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 Mediaboy Musings 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, 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 Mediaboy Musings 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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lee Aaron – Fire And Gasoline [album review]

Released on March 25th

Lee Aaron will forever be saddled with the ‘Metal Queen’ label, which goes back to her 1984 album title, single, and video of the same name. The ultra-cheesy “Metal Queen” video heavily played up the 22-year-old Aaron’s sex appeal, which she used to her advantage throughout the rest of the decade in conjunction with a very solid collection of material. After enjoying ample success in her native Canada, the early 90s were not kind to the singer. Rapidly declining album sales were encountered by Aaron and just about every other melodic hard rock act as grunge went on to largely displace the entire music genre

The sexpot baggage Aaron carried has largely obscured what an underrated musical talent the Belleville, Ontario native is. She’s always had a fantastic, powerful voice and has writing credits on nearly all of her material. And late 80s tracks like “Powerline”, How DeepWhatcha Do To My Body, and Only Human” still hold up quite well, at least to these ears. 

After a couple of mid 90s albums that experimented with alternative rock styles (including 1994’s Emotional Rain, which sounded far better than I remembered upon a recent listen), Aaron explored her passion for jazz on 2000’s Slick Chick album. After Beautiful Things, her 2004 release that combined the singer’s jazz, blues, pop, and rock influences, Aaron stepped back from the music world to start a family. Reconnecting with her hard rock roots in recent years now results in the release of Aaron’s newest album, Fire And Gasoline

Opening track “Tom Boy” delivers a solid start, offering the promise of a heavier-sounding Aaron album with its meaty guitars, courtesy of Sean Kelly. Kelly, who’s played with everyone from Nelly Furtado to Helix, met Aaron while putting together Metal On Ice, his 2013 book on Canadian metal and hard rock. Aaron wrote the song for her pre-teen daughter with lyrics that celebrate the freedom of being yourself and resisting peer pressure. A noble gesture and message from Aaron, to be sure, but what in the world was she thinking with that cringe-inducing “Tom Boy” video? It features the singer and her daughter performing with her daughter’s friends and seriously undermines any credibility that Aaron might have sought for this comeback album. I take no pride in ripping anything involving a bunch of innocent kids, but it’s honestly one of the worst videos I’ve seen in years.  

The next several tracks on the album predominantly struggle to maintain the modest momentum established by the opener. The funky title track, the pop punk of “Bad Boyfriend” and “Wanna Be” (with a nod to Aaron’s jazz past in the latter’s prelude), “Popular”, and the instantly forgettable bluesy “50 Miles” all fail to make much of a mark. Only “Bittersweet”, a catchy power ballad anchored by a simple, yet very effective main guitar lick, emerges from the pack of mediocrity. 

Unusually, the album’s best material resides on its final four tracks. “Heart Fix” lets Aaron stretch out a little more vocally and even with its highly melodic sound, it’s one of the too-few Fire And Gasoline tracks that conveys much edge. The poppy “If You Don’t Love Me Anymore” also puts hooky melodies front and centre. Two ballads, “Nothing Says Everything” and the soulful closer “Find The Love” also nicely showcase Aaron’s vocal chops and feature tasteful musical arrangements from her backing band, which includes Aaron’s husband John Cody on drums.

While it feels close-minded to fault Aaron for softening her sound on her first true rock album in two decades (hey, everyone matures), I must admit to being fairly disappointed with the tameness of Fire And Gasoline. Aaron’s desire to show her wide range of musical influences results in an album that has its moments, but generally feels a little too scattershot for its own good. 

An interesting tidbit for music geeks: Fire And Gasoline was recorded at The Farm studio in Vancouver. It was previously known as Little Mountain Sound, where the biggest albums from Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Aerosmith were recorded in the 80s.

Rating: C

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Deadpool [film review]

Released theatrically on February 12th; now available on DVD/Blu-ray and video-on-demand

Deadpool restored my faith (at least temporarily) in the superhero movie and Hollywood popcorn movies in general. My cynicism and disappointment with both has grown in recent years, as Hollywood churns out one uninspired spectacle movie after another. Amongst these has been an almost obscene number of comic book-related projects in both the film and television worlds, including a wearying number of franchise reboots. 

