Saturday, February 27, 2010

‘Crazy Heart’

“Crazy Heart” is like a more uplifting, more satisfying version of 2008’s “The Wrestler.” Where Mickey Rourke played Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a broken down, washed up wrestler, in “Crazy Heart” Jeff Bridges plays a broken down, washed up country singer, Bad Blake. The two movies follow a remarkably similar path—until the end, anyway.

Bridges is outstanding as Blake, a 57-year-old former country star who, when he’s not playing ignominious venues like bowling alleys, divides his time between one-night stands, Spanish television, cigarettes, and bottles of whiskey. His only constant companions are his ’78 Chevy Suburban—about as junked out as he is—and his electric and acoustic guitars.

But, like Rourke’s “Ram,” Blake still loves what he does—he just wishes it paid more. He comes alive on stage, and honors requests for old favorites he’s played hundreds of times. And that’s where this movie really takes off: the music. T-Bone Burnett proves once again why he’s the go-to guy when it comes to soundtracks with a sparkling collection of country and blues choices, along with several fantastic originals he wrote for the film. Bridges is a revelation as a singer—who knew?—with a voice that sounds a little like a Southern version of Huey Lewis. He’s convincing at every musical turn (so's Colin Farrell, for that matter), and first-time director Scott Cooper makes the wise—and all-too rare—decision to let the actor sing live in the scene instead of lip-synching.

In an era where the term “sellout” is thrown around everywhere, “Crazy Heart” has a lot to say about music—how it’s produced and consumed—without making any high-handed judgments either way. Blake makes no bones about his desire to make money from playing and writing music, but he doesn’t want to whore himself out, either. He sticks to his own code of artistic integrity, and it’s fascinating to watch that play out over the course of the film. One of my favorite little scenes occurs when a music journalist (the ever-engaging Maggie Gyllenhaal) asks Blake if he ever gets sick of playing one of his hits. Blake’s response: No way. That song’s been good to him, and he’ll be loyal to it forever. That's just one of many, many more music-related moments to cherish in this film.

Though it mirrors “The Wrestler” in almost every aspect, “Crazy Heart” is different in one critical way: it provides closure. Where “The Wrestler” just sort of … ended, this movie concludes. Not that everything wraps up in a nice, neat little package; Blake’s done too much hard livin’ and made too many bad choices for that to happen. But the main characters have definite arcs. I left the theater supremely satisfied, something that couldn’t be said for my walk out of “The Wrestler.”

I guess having two such similar pictures arrive so close together is why “Crazy Heart” hasn’t earned the type of buzz of the former, and that’s a shame. Don’t miss this show.

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 25, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Velvet Underground,’ The Velvet Underground (1969)

I’m not the right guy to grade this album. I get that The Velvet Underground were an influential band, but I just don’t get it, you know? Maybe it’s because I didn’t live in New York in the ’60s. Maybe it’s because I don’t go for much art rock.

Although, this eponymous effort isn’t a whole lot of “art rock” at all. Rather, it's comprised of more straightforward, mostly acoustic songs like “Beginning to See the Light” and “That’s the Story of My Life.” The artiest cut is by far the worst to these ears: The interminable “The Murder Mystery.”

To those that love VU, don’t let me stop you—it’s just not for me. Though I have yet to meet someone who loves The Velvet Underground the way you love a band, so maybe I’m not as alone in this as I think.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Beginning to See the Light”

Least Favorite Track: “The Murder Mystery”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Shame,’ Brad (1993)

If it’s possible to have an “underrated” member of Pearl Jam, then Stone Gossard is it. The unassuming guitarist’s riffs power many of my favorite PJ songs, and his yielding of primary songwriting duties in latter years has been to the group’s detriment. The guy can flat-out write licks.

So it’s no surprise his side project is full of them. “Shame” is a manifestation of his personality: intense, yet not being showy about it, with ingratiating grooves. Vocalist Shawn Smith (who has a little of that scratchy Andrew Wood in him) matches Gossard’s mood well—Brad doesn’t try too hard, but they never come off as disinterested, either. “Shame” sounds exactly like the escape from Pearl Jamania Gossard was looking for, particularly standout tracks “Buttercup” and “Screen.”

That’s not to say the album succeeds at every turn, though. Only the first seven of the disc’s 11 tracks are good; a couple of the last come close to awful. But “Shame,” as a whole, was still a worthwhile diversion—for Gossard and Pearl Jam fans.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Buttercup”

Least Favorite Track: “Rockstar”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Source Tags + Codes,’ … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (2002)

I bought this album on the promise that Trail of Dead would be a satisfying substitute for At the Drive-In, the band that broke up just as I found out I loved them.

That promise was misleading. These guys sound like ATDI only in the fact they’re caustic, loud rock. Otherwise,Trail of Dead don’t come close.

Many people love this album. I do not. Much of it is noisy, tuneless dreck, with no hint of melody or vocal appeal.

Grade: D+

Favorite Track: None

Least Favorite Track: Pick one

Monday, February 22, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Walking With Thee,’ Clinic (2002)

Remember that week back in 2002 when Clinic—with their hospital-garb costumes—was the hottest/hippest/coolest band on the planet? No? Didn’t think so.

