Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Samurai trilogy and Number 71

Over the past few weeks, I've watched the Samurai trilogy starring Toshiro Mifune with my wife. I had seen the first movie in film class and really enjoyed the great use of color and cinematography to tell this epic story. In many ways, this series is the ultimate Toshiro Mifune movie in that it demonstrates the type of character he excelled at: the wild man with grandiose aspirations transforming into the ultimate Japanese warrior. A large group of recurring characters keeps the story going and viewer interest up as Mifune's character goes on his journey.

The first movie centers on Mifune talking his friend into leaving town with him to try to become samurai. The friend leaves his fiancee' behind, Otsu, to take the trip. They end up taking refuge with a scheming widow and her daughter until brigands attack. Mifune's friend leaves with the scheming pair while Mifune is arrested for the assumed murder of his friend.

The local monk begins his training of Mifune from unfocused ruffian to trained samurai. In the meantime, Mifune and Otsu fall in love as Otsu devotes her life to following him (and its a long trip, trust me).

By the end of the first movie, Mifune leaves Otsu to hit the road and learn the ways of the force, er, samurai. The second movie centers on Mifune challenging other swordsmen and his continued development from undisciplined killer to controlled killer. There is a fantastic fight at the end where he takes on like 80 swordsmen and kicks ass through skill, power and strategy.

Otsu continues to follow him and other women throw themselves at him left and right. But he won't have anything to do with women because he's thinking of Otsu and then he blows it with her by practically attacking her. Otsu cries about it and Mifune renounces women! And what's funny is they write it in big letters on the screen as if this is a proud decision. Japan is known for being a little sexist but that's pretty extreme. Fortunately for Mifune, Otsu spends the next movie still following him around.

The third movie is Mifune learning the best fights are the ones he doesn't need to do and feeling bad about assaulting Otsu. A young upstart wants to make his name by killing Mifune. There is a climactic fight on the beach which is filled with tension and feeling. It's great stuff, though it's interesting to see another culture's concept of machismo. The trilogy ends with Mifune having killed like 100 people but he's still a virgin. On top of that, he seems like a sad virgin. But he is a samurai! A focused honorable killing machine that's not gettin' any.

My only negative comment is that the TV version of these movies were made from really scratchy and washed out prints. Everything seemed faded and soft focus, not at all like the way I remembered it 20 years ago. I hope the DVD's aren't as bad. The sexism is dated and humorous, my favorite part is where Mifune tries to break up with Otsu by saying "I prefer my sword to you." If that's not a loaded statement, I don't know what is. Yeah, sharpen that sword Mifune!

I actually really liked these movies and enjoyed the evolution of Mifune's character. The photography is fantastic, the characters are well drawn and realistic and the story immerses you in its ideas of code and honor. I highly recommend viewing these films.

Another story of growing up is at Number 71:

Counting Crows - August And Everything After (1993)

When I think of all the whiny classic rockers in alt rock wrapping, the first band I think of is Counting Crows. They look 90's and talk 90's but play like Jackson Browne's backing band with restrained guitars and blasts of organ. Singer Adam Durwitz mumbles and mopes with the weight of the world on his shoulders, walking a fine line between genuine expression and affectation. It sounds bad (and my wife would say is bad, she HATES this group), but it all works for me.

The main hit, the Van Morrisonish "Mr. Jones" is one of the big highlights on the album. It's also the only happy song on the album, practically a "Brown Eyed Girl" for the nineties. There are a handful of other uptempo numbers, mainly "Rain Kings" and "A Murder Of One" which find the group striking the balance between heavy concern and jubilation.

Mostly, the album is filled with ballads. The best ballad, the hit "Round Here", brings the Counting Crows sound into focus. A slow beat, churchy organ and sparkling guitars frame Durwitz's weary vocal and evocation of new found worldliness. Remember when you were 19 and going to a different town seemed like discovering a new universe? How grown up it made you feel? Counting Crows nails that feeling. "Anna Begins", "Time And Time Again" and the other songs are infused with the same sense of revelation.

