Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) [film review]

Limited theatrical release in October 2011; now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand
Hands down, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is the most vile and unsettling film I've ever seen, and I am by no means a prude. You can't say I wasn't warned - its predecessor, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), upped the ante in the torture porn genre with a premise involving a mad scientist who abducts three people and surgically sews them mouth-to-anus with each other, leaving the trio with just one digestive tract. Where the hell do you go from there? Apparently, a lot further. Despite my normal disinterest in these Saw-types of movies (and horrors in general), the first Human Centipede had a twisted, novel concept that made for an interesting movie, but not a terribly well-done one. Still, there was just enough there to plant the seeds of interest as to where Dutch filmmaker Tom Six would take its followup. Ohhh, that my scarred eyes could now unsee what perverse sickness Six hath cinematically wrought.
The only good thing I can say about The Human Centipede 2 is the on-the-nose casting of screen newcomer Laurence R. Harvey, a 50ish British performance artist. Both Harvey and his "Martin" character are the epitome of creepiness (as this photo will attest), with bulging eyes, greasy hair, bad teeth, and obese body. And as if his physical repugnance wasn't enough, Martin is also saddled with an asthmatic wheeze, some sort of mental handicap stemming from every kind of abuse from his now-incarcerated father, and a lifetime of emotional abuse from his constantly nagging mother, who he still lives with in a dingy London flat. It's the sort of character background composition that feels right off a "damaged movie character 101" checklist. Harvey has zero heavy lifting to do as far as remembering dialogue - he speaks no words, only grunting, whimpering, and occasionally cackling maniacally. Martin works as a security guard at a parking garage, where he occupies his time by watching The Human Centipede over and over on his laptop. Yes, that first time around was apparently just a movie; Six's meta concept isn't nearly as clever as he'd probably like to think it is, though. Eventually, Martin snaps and actually starts implementing the movie's ideas, which he's been studiously detailing in a scrapbook. The goal? To "Frankenstein" together a human centipede made up of four times as many people as was seen in the inspirational source. The parking garage acts as a victim supply pipeline - a handful of the guinea pigs are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but most of them are unpleasant people who rub Martin the wrong way. As an extension of the meta concept, one of the victims includes actress Ashlynn Yennie, who appeared in the first film and plays herself here. I genuinely felt sorry for her, as she once again ends up naked on screen with her mouth sewn to someone else's asshole. Ms. Yennie, please fire your agent.
The Human Centipede 2 made headlines upon its theatrical release last year when it was banned in Australia and the UK (one of only 11 films ever to be banned by British film censors in the last 100 years). Six must have been ecstatic at the free marketing boost the controversy generated for the movie, which was always intended to primarily be a home video release. 32 cuts totalling 2:37 eventually allowed it to be released on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand in the U.K. The version I saw had all the gore included, including highly disturbing scenes involving a character pleasuring himself with sandpaper, teeth being knocked out with a hammer, scatological trauma, and a birth scene that goes for a payoff so unbelievably wretched you won't believe it. Six is unable to rein in his button-pushing instincts, leaving The Human Centipede 2 as little more than an orgy of sadism that can't disguise the fact it's also really just a super-sized copy of the original. The filmmaker also makes the questionable decision to present the movie in black and white, presumably aiming for a measure of artistic credibility. And God help us all - The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) is now in pre-production.
Rating: F

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A change in the blog's rating system...

Although I prefer the visual look of the star rating system, I'm changing it to an alphabetical grade system. As mentioned in a recent post about the blog's visual presentation, the star graphics can look a little wonky and inconsistent in certain browsers.

Metallica - Beyond Magnetic EP [album review]

