Monday, March 30, 2015

The Boy from the Crowd

Music is a very personal thing for me. In many ways, it helps define who I am. So when I get asked to say what I think about a song or an album, I take it seriously. I'm also petrified that I will hate the sound, because I am an honest person and wouldn't want to crush anyone's dream. A couple of days ago, I was approached by Vinny from The Boy from the Crowd, offering me a download of Revelator.

Here's what I am talking about:

If it had sucked, I probably would have politely said that it wasn't my kind of thing. After all, I can't possibly give an opinion if I hate the genre. But this song is actually pretty good.

It's not punk, or pop, but the spiky guitar and high energy borrows from both of those genres. But what bands sound similar to this? Well, the vocals at times seem like a more forceful version of Pete Shelley, so I definitely thought of post-Devoto Buzzcocks. I also thought of Jet's Are You Gonna Be My Girl.

The two have a pretty full sound for a duo. Don't get me wrong, this is not the White Stripes (I thought of them immediately on hearing the word revelator). That said, the guitar does some interesting things, and everything sounds tight.

As a fan of Kristin Hersh, I'm fascinated by the success of CASH music and the way that social media can be such an important tool. I'm happy to help an aspiring band get heard by a few more people. There's definitely a market for this kind of sound. The uplifting delivery could even make it a hit on sports shows, the way Blur's Song 2 did.

If you have three minutes to spare, click the video above and see what you think.

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves (First Impressions)

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves
Tracks 15, Duration 57 minutes

1. Strangers to Ourselves
2. Lampshades On Fire
3. Shit in Your Cut
4. Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)
5. Ansel
6. The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box
7. Coyotes
8. Pups to Dust
9. Sugar Boats
10. Wicked Campaign
11. Be Brave
12. God is an Indian and You're an Asshole
13. The Tortoise and the Tourist
14. The Best Room
15. Of Course We Know

I love music. Really love it. Some of the best moments of my life have taken place at concerts. I grew up liking glam rock, before graduating to artists with more depth. My favorite bands have changed over the years, although many of my absolute favorites have been in my collection for as long as 40 years.

David Bowie was my favorite artist from 1974 to 1978, before Pink Floyd took over. Then I discovered alternative music and The Fall took over the top spot in 1980. I've seen them live more than 30 times. Their 14-year reign was finally broken when I discovered Throwing Muses (years after I should have). The first five Pixies albums eventually captured my attention and they usurped the Muses, before Sonic Youth rose to the top in 2000. Modest Mouse graduated from a place in the middle of my Top 10 to my favorite band in the summer of 2014. I played their albums to death for about three months in preparation for Toronto's August 1 concert and I'm having trouble playing anything else at the moment.

I didn't discover Modest Mouse until around 2005, when I moved to North America. Although I was able to anticipate the release of We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, this is the first time I have looked forward to a Modest Mouse album while they were my Number 1 band. I've been listening to whatever live versions of the songs I could, as well as the few official tracks which were made available early. Now I actually have my hands on all 15 tracks and I feel compelled to share my thoughts.

Bear in mind though that I think it's impossible to fully appreciate any album on one or two listens. Until you know a song well enough to know what's coming from beginning to end, any initial impression is something that can easily and will most likely change.

That said, what do I think of Strangers to Ourselves?

The title track was completely new to me as of this morning. It eases in slowly, with Brock's vocals thoughtful and subdued. It's a reflective song which introduces us to the album. Unlike Brock's more abrasive vocals, Strangers to Ourselves isn't a song that a non-fan might hate. More than anything, it leaves me anticipating the inevitable explosion of energy that is surely present on the album as a whole.

Lampshades On Fire has been on my playlist since it surfaced late last year. I love the rhythm and the way that the seemingly chaotic structure seems to flow together. It's actually quite catchy! I could imagine casual listeners wanting to hear more from the band after being exposed to it.

"We'll kill you off and then make a clone
Yeah, we got spines, yeah, we have bones
This is how it's always gone
And this is how it's going to go"

Shit in Your Cut contains a lot of heavy bass. I'm extremely familiar with the song after seeing it performed at Echo Beach at the concert and hearing various live versions on YouTube. Brock's vocals are measured, but forceful. Unlike the live renditions, the album version reveals more layers of sound. The drums in particular are more prominent, and the swirling guitar fits perfectly. The backing vocals work well, and are less jarring than on songs like Florida from the last album. I could imagine this song becoming a favorite of mine.

