Thursday, September 30, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ Guns N’ Roses (1987)

The Seattle bands get credit for killing ’80s hair metal, but maybe it really started right here. “Appetite for Destruction” is akin to bands like Motley Crue, Poison, etc., only in its use of big guitars and pounding drums. This is a decidedly dirtier and, in a way, more honest record than its contemporaries. When Axl Rose sings about love, lust, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it doesn’t feel glamorous at all, and it’s done with a sneer and a snarl, not a smile.

It’s hard to believe this record is nearly a quarter century old. It doesn’t sound that way. From the opening growl of “Welcome to the Jungle” through to propulsive closer “Rocket Queen,” “Appetite for Destruction” is as violent, menacing, and invigorating as ever. Guitarists Slash and Izzy Straddlin fire more riffs at one another in one song than many of today’s navel-gazing indie pansies stumble across in entire albums. And Rose’s voice was the most dynamic rock music had heard since Robert Plant stopped singing for Led Zeppelin.

What struck me most when listening to this record for the first time in years was its range. There’s a lot going on under the surface that I didn’t catch before, most notably GN’R’s use of the blues and Southern rock. Granted, they put their own high-octane spin on it, but songs like “Anything Goes” and “Think About You” surprised me in that way. Also, it’s depth: there’s no reason to skip any song, and they manage to be all of a piece without sounding the same. Each new track brings a melody you just want to sink your teeth into. The hits, meanwhile, now decades removed from constant airplay, remind why they became huge in the first place. Good gracious that bass drum/snare intro to “Paradise City” sounds good at high volume, while the riff for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is one of the greatest ever written.

It’s a shame Guns N’ Roses never delivered another album as good as this one. Perhaps that was impossible.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Mr. Brownstone”

Least Favorite Track: “Anything Goes”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘High Violet,’ The National (2010)

On “High Violet,” it’s like The National made a list of all the stereotypical criticisms people lay on them … and then decided to make an entire album based exactly on those.

This is mopey, claustrophobic, tortured, black-soul melodrama of the worst kind. It’s easily The National’s worst album.

On its own, a singsong-y track like “Anyone’s Ghost” isn’t so bad; it reminds me of “Karen” from 2005’s “Alligator.” Thing is, “Karen” was surrounded by “Secret Meeting” and “Lit Up,” two firebrand songs that buoy a weaker track like “Karen” out of sheer proximity. “Ghost,” on the other hand, is bookended by two more dirges—“Sorrow” and “Little Faith”—that don’t look an inch above the tops of their shoes. Listening to the first half of this CD is like wading through waist-deep mud.

The National are usually good for solid, catchy melodies I find myself humming without even thinking about it. There’s a sore lack of that here. “Afraid of Everyone” just meanders around trying to be “Mistaken for Strangers,” while the interminable “Runaway” is so monotonous, on one of my first listens I thought the song had restarted accidentally—nope, it was only half over.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the best song of the album, and the only one that can hold its own against the band’s best work. It’s also a mere gasp for breath before “High Violet” plunges back down to the depths of sonic suffocation, where it goes to drown.

I like frontman Matt Berninger’s perspective on lyrics: He doesn’t like to talk about his intentions for songs, preferring to leave it entirely up to the listener. He likes to play with words and language, painting with them as much as writing; combined with his unmistakable thrumming voice, the effect is usually mesmerizing. But on “High Violet” much of his work is so overwrought and awful it’s almost self-parody. “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld I want to sit in and die” he moans on “Lemonworld”; on “Terrible Love” he mumbles over and over: “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”; and the worst, on “Conversation 16”: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/’Cause I’m evil.” Oh, good grief.

In a big article for The New York Times this spring, the band talked about how difficult the recording sessions were this time around, how the songs continued to change, oftentimes dramatically so. I think the pressure to follow a modern classic like 2007’s “Boxer” became too heavy, and they choked the life out of most of these songs (U2’s “Pop,” anyone?). In the press release for the album Berninger says the band experiments with “ugly tones.” Yep, that’s about right. It’s painful listening at nearly every turn.

I still love The National, but I hate “High Violet.” What a stunning disappointment.

Grade: D-

Favorite Track: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

Least Favorite Track: Pick one

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘In the Dark,’ The Whigs (2010)

On 2008’s spectacular “Mission Control,” The Whigs showcased their range with various nods to the past 40 years of rock and roll. On their new album, the Athens, Georgia, trio is more settled on a sound, but that focus allows them to provide a deeper, richer experience at several points.

Lead single “Kill Me Carolyne” summarizes where The Whigs are coming from this time around. The infectious uptempo track is awash in New Wave, with frontman and guitarist Parker Gispert channeling Devo, in particular. I don’t think the song’s made them big rock stars, but it’s not for lack of trying. The dance-y beat on “I Am for Real,” meanwhile, is straight out of the Franz Ferdinand playbook. Svelte, soaring guitars and urgent work on the high-hat from drummer extraordinaire Julian Dorio are the rule on much of this record.

Most of the brawny cuts breeze by in less than four minutes, but the changes of pace are handled well, too. “Dying” is an effectively murky turn right in the middle of the album, while “Naked” closes things out on a spacious note.

There are no bad tracks on “In the Dark,” even though some tend to blur a bit if you’re not paying close attention. There’s no mistaking “Someone’s Daughter,” though, the heaviest track on the record by far and a surefire standout. Opener “Hundred/Million” is my favorite cut on the disc, as much for its lyrical content as anything. In it Gispert muses about having “a hundred million people in my mind,” which rings true for me. In an age when we’re bombarded with opinions at every turn from social media and 24-hour news, sometimes it’s a struggle to break free and actually think for yourself. “Hundred/Million” woke me up to that idea, and it’s stuck with me since the first time I heard it.