Released digitally in December 2011; released on CD in January; vinyl release on April 21st
Fresh off the disastrous reception last November that greeted Lulu, Metallica's collaborative album with Lou Reed (read my scathing review here), the metal icons released Beyond Magnetic. The four track EP was released in conjunction with the band's quartet of shows at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore venue in December to commemorate their 30th anniversary (seek those shows out if you're a Metallica fan, by the way...they will be regarded as historic ones in the band's career). Although the group would never admit it, one can't help but suspect Metallica also felt a need to cleanse the palate of their fans after the bitter taste left from the ill-advised Lulu project. Mission accomplished. Beyond Magnetic's four songs, which the band states are only "rough mixed" but sound quite fine, were recorded during the 2007-2008 sessions that resulted in the stellar Death Magnetic album. That release's hefty 74+ minute running time, however, left little room for any more music.
Not surprisingly, these four tracks are very much in the same vein as the material that ended up on the full-length album, with Metallica once again returning to the more ambitious-in-scope songwriting that was prevalent on their classic ...And Justice For All and Master Of Puppets albums. That means plenty of time signature changes, quiet-loud dynamics, and lengthy songs (each is in the seven to eight minute range), traits that added up to "unfocused" material in the eyes of Death Magnetic's detractors. "Unfocused" is a little strong for my liking, although I understand that critical viewpoint. They'd likely have a field day with the EP's best track, "Just A Bullet Away". After four minutes of primo metal, lead by the menacing vocals and peerless rhythm guitar of James Hetfield, the song stops dead and resumes after a four second gap, slowing the pace and mood down significantly. The mid-song deviation almost sounds like a different composition altogether, while retaining subtle melodic elements from the preceding portion, which the song eventually returns to for its back end. It's a structure employed in the past on such Metallica classics as "Master Of Puppets", "Orion", and, in a bit of an inverted twist of the formula, "One". Here, the inter-song shift is handled a little clumsily (the silent gap is far too long), although not enough to detract too much from an otherwise first-class song. "Hate Train" also finds the band firing on all cylinders, especially the muscular drumming of Lars Ulrich, who fills the track with an impressive array of jackhammer kick drum, agile tom fills, and in-your-face cymbal crashes. "Hell And Back" is another track with a fairly schizophrenic make-up - it's all over the place musically, but still satisfies thoroughly. EP closer "Rebel Of Babylon" also delivers the heavy goods, as riffmaster general Hetfield seamlessly interweaves a controlled metal-style technical proficiency with an aggressive punk attitude. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, whose solos throughout Metallica's career have frequently left me cold, turns in some doozies here, notably on this track and "Hate Train".
Beyond Magnetic may be made up of leftovers, but these vibrant and high-calibre scraps are damn tasty.
Rating: A-

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Breaking down the massive success of Adele's '21'...

Are we all sick of Adele yet? 21 is simply too spectacular of an album for me to grow tired of, at least so far. I still listen to it at least once a week, even though it's been over a year since I bought the CD. It's extremely rare that an album can stand up to so many repeated listens for me before fatigue sets in, but it also helps that I never listen to the radio and very rarely watch music video channels, so any added saturation from her heavily played singles hasn't worn me out. Like many people, I'm more burnt out hearing about Adele than hearing her actual music, but considering that 21 is a once-in-a-decade kind of musical phenomenon, the non-stop media attention is more than warranted. And yes, I realize the irony of this post based on that previous sentence. Here's a look at some of the ridiculously monstrous accomplishments that 21 has achieved since its European release in January of last year (the North American release was a month later). Sources for these figures are taken from Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and Nielsen SoundScan:
  • 21 has now sold, appropriately, approximately 21 million copies worldwide.
  • As of the first week of March, 21 had sold 1,135,000 copies in Canada, making it one of only 90 or so albums that have ever attained diamond status (sales of 1 million) in this country. That means, on average, 1 in 29 Canadians own the album (and that's just legally).
  • The album has now sold over 8 million copies in the U.S., 2 million alone this year.
  • In her native UK, Adele became the first artist ever to sell 3 million copies of a single album in a calendar year...and 21 had accomplished that by August. Toss the names of, say, The Beatles and Pink Floyd into that equation and it highlights the stunning achievement even more. By last December, 21 had become the best-selling album in Britain in the 21st century, selling 3.4 million copies and moving past Amy Winehouse's Back To Black album. It currently sits at over 4 million sold.
  • 21's worst sales week in the U.S. since its release was 73,000 copies sold during a week last August.
  • 21 was the first digital album ever to go double platinum in a single country with 2 million sales from the U.S. iTunes store.
  • Last month, 21 became the longest running U.S. #1 album (in non-consecutive weeks) by a female artist ever, surpassing Whitney Houston's soundtrack for The Bodyguard, which held the record at 20 weeks. Next up on the list is Prince and The Revolution's Purple Rain soundtrack, which ran (again, non-consecutively) for 24 weeks at #1 in 1984 and 1985. To put all of this in perspective, 21 is now ninth on the all-time U.S. list in that category - Michael Jackson's Thriller sits at 37 weeks and the 1962 soundtrack for West Side Story is tops at 54 weeks.
  • Last month, 21 had logged 9 straight weeks in the U.S. #1 spot, the longest-running consecutive #1 album since The Titanic soundtrack logged 14 straight weeks in 1998.
  • "Rolling In The Deep", the album's first single, was the biggest-selling digital single in the U.S. last year with just under 6 million sales. Earlier this month, it became the biggest-selling single by a female artist in the digital era (measured since 2003). The best-selling digital single of all time? That would be "I Gotta Feeling" by the horrendous Black Eyed Peas, with sales of approximately 7.9 million.
  • 21 will likely be the first album since the implementation of the SoundScan sales tracking system in 1991 to be the best-selling U.S. album 2 years in a row.
All of those figures are even more extraordinary when you take into consideration a couple of facts: first, Adele was forced to cancel dozens of 2011 tour dates due to throat problems, resulting in the inability to capitalize on the marketing benefits that touring and its resultant media exposure bring. Second, she accomplished all of this in an age where, to paraphrase Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of how to use a computer and Google can illegally download an album quite easily. It also bears mentioning that this album just had its fourth and final single ("Rumour Has It") released earlier this month - that's quite a low number when you look at the history of some of the heavyweight albums that 21 is now rubbing shoulders with. Amazingly, 21 had just a couple of singles ("Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You") released in the first 10 months following the album's release.
Whether she's connecting with a younger audience or an older demographic that rarely buys music any more, Adele's crossover appeal clearly wasn't reliant on her fitting in with any superficial musical trend, nor was it accompanied by a commonplace pop starlet over-reliance on selling a slick and sexed-up image. Refreshingly, it derives from pure talent, which helps make this an even better story. Her recent comeback from career-threatening vocal cord surgery, along with subsequent triumphs at the Grammys in February, only add to the fairy tale's embarrassment of riches.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [film review]

