Slumdog Millionaire

Our present may be the total of what happened in our past -- and this has seldom been expressed in film as much as in Slumdog Millionaire, where we see an underdog on the verge of riches (and more) and how his unfolding life led him to this point.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning the grand prize on India's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? game show. But Jamal is from India's Mumbai slum, leading to the fear that he's made it as far as he did by cheating. Before going back for the final question, Jamal is hauled off by the police. First he is tortured, then Jamal tells the skeptical police inspector (Irrfan Khan) the tale of his life.

As Jamal and the inspector watch the video of Jamal on the game show, flashbacks show Jamal's life, from his childhood full of tragedy and fun to what led him to the show. Jamal's two companions are Salim (Madhur Mittal), Jamal's older brother who is both protective of Jamal and pragmatic and selfish, and Latika (Freida Pinto), the little girl whose life winds up intertwined with Jamal and Salim.

Co-directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, Slumdog Millionaire is an impressive accomplishment. The story is part tragedy (no sugarcoating the devastating poverty of India here), part romance, part drama, with plenty of humor along the way. The cast is very good, from the multiple actors portraying the main characters (since we see them as little kids, teenagers, and young adults), to Anil Kapoor as the too-smooth gameshow host and Irrfan Khan as the police officer who gradually sees how an ordinary person from the slums could get more answers right than lawyers and doctors. I loved Slumdog Millionaire and recommend it to anyone who wants a memorable movie experience.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch


We Are Scientists, With Love and Squalor (Virgin, 2006)

We Are Scientists are not actually scientists; the name came from a U-Haul employee who asked the band members if they were scientists as he was checking their rental truck. (They were wearing glasses at the time.) They are musicians, though, and their second album With Love and Squalor came out in 2006. They were a trio at the time, consisting of Keith Murray (vocals and guitar), Chris Cain (bass and backing vocals), and Michael Tapper (drums). Since then they've replaced their drummer and added a keyboardist, and have another album under their belt.

The band combines punk and hard rock with dance rhythms, in much the same way that Franz Ferdinand did on their debut. (Whatever else you can say about that particular Scottish quartet, they remain influential.) With Love and Squalor is full of high-octane tracks, starting with the opening song and single "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt." This song is defined by the extremely self-explanatory line in the chorus, "if you want to use my body, go for it." The lyrics generally reflect the band's sarcastic sense of humor, but the songs on With Love and Squalor regrettably repeat the same basic themes, namely misadventures out on the town or with a girl. It kind of feels like I'm a therapist and Murray is on the couch, telling me how he messed up yet again, but he's not paying me for the service.

With Love and Squalor is the kind of album where the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are really OK by themselves, and "The Great Escape" in particular is worth a few listens, but every song hits you in pretty much the same way. We Are Scientists have some potential, but a little more variety and some positivity would do them a lot of good.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

"The Great Escape"


Trepaanit, Halla (Trepaanit, 2007)

Trepaanit are a Finnish folk music quartet consisting of Riku Kettunen (mandolin, kantele), Antti Paalanen (accordion), Eero Turkka (vocals, jouhikko, harmonica), and Olli Varis (bouzouki). All four members have extensive resumés in the Finnish folk community, but Halla is their first album together. With just seven tracks spanning nearly an hour total, Halla reflects the band's affinity for extended, deliberately paced musical pieces. Trepaanit generally keep the mood calm and pensive, punctuated only occasionally with some singing or, on the piece "Nyyhkytys," with a period of intense dissonance.

While the band doesn't let their basic sound stray too far from the confines of Finnish folk, their compositions run to a much longer length than is typical for the genre. If anything, the tracks on Halla have a feel more like Indian ragas than anything Finnish. They take a long time going from point A to point B, and the listener really needs to pay attention to appreciate the movement in each tune. That being said, the album really did start to grow on me after several listens.

Trepaanit firmly believe that patience is a virtue, and Halla requires a lot of patience and an academic attention span to fully appreciate. But if you're willing to sit with it a while, you'll probably find it worth the effort.

overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott



Supervillainy! Romance! Singing! Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity) created a web sensation with Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog -- and now it's on dvd.

Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) is a mad scientist who hates the problems of the world so much he's decided to conquer it. He also wants membership in the Evil League of Evil, led by the infamous Bad Horse. Dr. Horrible finds himself thwarted by his nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), a super-strong jerk who's loved by the public. And Dr. Horrible has a crush on Penny (Felicia Day) but is too nervous around her to ask her out.

So what's a villain to do? Blog and sing! Dr. Horrible makes a video blog, updating us on the status of his plans for world conquest and his membership in the ELE. Meanwhile everyone seems to burst into song all over the time, from Dr. Horrible combining his desired romance with his desired evil plans ("And Penny will see the evil me/ Not a joke not a dork not a failure/ And she may cry but her tears will dry/ When I hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia") to the trio of cowboys who pop up and sing almost every time Bad Horse is mentioned. The songs are catchy; I'll be getting the soundtrack.

Joss Whedon has defied predictability before, and he does so here: Dr. Horrible is the villain with the evil goals, yet he seems pathetic and almost likeable; Captain Hammer fights evil, but he comes off as an arrogant ass. (Sadly, Penny is the least interesting character, as she exists mainly to create a romantic triangle.) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is very well done, with truly silly villains (Dr. Horrible's best friend is Moist, whose super power is always being, well, moist), funny dialogue ("what a crazy random happenstance!") and a surprisingly moving ending. And Harris and Fillon are great as the comic foes.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is brief. This originated on the Internet, and its three episodes ("acts") are total less than 45 minutes. Also, the characters are a bit cartoonish, never taking their various roles seriously at all.

So what's on the dvd that would you buy it instead of watching the series online? In addition to a nice behind-the-scenes feature, there are comic audition submissions for entry to the Evil League of Evil. And for something different than the usual commentaries, this dvd has "Commentary! The Musical" where the movie plays but the sound and dialogue are completely replaced by a cast and crew commentary -- done entierly in song.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is goofy fun for folks who like comic books, musicals, blogs, or comedy in general. This is light, goofy, and finishes far too quickly -- but it'll make you laugh.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Settlers of Catan

There are some games that almost redefine their genres. Settlers of Catan is a board game with no "real" board, substantial conflict with no actual combat, plenty of negotiation with no shared victory, careful planning that's easily undone by luck -- and a true classic.

The goal of Settlers of Catan is simple: The first player to get 10 points wins. Players get points by building settlements, upgrading settlements to cities, making the longest road, creating the largest army, or having the right development cards. And the key to doing all of this is resource management.

The island of Catan is composed of a series of hexagons, each of which produces one resource: wood, brick, wheat, sheep, or ore. (There's also a desert tile that produces nothing.) Surrounding the island are water tiles, which include ports. After the tiles are placed, a series of numbers -- from 2 to 12, except for 7 -- are placed on each tile. Players begin with two settlements and two roads.

Each turn a player rolls the dice, and the number rolled shows which tiles produce resources. Every player gets one of that resource for each settlement next to the tile, and they get two of that resource for each adjacent city. If a 7 is rolled, all players with more than seven resources have to discard half their hand; then the player moves the robber on top of a tile, stealing a resource from a player with a settlement/city next to that tile and preventing that tile from producing resources until the robber is moved again.

Next comes trading. Players can trade four of the same resource for any one resource. Ports give a specific trading benefit to players with a settlement or city on them: either three of the same resource for one, or two of a specific resource for any one. Players can also trade with each other -- and these negotiations can get quite heated.

Finally there is the building phase. Resources are turned in to build roads, settlements (as long as they're at least 2 spaces away from the closest settlement or city), or cities (which replace an existing settlement). A player can also buy a random development card: soldier (letting them move the robber and steal a resource), victory point, monopoly (giving them all of one resource from all other players), year of plenty (giving any two resources), or road builder (giving two free roads). Except for victory points, development cards are used the turn after purchased.
Ah yes, getting the longest road or largest army. If a player creates a road five segments long, they get two victory points for having the longest road, and a player who plays three soldier cards gets two victory points for having the largest army. Any other player can steal these by making a longer road or playing more soldier cards, and competition for these bonus points can determine who wins.

