Saturday, July 31, 2010

Under Great White Northern Lights [movie review]

* Limited theatrical release in February; now on DVD
I wasn't a fan of The White Stripes prior to viewing their documentary film, Under Great White Northern Lights...and I'm still not. I find Jack White's singing voice incredibly whiny and grating, drummer Meg White plays at a sub-intermediate level, and their music, which incorporates a wide spectrum of elements drawn from punk, blues, country, and rock, is a little too ragged for my tastes (although "Seven Nation Army" ain't half bad). Toss in their calculated red, white, and black colour scheme, as well as the self-imposed mystique stemming from details like the duo's supposed brother-sister relationship (they're actually former husband and wife) and it's simply a package that just isn't for me.
So why watch a movie about them, you ask? Especially one that includes plenty of live performance footage? Well, I thought it might be an opportunity to give their music another chance, plus the concept behind the 2007 summer tour that the film documents was intriguing, in that the band wanted to play in every province and territory in Canada. Music video director and documentarian Emmett Malloy was enlisted to shoot the experience and he captures some nice footage, although the rationale behind alternating usage of either black and white or colour film appears to be completely arbitrary, which can be a little frustrating for the viewer.
Scheduled tour dates were accompanied by last minute, word-of-mouth performances at locations that were so bizarre that they soon became the talk of the tour. Those locations included a YMCA day camp, a pool hall, an in-service transit bus (Jack and Meg lead the riders on a version of "The Wheels On The Bus"), a fishing vessel, a classroom, a grocery store, a flour mill, and a bowling alley (where we see Jack bowling whilst in the middle of a song). As strange as those appearances were, the oddest had to be their (in)famous "one note show" in St. John's, Newfoundland. The film opens with shots of anxious fans on the street trying to figure out exactly where the band is supposed to be making their surprise appearance, before cutting to a gathered crowd of hundreds in an unnamed outdoor setting. Jack and Meg exit a van, walk to the stage, and then play a single note each before exiting to applause and the crowd chanting "one more note!". Is it a display of marketing genius or utter hubris? Perhaps both, as another chapter in The White Stripes book of enigmatic behaviour is written.
To fulfill the goal of the tour means having to play in some very remote areas, which is evidenced by the band's trip to Iqaluit, which has a population of 6,000 and is the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. While there, the pair visit a local seniors home and awkwardly interact with the Inuit elders, who clearly don't have a clue who The White Stripes are. They take in some of the local culture (including a sampling of raw caribou meat) and Jack performs an old blues song for the small gathering.
Interviews with the pair do a little to lift the veil of mystery that hangs over The White Stripes, but not much. Jack, energetic and outgoing, expectedly does most of the talking, with Meg contributing sparingly and usually with the help of subtitles, since she's so soft-spoken. Jack addresses the issue of whether or not he lets Meg talk during interviews and attributes her lack of verbosity to her introverted personality, which seems completely logical given the painfully shy persona she projects on screen. The last scene of the movie only conjures up more questions about the mysterious and fragile Meg, as she breaks down into tears while seated beside Jack at a piano as he plays the band's "White Moon". The extremely odd moment is never explained, with the credits rolling at the song's conclusion. It's likely no coincidence that shortly after the Canadian tour ended the band cancelled the rest of their world tour, citing Meg's acute anxiety problems.
Some interesting revelations about Jack's creative process are offered up in explanations of how he likes to make things difficult for himself onstage, such as keeping his extra guitar picks at the back of the stage (and not taped to his guitar or the microphone stand like most musicians), not using a setlist, using older guitars that are temperamental when it comes to staying in tune, and placing his organ in a certain stage spot that makes it a challenge to get to when he needs to access it. His rationale for the unusual methods is that he believes too much of a comfort level while performing stifles an artist's creativity and the show's energy. If that's the case, one could almost wonder if working with Meg's rudimentary drumming skills is an extension of that philosophy.
Diehard and even just casual fans of The White Stripes will find plenty of compelling viewing and listening in Under Great White Northern Lights. Non-fans? Not so much. The novel idea of the Canadian tour and its accompanying eccentricities simply isn't enough for them to invest 93 minutes towards.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Monday, July 26, 2010

Minor league baseball manager Wally Backman LOSES it...