Released theatrically in Europe in September 2011 and North America in December 2011; released yesterday on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand
I knew before watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that it was a film requiring patience and acute concentration from its viewers. Reviews told me so, a friend told me so (she needed to watch it multiple times to get a handle on the plot), and my dad told me so (he found the film confusing and had gone into it having already seen the original 1979 BBC miniseries which, like the film, is based on John le Carré's 1974 novel). So despite the overwhelmingly rave reviews from critics, I approached the movie with a significant degree of wariness, which proved to be well-founded. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, to say the least, a challenging viewing experience, both in terms of its leaden pace and convoluted plot. Watching it on an ultra-attentive level didn't help - by the time I got to the end of the movie, I felt abjectly alienated by my inability to follow the labyrinthian storylines and engage with any of the significant characters.
Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness in the miniseries), a British intelligence expert called out of retirement in the early-to-mid 1970s to find the identity of a Russian mole operating within the upper levels of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Smiley's investigation resumes the work of his recently deceased former boss at the agency (played by John Hurt), who had the list of suspects narrowed down to five, including Smiley himself and characters played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik. Also contributing supporting roles are Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley's assistant, Mark Strong as a field spy, and Inception's Tom Hardy (next appearing as villain Bane in this summer's The Dark Knight Rises) as a rogue agent. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy undoubtedly has a strong cast, but there was an off-putting impenetrability to just about all of the notable characters for me, which is more a fault of the script and director than the actors. Oldman's Smiley has such a cold and reserved demeanour that the character just felt flat and terribly difficult to invest any empathy in.
Along with problematic characters who are sometimes hard to keep track of, the film's narrative is dense to an almost oppressive degree. Whereas the novel is a bulky 400 pages long and the miniseries had a running time of over five-and-a-half hours, director Tomas Alfredson (best known for Let The Right One In) and screenwriters Bridgett O'Connor and Peter Straughan had to cut their adaptation to 127 minutes. The film is also hampered by a wildly scattershot linear structure that only adds to the muck with its abundance of flashforwards and flashbacks. One scene shows a character apparently dying, only to be followed by another scene that runs for two-and-a-half minutes where the character is alive and in an environment seemingly unconnected to anything else in the movie. Some of the head-scratchers get explained later, others seem to just vaguely hang around without proper closure. Visually, it doesn't help that the movie is set predominantly in grey-tinged London, with a majority of its time spent amongst drabby office interiors.
Clearly, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an elaborate film that likely requires more than one viewing for most to appreciate its supposed brilliance. That's a luxury I'm not inclined to give it, considering what an arduous slog it was getting through the thing once. I'm certainly not adverse to intelligent and challenging cinematic stories, but not unlike the time I tried to read War And Peace in my teens, I'll humbly admit that this one completely eluded my scope of comprehension.
Rating: E

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hot Docs 2012...

