Saturday, April 5, 2014

Music That Matters

Music That Matters

I usually write about film, but one of my other great passions is music. I recently came across a list of my Top 50 favorite bands that I had written almost 15 years ago. I discovered that I could barely write back then and that my taste in music hasn't changed much.

So I decided to spend some time writing about my Top 25 favorite bands (quite a lengthy project). I hope it will be interesting and revealing, but it would be even better if you discover a new band that you like from this chaos.

For the purposes of this list, I have omitted all compilations and live albums from consideration. Also, there's a limit of one album per artist, unless a band member formed a separate band.

One thing I have always wondered is why so few people like the kind of music I listen to. Whenever I go to a concert, it's filled with people, but I rarely encounter them in other situations. Is my taste really that out there? I don't think so. Anyway, let's get on with it.

1. Dirty - Sonic Youth

Many Sonic Youth fans would say that Daydream Nation is the best in the band's impressive catalog. While I obviously love it, Dirty works better for me. It's such a hard choice because I would imagine that at least 10 Sonic Youth albums would make my Top 100, with three or four in contention for the Top 10.

Dirty has a little bit of everything. Thurston and Kim share vocal duties for the most part, but Lee's Wish Fulfillment sounds magical and is a vital component. There are so many great moments in 59 minutes that it's hard to keep count. The only weaknesses are the throwaway Untouchables cover, Nic Fit, which lasts 59 seconds, and the closing Créme Brûlèe.

Chapel Hill is a strong contender for my favorite song from any band. You can check it out here:

Theresa's Sound-World is a masterpiece, and it builds wonderfully. Sugar Kane reminds me a bit of the Rolling Stones, but it blows away anything they ever produced. Kim is well represented, with Drunken Butterfly, Swimsuit Issue and JC among the best songs she has sung. Just when you think all of the highlights are over, Purr kicks in. It's only a fraction behind Chapel Hill in brilliance.

This is Sonic Youth at their best. Nothing too self-indulgent, and so many sweeping guitar songs. I would happily listen to it at any time. The 2-disc deluxe edition is the version to own if you are buying it for the first time.

Full Track Listing:

Swimsuit Issue
Theresa's Sound-World
Drunken Butterfly
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On the Strip
Chapel Hill
Créme Brûlèe

2. Marquee Moon - Television

Television are always mentioned in the same breath as Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie because they all used to play at CBGB in New York in the 70s. I own plenty of albums from those other three bands, but Marquee Moon is the one I always return to. For some reason, it's a bit of a cult record. I only really got into it completely around 15 years ago, but I mention it at every opportunity.

What makes Television unique is the guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. I'm not a musician, so it's hard to describe some of the sounds. I just know that no other band ever did this.

The lyrics are clever and the musical structure is complex. See No Evil is so accessible that it's almost pop, but pop with a raw edge. It's followed by Venus, which continues in the same vein, if a little darker. Friction kicks in with a cascade of guitar notes, and then starts spiraling into madness. The lyrics fit perfectly, and it's hard not to smile every time I hear "You complain of my dic-tion."

Even if the first three tracks don't capture your interest, it's hard to ignore what comes next. The title track is absolute perfection. Hey, it may even be better than Chapel Hill. Most fans would agree that Marquee Moon is the best song Television ever recorded, and it's even better live. The opening vocals are eerie and set the scene.

"I remember how the darkness doubled"
"I recall, lightning struck itself"
"I was listening, listening to the rain"
"I was hearing, hearing something else"

No need to take my word for it, listen for yourself:

Make no mistake, this is a song that transports you to another world. Verlaine's vocals are more like David Byrne than a rock artist, but his limitations don't ruin the delivery. If you make it through this list, you'll notice that few of the bands can really sing. I like things a bit messed up. Just when you think the song has weaved its spell and can't possibly do any more, it returns to the opening verse. It absolutely has to be there to make the song feel complete.

Marquee Moon does not contain a weak song. Make sure you buy the remastered version or you'll miss out on Little Johnny Jewel. Television may also have been responsible for the best live album ever recorded, Live at the Old Waldorf.

Full Track Listing:

See No Evil
Marquee Moon
Guiding Light
Prove It
Torn Curtain
Little Johnny Jewel ( on the 2003 remastered version)

3. Doolittle - Pixies

It's almost impossible to choose just one Pixies album. It eventually came down to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. If I counted CDs rather than albums, I would have gone for Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim, but Doolittle has the edge if we are sticking to the one album rule.

I'm always surprised at how few people have listened to the Pixies. Kurt Cobain freely admitted that he was a fan of the band and their loud quiet loud approach. Doolittle is a combination of punk, pop, and haunting melodies. It's exciting and action packed, but the songs are much more than rants or ballads. There's so much going on in the rhythm section.

Black Francis is into space, UFOs, and thinks that music is like math. He's absolutely right. The seemingly chaotic sound of the Pixies still has a precise structure.

Like Marquee Moon, the first three songs grab you immediately. Debaser starts with Kim Deal's base, and that's a big part of the Pixies' sound. Francis delivers the lyrics with venom, and it's intensified on Track 2, Tame, which is contention for the title of the band's best track. Here it is:

Wave of Mutilation completely changes the mood and allows you to catch your breath, and Francis switches to atmospheric mode. Such a versatile vocalist. Monkey Gone to Heaven is perhaps the most famous Pixies song, and it's full of harmonies and epic guitar.