Former major leaguer Wally Backman, known mostly for his eight year tenure with the New York Mets, is now managing in the minor leagues and was miked during the 2007 season for the minor league baseball reality show Playing For Peanuts. Watch and listen to him have a meltdown after one of his players gets ejected from a game. Earl Weaver would have been proud.
Skip to exactly a minute into the clip, which is where the good stuff starts.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stone Temple Pilots - Stone Temple Pilots [music review]

* Released in May
Stone Temple Pilots were critically reviled when Core, their debut album, came out in 1992. Dismissed as a diluted derivative of the first wave of grunge, they eventually managed to carve out a highly respectable career (if still not always highly respected by critics) that saw them expand their sound and attain significant success, as evidenced by their 40+ million albums sold worldwide, and seven number one singles on Billboard's rock charts. However, everything came to a crashing halt in 2003 when tensions between singer Scott Weiland and the rest of the band reached their limit, leading to a five year "respite" between the two camps (and apparently not a break-up, as had been widely believed), as guitarist Dean DeLeo recounted in this 2008 interview. Weiland went on to release his second solo album and, of course, fronted Velvet Revolver before also wearing out his welcome with that band. The rest of STP (DeLeo, his bassist brother, Robert, and drummer Eric Kretz) formed Army Of Anyone with Filter vocalist Richard Patrick, releasing an album in 2006 that was followed by a supporting tour. The underwhelming output from these non-STP projects provided yet further examples of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" musical axiom that usually rears its ugly head when band members go their separate ways. 2008 saw the band regroup and undertake a successful tour that lead to this, their self-titled sixth studio album.
One could have expected an unspectacular, workmanlike effort from the group, engineered to just get some new product out there and provide an excuse to mount another lucrative tour. Let's face it, most musical artists these days don't make a lot of money from album sales and the musical landscape has shifted dramatically since 2001 when the band's last studio effort, Shangri-La Dee Da (which holds up better than I remembered upon a recent relisten), came out. Stone Temple Pilots debuted at #2 on the Billboard album chart in May, with the top spot being claimed by the third (!) soundtrack from television's Glee, which has somehow managed to overtake the Twilight movies as today's most annoying and overexposed pop culture phenomenon. A #2 debut may seem like nothing to scoff at, but STP sold a surprisingly modest 62,000 copies in its first week, despite plenty of advance hype and another #1 single at rock radio. Consumer apathy might be in play for this album, but creative apathy from STP is most certainly not.
Straight out of the chute with the instantly infectious "Between The Lines", the band delivers a resounding statement that they have plenty more to add to their already impressive body of work. The clever lyrical wordplay ("You always were my favourite drug/Even when we used to take drugs") is balanced with some typically Weiland-ish gibberish ("You rock the magic plane with no abbreviation"), and it's set to possibly the strongest music the band has ever written, with an ace rock star swagger vocal performance. Weiland's cock-of-the-walk attitude throughout the album really serves as a glaring reminder of how lacking that quality is in most of today's rock singers, and how unconvincing those few that do attempt to convey it are. The singer's lyrics this time around appear to be a little less introspective than on previous albums, possibly a result of his apparently sober lifestyle these days. Dean DeLeo brings his A-game to the track, both with his rhythm guitar work and a scorching solo that brings to mind his frontman's previous lead guitarist, Slash. "Take A Load Off" is textbook STP, showcasing the unique playing style of Robert DeLeo, whose bass playing frequently steers the melodies and direction of the band's songs more than most other rock bass players. "Hickory Dichotomy" also shows it off, as DeLeo's walking bass lines nicely counterpoint his brother's meaty guitar parts (including a great slide solo). Weiland channels David Bowie and Lou Reed through his spoken vocal delivery for the track's verses, one of many homages to the 70's on the album. "Huckleberry Crumble" also has a platform shoe'd footprint stuck clearly in that decade. The track might even be labelled "shameful" for how much it rips off 70's era Aerosmith...if it wasn't so good.
"Cinnamon", "First Kiss On Mars", and "Maver" find the band at their poppy best, territory they staked out earlier in their career with the likes of "Interstate Love Song" and "Sour Girl". These songs also contain the ear candy of subtly layered guitar and vocal backing tracks that highlight the fine songcraft and production at work here. STP is the band's first album not produced by Brendan O'Brien, as the DeLeo brothers take the helm this time. The album was recorded over a ten month period at the personal studios of Weiland, Robert DeLeo, and Kretz during breaks in the band's touring schedule. Producer Don Was was additionally brought in to coordinate the separate recording sessions and work specifically with the tracking of Weiland's vocals.
Rounding out the rest of the album are a rock solid group of songs like "Hazy Daze", "Bagman", "Fast As I Can", and "Peacoat". The latter track is redeemed from "skippable" status mostly by Dean DeLeo's guitar work, which infuses the song with enough interesting different guitar sounds and weird sounding chords (especially the main riff) to hold the listener's attention. The only one of the album's 12 tracks lacking any notable attributes is the electric piano-driven "Dare If You Dare", which borrows a little too heavily from Mott The Hoople's "All The Young Dudes".
STP is the band's strongest album since 1994's Purple and, arguably, their strongest yet. There's a relaxed and focussed quality to it that can't be matched by their previous five studio efforts. The haters probably won't be converted and there isn't anything ground-breaking here, just a re-energized band putting their own unique grunge-pop spin on their musical influences.
Highlights: "Between The Lines", "Maver", "Cinnamon", "Huckleberry Crumble"
Lowlights: "Dare If You Dare"
Rating: ★★★★★★★

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pink's amazing high-flying performance...