Settlers of Catan is a truly impressive game. The rules are fairly simple and easy to pick up. (There are also cards showing what resources buy which items.) Players can't attack one another -- the closest to this is using the robber to steal a resource and block a tile -- but players can block settlements by making a settlement near another player's intended spot, or sometimes build a settlement in the middle of the longest road, breaking it up. Many players will compete for a prime spot with good numbers, or a certain port -- and yet it's almost impossible to win without trading with the other players. It's quite the balancing act to trade for the resources you need without giving someone else too much of what they need.

Did I mention luck? No matter how carefully you plan, several bad rolls can spell doom and several unlikely rolls can prove amazingly helpful. (I find it frustrating to have settlements around the 6 and 8, then have neither come up for turn after turn.) Development cards can give a win -- but they also take resources away that might make a city; there's also no guarantee you'll get the card you need.

Settlers of Catan provides the perfect balance of luck and skill. The board is never the same, and the die rolls are upredictable, so new players won't be overwhelmed by experienced ones. But knowing where to build, what to buy, and when to accept or reject a deal are all keys to victory. If you're looking for a great game that's easy to learn and challenging every time, take a trip to the island of Catan! (There are numerous expansions and other versions, from the ancient Settlers of the Stone Age to the future-set Starfarers of Catan.)

Overall grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch



Asian cinema often produces original and wild creations. The Korean film Oldboy is a brutal, original and incredible blend of film noir, mystery, action, and psychological horror that works on just about every level.

Ordinary businessman Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is heading home from work for his daughter's birthday, gets drunk, gets arrested, is released from jail -- and is kidnapped and imprisoned in what looks like an ordinary household room. No explanation is given, but Dae-su has a TV (where he learns he was framed for his wife's murder), he's fed the same food over and over, and anytime he tries to escape or kill himself, Dae-su is gassed and kept healthy.

After fifteen years, Dae-su is suddenly released. He meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), an attractive young chef who helps Dae-su.

Dae-su is also given a cell phone from which Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) claims to have imprisoned Dae-su and gives Dae-su a challenge: If Dae-Su can figure out what happened in five days, Woo-jin will kill himself; if not, Dae-su will die. Thus begins Dae-su's quest for revenge and search for understanding.

Oldboy is an unforgettable movie. The story is compelling, with a finale that is horrifying and fascinating. The action is impressive, neither overly choreographed nor ridiculously over the top. The acting is first-rate all around, especially Min-sik Choi as a once-normal everyman finding himself living a nightmare. Anyone who likes their movies intense and unique should see Oldboy.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch


Soundtracks are interesting creatures. Sometimes they have the instrumental music that sets the tone for the movie, and other times they collect songs that advance the story and remind the viewer of key scenes in the film. The Zack and Miri Make a Porno sountrack, from the film of the same name, has most of the music from the film -- and more -- but the parts of the whole aren't always good.

As with many soundtracks to Kevin Smith films, this soundtrack has numerous clips of dialogue from the movie. These are quick -- most are less than a minute long -- and they're hilarious, capturing some of the funniest moments from the movie Zack and Miri Make A Porno.

As for the songs, they're a mixed bag. Just as one would expect from a movie about shooting a porno, there are lots of songs about sex, from Primus' "Winona's Big Brown Beaver" to Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey." Alas, several of the songs are ones I wouldn't listen to on their own: The Pixies' "Hey" is one of their weaker songs, Lem's "Steal My Sunshine" had justly been forgotten, and I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have to Take Out Clothes Off." Also, some songs played in the movie are missing, including DJ Cool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" and Live's "Hold Me Up."

There are highlights on the Zack and Miri Make A Porno soundtrack. Blondie's "Dreaming" is always great to hear, plus MC Chris provides the perfect geek rap with "Fett's Vette." And the comedy clips are funny. The Zack and Miri Make A Porno soundtrack should have included all of the music from the movie, and some of the songs are duds, but it is a nice diversion -- and a good reminder of an amusing film.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Shakespeare, The World as Stage - Bill Bryson (2007)

Bryson himself begins this book by asking, "why another book on Shakespeare?" His answer was something like, "it doesn't, but this series does," for Bryson is writing for the "Eminent Lives" series of biographies. Given, however, that the book was written and published, the question that you, the discerning reader, must ask yourself is this: why should I read this book on Shakespeare rather than one of the seven thousand (by Bryson's count) other books on Shakespeare that are in the Library of Congress? I'll give you four reasons.

