Sunday, March 29, 2009

'The Night Is Our Own': The Gaslight Anthem at The Trocadero, 3.28.09

On April 10, 1992, Pearl Jam played an 80-minute set at the small Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia. The band’s debut album, “Ten,” now a multiplatinum classic, was just starting to really break huge, and the band was beginning its ascent to rock-and-roll megastardom. Three years later, they’d play a legendary headlining show at Soldier Field in Chicago.

I’m not saying The Gaslight Anthem are ever going to be that big, but, you know, it wouldn’t surprise me. They certainly held their own against the ghosts of rock stars past Saturday night at the Troc, and I wonder how much longer they’re going to be containable in a place that only holds a sold-out crowd of 1,200.

Gaslight are in the process of breaking huge in their own right. They’re on the cover of this month’s Alternative Press and in the past few months played both Conan and Letterman on late-night tellyvision. Frontman Brian Fallon has that it quality about him—an effortless, genuine charm that makes for stardom. And the best part is, he doesn’t seem to know it. As a kid from New Jersey who grew up coming to the Troc, he told us last night with genuine amazement how awesome it was to actually be on the stage instead of standing in front of it.

This is the band’s biggest headlining tour yet. It was quite a change from the show I caught last fall at the tiny Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach, in between opening dates for Rise Against. I don’t know if anything could ever top that experience, but I was pleased to see the band seemed, well, the same (in a good way), despite their burgeoning fame. Besides the bigger room and a few more lights, everything else about the show was all I love about them: three guitars, three mic stands, a drum kit, and one heck of a roster of songs to choose from. Unadorned, authentic, perfect.

Gaslight unleashed a blistering 18-song set Saturday, most notable for featuring every track off the band’s latest album, “The ’59 Sound,” which, you know, I kinda adore. I’m certainly not the only one—the crowd was off-the-wall berserk the entire night, singing along at top voice to every word.

Highlights were many, but I continue to be most impressed by how powerful “Miles Davis and the Cool” is in person. It’s a really, really good song on record, but they ratchet up the ending in concert to a massive release that could fill big arenas. The three songs they didn’t play off the album last fall—“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Film Noir,” and “Meet Me By the River’s Edge”—were all tremendous, especially the latter, which is like baptism by fire.

But, really, I could say that about any of the songs performed Saturday night. They never let off the, er, gas. The run of “We Came to Dance”/“The ’59 Sound”/“Senor and the Queen”/“Casanova, Baby!” was heart-pounding great. The 75-minute set just flew by, leaving me stunned by the band’s sustained intensity, throwing their all into every cut. Even the quiet songs, like “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts,” were played with urgency; heaven help you on the big power tracks like "The Backseat" and "I'da Called You Woody, Joe."

The Gaslight Anthem give as rousing and heartfelt a show as I’ve ever seen. It's good for the soul. I just wonder if I'm gonna end up like one of the Pearl Jam fans from that show in '92: "Yeah, I saw those guys when …" Because there’s no telling where this band goes from here.

The Gaslight Anthem
The Trocadero

Great Expectations
High Lonesome
Old White Lincoln
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
We Came to Dance
The ’59 Sound
Senor and the Queen
Casanova, Baby!
Film Noir
Miles Davis and the Cool
Meet Me By the River’s Edge
The Patient Ferris Wheel
Here’s Looking At You, Kid
The Backseat

Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts
Stand By Me (snippet)/I’da Called You Woody, Joe
Angry Johnny and the Radio/What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted (snippet)

Show Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: U2

As I’ve been thinking about my 10 favorite albums of the decade, something surprised me: Despite being one of my biggest musical obsessions over the past nine years, there might not be a U2 record on that list.

