Friday, November 25, 2011
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Friday, September 23, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Over the course of two-plus decades, The Bouncing Souls have shown us how a punk band can and should grow up gracefully. Their most recent releases—2006’s “The Gold Record” and 2010’s “Ghosts on the Boardwalk”—are arguably the best of their career, delivered as these New Jersey misfits hit middle age. They succeeded by never losing their youthful vigor, even as it was tempered by maturity. Frontman Greg Attonito has spent his entire life writing and singing about his central themes of love, loyalty, friendship, and a sense of community that can make a difference.
His bandmates’ jaunty riffs and boundless energy are key to making those ideas not seem trite and rote. Unfortunately, when you take the Souls out of the equation, the flaws in Attonito’s game are glaring.
His new solo EP is aptly titled. It’s a mess—offering blink-and-you've-forgotten-them melodies riddled with cringe-worthy lyrics that—not buoyed by the Souls’ effervescent sound—come across mostly like the scribbles of a moony teenager in his first creative writing class. “I love you … your voice … your scent,” drones “Cincinnati Dream”; “I wanna see the colors of my soul/I wanna break the boundary of rock and roll,” opines “Teardrops”; opener “How Many Songs” (which musically tries way too hard to be “interesting”) naively reiterates the tired notion that a love song can “change the world all over.”
But by far the worst is “Sexiest Girl,” which opens, “The sexiest girl in the world is you, it’s true.” More embarrassingly awful couplets ensue that I refuse to print here. It’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.
The remaining two tracks save “Natural Disaster” from being just that. “Volcano” is a nice acoustic ditty that could’ve fit on the “Juno” soundtrack and gets bonus points for incorporating a muted trumpet. Country ballad “Eyes,” meanwhile, is easily the best cut on the EP and the only one I can recommend from this release with no hesitation. It’s wonderfully soulful and sweet (in a good way).
I give Attonito credit for trying, I guess, but “Natural Disaster” merely reiterates how perfectly the Souls’ talents complement one another. Because it didn't quite bother me until now, but the band's frontman has been saying the same thing for a really long time.
Favorite Track: “Eyes”
Least Favorite Track: “Sexiest Girl”
Monday, July 04, 2011
Bon Iver symbolizes everything I’ve grown to despise about indie music. From the restrained (some might say precious) falsetto vocals right down to the bushy, unkempt beard that is a requirement of the scene. I even bristle at the pretentious way you’re supposed to say the name (it’s pronounced “bone e-vair").
So why is it I’ve been listening to this album so much? It starts with a drum part.
“Bon Iver” opens with a plaintive guitar melody as intro to first song “Perth.” A backing choir slides into the song next, followed by a muted military snare cadence. Justin Vernon (the actual “Bon Iver”) sneaks in next, adding his nearly indecipherable high-pitched, yet warm voice. The music swells and ebbs like a wave, adding bits and pieces of other little sounds until, at 2:32, this monstrous drum pattern explodes into the mix, pounding away like indie Metallica. There are no lyrics the rest of the way, but a horn section joins the fray. By the last burst of sound, you have one of my favorite songs of the year.
That drum part, which lasts less than two minutes, unlocked this whole album for me. I’m not as enthralled with the rest of “Bon Iver” as I am of “Perth,” but that’s not to say there aren’t some fine moments. “Minnesota, WI” has some funky elements that remind me of TV on the Radio, while “Holocene” is another slow-building acoustic gem. Lead single “Calgary” aptly summarizes the entire album with its lush, heavy synth-and-percussion arrangement (even if it does sound uncomfortably too close to Coldplay in the first few bars), and “Towers” bounces along like the best song Tom Petty never sang in falsetto. I don’t even mind the Peter Cetera-style closer, “Beth/Rest,” which so many critics seem to revile (but maybe that’s just because I like Peter Cetera).
