Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sound City [film review]

Released theatrically and via video-on-demand in February; now available on DVD and Blu-ray

Tom Petty's Damn The Torpedoes, Rage Against The Machine's self-titled debut, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Foreigner's Double Vision, Dio's Holy Diver, Nirvana's Nevermind, Metallica's Death Magnetic, Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth, REO Speedwagon's You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish...all of these notable albums (okay, maybe not so much with that last one) were recorded at Sound City Studios. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl makes his directorial debut with Sound City, which tracks the history of the legendary recording studio located in a nondescript building in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley that operated from 1969 until 2011, when it closed as a casualty of the digital age. The musician calls Sound City "my life's most important work", which is high praise indeed for someone with Grohl's impressive music credentials. 

The impetus for making Sound City came when Grohl bought several items from the studio after its closing. The most notable item purchased was a custom-built Neve 8028 analog mixing console that Grohl moved to his own studio, Studio 606. The unique Neve console cost $75,000 when it was bought in 1973, which was about double the cost of a house in the Valley at the time, and Grohl explores just enough of the Neve's history and special qualities without alienating those of us less interested in the minutiae of music technology.

Most of Sound City centres on the acts and producers who recorded at the shabby facility that featured brown shag carpeting on the walls and had a knack for producing a great drum sound, with a host of big names that includes Neil Young, Trent Reznor, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Rick Rubin, Butch Vig, Stevie Nicks, and Lindsay Buckingham interviewed. Sound City, where Nicks and Buckingham recorded their first album as a duo and later with Fleetwood Mac, was also instrumental in pairing up the duo with the group. Grohl, who gives plenty of his own insights into the Nevermind recording experience, doesn't limit his list of interviewees to the more "respected" variety of musicians, either - Barry Manilow (looking like a cautionary figure for too much plastic surgery), former Dio drummer Vinny Appice, REO Speedwagon singer Kevin Cronin, members of Ratt, and Rick Springfield all weigh in with remembrances of their time spent in the studio. There's also many illuminating interviews with some of Sound City's behind-the-scenes figures, like owner Tom Skeeter, and studio managers Shivaun O'Brien and Paula Salvatore.     

Sound City works best when it's looking in the rearview mirror instead of exploring the human connection and creative elements of the recording process, as the last third of the documentary does (and which I'd normally find of great interest). Grohl brings together his Them Crooked Vultures bandmate Josh Homme, Nicks, Springfield, Reznor, and Paul McCartney, among others, to record new music on the Neve console for the documentary's accompanying soundtrack album. Unfortunately, little of the music they come up with merits much attention and this section of the film, despite the passion and enthusiasm Grohl has for the endeavour, feels rather like a commercial for the soundtrack and, dare I say it (because I'm a huge fan of his), a Grohl vanity project. Admittedly, it is quite funny and refreshing to see a music heavyweight like Grohl geeking out over getting to record with a former Beatle. Considering the wealth of musical talent that graced the studio's grubby interior over the decades, that 30 minutes spent on the "new music section" feels wasted when there are surely many more interesting war stories that have been left untold (click here for a list of every album recorded at Sound City).

Sound City's unsatisfying final act detracts from the fascinating content that precedes it, resulting in a film that's a little uneven, yet still well worth a watch for music fans.  

Rating: B

Related posts: my April 2011 review of the Foo Fighters' Wasting Light album and my August 2011 review of the Foo Fighters: Back And Forth documentary

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bon Jovi - What About Now [album review]

Released in March

In my 2009 review of Bon Jovi's last album, The Circle, I opined that the band's material, while still pleasing in a lot of places, had "an assembly line feel" to it. What About Now, their latest effort, sounds even more like the New Jersey band is simply going through the motions, with a predictable collection of stadium-ready anthems espousing the merits of working class heroes and self-belief. It may be uncool to admit, but I've been a huge fan of the band since 1987 and What About Now is such a disappointment that it'll be the first studio album of theirs since then that I shan't be buying. I regularly cite album sales figures on this blog because I find it interesting to look at how a musical artist's newest work is received by their fans (and not as measure of how good or bad something is, based purely on its commercial success or failure). What About Now was Bon Jovi's weakest sales debut for a studio set since 1995's These Days album opened with 73,000 copies sold, selling 101,000 copies in its first week. Also by comparison, The Circle and 2007's Lost Highway sold 163,000 and 292,000 copies, respectively, in their first weeks (all figures, taken from Billboard magazine, are from U.S. sales). 

