Monday, December 31, 2012

Mediaboy Musings' best and worst of 2012...

Due to a, shall we say, "transitional" period in my work life this past year, I was afforded the opportunity to crank out a lot more writing for this blog than normal, which was a real pleasure. The 110 posts over the past 365 days far exceeded my previous highest total of 73 during the blog's first year in 2009, done over the course of the last six months of that year. Thanks to all who stopped by here for a read, as well as to anybody who left an always-appreciated comment (good or bad). 

As the year wraps up, I present my list of the best and worst in albums, films, and television. To refresh my memory as to the films I saw this past year, I used Box Office Mojo's compilation of movie grosses that lists every title released in theatres and was quite surprised to find only four non-documentary films that I viewed that I'd put in the classification of "great". Because I watch and review so many of them, documentaries are separated into their own category. There's no set structure to my picks - some categories will have one number of selections while another category will have a different number of picks, some categories won't have a corresponding category for one or two of the other art forms, and there's no significance to the order any of them are listed in. Any title underlined is linked to my review of it. And please don't bust my balls over the Taylor Swift pick - I can scarcely believe it's on here, either.  

Best albums
Carrie Underwood - Blown Away
Slash - Apocalyptic Love 
Dead Sara - Dead Sara (hands down, my favourite release of the year)
Holly McNarland - Run Body Run
No Doubt - Push And Shove
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Van Halen - A Different Kind Of Truth
Taylor Swift - Red (my second favourite album of the year, I must confess)
Danko Jones - Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue
Alanis Morissette - Havoc And Bright Lights
Garbage - Not Your Kind Of People
Prong - Carved Into Stone
Richie Kotzen - 24 Hours (actually released in November 2011, but I didn't discover it until January)

Worst albums:
KISS - Monster
Aerosmith - Music From Another Dimension
Madonna - MDNA

Most disappointing albums:
Heart - Fanatic
Soul Asylum - Delayed Reaction
Soundgarden - King Animal
Kid Rock - Rebel Soul
Glen Hansard - Rhythm And Repose
The Cult - Choice Of Weapon

Best television programs:
30 Rock
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
Breaking Bad
Real Time With Bill Maher
Boardwalk Empire
An Idiot Abroad
60 Minutes
Key & Peele
PBS' American Masters and American Experience
Sons Of Anarchy

Worst television programs:
Life's Too Short
The Big C
Any show on Fox News or with "Dancing" in the title

Most overrated television programs:
The Newsroom
The Walking Dead

Promising new television programs to keep an eye on:
Web Therapy
Go On

Best non-documentary films:
The Dark Knight Rises
Cloud Atlas
The Sessions
Men In Black 3

Worst non-documentary films:
Rock Of Ages
The Dictator

Best documentaries:
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
The Queen Of Versailles
The Invisible War
Beware Of Mr. Baker
Wish Me Away

Most disappointing films (including documentaries):
The Iceman
An Affair Of The Heart
The Amazing Spider-Man
The Avengers
Total Recall
Safety Not Guaranteed

Films that weren't as bad as I was expecting:
The Hunger Games
The Expendables 2
John Carter

Happy New Year, folks.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Trent Severn - Trent Severn [album review]

Released in November

Named after the Southern Ontario waterway system, Trent Severn is a Stratford, Ontario-based female folk trio comprised of indie singer-songwriters Dayna Manning (on banjo and guitars) and Emm Gryner (playing bass and stompbox), plus fiddle player/violinist Laura C. Bates. Gryner's name should be familiar to anybody who's stopped by this blog more than once over the past six months, considering I've done three glowing blog entries about her over that period. The group is a labour of love for the women who have " interest in conquering markets outside of Canada", as Gryner recently said in an online interview. A couple of the trio's goals in their manifesto are to "Play instruments we can carry" and "Write songs that touch the hearts and tell the stories of our Canadian friends, neighbors, and legends". 

And albums don't get much more Canadian than Trent Severn, with six of the ten songs immediately standing out for their Canadian content titles: "Snowy Soul", "Bluenose On A Dime", "Like A Donnelly", "Muskoka Bound", "Mulroney Times", and "Truscott". The entire album is positively bursting with more Canuck references to The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie, the LCBO, the Arctic, NHL sweaters, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal, Revelstoke and the B.C. shore, parkas, the northern lights, Kate McGarrigle, and John Livingston, the naturalist and voice of the Hinterland Who's Who television spots (talk about an out-of-left-field reference). And that's just scratching the surface. Most of the heaping portions of Canadiana will likely fly over the head of anyone not from this country, but there's enough other qualities to appreciate in Trent Severn's pleasing three part harmony vocals and instrumental interplay rooted in folk, old school country, and bluegrass music.  

Although I'm a huge fan of Gryner's music, that fact that I don't have a large appreciation for any of the aforementioned genres was a definite concern as I approached this album. As mentioned in my recent review of Carrie Underwood's latest album, classic country isn't exactly my bag, nor is folk music, and my interest in bluegrass begins and ends with Alison Krauss (and only when her and her band aren't in full-on hillbilly banjo music mode). Trent Severn unexpectedly fought its way past my general aversion to these genres, although it did take a lot of patience - the first three or four listens to the album were actually a major disappointment and by playthrough ten or so (far more listens than I'll normally give for an album to sink in), the ladies' talents had, by and large, managed to win me over.  

Opening track "Snowy Soul" was one of a handful of songs that immediately grabbed me. It was inspired by an overheard conversation by Gryner in her local bookstore by a man talking about his trip to the Arctic and features some interesting musical layers. The tone shifts from the sunny sounds of the musicians' amazing harmony vocals to the haunting violin lines and there's even a funky bass line underneath Bates' instrumental solo. Unsurprisingly, I found myself warming up a little quicker to the songs where Gryner takes the lead vocal lines, as she does on "Like A Donnelly", "Bluenose On A Dime", and the celebratory Celtic music-infused "Answers". When there is a lead vocalist (accompanying harmony vocals are never far away, though), it's Gryner and Manning who do the bulk of the work, with Bates taking her first ever lead vocal turn on "Wild One". Bates' voice lacks the presence and experience of her partners', however, which detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the otherwise decent song. Some other observations: "Freedom" succeeds more for its winning chorus than its less memorable verse sections, "Road Less Travelled" evokes the soothing sound of Emmylou Harris, and album closer "Truscott" emerges as one of the LP's best tracks.

Along with enough celebration of Canadiana to make Stompin' Tom Connors proud, the harmony vocal-driven and simplistic, stripped down instrumental framework that Trent Severn rely on results in an intriguing musical venture that isn't perfect, but contains some great moments and makes for a quite satisfying album to wind your day down to. 

