Monday, October 22, 2007

Sign of the Apocalypse No. 2

Russell Freakin' Crowe is in the "Monday Night Football" booth. Right now. And he's already corrected Mike "The ESPN Toad" Tirico on a mistake. And they're talking about … rugby.

This is surreal. And ridiculous. He looks just the right mixture of mild irritation/boredom, and is dripping with just the right amount of condescension.

I love this guy. I cannot WAIT for "American Gangster."

Sign of the Apocalypse No. 1

Never thought I'd see the day, but my boy Tobin is now a member of the blogosphere. Check out "Eric's random thoughts" (mostly about sports, so far) over at
Congrats, Tobey-Wan Kenobi. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Hives: Live at the Black Cat, 10.17.07

The Hives’ hyped reputation as live performers is well earned, as they proved Wednesday night with a nuclear set at the Black Cat in D.C.

The Swedish quintet is touring this fall with Maroon 5, an unlikely pairing that serves as an attempt to spread its version of dance punk rock to the pop-loving masses. Not content to sit on their laurels in between shows, however, at certain cities during this run the Hives are doing their own thing at small clubs like the Black Cat, a venue that seemed barely able to contain the band’s manic power.

Well, really, it couldn’t. Aptly named frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist was all over the stage during his band’s blistering 70-minute set, frequently hanging from a well-used metal pipe above the stage; at one point near the end of the show he went back and stood on the drum kit, his head up between the ceiling’s rafters.

Almqvist is a sight to behold on stage, dressed like his bandmates in a matching black suit. He never stops moving, whether he’s leaning into the crowd, spinning the microphone a la Roger Daltrey, or delivering jump kicks to punctuate his band’s fiery tempos. He also maintained a constant chatter between songs, playing on he and his band’s charming egomania—“Yes, it is true. We are here in person,” he quipped early in the show. “You can touch me if you like.”

I wasn’t taking notes so I unfortunately can’t offer up an official setlist, but I know the Hives blew threw most of the songs you’d expect and want from their catalog: “Main Offender,” “A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T,” “Walk Idiot Walk,” “Die, All Right!”, “Supply and Demand,” and, of course, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” their breakthrough hit from 2000’s “Veni Vidi Vicious.” A 70-minute show might seem a little short, but considering this band’s albums barely crack half an hour, they were able to power through quite a bit of material in such a short time. That included a few choice cuts from the forthcoming “The Black and White Album” (it’s already out overseas but doesn’t hit Stateside until next month). From the sound of things Wednesday night, this should be another excellent collection.

The biggest thing I took away from this week’s show, though, is how much pure joy and fun the Hives seem to be having onstage, and how much of that translates to the audience. The frenetic music is upbeat, Almqvist is undeniably charismatic, and you get the feeling they’re perfectly comfortable playing to 1,000 people in a little club or 20,000 at a big arena. Set ’em up, and the Hives will knock ’em down. I was wearing a huge grin most of the night, because this band attacks with everything they’re worth; you’d have to work really hard not to have a good time at their gig. What more can you ask from a rock and roll band?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Magic’

Jon Landau is a liar.

In the runup to the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest record, “Magic,” the Boss’ longtime manager, collaborator, and friend claimed the album isn’t dominated by politics. That’s frankly and utterly untrue: “Magic” is actually the most overtly political and partisan album of Springsteen’s long and storied career.

It’s not surprising that Landau would employ such a strategery. It’s his job to make sure Springsteen makes money, and he knows this album is going to alienate a large chunk of its potential customers. The blatant partisanship on display throughout goes a long way toward negating the feel-good vibes associated with the reassembly of the vaunted E Street Band (this is the first Springsteen release to feature his beloved mates since 2002’s “The Rising”).

But it’s also ironic, disingenuous, and downright hypocritical that Springsteen’s advocate and spokesman would shade the truth about an album accusing politicians of doing that very same thing. The CD’s title track isn’t referring to anything ethereal or otherworldly; Springsteen’s focus is the method behind the trick—deception, illusion, misinformation. One look at Bruce’s scowling, grizzled visage on the front cover should tell you this record isn’t about having fun.