Despite the borrowed early 70's influences (Van Morrison, The Band, Bob Dylan) Counting Crows manage to come up with an inspired debut that is both modern and classic. And no, I don't think "Mr Jones" is a code name for a sexual organ. It does make the song funnier, though. Sha la la la indeed!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Red Hot Chili Peppers and Number 72

Ah, double albums...without double albums, there would be no "Frampton Comes Alive", no "Sign O The Times" and no "Use Your Illusions." There are certain inbred motivations to making a double album: ego, musical experimentation, career capping BIG STATEMENT, ego, or talented people on a creative hot streak. Did I mention ego? The recent Red Hot Chili Peppers double disc set Stadium Arcadium exhibits all of the symptoms listed. It's a career capping BIG STATEMENT where the Peppers mix a few new sounds into their established repitoire of funk rock and soft ballads. It doesn't quite have the "get the funk out" of their early releases nor the somnambulent soft rock of their recent releases. The bands previous release, 2002's By The Way was a snoozer once you got past the punk/funk title track.

Still, if a current band could potentially pull off a double album it would be the Chili Peppers. Stadium Arcadium does the band justice, they play in the pocket with a natural feel that comes from years of playing together. They get buckwild on their funky tunes like the recent hit "Tell Me Baby" or "Warlocks". Grinding funk is delivered on "Storm In A Teacup" and my personal favorite on the disc, "Readymade". Strummy acoustic rock comes in on "Make You Feel Better". Californicatin' balladry comes up on the title track "Stadium Arcadium".

The Peppers experiment a little, such as on the Pink Floydish "Strip My Mind" or the horn warbling "Torture Me". But experimentation is actually kept to a minimum considering this is a double album. But the Chili Pepper's ability to come up with lively riffs and jumpy beats keeps everything flowing nicely.

Where Stadium Arcadium runs into problems is the actual songs. They all sound pleasant when they're on, but there's nothing memorable on either disc. The first single from the album was "Dani California", a fairly blatant Tom Petty rip off with Hendrixian guitar tacked on the end (Great video though). The second song on the disc is the abysmal "Snow ((Hey Oh))". That song Sucked-Oh. As much as I've played this CD since I've gotten it, I'm looking at the song titles right now and only remember half of the songs. 2002's By The Way suffered from the same lack of hooks.

The weak songwriting keeps Stadium Arcadium from being the end all / be all Chili Peppers disc it's meant to be. And that's too bad, because the Peppers can still come up with tasty licks and goofy attitude at a drop of the hat. It doesn't ruin the album, Stadium Arcadium still packs a pretty good punch and any other cliche' I can think of. So I'm giving this a 7 out of 10.

One band that wouldn't know funk if it fell on it is at Number 72:

Yes - 90125 (1983)

I remember the first time I saw this album. My neighbor, who was really into rock music and would let me copy his records (pretend I didn't say that RIAA), brought this record over to my house and said "If you like Asia, you'll love this band. They have two singers." I was skeptical, but I played it. AND IT WAS THE GREATEST THING I EVER HEARD. I couldn't believe a band could take a pop/rock sound and expand it into something bizzarly riddled and intellectually challenging.

The songs had extremely catchy melodies in both the instrumental breaks and the vocals. "It Can Happen" with it's sitar sounding guitar and Supertrampish chorus ("It Can Happen To You / It Can Happen To Me / It Will Happen To Everyone Eventually") amazed me. The repetitious plunking keyboard riff to "Changes" and the hard charging instrumental "Cinema" impressed me with their dazzling interband chemestry and the fretboard fireworks of guitarist Trevor Rabin. The lumbering bass attack and steady drumwork of Chris Squire and Alan White on "Hold On" and "City Of Love" provided muscle to an otherwise light album. High pitched vocalist Jon Anderson shines on the near a capella "Leave It" while his dense, puzzling lyrics left me pondering the meaning of his words for hours (years later, I'm convinced he takes random words and pulls them from a hat because I can't discern any meaning past the Trevor Rabin penned choruses).

