Friday, June 30, 2006

The Magic Numbers and Number 83

The Magic Numbers is a recent band whose dreamy power pop style hasn't been heard in years. They're a throwback to innocuous pop bands of the British invasion, with only the Cure style slung back rhythm section to give them a modern touch. The Magic Numbers is a rarity in today's music landscape, a group dedicated to making pleasant pop tunes with no regard for conformity.

But, how good is the music itself? Well, pretty darn good! The two singles alone, "Forever Lost" and "Love Me Like You", are stand out tracks filled with peppy energy, swooning vocals and jangly guitars. At other times, the band becomes slower and mildly contemplative but never too much so. The slower bits are remiscent of Van Morrison in "Moondance" mode while the backing vocals recall Love in parts. "Don't Give Up This Fight", with its buttery guitar and tricky harmonies practically defines this sound.

Despite the strength of their sound, the fact that The Magic Numbers never cut too deep lyrically or emotionally remains a problem for them. Their music can be almost exhilarating for a few songs but become tiresome before the CD is over. Or, as my wife just put it, "I'm getting tired of hearing this band." This downfall knocks down their score quite a bit, making The Magic Numbers a 7 out of 10.

On the flip side, you can get the opposite feeling by listening to Number 83:

Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

I became a Smashing Pumpkins fan in a roundabout way, someone bought me this CD thinking I wouldn't like it. To that person's surprise and my own, I really liked it a lot. A dense double CD crammed with grungy fervor and art rock aspirations, the Smashing Pumpkins made an album filled with catharsis and mystery along the course of 28 songs.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is supposed to be a concept album about...actually, I could never figure out what this was about. The parts I did catch were bits and pieces of moods. There were petulant grungy rock star moments, such as the hit "Bullet With Butterfly Wings". Just can't beat that chorus, "In spite of my rage I am still just a rat in a cage!". "An Ode To No One" and "Tales Of A Scorched Earth" follow suit. Parts of new wave flash in with the biggest hit, the New Order influenced "1979". Strumming guitar lines and a steady beat while techno sounds bounce in and out behind a disaffected vocal. Progressive rock also makes its presence felt, such as in the Yes styled "Cupid De Locke" or the Moody Blues symphonic pastiche "Tonight Tonight". The mystery comes from the dreamy soundcapes in tunes such as "Thirty Three" or "Farewell and Goodnight".

Through it all, Billy Corgan orchestrates and brays with a self absorbed ego not seen since the hey day of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd. Like Waters, it may seem like negative personality traits to have, but in both cases their egos fueled their vision to push their talents to the limit. I can't say this album is on par with Pink Floyd's The Wall, although I like Mellon Collie more. A better title in comparison is The Fence. A dark blue fence draped with Goth kids smoking cigarettes and complaining about their uncool parents. It can seem hard to relate to, but the angst and beauty cuts through the murk in a way thats convincing and memorable.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cheap Trick and Number 84

Cheap Trick has just released a new album named Rockford (2006), easily their best album since 1979's Dream Police. I'm so psyched about this album, I'm going to write it in the style of the back sleeve to Boston's debut album from 1976.

Cheap Trick started by recording three classic albums which were ignored by the American Public but loved in Japan-Listen To The Record!-In 1977 Cheap Trick recorded a live album for the Japanese market only but it crossed over to the US to make Cheap Trick a platinum selling band-Listen To The Record!-The follow up album Dream Police should have taken Cheap Trick to the next level but only went Gold instead-Listen To The Record!-Cheap Trick spent the next 25 years recording bad albums while desperately trying to keep up with the times. Even a late 80's power ballad ("The Flame") and alterna-rock cool (Smashing Pumpkins often cited the band as an influence) coudn't keep them afloat-Listen To The Record-Now that the world is ignoring Cheap Trick, the Tricksters come up with their best album since Dream Police, Rockford-Listen To The Record!

Yes, just when it seemed like they were down for the count, Cheap Trick return to their basic sound of crunching guitar riffs, beatlesque harmony vocals and sharp songwriting. I can't think of another album they have done which has been consistently more enjoyable. Much of the music fits the above description, such as "Give It Away", "This Time You Got It" and the lead single "Perfect Stranger". The band rocks hard in "Come On Come On Come On" in a way reminiscent of their late 70's song "Come On Come On" (running short on song titles I see).

The best song on the album is their most slighted, the McCartneyish ballad "Oh Claire". It's so Beatles it sounds like a B side from Paul McCarney's recent Chaos and Creation album (2005). The band allows piano and orchestra to stretch out on this track, giving it a unique beauty amid the cluster of masterful power pop. On a similar tack, "Every Night And Every Day" and "If It Takes A Lifetime" both float on high melodic vocal hooks to make the songs seem softer.

The only negative comment is that Rockford needed a killer single to put this album over the top. As it is, Cheap Trick's Rockford is an 9 out of 10.

Another band that's into rockin' is at number 84:

Dokken - Under Lock And Key (1985)

My first impression was that they were a speed metal band, the only song I knew of theirs was "Tooth & Nail" from the album of the same name. After buying the Tooth & Nail album, I found that I liked most of their album except the production was a little to flat and austere. To solve these problems, Dokken released another album, Under Lock And Key.

