Thursday, May 30, 2013

album review: 'the devil put dinosaurs here' by alice in chains

What do you do when a member of your band dies?

It's a question that no act ever wants to consider, but it's a sad fact of life, and being a rock star seems to only shorten that brief span between the cradle and the grave. The hard partying lifestyle, the drug abuse, the bouts of suicidal depression, any one could be enough to kill a musician, and while those musicians are often deified, the question of if/how the band can carry on is an entirely different minefield. Some acts fall apart, never to reform, mostly because the man/woman who died was near the nucleus of the group (Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Freddie Mercury, the list can easily go on). Some acts carry on, and for better or for worse the replacement member will always be compared with the original (Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Bon Scott of AC/DC, Cliff Burton of Metallica). Unfortunately, many of these talented musicians to replace their fallen originals never really rise out of the shadows (obviously in the list I provided above, all three are highly arguable exceptions).

So thus it proved very interesting when Alice In Chains announced announced their fourth studio album of new material to be released in 2009, featuring the replacement of late lead singer Layne Staley with singer William DuVall. This hadn't the first time a band member had left/been replaced (bassist Mike Inez had replaced Mike Starr in 1994), but Layne Staley had left a long shadow thanks to his role as one of the leading figures of grunge and for his excellent voice. And while DuVall had done a bit of touring with the band, there were many questions whether or not he'd be able to fill Staley's shoes.

Fortunately for everyone, Alice In Chains' fourth album Black Gives Way To Blue turned out to be pretty excellent, and fans embraced DuVall's vocals like AC/DC fans did with Brian Johnson's after Bon Scott's passing. It was the sort of reception that you don't typically see in the hard rock/metal scene, and it spoke of good things to come. And in 2011, fan interest was piqued when it was announced a follow-up album was on the way.

Now, I'll admit straight out of the gate that grunge isn't typically my thing. Sure, I like Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the occasional Bush or Soundgarden song, but I wouldn't exactly qualify it as a genre of choice for me. I tend to feel the same about 'traditional' heavy metal like Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth - I can definitely acknowledge quality when I hear it, but the genre's never really caught my fancy. I mention this because my liking for Alice In Chains significantly more than the majority of their contemporaries on both sides of grunge and heavy metal has always struck me as a bit odd. But really, I think it comes down to a few factors: a strong hook where the guitars and bass complimented the singing, vocals I could actually understand (yes, i can tolerate dirty vocals and growling, but I do like being able to make out the lyrics), and subject matter that was willing to be serious without devolving into undefined rage. Ultimately, that's why I think I like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains a bit more than their contemporaries, and it helps both bands had a gift for minor key melodies and a bigness of sound that definitely worked to their advantage.

All of these factors are on display with Black Gives Way To Blue, and as a album about dealing with grief and the darkness of the past, Alice In Chains returned in the best possible way by acknowledging and accepting the past while bringing a new singer to the table. And boy, did it pay dividends, with critical acclaim, solid sales, and general fan acceptance, even though it was their heaviest album yet. Some critics even compared some of the riffs to doom metal, and while I wouldn't go that far in the comparison, Black Gives Way To Blue was an album where that tone fits surprisingly well. It's an album about grief and moving on from suffering, and thus it made sense that it was heavier and darker.

So what do I think of Alice In Chains' follow-up, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, coming into a landscape where post-grunge is near-extinct and indie rock now rules the shelves?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

album review: 'random accessed memories' by daft punk

You know, for every terrible or Chris Brown album I review, there's one great benefit to this gig, and it's a fairly simple one: getting the chance to go through the discographies of the greats.

It's a real thrill of anticipation, knowing that you're going to be perusing the collected works of acts that have amassed critical praise and massive success, but that you've never really had the chance to enjoy in detail. It's that amazing feeling when you realize you've discovered an artist for the first time (in your mind, at least) and you're experiencing something special, getting the chance to listen or watch something that can open your mind to all new possibilities. Because as fun as it can be to tear the justly deserving a new one, it's even more fun to find an act that has experienced critical praise and discover for yourself just how and why they got it. And while you will run into occasional duds or stretches of mediocrity, more often than not you find greatness. Of course, it's even more fun to find an unjustly overlooked act and sing their praises to the high heavens (which was my Nick Cave experience), but sometimes it's just as revelatory to join with the crowd.

And thus it becomes so cruelly ironic that it is only now I'm examining Daft Punk, one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved electronic acts of all time, and one that has built so much of their music on the principle of bringing people together. I'm completely serious here: up until this week, my experience of listening to Daft Punk has been confined to the few singles I've heard and a viewing of Interstella 5555 a long time ago. I've known they're great - they're one of the few unequivocably great things about TRON: Legacy - but I've never really had the chance to delve into the Daft Punk oeuvre.

Now, those of you who have read these reviews before likely know why I've been slow to listen to Daft Punk, but I'm sure a few of you are asking, 'well, if you knew Daft Punk was so goddamn great, why the hell didn't you listen to them before?' And really, that's a completely fair question - unlike Nick Cave or Depeche Mode, Daft Punk really don't have the massive backlog discography that would render tearing through their early albums all that strenuous. But those of you who have read my reviews before likely remember my general objections to reviewing electronica, mostly because I'm still not all that sure how to do it properly. That's one of the reasons you never saw a review of Armin van Buuren's new trance album that came out early this month - as much as they'd make my reviews considerably shorter, I tend to respond better when it comes to more lyrical material that relies more on words and less on feeling. And considering so much of electronica is based on feeling and mood (unless you're a serious sound nerd who can pull apart individual pieces of the song and assign meaning to them - I've seen a few of these guys and they're something else), I feel a little unqualified to talk about it.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I can speak at great length about an electronic act like The Chemical Brothers, of whom I'm a big fan. But this, I think, comes down to an issue of construction - so much of The Chemical Brothers' material is based upon judiciously chosen samples and a semi-coherent narrative that I find them more accessible, at least for reviewing purposes. It's a little easier to chart out album themes and messages with lyrics or samples, instead of just coming from the musical 'feel', per se.

