Monday, December 28, 2015

Foo Fighters - Saint Cecilia [album review]

Released on November 23rd

A mysterious countdown clock posted on the Foo Fighters' website in late October eventually resulted in the surprise release three weeks later of a free five song EP titled Saint Cecilia. The album takes its name both from the patroness saint of music and the Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin, Texas, where the project was recorded over the course of a couple of weeks. Frontman/lead singer/guitarist Dave Grohl got the urge to record some songs upon the group's arrival in Austin for shows in early October, with the original intention of releasing the EP free to fans as a thank you for their support during the two years the band had been promoting 2014's Sonic Highways album and companion HBO documentary series. That gesture was amended following the recent Paris terrorist attacks, which caused the Foo Fighters to cancel a concert in that city three days after the attack, along with the final few dates of their world tour. The attack additionally hit a little closer to home for Grohl, as he's got strong ties with Eagles of Death Metal, who were playing at one of the locations targeted by the terrorists. The EP was subsequently dedicated to the victims and donations were encouraged on their behalf, with Grohl writing on the band's website and in the EP's liner notes that the musical gift was also "to remind us that music is life and that hope and healing go hand in hand with song".

Musically, Saint Cecilia falls neatly in line with Sonic Highways - in fact, all five tracks sound like they could have been recorded during that album's sessions. They're actually constructed from (as Grohl writes) "songs that were lost in the shuffle over the years…pieces left on the cutting room floor from every album". None of it deviates much from the Foo's signature sound, built on a heavy application of quiet-loud dynamics, deep melodies embedded amongst heavy guitars and drums, and punk spirit. The title track matches the quality level of the Foo Fighter's best work, making smart use of their three guitar attack (in addition to Grohl there's Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett) over Grohl's lyrics asking for healing and to be brought "home to your house of broken bones". Those are undoubtedly references to Grohl's leg break suffered during a Gothenburg show in June, which he commendably ended up finishing after being temporarily patched up (and thus making the most likeable guy in rock even more likeable). "Sean" delivers a concise two minutes and 11 seconds of urgent, pop-punk satisfaction, while the moody "Iron Rooster" retreats in the opposite direction feel-wise with its creeping pace and includes guest guitar from bluesman Gary Clark Jr., in addition to some thought-provoking lyrics that use a rooster weathervane as a metaphor for living a conformist life (trust me, it works). The highly aggressive "Savior Breath" finds Grohl in his finest vocal-shredding mode (I have no idea what he means when he threatens to "ride my lungs on you", but it sounds absolutely filthy) and showcases Taylor Hawkins' powerful drumming skills, which also shine on the pounding album closer "The Neverending Sigh". That last song has been hanging around in the Foo's archives for two decades now and I don't know to what extent the track has evolved over the years, but if it hasn't changed much then one wonders what kept it from replacing some of the dodgier material that overpopulated the band's studio albums from the 2000s.

Saint Cecilia keeps the Foo Fighters' hot streak going, following the excellent Sonic Highways and 2011's superb Wasting Light (which I reviewed here). The EP is much more than a "stopgap" release comprised of middling material and there's no reason not to own it if you're a fan of the band. You certainly can't beat the price. 

Rating: A

Download the Saint Cecila EP for free here

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my November 2009 review of the Foo Fighters' Greatest Hits album, August 2011 review of the Foo Fighters' Back And Forth documentary, and April 2013 review of Grohl's Sound City documentary

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bryan Adams - Get Up [album review]