The majority of “Magic’s” 11 tracks touch on Springsteen’s feelings about the current state of the union in one way or another, informed seemingly chapter and verse from the tired, standard liberal talking points of the day. “Gypsy Biker” tells the story of family and town dealing with the returning corpse of a solider in a “fools parade,” on whose blood “speculators made their money.” The supposed loss of freedoms in the name of homeland security crops up throughout the record, most blatantly during “Long Walk Home.” “Livin’ in the Future,” meanwhile, references Springsteen’s participation in the 2004 Vote for Change tour, where “I opened up my heart to you/it got all damaged and undone/My ship Liberty sailed away on/a bloody red horizon.” And after all that effort, he still “woke up Election Day/skies gunpowder and shades of gray” and had to suffer the indignity of watching President Bush “come walkin’ through town/Your boot heels clickin’/Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ ’round.”

The aforementioned “Magic,” sung from the perspective of, presumably, President Bush, warns:

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smiling ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought’s
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees

(On a side note: It continues to mystify me how the president’s critics believe he’s a moron and a master deceiver and manipulator all at the same time.)

And then there’s “Last to Die,” a piece of utter propaganda whose oft-repeated chorus blares: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake.” This phrase sticks out like a sore thumb; for a man who accuses the president of trading on the emotions of 9/11 and the blood of our fighting men, how is Springsteen’s use of wounded and dead soldiers to make a point any different? A line like this is beneath the Boss.

The one place he gets it right is finale “Devil’s Arcade,” a sympathetic, heart-stopping story of a wounded veteran back home with his beloved after surviving the horrors of battle. It begins with a subdued organ, then violin, and continues adding pieces of the E Street Band until building to a thrilling climax. We’re left with the soldier wanting to feel nothing but the beating of his lover’s heart—and all the while Mighty Max Weinberg’s drums hammer and thunder away to close the record.

That’s the real shame about this album. Landau was right-on about one thing: The E Street Band is absolutely on fire, sounding even better than it did on “The Rising.” There are bits and pieces of just about every phase of Springsteen’s 35-year career represented here: The Clarence Clemons-driven “Livin’ in the Future” is a distant cousin of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”; “Magic” is a quiet acoustic number of spellbinding power reminiscent of the best moments of “Nebraska” or “Ghost of Tom Joad”; “Radio Nowhere” is one of the meanest, hardest-rocking songs Springsteen’s ever written; “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a pure pop masterpiece; “Gypsy Biker” and “Long Walk Home” are simply gorgeous, expansive rock songs on every conceivable level—in other words, what Springsteen does best.

As a whole, the album is most like his 1984 pop/rock smash “Born in the U.S.A.”—without the cheesy synthesizers. These new songs rarely stretch past four minutes, and—learning a valuable lesson from the overlong “Rising”—“Magic” powers along and breezes by in 45 minutes. And I don’t know what kind of magic producer Brendan O’Brien pulled off in the studio, but Springsteen’s voice hasn’t sounded this steady and clear in two decades.

But I just can’t get past the lyrics. I don’t care how much you hate George W. Bush (I’m certainly not a fan, even though I held my nose and voted for him last time around), you and I aren’t from the same planet if you can absorb blatantly political songs into your soul. If someone had written a similar record 10 years ago bashing Bill Clinton, I certainly couldn’t see myself still listening to those songs. These tracks are all great for riding in the car—when the words are more difficult to make out—but Springsteen’s naked intent casts a pall over much of this record that is too hard to get through.

My favorite song on the entire album doesn’t even appear on the track list. “Magic’s” 12th and final entry is simply named “Terry’s Song,” a basic piano/guitar/harmonica tribute to another longtime Springsteen collaborator, Terry Magovern. Sounding like it’s straight off Neil Young’s 1972 classic “Harvest,” this beautiful and haunting eulogy will stop you cold with its honest emotion and love—no point to make, other than honoring a friend.

