Sunday, October 25, 2009

David Cross - I Drink For A Reason [audiobook review]

* Released in August
David Cross' first book is a random assemblage of short essays, social commentary, ironic top ten lists and fictional ramblings thinly disguised as truth. If you're not a fan of his sarcastic, sometimes vicious comedy act then there's little of interest here for you. Even if you are, such as myself, there's an overwhelming letdown at the end result. Rarely have I been so disappointed at something I had such high expectations for.
Cross' career puts him probably somewhere below the mainstream flow and just north of the cult ghetto, a result of career choices that have been unpredictable and downright puzzling. His standup performances speak for themselves, making him one of the funniest in the business. The Tobias Funke character on the sorely missed Arrested Development was brilliant, as many would also say of his work on Mr. Show With Bob And David (which I honestly could never get into). His film work has been spotty at best and it's always been amusing for me to hear him dumping on other actors and films when his filmography contains trash like Alvin And The Chipmunks, School For Scoundrels, Pootie Tang and Curious George.
The audiobook, read by Cross, clocks in at just under six and a half hours and not once did I laugh out loud, or even mildly chuckle. Granted, he got a couple of smiles out of me, but I'm amazed that someone I've previously found so funny could elicit such a muted, ambivalent reaction. The material has a slightly different tone than his standup material, favouring a more cerebral narrative that can sometimes be a challenge to digest at first listen via the spoken word format. I found myself occasionally skipping back on my iPod through some of Cross' more whimsical ideas.
Cross discusses topics like religion, show business, ignorance, the American south and vapid celebrity culture. Whoopi Goldberg, Bill O'Reilly and particularly Jim Belushi are scathingly mocked. The Belushi diatribes are particularly tiresome and rarely humorous. Larry The Cable Guy receives Cross' most pointed vitriol, as he responds to criticisms directed at him by the comic. A lengthy "Open Letter To Larry The Cable Guy" provides the books funniest moments, but at the end of the day, I mean, it's bloody Larry The Cable Guy. And Jim Belushi. Talk about your easy targets.
Other scattershot focuses of attention are a convention of scrapbook enthusiasts that Cross observed while staying at a Michigan hotel, a comment on the stupidity of a bumper sticker on a police car he once saw that said "Don't Abandon Your Baby" and pointless top ten lists (which usually are actually a lot more than ten long) that function more as filler than comedy. One, titled "A Free List Of Quirks For Aspiring Filmmakers" is presented via a bit of an audiobook bonus, which are interspersed throughout the reading, as Cross does mini skits surrounding the act of him being in the studio reading his work. He calls on hipster New York band Les Savy Fav to create a song and have his list sung over the music, which makes for an excruciating ten minutes of listening that is neither musically enjoyable nor, again, funny.
Cross' style is based on a sarcastic, non-PC delivery, which is obviously part of his appeal. Sometimes though, it leans a little more towards bitterness, offensive and a superior attitude that becomes off-putting. The sporadic insults directed at the listener for being lazy and not buying the proper book get old quickly, even though they're meant to be funny. Ironically (and Cross loves irony!), a number of the essays read near the end of the book are just magazine pieces that Cross wrote for publications like Playboy and Vice, some from as far back as the 80's.
Caustic, cutting comments are never far from his grasp in I Drink For A Reason, which makes for a long slog through it. Even for us lazy, audiobook-listening bastards.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chantal Kreviazuk - Plain Jane [music review]