Many of the songs sound mystical, as if they are reaching toward something important. They simply soar. How can you not love the vocals on No. 13 Baby, or Hey, or the haunting (there's that word again) closer, Gouge Away. Yep, Doolittle is a brilliant album. The only weak track is La La Love You, sung by drummer David Lovering, but I'll forgive him because of his work on the remainder of the album.

Full Track Listing:

Wave of Mutilation
I Bleed
Here Comes Your Man
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Mr. Grieves
Crackity Jones
La La Love You
No. 13 Baby
There Goes My Gun
Gouge Away

4. Wowee Zowee - Pavement

It took me a while to truly get Pavement. Their style is sloppy and almost lazy, but it works. Vocals are shared by Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and occasional rants from Bob Nastanovich, but Malkmus is the magic ingredient and takes on most of the vocal duties.

The thing is, Malkmus can't really sing. He'll change key and try to hit notes any way that he can, and it can be almost funny. I can sing that well, so I often join in. That said, I love his vocals. He's quirky and funny, and he doesn't take himself seriously. That sense of fun is what makes Pavement a great band to listen to. When Malkmus plays guitar, it just flows, and it can be just as quirky as his vocals. Sometimes I think the guitar is speaking to me or dropping one-liners.

Despite recognizing all of the limitations of the band, I will never forget the concerts I attended. I'll never tire of listening to their music either, but Wowee Zowee is my clear favorite. We Dance is a slow opener, and uses the word "castration" in the opening line, but that's the most uncomfortable thing about it. The lyrics are almost nonsensical, but it sets the mood. What follows is my favorite Pavement track, Rattled by the Rush. This just demands to be heard, so here it is:

The album is a complete mess, consisting of a variety of styles, and refusing to adhere to any one of them. Black Out is so relaxing that it's almost a lullaby, Grounded contains a wonderful intro and builds majestically, Serpentine Pad is a rant, and then Motion Suggests Itself returns to the laid back vibe. I love the line "Captivate your senses like a ginger ale rain."

Father to a Sister of Thought contains actual hooks, and is as catchy as hell. Grave Architecture and AT&T are other highlights, before fans of 70s rock and psychedelia get their fix with Half a Canyon.

Wowee Zowee is quite a departure from the more accessible Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Slanted and Enchanted, but it eventually takes hold of you if you listen often enough. The slack structure seems to take shape and the album really comes to life. Yes, it's Pavement's best, and that's saying a lot. Make sure you buy the Sordid Sentinels Edition if you're new to the album.

Full Track Listing:

We Dance
Rattled by the Rush
Black Out
Brinx Job
Serpentine Pad
Motion Suggests Itself
Father to a Sister of Thought
Best Friend’s Arm
Grave Architecture
Flux = Rad
Fight This Generation
Kennel District
Half a Canyon
Western Homes

5. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division

I remember the first time I heard this album. A friend at school gave me the tape in 1979 and I played it that night. I have to admit that only a few songs grabbed me on the first listen. Some were too slow and dreary to excite me in the way that most of my favorite music did. However, repeat listens enabled me to see the beauty in this majestic music.

Most new bands at the end of the 70s were young and enthusiastic, and it was more about the style and delivery than the content. Joy Division did not fall into that category. If you have ever seen Anton Corbijn's movie, Control, you'll understand what Ian Curtis went through. He was a young man, in love with two women, trying to come to terms with epilepsy. Like most of my favorite vocalists, he had his limitations.

What separated Joy Division from the pack was the passion. Curtis lived and breathed those songs. His delivery was real in the true sense of the word. You'll never see a singer mean it like Curtis if you only watch American Idol or The Voice.

Joy Division were more than just one man though. The music had a depth to it, with each component a vital part of the sound. Peter Hook's bass was extremely prominent. Sumner's lead guitar dominated a few tracks, while the drums ranged from driving to sparse, with Morris adding to the desolation when appropriate. Insight, New Dawn Fades, and She's Lost Control formed the heart of the album. The ever-present bass added weight to the sound, and it's incredible how much beauty was present. Listen to the slow burn of New Dawn Fades and you'll begin to understand Joy Division.

If I had to pick a favorite track, it would probably be Shadowplay. Here's a live version from their first TV appearance:

The album begins with Disorder, which gives you a good idea of the importance of each instrument as they are gradually introduced to the mix. These guys could really play. Day of the Lords sounds sinister and ominous, but there is so much feeling. Candidate is a good example of a song that sounds too desolate to be enjoyable, but it becomes meaningful and almost uplifting once you know it well enough.

If you missed seeing Joy Division more than 30 years ago, it's worth checking out Peter Hook and the Light if they are playing Unknown Pleasures or Closer in your town. The sound is surprisingly close to the original.

Unknown Pleasures is a must-own album, but is too difficult for the casual listener. I would recommend the Heart and Soul box set, which includes all of the albums and singles, plus the Warsaw tracks. The fourth live disc seems to have been recorded at the wrong speed, but the first three discs capture Joy Division brilliantly. It might take a little time, but it's worth getting to know the music of Joy Division. The potential rewards are huge.