But Daft Punk were different, at least on their early albums. They came onto the scene in the late 90s with Homework, and were immediately distinguishable from the rest of the Eurodance with an embrace of funky electronica and an array of weirdness in their audiovisual style. Like the rest of their contemporaries, the thematic elements of their music were about bringing people together to dance and have a great time, but the introduction of funk into the mix gave their music a strange edge that was distinctive, but not confrontational. In comparison to the sugary, super-optimistic dance tracks of the mid-to-late 90s, Daft Punk were expressing the same emotions but filtering them through a very different aesthetic, which gave their music a lot of character and personality. Their embrace of mid-to-late 70s funk tunes might seem a bit confrontational for electronica, but by filtering the energy and looseness of funk through their unique vision they created a sound unlike any of their contemporaries. It was a fusion of two musical genres very different in tone and theme, but very alike in energy and passion, creating something very much unlike anything else in modern music.

Then came Discovery and Interstella 5555, and at least to me, these two are halves of the same incredible whole. The music so perfectly matches the animation that considering one without the other feels a little incomplete, but it's a real testament to how great the disco-inspired album is that it still manages to hold up as an incredibly solid album on its own. If I was forced to make a choice between Discovery and Homework... damn, that's a tough choice, but I'd probably go for Discovery if only due to the fact that it's a little tighter and the disco melody lines are a little stronger. Plus, the sound is a bit more varied and there's a lot of emotional texture on Discovery that I really appreciated. As it is, it's one of the greatest electronic albums of all time and I can't help but place it in the upper echelons of great music.

And then Daft Punk made Human After All, and I'll be the first one to say that I don't dislike this album with the same intensity that a lot of Daft Punk fans do. Yes, it's not nearly as good as Homework or Discovery, but I still dug the hell out of the sludgy, rawer feel they were looking to create. The problem was that they didn't quite deviate enough from the formula, which got old and tired pretty fast. But while I'm convinced Daft Punk could have made a stronger album here with the material they were pursuing, it was enough to push Daft Punk back towards the material that made them stronger and iconic. 

And with that, after a series of live cuts and soundtracks, they made Random Access Memories, the now critically-acclaimed album that has been embraced and beloved by many? So what do I think of it?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

album review: 'love, lust, faith, and dreams' by 30 seconds to mars

I've written extensively before about good acts that I just don't care about. These are groups or singers that I can acknowledge are talented and good, but they don't provoke any reaction from me, and despite my efforts, I can't get excited about these bands. It really does bug me, but everyone has their own personal tastes and I can understand why some acts just aren't my thing.

So what about the acts that I don't care about who aren't good? Well, for the most part, they don't get a lot of thought or energy from me, because I'm not one who enjoys hating things just for the sake of hating them. It's a lot of energy giving a shit about things I despise, so really, when I discover acts that don't provoke a reaction from me and who suck, the only thing I can do is just ignore them. And really, this works out rather well, because I don't have to worry about pissing off fanboys or about maintaining a steady stream of vitriol.

And for the longest time, 30 Seconds To Mars was one of those acts. I knew they existed, I knew they had fans, I knew that some people I liked in university liked their music, and really, that was the extent of my knowledge of this band. And when faced with the choice to review either the new 30 Seconds To Mars album or Random Access Memories, the new Daft Punk album that seems to be the second coming of Saturday Night Fever for the modern age, I chose to buck the trend. Instead of reviewing the new Daft Punk like everyone and their cat, I chose to go after 30 Seconds To Mars. I mean, I was expecting a mediocre act, and I had always heard that lead singer Jared Leto was a little pissy, so I didn't exactly hope for much when I started going through their discography. I had low expectations.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

album review: 'modern vampires of the city' by vampire weekend

Let's talk about hype.

Yeah, I know it's crass and populist and it's the sort of thing most established critics won't deign to discuss, but I think it's important to at least talk about, particularly considering we critics are often responsible for it. As much as trailers and news and media buzz will get seats in the theaters and records off the shelves, critical praise can be instrumental in moving product, particularly when it comes to the independent music scene, or acts that never achieved mainstream acceptance. 

For an example, I published my review of Now What?! by Deep Purple on April 29th, and I gave it a very positive review (because it deserves it, that album was awesome). And since then, I've noticed my review of that album has been linked on a couple music blogs and forums. And while I'm extremely grateful for those hits and those links, it also cast into sharp relief the fact that people will spread the opinions of critics they like, and thus the critic has a certain responsibility to manage expectations. And as a critic who has a reputation for analyzing material likely more than many consider it is worth, I can definitely understand why some cynical types would denigrate my reviews as contributing to the 'hype' machine, convincing the gullible that there is some greater meaning in the music. 

And while I consider that opinion disingenuous and a little insulting, I can't deny that critical opinions have weight in the popular context. Sure, you'll have your fair arsenal of skeptics who will want to be convinced and they'll ignore the critics, to say nothing of fans who'll buy everything certain acts put out regardless of substance, but people look to critics because they want to make intelligent purchasing decisions with regards to their entertainment. And that's one of the reasons the critic's voice does have some weight in popular culture - when they have access to the entertainment before most, they can contribute to the hype machine in both positive and negative ways. Positive hype can spin a lot of money for an act by convincing undecided buyers, while negative hype can be absolutely poisonous. And while larger properties are less likely to be shifted by hype, one way or another, a smaller act can be crushed by bad hype or elevated beyond their wildest dreams by critical praise.