But the true highlight is, of course, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart". This song came out of nowhere with its sound fx heavy production, bouncy beat and horn sampled synth breaks. "Owner" became Yes's first and only Number 1 hit. Though the song was largely written by Trevor Rabin (on the toilet, no less) the credit for the success of the tune belongs to producer Trevor Horn. Horn, a former Yes man himself, produces "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" with gusto. The drums sound like collapsing cardboard boxes at the beginning, the catchy bass line is at the forefront of the song and offsets Jon Anderson's high toned voice. Acoustic guitars overdub on top of electric guitars, the instrumental breaks stab in and out and the guitar solo sounds like a buzzsaw. It's fantastic stuff.

This album made me a lifelong Yes fan and I sought out the previous albums of the band. I saw Yes live twice on the 90125 tour (I kept thinking the number was made up of the years of seniority for each member of the group, it's really the Atco catalog number) and was blown away by Trevor Rabin's playing (He plays restrained on record but overshreds live. He sounds great!). After 90125, I considered Yes one of my favorite bands. One of my first college roommates was chosen due to a mutual fanship of Yes.

I was sure they would record another album right away, so I patiently waited for the next set of songs. And I waited, and I waited, and soon it was 1987. Yes finally released Big Generator. I had come full circle, I was starting high school during 90125 and I was in the middle of college for Big Generator. When I heard Big Generator, I was disappointed to learn the magic was gone. There were a handful of good songs, but Generator sounded like a bad ready to quit. Jon Anderson left Yes after the tour to form a band with the old Yes members, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford.

Yes remains one of my favorite bands and I have since learned to enjoy all of the phases of this groups career. But I will always consider 90125 to be a special album.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Thank you and Elephant

First, I would like to take the time to thank anyone who may have been reading my ramblings over the past few months. It's been a lot of fun and I plan to continue making blog entries until I run out of media to experience. As my role model William Shatner might say, That...may...take...a.............while. So thanks for reading!

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch Gus Van Zant's Elephant (2003). Elephant is a not to subtle fictional take on the Columbine tragedy. The movie was a little bizarre in that it was highly effective on an artistic level but it's view of teenage life was a little too cold for me. Between this and Last Days (2005), a movie I plan to watch soon that is supposed to be a fictional take on Kurt Cobain's suicide, I'm starting to think of Gus Van Zant as Mr. Instant Replay. It's like something monumental happens, Gus is there to give his fictional view of it. He walks a fine line between art and exploitation, but in Elephant he has enough talent to pull it off. Just barely though.

Elephant takes place at an affluent upper middle class highschool that looks suspiciously like...Columbine. It follows a handful of characters through their day, taking the time to focus on the mundane parts of their lives to really make the viewer live with them. It's a bold move, I've never seen a movie feature the backs of actors heads as prominently as Elephant. In this movie, if a character walks from one room to another, the camera follows the WHOLE walk in a medium closeup head shot from the back. It gets a little annoying, but anyone who has walked through a highschool hall will easily relate.

Other camera shots and sequences are very well photographed, they have a look of digital video clarity and have the framing of home video but the shot composition is almost poetic. Subjects flow in and out of frame and Van Zant clearly made careful choices in having the action of certain scenes off camera while visually focusing on a different subject entirely. A good example is a shot that introduces a character by showing a field where a class is in PE. It's a static wide shot where kids play football in the foreground while cheerleaders and runners move in the background. After about 3 minutes of this the character being introduced stops playing football and runs from the back of the shot to the front. This technique is effective in grounding the viewer in "reality" and giving context to the character (you assume he is a jock).

Elephant is sensitive and subtle in its depiction of the teenage killers. Many of the Columbine traits are there; the facination with heavy weaponry, Nazis and the general abuse they receive from other students. The movie tries hard to not pass judgement on these characters themselves than on the circumstances that surround them. The parents are portrayed as wealthy but uncaring (and almost invisible from the way they were shot outside of frame) . The two teens lack of parental influence, access to dangerous materials, television fed intellect and outsider status are illustrated to "support" the pathological frame of mind of these ticking time bombs.

