Monday, May 30, 2016

Lee Aaron – Fire And Gasoline [album review]

Released on March 25th

Lee Aaron will forever be saddled with the ‘Metal Queen’ label, which goes back to her 1984 album title, single, and video of the same name. The ultra-cheesy “Metal Queen” video heavily played up the 22-year-old Aaron’s sex appeal, which she used to her advantage throughout the rest of the decade in conjunction with a very solid collection of material. After enjoying ample success in her native Canada, the early 90s were not kind to the singer. Rapidly declining album sales were encountered by Aaron and just about every other melodic hard rock act as grunge went on to largely displace the entire music genre

The sexpot baggage Aaron carried has largely obscured what an underrated musical talent the Belleville, Ontario native is. She’s always had a fantastic, powerful voice and has writing credits on nearly all of her material. And late 80s tracks like “Powerline”, How DeepWhatcha Do To My Body, and Only Human” still hold up quite well, at least to these ears. 

After a couple of mid 90s albums that experimented with alternative rock styles (including 1994’s Emotional Rain, which sounded far better than I remembered upon a recent listen), Aaron explored her passion for jazz on 2000’s Slick Chick album. After Beautiful Things, her 2004 release that combined the singer’s jazz, blues, pop, and rock influences, Aaron stepped back from the music world to start a family. Reconnecting with her hard rock roots in recent years now results in the release of Aaron’s newest album, Fire And Gasoline

Opening track “Tom Boy” delivers a solid start, offering the promise of a heavier-sounding Aaron album with its meaty guitars, courtesy of Sean Kelly. Kelly, who’s played with everyone from Nelly Furtado to Helix, met Aaron while putting together Metal On Ice, his 2013 book on Canadian metal and hard rock. Aaron wrote the song for her pre-teen daughter with lyrics that celebrate the freedom of being yourself and resisting peer pressure. A noble gesture and message from Aaron, to be sure, but what in the world was she thinking with that cringe-inducing “Tom Boy” video? It features the singer and her daughter performing with her daughter’s friends and seriously undermines any credibility that Aaron might have sought for this comeback album. I take no pride in ripping anything involving a bunch of innocent kids, but it’s honestly one of the worst videos I’ve seen in years.  

The next several tracks on the album predominantly struggle to maintain the modest momentum established by the opener. The funky title track, the pop punk of “Bad Boyfriend” and “Wanna Be” (with a nod to Aaron’s jazz past in the latter’s prelude), “Popular”, and the instantly forgettable bluesy “50 Miles” all fail to make much of a mark. Only “Bittersweet”, a catchy power ballad anchored by a simple, yet very effective main guitar lick, emerges from the pack of mediocrity. 

Unusually, the album’s best material resides on its final four tracks. “Heart Fix” lets Aaron stretch out a little more vocally and even with its highly melodic sound, it’s one of the too-few Fire And Gasoline tracks that conveys much edge. The poppy “If You Don’t Love Me Anymore” also puts hooky melodies front and centre. Two ballads, “Nothing Says Everything” and the soulful closer “Find The Love” also nicely showcase Aaron’s vocal chops and feature tasteful musical arrangements from her backing band, which includes Aaron’s husband John Cody on drums.

While it feels close-minded to fault Aaron for softening her sound on her first true rock album in two decades (hey, everyone matures), I must admit to being fairly disappointed with the tameness of Fire And Gasoline. Aaron’s desire to show her wide range of musical influences results in an album that has its moments, but generally feels a little too scattershot for its own good. 

An interesting tidbit for music geeks: Fire And Gasoline was recorded at The Farm studio in Vancouver. It was previously known as Little Mountain Sound, where the biggest albums from Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Aerosmith were recorded in the 80s.

Rating: C

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Deadpool [film review]

Released theatrically on February 12th; now available on all physical and digital media platforms

Deadpool restored my faith (at least temporarily) in the superhero movie and Hollywood popcorn movies in general. My cynicism and disappointment with both has grown in recent years, as Hollywood churns out one uninspired spectacle movie after another. Amongst these has been an almost obscene number of comic book-related projects in both the film and television worlds, including a wearying number of franchise reboots. 

Little of it has inspired much interest from this writer (I should note that I’ve never been much of a comic guy). What I have watched has ranged from quite good (the first two Captain America movies), to decent (Guardians Of The Galaxy), to damn near terrible (the overstuffed Avengers films and almost all of the Spider-Man movies).

A few things make Deadpool, the directorial debut of Tim Miller, stand out from the crowded pack. First, there’s a relative lack of tired superhero movie tropes in this origin story starring Ryan Reynolds, who reprises his character that first appeared in limited capacity in 2009’s X-Men Origins. Admittedly, we do get the tired and predictable final act battle between hero and villain that’s packed to the hilt with crappy, immersion-breaking CGI.  

The obligatory presence of various characters from the protagonist’s comic universe is kept to a refreshing minimum, however. All viewers get from the Marvel Universe is a couple of X-Men (a CGI Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, played by Brianna Hildebrand), main villain Ajax (played by Ed Skrein) and his main ally Angel Dust (played by Gina Carano). To the non-comic book enthusiast, only Colossus would elicit any recognition from that group and even then, probably just barely. Their anonymity adds to the refreshing nature of the film and while Ajax isn’t a terribly dynamic adversary, he’s also not remotely as bad as most of the villains that appear in superhero movies. The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 or the Green Goblin from Spider-Man anyone?