I’ve already taken a look back at 2004’s exciting but flawed “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and figured I’d do the same for 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” My overall feelings toward the two records are much the same: Both have moments of utter brilliance, but also moments of missed opportunities and, in a few spots, downright filler. Here’s a track-by-track look:

“Beautiful Day”
If “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was U2’s attempt to reclaim their “biggest band in the world” title, then they accomplished their goal in the first 4 minutes, 9 seconds of this album. “Beautiful Day” is the band’s best track of this decade, an instant classic that deservedly takes its place alongside such monsters as “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “New Year’s Day,” “One,” “Bad,” and all the rest. It set the template for the entire post-“Pop” period, reinvigorating the “old” sound but with a new, modern twist (Edge often returned to this version of his signature chiming guitar riff). It also contains one of my favorite moments in U2’s catalog, where music and lyrics mesh just perfectly; it happens at the end of the bridge, when Bono sings, “After the flood all the colors came out” and then the song reloads and explodes all over again. Nearly a decade after I first heard it, “Beautiful Day” still sounds as, well, beautiful as ever.

“Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
This song is frustrating right from the get-go, starting with the unwieldy title and working all the way through the too-slick, bordering on cheesy over-production that buries one of Bono’s best lyrical efforts from this period of his career. It wasn’t until I heard the acoustic version released on the Target exclusive “7” EP in 2002 that I really fell in love with the song. Stripping away all the schmaltz allows the heart-wrenching narrative of this gem to shine through—and, actually, helped me get into the original album version, too. Put those two things together and they add up to …

For some reason, U2’s frolicking uptempo hard rockers, like this song (or “Vertigo” or “Get On Your Boots,” etc.) are frowned upon by a segment of the fan community. I don’t understand it—what, U2 always has to write momentous, emotional songs? Isn’t that the same reason they’re accused of being pretentious and ponderous? They’re not allowed to have any fun? This song is a barnburner, fed by a ferocious Edge riff (it's also an instant crowd-amp). Though I wish they had used the more aggressive “Tomb Raider Mix” on the album, “Elevation” remains a latter-day rave-up classic.

“Walk On”
If “Beautiful Day” is 1A, then “Walk On” is 1B on the list of this album’s classic tracks. It complements the former perfectly, cementing “All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s” theme of bittersweet hope and endurance. I remember being disappointed when I first heard they were using this as their closing song on the Elevation Tour, thinking a new song couldn't possibly have the gravitas to hold such an important spot. Wow, was I wrong. Back in the old days of this decade before instant file sharing and YouTube, I actually didn’t hear the “Hallelujah” chorus they tagged onto the end of this song until I was actually in the building, and it absolutely floored me. Now, thankfully, you can hear that tag on the “single version” of “Walk On,” and it is one of my favorite minutes of any U2 song, from any decade. Though I prefer the single edit and wish it was on the album, instead, that doesn’t diminish the original cut.

A slow-burn gem, this is perhaps Bono’s best lyrical work on the album, and continues his string of tremendous vocal performances in this five-song opening stretch. Whether you interpret it about Bono’s kids, his father, or something else entirely, the song is sure to speak to you. Typically I’m not a fan of Bono’s more wordy efforts, but this is certainly the exception to the rule. Bolstered by yet another massive Edge output, “Kite” is a great track, even though I still think the little coda tarnishes it just a touch.

“In A Little While”
OK, so from here on out the “great” songs are over. “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is terribly frontloaded, and its second half just doesn’t hold up under the weight. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t good songs to be had, and “In A Little While” is one of them. Wonderful melody and a lighthearted change of pace make this track a winner. Every song on a U2 album doesn’t have to reach for the stars. This song is pleasantly grounded.

“Wild Honey”
Uh, ditto. Another infectious track that goes down easy and sits just fine. Not necessarily memorable, but, hey, it was good enough to make a Cameron Crowe soundtrack. For lesser bands, this would be a crowning achievement in pop/rock mastery; for U2, it’s just … nice.

“Peace on Earth”
Houston, we have a problem. After seven outstanding songs, here “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” starts to head off course. Bono lost me on the very first listen with the very first verse, surely one of the worst pieces of writing to ever make a U2 album. What’s worse, “Peace on Earth” is nothing more than a retread of the far superior “Wake Up Dead Man,” which closed “Pop” three years earlier—only here Bono’s talking all nicey-nice to God, rather than cursing at him and making demands. Match that to an utterly uninspired backing track, and you have one of the band’s worst songs. I detest this track.

