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.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The annoying ubiquity of Twitter...

I hate Twitter, never more so than on this past Tuesday evening as I watched the CBC's coverage of the American presidential election. As the coverage carried into the early morning, I found myself becoming more and more irritated at the network's confounding decision to display Tweet after useless Tweet from viewers prominently on the screen, right above important information like, you know, the actual election results. I don't recall the CBC's Twitter component being so emphasized earlier on in the night, but it was certainly right in viewer's faces as we waited past midnight EST for Mitt Romney to concede defeat, straight through to the end of Barack Obama's victory speech at around 2 a.m. I wondered what anchor Peter Mansbridge, who I consider as good a newsman as there is today, thought about the front-and-centre Twitter presence on his program. At one point, I was literally even holding my hand up in front of my face to obscure that offending portion of the screen from view...if you ever want to feel truly ridiculous, then catch yourself doing that while lying on your couch at about 1:30 in the morning. My annoyance was such that I even sent the CBC a complaint email the next day and I haven't sent one of those to anyone in a good couple of decades. And yes, I could have just changed the channel to one of the American networks, which I did do once in a while, but I live in Canada and preferred to have a Canadian take on the proceedings. 

Here's a paraphrased sampling of some of the received Tweets that CBC felt were deserving of airtime: "That guy over Obama's left shoulder looks very tired", "What's with the flag in the woman's hair in the background?", "What a great speaker", "Mitt Romney looks pretty defeated", and more than one wishing Obama would break into a "Gangnam Style" dance routine (can the 15 minutes of that thing please arrive a little quicker?). There were also a steady stream of Tweets from people offering congratulations to Obama and proclaiming how happy they were with the election results. Great. Thanks so much, CBC and you device-addicted viewers. My viewing experience has been so much more enriched by all of these valuable contributions. 

Even if there was anything of merit being said from this segment of the audience (and I didn't count a single one that qualified), I just don't understand what place any of it has on a serious journalistic production covering a historic political event. Obviously, broadcasting of social media feedback has been part of news productions for a while now, especially since Twitter has became so popular in the past few years. But just because something like Twitter exists and is popular doesn't justify the baffling level of prominence that the media as a whole has elevated it to. It smacks of desperation on their part, as a means of engaging a younger demographic in an effort to stem the tide of ever-eroding viewership numbers. As far as I'm concerned, the only impact it's had is that the already-diminished credibility and integrity of the mainstream media sinks that much lower. I read, watch, or listen to the news for information delivered by professionals, as well as for informed opinions and commentary, not for the public's opinion on a topic. This recent shift where the public's viewpoint has increasingly stuck its nose into the narrative and framework of news programs, even if only on a minor level in some cases, is troubling. 

I've also noticed an increasing Twitter presence on other TV programs, where graphics with the show's Twitter address or a hashtagged word are now cropping up more frequently. While watching a recent episode of Comedy Central's excellent Key & Peele show, I noticed that "#keyandpeele" and the Twitter addresses of the show's two principal actors were on screen for about 75% of the half hour program's running time. I shudder to think about how much more clutter will be on our television screens just 2-3 years from now, as smart TVs and their seamless integration with other technologies becomes more and more popular. I can completely foresee, say, a show's Facebook "Like" request popping up as viewers watch the program. God help us. Speaking of God help us, I was amazed and rather sickened to find out earlier this year that the Toronto Blue Jays, who I'm a diehard fan of, were selling t-shirts that feature the Twitter handles of some of their players on the back. 

Listen, I love technology as much as the next person - my iMac, iPad, iPod, PS3, PVR, and HD TV are all an integral part of the fabric of my day-to-day life (you'll notice I excluded a cell phone...I have one, but can't really stand them either). And I grasp the inherent benefit of something like Twitter, that it allows for a more immediate conveyance of information and, in some cases, is the first media platform on which some stories break (frankly, though, I'm fine with waiting a few minutes more for my news so I can get the actual details that a 140 character-max Tweet can't deliver). But based on everything I've observed over the years since this social media service has risen in popularity, for every legitimate news story that breaks on Twitter, or impactful effect that Twitter has on something like the Arab Spring, or Tweet that has any semblance of thoughtful discourse (however brief it may be), there seems to be about a million others from people with absolutely nothing to say. And don't even get me started on the idiot celebrities, politicians, or athletes who get themselves into hot water on Twitter. It's just one more platform, along with texting and Facebook, to enable the transfer of mostly inane, meaningless chatter and its popularity just makes me feel old, as I'm sure has been conveyed in the grumpy old man "get off my lawn!" tone of this posting. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

P!nk - The Truth About Love [album review]

