Sunday, November 25, 2007

'No Country for Old Men'

Your reaction to the Coen brothers’ latest movie, “No Country for Old Men,” will probably depend on what type of movie watcher you are.

If you’re the type that watches primarily for aesthetic reasons, you’ll absolutely love this film. The Coens have delivered a work that’s beautifully done in all the major categories: acting, directing, writing, and cinematography. Most critics fall into this first group, of course, which is why “No Country” has received such high praise; they watch so, so many movies, anything that’s made this well will always strike a chord, no matter if it’s missing little things like resolution or satisfactory conclusion (that actually helps get good reviews—the weirder the better, typically).

See, those last two are what your average moviegoer wants, and they’ll find none of it in “No Country for Old Men.” It’s impossible to tell why without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that this movie does an exceedingly good job of building tension to an almost unbearable level, and then that tension is released off screen. It’s a complete letdown that leaves the remainder of Act 3 a complete wandering mess.

As a viewer, I’m somewhere between the above two categories. For the first two-thirds of this movie, I was in awe of how well it was done and excited to be seeing another good Western this fall (albeit a modern version) where even the sounds of footfalls in the dirt feel significant. Every major character is portrayed with quiet, flawless precision by a roster of actors that could legitimately earn multiple Oscar nods: Tommy Lee Jones has never looked more weatherworn than he does here as a small-town Texas sheriff; Josh Brolin (you remember him, the older brother from “The Goonies”?) is pitch-perfect as a Vietnam vet taking a desperate shot at the brass ring when a drug deal goes bad and leaves $2 million up for grabs; Javier Bardem (pictured above) is magnetic and terrifying as the mercenary hired to hunt down Brolin; and Woody Harrelson saunters onscreen for a casually cool cameo not to be missed.

But all this pristinely captured sound and fury ends up signifying nothing. I get what the Coens are trying to say—that this is a brutal, violent world that beats you down the older you get, and that brutal violence can come from anywhere, especially when you’re not looking for it. That message isn’t strong enough, though, to make up for an ending so unsatisfying it probably makes David Chase jealous.

Grade: B-

Friday, November 23, 2007

2007: My 25 Songs of the Year

Once again, in honor of Black Friday I give you 25 songs that made a big impact on me this past year—everything listed here comes highly recommended, obviously. Keep in mind, these didn’t necessarily come out in 2007. I’m frequently behind the times (sometimes by several decades); elsewhere, old favorites were made new again for various reasons. And for the first time, this year I also name my favorite albums, rather than just songs. Without further ado …

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes/“Raising Sand,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Based on my review for “Icky Thump,” it’s not hard to see why this album has been at the top of my list for the latter half of this year. It was untouchable, I thought, but that was before Plant and Krauss unveiled their heavenly concoction of covers just last month. “Raising Sand” isn’t the type of album I usually go head over heels for—it’s a little mellow and quiet for my tastes. I loved it instantly, though, because their voices fit together so well; the more I’ve listened to it, the better it’s become.

So thinking “Raising Sand” was my new 2007 top dog, I went back and gave “Icky Thump” another spin just to be sure. Well, after shelving the Stripes’ latest masterpiece for a couple months, the album came roaring back to life—maybe with even more strength. One thing I find interesting and appealing about both of these records is that they actually get stronger the further you get into them; there’s no easy track to skip, no good place to stop, and in a rare twist their B sides are as strong or stronger than the A sides. Once I push play, I’m almost compelled to listen all the way through each.

So how to pick between two albums with no weaknesses? Easy: Don’t choose, just enjoy.

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs/“Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem

I’ve written about both of these, too, so not much need to rehash here. “Sink or Swim” was without question my Summer 2007 record—perfect for playing at high volumes during late-night drives.

“Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire (from 2007’s “Neon Bible”)

I knew this was gonna be the one from the first time I heard it (and basically said as much in my review). It stops me dead in my tracks every time it comes on. It’s ethereal, gorgeous, rollicking, ramshackle, mesmerizing … and those a capella breaks just kill me. It immediately reminded me of Springsteen, so it was nice to have that notion confirmed last month when Bruce and the E Street Band covered the song live in concert. What better endorsement could there possibly be for this wonderful piece? I just love everything about it.

