Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Beatles, 'LOVE'

“LOVE,” the new “album” from The Beatles, is not only the most overhyped release of the year (and that’s saying something), but certainly one of the most disappointing, as well.
Released last week just in time for Black Friday, “LOVE” is the soundtrack to the new Cirque du Soleil show of the same name, which opened this summer at the Mirage in Vegas. George Martin (the “Fifth Beatle”) and his son, Giles, worked on this thing for years, apparently, and the result is billed as a “mash up” album. For those not familiar with that term, it means combining two old songs to create an entirely new one.
In this case, it’s false advertising.
The idea of mixing The Beatles’ all-too-familiar tracks in new and supposedly revolutionary ways was thrilling to me; the results, unfortunately, are barely interesting, because the Martins were apparently too scared to make truly risky and bold choices with a catalog revered like it’s the Word of God.
There’s only one true mash up on all of “LOVE”—the combination of “Within You Without You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” two songs not all that dissimilar in the first place. The rest of the album simply blends one song into another, if that.
Supposedly there are morsels of more than 180 Beatles tracks appearing in “LOVE’s” 78 minutes, but you’d have to be a Beatles freak to catch most of them. I own almost all of the original albums, and the majority of the songs on "LOVE" sound the same as they always have to these ears.
There are a few exceptions: When “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” explodes into “I Want You,” it’s a sonic extravaganza that tantalizingly hints at what "LOVE" could and should have been. The Martins also effectively segue from “Drive My Car” to “The Word” to “What You’re Doing,” and Martin Sr.’s orchestral addition to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a nice touch.
The overall impression, though, is underwhelming. It’s laughable that some reviewers even entertained the notion that “LOVE” could be considered an original Beatles album. This is not a reimagining, not a dramatic new vision of the band’s career. And it’s certainly nowhere near as exciting as Danger Mouse’s underground sensation “The Grey Album” from 2004, which magnificently and truly mashed The Beatles’ “White Album” with Jay-Z’s “Black Album.”
If nothing else, “LOVE” proves how amazing and ahead of their time the originals were, because those still sound more revolutionary than any of the bells and whistles added by the Martins. In theory this album sounded great; too bad the producers were afraid to do it right.
Grade: C+

Friday, November 24, 2006

The 26 of 2006

It’s truly a rare thing when a handful of albums from one calendar can crack my “Top Whatever of All Time” list. But 2006 was just such a year for music, and I was buying CDs like it was 1999.
New albums that spent more time in my life than any other this year were: AFI’s “Decemberunderground,” The Bouncing Souls’ “The Gold Record,” Johnny Cash’s “American V: A Hundred Highways,” Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere,” Pearl Jam’s “Pearl Jam,” Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome,” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Show Your Bones.” And the great thing about that group is it features strong efforts from my old standbys and essentially new personal discoveries—I got the best of both worlds this year.
There was much, much more where those came from, though. I know it’s a little early for a traditional year-end best-of list, but I figured in honor of Black Friday I’d give everybody a holiday cheat sheet. An homage to one of my favorite new TV shows, I’m calling this list “The 26,” because I had to come up with a cutoff point somewhere. I highly recommend every single song and (almost) every single album on this list. Several records deserved multiple nominations, but I limited the entries to just one per band for obvious logistical reasons.

Song of the Year
• “Life Wasted,” Pearl Jam (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)—If you click the “Play Count” tab on my iPod, this song jumps straight to the top. I loved it the moment I first heard it when, weeks before the album came out, the band released it as a streaming video online. I was on the fence about the new record until I heard this song, and from then on it was all-out excitement. It opens and sets the tone for the album perfectly; it’s uplifting and contemplative without being cheesy; and it marked the band’s best album since 1998’s “Yield” and a throwback to “Vitalogy”-era intensity. There are several other cuts off this deep release that deserve to make the list (ah, “Come Back,” “Severed Hand,” “Unemployable,” and “Inside Job”), but “Life Wasted” encapsulates the entire record in just under four minutes.

The Other 25
• “Ain’t Talkin’,” Bob Dylan (from 2006’s “Modern Times”)—This beautiful, haunting epic is tucked away at the end of Dylan’s first studio album in five years. At nearly 9 minutes, you’d think it would drag, especially given its crawling tempo and near-whisper vocals. Um, no. It’s fantastic, to the very last second.

• “Air Said to Me,” Trey Anastasio (from 2005’s “Shine”)—An excellent rocker from his first post-Phish release. I only bought the record because he was opening for Tom Petty this summer. I bought this year’s effort, “Bar 17,” because “Air Said to Me” made me a fan. That Phish catalog is daunting, though …

• “Company in My Back,” Wilco (from 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”)—The reason for this song’s inclusion is covered in my review of April’s Wilco show, so I won’t rehash. Simply put: It unlocked that album for me.

• “Don’t Wait,” Dashboard Confessional (from 2006’s “Dusk and Summer”)—If I had to make one cut from this list, “Don’t Wait” would be it. And not because of the song, which I’ve loved since hearing it live more than a year ago. No, Chris & Co. seem to be going in a bad direction these days. Here’s hoping the next record’s better.

• “For the Best,” Straylight Run (from 2004’s “Straylight Run”)—I don’t know if the members of this band (which formed after a defection from Taking Back Sunday) are Christians, but this gorgeous piano-driven song nevertheless touches on a spiritual battle I’ve been fighting for years: knowledge vs. faith.

• “Further On Up the Road,” Johnny Cash (from 2006’s “American V”)—It’s like Bruce Springsteen wrote this song for the Man in Black. I could have picked any one of five or six songs off arguably the best “American” series entry (ah, “Like the 309,” “I Came to Believe,” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”), but “Further On” seems to crystallize Cash’s defiant battle with death and loss in his last days. You are missed; I wish I knew you better when you were still here.

• “Gold Lion,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2006’s “Show Your Bones”)—WOW. That’s about all needs said about this album-opening tsunami. If you want more, check my collection of album reviews from June. Oh, and as I discovered this summer, “Show Your Bones” for some reason matches perfectly with William Gibson’s 2003 novel “Pattern Recognition.”

• “Hands Open,” Snow Patrol (from 2006’s “Eyes Open”)—An excellent early cut from a stellar album (even if it does namecheck Sufjan Stevens, I still love it). It’s funny how things can change over the course of time. When I first posted my review for this album, I gave it a B+; after multiple, multiple listens, I would definitely upgrade that decision now. This album has few missteps, and no glaring errors.

• “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” Arctic Monkeys (from 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”)—This album came across the pond burdened with so much pre-release hype, it would be easy to dismiss—and probably was by many. But these British brats actually made a record that stands up to scrutiny. It’s not the Best Rock Album of All Time that some in the British tabs were slobbering early this year, but I defy you not to bounce your head and tap your foot to this batch of tunes.

• “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2005’s “The Warrior’s Code”)—I first heard the Irish punk of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys at basically the same time. I liked Molly more (and still do), so the Murphys kinda got pushed to the background. Until, that is, I was sitting in a movie theater watching “The Departed” a couple months ago and this exhilarating Woodie Guthrie cover came BLASTING out of the surround-sound in all its glory. Thanks, Marty. The movie was good, this choice was golden.

• “Insistor,” Tapes ’n Tapes (from 2006’s “The Loon”)—Any new song that wouldn’t sound out of place on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack is good enough for me.

• “John Henry,” Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band (from 2006’s “We Shall Overcome”)—Again, an album that could occupy multiple slots on this list (ah, “Mrs. McGrath,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” and “Pay Me My Money Down”). I picked “John Henry” because it’s the powerhouse of the bunch and an absolute punch in the face live. Like “Life Wasted,” this song, too, was streamed online weeks before the release and really got my blood boiling for The Boss’ new venture. Kudos to Springsteen for having the guts to make such a departure and pulling it off so well.

• “Just a Thought,” Gnarls Barkley (from 2006’s “St. Elsewhere”)—Another album that absolutely, positively lives up to the overwhelming hype. The omnipresent “Crazy” would be the obvious choice here, but “Just a Thought,” singer/rapper Cee-Lo’s frank discussion of depression and suicide, is a monster track in the middle of this glorious concoction with DJ extraordinaire Danger Mouse.

• “Laura,” Flogging Molly (from 2006’s “Whiskey on a Sunday”)—This song’s been around for awhile but wasn’t released as an official studio recording until this summer’s bonus disc to the enlightening documentary DVD “Whiskey on a Sunday.” If you’re curious about this band, “Laura” works as both an introduction and a summary of their best work. This is probably my favorite Molly track now.

• “Not Everyone,” Nine Black Alps (from 2005’s “Everything Is”)—The Brits are on a roll, that’s for sure. Yeah, the Alps are very reminiscent of Nirvana, but it’s been more than a decade, already. At this point it’s gotta be considered more homage than straight-up copying, right? Whatever it is, this album rocks.

• “Penny On the Train Track,” Ben Kweller (from 2006’s “Ben Kweller”)—I covered this song in my review for RELEVANT, so it should be no surprise it makes an appearance here. This album only gets better the more times I listen to it.

• “Prelude 12/21,” AFI (from 2006’s “Decemberunderground”)—Yes, yet another album that could have demanded multiple entries (ah, “Miss Murder,” “Summer Shudder,” “Love Like Winter,” and “The Missing Frame”). I chose “Prelude” because, even though it’s not even really a complete song, it sets the tone for the entire record. The heavy drumbeat and ethereal background chorale of voices gets your heart thumping in preparation for the assault to come.

• “Rusted Wheel,” Silversun Pickups (from 2006’s “Carnavas”)—I actually bought this record only a few weeks ago based on strong word-of-mouth, so I haven’t had time to fully digest these trippy fuzz-rockers yet. “Rusted Wheel” is definitely the early standout, however. Theme parks use the term “placemaking” in their designs, meaning an area not to be missed, a singular location that draws people in. That term seems to apply to this song; it lives in its own space and place.

• “So Jersey”/”For All the Unheard,” The Bouncing Souls (from 2006’s “The Gold Record”)—These glorious songs are absolutely inseparable in my mind, so the Souls get the only multiple-entry on this list. I was shocked how much I loved this album, and blown away be these two tracks, in particular. For me, they’re two halves of one sentiment: In “So Jersey,” the band shares its gratitude for what music has done for them; in “Unheard,” they pay tribute to people out there just like them who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to realize their dreams and find release for their troubles through music.

• “Square One,” Tom Petty (from 2006’s “Highway Companion”)—Again, territory covered already in RELEVANT. A stunning return to glory. After all these years and all those hits, you’d think he’d be incapable of adding another classic to the repertoire. Think again.

• “Store Bought Bones,” The Raconteurs (from 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers”)—Jack White and Brendan Benson call down the hammer of the gods in this all-out rocker. Unveiled online well before the album release, “Bones” built up expectations for this side project that ultimately went unfulfilled. The record was really good, but it just wasn’t quite as momentous an occasion as I was expecting/hoping for. Still wish I had caught these guys on the road, though; word is they put on an awesome show.