Key was produced by Michael Waegner while Tooth & Nail was produced by Tom Werman. Both albums maintained a high level of songwriting, but the sound differed greatly. Werman's sound was stripped down to the minimum to allow focus on individual performances. Waegner overproduces everything, forcing a softer, formalized sound. After some debate, I have chosen Under Lock And Key as my favorite Dokken album.
Under Lock and Key have something for everyone in hard rock. Anthemic midtempo rockers, ("In My Dreams", Unchain The Night" and "Don't Lie To Me") , midtempo groove songs ("The Hunter", "It's Not Love"), power ballads ("Slippin' Away", "Jaded Heart") and all-out rockers ("Lightning Strikes Again" and "Will The Sun Rise").

The focal point is always Don Dokkens' wailing heavy metal voice or guitarist George Lynch's award winning blazing guitar solos (Lynch is amazingly fast). The battle of these two egos is the stuff of Rock Music Legend. Fortunately, their infighting did not interfere with the music of Dokken, who'se album I definitey recommend to metal heads.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

David Gordon Green

This past weekend I had a crash course in the work of writer/director David Gordon Green. Green has made three movies and I caught two of them, George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2002). The movies themselves were pretty good, but the directing was fantastic. David Gordon Green's style of direction is unique to modern cinema in that it emphasizes subtlety and realism over flashy camera moves or cgi special effects. In both films, Gordon Green favors multiple characters searching for redemption in a rural small town setting-sort of like a Bruce Springsteen song come to life.

In both films, Green's direction matches realistic scenes with dreamlike interludes. More than any director since Robert Altman, David Gordon Green captures the speech patterns of normal, average people. There are characters searching for what to say, people insisting on the wrong information (in Girls, a character who claims to know spanish insists mujer does not stand for woman. It's senorita only!) and awkward silences. Dialogue scenes play out with a hightened realism usually found in reality tv, but the scenes are framed by interludes of country scenery moving quickly to indicate the passage of time and unify the scenes. Gordon Green also pays special attention to establishing characters and developing them as people with hopes, fears, dreams and regret. Patience is a virtue with Gordon Green, who allows scenes to play out slowly removing much of the "Hollywood" from his scripting.

In George Washington, part of the story revolves around a group of children as they play in the pool and an abandoned bathroom. The lighting and character interactions recall that bit of timelessness from childhood when there was an endless amount of time to kill. The unglamorized settings and honest dialogue brought back those memories of when you could waste a day playing with garbage. David Gordon Green pulls natural performances from both non actors and professional actors.

Unfortunately, in the case of both movies the stories the overall stories are a bit of a let down. George Washington centers on a group of kids, mostly African American, who cover up an accidental death of their friend. The story gets a little quirky and unrealistic towards the end and the death of the young kid seems a touch heavy handed for such an understated film. However, even when the story gives out 75% of the way through, Gprdon Green's direction and strong perfomances by the amaturish cast keeps it going.

For All The Real Girls, the story is pretty much a straight up "chick flick" with boy meets girl, falling in love and the eventual betrayal that always follow in movies of this type. The actors are a little more professional this time around which tightens up some scenes. The movies' strength is that we are pulled into caring for the characters in a genuine way which makes the machinations of the storyline more heartfelt. Sadly, mechanical is how the story plays out and even with all the positive features to the film it drags down under its predictability.

In the end, George Washington (5 out of 10) and All The Real Girls (6 out of 10) both seem like progress reports for a talented filmmaker on the rise. Hopefully, Gordon Green will have a classic film in him soon.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Def Leppard Yeah! and Number 85

Def Leppard's new album Yeah! is an all covers affair featuring the songs that influenced the band. Covers albums are often dodgy, an excuse to put out a CD and try to get a radio hit by copying an already popular song. Even with the best intentions, covers albums can sink under their own crapitude (Joan Jett's The Hit List comes to mind). However, sometimes a covers album can bring a band back to the basics of what made them great (Aerosmith's recent Honkin' On Bobo does that). Other times, a band can't write good songs to express how they truly want to sound (Metallica's Garage Inc did everything they tried to do with Load and Reload but with better songs). Yeah! manages to do a bit of the latter two, bringing the band back to their basic sound while relieving the pressure of writing good songs to do it.

Def Leppard thankfully sheds the "adult contemporary" stance they took on the ballad heavy X album of a few years ago. Yeah! finds the band loose and rocking, serving up a big dose of 70's glam rock minus the mascara. The obvious influence of Sweet comes through on the albums best song, "Hellraiser". The T-Rex "20th Century Boy" grooves on a great riff. "Drive In Saturday" has a catchy melody and touch of whimsy to it. Songs by Thin Lizzy, ELO, Badfinger and Free are represented here as well. The album's overall sound strips away much of their trademark overproduction to a raw guitar heavy sound complete with real drums (they don't sound like electric rubber balls as they did on Hysteria). The performances are "in the pocket" delivered with flair and passion. The biggest surprise comes at the end with guitarist Phil Collen taking the lead vocal on the Faces "Stay With Me", where Collen musters a better performance than Rod Stewart probably could in this day and age.

There are some negative points to the album. The whimsy injected into "Drive In Saturday" gets sucked out of the Kinks "Waterloo Sunset". David Essex's "Rock On" is a song I personally find unbearable under any circumstances (plenty of other people like it, I just think its garbage). Many of the song arrangements are similar to the originals which begs the question: why not just listen to the originals? They also lose points for repeating an idea, Def Lep had a previous album Retro Active which had many covers on it as well.

This album may translate into a fans only party, but being a fan of Def Leppard I find this album really refreshing. After listening to this once great 80's band spend the last 15 years struggling to find its voice, it's fun to listen to them cut loose with a flat out rock album that's not concerned with following the latest trend. This album is fun enough to rate a 7.5 out of 10.