* Released October 13th
Plain Jane is the fifth studio album from Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and her first for indie label MapleMusic after ten years with major label Columbia-Sony. The change in labels was influenced by the departure of familiar personnel from Columbia-Sony, plus a desire for a more fair business arrangement in terms of royalties from her music's sales. Kreviazuk says in an interview with Sun Media that the only money she has made since entering the music business is from touring and as a successful songwriter for artists such as Avril Lavigne, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, David Cook and Gwen Stefani.
She wears the change of scenery well, with Plain Jane a marked improvement from 2002's spotty What If It All Means Something and 2006's similarly uneven Ghost Stories. With the latter, Kreviazuk and husband Raine Maida (lead singer from Our Lady Peace and the album's producer) made a conscious effort to focus more on Kreviazuk's primary instrument (piano) and refrained from having any guitars whatsoever on the album, which seemed a puzzling choice at the time, and even now, in fact. The soundscapes were filled out with different stringed instruments, of the orchestral variety. Either way, the album was lacking in strong material...the requisite number of solid, signature "poppier" Kreviazuk songs failed to be supported by their more experimental companions.
Kreviazuk has a reputation for churning out safe pop occasionally saddled with sappy lyrics, making her a poster child for the "adult alternative" radio format, an easy mistake to make because most of her singles follow this formula. Scratch below the surface a little, though, and more dimensions reveal themselves. And by "scratch below the surface" I simply mean just listen to one of her CD's from beginning to end. All of her albums have balanced both the commercial and more artistic side and even when it doesn't always work (see Ghost Stories) I at least give her credit for not completely playing it safe.
Plain Jane is all over the place, stylistically, and this time around she finds the right formula. First single "Invincible" is basically an update of her most recognizable traits (a piano driven melody that builds into a big, hooky chorus resulting in a song that grabs you instantly). "Half Of Me" then marks a departure as it dips into an R & B flavour that brings to mind a more restrained Alicia Keys. "Ordinary People" follows a fairly straightforward musical arrangement, which almost seems fitting given the simplicity of the lyrics ("We punch the clock/Day begins/Work gets done/We start over again/We're ordinary people"). Nothing groundbreaking, but still highly listenable.
The spare "5000 Days" provides the album's highlight, with a beautiful pairing of Kreviazuk's piano and a lush string section. Her occasional dips into notes slightly out of her vocal range are mildly jarring, though not enough to overshadow the rest of the song's strengths. "Kerosene Lamp" trades in piano for a nylon string guitar, again pairing up with a string arrangement that produces a funky, laid back salsa-inflected number that recalls Nelly Furtado before Timbaland got his meaty, hacky paws on her. The title track is Kreviazuk's biggest musical departure to date, a quiet, straight-up jazz song featuring an appearance by jazz artist Chris Botti. I disliked it initially, in keeping with my lack of interest in that style of music, but subsequent listens turned me around. Coldplay sounds like the most obvious influence for "The Way", a track overflowing with grandiose ambitions and more hooks that'll bore their way into your brain.
The album's only dud? Final track "Na Miso", co-sung with the nanny of Kreviazuk's children, partially in the African language of her homeland. It's a noble attempt at trying to broaden the listener's horizons and likely an outgrowth of the singer's interest in the culture via her significant charity work...even still, it's the only track on Plain Jane that has me reaching for the skip button. Everything else is highly deserving of your ears.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Friday, October 23, 2009

FlashForward [television review]

* Airs Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC
Network television holds little interest for me these days. Whereas I once spent numerous hours on a weekly basis devoted to their dramas or comedies, now I find myself indifferent to the wasteland of reality show drivel (how many friggin' dancing or modeling shows can they come up with anyway?), stale procedural crime dramas and sitcoms masquerading as comedy. The exceptions for me are the standout 30 Rock and the still fun Survivor. Instead, my viewing attention had turned increasingly to the superior quality that cable networks deliver in the area of original programming (Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie and Damages, to name just a few).
Then ABC's FlashForward came along a few weeks ago, reminding me not to give up the ghost on the big four networks just yet. The show had been well reviewed and was getting great buzz, so I was on the fence about giving it a try. After taking the plunge, I'm now completely hooked and eagerly awaiting new episodes every Thursday night.
Here's the high concept plot: the entire population of the planet experiences a mysterious loss of consciousness for two minutes and seventeen seconds at the same time, during which most people see visions of an event from their life taking place approximately six months in the future - referred to as a "flashforward". Members of the F.B.I.'s Los Angeles bureau then undertake the task of seeking answers for the phenomenon. The cast is superb, particularly John Cho and Joseph Fiennes as partners. They, and most of the rest of the cast, have quickly demonstrated an easy comfort level with each other, creating noticeable chemistry. Fiennes, the star of the show, gets a worthy onscreen wife in Sonya Walger, with the pair forming the basis of one of the show's more interesting story lines as their flashforwards each point to impending upheaval in their lives.
The show borrows elements from 24 (the action) and Lost (mysterious plot twists, without the farcical nonsense), yet delivers a fresh take on the action thriller drama. The conclusion of the show's recent fifth episode (titled Gimme Some Truth) went down with a tense gunfight unfolding while the Rolling Stones' version of "Like A Rolling Stone" played on the soundtrack, as another principal character in a different location was dealing with her own adversity. It was as fine a scene as I've seen on the small screen lately.
FlashForward was originally developed for HBO, which ended up selling the show to ABC because they saw it as a better fit for network TV. It's already been picked up for a full season, which was originally set to be the standard 22 episodes, but has now been expanded to 25.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired [movie review]