Eddie Vedder covers, well, everybody: “Hard Sun”/“Love Reign O’er Me”/“All Along the Watchtower”

It was quite an “off” year for Mr. Vedder, unleashing three of the best vocal performances of his career. Just one of these songs would have been enough to satisfy this Pearl Jam fan a year after the band’s triumphal self-titled effort of 2006. But Vedder outdid himself in 2007. As I wrote in January, I feel some of his best work is done on other people’s original material, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he made these three epic tours de force wholly his own. Even still, I was shocked each time at how good these three cuts are. His voice certainly has changed over the years, but if this is where it’s heading, I’m absolutely and totally fine with it. Go listen to “Hard Sun” through a good pair of headphones to hear what I’m talking about.

“All the Way,” Gasoline Heart (from 2006’s “You Know What You Are”)

My favorite track from an album I let sit around for too long before discovering how excellent it is. Lots of good tracks here, but “All the Way” summarizes the Tom Petty/Pearl Jam/Foo Fighters vibe Gasoline Heart embodies.

“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords (from 2007’s “The Distant Future” EP)
Winner of the 2007 Pleasant Surprise Award for television, Flight of the Conchords had me cracking up all summer. This is one of several songs from the new HBO TV show that achieved instant cult-classic status, led by Jemaine, my preferred Conchord: “You know when I’m down to just my socks what time it is … it’s business time!” Makes me laugh every time.

“Days,” the Kinks (from 1968)
How did I go my whole life before this year without listening to the Kinks? I don’t know how it happened, but I’m glad to have corrected the error in 2007. For anyone who thinks there’s nothing more to this band than “You Really Got Me,” I encourage you to pick up the 2002 two-disc “The Ultimate Collection.” “Days” just jumped out at me the first time I listened through that comp. It’s a powerful, bittersweet eulogy from lead singer Ray Davies.

“Extreme Ways,” Moby (from 2002’s “18”)
Otherwise known as “The Jason Bourne Theme.” Need I say more? Could’ve put this killer track on my 2004 list, too. The Bourne movies are some of my all-time faves, and the chiming, high-pitched intro to this song is indelibly linked to them. It’s one of those tracks (like “Woke Up This Morning”) you’d think was written specifically for the soundtrack but actually wasn’t. Take these lines, for instance, sung by Moby with just the right note of strain and desperation in his voice:

I’ve seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn’t believe

If that doesn’t sum up Jason Bourne, nothing does.

“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jay-Z (from 2001’s “The Blueprint”)
From the first moment this song came pounding out of the theater speakers during the trailer for “American Gangster,” I was hooked. As is typically the case with Jay-Z, though, this cut succeeds despite his rather mediocre lyrics—his powerful voice and persona speak more than his actual words. The heart of this track is the fabulous wall-of-sound production work by Kanye West, building off a sample of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s original R&B beauty (from which Jay-Z took the song’s title). A track like this makes it easy to see why West would soon take over the hip-hop world. It’s a broad, mythically virtuoso studio performance, and it was an inspired choice for the film’s trailer.

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes (from 2007’s “Icky Thump”)
There are several songs on the Stripes’ return to form I actually like more than the album’s eponymous opening track (“A Martyr for My Love for You” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” to name a couple), but “Icky Thump” was the track that had the most impact. After 2005’s scattershot “Get Behind Me Satan,” “Thump” proved Jack White hadn’t forgotten about his electric guitar and that he was still willing and able to call down the hammer of the gods. The only thing that hampers this song is White’s illegal immigration chatter; other than that, it’s an absolute monster, and a new iconic track for the band.

“Jesus,” Brand New (from 2006’s “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me”)
Covered this one in my review from earlier this year, but I’ll just reiterate how much I love the hypnotic guitar part on this change-of-pace track from Brand New’s best album yet. Jesse Lacey’s introspective, spiritual lyrics take this one over the top.

“Meet Me in the City,” The Black Keys (from 2006’s “Chulahoma” EP)
This charming, mellow groove introduced me to The Black Keys, one of my new favorite bands (again, how I missed them for the past several years, I don’t know). I recommend not only all of “Chulahoma,” but also the harder-driving “Rubber Factory” from 2004 and as well as 2003’s “thickfreakness.” Can’t say enough good things about this band.

“Middle of the Road,” The Pretenders (from 1984’s “Learning to Crawl”)
Another how-could-I-miss-them band I finally got around to this year. “Middle of the Road” stood out for me among the band’s many hits.

“Muzzle,” The Smashing Pumpkins (from 1995’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”)

I basically covered everything needs be said about the Pumpkins in my July review/post about “Zeitgeist.” “Muzzle,” with its gorgeous and soaring melody, is hands-down my favorite SP song, and it was nice to go back and listen to it so much this past year. It’s 3 minutes and 44 seconds of Pumpkins perfection.

