Thursday, May 28, 2009

Caught Up, For Now

The Spinning Top
Graham Coxon

My love for blur is undying to the point that I will listen to every album any member puts out as a solo artist. Graham Coxon's previous two solo albums, Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, were power-pop affair, and both were unexpectedly good. Damon Albarn was almost always the songwriter for blur, so I wouldn't have put a lot of chips down on Graham. Neither of those albums are classics, but they're both quite enjoyable. The Spinning Top is a *sigh* concept album about a man's life, from birth to death. At any rate, it's quite folk; this is where Coxon lets out his fondness for Bert Jansch, among others. From time to time, it's gorgeous, but it's too often plodding. His guitar playing is never less than phenomenal, though, and if you didn't believe he was his generation's best before, you should listen to this. I believe the word that suits it best is "solid."
Grade: B-

Journal for Plague Lovers
Manic Street Preachers

I've not listened much to this trio (or would that be quartet for this album?). Turns out, I wasn't missing much. The back story for this album is far more interesting than the product, as it makes use of lyrics left to the band by their former lyricist, who disappeared mysteriously in 1995. He gave the lyrics to their bassist in a notebook, with collages and whatnots, and the remaining members used them as guides for how to make the music sound. Those were some extremely generic collages. There is neither an exceptionally written song nor an exceptionally executed sound anywhere in this album. It's not bad, I suppose, but only for those who like their music neither clever nor challenging.
Grade: D+

Catching Up, Part 2

The Sound of the Universe
Depeche Mode

Until I listened to "Fragile Tension," I had no idea how much of an influence Depeche Mode (I prefer my Depeche a La Mode, with ice cream) had on The Killers. Either that, or, The Killers are rubbing off on Depeche Mode, which would just be a strange, strange thing. The same old furrough is getting old, boys, though points for doing it with style for so long.
Grade: C

Kingdom of Rust

When the biggest complaint I can file about an album is that most of its songs are merely infinitely listenable, that says something. Now, that's not meant to be poor rationale; it falls in the same general category as "This artist knows how to make a good record" (See "Born to Re-Run"), but is a less severe infraction. You can place Doves in the same general category as Elbow and Coldplay, which is to say bands that are Radiohead with a sense of humour, and a more obviously commercial sensibility. Not that that's a bad thing. I find Radiohead's wilful anti-consumerist approach (which is bullshit anyway, since no band has kept as keen an eye on staying commercial as Radiohead, albeit in their own way) to be tiresome. There is a lag halfway through this album, again a result of an age where albums are regularly three songs too long (Try it as an experiment at home, you'll find I'm right. Name the album made in the CD era, I'll show you the three songs that can be chopped off to make it stronger.) But the opening salvo, "Jetstream," "Kingdom of Rust," "The Outsiders," and "Winter Hill," is impossible to ignore, and it closes well. Cut out "The Greatest Denier," "Birds Flew Backwards," and "Spellbound," and this might have been the best album of the year. Ah, well. Maybe next time.
Grade: B

Pet Shop Boys

I do love PSB. They are a special group, no question. I find their early albums a bit bland, but that was part of the point. You were meant to feel like you were trapped in suburbia with the kids they wrote so effectively about. Very, their best album, had nearly vibrant arrangements, and you can spot a Very track from a mile away, if you're even slightly aware of the PSB aesthetic. Neil Tennet is a favourite singer, with an erudite tenor and a tempured, withdrawn delivery. That they are in their fifties and still making music that's catchy and poppy without sacrificing intelligence is to be commended. Their knighthoods, rest assured, are fast-approaching. But I digress. Yes is not their best album, and it's not their best since Very, that would be Nightlife, but I know for a fact that "Love, Etc." and "Did You See Me Coming" (*wink*) are two of their better singles in ages. As for the rest? Like X&Y by Coldplay, this is an album that you remember enjoying less than you do when it's playing. I still haven't decided whether that's a good thing or not.