Another artist that tends to ignore trends is Number 85:

Steve Miller Band - Greatest Hits 74 - 78 (1978)

After spending the 60's as a successful "also ran" in the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene, Steve Miller found himself in a new role as arena rocker in the 70's. Miller's new career started with "The Joker", a humorous ode to being high (at least as far as I can tell, I've been drunk but never high) with it's loping beat, laid back vocal and rhymey chorus. The Steve Miller sound started there, though the loping beat was replaced with a propulsive blues groove. Steve Miller scored a run of hits in this style, such as "Rockin' Me", "Jet Airliner", "Jungle Love" and "Swingtown". At times, Miller could slow down into atmospheric tunes like "Winter Time" and "Wild Mountain Honey". Steve Miller's signature hit is "Fly Like An Eagle", a song known for its cool organ riff and the refrain at the end of the hook (Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin', ...into the future). It's also known as the US postal service theme song. My personal favorite is the strutting, handclap happy "Take The Money And Run" which tells the story of a pair of criminals on the lam.

Steve Miller's style in the 70's was economical arena rock. The guitar riffs were engaging and the songwriting was catchy, yet Miller was never as flashy or overblown as the other arena rock bands. Steve Miller didn't endlessly wail or growl in his vocals, no speed-of-light guitar solos and the bands name was more than one word (unlike Journey, Styx, Foreigner or Boston). Steve Miller seemed to be a blues loving musician who found a period of time where he could make his music fit in with others while not sacrificing his integrity.

Interestingly, I didn't become a big fan of Steve Miller until the early 1990's. I was in a big Steve Miller phase when I began dating my wife and played this tape in the car often. A few years later, my wife bought tickets to see Steve Miller live at the Fillmore in San Francisco for my birthday. To our surprise, Steve Miller played nothing but blues for what seemed like three hours (not a single hit song!) . Still, it was a great show that highlighted Miller's tasteful, refined playing style and made me a fan of the song "Evil" which is included with his Box Set. "Evil" is a slow burning blues song featuring a scorching guitar solo and the most emotive vocal I've heard from Miller.

Ultimately, Steve Miller produced "good time" 70's rock that sounds its best when cruising down the highway with the volume cranked up loud. It's rare to hear a rock artist succeed with restrained craftsmanship in place of showboating and hype, but Miller has done exactly that. Greatest Hits 74 - 78 captures an underrated artist at his peak.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

My wife and Number 86

Well, I've been doing a blog for at least a month and realized I never wrote about the person who suggested I do a blog: my wife Jeannie. My wonderful wife suggested I write a blog as a hobby and I have enjoyed writing this immensely since I started a little while ago. So, I just wanted to take a moment to thank my wife for motivating me to create a blog and for everything else we share in our lives.

Now, without any subliminal foreshadowing, is Number 86:

Aerosmith - Pump (1989)

Although Toys In The Attic and Rocks are considered the classic albums from this Boston quintet, Pump is the album responsible for making Aerosmith the rock legends they are today. After flaming out in a spiral of bad albums and drugs in the late 70's, Aerosmith regrouped and forged a comeback in 1987 with the hit "Dude (Looks Like A Lady) and the album Permanent Vacation. But it was Pump that put the band into rock legend territory, as they came up with an album that was both commercially successful and artistically satisfying. After Pump, Aerosmith became regarded to be "America's Band", like the Dallas Cowboys once were in football.

Led by lead vocalist Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry, Aerosmith's comeback hit its stride by giving first rate performances while writing a batch of songs that had the gritty Rolling Stones style blues boogie and the hooky polish of 80's hair band metal. The taut rhythm section of Joey Kramer, Tom Hamilton and Brad Whitford groove and swing with force and feeling while Perry's blues guitar breaks kicks the band into overdrive. Tyler howls and yelps in his trademark style while teaming up with outside songwriters to form their catchiest set of songs ever.

"Love In An Elevator", the first single and my favorite song from the album, showcases everything that's great about Aerosmith. The down and dirty blues riff, Tyler's vocal alternating between the sleazy and the humorous and a killer staccato guitar solo. This isn't just a favorite Aerosmith song, it's one of my favorite songs ever.

The rest of the album charges along with the power of a band on a roll. The anti-child abuse anthem "Janie's Got A Gun" displayed a rare show of social awareness while following the format of a power ballad. "Hoodoo Voodoo Medicine Man" and "Young Lust" speed along with the force and ease that only Aerosmith could do. The band give the power ballad "What It Takes" some looseness and feel to the obligatory love song. "The Other Side" moves to a great riff and some fiery horn charts. Even better, "F.I.N.E." revs up the group with a jaunty rhythm and a slammin' vocal from Steve Tyler.

My personal recollections from this album is that it became one of those 80's albums everyone had to had. Aerosmith put their best foot forward with great songs, an energized performance and clear production. The summer of '89 was highlighted by "Love In An Elevator" and "Janies' Got A Gun". "Elevator" I would watch on MTV whenever I had the chance. "Gun" was so good that even nonfans could not believe Aerosmith would tackle child abuse. Still, it was a great sounding song.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Melodicrock and Toto

Well, I just got a slew of new CD's but its too early to review them just yet. I picked up recent CD's by Cheap Trick, Def Leppard and Neil Young so I'll be commenting on them in the near future. Since the internet is part of the media, I just thought I'd mention one of my favorite web sites is, a website that specializes in the type of music I loved in high school and still listen to now (obviously). It's a fun place to read up on old arena rock and metal bands plus reviews of recent CD's. A lot of the bands mentioned are European, so I can't claim to follow all of it. However ,if you're a fan of Journey, Van Halen or other bands of that time period /genre, I would recommend this site.