And incidentally, this raises yet another problem I have with Pitchfork, namely because the site has had a publicized desire to push the indie and hip-hop culture landscape towards whatever might be deemed 'the next big thing' in the underground scene, and given that their album rankings have demonstrable power to increase sales, they have had some success in trying to define the sound of the indie and hip-hop scene. Take, for instance, the massive success of Channel ORANGE, an excellent album that would have likely been overlooked without the critical praise showered by every critic, including Pitchfork, and it's no surprise that the muted PBR&B sound that Frank Ocean created on that album has become prevalent in the modern R&B scene. 

But with that being the case, there's a very real problem that comes with hype generation, and that's the rationality behind the hype. Too often it feels like Pitchfork is seeking to jump on new trends not because they hold depth or interesting new sounds or because they represent provocative artistic direction, but because they're simply the next new thing. It's the consumerist desire to be trendy and 'in', and while this attitude has taken root in hipster culture, it has come at the loss of sincerity. Yeah, I really like Channel ORANGE, but I don't love it in the same way I love The Zac Brown Band's Uncaged or Ke$ha's Warrior (both I consider to be 'better' albums, by the way), and it gets more than a little irritating when it's held up as some great transcendent album. This was similar to one of the many issues I had with Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while I've warmed to it a bit more two and a half years later, I'm still very conscious of the fact that it didn't come close to earning the avalanche of critical praise it got. 

And look, I like liking things. I like being able to agree with the rest of the critics and saying that an album is as good or as bad as it really is. I like being able to say something is awesome and showing as many people as I can. But I like to explain why I like or dislike something, and I feel that too often the hype machine shuts down this critical discourse. And sure, most people won't care to justify why they like something, but the job of a critic is to explain why they think something works or doesn't work, and when they become part of the hype machine, the problem is exacerbated. 

And with all of that, let's talk about Vampire Weekend, one of the most hyped acts indie rock has seen in a long time.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

movie review: 'star trek: into darkness'

"I've never really been a fan of Star Trek.

Granted, I've seen the movies, but I've never watched the TV show, and while I have vague ideas about certain popular elements of the franchise (most drawn from when I had to research elements of the franchise for a high school debate), I've never really cared about it all that much. You could say that it was because I was exposed to Star Wars before Star Trek, but for the most part, I just have never really been interested.

That being said, I respect Star Trek for what it is, and Gene Roddenberry's original vision of the franchise. It was a series filled with great dreams of manifest destiny, of going to places where no human has gone before, exploring that last great frontier. As a guy with more than a passing interest in science, I have huge respect for that drive, and I'm still pissed that the US space program, once one of the frontrunners of science and technology in the world, has been gutted over the past several years.

So with that in mind, it might not come as any surprise to most of you that I never really liked the Star Trek reboot. Oh, don't get me wrong, McCoy and Scotty were great, and Spock was pretty good, but the writing was very subpar (even on the standards of Star Trek) and Chris Pine has the emotional range of a tree stump and is maybe a tenth as likeable. He is a terrible Captain Kirk, and I sincerely hope that they don't continue this franchise - I mean, when your writing sucks and your leading man is awful, your franchise doesn't have much hope."

I wrote those paragraphs a bit less than two years ago as a part of my Transformers: Dark of the Moon review that I published on Facebook (spoiler alert, that movie was shit), and to the most part, I stand by them. Having had more of a chance to get familiar with the Star Trek franchise (albeit not to the level of serious fandom), I can definitely see why the franchise earned its place among sci-fi and pop culture. There have been rough patches and bad spots, but generally the series had some respectable concepts and occasional moments of absolute brilliance.

And really, so much of my admiration of the Trek franchise comes from two factors: the embrace of intelligence and philosophy in the plotting (at least in the better episodes); and the thematic undercurrent of futuristic utopianism. Star Trek, unlike some of its counterparts, tended towards an optimistic belief in humankind, that we as a species were good enough to go where no man has gone before, that we could indeed begin to colonize the galaxy.

And then J.J. Abrams reinvented the franchise as a popcorn action flick for the lowest common denominator.

And you know, as much as I strongly disagree with Abrams being selected as the director of the upcoming Star Wars film, I'd take him as a director there over Star Trek any day of the goddamn week, mostly because Star Trek is a franchise that at least tries to have more intellectual heft than Star Wars. To see a franchise like Star Trek boiled down to an at-best action blockbuster isn't just bad, it's depressing. It reflects the state of modern action movies, which has absolutely no faith in the intellect of its audience, and where elements of legitimate science are tossed aside in favour of ridiculous action setpieces that can only hope to make some vestige of sense on a good day. It gets even worse when I saw The Daily Show interview with J.J. Abrams where he flat-out admits he didn't like the original Star Trek series because it was 'too philosophical' - that's the fucking POINT! It's science fiction, and so much of science is inherently linked to philosophy that when you strip away the philosophy, you lose the rich undercurrent of meaning that made the Star Trek movies at least engaging

And frankly, that's one of the reasons J.J. Abrams has never endeared himself to me as a director of anything - because I look at him and I don't see anything besides some decent technical chops in direction and writing. Yes, the man can write a decent homage and build a decent mystery. But so many of the pay-offs to those mysteries are so limp and lacking in meaning that all the weight of his films gets sucked out the airlock. As a filmmaker, I have no goddamn idea what Abrams is trying to say or any underlying philosophy behind his work, and as much as he clearly worships Spielberg, he has none of the genuine heart and optimism in his direction and composition that makes his movies feel like Spielberg. Looking at the great popular directors - Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, Mallick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese - all of them had deep thematic resonance in their films that made them stand out and mean something, damn it! There's a reason that so many gangsters began adopting Vito and Michael Corleone's mannerisms after seeing The Godfather, and it wasn't just because they 'sounded cool' - it was because on a subconscious level the performances and script had a resonant power and dignity and class that so many gangsters deeply desired.