Little of it has inspired much interest from this writer (I should note that I’ve never been much of a comic guy). What I have watched has ranged from quite good (the first two Captain America movies), to decent (Guardians Of The Galaxy), to damn near terrible (the overstuffed Avengers films and almost all of the Spider-Man movies).

A few things make Deadpool, the directorial debut of Tim Miller, stand out from the crowded pack. First, there’s a relative lack of tired superhero movie tropes in this origin story starring Ryan Reynolds, who reprises his character that first appeared in limited capacity in 2009’s X-Men Origins. Admittedly, we do get the tired and predictable final act battle between hero and villain that’s packed to the hilt with crappy, immersion-breaking CGI.  

The obligatory presence of various characters from the protagonist’s comic universe is kept to a refreshing minimum, however. All viewers get from the Marvel Universe is a couple of X-Men (a CGI Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, played by Brianna Hildebrand), main villain Ajax (played by Ed Skrein) and his main ally Angel Dust (played by Gina Carano). To the non-comic book enthusiast, only Colossus would elicit any recognition from that group and even then, probably just barely. Their anonymity adds to the refreshing nature of the film and while Ajax isn’t a terribly dynamic adversary, he’s also not remotely as bad as most of the villains that appear in superhero movies. The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 or the Green Goblin from Spider-Man anyone?

This scarcity of Marvel characters is actually played for laughs by Deadpool. He complains about the lack of finances given to the movie from the studio, which prohibits them from hiring more X-Men. This points to one of the film’s other strengths – its self-awareness and ability to poke fun at their own world. They also let the character stay true to his extremely vulgar nature (Deadpool was released with a well-earned R rating). I was impressed by Marvel for not being overly precious with its franchises and allowing Deadpool to deliver meta lines about other Marvel films and characters. For example, Deadpool riffs on James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both playing Professor X. Wolverine and Hugh Jackman are also the butt of several jokes. Even Reynolds’ real-life People Magazine ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ cover is fair game. A lot of this humour is delivered by Reynolds with wisecracking fourth wall-breaking asides.

There’s an abundant supply of that Reynolds snark in Deadpool. Hell, it’s practically his brand, isn’t it? If you’re not a fan of it then keep your distance, but it works perfectly for his character here. This leads to what I found to be the best thing about Deadpool – just how amazingly funny it was. From the inspired opening credit sequence, to the hilarious requisite Stan Lee cameo, to Reynolds’ rapid-fire comedic skills throughout Deadpool, I hadn’t laughed this hard watching a movie in a few years. That was certainly unexpected. 

Deadpool somehow manages to succeed in spite of its two main story lines failing to fire up much emotional investment from the viewer. Deadpool’s alter ego, Wade Wilson, becomes the superhero after a mutation experiment leaves him with an unexpected and unwanted end result that gives him advanced healing powers. This establishes the main storyline where he seeks revenge on Ajax, who carried out the experiment. Ho hum. The secondary plot involves Wilson’s relationship with Vanessa, the proverbial damaged stripper with a heart of gold (played by Morena Baccarin from TV’s Homeland).  

Even with thinly constructed storylines, Deadpool works mostly because of Reynolds. A well-balanced running time of 88 minutes feels just about perfect for the movie and Reynolds smartass comedic and dramatic style. Any longer than that (many films from this genre clock in at two-and-a-half hours) would invite snark fatigue. Like 2010’s excellent Kick-Ass, Deadpool is simply a whole lot of fun and the irreverence it shows towards its genre provides a welcome respite from the assembly line feel of most superhero film fare.

Rating: A

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Cult – Hidden City [album review]

Released on February 5th

Hidden City represents The Cult’s best collection of new material since 2001’s Beyond Good And Evil, which I consider their best album after 1987’s Electric. Group mainstays Ian Astbury (vocals) and Billy Duffy (guitars) are joined on Hidden City by drummer John Tempesta for his third Cult album, with bass duties handled by producer Bob Rock and Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney. New Cult bassist Grant Fitzpatrick joined the group after the album was recorded. 

Rock has now produced half of the band’s ten studio albums, overseeing ventures both highly commercial (1989’s Sonic Temple) and jarringly experimental (1994’s self-titled release). Hidden City finds itself somewhere between those two points, with a slight lean towards the commercial end of things and songwriting that sounds more inspired than the rather pedestrian material that’s dominated recent outings. That may be attributable to The Cult allowing themselves a lengthier amount of recording time for Hidden City, which was tracked intermittently over a two year period. 2007’s Born Into This and Choice Of Weapon from 2012 (which I reviewed here) had their moments, but generally had a going-through-the-motions feel to them.