Rating: B-

Related posts: my "Get to know Emm Gryner" post from June and reviews from earlier this year of Gryner's Northern Gospel and Best Of albums

Friday, December 21, 2012

Richie Sambora - Aftermath Of The Lowdown [album review]

Released in September

Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora takes a break from his main gig for Aftermath Of The Lowdown, his third solo album and first since 1998. Sambora undoubtedly felt the need to scratch his independent creativity itch, with the ability to fully dictate the creative direction of the music he writes and performs probably being one of the only things that the mostly democratic dynamic in the Bon Jovi juggernaut can't satisfyingly provide him with. That much is obvious after spending some time with his fine first two solo releases and Aftermath Of The Lowdown, an album that retains enough of the musical identity established by the musician over the past three decades, while also mostly departing from Bon Jovi's sound and exploring some interesting different musical avenues.

Unusually, the eleven track album is back-loaded with the best material, starting with song number seven, "I'll Always Walk Beside You". It won't win any awards for originality, but is still a standout with a great chorus and structure where the song's spare first half is accentuated by the full band kick-in on the last half. It's also representative of the deeply personal lyrical content that flows throughout Aftermath Of The Lowdown, as Sambora here pens a heartfelt ode to his daughter. The next three tracks lyrically explore more profoundly emotional territory for Sambora by looking squarely at the substance abuse-related struggles he's undergone over the past several years: "Seven Years Gone" is a more than agreeable slice of melodic hard rock, "Learning How To Fly With A Broken Wing" complements its raw subject matter with what may the heaviest sounding piece of music Sambora's ever had a hand in creating (perhaps only the exceptional and somewhat obscure Bon Jovi track "Good Guys Don't Always Wear White" would give it a run for its money), and the foot is eased off the gas pedal for the mid-tempo and very pleasant "You Can Only Get So High", which is the closest any of the material comes to sounding like Bon Jovi. It's followed by "World", the album closer and what I think is the LP's weakest song, wherein Sambora fully indulges his Beatles fetish.

It's Aftermath Of The Lowdown's "side A" that largely flounders, with too many substandard songs that fail to stick with you in "Takin' A Chance On The Wind", "Nowadays", "Weathering The Storm" (co-written with Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin), and "Sugar Daddy", which features an interesting gritty guitar part set to maximum fuzz, but little else of interest. They're all preceded by "Burn The Candle Down", an average album opener where Sambora throws down some stellar guitar solos and "Every Road Leads Home To You", another moderately good song whose highly accessible sound made it a logical choice for the album's lead single.

I'm always curious to see how the solo projects of members from megabands is received by the paying public, because they're certainly not known for having a very good track record in terms of commercial success. Aftermath Of The Lowdown follows that same pattern, selling a paltry 3,000 copies in the U.S. during its first week of release and debuting at a rather embarrassing #182 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Even considering the aforementioned trend and the fact that the album was independently released (and therefore likely wasn't promoted like a major label release would have been), that number still completely shocked me, purely because of the size of Bon Jovi's following.   

After the 14 year gap between solo projects, it's nice to hear Sambora exercise his full musical talents here, with his excellent soulful singing voice, more varied songwriting that also looks to have been quite cathartic for the musician, and an opportunity to show off a little more guitar flash than is possible in Bon Jovi. I just wish the decent Aftermath Of The Lowdown had a little more quality consistency to it.  

Rating: C+

Related post: my November 2009 review of Bon Jovi's The Circle album

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Carrie Underwood - Blown Away [album review]

Released in May (part of a perpetually ongoing series of reviews covering older releases that "fell through the cracks")

I dislike most things about American Idol, but I've got to give the show credit for providing a career springboard to talented artists like Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Allison Iraheta, Kellie Pickler, and Carrie Underwood. Despite some massive success with her first three releases, I was fairly unfamiliar with Underwood's music until hearing the amazing "Remind Me", her duet with Brad Paisley on his This Is Country Music album from last year. Blown Away, her newest album, represents a definitive solidifying of my fandom of the Muskogee, Oklahoma-born artist, delivering an infectious collection of songs that show off Underwood's mighty vocal talents. 

After hearing Blown Away, I was quite surprised to hear Underwood say in an interview on CBC radio show Q earlier this year that she self-identified primarily as a country artist. Granted, most people would probably associate her first with that genre, but Blown Away leans far more in the direction of pop music, with only very light country touches throughout most of the album. The exceptions are "Do You Think About Me", a great stripped back number constructed of a bluegrass-style integration of acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordion, light percussive touches, and steel guitar, "Leave Love Alone", and "Cupid's Got A Shotgun". That last one - and this shouldn't come as much of a surprise based on the title - is a straight up honky tonk boot stomper featuring some blazing guitar work from Paisley. It and "Leave Love Alone" turned out to be two of the three tracks on Blown Away that I have no affinity for, which is more a reflection of my lack of interest in the old school country sound that they adhere to. Truthfully, I'm also a little bored with the habit of pop country artists including one or two obligatory "traditional" country-sounding songs on their albums. Acts I love, like Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Sugarland, and Dixie Chicks are also guilty of it...Shania too, back when she actually put out albums. Call me cynical (and many have), but it seems like somewhat of a shallow effort to maintain both country roots and credibility in the genre. Speaking of credibility, Blown Away's only other dud comes up way short in that department. The limp "One Way Ticket" follows another unfortunate trend from pop country artists: the laid back and reggae-inflected party song, as popularized by the likes of Jimmy Buffet and Kenny Chesney. 

Nearly everything else on Blown Away, however, is decidedly exceptional. The handclap-happy "Good Girl" turns up the rock guitars a little more than on the rest of the album and sure took its sweet time to grow on me. I didn't care for the feisty track at all for the first four or five months that I listened to the album on a regular basis and couldn't understand why one of the LP's seemingly weakest tracks had been picked as Blown Away's first single. Underwood really elevates the mood level on two of the album's standout songs: the title track spotlights Underwood's soaring vocals, telling the tale of a girl huddled in her basement and hoping a tornado raging overhead carries away her alcoholic and abusive father passed out on one of the upper floors; the similarly ominous "Two Black Cadillacs" finds a woman and her husband's mistress uniting to murder him. Between the song's potently illustrative lyrics, Underwood's pipes, and the sensational instrumental performances (highlighted by a lavish symphonic score and a drama-heightening coda), the end result is something spectacular. It's also interesting seeing the dichotomy of Underwood's public persona of a wholesome girl and devout Christian who literally peppers her interview conversations with words like "gosh", "golly", and "dang" offset against her willingness to explore some more dark and sinister subject matter, as was demonstrated earlier in her career on the hit "Before He Cheats". The evocative "Good In Goodbye" features some of Blown Away's strongest lyrics and is far better than its rather cloying title might suggest, as the track's protagonist is thrown off balance by running into an old flame and finds comfort in realizing that life worked out pretty well for the both of them ("But we both ended up where we belong/I guess goodbye made us strong...As bad as it was, yeah as bad as it hurt/I thank God I didn't get what I thought that I deserved"). The album's two closing tracks send things out on a very high note, with the ballad "Wine After Whiskey" and Who Are You" (not a cover of The Who's classic), a song that is as commercially safe a track as you'll ever hear, but mightily uplifting and tremendous just the same.

