Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Andre Agassi - Open [audiobook review]

* Released in November 2009
When Andre Agassi's autobiography was announced, it was his admissions of drug and wig abuse that received the most traction in the media. Those juicy revelations are only a couple of the many fascinatingly candid disclosures that Agassi offers in the book. One of the first things you notice when listening to/reading the book is how well it's written. No, Agassi is not as prodigious a writer as he was a tennis player - the exceptional literary talent is courtesy of ghost writer J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Agassi and Moehringer do an excellent job in sustaining the non-fan's interest, providing a nice balance of insight and reflection on both his personal and professional life. As someone with basically no interest in tennis, I feared the minutiae detailing Agassi's matches and training routines would wear thin, but such was not the case. In fact, I found the detailed match breakdowns quite gripping. His biggest rivalry is with Pete Sampras, who usually seems to have his number, and there's also a blatant dislike for Michael Chang (who annoys Agassi with his habit of giving thanks to God after a win), Jimmy Connors (who everyone else on the tennis tour despises), and Boris Becker. The story about Becker pushing Agassi's buttons at a U.S. Open semi-final match by blowing kisses to Brooke Shields, his fiancee, is hilarious.
Incredibly, Agassi carried a deep hatred for the sport throughout his life, ingrained by the fact he wasn't given a choice not to play by his overbearing father. He hid this disdain well, even up until the end of his career. Once he reaches the age where he can make his own decisions, Agassi still feels trapped by the sport and its pressures, threatening to quit on several occasions (even giving away all his racquets at one point), but ultimately returning to it because he can't think of anything else to do for a living. Late in his career, despite a number of painful injuries, he keeps at it, intent on providing as much of a nest egg for his family as possible, while also contributing his winnings to setting up and operating a charter school for underprivileged youth in Las Vegas, where he was raised. His tennis career was obviously one of significant accomplishments, especially the latter half, where he bottomed out at a ranking of #141 and then rededicated himself to getting back to the top spot, which he managed to achieve. Tennis magazine ranked him the 12th best player (male and female) of the modern era and while he takes pride in all of that, it appears to be his philanthropic achievements which make him most proud, especially as someone who never finished high school.
His personal life is no less interesting. Agassi ends up in a short, unhappy marriage with Brooke Shields and his level of frankness about her apparent lack of substance as a person is surprising (why did her marry her then?). His recount of her taping of a Friends episode, which was her biggest professional break in years, displays his immature and jealous side, as he bolts out of the studio when she has to make out with one of the actors. She also doesn't like his friends and he doesn't feel comfortable with her showbiz friends, which only contributes to their tension. In the midst of this unhappiness, his career also hits the skids, leading him to start using crystal meth regularly. After failing a drug test, he lies his way out of it, blaming the presence of the drugs in his system on a spiked drink he unknowingly consumed. Tennis officials bought the explanation. Once he gets his life and career back on track, he romantically pursues tennis legend Steffi Graff, ultimately marrying her and starting a family.
Contradictions abound with Agassi. He despised the famous "image is everything" advertising campaign for Canon that made him millions and brought plenty of scorn, and maintains that he didn't believe in the philosophy, yet when his hair started thinning at an alarming rate he did everything he could, including wearing bad mullet wigs, to maintain the illusion. Despite his rebel image, which he insists wasn't deliberately orchestrated, Agassi demonstrates a decidedly middle-of-the road (and that's being kind) taste in music, favouring the sounds of Celine Dion, Richard Marx, Barry Manilow, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, David Foster, and Barbra Streisand, even developing friendships with a number of them. His business relationship with Nick Bollettieri also raises questions. Bollettieri ran the world famous tennis school where Agassi was sent at age 13, a place that Agassi recalls as "a prison camp", with little good to say about its owner. Even after turning pro at age 16, Bollitieri travels with Agassi as a mentor and coach, working with the young star for several years, even though Agassi characterizes him in the book as someone who is egotistical, obnoxious, greedy, and unknowledgeable about tennis.
To begin to understand Agassi, one needs to shine the spotlight on his father Mike, a former Olympic boxer from Iran who possesses a truly scary drive to see Andre become a world champion and is worthy of a book all by himself. Mike's first three attempts at tennis stardom with Andre's two older sisters and brother flamed out, leaving Andre as the last hope. And so we have a steady stream of stories and anecdotes about Mike's bizarre, tyrannical behaviour. He puts a mobile with dangling tennis balls above Andre's crib, encouraging his infant son to hit them with a ping pong paddle taped to his hand. At four years old, his dad has him hitting balls against pros like Jimmy Connors. Mike uses Andre to hustle other tennis players for money, roping them in with his boy's young age that initially masks his prodigious tennis skills. One victim of the hustle is NFL Hall Of Fame running back Jim Brown. At seven, Andre is hitting 2,500 tennis balls a day (which works out to almost 1,000,000 balls a year), fed from a machine that his dad has modified to increase the serving speed up to 110 miles per hour. Further examples cementing his title as Worst Sports Dad Ever are Mike secretly giving his kids amphetamines to boost their performance on the court, making Andre's older brother play a match with a broken wrist, pulling his kids out of school so they can get extra practice, and yanking a trophy that Andre has just won out of his hands at a national tournament and smashing it on the ground, because it was only for good sportsmanship and not for winning the tournament. And those are just the sports-related oddities. Mike also has a violent temper, leading to a road rage incident that has him assaulting a truck driver and leaving him unconscious in the middle of the road, while Andre watches from the passenger seat. Mike is also prone to making sure he never leaves the house without a pocketful of salt and pepper (lest he encounter bad company and need to blind someone in a street fight), grooming his nose hairs by just yanking them out, and shaving his face to a bloody mess without using shaving cream, soap, or water.
Open would benefit from a slight paring down, or maybe it just feels longer than it is because of the audiobook's reader, Eric Davies. Davies' voice pushes on your nerves somewhat, especially when he adopts different silly voices for a woman or child character. Clocking in at over 18 hours, his delivery may prove to be a minor challenge to endure, but the content from which he draws is rarely dull.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Monday, January 25, 2010