One new CD I bought was Toto - Falling In Between. I've been a fan of Toto for years and finally got to see them live in 1999. Toto's mix of professionalism and technical ability have always impressed me. In the past, the band has never been able to settle on a consistent sound for more than one album resulting in a scattershot career with just enough high points for them to be remembered. Their most successful efforts artistically and commercially have been when they stradle the line between arena rock and adult contemporary. The new CD leans more towards arena rock, with elements of just about every other sound you can imagine thrown in.

Falling In Between is easily Toto's least compromising album since 1979's Hydra. With previous albums, Toto would switch sounds from song to song. There would usually be a rock anthem followed by a power ballad followed by a jazzy song and then a R&B song. In Falling In Between, everything gets jumbled with songs switching styles inside the song itself. For example, on "Dying On My Feet" the song begins with an afrobeat verse followed by an arena rock chorus and finishes with an extended horn part arranged by James Pankow of Chicago. The opening song "Falling In Between" starts off with a lurching Led Zep riff and rapid fire instrumental breaks a la Dream Theater before decending into an instrumental breakdown with jazzy keyboards. The mixing of styles makes this one of Toto's most artistic and musically exciting efforts.

Maybe knowing pop radio has passed them by, Toto clearly makes the album they want to make and take chances (something they were accused of not doing through most of their career). The album sounds great and the performances are inspired, but the lyrics were not quite working for me. Toto writes noble platitudes about life in the Sudan or the Enron scandal in the same horrible manner they wrote about worldly topics on 1987's The Seventh One. Some artists are meant to write heartfelt lyrics about world issues. Toto ain't one of them. As my wife aptly put while listening to their anti-excess anthem "Hooked", thanks for the Public Service Announcement Toto!

The winning moments on the album are when they relax into their adult contemporary groove as on "Bottom Of Your Soul" and "Let It Go". On "Bottom Of Your Soul" there is africanized percussion reminiscent of their hit "Africa" and a pleasingly smooth chorus. "Let It Go" finds the band in a funky jazz mood they haven't touched in years and has been my favorite on the album.

Melodicrock gave this album a grade of 100%. I can't rate it that high, but do give Falling In Between a 7 out of 10. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it lacks the killer song to make it more memorable.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Layer Cake and Number 87

OK, I get it now. I understand why Daniel Craig was chosen as the new James Bond, it all makes sense after seeing the crime thriller Layer Cake. The movie is about an intellectual drug dealer struggling to get out of the drug business now that he has made his money. Unfortunately, his boss has other plans and assigns Craig's unnamed character to sell some stolen pills and locate the missing daugther of a business partner. From that point forward, characters flip flop loyalties, several parties stake claim to the pills at once and everyone expects to get paid. Director Matthew Vaughn infuses the film with an energetic visual style and successfully pulls from other movies such as The Usual Suspects, Trainspotting and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels without copying them outright. The movie creates an atmosphere of immediate realism and flashy visuals to keep the audience both excited and tense.

In the center of it all is Daniel Craig's character. Everything hinges on the believeability and likeability of Craig's nameless dealer and Craig comes through with a charismatic performance. Craig creates a full portrait of the character with his purposeful stride, steely glare and deliberate tone of voice. When under pressure, Craig shows agitation and nervousness where other actors may have chosen a more macho style. The tension from watching Craig analyze situations and devise counterattacks to his setbacks with a sense of ruthlessness brings promise to his upcoming Bond performance. The ending has many twists that lead to a shocking conclusion. Let's hope Craig is able to continue his role through Casio Royale. Layer Cake is an 8 out of 10.

And now, the Number 87 CD:

Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)

In the 80's, I was often ahead of the curve in terms of finding out about breaking artists before they hit the mainstream. It's not that I'm incredibly intuitive, I was in college at the time and many artists tended to become college radio favorites before hitting it big. Even Guns 'N' Roses fit this pattern, I listened to them for months before "Sweet Child O' Mine" became a hit. One band that, for me, did not fit this pattern was Nirvana.

When Nirvana broke in 1991, no one had seen or heard anything quite like this. On top of their sudden success, Nirvana ushered in a change in rock music on a scale I had not seen before or since. Abruptly, all the sorry third generation hair metal bands were swept aside and replaced with dark, murky Grunge bands like Nirvana or Alice In Chains. I bought Nirvana based on the hype, I wanted to hear what everyone else was hearing.

Nirvana brought a musical revolution as rock became the dark, angry music of disenfranchised youth who felt lied to by Reganomics and George Bush version 1.0. Kurt Cobain unwittingly became the voice of Generation X, his lyrics of self loathing and doubt connecting with an audience who felt they were promised the American Dream and were handed job applications to temp agencies.

The sound was Pixie's influenced post punk, tightly coiled rhythms switching from soft verses to loud chorsus topped with screechy desperate vocals. The big hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", became a rock classic with its revved up Boston riff and nonsensical lyrics. The vocal sounds drained and druggy in the verses but angry and apoplectic in the famous chorus ("With the lights out, it's less dangerous, here we are now...").

Alienation and sarcasm permeate the rest of the album. "Come As You Are" and "In Bloom" describes the paranoia of being different from others (The "No I don't have a gun" line stands out in memory). Drugs seem to influence much of the songwriting, nowhere is that more evident than the extreme mood swings in "Lithium". Much of the second half of the album is chock full of post punk rockers like "On A Plain" and "Territorial Pissings". The album closes with the slow, downbeat "Something In The Way."

