cher in Vegas on "The Shadow of Your Smile," complete with weird facial contortions. Didn't do it for me, dawg.

 

Cute girls who can't sing very well historically haven't had the easy ride some of the cute guys who can't sing get. So, my predictions for first-round of bus tickets back to nowhere: Amy, Kady and Joanne.

 

Best bit of Simon wisdom: "When you're somebody else, you're fantastic."

click to enlarge Worlds scariest nurse: Amanda
Worlds scariest nurse: Amanda

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Posted By on Thu, Feb 21, 2008 at 10:57 AM

Quick heads-up on a semi-local musician you should know about if you don't already: Nicole Reynolds is a Pittsburgh who splits her time between her hometown and that other big city on the other side of the state. I caught her last year opening for Madeline at the Earthstone Cafe (is that place still open? I have heard of any shows there in a while . . . ) and she kind of caught me as well: singer-songwriters with guitars are a dime a dozen, but singer-songwriters with guitars with beautiful, meaningful lyrics are a different story.

She's got a tiny, nearly naive voice like Joanna Newsom only not as painfully affected, or maybe like a more childlike Jolie Holland with less twang. Her songs are less naive, though, dealing with the ins and outs of close relationships -- fans of, say, Lovers might dig.

She plays Thursday night at Club Cafe with Philly's Ben Arnold.

 

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 2:15 PM

The 12 male contenders tackled '60s night with mixed results:

 

* First up, David H. turned in a disco version of "Midnight Hour." That growling thing he does is gonna get old fast.

* I liked Chikezie's mellow R&B vibe, though he didn't do "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday" any favors. Cheap, tacky orange suit left me breathless -- even the Pips couldn't rock that color. Judge Simon Cowell cared so little that without missing a beat he called Chikezie "Jacuzzi."

* David C. tried to rawk a Turtles tune, "So Happy Together." Bad. And stop waving the mic stand around; it looks stupid.

* Jason Y. beamed through "Moon River." Wow, I haven't seen anybody go so big-toothy-smile through am easy-listening fave since they cancelled the various Osmond family shows back in the '70s.

* Robbie -- This season's trying-too-hard "rocker." The perfectly folded and centered head bandana is one big giveaway he takes his cues from TV, not life. Picking a Three Dog Night song is another.

* David A. -- Absolutely adorable youngster; the perfect winning combination of confident while performing and a blushing shy puppy when being interviewed. Will go far, if Paula doesn't eat him first.

* Danny -- Did a high school musical version of "Jailhouse Rock." Loved the skintight, stove-pipe pants, but recoiled when the young'un laughed like Paul Lynde.

* Luke -- "Everybody's Talking" about how boring you were. Should go early, but might squeak by on cute-boy points.

* Colton. Blond musical-theater elf tore through "Suspicious Minds" like the world's happiest trained seal. Will last weeks on looks alone.

* Garrett -- Another of the teen cuties, with a throwback 1970s glam-rock 'do. He pined through "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," but all I saw were his magnificent cheekbones and limpid eyes. Like Colton, should survive for weeks on zillions of votes from smitten tweens.

* Jason C. -- Worst. Hair. Ever. Too bad American Idol doesn't have a make-over night like America's Next Top Model; then some sensible person would step in to chop off those hideous white dreads. But -- he did do the best makeover on a cheesy '60s song, taking a lot of the annoying cute-folk out of The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream."

* Michael. The Australian guy who looks 35 -- another unlikely American Idol winner? Still, the producers knew he was good, so they rigged him to go last. After watching him howl and strut through The Doors, I wondered why the dude wasn't on that find-INXS-a-new-lead-singer show; he'd have been a shoe-in.

 

My predictions for first-round of bus tickets back to nowhere: Chikezie, Jason and Luke.

Best bit of Simon wisdom: "No one's ever going to admit to being forgettable."

click to enlarge "Jacuzzi" is super-sexy in - orange
"Jacuzzi" is super-sexy in orange

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