“My Love for You Is Real,” Ryan Adams (from 2007’s “Follow the Lights” EP)
For the past several months, I’ve been debating about which song from Ryan Adams’ 2007 full-length “Easy Tiger” to put on this list. Eventually I just settled on all of the first three tracks on the disc, because they went so well together. And then “My Love for You” came along and essentially summarized the goodness that is that trio into one gorgeous ballad. Quandary solved.

“My Moon My Man,” Feist (from 2007’s “The Reminder”)
Sure “1 2 3 4” got all the pub, but this is my favorite track off Leslie Feist’s breakthrough album. One of the things I love about her is the little catch she has in her silky voice; that quirk is on full display here. If “The Reminder” had a few more energetic numbers like this, it would have been one of my favorite albums of the year.

“Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (from 2007’s “Raising Sand”)
Amazing what a fresh treatment and the addition of Alison Krauss’ voice and violin can do for a song. This lover’s lament didn’t exactly jump off the disc when Plant originally recorded it nearly a decade ago with fellow Led Zeppelin alum Jimmy Page. This version, however, is a showstopper in an album full of them. Plant’s collaboration with Krauss has obviously reinvigorated the leonine rock icon; he sounds as good as ever on this track. Simply beautiful, and hopefully there’s more where this came from.

“Sealings,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
“Spider-Man 3” the movie may have been a bit disappointing, but the soundtrack produced two of my favorite songs of the year. First up is this swirling gem from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was quite a year for the YYYs, as I could have put basically any of the five cuts from their “Is Is” EP on here, too. “Sealings” gets the nod because I really like how the song moves through different acts, from the murky opening minute to the incendiary first verse/chorus, to the “woooooooo” bridge, and back again. One of the New York trio’s best.

“Signal Fire,” Snow Patrol (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
A fitting follow-up to the Irish quintet’s 2006 breakthrough smash “Chasing Cars,” “Signal Fire” deals in the same arena-ready rock/ballad style. It actually may shade a bit too far in that direction for my taste, but I’ll still take it because I love the orchestration and pounding drums. Much like Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated” from “Spider-Man 2,” “Signal Fire” captures the mood of the movie superbly.

“Terry’s Song,” Bruce Springsteen (from 2007’s “Magic”)
There really isn’t a bad song on “Magic,” but this intended throwaway (it’s not even on the tracklist) actually stands out above the rest. Sounding like the best song Neil Young never wrote for “Harvest,” “Terry’s Song” is the most honest moment on “Magic,” an album that wastes a ferocious and red-hot E Street Band on forced political messages. This quiet, powerful eulogy showcases Springsteen at his relatable, everyman best.

“The State of Massachusetts,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2007’s “The Meanest Times”)
Pretty much covered this song in my review. When the Murphys are on fire like this, they’re tough to beat. Another track to play at maximum volume, and one of my all-time favorites from this bunch of Boston rabble-rousers. A fitting sequel to 2005’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” without rehashing what made that song great. “State” gets my blood boiling in all the right ways.

“We Came to Dance,” Gaslight Anthem (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)
Comparisons to Springsteen’s “Jungleland” shouldn’t be thrown around casually, and I’m not doing so here when I say “We Came to Dance” reminds me of the Boss’ classic. “Dance” doesn’t sound like “Jungleland” really in the slightest, but it carries the same gesture and intent; it shares the same headspace, the same tone of last-chance desperation and hope. A brilliant song, one of several on “Sink or Swim.”

“What More Can I Say,” Danger Mouse (from 2004’s “The Grey Album”)
Yes, I’m surprised there are two Jay-Z songs on my list this year (much less even one), but once again this track is more about the production than Jigga himself. After the disappointment of the ridiculously overhyped “LOVE” remixing of The Beatles from last year, I went back to this true mash-up of The Fab Four’s “White Album” with Jay-Z’s “Black Album” from producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (one half of Gnarls Barkley). I could have picked any of about six songs to include on this list, that’s how good “The Grey Album” is; I went with “What More Can I Say” because it works off my favorite track from “The White Album,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” of course.