* Released theatrically in July 2008; now available on DVD
The timing of the release of Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired almost couldn't have been better for the filmmakers behind the documentary, given recent developments concerning the Oscar-winning director. The film deconstructs the saga of events that lead Polanski to flee the United States for France in 1978, before the outcome of his trial for crimes involving a thirteen year old girl had been decided. Polanski's arrest last month in Zurich shines new light back on the bizarre case and there is no better place to acquaint one's self with his story than this fascinating documentary from director Marina Zenovich.
For those uninitiated in his details and background, here is my own quick recap: Polanski had survived two horrible ordeals in his life (the Holocaust as a child in Poland and the murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family) and emerged as a heralded, visionary director of such classics as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and Repulsion. He had developed a reputation for his excessive habits, including drugs, booze and a fondness for young women. In March 1977, he was charged with raping a thirteen year old girl at the home of actor Jack Nicholson (who was away at the time). After being released on bail he was eventually indicted on felony charges of perversion, sodomy, rape by use of drugs, lewd and lascivious acts on a minor and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. Polanski plead guilty to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse and served 42 days before being released, with the expectation that he would then be given probation. As the legal machinations turned slowly and indicated a harsher sentence was possible, Polanski became spooked and retreated to France, where he has lived in exile ever since (he also owns a home in Switzerland).
The film presents a meticulous analysis of the post-arrest legal aftermath, highlighting the ineptitude of presiding judge Laurence J. Rittenband. The judge was focused more on the celebrity aspect of the proceedings and his own image than overseeing a fair and quick trial. Revelations about his appalling conduct and decision-making fairly paint him as the biggest reason why Polanski felt the need to leave the country because he felt he couldn't get an honest trial. Rittenband died in 1994, but Polanski's lawyer (Douglas Dalton) and the prosecuting assistant district attorney (Roger Gunson) provide separate damning corroborating interviews that speak to his incompetency. The role of the media in the case is also examined, providing ample footage and commentary serving as a reminder that media circuses were alive and well, even 30+ years ago.
The actual details of the events that incriminated Polanski are dealt with from a peripheral vantage point, with Zenovich focussing more on the man himself and the fallout from the crime. Polanski contends the sex was consensual, which still makes it a crime considering the girl's age, and also acknowledges giving her champagne and quaaludes. Zenovich takes a neutral stance on her subject, refusing to condemn him for his admitted wrongdoings nor playing the sympathy card derived from the tribulations in his life, including getting a raw deal from the American legal system. The victim herself, Samantha Geimer, weighs in, stating that both she and Polanski got dealt life sentences by the absence of closure and unwanted media intrusion.
The documentary admirably manages to remain captivating despite the absence of Polanski himself being interviewed for the film. Archival footage and older interviews allow him a voice, as do numerous inspired snippets from his films which are inserted at correlating points in the movie to help bolster Zenovich's narrative. The supporting players are well utilized in helping to shape the rest of the story.
The timing of Polanski's recent arrest is odd, considering he has spent time in Switzerland over the years. Why now? Also defying logic is the vocal support he's gotten from his Hollywood brethren, with many A-list actors and directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen speaking on his behalf. Despite all his accolades and suffering, the man is still a fugitive who committed a heinous crime.
The latest development in the case saw the U.S. Embassy yesterday submitting a formal extradition request to Swiss authorities. Just the day before, one of Polanski's lawyers inferred that the director would be willing to finally return to America to "explain himself", a notion that was subsequently shot down by another of Polanski's lawyers, who insists they will fight the extradition order. It just gets weirder and weirder...almost like something out of one of his own films.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Joe Torre & Tom Verducci - The Yankee Years [book review]

