Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Nickelback’s last album (2005’s All The Right Reasons) sold eight million copies, an extremely impressive figure in this day and age...even for four years ago. For me (and I would imagine a healthy percentage of those album buyers) they’re a guilty pleasure. They write some great, heavy melodic tunes with a specialty in providing continuing fuel to the Bic lighter that represents the ongoing tradition of the power ballad. Actually, lighters these days at concerts are almost obsolete. Switch that fuel part to a battery recharger and the metaphorical lighter to a cell phone. Not as eloquent, I grant you, but more timely.
Anyway, so where does the guilt part factor in then? That’d be the lyrics. I’ve heard things come out of lead vocalist Chad Kroeger’s mouth over the course of Nickelback’s career that I couldn’t believe I was hearing. I mean things that range from creepy to disgusting to downright sociopathological. Example 1 (from All The Right Reasons’ “Follow You Home”): Well you can stick me in a hole/And you can pray all day for rain/You can shoot me in the leg/Just to try to make me beg/And you can leave me there for days/And I’ll stay alive/Just to follow you home. Example 2 (from “Next Contestant” from the same album): Is that your hand on my girlfriend?/Is that your hand?/I wish you’d do it again/I’ll watch you leave here limping/I wish you’d do it again/There goes the next contestant. Now, I’m all for defending the honour of your woman but there’s such an air of testosterone-fuelled meatheadedness throughout this song (and plenty of other Nickelback songs) that it’s impossible not to cringe. And that’s just two examples among many…I never even mentioned the one that features lines about “dirt on your knees” and the “white stains on your dress”. Subtle, Chad…very subtle. Perhaps the most succinct and amusing (albeit in obviously very bad taste) critical rebuke I’ve read about the group came from Toronto uber-trendy arts weekly publication Now, which labeled Dark Horse as a soundtrack for date rapists.
Of course, Nickelback have hardly ever aspired to be critical darlings or artistes. They’re all about good ‘ol boy rawk, with a sensitive side for the ladies and a hint of social awareness that I must admit I’ve always found somewhat insincere and almost obligatory, as if they were straining to add another layer of depth and dimension to what constitutes a unit that has so far been only coming at us in full 2-D.
The album starts with a pretty kickass groove on “Something In Your Mouth”, but here we are, back at the lyrics issue. It’d be redundant to inform you that the song title is a play on words. Some of the other sex-fuelled high energy tunes that tread the same ground are “Next Go Round” and, appropriately, “S.E.X.”. From the former, here’s a selection of the fine word craft being weaved by Mr. Kroeger: “I wanna go so long your parents think you died/They’re gonna call the cops, the CIA and then the FBI” and “I wanna cover you with Jell-O in the tub/We can roll around for hours without ever coming up/I want you naked with your favourite heels on/Start John Deere across my ass and ride me up and down the lawn”. And from the chorus to the latter: “S is for the simple need/E is for the ecstasy/X is just to mark the spot because that's the one you really want/Yes!/Sex is always the answer, it's never a question/Cause the answer's yes, oh the answers yes/Not just a suggestion, if you ask the question/Then it's always yes - yeah!”. I wish I was making this crap up.Despite my inability to look past the shameless lyrics I can’t say Dark Horse is a terrible album. As mentioned, it rocks pretty good in a number of places and there’s some excellent catchy songs with first single “Gotta Be Somebody” and the acoustic-driven second single “If Today Was Your Last Day”. The last track, “This Afternoon” is decent enough but feels like an obvious attempt to follow-up the mega-successful “Rock Star” from the previous album. And lest you consider me a prude that is above not being open to a song about doin’ it, let me state that I grew up on and still listen to plenty of 80’s hard rock, which buttered it’s bread with lyrics that specialized in that area. But that was a genre that emerged over 20 years ago and while songs about sex have been around since forever and will always be around there’s something about the sleazy style with which Nickelback chooses to cover that territory that, for me, holds them back from being a better band. And maybe it’s just me getting older and looking for a little more in what I choose to listen to. Regardless, somewhere in the world at whatever moment you’re reading this there is guaranteed to both be someone buying a Nickelback album and a stripper dancing to a Nickelback song so who am I to argue with success?
As an avid music consumer it’s very rare nowadays that I discover an established musical artist that I suddenly wake up to and turn into a huge fan of. Since I was a kid I’ve kept my ears pretty close to the ground about what’s going on in music and there has been precious little in the way of new artists from the last ten to fifteen years that have really moved me. But between those few that have as well as a steady stream of new music from veteran artists whose careers I’ve followed for some time, well, most of the time that’s been more than satisfying in terms of feeding my musical appetite. So when I recently began to listen to and really, really enjoy the music of country artist Keith Urban, who’s been around since his first album in 1991, I was amazed, confused and excited that I’d tapped once again into that rare feeling that certain musicians can deliver to me as a music junkie.