"I guess we'll ride this winter out"

I'm really loving the extra depth on the studio versions so far.

Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) begins with a disco drum intro (gulp) and it makes me think of Blondie's Tide is High. But Brock's vocals are more of a growl on this track and it carries plenty of weight. That said, this is easily the weakest track so far.

Ansel begins with Brock saying "Here we go" and it feels like the beginning of a musical journey. That matches the theme of the song, which is about a trip to New Mexico during which a brother is lost. I hope it wasn't a real event. The structure feels like vintage Modest Mouse.

Edit: Thanks to @ravenval for doing my research for me via
The song is inspired by the death of Isaac Brock’s brother, who died in an accident on a mountain in the early 2000s. While Isaac’s brother was not actually named Ansel, the track still marks a rare, personal moment from the songwriter, who typically obscures his feelings with copious amounts of metaphor.

"The last time that you ever see another soul
No, you never get to know
No, you don't know"

The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box is a sprawling jumble of layers with a funky beat reminiscent of Talking Heads. The songs are more polished than on early Modest Mouse albums, but Brock's vocals still have that unmistakable feel. I can see how fans might be divided by this album if they are hoping for another Lonesome Crowded West. Make no mistake, this is a BIG sound. The track is dense with all kinds of percussion, but it holds together well.

"Our predecessor left this box
and something's crawling around
I think it really wants out"

Coyotes is raw and beautiful, with Brock in reflective mode again. The song features layers of backing vocals and stark acoustic guitar. There's a lot to like about this structure, but it isn't typical Modest Mouse. I must have heard it a hundred times over the past few weeks and it's still growing on me.

Pups to Dust begins like a trail song, but then emerges as the Modest Mouse sound that we know and love. More backing vocals on this one. There's a lot going on, so it's hard to take in everything on just a couple of listens. It's a pretty slow song, and quite accessible for the casual listener.

Sugar Boats has been available on YouTube as a live song for a long time, but none of those versions sound like this one. There's more depth, keyboards, and Brock's vocals are much clearer in the mix. I've noticed that a few songs on the album have a carnival quality to them, but with guitars rather than a fairground organ. The driving guitar is hypnotic and it's a strong track.

Wicked Campaign is a synthesizer-laden track which ebbs and flows. It ranges from tribal drums to stark vocals. It sounds...strange.  The more I listen, the more I get a feel for the structure. The last minute is blatant Modest Mouse with Brock in full flow. Yeah, I like it.

Be Brave has been around a while as a live track. Brock spits out the lyrics and it sounds better on the album than any version I have heard before. The fairground quality is there again, but the vocals are forceful and dominate the song. There's so much depth here. It's definitely one of the highlights from the album. It's amazing how the staccato vocals can still flow so well.

God is an Indian and You're an Asshole is the shortest song on the album at just over a minute. It wouldn't work well on its own, but it serves well as a link between the other songs, repeating a single idea.

The Tortoise and the Tourist starts off with discordant guitar, before bursting into action when the full band kicks in. It's a towering wall of sound, with Brock's vocals at their shouty best. I'm probably going to love this track after a few more listens.

The Best Room is probably my favorite song from those released early, and I have played it dozens of times. It has multiple phases, ranging from driving vocals to a more laid back sound. There's a great sequence in the middle with Brock's unaccompanied vocals. The abrupt ending always leaves me wanting more.

We all signed the card:
"Get well, but don't you try too hard"

Of Course We Know ends the album as it began, with a multilayered and epic sound. The keyboards and backing vocals don't sound like you would expect Modest Mouse to sound, but Brock's scratchy vocal removes any doubt.

So where does the new album rank when compared to other releases from my favorite band? Well, it's somewhere in the middle. My top three are The Lonesome Crowded West, The Moon & Antarctica, and This is a Long Drive. I would put Strangers to Ourselves in the same tier as Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. As my disclaimer mentioned, that could change drastically when the songs are more familiar to me. I'm encouraged by my first impression.

Overall rating: 3.5/5 for Modest Mouse albums, 5/5 when compared to other bands.

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Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)
Comedy, Drama, 119 minutes
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis 

Birdman won four Oscars from its nine nominations; best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography. It also more than doubled its budget at the box office, so it's fair to say that Birdman was a success. That said, I don't think it will have massive appeal.