* Published in February
I hate the New York Yankees. I respect them and envy them, but as a lifelong diehard fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, a team competing in the same division as the Bronx Bombers, it's virtually a requirement that I dislike them. Actually, unless you're a fan of the Yankees pretty much most baseball fans hate them as well.
When I heard that former Yankee manager Joe Torre had co-authored a book with Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci about his twelve year tenure with the team I was mildly interested. I'd always respected Torre - he seemed like a straight shooter and easy to like. His accomplishments in New York spoke for themself: twelve straight playoff appearances, six pennants and four World Series championships. Plus, he managed to survive notorious Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had fired seventeen managers in the previous eighteen seasons before Torre was hired in 1996. In that span the team failed to win any World Series titles. Cynics will point to the fact that Torre had reams of Yankee money to help stock his team with free agent superstars, which is true. Still, superstars bring with them egos that need to be massaged and Torre appears to have been highly skilled at doing just that. Add the intense media scrutiny and high expectations to win and Torre's accomplishments look that much more impressive.
The book is delivered with a third person narrative, with Verducci appearing to have more of a voice than I expected. Torre offers up intermittent anecdotes, behind the scenes stories and frank reflections of his time with the team, but there are passages where the book takes side journeys on topics like the steroid issue or sabermetrics (a fairly new complicated system of analyzing player stats in an attempt for teams to get the most bang for their buck). During these passages Torre can, at times, totally disappear as far as his acknowledged input. That's not a criticism - the book rarely lags, amply devoting sufficient time to different subjects without feeling either drawn out discussing them or falling short of the mark.
Some interesting revelations:
- superstar third baseman Alex Rodriguez appears to be the most insecure, selfish athlete alive. This was a real source of friction between him and his teammates, specifically shortstop Derek Jeter. While the two were at one time friends, lingering tension dominates their relationship after Rodriguez joined the Yankees. Behind his back, teammates refer to him as "A-Fraud" (a play on his "A-Rod" nickname). Even one of Rodriguez's friends in the organization acknowledges that he isn't a genuine person, a fact that the man himself is well aware of. A hilarious anecdote from Torre tells of the time he mentioned to Rodriguez that he should make a small gesture to come across as just "one of the guys", perhaps even as small as getting his own cup of coffee one day instead of getting a clubhouse attendant to fetch it for him. You can practically see Torre's eyes roll as he describes Rodriguez walking by his office and sticking his head in, proudly telling his manger about and displaying the cup of coffee he had gotten himself. "He just doesn't get it", Torre says.
- A-Rod had a bizarre, almost obsessive interest in Jeter and why he was so beloved by the fans, media and Torre. Some Yankee players likened it to something from the movie Single White Female.
- Torre was not impressed by the fact newly signed free agent pitcher Roger Clemens and slugger Jason Giambi insisted on having their own personal trainers accompany their every moves with the team. Every organization already has a training team so the request was highly unusual, but the players were highly sought after (Clemens was coming off two Cy Young Awards in Toronto) and management relented. The players' individual trainers were most certainly not welcome in the Yankees clubhouse. Clemens' trainer, Brian McNamee, turned out to be a central figure in the steroid scandal that tainted the game in recent years.
- another free agent pitcher, Kevin Brown, was such a mess that after being shelled during a particularly bad outing he left the field between innings and Torre found him curled up in the fetal position in the clubhouse, his jersey ripped off and Brown refusing to return to the mound.
- Torre's sad accounts of the declining health of Steinbrenner. Torre had a good relationship with the mercurial and unpredictable owner, with a mutual respect previously unheard of in the Yankee owner/manager dynamic. Regular conversations between the two begin to disappear, with recent interactions between the two arousing a sense of alarm in Torre at the weakened state of the once mighty lion, now reduced to wearing dark sunglasses even indoors and having little input at occasional meetings with other management.
- Torre pulls no punches in his dissection of how he came to leave the team, disgusted that even after all his success he was only offered a short-term contract by General Manager Brian Cashman that was incentive-laden.
It's a compelling read, even for non-Yankees fans. Torre and Verducci give an honest, thoughtful recount of his time with the team, which is interesting enough on its own. The wider look at issues involving the sport as a whole provide an extra depth that was unexpected and highly appreciated.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

A Creed reunion - who asked for this?

Creed is just such an easy target. No other band in recent memory has been the target of more barbs, ridicule and flat-out hatred than this group from Florida. Well, maybe Nickelback. I've never liked Creed's music, despite the fact it's right up my alley - loud guitars, a commercial sound. What does me in more than the tunes is the main source of the flack they attract - the grating overearnestness, mostly emanating from frontman Scott Stapp, he of the recurring Christ-like poses from the band's live shows and awful, awful videos.
They disintegrated in 2004, following the usual strife that breaks up bands. The band even inflamed their fans to the point where a class action lawsuit was filed after a concert in 2002 where Stapp was noticeably drunk onstage. As if Stapp needed another reason for people to dislike him.
Anyway, they've regrouped and have a new album out later this month. And to answer the question of "who asked for this?", well, sales figures show they've sold 35 million copies of their three studio albums and a greatest hits release. In the States alone they've sold 26 million albums. Those are some crazy numbers.
At least based on the above hilarious recent promo photo, their cheese factor apparently remains intact.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Taking Of Pelham 123 [movie review]