The lack of a potent first single may explain the diminished sale numbers. "Because We Can" is merely okay, with a big chorus that can't match its better verse sections. The title track, a likely single, is another solid enough song that falls short of being truly memorable with an overly familiar songwriting construct, including a bridge section that sounds awfully close to the one from the band's "In These Arms". Lyrical depth has never been singer Jon Bon Jovi's best strength and his dime store philosophy lyrics, such as the ones here proclaiming "You wanna start a fire, it only takes a spark/You gotta get behind the wheel, if you're ever gonna drive that car", sound more tired than usual. The entire album contains an eye glazing number of lyrics full of shallow wisdom like that, as well as so many self-empowerment lines like the "Never give up, you're an army of one" chorus from "Army Of One" (which, again, is otherwise pretty decent) that any power the positive words might even remotely have are dulled by his significant overuse of the theme. "Pictures Of You", the strangely titled "That's What The Water Made Me", and "Beautiful World" find JBJ, guitarist Richie Sambora, drummer Tico Torres, and keyboardist David Bryan serviceably regenerating the unabashedly populist, high energy pop metal sound that is the group's stock-in-trade. Of course, it wouldn't be a Bon Jovi album without some ballads, represented here in the "power" variety by the excellent "Thick As Thieves" and agreeable "Room At The End Of The World", and a couple more passable stripped-down tracks in "Amen" and "The Fighter" that rely on just an acoustic guitar, keyboards, and some strings. "I'm With You" and the Lost Highway outtake-sounding "What's Left Of Me" qualify as the album's biggest stinkers.  

When the material is there, I'm willing to overlook the small nagging dislikes I've developed for Bon Jovi over the years: the aforementioned overused themes, the Bruce Springsteen ripoffs, JBJ's habit of weirdly mumbling his words at times, and the trend over the past decade of a band that prides itself on reflecting the struggles of the working man charging exorbitant prices for most of their concert tickets. A ticket in the pit (just in front of the stage) for one of their U.S stadium shows this summer will run you $400, a ticket in the reserved floor seating section behind that area is going for $200, and their Diamond VIP Experience Package will cost you an obscene $1,875 U.S. for a single ticket (it is only fair to note that they are also offering $20 tickets in the stadium's nosebleed sections). As a means of comparison, similarly top tier concert draws like U2 and Springsteen had floor ticket prices that topped out on their most recent treks at about $70 and $130, respectively. And at Bon Jovi's high prices, you're not even assured of getting a performance from Sambora, the band's second-most vital component after the group's namesake leader. Sambora's life the past few several years has seen its share of turmoil, with a divorce, a DUI conviction, him dropping out of two straight tours (he exited a 2011 Bon Jovi tour to enter rehab and mysteriously left the band's tour earlier this month because of vague "personal reasons"), and some dates cancelled 
because of vocal problems on the eve of a promo tour last fall to support his Aftermath Of The Lowdown solo album (which I reviewed here). And when the material, as it is on What About Now, is as spotty as its been since the band's first two albums in the early to mid 80s, those annoyances are magnified and less easy to look past. The stale and middling What About Now sounds like the product of a band in serious need of a creative lobotomy. 

Rating: C   

Friday, April 19, 2013

Brad Paisley - Wheelhouse [album review]

Released April 9th

After a couple of years of being a newly converted Brad Paisley fan, I still find myself rather surprised that the West Virginia native's brand of country rock has managed to pull me in. Paisley traffics in some of the more traditional country music elements that I've never cared for - the twang in his singing voice, a lot of rural/"rednecky" references in his work (like pickup trucks, fishin', and NASCAR), the ubiquitous cowboy hat. Most unlikeable, however, is his propensity for injecting winking humour into his songwriting, regularly to the point where those types of songs smack of a Barenaked Ladies-style novelty, which is something I've always hated when it comes to the music I listen to (case in point, his 2003 song "Celebrity"). I don't mind a bit of a sense of humour in an artist's music videos or occasionally when they're onstage (the Foo Fighters come to mind here), but there's just something about it in their actual music that has never agreed with me. On Wheelhouse, Paisley's newly released ninth studio album, he hasn't strayed far from the blueprint of his previous work, although he does take some notable lyrical risks on the much-talked-about "Accidental Racist", as well as on the eyebrow-raising "Those Crazy Christians". 