“When I Look at the World”
One of the best U2 songs never to be played in concert (it’s only been tagged once).

“New York”
Of all the great songs written about the City That Never Sleeps, this is not one of them. I know U2 love NYC, but I get sick of hearing about how great it is from all corners of the entertainment community. This song kicked some serious butt on the Elevation Tour, what with those big curtain things they dropped from the ceiling and the strobe lights and all, but it’s rather forgettable on record. Certainly doesn’t do much to prop up the back half of this album.

If “Peace on Earth” is 1A of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” dreck, then “Grace” is 1B. Good gracious, this is one of the worst lines Bono’s ever written: “Grace, it’s the name for a girl/It’s also a thought that changed the world.” That’s more than enough to kill this entire song, even if it wasn’t terribly dull and obvious. Another glaring hole in this record’s resume.

“The Ground Beneath Her Feet”
Americans got screwed with this release, because the UK version doesn’t end with “Grace,” but instead finishes with this tremendous bonus track. It first appeared earlier in the year on the soundtrack to Bono’s ill-fated movie project, “The Million Dollar Hotel” (don’t waste your time, by the way). It actually doesn’t go very well with this record; its sinewy sensuality seems more fitting to the darker soundscape of “Pop.” Either way, I absolutely love this song, especially the final minute and a half where it shifts into overdrive.

Much like “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is an album of dramatic peaks and valleys; its high points are some of U2’s best work, its low points some of their worst. Thankfully, there’s much more to love about this album than despise.
Grade: A-


So, to get back to my original point about the whole “Albums of the Aughts” situation: Both of these records have too many flaws to make that list, but that doesn’t mean U2 didn’t do some amazing work this decade. This week I put together a U2 “Aughts” mix on my iPod and was rather stunned with the depth of quality tracks to choose from. Here’s what my playlist looks like, with five tracks from each of the band’s three albums from this decade, plus a handful of b-sides:

1. Vertigo
2. Get On Your Boots
3. Elevation (Tomb Raider Mix)
4. Magnificent
5. Beautiful Day
6. Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (acoustic version)
7. Kite
8. The Hands That Built America
9. City of Blinding Lights
10. Walk On (single edit)
11. Electrical Storm (William Orbit mix)
12. The Ground Beneath Her Feet
13. FEZ-Being Born
14. Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
15. Mercy
16. Breathe
17. Xanax and Wine
18. All Because of You
19. Original of the Species
20. I Believe in Father Christmas
21. White As Snow

Quibble about various points in various albums all you want, but that is an outstanding list of songs that stands up to either of U2’s previous two decades. You give me those 21 tracks on tour this fall, and I leave the stadium a happy man.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

‘Gran Torino’

If “The Dark Knight” is now one of the biggest Oscar snubs of all time, then “Gran Torino” is right there nipping at Batman’s cape.

Clint Eastwood’s new masterpiece is exactly the kind of story I love: It presents a situation and characters that appear to be a certain way, then spends its time turning those preconceptions inside out. It presents a complicated issue—in this case, immigration and its inherent racial relations/tensions—fairly and accurately, offering both the bad (Hollywood’s stock and trade) and the good (rare).

The trailer for “Gran Torino” was a bit deceiving, as it makes the film out to be a “Dirty Harry” for the geriatric crowd. Eastwood’s retired Korean War veteran certainly can handle himself, and, yes, there are a few scenes of violence, but that is far from the main point of the film. At its heart, “Gran Torino” is an examination of what makes America the greatest melting pot in the world, as well as what causes that melting pot to shatter.

As one of the few native-born Americans on my street, I can attest to the film’s veracity. Like Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, what I’m really looking for in others—be they family, friends, coworkers, or just neighbors—are people who will work hard and respect one another. The two neighbors on either side of me are both immigrant families. One plays their stereo so loud it shakes my floors; the other I rarely hear a peep from, unless it’s from their two kids wanting to pet my cat. Guess which family we get along with better? Guess which family Walt wouldn’t like?