Pink's music never impressed me until I checked out her Funhouse album from 2008 and was won over (although her earlier material still hasn't grown on me). One thing I have always respected about her are her live performances, where she tends to push boundaries and come up with interesting ways to showcase her music, like the memorable spectacle she put on playing "So What" at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards (unavailable on YouTube) and a beautiful, acrobatic performance of "Glitter In The Air" at the Grammy Awards earlier this year (check it out here).
She manages to keep topping herself, as evidenced by the clip below of "So What" from her set at last month's Isle Of Wight Festival. Even if you think her music sucks, you still have to give it up to her for being a damn good entertainer...and singing in key while spinning around 60 feet above the audience on moving wires. For the last 15 or so years now, one of the big spectacles at a KISS show has been Paul Stanley travelling on a wire just above the audience's heads to a smaller stage at the back of the arena. This just makes him look like a total pussy in comparison.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Runaways [movie review]

* Released theatrically in March; available on DVD July 20th
The story of 70's all-female rock band The Runaways travels through much of the same territory as any other group whose rise and fall has been documented on, say, any episode of Behind The Music - wild-eyed ambition and hard work by a cast of misfit underdogs brings some level of success and attention, only to be inevitably undone by drugs, booze, egos, mismanagement, and jealousies. What makes The Runaways' story unique is that "all-female" angle, or, more accurately, all-girl (the ages of the members were 15 and 16 when the band started). Such a concept was unheard of in 1975 when the band was formed by shadowy record business impresario Kim Fowley.
The Runaways is the cinematic retelling of their story and marks the directorial debut of Floria Sigismondi, the photographer and music video director from Hamilton, Ontario who might be best known for lensing the visually disturbing video for Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People". Sigismondi also wrote the screenplay, which includes small doses of fiction, based on the book Neon Angel by Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie. The director's quirky and dark visual style is significantly muted for the film and the storyline only gets by for so long on the all-girl and jailbait novelty that hampered the band's credibility, before crashing into a biopic wasteland of clichés and familiar band-imploding scenarios. The Runaways cred also wasn't helped by their inexperience as songwriters, which is reflected in their sub-par discography. This shortcoming was made up for with copious amounts of a most unladylike balls-out attitude.
Kristen Stewart (playing guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett) and an almost-all-grown-up Dakota Fanning (as Currie) are the focal point of the film and give good performances, managing not to embarrass themselves as they contribute their own vocals in the music scenes, with Stewart passably looking like she can handle a guitar. She also nails Jett's look and mannerisms, injecting the character with the right amount of slouched, brooding attitude. The real Jett, by the way, was involved in the film as an executive producer. The rest of the band members are played by Scout Taylor-Compton (as lead guitarist Lita Ford), Stella Maeve (as drummer Sandy West), and Alia Shawkat from TV's Arrested Development (as "Robin", a bass player who is a lame fictional composite of the numerous bassists who played with the band during their four year run). Only Currie is given much screen time in terms of character development, which makes sense considering the source material, but her character still frustratingly ends up feeling not fully formed.
Michael Shannon, whose memorable portrayal of a bluntly honest paranoid schizophrenic in Revolutionary Road garnered him an Oscar nomination, turns in great work here as well, playing Fowley. The physical similarity between the two is striking and Shannon clearly relishes the opportunity to chew some scenery as he inhabits Fowley's colourful persona. Fowley's managing tactics consist of a blend of calculated opportunism, bullying, and exploitation, and Shannon brings the character to life in all of its sleazy glory.
Interestingly, the inclusion of the inexplicably popular Twilight franchise's Stewart and Fanning didn't bring out the massive audience of Twi-hards to The Runaways during its theatrical run: it only made $3.5 million. Perhaps the teenage girl demographic were uninterested because it was set in the 70's, or perhaps they just didn't care about the story of a band who never managed to rise above cult status that also acted as a springboard to solo careers for Jett and Ford.
If a more definitive recap of The Runaways' history is what you seek then hunt down the 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. It was directed by Victory Tischler-Blue, who went by the name of Vicki Blue during her short stint as one of those aforementioned bassists in the band. Edgeplay dishes a lot more dirt and includes the participation of all the band's principal figures except for, quite conspicuously, Jett. The emotional scars inflicted by Fowley in such a short amount of time together still run deep, as told with raw, genuine bitterness by some of the band members. Currie recounts how her father would have "pulled out a gun and blown (Fowley's) brains out" if he knew the sordid world his daughter had gotten mixed up in, and finishes her thought with "I still hope one day someone does, because I think if anyone deserves it that man does". The saddest portion in the film comes from interviews with West, the band's only drummer, who never got over the breakup of the band and is still clearly sore over it, even 25 years later. West never attained any success in her post-Runaways music projects and ended up working construction and other odd jobs, including getting mixed up in the drug trade and spending time in jail. She died of lung cancer a couple of years after Edgeplay was released.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