I considered commenting on Kurt Cobain's suicide, but in the end felt it may be best just to leave it alone. After all, Cobain's death does not change what was done during his life and for a brief period he was a respected songwriter and magnetic performer.

At the time this album was released, I was close to finishing college and interning at a TV station. I felt my life was going nowhere at the time, which made this album easy to relate to at that moment. Although it may not be what Cobain intended, his music stood up for the outsider in everyone and anyone who has been smacked down by life.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bits and Pieces plus number 88

Since I've gotten cable, I've seen parts of many movies to decide if I wanted to see the whole thing. I'm going to give brief reviews of those movies:

I saw most of Wimbledon. The story is an extremely formulaic love / sports story about Kirsten Dunst as a star tennis player and an older British tennis player making a comeback. The movie doesn't have any original ideas and even borrows a bit from Notting Hill. Dunst is never convincing as a tennis pro on or off the court. Worst of all, the tennis ball is clearly digitally inserted into the picture removing any believability from the scenes. The direction is way too busy for a simple movie of this type. I rate this a 1 out of 10.

Also, I saw all of The Man Who Loved Women. I saw a version of it starring Burt Reynolds but found that one very boring. Director Francois Trauffaut (sp?) uses his autobiographic, humanistic style to build sympathy for an unhandsome womanizer who will go to any lengths to meet an attractive lady. The main character is obsessed with bedding as many women as possible and loves all aspects about them as representatives of their sex, not their actual personalities. By holding up a mirror to a character whose extreme sexism is rooted in sincerity, the movie reveals the pleasure, pathos and loneliness of a person who views love as something to be collected instead of nurtured. The movie succeeds as both a character study and a comment on modern relationships. This was a very impressive film. 8 out of 10.

I watched Dark City directed by the same guy that directed The Crow. The art direction is amazing in this film, it is shot on darkened sets with real detail in the settings. Unfortunately, the film stumbles in every other area. The storyline, in particular, either rips off or lays the foundation for the Matrix. 2 out of 10.

The last movie I watched was Saving Face, about a Chinese - American mother and daughter. The mother is a widow and is pregnant due to an unknown lover. The daughter is a closeted lesbian struggling with her mother's issues and her own personal issues. I thought the film was heartfelt and well acted, but the storylines have been used repeatedly in other films. I give this movie a 4 out of 10.

With this many bad movies around, I'm grateful the number 88 CD is:

Jet - Get Born (2003)

Jet is a successful Australian hard rock band with a no nonsence approach to their rockers and ballads. Like many people, the first time I heard of Jet was their song "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?". Unlike many modern bands, there was a sense of abandon in recording this song. The entire album captures this feeling of balls to the walls rock. Although they have been compared to The Strokes and White Stripes as part of the garage rock movement, I feel they're closer to the Kinks.

The main song, my favorite on this album, is "Are You Gonna Be My Girl." The song, with it's jumpy beat and IPOD commercials seemed to rock harder than much of it's competition. When I first heard this song, I thought it was just a short song written for a commercial but I loved it. "Girl" was the first song from this decade that I really liked. It was catchy and it was unafraid to rock without any sense of what's considered "cool".

"Cold Heart B***h also rocks hard but seems a little misogynistic (sp?). I found the lyrics a little annoying until I realized it was supposed to sound like AC / DC. I guess it's an Australian thing, somehow knowing it's AC/DC makes rampant sexism OK. Also, the video really nailed the feeling of being drunk in a bar by continually cutting out frames while moving a hand held camera.

"Radio Song" comes off like Oasis lite, but I actually like this song better than anything Oasis has done. Although I like Oasis, I've always thought they were a little overrated. I also like this song better than that "California" song for the tv show The O.C., which "Radio Song" kind of resembles.

"Cold Hard B***h" and "Radio Song" represent the two sides of Jet to their best. The rest of the album follows suit by switching between hard rock ("Rollover DJ", "Get Me Outta Here") and beatlesque ballads ("Lazy Gun", "Timothy"). Occassionally they even have a bit of a punk edge in their songs ("Take It Or Leave It"). All of the songs work well with the exception of "Look What You've Done", which was the second single off the album.

"Look What You've Done" echoes the old ELO ballad "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" but to lesser effect. It's not a bad song, just boring and I was disappointed to see it as the second single. Still, it got a lot of radio play so it seems others liked it well enough.

Like many modern bands, I don't know if Jet has enough talent to generate good songs past the first album. But for one album, Jet manages to sum up all that was great about classic rock of the last 40 years into a vital, vigorous blast.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pro Wrestling and Number 89

One of the few TV shows I go out of my way to see on a weekly basis is Professional Wrestling, particularly the WWE. I've watched wrestling since 1999 when my wife suggested we begin watching it together. Initially, wrestling didn't really make sense to me as it seemed like a bunch of guys running all over the place and yelling randomly. But the more I watched, the more I became hooked on the outlandish personalities, crazy conflicts and high risk physical stunts. Granted, the fights are fake and the stunts are planned but I've always been a sucker for stunt shows (seen one everytime I've been at Universal Studios. It's been a while though, the last time I was there it was the Miami Vice stunt show).

I got into wrestling just in time to watch it's popularity peak and nosedive. It's hard to say what happened, it seemed like the bubble just burst. Many of the popular wrestlers left or reduced their appearances due to injuries (Stone Cold Steve Austin), age (Hulk Hogan) or just plain found something else to do (The Rock). With the lack of main eventers available and a dumb marketing move (splitting the roster into two shows Raw and Smackdown) the audience dwindled while WWE ran out of fresh ideas and talent. These days, they seem content to recycle the past endlessly.

Still, I enjoy watching wrestling periodically and actually liked Monday night's Raw more than I thought I would. Some things happened which I never thought would, such as Rob Van Dam (Mr Monday Night, Mr Pay Per View, The Whole Dam Show) finally winning the world championship. I've been a fan of Van Dam for a long time and was happy to see him finally hold the title. Also, Degeneration X returned with Shawn Michaels and Triple HHH crotch chops and all. While it was a little embarrassing watching these guys act as if they were 10 years younger, DX was one of the most popular wrestling stables ever. It'll be interesting to see who else they recruit for DX this time. Lastly, I got to hear the much maligned John Cena get something close to a pop for the first time in months. A promising wrestler with a catchy gimmick, Cena was rushed to the main event level faster than his skills could develop. As a result, Cena has suffered a huge audience backlash because both his gimmick and wrestling moves became really predictable. I feel badly for Cena as he portrays a "face" (good guy) and clearly gives 100% in putting on the best show he can, but every move he makes is met with a loud chorus of boos. Unfortunately, Cena has crossed the one line wrestling fans can't forgive: being boring.

Speaking of boring, this sort of brings me to Number 89:

Coldplay - A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)

Wow, a CD on my list not from 1970-something. It's actually from this century! Coldplay is the latest band to decend from the family tree (Joshua Tree?) of U2, though Coldplay takes their nod from one of that band's lesser known albums The Unforgettable Fire. When U2 recorded that album, it seemed like a sidestep in their career as it was heavy on atmospherics and lacked punch. The album was an artistic success, but it was no mistake when U2 tightened their sound on the next album and became legendary rock stars.

So The Unforgettable Fire seems like an unlikely candidate to inspire future generations, but Coldplay seems to have swallowed that album whole. Slow, steady rhythms, echoing keyboards and slow building guitar lines topped by emotive vocals define the Coldplay sound. Where Coldplay differs from U2 is while U2 lunges for bracing, anthemic melodies Coldplay gets swoony and winsome. To put it briefly, they make modern rock ballads. A lot of them. CD's full of them.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head is Coldplay's second album, it comes between their much acclaimed debut I haven't heard (Parachutes) and their bloated, limelight hogging third album I did hear (X&Y). There is a consiseness to the songwriting on "Rush" and many of the songs are catchy and memorable. Most people know Coldplay by the main hit single, "Clocks". "Clocks" is the song which made me (and many others) interested in Coldplay, with its ethereal atmosphere, skipping beat and fugue like keyboard riff (hope I used fugue right) . Many a PBS pledge has been made to the sound of "Clocks". The song I really like on this album is "The Scientist", a yearning piano based ballad that gives the feeling of finding strength in the face of hardship. Another song that I enjoyed is "God Put A Smile On Your Face". It's a rare happy song from a band known for being mopey. It's also one of the few songs on the album to not be a ballad.

Other good songs includes "Green Eyes", a guitar strummed ballad that sounds like an allergy commercial. Also the radio hit "In My Place" stands out, particularly when you're waiting for a seat at Red Robin restaurant eagerly anticpating a huge burger. Hmmm...Burger.

I find the music on this album strikes a mood that feels like musical purgatory. It has enough going on to keep you awake but doesn't make you want to move. You can consider them the band that stole Radiohead's thunder, the band whose hits make no sense ("Yellow"? Just don't get that song) , the band who married Gwyneth Paltrow, but the one thing you can't consider them is boring. Well, maybe a little bit. But still very good.

...And that's the bottom line, 'cause Stone Cold said so!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Belle Du Jour and Number 90

A few days ago I saw most of a movie I've wanted to see for years, Belle Du Jour. Belle Du Jour is a movie made in the 60's by director Luis Bunuel and stars Catherine Denuve. Bunuel directed a teriffic movie called Los Olvidados which I only saw once in film class and has remained in my memory as one of the best films ever. Belle Du Jour is perhaps Bunuels best known film. I happened to catch it on cable and found the movie distant but haunting. The movie is about a bored upper class housewife who decides to become a prostitute by day and faithful loving wife at night. I can't quite put my finger on how this film hits me, in that it has jarring transitions between what seems like reality and fantasy. The movie ultimately seems to be about wanting what you can't have and the damaging decisions that can be made in pursuit of it. The wife's dual life eventually catches up with her with dire consequences and yet the film is decidedly unsympathetic towards anyone involved. A haunting movie, I'll have to see it a second time to form stronger opinions on it.

One thing not remotely distant is number 90:

Journey - Evolution (1979)

Never accused of being subtle or hard to read, Journey's second album with Steve Perry is the best of the pre -Jonathan Cain Journey. The band wasn't quite sold on Steve Perry until the first album with him, Infinity, went platinum. Evolution finds Journey backing Steve Perry 100%. The change in the band's focus led to the firing of drummer Aynsley Dunbar, a fantastic drummer with a bombasatic style, to the hiring of Steve Smith, a jazz trained drummer. With the exception of Raised On Radio, no other Journey album sounds as much like a solo album as this one does. Steve Perry responds with first rate songwriting and hands down his best vocal performance ever.

Produced with air tight clarity by Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, the Cars), Perry wails into Mariah Carey style melisma and wrote key tracks such as "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" and "Sweet And Simple". "Squeezin" was Journey's first Top 20 single and remains a staple of classic rock radio. Perry's influence is all over the track, with its bluesy bumping rhythm, soulful vocal and "Na Na Na Na Na" chorus at the end. Even better is the second song written by Perry, "Sweet And Simple." "Simple" is a gospelish track which starts slowly and builds to a huge finish where Perry cuts loose with the best vocal in his career. These two songs alone merit the number 90 slot, but there's more!

