Sunday, March 14, 2010

Orianthi - Believe [music review]

* Released in October 2009
Orianthi Panagaris, who chooses to just use her first name in her career, is best known as one of Michael Jackson's two guitarists for his This Is It Tour, as well as the subsequent movie (read my review here). Only 25, she has already amassed a highly impressive resume, with additional collaborations with Prince, Mary J. Blige, a guest solo on Adam Lambert's (of American Idol fame) recent album, and an appearance with Carrie Underwood at last year's Grammy Awards that created plenty of buzz (that's where I first saw her). She stands out because of her prodigious guitar skills...and it doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes. Those skills led her to quit school at 15 to focus on her career, and at that same age she played her first ever opening gig for Steve Vai, one of her primary influences. Three years later, Orianthi met and jammed with her other guitar hero, Carlos Santana.
Her independent 2007 debut, Violet Journey, showed promise, but leaned somewhat to the unrefined side, not surprising given her young age and meagre recording budget. 2009's Believe is a much more polished and assured collection of songs, backed by a major label (Geffen, a subsidiary of Universal Music), which also brings with it the resources for stronger material. Writing partners for Orianthi on her latest include heavyweights like Desmond Child (who has written for Bon Jovi, KISS, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson) and Andreas Carlsson (whose songs have been recorded by Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Britney Spears, and Carrie Underwood).
Believe also brings the rock a little more than its predecessor, to its benefit. Musically, it's quite similar to the power pop of Pink or Kelly Clarkson, with the same focus on highly catchy choruses. Orianthi also throws in some flashier guitar solos, just to add her own signature. She has the ability to shred out on her six strings, yet doesn't overdo it with the guitar histrionics, except on "Highly Strung", a hopped-up instrumental duet with Vai that is supposed to be over-the-top. Vai's own unique guitar voice overpowers Orianthi's, causing the track to sound more like a Vai tune, but Panagaris does well to nearly keep pace with the virtuoso.
The heavier tracks generally fare a little better than the mellower material, notably with first single "According To You", "Bad News", the male bashing "Think Like A Man", and "Suffocated" (a cover of a song by some band I've never heard of called Sound The Alarm). That's not to say there's not strength in the slower songs - "Drive Away" and "God Only Knows" are primo power ballads, with the former featuring some tasteful blues-style guitar work.
Vocally, Orianthi sounds fairly good on the album, although based on some of the "pitchy" live performances I've watched online one wonders how much was done in the studio to compensate for the disproportionate amount of talent between her voice and her guitar playing ability. One other lingering nag with Orianthi is that she borrows a little too heavily from Santana for both her style and guitar sound on the less rocking tracks. Many of the guitar leads on Believe reproduce his phrasing and distinct, warm guitar tone almost exactly (she even uses the same type of Paul Reed Smith guitar as him). Hopefully future releases will find her steering away from this direction and cultivating a more distinct sound of her own, which her impressive talent should more than allow for.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
View the video for "According To You":

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Crazy Heart [movie review]

* Released theatrically in December 2009
It's hard to believe now, but Crazy Heart almost ended up as a direct-to-DVD release. Made for only $7 million by Country Music Television, it was eventually salvaged by Fox Searchlight after Paramount mysteriously decided not to give it a theatrical release. Granted, it's not exactly the most commercially viable film to try and market, but Jeff Bridges' performance is clearly exceptional, of the calibre that warrants Oscar attention. In fact, it did, and Bridges just won the Oscar for best performance in a lead role. Additionally, the movie won the Oscar for best original song ("The Weary Kind") and received a nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal's supporting performance. Gee, do you think someone at Paramount just got fired?
The movie is based on the 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb and was directed and adapted by Scott Cooper. It stars Bridges as Bad Blake, a 57 year old worn-out country singer who smokes and drinks too much, has four marriages behind him, no family ties, and drives a battered Chevy truck from town to town in the American southwest playing bowling alleys and dive bars with local pickup bands. Based on a composite of old school country artists like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (who Bridges resembles, with his long grey hair and unkempt beard), Blake is living proof that his hard-done-by, bitter lyrics aren't just a laughable, negative propagation of the genre stereotype - after a few minutes of seeing how this guy lives, you'll know that they're rooted in truth. Bridges wears his character comfortably, turning in a great performance that is totally devoid of vanity.
Gyllenhaal plays Jean, an aspiring music writer and single mother who is leery of men based on her shaky track record. She lands an interview with Blake, who becomes smitten with her and a romance ensues. This is one of the few parts of the film that rings hollow - the approximately 25 year age difference between the two, not to mention the fact that Blake is named "Bad" for a reason, flies in the face of conventional wisdom that she would ever fall for him. Once you get past this, their relationship does manage to take on some interesting complexities and nuances, but the Jean character ultimately feels a little underwritten. That Gyllenhaal received an Oscar nomination is a real head scratcher - she's not horrible or anything, just far from Oscar-worthy (if you put any stock in the relevance of such accolades, which I tend not to).
Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell have smaller roles, with Farrell playing a former protégé of Blake's (named Tommy Sweet) who has now gone on to the big time. Sweet and Blake's paths cross, leading to an uneasy tension that can be traced back to a cryptic incident between the two in their past, which is cleverly left undiscussed.
The music in Crazy Heart really stands out, instilling a true element of classic country authenticity thanks to the score and music written by T-Bone Burnett. Bridges does his own singing and guitar playing, infusing a realism to the role and showing the confidence that forty years of practice in his real life have given him. Farrell also does his own playing and singing, turning in a solid vocal performance on "The Weary Kind".
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Monday, March 8, 2010

Foreigner - Can't Slow Down Tour [concert review]

* February 20th, Casino Rama (Rama, Ontario)
First, a quick recap on the past twenty or so tumultuous years for classic rock heavyweights Foreigner. In 1990, original vocalist Lou Gramm left the band and was replaced by vocalist Johnny Edwards for the ill-fated Unusual Heat album, which was so poorly received that founding member and guitarist Mick Jones patched up his creative differences with Gramm, who rejoined in 1992. A compilation was released (The Very Best...And Beyond) and an album of new material, Mr. Moonlight, followed in 1995, faring even worse commercially than Unusual Heat. Serious health problems for Gramm followed (including a brain tumour), hampering any progress on new material. In early 2003, Gramm left for the second time, blaming a lack of communication between himself and Jones. After taking some time off to re-evaluate Foreigner's future, Jones reformed the group at the urging of drummer Jason Bonham, eventually settling on a current lineup that includes solid rock veterans such as bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Dio), drummer Brian Tichy (who replaced Bonham in 2008 and has recorded and toured with numerous artists such as Slash, Billy Idol, and Sass Jordan), and vocalist Kelly Hansen (probably best known for fronting the unremarkable 80's hard rock band Hurricane). Foreigner is rounded out by keyboardist Michael Bluestein and multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel.
Can't Slow Down, the band's first album of new material in 14 years, was released last October exclusively through Wal-Mart and earned a strong debut at #29 on the Billboard 200 chart. The package offered great value for the money, delivering a disc with 13 new tracks of decent material, another disc with remixed versions of 10 Foreigner classics, and a DVD featuring live footage and interviews, all for the low, low price of only $13. An interesting (and slightly disturbing) note about this, the band's ninth studio album: they've actually released more compilation and live albums in their career than they have studio releases, with eight hits collections and two live albums. And that's not even counting the new CD of remixed tracks.
Which brings us to their current tour, specifically their second of two dates at Casino Rama (there was no opening act either night). The hall was packed with approximately 5,000 concert-goers that looked to lean heavily towards a much older demographic, in the 50+ neighbourhood. You'd expect as much for a show involving a band that put out their first album in 1977, but based on the crowd's lack of participation and reserved energy level, one got the distinct sense that many of them hadn't been to a concert in years, or were only there because they had gotten complimentary tickets through the casino. I've attended around a hundred concerts in my life and this was easily the most subdued crowd I've ever witnessed. Aside from the first couple of rows directly in front of the stage, most of the crowd sat on their chairs for the bulk of the show, except when lead singer Hansen exhorted us on several occasions to get on our feet, with his frustration tactfully kept in check, yet still subtly apparent. Amazingly, a posting on Foreigner's official online forum about this show said that "the crowd was awsome on saturday compare to Friday night!" (sic). Wow (on both the statement and the bad spelling).
Although Jones is the only original member remaining (and looking pretty good for 65), the star of the night was clearly Hansen, whose unflagging energy, charismatic showmanship, and strong vocals provided all the essentials for a good frontman. His voice can sound amazingly like Gramm's, which helps ease the initial distraction and occasional distaste that accompanies watching an older band that has been shorn of its familiar identities via a revolving door of lineup changes. Because he was the voice of the band for so many years, Gramm would arguably have been more closely associated as the identity of Foreigner than Jones was, which leaves Hansen with big shoes to fill.
The setlist was pretty much wall-to-wall hits. Foreigner is one of those bands that you're aware has a lot of big songs, but you've forgotten exactly how many until you put on one of those many greatest hits albums or see one of their shows. The first four songs performed were "Double Vision", "Head Games", "Cold As Ice" (with extended solos from Jones and an extended visit from Hansen with the audience), and "Waiting For A Girl Like You". Not a bad group of songs to open with. The lone new track ("When It Comes To Love") followed, which sapped the crowd's already muted energy and was met with polite applause. It's a fairly by-the-book (yet still catchy) mid-tempo ballad, but the live rendition seemed to lack the punch and life on the recorded version.
Things picked up considerably with a faithful version of "Dirty White Boy" that was the highlight of the set, propelled by Jones' and Gimbel's loud guitars. The momentum was short-lived, though, as the relatively obscure "Starrider" followed, with Jones taking lead vocals and breaking into numerous extended solos that had me anxiously awaiting the song's conclusion so they could get on to something I actually knew. "Feels Like The First Time" brought that sweet relief, albeit briefly, as it was followed by a five minute keyboard (!) solo and then a five minute drum solo (with some keyboard accompaniment). Tichy's drum solo was somewhat unique, in that I've never seen one where the drummer played part of it with just his hands hitting the drumheads and cymbals before. He even implemented an idea straight out of some of the worst hair band videos, circa 1987: putting water on his drumheads so when he hits them the water sprays up. Although Foreigner may be a product of the 70's, they'd be well-advised to leave the antiquated concept of live solos back in that decade. These days, they're nothing more than an excuse to go for a beer run. "Urgent", "Jukebox Hero" (with some snippets of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" thrown in), "I Want To Know What Love Is", and "Hot Blooded" closed out the show.
Despite the excellent setlist, impressive light show, top-notch musicianship, and enthusiastic performances (Pilson, in full headbanging mode, matched Hansen's energy), I came away from the concert slightly underwhelmed, which I can only attribute to the low-key audience and, by extension, the lack of energy in the venue. Full marks to the band for giving it their all, though, despite a lack of reciprocation from the audience.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
* My buddy Mark did some artwork for Jeff Pilson, who in turn arranged for us to get backstage passes to meet the band after the show, which was pretty cool. Pictured from left to right are: lead singer Kelly Hansen, Mark's sisters Colleen and Erin, keyboardist Michael Bluestein, bassist Jeff Pilson, myself, and Mark. Click to enlarge.