• “The Train,” OutKast (from 2006’s “Idlewild”)—Big Boi, you’ve outdone yourself with this one. Funny enough, my favorite part is right before the last chorus when, in a quiet aside, Big Boi tells the backup singers, “I can take it from here, ladies. Y’all have done a good deed tonight.”

• “You Don’t Love Me,” Kooks (from 2006’s “Inside In/Inside Out”)—No need to reprint anything from RELEVANT. This album will always stick out to me because I heard about it while spending a week in England for work. I hadn’t heard of them before (because the album had just dropped in the UK about a month prior and had yet to hit the States), so I wandered around Staines one night looking for a CD shop and picked this album up, based on a local recommendation. Excellent advice.

• “Walk On (UK Single Version),” U2 (from 2001’s “Walk On” single)—I place this song at the end of the list (slightly out of order) because it works perfectly as a closer—as proved during the 2001 Elevation Tour. U2 is pissing me off right now, though, with this ridiculous “18 Singles” compilation that just hit the shelves this week. I understand it’s probably a record-label thing or a way to garner new fans or whatever, but at least let the diehards buy the two new songs individually off iTunes—no such luck. There’s no way I’m buying yet another version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “One.”
Anyway, the real reason I put this version of “Walk On” here is it helped me this year realize my favorite word in all of language is “hallelujah.” For those that haven’t heard it, this remixed version is far superior to the original album cut off 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” because in the final minute the band breaks into a hallelujah chorus; it’s one of my favorite sections of any U2 song.
When used in the context of real praise and said/sung with conviction (as the band does here, brilliantly), I can’t think of a more beautiful word, a word that not only represents a powerful notion, but embodies its sentiment just in the way it’s uttered. It gives me gooseflesh.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kweller, Kooks, and The Killers

RELEVANT has posted my capsule reviews for the new Ben Kweller album (A-), the Kooks (B+), and The Killers (B). You can read them here.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

‘The Prestige’

Christopher Nolan is some wizard with a camera.
Consider the roll this 36-year-old British filmmaker is on: He breaks through in 2000 with “Memento,” a cult smash in which the entire story is told backward. He follows that with “Insomnia,” a taut crime thriller headlined by none other than Al Pacino. And then last year he resuscitates the Batman franchise with the flawed but promising “Batman Begins,” which not only puts him right on the A-list, but does the same for his Bruce Wayne, too, Christian Bale (the best of the Bruce bunch, by the way, and it’s not even close).
Now, after that detour into the mainstream, Nolan returns to his esoteric roots with “The Prestige,” an excellent mindbender of a movie about two rival magicians in late 19th century London. Bale is back with Nolan in what appears to be Hollywood’s brightest new actor/director dynamic duo (giving George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh all they can handle and more). The iron-jawed chameleon this time dives into Alfred Borden, an up-and-coming magician whose dedication to his craft knows no bounds. Playing opposite Bale to fabulous effect is Hugh Jackman as the troubled Rupert Angier, a slightly inferior illusionist whose upper-crust upbringing has given him a better flair for the dramatic. Thus the conflict is established early: Style vs. substance, and both want what the other has.
Jackman’s name may be atop the credits, but this movie belongs to Bale—and that’s no shame to everyone’s new favorite Aussie, who gives a fine performance and continues to prove there’s more to him than adamantium claws. But Bale is mesmerizing throughout—there isn’t a wasted movement or a single line where you don’t fully believe his performance.
Of course, it helps these guys are backed up by the likes of Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson, no slouches themselves when it comes to pure magnetism. The venerable Caine plays Angier’s engineer, the man who creates the illusions while also serving as the film’s moral center. Johansson actually has a rather minor role as Angier’s assistant/love interest, but as usual lights up the screen whenever she’s on it.
Neither of the two magicians is necessarily likable, yet they’re fascinating to watch. Both sacrifice everything else in their lives for their art and wear that determination with a mixture of pride and martyrdom. The film is essentially a lengthy game of one-upmanship, albeit an extremely dangerous one, as each becomes obsessed with not only discovering how the other manages their latest tricks, but then foiling the other’s illusions in front of a paying audience.
Nolan is the true magician here, as he weaves scenes together by constantly moving back and forth along the story’s timeline to reveal various aspects of each man’s dementia. In essence, “The Prestige” really does become a two-hour magic trick as it draws from various genres—drama, crime, comedy, romance, and even a little sci-fi/fantasy—to keep us wondering just how he’s pulling it all off. Unfortunately, like his characters, Nolan gets too carried away; there are a few too many double-crosses (or triple- or quadruple-crosses, as the case may be) for the film’s own good. I could have used a little deeper character motivation for the two leads and more actual onscreen magic, but these are relatively minor quibbles for a movie that is sure to engender lively conversation during the car ride home.
On the whole, “The Prestige” is a thoroughly engrossing head-trip with more surprising twists and turns than M. Night Shyamalan’s produced in his entire career. Nolan is still searching for his truly great film, but the method is spot on—it can only be a matter of time.
Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's Just More of the Same (yawn) in 'Studio 60'

Aaron Sorkin must really, really hate Christianity. It seems to be an obsession, or maybe just an easy cure for writer’s block.
It’s no secret on which side of the political aisle Sorkin resides. This is the guy who wrote “The American President” and created “The West Wing,” both highlighting Democratic administrations—and both quality entertainment.
But in the very first episode of the latter, way back in 1999, the plot revolved around Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) trying to get himself out of a jam for insulting the “religious right.” He spent the entire episode thinking it would be his last day in The White House before good ol’ Jed Bartlet came hobbling in on a cane to save the day and send those right-wing fanatics out on their self-righteous ears (Jed didn’t use that word, of course).
Well, it’s a new millennium, a new show, and, unfortunately, the same old Aaron.
In the second episode of his over-hyped new series, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” those Christian “nut jobs” (I can’t remember if that’s the actual derogatory name applied in the show, but it was something along those lines) are back at it again, this time protesting a sketch dubbed “Crazy Christians” set to air on Sorkin’s fictional version of “Saturday Night Live.” Whitford is even back in on the action, this time playing the show’s executive producer who looks, talks, and thinks EXACTLY like Josh Lyman (big stretch, huh, Bradley? Of course, I guess it’s better than reprising your villainous role for “Billy Madison II”). Whitford’s “new” character oh-so-gallantly refuses to cave to the radical right—again.
It’s not hard to see where the impetus for these albeit stereotypical characterizations of Christians comes from—most of the time I think Jerry Falwell does more harm than good on the public stage. But how about a little originality? If Sorkin had half the guts he thinks he does, he’d have made the protesters Muslims and dubbed the skit “The Joys of Jihad.” Instead, he took the easy way out, because Christians have been mocked and exaggerated and generalized and marginalized for so long, his petty little quips in “Studio 60” don’t even register on the controversy Richter scale anymore.
The anti-Christian content didn’t irritate me that much, really, because it’s not a surprise. No, it bothered me on an artistic level. “Studio 60,” by and large, sucks (if such a judgment can be reached after one episode, and I think it can). It’s basically “The West Wing” set in a Hollywood studio instead of The White House. I know Sorkin has various “trademark” elements to his series—the fast walking and talking, the witty banter, etc.—but “Studio 60” is a lackluster retread, right down to using the same font on its opening credits as those found on “The West Wing.”
At least in that show I could stand the self-importance and the melodrama because it typically revolved around such matters as nuclear warheads or State of the Union addresses. Sorkin’s talents don’t carry the same weight when applied to drafting next week’s lame opening skit. I realize the people behind “SNL” are under a lot of pressure, but that doesn’t mean I really care. It’s still a sketch comedy show, and “Studio 60” treats the job like it’s curing cancer.
In fact, for all of “The West Wing” aped in his new series, Sorkin seems to have left out the most fascinating part: the process. I would be interested in a show that deals exclusively with what a writers’ war room is like on deadline of a major TV show—something Sorkin knows all too well with his frequent missed deadlines. In this week’s episode, we got precious little of that and way too much who-slept-with-who soap opera crapola.
Sorkin is one of the best at what he does, that’s for sure (click on the May 2004 folder at right for my glowing column on his work for “West Wing”). Despite all these flaws, I still laughed out loud several times during the hour. Whitford and Matthew Perry (who plays the show’s lead writer) are fantastic together.
But in just that one hour (which is more like 42 minutes factoring in commercials), Sorkin took at least a half-dozen shots at Christians and conservatives in general—oh, how, like befuddled and defrocked Dan Rather, Sorkin longs for the days when “real” journalists like those at The New York Times were the only voices in media, while the Drudge Report is slammed with off-handed smarmy comments (ironically, Drudge was just named the Walter Cronkite of his era—in a new book by a Washington Post political writer, no less).
I’ve said it before and here it is again: Enough of the politics, already. It’s been done to death. You’re a liberal and you hate conservatives and Christians and George W. Bush (and don’t think those three are necessarily one and the same). We all get it. Here we are now, entertain us (and yes, I know that line is completely out of context here, but I thought it somewhat appropriate since we just passed the album’s 15th anniversary—we’re all getting old).
Thank goodness “Heroes” looks like it could be awesome.

Friday, September 15, 2006

More Capsule Music Reviews

It seems music is either feast or famine for me these days. I feel a little uncomfortable giving out so many A’s this summer, but it really has been a fantastic season. Case in point: Here are three more albums in the “A” range, and two I probably won’t listen to anymore.