Rating: A-

Friday, December 14, 2012

Savages [film review]

Released theatrically in July; now available on all home video platforms

Director Oliver Stone follows up 2010's underrated Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with Savages, which sees the filmmaker returning to the flashy, sexed-up, and violent type of crime drama that he successfully crafted back in the 90s with U Turn and one of my favourite movies of the decade, Natural Born Killers. Savages once again implements, to a lesser degree, some of the hyper-stylized visual elements of the latter through the manipulation of both the film image and editing, plus the usage of graphics. Sometimes the director's choices work and other times they just come across as weird and self-indulgent, such as in the case of the fantasy scene set in a cartoonish-looking Paris where Stone gives himself a brief and jarring cameo, dancing around giddily with an umbrella.    

The film's premise: Chon (played by Taylor Kitsch, at least salvaging a little of his 2012 after starring turns in box office calamities Battleship and John Carter) and Ben (played by Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Johnson) are best friends who run a flourishing marijuana-growing operation in California. They're also knowingly and comfortably involved in an unusual love triangle with a woman named O (played by Blake Lively). When Chon and Ben turn down an offer to go into business with a Mexican drug cartel run by a woman named Elena (played by Salma Hayek), the proverbial guano hits the fan as Elena has O kidnapped in order to get the pair onboard with her business proposition. Double-crosses and much brutal violence ensues as O's men come after her.

Savages should probably crash and burn due to the underwhelming roles of its three leads. Their love triangle concept never quite seems fully formed and the characters feel flat, particularly Lively's. That becomes a problem when the film's main storyline involves Chon and Ben both risking their lives to get Lively's character back. The free-spirited O, who advances the narrative through an over-usage of voiceovers, just hasn't been written with enough substance to justify the pair's strenuous and desperate efforts. She's gorgeous, but that's about it. Stone and co-screenwriters Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (the film is based on his 2010 novel of the same name) also saddle Lively with some dreadfully clunky dialogue. In comparing her two men, she refers to the mellow Ben as a Buddhist and the intense Chon as "a baddist", and in reference to having sex with Chon, a former Navy SEAL, she says "I have orgasms, he has wargasms". Seriously, scribes? The film's wobbly ending also does it no favours.

Luckily, Savages can rely on an excellent secondary cast to pick up the slack. Hayek is fantastic as the beautiful and ruthless drug lord, with the writers nicely giving Elena a weak spot that allows for an intriguing vulnerability to inhabit her otherwise thoroughly vicious character. Benicio Del Toro, as Elena's crude and sadistic enforcer, contributes his signature brand of compelling weirdness and emerges as Savages' best character (while sporting a hysterical mullet). And in a rare quality role for him, John Travolta also appears in a limited capacity playing a corrupt DEA agent.

Savages, despite the significant hole at its centre with some far from dynamic primary characters, is still a decent enough thriller worth your time, mostly due to the very fine supporting work from Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta. 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Soundgarden - King Animal [album review]

Released in November

I don't know what the bigger surprise is: that Soundgarden held out from reuniting for so long (King Animal is the band's first release of new material since their acrimonious break up in 1997), or that when they did return, they'd put out such a bland album whose best feature, sadly, is its cover. Drummer Matt Cameron has fared just fine since the band split as the drummer for Pearl Jam, while bassist Ben Shepherd and guitarist Kim Thayil have done little of musical note over that period. The same could be said of singer Chris Cornell, although for altogether different reasons. Cornell's unfulfilling solo work and three album run with Audioslave found the musician struggling to find his post-Soundgarden niche. In the case of his 2009 solo album Scream (which I reviewed here), the outcome was downright disastrous. 

"Live To Rise", the band's theme song from this past spring's Avengers film, would prove to be a harbinger of what King Animal had in store - uninteresting songs completely devoid of the engaging qualities consistent with classic Soundgarden tracks like "Jesus Christ Pose", "Outshined", "Rusty Cage", "Like Suicide", or "Fell On Black Days", just to name a few. And don't misunderstand, I'm not even holding the band up to the lofty standards of songs like those. There simply isn't one track on King Animal that even remotely approaches anything on the level of their best work. Virtually all of these songs are more on par with the plentiful amount of filler that surrounded the great material on Soundgarden's older albums. The bluntly confessional "Been Away Too Long" ("You can't go home, no I swear you never can/You can walk a million miles and get nowhere/I got nowhere to go and it seems I came back") starts off as a decent enough statement-maker to open the album with, but gets bogged down by a mid-song interlude with clanging metal sound effects that totally saps the song of its momentum. "Non-State Actor", "By Crooked Steps", "Attrition", and "Worse Dreams" all similarly fall into the "somewhere below middling" level, unable to evolve their promising ideas into anything memorable. The rest of the songs turn out to be a huge chore to get through, especially the super-sludgey "Blood On The Valley Floor" and "Rowing".  

Most of the ingredients from the grunge gods of old remain intact: Cornell's banshee wail, Shepherd's rumbling bass, Thayil's unique guitar style, Cameron's tastefully busy playing, depressing lyrics, loads of those off-kilter Soundgarden rhythm patterns...they just failed to come up with a single song that truly ignites and makes the decade and a half gap between new Soundgarden albums worth the wait. King Animal is my biggest musical disappointment of 2012. 

Rating: D

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rock Of Ages [film review]

Released theatrically in June; now available on all home video platforms

Full disclosure: musicals are so not my kind of thing - they're just far too inherently cheesy. Frankly, I'd rather watch an episode of the gawdawful Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than spend any more than the ten minutes I took to see what all the fuss was about with the horrid Glee. I do love 80s hard rock, though, which is why I subjected myself to a viewing of Rock Of Ages, the film based on the musical that premiered at a small club in Los Angeles in 2005 and went on to become a Broadway hit. Now, that last sentence might have you hung up on the irony of someone being a hair band fan, yet casting dispersions of fromage upon musicals. I'll be the first to acknowledge the less-than-dignified aspects of the genre, but it comes down to degrees of cheese, you see. Mock it all you want (and I'll admit that the visual components of a lot of the acts and some of the more sex-obsessed songs deservedly opened things up to plenty of ridicule), but I'll staunchly defend the musical merits, both in terms of technical ability on their instruments and songwriting skills, of the majority of the bands from the era. 