“Wolf Like Me,” TV on the Radio (from 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain”)
One of the best-reviewed albums of last year just happened to come out at the same time as Johnny Cash’s “American V,” a record that dominated my musical life in 2006. Combine that poor timing with the fact that “Cookie Mountain” takes a few listens to sink in, and this disc unfortunately got pushed aside. I picked it back up early this year and “Wolf Like Me” was my gateway to an excellent album that refuses to be pigeonholed in any one genre. This song is a visceral powerhouse that virtually demands playback at an intolerably high volume.

“You Are My Face,” Wilco (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”)
Wilco’s first release in three years wasn't quite what I was hoping for, but I think it laid a solid foundation for what Jeff Tweedy believes will be a stable lineup for the future (that would be nice). Picking a song from that album came down to two: “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany”; “Face” gets the edge for its majestic movement between whispery verses and Pink Floyd-style crashing choruses.

And while I’m at it …

MY 25 FAVORITE BANDS/MUSICIANS OF THE MOMENT (in alphabetical order and subject to change in another moment)
Ryan Adams
Arcade Fire
The Black Keys
The Bouncing Souls
Brand New
Johnny Cash
Danger Mouse
Dashboard Confessional (though I admit they’re basically done—the new album isn’t much)
Dropkick Murphys
Flogging Molly (new album in the spring—hooray!)
The Gaslight Anthem
Gasoline Heart
Alison Krauss
PJ Harvey (though the new album is quite disappointing—I’m afraid her best days are behind her)
Pearl Jam
Tom Petty
Robert Plant
Silversun Pickups
Snow Patrol
Bruce Springsteen
The White Stripes
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Monday, November 19, 2007

‘American Gangster’

Since seeing this movie last weekend, I’ve been through one of the toughest work weeks of my life. Thus, I’m a little worse for wear and severely lacking in the eloquence this fabulous film deserves.

So let me just say this is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are absolutely phenomenal; both play their characters down a bit, an excellent choice in a genre that lends itself to excess (it would have been easy for Washington to go into “Scarface” territory). Director Ridley Scott takes his time in letting his epic’s deep and complicated storylines play out. This movie never rushes, and yet it never drags, even at 157 minutes long.

“American Gangster” doesn’t make the crime life look sexy, nor does it lionize law enforcement officers. Both sides of the drug war are treated fairly and with depth. Oh, and the music is fabulous.

It’s a shame this film comes on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” because “Gangster” is actually better but probably won’t get the recognition it deserves due to stupid Academy politics.

Grade: A

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, ‘Follow the Lights’—and Other EPs I Love

Ryan Adams’ latest release is satisfying and frustrating for the same reason: If a few of the songs found here had made their way onto “Easy Tiger,” the prolific singer/songwriter’s full-length release from June, that album may have ranked as one of his best efforts.

I have no idea why the mercurial Adams decided to leave both “Follow the Lights” and especially the sublime “My Love for You Is Real” off “Tiger,” but these songs alone make this seven-track EP more than worth the five bucks it costs. The latter is a splendid straightforward love song Adams has been carrying around in his big bag of gems for the better part of a decade; it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. A song written during the “Gold” period (I'm pretty sure, anyway), “My Love for You” is definitely reminiscent of that point in his career with its focused, polished, yet still adventurous vibe. It starts out quietly, growing in passion and intensity as more instruments join the fray for an extended electric/acoustic jam. The track would have fit in so nicely with the fabulous opening trio from “Easy Tiger,” but thus is the give-and-take of loving this man’s music—you never get exactly what you want when you want it.

This new EP also features a killer country version of Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole,” which Adams has been trotting out to rave reviews while on tour this year. A man very publicly recovering from substance abuse, Adams makes this song wholly his own, and his version holds its own against anything he’s ever recorded. This is an absolute must for any AIC fan—or Adams fan, for that matter. “Hole” is coupled with another cover, Willie Nelson’s “Blue Hotel,” which hails from the country legend’s “Songbird,” an album produced by Adams last year.

The remaining three songs are reworkings of Adams’ own songs, and they achieve varying levels of success. “This Is It” is the lead track off 2003’s “Rock N Roll,” Adams’ ill-fated attempt at gutter rock. This version is far superior, proving once again how valuable the Cardinals are to Adams as a backbone to his music.

This EP only fails with its final two entries. First up is a stripped-down approach to “If I Am a Stranger,” one of the best tracks off 2005’s “Cold Roses.” The song is so good it’ll play well no matter how Adams records it and the slightly altered arrangement here is fine, but I don’t really see the point of including it. Same goes for the barely-discernible differences in the re-arranged “Dear John” (from 2005’s “Jacksonville City Nights”), which closes the EP. These two tracks are fine, I guess, but for a guy who writes songs like breathing, I find it odd he wouldn’t dig up a couple more new tracks for an official release. These last two kill the momentum of the disc and end an otherwise excellent EP with a bit of a whimper.