The 19th edition of Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is just around the corner, following a 2011 fest that drew a record attendance of 151,000. North America's largest documentary film festival will see 189 titles (out of 2,085 submissions) from 51 countries screen over 11 days. Once again, I'll be posting reviews both here and at Toronto Screen Shots. Here's what I have on my schedule:
The Invisible War - Examines the under-reported story on the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military.
Beware Of Mr. Baker - A biography of influential and wild-living Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
GLOW: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling - Looks at the characters (then and now) from the cult 80's wrestling TV show.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet - A biography on the rock musician who, shortly after landing the opportunity of a lifetime as David Lee Roth's lead guitarist, found his career cut short by ALS.
Despite The Gods - Follows the turbulent film-making experience of director Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch) as she tries to resurrect her career.
An Affair Of The Heart - Partly a bio on 80's pop-rock star Rick Springfield, while also looking into the undying loyalty of his fans.
The Queen Of Versailles - Jackie is a former beauty pageant winner with eight kids, a socialite lifestyle, and a marriage to a timeshare mogul. She's also having the largest single-family home in America built, modeled on the Palace of Versailles and containing 30 one skating rink. Then the '08 financial crisis hits...
Detropia - Looks at the decline of Detroit.
Marley - The much-anticipated authorized biography of Bob Marley.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Apple TV remote vs. Sony remote...

I found this recent post from my brother's Bombippy blog amusing and worth a repost. It highlights the different approaches to product design between Apple (simplicity) and Sony (not so simple). He writes:
The Apple TV remote (on the left below) is fairly simple. You can hold it in one hand and with just a few buttons you can control every aspect of the Apple TV. Contrast this design with the Sony remote (on the right below). This Sony remote looks complicated. It controls Sony’s appropriately named Internet TV 3D Blu-ray Disc™ Player powered by Google TV. I’m guessing that you’ll have to spend some time with a manual before you start using this thing. Contrary to my opinion, Sony marketing has this to say about the above remote:
"Finding your favourite content is a breeze thanks to the included handheld QWERTY keyboard and optical mouse control. Easily navigate the Internet, search for TV shows, apps, movies, and more."
What? Easily browse the Internet with this remote? I don’t think so.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Wrecking Ball review completed...

I've added the second half to my review of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album here, which I'll just leave as one single post. The previously posted first half covered up to the album's sixth song, "This Depression". At 2,400 words, I believe it's the longest review I've written on MediaboyMusings and I think it gives as in-depth a perspective on an album that I'm capable of writing.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter apathy and Disney's blind trust... had a fascinating read here about the new John Carter film and how it was doomed to be a financial failure. The Disney epic opened to $30 million in North America this past weekend, which isn't nothing, just not nearly enough when its costs were in the $250 million range (the film performed better overseas). The piece looks specifically at the film's badly handled marketing campaign and the apparently unchecked latitude that director Andrew Stanton was granted, based on his previous massive success as the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E for Disney subsidiary Pixar. The latter topic ties into one of the biggest questions I had regarding John Carter, which is why was such a substantial investment made in a film featuring a character from a series of books published in the early 1900s that is virtually unknown today? Oddly, writer Claude Brodesser-Akner failed to mention the most glaring question I had: they're hanging a quarter of a billion dollar film on a C-list TV actor (Taylor Kitsch) with similarly low-wattage supporting help (Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church)? I'm a fan of those supporting players, but that's just bloody crazy. I remember Arnold Schwarzennegger and James Cameron being attached to this project back in the 90s - that pairing I could rationalize taking a financial gamble on. The piece also takes a brilliant viewpoint that the science fiction greatly inspired by the John Carter book series, including the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, has ironically worked against this film, due to our jaded sense of wonder when it comes to watching adventure movies.
I had absolutely no interest in watching John Carter - to me, it looked like a CGI orgy that would make one of the gawdawful Transformers movies seem subtle by comparison. Now I think I will give it a viewing sometime in the future, just out of sheer sick curiosity to see what $250 million worth of apparent Hollywood hubris and delusion looks like.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball [album review]

