Sunday, March 25, 2007

Richard Is Right

Richard Cypher, speaking in Terry Goodkind’s “Naked Empire”:

Compromising with murderers … grants them moral equivalence where none can rightfully exist. Moral equivalence says that you are no better than they; therefore, their belief—that they should be able to torture, rape, or murder you—is just as morally valid as your view—that you have the right to live free of their violence. Moral compromise rejects the concept of right and wrong. It says that everyone is equal, all desires are equally valid, all action is equally valid, so everyone should compromise to get along.

Where could you compromise with those who torture, rape, and murder people? In the number of days a week you will be tortured? In the number of men to be allowed to rape your loved ones? In how many of your family are to be murdered?

No moral equivalence exists in that situation, nor can it exist, so there can be no compromise, only suicide.

To even suggest compromise can exist with such men is to sanction murder.

If only we could find a Richard Cypher in this world.
Then again, someone who comes along these days making this much sense may just be the Antichrist.

Snow Patrol w/Silversun Pickups, 3.23.07

It’s nice to see notoriety is sitting well with Snow Patrol.
After nearly a decade under the radar (in the U.S., anyway), the Irish quintet seems rather unfazed with its newfound success stemming from last year’s breakout hit “Chasing Cars.” Frontman Gary Lightbody was pleasantly down to earth Friday night at American University in D.C., making self-deprecating jokes and charming small talk in between songs during an excellent 90-minute set.
The handling of “Cars” was particularly impressive. Lightbody acknowledged the song’s import to the band, as it “may be the reason many of you are here tonight—and that’s fine, we’re glad to have you.” SP put the song in perfect position at seventh on a 17-song night; they didn’t use it right up front as a cheap way to grab people’s attention, but didn’t let it hang around unplayed for too long, either, dangling it in front of those in the audience who only knew that one song.
Even for the latter, they would have to be deaf and dumb not to come away from the show with a better appreciation for this band. Queue the setlist (found below, thanks to a poster on their UK message board—I wasn’t taking notes for a change) on your iPod and you’ll find an absolute powerhouse lineup, with winner after winner after winner. It’s not often I go to a show and get every song I wanted to hear, but Friday night was one of those rare times. From “Run” to “Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking” to “Shut Your Eyes” to the awesome closer “Hands Open,” the band was tight and forceful all night, and the sound was perfectly mixed.
Of the many highlights, certainly one of the best was D.C. native Valerie, who did an admirable job of filling in for Martha Wainwright on the duet “Set the Fire to the Third Bar.” Lightbody pulls a woman from the audience every night to sing with him, and he seemed genuinely impressed with Friday night’s lucky fan—and with good reason, because she basically nailed it.
The stage design was impressive without overpowering the music. In fact, it seems the band picked up a little something from U2 while opening for their fellow Irishmen, as the Patrol had a miniature version of U2’s light curtain that allowed images to be displayed on it.
Snow Patrol is playing larger venues these days thanks to “Cars,” but they didn’t seem uncomfortable or out of character in the least. In fact, you’d think mid-sized college gymnasiums would be a bad place for a show (AU’s Bender Arena holds about 5,000 people). But on the contrary, I’ve seen three concerts in the past year and a half in these size venues, and they’ve all felt and sounded great. There’s something about a college campus that lends itself to good concerts—and it’s not just because a bunch of kids are there, because Snow Patrol’s audience ranges from those younger and older than me. It was just a good vibe all night.
Of course, it helps when the opening band commands the stage and arrest everyone’s attention so effortlessly.
Even though I put Silversun Pickups’ “Rusted Wheel” on my “Songs of 2006” list, I should have written about them in more depth by now because this L.A. quartet is one of my favorite bands of the moment.
Lightbody dubbed the group’s debut album, 2006's “Carnavas,” a “masterpiece” from the stage Friday night. That may be overstating a bit, but it is tremendous. I’m not going to rush to compare the Pickups to anything, because they offer a singular sound—gritty and harsh, yet soaring and beautiful all at the same time, especially when lead singer/guitarist Brian Aubert hits his upper register.
The band was spectacular Friday night, steadied by terrific bass work from Nikki Monninger; rarely have I seen an opening band—especially the first of three groups on a bill—win over a crowd so quickly. But that’s the nature and appeal of the Pickups, with their loopy melodies that go from mellow to thrashing in the blink of an eye. They played one of the best six-song sets you’ll ever see Friday night—too bad they had to make way for the mediocre OK Go. They’re not bad, really, and the crowd seemed to dig them, but I’m just not into the whole jokey vibe they put off. Still, after the performances from Snow Patrol and Silversun Pickups, it’s not like I came away disappointed.