* Released theatrically in June; available on DVD November 3rd
The newest version of The Taking Of Pelham 123 is the second remake of the 1974 original (a late 90's made-for-TV version is the other). I haven't seen the 1974 version, though the word "classic" pops up regularly in the little I had read or heard about it over the years. One assumes it must be better than the 2009 version, which then begs the question: if you can't improve upon the original then why bother? Of course, this clearly isn't a perspective Hollywood has ever subscribed to.
Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a New York City Transit employee demoted to the relatively lowly position of train dispatcher. Garber has the bad luck of being on duty when John Travolta (identified in the film only as Ryder) and some accomplices hijack one of the subway trains on Garber's watch. A large ransom is demanded, with a window of only 60 minutes granted for delivery.
And so begins your standard "countdown" thriller, a sub-genre that rarely seems to work well (the most recent misstep was the atrocious 88 Minutes). There's a decent amount of tension as the clock winds down and the money is hastily organized and subsequently rushed across the city, causing chaos on the city's already chaotic streets. During these scenes the obvious question comes to mind: why wouldn't they just get a helicopter? James Gandolfini, playing the city's mayor, asks the same question later in the movie.
Washington, looking noticeably heavier for this role, is solid playing an everyman saddled under the weight of corruption allegations, which led to his demotion. It's not a flashy part and one wishes he had a little more to work with...some of the dialogue is uninspired enough to elicit expectations of him dropping a rote "I'm getting too old for this shit"-type line on us. The role also brought to mind comparisons with 1999's The Bone Collector, also set in NYC, where his character had plenty of faceless communication amidst time constraints with the movie's other main character (played by Angelia Jolie).
Travolta should avoid bad guy roles because he simply can't play them. Previous turns as the villain in Swordfish, Broken Arrow and Face/Off have proven that. Here, he resorts once again to chewing scenery and spontaneous acts of violence. I'll give him marks for looking the part, with badass neck tattoos and an imposing fu manchu moustache, but that just isn't enough. His accomplices barely register onscreen, which is a sad comment when one of them is played by the usually entertaining Luis Guzmรกn.
Gandolfini was the highlight of the film for me, turning in a strong performance as the city's leader hopeful of changing the public's opinion of him, but also genuinely concerned and eager to assist in resolving the crisis. He displays a likability foreign to his previous film roles, which always seemed like offshoots of his bearish Tony Soprano character (like his recent turn from In The Loop). John Turturro, playing the hostage negotiator, should have given a little more pause to the role he signed on for. Aside from the paycheque, visibility of appearing in a high profile movie with two huge stars and another credit to add to his body of work, there's little else that would appear to have drawn him to the film and this part, specifically. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose those aren't exactly the worst reasons for an actor doing a movie. It beats digging ditches for a living now, doesn't it?
Tony Scott directed the film, his fourth collaboration with Washington. His directing style, with all of its fancy tricks and stylized shots, gets a little intrusive and tiresome. The end result isn't exactly a terrible movie - just one you'll not give much thought to an hour after you've seen it.
Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers Tour [concert review]