Released March 6th
I'll forego my usual expository opening paragraph and dive straight into a track-by-track review of Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen's 17th studio album. Ratings for each song are in parentheses.
"We Take Care Of Our Own" (7) Wrecking Ball's opener is the most representative song of what would be considered Springsteen's signature E Street Band sound, defined by a rich musical tapestry that spotlights loud drums, piano, organ, and gritty guitars. It's a solid, safe pick for the album's first single and a bit of a fake-out in terms of what turns out to be Wrecking Ball's diverse musical range. Lyrically, it tackles the deterioration of the American Dream, a topical thread that runs throughout the album. While Springsteen's urgency comes through, this one packs a little more punch when played live, as was demonstrated during its live debut opening the Grammys a few weeks back (shame about Springsteen's unfortunate choice of words during the song's intro, though, as he threw out his familiar "Are you alive out there?" line to the Whitney Houston-mourning audience). Despite the song's familiarity, it interestingly only has two E Street Band members appearing on it, with background vocal contributions from guitarist/backing vocalist (and Springsteen's wife) Patti Scialfa and guitarist/backing vocalist/violinist Soozie Tyrell. I found myself surprised at how sparingly the rest of the band was used on Wrecking Ball, if they were used at all. Completely absent from the album's musician credits are E Street Band members Garry Tallent (bass), Steve Van Zandt (guitar/mandolin/backing vocals), Roy Bittan (piano), and Nils Lofgren (guitar/banjo/backing vocals). Frankly, I don't quite get not making full use (or at least some use) of one of the best rock bands around, especially when, for example, a lot of the piano parts (especially on this track) sound very much like Bittan's playing style anyway. Other factors, such as scheduling conflicts, could be at work here as well, but it would seem this is just another example of Springsteen once again working with outside musicians to keep things fresh for himself.
"Easy Money" (8) The song's boot stompin' and fiddle playin' upbeat sound is an extension of the Celtic and folk influences explored on his mid-2000s Seeger Sessions band outing, but the musical merriment (also featuring plenty of hand claps and Springsteen whoops) belies the track's dark lyrical tone. In fact, the juxtaposition between the two is downright fascinating. Fuelled by "a hellfire burning", the main character decides to pull him and his missus out of their financial straits with the help of a Smith & Wesson 38 and a target of "all them fat cats", an obvious reference to greedy bankers. Sure, Springsteen has covered this ground before (witness the crime-planning anti-heroes of "Atlantic City" and "Meeting Across The River"), but it's a thematic construct that suits the dire economic times that Wrecking Ball speaks to.
"Shackled And Drawn" (8) Another spirited number cut from the same musical cloth as "Easy Money", with an added Cajun influence. Once again, the bitter lyrics of this protest anthem are partially obscured by the track's musically boisterous foundation; this time, Springsteen equates freedom with the right to work and adds some further digs at Wall Street gluttony. I could have done without the over-the-top gospel testifying over the song's fade-out from singer Cindy Mizelle, though.
"Jack Of All Trades" (8) The song tells the story of a frustrated and unemployed labourer trying to convince himself and his partner that they can withstand their hardships. Anchored by a simplistic piano line and some beautiful horn and mandolin touches, this waltzing ballad is a powerful homage to Springsteen's heavy 50s and 60s-era soul influence. Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello adds a killer outro guitar solo that tastefully eschews technical razzle dazzle for emotive force, emulating the less-is-more fretboard style of Springsteen himself.
"Death To My Hometown" (9) Hmm, The Boss is really pissed at bankers, as they get the fourth call-out in as many songs. That's okay, though...they deserve it. Springsteen's ire is expressed in lyrics that comment on the stealthy nature of the recent mortgage crisis, using analogous Civil War cannon ball and powder flash imagery to cleverly illustrate that the wholesale demolition of people's lives needn't come only from more overt forms of destruction. Whether or not Springsteen intentionally sought to reference the seen-better-times "My Hometown" from his Born In The U.S.A. album with this song title is unclear, but I wouldn't be surprised. Musically, this Celtic rock stomper is one of the most energetic on the album, propelled by a martial drumbeat and some kickass penny whistle accompaniment. Who knew a penny whistle could be kickass? One of the song's most interesting aspects, which I've surprisingly not seen mentioned in the many reviews I've read of this album, is its great use of group background vocals that seems to borrow more from African music than Irish. This track stands out as one of the highlights in terms of the stellar musicianship, songwriting, and production on Wrecking Ball. Producer Ron Aniello (with additional production help from Springsteen) deserves special mention for his direction and influence in the making of Wrecking Ball.
"This Depression" (8) Another powerful ballad, once again fortified by a couple of simple, but gut-wrenching Morello solos that are bridged by an ethereal mid-song interlude. The track's booming drums are offset by piano and ghostly background vocals that have an alluring, almost synthesizer-sounding quality to them. The song features a little more than I'd like of the intentionally off-key singing (à la Dylan) that Springsteen has occasionally dabbled with in the twilight era of his career. The "depression" of the title is used in a literal and figurative context.
"Wrecking Ball" (8) Like "We Take Care Of Our Own", this is a classic Springsteen rocker, one of only three such tracks on the album. When the song made its debut at New Jersey's Giants Stadium during his 2009 tour, it seemed little more than a serviceable tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished legendary venue that helped propagate and reinforce the Springsteen legend. However, repeat listens and a more expansive studio sound elevate it to something significantly more special (the eventual gospel revival-stomp tempo upswing, enhanced by a horn section, really gets the toe tapping). Interlaced within a uniquely abstract lyrical perspective that addresses the listener from the actual stadium's perspective ("I was raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago/Through the mud and the beer, the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go") are lines that adhere to the album's themes of resilience, defiance ("So if you've got the guts mister, yeah if you got the balls/If you think it's your time, then step over the line and bring on your wrecking ball"), and mortality. The song's only weakness is that it does sound a tad on the repetitive side; at just under six minutes, a brief trim would tighten things up a little better (yeah, like Bruce friggin' Springsteen needs to be taking studio tips from me). The title track is one of two songs that feature some of the last recorded work of integral E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last June. Oddly, he's credited with a solo here, although I'll be damned if I can hear it, and I've listened to this album a good 15 or so times now. His sax is likely mixed in with the rest of the horn section, but it's just strange that he gets a solo credit, especially considering the significance of Clemons' final contributions to a Springsteen album (assuming there's nothing else in the vaults).