Wheelhouse's good: first single "Southern Comfort Zone", unusually released a whopping six-and-a-half months before Wheelhouse came out, is Paisley at his best, with an expertly crafted upbeat composition that doesn't skimp on the guitar flash and takes on grander proportions with added vocals from a Baptist church choir. And while Paisley may be a good 'ol boy who praises his love of the American South in the song's lyrics, he also balances that with an open-minded attitude towards other cultures and exploring the rest of the world as well. It's a measure of how well-written the song is that the acoustic version on Wheelhouse's deluxe version, with just an acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a mandolin backing Paisley's vocals, is almost equal to the full band version (and check out the terrific video for the song below...regardless of what you think of the track, you've got to admit that Paisley's use of a tractor engine as his percussion at the beginning and end is absolutely brilliant). Second single "Beat This Summer" is a quintessential "summer love" song with a chilled-out feel and an extended guitar solo over the outro. "Pressing On A Bruise" finds Paisley in agreeable mid-tempo mode with a catchy number that features the musician singing about a guy who can't stop torturing himself over an ex, although the rapped verse from Nashville singer-songwriter Mat Kearney feels a little out of place. "Tin Can On A String" covers somewhat similar "relationship regret" lyrical terrain, albeit here with a protagonist who pines after a woman who falls more into the category of the one who got away. Paisley's clever metaphor of the wound-licking character feeling like the beat-up tin can on a string that's barely hanging onto the bumper of his lost love's wedding limo is sad and powerful, as is the ballad's tasteful instrumental component. The also subdued "I Can't Change The World" stands out as one of Wheelhouse's best tracks, along with album closer "Officially Alive", the frantic "Runaway Train", love song "The Mona Lisa", and "Those Crazy Christians". Told from the perspective of a non-believer (Paisley himself is a churchgoer), that last one ultimately takes an admirable, if quizzical, viewpoint towards Christians and the sacrifices some of them make to help others ("You know it's funny, much as I'm baffled by it all/If I ever really needed help, you know who I'd call is those crazy Christians"), but not before getting there with a surprisingly condescending narrative. Even when you're made aware of what Paisley intended with the facetious nature of his words, lines like "Every untimely passing, every dear departed soul/Is just another good excuse to bake a casserole" and "No they ain't the late night party kind/They curse the devil's whiskey while they drink the saviour's wine" are still fairly jarring coming out of the mouth of a country singer. I'm sure the American Southern religious right, a group clearly well-known for their fine sense of humour, will be thrilled with it.              

Wheelhouse's average: "Karate" is a peppy track that covers some well-worn territory from the country genre with the domestic abuse revenge fantasy. Here, the abused wife takes up martial arts, working towards getting "that belt to match her eye" and eventually kicking her hubby's ass (Charlie Daniels contributes the play-by-play for that moment). "Harvey Bodine" contains cornball storytelling, plucky guitar, whistling, and some jovial tuba, so it leans a little too much to Paisley's whimsical side to stand up to many repeat listens for me. The schizophrenic "Death Of A Single Man" is more interesting than good (it's decent, though), with most of the song cruising along at a laid back pace before ratcheting up the tempo during the guitar solo section. Throughout, Paisley does his best Les Paul imitation impressively, with jazzy guitar licks showing off his virtuosic skills.   