• “B’Day,” Beyoncé—Wow, happy b’day to us, because Beyonce’s second solo album is what I was hoping for three years ago on “Dangerously in Love.” That album featured the perfect opening trifecta of “Crazy in Love”/“Naughty Girl”/“Baby Boy” but drifted the rest of the way through too many listless Mariah-esque slow jams. “B’Day,” on the other hand, mashes the pedal down nearly all the way through its breezy 10 songs (plus two hidden tracks). Leaving Destiny’s Child way back in her rearview mirror, Ms. Knowles unleashes her inner Aretha throughout this set, peeling paint off the walls at the top of her lungs in shredders like “Ring the Alarm,” “Get Me Bodied,” and lead single “Déjà Vu,” the latter teaming her once again with beau Jay-Z. Speaking of, I was worried for him the first time through “B’Day,” because Beyoncé seems on a rampaging mission to decimate every lowdown man in her life (especially on “Irreplaceable”: “I could have another you in a minute/Matter of fact, he’ll be here in a minute”). And then I listened through past the end of “Resentment,” the final track on the album; in the beginning of the “hidden” section, B’ explains this album was spawned in the afterglow of her work in “Dreamgirls,” the Oscar-baiting movie in which she stars (it opens Christmas Day). She loved that character, Deena, so much she didn’t want to let her go and thus wrote a batch of songs from her perspective—saying all the things Deena should have said in the film but didn’t. Beyoncé then throws in “Listen,” apparently the pivotal song from the movie. This message puts a deeper level of context on an album whose lyrical content would otherwise seem run-of-the-mill. It’s a stellar sophomore effort that makes “Dangerously” sound tame and cements the fact that there’s way more to Beyoncé than simply being the pop diva of the moment. Grade: A-

• “Happy Hollow,” Cursive—Setting aside for a moment this is a concept album that attempts to rip Christianity to shreds in every song, I still can’t connect with it. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Kasher has an abrasive voice that just hits me the wrong way. Musically, “Happy Hollow” is quite interesting, but I just can’t get past that grating vocal (in that way, Cursive reminds me of Thursday and Say Anything). And even if I did like Kasher’s voice, there’s no way I’d listen to this album ever again. My beliefs are challenged on a continual basis by pop culture and I’ve made my peace with that. “Happy Hollow” goes beyond what I’m willing to put up with—there’s nothing I can personally find redeemable in these albeit quite literal lyrics. I can understand why this album is one of the best reviewed of the year, but I’m in no position to give anywhere close to an objective opinion. Grade: N/A

• “Modern Times,” Bob Dylan—I don’t know nearly enough to put Dylan’s new album in context as a career achievement—I leave that for the experts (although Rolling Stone handing out yet another five-star review seems excessive). What amazes me, the novice, is how after 40-plus years and 40-plus albums he somehow conjures up his magic for yet another sterling set. In a time when so many of Dylan’s contemporaries are dead, retired, or irrelevant, he remains at the top of his game (how cool is that iPod commercial?). It’s strange to think Dylan’s last album, “Love and Theft,” was released on Sept. 11, 2001, because that album is loose and full of joy, so at odds with that awful day. Like so many Americans, the past five years seem to have worn on Dylan; while “Modern Times” maintains the same sound of its predecessor, the tone is much different. It’s mellower, more contemplative. “Love and Theft” seemed to stretch out and fill the room, while “Modern Times” draws in on itself, sucking you in with it. Dylan and his band make room for plenty of old-school rockin’ and rollin’ on great cuts like “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” But it’s the quiet moments that really make this record. Like all 8 minutes and 48 seconds of “Ain’t Talkin’,” which doesn’t waste a heartbeat. Grade: A
***On a side note, anyone who still hasn’t purchased this CD, I recommend picking it up at Best Buy so you can have the exclusive booklet from that store which includes cover art and tracklists for every single Dylan album. It’s pretty sweet.***

• “Another Fine Day,” Golden Smog—I’m ashamed to admit I’m only well-versed in one piece of the three main bands that make up super-side project Golden Smog, featuring members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Wilco. Nor do I own any of Smog’s previous recordings, which date back to 1992. But that may not be a bad thing, because I’m guessing there are a lot of people in my same situation, meaning there’s a little something for everybody on this excellent set. For the past couple months since its release, I’ve been trying to find a bad song on this record and there just isn’t one—the only flaw may be, at 15 tracks, it’s a bit overwhelming. To mention one highlight, though, is to leave out five others equally deserving (but, okay, “Beautiful Mind” and the Kinks cover “Strangers” are particularly awesome). The influences are wide-ranging: classic rock, roots rock, pop rock, folk, country, alt-country, it’s all here—and it all sounds really good. So good, in fact, you won’t believe this is “just a side project.” Grade: A-

• “Illinois,” Sufjan Stevens—This is not a review, per se, because “Illinois” was last year’s IT indie album. I just thought I’d mention I’ve been trying for all of 2006 to like this record and finally, just this week, gave up and deleted it from my iPod. It’s just too cute, too perfect, too … I don’t know … too cold, maybe? I can see why people go crazy for Sufjan—he fits perfectly into the post-“Garden State” soundtrack world in which we all live—but it didn’t do much for me (although I do enjoy “Jacksonville”). I guess this means I have to turn in my Christian I.D. card now.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

OutKast, 'Idlewild'

My latest review is now online at Relevant. Grade: A- (Bonus points for the person who can spot the grammatical error in the first sentence—not my fault, by the way.)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Ghost of a Good Thing: Dashboard Confessional in D.C., 8.9.06

What in the world has gotten into Chris Carrabba?
This week his band, Dashboard Confessional, played Constitution Hall in D.C. and it was … just okay. That’s strange, considering I saw this very same band just nine months ago and it was, without a doubt, one of the best concerts of my life.
Of course, the latter was part of a college tour, and Dashboard played on a sparse stage set up at one end of a big ol’ gym in the Middle of Nowhere, Maryland, to about 750 to 1,000 people. (It was basically a perfect show—check out the November 2005 folder at right for more.)
In the intervening time, Carrabba released “Dusk and Summer,” his fourth and most arena-friendly album. And, apparently, he’s decided to overhaul his entire stage persona. Now, I’m certainly not one to criticize an artist for expanding or changing; to simply play the same old warhorses the same old way for years on end typically is a bad thing (unless you’re the ageless wonder Tom Petty). Carrabba’s 31 years old now, so I appreciate some of the more subtle changes he’s made for this tour, such as playing “The Good Fight” all-electric or mellowing out “The Swiss Army Romance” so it’s more mature and contemplative, as opposed to the heart-on-sleeve post-teenage angst way it was originally conceived.
But elsewhere, Carrabba’s decided to come out from behind the mic and guitar, parading around the stage trying to unleash his inner Robert Plant. He looks absolutely ridiculous (and uncomfortable, and unnatural) holding up his left hand, palm out, with his eyes closed and body bent at the waist. I realize Dashboard is playing to bigger crowds now than it ever has (they sold out large concert halls in D.C., Boston, and NYC this week), but Carrabba’s changed his style more drastically than could ever be considered innate. It’s way too campy; for the first time in four shows, it felt like Carrabba was disingenuous, posing for the crowd with total lack of any real emotion. Just because you’re playing to a bigger room doesn’t mean you have to act “bigger.” There’s only one Bono and, sorry Chris, you ain’t him.
I’m hoping this is just a phase, just a step in Carrabba’s figuring out how to age gracefully. As I wrote in my review for “Dusk and Summer,” he’s too old to be doing the same old thing. Consider his quote from a Boston Herald article this week:

“When you come from the DIY world that I come from, you realize that there’s a reason to embrace those values. But there’s also a reason to not let those things roll over your creative nature in a negative way. That was a liberating feeling to discover in making this record.”

In principle, I totally agree with him. Indie/punk “cred” is about as fickle a fanbase as you’ll ever find—one wrong move according to some unrealistic, unattainable, unwritten, inscrutable standard, and they label you a sellout and trash you on That’s not what I’m doing here. I have no problem with Dashboard’s rising popularity; what bothers me is seemingly changing who you are to meet that new audience. Because, man, I hope D/C is not following in the footsteps of DMB; one beloved band’s betrayal is enough.
It would be one thing if these stylistic alterations accompanied a better experience (hello, ZooTV). You want to add stage effects, backdrops, etc.? Fine. But Wednesday night’s show was middling at best, where the added “production value” too severely determined the course of the music. Plus, two opening bands meant the setlist was cropped down to 16 songs and less than an hour and a half. Dashboard’s playing the same set every single night and, as they wind down to the end of this tour, they look flat-out bored. Even their best songs—“Vindicated,” “Hands Down,” “Again I Go Unnoticed”—felt rote.
That’s not to say there weren’t some nice moments, though, and that I didn’t have a good time. “So Long, So Long” is a winner, and all the other new songs sounded good live, too (even though I can’t believe they’re not playing “Reason to Believe”). If I had never seen the band before, I probably would have been fine, especially with such great seats (second row!) that only cost $25. And maybe I just caught them on an off night. But when I know what Dashboard’s capable of, this show was, in general, a hollow disappointment.

Dashboard Confessional
Constitution Hall
Washington, D.C.

Heaven Here
Rooftops and Invitations
The Good Fight
The Swiss Army Romance
The Secret’s in the Telling
Again I Go Unnoticed
Ghost of a Good Thing
Gone, Gone, Gone (John Ralston on lead vocals)
Dusk and Summer
Remember to Breathe
Screaming Infidelities
So Long, So Long
Don’t Wait

Hands Down

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

***And a note about opening acts Say Anything and Ben Lee***
Say Anything goes down as one of the worst openers I’ve ever seen. Musically, they’re tight and exciting, but frontman Max Bemis is horrendous. He set an awful tone leading up to Dashboard’s set. And what’s worse, Carrabba tagged one of Bemis’ lines into “Swiss Army,” then brought Bemis out onstage to sing part of “Remember to Breathe.” We would have been much better served with just the charming, funny Aussie Ben Lee and a longer set from Dashboard.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Johnny Cash, "American V: A Hundred Highways"/Tom Petty, "Highway Companion"

My two latest music reviews are now online at, under the headline "Highwaymen Revisited." Again, RELEVANT doesn't give grades, but I give Cash an A, Petty an A-. Both come highly recommended.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

'Lebowski' Mash-ups

Cut and paste these links to see how a few devious (yet genius) minds put classic dialogue from "The Big Lebowski" to good use:


"Teenage Mutant Ninja Lebowskis"

"My Little Lebowski"

"The Big Wazowski"

Pearl Jam, "Lebowski"

And here's an abridged version of the movie

Just remember: This is "The Big Lebowski" we're talking about, so under 17 not admitted without parent or guardian. You have been warned.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’

It's disgusting how many critics have fallen all over themselves coming up with “clever” ways to slam “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” What, exactly, were they expecting?
Take Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly, just for kicks: In the first paragraph—nay, first sentence of her review, she comes right out and says how much she hated “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” from three years ago (not failing to mention, of course, how she went oh so against the “popular” critical grain, isn’t she special).
Well, Lisa, my question is simple: Why on earth did you see the second one? Were you hoping for, I don’t know, “Hamlet”? “Gone With the Wind,” perhaps?
No, “Dead Man’s Chest” is not a landmark piece of filmmaking. It may not even be as good as its predecessor. But it’s certainly a fun two and a half hours at the movie theater, worth the price of admission if for nothing else than another peek at Johnny Depp’s inscrutable Capt. Jack Sparrow.
See, this is what happens in the world of pop culture: Everyone wants to be the first to hail something as the second coming, then be the first to rip said second coming to shreds as soon as it becomes popular, all in the name of hipness, indie cred, whatever.
If you liked “The Curse of the Black Pearl” (and if you didn’t, there’s something wrong with you), then you’ll certainly enjoy “Dead Man’s Chest.” It suffers somewhat initially from lacking the surprise factor of Depp’s seminal performance, but thankfully he has the good sense not to dawdle on past success. He takes Sparrow in a new direction this time around—still funny as all get-out, certainly, but we get to see a bit more human side of Cap’n Jack.
The other primary characters are much better this time around. Orlando Bloom, on the run from the law again as pirate-in-training Will Turner, gets to revel in a less tidy, more aggressive performance. Same can be said for the radiant Keira Knightley, whose Elizabeth goes from so much window dressing in “Black Pearl” to flat-out swashbuckler in “Dead Man’s Chest.” And then there’s Davy Jones, played with shiver-me-timbers menace by Bill Nighy under untold layers of makeup and special effects (nice job FINALLY by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic); his beard of octopus tentacles is unbelievable to watch.
The story of “Dead Man’s Chest” is a little tough to follow at times, but part of the problem, I assume, is this is only half a movie; the third “Pirates” is due next summer and the two presumably will add up to one five-hour whole (a la “Kill Bill”). Essentially, Jones has come calling for repayment of a debt owed him by Sparrow. Meanwhile, Turner must find the good captain and bring back his compass that doesn’t point north in order to keep his and Miss Swann’s heads out of the noose. Adventures ensue, and there are plenty of tremendous scenes that I won’t spoil here.
But this is all secondary to one man: Jack Sparrow. It can’t be overestimated what Depp has achieved with this role, an icon that relates on all levels and to all generations. Capt. Sparrow has made as big of a cultural impact as any character in recent memory—after all, it’s not every summer a gold-toothed miscreant knocks Superman out cold. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be a pirate.
The plot in “Dead Man’s Chest” is much bigger than “Black Pearl” and nowhere near as whimsical, in turn affecting Depp’s interpretation of Sparrow. Jack goes from the pursuer to the prey, which naturally puts a damper on his mood and cuts down on the jovial fun from the first film. However, this probably proves a good thing because nobody likes reruns, and Depp has too much integrity to ape himself.
“Dead Man’s Chest” is impossible to fully appreciate until we’ve seen the final installment, but there’s certainly plenty to love about this movie. It’s a sequel with enough depth to keep your brain engaged, a summer blockbuster with enough innovative action to keep your eyes bulging out of your head. And, most important, it provides a serviceable backdrop for inarguably one of cinema’s all-time greatest characters.
Grade: B+