"You've Got It" (4) Unquestionably, this is Wrecking Ball's worst song, really the only dud in the collection. Perhaps it's a coincidence that it's also the only non-serious/non-message track, perhaps not. Lyrically and musically, this is nothing more than a forgettable trifle that awkwardly sticks out amongst the strong surrounding material. Its only redeeming quality: some smooth slide guitar work.
"Rocky Ground" (9) The album's most ambitious track, with a distinct correlation back to 1994s "Streets Of Philadelphia", with its haunting tone, drum loop percussion, and spare arrangement. The lyrics contain some of the most direct religion-based wordplay Springsteen's ever released ("Forty days and nights of rain washed this land/Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand"), words that take on even more power when the music is augmented by a powerful assist from the Victorious Gospel Choir. The song's biggest gamble is the short rap section by gospel singer Michelle Moore; advance notice of the rapping on this track had many hardcore Springsteen fans up in arms and apprehensive. It works brilliantly, though, partly because Moore delivers her words in a tasteful, understated manner. Moore is also prominently featured throughout the rest of the song delivering a sweetly sung "We've been travelin' over rocky ground" refrain. An oddity: the recurring sample of a 1942 Alan Lomax field recording of the Church of God in Christ Congregation in Clarksdale, Mississippi features a man that sounds exactly like Van Zandt. I was amazed when I looked at the album's liner notes and discovered it wasn't him.
"Land Of Hope And Dreams" (10) The song debuted on Springsteen's 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band and finally finds a proper home on a studio album. One of the highlights of HBO's Live In New York City special (available on DVD/Blu-ray and absolutely essential viewing for any Springsteen fan, even more so than the also outstanding London Calling: Live From Hyde Park DVD/Blu-ray I reviewed here), the track is Wrecking Ball's strongest. At seven minutes long, it's only a couple of minutes shorter than the live version, but never wastes a note. Opening and closing with lyrical references to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", the song's theme of salvation makes it another natural candidate for the choir treatment, once again ably fulfilled by the Victorious Gospel Choir. One of their members begins the song with a short a cappella solo section and I was once again completely fooled - the vocals are a dead ringer for Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame, who Springsteen has worked with several times in the past few years). I also swear that once again, the uncredited Van Zandt can be heard singing and talking at the end of the song - maybe Springsteen's just screwing with us in those liner notes. This track has so many plusses musically, especially the fantastic mandolin accompaniment, but its centrepiece is undoubtedly a typically huge-sounding sax solo from Clemons that packs a major punch, for reasons both musical and sentimental. I'm extremely familiar with this track, having heard that live version dozens of times over the years, so I'm aware of when Clemons' solo comes in, but I was completely caught off-guard when first taking in this version. For me, listening to a new Bruce Springsteen album for the first time is a significant occurrence, just because he's my favourite musical artist. That first listen will be a no-distractions, headphones-on, musical experience, and Wrecking Ball was no exception. I was just so caught up in all of that by the time I got to this track that, combined with the fact that Clemons (despite what the liner notes say) doesn't really have a musical presence on the preceding nine songs, it resulted in his solo really sneaking up on me. In fact, between the sheer uplifting power of the song and the emotional implications from The Big Man's passing, I'm not ashamed to admit that I was actually moved to tears. The studio version of "Land Of Hope And Dreams" transforms an already great song into something even better - I dare say this may be one of the best pieces of music Springsteen has ever put out.
"We Are Alive" (9) One of the most interesting album tracks, although "Land Of Hope And Dreams" seems like the more logical choice to have closed the album. "We Are Alive" evokes memories of the similarly spaghetti western-sounding "Outlaw Pete" from Springsteen's last album; this one has less of an epic quality, but doesn't skimp in the department of musical grandness. The song opens with Springsteen singing and whistling over a lone campfire-style acoustic guitar strum, alluding to the stripped-down folk influence that permeated his acoustic albums Devils And Dust and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, albums which had their moments, but would definitely not be on my list of favourite Springsteen works. That musical spareness soon gives way to a full palette of sounds, though: banjo, a bouncing bass line, hand claps, thundering timpanis, heavily reverbed and tremoloed electric guitar, accordion, mandolin, Mariachi-style horns, and a shuffling light touch from E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, whose only other appearance on Wrecking Ball is on the title track. The song shrewdly uses the melody of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" as its foundation, set over lyrics speaking for the dead and commemorating Americans who died fighting for their beliefs, or were trying to improve their way of life. Clemons' spirit undeniably lives on in lines like "And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark/Our souls and spirits rise/To carry the fire and light the spark/To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart".
Deluxe Edition bonus tracks (not factored into rating score): "Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)" is deadly dull, with a plodding pace and probably one of the most unlikeable, off-key vocal performances I've ever heard from Springsteen. He wasn't wrong in relegating this one to "not up to regular album snuff" status. "American Land", on the other hand, would have felt right at home on Wrecking Ball. The lively Irish jig has been around for a few years now in his live shows, frequently as a concert closer, and appeared as a live bonus track on the American Land Edition reissue of his 2006 We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album. It's a marvelous and exceptionally fun song, and the energy displayed in the live version has been admirably captured on this studio version.
Wrecking Ball lives partially up to the pre-release buzz of it finding Springsteen more pissed off than he's been in years, but that frustration and angst in the lyrics is muted (although not to the point of ineffectiveness) by the frequently raucous nature of the diverse music that those words keep company with. It's a testament to Springsteen's blue-collar roots and groundedness that he can still tap into the despair of the disenfranchised and realistically convey their suffering through his work, despite the fact the filthy-rich rock icon is now decades removed from such worries and hardships himself. Critics and disgruntled fans still holding him to Born To Run-level standards can say a lot about Springsteen, but at age 62 and still brimming with honesty and passion, they can't accuse him of going through the motions on his newest effort.
Rating: A-