The “Magic” sessions were so prolific for Springsteen, there’s talk of a whole other album’s worth of material left over that didn’t fit the mold and mood of this release—there’s even chatter we could hear these songs as early as next spring. My hope is that Springsteen said all he wanted to about the president and the war on this record, and the remaining songs are on his brilliant down-to-earth level. Because “Magic” truly is a fabulous listen if you can tune out the partisanship. I would relish hearing more of where these songs came from.

Grade: B+

***On a related note: The Springsteen community is abuzz this week with the news that Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the husband-and-wife team that founded Arcade Fire, joined Springsteen for two songs during Sunday’s set in Ottawa, Canada (the Fire are from Canada, you see). In the encore, the Boss brought them onstage for the long-lost “State Trooper” and then covered the Fire’s “Keep the Car Running.” The latter is not only my favorite Arcade Fire song (it hails from this year’s “Neon Bible”), but maybe the best song I’ve heard all year. It’s fitting, too, because Springsteen was the first influence I thought of when I heard the song for the first time. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the Fire live yet, but from everything I’ve read and heard, Springsteen could do a whole lot worse in the pass-the-torch category. I’ve only found a rough recording of the “Running” performance so far, but the E Street Band powering this anthem still gave me chills. Here’s hoping there’s a good tape about to surface somewhere.***

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New Blog: Riding the Metro

This weekend I launched a new, more traditional blog. I dubbed it "Down With the Freaks and the Ghouls" (bonus points for whomever knows where that line comes from), and you can find it at

The new site is pretty self-explanatory, but basically it's going to be a personal record of the insane things I see riding Washington, D.C.'s subway system every day. The first few posts up there are just things I remember from the past few days—I meant to start doing this years ago and the idea never came to fruition for some reason. But it's just too much good material to leave unwritten. The goal is to update it on a daily basis, as soon as I get home from work.

You're in my world now, Grandma.

‘Heroes Die,’ by Matthew Stover

I recently finished reading “Heroes Die,” an excellent sci-fi/fantasy novel by Matthew Stover. I don’t post much about books around here, but this work is so fascinating, it requires a mention.

Stover wrote one of my favorite Star Wars novels, 2002’s “Traitor,” a crucial entry in the sprawling “New Jedi Order” series. “Traitor” stands out among the morass of SW fiction because it’s so different from all the others, eschewing straightforward storytelling for more nonlinear, challenging, and thought-provoking prose; nothing about it wrapped up into the typical nice, neat bundle by the end. And even though it remains Stover’s only entry in the post-“Return of the Jedi” Star Wars Expanded Universe, “Traitor” nonetheless irrevocably changed the tone of the NJO and continues to affect the current (albeit middling) “Legacy of the Force” series some five years later.

“Traitor” was also a big deal for Stover as an author, as it effectively put him on the sci-fi/fantasy literary map. Although his first novel, “Iron Dawn,” was published in 1997, “Heroes Die” is his only work still in print (more’s the pity).

“Heroes Die” is a heady brew of gut-clenching action, social and political commentary, and romance. Here's a description to make your head spin: The novel is a combination of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series, and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. It’s set in a not-too-distant future, presumably after some cataclysmic event has forever altered global society (keep in mind, this was written in 1995, pre-9/11). To get away from the horrors of daily life, where a good number of Earth’s population are little more than slaves, citizens turn to entertainment, and technology has advanced to the point where they can virtually live through created characters’ lives. Here’s the catch: What the characters go through isn’t make-believe. When they’re out on Adventure and get stabbed, they really do get stabbed. No stunt doubles, collapsing blades, and fake blood here.

The Actors’ Adventures occur on Overworld, a planet in an alternate universe that’s straight out of a medieval fantasy novel. Like Goodkind’s “Truth” series, this is a violent world ruled by an all-powerful godlike figure who, though ruthless as a Hitler, believes he’s doing the work of a god for the benefit of his people. And like Gibson’s use of “flipping” into a virtual realm, the Actors in Stover’s novel are actually physically transported to this Overworld and dropped into the middle of strenuous situations; while they engage in their Adventures, the folks back home see and feel everything as though they’re riding right behind the Actors’ eyes.

The fabulous main character is an Actor named Hari Michaelson, whose Overworld persona Caine is a legendary knife-wielding assassin in the mold of Jason Bourne. In “Heroes Die,” Stover pits Michaelson/Caine against the powers-that-be in both worlds; as he struggles to save his wife’s life from the sword-and-sorcery of Overworld, he must simultaneously navigate the politics of Earth and, somehow, try to not get dead on either side.

Don’t expect to gain any moral insight from “Heroes Die,” because Stover makes it quite clear in a Q&A included in the back of the most recent paperback edition that he believes morality is nothing more than a social construct, there is no God, yada, yada, yada (oh, and Republicans are the source of all evil in this country—what a shock). But his novel works on both the visceral and the intellectual level. In the way that Gibson predicted cyberspace and virtual reality 25 years ago, in “Heroes Die,” Stover effectively predicted how reality television would make the horrible misfortunes of a few entertaining for millions. This novel also hints at the astounding emergence of online role-playing games, where some participants seem to feel more comfortable in a simulated nether-world than in their own skin. The future of entertainment Stover paints here doesn’t really seem that far off, and that’s a disturbing notion.

As much as I loved this maelstrom of a novel, I can’t wholly endorse it to everyone because in his attempt to go through the looking glass, Stover uses a mix of first- and third-person narration that forces his readers to actually become the viewers that are so abhorrently portrayed in the book. The action is so intense and thrilling, you can see why millions would want to view it, even as you cringe away from it; Stover has studied several different forms of martial arts, so his depiction of hand-to-hand combat is spot-on brilliant (one fight actually brings to mind the astounding scene in the hotel room from “The Bourne Ultimatum”). “Heroes Die” is incredibly violent, and features a couple characters in particular that are so vile, it’s hard to read through their passages—I almost put this book down for good a few different times.

“Heroes Die” is most certainly NC-17. The brutality and degradation are similar to that of Goodkind, only in Goodkind’s world the darkness is always balanced by light and nobility; in Overworld, there are only dark and darker shades of black, where the best you can cling to is the anti-hero code Caine lives by.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eddie Goes Solo, the Murphys Come Roaring Back, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Continue to Impress