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dashboard Confessional, 'Dusk and Summer'

I'm proud to report RELEVANT magazine's online edition has added me to its roster of music critics. My first review, Dashboard Confessional's "Dusk and Summer," is now up at RELEVANT doesn't give grades, but I'd say the new album is in the B/B- range.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Catching Up: Capsule Music Reviews, Spring/Summer 2006

And this great list doesn't even include Pearl Jam, Springsteen, Dashboard, Cash, and Petty. Oh, it's been a VERY good year already:

• “Decemberunderground,” AFI—It’s been three years since AFI (A Fire Inside) released their breakthrough smash “Sing the Sorrow,” and, apparently, success hasn’t really changed the California quartet. This follow-up is a strange mixture of regression and progression for a band that prides itself on continually evolving. Some entries, such as “Kill Caustic,” dip back into frontman Davey Havok’s hardcore roots more than the previous record. In other places, such as the infectious lead single “Miss Murder,” the band pushes further along on its journey toward electronica and industrial beats. And then there’s “Summer Shudder” and “Love Like Winter,” two pop/rock gems so catchy and smooth, they’re like boy band songs with street cred. Overall, “Decemberunderground” is an excellent listen and stands up well against its seminal predecessor, though this is about as hardcore as I’m willing to go. Grade: A-

• “The Gold Record,” The Bouncing Souls—About to enter their third decade, this well-traveled New Jersey quartet may finally get the credit they deserve with an extremely accessible album chock-full of great songs. “The Gold Record” is pure pop/punk genius from start to finish, shedding the Souls’ thrashing double-kick drum cadences (a form of punk I simply cannot stand) for more traditional singalong melodies and rousing anthems such as “So Jersey,” “Sounds of the City,” and “For All the Unheard”—to name just a few. Ironically, the only song here to use the aforementioned double-kick is also the most inspired cut on the record: The story behind “Letter from Iraq” runs deep but, essentially, the lyrics are culled from a letter written by a soldier serving overseas obviously disabused with the notion of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The group formed a strong bond with the serviceman after meeting him in Germany and, rather than try to summarize his sentiments in their own words, the Souls simply merged lines from one of his letters into a cohesive three-minute protest song. I don’t agree with the sentiment, but the Souls’ approach is brilliant and, pardon me, sets the gold standard in the current overflowing crop of anti-war chaff throughout the music industry (are you paying attention, Mr. Vedder?). I certainly don’t qualify as a “true believer,” but “The Gold Record” made a definite fan out of me. Grade: A

• “Broken Boy Soldiers,” The Raconteurs—What, exactly, was everyone expecting from this album? Despite Jack White’s protestations to the contrary, the Raconteurs are nonetheless, hello, a SIDE PROJECT. And as side projects go, this effort is stellar in that it doesn’t really seem like one, after all. “Soldiers” is not the guitar extravaganza I was hoping for based on “Steady As She Goes” and “Store Bought Bones” (and White’s freedom from the strict rules he established for The White Stripes), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. White’s old-school ethos mix effortlessly with co-founder/frontman Brendan Benson’s pop/rock sensibilities to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The results are, in general, surprisingly eclectic, from the aforementioned Zeppelin-esque “Bones” to the haunting rootsy title track to the synth-tweaked “Intimate Secretary” to the (and this IS a shocker) Wilco-esque “Together.” In fact, the only lackluster entry on the record doesn’t come until the ninth track with the plodding and dull Benson-fronted “Call It a Day,” a song just itching to let loose that, unfortunately, remains confined. Thankfully, White brings “Soldiers” home with the aptly titled “Blue Veins,” a wicked rhythm and blues finale that leaves you wanting more. One thing’s for sure: This is a whole lot better than “Get Behind Me Satan.” Grade: A-

• “Eyes Open,” Snow Patrol—While more polished, straightforward, and certainly more radio-friendly than 2004’s “Final Straw,” this new collection from the British quintet is nearly as good and seems to finally have broken through in the States—an occurrence long overdue. Frontman Gary Lightbody gives Chris Martin everything he can handle with tunes that are warmer and more accessible than anything Coldplay have to offer. And certainly don’t judge all of “Eyes Open” off the crooning, orchestral slow build of lead single “Chasing Cars”—there’s plenty of U2-style rock to go around, especially stellar cuts “Hands Open” and “It’s Beginning to Get to Me,” balanced by the group’s vaunted indie stylings on tracks such as “Shut Your Eyes” and the bell-tinged “You Could Be Happy.” If you like “Chasing Cars,” go buy this record—it’s not as good as “Final Straw,” but it doesn’t disappoint, either. Grade: B+

• “Louder Now,” Taking Back Sunday—It’s tough to follow a career-defining album such as TBS released in 2004 with the spectacular “Where You Want to Be.” “Louder Now” is the New York hardcore band’s first album on a major label, and some of the rough edges have been sanded off in favor of a cleaner, slightly more polished sound—and that’s not a good thing. Still, TBS nevertheless provide another strong set of muscular hard-rocking screamalong anthems on their third album. If “Louder Now” is not quite as good as “Where You Want to Be,” that’s okay—nothing could be. Grade: B+

• “Show Your Bones,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs—A strong contender for Album of the Year honors, the NYC trio’s sophomore album is almost nothing like their trashy, messy debut—and that’s a great thing. “Fever to Tell,” released in 2003 at the back end of the “garage rock” revival (whatever) was okay for what it was—a slapdash batch of dirty, guitar-heavy rockers—but didn’t come close to living up to the hype. “Bones,” on the other hand, is a masterpiece, a giant leap in songcraft that expands on the promise shown in “Maps,” the big hit from “Fever.” Opener and lead single “Gold Lion” is captivating as it adds new layers on every verse and chorus, finally exploding in the final minute. “Lion” is a sign of much to come, as there isn’t a bad song to be found on this album that steps out of the garage and into the light of genre-defying and –bending music—punk, classic rock, pop, even a little dance and country, it’s all here. All hail lead singer Karen O, whose ethereal voice will now hopefully carry the flag recently rescinded by Sleater-Kinney (may they rest in peace). Grade: A

Saturday, July 01, 2006

'Superman Returns'

Yes, Supes, we’ve all missed you.
Perfectly cast, perfectly written, and, most important, perfectly realized, “Superman Returns” is the quintessential summer blockbuster, an eye-blasting film nevertheless not so high on action that it forgets its soul.
Director Bryan Singer one-ups even his two spectacular “X-Men” movies with what must be considered one of the genre’s best adaptations of all time. He dedicates this film to Christopher Reeve, and I can’t imagine the late movie icon who so famously took on the title role from 1978-87 wouldn’t endorse this heartfelt homage. It’s clear right from the zoom-in opening credits—complete with John Williams’ original theme music—that Singer knows his history and truly loves this character. His “X”-scribes, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, make some gutsy choices with the plot, but Superman is definitely back in all his red, yellow, and blue glory—tights, cape, and all.
Newcomer Brandon Routh proves, much like Reeve, to be a diamond in the rough as Superman, who returns to earth after a five-year absence while searching for remains of his home world, Krypton. In that time, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given birth to a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu, in his first role), and is now engaged to Richard White (James Marsden, otherwise known as Cyclops from the “X-Men” films (don’t worry, he’s MUCH better here)), related to Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Frank Langella).
So, needless to say, ol’ Clark Kent has a bit of catching up to do now that he’s back zooming around Metropolis. Not to mention his nemesis, Lex Luthor, is out of jail (thanks to a legal loophole) and plotting, again, to take over the world. The greatest villain in all of comic book lore is played to the nines in “Returns” by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, his best role—and performance—in years. Where Gene Hackman envisioned Luthor as a wisecracking aw-shucks megalomaniac in the original “Superman,” Spacey goes all out in a preferable version of the sadistic villain, chewing up the scenery along the way.
The primary criticism I’ve read of this film is Singer has somehow “lost the fun” of the original Reeve incarnation. I beg to differ. The special effects in “Superman Returns” are so stunning, this time you really will believe a man can fly. In the nearly three decades since “Superman,” you’d think we’d seen it all when it comes to high-wire thrills, yet Singer somehow still manages to blow your hair back throughout his movie’s two and a half hours. The first time Clark blasts off to save Lois from certain doom, goosebumps run from head to toe.
Even more important than the stunning visuals, though, is Singer’s now tried-and-true ability to find the hearts in even the most outlandish characters (blue-painted and tattooed Nightcrawler from “X2,” for example). The idea of a love triangle between Superman, Lois, and her fiancé isn’t exactly a whimsical comic book fantasy, but it allows the Man of Steel’s character to shine in a way Reeve’s never did. Luthor’s destructive antics almost play second fiddle to the story of how Superman finds his way back into a world radically different from the one he left. Routh may not be having as much “fun” as his predecessor, but Kal-El has never felt more human.
And in a world that feels like it’s ripping apart at the seams, the idea of such a relatable Superman actually put a little lump in my throat. Wouldn’t it be incredible if some blue blur could scream down from the heavens and make all the pain go away?
Well, for the 154 minutes of “Superman Returns,” he actually does.
Grade: A

Sunday, June 11, 2006

He Wrecked Us: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Live at Nissan, 6.10.06