The film's screenplay honestly couldn't have taken more than a night for the writers to whip together. The characters are thinly drawn archetypes cribbed from the lyrics of songs that the film celebrates and yes, I get that one isn't looking to a film musical for character depth and engrossing story lines. Even still, both aspects of Rock Of Ages are astonishingly unimaginative. The film's set-up is right out of Poison's "Fallen Angel" song and video, as a young woman from the American Midwest named Sherrie (played by Julianne Hough) makes her way on a Greyhound bus out to L.A. in 1987 to find fame and fortune as a singer. She ends up getting proverbially used up and spat out, eventually resorting to working the pole for employment - I mean, it is straight out of the Poison video. Getting back to the bus ride set-up...that opening scene in the film establishes the massively campy exploits to follow, as the innocent Sherrie lovingly flips through her Lita Ford, Aerosmith, and Poison records before breaking into song with Night Ranger's "Sister Christian", still fighting its way back to respectability from the ironic usage of the track in Boogie Nights (although many would argue that it never had any to begin with). Soon, Sherrie's fellow passengers join her in rockin' out by singing along and bobbing their heads in time to the song. If you somehow haven't managed to crack up at the hilarious absurdity of the scene up to that point then the part with the little girl turning around in her seat and solo singing the "You'll be alright tonight" line is sure to do the trick - I was absolutely howling. Oh, did I mention that Sherrie's last name was "Christian"? How accommodating. Ms. Christian's name actually turns out to be a convenience two-for-one, as she is later serenaded with "Oh Sherrie" by Drew, her romantic interest in the film (played by Diego Boneta). It should come as little surprise that the romance subplot with the pair is woefully underwritten. Drew is an aspiring musician (naturally) who lands Sherrie a job as a waitress at the rock club he works at, The Bourbon Room. 

The Bourbon Room, a legendary and grimy rock venue modelled after L.A.'s Whisky A Go-Go, is the hub of the action for Rock Of Ages. If there were any more examples needed to support my assertion of this movie's half-assed writing then consider these other three unoriginal details from the story: the club is in financial dire straits and the only thing that can save it is the windfall from a show starring Stacee Jaxx (played by Tom Cruise), who got his start at the club playing shows with his now-massively popular band Arsenal; the club is also in the crosshairs of the ultra-conservative Patricia Whitmore (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) who, along with her church group, wants to clean up the sleazy Sunset Strip area where the venue is located; and shockingly, Patricia's husband (Mayor Mike Whitmore, played by Bryan Cranston) has his own set of kinky character flaws. 

Cruise, one of the very few positives involved with this film, is admirably gung ho as Jaxx. Decked out in long hair, leather, tattoos, and furs, Cruise appears to be channeling the spirits of Axl Rose and Bret Michaels, with demonstrations of hedonistic behaviour and amusing eccentricities, such as owning a pet baboon that accompanies him everywhere. The baboon, by the way, was responsible for the only laughs I had with this film, as opposed to at it. When it comes to pulling off the singing and performing requirements, Cruise does a surprisingly respectable job. His cocksure attitude and completely uninhibited stage moves play as believable and although his singing voice is a little on the thin side, I've certainly heard far worse (in this film, as a matter of fact). He also gamely takes on a very vocally demanding song in "Paradise City". I can't say that Cruise completely steers himself clear of the embarrassment that befalls everyone else in this camp-fest, however. I dare you to keep a straight face as he and Malin Akerman (playing a Rolling Stone reporter) copulate/interpretive dance while duetting on "I Want To Know What Love Is", or later on when he seduces Akerman's character again in a strip joint's private room area. The latter scene, another duet set to The Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane", makes the similarly staged scenes in Showgirls seem positively tasteful and restrained by comparison. You really have to wonder if Cruise was second-guessing his decision to sign on to the movie when you see him throwing himself around a stripper's pole and singing classically bad lyrics like "The bitch is hungry/She needs to tell/So give her inches/And feed her well" and Klaus Meine's high-pitched "Are you ready baby?" line. But again, kudos to him for taking on the acting challenge, throwing caution to the wind, and fully committing to the role, regardless of how daft he risked coming off. 

Rock Of Ages is a classic case of when bad movies happen to good and great actors. Along with Cruise, Cranston, and Zeta-Jones, Rock Of Ages features Alec Baldwin as Dennis Dupree, The Bourbon Room's crusty manager, and Paul Giamatti as Paul Gill, Jaxx's douchey manager. Both, wearing terrible wigs, are utterly wasted in their roles, to a degree where it's almost bizarrely admirable how botched the opportunity is by director Adam Shankman to have had two of the best actors on the planet appear in your film and not taken advantage of it. Giamatti mercifully only has a couple of lines to sing during the song "Here I Go Again" and acquits himself fairly well. Baldwin, however, has to sing way more than you'd like to hear - his voice is awful and the fact he "hated every moment of it" (as he told Total Film magazine of the singing portions) is not hard to pick up on. There's also a performance of "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" he does with Russell Brand's character that is amazingly bad. Talk about your "for the paycheck only" acting gigs. Speaking of Brand, I can't top this great line about his hair in the movie that Entertainment Weekly magazine came up with, so I'll just regurgitate it here: "It requires a certain cluelessness to take Russell Brand, who probably looked like a rock star at birth, and put him in a fake ebony shag that screams poseur". Indeed.

If you're in the market for some grade-A schlock that is guaranteed to leave you slack-jawed multiple times over its duration, then Rock Of Ages is your film. 

Rating: F   

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Late Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek deservingly named to Cooperstown...

The name "Tom Cheek" and his legacy probably means nothing to you unless you were a baseball fan in Canada after the Toronto Blue Jays joined Major League Baseball in 1977. Cheek was the Jays' radio play-by-play announcer from the time of the club's inception through 2004, broadcasting 162 regular season games a year for almost three decades without missing a single one. That's a total of 4,306 straight ball games, which is an extraordinary achievement and doesn't even include all of the spring training games or the 41 playoff games that he called. He missed his first Jays game when his father passed away in June 2004 and many more that season after having a brain tumour removed just a little over a week following his dad's death. Cheek got better for a short period, but succumbed to the cancer the following year and I don't mind saying that I shed tears when I heard of his death. That's how much his work meant to me and many others who fell in love with baseball and the Jays with the help of the sound of his voice and partner Jerry Howarth's (yes, Tom and Jerry). "The voice of the Blue Jays", as many referred to Cheek, was as much a part of the identity of the Jays as anyone or anything else and in an era where every game wasn't available on TV like today (we were lucky to get one or two a week), Cheek's vivid depictions of the games was a fan's lifeline to their beloved team. Legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully are considered the gold standard for baseball play-by-play announcers - give me Cheek and his superlative work over them any day of the week. 