Why “amazed” and “confused”, you ask? Until recent years I’ve never been a country fan and when I did start giving it more of a listen and appreciating what it had to offer I just never heard anything from a male country artist that I would even consider buying. All the country music I’ve purchased has been by female artists – Shania Twain, Deena Carter, Dixie Chicks and Sugarland (who have a female vocalist). Another thing this bunch has in common is that they tread mostly equal ground between a pop and country sound, which is what hooked me. I can even say that Sugarland’s Love On The Inside release from last year was the best album I heard (and I buy and download a ton of music every year) until September when Metallica’s Death Magnetic masterpiece came along. Even still, Love On The Inside finished a very strong number two in terms of my favourite albums of the year. There are plenty of male country artists who also mix elements of pop and country but as mentioned, none of it ever interested me.
The little that I knew about Keith Urban was that he was Australian (which certainly makes him a standout in this normally Americanized genre), he was married to Nicole Kidman, he’s huge in North America and that he was supposedly a great guitar player. I’d heard a song or two over the years but never gave him a second thought, aside from his name coming up occasionally through knowing a couple of people who were big fans. Then earlier this year I came across a copy of his new album (Defying Gravity) online that had leaked a little less than a week before it's release and I decided to download and burn it for a friend at work who I knew would love to hear it a little early.
Since the album was just sitting there on my computer after burning the CD I decided I’d give it a listen to see what the fuss was about. Upon first listen I thought it was decent enough…at least worthy of a second looking at. After a few more times through it I became more and more impressed with his voice, songwriting and guitar abilities. I went out and bought my own copy of the CD and with my interest piqued I borrowed a couple of live Urban DVD’s off my work friend and was even more impressed by the man’s live show. Urban is a dynamic performer and the live setting really lets him show off his guitar chops, which are considerable. I was unfamiliar with nearly all the songs but after I finished watching both performances I was inspired enough to go back through his catalog and pick up some of his previous work which proved to be at the same quality level as Defying Gravity.
One of the lingering impressions after just a couple of listens of Defying Gravity was the abundance of love songs on the album. The lyrics for all 11 tracks deal either mostly or completely about being in love, seeking love or some mix of the two yet somehow the album manages to transcend the apparent one-dimensionality of the subject matter to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Great musicianship, top-notch production and some huge hooks definitely help. A further examination of Urban’s other work reveals a similar affinity for songs dealing with matters of the heart and while I must say that although a little more range as far as topics would be welcome he does work extremely well within that area and has written and recorded many great romantic songs that the ladies just eat up (and guys like myself who aren’t too proud to admit they love a good, sappy love song can certainly appreciate).
Urban’s guitar pyrotechnics are held in check on the album…actually, he’s surprisingly restrained as far as the guitar solos go and I greatly respect musicians who aren’t overeager to shove their musical abilities in the listener’s face, just because they can. The songs come first and there’s a nice balance of ballads (“Only You Can Love Me This Way”, “Til Summer Comes Around”), mid-tempo numbers (“Kiss A Girl”, “If Ever I Could Love”) and higher energy songs (“I’m In”, “Hit The Ground Running”). The final song on the album, “Thank You”, is a straight-up love letter to his wife and the sentiments are so heartfelt that it just feels wrong to wrinkle up your nose because it maybe feels a little too over the top. It’s one of the better songs on an album that barely takes a mis-step…if there is one it might be the track “Why’s It Feel So Long”, a laid back acoustic-driven song that feels like a Jimmy Buffet reject. Otherwise, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall quality, highlighted by the opening four songs “Kiss A Girl”, “If Ever I Could Love”, “Sweet Thing” and “Til Summer Comes Around”, with the latter doing a great job of conveying the melancholy feel of the end of summer coupled with the heartbreak of lost love (and shaded with some beautiful guitar work).
Now I understand what all the hype is about with Urban and I look forward to experiencing his live show in person this October. It’s also nice to be reminded that there’s always going to be some band or singer out there who one day, for whatever reason the musical gods who conspire to dictate likes and dislikes decide, will suddenly make sense to me and I’ll wonder how I functioned without their music in my life. I’m still waiting for my Dylan phase to kick in and though I suspect it’ll never take hold, it’s probably wise to never say never…
When the glowing reviews for AMC's Breaking Bad came in during its first season, I viewed the critical praise with cautious optimism. Other recent amazingly reviewed series such as Mad Men, Carnivale, Grey’s Anatomy and House completely left me scratching my head as to what the fuss was about. Usually I’ll allow myself three or four episodes of a new show to find something that will keep me watching and Breaking Bad had me hooked after just one.
The storyline revolves around a dull high school chemistry teacher who suddenly finds himself facing his own mortality and sets out on an unconventional path of cooking crystal meth to provide a financial safety net for his family when he’s not around any more. A terrific cast is highlighted by Bryan Cranston (Malcolm In The Middle) as central figure Walter White, Anna Gunn as his wife and Aaron Paul as Walter’s drug partner-in-crime.