Grade: B+

Catch up, Part 1

Two Suns
Bats for Lashes

Opening track "Glass" is astounding, managing to be both propulsive and atmospheric, which is no small accomplishment. It's fair to say that describes the whole album, and that's unfortunate. The sound is so samey throughout that nothing develops its own identity, beyond that title track. The lyrics are nothing but empty brushstrokes to fill the canvas, which may well be the point, but her obfuscation isn't as effective as, say, Michael Stipe, or even Fur and Gold Bats for Lashes.
Grade: C

Together Through Life
Bob Dylan

The trouble of evaluating Dylan on an even field is apparent; I feel a need to be perceived as "getting it" and a need to balance out all the faithful who will automatically give the album five stars. Fortunately, with Dylan, I long ago gave up the need to appear to "get it," and instead go with how I feel. Which works to his advantage here. Modern Times was a brilliant album, it was, and I've grown to appreciate it, but it was an intellectual exercise. It didn't feel like anything special at first. Fortunately for Bob, Together Through Life feels great. There's a swing. The songs are entertaining. If it's all a bit samey (noticing a trend?), it's a great, pastiche-like samey, one that reaches way back to the days when an accordion was a lead instrument. The lyrics are wry, predictable in the way where that's a compliment, and the voice is becoming a better instrument as he ages. His best? No. Calm down. But not so f
ar from it that I feel the need to balance.
Grade: B


A free live album is cause for rejoicing, whether it's good or not. That this is exceptional, capturing the band in incredible form, on top of the world, is a plus. That it fills me with raging depression over having not seen them on this tour is actually a compliment. Is it essential? No. But bands shouldn't sound this studio-like live. Is it anything to write home about? Not really. Are you going to be converted if you weren't already? Of course not. Coldplay don't convert people. If you're a fan, will you love it? Yes.
Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wednesday Classics, Vol. 4: Odessey and Oracle

Odessey and Oracle
The Zombies

Legend has it that the engineers employed at Abbey Road Studios were relieved. It was May of 1967, and The Beatles had just finished recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While the results were certainly worth the effort, Sgt. Pepper's had been an exhaustive experience, and the engineers were looking forward to a return to more traditional methods of recording. They'd just started dismantling the modified tape machine, when The Zombies walked in, asked them what they were doing, and told them to stop immediately. So much for a return to tradition, it would seem.

And three cheers for that. Lined with harmonies and layers, the sound of this album is full, lush, and always absorbing, without ever feeling cluttered. It's easy to keep piling on more; Be Here Now had as many as fifty guitar parts on every song. The trick is knowing how much is just right, and how to mix it. The Zombies were great at both.

The album opens with "Care of Cell 44," which, I can reveal, is the inspiration for my Blogger ID, CC44. Whenever I'm pressured to name my favourite song, I turn to "Care of Cell 44." It has a big, ebullant, brilliantly happy chorus. It's impossible to have a bad day when you listen to it. Colin Blumstone's voice is charming, and the arrangements are constantly shifting in subtle, dynamic ways. It's the perfect pop song, which means it's the perfect song.

"A Rose For Emily" is probably the most beautiful piece of art directly inspired by Faulkner, though I can't say that for certain. A simple, repeating piano figure backs Blumstone's lead vocal, which is unaccompanied until the choruses, which feature ample backing harmonies. One of the things I love most about this album is the emphasis it places on the lead vocal, never featuring dual-leads or harmonies on the lead. The melody is the melody, and what melodies these are. "Maybe After He's Gone," has a sing-along chorus and windy but complimentary verses. "Brief Candles" has another brilliant, brilliant chorus; they make these things seem easy.

"I Want Her She Wants Me" is the single happiest love song you'll ever hear. I mean it. It's happy, it delights in that first rush of love, but it's never, ever schmaltzy, even by today's standards. The album closes with "Time of the Season," a song I appreciate more as I get older. I used to think it was boring. How little did I know? The harmonies are astonishing. The "Clap, AHHH" hook is brilliant. The bass sound is simple and perfect. The reverb on the vocals is absolutely fantastic.

There is nothing wrong with this album. I usually mean that as an insult, as it is usually evidence that an album didn't try anything new, that the artists didn't branch out. That's not the case here. New things were tried. New things were brilliantly executed. And it holds up better than anything. My favourite album? It might be. It really might.

Grade: A+

Monday, May 25, 2009

He Never Said He Was Clever...

Further Complications
Jarvis Cocker

There will be a special place in heaven/purgatory/hell for Jarvis Cocker, depending on how it goes. There will be. For one thing, here is an individual who started a band in his teens, never managed to break big, kept at it until he was "on the wrong side of" thirty, and then had a massive hit with "Common People," one of the finest songs you'll ever hear. Not only that, but "Common People" came from an album, Different Class, which can reside comfortably in the upper echelon of pop music accomplishments. It's in my Top 10 All Time.