Hell, take a look at the modern wave of directors. Shane Black, Neil Blomkamp, Michael Mann, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, they all have something to say with their direction that can elevate their films. Hell, even fucking Michael Bay and Uwe Boll and Tyler fucking Perry have something to say through their direction and writing when they make films! Sure, it might be absolutely incompetent or repugnant, but at least it's something attempting to add weight and mood and atmosphere and meaning to what they put on screen. But with directors like J.J. Abrams and Tim Story, I see none of that ambition, none of that underlying philosophy that steers their camera. At best, I see technical proficiency - that's it. At worst, I see a complete misunderstanding and disregard of theme and symbolism, to say nothing of the intellectual properties from which their films are derived.

And coming back to Star Trek, it really doesn't help matters when you replace William Shatner (who isn't that good of an actor, but has had some great moments) with Chris Pine, the biggest walking dearth of charisma this side of Tyler Perry (who was, incidentally, in the Star Trek reboot in 2009). Coupled with a lightweight script and a forgettable villain, Star Trek is a film that might have satisfied box offices with impressive revenue, but did so by catering to the lowest of the cultural demographic.

But to be completely fair, Chris Pine has improved marginally as an actor in the past four years, and when buzz began to circulate that Benedict Cumberbatch (he of the magnificent Sherlock BBC series) would be joining the cast as the main villain, I was intrigued despite myself. Sure, I had no hope in J.J. Abrams as a director, and I had no illusions that the writing would be good, but at least they'd have to take the film in an interesting direction, right? They've already established the new cast, that'd mean we'd be forced to see character development now that the origin stories are out of the way. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Oh, I was wrong. It wasn't just that bad - it was worse than I ever could have imagined. In fact, Star Trek: Into Darkness stands as a colossal failure of a movie - and to discuss it, I'll need to go into deeper detail on why it fails, and that'll require spoilers, which I will place after the jump and/or the next several paragraphs. Like with Iron Man 3, you will have plenty of warning.

Let's start with the good. Most of the characters aren't bad - Karl Urban as McCoy, Zoe Seldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and even John Cho delivers impressively as Sulu. The score is excellent, and for the most part, the film seems well-shot (although I'd still argue Abrams moves the camera around way too much and the lens flares do get aggravating). The dialogue can occasionally be witty or humorous, with Zachary Quinto's Spock getting some great laughs simply by giving Chris Pine's Kirk a look or simply due to some awkward silence (although I will say the audience I saw this film with was way too eager to give this film any sort of laughter, which was frustrating).

As for new characters, Peter Weller did deliver as the Starfleet Admiral, and it's always nice to see Robocop take the screen. And yeah, the inner Sherlock geek inside of me loved Benedict Cumberbatch's intense terrorist John Harrison and it was more than a little awesome to watch him kicking all amounts of ass. Cumberbatch is working his ass off here, trying to invest his character with as much depth and complexity as he can, and on a surface level, he's kind of awesome.

And that's also precisely where I have to stop talking about the good things and go into the real, disastrous problems with this movie (before discussing the spoilers that make me and other Trek fans scream bloody murder). For starters, as occasional beautiful as this film can be, it has a strange weightlessness to it that really threw me off, mostly due to the camera's gymnastics and the extreme overuse of CGI. I had a really hard time getting invested in the characters and the plot because too much of the direction stripped away the weight of the film. This comes from a major issue of pacing, which is half a problem of the script (I'll get to this) and half the issue of the editing, which is very choppy and doesn't allow the film to breathe in the slightest. Say what you will about the 2009 Star Trek movie, but at least it took the time to have slower moments and get acquainted more with the characters and what they think and feel. Into Darkness, on the other hand, feels rushed in the worst possible way, and has no idea how to build to a proper emotional climax. For a quick example, Kirk loses captaincy of the Enterprise and gains it back within ten, absolutely tension-less minutes, right at the beginning of the film.

Granted, any character development feels like it was blasted out the nearest airlock, because no character goes through the slightest bit of an arc in this film, or at least not one that hadn't been blatantly recycled from better movies, mostly from the 2009 reboot. Kirk's in particular feels like a major retread from the last film, with him learning absolutely nothing by the end of this movie. Now, I could typically overlook some of this, but Chris Pine's terribly wooden acting and the awful, awful script just make it shit-blisteringly obvious. I wouldn't be surprised that if at some point, they just copy-and-pasted dialogue straight from the previous movie.

And speaking of dialogue, this is also an issue where the script falls apart completely - mostly because nobody in this film talks like a reasonable human being!  Sure, you can get away with hammy dramatics (this is Star Trek, after all), but when you contrast it with the weak witticisms that feel forklifted in from your average sitcom, the tone completely collapses. And while Simon Pegg and Karl Urban play their characters damn near perfectly, neither of them are on screen long enough to save this film. The one thing that Cumberbatch does that's inestimably good for this movie is add real heft and emotion to his lines, so much to the point where his character was a lot more engaging than the rest of the film.  

And now I have to get to spoilers. No jokes, after this paragraph, I'm going to spoil every single one of the twists that Abrams piles into this shit and explain why they turn this film into the colossal pile of junk it is. If you want my advice, skip this movie. Sure, on the surface, it's the average popcorn flick and if you have an air-cooled brain and just want to watch flashing lights on the screen, you'll probably find this movie engaging. But if you're looking to think in this movie, or you're a fan of Trek at all, this movie isn't worth the heart palpitations you're going to get coming out of this movie. Do not see this, do not give Abrams any of your money to see this, do not validate his filmmaking or his 'mystery box' ethos of plotting. And I'm about to smash that mystery box apart in the next paragraph: you have been warned.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

album review: 'demi' by demi lovato

You know, I tend to delve into the ‘deeper meaning’ of pop music more than most, and because of this, I tend to get hit with the comment that I ‘read too deeply into things’. And I can understand the reasoning behind that criticism, the point being that most pop acts don’t put nearly as much thought into the deeper meaning behind their songs, and when they do, it often appears haphazard and slapdash, excuses hurriedly pulled together to weakly rationalize questionable lyrics.

And I guess to some extent that could be true – I do tend to hunt for thematic elements and narrative through-lines more than most when I analyze albums, and one could argue that the pop artists aren’t paying as much attention to these elements as I am, if they even consider them at all. And as much as I’d like to counter that argument with the point that I might be picking up on subconscious elements that the artists themselves don’t quite know the best way to articulate, that does make me come across somewhat pretentious and up my own ass. And frankly, if I hold to my view that the artist’s POV is sacrosanct, I guess I have to buy the occasional poorly-articulated nonsense that some artists use to explain the merits of their music.

All of that said, I still believe that pop music, even at its most plastic, can say something of meaning, or can have emotional resonance like any other genre. For example, I recently relistened to S Club 7’s S Club album from 1999, and I was surprised how much the shallow bubblegum pop made me feel in a better mood. Sure, the platitudes they espouse aren’t particularly unique or well-defined, but they deliver everything with such energy, cheer, and exuberance that I can’t help but enjoy it (the superb production really does help here as well). For another example, I remain surprised at how well Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’ works for me, a pop song that grows all the more poignant every year Britney’s career takes another wrong turn

Really, this emotional response can be extracted from any artist, whether they be a bearded indie rocker or a teenage pop starlet, and I’m not one to deny myself from liking something because of the performer (my unabashed love of Ke$ha is proof enough of that). And sure, while I can’t deny that somewhere inside of me buried deep down is a squealing teenage girl who is eagerly awaiting every new teen pop sensation (saying things like ‘OMG BACKSTREET BOYS ARE COMING OUT WITH A NEW ALBUM THIS YEAR AND IT’S GOING TO BE AWESOME’), I’m not one to deny my own feelings towards a pop song or artist when things work. I’m definitely going to intellectualize and explain those feelings – because that’s who I am – but I’m not one for denying my liking for something just because of the artist’s identity or personal life.

And with all of that in mind, let’s talk about Demi Lovato.

Demi Lovato is the sort of pop act to which most music critics don’t pay a lot of attention, and it’s not hard to understand why. Like her fellow ‘teen Disney princesses’ Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens, and newcomer Ariane Grande, Demi Lovato is – on the surface – reminiscent of the teen pop sensation of the late 90s, and was marketed as such. Attractive, making generic synthetic pop, one could easily say that she was as plastic as the brand of toys that undoubtedly accompanied her Disney roots.

And as a member of the three who have had the most impact on the pop charts (the other two being her friends Selena Gomez, who I’ll talk about in greater detail when her album comes out this year, and Miley Cyrus), Demi Lovato was probably the act I liked the least. It wasn’t that she was bad, but she lacked the sleek elegant production of Selena Gomez’s better tunes and the rawer edge of Miley’s stronger tracks. Compared to Selena’s ‘Naturally’ and Miley’s ‘See You Again’, Demi couldn’t really match that level of intensity, despite being arguably the best singer of the trio. And really, it grew all the more disappointing considering her public life had taken dark turns into eating disorders and self-mutilation, very little of which added deeper emotional resonance to her material. Now granted, this isn’t entirely surprising, given the severe drop-off in songwriting credits as her career progressed, but it does feel like a squandered opportunity to add a bit of ‘reality’ to the teenage pop starlet’s material.

And now Demi Lovato is the first of the pop starlets to drop an album this year, buoyed by the success of her hit single ‘Heart Attack’. How does it turn out?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

album review: 'overgrown' by james blake (RETRO REVIEW)

Define 'dubstep'.

It's not easy, I reckon. It's the sort of topic that spurs flame wars and heated arguments among music critics and fans alike, particularly in the indie electronica scene. It's difficult to reach consensus on what true dubstep is, and even harder to define good dubstep, a problem only exacerbated further by the mainstream breakout of acts like Skrillex and his collaborations. And as much as I want to avoid the argument over semantics, I can't help but feel that when I say that I'm generally not the biggest fan of dubstep, I'm not conveying the message aptly.

So let me make this clear: I'm not the biggest fan of what one would consider the traditional mainstream dubstep 'sound' - it's an electronic stylistic gimmick blown up to eleven, and it has never really sounded 'epic' or 'kickass' or produced the slightest reaction from me besides general antipathy. Part of this, I think, comes from my love of symphonic and power metal, a genre that approaches 'epic' on all fronts, often to the point of ridiculous cheesiness - to me, dubstep can't really match that Wagner-esque sweep and impact.

But I'll be the first to admit that dubstep, when used correctly, can make for some great songs. For example, Muse appropriated some of the stylistic flourishes and made 'Madness', a jaw-droppingly great song from their messy album The 2nd Law. Imagine Dragons also used some dubstep styling with their surprisingly strong song 'Radioactive'. These two songs, plus an examination of the monstrosities that Skrillex continues to shovel out, seem to indicate two factors on how the dubstep sound could work in the pop setting. Firstly, you need tight control of the sound; it can't be allowed to overpower the track. Why 'Madness' and 'Radioactive' are such great songs comes back to a tightness in the production, letting the traditionally atonal and off-balance dubstep track supplement the mix. Compare this to the disaster of a track 'Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites', a Skrillex track that seems for the first thirty seconds or so to have some control and depth - until it all blows up and the squealing, shrieking hook overwhelms the entire mix and leaves you with a migraine. And this leads into the second factor: the dubstep part of the mix cannot be the only thing used to enhance/amplify the atmosphere. Muse supplemented their dubstep with elaborate choral arrangements and the full strength of the fact that they are a prog/stadium rock act, while Imagine Dragons uses lead singer Dan Reynolds and his amazing voice and energy to provide a counterweight to the dubstep track. Skrillex, on the other hand, supplements his overblown dubstep with obnoxious screeching and lyrics that barely exist. 

It really doesn't help matters that Skrillex also seems to be working with acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit, and while that is tonally consistent, it also links dubstep to some of the most insufferable and terrible acts ever to grace modern music. I've already written extensively on how I can't fucking stand rap rock and rap metal, and to see Skrillex work to revitalize those genres with his popularity just makes my skin crawl. But it also shows a certain stagnation when it comes to the dubstep sound, by pigeonholing it into a certain archetype and tone, which could well lead to limited commercial success.

Fortunately for us all, Skrillex isn't the only musician and producer working with the dubstep sound, and there seems to be plenty of people who are interested in taking dubstep in new directions, and have accrued a certain degree of critical praise for their efforts. And you know, as much as the dubstep 'sound' doesn't really engage me, I must acknowledge that managing to hammer it into some sort of workable music requires real talent.

And with that, let's talk about James Blake.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

album review: 'golden' by lady antebellum

A few days ago when I walking home, I flipped up Rumours, the classic 1976 Fleetwood Mac album. Completely unsurprisingly, the music held up and I enjoyed a few very solid moments walking in the sunset listening to several of the classic songs from that album that haven't aged in the slightest. It was a great moment, and one I definitely cherished.

But then I started thinking why Fleetwood Mac's music seems so timeless, at least off of Rumours. Why does that album remain so goddamn solid nearly forty years later, a pop rock album that still feels as relevant and poignant as the best music released today? Why, in short, does Rumours work?

Well, it became fairly clear as I continued listening. The songs are rooted in catchy, memorable melodies that stick in the mind, the performances are solid across the board, and most importantly, very few of the musical 'quirks' that can make 70s pop seem dated are here. Instead, the album seems grounded in simplicity, sticking to the elements that made Fleetwood Mac attractive to a mass audience. And by rooting the album in the tumultuous and complicated internal conflicts of the bandmates, the album gains a surprising emotional resonance that carries their best songs. Rumours feels, for lack of a better word, real, in that it both came from sincere emotional responses and is rooted in genuine feelings that the songwriters had.

And really, the more I listen to music, the more I've come to cherish sincerity and the acts that rely upon it. Eminem, Ke$ha, Meat Loaf, early Avril Lavigne, Nick Cave, these are all acts I love because the emotions powering their music are genuine and came from a real place. Sure, the sincerity can be awkward or uncomfortable at points, but it adds a fresh paint of reality to their music that you can't really fake. Hell, on that note, though I think the man has made serious missteps, I'll still defend Kanye West in this regard. On the other hand, that's why late-period Taylor Swift and Chris Brown piss me off so much - it's so obvious their music is hollow and lacks poignancy, and Taylor Swift's case, where real emotion was hurled aside in favour of plastic artifice. Sure, some of the original appearance might be there, but there's no soul left in this music.

But let's pose an interesting question: what happens if you do perform with sincerity and maybe even some emotion, but the topics you choose to talk about don't entirely fit well with that sort of delivery, or the instrumentation or lyrics doesn't back you up? Or what if the ideas you want to talk about just can't support that emotion?

Well, in that case, you run smack into the band we're going to talk about today, Lady Antebellum - or, as I like to say, the band that really, really wants to be Fleetwood Mac.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

album review: 'heartthrob' by tegan & sara (RETRO REVIEW)

Let's talk about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Now, before any of you leap down my throat at why on earth I'm even mentioning this topic in connection with Tegan & Sara, well, be patient. For starters, I feel the concept needs to be clarified a bit and expanded upon beyond its TVTropes definition. But in case you have no idea what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, here's the cliff notes: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an attractive, 'high-on-life' female character that seems overstuffed with quirk and personality, and who typically is (for some ungodly reason) attracted to the main male character. Originally coined by acclaimed film critic Nathan Rabin (formerly of the AV Club) in 2005, he viewed the trope as grating and a little insufferable - and having sat through all of Garden State and seen Natalie Portman's performance in that movie, I could well agree. 

However, Anita Sarkeesian (of the now somewhat notorious Feminist Frequency) has in the past deemed the trope simply a disguise for shallow female characters who use their quirk and their spontaneity to disguise their need for male companionship. And while I'll definitely agree with this assessment for the worse entries in this genre, I think it only touches on the surface of this trope and needs to be examined further (yes, I will get to talking about the Tegan & Sara album, give me a few minutes).

Really, the term 'surface' is what becomes important in discussing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because it's a classic case of writers failing to deepen their characters beneath the surface impression, particularly in the modern age of the Internet. In the worst cases, it's used as shallow stereotyping of female characters for the male love interest, but I'll raise the deeper problems that occur even with the better examples of this trope, mostly because it still relies on a surface categorization.

You see, you can have a character with quirks and weirdness and who does odd things for no apparent reason who might seem to fit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mold, but I argue the second you begin providing a rationale why that character behaves like she does, the categorization doesn't quite fit anymore. Take Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series - by all intents and purposes, she could be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least on the surface. She's spacey, she's not quite engaged with everyone else going on, she's distinctly weird amongst a society full of wizards, but as you get to know the character, you realize there are reasons for her oddness (broken family, her father's a nutcase, isolation and loneliness, I could go on) and a deep underlying sadness to her character. And once you find out all of this, she's not really a Manic Pixie Dream Girl anymore, but a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional character. 

But for a character to remain a typical 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl', it all needs to remain on the surface. To me, there's an underlying shallowness to that persona that is quite revealing - the random quirk needs to be for its own sake or for completely arbitrary/nonsense reasons, otherwise the character becomes more fleshed out and loses everything but a surface connection to the trope. But that also becomes part of the problem when introducing female characters adhering to this trope into the typical narrative - because I find it hard to take any of the 'insight' that these characters are typically written to carry as all that profound, or even genuine. Once again, all that random inanity is on the surface, and while occasional nuggets of wisdom might fall out by accident or coincidence (both of which tend to be the worst kind of plotting), I don't really find that character as attractive as I used to.

I think it needs to be noted, however, that the majority of people don't agree with me on  this subject, because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is big right now, particularly in the age of the Internet. It's why Lunajacking became a meme, Jennifer Lawrence has an Oscar for that reprehensible bit of shit Silver Linings Playbook, and Zooey Deschanel has a career. And once again, I get the attraction to random quirkiness - it's interesting and catchy, at least on a surface level, and I certainly get the attraction to it. Hell, some people who know me would argue I've dated Manic Pixie Dream Girls in the past.

But here's the big point that needs to be raised in defence of those girls, and the reason I come down harder on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope than probably even Sarkeesian: it's not real. The girls I've dated who might seem like the traditional Manic Pixie Dream Girls on the surface have all turned out to have depth and complexity and something to say that justifies their quirkiness - and as I described above, that doesn't make them Manic Pixie Dream Girls anymore, it makes them fucking human beings. Sure, people can be shallow and do things for inexplicable reasons, but deep down, there is a rationale governing their behaviour which lends humanity beyond the stereotype. To come back to why I hate Silver Linings Playbook so goddamn much, the reason that film fails is because it initially tries pretty hard to portray Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's mental ailments as real as possible - and then phones it in the third act to craft the crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-com bullshit that strips Lawrence's character of depth so she becomes just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It's dishonest filmmaking, and as I stated in my essay regarding transgressive art, if you want to make your transgression work, you have to pay it off realistically. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't do this, and instead gives us a very 'Hollywood' portrayal of mental illness that's pretty damn insulting at the end.

But putting aside Silver Linings Playbook, I'll still argue the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is pretty alarmingly sexist on both sides, as it becomes rather revealing of some uncomfortable prejudices for both men and women. On the female side, particularly for girls who might see these characters as role models or an image/style they might find appealing, how is this any different at the root than other prevailing cultural attitudes and likes defined by male tastes? Is adapting what is inherently a surface level trope defined by being at surface level what you want? Do you want your views to be marginalized and shoved to the side and not taken seriously because they're viewed as 'cute' or 'quirky' or 'precious'? Do you want to be treated like girls rather than women?

And I didn't touch on this previously, but I think it needs to be raised now, particularly when addressing male preferences for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, particularly the emphasis on the last word in that phrase. Outside of very specific cases, this speaks to a sexual immaturity with men looking not for women who can match them as equals, but girls. Does this mean male obsession with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reveal a desire for girls who are immature by definition and thus need that assertive male guidance, but just quirky and random enough to evoke a sliver of surface thought so we can delude ourselves we're desiring someone who is 'deep'? 

Frankly, the more I think about this issue, the more I think it reflects a lot worse on male preferences than anything. And while it definitely doesn't surprise me the arsenal of man-children who fill the Internet like a bad fungus have embraced this trope, it's a lot more worrying and uncomfortable to see girls and particularly women embrace it without consideration of the implications. And once again, I think part of this links back to the hipster problem I've talked about at great length, and while I will always stress it's a great thing that more people have the freedom to express themselves and be different, it should come from genuine emotion. Not a desire to be different for the sake of being different or fit a certain group - or, to put it another way, quirky just for the sake of being quirky or fit a certain stereotype.

And with all of that, we finally come to Tegan & Sara, indie rock's own Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

movie review: 'iron man iii'

The year was 2008, and arguably one of the best years for film nerds since 1982. I mean, between Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, WALL-E, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2, Rambo, that Punisher sequel nobody saw (and everyone should see - seriously, The Punisher: War Zone was surprisingly good). Hell, I even liked that Get Smart movie with Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, and Dwayne Johnson, and while the fourth Indiana Jones movie was a trainwreck, it still made a ton of money that summer. 

But the surprise hit that nobody saw coming was Iron Man, and really, what reason did we have to be excited? A movie from the director of Elf, starring a washed-up SNL comedian who had spent years in a drug-induced burnout opposite a female lead who had squandered all of the likeability she had from her Academy Award for Shakespeare In Love in a series of completely uninspired performances? And all of this from a studio who had shown naked contempt for its intellectual property by licensing the Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox and hiring the semi-professional hack Tim Story to direct two horrendous movies? And all of this to tackle a franchise for a character who had never fronted a TV series and had never had much market penetration outside of the comics and a few solid sidescroller beat-'em-ups and arcade fighters?

It was the film that caught everybody by surprise, became one of the big hits that completely revitalized Robert Downey Jr.'s career in 2008 (the other being Tropic Thunder), and was the opening salvo of Marvel's attempt to bring comic book continuity to the big screen, a salvo that paid incredible dividends with the critical smash hit The Avengers last year. I don't think I can truly describe for you how much of a risk Marvel Studios was taking with this film, and the fact that it paid off so well is one of the biggest reasons the comic book blockbuster is now a major player in Hollywood.

And yet, the more I think about it, the less I like Iron Man. 

Not the movie, let me stress this - the movie remains extremely solid because it gets nearly everything it needs to right. Robert Downey Jr. is born to play Tony Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow brings surprising energy as Pepper Potts, Terrance Howard is surprisingly decent as Rhodes, and I always got a chuckle that Paul Bettany was playing JARVIS (the computer that runs Stark's manor). And what I like most about Iron Man is that it nails the human element so well - it's not afraid to show Tony Stark as the genius millionaire playboy who made his fortune selling weapons and behaving something of a dick, but also putting that character through real pain and suffering so he can grow. There are character arcs here, and the best parts of the film are when Tony is out of the suit and talking. And while the film has problems (I don't think Jeff Bridges is given quite enough to do, and the third act is more than a little anti-climatic), I still think it holds up incredibly well.

And thus it wasn't until Iron Man II that I started realizing my problems with the Iron Man character. Now, don't get me wrong, that film's perfectly serviceable too, nailing the same basic beats as the previous film with some great acting backing everything up, particularly from Don Cheadle (replacing Terrance Howard, arguably for the better) and especially from Sam Rockwell (who plays arguably the main 'villain' of the story). But it really does say something about Tony Stark as a character that I prefer the movie when it's focusing more on character development than all the splash and explosions.

But it's also here where I realized my issue with Tony Stark, and ultimately it ties back to a number of the factors that made him so popular in the modern world, along with his DC counterpart Bruce Wayne. In short, Tony Stark is a teenager who never grew up, and he is the wish-fulfilment fantasy of every engineering nerd man-child who idolizes him regardless. And with geek culture taking over so much of the world, it's no surprise this kind of character is popular - on the surface, he's an idealized fantasy, the 'genius millionaire playboy philanthropist', which the last word only thrown in to provide some vestige of maturity. But unlike Bruce Wayne, Stark chooses to tackle his parental abandonment issues with a mask of wry humour and a bottle of alcohol.

Now it's a credit to Robert Downey Jr.'s performance that this character turns out as likeable as he does (he could have very quickly turned into an asshole), mostly because Downey Jr. imparts some real empathy in his delivery. That said, there's a certain shallowness to Tony Stark's character, at least on the surface, that I don't think most of the audience picks up on - mostly because Tony Stark can really be a selfish, arrogant prick to people he doesn't care about, and occasionally to people he does care about. The frustrating part of Iron Man II is how much this element comes to the forefront, and even though it is a mask for his ongoing heart issues, it really becomes more than a little insufferable to listen through in the meandering second act of that film. 

And really, that shallowness seems to undercut all of the heroism Tony Stark advocates. Sure, he might be attempting to find world peace, but he's doing it to assuage his own ego, not for any higher purpose or mission statement. He's out for himself and the precious few in his inner circle, and you can tell he doesn't care much about anyone else. It's no surprise that Marvel Comics had him as the hero fighting Communists in the 60s, because that self-interest and naked embrace of capitalism make him a far more potent symbol than even Captain America in this regard. But all of that said, he's not a character I'd aspire to be, and while I know that it's always been part of Marvel's mission statement to write characters we empathize with (rather than DC's heroes which are meant to be inspirational), there are still a lot of young men my age who will completely embrace that shallow world view. Sure, it's a better view than Batman's schtick, but only marginally. 

And on that note, it's also why Tony Stark's arc in The Avengers worked so well - because he's forced to confront the death of a friend and thus must put aside his own petty self interest and give something of himself. It shows Joss Whedon's understand of the deeper elements of a character like Stark, and it also shows his willingness to push that character to grow and evolve. But with that in mind, what can come next? Where does Tony Stark go from here?

Well, in Iron Man III, we get an answer to that question, and while I wouldn't call it a completely perfect pay-off to Tony Stark's arc, I still think it's phenomenally strong in a way I never could have expected. But to explain it - and explain why I think this movie is pretty exceptional, all things considered - I'm going to have to spoil the entire damn plot of the movie. I also want to talk about the 'twist' regarding a certain character that's had comic-book fans in a frothing rage, but it's a twist I think is positively inspired.

So, spoilers after the jump (or about four paragraphs down), but let me talk about everything else regarding the movie. As always, the acting is great across the board. Robert Downey Jr. is inspired for the choice of Stark, Don Cheadle is awesome as Rhodes, and while I wish she was given more to do, Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty great as Pepper Potts. The surprising revelatory turns came from Guy Pierce and (of course) from Sir Ben Kingsley, both of them giving surprisingly multi-layered performances with some character beats I didn't quite expect. Hell, even the child actor who meets up with Stark during a period in the second act does a halfway solid job.

And I really do have to mention the directorial work of Shane Black, who was actually responsible for Downey Jr.'s original return to film in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a shockingly awesome little movie that came out in 2005 and remains one of the best directorial debuts  I've ever had the fortune to see. Shane Black spent a lot of time writing action-comedies, so he's a natural fit for Iron Man III, and his signature flair for fast conversation, a proper tonal balance, and the holiday season (it's hilarious how many of Shane Black's movies are Christmas movies) are a great fit for this film.

Any big criticisms that I have? Well, it's not a perfect movie by any stretch: there are moments of CGI that don't quite click (heads don't always seem to fit well on the bodies against the green screen), the ending of the film feels a bit rushed, and the film has a few pacing problems that a tighter screenplay could have alleviated. A bigger issue is that these pacing problems feel like a lack of narrative momentum, which has been a frequent criticism of Shane Black's work, in that events don't always seem to flow well or they happen by coincidence. In particular, the number of malfunctions that occur with Tony's armour do get a little exasperating and hard to believe, particularly considering the majority run on the chest arc reactor (which is supposed to be pretty damn solid for this sort of thing). And while the film does have its moments of slowdown and comedy, I think that some of the moments could have been better placed to allow more breathing room. And as with all of the Iron Man movies, it could have done without a few of the gratuitous action sequences - these movies, funnily enough, work best as character pieces, and I would have liked to have seen more from the various characters like Rhodes and Potts and Guy Pierce's character Killian outside of the special effects.

So yeah, definitely go see this movie if you're on the fence about it, but you might have noticed that I didn't really mention Ben Kingsley. There's a reason for this, and to talk about him, I need to talk about the plot of this movie and why I think it ultimately works. Spoilers are incoming next paragraph: you have been warned.