4.29.2009

FRAG: GOLD EDITION

Shoot! Run! Get shot! Respawn! Run! Shoot! This is the basic gameplay for many first-person shooter games for consoles and PCs. It's also been adapted into the board game Frag: Gold Edition by Steve Jackson Games.

The rules of Frag: Gold Edition are very simple. At the start of the game each player divides seven points between three stats: Health (resisting damage, and how many weapons you can use), Speed (how many dice you roll to move each turn), and Accuracy (how many dice you toll to hit, and how many attacks each turn).

During a player's turn they roll their speed and can move up to that many spaces. If a player crosses a space with a Weapon or Gadget symbol, they roll a die and on a 4-6 they get a weapon card or gadget card. Weapons range from chainsaws and flamethrowers to the Heavy Assault Gun and dreaded Portable Nuke. Gadgets include armor, ammo, and medpacks.

Then comes the attacks! The attacker rolls a number of their dice equal to their Accuracy and if they roll equal to or higher the spaces between them and their target, it's a hit. After a hit the attacker rolls a number of dice equal to the weapon's damage and the defender rolls a number of dice equal to their Health. If the health roll is higher, no damage is done; otherwise the target's Health is reduced by the attack roll divided by the Health roll. If the target's Health is zero, they're fragged: they drop their weapons (and leave a Blood Counter that can turned in to regain one health) and respawn on the board on their next turn. The fragger gets a special card giving them a benefit, and the first player to score three frags wins.

Frag: Gold Edition is a very close reenactment of the first-person shooter -- and therein lies much of the problem. Apart from the initial decision of how many points to put in each stat, there's no real strategy: Your character moves over Weapon and Gadget spaces to get more gear, then goes to blast their opponents. Further, moving a number of spaces close to an opponent equal to your Accuracy means an automatic hit. There is a little humor on some of the cards, but by and large this is a very straightforward attacking game. (On the plus side, this recent edition replaced the original folded-paper board with a cardboard piece with maps on each side, not to mention a dry-erase marker to keep track of player info -- and tons of six-sided dice!) Frag: Gold Edition is good for a simple slugfest with friends, but the action gets repetitive fairly quickly.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.26.2009

TICKET TO RIDE

All aboard! Ticket to Ride is a very enjoyable game of strategy, and luck as players compete to establish numerous train routes across the United States.

The players in Ticket to Ride are friends competing in 1900 America to see who can travel by railroad to the most cities in North America. Each player starts with 45 train pieces, four random train cards, and two or three of the three random goal cards (more on them below). All players compete on the same board of America, and five train cards are placed face-up next to the board.

The object of Ticket to Ride is to earn the most points by completing the most train routes, meeting their goal cards, and ending the game with the longest consecutive train route (worth 10 points). Each turn a player can perform one of three actions: Select two train cards (or one if choosing the "wild" card, good for any color), either from the face-up cards or at random from the top of the deck; draw three more goal cards and keep from one to three of them; or complete a route. To complete a route a player discards the equal number and color train cards matching a route on the board (gray routes can be any color, but all the same color), including wild cards, and then placing their locomotive pieces along that route. Once a player claims a route, no other player can make that same route. When a player is down to two or fewer train pieces, everyone gets one final turn and then the points are totalled.

Goal cards are keys to victory -- but they can also lead to failure. Each goal has two cities and a point value; the further apart the cities are, the more points the goal is worth. If a player completes a route, they get that many points at the end of the game; but they lose points for each incomplete goal card they have. Since goal cards aren't revealed until the end of the game, players need to guess if they hope to keep their opponents from completing their goals.

Ticket to Ride is a game of both strategy and chance. There's no direct combat in the game -- the only aggression is aggressively claiming train routes. Strategy is key: completing goals is essential, but a player who telegraphs the locations they're trying to connect may lead other players to take routes they need for their goal. While only one player can control a route, there are enough alternate routes on the board that most goals can still be met even if a long detour is required. And drawing the right cards, and being able to complete a certain long route before an opponent, can make or break a game.

I really enjoy Ticket to Ride. The rules are simple enough to teach in a few minutes, and the game goes by pretty quickly, yet there's a lot of thinking that goes into every game and a great replay factor. Ticket to Ride isn't the most complex game out there, nor do players have to work together while competing against each other (as in Settlers of Catan), but it's a fun way to spend a few hours racing across America by train (pieces).

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

28 WEEKS LATER


What happens to the world after the zombies are killed? 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the original and popular 28 Days Later, tackles the reconstruction of society after a devastating attack.

At the opening of 28 Weeks Later Don (Robery Carlyle), his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) and a few other people are hiding out in a cottage when the infected (never called zombies, these are mindless rage-filled people who can infect others with a bite or blood) attack. During the slaughter Don flees, leaving Alice and a young boy behind.

Following this reminder of what happened in the last film, we jump ahead 28 weeks. The U.S. Army is now occupying most of Britain, and they've announced that the quarrantine has starved off the infected and it's time to start returning civilians and families to the Isle of Dogs. Don works as a caretaker at one of the mammoth buildings housing the civilians, and he's thrilled to see his teenage daughter Tammy (Imogen Poots) and young son Flynn (Harold Perrineau). On the military side, Scarlet (Rose Byrne) is an Army doctor concerned about a resurgence of the never-cured virus, and Doyle (Jeremy Renner) is one of the numerous snipers that guard, and spy on, the people there.

Tammy and Flynn sneak into London to retrieve a few things from their old home, including a picture of Alice. And wouldn't you know it, the infected haven't all been wiped out -- and soon there's a new zombie, er, infected uprising!