Full Track Listing:

Day of the Lords
New Dawn Fades
She's Lost Control
I Remember Nothing

6. The Lonesome Crowded West - Modest Mouse

Choosing between The Moon & Antarctica and The Lonesome Crowded West was an agonizing decision, and I might make a different choice on another day. I discovered Modest Mouse relatively late, but they have become one of my favorite bands. The thing is, I'm not sure why.

Like Pavement and Sonic Youth, the arrangements are unconventional and seemingly all over the place. It took me a while to see some kind of pattern in the chaos, but it was worth the effort.

The album opens with Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, and it's fairly typical of what is to follow. The song seems like three or four different tunes blended together. It's out of tune and a bit of a rant to begin with, but then it builds into something more. Heart Cooks Brain employs a totally different style, creating an atmosphere that's both eerie and compelling. Convenient Parking is repetitive as it bores its way into your brain, and you might find yourself humming it a few hours later.

Three tracks in and the album already feels like the start of a weird and wonderful journey. Lounge is a strange creature, opening with a funky beat before Isaac Brock rants over the top. Like so many Modest Mouse songs, it has a lot of recognizable phases, and it's never predictable or boring. My favorite track has to be Doin' the Cockroach. It builds slowly, with Brock making some interesting observations before the chorus kicks in.

"I was in heaven"
"I was in hell"
"Believe in neither"
"But fear them as well"

Then the track really takes off and it becomes extremely addictive. Here it is (with lyrics):

I could praise every track, but it's best if you check out the album for yourself. Notice the structure of the songs and how they employ space. Some songs, like Shit Luck, are outright rants; others, such as Trucker's Atlas, take plenty of time to develop into arty jams.

Modest Mouse are not an easy band to get into initially, but it will happen if you give it a chance. When your brain learns the intricate patterns, you'll find yourself eagerly anticipating every song. Unlike some bands, the 15 tracks cover a variety of styles. The Lonesome Crowded West is a great place to visit for 74 minutes. You might find yourself spending a lot of time there.

Full Track Listing:

Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
Heart Cooks Brain
Convenient Parking
Lounge (Closing Time)
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Doin' the Cockroach
Cowboy Dan
Trailer Trash
Out of Gas
Long Distance Drunk
Shit Luck
Truckers Atlas
Polar Opposites
Bankrupt on Selling
Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright

7. Real Emotional Trash - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

Yes, Stephen Malkmus is responsible for two albums in my Top 10. His fourth album with The Jicks is probably the most conventional thing he has ever done, but that's not a criticism. The 10 tracks average more than 5 minutes each, and all have recognizable hooks. Some develop into outright jams and could appeal to fans of more traditional rock. Despite that, Malkmus includes plenty of whimsical moments, and songs that are easy to fall in love with.

This might be sacrilegious, but I like Real Emotional Trash more than some of Pavement's albums, and I love all of those.

Dragonfly Pie is a big and bold opener, and it's followed by Hopscotch Willie, which contains lyrics that Bob Dylan wouldn't be ashamed of. Check it out for yourself:

Cold Son changes the mood and has a more quirky structure than the previous tracks, but the 10-minute Real Emotional Trash slowly builds into an epic jam. Malkmus uses his guitar to great effect throughout the album, but it's extremely prominent on this title track.

I completely relate to the powerful lyrics of Out of Reaches, which appears heartfelt and real. Baltimore and Elmo Delmo are longer jams that wouldn't be too out of place on a 70s album, with the poppy Gardenia sandwiched between them.

Real Emotional Trash is easily my favorite Jicks album, and I like them all. I played Wig Out at Jagbags every day last week and love every track, but Real Emotional Trash is unlikely to be replaced as my favorite Malkmus effort since Pavement. If the vocal style doesn't put you off, it's one of the best alternative rock albums out there.

Full Track Listing:

Dragonfly Pie
Hopscotch Willie
Cold Son
Real Emotional Trash
Out of Reaches
Elmo Delmo
We Can't Help You
Wicked Wanda

8. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers

The Manic Street Preachers have produced a few good albums, but only one of them deserves to be called great. The Holy Bible is full of venom, profanity, and controversy, but almost every track is a highlight. I originally thought that James Dean Bradfield's voice was too bland to appeal to my eccentric taste, but it definitely works here.

The album opens with Yes, which is indication of things to come. Just read the lyrics and you'll get a good idea of the tone of this album. Some of the topics include anorexia, white America, evil, pain, and all kinds of darkness. I can't begin to imagine what Richey Edwards was going through when he wrote these songs, but the Manics never produced such darkness on subsequent albums.

The biggest reason I return so often to this album is the style of the songs. The best tracks owe their origins to punk, and some of the delivery contains a wall of sound that would be expected from bands such as Nine Inch Nails, The Clash, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. However, while a lot of punk is forgettable, these songs will stay with you. They have substance and power.

The one weak track is This Is Yesterday, which feels as if it belongs on a different album. Along with Yes, the real gems include Of Walking Abortion, Archives of Pain, 4st 7lbs, Mausoleum, Faster and Revol. It's best to experience the album as a whole, rather than selecting individual tracks, but P.C.P. is one that I hope you'll listen to. Here it is (with lyrics):

If ever a closing track left you wanting more, that has to be it.

