Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Raconteurs: Live in D.C. (sorta)

In the latest in a series of "Shows Jeremy Was Dying to Go at the 9:30 Club but Missed Due to Circumstances Beyond His Control," NPR is broadcasting live again tonight, this time featuring The Raconteurs. 

They just finished the main set with a blistering version of "Blue Veins" from the 2006 debut album, and doggone if it didn't live up to all the hype I've heard about it. I've been trying to think for two years what this song reminds me of and wasn't able to put my finger on it until right now: This is Jack White's version of Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You." And the album version doesn't do it justice. Wow.

I didn't catch the set from the very beginning, but you and I can both listen to the archive starting tomorrow when it's posted to NPR's music page. When I logged on about 40 minutes ago, they were just ripping into "Top Yourself" off the new album, leading right into "Old Enough," both two of my favorites from the new album. Hearing these and others from "Consolers of the Lonely" confirms for me the glowing review I wrote of that CD last week; these songs appeal much more to me than those on the first album. The songs from "Broken Boy Soldier" they've played tonight also sound excellent—stronger and harder than the recorded version—but they've also wisely selected only the four strongest tracks from that CD: "Steady As She Goes," "Store Bought Bones," the aforementioned "Blue Veins," and the title track.

Speaking to my brother about the new record, though, he clued me in to how the other side might feel. He still finds the first album superior because the new one sounds "just like The White Stripes." To that I say, "Uh, yeah. What's the problem?" 

OK, actually I say: No, it sounds like the elemental core of the Stripes expanded and taken in new directions not possible in the duo's highly structured format (despite the fantastic stretches they managed on last year's "Icky Thump"). But I do take that point under advisement. And it's not like I hated "Soldier." On the contrary, I liked it very much; I just prefer blues/country-rocker Jack White to pop-rocker Jack White.

One other note about what I'm hearing tonight over the Internet (and, wow, pretty nice sound for a live stream): The songs don 't sound quite as polished in person as I'd expect. I'm pretty sure that's on purpose, but it was a little startling. Spontaneity's one thing; sloppiness is another.

Still, would have loved to be there tonight, especially now as they're wrapping up with "Carolina Story." Bittersweetness. Ah well, at least all that government NPR money is actually doing me some good for a change.

Monday, May 26, 2008

‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

The new “Indiana Jones” installment (no, I’m not typing that unwieldy title again), is the kind of movie I need to see twice before making final judgment. Much like George Lucas’ other long-awaited project, 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace” (what is it with this guy and bad monikers?), “Indy 4” has a veritable Molotov cocktail of insanely high expectations and longstanding goodwill. As a result, there’s no way after a nearly two-decade wait this movie could possibly live up to the hype; and, by the same token, Indy fans (like me) are probably willing—on first viewing—to overlook various disappointments because they (and I) are so glad to have their beloved haymaker-throwing archaeologist back in action.

I remember walking out of “The Phantom Menace” almost exactly nine years ago to the day and thinking I liked it, having been dazzled by all that updated lightsaber technique and what not. It wasn’t until the third viewing (yes, I’m ashamed to have seen it thrice in the theaters) that all the excitement finally ebbed and I realized what an awful train-wreck of a movie “Menace” truly is.

I don’t think the same will happen with “Indy 4,” but I doubt I’ll come back to this movie very often, either, the way I do its three predecessors. There were definitely highlights, but most of those were—like “Phantom Menace”—action driven. To be sure, director Steven Spielberg hasn’t lost his touch for delivering the goods on a good ol’ fashioned chase sequence. There are plenty in “Indy 4,” and they’re all basically spectacular.