So, he released an album consumed with genius, and then had to follow it up, which he did with an album that's possibly even better, if less loved, with 1997's This Is Hardcore. Point is, he set high standards that are almost impossible to follow up. But he tries. He didn't really succeed with his first solo album, Jarvis (left), but it wasn't awful. But what's important is he keeps trying. There will be a special place for him for his perseverance.

There will also be a special place for the man who can write a song called "I Never Said I Was Deep," a song that includes the lyric, "If life's a two way street, then I was screwing in the back while you were in the driver's seat." I love that, and I love that he hasn't lost "it," whatever "it" is. I've recently converted to a view that Genius is not part of a person, but something a person comes into contact with from time to time, and I'm glad to see Jarvis has not completely lost touch with his.

Produced in a surprisingly raw fashion (For those who have listened to his first solo offering, the whole thing sounds like "Fat Children"), it suits him. He sounds like, and has taken the role of, a north-of-middle-age pervert, looking for a good lay with a pretty young thing. He sings of girls giving over-enthusiastic handjobs, something you don't hear about very often.

Jarvis was overflowing with songs based on pedantic ideas, like "Heavy Weather," which borrowed its central metaphor from every other Creedence Clearwater Revival song you've ever heard (Read: Heavy weather represents the approach of bad things). "Heavy Weather" was, and is, a very good song, but the album was bogged down but a lack of original ideas, or original ways of telling old ones. What's so heartening to hear is that Jarvis seems to have stumbled back upon his muse, and found new ways to get at those pesky Further Complications.

Grade: B

Friday, May 22, 2009

Someone Owes Banksy Some Money...

21st Century Breakdown
Green Day

Do you remember when American Idiot came out, and everyone loved it? I do. I remember it. I bought the album the day it came out, and I even anticipated it. A friend of mine got an advanced copy, and she pumped me up for its release. It didn't disappoint. I listened to it on repeat for months. I even went as far as to learn the entire album on guitar. It was immediately after I'd started playing, and I had just bought my first electric, so the timing was right. It seemed set to be one of the important albums of my adolescence.

But something happened. My affection for the album decayed, and rapidly. I haven't listened to it in a year, at least. The last time I tried, I didn't make it more than twenty seconds into any of the songs. It's almost as though I've developed an allergic reaction. And I know I'm not the only one. What changed?

Whatever nagged me is still there. My enjoyment of Green Day in general has waned as I've aged, aside from my undying appreciation for "Basket Case." Perhaps this renders me unfit to review their newest offering, 21st Century Breakdown. On the other hand, it also allows me to objectively notice a few things. For one, I compliment their ambition. Say what you want, but, aside from Cage the Elephant, who may or may not prove to be of any importance, Green Day may be the only ROCK band aiming for the highest peak. They're certainly the leaders in their field, commercially, which was something no one expected from them at this point in their careers. And they've changed. American Idiot walked a line between what Green Day were and what they were contemplating becoming. Just because I'm not fond of what they've become doesn't mean they weren't brilliantly successful, and 21st Century Breakdown is the band committing to their new role, their new direction.

It picks up the "Concept Album" baton from American Idiot, and, of course, the story makes no sense. But that's part of the glory of their elite league, the lucky bastards. Whether you think the music deserves the stadiums of adoring fans, the millions of units shifted in a time when millions of units just don't shift, and the stellar reviews, or you think it's a disgrace to modern music, your opinion is now irrelevant, and so is mine. They are The Who of this decade, the dark horse pop band over in the corner who kept making their music bigger, because no one else noticed there was room for it. Kudos, boys.

Grade: A-

The Name of This Band Is...

Stop Making Sense
Talking Heads
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Say what you will about David Byrne, Lord knows I have, but he gives a performance his all. This is the mother of all concert films, a genre (I suppose it would be a genre) with precious few gems. I started watching Stop Making Sense with doubts; I really don't care for David Byrne. Talking Heads are a great band, no question there, but I've never liked him, and in a band where the frontman is so central, that can create problems. Fortunately, on their albums and in this film, I don't hear him talk much, and that's really where he loses me.

Some things this does very, very right: the show starts with Byrne, an acoustic guitar, and a drum machine. It builds from there, until eight entirely necessary people are on stage. Almost everything on stage is black, so you can more easily focus your attention on the performers, and how they interact. The shots are not quick, MTV-style shots; this is clearly a movie, not a series of Performance Videos slammed together. (Ironically, H.A.A.R.P., by Muse, is the next best concert movie I've ever seen, and it's as MTV-style as it gets... so I suppose it works both ways) The set list is well judged, and the amount of energy the musicians put into these performances is mind blowing. This is serious commitment we're watching. Highly recommended, it's known to be the best for a good reason; it is.

