Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Crisis In Six Scenes [television review]

Released for streaming on Amazon Prime on September 30th

There were some clear warning signs that Crisis In Six Scenes was going to be a disaster. Woody Allen’s latest project, a six episode series for Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, was announced last year. Some of Allen’s first statements about it include “My guess is that Roy Price [the head of Amazon Studios] will regret this” and “I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin”.

At the time, such comments were probably dismissed as Allen cracking jokes and just being his signature ’ol neurotic self. It turns out the filmmaker was almost certainly being more truthful than humorous. Once the project had begun, Allen told Deadline that he didn’t know what a streaming service or even Amazon was, doesn’t own a computer, and how much he regretted the deal (“I haven’t had a pleasurable moment since I undertook it”). Uh oh.

Each episode of Crisis In Six Scenes runs around 22-23 minutes each, with a total running time of two-hours-and-sixteen minutes. Almost all of it is deadly boring, with glacial plot development and scene after scene whose sole purpose is seemingly to pad out the running time of the production. Should you care, the 60s-set series stars Allen as a novelist who’s trying to sell an awful sitcom to a network (the irony is clearly intentional). His comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut with his wife (played by Elaine May) is upended when an on-the-run radical activist breaks into their house seeking refuge. She’s played by a severely miscast Miley Cyrus, who contributes to this project’s dreadfulness with her ample screen time.

Frequent and banal commentary on the tumultuous period in which the series is set, constant headbutting between Cyrus’ and Allen’s characters, absolutely zero interesting principal or secondary characters (including appearances by Lewis Black, Joy Behar, and Michael Rapport), and a spectacularly bad joke-to-laugh ratio are what lay in wait for unwitting viewers. I laughed only once and even that was at a cheap sight gag with Allen. If you’ve seen a Woody Allen movie with him starring before then you’ve already seen his performance in Crisis In Six Scenes. Spoiler alert: the character he plays is overly neurotic.

In the past decade, I find myself asking basically once a year (the rate at which the quantity over quality Allen releases films) why I keep watching his latest work. Off the top of my head, probably 13 of his last 15 releases haven’t been worth my time, with the two exceptions being Cassandra’s Dream and Midnight In Paris. Add in his questionable personal history (which becomes even harder to stomach with his career-long onscreen preoccupation with decidedly young female protagonists, as is once again the case here), plus the fact that Crisis In Six Scenes is as transparent a cash grab as can be and, well, it’s probably time for this one-time fan to part ways with Allen.

Amazon relentlessly pursued Allen and gave the filmmaker carte blanche to create whatever he wanted. Despite huge reluctance on Allen’s part, they apparently paid him a dollar amount that was too obscenely high for him to turn down. These aren’t exactly circumstances that create an environment in which great art is created, which Crisis In Six Scenes proves in spades. Even the most hardcore of Allen fans will find precious little here to appreciate.

Rating: D-

Related posts: my January 2012 review of Woody Allen: A Documentary

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Heart – Beautiful Broken [album review]

Released on July 8th

It’s been frustrating for quite some time to keep the faith as a Heart fan. Until Beautiful Broken, their newest release, more than 20 years had passed since their last memorable studio album, 1993’s Desire Walks On. Nearly as much time had passed since their last merely decent release, which was 1995’s The Road Home live album. Principal members Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy have had a rather sporadic output of music over the past couple of decades, consisting essentially of three Heart albums, a couple of releases from their Lovemongers side project, and a handful of solo releases from Ann. None of these measured up to the talent level of Ann, who I consider one of the best vocalists in rock (no male or female distinction needed, either).

Beautiful Broken thankfully breaks that overlong stretch of musical mediocrity. And when you consider that eight of the album’s ten tracks are reinterpretations or re-recordings of songs from the duo’s past, it boldly defies the odds in doing so. These kinds of “odds and ends” albums almost never deliver very worthwhile results (Bon Jovi’s This Left Feels Right and Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, which I reviewed here, immediately come to mind). 

Once you get past that gawdawful album cover, Beautiful Broken rarely disappoints. Sure, it’s heavily weighted towards lighter material that mostly qualify as ballads — two thirds of it, in fact (including the slow-tempoed “Down On Me”, which straddles the fence between a ballad and a bluesy rocker). Most of this material is excellent, so it’s easy to be more forgiving of Beautiful Broken’s overall lighter tone. “Two” might be dismissed as overly sappy by some, but I found it to be an album standout. It also reminds listeners that Heart’s vocal talent runs deeper than just Ann, as Nancy takes over the lead vocals here. The romantic piano ballad (written by R&B artist Ne-Yo) does feel oddly out of place as the second song on the album, however, especially following the scorching title track that opens the album. The other track with Nancy singing lead, “One Word”, is admittedly a bit of a snoozer. “Sweet Darling” and soothing album closer “Language Of Love” are additional album highlights, featuring powerhouse vocals from Ann and some very effective string arrangements.