Other songs include two rockers with a chugging R&B backbeat, "When You're Alone (It Ain't Easy) and "Lovin' You Is Easy." Keyboardist / original lead vocalist Gregg Rolie makes his presence felt with the radio hit "Just The Same Way." The album ends with 70's style hard rock that's almost Deep Purplish, "Lady Luck". The rest of the band, guitarist Neal Schon in particular, shines but there is no doubt the focus is on Perry. If you're a fan of Journey or Steve Perry but only know their greatest hits, I highly recommend this album.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Casino Royale and Number 91

Well, this is take two of my post on EBlogger. I wrote out a post earlier tonight and tried to add it to my blog, only to find out that the system was down and lose my post entirely. Since this is the second time tonight I’m writing this the content may seems a little more brief than normal.

I recently saw the trailer for Casino Royale, the upcoming James Bond movie starring some blond ugly guy who always looks like he stayed up way too late the night before. The early word has been this Bond will be like Batman Begins meets Bourne Identity. The trailer seemed to support this to an extent, as Bond is shown assassinating people and brooding a lot. Daniel Craig, that’s what the new Bond’s name is. There were some flashy visuals in the trailer with the usual exotic locales, beautiful women and action sequences.

It’ll be interesting because the “serious” Bond has been attempted before. In the late 80’s, Timothy Dalton was extremely serious and acted like a smile might break his face (and if you saw him smile…it kinda did. I’ll never forget seeing Dalton smile during License To Kill and my friend remarking “that’s one ugly dude.”). Dalton’s Bond was a failure at the box office and almost killed off the series. Will history repeat itself or will Craig’s Bond be edgy and cool like in Dr. No? We won’t find out until November.

Speaking of ugly, Number 91 is:

The Cars – The Cars (1976)

Clickclickclickclickclickclick BANG! Clickclickclickclickclickclick BANGBANG!! The opening part to The Cars new wave hit “Just What I Needed” became the source of inspiration for many, including The Strokes, Fountains Of Wayne and Circuit City. The Cars drove out of Boston and found the road to success immediately on their first album. OK, enough with the metaphors. This is one of the great debut albums in rock history as almost every track is a classic rock hit.

Led by singer / guitarist Ric Ocasek, The Cars were among the definitive “skinny tie” bands to emerge in the late 70’s. Ocasek’s nervous vocals meshed well with the squiggly synths, jagged rhythms and angular guitarwork. In addition to the classic hit “Just What I Needed”, The Cars included the pop irony of “My Best Friends Girlfriend”, the roller coaster “Don’tcha Stop”, the jaded “Bye Bye Love”, the laconic “Good Times Roll” and the Phoebe Cates theme song, “Moving In Stereo”. My favorite song is the stomping “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”.

The Cars were the rare band that was capable of having it both ways with their audience. They were new wave cool, but had a mainstream rock audience. They were nervous and twitchy, yet anthemic. They were ugly, but married supermodels (OK, just one of them did). The Cars first album wrapped up everything this band did well in one package and is definitely worth a listen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Number 92

There were a couple of CD's I considered for this spot, including Toto's Isolation album and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Those are both great albums but just fall short of making my favorite 100 CD list. The album that does make it at number 92 is:

Steve Howe - Not Necessarily Acoustic (1994)

Steve Howe has been one of my favorite guitar players ever since I heard him on the first Asia album. His playing is by turns intricate, distictive, delicate, powerful, technical and emotional. A guitarist who deliberately removed much of the blues from his rock guitar playing style, Howe pulls inspiration from classical, folk and spanish music. His lenghty career in successful bands such as Yes, Asia and GTR has earned him the nickname "Maestro".

On Not Necessarily Acoustic, Steve Howe plays many of the guitar solo pieces that have highlighted his work both with various bands and his solo albums. Some of my favorite guitar solos include renissance fair sounding "Sketches In The Sun", the spanish guitar styled "Mood For A Day" and the happy, bouncy "Clap" (early Yes album covers titled this "The Clap" to make it sound edgy, as if it was supposed to be about VD). However, my favorite Steve Howe song is "Masquerade". Originally released on the Yes - Union album (1991), this solo danced between the playful and pastoral. I recorded myself singing (badly) a song of made up lyrics to my wife to listen to while she and I were dating. I will always have happy memories of this song.

When Steve Howe is on top of his game live (as he was when I saw him with Yes in 1997), he is one of the best guitar players on the planet. His individual style becomes more pronounced and he plays his parts completely different from what he recorded on the albums. Steve Howe's guitar playing can be enjoyed on many levels and is my second favorite guitarist of all time.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

X Men 3 : The Last Stand

X Men 3: The Last Stand is a movie fans of the series has either been looking forward to or dreading for about a year. The reason for the mixed feelings? The change in directors from Bryan Singer (who directed the first two films) to Brett Ratner. While Singer was an unpopular choice for director at first, he emphasized characterization and emotion over spectacle which gave the movies heart. When Singer decided to leave X Men for Superman Returns, there was much speculation over who would replace him. To the dismay of many, including myself, the choice was Brett Ratner.

Brett Ratner? On the one hand, Ratner directed Rush Hour 1 & 2. On the other hand, Ratner DIRECTED RUSH HOUR 1 & 2! I mean, was it really hard to tell Jackie Chan to jump and Chris Tucker to talk fast? Don't they do those things wherever they go anyway?