If you like The Holy Bible, check out Everything Must Go and Generation Terrorists. I'm surprised that the band didn't have more success outside the UK.

Full Track Listing:

Of Walking Abortion
Archives of Pain
4st 7lb
This Is Yesterday
Die in the Summertime
The Intense Humming of Evil

9. Turn on the Bright Lights - Interpol

With Joy Division in my Top 5, you knew that Interpol would appear somewhere on this list. But despite those obvious comparisons, Interpol produce a sound that is so much more than that of a copycat band. There's not a single weak track on the album and most of them shine brightly.

Untitled opens the album and immediately creates a mood. It's optimistic, atmospheric and masterfully structured. The vocals slowly build and you quickly realize that all the essential components are there for the album to be one that leaves an impact. These tracks have depth.

Obstacle 1 does sound like something Joy Division might have produced; at least in terms of structure. The bass and the vocals channel Hook and Curtis without any doubt. NYC is a slower song that has a certain beauty to it, before PDA kicks in with its irresistible assault on your senses. Here's the video:

Turn on the Bright Lights sounds like albums released 20 years before for the most part, but at times offers songs that could be on a Strokes album. Roland is one of the highlights, with Leif Erikson a great choice to close the album. I love bands that produce layers of sound because there's always something new to discover on repeat listens.

Interpol's other three albums all have something to offer, but nothing quite matches the consistent excellence found on their debut.

Full Track Listing:

Obstacle 1
Say Hello to the Angels
Hands Away
Obstacle 2
Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down
The New
Leif Erikson

10. Red Heaven - Throwing Muses

I knew nothing about Throwing Muses when I saw Bright Yellow Gun performed on TV in 1994, but that quickly changed. I remember buying concert tickets soon after to see Belly, P.J. Harvey, and Throwing Muses. I fully expected the Muses to be the weakest of the three, but I ended up playing all of their albums every day for about a month in preparation. It took three or four listens before Red Heaven really started to make sense, but then I became totally hooked. As a result, the Muses concert turned out to be one of the best I have ever attended.

Furious is an opener which demands your attention, and Firepile doesn't let up. What's immediately clear is how tight the band sounds, despite the complicated layers present on most of the tracks. The full sound is also present on Dio and Dirty Water, but the best track on the album has to be Pearl. It has a few phases and highlights both the fury and sweetness of Kristin Hersh's voice. Here it is:

The Throwing Muses are complicated, layered, real, and often raw. However, the chaos has definite patterns, and the music can be sweeping and majestic at times.  Kristin's guitar style is very distinctive, but every component is vital to the sound. This was my favorite band for over ten years, and I'll never tire of hearing their music. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover 32 new Muses tracks in the recently released Purgatory/Paradise. If you do check out Red Heaven for yourself, try to give it at least three listens. You might just find something you love. I once flew 3,000 miles just to see this band.

Full Track Listing:

Dirty Water
Summer St.
The Visit
Rosetta Stone
Carnival Wig

11. Nevermind - Nirvana

When people ask me what kind of music I like, I often mention Nirvana. For those who were raised on a diet of pop or classic rock, it's the easiest way to make them understand what alternative rock sounds like. Let's face it, just about everyone has heard of this band. My introduction was through MTV when I first saw Smells Like Teen Spirit. I knew I had to own that song and whatever album it was from.  

Kurt Cobain freely admitted that Nirvana ripped off the Pixies, who sit comfortably at number three in this list. Unlike the Pixies, Nirvana were huge in the early 90s. MTV brought the music to the masses, even though Bleach had been around since 1989.

The album has been identified as one which changed music. While I disagree about the level of its impact, it certainly made alternative music more accessible to mainstream audiences. The album is exciting, and still stands up well today, despite most fans playing it to death. I doubt any other album on my list has sold anywhere close to the 30 million that Nevermind managed throughout the world.

Teen Spirit opens the album, but the band will be remembered for a lot more than that one song. In Bloom is catchy, but in a cool kind of way. What first made me think that Nirvana would be more than a one album band was the third song, Come As You Are. Here it is:

The structure of the song is what suggested to me that Nirvana might produce music that was lasting, and more than just a fleeting ripple on the alternative music pond. The way it slowly builds and becomes something powerful. Cobain, like most of my favorite vocalists, had a flawed raspy delivery, but there was passion and meaning in the songs.

Nevermind doesn't have a song that you'll want to skip. What I really like is the variety present across the 12 tracks. Sure, they had a formula, but there was a depth that is lacking from most bands. In Utero was a stunning final album from a band that could have developed into an even more interesting phenomenon over the years. That said, I'm glad we have what Kurt Cobain left behind.

Full Track Listing:

Smells Like Teen Spirit
In Bloom
Come as You Are
Territorial Pissings
Drain You
Lounge Act
Stay Away
On a Plain
Something in the Way

12. Animals - Pink Floyd

Here's the first band that doesn't fall into the Alternative Rock category. My tastes have changed considerably over the past 40 years, but Pink Floyd were once my favorite band. I've owned their albums on vinyl, cassette tape and CD, and even bought remastered and special editions of some of them. I only ever saw them in concert twice, both on the Division Bell tour. As a spectacle, they are the best shows I have ever been to.