But it’s the stuff in between and around those romps that leaves me wanting more. Spielberg and Lucas made absolutely the right choice by not trying to fake Indy’s age; the plot of “Crystal Skull” takes place 19 years after the events in the franchise’s last installment, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But the showrunners don’t take that premise far enough—Jones’ age is only dealt with in sidelong glances. Early in the film, young co-star Shia LeBeouf’s Mutt asks Indy: “What are you, 80?” It’s a good line, and it gets a good laugh, but all is seemingly forgotten a few minutes later when Jones delivers a few nice punches and jumps from a moving motorcycle into a moving car. And even though Harrison Ford more than holds his own in these action scenes, the gutsier and more satisfying choice would have examined what it’s like for a fading hero to face his own physical limitations. That's a movie I'll watch more than once.

Matter of fact, it’s ironic that for a character so beloved, “Crystal Skull” doesn’t focus on him much at all. The central plot is so convoluted, Indy is forced to basically float from place to place so the script can do its heavy lifting and unravel the knot of a mystery that never really makes much sense. As a result, there are at times long stretches between action sequences with little more going on than characters standing around delivering expository dialogue—more precious character-developing screen time wasted. For his part, Ford seems torn between two ways of portraying Indy: he vacillates between the cynical world-weary stud who’s seen and done it all, and the old guy who doesn’t understand what the next generation of young whipper-snappers is all about.

All this is not to say I didn’t like “Indy 4,” because I did. LeBeouf is downright terrific in his role of a young greaser who enlists Jones’ help to find his kidnapped mother; the budding star injects some needed energy into the film, and he and Ford work quite well together. Despite his struggles in search of the correct Indy tone, Ford in spots reminds us all over again why we love Indiana Jones with his wisecracks and whip smacks. It’s a fun day out at the movies, with some laughs, some gasps, and some moments to cheer.

It’s just a shame that after so many years and so much wrangling over a story, somewhere along the line Lucas and Spielberg cut the heart out of their hero.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 25, 2008

'Iron Man'

For awhile there, I was ready to declare “Iron Man” one of the best comic-book-to-film adaptations of all time. Up until the last 15 minutes or so, that is, when apparently director Jon Favreau had his brain momentarily replaced by Michael Bay’s.

See, what makes this movie great is exactly what you’ve heard—and exactly what continues to push the movie’s box office receipts higher than anyone anticipated: Robert Downey Jr. gives a splendidly refreshing performance, anchoring a film that’s witty, funny, sarcastic, emotional, and thrilling. All that goes out the window, though, in the climax as Downey’s Tony Stark (dressed in the metal duds of the title character) fights the film’s villain (to give that away here would be spoiling too much); the battle royale is schlocky, chunky, cheesy, mindless, witless, and so filled with clich├ęs and awful dialogue, I wondered how the same people who crafted such a wonderful movie to that point could have produced such drivel.

The ability to close a film with style and class is one of the characteristics that defines greatness in this genre (along with picking the right actor for the hero). Anybody can have two heavyweights go at it and blow a bunch of holes in each other and their surroundings. But the two prime examples of how to do it right begin and end with two sequels, “Superman II” and “Spider-Man 2,” where the heroes had to use as much brains as brawn to defeat their enemies; these two films had the guts to turn the action down a bit at the end, rather than ramping it up to ridiculous levels. “Iron Man” is without question a cut above the rest, but it's rather ironic that a story with one of the smartest superheroes in the canon could get so stupid so quickly.

But all that's not to say there isn't plenty to love about this movie. Like most of the genre’s biggest hits of the past decade, “Iron Man” is an origin story, and all credit goes to Favreau and crew for doing essentially the same movie we’ve seen over and over again (“Spider-Man,” “Batman Begins,” “Daredevil,” etc.), and still making it look and feel fresh. Of course, so much of that is keyed off the casting of Downey, who brings as much of his wit and roguish charm to this big-budget actioner as he has to so many of his more subtle roles in the past. He’s funny and heroic, yet not entirely likeable in all the right ways.