Released on October 2nd

Bryan Adams fans salivating at what he touted as "the ideal follow-up record to Reckless" will surely be disappointed with his latest release, Get Up. The actual follow-up to the classic Reckless was 1987's also classic Into The Fire, which marked the last time Adams collaborated extensively on an album with his early-career songwriting partner, Jim Vallance, until now. Vallance and Adams rarely recapture much of their 80s magic here, however, as only the pretty ballad "We Did It All" and upbeat melodic rocker "Brand New Day" truly warrant repeat listens. The album's remaining seven songs (yes, there are only nine) lean toward uninspired nostalgia trips that seem to be an extension of the lacklustre covers album he released last year, Tracks Of My Tears. Opening song "You Belong To Me" is pure rockabilly, "Don't Even Try" is straight out of the Roy Orbison school of songwriting, and the tired "Go Down Rockin'" demonstrates absolutely none of the danger evident on the early 70s Rolling Stones material it tries to emulate. Then there's "Thunderbolt", mercifully brief with a running time of just over two minutes, which is the second-worst song I've heard all year. The worst? "Hotline Bling" by Drake. I truly fear for a planet where that song is able to become a massive hit.  

Get Up's nine tracks clock in at just 26 minutes, with four acoustic versions of those songs padding the running time out to 37 minutes (the iTunes Store version also includes a 12 minute Adams interview), adding up to a rather half-assed release that makes you wonder why Adams even bothered. It's especially puzzling considering Tracks Of My Tears was only released a year prior, almost to the day. Methinks Adams was taking his backwards-looking approach a little too literally this time around by also applying the "one (or more) album release per year" practice of the 60s and 70s to it. Along with a disappointing absence of quality material, Get Up is also a huge chore to get through if, like me, you're not a Traveling Wilburys fan. That's because it was produced by Wilbury member/producer and Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne, whose musical fingerprint stands out far greater on Get Up than Adams' own, causing most of the album's tracks to sound like Wilburys facsimiles. Stick with Reckless or Into The Fire

Rating: C-

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bone Tomahawk [film review]

Limited theatrical release in October; now available on video-on-demand

Between its "horror western" billing and barely detectable presence at the box office, Bone Tomahawk has "cult film" written all over it and that's a shame because it certainly deserves a wider audience. The 10 or so people I've asked about Bone Tomahawk had never heard of it and that lack of awareness, due to little or no promotion, is an unfortunate by-product of the film's independent nature (it cost less than $2 million to make). Kurt Russell, the film's star, turns in a first-rate performance as Frank Hunt, the sheriff of a frontier town in the American West in the 1800's. Russell hasn't acted much since starring in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof in 2007, due to a hip injury and choosing to spend more time on his growing wine business and it's nice to see him back in 2015 with some high profile and meaty roles (this summer's Furious 7 and Tarantino's about-to-be-released The Hateful Eight). Here, he's surrounded by a talented cast that includes Patrick Wilson (Watchmen and the current season of TV's Fargo), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor and TV's Six Feet Under), and Matthew Fox (TV's Lost), with additional support from David Arquette, Lili Simmons, and a "where the hell has she been for the past 20 years?" Sean Young, who quickly disappears back into the showbiz ether after two minutes of screen time.

First-time director S. Craig Zahler also wrote the character-driven screenplay, which Russell called "the best Western I've read since Tombstone". I was rather surprised to learn that 1993's Tombstone was the last western Russell had appeared in, considering how memorable he was in it as Wyatt Earp and how comfortable he seems in the genre (apparently he's making up for lost time - The Hateful Eight is also a Western). The gruff Hunt, sporting a lite version of the full-on Yosemite Sam-style facial hair Russell displays in Tarantino's upcoming film, heads up a four-man posse who represent the only hope for some locals kidnapped by a tribe of cannibalistic cave-dwellers. Also included in the foursome are Jenkins' bumbling deputy (the film's go-to source for comic relief), Fox's dandyish gunslinger, and Wilson as the broken-legged distraught husband of one of the kidnapped townsfolk. The physical limitations of Wilson's character impede the urgent nature of the group's quest, who need to make a five day journey in three days. That conveniently helps to extend the time available for the interplay between the four radically different characters and it's those lively exchanges that are Bone Tomahawk's core strength. Viewers looking for extended action sequences or buckets of blood will be sorely disappointed - this is a slowly paced and talk-heavy film. That being said, Bone Tomahawk does contain some occasionally brutal visuals; one particularly disturbing scene is likely to stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling.

One of the few faults I can find with Bone Tomahawk is that it does feel a tad overstretched at 132 minutes - 110 to 120 minutes would have been more than sufficient to tell the story. Otherwise, Zahler impresses mightily in a directorial debut that features excellent casting, sharp dialogue, and a beautiful look that shows no signs of the film's minuscule budget.

Rating: A-

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Ties That Bind [film review]

Premiered November 27th on HBO

The Ties That Bind is a case of diminishing returns for Bruce Springsteen and his personal documentarian of choice for the past decade, Thom Zimny. The pair have now collaborated on three documentaries that explore the creative process behind some of Springsteen's most highly regarded albums: 2005's Wings For Wheels: The Making Of Born To Run (the best of the three), 2010's The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town (good, but not quite as engaging as its predecessor), and now The Ties That Bind, which looks at The River album. The newest documentary premiered on HBO last month and is included in the just-released The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set, a comprehensive package commemorating the 35th anniversary of the album's release.

Whereas his previous films employed a wider scope by featuring contributions from Springsteen's E Street Band members and some of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town's production personnel, Zimny opts to dramatically narrow his focus on The Ties That Bind. Springsteen is the lone voice heard during its 56 minute running time, to the film's detriment. Obviously, The Boss is the focal point and he does offer some informative and entertaining recollections from the period, notably his desire to better capture the dynamic nature of his live shows and why he took back the original 10 song album he'd submitted to his record company in 1979 because "it just didn't feel big enough" (The River was released a year later as a double album). There are also stripped-down performances (some partial) of "Hungry Heart", "Point Blank", "Wreck On The Highway", "Independence Day", "Two Hearts", and "The River", played by Springsteen on an acoustic guitar in his living room and in the driveway in front of his garage, which incidentally looks as lived-in and old school as you'd hope Bruce Springsteen's garage would look.

Despite Springsteen's frequently thoughtful insight (the man is a much deeper conversationalist than non-fans might imagine), The Ties That Bind ultimately feels undercooked, partially due to its rather slight running time, but mostly because of the film's alternate approach to its subject matter that largely eschews the traditional "album making-of" doc format. Springsteen's musical collaborators are glaringly conspicuous by their absence (other than in archival photos and video footage) and as much as the 66-year-old icon can normally command any stage or TV screen he appears on, his ruminations that favour the themes of The River's songs over a broader discussion of the album's birthing process end up making for less compelling viewing this time around. It's still well worth a watch for Springsteen diehards and despite my disappointment with the film, I will give a tip of the hat to Zimny for taking a creative risk. Here's hoping that the director and his subject manage a return to the form demonstrated on Wings For Wheels when they inevitably crank out another one of these in 2020, if their current pattern holds - my money's on a look at Born In The U.S.A. next. I am obligated to mention that I'm not quite as beholden to The River as many Springsteen fans are, which skews my appreciation for a discussion of its contents somewhat.

Rating: C

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2014 review of Springsteen's High Hopes album, August 2012 review of Springsteen's Toronto stop on his Wrecking Ball Tour, March 2012 review of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album, June 2011 tribute to Clarence Clemons, and November 2010 review of Springsteen's London Calling: Live In Hyde Park Blu-ray

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Def Leppard - Def Leppard [album review]

Released October 30th

Oddity: It's taken nearly 40 years since forming in 1977 for Def Leppard to release a self-titled album, with their newest release also marking their first since 1980's full-length debut On Through The Night to not be affiliated with a major label (the band continues to put out music on their most excellently named Bludgeon Riffola sub label). As the title suggests, Def Leppard marks a fairly back-to-basics sound approach for the band, or at least as back-to-basics as a band with their legendary reputation for meticulous recording production gets. Intact are the group's instantly identifiable layered background vocals, a head-spinning number of stacked guitar tracks, and an abundance of deeply infectious melodies that all result in their own hard rock "Wall of Sound". The album's 14 songs contain a mostly effective mixture of contemporary sensibilities, diversity, and comfortable nostalgia.

That latter quality is a little too evident, however, on opening song "Let's Go", which shamelessly resurrects the main guitar riff from "Pour Some Sugar On Me". Clearly, it's an intentional callback to one of the biggest songs from their heyday, but the similarities between the songs, at least during the verse sections, are so close it's downright distracting. You can add in brain-dead lyrics, a dreadful chorus, and guitars that are so in-your-face they overwhelm Joe Elliot's vocals and every other instrument (I believe that's the first time I've ever complained about guitars being mixed too loud anywhere). The song also drips with a transparent desperation for the arena-ready anthem to connect with fist-pumping audiences. All of these factors left me utterly deflated right out of the gate, wondering how the band responsible for what I consider to be some of the best rock songs of the 80s can be this badly off the mark. That worry was only emphasized by the fact that "Let's Go" was inexplicably chosen as Def Leppard's "mission statement", essentially, by being its first single. Thankfully, my reservations were quickly eased as only one other track on the rest of the album qualifies as an outright stinker - the overly poppy "Energized", which ironically is anything but.

Otherwise, the balance of Def Leppard delivers predominantly impressive results worthy of the songwriting pedigree established in the first half of the band's career. Topping the list of strong material is mid-tempo power ballad "We Belong", which is highlighted by the inspired idea to have every band member trade off lead vocal duties (in addition to Elliot there's bassist Rick Savage, drummer Rick Allen, and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell). That "We Belong", with its well-worn verse and chorus structures, succeeds mightily in spite of its lack of originality points to the ever-fascinating and mysterious nature of music and what does and doesn't make a song work. I thought that perhaps the novelty factor of multiple lead vocalists and their varied singing styles (which all sound great here) might be obscuring more of the song's flaws, but a listen to an alternate mix of "We Belong" with just Elliot's lead vocals indicates that this is simply an instantly catchy and well-executed piece of music making. The excellent "Last Dance" follows in the same formulaic power ballad footsteps, wringing surprising emotional depth out of a song that would likely end up an uninspired throwaway in the hands of a less seasoned artist. Def Leppard also brings plenty of the heavy, too, with "Dangerous", "All Time High", "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted", and "Wings Of An Angel" further representing some of the finest material the band has put out in ages and pointing to a creative resurgence within their ranks. The group has never been shy about wearing their musical influences on their sleeve and there's numerous examples of that on Def Leppard, all of them memorable: they get their Queen on with the funky "Man Enough", an undeniable "Another One Bites The Dust" homage (containing the oddball - and probably sexist - lyrical refrain, "Are you man enough to be my girl?"), the Led Zeppelin-powered heavy acoustic rock of "Battle Of My Own", and the Beatles-influenced "Blind Faith", which admittedly meanders a bit in mellotron-laced psychedelic hell before erupting to life for a fitting album closer. "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted" also contains noticeable elements of glam rock during its verse sections.  

As a loyal Def Leppard fan of 32 years, it's been damn tough to hang in there with them for the past 20 or so as they put out one underwhelming album after another (before this release, I'd have to go back to 1996's overlooked Slang for their last noteworthy collection of new songs). There were also career low points (at least in my opinion) with a "Bohemian Rhapsody"/"We Are The Champions"-inspired atrocity titled "Kings Of The World" from 2011's Mirror Ball - Live And More release (listen to it here for proof) and a cringeworthy 2008 appearance on TV cheesefest Dancing With The Stars. 2015 finds Def Lep finally back on their game for their first album of new material in seven years that's bolstered by inspired songwriting and standout guitar work from both the perpetually shirtless Collen and a health-challenged Campbell, who's recently been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

And can we just take a moment to reappreciate Allen and his one-armed drumming skills? It's been three decades now since the car injury that claimed his left arm occurred and it's easy to become rather complacent with what he does behind a drum kit, but I was struck again recently by what an incredible feat he's accomplished whilst explaining Def Leppard's history to a friend who grew up in China and wasn't aware of their story. Allen's booming drums, especially on "Dangerous", "All Time High", and "Battle Of My Own" don't go unnoticed.

Rating: B+