Megadeth - Endgame [music review]

* Released in September 2009
Endgame is the 12th studio album from veteran thrash metal band Megadeth and thankfully continues in the same heavier vein as 2004's The System Has Failed and 2007's United Abominations. After cozying up to a more mainstream and accessible sound for a few years, those albums marked a return to the faster, angrier style of metal the band helped pioneer back in the early 80's.
Lead singer and guitarist Dave Mustaine is, of course, the one constant in the band, which has experienced numerous personnel changes over the decades. The latest change brings in new guitarist Chris Broderick, who establishes his chops right off the bat during the opening instrumental "Dialectic Chaos", where he and Mustaine trade off blistering solos over a track that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. The album's title was inspired by Alex Jones' 2007 documentary film Endgame: Blueprint For Global Enslavement, which speculates about secret plans by elite global powers to ultimately run the world. I haven't seen it, but from what I've read it smacks of a paranoid conspiracy theory mindset. As unrooted in reality as its theories may be, it does provide colourful and ample fodder for Mustaine's lyric writing. On the title track, he weaves concepts from it with the reality of a bill that the last Bush presidency signed into law, granting W. the ability to have American citizens held in detention centres.
The rest of the songs cover all manner of topics, including the economic collapse ("The Right To Go Insane" and "Bite The Hand"), high speed auto racing ("1320"), a medieval torture device ("Head Crusher"), the famous North Hollywood bank robbery ("44 Minutes"), and a couple of songs inspired by ancient warriors ("How The Story Ends" and "This Day We Fight"). "Bodies" contains lyrics that seemingly allude to his rocky history as an original member of Metallica: "Went all along the road/All the bodies left behind/They all have been good friends/Just not good friends of mine/I've been kicked out and said I quit/Said I had enough and this is it/All I wanted was just one more show for the road/Cuz it was over last time before I could blink". Super Dave, it's been 27 years now - let it go!
The lyrics are solid, but it's the great music that elevates Endgame to a level the band hasn't achieved since 1994's Youthanasia. There's one tight, heavy guitar riff after another, save for a momentary break during acoustic intro and outro sections on "The Hardest Part Of Letting Go...Sealed With A Kiss" (the excellent "Sealed With A Kiss" middle part resumes the onslaught, though, at least for a short period). Other than this brief moment of deflation, there isn't another mis-step throughout the rest of the album. Mustaine's singing voice isn't for everybody, with its snarly whine, but it's certainly unique and as much a part of the Megadeth sound as whacky time signature changes and double bass drum patterns. Speaking of which, Shawn Drover's powerhouse drumming also deserves a mention.
I'm not one who really cares for 99% of the new metal bands that have come on the scene over the past 10-15 years, but who needs 'em when the originators are arguably at the top of their game? 2009 gave us some stellar Megadeth and 2008 brought Metallica's brilliant Death Magnetic, one of their strongest albums. What's 2010 packing?
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