Wheelhouse's bad: "Outstanding In Our Field" is a perfect example of the jokester material from Paisley that holds no appeal for me. With vocal contributions from Dierks Bentley and guitar work from young Nashville instrumental wunderkind Hunter Hayes, the keg party song that features lyrics about drawing a Sharpie moustache on a passed-out partygoer and the awfully unpunny "But if you wanna throw a party in the middle of nowhere, we're outstanding in our field" line gets an emphatic "Next!" from me. The track also just sounds like most of the generic male-sung current country that I'm not a fan of, either. "Death Of A Married Man" is mercifully short at just 48 seconds and features Eric Idle delivering a very Monty Python-esque short skit. I like Idle and Monty Python well enough, I'm just not looking for their specific skill set when it comes to my music listening. Another interlude number is the short instrumental "幽女" (translated as "Onryo", which means "quiet female"). It's a skippable lead-in to the song "Karate" and confuses with its Indian and Asian melodies, and "Hyuh!" cheerleader chants (which, conversely, oddly work nicely when they reappear on "Karate") set around Paisley's otherwise fine country guitar shred. The polarizing "Accidental Racist" is a song that brings the expression "hot mess" to mind. In many ways, it's actually one of the best songs on the album with a restrained vibe, highly appealing melody, and a marvelous vocal performance by Paisley. However, the song's uncomfortable and sometimes misguided attempts at making sense of racial tension greatly undermine the track's strengths. Paisley's objective was to broach the delicate topic of black-white race relations by showing the viewpoints of each side. His perspective talks of Southern white guilt and unintentionally offending a black Starbucks employee with his Confederate flag-featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, while guest LL Cool J raps about the struggles of his people and being misunderstood because of his saggy pants and bling. Full disclosure: I loathe rap, and LL's performance here has done absolutely nothing to sway me on that stance. It doesn't help that he comes up with some positively atrocious and cringeworthy lines. For example: "If you don't judge my do-rag...I won't judge your red flag", "If you don't judge my gold chains...I'll forget the iron chains" (what?!), "The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'", and "R.I.P. Robert E. Lee, but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me...know what I mean?". Paisley's attempt at creating a dialogue about a difficult subject almost never dealt with in country music is certainly admirable, but the lyrical ideas are clumsily executed, unfortunately. A noble failure. 

A newcomer to Paisley's music will initially likely find his albums either unfocussed or just musically diverse. I know that my earliest impression of his second-last release and the first Paisley album I heard, 2011's This Is Country Music, was of the former variety until I let it sink in for a bit and got a bit more of an understanding of the musician's career. I may not be a fan of everything Paisley creates, but his positives far outweigh his negatives - there's his monstrous guitar playing talent, his knack for penning both great romantic and breakup songs, his keen melodic sense, and his exceptionally humble personality, which I got more familiar with after borrowing his engaging 2012 Diary Of A Player semi-memoir from a friend. It's not a coincidence that those are all the same traits that turned me into a huge Keith Urban fan about four years ago. Wheelhouse, while not quite as strong as its predecessor, holds up as a very good collection of songs that occasionally isn't afraid to challenge the boundaries of Paisley's fan's comfort zones.

Rating: B    

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taylor Swift - Red [album review]

Released in October 

If you had told me last March when two of my favourite artists, Bruce Springsteen and Van Halen, had just released great new albums that I'd put a Taylor Swift album ahead of theirs' on my 2012 best-of list and it'd be the second best new musical release I'd hear during the year, I'd have looked at you with the same puzzled and slightly disgusted look that I received when I told a couple of buddies of my love of that album, titled Red. The perverse fun I get from the bewildered reactions to some of my oddball musical tastes (including The Spice Girls, Lights, Backstreet Boys, and Hanson, to name just a few) is accompanied by an ongoing battle within between wanting to resist this uncool music aimed at a tween-to-young adult female audience that's totally illogical for me to be listening to as a middle-aged male, and the inclination to simply surrender to any song if it's catchy and makes an impression. The latter impulse always wins out, to the detriment of the hipness quotient of my CD collection...if it's not already completely unhip to still possess a CD collection in 2013. 

I'd heard some Swift singles before, seen some of her overly earnest music videos, watched her perform on talk shows and awards shows (usually with rather cheesy stage productions), and was always unimpressed with most of her songs and especially her often shockingly weak live vocals. Swift's infamous off-key duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys only cemented that reputation. Despite Swift's negatives, I became more interested after watching an excellent 60 Minutes piece on the musician in 2011 that revealed her smarts and poise (Swift manages herself), the fact she plays multiple instruments (guitar, banjo, piano, and ukulele), writes most of her own songs, and that she incredibly walked away from an artist development deal with RCA Records as a complete nobody at the age of 15 because she didn't agree with their vision for her career. Fast-forward to late last year and me giving Red a sample listen after being won over by the crafty hooks of lead single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and being completely knocked over by how fantastic virtually the entire album sounded right off the bat.