First, it's shorter than many of them. This is the case for a couple of reasons. Bryson is writing for a general rather than academic audience, and is thus engaging in a sort of general overview rather than attempting to prove a point. He is also attempting to stick mostly to what is actually known, rather than engaging is speculation. Since what is actually is known about Shakespeare's life is very little the book is somewhat short, 196 pages. Finally, it is a broad general overview with a select bibliography for those who want more detail on any given point, thus he doesn't go into great detail on most points.

Second, Bryson writes well, very well. Many of the other books are written by people who are something else (scholar, teacher, actor, crank) first and writers second. Bryson is a writer first. The result is a very readable and accessible book. Felicitous phrases abound, "Facts are surprisingly delible things ..." "There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it." are two examples. This is not to say that there are not some other excellent books on Shakespeare written by excellent writers, some of whom have extensive academic credentials! (Anthony Burgess comes immediately to mind.)

Third, Bryson provides a good, simple overview of a lot of Shakespeare scholarship, even when it is "5 percent fact and 95% conjecture," as Bryson quotes an unnamed Shakespeare scholar on the subject of Shakespeare biographies. This provides a good hook for those who are interested in delving deeper.

Fourth, he holds no truck with the anti-Stratfordians. While he is polite about it, he states clearly and concisely the central flaw with the anti-Stratfordian position. (For those unaware of it, this is the general term for those who believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works. A remarkably large number of people, some of whom are quite intelligent and educated have fallen prey to this pernicious philosophy.) Bryson's comment on pg. 182 is, "So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment - actually all of it, every bit - involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact."

There are a lot of books on Shakespeare out there, and many focus on some detail, trying to explain some facet of Shakespeare's life or work. Some of those books are very good indeed, but the sheer number is overwhelming. For those who are not devoted Shakespearian scholars, something a little more general and little more accessible is the way to go. Bryson's book fills that niche admirably. Even for those who do have a deeper interest in Shakespeare, this book is a worthy addition to a bookshelf and good read, providing a one-stop shop for general data. My only quibble is that an index would be a welcome addition, especially for those in the latter category.

Overall Grade: B+


TORCHWOOD, season 1

The relaunch of the British science fiction show Doctor Who (to be reviewed by yours truly when I see the end of the current season) led to an unusual spinoff: Torchwood. This series alters the Doctor Who formula by going for less interstellar locations... and more sex and profanity. Lots more.

Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) was a regular police officer until a series of events led her to join Torchwood, an organization "outside the government, beyond the police." The goal of Torchwood is not only to find and capture or kill aliens, but to obtain their technology to use to protect humanity.

The goals of Torchwood are less important than its leader, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). An American time traveller who first appeared in Doctor Who, Captain Jack is charismatic, flirtatious, bisexual, authoritative, emotional -- plus he comes back from the dead over and over. The rest of the organization is Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), a volatile doctor; Toshiko "Tosh" Sato (Naoko Mori), a tech geek; and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), the always-serious associate and general helper.

While Torchwood has plenty of alien chasing and battling, the show resists strict adherence to this potentially simple formula. One episode is an almost comic look at a geeky Torchwood fan who finds his invisible, incorporeal self following the team, while another feels very much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The strength of Torchwood is in its characters. Gwen Cooper is the "normal" member of the team, urged not to lose track of her regular life outside the organization, while Captain Jack has secrets from his teammates while wondering why he can't die. Fans of Doctor Who will also find a few creatures from that show making appearances.

Sometimes the Torchwood writing proves its weakness. In addition to the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre episode, other episodes are uncomfortably similar to Fight Club and an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There's no clear description of the chain of command of Torchwood -- at times Captain Jack is an almost dictatorial commander, while other times he's an informal buddy -- and the sex can become gratuitous. Flaws and all, Torchwood is an entertaining diversion. Catch it if you like your sci-fi on the raunchy side, or if you always wanted to see secret agents chasing aliens on the streets of Cardiff.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Top 10 CD's of 2008

Another year has come and gone, so once again it's time to go over my favorite CD's of the past year.