The rest of Beautiful Broken nicely scratches your “Barracuda itch” for fans that are more partial to Heart’s heavier side. Most notable is the album’s fiery title track, which may be the most aggressive song Heart’s ever done. Driven by Nancy’s badass guitar riff, “Beautiful Broken” also serves up a forceful vocal performance from Ann, who’s joined by Metallica’s James Hetfield. His presence bestows an extra serving of rock grit to an already-heavy piece of music that packs a lot into its concise two-and-a-half minute running time. The reworking of “Beautiful Broken” is truly transformative. It originally appeared as a bonus track on 2012’s Fanatic album, which I’d listened to a good 8-10 times. When I heard this reworked version, I immediately loved it, yet had absolutely no recollection of having heard the song before. The 2016 version is much more fully-formed, especially the bottom-end production. Heart’s strong Led Zeppelin influence is all over the acoustic-electric “I Jump”, “Heaven”, and “City’s Burning”, which also add strings and tastefully employ the Middle Eastern musical accents that Zeppelin brought to the mainstream.   

Considering the majority of Beautiful Broken is constructed of recycled material from Heart’s dodgy early 80s period, it’s significantly better than it probably has any right to be. Regardless of the circumstances, I’ll happily settle for what amounts to a damn fine album from the band. It’s been far too long. 

Rating: B+

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Chantal Kreviazuk - Hard Sail [album review]

Released on June 17th

A focus on family, her longtime dedication to a number of causes (including education, human rights, the environment, and mental health), and a busy and successful career as a songwriter for other artists (such as Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Britney Spears, and Drake) have left a seven year gap between studio albums for Winnipeg-born Chantal Kreviazuk. Hard Sail marks her sixth studio release.

Kreviazuk’s classically trained piano skills are front and centre on Hard Sail’s quieter moments, which dominate the album’s back half. “Snowing In The Desert” is one of Kreviazuk’s best pieces of work yet, with her piano accompanied by swelling strings and a standout vocal performance from the musician (including her effective background and harmony vocals). “Lost” and “I Love You” are also particularly strong, as Kreviazuk draws upon an undisclosed recent traumatic event in her life as the lyrical inspiration for the songs. Two-minute-long album closer “Smile In Your Sleep” — a lullaby to one of Kreviazuk’s kids — represents Hard Sail’s only notable dip in quality.

“Into Me” and “Meant For This” are the most obvious nods to the musician’s early-career mid-tempo songcraft. A modern pop production edge adorns the excellent title track, “Ticklish”, the ridiculously catchy “All I Got”, and the potent “Vicious” (which could easily be mistaken for a Florence + The Machine song).

Kreviazuk may be entering the third decade of her career and get labelled as an adult contemporary artist, but she proves once again on Hard Sail that she can balance the safer, more traditional elements of her sound with some ambitious risks that sound fresh and stand high amongst her catalog of work.

Rating: B+

Related posts: my October 2009 review of Krevizuk’s Plain Jane album

Thursday, August 25, 2016

U2 - iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris [Blu-ray review]

Released on June 10th on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital media

U2’s November 14th Paris show last year at the Accorhotels Arena was to have been broadcast on HBO later the same day. The Paris terrorist attacks on the 13th lead to a postponement of the event, which was rescheduled for December 7th. iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris documents that makeup show, which marked the closing date of the band’s tour in support of their Songs Of Innocence album.

With their 40th anniversary approaching next month, U2 continue to push the envelope and shake off complacency. Their previous 360° Tour stands as the highest-grossing tour of all time, filling stadiums and delivering an impressive production featuring a mammoth claw-like stage and no shortage of technological might. This time around, the group downsized to arenas, while delivering an even more impressive technological spectacle by using a 100 foot long double-sided LED screen that hung from the arena ceiling and could be lowered and raised. Suspended above a 118 foot long walkway joining the main stage and a smaller stage on the other end of the arena floor, U2’s staging on this outing seeks to make their concert experience an even more inclusive event for fans. At various points, they play on both stages, the walkway, and even inside the video screen. Accompanying all of this was a new state-of-the-art PA system that strived to dramatically improve the sound of the shows for their audience.

The Paris attacks are employed as a secondary theme for the concert by U2 frontman Bono, as one would expect from the outspoken singer. Several references to it are made throughout the show in an effort to provide a small dose of healing and musical distraction to the sold-out crowd, which was undoubtedly still deeply shaken from the horrible events a few weeks prior. Not that I can compare my numbness following the events of 9/11 with what Parisians were feeling, but I can attest to the benefits of a powerful and emotional rock show in difficult times, having seen U2 in Hamilton, Ontario a few weeks after 9/11. It still ranks as the best concert I’ve seen. The main theme used for this tour (and the heavily autobiographical Songs Of Innocence) finds U2 uncharacteristically looking back to their formative years. This is a band, after all, that typically has an aversion to nostalgia.

The strong material on Songs Of Innocence was unfortunately overshadowed by the overblown outrage that accompanied the album’s unconventional free release strategy via Apple. Along with one-off 2014 single “Invisible”, six tracks are pulled from it here, with all of them fitting in nicely amongst the band’s classic material. While “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is decent enough, it’s probably one of Songs Of Innocence’s relatively weaker tracks and a risky choice as a show opener, but the audience participation aspect of it makes it work. A five song segment early in the show returns the band to its Dublin roots to great effect, as their centrepiece video screen earns its (undoubtedly pricey) keep. Bono sings “Iris (Hold Me Close)” (about his mother, who died when he was 14) as home movies of her fill the video screen, while “Song For Someone” makes great use of animations acted out by Bono’s teenage son portraying his father in his childhood home. During “Cedarwood Road”, Bono enters the screen and amazingly inserts himself into animations depicting the street he grew up on. “Raised By Wolves” and the older “Sunday Bloody Sunday” address the Northern Ireland conflict. I must admit that while the staging of the latter song was effective (all four band members perform it on the walkway), the stripped down arrangement of it was probably the weakest live version I’ve heard of one of their classic songs.

The always-rousing “Until The End Of The World” cleverly features a giant-sized Bono (in terms of how he’s used on the video screen, not his actual weight) interacting with guitarist the Edge, who’s playing inside the screen. That leads into a brief intermission, where all four band members (including bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.) ares shown going through wardrobe changes inside the screen behind an arena-length recreation of the Berlin Wall as a pre-recorded remix version of “The Fly” plays behind Bono’s live vocals. This behind-the-scenes segment (fly on the wall moment?) is one of the coolest parts of the show and wasn’t seen on the HBO broadcast. I particularly loved the part where Clayton gives a little wink to the camera before taking his place for the next song, “Invisible” (one of the better performances of the show).

There are so many other great moments during the two-and-a-half hour show worthy of mentioning. These include “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and an unbelievable five song stretch of music that begins with subdued piano and vocal performances of “Every Breaking Wave” and “October”, followed by one of the best live versions of “Bullet The Blue Sky” I’ve ever heard, followed by “Zooropa”, which then beautifully dissolves into “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Rounding out the setlist are faithful and well-performed versions of U2 concerts staples like “Beautiful Day”, “Vertigo”, “One”, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”, “Bad”, “With Or Without You”, and “I Will Follow”.

The show ends with an appearance by Eagles of Death Metal, making their first return to a stage since their Paris show was cut short by one of the terrorist attacks that left 89 audience members dead and many more injured. While it’s a noble gesture on U2’s part and nice to see the American act retake the stage after such a horrific experience, I can’t stand the Eagles of Death Metal’s music or their lead singer Jesse Hughes and his extreme right-wing views. Their appearance here certainly hasn’t swayed my thinking. Following an overlong version of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” with the members of U2, Eagles of Death Metal close the show by themselves with their terrible “I Love You All The Time”, featuring some truly awful dance moves from Hughes. Basically, their appearance at the show left me feeling rather off-balanced. The euphoria of watching such a great show clashed with my dislike for the band, which in turn clashed with the heartwarming nature and importance of them returning to a concert stage.      

iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris reinforces U2’s status as a live rock act that’s second to none. Once again, they combine memorable visuals, technological might, and a stellar collection of classic and new material to produce what I’ll simply call the best live music home video release I’ve ever watched. Even if fans have seen the version aired on HBO, the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris Blu-ray is well worth picking up. Along with some worthwhile extras, the cut of the show on it is an improvement, albeit a little too “cleaned up” in some spots. On the original HBO airing, there’s a funny moment during “Bad” where Bono struggles a bit to both affix a French flag from the crowd to the bass drum and get it displayed with the colours on the correct side. This causes the perpetually stone-faced Mullen Jr. to crack a smile, making for a nice, genuine moment. Almost none of that shows up in the Blu-ray cut. One additional observation I made is that while they could have overused the video screen, its frequency of use and the ways that the band and show designer Willie Williams choose to use it during the well-paced concert felt just right. 

I’ve seen six different U2 tours totalling nine shows and I’d rate the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour as their best yet – and I missed seeing the tour. The Blu-ray makes the show appear to be that good. Between the Blu-ray and the original HBO airing, I’ve watched the show about 10 times already. Every time I view it, there’s another off-balanced, mixed-feelings experience of complete enjoyment at how good the show is and feeling absolutely gutted that my general admission ticket for their July 2015 Toronto show was never used due to a last minute illness that prevented me from attending.

Blu-ray extras: a mostly worthwhile collection of extras totalling 90 minutes adds to the Blu-ray’s must-have status for U2 fans. Excellent performances of “Out Of Control”, “Bad”, and “People Have The Power” (with Patti Smith) from the December 6th Paris show and “The Electric Co.” from their November 11th Paris show make up the live outtakes. “Cedarwood Road” finds Bono’s childhood friend Gavin Friday delivering narration over the same type of animation used during the live performance of the song. A couple of short films (with one starring Woody Harrelson) based on a couple of tracks from Songs Of Innocence really aren’t very interesting. A video of the Zooropa album’s “The Wanderer” is, however, as a creepy computer-generated Johnny Cash accompanies his vocals on the song. A bunch of standard promo music videos for the Oscar-nominated “Ordinary Love”, “Invisible”, and Songs Of Innocence’s singles are included, with “Song For Someone” and “The Troubles” (featuring co-vocals from Swedish singer Lykke Li) standing out as the best. There’s only a very short behind-the-scenes look at the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour staging, which is a real missed opportunity to give some meaningful insight into such an impressive production.  

Rating: A+

Related posts: my September 2009 two part review (part 1/part 2) of U2’s September 16, 2009 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, June 2010 review of the U2 360° At The Rose Bowl Blu-ray, July 2011 review of U2’s July 11, 2014 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, October 2011 review of U2’s From The Sky Down documentary, and February 2014 review of U2’s “Invisible” single 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Garbage – Strange Little Birds [album review]

Released on June 10th

The normally reliable Garbage turn in their most disappointing effort yet on Strange Little Birds, their newest release. Studio album number six contains all the Garbage hallmarks that fans have come to expect over the band’s 20+ year career. There’s dense production, pop melodies, industrial and electronic textures, crisp guitars, and lead singer Shirley Manson’s vocal swagger that clashes with her depressing lyrical themes that time and time again return to her struggles with self-confidence.

As a longtime Garbage fan, I hate to admit that it’s started to get downright uncomfortable to continually endure Manson’s autobiographical lyrical pain. Take this snippet from “Magnetized” for example: “You bring your light, I’ll bring the pain/You bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame”. On the surface, how someone with her amazing talent, success, and looks still can’t seem to get past her perceived deficiencies seems like a mystery. Fans would be well-served to watch this fascinating recent interview she did on the CBC’s Q radio program for some illuminating insight. Manson’s angst is complemented by Strange Little Birds’ predominantly dark musical tone (the band is rounded out by producer/drummer Butch Vig and multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker). It’s easily their most brooding album yet, which is saying something for a band who don’t exactly go light on the gloomy material.

The moody opening track “Sometimes” sets the appropriate tone for such a cheerless album, but it feels meandering and undercooked. The airy “If I Lost You”, the slow-building “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”, and “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” left the same impressions. The excellent “So We Can Stay Alive” and “Amends” (another slow-builder) resonated much deeper. Their fuzzed-out basslines and buzzsaw guitars really make the tracks stand out with their aggressive sound and laser focus. They may be in shorter supply on this outing, but there are a couple of tracks slathered in a highly melodic pop sheen, a style which Garbage has done so well in the past. “Magnetized” and “We Never Tell” are solid, but aren’t exactly in the same league as previous Garbage songs cut from the same cloth, such as “When I Grow Up” or “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)”. Resting somewhere between the light and dark (in terms of musical tone) are first single “Empty” and “Blackout”, where Manson shares her opinion of today’s pop music (“Try not to think, be cool, be calm, be fake/Dumb yourself down, numb yourself out/Fake it till you make it”). Once again, the songs are nothing more than average and rather unmemorable.

Five out of six great studio albums is a batting average most bands would kill for, so there’s no shame in the alt-rock veterans finally releasing a generally weak collection of songs. Garbage’s stellar track record is precisely what kept me repeatedly listening to Strange Little Birds at least a dozen times, hoping for that spark of engagement I’ve come to expect while listening to one of their new albums. Not this time.

Rating: C

Related posts: my June 2012 review of Garbage’s May 28, 2012 Toronto concert and my August 2012 review of their Not Your Kind Of People album

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice [film review]

Released theatrically on March 25th; released last week on all physical and digital media platforms

Ben Affleck becomes the fifth actor to don the Batsuit in the eighth Batman film outing of the modern era, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which would seem to be an awfully high turnover rate. He acquits himself fairly well in the role, landing below Keaton and Bale and above Kilmer and Clooney on my (Bat)scale of effectiveness portraying Bruce Wayne/Batman. Returning as Superman is Henry Cavill, who first appeared as the character in 2013’s Man of Steel. I must admit I missed that one and while he’s serviceable enough in Batman v. Superman, there certainly wasn’t enough in his performance to inspire me to catch up on what I’ve missed.

Batman v. Superman picks up right at Man of Steel’s conclusion, as Superman battles General Zod, with the city of Metropolis becoming collateral damage in the process. It’s a clever choice to have the perspective of this sequence switch to Wayne’s. His witnessing of the extreme levels of destruction Superman is capable of (even when carried out with noble intentions) sets up Batman v. Superman’s expansive narrative and the conflict between the titular heavyweights.

The film, directed by Zack Snyder, also lays the groundwork for future movies featuring DC Comics superheroes, with cameos by a handful of other characters. The brief appearance by Aquaman is one of the better moments in the movie and provided my best laugh during Batman v. Superman’s bloated two-and-a-half hour running time. That’s because I knew it would have my best friend Mark practically soiling himself with excitement at seeing one of his favourite comic book characters finally appearing onscreen.

The “serviceable” description could also extend to nearly all of the larger supporting roles and performances throughout this movie. Holly Hunter plays a Kentucky Senator eager to reign in Superman’s power, Amy Adams plays Superman/Clark Kent’s love interest and Daily Planet colleague Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons replaces Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Gal Gadot appears as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. None of them are particularly memorable.

Wonder Woman’s film debut here garnered an inexplicable amount of critical praise, as far as I’m concerned. I’m probably permanently tainted by Linda Carter’s campy 70s turn in the role, but I always found Wonder Woman to be a rather lame superhero. That’s not a sexist thing, either. With an admittedly far-less-than-devout knowledge of comic book history, I’d be hard-pressed to name a more rubbish superhero than Hawkeye, at least based on the character portrayed by the equally terribly Jeremy Renner in the Avengers films. Wonder Woman’s first appearance onscreen here is accompanied by a pounding score, but this intended highly dramatic moment lands with a resounding thud. Instead, the moment gave me my second best laugh of the film at the sheer cheesiness of it.

The worst thing about Batman v. Superman is the presence of a dreadfully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. His Lex Luthor (who’s actually the son of Superman’s archvillain of the same name) ruins every scene he appears in, with an over-the-top performance and a bad wig. The mentally unstable Luthor doesn’t invoke an ounce of menace in Batman v. Superman, which really hinders the level of investment many viewers will have in the film’s story.

Some other issues plague the movie. The climatic and tiredly inevitable battle scene between the main characters and the enemy who’s unleashed by Luthor (an alien monster named Cyborg) had me praying for a quick end to the whole thing. Let’s just say that as far as CGI has come, this sequence proves there’s still a long way to go with this art form. Amusingly, while I found the Cyborg CGI to be atrocious, the aforementioned Mark (who’s a comic book aficionado) praised it as one of the film’s best moments because of how true to the comic book character it looked. There’s also a jarring and bizarre nightmare sequence in a post-apocalyptic setting whose context and significance will likely be lost on all but the most hardcore comic book nerds. One of them speculates here that it’s foreshadowing future Justice League movie events. 

This last issue isn’t exactly a fault of the movie, but is anyone else troubled by the frequency nowadays with which supposed journalists whore themselves out to appear in TV shows and films? Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, and Soledad O’Brien appear in this movie and are some of the worst repeat offenders, along with Wolf Blitzer. My God, even the late and venerable Morley Safer turned up playing himself in the second season of House of Cards. Maybe I’m just getting old, but enough already. It’s no wonder the media’s journalistic integrity is in such a shambles.

Actually, that “getting old” thing is a big part of the problem when it comes to how I relate to superhero films now. At 46, I’ve just finally lost that youthful intrigue with these larger-than-life characters and their worlds. Simply put, I am no longer the audience for this type of thing (or to paraphrase Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon character, “I’ve gotten too old for this shit”). And even if I hadn’t outgrown them, “shit” is another huge obstacle in enjoying superhero films because most of them are just that. This past summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War were damn near unwatchable. A big part of the problem is also the sheer volume they’re churned out with. Try a little quality control, Hollywood. Hell, Stan Lee, who makes a cameo in every Marvel film, is practically a full-time actor these days. Batman v. Superman isn’t quite a full-on turd, but it’s also just not very good.

Rating: C

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Zakk Wylde – Book Of Shadows II [album review]

Released on April 8th

Few metal musicians have the impressive range of Zakk Wylde. His ability to bludgeon listeners with meaty guitar riffs, shredding solos, and a booming singing voice has been well-established during his 18 years as Black Label Society’s frontman and some lengthy stretches as Ozzy Osbourne’s sideman. What makes Wylde unique and an ongoing source of intrigue for me is his ability to deliver both the heavy and mellow sides of himself so adeptly. The latter side is showcased beautifully on Book Of Shadows II, a sequel to his 20 year old Book Of Shadows album, which has aged nicely over the years.

With the 20th anniversary of Book Of Shadows’ release approaching, Wylde considered the best way to honour one of the most beloved albums in his catalog by fans. Instead of going the tired reissue route where a few bland demos and live tracks from that era get tacked onto the album’s back end, Wylde instead decided to revisit Book Of Shadows’ laid back sound and vibe with a collection of new music.

Wylde’s singing voice had a compelling, lived-in quality 20 years ago and it’s only gotten better and developed more character over the years. It definitely suits the predominantly melancholy nature of Book Of Shadows II’s material. In fact, one look at many of the song titles (“Tears Of December”, “Lost Prayer”, “Darkest Hour”, “Eyes Of Burden”, “Yesterday’s Tears”, “Harbors Of Pity”, and “Sorrowed Regrets”) is enough to approach the album extra cautiously, wondering if we’re in for 66 minutes of oppressive, wrist-cutting music. While there is a sombre lyrical narrative and musical tone running throughout the album, there’s also a healthy dose of optimism, emotional depth, and outstanding songcraft and musical performances to make Book Of Shadows II well worth your time.