In an announcement yesterday that made my week (and actually got me a little emotional once again), Cheek was selected as the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. It's a huge honour, considering the sizable and impressive list of other nominees, the fact that Cheek's career was less visible working outside of America, and because the Baseball Hall of Fame (unlike most other sports halls of fame) is exclusionary and not inclusionary. The induction standards for media figures and the game's off-the-field personnel aren't quite as stringent as they are for players, but any Cooperstown inductee still really needs to have been one of the best in their field to get in. It's great that the Hall recognized Tom Cheek more than met that requirement. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

No Doubt - Push And Shove [album review]

Released in September

If No Doubt never made another album after 2001's Rock Steady, that release would have been a more than honourable way to ride off into the sunset, as I considered it the band's least until I heard their newest LP, Push And Shove. The extensive gap between albums was a result of the group needing a break, the desire of band members to start families, and the massive success of lead singer Gwen Stefani's solo career in the mid 2000s. All of that coincided with her further ascendance as a pop culture heavyweight via the launch of her own fashion line and a cosmetics endorsement that made her face seemingly ubiquitous in magazines and on TV screens. With all the glitzy distractions, my biggest take-away from Stefani's last decade is that none of her solo music came close to engaging me in the same way that her work with No Doubt bandmates Tony Kanal (bass), Adrian Young (drums), and Tom Dumont (guitars) had. And don't even get me started on the alienating effect of that weird human accessory flirtation she had with those Harajuku Girls. A lot of acts nowadays do a fine job of mining the 80s synth pop sound (three of them are right here in Canada with Stars, Metric, and Dragonette), but few do it better than No Doubt. Push And Shove finds the band returning to that comfortable territory, with an extra healthy measure of the familiar SoCal punk, ska, and reggae sounds they've always indulged in. 

Push And Shove is loaded with hit song potential, if that's something that has any meaning left in the pop music wasteland we currently reside in. The title track dabbles in trendy dubstep and if any band has demonstrated a deft ability to pull off the integration of different musical styles, it's No Doubt. I'm conscious while writing my reviews to not be too repetitive with my takes on things, which isn't always easy when you're writing regularly and sticking mostly to a review format. My last review for an album by Dead Sara comments on the considerable amount of genre mixing in their sound and it's nearly impossible to write a No Doubt album review and not mention this is well, so I've pretty much painted myself into a corner here in having to go to that same well once again. Along with the title track's dubstep explorations, the song also showcases heavy ska and dancehall reggae elements (
and a vocal appearance by reggae artist Busy Signal), with everything anchored by a hooky pop-rock chorus. The ska and reggae sound dominates two other catchy tracks, "Sparkle" and the bouncy "Settle Down". It's a testament to this foursome's songwriting skills and musical execution that as someone who has no interest in ska, reggae (aside from Bob Marley), or most disposable 80s synth-based music, I can latch on so willingly to the group's stylistic crossovers. A more traditional pop sound is adopted for the summer love lament of "One More Summer" and the laid back, appropriately titled "Easy". "Gravity" and "Heaven" are a couple of other hugely infectious pop numbers, with gooey lyrics from Stefani for her hubby, musician Gavin Rossdale. Some of the affectionate words, such as references about "holding on", are also likely directed towards No Doubt's other three members. "Looking Hot", which lyrically appears to be taking a mild swipe at the paparazzi, is probably my favourite track. More highly pleasing melodies, Stefani's immediately identifiable and endearingly weird vocal style, a great mid-song reggae breakdown...what's not to love?

The musical chameleons of No Doubt pick right up, in terms of quality, where they left off 11 years ago. Push And Shove is the sound of a group that sounds creatively refreshed, loose, and clearly happy to be playing together once again. Love the album cover, too. 

Rating: A-

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dead Sara - Dead Sara [album review]

Released in April (part of a perpetually ongoing series of reviews covering older releases that "fell through the cracks")

Whilst perusing some of the audio and video clips on the site for Nikki Sixx's Sixx Sense satellite radio show earlier this spring, I came across a band I'd never heard of named Dead Sara who I thought I'd give a try. Truthfully, their acoustic performance of the song "Test On My Patience" didn't bowl me over, but I was interested enough to explore further and check out "Weatherman", the first single and video from their independently released self-titled debut album. Hot damn. I was immediately drawn in by the song's Rage Against The Machine-like main guitar riff, the raw vocals of frontwoman Emily Armstrong, and the video's dynamic visuals. Following a quick sampling of one more track, the iTunes store was eventually $9.99 richer and I was on my way to enjoying an album that I've found myself returning to more than any other over the past half year, during a period that has seen a ton of new album releases (especially in the past three months) that have been vying for my listening attention. 

Dead Sara contains 11 songs spanning 43 minutes and there's scarcely a weak moment over that running time, save for some sketchy lyrics I can't make heads or tails of as demonstrated in most of the lyrics from "Weatherman" ("His skin was soft as leather/I'm the Weatherman") or on a track like "Monumental Holiday" ("It's just a matter your violence/Save Jesus/Laugh loud, pretend to let go/Live your life like an Eskimo"). The L.A. quartet, rounded out by founding member and guitarist Siouxsie Medley (not her birth name, I'm guessing), and newest members Chris Null (bass) and Sean Friday (drums), mixes a variety of styles that includes blues, hard rock, grunge, hardcore punk, power pop, and alt rock. Armstrong's voice is the biggest reason why Dead Sara stand out, with its amazing ability to turn on a dime from a restrained delivery to a paint scraping roar. The moments where Armstrong is in that unhinged sing-screaming mode still have a controlled musicality to them, though, which makes them significantly more listenable than most of the tuneless, shredding vocals spat out by, say, a singer from a screamo band. She also has a mighty impressive falsetto that gets regularly employed; considering the obvious early 90s rock influence evident in Dead Sara's sound, I'd bet Armstrong has spent a healthy amount of time listening to Alice In Chains CDs. Interestingly, the numerous interviews I've read from Armstrong cite folk music and Fleetwood Mac as a major influence, although these musical imprints seem less obvious to my ears whenever I listen to her band's songs. The group's name actually derives from the Fleetwood Mac song "Sara", a much wiser pick than the name the band used in an earlier incarnation when they were known as Masturbation Salvation.     

The first five tracks on Dead Sara find the band laying down their musically diverse framework, veering from one style to another and regularly within the same song. Vibrant opener "Whispers & Ashes" practically jumps out of the speakers, driven by Friday's pounding drums and Medley's spirited guitars. "We Are What You Say" marries hooky pop melodies with punk energy and is one of the album's best examples of Armstrong's vocal flexibility. "Weatherman" has so many great moments I don't even know where to start: there's Medley's stupidly simplistic, yet badass main guitar riff (along with an awesome echoed scrape noise against her guitar strings), the intro's fade-in of Friday's manic drumming and his intense playing throughout the track, Null's groove-heavy bass line that's tasteful for the spaces where he's not playing, and Armstrong's magnificently primal singing. I must have watched their performance of this song from their June appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live a good 20 times on my PVR. "Dear Love", like "Face To Face" and "Sorry For It All" on the back half of the album (the latter's more fleshed out arrangement sounds miles better than the rather lifeless version that appeared on the band's debut EP), reveals a more subdued and introspective side of the band, although the songs still have their share of big and loud dynamics. I'd classify the monstrous "Monumental Holiday" as a balls out rocker if the genital-based analogy didn't fit so poorly. On an album packed to the hilt with so many great songs, it's the dark and creeping "Lemon Scent" that stands above the rest. As on "Weatherman", Medley applies a crudely efficient octave-rooted guitar riff while the rest of the band works their magic, resulting in one of my favourite songs of the year.    