Cranston completely inhabits the lacklustre soul of a man who is 50-ish and leads a safe, unadventurous life, albeit with a loving wife and son to show for it. There’s such a restrained, mannered, uptight air about Walter that it’s unsettling. He’s not an unlikeable character, though, more one that the viewer just feels pity for. A much-needed kick in the ass for him arrives via the aforementioned circumstances and it’s fun to see Walter come alive and live on the edge, even as he struggles with how much time he has left to walk that tightrope. Paul, as Walt’s former student Jesse, is an entertaining foil in the unlikely duo.
Season two recently ended and it only improved on the excellence of the first season. Bob Odenkirk joins the cast with a recurring role as the epitome of a sleazy lawyer and it’s one of the better supporting performances I’ve seen on the small screen in recent memory. Breaking Bad certainly lives up to the hype (season one brought multiple Emmy wins and the show is nominated in five categories this year) and I couldn’t recommend it any more highly more as the next TV series you need to catch up on.
Gran Torino is a full-on Clint Eastwood Project, considering he directs, produces, stars and wrote music for the film. His character of Walt Kowalski is basically a retread of previous Eastwood roles (Dirty Harry comes to mind first)…the gruff and grizzled man’s man who always has an air of sadness and emptiness surrounding him. But that’s okay – he reliably plays that role well and though he’s up there in years now (78) he still brings a consistent vigour to his work.
The movie is set in Detroit and deals with Kowalski’s struggle to understand and inhabit the changing world around him. His old neighborhood has devolved (in his eyes) from a once idyllic and proud American community into a rundown, crime-ridden suburb infested with immigrants. The screenplay originally was set in Minneapolis but the Michigan setting probably works better, as no other city in America right now speaks more to the urban decay and social alienation of a once thriving metropolis than Detroit. But it’s not just his neighbours that curdle Walt’s milk – he also shares a similar (if less vitriolic) relationship with both his family and a priest that checks up on his well-being.
Kowalkski is that ultimate in contradictions – an old-school patriot who fought in the Korean War who believes in honour, hard work and principles yet carries with him the biases and prejudices of the past that he’s never been able to eradicate. His next door neighbours are Hmong (from Southeast Asia) and Walt doesn’t understand them or like them, simply for the reason they’re different. Incidents involving an Asian gang trying to intimidate the neighbour’s son that spills over onto Walt’s property and then an attempted theft of Walt’s titular car (a mint condition ’72) by that same kid only reinforce the hate Walt feels. Hilariously, during the first dispute that also brings other members of the family out of the house he brandishes a shotgun and actually growls at them “get off my lawn”. I couldn’t decide whether this was a sly wink at a line that has come to embody the cariacture of the grumpy old man or just unintentional comedy. Other points in the film have Walt literally “grrrrrr”-ing to express his displeasure at a situation and these just don’t ring true.
The movie is thoroughly entertaining but occasionally over-reaching in its attempts to soften Walt’s hard heart. Eastwood has said that this will be his last acting role and if he sticks to his word then Gran Torino is a more than respectable performance from which to bow out gracefully from a fine career in front of the camera.
The star of the film is Anne Hathaway (as Kym), playing a temporarily out of rehab young woman home for the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemary Dewitt). Kym’s appearance resurrects old demons for the family which mix like oil and water with the already hectic environment of the wedding planning. Normally, dysfunctional family dynamics provide for excellent entertainment, but here things just never get off the ground.
Debra Winger makes a rare movie appearance and her role garnered a lot of praise, but to me it was an unremarkable performance. Hathaway was actually nominated for an Oscar for her role, which totally mystified me. She does a decent enough job with the material she has to work with, but Oscar-nominated calibre work? Really? The only bright spot in the movie came from Dewitt, who is always reliable in anything I’ve seen her in. She’s not a big name yet and probably won’t ever be…she’s your consumate character actor who’s name you may not recognize, but when you see them you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I know that face”. Dewitt is part of an outstanding ensemble cast on the TV series The United States Of Tara, which you really owe yourself to check out.
* Gala Premiere at Ryerson Theatre, Toronto International Film Festival, September 5th, 2008
Battle At Kruger is the title of a short, eight minute clip that gained massive popularity through viral video, YouTube, extensive media coverage and was just turned into a National Geographic Channel documentary. It captures amateur footage of one of the most jaw-dropping displays of wildlife I’ve ever witnessed. Shot on a safari in Kruger Park, South Africa, what it lacks in audio-video quality it definitely makes up for in fascinating content.
I won’t give too much away but I’ll just say it involves a pride of lions, a herd of water buffalo and some crocodiles all co-mingling (to put it mildly) in the same small area and putting to the ultimate test the “survival of the fittest” philosophy. If you're squeamish about seeing animals in pain (as I am) then I still encourage you to keep watching until the end of the video.