* October 4th, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
While the Manic Street Preachers might not have an abundance of fans in America or Canada, they certainly have a loyal, rabid core of them that have waited a long time to see them play live. Ten years, in fact. The Welsh band last toured these parts in 1999 in support of the This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours album. The breakout success back home in Europe for their previous release, 1996's Everything Must Go, had also spilled over for its followup, but their success didn't make the journey across the pond. The band decided not to force the issue by attempting to buck the trend of innumerable British bands failing to crack the North American market, instead focusing their career mostly in Europe where they routinely play to packed stadiums in the tens of thousands.
The Phoenix Concert Theatre was a hair shy of what I'd consider "packed", but it was a strong turnout of an estimated 1000-1300 people. That was a marked improvement on the estimated crowd of only 250-300 attendees in Detroit two nights before. When the band hit the stage the crowd erupted, thankful either for the opportunity to finally see them again or for the first time. Manic Street Preachers is James Dean Bradfield on lead vocals and guitar, Nicky Wire on bass and Sean Moore on drums. Two extra musicians, a guitarist and a keyboard player, joined the band on stage. I must admit, I couldn't even hear a hint of any keyboard sounds coming from the P.A. until nine songs in, when he played the intro to "Tsunami". This reminded me of the last time I saw the band, almost 10 years ago to the month at The Warehouse (now Kool Haus). I thought the exact same thing back then in regard to the extra keyboardist playing with them. Aside from that, the sound mix for this latest show was actually quite good.
Live staple "Motorcycle Emptiness" topped the setlist, immediately drawing in the crowd for vocal accompaniment duties, a trend that would continue throughout the tight 95 minute set. The distinct arpeggioed intro of the next song signaled "No Surface All Feeling", one of my favourite Manics songs. "Peeled Apples", one of four songs played off the band's latest album (Journal For Plague Lovers) was next, with Bradfield introducing it with a word of recognition towards the song's lyricist and former guitarist, Richey Edwards (now presumed dead - click here if you're unfamiliar with the story). The new material translates well live, especially "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time". Given the band's long absence, I'd say it was a smart decision to limit the new songs to four, allowing a little more room in the setlist for a couple more favourites fans have been dying to hear.
Toronto band Rush got a couple of shout-outs during the show - Bradfield played a snippet of "The Spirit Of Radio" before kicking into a stomping version of "Faster", while at another point Wire stopped to recite several lines from the song as if speaking at a poetry reading. Very cool. Wire's second finest between-songs moment to the crowd addressed the most obvious question of the night, to which he said, "I really have no idea why the fuck it's taken us 10 years to get back here". A little past the show's halfway point, Bradfield strapped on an acoustic guitar for beautiful acoustic versions of "This Is Yesterday" and "The Everlasting". His strong voice and exceptional guitar skills are the heart of the band, in my opinion, and he writes challenging material which involves a lot of odd and complex guitar chord formations, making for a complicated combination with the addition of his singing duties...the sum of it is, the man's a highly talented musician.
The mellow portion of the show was then rudely interrupted with the return of the rest of the band and a forceful rendition of "Send Away The Tigers". "You Stole The Sun From My Heart" saw Wire, Bradfield and many in the crowd pogoing during the song's chorus section. Manics classics "Motown Junk" and "Little Baby Nothing" sandwiched the newer "Me And Stephen Hawking" before the energetic "You Love Us" , with the crowd and Bradfield singing the title during the chorus to each other with heartfelt conviction. Yes, that sounds corny, but it is factual. Bradfield introduced the final song, "A Design For Life" with the reminder that the band doesn't do encores. The audience responded in turn with their loudest singing of the show and soaking in what remaining moments with the band they could take with them.
"Long suffering" would aptly describe a North American Manic Street Preachers fan, but if some silver lining can be gathered from the metaphorical cloud represented by the ten year drought it's this: absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder. It was a full-on mutual admiration society at The Phoenix, with the crowd as loud and attentive as I've seen at a Toronto show in recent memory and the band, in turn, visibly appreciative of the response (by all accounts it was the best audience on the brief twelve date North American tour). "Mega" was the word Bradfield used more than once to describe the concert-goers.
The band promised to return in about two years, which I have faith they'll try to do, but a lot can happen in two years so I headed into the show determined to savour the entire experience, as I figured I might not get the chance again. Based on the virtually flawless show I witnessed, I hope I'm proven wrong.
Lead singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield at The Phoenix
(picture from FazerMagazine.com)
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manic Street Preachers - an introduction.

(I began to review the recent Manic Street Preachers Toronto gig and found myself taking more time and words than anticipated explaining exactly who they were. As a result, I decided to post a separate blog entry with a short history of the band focusing on their almost too-strange-to-be-true earlier years, along with a few musical samples. Consider it my own little condensed Wikipedia write up.)
Manic Street who? Some 13 years after being introduced to this brilliant Welsh band by a friend it pains me, pains, I say, that virtually no one in North America knows who they are. It's not exactly wide-scale success I'm wishing for them - I'll cop to being greedy and possessive enough to not want to share them with the whole world. But still, a little name recognition would be nice, perhaps a song of theirs most contemporary music fans could identify. I've tried to pass on their musical goodness to others, only to be met by indifference. Part of me understands why - their lyrics are, to put it mildly, challenging. After 13 years of consuming their music on a regular basis (I'd anoint them status in a list of my top five favourite music artists), I remain fairly clueless as to what lead vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield is singing about most of the time. And part of that is what fascinates me about the band, along with a host of other reasons.
The words in their songs deal with weighty and unconventional (for rock and roll) subject matter: classic literature is a recurring well from which the band often draws, historic events such as the Spanish Civil War, political themes, religion and art. More traditional "alt rock" (whatever that means nowadays) lyrical explorations of alienation, culture, and occasionally just the odd straightforward love song make their way into the mix as well. Critics have accused them of being overly intellectual or pretentious, a slam that I'd have to back at times. But I've always been a "music first, lyrics second" type of guy and the band's music has captivated me since I first heard it. There's a complexity and depth to it that is truly unique.
Manic Street Preachers, consisting of Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore and guitarist Richey Edwards, released their debut album, Generation Terrorists, in 1992. Their sound was a broad mix of punk, Appetite For Destruction-era Guns N' Roses and alt rock, with a proclivity for highly melodic moments, such as from the song "Little Baby Nothing". This song was notable both for its future status as a Manics live staple and the vocal appearance of infamous ex-porn star Traci Lords. Gold Against The Soul served as the follow-up album in 1993 and The Holy Bible was released just a year later. Controversy was never in short supply with the Manics, as they frequently adopted the punk ethos of bluntly speaking their minds about social and political issues, with a further specialty in discussing the lacking merits of numerous other British bands.
No discussion of the band's history would be complete without mentioning the enigmatic Richey Edwards. Edwards split most of the lyrical duties with Wire on the band's first two releases and assumed the bulk of the lyrical work for The Holy Bible. To say his guitar abilities were limited (particularly early on in the band's career) would be a huge understatement. No, Edwards functioned more as the band's wordsmith, shaped their visual look and contributed heavily to their musical direction.
Edwards suffered from severe depression, anorexia, alcohol abuse, and was prone to cutting himself. He famously carved the words "4 Real" into his forearm in 1991 after having the band's authenticity questioned by a journalist (click here for a picture of the result, though be forewarned it's not pleasant). Despite his troubles, Edwards was a highly intellectual person, as is evident from his lyrics or interviews. He also suffered from bad insomnia, which contributed to him reading up to six books a week, with some of the digested words or themes ending up in a Manics song or as a quote in an album's liner notes. In 1994 he spent time in psychiatric hospitals, until disappearing in early 1995 on the day he was supposed to accompany Bradfield on an American promotional tour. His car was found abandoned near a bridge known as a popular suicide spot, but a body was never recovered. Some who knew him speculate that even with his demons he was incapable of taking his own life. Elvis-like sightings have been reported worldwide over the years, though nothing ever proved conclusive. The cult of Richey, which had gained traction even before his disappearance, soared to new levels. His case remained open with him classified as a "missing person", until he was officially declared "presumed dead" in November 2008.
The band later continued on as a three piece with the blessing of Edwards' family, even continuing to put aside his royalties, should he one day resurface. Everything Must Go came out in 1996, containing five songs with Edwards' lyrical input. The album received rave reviews as the band expanded its sound, incorporating orchestral elements and more accessible songs than the previous bleakness of The Holy Bible. Manics fans commonly cite one of these two albums as their high water mark (I personally favour Everything Must Go by a wide margin). The album peaked at number two on the UK charts, matching the performance of first single "A Design For Life".
I hate to now condense over a decade of great music to a single short paragraph, but here it is: five more studio albums have followed since 1996, all of them strong except for the spotty Know Your Enemy. Additionally, they've released a couple of compilation albums and in 2001 became the first western rock band to play Cuba (with Fidel Castro in attendance). The latest album is this year's Journal For Plague Lovers, with all of the lyrics coming from a notebook Edwards gave to the band shortly before his disappearance.
Despite his absence, the ghost of Edwards has hung over (or perhaps "among" might be a better choice of word) the band for years. His work has shown up here and there on Manics songs over that time, but Journal For Plague Lovers shows the band giving him a prominent voice once again, thus bringing another chapter of closure to the tragic, weird history of the Manic Street Preachers and Richey Edwards.
"Little Baby Nothing" (1992, audio only)
"The Everlasting" (1998)
"A Design For Life" (1996)
(YouTube disabled the embedding feature for the video so click here for link)
"Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" (featuring Nina Persson from The Cardigans, 2007)
(YouTube disabled the embedding feature for the video so click here for link)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

KISS - Sonic Boom [music review]