Dead Sara feels even more impactful because of the disheartening dearth these days of good female-fronted heavier guitar-based rock bands. Frankly, I'm getting kind of tired holding out for a Veruca Salt reunion. Paramore? Evanescence? The awful Halestorm? Sorry, they're not cuttin' it. Hole/Courtney Love has also seen better days. Coincidentally, Armstrong was picked by Love to sing backup vocals on Nobody's Daughter, Hole's 2010 comeback album (which I reviewed here). Really, the only other decent female-led heavy rock act out there today I can come up with (and "decent" is a gross understatement) is England's Skunk Anansie, who are barely known over here in North America. 

Dead Sara, led by the gifted vocal talents of Armstrong, deliver one of the strongest albums of the year and the most resonant full-length rock debut release I've heard since 2002's Born A Lion from Danko Jones.

Rating: A+

Friday, November 30, 2012

No Easy Day - Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer [book review]

Released in September

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account Of The Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden was written by former Navy SEAL Mark Owen, who participated in the May 2011 operation that captured and killed the most wanted man on the planet (the book is also co-authored by Kevin Maurer). Owen used a pseudonym to protect the safety of himself and his family, although less than a day after it was announced that No Easy Day would hit bookshelves, appropriately, on September 11th, his true identity was revealed by some media outlets. Owen served as a member of the elite operations force from 1998 until earlier this year, when he retired. 

The author's desire to share such sensitive information has obviously rankled some very powerful people, with the Pentagon claiming Owen violated his non-disclosure agreements and revealed military secrets. Owen states that his motivation for writing the book was to set the record straight due to the excess of misinformation in the media about the historic event and that any information in it has "maintained and promoted the security interests of the United States". Financial motivation isn't in play here, as Owen vowed to donate most of the book's proceeds to the families of SEALs killed in action and military support organizations (one of them, the Navy SEAL Foundation, has refused the offer). Despite these noble intentions and the engrossing story that the book's focal point delivers, there's still a lingering uneasiness with Owen's willingness to go so public with details that seemingly betray the protective SEAL brotherhood that he references numerous times throughout the book. We may never know because of Owen's necessarily low profile and the SEAL organization's secretive nature, but I'd love to hear what kind of reaction the ex-soldier has had to his literary endeavour from others in the tight-knit SEAL family.

The first portion of No Easy Day, amounting to a little under half of the book, mostly covers Owen's pre-bin Laden raid military career and it turns out to be surprisingly underwhelming. He writes briefly about his childhood, his motivation for becoming a SEAL, the SEAL training process, and how one makes it all the way up to the group's elite of the elite Team Six, which was the team that carried out the bin Laden mission. Owen also writes about some of his earlier missions, most of which took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the stories aren't nearly as interesting as you'd expect and it tends to feel like he's just treading water until it's time to get to the main event.

Things pick up significantly as attention is turned to that main event, starting with the lead-up to the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The mission, on a tactical level, wasn't out of the ordinary from the kinds of operations SEALs normally executed, which usually only required a few hours of preparation for the men carrying it out. Because of the high profile nature of the bin Laden mission, however, a full three weeks was taken for preparations and rehearsals. There's some levity as the SEALs speculate who will play them in the inevitable film versions and they also mock some of the higher-ups at the 
intelligence agencies involved, sarcastically referring to them as the "good idea fairies" because of some of the less-than-stellar strategic ideas that are suggested. Even Owen running down the minutiae of his routine on the day of the mission is quite fascinating, from what he ate for breakfast to his equipment and weapons check (fact: SEALs use $65,000 night vision goggles that offer a 120 degree field of vision, as opposed to the standard military-issue goggles that only offer a 40 degree view equivalent to "looking through toilet paper tubes"). Plenty of other intriguing details emerge:
  • the discussions on which area of the body to shoot bin Laden (the chest is preferred, to allow for facial recognition)
  • the apolitical stance of the SEALs, who are extremely leery of Washington types and know that a bin Laden capture or kill will be a huge feather in the cap for Barack Obama's re-election campaign
  • their flimsy cover story, should their mission go off the rails, that they were in Pakistan to recover a lost drone (if a drone were to go lost, its retrieval from Pakistan, an American ally, would have been handled by the U.S. State Department)
  • each SEAL is given $200 in cash in case the mission gets compromised and they needed to bribe locals or buy a ride ("Evasion takes money and few things work better than American cash", Owen writes)
The vividly detailed reconstruction of the book's centerpiece operation, which understandably was the cause of much handwringing in Washington as the reliability of the intelligence was questioned until the final hour, is where No Easy Day shines brightest. Owen really immerses the reader into the tense minute-by-minute specifics, starting with the helicopter ride in, where some of the SEALs somehow manage to get some light sleep in. Once the helicopter Owen was being transported in reaches the compound and crashes, eliminating any advantage with the element of surprise, he takes us through the series of events as the two SEAL squads storm the compound like something out of a Call Of Duty video game. They face a couple of armed threats that are neutralized (one of the men killed is bin Laden's son, Khalid) and also encounter a number of women and children who have to be approached with great caution due to the threat of suicide vests. Once their target, codenamed "Geronimo", is believed to have been caught and killed (Owen takes responsibility for firing some of the final shots into the mortally wounded al Qaeda leader), the ensuing moments are packed with fascinating information, as his identification is confirmed and computers and data are collected. Among the revelations following the kill:
  • a search of bin Laden's bathroom revealed that he used Just For Men hair dye for his beard
  • after finding a Makarov pistol and AK-47 in bin Laden's room, Owen writes "I took each weapon down and pulled out the magazine and checked the chambers. They were both empty. He hadn't even prepared a defense. He had no intention of fighting. In all my deployments, we routinely saw this phenomenon. The higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger a pussy he was."   
  • duplicate sets of photos taken of the dead target and his collected DNA samples were carried by a couple of SEALs on separate helicopters for the return flight, just in case one of the choppers crashed or was shot down by Pakistan's air force
  • one of the SEALs sat on the chest of bin Laden (who was in a body bag) in the cramped helicopter on the flight back
No Easy Day spins its wheels for a good portion early on, but when the book does hit its stride, Owen provides a consistently gripping level of information and details, while also adding an appreciated humanizing touch to the extraordinary individuals and events involved with the most significant counter-terrorism mission ever conducted. 