I lose patience with the middle trio of songs, though. "Michicant" and "Wash" are decent, but "Hinnom, TX" kinda sounds like Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie. Together, these three slow tracks bog down the middle of the record terribly.
“Bon Iver” is challenging work that sets a definite mood. It’s the type of music you don’t put on just for background noise; like The National, it's great for driving by yourself on a dark night. My guess is you’ll either really like it or really, really won’t. Before I ever heard it, I certainly would’ve put myself in the latter category. And I would’ve missed out on one of my favorite albums of the year.
Favorite Track: “Perth”
Least Favorite Track: “Hinnom, TX”
Sunday, February 27, 2011
In honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, let’s all put 2010 to bed. I’ll do my part here with my favorite films from last year:
9. The Town
Ben Affleck, where you been all my life? This guy is undergoing a career resuscitation the likes of which are rarely seen. First, his sparkling directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” and now this, a tense thriller that is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as “Heat.” And, man, Jeremy Renner is must-see viewing once again.
7. The Fighter/True Grit
These are listed together because they both left me feeling the same way: They’re both solid genre films with excellent performances, but neither raises to the level of truly “great.” That’s not a knock on them, either. It’s just we’ve seen the boxer/Western before; making a film that doesn’t just parrot the genre is an achievement in itself, and these are both excellent examples of well-worn areas. But neither rose above their respective worlds to set themselves apart.
6. The A-Team
This is where I remind you, this is not a “best of” list, but rather a ranking purely on favortism. “The A-Team” is not a better movie than those listed above it, but it was such a pleasure to watch. This should’ve been a bigger hit than it was. The casting is the key: the four leads—Neeson, especially—take their roles seriously and give the film a gravitas most stupid action movies lack. It helps, of course, they have a great script to work with, packed with one-liners that leave you chuckling long after the credits roll. Pure fun, this one.
I didn’t actually love this movie; the gotcha ending was extraordinarily irritating. But I rank it this high because it was so fascinating. Christopher Nolan has a singular vision, and he’s the only director working in Hollywood today who could’ve pulled this off—the Spielberg of this generation. We always complain about not seeing anything original in the Cineplex … well, you certainly can’t make that claim here. Nolan twisted our minds and our senses into pretzels this summer, and irritating ending or not, it left us all talking afterward. That, alone, is a worthy achievement. Add the stunning visuals and whirlpool storytelling, and “Inception” is one I think we’ll still be talking about a decade from now.
4. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows—Part 1
Director David Yates pulled off a magic trick of his own with this one, somehow making J.K. Rowling’s complex mythology (confusing even when reading her novel) understandable. And along the way, he made a movie with the heart and soul of an indie wrapped in the budget and trappings of a blockbuster franchise. Not many directors would take the time in a production like this to allow for one of its best scenes: Harry and Hermione’s dance in the darkest of nights. The best installment yet of this series, “Deathly Hallows—Part 1” will go down as “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Potter films.
3. Get Low
The most underappreciated, underrated film of 2010. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black (you know, the kid from “Sling Blade”) all give outstanding performances in this story of love, betrayal, guilt, and redemption. It starts out as an offbeat comedy about a man planning his own funeral, and then in Act 3 morphs into a touching tale of a man in search of forgiveness for a sin he’s carried with him for far too long.
2. Toy Story 3
If asked a different day, this may be my favorite film of last year. A true masterpiece, Pixar somehow managed to top itself yet again in its signature franchise. Laugh-out-loud funny, edge-of-your-seat exciting, jaw-droppingly imaginative (toys as mafiosos!), and an ending that can make grown men cry … this is a tremendous film for all ages. Its message of looking to the future and not clinging to the past is one to live by.
1. The Social Network
A portrait of an online artist as a young man, this fascinating and gripping tale of Facebook creator (?) Mark Zuckerberg left me pondering for days what the cost of fame, wealth, and success. Aaron Sorkin (though I loathe him personally) delivers the crowning achievement of his career with a script that deftly weaves what is essentially two legal proceedings into a spellbinding narrative. Add the sure hand of director David Fincher, a career-defining performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and the fact “The Social Network” left me puzzling over its revelations for days, and that all adds up to my favorite film of 2010.