2012 [movie review]

* Released theatrically in November 2009; available on DVD March 2nd
You know you've just watched a quality "so bad it's good" movie when, by the end of it, you have a splitting headache from laughing so hard. And the movie wasn't a comedy. Such was my experience with 2012, the latest craptastic epic from director Roland Emmerich (who also co-wrote the ridiculous screenplay). Consider: prior to 2012, the last five films Emmerich has helmed were 10,000 B.C., The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, Godzilla, and Independence Day. That's quite a dubious track record, with The Patriot being the only decent one in the bunch. The others? Bad to atrocious. Amazingly, this is the fourth movie from that list whose subject matter centres around an end-of-the-world scenario. 2012 continues his slog through the muck, epitomizing that which is empty, expensive, lowest-common-denominator Hollywood product. In short, Emmerich is the European Michael Bay.
The plot revolves around the world's imminent demise due to a solar flare that has heated up the earth's core to a temperature so high that it will set off a series of environmental disasters. Tossed into the mix are a number of good actors who are clearly slumming: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, and Oliver Platt. Top marks to them for keeping a straight face during their scenes, although Harrelson seems to be most aware of the high camp surrounding him, with his doomsayer prophet character going completely over-the-top. Danny Glover plays the U.S. president with a performance so wooden you might mistake him for one of the talking trees from the Lord Of The Rings films.
Logic in a film like this is clearly not priority number one, which is why Cusack's character (with his kids in tow) is able to easily hop a fence into a super top-secret government area, drive a stretch limo and RV like they're something out of The Dukes Of Hazzard and, once the world starts blowin' up real good, happen upon a chance meeting with his employer that gives him and his family an opportunity to save themselves. Emmerich goes to the well way too many times with sequences where characters just manage to avoid getting swallowed up by the pissed off Earth that is splitting open. There's one hilarious scene where a pilot is flying some characters to safety and, purely for dramatic effect, he inexplicably flies at such low levels that he's dodging in between crumbling buildings and other sorts of potentially fatal obstacles. Granted, he's a novice aviator, but if the guy can manage to get an airplane off the ground then surely he'd be able to get it to a safe altitude. Another scene that'll have you slapping your forehead occurs in a grocery store between a couple as they discuss their relationship. In the worst use of foreshadowing in a movie ever, the man tells her "there's something pulling us apart", which is immediately followed by an earthquake that instantly splits the supermarket floor between the two neatly in half. Then there's the fact one of the main child characters is named "Noah", an unsubtle reference to the detail that arks are implemented by the government as a means of survival later in the movie. That's the level we're working at here, folks.
It's a special kind of film that can have me so uninvested in the characters that I was completely divorced from any hopes or cares that a single character would survive. And if everything I've mentioned so far wasn't bad enough, Emmerich and his studio also have the balls to drag this thing out to a bloated running time of two hours and thirty eight minutes.
The only good things I can say about 2012? Um, let's see...well, I guess some of the special effects are well done and Filter has a pretty decent song that plays over the end credits (the second song you'll hear, not the Adam Lambert monstrosity that precedes it).
Rating: ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Friday, January 22, 2010

This Is It [movie review]