* Released October 6th

I was a massive KISS fan for most of my life up until about five years ago. We're talking a run of about thirty years where they were the most important musical act to someone who lived, breathed, and slept music. Now, a statement like that won't win me credibility points with most music fans as KISS has never, shall we say, been a group that garnered a whole lot of respect, a fact they actually claim to enjoy. But I eventually hit the wall as far as the levels of my fandom for the band. The reasons are numerous and ample fodder for a future Mediaboy Musings posting. Suffice it to say, I approached the release of KISS' first studio album in eleven years with varying levels of skepticism, curiosity, nostalgia, and an almost ingrained conditioning of obligation. 
Sonic Boom arrived exclusively in Wal-Mart stores on Tuesday, the newest extension of the store's successful strategy of pairing classic rock acts with exclusive rights to their new releases. So far, the arrangement has paid impressive dividends: The Eagles and AC/DC enjoyed huge sales numbers, and Journey scored its best sales numbers for a new album in ages. Foreigner is taking the same gamble, releasing a new album last week that marked their highest chart debut since 1987 and spurring further sales for their catalog. KISS clearly wants in on the action. Like most of the aforementioned groups, the new album comes packaged with a live DVD and a disc of re-recorded classics, all for the low, low Wal-Mart price of only $12! It is good value for the money, but is the new material worth the wait? Here's a track-by-track review:
"Modern Day Delilah": Most impressive. The opening track with Paul Stanley on lead vocals is tight, has some tasteful drum fills from drummer Eric Singer, the lyrics aren't embarrassing and it delivers a great chorus. Although there's an eleven year gap to consider between 1998's Psycho Circus and Sonic Boom that yielded one, one new song ("Nothing Can Keep Me From You" from the soundtrack to the atrocious Detroit Rock City movie), this is probably the strongest song I've heard from KISS since "Unholy", off 1992's Revenge.
"Russian Roulette": Gene Simmons takes over the singing for this average, tempo-changing song anchored by a fat, greasy bass line. The pre-verse "ah ah ah ah" lines sound like they were just lazily tossed in, though. The pre-release hype from KISS itself was that this album recaptured the vibe of the band circa 1976's Rock And Roll Over, that "every song sounds like that". So far, I'm not hearing it. 80's and 90's era KISS sounds a little more accurate.
"Never Enough": Okay, now we're getting into this just sounding like other 80's hard rock hair bands (and I say that as a huge fan of the genre). The verses steal the guitar riff from Poison's "Nothin' But A Good Time", which in turn stole the opening guitar riff from KISS' "Deuce". Is it theft if you're stealing something back from someone who stole from you? The plagiarism continues as KISS borrows heavily from Whitesnake's "Slide It In" during the choruses. That the band failed to see the remarkable similarity to the Poison guitar parts is amazing, especially when you consider Paul Stanley was originally slated to produce the album it came from (1988's Open Up And Say...Ahh!).
"Yes I Know (Nobody's Perfect)": Now this sounds like 70's KISS...albeit quite average 70's KISS. Gene's words drip with that lascivious, creepy quality he's perfected over decades, at several points just cutting to the chase and vocally leering "baby, it's time to take off your clothes". Guitarist Tommy Thayer lays down a great solo, although it's a completely transparent mimic of original guitarist Ace Frehley's style, with even further elements of another former KISS guitarist, Bruce Kulick, thrown in.
"Stand": It wouldn't be a KISS album without at least one self-empowerment song...this would be that song. Gene and Paul trade off vocals, but there is simply nothing distinguishing about this track. Under the word "filler" in the dictionary, you'll find this song listed.
"Hot And Cold": Another obvious attempt to recreate some 70's magic, with mixed results. There's some funky bass and nice use of cowbell (more cowbell!), which momentarily distracts from the horrible lyrics. A sample: "Well if it's too hot you're too cold/If it's too loud you're too old/Baby, let go of what you can't hold/Baby, you're too hot and cold".
"All For The Glory": Singer gets a shot at lead vocals for the first time on a KISS album. He's a phenomenal drummer, the most technically gifted of the three players KISS have had over their history. Vocally, he's decent, probably a notch above original drummer Peter Criss (although Criss' voice had a little more character). The material Singer has to work with here is minimal, especially the cliched lyrics which are pretty much foreshadowed by the song's title.
"Danger Us": I literally held my head in my hands for a few moments when I listened to this song. The title had we worried, I'll admit. My God, how could it not?! Musically, it's actually quite good, though...the guitar work is simple yet catchy and Stanley sounds at the top of his game. Then I heard the lyrics during the chorus and my head collapsed into my hands. I'll show them here and then no more shall ever be spoken of this song: "Two parts trouble/Double down tough/Danger you/Danger me/Danger us".
"I'm An Animal": Definitely the darkest sounding track on the album, yet another in an accumulating pile of skippable songs. Another nice Thayerfrehley solo.
"When Lightning Strikes": Thayer assumes the lead singer role as the band tries to recreate one of the original concepts of KISS, that all members would share lead vocal duties (although Stanley and Simmons obviously would get the bulk of the work). His voice is completely bland, which meshes well with the lackluster songwriting. Thayer cowrote the song with Stanley and the same recurring thought popped up while listening to Sonic Boom that I had while listening to Stanley's disappointing 2006 solo album, Live To Win: how does a guy that's been writing songs for close to forty years come up with such shite lyrics? One could never accuse KISS of high-minded word craft, lest we forget their gem from 1984's Animalize album titled "Burn Bitch Burn", with the classic line, "Oh babe, I wanna put my log in your fireplace". Admittedly, Gene wrote that one, but you get the idea. This time we're saddled with "When lightning strikes/A howl in the rain and thunder/A fire ignites/A flash of light electrifies my heart and my soul/And lightning's gonna strike tonight". Really, guys? Seriously, you had over a decade to write this stuff.
"Say Yeah": *sigh* No thanks.
Sonic Boom, as the band has reminded us repeatedly during their media blitz to promote the album, contains no outside songwriters, musicians, keyboards or ballads. It also contains no heart or indication it is anything more than the latest slab of merchandise in the grand KISS marketing scheme, along with crap like KISS M & M's, KISS Mr . Potato Head dolls or KISS bingo games.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