A Note About ‘The King’s Speech’
I understand why this film earned so much critical acclaim and so many nominations, but it left me feeling too cold to make this list. Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter are all outstanding, but Firth’s character is a little hard to root for. I hope it doesn’t win tonight.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Ah, I had such hopes for this movie. “Taken” is one of my favorite films of the past five years, so the idea of Liam Neeson stomping around Europe again in another leather jacket had me looking forward to another go-round. Heck, it even has an abrupt, one-word title!
This is why the marketing people at Warner Bros. make so much money, because I’m sure there were thousands and thousands just like me who went out to see this dreck based on those same warm, fuzzy “Taken” feelings. Unfortunately, the similarities end just about there.
“Unknown” is like a combination of “Taken,” “The Bourne Identity,” and “The Fugitive”—with all the bad clichés and none of the smarts and wit of those three far superior films. The story starts off quite well, with Neeson as a biologist in Berlin for a big conference who gets into a car accident and has his brain rattled (hello, Mr. Bourne). So he then tries to piece his life back together and prove he is who and what he says he is (hello, Dr. Kimble). All the while, he’s dodging shady people in dark SUVs trying to capture and/or kill him. Why on earth is this happening to him? That’s actually a very intriguing question that Neeson handles with the grace and charm you love him for.
It all starts to unravel, though, right around the time Neeson escapes his stalkers via an obligatory car chase through the streets of Berlin (not a cop car in sight!). There is no way a middle-aged scientist should be able to drive like that, and it’s the first hint all is not what it seems in “Unknown.”
Ever since “Taken” was so resoundingly embraced by conservatives for its strike-first-strike-hard-no-mercy-sir! attitude toward bad guys, I think Neeson’s been scrambling to resuscitate his liberal cred. First he said C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels weren’t strictly Christian stories (please!). And now he stars in a movie where a poor, plucky, working-two-jobs-to-get-by illegal immigrant plays a critical heroic role, all the while an American government/big business complex tries to steal an agricultural development that would, of course, feed the poor around the globe for free. Can't have that! Give me a break. It’s all so stereotypical, unoriginal, and, worst of all, boring.
It’s no surprise that “Unknown” veers dramatically off course as soon as these ideological elements begin to make themselves clear. The third act is so stupid—with dialogue to match (this movie even makes January Jones sound terrible)—people in my screening were laughing. And not in a good way. I just rolled my eyes and got the heck out of there.
At least I’ll always have “Taken.” Maybe I’ll go watch that again to get the taste of this disaster out of my mouth.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Sunday night’s Grammy performance was a big one for The Avett Brothers, perhaps the most important five minutes of their career. Paired with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons, these good ol’ boys from North Carolina were one of the most buzzed-about groups both before and after the show aired, exposing them to millions and millions of people who I’m sure had never heard their brand of bluegrass/folk/country/punk/rock before. Even Tony Kornheiser gave them a shoutout on his TV show, “Pardon the Interruption.”
They didn’t directly address the Grammys during their show Friday night at D.C.’s soldout Constitution Hall (their first gig since), but they let their songs do the talking. I believe it is absolutely no accident they opened with “Murder in the City,” a gorgeous ballad off 2007’s “The Second Gleam” EP that features just Scott and Seth Avett, one guitar, one mic, and one spotlight. The key line goes like this:
A tear fell from my father’s eyes
I wondered what my dad would say
He said, “I love you and I’m proud of you both
In so many different ways.”
So, yeah, it’s only two minutes into a nearly two-hour show, and I already have goosebumps. There would be more.