Rating: B+

Recommended viewing: 60 Minutes' program from September featuring a lengthy interview with Owen (available in four parts here)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Rolling Stones - Grrr! [album review]

Released November 12th

The Rolling Stones machine gets fired up with a batch of new projects to commemorate the band's 50th anniversary, including upcoming live dates that will feature special appearances from former members Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, the recent premiere of an HBO documentary, and a new compilation album (badly) titled Grrr!, which has an equally terrible cover. Grrr! was released in a variety of 40 track, 50 track, and 80 track configurations, with the 50 track release being the one reviewed here.

Grrr! gets things mostly right with a song selection obviously heavy on the Stones' 60s and 70s output (36 of the 50 tracks cover the two decades). From their 1963 debut single "Come On", a Chuck Berry cover, through to 1978's "Beast Of Burden", only the inclusions of the psychedelic-era "We Love You" and the plodding cover of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" raise an eyebrow, although the latter assumedly made the cut as a nod to the band's strong blues influence. Inexplicably missing from this period, however, are "Bitch", "Midnight Rambler", "Mother's Little Helper", "Let It Bleed", and "Heart Of Stone" (some of these do appear on the 80 track version). All the other usual suspects are here, including "Satisfaction", "Brown Sugar", "Sympathy For The Devil", "Wild Horses", et al. 

The last 30+ years of the Stones' career deservedly gets short shrift, as they've proven to be the very definition of the veteran band whose creative peak has long since passed. There's been some fine moments here and there, mind you, as tracks like "Start Me Up", "Waiting On A Friend", "Don't Stop", "Mixed Emotions", and "Anybody Seen My Baby?" prove. Expectedly, there's more than a few head scratchers for both some of the songs included ("Streets Of Love", "She Was Hot", and "Love Is Strong") and omitted ("One Hit To The Body", plus Steel Wheels gems "Slipping Away" and "Almost Hear You Sigh"). There's a couple of obligatory new tracks: "Doom And Gloom" is a decent reworking of musical territory that's been well-trodden by the group, while "One More Shot" is representative of the predominantly sub-standard material the band has released since the 70s ended. 

With a few exceptions, Grrr! proves to be an agreeable collection that serves as an upgrade to the group's 2002 Forty Licks best-of, demonstrating why it is that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are still referred to as "The Greatest Rock 'N Roll Band in the World".  

Rating: A

Related post: my April review of Jagger's Superheavy supergroup project

Friday, November 23, 2012

Men In Black 3 [film review]

Released theatrically in May; available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms on November 30th

I suspect that the majority of people who watched Men In Black II would be hard-pressed to tell you much of anything that happened in it - I certainly couldn't. Part of the reason would be that it came out a decade ago, another would be that if what little memory I do have of the sequel serves me correctly, it just wasn't very good (which is backed up by some pretty poor ratings from critics and the public on MetacriticRotten Tomatoes, and IMDB). So the release of a third film in the series, Men In Black 3 (now inconsistently titled without the Roman numerals to accommodate its theatrical 3D release), seemed to be fairly unnecessary. But director Barry Sonnenfeld, who's helmed all three of the franchise's movies, has delivered much more than the uninspired cash grab that I was anticipating - Men In Black 3 has actually been my most pleasant movie surprise of the year so far.

The plot involves Will Smith's Agent J character time traveling back about 40 years to save the life of his partner, Agent K, from an escaped convict who has also traveled back in time to change the course of events that led to his imprisonment. A perfectly cast Josh Brolin, playing a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K, completely steals the film from a reliably excellent Smith (Jones has only limited screen time). Brolin's physical similarity to a younger Jones is most helpful, but it's the actor's absolute bang-on replications of Jones' character's Texas drawl, expressionless mug, and mannerisms that really elevate Men In Black 3's entertainment level. He's so fantastic that it's not even difficult to just go with the fact that the film is trying to pass off the now 44-year-old Brolin as someone in his late 20s. 

A great supporting cast contributes to the movie's high likability factor, led by Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement as Boris The Animal, that escaped convict. In a year where just about every villain in a sci-fi film was rather lame, Clement's Boris stands out for both his humourous one-liners and his lack of reliance on stiff, still-not-realistic-looking CGI. Michael Stuhlbarg is first-rate as the meek visionary Griffin - he completely disappears into the character and it's a testament to Stuhlbarg's skills that I never recognized him as the same actor who appears regularly on a show I've seen every episode of, HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Also delivering fine work in small roles are Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader as Andy Warhol and a seriously sexy Emma Thompson as the head of the covert extraterrestrial-monitoring agency that the agents work for. 

Like any movie that messes with the space time continuum model, there's some glaring gaps in logic, but the idea injects some fresh life into the series, allowing for some nice filling in of the character's backstories and a number of fun fish-out-of-water/social commentary scenarios for Smith's character, as he navigates an America just settling into the post-civil rights era. And "fun" is the dominant theme of the hilarious and unexpectedly terrific Men In Black 3. 

Rating: A-

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rush - Clockwork Angels [album review]

Released in June

Until the release of their newest album, Clockwork Angels, you'd have to go all the way back to 1993's Counterparts to find a new Rush album that's managed to engage me. That lengthy span, it should be noted, has included only three other studio albums, plus a covers EP, a host of live albums, and a 4-5 year recording hiatus stemming from some personal tragedies experienced by drummer/lyricist Neil Peart. Advance notice from the band explaining that Clockwork Angels would be a concept album about "A young man's quest across a lavish and colourful world of steampunk and alchemy as he attempts to follow his dreams. The story features lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnival, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life" definitely didn't inspire a lot of optimism on my part. In fact, my eyes pretty much glazed over at the prospect of the progressive rock trio at their conceptual proggiest. But if you're less of a lyrics guy, like myself, it's not difficult to place Peart's geeky prose (recently turned into a Clockwork Angels novel written by Peart and sci-fi/fantasy writer Kevin J. Anderson) in the background and just enjoy the great riffs and awesome musicianship that lives up to the band's legacy.