Grade: A

I Really Like the Colour of It All

Blue Lights on the Runway
Bell X1

We can thank The Talking Heads for most of this album. Take their prime period, strip it of the funk, and you end up with the skeleton of this album. "The Great Defector" is definitely the best cut here, but the whole thing is, well, fun. Bell X1 have a sound both unique and entirely indistinguishable, which is what many a band would kill for. If it never quite takes off, it gets damned close.
Grade: B-


I'm predisposed to liking "We Made You," only because it channels that Doomsday-Cabaret vibe which may actually be my favourite thing in music. And even that I only like for the sound of it, something I never thought I'd say about an Eminem album. Most artists can get away with mediocrity and still have it be at the least unobjectionable. But Eminem's persona only works when the material is undeniable, and on Relapse, it's anything but that.
Grade: D

Peter Doherty

Yes, when a drug-addled songsmith who never lived up to his "potential" decides to go straight, he adds an "r" onto his name, and goes a bit folk. If he were American, he would have grown a beard. This album lost me, admittedly, right from the start, when Doherty sings the title of the song "Arcady" in a manner that is a clear violation of the golden rule, "Show, don't tell." I never got the fuss about Doherty, and this doesn't change my opinion. Fans should be happy, though.
Grade: C

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wednesday Classics, Vol. 3: Amadeus

Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Milos Forman
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce

It really is a great movie. I was going to try to be technical and acute about this, but there's no point in trying. The Wednesday Classics aren't about dissecting what makes something great, and often times it's impossible to even attempt that.

Amadeus is one of the great films, and it is my choice for the greatest movie made to date (Ever assumes nothing made after this could better it, something I choose not to believe). The demons Salieri (Abraham) wrestles with are profound, and superb. At a young age, he offers his chastity to God in exchange for the ability to bring Him glory through great music. For the longest time, he believes that the bargain is being upheld, until he discovers Mozart, the gifts Mozart possesses, and the manner in which Mozart carries himself. Salieri believes that Mozart is giving God voice through music, that God has chosen this contemptable individual to be His vessel, and vows to destroy Mozart.

But don't let that stop you! I know it can sound over done, but it's really not. The movie is filled with brilliant moment after brilliant moment; a personal favourite is just before the first time we meet Mozart, when Salieri is walking around the room, trying to see if he can tell which of the people at the party is Mozart, wondering to himself if such genius is apparent on one's face. Moments like that take my breath away, regularly, and they are tossed off as though they are nothing, which, I suppose,
is part of why they work. Moments like that which are focused on can seem obvious, or cheesy. The delivery here is such that you can only watch in amazement.

There's not much bad to say about it, though it may be too long (2.5 hours) or too slow for some. I don't have a problem with it. The whole affair is driven, as all the best stories are, by the characters, by what they want and what they desire. It is not meant to be a historically accurate representation of events, and you would do well to keep that in mind as well. It is a character study using the real figures of Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to frame itself around. Nothing here can be improved. Nothing need be. Perfection.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Too Many Notes

I am attempting to write the third volume of Wednesday Classics about Milos Forman's Amadeus. I am encountering more difficulties than I had originally expected, as I'm having a hard time focusing what I want to say. There is simply too much to say about The Greatest Movie Yet Filmed, and I can't get it to work. But it holds its honorary slot as Volume 3, and I'll get to it. Hopefully tomorrow. Volume 4 shall appear shortly, however.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Rush and a Push and Some Micro-Reviews...

War Child Heroes
Various Artists
It's a cool concept, to have well-known artists like Elvis Costello and David Bowie pick their favourite artists of the now to record covers of one of their songs. This Like *shrug* tackle Costello's "You Belong to Me" while TV On the Radio do an alright version of Bowie's "Heroes." Franz Ferdinand do a very good "Call Me," and Elbow put a good spin on "Running to Stand Still." Great, great concept. Decent execution.
Grade: C

First Love
Emmy the Great
You can't tell from the cover, as her face is rended in two, but this is a very attractive woman, and I wanted to take a moment to appreciate that. It's not just because of her looks, though; she's also a terribly unique songwriter, and while this album isn't much to write home about on its own, it is clearly a harbinger of great things.
Grade: B-