What loses me about Elephant is the dim view it takes towards people. Almost all of the characters are put upon in some way, whether by an individual, the school or society. The adults are portrayed as hopelessly out of touch (or drunk), inflicting their pathos, power trips or indifference onto the teens. A cross section of teens are shown, a popular kid, a geek, a loner, a boyfriend with girlfriend, a trio of teen queen girls and the two outsiders. The tone of the movie and the portrayal of these characters seem to suggest that all teenagers struggle with loneliness to the point of self destruction with the two teen killers gleefully murdering other students as its biggest symptom. I can't quite buy into the cynical point of view taken here and takes a little out of the movie for me.

However, the ending where the massacre takes place is gripping and chilling. The matter-of-fact tone sets up the devastating view of the two teenage killers shooting other students as if they were in a video game. The scenes of other students fleeing from the school is a mirror image to newscasts from Columbine. Watching the two student killers finally show happiness when they're murdering people is fairly gut wrenching.

Elephant wins points for its re-enactment skills but ultimately the movie wants you take it both ways. It's an almost faithful illustration of a factual event played out as fiction to allow spin and probably dodge lawsuits. From an artistic point of view, the movie is amazing in its ability to tell a story of multiple characters and have the viewer feel like a "fly on the wall" of their lives. I can't recall seeing any recent movie with as much skilled technique as this one in both shooting and editing. But the fictional spin on a well documented actual event makes me wonder if I'm being sold imagination as fact. The line is blurred here, an artistic triumph that confuses real life issues. So I will split the difference and give Elephant an 5 out of 10.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bruce Springsteen and Number 73

I've listened to Bruce Springsteens' recent disc We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger sessions and I keep coming back to the same conclusions. Love the performer, love the performance, can't take the genre. Interestingly, the disc ushers in a sort of creative rebirth for the Boss. As far back as the early 90's, Springsteen has expressed a wish to change his sound and come up with something new. Unable to make a complete change, Springsteen settled into writing a series of songs about Mexican Cowboys and CNN headlines. On We Shall Overcome, all of that changes.

It's the type of album that usually heralds a commercial and creative triumph. Usually, the media loves it when a classic rocker jumps into a different style of music for inspiration (Paul Simon's Graceland or even Rod Stewarts recent American Songbook discs are fine examples). On We Shall Overcome, Springsteen picks out a set of folk songs from the 19th and early 20th century. Sadly, it seems Springsteen's lefty politics have taken him out of the media just when it seems CMT would welcome him as a rocker going country. Springsteen uses a set of talented musicians to back him on Overcome, giving authenticity to ancient songs like "Old Dan Tucker", "John Henry" and "Shenendoah". Fiddles and horns swing about like crazy and just about every other analog musical instrument makes an appearance as well.

Springsteen delivers his most happy, impassioned vocal performance since 1985 throughout the disc. He sounds fired up as he growls through his verses and shouts in the choruses just as he did in his classic period (1975 to 1985). For the past twenty years, Springsteen's vocals were limited to a hushed whisper or a heavy toned stateliness that always sounded serious to the point of repetition.

Despite these positive attributes plus some songs I genuinely like ("O Mary Don't You Weep" has a happy gospel tone, "Pay Me My Money Down" sounds like a seaside chant) I ultimately cannot bring myself to fully like this album. Old folk and dixieland jazz sounding tunes just aren't my thing, no matter how well it's performed. I respect Springsteen's artistry and am happy he found inspiration in something for a change. But ultimately, I can't follow him on this one. 6 out of 10.

Of course, instead of following his muse and showing creativity Springsteen could have sold out like Number 73:

Heart - Heart (1985)

When Heart released their eponymous album in 1985, I had already been a fan for a few years. Even before I bought records, I always had a good time listening to "Crazy On You", "Barracuda" and "Straight On" whenever they came on the radio. One of the first records I bought was Heart's Passionworks album (1983), which had one great song ("How Can I Refuse") and a remainder of crap. Passionworks was and is one of the dullest records I've ever sat through. So, it was no accident when Heart found themselves under the hand of a commercial producer (Ron Nevison) and outside songwriters the next time out.