And much credit also should go to the special-effects folks at Industrial Light & Magic; though I was a bit wary of the footage released in the trailers, when Iron Man’s movements are put into context of the overall film, his presence is downright flawless. Downey’s first forays into the suit’s abilities are some of the most exciting moments in any comic-book movie I’ve seen, certainly rivaling Tobey Maguire’s work as Peter Parker and Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in similar plots/films.

So, in the end, “Iron Man” is one of those increasingly rare treats: An action/adventure flick actually deserving of the term "blockbuster."

Grade: B+

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Raconteurs, ‘Consolers of the Lonely’

When The Raconteurs’ first album came out back in 2006, it sounded like a collection of tracks recorded on a lark in somebody’s garage. Which, of course, it actually was. Despite hype to the contrary about Jack White’s new endeavor with friend and fellow singer/songwriter Brendan Benson not being “just a side project,” that’s exactly what most of “Broken Boy Soldiers” sounded like, with rare exceptions (“Blue Veins”).

This is not to say “Soldiers” was a subpar effort; even these guys’ knock-offs are first rate. But their initial album meandered to the point it lacked a signature sound and focus, as if White and Benson tried too hard not to assert their influence over the other, adding up to a collection that was less than the sum of its parts.

All this has changed for the better on the Raconteurs’ new album, “Consolers of the Lonely,” released last month. This is what I was hoping for two years ago, a perfect fusion between White’s raw rock-and-blues power and Benson’s sublime pop/rock sensibilities. It’s focused, strong, and unabashed, thundering along with purpose and confidence.

We hear this right from the first track, “Consoler of the Lonely,” which starts with a loud, crunching guitar and sees the two leads deftly trade verses. As each enters the fray, the tempo and style change, almost like two different songs have been sewn together seamlessly. This isn’t even one of the five best songs on this album, and I would argue it’s still more exciting than anything on “Broken Boy Soldiers.” That’s how strong this record is.

From there it’s off and running through 50 glorious minutes of the most adventurous rock and roll you’re likely to hear this year. White offers up several rave-ups scattered throughout the album’s 14 tracks, including the breakneck lead single “Salute Your Solution,” the thrashing “Five on the Five,” and standout “Hold Up,” where Jack addresses both his throwback ideals and the love of a good woman.

Benson, meanwhile, does some of his best work on the album’s fourth cut, “Old Enough.” For the first few bars it sounds little different than one of the gems from his 2005 solo effort “Alternative to Love”—and then the fiddle and organ come flying into the scene and the song veers into some kind of ethereal, off-kilter country realm.

Benson has other highlights on the record, too (“Many Shades of Black,” for instance), but perhaps his greatest contribution is one of humility. It’s an obvious sign of White and Benson’s friendship that the latter is able this time around to let White take his rightful place as the band's leader. Nothing against Benson, certainly, but Jack White is one of the seminal artists of this decade. Besides basically singlehandedly making guitar heroics relevant for a new generation through his signature band, The White Stripes, have we already forgotten his contributions to 2003’s “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, or how he resuscitated Loretta Lynn’s career in 2004? So the fact that “Consolers of the Lonely” contains some of the best work of his life makes this album all the more remarkable—and essential.

I’m speaking specifically of three songs here, three essential cuts that stand up—and come downright close to surpassing—anything White has written to this point. “Top Yourself” is a country/blues epic, complete with what sounds like banjo plucking deep in the background and a sinewy electric riff that would sound just right on the Stripes’ “De Stijl” from 2000. It’s a cousin both musically and thematically to “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)” from the most recent Stripes album, last year’s “Icky Thump.” Here White engages in tough love once again by imploring a woman to stand up for herself and break free of a bad relationship.

Next is “These Stones Will Shout,” the album’s penultimate track that serves as the Raconteurs’ version of Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The song starts soft but fervent on dueling acoustic guitars before calling down the hammer of the gods and exploding into classic-rock heaven.

And then there’s album-closer “Carolina Drama,” a twisty, wordy tale of a broken home and a son’s bloody, drunken quest for vengeance. In other words, here’s White’s take on one of his heroes, Bob Dylan.