Red is packed to bursting with 16 tracks, which is almost always going to produce an over-serving of filler. Not so in this case. Only waltzing ballad "Sad Beautiful Tragic" failed to engage me with its meandering shuffle and mopey vibe - otherwise, Red is wall-to-wall pop excellence. Expand that even further with the album's deluxe edition and you can add two more fine original songs to the collection with "The Moment I Knew" and "Come Back...Be Here" (additional track "Girl At Home" amounts to more of an early sketch of the album's title track than a full-fledged finished recording like the other two songs). Red features a wealth of musical variety: there's the driving pop-rock of that title track, "Holy Ground", and "State Of Grace" (with the latter featuring ringing guitar and drum performances that reminded me of both U2 and Keith Urban-as-inspired-by-U2), the slow-building and measured likes of "Treacherous", "All Too Well", "The Last Time" (a vocal duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol), and the lovely "Begin Again", plus the highly infectious straight-up pop of "I Knew You Were Trouble" (with a trendy dubstep-style chorus), "Starlight", and first single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together". Incidentally, the fact that Swift mysteriously continues to get nominated and regularly win so many country music awards speaks volumes about the utter meaningless of such "honours", because maybe 0.5% of Red displays any trace elements of that genre. The musical arrangements and instrumental performances from a host of players are a couple of Red's major strengths and they're given a new perspective by a listen to the album's karaoke version that spotlights all of Red's actual music tracks (and not that watered-down facsimile sound inherent in karaoke music) without Swift's lead vocals. Interesting musical choices like the lack of a typically big instrumental chorus on "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" are highlighted (most pop songs would have busted out the louder guitars during the chorus sections), as the song's vocal hook has enough power to win over listeners. You're frequently reminded of Swift's young age with giggles heard on a couple of the songs, her tabloid fodder boy-heavy lyrics, and an occasional stray into territory that feels a little on the "too cute" side (like the still-solid ukulele-anchored number "Stay Stay Stay"), but the woman was barely into her twenties when Red came out, so knocking her for sometimes being a little too lightweight would be slightly ridiculous. Perhaps it's just ridiculous that I can get so much immense enjoyment out of a song like "22" that I'm two decades and a gender removed from being the target audience for, as Swift sings about celebrating the freedom of youth with her girlfriends...but then that's why I've had a lifelong captivation with the mysterious and unpredictable power of music.        

Vocally, Swift sounds just fine on Red and aside from the one aforementioned weak song, that's the only other problem I have with the album - there's clearly been some major studio aid from the army of Red's nine producers to achieve that result (Swift is also credited as a producer on eight of the songs). My suspicions are based on the fact that, well, I have ears and have heard Swift sing four or five of these tracks on different occasions live on TV. There's a flatness and lack of presence to her voice in those live settings that simply isn't evident on the recorded versions, so it's not hard to connect the dots. And while vocal touchups and pitch corrections have been commonplace for decades on a lot more albums than you'd probably imagine, methinks Swift's vocal limitations necessitate a lot more technological manipulation than is normally the case. That diminishes the overall respect I have for Red, in a slightly stronger way of how I have a little less respect from music artists who don't write their own material. On that front, Swift passes with flying colors, however. She wrote nine of Red's tracks alone and used co-writers on the other seven and all but one of those tracks are very good to outstanding. I'm hard-pressed to recall the last time I heard an album with 12+ songs on it that had that stellar of a batting average.  

Finally, just because I've always been a bit of a buff when it comes to album sales figures, here's some of the enormous numbers Red tallied in its first week of release (all figures, taken from Billboard magazine, are from U.S. sales because they provide the most detailed data):   
  • Red's first week sales of 1.2 million copies made it the biggest album debut since Eminem's The Eminem Show sold 1.3 million in 2002 and accounted for 19.3% of all albums sold in America that week
  • Red had the eighth largest sales week for a release in the SoundScan era (since 1991) and is one of only 18 albums to break the million sales marks in its first week (Swift also became the first female artist to do that twice)   
  • After just its first week of sales last October, Red had already become the third highest selling album of 2012 in the U.S. 
Rating: A