This scarcity of Marvel characters is actually played for laughs by Deadpool. He complains about the lack of finances given to the movie from the studio, which prohibits them from hiring more X-Men. This points to one of the film’s other strengths – its self-awareness and ability to poke fun at their own world. They also let the character stay true to his extremely vulgar nature (Deadpool was released with a well-earned R rating). I was impressed by Marvel for not being overly precious with its franchises and allowing Deadpool to deliver meta lines about other Marvel films and characters. For example, Deadpool riffs on James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both playing Professor X. Wolverine and Hugh Jackman are also the butt of several jokes. Even Reynolds’ real-life People Magazine ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ cover is fair game. A lot of this humour is delivered by Reynolds with wisecracking fourth wall-breaking asides.

There’s an abundant supply of that Reynolds snark in Deadpool. Hell, it’s practically his brand, isn’t it? If you’re not a fan of it then keep your distance, but it works perfectly for his character here. This leads to what I found to be the best thing about Deadpool – just how amazingly funny it was. From the inspired opening credit sequence, to the hilarious requisite Stan Lee cameo, to Reynolds’ rapid-fire comedic skills throughout Deadpool, I hadn’t laughed this hard watching a movie in a few years. That was certainly unexpected. 

Deadpool somehow manages to succeed in spite of its two main story lines failing to fire up much emotional investment from the viewer. Deadpool’s alter ego, Wade Wilson, becomes the superhero after a mutation experiment leaves him with an unexpected and unwanted end result that gives him advanced healing powers. This establishes the main storyline where he seeks revenge on Ajax, who carried out the experiment. Ho hum. The secondary plot involves Wilson’s relationship with Vanessa, the proverbial damaged stripper with a heart of gold (played by Morena Baccarin from TV’s Homeland).  

Even with thinly constructed storylines, Deadpool works mostly because of Reynolds. A well-balanced running time of 88 minutes feels just about perfect for the movie and Reynolds smartass comedic and dramatic style. Any longer than that (many films from this genre clock in at two-and-a-half hours) would invite snark fatigue. Like 2010’s excellent Kick-Ass, Deadpool is simply a whole lot of fun and the irreverence it shows towards its genre provides a welcome respite from the assembly line feel of most superhero film fare.

Rating: A

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Cult – Hidden City [album review]

Released on February 5th

Hidden City represents The Cult’s best collection of new material since 2001’s Beyond Good And Evil, which I consider their best album after 1987’s Electric. Group mainstays Ian Astbury (vocals) and Billy Duffy (guitars) are joined on Hidden City by drummer John Tempesta for his third Cult album, with bass duties handled by producer Bob Rock and Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney. New Cult bassist Grant Fitzpatrick joined the group after the album was recorded. 

Rock has now produced half of the band’s ten studio albums, overseeing ventures both highly commercial (1989’s Sonic Temple) and jarringly experimental (1994’s self-titled release). Hidden City finds itself somewhere between those two points, with a slight lean towards the commercial end of things and songwriting that sounds more inspired than the rather pedestrian material that’s dominated recent outings. That may be attributable to The Cult allowing themselves a lengthier amount of recording time for Hidden City, which was tracked intermittently over a two year period. 2007’s Born Into This and Choice Of Weapon from 2012 (which I reviewed here) had their moments, but generally had a going-through-the-motions feel to them.

There’s actually nothing on Hidden City that matches the levels of “Sound Of Destruction” or “For The Animals” from those respective albums, which are two of the finest songs The Cult have ever released. What it does have, however, is a much greater consistency of quality running throughout its dozen songs. There’s no outright duds and just a few merely average numbers in the album’s final three tracks, “Heathens”, “Lilies”, and the surprisingly jazzy piano ballad “Sound And Fury”. 

“Dance The Night” adds a welcome poppy, upbeat counterbalance to the dark tone that pervades Hidden City. The fighter-themed “G O A T” (an acronym for “greatest of all time”) is one of the few other album tracks that has an airier, less sombre feel, as Duffy dips back into his Electric-era bag of dirty blues guitar riffs. “Dark Energy”, “No Love Lost”, ”Hinterland”, and “Avalanche Of Light” all deliver the goods and qualify as notable additions to the long list of first-rate mid-tempo hard rock songs that The Cult has produced over the years. The album highlight is the Zeppelin-ish “Deeply Ordered Chaos”, a haunting mini-epic adorned with effective synth strings. As Astbury recently told Billboard magazine, the song’s lyrical inspiration came from the two terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris during 2015.

Hidden City treads nicely through musical territory explored previously throughout The Cult’s 30+ year (off-and-on with breakups) history, with enough new wrinkles and angles to the songs to keep things interesting and not feeling overly recycled. Astbury’s lyrics are, as always, steeped in spiritual mysticism that don’t exactly lend themselves to easy interpretation. The Cult also knock it out of the park once again in the album artwork department. Hidden City has one of the most striking covers I’ve seen since, well, their last album cover

One final minor quibble about Hidden City — Tempesta’s sizable drum skills don’t get much of an opportunity to show their might on the album. The Cult is, of course, the Astbury and Duffy show, and their songs aren’t particularly conducive to percussive showmanship, so this restriction just goes with the territory. You can’t blame Tempesta, a former member of White Zombie, Rob Zombie’s band, Testament, and Exodus for holding down a steady gig in a band with a pedigree like The Cult’s. Still, one wonders how musically constrained he might feel within the group. 

Rating: B+