10. Danelia Cotton, Rare Child: A little funk, a little rock, and a powerful voice make for a winning formula.

9. Mudcrutch: Tom Petty breaks a bit from his usual formula, and the result is one of his strongest albums in quite some time.

8. La Rocca, OK Okay: These three Irishmen and one Englishman are superior pop craftsman that I expect to be hearing a lot from in the future.

7. Dion, Heroes: Legends of Early Guitar Rock: This is an absolute delight for people with even a moderate interest in 50's music.

6. Fleet Foxes: This highly touted debut justifies the hype.

5. Týr, Ragnarok: By combining heavy metal with folk music and a great concept, Týr have put the Faroe Islands on the musical map.

4. Anna Ternheim: Yes, the EP was better than the full-length album that followed. Ternheim just released an album of all-new material in Sweden in November, so look for it to reach these shores soon.

3. The Ditty Bops, Summer Rains: It may not be the list-topper that Moon Over the Freeway was two years ago, but it's still another solid effort from the charmingly subversive duo.

2. Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything: Phillips has always been at her best when she's been at her most cathartic, and there's plenty of catharsis to go around on this record.

1. The Born Again Floozies, Street Music: Stubborn defiance meets great songwriting. Fly your freak flag high!

reviewed by Scott


Enya, And Winter Came... (Reprise, 2008)

While her siblings and uncles in Clannad may have created the Celtic/New Age hybrid genre, it was Enya who brought the style to its commercial and artistic peaks. Enya's 1987 self-titled debut defined all the core elements of her sound, including multiple tracks of synthesizers and vocals, and really sounded like nothing else at the time. Her commercial breakthrough came the following year with her sophomore effort Watermark and the massive hit single "Orinoco Flow." More albums have followed, repeating both the same musical formula and the commercial results. While Enya has the reputation of being something of a recluse -- she's never toured, for one thing -- she continues to release albums regularly. Her most recent effort, And Winter Came..., came out in November and features music related to Christmas and the season of winter.

The best and worst thing you can say about any Enya recording is that if you're already familiar with her music, then you know exactly what to expect. And Winter Came... is no exception to the general pattern. Nicky Ryan has produced all of Enya's music, and his wife Roma Ryan continues to write the lyrics to Enya's musical compositions as she's done for over twenty years. Enya herself remains the same one-woman orchestra and choir she's always been, doing all the vocals and nearly all of the instrumentation. On one hand, there's no denying that the formula has worked well for her. Her ambient musical textures retain the same hypnotic charm they've always had. But at the same time, it's very hard to distinguish most of the songs on a particular Enya CD with most of the songs on any of her other recordings.

Invariably, though, one or two songs on each album stick out. On And Winter Came..., the two standout songs are "Trains and Winter Rains" (the leadoff single) and "My! My! Time Flies!" The latter song features the album's one guest performer, guitarist Pat Farrell, and has an uncharacteristically lively tempo with quirky lyrics making reference to people as diverse as Isaac Newton and The Beatles. It's a rare example of Enya letting her guard down a bit and audibly having fun with a particular song, and she should do songs like it more often.

And Winter Came... will undoubtedly appeal to people who are fans of Enya's earlier work. It also gives enough reasons for people who might have gotten bored with her sound to tune back in.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Trains and Winter Rains"

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review


Svanevit, Rikedom och Gåvor (Nordic Traditions, 2008)

Svanevit are a Swedish folk quartet consisting of Anders Larsson (vocals, mandola), Erik Ask-Upmark (harp, bagpipes, whistles, Jew's harp), Anna Rynefors (nyckelharpa, Swedish bagpipe, percussion), and Maria Larsson (fiddle). Their overall sound and arrangement style could be described as being even more traditional than "traditional." That is, their playing is heavily influenced by Renaissance and Baroque styles that pre-date most of the tunes in the Swedish folk canon. For their latest album Rikedom och Gåvor (Wealth and Gifts), Svanevit perform material collected by the fiddler John Enninger, who passed away in 1908.