There’s actually nothing on Hidden City that matches the levels of “Sound Of Destruction” or “For The Animals” from those respective albums, which are two of the finest songs The Cult have ever released. What it does have, however, is a much greater consistency of quality running throughout its dozen songs. There’s no outright duds and just a few merely average numbers in the album’s final three tracks, “Heathens”, “Lilies”, and the surprisingly jazzy piano ballad “Sound And Fury”. 

“Dance The Night” adds a welcome poppy, upbeat counterbalance to the dark tone that pervades Hidden City. The fighter-themed “G O A T” (an acronym for “greatest of all time”) is one of the few other album tracks that has an airier, less sombre feel, as Duffy dips back into his Electric-era bag of dirty blues guitar riffs. “Dark Energy”, “No Love Lost”, ”Hinterland”, and “Avalanche Of Light” all deliver the goods and qualify as notable additions to the long list of first-rate mid-tempo hard rock songs that The Cult has produced over the years. The album highlight is the Zeppelin-ish “Deeply Ordered Chaos”, a haunting mini-epic adorned with effective synth strings. As Astbury recently told Billboard magazine, the song’s lyrical inspiration came from the two terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris during 2015.

Hidden City treads nicely through musical territory explored previously throughout The Cult’s 30+ year (off-and-on with breakups) history, with enough new wrinkles and angles to the songs to keep things interesting and not feeling overly recycled. Astbury’s lyrics are, as always, steeped in spiritual mysticism that don’t exactly lend themselves to easy interpretation. The Cult also knock it out of the park once again in the album artwork department. Hidden City has one of the most striking covers I’ve seen since, well, their last album cover

One final minor quibble about Hidden City — Tempesta’s sizable drum skills don’t get much of an opportunity to show their might on the album. The Cult is, of course, the Astbury and Duffy show, and their songs aren’t particularly conducive to percussive showmanship, so this restriction just goes with the territory. You can’t blame Tempesta, a former member of White Zombie, Rob Zombie’s band, Testament, and Exodus for holding down a steady gig in a band with a pedigree like The Cult’s. Still, one wonders how musically constrained he might feel within the group. 

Rating: B+

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Remembering Prince

I would think this is a common thing, but I find nowadays that one of the most sobering reality checks of my advancing age (I’m 46) arrives in the form of coming to terms with the deaths of music artists who had a meaningful impact in my younger years. This pattern has been repeating all too frequently lately. It’s been an absolutely brutal stretch of months for losing hugely significant figures from the world of music. 

It started back in early December with the overdose death of Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots. Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister followed a few weeks later and then came the earthshaking loss of David Bowie on January 8th. Next was Eagle Glenn Frey, Beatles producer George Martin, and country legend Merle Haggard (who interestingly was born and died on April 6th). I’m not a fan in the least of those last three, but there’s no denying their important musical legacies. And now we’re down one more with the shocking death of Prince. 

I’d classify my level of Prince fandom as somewhere past the point of “casual” and a fair distance from “devout”. Admittedly, the vast majority of his musical output the past decade failed to inspire many repeat listens from me. I chalk that up to his reputation for being extremely prolific (Wikipedia lists just shy of 40 studio albums that he released since 1978), but with a wildly uneven quality to his work. The last release of his that I truly connected with was 2004’s Musicology. That tour was the one and now only time I saw Prince live, but oh my did it leave a deep and lasting impression on me. 

I’ve seen well over a hundred concerts in my life and U2 and Bruce Springsteen are by far my two favourite music artists. Although Bono and The Boss are two of the best contemporary live performers we’ve ever seen (in my humble opinion and many others), I can say without hesitation that the single greatest person I’ve ever witnessed on a concert stage was Prince. Hands down. I’d known about his abundant talent for years, of course. The legend-building stories of his musical virtuosity were established early on, as he played nearly every instrument on his first five albums. I’d also seen enough live footage of him over the years playing a host of different instruments to know that he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Still, nothing prepared me for seeing all of it on display in person. 