The easy lilt, warm Hammond organ, and strong melodies on “Tears Of December” bely its downer lyrics and it’s the same case on “Useless Apologies”, “Sorrowed Regrets”, and “Darkest Hour”. “Harbours Of Pity” and the bitter-filled “Sleeping Dogs” (the rare example of a first single that sits at #13 on the album’s running order) just straight up own their gloominess, both musically and lyrically. All of them have plenty more to offer than just a mournful tone, however. 

Balancing out the cheerlessness are a number of relatively sunnier cuts like “Autumn Changes”, “Eyes Of Burden”, and “Lost Prayer” that make up some of Book Of Shadows II’s best material. Album closer “The King” may well be Wylde’s finest composition yet, though. Its bare structure features only piano, organ, strings, and a beautiful guitar solo, along with lyrics that display a more vulnerable and romantic side to Wylde that’s quite welcoming. The bluesy “Forgotten Memory” also demonstrates a more sensitive side of someone whose imposing exterior suggests he’s more likely a member of the Hell’s Angels (he’s not) than an  Elton John fanatic (he is).

John, The Eagles, 70s Neil Young, southern rock, the blues, and soul music comprise the essence of Book Of Shadows II’s musical influences, making for an intriguing sonic stew. You can actually also add in metal, because Wylde lets ’er rip more than a few times with some incredible guitar solos. The distortion may be dialled way back for many of them (or turned off altogether), but the guitarist still injects many of them with the ferocity we’ve come to expect from him. Wylde also shows tasteful restraint at times, too, such as the bluesy fretwork on “Forgotten Memory”.

As the sole writer of all 14 songs, producer, and having contributed all guitars, piano, organ, and vocals to the album, Book Of Shadows II represents an extremely impressive achievement for Wylde. The musician lays bare his soul and returns to the stripped down musical direction that he has consistently shown himself to be so comfortable with over the course of his career. Improving on its predecessor’s best attributes, the mellow Book Of Shadows II makes for a great collection of songs to unwind your day to.

Rating: A-

Related posts: my October 2010 review of Black Label Society’s Order Of The Black album

Friday, July 15, 2016

O.J.: Made In America [film review]

Premiered on ABC on June 11th

I’m usually not on board with the entertainment industry’s predictable habit of milking the hell out of the latest hot trends. One bandwagon I’m certainly not adverse to Hollywood hopping on, however, is the current trend of TV-based long-form true crime documentaries. In the past couple of years, this format has been responsible for some of the best documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen with Netflix’s Making A Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx. Now comes O.J.: Made In America from ESPN Films, as part of their ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series.

The prospect of revisiting a much-scrutinized crime and the central celebrity figure involved likely holds zero appeal to many in their mid 30s or older who experienced the O.J. saga the first time around. O.J. fatigue is further exacerbated by Fox’s dramatic miniseries The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story from earlier this year (I only lasted about 30 minutes into the first episode before bailing out on the cheesy trashfest). One would expect that O.J.: Made In America’s daunting seven hour and 44 minute running time will be another major impediment to securing an audience in large numbers. Ignore all of these potential obstacles, however, because O.J.: Made In America is an absolutely brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking.

The five-part documentary miniseries from director/producer Ezra Edelman surely has to now be considered the definitive word on Simpson’s spectacularly bizarre life story. Edelman explores Simpson’s life from his youth right through to his current incarceration for the dumbfounding 2007 bungled armed robbery in Las Vegas of what Simpson thought was football memorabilia stolen from him. A large number of Simpson’s business colleagues, friends, family members, and acquaintances are interviewed, although Simpson himself declined to participate in the documentary. 

What’s fascinating, though, is how Edelman weaves so many other compelling narratives into his epic piece. Race, expectedly, is at the forefront, both in terms of the Los Angeles Police Department’s strained relationship with the black community and how much of a role that race played in Simpson’s murder trial. The doc also offers insightful examinations of the perplexing American criminal justice system, celebrity culture, as well as the commercialization and decline of the media and journalism.

Two of the documentary’s five parts spend their entirety on the murders of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, Simpson’s arrest and the infamous Bronco chase, and his 1994-1995 murder trial. Many of the central figures in the case are interviewed, including Marcia Clark and District Attorney Gil Garcetti from the prosecuting side and F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck and the slime-oozing Carl E. Douglas from Simpson’s defence team. Douglas takes a little too much delight in recalling how prior to a visit to Simpson’s house by the jury, photos and other artwork there were rearranged and changed to make it look like Simpson had more relationships with black friends and family members (Simpson actually spent far more time in the “white world”). 

The trial is deconstructed in absolutely engrossing detail, with fresh revelations and analysis that even the most devout followers of the “trial of the century” will be surprised by. The prosecution’s mishandling of the case gets plenty of attention, from their misguided use of racist cop Mark Fuhrman to their disastrous strategy of having Simpson try on the gloves used in the murders (it’s revealed that Simpson helped swing the optics of that moment in his favour by not taking his arthritis medication, which likely played a role in the gloves not fitting). A handful of the jurors are interviewed as well and they offer some jaw-dropping comments that certainly shed more light on the trial’s unexpected verdict.