* Released theatrically in October; available on DVD January 26th
I'm normally loathe to attach the word "important" to any one film or album. Sure, movies and music do play a vital part in our everyday lives and some movies and recordings obviously have a bigger cultural impact than others. Still, at the end of the day, they're both just a conduit to escapism. After watching Michael Jackson's This Is It, however, maybe I need to re-evaluate that stance. As I sit here writing this review, I look above me to the framed movie poster on the wall from one of my favourite documentaries, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. It chronicled, in part, the near breakup of the biggest heavy metal band in music history. One of the critical blurbs on the poster from The New York Times trumpets the film as "historically significant", which I can't argue with. For me, that description best sums up the Jackson film as it provides a compelling insight into his final days and ultimately unfulfilled aspirations to make a memorable musical comeback.
The film was compiled from over 100 hours of rehearsal footage shot at the Staples Center in Los Angeles from April through June of last year, in preparation for an unprecedented run of 50 shows at London's O2 Arena that was to have begun in July. All the shows sold out quickly. When the film was announced, many (including myself) speculated it was just a quick cash grab by the tour's promoters in an effort to recoup some of their costs. It's anything but. Handled with the utmost in sensitivity and tributary intentions, it's a much better than expected document of Jackson's creative process and as close as we'll ever get to experiencing what surely would have been a triumphant success, both commercially and artistically. The quality of the footage (which was filmed for Jackson's own archives) is excellent, shot on HD cameras and with top notch sound, exceeding the lowered expectations that the words "rehearsal footage" might imply. The material is seamlessly blended together, frequently using different takes from various performances of each song. Initially, it's a little odd seeing Jackson's wardrobe change numerous times in the course of a song, but you quickly get used to it.
What's most surprising is just how nimble and on top of things Jackson seems, not showing any signs of an imminent fatal breakdown. Reports of him needing to be physically assisted on and off the stage bely the photographic evidence before our eyes as he throws down his best dance moves and seems like a man with at least a couple more decades of life left in him. Much has been made of his frail, thin body toward the end, but this doesn't come across in the film to me. As I see it, he's always had a very slight build and the movie doesn't really show me anything different from that. His voice also sounds strong, even though (by his own admission) he's holding back with it. Some critics have also commented he appears to be lip syncing at times, which I saw little evidence of. Michael Jackson is damn talented, but even the best can't sell a lip sync job perfectly. Mentally, there's no signs that he's anything but completely present, never letting you doubt for a second that he's firmly in control of this multi-million dollar production. Maintaining his familiar soft-spoken and polite tone, he still firmly asserts his perfectionist ways, including one fascinating scene where he tries to get his band to get the right phrasing and feel during the song "The Way You Make Me Feel". "I want it the way I wrote it" and "you have to let it simmer", he tells them. Other times, he's shown encouraging his coworkers, as with 24 year old guitarist Orianthi Panagaris. At the end of "Black Or White" he leads her through a shredding guitar solo, telling her "it's your time to shine". By the way, based on Panagaris' impressive performance in this movie (watch her give Edward Van Halen a run for his money during the "Beat It" solo), I went and picked up her recent second album, titled Believe. It's to come soon.
The music in the show provides a reminder of the essence of Jackson, stripped of the albatross of his highly unusual lifestyle and its accompanying tabloid circus to focus on what it is that put Jackson into the public eye in the first place. His best work from the Jackson 5 and his solo career are here, offering up a non-stop parade of hits and great music, save for the awful "Earth Song". Although he's performing in an empty arena, the crew, musicians, and dancers take an active role in playing the delirious fans. More than one scene shows the dancers offstage watching Jackson perform and their reactions are an amusing combination of unabashed idolatry and giddy fanboy enthusiasm.
This Is It was directed by Kenny Ortega, who was also the show's director. He's managed to find the right tone and balance that gives a revealing look into Jackson's production while also serving as a fitting and respectful memorial. After watching the film, I was reminded of an eerily relevant line from Nicolas Cage's recent Bad Lieutenant movie (which I reviewed here). Someone is killed and Cage's character, in the midst of a drug fuelled haze, sees the man's spirit rise out of the corpse and begin breakdancing. His response? "His soul is still dancing".
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Natalie Imbruglia - Come To Life [music review]