Feeling just a tad superior to my sister as I enjoyed a great floor seat in July 2004 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre while she was relegated to seats up in the stands, Prince completely floored me with his musical talent and showmanship. At various points during the concert, in addition to his frequent guitar playing, he played piano, drums, and bass. And we’re not talking a “Jack of all trades, master of none” kind of multi-instrumentalism, either. The guy played those three latter instruments damn well. His virtuosic guitar skills weren’t a huge surprise, yet it added another level to my appreciation for those skills seeing them from such a close vantage point. Add in some badass dance moves, a surprisingly playful sense of humour (something Prince diehards would be quite familiar with), and a near-flawless vocal performance and you can see why I was bowled over. And for good measure, the sound was some of the best I’d ever heard at a major venue. That really surprised me, considering I’d seen Van Halen at the same venue just two weeks earlier and that show had some of the worst sound I’d ever heard at a big venue. Good live sound engineers are very underrated members of a touring act’s road crew.  

I’d have loved to experience Prince in concert again, but his ticket prices skyrocketed on subsequent tours, as I ranted about here in 2011. Even as recently as a month ago, I checked out the ticket prices for one of the intimate Toronto shows he announced a couple of days ago before they were played, which would turn out to be some of his final performances. Alas, they were priced far beyond my means, plus their high exclusivity would have made getting tickets a longshot anyway.

While I frequently didn’t connect with a lot of Prince’s music, I always respected his musical integrity that predominantly saw him do things on his own terms, which included taking plenty of musical risks. During his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, I remember wondering why the hell a guy with a catalog as deep as his was doing a cover of the Foo Fighters “Best Of Me” on such a high profile platform with such a limited amount of performance time. Talk about an out-of-left-field song choice. Prince made it work, though, and that performance is now one the Super Bowl’s most acclaimed halftime shows. 

As much as I’m now crushed for only having had one experience of seeing Prince’s next-level kind of talent in person, I also consider myself fortunate for having had the opportunity. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Black Mass [film review]

Released theatrically on September 18th; now available on DVD/Blu-ray and video-on-demand 

Black Mass is definitive proof of how difficult it is to make not just a great film, but even a good film.

The framework is certainly in place for Black Mass to be a standout movie. Compelling source material? It’s based on the 2000 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob about James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was an FBI informant whilst simultaneously rising to the upper level of Boston’s organized crime ranks via brutal methods. Then, before he could be arrested on racketeering charges, he fled and was on the run for 16 years as one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives, before being captured in 2011. So make that a boldfaced check. How about a talented and committed lead actor? Check number two, as Johnny Depp signs on, did plenty of homework on his subject, and transforms his face and hair to more closely resemble the notorious gangster. Strong supporting cast? Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Saarsgard, Joel Edgerton, and Jesse Plemons make that a resounding check number three. While all of these ingredients are abundantly fertile ground on which to build a great film, director Scott Cooper and his screenwriters still can’t save Black Mass from being a limp, forgettable mess.

Depp’s portrayal carries a decent amount of the imposing and unsettling quality that the thuggish Bulger displayed. Much of that comes from the confident swagger he instills into the character. The visual mimicry also plays a large role, as Depp dons a dead tooth, prosthetics, and an intricately constructed hairpiece to replicate Bulger’s facial features and baldness. Then there’s those blue contact lenses. Depp’s eyes in Black Mass are extremely distracting. The lenses seem bizarrely unhuman when shown in close-up shots, almost zombie-like. That contributes to the lack of investment I had with his version of Bulger. The actor just never disappears into the role and I was consistently hyper-aware that it was a made-up Depp I was watching.

The large collection of fine supporting actors barely register any performances that won’t quickly fade from your memory. Edgerton’s corrupt FBI agent character who has childhood ties to Bulger should resonate much deeper, but doesn’t. The same goes for Cumberbatch’s character, who’s Bulger’s brother and an extremely powerful Massachusetts politician. You couldn’t ask for a better recipe to explore a complex family dynamic, but the characters’ scenes together simply don’t generate any interest. And just wondering — can Adam Scott ever not play a character that’s a total dick?

To be fair, Depp and his ensemble are completely let down by a bungled script that dilutes a fascinating true-crime story into an uninspired, wasted opportunity. On a massive scale. Everything about Black Mass feels lazily ripped off from other crime dramas.