The lasting impression of Clockwork Angels (and I'll focus just on the instrumental side here and not on the album's lyrics or themes) is that this sounds like the work of a band feeling truly inspired and anything but complacent or creatively bankrupt, an impressive feat for an outfit now in its sixth (!) decade and on its 20th studio album. Some of Rush's classic rock peers who have released cruddy new work in the past couple of months (I'm looking at you Aerosmith, KISS, and Heart) could take a few pointers. Bassist/lead singer Geddy Lee and Peart are obviously well-entrenched in the upper echelons of respect for the proficiency they demonstrate on their respective instruments and there's no shortage of extraordinary displays here for the bass guitar and drum fanboys. I won't even mention specific songs where they individually shine, as there are standout moments from each on literally every song. Same goes for guitarist Alex Lifeson. While revered among musicians and Rush fans, Lifeson still tends to get overshadowed by his partners' prodigious talents, but it's his work that really adds the most depth to Rush's music. A wide array of guitar textures course through the album and he also has a plethora of fine moments, particularly with some great solos on "Caravan", "Headlong Flight", and "Seven Cities Of Gold". Kudos to producer Nick Raskulinecz and engineer Rich Chycki as well - each instrument really stands out in the mix on every track, which contributes to the confident and cohesive sound of the music. 

Rush has a reputation for creating music that's overly busy and mostly inaccessible to the mainstream, which is somewhat undeserved. They've adapted a commercial sound plenty of times throughout their career, such as on tracks like "Nobody's Hero", "Fly By Night", "New World Man", or "Closer To The Heart", and Clockwork Angels contains four tracks that might open the eyes (or ears, as it were) of those turned off by a perceived commercial deficiency from the trio: "Halo Effect", "The Wrecker", "Wish Them Well", and "The Garden", which is absolutely brimming with grandiosity via it's soundscape of shimmering acoustic guitars, keyboards, and strings. "The Wrecker" is also notable for the fact it featured Lee and Lifeson departing from their normal songwriting process by having each come up with the other's instrumental parts. As Lifeson recently told, "On the original demo, Geddy played guitar and I played bass. When it was recorded, Geddy played the bass, but he learned my bass part. He said, 'I would never play this song like this.'"

Rest assured, Clockwork Angels also balances its more accessible material with the kind of intricately composed 6-8 minute songs that have long been the group's stock-in-trade. The multiple time signature changes that contribute to Rush's endearingly schizophrenic musical nature dominate tracks like "Caravan", the brawny "BU2B", "The Anarchist", "Clockwork Angels", "Carnies", "Seven Cities Of Gold", and "Headlong Flight", which clearly tips its hat in a snippet of the bass and drum arrangement to "Bastille Day", the opening track from 1975's Caress Of Steel. The subdued 88 second long "BU2B2" shows little musical similarity to the song it's acting as a callback to, featuring just Lee's voice, some keyboards, and a string arrangement. 

Rush has experienced somewhat of a renaissance over the past several years, moving further from their previously "uncool" status towards mainstream acceptance with the widely praised Beyond The Lighted Stage documentary (which I reviewed here in 2010), an appearance and as a significant plot point in the hit comedy film I Love You, Man, their first appearance on American TV in 33 years on The Colbert Report back in 2008, being awarded the prestigious Governor General's Performing Arts Award from the Canadian government this past March, and recognition from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The Hall Of Fame's nominee committee finally pulled their collective heads out of their asses and put Rush on their shortlist of candidates for the next induction, after inexplicably passing the group over every year since their first year of eligibility in 1998. 

Clockwork Angels doesn't significantly tinker with Rush's established sound, shouldn't alienate most listeners with its high-minded conceptual themes, and features wall-to-wall freakishly good musicianship from the power trio, who wisely capitalize on all of this newfound attention by creating their best album in eons. 

Fun fact: Clockwork Angels' album cover, created by Hugh Syme, the band's longtime artist, includes a reference to Rush's classic 2112 album - the time on the clock reads 9:12, which is 21:12 in military time. 

Rating: B+

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

INXS and the case for musical euthanasia...

In a review of the new Aerosmith album on, writer Brice Ezell theorizes that "The question of this album is the closest thing the music world has to the moral dilemma of euthanasia". Aside from his brilliantly creative sentence making me feel like a complete hack as a writer, the line stuck with me as I read the news yesterday that INXS were finally packing it in. Kind of. The cryptic and poorly formatted statement on their official website says they plan to "bring down the curtain as a live touring band", but doesn't mention anything else about future plans to record. Let's hope the once-great Australian group has indeed finally called it a day, because if ever there was a band in need of "musical euthanasia", it's been this one. And I say that as someone who has been a big fan of theirs since the mid 80s. 

The years since the 1997 suicide of lead vocalist and frontman Michael Hutchence have not been kind to INXS. They performed with a series of forgettable guest vocalists for a couple of years after regrouping from the loss of Hutchence, including Terence Trent D'Arby, Russell Hitchcock, and Jimmy Barnes. Then someone named Jon Stevens was officially announced as their new lead singer in 2002, but an album with him never materialized and he departed the band. Next came the cheesy Rock Star: INXS TV show in 2005, which saw the band subject themselves to an American Idol-style lead singer search that was won by Toronto singer J.D. Fortune, who had been living out of his car when he applied to be on the show. Just a little over two months after Fortune won the very public audition, his lead vocals appeared on INXS' new Switch album. I thought the release was pretty awful, but the rest of Canada sure responded favourably to it, pushing it to sales of 170,000 (platinum certifications here are given at the 100,000 sold mark) and turning up in strong numbers for the band's live dates. Switch's total worldwide album sales (all figures taken from the album's Wikipedia page) are apparently a little less than one million - that's not a terrible number for a band trying to fill Hutchence's large shoes, but it's a scant shadow of what they used to sell in the late 80s and early 90s (then again, album sales in general were admittedly well on their way to cratering by 2005). Fortune had a rocky and rather bizarre tenure with the band, telling a Canadian TV show in 2009 that he'd been fired from the group because of his heavy drug use. That was news to INXS, however, who later continued touring with Fortune. Following yet another dreadful album release in 2010 with Original Sin, which featured guest vocalists singing on old INXS hits (the writing should have been pretty plainly written on the wall for the band at that point), INXS and Fortune mutually announced they were parting ways. Fortune then later claimed that "I had no idea I had left INXS the second time, to be honest with you". Oy vey. Irish singer Ciarran Gribbin joined the band for tour dates over the past year, culminating with what appears to now have been their last live performance on November 11th in Perth as an opening act for Matchbox Twenty.

It's been downright painful watching this band flail away for the past 15 years as they tried to find their footing and place in the music world after losing Hutchence. The day he hung himself (or died after an autoerotic asphyxiation escapade gone wrong, if you believe the other theory surrounding his passing) is the day the rest of INXS should have had the good sense to retire their name, because replacing the dynamic Hutchence was an impossible task, as has been proven. I'm totally sympathetic to the lousy hand the band got dealt and even cut them some slack for a few years after Hutchence died as they spun their wheels, knowing that this was a close-knit group of guys (including three brothers) that had played together since forming in 1977 and just didn't know anything else. But they should have carried on under a different name, because now here it is, years later, and they've done nothing but tarnish that name with career misstep after career misstep. Hopefully, they've finally come to terms with the fact that INXS just needs to be put down.