‘Into the Wild,’ Eddie Vedder

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: “Into the Wild” is not an Eddie Vedder solo album. It is most definitely a soundtrack—a very good soundtrack—but not an album. It’s more like a solo EP, with a few really good songs and a few more really good ideas for songs that were never finished.
While there are 11 tracks listed on the back of the CD, four of the cuts don’t even hit the two-minute mark, and of those only two have lyrics. I love the wide-open vibe of opener "Setting Forth" and the banjo work on its follow-up, "No Ceiling," but both of these just sort of … stop. Abruptly. This happens, apparently, because Vedder wrote this music for specific points in a film with very specific purposes; it’s not like he delivered a batch of songs inspired by “Into the Wild” and then let director Sean Penn edit them and weave them into a score. From what I understand, it seems Vedder watched pieces of the film Penn needed music for then molded these tunes around those frames.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the marketing machine from pitching “Into the Wild” as a “solo album,” a point backed by the leaked single “Hard Sun,” which is a brilliant five-minute epic. For anyone expecting more of the same—forget it. Because of the hype, my expectations were way too high, leaving my initial reaction to the CD somewhere between frustration and disappointment.
Fast-forward two weeks and much of that chagrin has melted away as I’ve gotten used to what “Into the Wild” is, rather than what it isn’t (taking the CD in the car with me a couple times certainly helped). When “Hard Sun” hit the Internet several weeks ago, its naked, raw, powerful beauty knocked me back a step, a feeling that certainly hasn’t diminished in the interim. This is without question one of Vedder’s best vocal performances on record in any format; the first verse/chorus still gives me chills, with his voice settling into an absolutely perfect groove of previously unheard depth and worldweary richness. And then later when the electric guitar kicks in and he layers a wavering moan on top of it … wowowowow.
Vedder’s voice is in top form throughout “Into the Wild,” in fact, and it is the No. 1 reason that makes this, er, album a worthwhile addition to his body of work; his delivery throughout brings mostly mediocre songs up several notches. This is most notable on “Society,” another cover, whose rather terrible lyrics are nearly forgotten in the wake of Vedder’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”-style interpretation.
Other standouts include “Far Behind,” a galloping acoustic rocker that stands as the only song here I could picture Vedder performing with Pearl Jam. “Rise,” meanwhile, marks his best work on the ukulele to date; I haven’t really liked any of his previous uke songs, but this one is downright gorgeous. “Guaranteed” closes the set on a graceful note with just Vedder picking on an acoustic guitar as he explores every nook and cranny of his range.
I haven’t seen “Into the Wild” yet, so I’m sure some of the shorter cuts will sound better after they’re put in context. But even without the movie, Vedder’s work here is a sign of good things to come—it gives me hope for what he’s capable of when Pearl Jam finally runs its course (not that I want that to happen any time soon, mind you). It’s not the pure solo effort I was hoping for, but his voice reaches out and virtually demands listening through a good pair of headphones.
Grade: B+

‘The Meanest Times,’ Dropkick Murphys

The Dropkick Murphys’ new album opens with a school bell ringing and children screaming in delight at their release. It’s an apt metaphor for this Celtic-influenced punk band from Boston, because their albums are nothing if not pure, freewheeling fun.
This is the Murphys’ follow-up to 2005’s “The Warrior’s Code,” whose classic “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” was used to such great effect in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” When I first heard the band was releasing a new album this fall, my first thought was: Can they possibly do anything to top that? The answer is, well, no, but they come darn close with “The State of Massachusetts,” the best song on this 15-track set. With its bouncy mandolin-led melody and dueling vocals from Al Barr and Ken Casey, “Massachusetts” is four minutes of pure energy (despite its rather melancholy subject matter).
Even though “Meanest Times” isn’t quite as exhilarating as its excellent predecessor, there are plenty of highlights here, including “Fairmount Hill,” “Flannigan’s Ball,” and the Irish-folk-on-steroids of “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” (the track most reminiscent of fellow Celtic punkers Flogging Molly). The Murphys don’t really change their winning bagpipes-and-blasting-guitars formula from album to album (or from track to track, really), but it’s refreshing to let them get your blood pumping anew every couple years.
Grade: B+

‘Is Is,’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs

With this five-song EP (released this summer), the fiery New York trio provide a perfect mix of the thrashy, trashy garage punk of 2003’s “Fever to Tell” and the art-punk glory of last year’s “Show Your Bones.” Every song on this release is an absolute gem, perfectly mixing the contrasting styles of band’s two previous albums into one glorious whole.
“Rockers to Swallow” opens the set with the staccato interplay of drummer Brian Chase and one of rock’s most underrated guitar virtuosos, Nick Zinner, who plays the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ The Edge to lead singer Karen O’s Bono. “Swallow” leads into the shimmering “Down Boy,” one of the best songs in the band’s quickly deepening catalog.
Middle track “Kiss Kiss” is a thrill ride in 2 minutes 45 seconds, merely serving to whet the appetite for the stomping fury of “Isis.” Karen then opens final track “10X10” with a lilting intro before making way for a roiling brew that does Led Zeppelin proud.
“Is Is” will be one of the best 17-minute stretches of rock music you’re likely to hear all year—or any year, for that matter. Combine this quintet with the equally stellar epic “Sealings” from the “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are having one heck of an “off” year.
Grade: A