Walt’s not perfect, either, which is another reason to love this film—he’s not above the fray, he’s got things to learn, too. He utters innumerable Asian-related racial epithets, but that’s another strength of the script; Walt is presented as the stereotypical old white racist, but that perspective changes as you get to know him, much like his perspective on his new Asian neighbors changes as he gets to know them.

There are more issues packed into this film than just racial relations, too, all handled deftly and with fairness. Eastwood engages in a much deeper and more meaningful conversation about God and forgiveness than he did four years ago in his Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby.” Once again he has a long-running verbal battle with a priest, but this time the man of the cloth is a deeper character, not a proverbial punching bag like in the other film.

There’s also a lot of great stuff here about what it means to be a man, and how to take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Some of the film’s best—and funniest—scenes involve Walt teaching the young Asian boy next door how to talk, act, and fix things like a man. It’s heartwarming and charming without ever even glancing in the direction of melodrama or sap.

But, more than anything, this movie is about Eastwood, who, about to turn 80 in a few weeks, gives undoubtedly one of the best performances of his career. Walt is like an old, retired combination of all the tough guys Eastwood’s ever played, only little by little the curtain gets pulled back on what really makes him tick. He certainly has some tremendous scenes of bravado—Walt confronting three young black hoodlums on a street corner is an all-timer, including an iconic “You feelin’ lucky, punk?”-type line that I won’t spoil here (hint: It’s not “Get off my lawn!”). But those don’t come as often as you’d think from the trailer; just as compelling are the quieter, gentler, funnier moments, such as Walt’s first trip to his neighbors’ house for a barbecue.

If you want an accurate, and sad, picture of how Hollywood’s elite view America, then simply compare “Gran Torino”—completely shut out from this year’s Academy Awards—to 2005’s “Crash,” which didn’t just get nominated for Best Picture, it won the whole thing. As I wrote nearly three years ago, “Crash” does nothing but reinforce paranoid stereotypes and prop up a one-sided portrayal of racial tensions in this country. “Gran Torino,” on the other hand, takes the issue head-on. It’s not afraid to show, in equal measure, minority thugs acting like, well, thugs, as well as hard-working immigrants who want the same thing Walt does (or me, for that manner): respect and decency from their neighbors. Unlike “Crash,” the fully realized characters in “Gran Torino” are able to find common ground, which, from my own experience, is dead-on accurate. Eastwood is certainly no coward.

I’ve seen “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was a nice movie. I enjoyed it. I strongly recommend it, for that opening chase scene if nothing else. But it was just that—really good. I don’t feel an overwhelming desire to see it again, nor did it inspire enough in me to even feel a need to write about it. Faced with the other options on Oscar night, I’m glad it won, but it certainly was not the best film I saw last year.

“Gran Torino,” on the other hand, is a great movie. Not only is it better than “Slumdog” and “Crash,” it’s better than “Million Dollar Baby,” which also wasn’t just nominated, but won Best Picture in 2005.

So ask yourself this question: What does it say about Hollywood that this film, along with “The Dark Knight,” couldn’t even get nominated?

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

'No Line on the Horizon': Initial Thoughts

I've had a couple people already ask me what I think of the new U2 album, "No Line on the Horizon," which came out yesterday. Tonight I listened through it start to finish through the headphones for the first time and had a pen and notepad in hand to jot down thoughts for an eventual review. I will still write that later, but thought I'd just straight copy what I wrote down for now—kinda like live-blogging my listen. (I got the idea from my absolute favorite U2 blogger, whose voice I adore—hers is better than mine, so go read it first.)

Here goes …


"No Line on the Horizon"

—"New Year's Day"

—Could pick out sounds for comparisons, but really, this album doesn't sound like anything else they've done … Takes weird turns … not that great a flow

—Some of the most overtly spiritual lyrics Bono's written, with some of the best results

—Lots of little ticklish sounds beneath the surface … Even on seemingly straightforward songs like "Surrender"

—Bono's lyrics hold the record back a little, overall … Too direct, too literal, can't get lost in the songs

—The MUSIC is outstanding … no boundaries, no rules, no pattern … The most adventurous, complex stuff they've written in a decade … Larry is on fire!