Grade: B+


Between this post over at Fuel/Friends and the strength of new EPs from Adams and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the format recently. Know what I’ve discovered? I love them, despite myself.

I’ve always thought of EPs as lesser releases, wishing the band would have just pushed on for a full album of new material. Plus, it kinda annoyed me to listen to them on a practical level; they’re over so quickly it was barely worth putting them in the CD player. But with the advent of the iPod, where it’s so easy to jump from album to album, the EP has undergone a reawakening in my musical rotation. It surprised me to find on further contemplation how much I love some of those in my collection, and how high they rank in the catalogs of some of my favorite artists. Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

“Chulahoma,” The Black Keys (2006)—You’d be hard-pressed to find a better collection of six guitar-driven, brawny blues tracks than those included on the latest release from this excellent two-piece band. Someone sent me “Meet Me in the City,” the third song off this EP, on a mix CD and I was hooked instantly. If The White Stripes are Led Zeppelin, then the Keys are Stevie Ray Vaughn—a bit mellower and more down-to-earth, but enthralling all the same. Also recommended (and equally excellent): 2004’s “Rubber Factory.”

“So Impossible,” Dashboard Confessional (2001)—A concept album in four songs, this release vividly describes all the nervous and exciting stages of newfound love—from the silent pining of “For You to Notice,” to the this-might-just-work hope of the title track, to the pre-date jitters of “Remember to Breathe,” to the triumphant glee of “Hands Down.” This is my favorite D/C release.

“Recently,” Dave Matthews Band (1994)—Five songs of perfection, “Recently” is DMB at their best. Every cut—recorded live—is a band classic played with incendiary fervor. Revisiting this disc now (also my favorite of their entire catalog), it’s easy to remember why this was one of my favorite groups for a long period of my life. They’ve fallen a long way in the intervening years, but the “Recently” EP remains untainted in its greatness.

“Merkinball,” Pearl Jam w/Neil Young (1995)—One of the most powerful one-two punches in Pearl Jam’s catalog, the two songs found here—“I Got Shit” and “Long Road”—deliver on the tantalizing promise of PJ’s work with their godfather, Neil Young, that wasn’t quite fulfilled with “Mirrorball,” Young Neil’s full-length from earlier that year that featured PJ as the backing band. These are without question two of Pearl Jam’s best songs, and I feel their work with Young set a new course for the band that resulted in two stellar follow-up albums, “No Code” and “Yield.” There’s a reason why these songs continue to pop up with regularity at shows more than a decade later: “Merkinball” is essential Pearl Jam listening.

“7,” U2 (2002)—This Target exclusive came completely out of nowhere but delivered some choice cuts from U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” period. First and foremost is the alternate version of “Walk On,” which features the “Hallelujah” outro chorus—one of my favorite moments of U2’s entire catalog. Also included here is an alternate—and far, far superior—acoustic version of “Stuck in a Moment,” stripped of all the studio cheese found on the official release two years prior. “Summer Rain” is a fun b-side, and “Always” showed us what “Beautiful Day” evolved from. I also love the inclusion of the “Elevation (Influx Remix),” since the band used this as its walk-on music for the 2001 tour of the same name. This EP is probably forgotten by now to most of the U2 community, but I still return to it regularly.

“Wide Awake in America,” U2 (1985)—An albeit abridged companion piece of the “Unforgettable Fire” tour, the two b-sides on this quickie are actually rather forgettable. It’s the two live cuts that make this disc essential: the always thrilling “A Sort of Homecoming,” and a version of “Bad” that I remember reading somewhere described as the defining recording of this classic song.

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2007)—Not much to add here from what I wrote last month. This is definitely one of my favorite discs of 2007, and maybe even better than the band’s last full-length, 2006’s “Show Your Bones.” As soon as it finishes, I just want to listen to it again. And again. And again.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’

Let me say right off the top I don’t have the musical history or dexterity to decompress in detail the brilliance that is “Raising Sand,” an inspired album of covers from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. If you’d like a song-by-song breakdown, I refer you to the excellent review from All Music Guide.