The Avetts certainly show no signs of folding under the pressure of their burgeoning fame. Friday’s show sold out long before the Grammys, and Constitution Hall is the largest D.C. venue the brothers have headlined to this point. Their sound and stage presence is so assured, they definitely did not seem undersized for the room. The big, full-band moments exploded off the stage, while the quiet numbers were captivating.
The key, I think, is how authentic and genuine they are as they go about their business. These songs they play are too intense—be that intensely emotional or intensely fun—to just go through the motions. And it’s not like this is some outsized rock outfit that can rely on squalling guitars for support: They go up there with an acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, stand-up bass, and occasional drumkit and piano and just let fly. At the end of “Kick Drum Heart,” for example, Seth did something I’ve never seen before: to punctuate the heartbeat drum cadence at the end of the song, he walked back to their stage drape and started hitting it in time with the kick drum, causing the whole thing to flutter like a heartbeat. At another point he climbed on top of their gear boxes at stage right—almost into the laps of the people in the box seats—to lead a crowd singalong. As is his practice, meanwhile, Scott broke a banjo string rather early in the show (see start of "Paranoia" video below).
I’ve only been listening to The Avett Brothers for a year or so. Their catalog is so deep I haven’t had the time to explore it all and know every song from the first chord, like I do with my favorite bands (that will change, though, after this show). But their songs are the kind that feel like best friends by the end, even if you’ve never heard them before. Their music is one big open invitation to come join the family. They played three unreleased cuts Saturday night, and the best for me was easily “Open-Ended Life,” a wide-open rocker that’s one of the most straightforward uptempo songs they’ve ever written. This must be on their next album.
I guess they’re still technically touring off their breakthrough album, 2009’s “I and Love and You,” but you’d never know it by the setlist, which reached as far back as “November Blue” from their first full-length album, 2002’s “Country Was.” Every album had at least one representative at the party, most notably 2007’s “Emotionalism.”
That record’s “Paranoia in Bb Major” was one of my favorites of the night. Again, I believe this song was intentionally selected with the Grammys in mind, due to this utterly appropriate verse:
I’ve found myself in
A place that I’ve never been
A place that I thought that I would never be
These people looking back at me
Cue 3,700 voices raised in a unified cheer. More goosebumps.
The two showstoppers of the night, however, were probably their two best-known songs. “I and Love and You” was the perfect way to close the main set, as that song builds to a huge crescendo and then ends with a massive a capella singalong. And then there's “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”
This is the song they played Sunday at the Grammys, and I thought it was a poor choice. Following Mumford & Sons’ intense intro, the Avetts pushed “Doubt” too far to try and match (or perhaps it was just nerves). Back in the friendly confines of their own show, though, they played it with just the right mixture of strength and tenderness. What I love so much about this track is how everyone on it shines: when it hits that final glorious chorus, the entire band is at full power, and the heady brew they stir up is exactly right for whatever room they’re playing. If The Avett Brothers have written a better song, I haven’t heard it yet.
The show wasn’t perfect, but that had nothing to do with the band and everything to do with the venue. Constitution Hall is a horrible place to see a concert. The sound is often muddy and difficult to mix (Scott’s banjo was lost early in the show and the bass was up way too high). The seats are so close together on the floor it’s almost impossible to move and dance around with any genuine fervor. And the room’s just big enough to let in the tourists, yet small enough that those same morons can shout obnoxious things during quiet moments (quiet songs included!) and still be heard clearly. Can someone just go build a 9:30 Club that’s about three times the size of the original?
That said, the Avetts’ abundant joy easily overcame these shortcomings. Theirs is the type of show where you clap your hands until they’re red and sore … and then just keep clapping some more.
The Avett Brothers
Murder in the City
Kick Drum Heart
Down with the Shine
Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane
Paranoia in Bb Major
Slight Figure of Speech
Will You Return
I Killed Sally’s Lover
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
Go to Sleep
I and Love and You
And It Spread
Talk on Indolence
Show Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes