Friday, December 17, 2010

Bruno Mars - Doo-Wops & Hooligans [album review]

* Released in October
Other than one not insignificant bump in the road from a September arrest in Las Vegas for cocaine possession, it's been a pretty sweet year for pop singer/songwriter/producer Bruno Mars. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Hawaii, Mars co-wrote, co-produced, and sang on massive summer hits "Nothin' On You" and "Billionaire" (by B.o.B. and Travie McCoy, respectively), co-wrote one of the biggest songs of the year with Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You", released his critically and commercially well-received debut album (Doo-Wops & Hooligans) that landed a number one single ("Just The Way You Are") in multiple countries and has a follow-up ("Grenade") headed in the same direction, and received seven Grammy nominations. So how was your 2010?
I first noticed Mars a few weeks back on Saturday Night Live, with his two song performance managing to capture my attention. I DVR SNL most weeks, but find little, both musically and comically, that doesn't have me going heavy on my remote's "FF" button. Before I'd heard a note, it was Mars' live presentation that gave me pause. The singer and his guitarist, bassist, and drummer were dressed in identical suits with skinny ties...throw in a pompadour hair style on Mars and it successfully completed the 50's doo-wop group visual homage. Add in the fact that Mars also played guitar, a rarity for an artist of colour (which sounds so bloody un-PC, but it's just a fact). Those refreshing visual elements, combined with well-executed renditions of his two aforementioned chart-topping singles, led me to check out his debut, which is an unabashedly commercial collection of songs that dips its feet into numerous musical genres, including pop, hip hop, rock, reggae, r & b, and soul.
Mars blows his wad early, with the two opening tracks on the album comprising its best material: "Grenade" mixes a marching floor tom drum beat with heavy keyboards and Mars' smooth vocal style, augmented by some tasteful Motown-style background vocals, and "Just The Way You Are" takes much of the same formula, speeds up the tempo a little, and ends up with a very different sounding song, which I'd have to call one of the best pop tunes I've heard this year. About half of the rest of the album's songs (there are ten in total) fall somewhere within the "very good" level of quality: "Runaway Baby" is a high energy 60's throwback, "Marry You" also borrows liberally from that decade with its highly melodic song structure (love the use of the wedding bells, too), "Talking To The Moon" is a solid ballad that probably best shows off Mars' impressive vocal ability, and then there's the album's final track, "The Other Side". It originally appeared back in May on Mars' It's Better If You Don't Understand EP, along with a couple of other songs that appear on Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The song (featuring Green, who it actually sounds like it was written for, and B.o.B.), while strong, feels somewhat out of step with the rest of the tracks, which is probably because it's the most modern sounding one of the bunch. It was written much earlier than most of the songs on his full-length player and, according to Wikipedia, has eleven (!) songwriters accredited to it (three of those names are Mars, Philip Lawrence, and Ari Levine, who make up the unfortunately named songwriting/producing team The Smeezingtons). How eleven people are needed to write a 3:47 song is beyond my scope of comprehension, I must admit.
At a lean 35 minute running time and ten songs, there's little room for filler, but Doo-Wops & Hooligans has its share. Most glaring is the atrocious "Our First Time", which is the kind of slowed down/sexed up Usher and R. Kelly-style r & b that has me running screaming in the opposite direction. "The Lazy Song", which is almost oppressively lightweight, lyrically celebrates the pleasures of lounging around doing nothing, set to an instantly forgettable laid back musical accompaniment that wouldn't seem out of place on a (*shudder*) Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz album. "Liquor Store Blues" isn't much better, amping up the reggae sound touched on during the aforementioned track and getting a credibility assist from Bob Marley's son, Damian. The result just isn't my cup of tea, though. "Count On Me" is another slight number that borrows again from Mraz and Mars' fellow countryman Israel Kamakawiwo'le, with its stripped down acoustic guitar and light percussion. The nice string arrangement on the song's back half does redeem things, but only slightly.
Mars is a hugely talented young artist (did I mention he also played most of the instruments on Doo-Wops & Hooligans?) who needs to refine his musical focus a little and stick to his obvious strengths, plus his lyrics need a lot of work. Even the album's potent songs are marred by overearnest, soppy wordcraft that one expects will improve as Mars matures.
Rating: ★★★★★

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Inception [movie review]

* Released theatrically in July; released on DVD and Blu-Ray today
A common complaint with most of today's movies is that they don't challenge the audience enough. Inception is the exception...almost to a fault. On more than one occasion, I heard feedback from moviegoers along the lines of "I liked it, but I couldn't quite figure out what was going on". That ability to impress (even while managing to somewhat alienate) translated into powerful word-of-mouth buzz, which, combined with strong reviews and repeat business derived from the gotta-see-it-again-to-suss-out-the-plot's-complexities factor, led to huge box office for the film. Many critics just downright hated it because of its labyrinthian storytelling (sprawled out over an also demanding 148 minutes), the best of which has to be Rex Reed's hilariously scathing review here.
Clearly, it's writer/director Christopher Nolan's recent strong track record at helming films that make a boatload of cash for their studio (like The Dark Knight) that convinced Warner Brothers to cough up the reported $160 million budget for such a high-risk project, which Nolan has been working on since 2002. Despite its over-ambitious narrative leanings, Inception does look quite amazing, between the numerous globe-trotting backdrops (New York City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Tangiers, London, Paris, and Calgary, subbing for the Alps) and impressive, original special effects. Nolan's dream world allows for mind-bending visuals like shapeshifting landscapes and a trippy one-on-one battle in a hotel in both inverted and zero gravity. The director insisted on keeping CGI to a minimum, leading to the building of three sets alone that were used for the hotel scenes, including one set that housed a rotating 100-foot hallway.
As much as I can sum up the multi-layered, high-concept story in one paragraph, here it is: Don Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert hired by captains of industry to infiltrate the dreams of other corporate heavyweights to steal their ideas. His team consists of long-time associate Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man skilled in the arts of deception named Eames (played by British actor Tom Hardy), a chemistry wizard (played by Dileep Rao) who oversees the placement and extraction of the team into the dream realm, and Ellen Page's character, Ariadne. She's the newest recruit, a young and gifted architecture student for Cobb to mentor who is taught how the dream-hijacking world operates (which, in turn, helps school the viewer) and who will instill her expertise to help create the layouts of the dreams. The outfit is hired by Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe's character) to slip into the dreams of one of his corporate rivals (played by Cillian Murphy) and not extract information already present, but implant an idea that will ultimately benefit Saito financially. The catch: such a feat (known as "inception") has never been successfully accomplished. If Cobb and his team can pull the job off it will also allow him to reunite with his family after a forced exile from America due to circumstances I won't disclose. Tied into that subplot are Cobb's periodic encounters with his unstable wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard in full-on femme fatale mode. Oddly, there are incredibly coincidental elements of the relationship Cobb has with his wife in this movie as there were with DiCaprio's character and his spouse in his last film from earlier this year, Shutter Island.
Good performances all-around and a surprisingly liberal use of action help to dilute the mildly abrasive effects of the movie's high-minded plot machinations, which, at one point, is balancing four concurrent stories involving a dream within a dream within another dream. Inception isn't quite as wholly original as critical and public reaction might have lead you to believe, with Nolan employing several well-worn movie ideas: the use of a team of thieves, each with their own specialty, is heist movie 101, there's Cobb's "one last big job before I retire" offer, and the scenes in the Alps are straight out of a James Bond movie. Films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Fight Club also have their fingerprints all over this one. As mentioned, many feel a second (or more) viewing is necessary to digest all that Inception has to offer. I liked it well enough, just not enough to devote another two-and-a-half hours of my life to sitting down with it again.
Rating: ★★★★★

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Machete [movie review]

* Released theatrically in September; available on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 4, 2011
Machete originated as a fake trailer included in the 2007 film Grindhouse, a double feature of 70's-style exploitation cinema directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Reaction to the trailer was so strong that Rodriguez decided to inflate the original idea to feature length, with co-directing help from Ethan Maniquis (Tarantino also contributes as a co-producer). At age 66, Rodriguez film regular Danny Trejo gets his first opportunity to headline a movie after making a late foray into the acting business in 1985, following a hard road in life that found him addicted to drugs as a youth and serving several stints in prison for armed robbery and drug-related crimes. He's an unlikely leading man, what with that craggy, stone-faced mug of his, but has a captivating onscreen presence, derived partly from his imposing physical stature that's complemented by long hair and an abundance of tattoos.
Trejo, as the titular character (and get the pronunciation right: it's "Ma-chet-ay"), acquits himself quite well playing a former Mexican federale (cop) who, while down on his luck, takes a job to assassinate a Texas senator (played by Robert De Niro) and gets framed for the act. The man behind the double cross is an oily political operative played by Jeff Fahey, whose appearance in a higher profile project like this immediately elicits a "jeez, where the hell has this guy been?" response. Also included in the oddball cast are Don Johnson as a crooked border patrol officer, Lindsay Lohan as a promiscuous, privileged rich kid with a drug problem (there's a stretch), Cheech Marin as Machete's brother, Jessica Alba as an immigration enforcement official, Michelle Rodriguez as an underground revolutionary figure, and, best of all, a bloated Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug kingpin with a bad accent and even worse hair. He's sporting the most severe widow's peak I've seen this side of The Count from Sesame Street.
Machete revels in its own ridiculousness, never taking itself too seriously, as that intentionally ironic, oddball cast list would imply. De Niro, as the corrupt redneck who fans the flames of immigration intolerance for political gain, chews some heavy scenery while also delivering a bad accent. For this he can be excused, given the cheesy parameters within which he's working. He's still not forgiven for Righteous Kill, though, the 2008 shit sandwich that paired him with Al Pacino. Fahey, rockin' a slicked back half mullet and evil guy goatee, is excellent, as is Rodriguez (Michelle) as the hardbodied rebel who fronts as the proprietor of a taco truck. Alba proves once again that she's just an actress who gets by more on looks than talent - the woman has no screen presence. Even her "nude scene" is half-assed (no pun intended)...that shot of her supposedly naked in the shower is actually just digital trickery. Yes, I know these types of facts matter to you.
The film gets a little lost with an uneven patchwork of subplots supporting the main narrative that revolves around the timely U.S. issue of illegal immigration. But then, you're not watching a movie like this for the deep story and character arcs, are you? Horrifyingly funny violence, like that hilarious intestinal escape stunt, and gratuitous nudity, wrapped in a 70's B-movie package are what you get with Machete. Think Shoot 'Em Up or something from the Crank series, but with a lot more heart and satisfying results.
Rating: ★★★★★

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sarah McLachlan - Laws Of Illusion [music review]

* Released in June
Vancouver-by-way-of-Halifax's Sarah McLachlan had her career break worldwide in 1997 with Surfacing, after gradually building a loyal fan base in Canada following her 1988 debut. A few reviews ago, I commented on the impressive mass of music pumped out by Black Label Society during their career. Well, Sarah McLachlan's album output has been pretty much the exact opposite (this marks what I believe to be the first and last time in existence that "Sarah McLachlan" and "Black Label Society" will be mentioned together in the same sentence). Laws Of Illusion is just her seventh studio album...actually, it's more like six-and-a-half, as 2006's Wintersong was almost all covers of traditional Christmas music. Clearly, she likes to work at her own pace, a luxury derived from her success that has afforded her the opportunity to organize her Lilith Fair touring festival, devote time to philanthropic efforts, focus on having kids, and navigate the waters of her 2008 separation and subsequent divorce from Ashwin Sood, the now-former drummer from her band.
The subject of the disintegration of her marriage appears to inform most of the lyrical content on her latest release, falling in line with the contemplative and vulnerable downbeat lyrical themes that she's explored throughout her career. A somewhat new wrinkle is added here in the form of more feelings of bitterness (understandably so), with McLachlan holding little back in her words towards her (presumably) ex, such as these from "Forgiveness":
Loving lying enemy, I have seen your face before/Never thought again I'd see/Didn't want to anymore
And you ask for forgiveness/You're asking too much/I have sheltered my heart in a place you can't touch/Don't believe when you tell me your love is real/Because you don't know much about heaven boy/If you have to hurt to feel
The song demonstrates the type of stark ballad that she does so well (like the popular-at-funerals song "Angel"), building from a mostly piano-accompanied first half into a fuller arrangement that brings in the rest of her band and adds nice touches with McLachlan's own higher octave background vocals, a device used extensively on the album to great effect. A good half of Laws Of Illusion is of the restrained variety and most of these songs work, with a couple of exceptions. The sleepy "Changes", despite some interesting production that includes a theremin, just never gets going. "Rivers Of Love" finds McLachlan getting a little more jazzy than usual, with unremarkable results. "Don't Give Up On Us" is an excellent prototypical McLachlan mid-tempo number, alluding lyrically to a period where she retained some optimism that her relationship could be salvaged. "U Want Me 2" borrows Prince's song title shorthand style for another great piece of pop (by the way, those last two songs already appeared as the obligatory new material on McLachlan's best of collection from 2008, which is kind of a burn for fans who would have picked up the album mainly to get tracks they didn't already own). The album's two final songs find McLachlan doing her own vocal-heavy version of English artist Susan Enan's "Bring On The Wonder" (she had contributed background vocals to Enan's original recording) and a quiet, rearranged piano and strings version of "Love Come", which appears earlier on the album in fuller form. Both versions work quite well, though I preferred the original and its clever use of staccato violin sounds.
"Awakenings" opens the album and it finds McLachlan rocking out more than I've ever heard her before. Loud guitars and in-your-face drums driving a stuttering rhythm pattern, punctuated by crashing cymbals, only act as a fake-out, however, as to a possibly heavier new direction. It's one the finer songs she's ever recorded, but the rest of the album's more upbeat material returns to well-worn territory. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you - songs like "Illusions Of Bliss" and "Out Of Tune" are great pieces of songwriting that are well executed. Only the sappy, bouncy pop of "Loving You Is Easy" fails to engage, even if it is nice to hear McLachlan deviating from the album's depressing lyrics for a brief moment as she appears to find love again.
McLachlan's strong and instantly identifiable mezzo-soprano voice, proficient piano skills, and adept songwriting ability make her, in my opinion, one of the more talented artists working today. It's not everyone who has one their songs ("Angel") have this kind of impact on a couple of unlikely people: it brings Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee to tears whenever he hears it and Run DMC's Darryl "DMC" McDaniels credits it with saving his life. Pierre Marchand, who has produced all but the first of McLachlan's albums, also co-wrote eight of the songs on here, which is substantially more than he's contributed to any of her past albums. As strong a collection of songs as Laws Of Illusion contains, it can feel a little too predictable and familiar. Here's hoping the next album finds McLachlan and Marchand challenging themselves a little more.
Rating: ★★★★★

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - London Calling: Live In Hyde Park [Blu-Ray review]

* Released in June; also available on DVD
London Calling: Live In Hyde Park was shot at 2009's Hard Rock Calling music festival in London during Bruce Springsteen's Working On A Dream Tour and marks the first time one of his live performances has been officially released in its entirety...for the most part (apparently, a couple of very minor between-song edits were made, but the setlist is otherwise intact). The performance, with The E Street Band, clocks in at a hefty 2 hours and 45 minutes - a marathon for most live acts, but commonplace for the Jersey workhorse. A Springsteen concert doesn't rely on bells and whistles in the form of a stunning light show or fancy fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find another A-list touring act who gives you less in those departments. No, it's pretty much all about the music, as this latest video document amply demonstrates.
A robust cover of The Clash's "London Calling" opens the show before an exuberant crowd of approximately 50,000, who witness the concert begin in the bright sunlight of early evening, play on through a picturesque sunset, and eventually into the curfew-breaking dark of night. Three tracks from the mid to late 70's follow ("Badlands", "Night", and "She's The One") before the obligatory new material (from 2009's Working On A Dream) gets showcased. "Outlaw Pete" from said album manages to avoid the momentum-killing pitfall that plagues most performances of an artist's newer songs. Despite its epic eight minute running time, Springsteen and band manage to command rapt attention from the audience as they lead them through the song's cinematic peaks and valleys. An always lively "Out In The Street" provides the show's funniest moment, as Springsteen mock collapses following a return to the more-elevated-than-usual stage after a brief trip down to the crowd's level, exclaiming "Are you fuckin' nuts?! Somebody get me a fuckin' elevator...I'm fuckin' 60!". At this point, his long sleeved shirt, which started out dry and a solid colour of gray, is well on its way to becoming a completely black, sweat-soaked mess. Next is the title track to his latest album, marking the only other new song played during the set (which isn't quite representative of the amount of new material played during most shows on the tour). "Seeds" and "Johnny 99" are followed by the dark "Youngstown", which features the best non-Boss moment of the evening from guitarist Nils Lofgren's animated, spectacular soloing. A cover of The Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'" lifts the oppressive (in a good way, though) vibe of the preceding song, giving Springsteen an opportunity to go back down to the crowd and collect signs being held up by audience members with song requests, which is a regular tradition at one of his concerts. Born In The U.S.A.'s "Bobby Jean" and then a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped" win out, as Springsteen informs his band of what song they're playing next by holding up the request signs for them to read. It's partly this type of spontaneity and walking-the-edge aspect of a Springsteen show that makes it an affair that is rarely boring.
At this point we're merely a little ways past the show's halfway mark. Springsteen is next joined onstage by Brian Fallon, the lead singer of one of his favourite newer bands that he champions frequently, The Gaslight Anthem. Fallon manages to not muck things up too badly before exiting and giving way to The Rising's "Waitin' On A Sunny Day". The song, now a virtual concert staple, falls short of the stature of most of Springsteen's regular live repertoire, but it more than does its job in providing a fun counter-balance to his more serious work, engaging the crowd with a chorus ready-made for audience participation. A one-two punch of Darkness On The Edge Of Town's classics "Promised Land" and "Racing In The Street" are followed by "Radio Nowhere", one of the heavier songs in Springsteen's catalog that has never translated well in the live setting, although the version played here seems to have a little more life to it than usual. A couple more numbers from the 9/11-inspired The Rising find drummer Max Weinberg providing another funny moment during "Lonesome Day" (he loses grip of a drumstick that ends up clunking him on the head) and a powerful performance of that album's title track, which does a masterful job of conveying two emotional elements (melancholy and uplifting inspiration) that are rarely able to occupy the same space within a song. "Born To Run" gets an energetic airing out and if Springsteen is sick of playing his umpteenth version of perhaps his best-known song then there's certainly no evidence of it here. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" sustains the energy level before leading into a subdued and reflective rendition of "Hard Times (Come Again No More)", written in 1854 by Steven C. Foster and an extension of the American roots music explored by Springsteen on his 2006 Seeger Sessions project. A lively performance of the celtic rock style "American Land" also follows in that same vein, but not before a stirring "Jungleland" precedes it. Closing the show are a couple more Born In The U.S.A. numbers in "Glory Days" and "Dancing In The Dark".
Shot in HD, I was immediately taken aback when I began playing the Blu-Ray disc and saw that the picture was presented in video, not film (the latter seems more commonplace for these type of releases). The visuals looked crisper and deliver, in my opinion, a much more enjoyable viewing experience. There's one close-up shot of saxophonist Clarence Clemons during "Jungleland" where you can make out virtually every nose hair up his schnoz. Sound-wise, the disc sounded great, at least with the PCM Stereo setting I listened to it on. I have read some reviews that criticized the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, which supposedly buries certain instruments in the mix. Along those lines, that gripe is one of the few critiques that has been directed at Springsteen's live performances before, that he has too many musicians onstage to the point of overkill. To a limited degree, I must concur. Between himself, Lofgren, and Stevie Van Zandt, the guitar portion of the group is obviously more than covered, yet there's a fourth guitarist in Soozie Tyrell onstage for most of the songs as well. Her backup vocals and violin work do play an important role in the band, however. And then there's also a fifth guitarist in Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife. She's actually absent for this performance, having missed portions of the tour to tend to the family's kids. Again, her vocals add a different range, but having five guitarists playing at once is a little much (this reminds me of some of the jibes Scialfa would receive from hardcore Springsteen fans on an online forum I used to frequent, where they'd derisively joke that her guitar wasn't even plugged in). But the big band is just part of the live Bruce experience, which director Chris Hilson does an overall good job in bringing into our homes, with judicious use of aerial crane shots that capture the scope of the event. One gripe, though (speaking from a Springsteen fanboy's perspective): I could have used more shots of original E Street Band members Garry Tallent (bass) and Roy Bittan (piano) and less of unnecessary backup singers Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King Jr.
Not to belabour the platitudes, but to watch Springsteen work is a sad reminder that there are few (if any) younger musical artists that can carry on the torch when it comes to displaying his level of showmanship. Into his 60's, his energy level is something to marvel at, even if his voice has lost a little bit over the years and he has to rely now on a teleprompter. Springsteen proudly asserts that he thinks the band has never sounded better than it did on the last tour. That may be debatable, but if they've lost anything it's certainly not much. One does wonder how much longer Clemons can continue touring, however. He still brings it musically, blowing out some stellar solos, but it's downright painful watching the 68 year-old gingerly move around following years of multiple knee and hip replacements.
The bottom line is London Calling: Live In Hyde Park surpasses 2001's outstanding Live In New York City DVD in terms of being the proverbial "next best thing to being there" for a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Extras: pretty slim, with only two extra videos, but hey, the main program is almost three freaking hours long! One of the videos is a haunting performance of "The River" from Springsteen's Glastonbury Festival appearance from the previous day that was broadcast on the BBC (well worth a look if you can find the whole program online to runs a total of 96 minutes). The other is a video montage set to the music of "Wreckin' Ball", a recent non-album track that was written to commemorate the closing of New Jersey's Giants Stadium.
Rating: ★★★★