Tom Petty is the author of so many songs woven into the fabric of my life, I almost forget how great they actually are.
Until he plays them right in front of my face, that is, and then I remember all over again what made me love them in the first place.
Petty is taking his Heartbreakers out on the road this summer for what he says could be the last big-top road trip of their longstanding careers. If so, it’s a shame, because as he proved Saturday night at Nissan Pavilion, there’s nobody out there quite like the Mad Hatter. He’s a showman without being cheesy, a craftsman without being rote, and, even after 30-plus years, can still put on one incredible show.
It’s truly amazing the depth of this man’s work when five of the first six songs Saturday night were the following: “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Falling,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” That lineup could CLOSE a show and bring the house down, much less open it! But, as Petty said, “We’ve got a lot of music for you tonight.”
After a trio of excellent cover songs (well, does a Wilburys song count as a cover?), Petty brought out a surprise special guest: Stevie Nicks, who he described as his “soul sister.” Look, I don’t even own a Fleetwood Mac album, but this was still pretty cool, if nothing else than for the shock value. And it was easy to tell the two of them were having a great time, both on the beautiful, quiet duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and the uptempo “I Need to Know.”
Up next was “Melinda,” a song Petty’s never recorded but remains nonetheless a longstanding concert favorite. The song showcases something else about this band that you might not expect—they love to jam. Nearly every song is stretched beyond its original borders with an extra coda, an extended intro, or, as is the case here, long jams in the middle, this time courtesy of keyboardist Benmont Tench. Petty doesn’t rush through anything. The lights go down at the end of each song, punctuating the quality and meaning of every entry in the set. And when such care and attention is given to everything he does, it makes Petty’s two-hour set feel more like three.
Petty slowed things down a bit with a trio of quieter tunes, highlighted by one of two new songs unveiled Saturday off his forthcoming “Highway Companions” album. Both were fantastic, including the acoustic “Square One” (destined to be a classic) and slow-builder “Saving Grace,” which fit nicely into the set’s opening sextet of power chords.
After a big singalong during a slowed-down version of “Learning to Fly,” Petty & Co. revved up again to close the set with three more classics. Each of these were played with so much power and passion, I thought they all would end the set. It’s hard to beat the trio of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Refugee,” and “Running Down A Dream.”
So, let me pause here to mention the awesome stage setup for this tour. There are four large video screens at the back of the stage which, at various times, move up and down and have either a live shot of the band or images that complement the music. Meanwhile, a series what I can only assume are LCD screens hang in rows from the ceiling, made to resemble cabaret-style lights. These, too, are movable, and are often synchronized with the scenes from the four big screens. The production summarizes Petty perfectly: Just enough show to make you sit up and take notice, enough to add a little umph to the performance, but never distracting. Sensible, judicious, … perfect.
The band closed the show with a fine trio, “You Wreck Me,” “Mystic Eyes” (which I believe is a Van Morrison cover), and the staple “American Girl,” which also closed the group’s first album way back in 1976.
I know Petty says this tour is the final major hoorah for his beloved highway companions, but I just can’t believe it. At 55, the iconic frontman looks as spry as ever, spinning and prowling around the stage like it’s 1976, not 2006. If this truly is The Heartbreakers’ last big go-round, then we’ll all be missing a little something in summertimes to come. Because this band and this show are flat-out phenomenal.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Nissan Pavilion
Bristow, VA

Listen to Her Heart
You Don’t Know How It Feels
I Won’t Back Down
Free Fallin’
Saving Grace
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
I’m A Man (Yardbirds cover)
Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Handle with Care (Traveling Wilburys)
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (w/Stevie Nicks)
I Need to Know (w/Stevie Nicks)
Square One
Insider (w/Stevie Nicks)
Learning to Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Running Down a Dream

You Wreck Me
Mystic Eyes (Van Morrison cover)
American Girl

Running Time: 2 hours

•••And a note about opener Trey Anastasio***
I’m certainly no Phish-head, but this guy has totally won me over. I highly recommend his latest solo album, “Shine,” and I am THERE whenever he comes this way again as a headliner. Saturday’s 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Move Over Tony, There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Now that HBO’s “The Sopranos” has finally stumbled to the end of its worst season (by far), the once-scintillating series makes way Sunday night for its successor as not only the best drama on HBO, but arguably the best show on TV, period: “Deadwood.”
If that moniker rings a bell, it’s probably from one of myriad reports about its crass surface. Various media outlets have relished blaring headlines with the number of f-words or c-suckers uttered per episode (I don’t know the actual figures, but the total is surely in triple digits over the course of an hour). If you can get past the profanity, though (and, I guess, the random violence, nudity, and various other forms of depraved “adult content”), “Deadwood” slowly untangles its own complicated storylines to reveal a truly remarkable show. While not as hyped or acclaimed as “The Sopranos,” it’s just as good—maybe even better. The final episode of Season 1, for instance, is one of the best hours of entertainment I’ve ever encountered.
Created and produced by David Milch (who also created another controversial series, “NYPD Blue”), “Deadwood” is set in the late 19th century in the Dakota town of Deadwood, just prior to its annexation into the United States. A camp with no laws and lots of gold, Deadwood draws prospectors from all ranges of society—New York dignitaries to prostitutes, legitimate businessmen to entrepreneurs as corrupt as they come.
And then there’s Seth Bullock, a former lawman from Montana who was so worn down trying to enforce order in the Wild West, he went to the one place he thought he could escape it and live a quiet, unassuming existence. Unfortunately for Bullock, a deep-rooted sense of justice isn’t so easily shaken, and it wasn’t long before he was setting wrongs to rights in Deadwood, no matter how reluctantly. When he stalks down the thoroughfare in fury, eyes ablaze, it gives me chills.
Bullock is played to sizzling, righteous perfection by previous bit-player Timothy Olyphant, who conveys more in one baleful glare than most men could accomplish with a lengthy monologue. Not that there aren’t plenty of monologues in “Deadwood” to go around. In fact, other than the extreme content, another factor in the series’ relative lack of accessibility is the Shakespearean style in which the dialogue is written and delivered—right down to the soliloquies and asides (this aspect of the show is worthy of unabating praise all by itself—the writing is just fantastic).
Perhaps that’s why veteran stage and character actor Ian McShane took so well to his role as saloon owner/proprietor Al Swearengen (an apt name if ever there was one), a wolf in devil’s clothing. Holding court in his second-floor office like the king of England, Swearengen epitomizes the looking-out-for-number-one mentality needed to survive in Deadwood. He’s a complicated man whose deft political machinations are as lethal as his knife, and whose loyalties shift to whomever can serve his purposes best. He’ll fight to the death in one episode, then shake his former combatant’s hand in the next. And, yes, he’s masochistic and just a little bit crazy. But he commands attention, nonetheless.
“Deadwood’s” first 24 episodes are way too complicated to summarize here (in fact, they require such mental effort to watch, I can only take two at a time). Suffice to say, Milch sets these two alpha males—the reserved, honorable Bullock and the over-the-top, profane Swearengen—not only against each other, but against the encroaching (and equally corrupt) United States government; the only thing they hate more than each other, apparently, is someone from outside trying to move in on their territory. Olyphant and McShane are so terrific in these roles, when they share the screen the electricity generated is reminiscent of Pacino-de Niro in “Heat”—and, no, that’s not an exaggeration.
And they’re just two members of a spectacular cast. Brad Dourif (“The Lord of the Rings”) shines as the troubled town doctor; Robin Weigert earned a well-deserved Emmy nod for her alternately touching and hysterical portrayal of Calamity Jane; Paula Malcomson investigates every inch of the mentality of prostitute Trixie; and Molly Parker demonstrates the difficulty of being a woman in a man’s world through the dignified, yearning widow Alma Garret. (It’s also interesting to note that a series as misogynist as “Deadwood” could feature just as many strong female characters as male.)
Look, “Deadwood” certainly isn’t for everyone, otherwise there wouldn’t be a question about whether it’s going to be cancelled after this season. Its Aaron Sorkin-esque political minutiae can even be wearisome to the most dedicated of fans. But if you can somehow cope with the brutal violence and rampant curse words (all necessary to effectively set the atmosphere and realism, mind you (and McShane turns use of the f-word into an art form)), what you’ll find is a remarkably humane series with a heart of gold. Unlike “The Sopranos,” "Deadwood" is populated with plenty of people to love.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

‘X-Men: The Last Stand’

I didn’t think any movie could disappoint me and betray a loyal fanbase as much as the “Star Wars” prequels or the "Matrix" sequels, but “X-Men: The Last Stand” now takes its rightful place on this Mount Rushmore of infamy. It’s a shame this abomination is making so much money, because no studio should be encouraged to release something this bad.
I knew it, too, I just didn’t want to believe it. But as soon as I heard Bryan Singer had left the franchise after two excellent installments and was replaced by Brett Ratner (whose claim to fame is directing the two “Rush Hour” movies), there was nowhere to go but down. Why did it have to be Ratner? Anyone would have been better than this popcorn jockey, because he’s delivered arguably the worst mega-blockbuster of all time. I mean, this is “Matrix Reloaded” bad.
Worse, he and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn trample over the first two films. After watching “The Last Stand,” immediately try to forget it. The “creative” team behind this film can only drum up dramatic moments by killing off three major characters—and not in a good, meaningful way. I got the impression they just couldn’t figure out how to write a better story and went for cheap emotional payoffs that come up bankrupt.
And as for the remaining key characters that somehow avoided the chopping block, gone is every ounce of wit, humor, and genuine emotion found in the first two films. Instead, they’re reduced to spitting out every action-movie cliché in the book, effectively killing their personalities anyway. (Alan Cumming looks like a genius now for not reprising his role as Nightcrawler. These buffoons couldn’t have handled the complexities.) You want to know how awful this movie is? Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is actually BORING. There are several scenes of dialogue so bad, I can’t believe the actors didn’t stop everything and demand a rewrite on the spot. You know, the scary thing is, maybe they did, and this is the best Ratner & Co. could come up with.
Ratner’s only saving grace in “The Last Stand” is his full-on exploitation of all the awesome mutant powers at his disposal. As bad as it is, if you’re planning on seeing this film at all, you should see it on the big screen to get the full effect of the action, because there are some genuinely cool moments (Iceman vs. Pyro comes to mind); if you wait until DVD, though, all the mutant powers in the world probably won’t keep you from hitting the eject button before you’re even halfway through. Of course, let’s remember Ratner is actually just benefiting from the bankroll Singer spent two movies building.
The only other good thing about “The Last Stand” is Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy, a.k.a. The Beast. This is an inspired selection, and ol’ Frasier is spectacular in his first foray into big-budget territory.
Still, that only means this film is barely watchable at best; at worst, it destroys the X-Men franchise. Let’s hope this really is the last one—unless they can pry the reins out of Ratner’s ham-fisted hands, that is.
Grade: Special effects/mutant coolness A, everything else F. Overall: D+

Friday, June 02, 2006

You Say You Want A Revolution? Pearl Jam, Live in D.C., 5.30.06

My Red Hot Chili Peppers fandom essentially ended on March 31, 2000, the first and last time I saw them in concert.
That year the Peppers were touring off their spectacular comeback album “Californication,” with the Foo Fighters as special guests. So I hoofed it to Columbus with a bunch of friends to see them, only to find out when we arrived that Dave Grohl was “sick” and the Foos wouldn’t play. Disappointing as that was, I consoled myself with the hope that the Chilis would probably play longer as a result.
No such luck.
Instead, openers Muse played an extended set (not bad, mind you), and the Peppers made us wait for more than an hour before playing through their standard 80-minute set.
Needless to say, I was pissed. They could—and should—have done the right thing and at least tried to make something positive out of the evening. Think of how impressed I would have been had they acknowledged our disappointment by promising to try and take the edge off with a special performance. Nah, instead they took our money and ran.
I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve listened to them since then—and I LOVED “Californication.”
As Bill Cosby would say, I told you that story so I can tell you this one …

• • •

Giddy shouts of joy reverberated through Pearl Jam’s little corner of the Internet this month when it was revealed the band would play a set for VH-1’s “Storytellers” on May 31. Fans were buzzing over the opportunity to ask Eddie & Co. about their songs and get to hear the stories and themes behind them straight from their mouths—some of the songs, presumably, explained for the first time.
Except me. Why? Because I already had tickets for the D.C. show the night before, and I feared the worst: A set cut short by the necessity of traveling from Washington to New York City in time for an early call the next night. A conserving of energy, holding back on a few thousand people in order to look good for the millions certain to watch a televised performance. All adding up to, by Pearl Jam standards, a subpar outing.
What was I thinking? Pearl Jam never—I repeat, NEVER—mails it in, and I should have known better.
Tuesday night’s show was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m., but Ed hit the stage at 7:25, guitar in hand, for a gorgeous pre-set cover of Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (is there anything this guy’s voice can’t sing?). Openers My Morning Jacket then jumped onstage right away and played a brief 25-minute set, clearing out well before 8:00 and leaving Pearl Jam plenty of time to do their thing. Which they did, gloriously, for nearly two and a half hours.
They could have said screw it, we have an important gig tomorrow night and that’s all there is to it. But, no, they did the right thing, the honorable thing, and made the most out of what could have been a bad situation, because every night is important for this band. This is what makes PJ great. This is what separates them from the pack. It sounds trite, but I truly believe this band cares deeply about its fans and goes out of its way to protect that relationship. Cut a show short? Uh-uh. Not on your life.
And, man, what a show, clocking in at 29 songs and 2:25 (yes, it’s insane that those figures are considered shorter than usual), Pearl Jam simply trimmed off the fat. This, my 10th show, was perhaps the most well crafted, focused setlist I’ve heard in person.
Look no further than “Release,” one of the band’s best songs and without question the best concert-opener in Pearl Jam’s entire catalog. Man, I love this song—you’ll never convince me that a show opened with “Release” isn’t great. From the very first note (instantly recognizable for many of us), it sets a definite tone—we’re not screwing around here.
That vibe continued with a stellar run of all-out rockers to kick the show into high gear. Hit single “World Wide Suicide” actually translates extremely well live and has truly won me over, with Ed somehow managing to spit out all those lines without missing a beat or veering off track. “Severed Hand” melts my face it’s so raw and powerful, and makes good use of the band’s new light show. There is a rainbow arc of lights across the back of the stage, then another bank high above their heads that at times can shimmer and sparkle similar to U2’s “light curtain” from the Vertigo tour. And all of this is complemented by “laser lights,” essentially a series of spotlights located at the rear of the stage facing out into the crowd that can be wide or narrowed to a thin beam. Mostly used on the new material, it’s not distracting, but not entirely necessary, either. I liked the rainbow arc, but the rest didn’t do much for me.
By this point in the show—yes, just three songs in—the only thing you really need to see is Mike McCready, already going crazy and running in circles on his corner of the stage (always a good sign). And why not? The opening moments of this concert were a showcase for his guitar heroics, with big solos in “Severed Hand” and the old warhorse “Corduroy,” which still bowls me over.
After a rousing “Animal,” Ed spoke for the first time with these magic little words: “We’re just gettin’ started,” leading right into that killer opening riff to none other than “Do the Evolution”—it just reaches out and grabs you by the throat. While this is probably my favorite Pearl Jam song, I’m not so biased that I can’t admit it doesn’t always come off well live. Even though they’ve played it literally hundreds of times, “DTE” is so tight, it requires maximum effort to pull off live. When trotted out late in a show (the second encore, for instance), they typically don’t have enough energy left to play it to full potential. But here, in the No. 6 slot, it still roars, leading wonderfully into the always-magnificent “Given to Fly,” another major piece of the catalog that deserves the early-set treatment.
So Eddie lasted seven songs before delving into politics, albeit lightly (for now). After mentioning what a good time he had in the area on Memorial Day and how happy he is that summer is here, he dropped in a line about “hopefully we can end the war before summer’s end,” leading into the first shocker of the night: “Lowlight,” a beautiful track from 1998’s “Yield” that I had yet to hear in person.
“Lowlight” served as a dividing line between the opening thrills and the meat of the first set, which turned out to be one heck of a stretch. It didn’t hurt that this section began with “Unemployable,” one my favorite cuts off the new album. But follow that with “Grievance” → “Even Flow” → “I Got Shit,” and I need a moment to catch my breath. So, right on cue, here’s “Present Tense,” a highlight of any show and seemingly growing more powerful with age. It’s a little faster, a little harder these days, as Matt sneaks in earlier than before on drums. With Ed allowing the crowd to take over in the chorus—goosebumps, galore.
In another new twist (and I think this was a first), Ed also reworked the beginning of “Betterman” for Booooooom to start the song off on keys; while it makes for a nice change, I still prefer letting the crowd start the whole thing off a la Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” but I’m never going to complain about innovation—and we still got to sing the chorus.
Up next was “Inside Job,” a nice transition into the crescendo that closed the main set. I won’t go into my love for this song again (just find my review of the new record), but it’s so good—and has the potential to be even better once they figure out how to really pull it off live (it seems to be the most difficult piece of all the new songs). Right now, the opening section is played on electric guitar instead of acoustic and it’s a little more uptempo, which somewhat deadens the impact of that BIG shift to all-out rocker in the second half. Still, overall, I wouldn’t have traded this song out for anything.
“Wasted Reprise”/”Life Wasted” picked up on the momentum and took it up several notches, because, let me assure you, “Life Wasted” is already at the top of my list for favorite live songs. It fits the band’s strengths perfectly—taut, intense, hard-rocking, and a great segue into a knockout punch of “Why Go” (complete with the traditional drum solo intro) and “Rearviewmirror” to close this section of the show on a huge high. (Ed did a little vocal vamping during the “RVM” bridge, by the way, which I also think is new—and very cool (and, while I’m at it, let me mention the bridge was much harder and faster this time around than any version I’ve ever heard, which, again, is a big improvement).) I can’t stress enough how well this opening set flowed—it was basically pitch-perfect, with none of those awkward “Lukin” into “Wishlist” transitions Eddie has been known to throw in. Each song seemed to complement the previous one and lead gracefully into the next, building and lessening intensity as needed. It was Pearl Jam at their absolute best. And we weren’t close to finished, even on a “short” night.
Over the past couple years, Pearl Jam have fallen into a delicious habit of treating their first encore like an acoustic/soft mini-set. The crew drags some stools onstage and the band takes a load off for a few quiet songs, and it’s just great—makes a show feel even longer than it actually is. Tuesday night’s encore opened with “Man of the Hour,” a wonderful little song Ed wrote for the “Big Fish” soundtrack. That led into Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which maintains Pearl Jam’s legacy of taking another artist’s song and making it completely their own (a la “Rockin’ in the Free World”). “Masters” has evolved quite a bit over the years, now played mostly electric and with more raw power than previous incarnations. It’s lost none of the bile, though, and was a much better political statement in the nation’s capital than any mumbling rant from Ed.
“Small Town” was the only song in the set I would have replaced, simply because it’s rather boring for me at this point. I’d much rather hear “Nothingman,” “Hard to Imagine,” or “Off He Goes” in this slot, but I know it’s a big crowd-pleaser, so I understand why it’s trotted out so much. And, hey, “Come Back” was next, so I can’t complain. This song, yet another highlight on “Avocado,” is just brilliant live. It gave me chills and stuck in my brain more than any other song after the show was over.
Back in October, after attending a classic PJ night in Philly, I wrote that the band plays “Alive” with hope now, rather than bitterness and anger as it was originally intended, and that has made it a highlight of any show. Well, I’m proud to say I was half right. During Wednesday night’s “Storytellers” taping, Ed confirmed this song has changed over the years, but not exactly the way I thought. He said the fans—not the band—made the difference, lifting his personal curse embodied in the writing of this song; our reaction to it changed the way they play it and contributed to Ed’s personal healing process. That’s a stunning revelation from a very guarded person, but I guess not surprising if you stand in a crowd during any rendition of “Alive.” Tuesday night, as we pumped our fists and chanted “Hey!” over and over as one, Ed picked up on our cue and started singing along to us. It’s one of my favorite parts of any show, looking around at the crowd during this song. Although not in my personal top 20, it is nonetheless essential to understanding Pearl Jam’s core—catharsis and release through a shared musical experience. The lyrics may be dour, but the music, the ability to share that pain, fills everyone with hope and turns tragedy and struggle into transcendence.
But enough of that mushy stuff. “Comatose” opened the second encore and absolutely blew the roof off the building. This new album is something else, ladies and gentlemen, and these songs (hopefully) aren’t going anywhere for a while. And then there’s “Leash,” which disappeared for more than a decade before a lame fan “campaign” coerced the band into pulling it out of the attic where it belongs and into the set. It debuted in Boston last week and has been played at every show since—a little “you wanted it, you’re gonna get it,” courtesy of Pearl Jam. The song does nothing for me, but it’s not bad live (certainly better than “Glorified G,” a clunker inexplicably making regular appearances in this slot these days), and it allowed me to check another track of my “to hear” list, so fine.
Ed just couldn’t let the night slip away without taking a few more jabs at the Bush administration, but at least he did so with humor. Dick Cheney gave him a call the other day, he quipped, and made a request for Tuesday night: Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up,” Cheney’s “favorite song,” with the “Why do I keep FUCKIN’ UP” refrain. “He listens to it every morning when he wakes up,” Ed said. Politics aside, this is one of Pearl Jam’s best covers and a welcome addition to any show I ever attend.
So with the 11:00 hour approaching, it was time for PJ to say goodbye the way they love best, one last scorching Mike solo to close “Yellow Ledbetter.” Mike’s famous for working well-known riffs into his last moment in the spotlight, but this has got to be my favorite. As the song started, Ed said, “We’ll see you again, because when the revolution comes, it’ll be in your back yard.” We may disagree on just about everything, but I think we’re both—and much of America—looking for something better in our nation’s supposed leaders. Democrats, Republicans—who can tell the difference anymore? So it was fitting Mike played “The Star Spangled Banner” almost in its entirety to close the night, a reminder that hopefully there’s more uniting us than dividing us.
A revolutionary thought, indeed.

Pearl Jam
Verizon Center
Washington, D.C.