The initial excitement surrounding the Raconteurs came down to one basic notion: If Jack White can do so much with just drums and a guitar in The White Stripes, what could he accomplish when backed by an entire band? It may have taken a couple years to find out, but “Consolers of the Lonely” finally answers that question with absolute certainty in what must be considered one of the best albums of 2008.

Grade: A

Sunday, May 04, 2008

‘29 Years Before I Saw You’: The National at Messiah College, 5.3.08

So that’s what all the fuss is about. Okay, I get it now.

The National was one of the most buzzed-about bands of 2007, with their latest album, “Boxer,” landing at or near the top of many a year-end best-of list. Perhaps all that ginormous indie hype is why I stayed away; perhaps I just had too much other great music to listen to. But for whatever reason, I never got around to hearing “Boxer” last year.

So when I learned the Ohio-via-New York quintet was playing Messiah College, well, that was a no-brainer. A proving ground, of sorts. What better way to determine if they’re really worthy of all this chatter?

Going to a concert without knowing the band’s songs is a much different experience from seeing a beloved favorite. The group is either going to win you over or they’re not; with no pre-conceived notions or built-in goodwill, there’s no bias. The music has to stand on its own, has to reach out and grab you. The National have this territory covered.

It all starts with frontman Matt Berninger, whose deep, arresting baritone drifts in and out of the songs like a breeze, never overstated or trying too hard, yet impossible to ignore. It’s like his vocal is always there in the room, and he just takes the cover off and lets it out when the music requires.

The band surrounding him creates the perfect atmosphere to support Berninger’s strong-yet-whispy presence. Most songs are mellow, a mix between electric and acoustic, and some are downright quiet in true “indie” stylings these days. Even when the band revs up and gets loud, it’s still in a decidedly minor key (I guess—I’m no composer). The difference between The National and, say, Sufjan Stevens (whom I generally cannot stand) is Berninger’s voice; he does subdued with power that gives the band true gravitas. These songs are intimate and epic, precise and expansive, all at the same time.

The National played for about 80 minutes, and if I had to guess offered up about 15 songs. Knowing the material hardly at all, it would have been impossible to take notes on a setlist; I know they opened with “Start a War,” closed with two songs off the “Cherry Tree” EP, and in between played through a majority of “Boxer.” Particular favorites for me were “Slow Show,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” and “Fake Empire.”

Six years ago, I went to see Wilco for the first time under much the same circumstances. I didn’t know a single song when I walked into the venue, but wanted to see them live to find out for myself if all the accolades were genuine. By the end of a two-hour show, I knew I wanted to hear much, much more (and have basically spent the intervening time doing just that). I clearly remember the three-hour drive home from Columbus to Huntington playing “A.M.” over and over and thinking how well that album’s rootsy vibe fit with the wide-open countryside of the Midwest. I was hooked.

Last night, I left Messiah late amidst a slight rain, only rarely encountering other lights on a dark road, Berninger’s voice filling every nook of my car. I can’t think of a better setting for my first listen through “Boxer."

Yes, I’m hooked.


Thanks to this site, I now have a setlist (hooray!). From what I've read of other shows, the Messiah performance was only a couple songs short in the encore, which I'm assuming was due to the fact that Berninger was suffering from a cold. Interestingly, not a single song was played from their first two albums (much like the Snow Patrol concert I saw last year)—I wonder how the long-timers feel about that …

More than a week later, I'm stopping myself from listening to "Boxer" (and the rest of the albums) too many times so I don't wear them out. Here's the set from last weekend's show:

The National
Messiah College
Running time: 80 minutes

Start a War
Mistaken for Strangers
Secret Meeting
Baby We'll Be Fine
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
All the Wine
Racing Like a Pro
Apartment Story
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Fake Empire
Mr. November

Wasp Nest (which Berninger said is a rarity, but I cannot confirm)
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