Released in September

It's partly a by-product of my age (42), but to my ears and eyes, most pop music today is vacuous and completely forgettable. Admittedly, that's hardly an original statement. One of the genre's few artists of merit is P!nk, who recently released studio album number six, The Truth About Love (and I'll refrain from using the cutesy "!" in her name from this point on, as typing it makes me feel like an utter tool). I was surprised when I read that this release marked her first #1 debut on the Billboard 200 album chart, considering the massive success she's experienced in her career. To link to this review, I went back to find the post I put up a couple of years ago featuring a video of one of the singer's daring performances in a wire rigging setup. Watching it and the other incredible Grammy performance I mentioned in the post impressed upon me once again me just how dynamic a performer Pink is. Aside from her visual flair, she also consistently brings the vocal goods in a live setting. That and a well-crafted power pop sound are traits she shares with one of the few other pop singers whose work I admire, Kelly Clarkson. Here's a breakdown of The Truth About Love's strengths and weaknesses...

The good: It's juvenile, but I so wanted to hate the track "Just Give Me A Reason" that Pink duets on with Nate Ruess of the group fun., purely based on the participation of Ruess. fun. (and that is the way it's spelled) is a perfect representation of the kind of indie music I can't stomach, with my dislike of these acts' exacerbated by the band members' wardrobe choices that scream "hipster douchebag" (I told you I was juvenile). However, within a minute of hearing this song for the first time, I had goosebumps, as the singers' back and forth exchanges of lovers with radically different reads on the state of their relationship plays out over a piano, synth bass line, and drums musical arrangement that sounds positively Queen-like. It's rather phenomenal. First single "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" is far better than the puerile title that Pinks occasionally blemishes her songs with. A Cyndi Lauper-ish bubblegum pop intro gets steamrolled in the chorus by the heavy guitars that are another big reason of why I'm a Pink fan. One of the other main reasons is the highly infectious nature of her songs - Pink's material has more hooks than a tackle box. Said catchiness also dominates the self-empowerment anthem "All We Are We Are", "True Love" (featuring Brit singer Lily Rose Cooper, formerly known as Lily Allen), the excellent "Try", and the playful "Walk Of Shame". If the high gloss production sheen on Pink's upbeat pop material isn't your cup of tea, she really lays her musical talent bare on the ballads that are mostly stripped of the studio bells and whistles: "Beam Me Up" features just an acoustic guitar and a tasteful string arrangement, while "The Great Escape" showcases more strings and a lone piano.

The bad: "How Come You're Not Here" has no shortage of those heavy guitars in the chorus, but this track just never grabbed me. "Slut Like You" is another non-starter that features bratty tongue-in-cheek (I think) lyrics about using men purely as playthings, set over a chorus that nicks the "woo hoo" from Blur's "Song 2", with snippets of intended humour that tend to grate. Speaking of grating, the album's worst track is the plodding "Here Comes The Weekend"; the fact that Eminem has a guest appearance on it only makes a crap song that much worse. Finally, the generic "Where Did The Beat Go?" sounds like a Destiny's Child leftover that Pink would have been advised to shelve in favour of any of the four songs that were relegated to The Truth About Love's deluxe edition ("My Signature Move", "Is This Thing On?", "Run", and "Good Old Days"). Oh, and I could do without the badass posturing that Pink seems to think is necessary with her gratuitous usage of f-bombs throughout the album.

The curious: One thing I've never fully understood and always been rubbed a little wrong by in the pop world (country too, for that matter) is the practice of using tons of producers and songwriters on an album. The Truth About Love has 11 different producers and aside from Pink, a full 20 different songwriters credited. I guess the end result is what matters, though, and in this case, it's a fairly solid one.

Back in June when I railed in a post about the visual over-skankification so many of today's female pop artists seem to present, I refrained from mentioning Pink, although the provocative singer truthfully wouldn't be too out of place within that group. Acts like Katy Perry and Kesha need to parade around half-naked to distract an audience from the fact they're musical hacks. Pink, however, actually possesses loads of talent and shouldn't need to resort to such cheap tactics. 

There's a disappointing inconsistency to the material, but when the songs on The Truth About Love work, they work big-time.

Rating: B- 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Holly McNarland - Run Body Run [album review]

Released in May

Not unlike Emm Gryner, whose praises I've sung on this blog more than once in the past several months, Holly McNarland is another frustratingly underrated Canadian artist (in fact, I discovered Gryner opening at one of McNarland's shows in 2003). Following the independently released EP Sour Pie in 1995, McNarland enjoyed some breakout success with the tracks "Numb" and "Elmo" off her first full-length album, 1997's alt rock-leaning Stuff, eventually going on to win the 1998 Juno Award for Best New Solo Artist (the Juno is like the Canadian Grammy). Further success came in 2002 with "Beautiful Blue", the lead single from her album Home Is Where My Feet Are, which is one of my favourite songs and music videos of the past decade. Since then, McNarland has made her family her first priority and left the major label system to return to her roots as an indie artist, releasing the overlooked Chin Up Buttercup in 2007 and now Run Body Run, which was an iTunes Store-only release back in May that eventually had CDs pressed for retail distribution. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that's only been one LP every five years (with a couple of EPs mixed in along the way), contributing to McNarland's relative lack of profile these days. And that's a shame, because not enough people will likely get to hear Run Body Run, arguably her best album yet