So, going into X Men 3 today I had fairly low expectations of what I would see. The good news is the movie isn't the total train wreck I was expecting. It was actually better than that. But, one thing that was clear with this film in comparison to the previous two movies is a choice of quantity over quality. All of the heart from the previous two movies are sucked out and replaced with empty, yet glorious, spectacle.

Where the first two films focused on a limited number of characters and spent time developing their personalities, X3 plays out like a X Men checklist of names and superpowers. Juggernaught, Calisto, Arclight, Leech, and Angel are among the flood of characters brought in to be named, show off their power and then fade into the background. Some character's benefit from the new approach, as Storm is finally given her due as the leader / heavy hitter function she had in the comic series. Finally, Halle Berry seems comfortable in the role and is able to imbue some humanity in what was previously a sketchy role. New hire Kelsey Grammer also excels as the highly intelligent Beast. Ian McKellen continues to chew up scenery in his commanding performance as Magneto.

Most of the emotion of X3 comes from the associations I had with the characters from the comic or the other movies. Other than some exciting moments (Magneto's attack on a police caravan is awesome!), much of the movie left me cold. Unfortunately, the movie piles on too many storylines (cure for mutants, the rebirth of Jean Grey / Phoenix, death of key characters, rise of evil mutants, love triangle for minor characters, closure of the school) for anything to stick. It was like watching cliffnotes of what the real stories were. However, Ratner does have Singer beat in the ability to showcase outsized comic book action. Ratner's eye for framing set pieces like moving the Golden Gate Bridge or the final battle against Magneto's forces have the exaggerated size and thrilling impact used in comic books.

Much like when Joel Schumaker took over the Batman series, Ratner's X Men seems desperately corporate in its approach. While it is louder and bigger than the other two movies, it's made from cheaper material. Special effects seem to be used in just about every shot, but the effects look fake and cartoonish (on par with the cruddy Fantastic Four). The makeup is also unconvincing with the exception of the Beast character. Also, minor background characters are slightly builtup (Kitty Pride, Colossus and Iceman) to suggest they'll come to the foreground if there is an X4. Younger, cheaper talent is often the way to go with an established brandname.

It may seem like a negative review but I do feel this movie got it right more often than it didn't. The action was exciting and the actors gave credible performances. The draggy middle section is punched up with the eventful death of a major character. Fans will enjoy seeing the Fastball Special or hearing Beast say "Oh my Stars and Garters." Much like the overt symbolism used for Angel (look at him fly, he's freedom incarnate! You can't take away mutant / minorities freedoms!!) the movie tries really hard to beat you over the head with its kind message: Peace!!!

I give this movie a 6 out of 10.

Benson and Number 93

This weekend TV Land has been playing the 70's TV show Benson nonstop. Seeing this show reminded me of how much I loved it when I saw it the first time and still found it funny after all this time. What's interesting though, is when I try to figure out what I like about Benson the answer isn't all that thrilling. What I like about the show, then and now, is that it is a predicatable show with appealing characters / actors with broad personality types mouthing off to each other in zippy one liners. That's it. Benson represents assembly line sitcom production at an acceptably effective level. It's not a knock against Robert Guillome (sp?) or anything, it's just simple laughs for the sake of humor. Not a bad thing, but it doesn't stick with you either.

Speaking of assembly line production appealing to the lowest common denominator, this brings us to Number 93:

REO Speedwagon - Hi Infidelity (1980)

REO, maybe even more than Journey, defined the "regular guy rock" aspect of AOR also known as bands tagged "corporate rock". REO had been around for years but found the more melodic and midtempo they made their songs, the more radio play they received. In 1980, REO decided to go all out in crafting music that fit that particular sound. The result made REO a hugely successful band and laid out the map of their career for the next decade.

My first memories of REO was hearing their tapes get played on the streetcorner across from my house by the local thugs. Hi Infidelity and Good Trouble seemed to be the only two tapes they owned. I hated those jerks on the corner but I loved the music they were playing. REO's Hi Infidelity was one of the first cassettes I ever bought.

The music was upbeat, catchy and fun. It was midwestern rock in the vein of Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen, a mix of 50's rock and 60's soul pumped up to bar band volume. But, where Seger and Springsteen were introspective or political songwriters, REO wrote about melodrama. As a teenager, that was perfect for me as I didn't know much about life at that point anyway.

The two big hits from the album were the power ballads, "Keep On Loving You" and "Take It On The Run". Both songs followed the format of soft verses followed by a bracing anthemic chorus. "Keep On Loving You" became a classic soft rock prom night ballad. "Take It On The Run" was the better song of the two, taking an interesting approach to the you-cheated-on-me-girl theme ("Heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another you've been missing around") and a great two section guitar solo that still kills me to this day.

Other highlights include the jumpy Bo Diddleyish "Don't Let Him Go", the barroom boogie of "Shakin' It Loose" and the macho put down "Tough Guys" (first song I had with a swear word!). The real highlight was "In Your Letter", a doo wop throwback that must have been inspired because the band never did a song like this again. It's simple, fun and effective.

I remained a big REO fan throughout the 80's, I saw them in concert in 1985 and saw a tight, professional show. The album at the time, Wheels Are Turnin', was on my record player all the time. After the 80's I found I had played their records (as well as many of my other favorites) too much and moved on to listening to other bands. But REO Speedwagon will always bring back memories of hot summers and good times. Sometimes undemanding entertainment is just what you need.