It’s a testament to the filmmaking team’s talents that the absence of any active involvement from the main subject of O.J.: Made In America doesn’t diminish its impact. Having almost eight hours to tell your story can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the filmmaker. Luckily, Edelman’s vision serves the sprawling running time of his well-paced documentary exceptionally well. Frankly, it’s astounding that there’s virtually no fat on the (oversized) bones here – even the outstanding Making A Murderer ended up flagging somewhat in its second-last episode before righting itself. O.J.: Made In America is actually so much more than just a compelling true crime story and should be essential viewing for documentary fans.

Rating: A+

Related posts: reviews of previous entries in the 30 for 30 series, including my October 2009 review of Kings Ransom and my October 2012 review of 9.79*

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

SIXX:AM – Prayers For The Damned [album review]

Released on April 29th

After lacklustre previous album Modern Vintage, SIXX:AM recapture and surpass the fine form they showed on their first two releases with Prayers For The Damned, their latest collections of songs. The band recorded enough material for a double album, but decided to hold off on releasing the other half of the material until later this year. That album, not unexpectedly, will be titled Prayers For The Damned, Vol. 2

It’s an ambitious endeavour from the trio consisting of Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx (I suppose I should be adding a “former” to that now?), ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba, and vocalist James Michael. Michael actually established his name as a producer, engineer, songwriter, and mixer who’s collaborated with a diverse range of artists like Meat Loaf, the Crüe, Alanis Morissette, Scorpions, and Kelly Clarkson. Drum duties for the new albums and current tour are handled by Orillia, Ontario’s Dustin Steinke. His performances really stood out on an album that’s loaded with great musicianship.

Prayers For The Damned deals up plenty of songs anchored by huge anthemic choruses, which is a formula that SIXX:AM have perfected at this point. There’s no better examples than “You Have Come To The Right Place”, “When We Were Gods”, “Everything Went To Hell”, and powerful opener “Rise”. The latter incorporates some very effective hymnal-sounding background vocals that add greater dimension to the song, which features lyrics that are defiant yet optimistic about the world’s increasingly unstable state. “I’m Sick” swings between a sauntering verse section and sped-up, aggressive choruses, with a searing solo from Ashba. “Prayers For The Damned” is one of the album’s best songs and is followed up by the more restrained “Better Man”, which feels like a companion piece to the title track with its very similar chord structure. The anthemic “Can’t Stop” sounds like filler on the first few listens before revealing its infectious charms, as does the more experimental “Belly Of The Beast”. “Rise Of The Melancholy Empire” delivers a grandiose and haunting conclusion to Prayers For The Damned, using another heavily leaned-on songwriting device in SIXX:AM’s sound — the quiet/loud dynamic. The contemplative lyrics from Sixx were inspired by last November’s Paris terrorist attacks. 

As far as side projects go, SIXX:AM was considerably better than most. Ashba left GN’R last year “with a heavy heart” to devote more time to SIXX:AM (Axl Rose also asked him to come back to play with the currently semi-reunited group) and Sixx played his final show with the now-retired Mötley Crüe on New Year’s Eve. The pair’s newfound lack of musical distractions is fully evident on the filler-free Prayers For The Damned, which is easily the band’s best release yet. The biggest revelation to me on the album was Ashba’s playing. I obviously knew he was a great guitarist, but he really steps up his game here with some absolutely monstrous solos and a nice assortment of offbeat six string sounds. Until this album, I also had never noticed the clear influence of Slash on Ashba, both in his playing style and tone (it really becomes evident when Ashba breaks out the wah-wah pedal).   

There is one ongoing quibble I have with SIXX:AM, however, and that’s Michael’s voice. I’ve just never fully warmed to it. To my ears, it sounds a little on the thin side, even though he has perfectly acceptable range. It’s always bothered me that I can’t quite get past my issue with it, but I think it’s simply one of those subjective and hard-to-explain oddities we all get with certain songs or singers. Michael, who produced and engineered Prayers For The Damned, does deserves his full due for how great the album sounds, though. There’s an abundance of great ear candy here, which Michael talks about in his revealing Fly On The Wall YouTube series. 

Almost a decade into their career, SIXX:AM hits their stride with Prayers For The Damned. The band delivers their heaviest album yet, comprised of first-rate arena-ready anthems that are also infused with an intriguing level of depth and scope. Considering the album’s soon-to-be-released companion piece was recorded at the same time, there’s no reason not to have very high expectations for Vol. 2.

Rating: A 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Keith Urban – Ripcord [album review]

Released on May 6th

Keith Urban may reside in Nashville, record for a country label, and tour with country acts. But aside from a little bit of banjo on his latest album and a heavy reliance on outside songwriters (a longstanding tradition from the genre that lowers my level of respect for it), there’s virtually nothing on Ripcord to justify referring to him nowadays as a “country artist”, as so many still seem to do. Classifications and labels for musical artists are a convenient way for us to convey to someone what a band or singer sounds like and I use them as well. Urban could be the poster boy for how limiting and downright inaccurate they can often be, however. It’s mildly annoyed me for years, as most of his musical output in the past decade has consisted of songs that are overwhelmingly rock and pop-based, with only a modest quotient of country involved in the mix.