Most Pink Floyd fans will claim that Dark Side of the Moon is the band's best album, and most of those who don't agree will mention The Wall. I prefer Animals because it has a harder edge to it. With the exception of the brief starting and ending tracks, Animals consists of three main songs: Dogs, Sheep and Pigs. I would rank Dogs and Sheep as the best two tracks Pink Floyd ever produced, with Pigs also in the Top 10.

Don't get me wrong, I love Dark Side of the Moon. It's one of the best concept albums I've ever heard. There's just something more appealing about Animals for me. Dogs dominates side one of the original album, weighing in at  over 17 minutes. It's the only track not written solely by Roger Waters (Gilmour co-wrote), and it's probably the strongest in terms of lyrics. The opening two verses set the scene:

You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need.
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street,
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed.
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.

And after a while, you can work on points for style.
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake,
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.

Dogs is a superb song, and never feels too long because of the different feel of the various segments.

Sheep features great guitar work from Gilmour and that gets my vote for best Pink Floyd song (most days). Here it is:

For some reason, Animals is rarely recognized as the band's best album. Perhaps it's due to the length of the tracks? They are not exactly suited for radio play. I own everything Pink Floyd ever released, and there has never been a moment where I thought any one of their other albums was better than this one. Give it a few listens and maybe you will change your mind.

Full Track Listing:

Pigs on the Wing (Part 1)
Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)

13. Grotesque - The Fall

Here's a choice that will alienate a lot of people, and have others enthusiastically nodding in agreement. The Fall are most certainly an acquired taste. I discovered the band through listening to the John Peel show, and then by exploring a friend's record collection.

The first time I heard the band, I was not impressed. Mark E. Smith can't sing, and often forgets lyrics when he's drunk during a show. However, the supporting cast more than made up for Smith's shortcomings as a vocalist. Grotesque features Marc Riley (guitar, keyboards), Stephen Hanley (bass), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Paul Hanley (drums) and Kay Carroll (additional vocals).

It's hard to say exactly why I love The Fall. They definitely had an impressive engine room, and Hanley's bass was a key component. It's one of those occasions where repeated plays caused something to suddenly click. Take a listen to New Face in Hell and you'll probably see how it influenced Pavement's Conduit for Sale:

Yep, it uses kazoos. Like many of Smith's lyrics, there's quite a lot going on. He throws information and narrative at you for fun. You can see what I mean about his vocal style. The Fall are definitely a love them or hate them band. I love them.

With the exception of W.M.C. - Blob 59, Grotesque shows The Fall at their best. The rhythm section shines, and there's an edge and originality to their sound. Other highlights include Pay Your Rates, In the Park, and Gramme Friday. For anyone interested in discovering this very English band, Grotesque is a good place to start.

I've attended about 500 concerts over the course of my life, and The Fall may be responsible for as many as 50 of them. My first ever gig was to see The Fall, so it's easy to appreciate why they were my favorite band for around 15 years. Unfortunately, Smith fired the entire band in the 90s and things were never the same. Fond memories though.

Full Track Listing:

Pay Your Rates
English Scheme
New Face in Hell
C'n'C-S Mithering
The Container Drivers
Impression of J. Temperance
In the Park
W.M.C. – Blob 59
Gramme Friday
The N.W.R.A.

14. Let Love In - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

If you're keeping score, there are nine American and four British bands on my list thus far. Time to add something from Australia. I knew that I would include an album involving Nick Cave, but the choice was extremely difficult as I'm also extremely fond of Murder Ballads, Henry's Dream and Dig Lazarus, Dig!!!

Let Love In gets the nod because it's so varied, and features one of my favorite Nick Cave songs. If you prefer his crooning ballad style, there are five or six tracks to choose from. For those who like the harder, almost punk delivery (that he used so successfully while a member of The Birthday Party), you have Jangling Jack and Thirsty Dog. If you enjoy powerful rants, listen to Loverman. Perhaps the best track Cave has ever produced (although The Mercy Seat is in the running) is Red Right Hand. Here it is:

Such an atmospheric and menacing song. It was used to good effect during an X-Files episode after Chris Carter heard it and had to find a way to use it.

The Bad Seeds give amazing depth to Nick Cave's music. It's more noticeable on other tracks, so I urge you to check out the entire album and a few others if you have the time.

I always think of Nick Cave as the musical equivalent of Quentin Tarantino. There's violence, murder, menace and vitriol, but it's delivered in such a tongue-in-cheek way that it's funny and almost friendly. Cave is an extremely humorous character. Here's a verse from Thirsty Dog:

Forgive me, baby but don't worry
Love is always having to say you're sorry
And I am, from my head down to my shoes
I'm sorry that I'm always pissed
I'm sorry that I exist
And when I look into your eyes
I can see you're sorry too

Full Track Listing:

Do You Love Me?
Nobody's Baby Now
Jangling Jack
Red Right Hand
I Let Love In
Thirsty Dog
Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore
Lay Me Low
Do You Love Me? (Part 2)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Theatrical Review)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Comedy, Drama, 100 minutes
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban

I had been waiting to see Wes Anderson's latest project from the moment it was announced. The Canadian release date was delayed, and then ended up being limited to a few theaters. I'm happy to say that it finally made it to a local theater and I saw it at the earliest opportunity a few hours ago.

It's hard to imagine Wes Anderson ever having mass appeal, but the marketing for The Grand Budapest Hotel has been more widespread and noticeable than that for his other releases. In case you missed it, here is the trailer:

To describe the plot would be both difficult and pointless. Wes Anderson is an acquired taste and fans are likely to love everything he releases. The Grand Budapest Hotel certainly has the same tongue-in-cheek tone of his previous films, and the similarities don't end there. Neil Young once said that his output was all one song, and Anderson's feels like all one film.

The story is beautifully framed, with an old man recollecting his past to an interested writer. The images are typical Anderson, with the usual explosion of colors and storybook settings. This feeling is heightened by the use of title cards to denote the chapters and the familiar style of music used in previous efforts. The story takes place in three different time periods, but we spend most of our time in 1932. All of the scenes from the past are shown in full screen, while the main narration sequences are in widescreen.

All I will say about the plot is that is focuses on hotel employees M. Gustave (Fiennes) and Zero Moustafa (Revolori). Gustave dates old women and one of them leaves him a valuable painting in her will. Her family are rather annoyed, and hire someone to retrieve the painting. The story is incredibly detailed and vast, despite only running for 100 minutes. There are frequent moments of witty humor, farce, irony and visual gags. Most of Anderson's regulars appear in the film at some point, and it's a tribute to him that such talents are willing to show up for such limited screen time.

Fiennes is very effective as Gustave. He's eloquent, and fond of reciting poetry, but his comic timing is perfect throughout. The vocabulary is not what you would expect from a typical movie, but it is offset with occasional expletives, which are extremely funny in the context of the film.

I was reassured by the large audience that showed up on a Saturday morning to watch a film by a director who does nothing to try to appeal to the masses. There is a shootout scene, but not like anything you have ever witnessed. Wes Anderson is like Stephen King or David Lynch in the way that he slightly skews reality; unlike those two, Anderson's stories are much lighter in tone. I despise cruelty to animals, but you'll laugh at a scene involving a cat. It's similar to Snoopy's fate in Moonrise Kingdom.

It's so refreshing to see a filmmaker with ideas. Aren't you tired of seeing Hollywood blockbusters that are predictable and tired? Grand Budapest will never let you relax because there is so much information to absorb. The dialogue is strange, the settings are like something out of a dream, numerous objects and props are weird in themselves. It took me a few moments to come back to reality after the movie because I was still in that world as I walked out of the theater. I didn't even hear someone call my name until their third try.

I imagine The Grand Budapest Hotel will reveal new things every time you watch it, and I can't wait to add it to my collection and see it again. This may be Anderson's most accessible film to date, but he definitely hasn't deviated from his unique style.

Overall score 5/5

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wind Rises - Hayao Miyazaki's swan song?

The Wind Rises (2013)
Animation, Biography, Drama, 126 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Herzog, Jennifer Grey and William H. Macy (English dub)

The trailer for The Wind Rises only hints at some of the film's secrets, but it's worth a look if you are completely new to the works of director Hayao Miyazaki. This is not a slick Disney production in 3D with modern graphics, but a softer 2D watercolor piece. All of Miyazaki's movies use this style and it can be disappointing for some. I find it utterly beautiful.

If you are familiar with Miyazaki, the important thing to note is that The Wind Rises is different in tone to all of his established classics. This is a movie set in the real world, and it tells the story of, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japanese fighter planes during the second world war. I was worried that the story might disappoint, as I love Miyazaki's fantasy worlds, but all of the magic was present.

One thing I should mention immediately is that this is not a story that is likely to engage young children in the way that Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, or Kiki's Delivery Service did. The two main themes are Jiro's passion for his work, and his love for a woman. People usually expect something light and family-friendly from animated movies, but this one includes a heartbreaking death and feelings that the very young would probably not understand.

Miyazaki uses a number of dream sequences to establish Jiro's passion for his career, so you'll see him walking along the wings of planes designed by his Italian hero, Caproni. Jiro gains experience by working in European countries, and we watch him and his friend develop their young careers.

One of the most charming things in the film is Jiro's love for Nahoko. The two have a chance encounter on a train when he is a boy, and he ends up saving her and her mother when an earthquake devastates their surroundings. Again, these scenes might worry or confuse small children.

The detail in the animation is incredible, despite the old-fashioned style. Miyazaki often puts in seemingly unnecessary detail, but it adds realism to the story. Watch the small stones rolling when someone jumps off a train and you'll understand what I mean. Another thing that adds to the depth of the story is Miyazaki's willingness to address issues that are rarely explored in the animated form. For instance, one major character suffers from tuberculosis, which afflicted Miyazaki's own mother from 1947 to 1955.

I hope that I'm not persuading you to give this film a miss with all the dark subject matter. It's an incredibly beautiful story with characters you'll really care about. The English dub features an incredibly strong array of talent and it works wonderfully. When Frozen wins the Oscar in a few hours from the time of writing, I won't be surprised, but The Wind Rises is just about perfect and deserves to win.

The story affected me deeply and I had to fight off tears in places. If I had been watching at home by myself, I would probably have been sobbing by the end. But that would be because of the extraordinary beauty present in the film and its characters, rather than true sadness.

If this is to be Miyazaki's final film, it's a great way to end a magnificent career. I was totally engrossed for two hours, just as I have been in the vast majority of his other films over the years. The Wind Rises might be remembered as his Grave of the Fireflies, but that shouldn't prevent you from seeing it. It's further proof that animation can be important as well as entertaining. 

Overall score 5/5

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Monuments Men - Theatrical Review

The Monuments Men (2013)
Action, Biography, Drama, 118 minutes
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville

I was trying decide whether to see The Monuments Men in theaters, or simply wait for the Blu-ray. On the one hand, it has a tremendous cast and features some of my favorite actors, but reviews have been generally negative. I eventually chose to make up my own mind.

I'm still not sure if that was a good decision.

The movie is based on a true story, and tells the tale of how a small group of men were charged with the task of recovering artwork stolen by the Nazi's during World War II. I'm tired of stories about Nazi's, but I have a lot of respect for people who fought and still fight for our freedom. Art should be for everyone and I had not heard this story before, so I have to admit that I had high hopes for the movie.

Nobody from the talented cast dominated the story. This was a true ensemble piece with screen time being shared. We are shown a recruiting stage, a planning stage, and then the attempted execution of those plans. Unfortunately, the drama doesn't really build in an effective way. In fact, I'm not certain what the movie was trying to be. There were frequent moments of comedy, interspersed with mystery, brief action, and adventure elements. With all of these important works of art at stake, I somehow failed to be completely invested in the story.

It's hard to pinpoint why it fell flat for me. I rather enjoyed the performances of the principal actors, but I didn't feel much tension during the search, or triumph when works of art were recovered.

The closing credits showed photographs of the real heroes who were involved in the mission 70 years ago.

The most memorable character was James Granger (Matt Damon), who interacted in an important way with Parisian museum curator, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), to uncover vital information for the mission. Blanchett's character was based on Rose Valland.

The Monuments Men is an important and heroic story which meanders along without ever becoming riveting. I would watch it again, but I don't think I need to own it.

Overall score 3/5

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Jungle Book - Diamond Edition Blu-ray

The Jungle Book (1967)
Animation, Adventure, Family, 78 minutes
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring the voices of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Louis Prima, Bruce Reitherman and Sterling Holloway

Although Bambi, Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp are my favorite classic Disney titles, The Jungle Book holds a special place in my heart. My mother took me and my brother to see it on the big screen shortly before she died, and it was the only animated Disney film we saw together at the cinema. I remember that we were late and missed a few minutes, so we watched the rest of the film, Treasure Island, and then sat through all of The Jungle Book again afterwards. I only asked to see the few minutes we had missed, but we couldn't bring ourselves to leave at that point.

I don't think I have seen the film since that day around 40 years ago, so I wondered whether my treasured memory would be ruined by seeing it again as an adult. I'm happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Walt Disney's last major animated film is a feel-good story suitable for the whole family. The story is simple: Mowgli is a small child who is discovered by Bagheera the panther in the Indian Jungle. After giving the matter some thought, he decides that the local wolves would provide the best home for the boy. Ten years quickly pass during a narrated scene and we skip ahead to the current day. The wolves have heard that the tiger, Shere Khan, is back in the neighborhood. He hates humans and will likely seek out Mowgli to kill him. Don't worry, I promise that your children won't be frightened by the story.

Mowgli is befriended by a small elephant, and also has the help of Bagheera, who decides to deliver the boy to a village so that he can be among his own kind. Along the way they encounter Baloo the bear, who is the life and soul of the film. He's not too bright, but his heart is in the right place and it's easy to love him.

Like most Disney classics, the story contains plenty of songs. The most notable is Bare Necessities, sung by Baloo, and it was nominated for an Oscar. There are four other songs, including King of the Swingers, which is almost as much fun as Bare Necessities.

The 78-minute story seems to be over all too quickly, but you could always watch it twice as I did all those years ago. I could imagine small children loving the colors, the music, and the bright characters that populate the entire movie.

The Diamond Edition  Blu-ray boasts a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, as well as the original mono track, and 5.1 Dolby Digital versions in French, Spanish and Portuguese. The picture is free of dirt and debris and looks as clear as a watercolor painting could possibly look. Be aware that these hand-painted Disney classics do not have the depth of modern CGI images, but the story is strong enough to make you focus on what's happening in the foreground. I was very happy with the presentation.

As well as features from the Classic DVD, this latest version includes the following:

Music, Memories and Mowgli: A Conversation with Richard M. Sherman, Diane Disney Miller and Floyd Norman (9:42)
Alternate Ending - Mowgli and the Hunter (unfinished animation in storyboard form) (8:46)
I Wan'na Be Like You: Hanging Out at Disney's Magic Kingdom (18:25)
Bear-e-oke (5 songs)
@disneyanimation: Sparking Creativity (9:14)

The package comes with an embossed slip cover and a DVD.

For any Disney fan who hasn't seen The Jungle Book, the Blu-ray is a great way to experience it for the first time. I would also recommend it as an upgrade for owners of the DVD.