Snow Patrol
Bender Arena, American University
Washington, D.C.
Running time: 90 minutes

Spitting Games
It’s Beginning to Get to Me
Headlights on Dark Roads
How to Be Dead
Grazed Knees
Chasing Cars
Shut Your Eyes
Set the Fire to the Third Bar
Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking
Make This Go on Forever
Ways and Means
You’re All I Have

The Finish Line
Open Your Eyes
Hands Open

Silversun Pickups
Running time: 30 minutes

Well Thought Out Twinkles
Rusted Wheel
Dream at Tempo 119
Little Lover’s So Polite
Kissing Families
Lazy Eye

Sunday, March 11, 2007

‘24’ Veers Off Course on Day 6


It’s my theory the writers and producers of “24” break the season down into six four-episode chunks, saving some of the biggest and best cliffhangers for the installments that fall on the “fours”—eps 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, and, of course, 24.
Episode 12, historically, is particularly significant. The halfway point of the day often features resolutions to major plotlines and spins the show off in a new direction. On Day 1, Jack rescued Teri and Kim from their kidnappers; on Day 3, the Salazar brothers died while Nina and the virus escaped amid a massive firefight; on Day 4, Michelle came back to CTU; and on Day 5—hello!—Edgar died.
After a brilliant start, Day 6 has been wandering and rather listless—by “24” standards—since the nuclear bomb exploded in Valencia at the end of … wait for it … Episode 4. Let me preface the rest of this by saying this show is still as good or better than anything else on TV, but the bar has been set so high—especially coming off Day 5, arguably the best of the series—that any slip feels significant.
That being said, Day 6 is shaping up to be the “worst” of the show’s seasons. For the past two months, I’ve been telling myself to trust the process, but when Episode 12 comes and goes with rather little impact, there’s trouble. My major complaint is the deaths of so many key characters in the past two seasons. With Tony, Michelle, Edgar, David Palmer, and, now, Curtis all gone, we’re left with essentially no one to root for other than Jack and Chloe. There just simply aren’t enough characters outside of the Big Guy that we even know, much less care about. The intrigue at CTU and inside the presidency has always been just as compelling as whatever trouble Jack’s into, but this year both of those areas are sorely lacking. And to make things even worse, the beloved Chloe has done absolutely NOTHING in 12 episodes, other than harangue her ex-husband/current boyfriend Morris.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, Executive Producer/Head Writer Howard Gordon admitted the “24” team has had trouble coming up with this season’s “big idea,” and it’s painfully obvious. The year started out with promise, focusing on Jack’s fallibility and struggle to recover from his unimaginable 18 months under Chinese torture. But that thread has faded to the background, leaving us with “24’s” increasingly familiar plotlines and tricks. It seems like after the bomb blew up, the writers looked at each other and said: “Now what?” They tried a more political approach, which fell flat. They tried a more familial approach, and that, too, fell rather flat (James Cromwell was cool as Jack’s dad, but the whole thing wasn’t as good as the sum of its parts). And, what’s more, the villains in this season are probably the least compelling of the entire series—where has Fayed been since torturing poor Morris several weeks ago? Gredenko is cartoonish in his stereotypicability (yes, I just invented that word).
That’s not to say the show isn’t still entertaining, because it is. Last week’s episode was intense, with Jack breaking into a foreign consulate (again!) and the fallout from the attempted presidential assassination attempt. But, wow, using Wayne Palmer as the new president—probably the worst decision in the history of this show—D.B. Woodside just isn’t up to the task, especially following up Gregory Itzin’s Emmy-winning performance last season. The trouble with most of the episodes this season is after the initial rush is over, the creeping feeling of been-there-done-that sets in.
There’s still time to salvage Day 6, of course. Rick Schroder joins the cast this week, which hopefully will give us a new CTU wingman to like. Itzin’s return to the series as disgraced President Logan is exciting, too, especially since this week Jean Smart also reprises her role as Logan’s manic (and now presumably estranged) wife.
I’m certainly not going to give up on “24”—not even close. The writers have learned from their past mistakes (Teri’s amnesia during Day 1, Kim and the mountain lion during Day 2, etc.), so I’m hopeful for a return to greatness. My suggestion for next year: Rein in the threat a bit. We don’t need nuclear bombs and mass casualties every season (matter of fact, the relative calm in California after a nuclear explosion continues to be a major problem with this season). I’d like to see the show’s producers hearken back to Day 1 and handle something a bit more down-to-earth—and personal.
Until then, I can only hope they remember what made their show great in the first place—it’s never been about the bombs, but the bombshells dropped on a weekly basis.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Music Reviews: New albums from Arcade Fire, Brand New, Fall Out Boy, and PJ Harvey