The Crying Light
Antony and the Johnsons
He does Simone better than Nina did, and I'm starting to think he knows it. Taking chances to be (relatively) happy on "Epilapsy is Dancing" (Damned if I know), and letting that warble of a voice spool out to greater and greater distances, if not to greater and greater effect, he might just broaden his audience. Then again, I can barely sit through this. God's speed. Doesn't mean it's not great, though.
Grade: B+


Okay, okay, I know, I've been less than diligent with my entries. I'm sorry. The school year has just ended, and I've moved to a new place, and I'm working a lot of hours this week. But I will have a movie/album double-feature this Wednesday, and over the next two weeks, I vow to get completely caught up on album reviews. This I swear to you, my loyal reader(s). I will be back. And soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crack the Skye

Crack the Skye

I know for some of you it will take a moment to process that I even listened to this album. The grade I give it at the end may very well blow your mind.

As a result of this album, I listened to the rest of the Mastodon catalogue, and it is not for me. There is too much screaming. Of it's genre, I'm sure it's exemplary, but that's not something I can stomach in large portions. The amount it happens here is perfect for me, thank you very much.

What an album this is. I couldn't tell you any of the lyrics, aside from the very first line, "I flew beyond the sun before it was time." Apparently, from what I read, this album tells a story of a paralyzed boy traveling back in time and encountering Rasputin, who tries to steal the boy's body and come back to the present... or something like that. I don't know. It's inconsequential. Just listen to the music! They sing just enough to keep me interested, and there are some wonderful layers here. You hear more every time you listen.

Personally, my favourite is the slow burn of "The Czar," an 11-minute epic about nothing in particular (I think...). There is atonality everywhere, as there should be, and they handle it masterfully. This is what happens when a band on the fringes adds just enough of a popular ethos to their work; it is unique and true to their style while being entirely approachable to those on the outside. Is it for everyone? God, no. But it's for more than one would have thought.

Grade: A-

I Need a Moment

My review of the recent A Camp album has spurred me to address a change in the grading policy which I will be implementing from now on. I've felt conflicted about this, because our society has risen to the point where a B seems average, and anything below that is a disappointment. I need to change that, at least for my blog.

To clarify:

An "A" is exemplary. Anything in the "A" range is above and beyond, an exemplary listen from start to finish. I make allowances for albums that have no filler until the final track. If an album is great from track one to eleven, but twelve is terrible, I will allow them the mistake, and ignore it. Songs in the middle of an album are the ones that offend.

A "B" is very good. Most great albums on Metacritic fall in the 80's, which is where they should be. A B is well worth your time.

A "C" is average. If you like the band, it is a good listen. It could even attract new fans. It does not mean it is bad. It does not mean I don't like it, it doesn't mean it's bad. Anything above a C is something to be proud of, and something to check out, should it appeal to you. Many modern albums sag in the middle or towards the end, because the CD allows albums to be too long. Many albums with a C are simply a few tracks too long.

A "C-" may have some great songs at the front, but then quickly deteriorates into an uninspired mess.

A "D" is when we get towards bad. If you love a band, you may still enjoy a "D" album, though even fanatics would be hardpressed to say it's one of their favourites.

An "F" is a fail. Done. Not worth the plastic. I don't know that this will ever actually appear here. If it does, it ought to be a good read.

That is all. I won't be retro-grading all the albums I've reviewed, but, in the future, this is the scale.

I gave A Camp's Colonia a C+. I am very, very fond of that album, and heartily recommend it. It's just a bit long. And I won't remember it in a year, save for the fabulous "Love Has Left the Room," which is just a great song.

Catching Up

Because of my exhaustive work schedule the last week, I've been derelict in my duties to the blog, and I apologise for that. To make amends, here is a bunch of rapid-fire reviews. What they lack in length they make up for in brevity.

The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists
Here's my thing about that broadest of genres, Prog; it was never the structures of the songs I minded. It was the empty virtuosity, where playing served no purpose but to remind you they could play, and the sound, something I can't quantify, but is the difference between Fragile by Yes (thumbs-down) and Selling England By the Pound by Genisis (thumbs-up). The outlandish stories never bothered me, because I could never follow them, and I just ignore the lyrics when they offend. The Decemberists didn't bring back the sound, so they have that, and they don't strut about in virtuoso displays. That said, it's not something I'll be returning to.
Grade: B

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand
Catchy, angular, occasionally muscular; It's everything you expect from these fine gentlemen. I listened to all three of their albums on shuffle as an experiement, and from the sound, I couldn't tell which songs came from which album. I can't decide if that's a good thing or not. For some bands, that's a strength. None of those bands are my favourites. But, if they keep it up, that could change.
Grade: B