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

American Experience - Clinton [television/film review]

Debuted on PBS in February; now available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and streaming on
I'm a latecomer to PBS, not having discovered some of the fantastic documentary and investigative journalism programming they offer until about six or seven years ago. Since then, I've been playing catch-up and devouring as many older films and programs from their Independent Lens, American Experience, American Masters, and Frontline series as possible, while addictively keeping up with the new content, like Clinton. It's the 15th film in American Experience's ongoing The Presidents series and, like the excellent Woody Allen documentary from last November that I reviewed here, aired on PBS over two nights and clocks in at just under three-and-a-half hours. As has been the case in previous films from The Presidents series, in order to maintain the integrity of the work as a true documentary and not a memoir or biography, Bill Clinton himself was not interviewed by director/writer/producer Barak Goodman, nor was his wife, Hillary.
Goodman spends minimal time on Clinton's Arkansas origins growing up in a broken home, with the highlight of this "early years" portion being the great black and white film footage of the future 42nd American president meeting his hero, John F. Kennedy, at a youth event at the White House in 1963. Following studies at Yale Law School, Georgetown University, and Oxford University, the fiercely ambitious and extremely charismatic Clinton dives into local and state politics, further emboldened by the strong support from his wife, who he met at Yale. Hillary's resilience in the relationship would be tested early and often with Clinton's ongoing marital infidelities. A worker on one of his Arkansas gubernatorial campaigns recalls, "At one time, there was at least 25 women per day coming through (the campaign office) trying to find him". Goodman tastefully handles the future sex scandals involving Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky, getting surprisingly candid commentary on the topic from former Clinton aides and colleagues, such as Press Secretary Dee Dee Meyers, political advisor James Carville, Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, and Secretary of Labour Robert Reich. Conspicuous by their absence in the film (not just on this topic, but in general) are former Vice President Al Gore and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos. A welcome impartial perspective is contributed by journalists, historians, and political opponents (Trent Lott, the Republican former Senate Majority Leader, expresses his amazement that Clinton got off as lightly as he did in the court of public opinion). The Lewinsky affair, not surprisingly, receives a significant focus and makes up the bulk of the last hour of the documentary, which also interestingly examines how the role of both the burgeoning Internet and cable TV industry (and, by extension, the 24-hour news cycle) factored into the scandal. The film naturally devotes coverage to other Clinton scandals, including his alleged draft dodging and the Whitewater land investment investigations (its head witch hunter Ken Starr gets a surprising amount of camera time), and while it may seem Clinton spends too much time looking at the negative aspects of his life and career, it's necessary in giving a complete picture of the man's amazing story. Of course, it's Clinton's remarkable ability to rebound from these numerous ugly situations (stemming from some colossal lapses in good judgment) and other political defeats that help make him such a compelling figure, which is a recurring and dominant theme of the film.
Scandals aside, the documentary does a good job in summarizing Clinton's notable accomplishments during his two terms, including presiding over major economic growth, balancing the budget (and leaving office with a budget surplus), coming back from the definitive Newt Gingrich-led Republican victories in the 1994 mid-term elections, and his strong leadership following the Oklahoma City bombing. Coverage of Clinton's political missteps and failures focus on his weakness in the area of foreign policy, notably concerning the lack of U.S. intervention in Rwanda and Bosnia. Hillary's storyline as the exceptionally smart and forgiving First Lady eager to establish her own independence proves to be similarly fascinating. One intriguing segment looks at her popularity issues early on in Clinton's first term, with one interviewee amusingly offering up the following biting assessment: "And the wife was terrifying as well. She was pushy, she was humourless, she couldn't get her hair figured out...there were just so many things about Hillary we didn't like".
Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, Clinton presents a (dare I say it) fair and balanced portrait of one of the most complex and polarizing figures in U.S. political history, coming to the conclusion that the brilliant, but flawed man with an intense desire to be liked ultimately couldn't fulfill his great promise. That may not be a groundbreakingly new viewpoint, but Clinton is still a well-rounded, thoroughly absorbing profile.
Rating: A