Don’t By Shy (Ed solo)

Main set:
World Wide Suicide
Severed Hand
Do the Evolution
Given to Fly
Even Flow
I Got Shit
Present Tense
Inside Job
Wasted Reprise
Life Wasted
Why Go

First Encore:
Man of the Hour
Masters of War
Small Town
Come Back

Second Encore:
Fuckin’ Up
Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

***And one final note about D.C. crowds***
Washington-area crowds have a bad rap nationwide for being lethargic, and I don’t understand why. I’m not about to compare us with NYC, Boston, Philly, or Chicago (in that order), but I was proud to stand amongst the upraised voices both here and at the Springsteen show two nights earlier. In fact, a reviewer from favorably compared the Nissan show to a night in Europe. Now that’s some high—and long-deserved—praise. That singing through the encore break moment is one of my all-time best concert memories. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, there were multiple lines around the block waiting to get into a Pearl Jam show that had, hello, reserved seating. Don’t tell me we don’t get up for a show. Next time around, let’s play two!

Monday, May 29, 2006

‘A Night for Dancin’ and Singin’’: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, Live Near D.C., 5.28.06

Bruce Springsteen’s fifties have been very, very good to him.
Approaching his 57th birthday this fall, consider the wide range of work he’s produced just since the turn of the millennium. First came 2002’s “The Rising,” a stirring meditation on Sept. 11, backed by his beloved E Street Band for the first time since the Reagan era. Next up: 2005’s “Devils and Dust,” a solo album that proves a satisfying—and, in points, fantastic—deviation into Springsteen’s solo work.
And now, seemingly out of thin air, arrives “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a thrilling tribute to folk troubadour Pete Seeger that Springsteen recorded in just a few weeks from the living room of his New Jersey farmhouse with a motley bunch of 16 other musicians. He may not have written any of these songs, but from the opening moments of “Old Dan Tucker,” that unmistakable growl and howl make them Springsteen’s own. A welcome ramshackle change of pace from one of the most obsessive artists in rock and roll, "Seeger Sessions" is exhilarating for both musician and listener, a tremendous accomplishment for a guy who, we thought, had seen and done it all. And if you think this wasn't a risk, you're dead wrong. You know all those "BRUUUUCE" heads at regular shows clamoring for "Rosalita"? Well, a lot of them aren't even showing up this time around (not that that's a bad thing).
So touring off his first album of pure covers, the man they call The Boss is in the midst of an artistic renaissance—and, somehow, out to prove himself all over again. Never was that more apparent than Sunday night in Bristow, Virginia, when Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band (now expanded to TWENTY!), stormed the stage at Nissan Pavilion for an all-out hootenanny. I’ve seen a show from each of these three albums, and this one is without question my favorite of the bunch—come to think of it, this was the most pure, unadulterated fun I’ve EVER had at a concert.
You can say the words “20-piece band” and just gloss right over exactly what that means, because nothing quite prepares you to actually see that many people up on stage with Bruce Springsteen. And he knows it, too. Throughout the night, the lights would go down after every song, spotlight on whichever player was taking the lead to start the next one, and then the lights came up—WHAM!—when the full band kicked in—it’s a breathtaking sight (and sound) just about every time. I know this is folk music, but it’s folk music through the filter of one of America’s greatest rock and rollers, so these songs, too, absolutely rock in their own way.
There’s so much going on up there it’s hard to take it all in. Springsteen, for one, is juking and jiving like a man half his age—dripping and flinging sweat, he literally never stops moving and spends seemingly as much time away from the mic as he does hollering into it, alternately directing his band on the fly and just dancing around having a good ol’ time.
Sunday night, he opened the show with the stellar one-two punch of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “John Henry,” which effectively established a party atmosphere for the entire show; when Springsteen and seven other string players walk up to the front of the stage as a group and just wail away, you can’t help but smile and boogie. This would prove an excellent tactic throughout the night, always a crowd-pleaser. My particular favorite came during “Jesse James,” when Springsteen called the horn section down front from their riser in the back, letting the trumpet, trombone, sax, and tuba get their due.
To fill out a 21-song set that is now stretching toward the three-hour mark, Springsteen has reworked some of his own material and sprinkled them throughout the show. The only one even remotely recognizable is “If I Should Fall Behind,” the quintessential love song that allows Springsteen to share a microphone with wife and fellow luminous E Streeter Patti Scialfa. The rest, though, are like entirely new songs, especially “Open All Night” from 1982’s “Nebraska,” which Springsteen has transformed into an uptempo scat-fest boogie-woogie, spitting the lines out so fast he lost track of himself Sunday and had to stop and catch up with the band a few bars later. In the encore, “Ramrod” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” turn the Seeger Sessions Band into a ragtime group straight out of New Orleans—and it’s blow-your-hair-back fantastic.
Speaking of NOLA, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina came up at several points during the show, from the rather tepid reading of “We Shall Overcome” (the only boring song of the night) to “My Oklahoma Home” and “When the Saints Come Marching In,” the latter a remarkable take on a classic spiritual, allowing Springsteen’s surprisingly still-full voice to shine through in a quiet musical moment.
Springsteen was also mercifully mute politically, a surprise given the relatively close vicinity to the White House. Thankfully, he allowed the songs to speak for him, which is all I ever ask of musicians in the first place. The Irish folk lament “Mrs. McGrath” was an elegiac highlight of the night, and probably my favorite track on the album, too, despite Springsteen’s altering a line to slam President Bush (at this point, I can’t stand Bush any more than the Democrats, so who cares?). He’s also started adding Seeger’s Vietnam protest song “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)” as the encore opener. Again, no speechifying—just a simple comment that this is a song in honor of Memorial Day.
Political moments are just a small part of the show, though, because the Seeger Sessions Band is all about a rollicking great time. “Pay Me My Money Down” perhaps best summarized the vibe of the entire night, as Springsteen and the band wander offstage leaving only drums, tuba, and a crowd that sang the chorus all the way through the break until Springsteen came back onstage to shut us up (I’ve never been a part of something like that before).
Originally, Springsteen was only going to tour a limited number of shows with his new mates, but over in Europe he promised to see them again in the fall. After taking in this show, it’s not hard to see why he wants to keep going—he looks like he’s having an absolute ball up there. Even his song intros are hilarious (for “Jesse James”: “Most of this is bullshit, but it’s accepted bullshit”; on marriage advice prior to “Fall Behind”: “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy”; before “Erie Canal”: “The only love song written for a mule”). And, the best part is, with such a dynamic frontman shimmying and cavorting all over the stage, the fun is infectious. Although he had to urge a few “Virginia asses to get off those Virginia seats,” those of us down in the pit needed no encouragement. By the end of the night, my feet hurt from stompin’, my hands hurt from clappin’, my throat hurt from hollerin’, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The record is great. The show is inspired. What can he possibly do to top this?

Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band
Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, Va.

O Mary Don’t You Weep
John Henry
Johnny 99
Old Dan Tucker
Eyes on the Prize
Jesse James
Cadillac Ranch
If I Should Fall Behind
Erie Canal
My Oklahoma Home
Mrs. McGrath
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Jacob’s Ladder
We Shall Overcome
Open All Night
Pay Me My Money Down

Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
When the Saints Come Marching In
Buffalo Gals

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Sunday, May 28, 2006

'Mission: Impossible III'

From the start, “Mission: Impossible III” was, for me, always about J.J. Abrams, not Mr. Placenta Eater. And in that respect, it’s pretty good for the “Alias”/”Lost” creator’s feature film directing debut.
With skills honed through several years of managing the superspy television series that made him a star, Abrams makes the most of his new toys (read: HUGE budget) in “M:I III”. I didn’t think by-the-numbers action movies could surprise me anymore, but there are some genuinely jaw-dropping scenes in this movie (I won’t spoil them for you, don’t worry).
Sometime in 2005, though, Abrams must have thought, “What have I done?” It wasn’t exactly the best year of Tom Cruise’s career, what with all the cradle robbing, couch jumping, and all. Plus, Abrams had to figure out how to make us care about yet another derring-do special agent, when there are already so many better ones out there—his own Sydney Bristow from “Alias” and Jack Bauer from “24” leap to mind.
So Abrams (along with fellow “Alias” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) spend the first 15 minutes or so of the latest “Mission: Impossible” installment forcing a “humanizing” setup down our throats, with the hope that we’ll actually, you know, care what happens to Mr. Freaky Grin. In a plot device straight out of an “Alias” episode, the film opens with a torture scene, cuts to the main title, then flashes back a few days to show us how we get there.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has left field work behind to become merely a trainer for the super-secret IMF, because he’s found a reason to have a regular life—Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. Trouble is, one of Hunt’s trainees has been kidnapped and he’s asked to go get her.
Thus begins a series of events that gets Hunt’s lady kidnapped, which supposedly builds tension. “M:I” was never meant to be a story with much heart—it was all for kicks, if not quite the tongue-in-cheek action of James Bond, then pretty close. Plus, Cruise has been so oversaturated, it’s really difficult to separate his persona from his character (amazing how things change, because I had no such trouble with 2002’s “Minority Report”). The humanizing elements are a facile attempt at damage control, and it doesn’t work.
But that’s the bad stuff. There’s plenty to enjoy in “Mission: Impossible III.”
Abrams delivers a straightforward action thriller that, once it gets going, never slows down. Cruise must have had a ball filming this one, because he’s swinging from skyscrapers, firing guns, dodging missiles (yes, MISSILES) and generally causing mayhem the entire time. There’s also plenty of high-tech wizardry on display, including an excellent scene where we finally get to see how they make those lifelike masks and another where Hunt’s buddy Luther (a typically solid Ving Rhames) gets to fire a batch of machine guns using computers and a bunch of track ball mice. Sweet.
Speaking of Rhames, the supporting cast is superb, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sublimely sadistic villain. Showcasing some of his darker side that escaped in 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman steals every scene he’s in—including those in which there are TWO of him onscreen (long story). With a cool-as-a-cucumber seethe reminiscent of John Malcovich, let’s hope there’s more—and bigger—bad guy roles in this chameleon’s future (he’s not in the frame nearly enough here).
Overall, “Mission: Impossible III” was better than I thought it would—or could—be, but I should have expected no less from the man they call “Jaybrams.” As popcorn flicks go, it’s certainly solid; unfortunately, this one tries to be one of those “action movies with a heart” and doesn’t carry it off. Still, it’s meant to be seen on a big screen and utilizing a booming sound system, so I would definitely recommend it for a fun evening out.
And I can’t wait to see what Abrams can do with a movie without quite so much baggage.
Grade: B

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

‘Pearl Jam’: The Album Otherwise Known as ‘Avocado’