A Camp
I can't give this album a high grade. I just can't. I don't know why, but something within me prevents it. Maybe I feel like I can't as a reviewer, lest my taste be called into judgment. But I doubt that. I'd have given U2 an A like everyone else if that were the case. No. There is something special here, but in a weird way where it would do the album a disservice to overstate it. I'd rather give this a C+ and have you be pleasantly surprised than give it, say, a B+ and have you walk away feeling disappointed. Entertaining from start to finish, moving at unexpected times, and never quite content to sit on its laurels, it's really quite good. But... I... can't... and... I... don't... know... why...
Grade: C+

In Treatment

In Treatment: Season 1

I'm just now finishing the last two episodes of the first season of HBO's In Treatment. In short, it is a show about therapy. Gabriel Byrne plays Paul, a therapist with a private practice based in his house. For the first season, we are privy to four different sets of patients: Laura (Melissa George), a doctor who's been seeing Paul for a year before the show starts; Alex (Blair Underwood), a Navy pilot who comes to Paul after discovering that a target he hit was mistakenly identified as a terrorist stronghold when it was a school building; Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a sixteen-year-old gymnast who needs a professional opinion from Paul after an accident; and, Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz), a couple trying to decide if they want another child. These episodes are delivered in week-long groups of five episodes. In the fifth episode of each week, Paul goes to see Gina (Dianne West), a retired therapist, becoming a patient himself.

You have to watch the whole season. You really do. Laura is irritating at first. Alex is arrogant and unlikable. Sophie's a brat, albeit an engaging one. Jake & Amy are the worst; their life seems like a soap opera, and they contain within themselves almost no personality whatsoever. Paul seems like a cool guy, until we learn he's a self-absorbed narcissist in the fifth episode. Consider that we start the show with all of these people in such a state, and, yet, by the end of the season, I'm sad to see everyone go. You spend 43 episodes getting to know all these individuals, getting to know everything about them. I know these people better than I know any of my friends. That's the idea, of course, and it's brilliant. I could never be a therapist. Getting to know people on such a level, and then having them just walk away, it would destroy me.

The information is given out in bits and pieces. You work for it. There are very few major revelations; only small ones. But there are many of them, and they are all staggering, and that is because they are all real. These are fictional characters, yes, but they are so thoroughly constructed, and so brilliant portrayed (It is easily the best across-the-board acting I have ever seen in any filmed medium), that you feel them as real. Week Nine is shorter, with only three episodes; two of them "wrap up" (I put it in quotes because this show is too wise to wrap everything up neatly, it only does so just enough to allow you to move on) Sophie's sessions and Jake & Amy's, and the third is a final session (for this season) with Gina. Throughout all three of those episodes, I was glued to the screen. I could not look away.

Television has rapidly reached a level of sophistication, to the point where I don't think anyone with an informed opinion can call it a lesser medium; it is capable of doing things a feature-length film could never (and should never) do. With shows like The Wire, intricate stories of incredible breadth and depth, with massive scope and huge, detailed casts, can be told without concern for overwhelming the audience. With shows like In Treatment, we can come to know and even care about people in ways that are impossible with only two hours of exposure. We are truly in the golden age, people. Soak it up.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wednesday Classics, Vol. 2: Sail Away

Sail Away
Randy Newman

There's much, much more to this man than Toy Story. To those of you who are already aware, that will seem like an obvious statement, but it's not. Many people of my age group don't know Randy Newman outside of two things; The music he wrote for various Pixar films, and his appearance on Family Guy. Go ahead, talk about Lois biting the apple. He's one of the great songwriters of the pop era. He earned that skewering.

On his first, self-titled album, Randy Newman wrote mostly off-kilter love songs. On his second, 12 Songs, he started to reach out. Sail Away is when he figures out just what exactly he's capable of. The title track introduces popular music to the concept of the unreliable narrator. Think of it as a Mark Twain book rendered in song. It's a sales pitch given by a slave trader to a group of Africans, persuading them to come to America. He describes America as a wondrous place, without a hint of insincerity. It's a stirring ode to the United States if you aren't paying attention. "Lonely at the Top" is an examination of an egotistical showman; "I've been around the world, had my pick of every girl. You'd think I'd be happy, but I'm not." It's bluesy and boozy, a wonderful song, and it's even funnier if you listen to it aware that Newman wrote it for Frank Sinatra, who (understandably) wouldn't touch it. "He Gives Us All His Love" addresses God, from the perspective of humanity. It can be read as sincere, and has even been covered by Christian Rock bands, or it can be read as sarcastic and withering. Given the track the album ends with, the latter seems more likely. "Political Science" is written in the guise of a man who believes we should nuke the world (except Australia, don't want to hurt no kangaroos), to solve all our problems.