Arcade Fire, “Neon Bible”
First things first: “Keep the Car Running,” the second track off Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible,” is the early frontrunner for song of the year. This Celtic-tinged anthem is stunning; it would be worth the full price of the CD all by itself.
I highlight “Keep the Car Running” because it’s a bit of an anomaly on “Neon Bible,” as one of probably only three or four tracks that sound good independently (the escapist “No Cars Go” would be another, but more on that later). Like the ideal “High Fidelity” mix tape, “Neon Bible” is perfectly paced; the song sequencing pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows in just the right ways. Picking it apart on an iPod would certainly degrade the overall experience.
While Arcade Fire’s debut album, 2004’s “Funeral,” focused on personal pain, “Neon Bible” is directed outward. It features songs that are political without (thankfully) being overtly partisan, as lead singer/songwriter Win Butler taps into humanity’s seemingly global sense of desperation—“an ocean of violence/A world of empty streets,” as he describes it on the sublime “Ocean of Noise.” During “Intervention” he intones: “I can taste the fear/Lift me up and take me out of here.”
The lyrics throughout are dark, a tone set by the opening dirge of “Black Mirror.” Butler is at his best on the markedly Springsteen-ian “(Antichrist Television Blues),” which tells the nuanced story of a man so afraid of what can happen to average working Joes (i.e. they die just going to work when planes crash into their office buildings), he pushes his young daughter to maximize her God-given talent and become a star, “American Idol”-style. The five-minute epic is an inner monologue, as the father tries to escape the system through his daughter, yet knows the entire time he’s treading on shaky ground; eventually he concludes: “O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?”
At times Butler’s lyrical work on “Neon Bible” comes across as overbearing when read straight off a page. His words are balanced, however, by soaring, deep, soulful, surprising, and, more often than not, exhilarating music. The strings from “Funeral” are complemented this time around by a full horn section, harp, gospel choir, and church organ. The tension built through the album finally explodes in Track 10, the aforementioned “No Cars Go,” a full-throttle quest for hope reminiscent of “War”-era U2.
With only a couple missteps (“Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and the overly self-absorbed closer, “My Body Is a Cage”), Arcade Fire’s new release demands multiple careful listens (try it on a good pair of headphones). It’s an enthralling follow-up that proves all the hype and acclaim surrounding “Funeral” was no fluke. Grade: A-

Brand New, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me”
After their pitch-perfect pop/punk debut, 2001’s “Your Favorite Weapon,” Brand New probably could have become, well, Fall Out Boy. Instead, founder Jesse Lacey went the other way, eschewing the easy and obvious for more esoteric—dare I say “mature”—material on 2003’s highly acclaimed “Deja Entendu.”
The Long Island band’s third album, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (released last November), completes a trilogy of growth for Brand New, the natural conclusion to the work they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade. Building upon the whisper-to-a-scream mode from “Entendu,” Lacey & Co. (most notably guitarist Vin Accardi) stretch in all the right ways. Brawny highlights include the epic opener “Sowing Season,” the slow burn of “You Won’t Know,” and the full-tilt assault of “The Archers Bows Have Broken.”
Amidst all this bravado of raging guitars, hammering drums, and roaring vocals, the ironic highlight and centerpiece of the album is found in the searching, plaintive beauty of “Jesus,” the album’s third track. Set to a hypnotic metronome of a guitar riff, Lacey offers an open prayer to a Savior he’s not sure he believes in—and if he does, Lacey’s not sure he’s deserving, which, of course, is the point of God’s grace. Anyway, the work here encapsulates the essence of the album. Here’s a whiff:

I know you’re coming in the night like a thief
But I’ve had some time, O Lord, to hone my lying technique
I know you think that I’m someone you can trust
But I’m scared I’ll get scared and I swear I’ll try to nail you back up

So do you think that we could work out a sign
So I’ll know it’s you and that it’s over so I won’t even try

I know you’re coming for the people like me
But we all got wood and nails
And we turn out hate in factories

The only glaring problem with “Devil and God” is “Limousine (MS rebridge)”. Not only is this song an unwieldy eight minutes long, its placement at Track 5 bogs everything down at a crucial point. I’m also not thrilled with the unnecessary interlude between “Luca” and “Archers,” or the rather limp acoustic closer, “Handcuffs.”
Overall, though, this is an otherwise fine effort from a band seemingly always on the move. It’s hard to believe the same group of guys made both this record and “Your Favorite Weapon,” but that only enhances the entire catalog. An ambitious concept album about a crisis of faith, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” concludes a fascinating journey. Grade: A-

Fall Out Boy, “Infinity on High”
Perhaps the pressure of being mainstream standard bearers for pop/punk weighs a little too heavily on Fall Out Boy. Because “Infinity on High,” the Chicago quartet’s follow-up to 2005’s excellent breakthrough “From Under the Cork Tree,” comes off as a tepid, labored, forced attempt at trying not to be pigeonholed.
Look no further than lead single “It’s Not A Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” with its faux industrial beat and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, not the least of which is the excessive and unnecessary repetition of “God damn” (ooh, you’re so hardcore Pete Wentz!). This disjointed mess “anchors” a Side One that is surprising only in its lack of energy. “Infinity” doesn’t really get going until Track 10, “The Carpal Tunnel of Love,” but by then it’s too little, too late.
This effort may be disappointing, but it’s not entirely surprising. After all, the band’s past two albums were outstanding, and with a couple of hits they went from relative obscurity to having Jay-Z cameo on their new record. There’s nothing wrong with expanding horizons, but it needs to be an organic change (see Brand New, above); there are hideous stretch marks all over this record. Here’s hoping “Infinity” is just a sign of growing pains. Grade: C-

PJ Harvey, “The Peel Sessions 1991-2004”
It’s not often a live album is considered essential (come on, how many “Live at Leeds” are there out there), but such is the case with PJ Harvey’s “The Peel Sessions 1991-2004,” released last October. Harvey was a close friend of Peel, the legendary BBC broadcaster (who died in 2004), and this fabulous collection of live appearances on his show is a fitting tribute to their relationship.
The songs span Harvey’s entire career, starting with the power-packed trio of “Oh My Lover,” “Victory,” and “Sheela-Na-Gig,” from her debut album, “Dry.” With performances chosen specifically by Harvey, the album also features a nice collection of b-sides. The most striking is “This Wicked Tongue,” a tenacious rocker that was criminally only released on the initial UK pressing of Harvey’s 2000 classic “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.” Other rarities include the brutal “Naked Cousin,” which hails from the recording sessions for 1995’s “To Bring You My Love” (another classic, by the way); “That Was My Veil,” from Harvey’s 1996 collaboration with John Parish; and two covers, Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and Rainer Ptacek’s “Losing Ground,” previously available only on singles.
My only complaint is Harvey’s choice of “Beautiful Feeling” as the sole cut from “Stories,” but that’s a rather minor objection for what is, in total, a stellar set. Grade: A