Going further back in time than most Swedish folk acts do actually makes Svanevit sound like a breath of fresh air. The bagpipes, harp, and Medieval-sounding percussion give the tunes on this album a distinctive flavor that's worth giving a few extra listens. Most of the tunes are waltzes, with a couple of marches and polskas providing some variety. The styles will sound familiar to those who know Swedish folk music, even if people shouldn't expect typical spelmanslag arrangements. Svanevit do a nice job on the song as well as the instrumentals. Larsson's warm, friendly baritone is very effective, especially given that very little Scandinavian folk music features male vocals. The bannd members are likewise solid players of a broad range of instruments, and they make harmonizing between pipes, whistles, fiddles, and harps seem effortless. I do wish that Larsson was a stronger accompanist on the mandola, though. I may be a bit biased as a guitarist and bouzouki player (the mandola and bouzouki are very similar), but I always listen particularly closely to the rhythm instruments in the hopes of hearing something really creative.

Rikedom och Gåvor will definitely appeal to fans of Swedish traditional music, especially if they are in the mood for a somewhat different take on the traditional tunes. Svanevit are solid performers and very creative arrangers, and their approach works well on the whole. The album should also serve as an effective introduction to the musical traditions of Sweden for people who like Medieval or Renaissance instrumental music.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review

TV On The Radio, Dear Science (Interscope, 2008)

The members of the interracial New York City band TV on the Radio bring together a wide array of influences, from rock to jazz to funk to electronica to hip hop. They released their third full-length album Dear Science in September, to significant critical acclaim. Rolling Stone, in fact, named Dear Science their album of the year.

To be fair, TV on the Radio deserve plenty of credit for their eclecticism and originality. Tunde Adibempe (vocals), Kyp Malone (vocals, guitar, bass, synthesizer), David Andrew Sitek (programming and sampling, guitars, bass, synthesizer), Gerard Smith (bass, keyboards, synthesizer, samples), and Jaleel Bunton (drums, guitars, keyboards, bass, synthesizers, programming) play around with a bunch of styles and their own quirky ideas to create a sound that's very unique. The problem, at least for me, is that if you take the experimentation out, what's left of the songs doesn't add up to much. Other than maybe the singles "Dancing Choose" and "Golden Age," the melodies and writing don't really hold up to scrutiny.

When Paste Magazine made She & Him's Volume One their album of the year, they rewarded a collection of songs that were fun and pretty well-written, but not all that original. Intriguingly, Rolling Stone has instead rewarded an album that scores high on originality but low on genuine musicality. What this proves, I guess, is that it's tough to find artists who can create a strong collection of songs while also breaking new musical ground, and people wind up settling for one or the other. I understand the difficulty. Other than Pina's 2002 debut album Quick Look, I can't think of any record this decade that I would unequivocally give an A+ to -- and that's not because I haven't been looking.

If I had to place myself in one camp, I'd side with well-written songs with strong melodies and solid instrumental performances, regardless of whether the sound is cutting edge or retro. Unfortunately, TV on the Radio doesn't score well with my criteria, and Dear Science just didn't do that much for me.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

"Golden Age"

FETISH by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Sex and rock & roll have always gone together (from the Beatles' screaming fans and Elvis' censored pelvic rotations), but they've seldom been so blended on the album Fetish by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. This album pretty much lacks subtlety but makes up for it with raw rock and roll.

The title track, which starts the album (and, oddly, also ends it), sets the mood for the rest of the album: grinding guitars, lyrics that are knky and straight to the point, and Joan's trademark voice. This continues through the rest of the album, from a song praising threesomes ("The French Song") to a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Star Star" (whose title I bet was changed since the refrain has a very naughty word). By the time Fetish reaches a live version of Jett's "Do You Wanna Touch Me" that famously raunchy song feels par for the course.

Fetish is mostly a compliation album of older songs from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. but odds are unless you have all of Joan Jett's catalog these songs will be new to you. If you want something lustful, kinky, loud, and fun, find yourself a copy of Fetish.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Artemis Fowl The Artic Incident - Eoin Colfer (2002)

The Artic Incident is the second book in the Artemis Fowl series. (The first book was reviewed here.) The saga of the juvenile criminal mastermind continues with an attempt to rescue Fowl's father, missing for a number of years after a trip to Russia went horribly wrong. Fowl is forced to work with the same Fairies that he robbed in the first book since he needs their help to rescue his father. For their part, the Fairies need Fowl to help them defeat a coup engineered by a disgruntled member of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Squad (LEPrecon) and a mad weapons designer. While written for young adults, the book doesn't talk down to its audience which means it works just for not-so-young adults too.