The Whigs are three-for-three now. While not quite as good as the last album, “In the Dark” is nevertheless one of my favorites of the year.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Hundred/Million”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Looking Back: My Favorite TV Shows of 2009-10

As the 2010-11 TV season gets underway, I’m taking a quick look back at last season to remember my favorite series.

Note: These aren’t meant to be ranked as “best” shows on TV from a quality perspective, but more how excited I was to watch them. I thought of it this way: If all these series had new episodes on my DVR at the same time, what order would I watch them in?

10. PTI (ESPN)

My daily does of sports in about 22 minutes. Wilbon and Kornheiser aren’t as good as they used to be now that they’re talking heads instead of working reporters. But if you’re gonna be talking heads, you might as well be the best on TV.

9. The Office (NBC)

I know, I know, it’s not as good as it used to be. But it lands on this list for the two major Jim-and-Pam episodes alone: Their wedding and baby installments were huge payoffs. Those “big” moments in a series can be tough to pull off without overdoing it, but the excellent crew of writers on “The Office” handled it perfectly. The Christmas episode was also the latest in a string of holiday standouts for this show. I won’t miss Steve Carell after this year; some of the worst episodes of this season were those where Michael Scott was just too dumb to be breathing.

8. Bones (Fox)

Uh, ditto. This show is close to my heart (I named my cat Seeley, for goodness sakes!) but is starting to show its age. I thought the 100th episode was on its way to becoming the best installment of the series … right up until the ham-fisted, tacked-on final scene between Booth and Bones that fell absolutely flat and came dangerously close to destroying the whole deal. That sorta set a bad tone for the rest of the season, but the finale was still satisfactory so I’m hopeful Season 6 will still be OK. I still just love these characters so much, I’ll be with this show ’til the end.

7. Tosh.0 (Comedy Central)

No one made me laugh harder last season than Daniel Tosh. His summer run of eps haven’t been as good as his clips seem to be more about grossing you out than making you laugh, but his work this past spring was gut-busting hysterical. Hopefully he gets back to being witty and un-PC instead of just disgusting.

6. Community (NBC)

This wasn’t just my favorite new comedy of the season, but my favorite comedy, period. Joel McHale has a mainstream-starmaking turn, of course, but it’s the supporting characters who really make this show go. Most notably: The dynamic duo of Danny Pudi (Abed) and Donald Glover (Troy). The show got a little ridiculously melodramatic and incestuous toward the end of Season 1, but I give it a pass because it was so subtly and consistently funny all year; I love how the most laugh-out-loud moments are typically muttered under characters’ breath. And Abed as Christian Bale’s Batman … unbelievable.

5. Lost (ABC)

Now that all the hype has settled into history, it’s easier to look back on this landmark series’ final run with a clearer head. I’m surprised this show is this far back on the list, but I had a hard time getting excited about watching it for much of the season. The opener was as awesome as the show’s ever been, but after that it vamped for several installments before finally hitting its stride again midway through. And the finale, while an amazing experience the first time through, didn’t hold up quite so well the more you thought about it. Don’t read this as a flash-sideways complaint, either, because I was definitely fine with that decision. I wasn’t disappointed, certainly, but “Lost” completed its pattern in the end: the odd-numbered seasons were the best.

4. Castle (ABC)

In this buddy-cop/frustrated-romance drama’s first full season it supplanted “Bones” as the best in this mini-genre. The incomparable Stana Katic and “ruggedly handsome” Nathon Fillion crackle with chemistry in the tradition of Mulder and Scully, and, yes, Bones and Booth. They made some real strides this year in deepening the duo’s unlikely relationship without making it feel put on or cheap. Fillion is as funny as ever, and it’s so great to see him finally lock in a character you can love almost as much as Malcolm Reynolds.

3. Survivor (CBS)

Go ahead and laugh, but the two “seasons” of the granddaddy of reality television that aired this past year provided some of the most exciting drama I saw all year. All of the credit goes to Russell Hantz, the little man-troll who took the game by storm and played it like no other. He was must-see TV all by himself, the way he not only magically conjured Immunity Idols with no clues, but fed on disunity and conflict and still managed to intimidate and talk his way into the finals of back-to-back trips to wild. He gave some of the most memorable Tribal Council performances in the history of “Survivor”—and that’s saying something, considering this show’s been on for a decade.

2. Justified (FX)

I guess this is as close as I’ll ever get to a fourth season of “Deadwood” … and I’ll take it. Timothy Olyphant found his sweet spot by donning a badge once again in this modern-day Western. His U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens scratched my Seth Bullock itch in a show that mixed action, drama, and comedy. Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder, meanwhile, was one of the most fascinating and deep characters on TV last season. Throw in cameos from “Lost” and “Deadwood” alums and a killer theme song from Gangstagrass and it all adds up to my favorite new show of the season.

1. Dexter (Showtime)

My perennial favorite show on television upped its game yet again last year. Season 4 took the best aspects of the past three years—Dexter’s tracking a serial killer! Dexter might get caught! Dexter has a friend!—and combined them perfectly into the most intense outing in the show’s brilliant history. Michael C. Hall was outstanding once more in the titular role, but the supporting cast had its strongest season, particularly John Lithgow as the scariest “Dexter” villain yet. And as if all that weren’t enough, Season 4 ended with one of the most shocking twists/cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. “Dexter” is television’s choice cut.



Flash Forward



How I Met Your Mother


It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia


Mad Men