Why do I say that?

The film does not follow a conventional structure. I would imagine that most people will sit down to watch Birdman expecting to laugh every couple of minutes; after all, it is described as both a comedy and a drama, and Michael Keaton and Zach Galifianakis are involved. What we actually get is something quite unexpected. It feels like we are part of a play.

Iñárritu caught my attention with the way that he weaved together four threads in the excellent Babel, and used a similar structure in 21 Grams. Birdman is nothing like either of those films. Instead, it's shot like a documentary. He uses extreme closeups and we experience just about everything from the perspective of Riggan Thompson (Keaton). He plays an actor who was once famous for playing a superhero. That seems fitting considering Keaton's turn as Batman. Iñárritu is aware that superhero movies are popular, and that most people crave action and special effects over true art. Riggan expands on that idea by pouring everything he has (physically, mentally and financially) into a broadway play that writes, directs and stars in.

Emma Stone plays Riggan's daughter, Sam. She's a bit of a problem child, and that seems to fit Riggan's lifestyle, which is anything but trouble-free. The other actors in the play are Mike (Edward Norton) and Lesley (Naomi Watts), and they provide plenty of conflict both on and off the stage. To add to the overall feel that we are part of a play, Iñárritu uses a series of long takes. The result is almost a superior version of reality TV.

I often use the word 'interesting' as a throwaway word, but Birdman is genuinely interesting. It held my attention throughout and I wanted to know what would happen next. Keaton and Norton deserved their nominations, but there were definitely better performances in 2014. I like Keaton, and am glad that he got so much recognition, but in all honesty, I don't understand why Birdman won best picture. I enjoyed it, and I'll revisit it from time to time, but in my opinion it's not even Iñárritu's best film.

Overall score 3.75/5

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Sunday, March 1, 2015


Whiplash (2014)
Drama, Music, 107 minutes
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons and Paul Reiser

I've never been a fan of jazz, so why would I want to watch Whiplash? The movie deals with a young man's passion for drumming and his ambition is to be the next Buddy Rich. To answer my own question, I wanted to see J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-winning role.

I've been a fan of Simmons since I saw his humorous cameo in Burn After Reading. He has the ability to make us forget that he's acting. Do you remember him as Juno's father, or as a fired worker in Up in the Air? I once decided that if I ever became an established writer of screenplays, I would write something that featured Simmons so that he could showcase all of his talent. Damien Chazelle has beaten me to it.

It's common to idolize people in our lives, whether it's in the sporting world, music, or whatever your individual interests happen to be. But Peyton Manning didn't just become great; he dedicated himself to the game and worked to connect with his teammates. While Jimi Hendrix had perhaps the most instinctive musical talent, he probably worked like crazy to develop his ability.

Whiplash is essentially about the struggle for greatness.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) doesn't seem to care about making friends or maintaining social relationships of any kind. He believes that they are merely distractions which take him away from time he could spend perfecting his drum playing. We see Neiman at Shaffer, which has the reputation of being the best music school in the US.

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) teaches at Shaffer, and seems to spend most of his time terrorizing his students. His style is reminiscent of a Sergeant Major, making most students afraid of him and unable to look him in the eye. But it would be a mistake to pigeon hole Fletcher because his character is multifaceted and impossible to consistently predict. One minute he's shouting into someone's face, and then he'll shed a tear or say something surprisingly encouraging. His motivation is to discover the next great jazz musician, but his methods are unorthodox and extreme.

As the story unfolds, we watch Neiman try to impress Fletcher. His drumming is just a small part of the equation; Fletcher wants to see Neiman stand up to him and overcome adversity, believing that such qualities are a vital part of the mix in any truly great musician.

I won't give away any more of the story, but I should say that Neiman's journey isn't the smoothest. We are left guessing right up until the final scene (and perhaps beyond) about Fletcher's true motivations and whether Neiman will succeed. I would have to say that it's one of the best movie-endings I have ever witnessed.

I watched Whiplash for the first time just 20 hours ago with two friends who had no interest in the subject matter. We all loved the story. I'm struggling to stop myself from seeing it again tonight. Be prepared for a lot of foul language and an intense experience. It's a unique movie with excellent performances. I hope that you give it a chance.

Overall score 5/5

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