The album ends with the astonishing "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)." It's effect when you listen to the album is devastating. Over a quiet, sparse blues shuffle, Newman speaks as God, and what makes it eerie is how thoroughly accurate he sounds:

I burn down your cities, how blind you must be.
I take from you your children, and you say, "How blessed are we?'
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.
That's why I love mankind.
You really need me...
That's why I love mankind.

Grade: A+

One Of These Things Is Not Like the Others...

Noble Beast
Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird and The Shins have a lot in common: The music is beautiful and polished, the melodies are inventive, the structures and orchestrations are detailed and clever, the lyrics use big words to say absolutely nothing, and I can't listen to more than three or four songs before my ears get bored. At the same time, it's too technically good to be bad.
Grade: B

Invaders Must Die
The Prodigy
Right from the moment the digitized voice says "We are The Prodigy," two things become abundantly clear: This album is going to be great, mindless fun, and it is going to be compressed as all hell. Dynamic range? No. Not for Liam Howlet. Not since... well, not since ever, really. Oddly enough, for a Prodigy album, it takes time to work its magic.
Grade: B+

Hold Time
M. Ward
You know, without the first track, this album isn't half bad. The first song, "For Beginners," turned me off in ways I can't describe. Twee and awful. Acoustic in that way as if to say, "Hey, look, I'm acoustic!" I hate that. What follows is better than that, though I never managed to shake the feeling that I was listening to little more than good background music.
Grade: B-

Means Nothing to Me

Mean Everything to Nothing
Manchester Orchestra

I spent most of this album thinking of a less adventurous Modest Mouse. The songs aren't as winding, the lyrics aren't as inventive, the production isn't quite as nuanced. Still, there's something here that made me keep reaching for Brock in my mind. I just can't quite put my finger on it.

The first three songs build up to one another, each better than the last. Opener "The Only One" uses a clever guitar trick to build a shifting background. "Shake It Out" grabs your attention rather successfully. The high point is "I've Got Friends," a riveting piece of music that sounds familiar and entirely new all at once. It's a special song. What follows it is by no means bad, but it doesn't live up. An album that will please those who are already fans, may attract a few new ones, but will hardly transcend its audience.

Grade: B-

Yes, Minister

Yes, Minister
BBC Television Series

I do love an English sense of humour. There exists a most unfortunate stereotype that Americans don't understand sarcasm, which is hardly fair; we as a mass simply don't enjoy sarcasm in our entertainment. A show like Friends, one that is often funny, but never in any sort of remarkable way, is much more to our liking as a nation. That the U.S. version of The Office has lasted as long as it has, and with the success it has had, is a miracle. We don't usually like humour we have to try and keep up with; we like it to bring us along at the same pace.

Yes, Minister wouldn't do well on this side of the pond. It's quick, it's witty, and you have to listen not only to what the people say, but how they say it. A lot of the jokes hinge on word play or quick, biting retorts. It's never prickly, though. It's not unpleasant. You never feel as though you're attempting to stomach something sour.

The funniest joke Friends ever produced was in the last episode; Central Perk, their coffee shop of choice for seven (?) seasons, has closed. One of the titular band asks if everyone wants to get coffee, prompting Chandler to ask, "Where?" In all the time we've known them, that question was never asked, because it never needed to be, and in that moment, Friends commented on itself, and acknowledged the formula. It took a while for it to get there, but it got there. What Yes, Minister does so admirably, over the course of the three series (there are an additional two series in the guise of a sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), is change. It does lock into a formula, but it begins to play with it and reference it. The initial episodes focus on the efforts of Permanent Secretary Sir Humphry Appleby to foil the plans of the Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker, MP. Middle episodes involve Appleby and Hacker going toe-to-toe, each trying to subtly outmaneuver the other. By the third act, it's turned into a bizzare partnership. The whole time, we're treated to clever critiques of the British government, and wonderful character bits.

It's pretty easy to get the jokes, even if you don't understand how the government works. I got the hang of it after the first episode. And, as I said, it occupies a good middle ground. Well worth your time, this is an excellent program.

Grade: A

Monday, May 4, 2009

Phil Spector's Ghost In the Machine

My Maudlin Career
Camera Obscura

Music takes time to digest. Great music often hits you as less-than-stellar the first time around. Many of my favourite albums were cast aside on cursory listening, because, well, it just takes a while. Because I am not actually a music critic, I do not get advances, and so I can only stay so current without jumping the gun on making a decision. I've leapt the queue a bit to bring you this review of Camera Obscura's latest, which just came out in the last week or two. I'm a bit hesitant to "cast judgment" on it as it is now, but I think I have a fair grasp of my feelings.

First of all, what a fabulous name for a band. I wanted to say that. And what a fabulous name for an album. Okay, we've at least established that this is a band which possess a way with titles. Moving on.

The sound they've created, lifted straight from Phil Spector's Guide to Production, is nothing if not expert. It's a pastiche of the 1960's, and the sound is so fully formed that it could carry a lackluster record all on its own; it doesn't quite have to do that here. I wouldn't go so far as to say My Maudlin Career is a great record, but it has its moments. Opening song "French Navy" is one of the best things I've heard this year, and the lesser moments are carried through by that sound. The problem comes when hooks pop up that you could have sworn you've heard before. Not ones that are eerily familiar, and feel like they've always been around; that's a hallmark of greatness. No, I mean hooks that seem to show up twice within the same album. If they don't, they come too close to redundancy for comfort. The unfortunate side-effect of having such a well-developed sound is your songs can get trapped within its confines. Camera Obscura have a great sound, but it's also a limiting one.

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Greats, Volume 1: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The finest compliment you can ever pay a band is to say that they constantly change their sound without ever losing the qualities that make them unique. It is indicative both of musical ambition, because the group in question is unwilling to stay still, and true musical gifts, because they are unable to. Few bands of the modern era do it so well as Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In three albums and six years, they have gone from riff monsters to peddlers of synth, from dangerously to curiously thrilling. And they're always alluring, which can be put down to Karen O's magnificent voice. No one else in rock can go from stripping paint off the walls to causing tears as quickly, as effectively, and, most importanly, as sincerely as she does.

The Essential Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever to Tell
Grade: A
The opening salvo was a fierce one. This is an album packed with heavy, heavy riffs and brilliant drumming, and then there are the vocals. The highlight is "Maps," and "Maps" is the most indicative of their future directions, but the whole thing is stunning. Nick Zinner really does have access to more riffs than any man has a right to, and he plays them in such a fashion that the history of rock seems to fall apart at his command. Honestly, it's that good. You won't even notice there isn't a bass player, unless you're a stickler for that kind of thing.

Show Your Bones
Grade: A+
There is a Wednesday Classics article coming in the next month or two on this album, so I'll be brief. Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a statement here that they are an album band. While a few songs are stunning on their own, particularly "Cheated Hearts" and the magnificent "Turn Into," the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is not an album made for the age of shuffle, and the impact of the whole album defies explanation. There aren't a lot of heavy riffs, and the melodies are more delicate, but it's the sound of a band maturing into something rare, something to be treasured. It was better than what they were supposed to be capable of when it came out. It's still better than 98% of what's out there. By no means perfect, that's its strongest point.

It's Blitz!
Grade: A
The strength of the debut lies in how full-tilt it approaches guitar rock. The glory of Show Your Bones lies in its hesitancies. It's Blitz! shows them trying out newer territory still, but this time they did it with the confidence of their first album. A record that demands your attention, It's Blitz! quietly proves itself to be every bit as strong as either of the albums before. Karen O famously ordered "No guitars for Nick!" for this album, having him work with synths instead. It was a brilliant decision, all the more so because Nick has his moment on "Dull Life," a riff-riding treat made all the more impacting for its individuality in context. He doesn't completely ditch guitars on the album, using them instead to add to the tapestries of the tracks. Listen to his playing in the back on "Runaway;" it's beautiful, touching, and unique. This is truly a formidable band. Also, get the acoustic EP attached if you can. It's well worth it, and shows how formidable they are even in an acoustic setting. The acoustic "Soft Shock" is the most beautiful and touching thing I've heard in the last few years.

There aren't many occasions where they've stepped wrong, so, really, if it bears the Yeah Yeah Yeahs mantle, it's worth picking up. And if you don't like Fever to Tell, or Show Your Bones, or It's Blitz!, whichever one you start with, try another one. You might surprise yourself. They're a restless lot.