The apparent one-trick ponies came and went in a blink (even though they continue to make records), and this “breakthrough” album has been gathering dust on my CD rack for nearly a decade. Craziest thing, though: “Walking With Thee” is actually pretty darn good.

You definitely have to be in the right (read: weird/open-minded) mood to enjoy “Walking With Thee,” but it’s a satisfying listen. I can’t pick out any songs, in particular, because they all sort of meld one into another—but not in a bad way. All in all, I like this album better than Vampire Weekend’s debut from 2008—that’s about the best comparison I can make to Clinic, a band that doesn’t sound like anything else in my collection.

Grade: B

Friday, February 19, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Straightaways,’ Son Volt (1997)

There’s not much to get excited about on this disc, especially in comparison to the band’s excellent debut from two years earlier.

It’s pleasant enough, especially opener “Caryatid Easy,” the “Deadwood”-esque “Been Set Free,” and the intricate guitar work on “No More Paradise.” But the rest either recycle riffs we’ve heard before (“Picking Up the Signal”) or bog down in too much twang.

“Straightaways” is nice, easy background music, but not much more.

Grade: C

Favorite Track: “Been Set Free”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Tragic Kingdom,’ No Doubt (1995)

We all knew it, even back then: Gwen Stefani’s star was born with this breakthrough album. And though she’s gone on to commit pop diva sins, those don’t diminish what a firecracker of an album “Tragic Kingdom” remains.

Of course there is the power trio of hits: “Spiderwebs” is spectacular; “Just A Girl” is pop/rock genius; and what guy didn’t fall in love with Stefani after seeing the “Don’t Speak” video? There’s plenty more to this hooky, frolicking album, though, from a group that helped make ska popular with the masses for a few years. “Hey You,” “Excuse Me Mr.,” and “Happy Now?” are particular favorites.

The album suffers a bit after “Don’t Speak” in the 10 slot, but I am surprised to find “Tragic Kingdom” still holds up overall, even 15 years later (I am so old).

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Spiderwebs”

Least Favorite Track: “The Climb”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,’ The Smashing Pumpkins (1995)

How much credit does Billy Corgan get for effort alone? To say not all of the 28 tracks on this epic double disc are of equal caliber is almost a given, considering the scope of this project. More amazing, though, is how many of those 28 are so, so good.

“Mellon Collie” gives you everything. Of course there are the big hits: “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Thirty-three,” “Zero,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “Muzzle.” Then there are the heavy rockers like “Jellybelly,” “An Ode to No One,” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth,” to name a few. How about massive concertos of grandeur and excess a la Led Zeppelin? I give you “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” and “Thru the Eyes of Ruby.” Pop rock, ballads … they’re here, too.

The set finally starts to bog down as it nears the end: The stretch from “X.Y.U.” through “By Starlight” isn’t much. But, in answer to my original question, I choose to overlook this section based on all that came before.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Muzzle”

Least Favorite Track: “X.Y.U.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Loose Fur,’ Loose Fur (2003)

This Jeff Tweedy side project is perfect music if you're in a certain state of mind—and by that state of mind I mean a coma.

There are roots of good songs on almost every track (except the utterly unlistenable and aptly titled “So Long”), and for the first few minutes the cuts can be quite entertaining. But Tweedy and Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke let these ideas continue on and on and on with little focus; the songs end seemingly because they’re tired of being played, not out of some particular purpose.

“Chinese Apples” is the best of the bunch here, and there’s enough good throughout to salvage five of the six tracks, but not by much. Looking back, “Loose Fur” was an unfortunate preview of more to come from Wilco the following year on “A Ghost Is Born.”

Grade: C-

Favorite Track: “Chinese Apples”

Least Favorite Track: “So Long”

Monday, February 15, 2010

CD Collection: A Review

I've been house-bound for more than a week thanks to the blizzard of the century and its nasty little brother. So, with time on my hands, I took a long look at my CD collection, and realized there are many discs I either have hardly ever listened to or others I haven't put in the player for years (like, a decade or more).

That's gonna change.

Beginning tomorrow, I will start posting a "CD of the Day"—a brief review for one of the discs in my collection. My goal is to listen to at least one new album a day, with particular focus on those I haven't heard in a while—or ever.

I don't know how long I'll be able to keep this up. My buddy just did the same thing with his collection, and by his near daily updates I know it can get brutal when you hit those … questionable choices. Obviously going through the whole rack will take more than two years. We shall see if I make it that long.

Regardless, I'm excited to knock the dust off a bunch of those plastic cases. See you tomorrow.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

More Worlds Colliding

So The Gaslight Anthem and Pearl Jam are both playing the Hard Rock Calling festival in London this summer.

You may recall Gaslight played with Springsteen—and vice versa—last year on the same festival circuit:

Still gives me goosebumps.

Could there be another Schooly Dream Multi-Generational Mashup in the making?

Anybody have some quid I can borrow?

Monday, February 01, 2010