Colfer writes the books as if looking back from an unspecified point in the future, which suggests that the characters have a full arc already planned. This also subtly reinforced the idea that Artemis Fowl, at least, will survive whatever is thrown at him. That point is rather important since the books contain a lot of violence and action scenes, although one never feels like the heroes are in danger of death themselves. Still, the result is a setting which is an odd mix of light fantasy and a much darker world of violence. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a theme which runs through both this and the previous book, lost parents. At the start of the first book, Fowl's father is missing and presumed dead (by everyone but Artemis) and his mother is mad. At the end of the first book, sanity is restored to his mother, and the second book is concerned with the rescue of his father.

The clash between the light and dark aspects of the setting make for an interesting tension, and the ultimate confrontation between the Russian Mafiya and Fowl and his Fairy allies is a tight and tense action scene. Overall, the books keep one's attention precisely because of the dichotomies and the culture clash both in the world of the book between Fowl and the Fairies, and in the book itself between a dark thriller style and a light fantasy style.

Overall Grade: B


Dion, Son of Skip James (Verve Records, 2007) and Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (Saguaro Road, 2008)

For somebody rapidly approaching his seventieth birthday, rock legend Dion DiMucci has been awfully busy. His 2006 labor of love Bronx in Blue, a celebration of the blues music he grew up with, was one of my favorite albums from that year. But that was just the first entry in a trilogy (at least so far) of tribute albums that Dion has put out. 2007's Son of Skip James chronicles the transition from blues to rock, and focuses somewhat on the more spiritual elements of the blues. Then, on this past year's Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock, Dion pays homage to many of his contemporaries who defined rock and roll in the late fifties.

Son of Skip James
picks up where Bronx in Blue left off. A keyboard is added to the basic acoustic guitar and drum arrangements, and Dion focuses more on aggressive strumming than straight picking with his guitar, but the cool bluesy feel remains largely unchanged. Dion's singing has lost none of the attitude over the years, and his guitar playing continues to be a revelation. On this album Dion covers blues stalwarts like Willie Dixon and "Sleepy" John Estes, but he also includes some performers from the rock era like Chuck Berry and even Bob Dylan. Highlights include Berry's "Nadine," Estes' "Drop Down Mama," and Dylan's "Baby I'm in the Mood for You."

The second half of the album gets more religious, echoing back to the gospel phase of Dion's career in the late seventies and early eighties. Dion's own "The Thunderer" tells of St. Jerome, an acerbic and often conflicted writer who, perhaps in spite of himself, made essential contributions to the development of the early Catholic Church. "Son of Skip James," another original composition, was inspired by a conversation Dion once had with the late blues singer that covered a variety of topics, including Jesus. Dion ties the religious themes back to the blues by closing the album with Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" and "If I Had Possession (Over Judgement Day), followed by "Devil Got My Woman" from, predictably, Skip James.

For Heroes, Dion brings in a second guitarist and bassist for a full band sound, and the result is some good old fashioned rock and roll. Most of the songs on this disc are part of the canon, and probably familiar to most people. Dion gets to the likes of Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues"), Elvis ("Jailhouse Rock"), Johnny Cash ("I Walk the Line"), and yes, even himself (the album finishes with an only slightly updated version of "The Wanderer"). The album works well, for the simple reason that it consists of really good performances of really good songs. This is music that is worth remembering and preserving, from performers who deserve to be remembered as well. Unfortunately, other than Dion himself, Chuck Berry (who's well into his eighties), and The Everly Brothers (who only occasionally perform these days), the original performers of these songs are no longer with us. Having been part of the infamous Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (Holly and Valens are both covered on Heroes), and having passed on the opportunity to share a plane ride with the ill-fated trio, Dion is probably more keenly aware of that fact than anybody.