In '85, I loved the arena rock bands like Journey, Heart, Survivor and so on. When Heart released their first video, "What About Love", I was hooked. I really liked the overdone Victorian rock duds and "Love" was a powerballad of the highest order. Ann Wilson was given room to wail like Steve Perry on estrogen while the video featured a writhing Nancy Wilson on guitar.

Other hits followed. "Never" with its midtempo beat and shiny guitars also caught on thanks to a video that had Nancy Wilson jump around like a phone sex advertisement. She bounces, shimmies and shakes throught the clip. She had more screen time than Ann Wilson, who actually sings the song! Nancy Wilson took lead vocals on "These Dreams", a ballad Stevie Nicks turned down and Heart's first Number 1 hit. "Nothin' At All" benefited from a twin guitar solo and breezy chorus.

Away from the hits, Heart successfully try to rock things up with the opening song "If Looks Could Kill" and the closer "Shell Shock". Even better was a B-side only song I had on the "What About Love" 45 record, a dark rocker called "Heart Of Darkness". Their hard rock edge really showed live, when I saw them in 1985 their Zeppelineque cut "The Wolf" came alive in a way that didn't come across on vinyl. Elsewhere, the band plays the ballad "Nobody Home" with a great guitar solo featuring Frankie Sullivan of Survivor.

Racking up multiple top 10 hits brought Heart back from being a forgotten band to one of the most respected rock bands in the business. Heart sold their soul to get hit singles, but the ploy worked. Their polished, manufactured sound is stiff and poppy, but Ann Wilson's powerful voice cuts through all the gloss. Heart may look at this period as an embarassment, but it's my favorite Heart album of all time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rockstar Supernova and Number 74

Tonight concluded the summer CBS tv series Rockstar: Supernova bringing an end to the speculation of who would be the lead singer for the supergroup. Singer Lukas Rossi, a singer who looks and sound like a cross between STP's Scott Weiland and Oasis' Liam Gallagher took the prize defeating the over emotional yet talented Dilana. Rossi will record an album as frontman for a band that includes drummer Tommy Lee (Motley Crue), bassist Jason Newsted (Metallica) and guitarist Gilby Clarke (Guns N Roses). Veteran mainstream rock producer Butch Walker will be on board for the album.

On paper, this looks like a terrific television show and a can't miss rock band but faults in both show on closer inspection. The television show is mediocre, it has a wooden pinup host (model Brooke Burke), a license to maybe twelve songs (Evanescence's "Bring Me Back To Life" was used three times by three different singers) and a spotty bunch of would-be rock stars for contestants. The band has name players, but none of the members were the "key" performers of their respective former bands. Tommy Lee has the biggest name of the supergroup, but his reputation has absolutely nothing to do with any musical talent (though he is said to have a BIG drumstick, if you know what I mean and I think you do).

So, why did I watch the show? Well, one reason is I love rock music and this show is one of the few media outlets left to hear new music and musicians. Also, I was a big fan of Dilana (the goth rocker had a gravelly blues mama voice and an alternative rock edge) who repeatedly gave impressive performances through much of the show. Unfortunately, Dilana's ego got carried away and she trashed her opponents in the press. The resulting audience backlash took the wind out of her sails, Dilana's performances floundered and could not regain her footing until the final episode.
While Dilana dissolved into an emotional wreck, Aussie Toby Rand stepped up his game to become a crowd pleasing arena rocker while Lukas Rossi's assured, cocky stage presence and displayed growth in his singing style at the urgings of Jason Newsted.

Another reason was the show had a bit of whackiness this year. Early contestant Zayra turned every song into a screechy, stiff rhythm techno bit. Zayra butchered songs week after week in a way that took originality in presentation and zero musical talent. You haven't heard "867-5309 Jenny" until you've heard it done as if she was a spanish Grace Jones. She was fun. Jill Gioia couldn't decide if she was a teasing sexpot, Courtney Love or bar band floozie resulting in her dismisal. Ryan Starr showed development from stage panicked singer to being the American Coldplay. but his bizarre hoody mohawk gimmick backfired on him hilariously.