Not unlike Taylor Swift on her last few albums, Urban’s most recent outings have moved further from his country-based early career work into pop territory, with consistently strong results. Ripcord, his tenth studio album, is made up of 13 tracks comprising a blend of the comfortably familiar and a few new sonic textures and creative choices that are initially a bit jarring, but ultimately largely satisfying. The release strategy for Ripcord’s singles are a real head-scratcher, though: lead single “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” was released 11 months before the album came out, followed by a couple more single releases before the album got into fans’ hands.

Opener “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” is an instantly intriguing piece of work that foreshadows Ripcord’s more experimental tone. A slick banjo lick melds with a repeating funky staccato bass pattern that uses only two notes throughout the track, laying a great foundation for the song. The intricate banjo part surprisingly (and disappointingly) represents the fanciest stringed instrument work on the album from six-string wiz Urban (more on that later). It’s also one of Ripcord’s very few uses of a country sound and even then, Urban plays the banjo part in a minor key that gives it a distinct Indian music flavour. Ballad “Habit Of You” overcomes its rather dubious lyrical premise to deliver one of Urban’s prettiest ballads yet. Since Urban didn’t write it (he’s only credited on five of Ripcord’s tracks), we’ll blame writers K-Kov and Jackson Morgan for the song’s hacky metaphor of being addicted to a woman (“Maybe I’m an addict but I just gotta have it/I just gotta have you”) as a replacement for the protagonist’s old drinking and smoking vices. Despite the lyrical missteps, the strongly R&B-influenced song exhibits a deeply soulful sound that I haven’t heard from Urban before and he acquits himself exceptionally well.

“Sun Don’t Let Me Down” presents the album’s biggest challenge to Urban’s audience. Nile Rogers adds some slinky guitar and slick production to the groove-heavy track, while bass guitar legend Pino Palladino puts down a powerfully funky bottom end. Almost everything about the song, including Urban’s witty and fun lyrics about needing more time to “close the deal” romantically with his girl, works exquisitely. Unfortunately, rapper Pitbull shows up in the intro and about halfway through the song, spouting trashy lines like “Tonight we’re gettin’ hammered, banged up, and tanked” and “Mommy wanna play the adult version of Truth Or Dare/So I took her to the back and pull her hair, yeah!”. Ugh. His awful contributions don’t completely ruin the song, but they do notably detract from it. Another guest artist whose appearance is most certainly not a negative is Carrie Underwood on “The Fighter”, an excellent hook-heavy duet that may be Urban’s poppiest song to date. Its closest competition might be “Your Body”, which uses an electro-pop sound right out of the 80s (and bears a striking similarity to Swift’s “Style”). The only obvious musical risk on Ripcord that fails to work is “Blue Ain’t Your Color”, a waltzing ballad that isn’t terrible, but does stand out as the album’s weak link.

My biggest shock with Ripcord wasn’t the expeditions into foreign musical territories — it’s the severely diminished presence of Urban’s guitars. Rhythm guitars that would normally occupy a prominent spot in the sound mix are pushed further to the background. As far as guitar solos, a staple of Urban’s music that let him showcase his exemplary chops, well, they’re in surprisingly short supply. There’s just a couple, plus a brief banjo solo on “Wasted Time” and they’re very much restrained by the musician’s standards. As disappointed as I was with the lack of solos, I do respect the incredibly ballsy move by Urban to holster his biggest talent as a means of presenting his material in a different light and keeping Ripcord’s songs a little more concise (none of the tracks exceeds the four minute mark).

The rest of the album’s songs are fairly standard-sounding Urban (which I mean as a compliment), although with a slightly heavier reliance on pop-friendly programmed percussion tracks and drum loops in place of a standard drum kit sound. “Wasted Time”, “Gettin’ In The Way”, “Boy Gets A Truck”, “Worry About Nothin’”, and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” rank as the best of this bunch, although the latter’s Americana overdose in the lyrics is a bit much. One last impression I was left with after digesting the album for the past several weeks are the very tiresome and repetitive lyrical ideas and imagery that drag Ripcord down somewhat. Car references have long been a staple of Urban’s songs and he goes back to that well too many times here. We have a car parked in the driveway, a car “flying down a two-lane”, three different songs where Urban sings about romance in the car (he’s really exhausted that one over the past few albums), and, of course, a truck in a song title. I get that he’s trying to be relatable to a mostly American audience that appreciates that kind of thing, but it’s getting really old at this point.

Ripcord has its fair share of flaws, but there’s quite a lot to like on an album that finds Urban pushing his musical boundaries in an increasingly intriguing direction. Although time will tell, Ripcord seems like a good bet to be looked back at as a real creative turning point in Urban’s career.

Rating: B

Related posts: my July 2009 review of Urban’s Defying Gravity album, my October 2009 review of Urban’s Toronto show on his Escape Together World Tour, and my September 2011 review of the Toronto show on Urban’s Get Closer World Tour