Overall score 4/5 (Presentation 5/5)

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Blu-ray Bin Update - Feb. 9, 2014

Here are the latest Used 1-Disc/Used additions from Blu-ray Bin:

2012 $9.99
24: Season 7 $19.99
Alcatraz: The Complete Series $14.99
Alphabet Killer, The $9.99
Babe $9.99
Being Human: Season 5 $14.99
Bling Ring, The $12.99
Blue Angel, The (2-Disc Ultimate Edition) $19.99
Ceremony $4.99
Closed Circuit $12.99
Doctor Who - Series Seven: Part One $9.99
Falling Skies: Season 2 $12.99
Hour 2, The $12.99
InuYasha - The Final Act - Set 2 $19.99
InuYasha; - The Final Act - Set 1 $19.99
Iron Man 3 $12.99
Le Casanova de Fellini (French Import - Region B Only) $12.99
Legend of Korra - Book One: Air $12.99
Looper $12.99
Master, The $9.99
Moonrise Kingdom (Combo Pack) $9.99
Nip/Tuck Season 4 $19.99
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan  $16.99
Ocean Predators 3D $14.99
Poetry (UK Import - Region Free) $12.99
Prom Night $4.99
Scent of a Woman/Sea of Love - Double Feature (2-Disc) $6.99
Spring Breakdown $4.99
Taking Off (French Import - Region B Only) $12.99
Tie That Binds, The $9.99
To the Wonder $9.99
Trance $9.99
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea $12.99 

Free shipping on all used items if you use code freeshipfeb2014. Free shipping on new items when you spend at least $25.

Used items come with cases and original artwork and are 100 percent guaranteed.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Labor Day (Theatrical Review)

Labor Day (2013)
Drama, 111 minutes
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith and Tobey Maguire

I was apprehensive attending the Saturday morning showing of Jason Reitman's Labor Day. Although I almost always avoid reviews and trailers when I am certain I will see a movie, I had heard the mostly negative buzz for Reitman's fifth movie. I also knew that this wouldn't contain the humor that I loved in Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. In short, I was afraid that Reitman's perfect record would be broken, but in my mind at least, he's still batting a thousand. If you're a Reitman fan, I urge you to stop reading until you have seen the movie. It's impossible to talk about it without giving away significant plot points.

For those of you who are undecided, I'm not going to mention anything that isn't revealed in the trailer.

Adele (Kate Winslet) plays a single mother who lives with her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Her former husband had a child with another woman and Adele struggles to cope with depression and social anxiety. She barely leaves the house, shopping just once a month for supplies from the local store. It might be difficult to understand this condition if you have never suffered from it. Some days are good, and it's possible to talk to a total stranger; other days are difficult, and the slightest trigger can result in a surge of panic. This fight or flight feeling can be overwhelming, and, as a coping technique, those who suffer from anxiety run through every possible scenario before facing the world.

You can imagine Adele's horror when Henry introduces her to Frank (Josh Brolin), who just met him in the store and asked for a ride. I can imagine Adele wondering how to extract herself from the situation without upsetting her son. Does Frank look safe, or could he turn out to be dangerous? Frank more or less insists that Adele help him, and then demands to be driven to her home. He's an escaped convict.

This is not the Reitman that we have come to know and love. Make no mistake, Labor Day is a drama. It plays out somewhat like a Hitchcock movie, but instead of seeing things from the viewpoint of the man on the run, we see things through the eyes of Adele and Henry. Frank just wants to rest for a while and says that he will leave that night by train, but Labor Day weekend is approaching and the trains aren't running.

The story is set in 1987, and the narration is handled by Tobey Maguire, who also shows up later in the story as an adult version of Henry. If you're planning to see this movie because Maguire is involved, his role is fairly minor. This is all about the interaction between Adele and Frank, and how it impacts Henry. The acting is superb, and Winslet thoroughly deserved her Golden Globe nomination.

As the trailer shows, this film isn't a traditional crime drama. Adele has missed her husband and Frank doesn't seem all that threatening. The news bulletins say that he is a murderer serving 18 years, but he insists that things didn't happen the way they were described on TV. We eventually learn the truth through flashbacks, but I won't talk about that here. We are also shown more of Adele's past, and come to understand some of the things that trigger her anxiety. These troubled people find that they like each other, and both Adele and Henry seem content to have Frank around. Instead of treating them as prisoners, he even fixes things around the house.

I found myself actually rooting for Frank to escape and it reminded me of Roger Ebert's comments about the scene in Psycho where we wanted the car to sink into the water when Norman Bates was hiding it. I keep mentioning Hitchcock because tension and suspense is present throughout the film. I think I was engrossed in the story for every single moment of the 111 minutes.

So why are the reviews so negative? Is the story unrealistic? Not to me. Is the ending contrived or weak? I certainly didn't think so. I was never bored and the resolution wasn't immediately obvious. The actors didn't put a foot wrong either. Were people disappointed by the lack of Reitman's established formula? I really don't know why the reviews are so bad. I can assure you that I would echo those opinions if the same were true for me, but I loved Labor Day. The score was subtle and effective, the pacing good, and the atmosphere just right.

The only difficult thing is deciding whether to give the film 4.5 or 5 stars, and I think it deserves a 5. If you like Reitman at all, please give this a chance and make up your own mind. I'm delighted that I did.

Overall score 5/5

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