At this time, the 90's band Supernova has successfully sued to protect their name so the Rock Star band now has no name at all. The handful of new songs written by the new group all sucked big time. But hearing new music and musicians rise to the occasion, such as on Toby Rand's self penned pop punk song "Throw It Away" or Dilana's spinetingling renditions of haunted ballads like "Roxanne" or "Time After Time" makes it all worth while.

In the meantime, the band may need a new name like Motleygunsica or Metalliroses Crue to remind audiences of who they are. No matter what they call themselves, they will never come up with a name as good as Number 74:

Van Halen - Van Halen I (1977)

The album that revolutionized hard rock and turned a nation of teenage guitarists into finger tapping monsters, Van Halen I was the hard rock album to beat for many years. The band attacked listeners with an onslaught of audio and visual data in their performances. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen's "hammer on" technique created a souped up guitar sound with faster than light solos and speed demon fills. Visually, lead singer David Lee Roth redefined the role as an acrobatic circus clown. Roth's martial arts training gave him the ability to launch huge jumps off the stage or drum riser to give a visceral flair to the songs. His overconfidence bordered on insanity as he pushed every element in his life (womanizing, extreme sports, partying) beyond its limit.

Best of all, Van Halen grabs the listener by the collar and doesn't let go on every song. The band matches the fleetfingered guitarwork and Roth's amateurish vocals to fast paced songs like "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and "Atomic Punk" that barrel down the road at top speed. More midtempo, popier songs effectively catch the listener's ear ("Jamie's Cryin" and "Feel Your Love Tonight"). A hyperactive remake of the Kink's "You Really Got Me" blows the doors of the original thanks to Eddie Van Halen's scorching guitar solo.

But the best song is the lead track, "Running With The Devil". "Devil" is set to a steady, anthemic guitar/ bass riff spiked with dazzling guitar runs during the fills and solo. Meanwhile, Roth struts his casually crass attitude in creating a memorable rock anthem.

All of the songs on this album are winners and that's why it's the Number 74 selection.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Battle Of Algiers and Number 75

About twenty years ago, I saw a series of movies in film class that really broadened for me what movies could do. Before the class, movies had three classifications for me: Violent action, funny, and boring. The film class I took showed me a series of movies that included Los Olvidados, Woman In The Dunes, Samurai I, Memories of Underdevelopment and the movie I watched last weekend - The Battle Of Algiers.

The Battle of Algiers is a powerful film brilliantly shot in black and white with a documentary style that includes handheld cameras, swishpans and sudden zoom ins that temorarily lose focus. The movie centers on the struggle of a terrorist group (the FLN) to remove the French government from their land. Primarily, it focuses on a specific terrorist named Ali. The movie was commissioned by the Algerian government after the French were forced out of the country.

In terms of filmmaking, the style of narrative (the visual style adds to the realism while a narrator illustrates the finer points) and raw acting (unprofessional actors) create a hard hitting experience for the viewer. The movie portrays the aftermath of violence somberly for victims on both sides (unless it's depicting murdering French policemen, in this movie apparently that's OK) and the French are not portrayed as evil caracatures. Despite some evenhandedness in the approach to the subject matter the movie sides with the terrorists, which can make the movie a little hard to take at times.

Still, there is enough objectivity in the movie to keep it from being like Triumph Of Will or Birth of a Nation to me. While I don't agree with terrorism, the movie does give some understanding as to what factors could cause it to exist because it illustrates how a terrorist may feel. Seeing how the historical events depicted in this movie made in 1966 resembles the current situation in the middle east was a bit depressing. There are definite differences in the two situations, but a lot of similarites as well. The fact that this movie is as relevant now as it was forty years ago is a testament to the filmmaker Gino Pontecarlo's talent and how we may not have progressed as a global society in that time.

I didn't plan on seeing this movie around September 11th which came about as coincidence. Given the timing, I could have found a more patriotic film to watch which would make me feel less guilty. Another coincidence is Number 75:

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication (1999)

The reason I call this a coincidence is because all Red Hot Chili Peppers albums seem like they happen by accident to me. It seems like they're in a cycle where they clean up from drugs, record an album, tour, lose control of their drug habit and then clean up again. So, the only time they can record is when they're not smacked out of their minds. It was this cycle that made Californication a real surprise.

