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Radio Ethiopia

Posted : 8 years, 10 months ago on 27 August 2009 08:40 (A review of Radio Ethiopia)

Not even the great and wonderful Patti Smith is immune from the sophomore slump. Radio Ethiopia is great in pieces but lacking as a whole – too many half-formed ideas and not enough of the song quality that made Horses so classic. It keeps the ambitious song lengths and rambling poetic nature of the songs, but forgets to give them a structure to be built on. This may have been her intent, but it makes for a difficult listen.

The straight headed punk rockers like “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping (My Heart)” are fantastic. Smith’s ferocious delivery and guitar wails show you why she’s the grand dame of punk. The hyper-literate and religious minded lyrics tell you why she’s the poet laureate. But it’s once we venture out into songs like “Radio Ethiopia” and “Distant Fingers” that things start to get murky and difficult, even for me. I love a good noise rock song, I even like “Radio Ethiopia,” but at times, the record gets way too pretentious and insular. It’s hard not to blame her for wanting to do something darker after Horses, deservedly, caused every rock critic to fire their loads and proclaim her the greatest thing to happen in American music since Dylan.

I keep practically the whole album on my computer, I’ve even given it a few listens the whole way through. I respect her artistry and intent, but I don’t quite like the whole. Still, it’s better than Wave and Dream of Life, which were just too polished and bland. I prefer Patti Smith being pretentious and batshit crazy while noise rock blasts behind her Beat poet-like rantings. She’s more exciting that way, and it’s why I fell in love with her in the first place. DOWNLOAD: “Ask the Angels”

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Posted : 8 years, 10 months ago on 27 August 2009 08:39 (A review of Wave [CD] 1996)

Patti Smith’s fourth studio album, Wave, is missing some of the messy, anarchistic folk-punk that made her previous albums so compelling (even if some of the songs worked better as experiments than as actual recordings). Yes, this is the album that began her move towards more radio-friendly sounds. Yes, it’s the most polished and pop oriented album she’s ever cut. But that does not mean that it is without it’s charms and merits.

“Dancing Barefoot” at first sounds like a redo of “Because the Night,” but builds upon that song's promises of mystery and sexuality to become something even more beautiful and rich. It’s no wonder that it’s become one of her biggest songs, if not one of her more defining cuts. “Frederick,” a love song to her future husband, is also soft and AOR friendly, but just as quirky and slightly strange as any other Patti Smith song. And “Revenge” might just have one of the greatest lyrical intros to any song: “I feel upset/Let’s do some celebrating/Come on honey, don’t hesitate now.” If that’s not a call to arms and a kinky-dangerous come on, I don’t know what is. “So You Want to Be (A Rock & Roll Star),” a Byrds cover, and “Wave,” an imagined conversation with Pope John Paul I, are the only other tracks worth a listen on the album.

Sadly, the rest is just too bland and polished for any album, but especially for a Patti Smith. As a follow up to almost-as-great-as-Horses Easter, Wave fails to impress. It would be roughly twenty years until she came back with a vengeance, armed with an album anywhere as exciting or crazy as her greatest works. This always has been and always be one of the lesser works in her canon. DOWNLOAD: “Dancing Barefoot”

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Apathy and Other Small Victories

Posted : 9 years ago on 6 June 2009 09:17 (A review of Apathy and Other Small Victories)

Since I only made to page 50 (roughly) before growing incredibly bored and more disinterested as it went along, I can only really describe the my impressions of that section. If the rest of the book follows along those lines...well, I either have no sense of humor or shouldn't have read Kurt Vonnegut before being forced to read this.

The opening paragraph was mildly amusing, the writer/character mistook foul words for humor (I blame Judd Apatow for that one, but only partially. He can still make things funny.), and the situations had less and less to do with reality as it went along. It wasn't that funny. Sorry. The jokes weren't anything new, I've heard all of them before. And I feel like everyone else must have been reading a different book then the one that I was.

Honestly, how does this book have a higher rating than say...Revolutionary Road? That talks about the soul crushing nature of corporate America, but because there's no Juno-like sarcastic quips people can't relate to it?

This book is missing out on something very important: I didn't care, at all, what happened to any of the characters. I didn't relate. I must be from a different generation or have a different sense of humor. Or, maybe, I just didn't "get it." (Assuming there is anything "to get.")

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More Specials

Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 19 April 2009 09:18 (A review of More Specials)

The Specials is a frantic skank-romping good-time, More Specials is the subdued follow-up. It also branches out into more styles than the debut, which focused on the 2-tone/ska revival craze that they had helped usher in. Like the previous disc, More Specials opens up with a rocking cover of an older song, this time “Enjoy Yourself,” which gets a reprise at the end with the Go-go’s as guest vocalists. It was around this time that Terry Hall and Jane Wiedlin got into their affair and wrote “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but that’s another story and album. The sophomore effort is almost as good as, if slightly more uneven and less cohesive than, the debut. How did they manage this feat? Through sheer force of will, one would imagine. The bite and snarl of their music isn’t lost in the more pop leanings that debut here, and would come out in full-force on their next record. The most interesting new territory explored isn’t the Latin-tinged instrumental “Holiday Fortnight,” but the spaghetti western sounds of “Stereotypes.” Its familiar lyrical territory for the group, but it’s not less evocative or interesting. And Terry Hall could snap and put-down with the best of them. If Hall and Staples hadn’t had left the band shortly after this, who knows what the third record could have been like. DOWNLOAD: “Hey, Little Rich Girl”

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Greatest Hits

Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 9 April 2009 07:03 (A review of Greatest Hits)

Finally a single-disc compilation that tells the entire Blondie story from start to finish, even if it is presented in a nonlinear fashion, it's all still there. The punk beginning (“X Offender”), the experiments (“Rapture”), the New Wave classics (“Call Me”), and the dance songs (“Heart of Glass”) held together by a great rhythm section and Debbie Harry's bad girl sass, brass, wit and irony.

Blondie started off as an avant-rock act between Harry and Chris Stein, and from there evolved into the hit-making machine it ended as. This is evident in the way that they experiment so wildly, not just with genres but with subject matter. Songs range from a noir-like girl-stalks-boy story to an alien landing on the ground and causing havoc to an armored car robbery. Few bands would experiment with such chutzpah. This is why, for me as a New Wave/punk enthusiast, Blondie remains the greatest band of them all. Even their cover songs are now forever tied-up with the originals and practically indistinguishable. (For the record the covers are: “The Tide Is High,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Denis.”)

I just wish compilers wouldn't be so afraid of including the full six minute long version of “Heart of Glass.” It's their biggest hit and should be represented as such. Besides, the abbreviated version takes some of the piss and vinegar out of the punk-disco hybrid. One needs to hear the full song to catch the way they don't play entirely with the typical disco song beat. Or the way that Harry so boredly yet vampily sends up the sex symbol-disco diva persona. Everything that is great about Blondie is in that song. It was too pop for the punks, too punk for the pure disco set, yet turned into a big hit. If that's not the perfect symbol for Blondie, I don't know what is. DOWNLOAD: “Call Me,” “X Offender,” “Heart of Glass”

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The Best of Blondie

Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 9 April 2009 06:46 (A review of Best of Blondie)

An adequate introduction to the band, but it skews in favor of the more chart friendly later years and ignores some of the better earlier songs. Only one song from Plastic Letters? Were “Detroit 442” and “Denis” not good enough? I beg to differ. No love for “X Offender”? “Sunday Girl” is present, but it's the French version of the song and not the album track from Parallel Lines. Either version is fantastic, but it seems strange to include the non-album version on a ‘best of.’ This is, obviously, not everything you need to know about the band and their music. One doesn't get the sense that Blondie practically invented the skinny-jean, skinny-tie, icy-cool sound of New Wave from this collection. One does get twelve fantastic songs. All of them first-rate and among the group’s best. Yes, I have a bone to pick with the collection ignoring the early punk years, including single, or remixed, versions and ignoring some of the better album tracks, but that is from my perspective as a die hard fan. Later collections provide more bang-for-buck and tell the complete story, but this one will do nicely if all you want are the twelve biggest songs, or a nice primer for the albums. DOWNLOAD: “Call Me”

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The Curse of Blondie

Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 9 April 2009 06:37 (A review of The Curse of Blondie)

By the time this album was released Debbie Harry was pushing 60. Think about that one for a moment. You'd think she'd sound too old to be singing over pulsing synth-layers and angular guitar riffs, but you'd be dead wrong. Blondie still sounds as young and fresh as ever when they want to. A lot of that is due to Harry's abilities as a singer-songwriter-icon. “Good Boys” and “Undone” are great Blondie songs. They're both retro and forward-looking. But as with every album from AutoAmerican onwards, the experiments don't always pay off and sometimes the band reaches for sounds which make you wonder if they've all gone insane. Okinawan folk-pop dressed up in synth layers? Really? Parts of it rank amongst their 70s work, even if it is at a diminished level, but when they congeal together and create a great song...well, there is no diminished return. There's just one of the most influential punk/New Wave groups proving that bands half their age still have a long way to catch up. They really need to stop trying to rap though. DOWNLOAD: “Good Boys”

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The Wrestler

Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 1 April 2009 04:34 (A review of The Wrestler (2008))

I never thought that I would type these words: I wanted Mickey Rourke to win the Oscar. After years of slumming his quirky and strange talent in B-movies and straight-to-DVD trash, he has returned in a big way. He looks like hell, he sounds like hell, and he's lovable for being so simplistic. Yet he is handicapped emotionally, and, should he continue to wrestle, physically. It is not quite the autobiographical film that everyone claims it is, although that is there, but a complicated, moving and depressing portrait of someone who time passed by. It is not entirely a one-man show since Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood have big emotional impacts, despite very limited screen time. Wood only has two scenes, but they are both emotionally devastating for very different reasons. The first is during Randy's hopeless bid to reconnect with his daughter, she seems receptive to it. They talk about the past, her general uneasiness about his latest promise, his tears to show that he is genuine. They agree to meet for dinner and begin to rebuild. He fails to show up after partying too hard. She is let down once more and casts him out of her house, and life forever. Tomei, bravely bearing all in her mid-forties and looking damn fine still, plays the stripper, who functions as the female equivalent to Randy. Time has passed her by, she is in a career that is more artifice then reality, and, at times, she seems to forget which is which. Their scenes are humorous, sad, touching and complicated.

Darren Aronofsky is very easily the next contender for auteur director of his generation. His aesthetic shows the pain in life. Violence is in escapable in this film, for obvious reasons. But it's the emotionally damaging scenes which hit harder. But Aronofsky is also adapt at showcasing the quieter moments. The horrifying reunion of former wrestlers, an assemblage of Frankenstein's monsters rejects complete with medical devices and steroid caused misshapen bodies, shows the eventually horrors to come. But it is not played for shock or for laughs. Randy is looking around and begins to notice that his fate will be theirs if he doesn't stop soon. Or the scenes where the wrestlers gather backstage, listen to the roster, go over what is plausible in the fight and what is not, and practice certain moves. There's a strange balletic movement to all of this, and it is endlessly fascinating.

This was easily one of the greatest films of the past year, and it's a shame it didn't get as much recognition as it deserved. But it is not the underdog-conquers-all storyline that some think it is. I have a feeling that while Randy wins the rematch, he won't be basking in glory for much longer. Rocky this is not.

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Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 1 April 2009 04:15 (A review of Doubt (2008))

To watch Doubt is to engage in a mental game of "Who do you believe? And why?" and to watch some of the greatest actors currently working playing off of each other. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep do, at times, resort to Acting! but it comes from a very natural place. Their characters are distrustful of each other, and are quick to engage in banter, fights and explosive arguments before this movie even begins. The history of the characters, the way the actors imbue the characters with a sense of a fully lived life is remarkable. The most obvious showcase of this being Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. She has two scenes, and is the most crucial character in the movie. She comes in from the outside world, and shows that sometimes things appear one way, but are infinitely more complex then what we think they really are. And Amy Adams holds her own, finding the perfect balance between the naive, sweet Sister James and the more complicated, sad, disturbed emotions she feels beneath the nun clothing. Did Father Flynn do it? I don't think so. What is Sister Aloysius doubting at the end? I think it could be several things. I love that this movie engages you and makes you think from the very beginning of the first frame to the last. How rare is that these days? Now that is a question worth discussion.

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Posted : 9 years, 2 months ago on 1 April 2009 03:45 (A review of Milk )

For me, Milk was easily the best film of last year's Academy Awards run. Slumdog was an overrated Indian version of a Charles Dickens story, and Frost/Nixon and The Reader were inexplicably nominated, in my opinion. Only Benjamin Button and Milk touched me out of the top five, but Button didn't touch me as much as Milk did. Sean Penn smiles! That alone should have gotten him the Oscar nomination. And while he did win, and I have no problem with his win, a part of me did want to see Mickey Rourke take it home. But that is getting away from the main point. Penn delivers not an impression, which would have been too easy for an actor his depth and talents, but an immersion into Harvey Milk. Emerging close enough to the real person to make us believe that he is him, but creating enough of a character to make us understand why he was so beloved. The rest of the cast follows his lead, and every person involved looks like their real-life counterpart and captures enough of their charm, intelligence, bravery, etc. and uses that to form their own character. How did this lose the Best Ensemble SAG?

But a cast is only as good as the direction and writing of the film. And a good director can make them rise above even a below average script. Luckily, Gus Van Sant is a fantastic director. Gus Van Sant proves himself, once more, to be a modern day master. An auteur, if you will. He is a virtuoso. Yes, for a few years his wunderkind indie-kid cred was dented by a string of mainstream lackluster fair, but after going back to his roots he has come out swinging and delivers one of his greatest films. The integration of real-life footage (Anita Bryant's vitriol speaks for itself) and the filmed footage is seamless.

And, luckily, they also have a wonderful screenplay to work with. Human Rights are still an issue. It will be a timeless issue. Harvey Milk is but one of the numerous players in the movement of change and hope. Obama consciously, or unconsciously, evokes much of this film's message. Audacity of hope, indeed. The emotional uplift at the end, a combination of tears and a yearning for a better tomorrow, could have been given to these actors and this director from a great screenplay. It's a shame that everyone drank the Slumdog kool-aid.

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