How a character as intriguing and complicated as Whitey Bulger emerges from a film about his life feeling thinly drawn and dull speaks to a serious failing in that film’s creative process. My first thought as Black Mass' credits rolled was that it disappointingly paralleled an organized crime drama I wrote about in 2012, The Iceman. That movie also miserably failed at telling the real-life story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. For the best cinematic telling of Bulger’s story, give a wide berth of Black Mass and watch Joe Berlinger’s engrossing Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger documentary, which I reviewed here.

Rating: D

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Danko Jones — Live At Wacken [Blu-ray/CD review]

Released on January 29th

For an artist that’s built his reputation extensively on his band’s high-energy shows, Danko Jones has made fans wait an agonizingly long time for an official release that properly captures the Danko Jones live music experience visually. The 2012 DVD release Bring On The Mountain offered an excellent visual history of the band that included career-spanning live clips, but their quality varied and didn’t convey the true nature of a Danko Jones show. Now 20 years after forming, Toronto’s Jones, co-founding bassist John ‘JC’ Calabrese, and newest drummer Rich Knox (the latest in a long line of great players that Jones has had behind the kit) finally release Live At Wacken on Blu-ray and DVD, packaged with a companion CD. For the purpose of this review, I’ll be focussing on the Blu-ray content since the CD contains the same audio.

Live At Wacken documents Jones’ August 2015 set at Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival, the world’s largest metal festival. Wacken regularly sells out its tens of thousands of tickets a year in advance before the band lineups are even announced. Jones is clearly amped to be playing for the third time at the festival, with numerous appreciative acknowledgements to his participating bands and the sizeable crowd. The minimal stage production befits the no-frills style of Jones’ music, which is a hybrid of punk, metal, hard rock, and a touch of the blues. The concert is well-shot and the sound is excellent, but audiophiles may be miffed at the lack of surround sound options — there’s surprisingly just a lone “Stereo” option here, aside from the “Stereo” option paired with Jones’ commentary track on the extras.

The trio efficiently burns through 18 songs in just 70 minutes, with a slight emphasis on tracks from that year’s earlier Fire Music album (the cowbell-heavy “Do You Wanna Rock” works especially well). The rest of the setlist is comprised of a nice scattering of some of the band’s strongest material and welcome obscurities, including “Sugar Chocolate” (the first track on Jones’ debut EP release), Born A Lion bonus track “The Rules”, and more recent nugget “Sugar High”. Heavier songs like “The Twisting Knife”, “Invisible”, “Gonna Be A Fight Tonight”, “Had Enough”, and perennial set closer “Bring On The Mountain (Become The Mountain)” cement the band’s qualifications to be playing on the festival’s True Metal Stage. “Bring On The Mountain” never fails to disappoint — I do miss the days, though, where Jones would beat himself up during its performances (he had to stop in 2006 after detaching a retina from one too many self-slaps to the face). The one weak spot in their setlist is the boringly repetitive “Legs” (that word is repeated about 50 times during the song), although it always gets a good laugh when the singer redundantly explains at its conclusion that “It’s a song about women’s legs”. The set’s slim running time raises a couple of questions, such as why this package omitted the one other song played that day (“Active Volcanoes”) and why some of Jones’ always entertaining between-song banter was edited out, as he reveals on the Blu-ray’s commentary track.

Blu-ray extras: a 50 minute featurette of Jones’ spoken word performance from 2012’s Wacken festival proved to be a real chore to get through. The studiously dressed Jones, a KISS fanatic, presents a mock conspiracy theory that original KISS drummer Peter Criss died in 1978 and the band has since been covering it up and paying homage to Criss with subtle tributes in their album cover art and via backward messages on their recordings. The audience in the tented structure offer occasional laughs at Jones’ bizarre premise, but mostly they just look confused. Things get even weirder (which I didn’t think was possible) when the tongue-in-cheek presentation concludes with a loopy video featuring a cheeseball rendition of “Beth” by Jones in KISS makeup and costume. It’s all highly surreal, but not enough to really be entertaining. Other extras include a solid 20 minute post-show interview, plus a fascinating full-length show commentary from Jones. The unique commentary delivers great insight into topics such as what it’s like commanding a stage in front of an estimated crowd of 40,000 to 70,000 people, setlist choices, and the creative process behind certain songs. One of the most illuminating anecdotes revealed something I’d wondered about for years and never heard an explanation for — why all of Jones’ drummers use radically stripped-down kits without any rack toms, which is a real rarity in heavy music. The answer? It’s just a band signature that's consistent with Jones’ “simplicity ethos”.

Rating: B

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2013 review of Danko Jones' Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue album

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Megadeth — Dystopia [album review]

Released on January 22nd

Megadeth has always tackled dark subject matter in their songs, so a loosely structured concept album about a bleak dystopian future isn’t quite the creative leap that it might be for other bands. Hell, their very name is taken from a politician’s made-up word to describe nuclear annihilation (minus an “a”...for that metal touch). On new album Dystopia, Megadeth frontman/singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine delivers pretty much start-to-finish lyrical doom and gloom — “Fatal Illusion”, “Death From Within”, “Bullet To The Brain”, “Conquer Or Die”, “Lying In State”, and “Last Dying Wish” are just a few of the sunny titles conjured up for the group’s 15th studio album. That apocalyptic outlook was no doubt informed by Mustaine’s extremely cynical view of politicians (including crackpot birther beliefs and accusations that President Obama was behind the 2012 Colorado movie theatre mass shooting), as well as the particularly difficult 2014 that Megadeth experienced. That year saw Mustaine’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother-in-law go missing for weeks before being found dead, bassist Dave Ellefson’s brother passing away, a highly public dispute with an Australian concert promoter that lead to cancelled shows, drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick quitting the band within hours of each other, and more cancelled shows due to complications from Mustaine’s previous back surgery.

The revolving door of Megadeth musicians finds Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler and guitar whiz Kiko Loureiro (from Brazilian band Angra) as the newest members of the group. Who knows how long they’ll be able to weather Mustaine’s legendarily volatile personality. For now, however, they prove to be a great addition to the mix, based on Dystopia’s highly impressive results. Loureiro and Mustaine work very efficiently off each other trading shredding guitar leads, as does the Ellefson/Adler rhythm section. Burners like “Lying In State”, “The Threat Is Real”, and “Fatal Illusion” (featuring a fantastically nimble solo bass line from Ellefson) are Megadeth at their thrashiest best. The title track, “Death From Within”, “Bullet To The Brain”, and “Post American World” dial down the tempos (which tend to change more than a few times in many of Dystopia’s songs) without sacrificing much heaviness. “Look Who’s Talking” and “Last Dying Wish” provide a brief respite from Mustaine’s love-it-or-hate-it singing voice with equally sneering spoken lyrics à la So Far, So Good...So What!’s “In My Darkest Hour” and Countdown To Extinction’s “Sweating Bullets”. The ambitious six minute “Poisonous Shadows” instills a symphonic element that was no doubt inspired by Mustaine’s 2014 collaboration with the San Diego Symphony and also features a guitar intro that appears to be a reworking of Countdown To Extinction’s “Foreclosure Of A Dream” intro. Instrumental “Conquer Or Die” gives Loureiro an opportunity to show off his profound classical guitar skills before the rest of the band comes in, although Dystopia wouldn’t have been weakened if the track had been omitted. An inspired cover of hardcore punk band Fear’s “Foreign Policy” closes the album and serves as a bit of callback to Mustaine’s one-off side project MD.45, which he did with Fear frontman Lee Ving back in 1996.

The best line I’ve read about Dystopia was from a Boston Globe writer who came up with the clever “riffing is their business...and business is good” (a reference to Megadeth’s debut album title for the uninitiated). Is it ever. Their latest release is loaded with great headbanging riffs and an intensity that was sorely missing from their last release, 2013’s disappointing Super Collider. Unlike that album, Dystopia completely jettisons aspirations of radio play and amps up the aggressiveness and anger that suits MegaDave and his cohorts exceedingly well this time around. The weakest component is the inconsistent narrative consisting of themes like solidarity among the downtrodden, failed states, authoritarian rule, American jingoism, and xenophobic paranoia (that inconsistency is further exemplified by a song like “Death From Within”, which is about Greek mythology’s Trojan War). Dystopia shines in spite of its thematic deficiencies, representing one of Megadeth’s best efforts since their 80s peak.

Rating: A-

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2010 review of Megadeth’s Endgame album and my February 2012 review of their Th1rt3en album