The most surprising aspect of Pearl Jam’s eponymous new album is that it’s so full of surprises, not the least of which the fact that it must now be considered in a conversation about the band’s best work. After 15 years, I didn’t think they could shock me anymore—and then they go and deliver their hardest rocking, most consistent release since “Ten,” way back in 1991.
Oh, I was so prepared to hate this record. Between 2002’s lackluster “Riot Act” and 2004’s hypocritical Vote For Change tour (wasn’t Ralph Nader on the ballot this time, too?), I had had about enough of Pearl Jam. I didn’t even listen to the band for the better part of a year and a half (which, for me, is a really, really long time) and had resigned myself to seeing them live and that’s about it.
But from the crunching lead riff of opener “Life Wasted” through the gorgeous, sweeping chords of finale “Inside Job” nearly 50 minutes later, this album (which fans nicknamed “Avocado” due to the ridiculous cover art) is nearly perfect. It’s a pinnacle release, one I didn’t think Pearl Jam was capable of anymore and that almost guarantees this band will be viable and relevant for years to come.
Whether intentional or not, “Avocado” is easily divided into three acts, beginning with a five-song assault unparalleled in the Pearl Jam catalog. The aforementioned “Life Wasted” sets both the musical and lyrical tone for the entire album, with its driving beat, killer guitar work by Stone Gossard, and images of a person fed up with himself and the world around him and looking for escape, release, and change. Eddie Vedder says this is not a concept album, per se, but nearly all of the record’s 13 tracks deal with this notion in one way or another.
Speaking of Eddie, he is both the most to blame for “Riot Act’s” relative failure and deserves much of the credit for “Pearl Jam’s” success. On the former, his mush-mouthed, world-weary vocal delivery drags down nearly every track; on the new album, he’s back to “Vitalogy”-era form, growling, howling, and stomping his way through the first five songs and taking flight on its second half. His bandmates readily admit Eddie’s the one that brings everyone together onstage, and the same could be said in the studio—whether he likes it or not, Vedder sets the tone, and the tone here is incendiary. Pearl Jam, contrary to popular belief, would probably argue they never went anywhere. Regardless, “Life Wasted” sends a clear signal right off the bat—no slow build to this record: We’re back.
Which brings us to “World Wide Suicide,” Pearl Jam’s most successful radio hit in years that occupies the No. 2 slot on “Avocado.” This song was a definite grower on me; when I first downloaded the single two months ago, my reaction was, and I quote, “meh.” I still would rank it at the bottom of this record, but its bouncy melody fits in perfectly with the uptempo vibe of Side 1 and thus, taken in context with the rest of this album, “World Wide Suicide” benefits tremendously and dutifully keeps the momentum going.
With the most obvious attack on the Bush administration on the entire album (“Medals on a wooden mantle. Next to a handsome face./That the president took for granted./Writing checks that others pay.), “Suicide” is as good a point as any to discuss the problem nipping at my heels when listening to this album: Politics. It’s no secret what side of the aisle Pearl Jam rolls with—and it hasn’t been a secret since the band’s inception. Eddie is the same guy now as the 20-something who stood on a stool in 1992 and wrote “Pro-choice” on his arm in big black letters during the taping for “MTV’s Unplugged”; this is the same band that played multiple Voters for Choice shows in the mid-’90s; the same frontman that stumped for Nader alongside Michael Moore in 2000; and the same band that once included an article by Noam Chomsky in its fan club newsletter. For those of us red-staters out there, who are we kidding? They’re not going to change who they are, and expecting them to is moronic.
No, the problem arrives when the message overrides the music, as it did for much of “Riot Act”; thankfully, that is largely not the case on “Pearl Jam.” If raging against war and President Bush yields these results, then so be it. I do find it ironic, though, that the most overtly partisan songs on the album (as in those that use the word “war”) are also the least interesting musically—“World Wide Suicide,” “Parachutes,” and “Army Reserve.”
Still, there’s enough on this record for everyone to find something. If nothing else, I can relate to this soundbite from Eddie during a recent interview: “It feels like the end of the world … and we’ve got a good seat.” More than liberal politics, this is the driving force behind “Pearl Jam."
Now, with that out of the way …
“Comatose” occupies the third slot on “Avocado” and it’s another of those “wow” moments. This is as punk-rock as Pearl Jam gets, and it’s a total punch in the gut, akin to “Spin the Black Circle,” “Blood,” or maybe what “Lukin” would sound like if it ran more than 62 seconds.
Up next is “Severed Hand,” one of the best songs on the album. A musical cousin to “Porch,” this could turn out to be one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all time, especially the final minute when Eddie straps on a guitar and adds to the clamor. Written soon after the 2000 Roskilde festival where nine people were crushed to death during the band’s set, “Severed Hand” gives voice to that inner demon that wants to say “screw it all, let’s get hammered.” Not exactly an uplifting message, I’ll grant you, but one everyone can relate to—and one that fits this aggressive song perfectly.
When the opening chords of “Marker in the Sand” kick in, at this point it seems impossible that the band could keep this momentum going for such an extended stretch. “Pearl Jam’s” opening quintuplet goes by in one furious blink, and before you know it you’re halfway through the album already. “Marker” finds Vedder trying to make sense of—and finding no answers in—the war of ideas between sides professing Christianity and Islam, yet demonstrating none of the tenets of those religions. In some of his most overtly spiritual lyrics to date, Vedder calls out to God, angry and pleading at the same time. What's really special about “Marker,” though, is the abrupt changes of pace between the tight verses and the more airy, lilting, Springsteen-esque chorus—again, more of those surprises that mark this entire record.
“Marker” is a signal that things are about to change on “Pearl Jam.” As the first act comes to a close, the quiet, acoustic “Parachutes” serves as its own marker, a transition into mellower territory for most of the remaining songs.
The second act could be heard as its own trilogy, the story of a man struggling to survive in a cutthroat world. In the fantastic R&B rocker “Unemployable,” the man with a “big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’” has just been fired after a lifetime spent sacrificing “to a stranger’s bottom line.” “Unemployable” may have been the official b-side for “World Wide Suicide,” but this song is second to none. The lyrics go straight to the short list of Eddie’s best efforts, as anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job for scumbag supervisors will want to put “Unemployable” on repeat. Consider this beautiful second verse, sung in a unique and infectious staccato rhythm:

“Well, his wife and kid are sleeping but he’s still awake
On his brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid
Gets up, lights a cigarette he’s grown to hate
Thinking if he can’t sleep, how will he ever dream?”

But there’s a silver lining in this cloud. Getting fired has left him “scared alive,” so he seeks solace in the ocean scenes of “Big Wave,” Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament’s big hug to the surfing community (this song is destined to grace the soundtrack of some future beach movie). In this fun, throwaway rocker (similar in feel to “Gods Dice,” Jeff’s contribution to 2000’s “Binaural”), it’s not a stretch to think the character from “Unemployable” spends a day in the ocean to try and get his head straight before returning to town for the events of “Gone,” a song that mixes the theme of “MFC” with the soaring melody of “In Hiding,” two standout tracks from 1998’s “Yield.” Here our troubled soul has made up his mind:

“For the lights of this city
They have lost all feeling
Gonna leave em all behind me
Cause this time
I’m gone”

By this point in the album—Song No. 9, for those keeping track at home—it’s almost hard for me to believe what I’m hearing. “Gone” would be a standout cut on any of the band’s previous albums, and here it’s almost buried by the flood of highlights before it and those that are about to follow it. And thus, “Gone” may just be the song that makes this entire record.
“Wasted Reprise,” is an organ-infused coda to the opening track and doubles as a fitting end to the previous trilogy, highlighting the sense of hope on this record and establishing a solid break for the last three songs on the album.
“Army Reserve” is without question my least favorite track on “Pearl Jam.” As the title suggests, it tells the story of a mother and child waiting at home for a father they hope will return from the war. Lyrically, this song is reminiscent of Springsteen’s “You’re Missing,” a poignant, heartbreaking cut from 2002’s “The Rising.” Although “You’re Missing” could obviously refer to a loved one lost in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, one of Springsteen’s gifts is turning the specific into the universal and thus his lamentation never sets itself so firmly in a time and a place as Vedder’s “Army Reserve.” With that comparison so indelible in my mind (“You’re Missing” is one of my favorite Springsteen songs), “Army Reserve” will always suffer. Not to mention the fact that, musically, it’s the least-interesting song on the album, the only track that sheds momentum in its chorus. This reminds me of “Cropduster” from “Riot Act”—not bad for the first couple listens, but it just doesn’t hold up. It’s one more protest song on a record that already has enough.
Thankfully, “Pearl Jam” concludes with the best one-two punch to end any of the band’s eight albums; on subsequent listens, these two songs just pull me all the way through to the end of the record, compelling me not to press stop. For a record chock-full of tremendous vocal performances, “Come Back” could be Eddie’s best, as he drifts into this twangy ballad that fits his baritone like a glove. Some have speculated this song was written for the late Johnny Ramone, a dear friend of Ed’s (and a staunch Republican, I might add—if he can get along with Ed, certainly I can, too), but THIS is universal writing at its best. From start to finish, “Come Back” is simply beautiful, on a level with “Black” and “Off He Goes.”
But on an album of surprises, “Pearl Jam” saves its best for last in the form of Mr. Michael McCready, who dominates this record from start to finish not only with his trademark soloing, but his (until this point) woefully untapped songwriting ability. On “Avocado,” his credits include “Comatose,” “Marker in the Sand,” “Unemployable,” “Come Back,” and “Inside Job,” which now rivals “Release” and “Indifference” as the best closer on a PJ album.
“Inside Job” starts out slow, with Gossard (I’m guessing) on rhythm acoustic guitar and presumably Mike or Eddie wielding an e-bow on an electric guitar. It’s dark and moody—and when keyboardist Boom Gaspar comes in on piano at 1:25, it becomes epic. McCready’s battle with alcohol and drug addiction is well documented; here, after finally winning that battle, he gets to say his piece with the first credited lyrics of his Pearl Jam career. Ed dons a voice similar to Springsteen’s Oakie persona to deliver the first two verses, as McCready shares what it means to live as a recovering addict:

“Underneath this smile lies everything
all my hopes, anger, pride and shame

Make yourself a pact, not to shut doors on the past
Just for today, … I am free”

And then, as McCready describes his reemergence into the “human light,” Matt Cameron kicks in on the drums at 3:39 and the music shifts into monster guitar chords (Mike’s favorite) and a heavenly vocal from Ed. While maybe not stellar in its individual parts, “Inside Job”—taken in context—adds up to one of Pearl Jam’s best songs and closes the band’s self-titled album on an unbelievably high note.
It’s impossible to say, at this early stage, where “Pearl Jam” will eventually rank in the group’s deep resume. Will it prove to have the perfect trifecta of “Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution,” and “In Hiding” like “Yield”? Will its more experimental moments still sound as good a decade later like “No Code”? Will its uptempo rockers still get the blood flowing like “Vitalogy”? Will it fade into mediocrity with time like "Riot Act"? Regardless, this I know for sure: For now, “Avocado” sounds great at any time, in any situation (home, car, plane, office). Pearl Jam spent a decade tearing down the success they built so quickly; if they’re looking for a way to get some of it back, this record will do it or nothing will.
And, in typical Pearl Jam fashion, they cut no corners and give no quarter. What a tremendous achievement—not bad for a bunch of 40-somethings.
Grade: A