"Moment of Surrender"
—True soul … what they were looking for on "Rattle and Hum"?
—"Stuck in a Moment"

"Unknown Caller"
—The most "U2" riff on the entire album?
—LOVE the multitrack vocals that come out of nowhere on the chorus
—Love the use of digital/Internet terms … not overdone, just right

—"love" = God in many of these songs

—Bono's dealing with being "Bono" on several songs, "Caller" especially: "Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak/Shush now/Oh, oh/Then don't move or say a thing" … picked up later in "Get on Your Boots" and elsewhere

"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight"
—Title not as bad in context of the song as it seems on paper … Still, what's with always having some sort of long, stupid title on every record this decade?
—"U2" riff and multitracked vocals again here
—"The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear" (smile)
—Nice, easy, comfortable song … not a bad thing on this dense record

—I can't see mass/broad appeal for this record

—Bono is singing his lungs out all through this album, with power and in the upper register … How's he gonna keep this up on tour?

"Get On Your Boots"
—The band does, indeed, go crazy here, on the very next song
—Sounds a little out of place with the rest of the album … everything else isn't nearly as freewheeling
—Sounds even FASTER after rather mid-tempo of first five songs
—"I don't want to talk about the wars between nations": Again, Bono getting away from "Bono"
—"Let me in the sound …": Summary of the record? Need the entry point, similar to the recording process for "Achtung Baby," which is why this line is picked up again in "FEZ," the place where recording on this record began

"Stand Up Comedy"
—Another bad title redeemed
—The "love, love, love …" in the background reminiscent of "Zooropa"
—"Stand up to rock stars/Napoleon is in high heels" (smile)
—There's a memory these particular multitracked vocals evoke I can't quite place

—Casual fans: These middle three songs are for you (not a bad thing)

"FEZ—Being Born"
—Should this have been the album opener?
—By the title, one of the songs I thought I'd like the least, and it's a favorite
—Love the abrupt changes
—Wish there were more lyrics like this on the album

—Ever try taking notes with a VERY curious cat in your lap? Good luck

"White as Snow"
—From the liner notes: "Traditional, arranged by U2 with Brian Eno and Danny Lanois": Must find out more about this
—"The Hands That Built America"
—Loving the guitars here and Bono's vocal delivery … stripped down without melodrama … U2 at its best … What "One Step Closer" tried to be and failed
—"Once I knew there was a love divine/Then came a time I thought it knew me not/Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/Only the lamb as white as snow": Favorite passage on the album?

—THIS could be an album that adds up to more than the sum of its parts … the opposite of "Atomic Bomb"

—Eno and Lanois: mmm … good

—Right from the beginning feels like it's building to something massive, but doesn't really get there until the very end … could've used more of that earlier
—LOVE Bono's delivery, again … has he ever tried this words-stumbling-over-one-another thing before?
—LOVE Larry's drumming, again
—The entire last verse: Another favorite passage
—The best Lillywhite contribution to the album, certainly
—LOVE that this song is so late in the sequence … U2 has a bad habit of frontloading their albums, especially this decade
—Wish this had closed the album

"Cedars of Lebanon"
—ANOTHER great and different Bono delivery … also reminiscent of "One Step Closer," and, again, better
—"Return the call to home": What is this, Pink Floyd? Don't like that interpretation AT ALL
—What is that person saying low in the mix? Can't make it out
—This song could've been on "Pop" (not a bad thing)
—"Choose your enemies carefully 'cos they will define you/Make them interesting 'cos in some ways they will mind you/They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends/Gonna last with you longer than your friends": Strange passage to close the record … will have to think more on its significance
—Right now, probably my least favorite track, more for the way it leaves me feeling than the song itself … Overall, this feels like a hopeful record, and this leaves things on a bad note
—First album in a while Bono doesn't end with a conversation with God

Sunday, March 01, 2009

‘Daemon,’ Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez’s debut novel, “Daemon,” will mess with your head.