What I can give you is my personal reaction to this album, which is something along the lines of perfect bliss. When I first heard about this effort several months ago I was caught off guard by the randomness of it. But after the initial shock wore off, the fervent anticipation kicked in. “Raising Sand” doesn’t disappoint; if anything, it exceeds my lofty expectations.

Plant and Krauss possess two of my favorite voices in all of music. The former baptized me in rock and roll as a child; the first time I heard his call to arms on "Black Dog" was, quite literally, a life-changing event. I didn’t come across Krauss until hearing her on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, but I’ve been in love with her heavenly pipes ever since.

On “Raising Sand,” these two icons blend perfectly. The album is, on the whole, a quiet affair, but not in that whispery indie way that I abhor. Instead, it sounds like the gentle meeting of two like-minded musicians who are trying, unselfishly, to make room for one another, feeling their way as they go. Their respective powers aren’t diminished; they simply don’t feel the need to call down the hammer of the gods to prove their mettle. That power is bubbling just below the surface, though, and the restraint and intimacy of these recordings is what gives “Raising Sand” its core strength. On several cuts one singer serves as the primary vocalist while the other drifts in and out of the frame, filling in the gaps with complementary goodness.

My favorite song on the album is “Please Read the Letter,” a throwaway from Plant’s 1998 collaboration with Jimmy Page, “Walking to Clarksdale.” Slowing the tempo, stripping away the electric guitar bombast of that earlier treatment, and adding Krauss’ voice and sterling violin transforms this piece into a sweeping acoustic masterpiece.

But, really, there’s no wrong turn on “Raising Sand,” where every song is a standout for its own reasons. I’ll recommend Krauss’ haunting lead on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; the bluesy, Zeppelin-esque “Nothin’,” where Plant’s voice meets Krauss’ violin in some otherworldly realm; and “Your Long Journey,” a hymnal and more traditional duet. The album is peaceful yet exciting, instantly accessible yet challenging. It rewards multiple listens, and is without question one of the best releases of this or any other year.

Grade: A+

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Assassination of The Smashing Pumpkins by the Coward Billy Corgan

Last week, I received an e-mail promoting The Smashing Pumpkins' latest "release," a re-issue of "Zeitgeist," which came out only three months ago. You may recall from my RELEVANT review that the original "Zeitgeist" itself was issued in five different formats through separate retailers, each disc holding one "exclusive" track each. It was a horrendous money-grab to try and milk die-hard fans for more album sales.

This is even worse. The new re-issue collects a couple of those exclusive tracks, plus adds one more unreleased song and throws in a DVD documentary (as if I want to learn more about this cheapened "reunion")—all exclusively at Buy More, er, I mean Best Buy. I cannot believe how far Corgan has fallen in less than a decade. Remember, in 2000 this same man released the band's then-final album, "MACHINA II," for FREE to select fans with his blessing to distribute it—again, for FREE—throughout the Internet. Now in his vainglorious return, he's bilking those same fans for all they're worth. I bought one copy of "Zeitgeist" (the one from Target), listened to it enough times only to give a fair review, and haven't touched it since. The album sucks, and I'm glad I haven't plunked down any more dough to see this bastardized version of a once great band on tour—Corgan doesn't deserve any more of my money.

Contrast this Pumpkins fiasco with Wilco, one of the most fan-friendly bands on the planet. Wilco is re-releasing its latest album, "Sky Blue Sky," in Europe with an extra EP of live and studio cuts that weren't on the original. But here's the thing: If you've already bought the CD (which, of course, I have), all you have to do is stick it in your computer, go to Wilco's web site, and you can download the EP for FREE. (They did the exact same thing with 2004's "A Ghost Is Born.")

Not only that, but on the most recent leg of Wilco's North American tour, they actually allowed fans to send in song requests via the Internet, then did their best to play some of those requests at their shows. Of course they still stuck with their basic set for the "SBS" tour, but if you check out the recent setlists over at WilcoBase, it's plain to see they honored several of those entries. Tweedy said now that the band finally has settled into a stable lineup, this has been a great way to force his relatively new bandmates to go back and learn some of Wilco's older material; and, of course, there's the added benefit of interacting with the audience.

I know making records is a business, and I'm certainly not one of those DIY maniacs. The term "sellout" is so overused, it's basically meaningless at this point. But you couldn't find two clearer examples here of how to treat your fans with respect, or how to screw them out of every last penny. Not surprisingly, the band that gets it right time and time again is still artistically viable; the band that didn't is nothing more than a rehashed shadow of its former greatness treading on past successes.