At this point in their career, it looked like RHCP was on their way out. They had peaked with the taut funk rock of Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and had to change guitarists because of drug problems. They recorded one mediocre album with guitarist Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction, TV show Rock Star, former Mr. Carmen Electra) and seemed about ready to drift into the alt rock twilight. But guitarist John Fruciante returned and reinvigorated the band.

Californication didn't just reestablish the Chili Peppers, it expanded what they could do musically. My favorite moments are still when they bring the funk ("I Like Dirt" and "Get On Top") that allow Flea to pop his elastic bass lines all over the place. John Fruciante's guitarwork became more textured during his absence, bringing slide guitarwork to the hit "Scar Tissue" and measured, emotional playing to ballads like "Californication". Anthony Kiedis is still at his best when he sounds over caffinated, giving out almost stream of consiousness rants over drummer Chad Smith's solid backbeat.

What expanded their sound was a more developed ability to deliver straight pop and ballads. "Otherside" was a somewhat sad song (about death) but had an engaging melody complete with background vocals. In ballads, "Porcelian" was extremely soft and slow while "Road Trippin" had a string section to back it. The fact that these songs didn't suck gave RHCP their most well rounded album that delivered top notch music no matter what genre they touched on.

My favorite song is "Around The World", a song that illustrates their newfound maturity. The song is anchored by a scratchy funk riff and slamming drums but the chorus is almost crooning and cushioned by a bed of sighing background vocals. The song sizzles and comforts at the same time!

No guilty feelings about this album, Californication stands as a modern classic.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tokyo Drifter and Number 76

On Turner Classic Movies, I recently watched Tokyo Drifter which is a Japanese film made in the 60's. The movie told the story (or saga it seemed like) of Tetsu the Phoenix, a hitman who loves his boss that is trying to go straight. But, the old mob gangs won't leave Tetsu and his boss alone and rival gangs claim Tetsu is the reason why. So, Tetsu goes on the run across country to make his boss safer and still try to go straight. Tetsu gives up his lifestyle and girlfriend in the name of honor and duty, which are the guiding principles of his life. The mob still pursues Tetsu while he is running led by Tatsu the Viper. Fortunately, he receives help from a former rival hitman named Shooting Star who has become disillusioned with honor and duty in the gangster life. Tetsu's principles are put to the test by what happens afterward.

It's an interesting story, but the actual story isn't quite the point of this movie. Tokyo Drifter is a visual flambe' of eyepopping technicolor, arty set design and stylistic direction. The use of color and set design was reminiscent of the Batman tv series, garish loud colors on the sets and clothing. Tetsu spends much of the movie in a bright light blue suit walking into nightclubs that with Purple walls and plexiglass floors. A different nightclub has a set of stairs, a piano, about four roman pillars and a table with two chairs.

What's both engaging and offputting about Tokyo Drifter is the direction. The camera framing is incredible, with excellently composed wide shots to capture character movements and dialogue. Great use of lighting alternately keeps the characters in the shadows or in bright day light. An amusing choice is to make the movie into a one song musical, the theme song is played, sung or whistled repeatedly by the soundtrack, Tetsu's girlfriend or Tetsu himself. The offputting parts were the action sequences. Drifter is a violent movie in terms of story, but much of the actual violence takes place off screen. Outside of fistcuffs, just when you expect someone to be shot or killed the scene will end and a different one will begin.

In the end, the movie is about the importance of honor and duty to oneself versus another person, group or collective. It uses brilliantly staged visuals from director Seijun Suzuki to get its point across about the loneliness and cost of it's story in an effective fashion. I can't say this is the greatest movie in the world, but I found it original and intriguing.

While not quite original, an intriguing album comes in at Number 76:

The Strokes - Is This It (2001)

When I first heard about the Strokes, I didn't quite know what to expect. They had a huge buzz about them as the band that would bring back rock n' roll, saving us from the repetitive rap rock that permeated the late 90's. When I first heard Is This It, I was amazed. There were...songs! And guitars!! And guitar solos!!! While the influence was obvious (if Lou Reed had recorded the album and let other people take the credit for it, the sound would be the same) it came at a time when rock was just so dead it hurt.