* Released in select markets in October 2009; North American release scheduled for February 16th
Mention the name "Natalie Imbruglia" and the first couple of things that will come to most people are probably a remembrance of her being the one-hit wonder who did the song "Torn" back in the 90's, as well as a recollection of her doing makeup and hair commercials for print and television a few years ago. In fact, she has carved out an undesired niche as possibly the most under-appreciated pop artist of the past ten years, at least certainly in North America.
The cursed blessing of immediate success in the music industry seemingly left Imbruglia with nowhere to go but down. "Torn" was one of the biggest radio hits of its decade, with the album it was from, Left Of The Middle, selling six million copies worldwide to date. In 2001 she followed it up with the far superior White Lilies Island, which has moved 1/6th the number of copies her debut did. Island is, in my opinion, one of the best pop albums I've ever heard, if not one of the best albums I've ever heard. Yes, I'm aware of how preposterous that sounds and my musical credibility be damned - until you've sat down and listened to it (which most of the world hasn't), how do you know I'm wrong? 2005's Counting Down The Days release was a further step in artistic excellence and achieved great success in the UK, going to number one and having the "Shiver" single become the most played song on British radio that year. Differences with her record company followed, leading to the puzzling release of a greatest hits collection in 2007 (Glorious: The Singles 1997-2007). Such a compilation was obviously premature, but significant if only for the inclusion of a number of strong new tracks, including three that ranked among the best in her catalog ("Glorious", "Against The Wall", and "Be With You"). It wasn't a surprise that the album was not well-received everywhere but the UK.
Which brings us to her latest studio release, Come To Life. The album has endured an extremely painful birthing process, experiencing several release delays which have now pushed back the street date to February (tentatively) in Britain and North America. In October 2009, a physical CD release was granted to only a limited number of international markets, including Imbruglia's native Australia. It was a major flop. Fingers pointed at a misguided choice for a first single ("Want") and poor promotion by the record company and Imbruglia herself, who cancelled promotional appearances.
The album is a tale of two sides (almost literally). The first five tracks cover Imbruglia's familiar pop territory before venturing down a different, more experimental path for four of the last five songs, an obviously conscious decision indicating that while she's still happy to play to her strengths, there's new musical avenues she wishes to explore. The stylistic split also feels like a nod back to the days of vinyl, in the pre-playlist era.
"My God" is the first track, with Imbruglia delivering a great vocal performance on top of an insistent drum beat, jangly acoustic guitars, hand claps, and various layers of musical shading. Next is "Lukas", which marks the first of two unused Coldplay tracks on the album. Coldplay vocalist Chris Martin's influence is all over Come To Life - he acted as a sounding board to Imbruglia and helped sequence the running order of the songs, also stating that the band had "given her the best Coldplay song ever" (referring to "Lukas"). Produced by Brian Eno, it sounds like the prototypical Imbruglia song (more shimmering acoustic guitars and huge pop harmonies). "Fun", the other Coldplay leftover, is the album's strongest song, a moody meditation on failed romance that builds into a grandiose toe tapper with orchestral touches. The upbeat "Twenty" is the album's second best song, another track that tastefully makes use of strings (or synths that sound like strings) to add another interesting array of sound textures to Imbruglia's sound. The acoustic "Scars" is a little on the lightweight side, both musically and lyrically ("I climbed the walls/You hit the bars/I am from Venus/You are from Mars"). It's still highly listenable, but I must concur with the multitude of fans who found this version of the song coming a weak second to the superior, higher energy demo version of the song that appeared online some time ago.
The shift in musical direction for the album's latter half isn't too overly jarring, it just feels a little too much like Imbruglia is courting the dance club audience with an electro-pop sound similar to that of fellow Australian Kylie Minogue. "Want" offers the best evidence of this, another Martin co-write along with Imbruglia and her ex-husband (Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns), among others. It's a soulless, empty shell of a song that is done no favours by an ultra repetitive bass sequence and chorus. "WYUT" is quite possibly the worst song Imbruglia has ever recorded. It's one of those tracks that doesn't even require a second listen - you just know immediately it'll never grow on you. Ditto for "Cameo", a reminder of how bad most 80's synth pop was. The atmospheric "All The Roses" is the lone holdout as far as sticking close to her traditional sound and not surprisingly, it's the only song on the last half of the album that you'll want to return to on further listens. Final track "Wild About It" is another oddball, with its lilting shuffle and big, sing-along chorus.
In an age where music is so readily accessible online, having a new release floating around in cyberspace for months while the record company gets its act together (and in the meantime giving consumers who can't purchase the product the option to just steal it instead of waiting) is clearly just bad business. Loyal fans (such as myself) will pick up the CD whenever it comes out, but that's a tiny minority, especially on this continent. As a commercial endeavour, Come To Life looks to be dead on arrival, which is a shame. It may not be Imbruglia's best work, heavily front-loaded as it is with the best material, but it deserved better.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

One Week [movie review]

* Released theatrically in March 2009; now on DVD
Although I watched One Week just a couple of days into the new year, I'll still count it as easily my most pleasant movie surprise of 2009. My expectations for most Canadian films are fairly low, based on their dodgy track recorda, and this one was no different.
It stars Vancouver's Joshua Jackson, best known for his TV work on Dawson's Creek and Fringe. Jackson has never been what you'd call a dynamic actor and most of his roles tend to portray him as the likeable nice guy, which I'm sure is an extension of his real-life personality. But possessing such a characteristic can flirt dangerously close with also being associated to the word "dull", which Jackson has been accused of (that's not my opinion, though...I've always been fairly ambivalent about him as an actor). In One Week, his performance is typically low-key, which suits his character of Ben Tyler, and it's far from dull. The entire movie actually feels low-key, in typically Canadian film-like fashion, and that's despite the presence of Canada's beautiful, majestic scenery acting essentially as a supporting player. On the DVD commentary, director/screenwriter/producer Michael McGowan refers to the film as "a love letter to Canada".
Ben is diagnosed with a rare and advanced form of aggressive cancer that carries an ominously low survivor rate. As a man left unfulfilled by his job as an elementary school teacher and a failed writing career, not to mention subtle allusions to the fact his relationship with fiancee Samantha (played by an excellent Liane Balaban) isn't rock solid, he decides that living out possibly the last days of his life as a cancer patient isn't an attractive option. Instead of seeking treatment right away, as his doctor and Samantha are urging, he instead decides to buy a motorcycle. His impulse to get away and hit the road is cemented when a sign from the gods is delivered via a message on his Tim Hortons coffee cup, one of many charming examples of Canadiana in the movie. The intended two day trip turns into something bigger, as Ben crosses the country and meets an assortment of colourful characters who directly and indirectly provide assistance in putting his life in perspective.
McGowan calls One Week "a very music-heavy film", with a steady stream of Canadian artists populating the soundtrack to great effect. Musicians also show up on screen - Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip has a surprisingly memorable cameo and talented singer-songwriter Emm Gryner plays a small, but key role. Nova Scotian musician Joel Plaskett appears during another important scene, playing a street busker.
McGowan does a fantastic job of capturing Canada's natural beauty, probably the best use of it in a film that I've seen. As I mentioned, One Week is also chock full of examples and references to life in Canada. An abundant number of shots of Canadian flags, the northern lights, Canadian Tire, the Stanley Cup (including an Anaheim Mighty Ducks tie-in, a sly reference to one of Jackson's first movies) - all of them show up, along with many Canadian tourist landmarks. It's the most Canadian Canuck film I've ever seen, even instilling a renewed sense of pride about the country I reside in.
Special mention also needs to go to actor Campbell Scott, who provides one of the most effective uses of narration that I've experienced in recent memory (I know, I know...this movie and I should just go get a room already, right?). Scott imparts humorous, helpful commentary about Ben and the people he meets, without falling into the frequent movie voiceover annoyance of feeling intrusive. And McGowan throws a great little surprise in at the end of the movie involving him.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ace Frehley - Anomaly [music review]

* Released in September 2009
Never mind the 14 years it took Guns N' Roses to complete their Chinese Democracy album - Ace Frehley works even slower. Hot on the heels of his last solo studio album, 1989's Trouble Walkin', comes Anomaly. Mind you, Ace hasn't been completely inert during that stretch. There was a six year run beginning in 1996 with his original KISS bandmates for their highly successful reunion. In 2002, Frehley left the band, assuming it was done anyways as they had just completed their farewell tour. Many bands announce their farewell and stick to that decision for at least some amount of time before inevitably reforming and crankin' up the old cash machine once again (*coughTheWho*), but KISS mainstays Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley set a new low water mark in the category, barely missing a step between the end of the band's much-hyped final tour and ultimately deciding to stick it out as a group. The departures of Frehley and drummer Peter Criss posed little obstacle to the plans of the band - Simmons and Stanley simply replaced the two with other musicians and slapped their trademark makeup on them, rankling many members of the KISS Army (myself included).
So after literally decades of announcements promising new music, Frehley finally dropped his new album just two weeks before KISS released their first album of new music in 11 years, Sonic Boom. And though I find myself amazed to write it, Frehley blows his former group out of the water in terms of the better album. The Space Ace has always been a great raw talent, unpolished in his guitar technique, but with a signature style and sound. His singing voice was never strong, yet it has a unique charm and quirky quality to it that works, not unlike Keith Richards. Unfortunately, too many drugs, booze, and a dubious work ethic have always managed to throw a wrench into the stability and advancement of his career and life. Newly sober (for the umpteenth time), Anomaly is a welcome reminder of what he's capable of.
First, let's get the negative aspects out of the way: at 54 minutes, the album could have benefited from a little more editing to construct a tighter collection of music. Kind-of instrumental "Genghis Khan" is way too long at over six minutes, although it's still an impressively constructed patchwork of guitar gonzo nirvana. The clearly autobiographical "A Little Below The Angels" is a nice change of pace, rooted around a thick acoustic guitar sound. However, Ace should definitely have rethought his decision to include a cheesy mid-song spoken word interlude with a child's voice followed by Frehley's heavy Brooklyn accent. The aim is for a serious, father-daughter moment - unintentional humour is the unfortunate result from a song that deals topically with his life struggles and recoveries. Also, the Frehley-designed album cover is horrid. Other than these minor quibbles, as well as the fact the lyrics are mostly complete shite (which I guess is not so minor a fact, but if one approaches an Ace Frehley album expecting clever wordplay then they're not even in the ballpark of "misguided"), it's an impressive comeback.
Opener "Foxy And Free" pays homage to Jimi Hendrix and lays waste to the doubters, including myself, who figured Ace was no longer capable of churning out memorable riff rock. The in-your-face guitars set an appropriate tone for the rest of the album. "Outer Space" follows, revisiting Frehley's favourite topic, and it's the album's strongest track (including a smoke-spewing-out-of-his-Les Paul solo). "Pain In The Neck" keeps the momentum moving forward, despite it's dopey lyrics. The loopy breakdown section before the guitar solo even manages to make clever and humorous use of Ace on lead yodel (!). Sweet's "Fox On The Run" gets a faithful reworking, conjuring up memories of Frehley's other tasteful cover version of a 70's pop rock gem ("Do Ya" by Electric Light Orchestra, which he did on Trouble Walkin'). "Space Bear" and "Fractured Quantum" join "Genghis Khan" in the instrumental category, which feels like just the appropriate amount without invoking boredom. Of the three, "Fractured Quantum" is the best track, proving a worthy successor to its three forebearers that started with "Fractured Mirror" on Frehley's 1978 solo album. Using the signature bright sound of a 12-string acoustic guitar, Frehley manages to evoke echoes of the previous incarnations in the quadrilogy, while still injecting it with some fresh elements.
Frehley put some extra thought into the Anomaly CD packaging, allowing it to fold up into a neat pyramid design, an obvious throwback to the days when fans always got a little something extra with their newest KISS record. That's not the only backward thinking (in a good way) approach he took, though. After years of empty promises, he's finally delivered something that reminds fans of what it was about Frehley that first drew them to him, in a musical sense, way back when. His classic '78 album is regarded by most KISS fans as the strongest of the four solo albums released simultaneously by the band that year. 31 years later, he's bested the other KISS members again.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Prisoners who tattooed their eyeballs

Pretty self-explanatory. Here's a link to the story on the Huffington Post and here's the video (and yes, it is quite disturbing):

Friday, January 8, 2010

Nic Cage As Everyone

A recent post on my brother's blog, Bombippy, brought my attention to a hilarious website called Nic Cage As Everyone. The site was "founded on the belief that everything in life would be better with a little more Nicolas Cage, the most unique and versatile actor of his generation". I'm not sure if the praise was meant to be facetious.
The Photoshopped work was done by people who clearly have too much time on their hands and ranges in quality from amateurish to many that are extremely well done and good for a few laughs. Aside from the Lincoln, my other favourites are Nic Cage as Bruce Springsteen, Zac Efron, and Ronald McDonald.
(click the pictures to enlarge)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nine Inch Nails (and their fans): at the forefront of the evolving music industry...

When Nine Inch Nails' contract with Interscope Records (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) ended in 2007, frontman Trent Reznor was happy to escape what he considered the constraints of an antiquated major label industry system. His first release as a truly independent artist was the Ghosts I-IV project, a 36 track instrumental album that was initially offered for sale as a digital download on the band's website. Personally, I found the release a chore to get through, filled with meandering sonic textures that only reminded me of the instrumental tracks on other Nine Inch Nails albums that I always skipped.
In May of 2008, a "proper" NIN release dropped out of nowhere. Hot on the heels of Radiohead's inspired decision eight months prior to release their In Rainbows album with a "pay what you want" pricing structure, Reznor released The Slip with absolutely no promotion and no advance notice. And no price ("this one's on me" he wrote to fans, although deluxe editions were also made available for a price and sold out quickly). That was impressive enough, but what also impressed me was that the album wasn't just made available in a standard 128 kbps mp3 format. Numerous options for download were offered, including Apple lossless and FLAC (a lossless format that converts tracks to larger WAV or AIFF files). Methods of digital delivery were straight from the NIN site or via bittorent. A major artist actually releasing music via the evil bittorent, the bane of the music industry? Scandalous! The "Discipline" single was distributed to radio by Reznor himself two weeks before the album was released. The song was sent out less than 24 hours after the final mastering process had been completed on it, something that was previously unheard of. No mention was made of it being part of a forthcoming album, so many thought it was just a one-off single. The completed album came out within mere days of the end of its recording. "You never could have done that before", Reznor said.
The next step for the band in pushing the envelope was to release over 400 gigabytes of official video footage from three shows on their Lights In The Sky tour via bittorent, knowing full well their rabid fans would run with the idea and create something special, which they have. A DVD titled Another Version Of The Truth: The Gift was released on Christmas Day of 2009, with over two hours of the best footage from the three shows packaged into a professional looking DVD. The project was organized and assembled by a collective of NIN fans known as ThisOneIsOnUs. Previously, the group had released a DVD of the band's performance of their full The Downward Spiral album in New York City last August, comprised entirely of fan-shot footage. The project received widespread acclaim from the NIN fanbase, not to mention numerous media outlets and the band themselves.
The Gift was released in pretty much every mulitmedia format available: Blu-Ray with 5.1 surround sound, standard DVD with 5.1, AppleTV, Playstation 3, iPod, YouTube, plus your standard .mov movie format. Additionally, a PDF file with extensive DVD booklet notes for printing was released. Covering all the bases, options were made for download on bittorrent or file sharing sites like Rapidshare and Megaupload. Speaking to the level of thoughtfulness and good will that exists in the fan communities of many musical artists, campaigns were also organized to get copies of the DVD to those without the resources to download it. Volunteers signed up to burn however many copies they could, while others offered to print out DVD booklets for those without printers, with only postage costs expected in return. As with many fan-organized endeavours like this, selling the release is extremely frowned upon.
The DVD itself looks very impressive, with the line between a pro and amateur level of quality being virtually indistinguishable. Future projects from ThisOneIsOnUs are a DVD of bonus content as a companion to The Gift and a fan-shot release of the last show from Las Vegas on the band's Lights In The Sky tour.
As for Reznor, he has famously claimed that Nine Inch Nails in its previous incarnation is over, whatever that means. Reznor has never shied away from making cryptic statements that only enhance his mystery and keep his fans and the media always guessing. This, along with both his musical talent and talent for (forward) thinking outside the box (whether it's his brilliant live productions or the innovative interactive promotional concept that accompanied NIN's Year Zero album), makes him one of the few figures in music these days truly worth watching to see what he'll do next.