Dion has now devoted three albums to the music of his inspirations and his contemporaries. While it's easy to question the need to repeat what's already been done, the fact is that there is an awful lot of good music from the early decades of rock and roll that needs to be preserved, and the original performers are mostly not around to do it themselves. The songs on Son of Skip James and Heroes sound as fresh and vital now as they ever have. And, perhaps more importantly, so does Dion.

Overall grades:
Son of Skip James B+
Heroes A-

reviewed by Scott

Dion lays down the vocal track for "Summertime Blues."

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review



Teen pregnancy may not seem to be the best focus for a teen comedy, but it's the starting point of Juno. This movie is both amusing and serious, though I had my problems with the protagonist.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a 16-year-old high school student who seems smart, independent, and outspoken. She lives with her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom Brenda (Allison Janney) and hangs out with friends Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, practically a staple of the deeper teen movie these days). In fact, one night of intimacy with Paulie and Juno soon finds herself pregnant.

Following a trip to an abortion clinic, Juno decides to give the baby to a deserving couple. She and Leah scour the Pennysaver and find the perfect couple: Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner), a seemingly ideal upper-class couple.

Juno has several balls in the air: How will pregnancy affect Juno's life at school? What's going on between Juno and Paulie? What of the cracks that gradually appear in Mark and Vanessa's relationship?

Audiences fell in love with Ellen Page's spunky young teen, but I found her grating: Everything she says is clever and pointed, her pregnancy seldom seems like more than an inconvenience, and she has an air of superiority to everyone. When Mark asks her, "Pretentious much?" I had to agree wholeheartedly.

And yet, the rest of Juno is quite satisfying. The supporting cast is near perfect. Michael Cera once again shows how well he can play the quiet, slightly befuddled teen. Simmons and Janney are perfect as the parents who find themselves suddenly dealing with the unexpected (after hearing the news, they have this conversation in private: "Did you see that coming?" "Yeah... but I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs." "That was my first instinct too. Or a DWI... anything but this!") And Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner steal the movie for me: She's the wannabe mom who obsesses over every part of Juno's pregnancy, while he seems happy just watching slasher movies and talking about great music.

Juno also has plenty of humor, from the silent chorus of jogging teen males in red shirts and gold shorts to teens acting normal (trying to act normal?) in the middle of this whirlwind of a circumstance. I think the movie does underplay the seriousness of teen pregnancy, and the protagonist's coolness felt false, but there's plenty in Juno to enjoy.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


La Rocca, OK Okay (Dangerbird Records, 2008)

A "pop" song used to mean a song that could appeal to broad range of people, due to factors like a strong melody, a chorus that sticks in your head, a lyrical subject that people can easily relate to, and perhaps strong instrumental performances or good vocal harmonies. Somewhere along the line, things changed. Today's pop market is more likely to reward cheap, instant gratification than a catchy melody, and performers who embrace pop music in the more conventional sense are often categorized, somewhat perversely, as "alternative."

Such is the case with La Rocca, an Irish band currently working out of California. Bjorn Baillie (vocals, guitar), Simon Baillie (vocals, bass), Nick Haworth (vocals, keyboards, guitar), and Alan Redmond (drums) play mid-tempo, no-fills rock, and specialize in strong melodies and group harmonies. Their second album, called OK Okay, came out at the end of September.

The music on OK Okay neither explodes in your face nor lulls you to sleep. Instead, La Rocca churn out one pleasant, radio-friendly song after another. I can envision most of these songs taking off on the charts with a little bit of exposure. But the album boasts two songs that are truly exceptional, and would already be massive hits in a more ideal world. The first of these, a song about finding contentment called "Half Speed," is characterized by a very singable chorus -- "Now I'm moving at half speed where once I ran; pretty soon, all the map reads is nowhere planned." The second is a beautifully poignant song called "Roadway Hymn." The band does a fine job of keeping the song from getting too slow or melancholy, and the vocal harmonies are simply superb.

OK Okay
might not be my favorite album of the year, but I think it's the most universally accessible album I've heard in a while. I can't imagine anybody disliking it. La Rocca have a pop sensibility that few current bands can match, and I get the feeling that they'll force their way into mainstream exposure before too long.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott