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Posted : 9 years ago on 14 November 2009 05:21 (A review of Celebration )

It should speak volumes that Celebration, Madonna’s third greatest hits compilation and most comprehensive, can actually be criticized for not being long enough and excluding too many great songs. While this effectively works like gang busters to introduce the unconverted or new recruits to the Immaculate Church of the Divine Madge, for diehards the only need to get this would be to obtain the two (three depending on where it was purchased) new tracks.

Generally, I think that this is as solid a collection of infectious and groundbreaking dance confections as has ever been assembled, but it is slightly problematic. The biggest problem is that the track listing is arranged so slapdash that there’s no sense of career, vocal, artistic or personal growth. There’s a string of 80s club hits, a few modern era hits, a string of ballads here, and a new song there. Instead of the modern neo-classics “Hung Up,” truly one of her most glorious and greatest achievements, “Music” and “4 Minutes” opening the first disc, it should have gone something like this: the minimalist disco of “Everybody,” the joyous “Holiday” and the disco-punk of “Burning Up.” Chronological order is always the best kind of order for any compilation album. “Vogue” shouldn’t have been wedged between “Music” and “4 Minutes,” it loses some of its fierce deep throbbing house feel sandwiched between a Euro-disc art-trash pop single and the latest beat that Timbaland threw together in five minutes.

The string of ballads on the second disc would have also been avoided which slow down the set way too much. Individually “Crazy for You,” “Frozen,” “Miles Away,” “Take a Bow” and “Live to Tell” are all fantastic songs, but when heard one after the other they make you want to relax, not celebrate. The first disc should have started with “Everybody” and ended with “Vogue” or “Justify My Love” allowing for the second disc to pick up with everything from Erotica on, ending with new single “Celebration” .

The other problem is the omissions. I would have traded the trashy quasi-Latin rhythms of “Who’s That Girl” for the dark electronica of “Bedtime Story.” I also would have traded “Miles Away” for either the introspective “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” or the sapphic “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” And where is “Deeper and Deeper”? Mercifully, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” got removed this time around. And “Dress You Up,” “Everybody” and “Burning Up” finally got added. As for the new songs, they’re decent and nice reminders of the fun that Madonna can inspire. “Revolver,” and it’s hilariously twisted sexual metaphors is my favorite, but the Euro-ready “Celebration” and “It’s So Cool” aren’t bad by any means.

These problems aside, this is as close to pop perfection from the reigning queen as one can get. Celebration would have been better if it was a three CD boxset with a DVD set of her music videos, which would probably have pushed the set to five discs overall. But that truly would have been cause to celebrate! If you’re looking for an introduction into Madonna’s dance party, this is a new place to start. If you already own The Immaculate Collection and GHV2 just download the three new songs and save the money. Oh, and for the record, I love the deliciously trashy sub-Warhol Pop Art cover. DOWNLOAD: “Revolver,” “Celebration (Benny Benassi Remix),” “It’s So Cool”

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Necessary Evil

Posted : 9 years ago on 14 November 2009 05:20 (A review of Necessary Evil)

Deborah Harry is my absolute favorite icon ever. Regardless of gender, for me, she’s the coolest, hippest and greatest person to ever step up to a microphone and make music. I’ve always been intrigued by her combination of supermodel pretty looks and patent refusal to be anything close to safe or innocent. With Blondie, she’s always been an avant-garde ironist making perfect hybrid pop singles. Her solo career is an entirely different matter. While she’s always been experimental, without the reign of Chris Stein, Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri behind her she’s too wild and weird. While I’m normally down with it, there’s a limit. Necessary Evil is no different.

“Two Times Blue,” the first single and album opener, is a gorgeous little dance-pop song, “School for Scandal” is a fun punk-dance song and “If I Had You” is a pretty little ballad. These are the first three songs on the album, so everything seems to be going fine until you hit “Live With Vengeance” a song that sounds ultimately like a rejected James Bond theme and a generically produced hip-hop inspired dance-pop song. It’s awful. This song is just a symptom of the overriding issue with the entire album: it’s too generically produced, too insistent on hip-hop lite beats and posturing, too long and indulgent. If more songs had been like the trashy Strokes-ish “You’re Too Hot” and “Two Times Blue” this would have been a much better release. As it stands it’s not awful, but it’s nothing spectacular either. So, while she’s made solid, and numerous classic, albums with Blondie, Harry has yet to make a consistent solo album. DOWNLOAD: “Two Times Blue,” “White Out,” “You’re Too Hot”

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Pretenders II

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 12 November 2009 11:19 (A review of Pretenders II)

Chrissie Hynde is a great frontwoman. There’s no need in arguing with that, and while the Pretenders have become nothing more than a vehicle for her artistic explorations, they were once a fantastic band. While Pretenders II is not as groundbreaking, rollicking or hard-edged are their debut album, it is a great album from front to back.

She still jerks back and forth from tough girl (“Bad Boys Get Spanked”) to achingly tender (“I Go to Sleep”), but that’s always been part of her charm. And this first incarnation of the band remains the same. Their first two albums play like a two-disc greatest hits collection (and I would make the argument that Learning to Crawl acts as a third disc). From the tough girl with a soft heart sass of “Message of Love” onwards, Chrissie has got you hooked with her steely but melodic voice. She even makes like a spiritual daughter of Patti Smith on “Pack It Up,” which is a good thing. But my favorite moment is the sweet, but never saccharine, British Invasion-era pop of “Talk of the Town.” From the poetic lyrics to the way that Hynde sings “You’ve changed…your place in this world,” this is truly one of their greatest moments. DOWNLOAD: “Talk of the Town”

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No Exit

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 12 November 2009 11:18 (A review of No Exit)

Nearly twenty years had passed between The Hunter and No Exit, but you wouldn’t know it by Debbie Harry’s icy downtown croon. Her voice and persona haven’t gained a pound or aged a day since the almost-smile of “Sunday Girl” or the robotic vamp of “Call Me.”

Unfortunately the album is all peaks and valleys depending on the sonic experiments. The country twang of “The Dream’s Lost on Me” works, but the rap-metal hybrid “No Exit” just falls flat, it sinks the flow of the album. And it’s only the fourth song. The album never quite recovers from that point onwards, but Blondie never really embarrass themselves either. It’s a solid return, and “Maria,” “Nothing Is Real But the Girl,” “Under the Gun” and “Screaming Skin” all sound like classic Blondie. Especially “Maria,” which is one of my personal favorites from the band – Harry’s voice sound fantastic, and the glorious keyboard layers make it sound like an album track from Parallel Lines or Eat to the Beat. Funny how their new cover of the Shangri-La’s “Out In the Streets” doesn’t work as well as the older demo found on the 2001 re-release of their self-titled debut which played the song straight and refrained from adding vocal overdubs and odd, but unnecessary, synthesizers. (The original demo can also be found on the out-of-print The Platinum Collection, which is actually not as difficult to find as other out-of-print collections.)

Between this and The Curse of Blondie there’s one really great comeback album. Hell, if you merge the best moments between the two albums you’d have a great Blondie album, period. As it stands, they’re both perfectly decent albums, each filled with moments of greatness and lots of very good moments, from the iconic and groundbreaking New Wave pioneers. DOWNLOAD: “Maria”

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Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 6 November 2009 05:54 (A review of Twelve)

Patti Smith is an incredibly original, fiery and passionate artist with her own material, she gives this collection of cover songs the same treatment. Ever the consummate artist, these songs barely resemble their original forms. Since Gone Again, Smith’s albums have experimented with alternative-folk, or punk-folk, and these covers are no different. “Are You Experienced?” sounds like the Earth mother is beaming down from the heavens to give us all her personal motto. While “Within You Without You” gets a stripped down arrangement, and Smith’s own personal convicts and feelings give the cover more depth and feeling than it should have had. The Beatles are an easy group to cover, but a difficult group to get right. Smith gets it right. But the best song has to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which bares no resemblance to the seminal grunge sound it invented. “Teen Spirit” is now an Americana classic, sounding like it was already written long before Nirvana came into the pop culture lexicon. I don’t know how ‘essential’ this release is to Patti Smith’s artistic legacy, but it’s a solid collection and she delivers the goods. Hardcore fans will love it, and the casual fan should give it a try. She has said that covers are an essential part of her musical identity and she always wanted to record one. And here’s a great one. DOWNLOAD: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

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Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 6 November 2009 05:53 (A review of Clouds)

Clouds is fairly generic given that it’s a Joni Mitchell album, which should have given it some color, texture and a unique singular voice. Much of that is missing, with three notable exceptions. While Blue is famously sparse in musical accompaniment, Clouds lacks the emotional lyrical and musical heft to be so plainly done. And Mitchell hasn’t quite developed her voice, both in artistic and vocal terms. This is as plainly folk as Mitchell as ever been – not much in the way of strange chord progression, no jazz leanings, nothing that makes her such a notable and noteworthy musical icon. To be fair, this was only her second album. It is competent, and with her next record, Ladies of the Canyon, she’d go on to fully develop her artistry and individuality. As for those notable exceptions: “Roses Blue” has her doing some strange things with chords and the tuning of her guitar and has something to do with the occult, “Chelsea Morning” is a slight rocker and a well-known staple of the singer/songwriter niche, but no song on this album is better than “Both Sides Now.” “Both Sides Now” is a beautiful song about seeing both sides of an ending relationship, and it is delivered in an appropriately mature and warm performance. “Songs to Aging Children Come” is a bit hit-and-miss for me, I love her guitar and vocal work, but the subject matter doesn’t do much for me. And I have immense respect for decision to perform “The Fiddle and the Drum” a cappella. This still doesn’t make Clouds entirely essential despite three fantastic songs, and two classics, being only available on this release. DOWNLOAD: “Both Sides Now”

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Gung Ho

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 1 November 2009 04:34 (A review of Gung Ho)

Gung Ho has Patti Smith imaging herself into several different political situations: in Vietnam, speaking for the stolen Africans in the Middle Passage, as Salome ordering the head of John the Baptist. What she manages to do with these situations is really something special, and a great testament to her talents as a poet and artist. She hasn’t been this full of piss-and-vinegar since Radio Ethiopia, but she’s still managing to sound like the goddess of alternative rock that she is. While this isn’t as crazy as the folk-punk hybrid Gone Again, this is more like Easter – full of big and scary ideas for a mainstream album, but given enough of a polish to give the illusion of being easily accessible. The lone single, “Glitter in Their Eyes,” is an anti-materialism rant, and possibly about blood diamonds, if I’m understanding the imagery correctly. But I can’t imagine too many people being riveted and thrilled by “Libbie’s Song,” but I was. Patti Smith is someone who’s never had to worry about chart performance, working with flash-in-the-pan producers or compromising her artistic integrity, so she’s allowed to follow her muse wherever it takes her. And in this instance it took her to a song which sounds like the world’s oldest country song – her voice sounds warm and great in the genre, maybe that’s where she’s heading towards next? I’d be on board for it. I’ve already loved her early punk days, her glossier rock middle period, latter day alternative folkie rebirth and this just melds and merges the different versions of Smith into one rollicking new one. Or perhaps she was just summarizing her years at Arista for her final studio release. Either way, I believe that Gung Ho is one of her best efforts. DOWNLOAD: “Glitter in Their Eyes”

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Time Out of Mind

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 1 November 2009 04:33 (A review of Time Out of Mind)

Time Out of Mind is a fantastic latter day Dylan album proving that not all great artists use up all of their creativity, imagination and power in their youth. Sonically murky, densely written and wearily sung, Time Out of Mind sounds like Dylan went on a three-day drinking spree and then decided to record an album of immense isolation and darkness.

The album is filled with an early rockabilly sound, but slowed down to a bluesy crawl, that would mature and go on to make Love and Theft so essential. This is a great album to listen to late at night, around two in the morning to be more specific, while you’re in a melancholy or frustrated mood. “Dirt Road Blues” sounds like it could have been plucked from the obscurities pill in the Sun Records vault, not an insult. While “Love Sick” and “Cold Iron Bounds” have an almost reggae swagger to their guitar lines, but they’re played too folksy to really be a reggae song. And “Highlands” is another great epic closing sonic landscape to get lost in. At a young age Dylan tried to sound world weary, wise, bitter and forceful, and now he has become the artist he’s always envisioned himself as. Luckily for us, that hasn’t changed his near God-like abilities to write a beautiful song. DOWNLOAD: “Love Sick”

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The Devil’s Backbone

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 22 October 2009 08:09 (A review of The Devil's Backbone (2001))

Guillermo del Toro is a great talent. He writes, produces, directs and designs many of his films. I believe that twenty years from now he will be looked upon with the same revance, love and respect that directors like Coppola, Spielberg and Scorese have currently. His attention to detail and loving care put into every fabric of his films makes them works of great art. Yes, these are quite often horror, fantasy or supernatural films, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to be artistic. The Devil’s Backbone is a spiritual cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth, and while it doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights and artistic greatness that Labyrinth did without even trying, Backbone is a great film from beginning to end and comes within inches of reaching those same plateaus.

The ominous, and golden hued, opening follows a dead boy’s sinking to the bottom of a body of water and a fetus in a jar. These images are interspersed and woven together so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell which is which. They act as foils to each other, and establish the tone for the rest of the film. Del Toro has professed that once a Catholic you’re always a Catholic, and there is a strong element of Catholicism permeating throughout the film. The artifacts, symbols, color palette – everything feels as if it was culled from the church. I am in awe of how he can make the image of a dead boy’s ghost both frightening, beautiful and vaguely religious. That floating blood from his wound and bubbles, or are those small bugs?, hovering around him add to the mystique.

But what is there to say of the story? I don’t want to reveal too much, but it involves a groundskeeper and his hatred for those around him. It is told from the point-of-view of a child left behind at the orphanage/school during the final stages of the Spanish Civil War. It wouldn’t be impossible to think that somewhere in the distantly viewed woods that Ofelia was finding her own supernatural/mystical adventures.

This film even shares some of the same cast. But I make it sound like Pan’s Labyrinth came first, it didn’t. The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos are horror films which pointed the way and illustrated the beautiful depths to which del Toro was willing to crave down into in order to churn out his art. Notice how he’s only made about seven or eight films since 1993 while numerous other directors that appeared around that time have gone on to make twice or three times that? Del Toro is about the art, and The Devil’s Backbone is his first great work of art, but not his last.

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The Head on the Door

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 21 October 2009 09:02 (A review of The Head On The Door)

The Cure’s The Head on the Door album picks right up where Japanese Whispers– an assortment of non-album singles and b-sides – left off. Which is to say that the Cure were experimenting with dance music and shiny pop hooks, but never losing their identity as gloomy existentialist New Wavers. On this they added a hint of Latin rhythm (“The Blood”), invented shoegazing (“Push”), and got in touch with the gloriously beautiful Gothic pop sonic landscapes they would develop even further on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration (“Six Different Ways”), The Head on the Door shouldn’t work, at all really, but it’s a beautiful slice of British New Wave. There’s even a quick exploration of a semi-hard rock sound (“Push”).

“The Baby Screams” marries their alternative rock roots with their off-kilter pop song craft. And that bubbling musical note throughout probably kept most up-and-comers awake trying to figure out just what made that noise. Robert Smith also sounds like he’s whispering his vocals in a very large hallway and he’s on the other side of it. While “Close to Me” is a mope-rock classic. His demented cat-in-heat wail is restrained enough to be slightly unnerving, but sad enough to be inviting. I also prefer the album version not ending with the horn section. Instead, it ends abruptly and moves right on to “A Night Like This.” The experimentalism only adds more depth and texture to their great songs. Check the flamenco guitar on “The Blood” – a song about the blood of Christ paralyzing you. Obviously someone has a complicated relationship with their Catholic upbringing, or he’s really good at faking it. This is but one of the many reasons why I love the Cure – they could make you dance around, but they’re smart enough to give you a lyric or an image to stop and make you think.

The Head On the Door is just a literate, existentialist and flat out strange as any of the best Cure albums, in fact, this is one of the best Cure albums. Every single on here ranks among their best work, and the album tracks aren’t anything to scoff at. This definitely ranks with Disintegration, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Pornography and Boys Don’t Cry as one of their standout discs. DOWNLOAD: “The Blood”

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