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Martina McBride - Eleven [album review]

Released in October 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Eleven is, no surprise, Martina McBride's eleventh studio album and had its work cut out for it to top her previous release, 2009's Shine, which ended up on my "best albums" list for that year. What I had heard from McBride before that really hadn't left an impression, making the discovery of such a top-to-bottom fine collection of songs such an unexpected, pleasant surprise. After dipping into three albums from her back catalog and failing to find anything that remotely resonated with me as much as Shine, I was very curious as to how Eleven would go down.
The album is quite light on tracks you'd classify as "peppy"; of those, the concert-ready "One Night" and "Broken Umbrella" stand out, while lead single "Teenage Daughters" can't translate its sugary melodies into a satisfying song, although mothers of said offspring will likely be able to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek exasperation expressed in McBride's lyrics. A couple of below average tracks fall into the "mid tempo" category: "You Can Get Your Lovin' Right Here" shows off the singer's sexier, more soulful side and, as McBride writes in the album's liner notes, "Always Be This Way" was inspired by songs like Train's monster hit "Hey, Soul Sister" and the reggae-lite pop style of the awful Jason Mraz. Train factors into Shine's best track, a cover of their moderate hit from 2010, "Marry Me". The gentle ballad, anchored by acoustic guitar and light percussion, features Train singer Patrick Monahan duetting with McBride, and it's an unexpected and creatively inspired decision to refrain from having them sing together until the song's end, where their voices mesh beautifully. That separate-and-then-together vocal arrangement, intentionally or unintentionally, endows the song with an added poignancy by functioning as a hopeful metaphor for the song's lyrics, which tells the story of two smitten characters envisioning a happily ever after life with each other, even though they've never spoken to one another. Shine's slower songs are its strength, as evidenced by "Summer Of Love" (featuring some nice mandolin accompaniment), another acoustic guitar ballad titled "Long Distance Lullaby", and the power ballad "I'm Gonna Love You Through It". The latter's title might suggest Hallmark card sappiness, and a closer look at the song reveals lyrics that might not always be terribly profound while championing the strength found in friends and family for someone battling cancer (example: "When you're weak, I'll be strong/When you let go, I'll hold on/When you need to cry, I swear that I'll be there to dry your eyes"), but it's still a moving (and catchy) track.
McBride gets labelled and marketed as a country performer, but there's actually as much of a 60s-era soul flavour to her songs on Shine as there is country, with the dominant sound being that of adult contemporary pop. She's a powerhouse vocal talent, where the showier aspects of her instrument are used judiciously, rather than overwhelming the listener with vocal histrionics, and it's that remarkable voice that elevates the solid Eleven a notch or two above what most singers could have delivered with the material.
Rating: C+