Still, I couldn't stop playing the disc no matter how guilty it seemed of musical theivery. Low slung bass lines , angular guitarwork and mumbly, tired vocals marked this debut album. The highlight, "Last Nite" aped Tom Petty with slash and burn rhythm guitar and enervated singing. "Hard To Explain" and "Take It Or Leave It" post punked things up a bit. "Someday" had a basic midtempo rock sound while the title track and "The Modern Age" captured the post modern ennui.

Is This It is careful not to go on too long (it's about a half hour) and hits hard and fast with its 21st century take on the classic Velvet Underground sound with Television style guitars. The Strokes followed up with a strong second album (Rooms On Fire 2003) and a solid but unspectacular third album (First Impressions Of Earth 2006). Is This It may be the definitive moment for The Strokes, an effortless piece of New York attitude and hipster rock ingenuity.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

In The Mood For Love and Number 77

Well, right now my wife is sick, I'm drinking a beer and a police chopper is flying overhead probably looking for a fugitive hiding in my trailer park. This is the perfect time to blog! And what better to blog about, than Wong Kar Wai's recent film In The Mood For Love. This is the first Wong Kar Wai film I've seen and I have to say I'm impressed. It is a slow moving, atmospheric movie about two people whose mates are having an adulterous affair which tempts them to do the same.

Set in 1950's Hong Kong, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the husband and wife to their cheating spouses. The two couples live next to each other in the same building and their spouses are gone for long periods of time under the pretense of working in Japan. The two spouses in Hong Kong begin to spend time together to nurse each other's hurt feelings and try to control their attraction to each other to avoid being like their spouses. It's a beautifully acted film with Leung and Cheung giving carefully modulated performances. Much of the movie is carried by movement and physical expression rather than dialogue. Both actors portray sadness, desire and resignation with realism and depth. I still can't believe this is the same Maggie Cheung who I saw in one of my all time favorite movies, Jackie Chan's Police Force. Cheung displays an aloof attractiveness and maturity in complete opposition to the physical comedy of the Jackie Chan movies.

But, it's Wong Kar Wai's movie and he never lets you forget it. Dimly lit passages, camera framing that consistently obscures the actors and slo mo dominates the film. And rain. A lot of rain in this movie. It also has an interesting use of color, which are muted throughout the film. The slow pace drags a little bit towards the end, but the rhythm of the editing is important to this movie because the two characters "dance" around each others shared but anguished feelings. Some may find this slow and ponderous, but I definitely recommend In The Mood For Love.

An album that can never be described as slow and ponderous is Number 77:

X - Los Angeles (1980)

I must admit, for the most part I missed the punk movement. It didn't make any sense to me at the time, the playing was not very technical and the songs were not melodic. It seemed out of tune, sloppy and incoherent. As I've gotten older, I've found a lot of emotional content in the sloppy punk rantings of bands like X.

X's Los Angeles album is a nihilistic trip through the LA underground of the early 80's. A strong shot of droning vocals, rockabilly guitar and punk rhythms mark the album. Although there are nine songs, they are all cut from the same cloth and hang together thematically. Lyrically facinating in decribing "The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss" while "Sex and Dying In High Society" with "Nausea". The opening track "Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not" is my personal favorite with its bopping beat and the intertwined vocals over the overrevved guitar riff make the song exciting. John Doe and Exene's vocals have the right tone of jaded detachment and sleazy energy. Guitarist Billy Zoom brings character to his punk rock via his 50's rockabilly influence. DJ Bonebrake's drums holds down the beat for the group.

Los Angeles illustrates the flip side to Southern California's fantasy land of sex, surf and sun. X shows in the land of the rich and beautiful, there's a lot of room for outsiders looking for kicks and ignoring the mainstream. Like an annoying friend that is fun in short bits but you don't want to get too close to, X hits you with their attitude and then conveniently leaves before you get tired of them.