The Manitoba-born, Toronto-based McNarland has mellowed somewhat since her edgier, more angst-filled earlier days, although Run Body Run still packs an ornery punch in quite a number of places. "Fish" conveys the dark, brooding vibe that McNarland can be so adept at conjuring up and it's also evident on the back half of the slow-building title track, where the singer really lets loose with her exceptional voice. "Run Body Run" is a tad on the repetitive side, essentially only consisting of three different chords, but the instrumental layers and emotion that emerge as the song unfolds are mighty powerful and make it a fitting album closer (check out her impressive solo acoustic performance of it here). Slow, melancholy songs are another specialty of the musician and there's four strong ones here, all demonstrating a distinct country influence: "Widow's Pane" (featuring some lovely twangy guitars), "After I'm Gone", "Darlin'", and "You'll Forget About Me". That last song is one of my favourite tracks on the album, but every time I listen to it I'm thrown off by the brief sound of some off-putting feedback right when the solo section begins at 2:47. It weirdly sounds exactly like the pitch of my microwave oven timer and the first time I listened to the track, I literally got up from my chair and went to check the appliance. Somewhere in the middle ground between McNarland's heartaching ballads and her more aggressive material lie songs like album opener "Alone's Just Fine" (a perfect example of less-is-more guitar craftsmanship with its bright and open ringing chords), the energetic "Only Money", "Dig A Little", and "Whisper". 

McNarland has always been adept at mixing a number of musical styles and there's no better example of that than Run Body Run, as pop, country, folk, and rock rub shoulders within the musician's highly melodic songs that favour the usage of quiet-loud dynamics. There's virtually no letdown throughout the album's 41 minute/10 track span, making Run Body Run one of the finest albums I've heard this year and an under the radar release you'd be well advised to seek out.  

Rating: A

Friday, November 2, 2012

Killer Joe [film review]

Released theatrically in North America in July and August; available on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on December 21st

I can't imagine a corporation being more horrified at their product appearing in a movie than KFC must have been when a bucket of their chicken appeared in a scene from Killer Joe, considering what happens with a drumstick from that bucket. Feminists probably won't be too enamoured with this movie, either. Killer Joe was adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts from his own 1993 play of the same name, with William Friedkin (best known for The French Connection and The Exorcist) directing the crime drama. 

The premise: Chris (played by Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who owes money to his boss, so he decides to kill his mother for her insurance money. Backed in his cockamamie plan by dim-witted father Ansel (played by Thomas Haden Church), skanky stepmother Sharla (played by Gina Gershon), and spaced-out sister Dottie (played by Juno Temple), Chris hires the services of Killer Joe Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), a local detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Chris is one of those movie characters with "hard-luck loser" written on him almost immediately, so it's hardly a surprise when things don't go quite as planned.

Killer Joe is an exceptionally lurid piece of work that shows its colours early - in the opening scene, Sharla answers her trailer home door to her stepson and is naked from the waist down. All five main characters in this film are highly damaged individuals who no one in their right mind would want to spend any amount of time with in real life, with all but Killer Joe representing the trashiest of white trash. Only Dottie's virgin/whore character inspires any measure of sympathy, as her actions seem to be the result of simply not knowing any better. The bleak material of Killer Joe is quite well-acted by its cast; I was especially surprised at how engaged I became with McConaughey's and Hirsch's performances, since they're two actors I've never much cared for in the past. With the film being set in Texas, McConaughey's soft-spoken drawl feels right at home and his character commands the screen whenever he appears - this is clearly not a man to be screwed with. And yes, ladies, McConaughey doffs his shirt again in this movie...even more than that, in fact (certainly, he's looking a lot healthier here than he has recently after dropping a ton of weight for his latest film project). McConaughey may have the juiciest role, but Church has some of the best lines and the funniest scene, which involves a wardrobe malfunction (it's so good that I'm literally laughing out loud as I remember it now, even a few weeks after seeing this film). Gershon acquits herself well with some of the difficult material she has to tackle, notably that aforementioned scene involving the chicken, which I won't spoil the details of. That extremely uncomfortable-to-watch scene earned Killer Joe a dreaded NC-17 rating in the U.S. (18A in Canada), significantly limiting how many screens it could play on. The rating and the film's generally unsavoury tone probably explain why it came and went from theatres so quickly and quietly this past summer, earning less than $4 million worldwide at the box office.

The not-for-everyone Killer Joe is far from a unique film-watching experience with its liberal usage of Tarantino-esque archetypes, but the impressive performances make it well worth a viewing. A strong stomach might benefit you, too.  

Rating: B-