It will forever change the way you look at the world and the computers that run it. It will make you think twice when you log into your bank account online, or swipe your credit card at the grocery store. It will expose you to technology you thought only existed in the far-flung adventures of some Hollywood futurescope, then make you believe you could see these Silicon Valley devilspawns the next time you walk out your front door.

And that, as much as anything, will scare the crap out of you. I pray the world Suarez describes in “Daemon” doesn’t exist—doesn’t have the possibility of ever existing—but I fear all the more it may be right around the corner.

Consider this passage: “The modern world is a highly efficient, precision machine. But that’s its flaw—one wrench in the works and it all grinds to a halt. So what does our generation get? A culture of lies to hide weakness. Decreasing freedom. All to conceal one simple fact: the assumptions upon which our civilization is based are no longer valid.”

Or this: “They built a twenty-trillion-dollar house of cards. Then they told you to guard it. And they call me insane.”

Or, finally, this: “The Great Diffusion has begun—an era when the nation state dissolves. Technology will cause this. As countries compete for markets in the global economy, diffusion of high technology will accelerate. It will result in a diffusion of power and diffusion of power will make countries an ineffective organizing principle. At first, marginal governments will fail. Larger states will not be equipped to intercede effectively. These lawless regions will become breeding grounds for international crime and terrorism. Threats to cientralized authority will multiply. Centralized power will be defenseless against these distributed threats. You have already experienced the leading edge of this wave.”

Though “Daemon” was only widely published in January, these words were written more than four years ago, long before the subprime crash and the ensuing global economic tailspin we’re facing today. Like I said, scary stuff. Suarez, now in his mid-40s, is a tech industry consultant from California who originally self-published his debut back in 2006. It garnered serious tech-geek cred for its accurate portrayals of various online cultures, including massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), such as “World of Warcraft,” which led to its pickup by a major publishing house last year.

Suarez defines a “daemon” as “a computer program that runs continuously in the background and performs specified operations at predetermined times or in response to certain events.” Odds are, as you’re reading this, there are daemons chugging away on your system right now (did you receive a security update this morning?). In the eponymous novel, a brilliant designer uses the principles he developed for his phenomenally successful gaming company to unleash daemons throughout the Internet—after his death. These programs, written ahead of time with mind-boggling precision, begin to trigger some astounding events—events that cost real human beings their real lives. No resets here. It’s like an updated and more frightening version of 1983’s “WarGames” (there’s even a reference to thermonuclear war in the book!).

What follows is a sprawling epic of a techno-thriller; the Daemon is the true main character, while various humans wander in and out of the story to interact with it. Suarez introduces a huge number of characters for a typical novel, and he seems unattached to any of them, for they all merely serve at the pleasure of the Daemon—whether they want to or not. And, wow, can that sucker do some amazing things. I won’t spoil any of the thrills and chills here but, trust me, you will be amazed.

There are times when Suarez overreaches, however. While most of “Daemon” exists in an all-too-plausible world, like any Hollywood blockbuster certain action sequences toward the book’s end simply stretch too far (it sorta reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s blow-up-Gotham ending to “Batman Begins”). But I chalk that up to the travails of being a first-time author.

Overall, “Daemon” is one of those game-changing pop culture events on the line of recent benchmarks like “The Matrix” or “300.” Flawed? Sure. But, like those two recent films, its singular vision overwhelms any minor problems. Suarez’s straightforward, no-nonsense writing style isn’t going to win any fancy literary awards, but “Daemon” is the science-fiction-of-the-now William Gibson has been trying to write about for a decade and, thus far, has failed to capture.

It is now the techno novel by which all future techno novels will be judged.

***One final note: It’s not lost on me most of the comparison I make in this review are films. Suarez is so brilliant at depicting action sequences, even I could adapt this book to a screenplay in no time—you can visualize the scenes in pristine quality as you read. I will be shocked if “Daemon” is not made into a movie in the near future.***