I appreciate 28 Weeks Later trying to expand on the world of the post-apocalyptic zombie massacre, but this movie falls flat in several areas. Numerous story elements have been seen before quite often in these stories, from an untrustworthy military to showing us the action through a night-vision scope, and the large number of protagonists don't give any one enough time to be developed. There's a lot of unneeded slow motion, some of the violence is gratituous and mean-spirited, and I wondered how the infection spread so quickly when this time military troops were everywhere and watching everything in case of this very event! Extras on the dvd are pretty standard: commentaries and behind-the-scenes features. 28 Weeks Later ultimately disappoints -- and I hope we won't see 28 Months Later at some future point.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.25.2009

TEASE: The Beat of Burlesque

I go to burlesque clubs for the music. Okay, that's not true -- I've never been to a burlesque club -- but when I saw the album Tease! The Beat of Burlesque I was curious as to the sort of music that was used in these shows.

Tease! is a collection of mostly jazz, with a little blues, recorded between 1952 and 1961. Not being into either jazz or blues, I only recognized one artist (Charlie Parker) and one song ("The Stripper" by David Rose, the most recognizable song ever playing during a striptease). The songs here are heavy on saxaphone and piano, with vocals on a few songs and the drum keeping the beat. The songs are pleasant; and if it weren't for the title of the album -- and the aforementioned David Rose tune -- I wonder if people would associate these songs with the burlesque stage.

This brings up the major deficiency in the album: information. The notes for this music collection only give the song title, artist, and year of release. How were these songs picked? Were they all used in burlesque shows -- or even written specifically for them? What about a little history of the clubs themselves? Such information is totally absent here.

That said, this collection is a pleasant trip to a time when bump 'n grind was done not to loud rock songs with pounding beats, but rather to smooth jazz and soulful riffs. This album didn't turn me into a jazz lover, but if you enjoy jazz, or want to try stripping to something before the 1980s, check out Tease! The Beat of Burlesque.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.21.2009

SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT


Television shows have a difficult time transitioning to movie screens. Some feel like an extended version of the regular series (like The Simpsons Movie), some only make sense to fans of the series (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), and plenty are just plain awful (X-Files: Fight the Future). With the big screen and a R rating providing more opportunities for profanity, plotting, and musical numbers, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut knocks the ball out of the park.

Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny are the far-from-innocent little kids in South Park, Colorado. They're thrilled when stars Terrence and Philip release their film Asses of Fire. ("But this is going to be the best movie ever! It's a foreign film from Canada.") After seeing that curse-filled film, the kids start swearing up a storm --and Kenny gets killed, naturally -- leading Shelia Broflovski, Kyle's mom, to lead the U.S. in a war against Canada to execute Terrence and Philip.

But wait, there's more! If Terrence and Philip are killed, Satan can return to the world -- and Satan and his selfish boyfriend Saddam Hussein are eager to return. (This movie came out long before Hussein died in real life, but they have fun with him: "It's been six weeks since Saddam Hussein was killed by a pack of wild boars and the world is still glad to be rid of him.") Cartman has a V-chip installed in him that shocks him everytime he swears; he gets shocked a lot. Stan is still in love with Wendy but is jealous of the new cool boy she likes. Kyle wants his mother to stop ignoring him while going to war for him; he also wants to protect his adopted brother Ike -- who's Canadian. And Kenny tries to stop Satan and occasionally appears as a ghost.

Of course, none of this would be complete without show-stopping musical numbers. This film has numerous great songs, from the Broadway musical-style "La Resistance" to the Oscar-nominated "Blame Canada." Fans of the show will also enjoy full-length versions of "I'm Super" and "Kyle's Mom's a Bitch." The movie also has both a normal version of "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" and a punk-Riverdance version in the credits.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is amazingly offensive and utterly hysterical. This movie is nigh-infinitely quotable, and the storylines all intersect very well. Almost every character from the tv show makes an appearance, but the story is very eaasy for folks who haven't seen the show to enjoy. (Fans of the show will get to see and hear Kenny without his hood.) While there is a truly enormous volume of swearing in the film, it's never gratituous and even advances the story! There are several guest stars here -- George Clooney, Eric Idle, Brent Spiner, Mike Judge, Minnie Driver -- and Trey Parker and Matt Stone do their usual terrific job of voicing the kids.
My only complaint with the dvd is one of timing. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released when dvds were fairly new, so bonus materials are very scarce: subtitles, chapters, and three movie trailers. I'm hoping for an eventual rerelease where Parker and Stone talk about the inspiration for the movie (including their previous movie getting slapped with a NC-17) and the guest stars discuss working on this. Other than that, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a wild and wonderful twisted comedy. Mmmkay!
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.19.2009

Lily Allen, IT'S NOT ME, IT'S YOU

"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." This line from Mary Poppins applies quite well to It's Not Me, It's You, the latest album from Lily Allen.

Lily Allen has a sweet, melodious voice and a charming British accent. She wields them to take the listener on a trip through a world of lousy men ("Not Fair"), superficial delights ("The Fear"), racists (the peppy "Fuck You"), rampant drug use ("Everyone's At It") and family problems ("Back to the Start," "He Wasn't There"). Even the optimistic songs are about staying in and watching television.

Backed by mostly synthesizer music, Allen's songs are pleasant enough diversions through the dark sides of life. She takes on different personas for the songs, not so much preaching about problems as living them out -- or being the problem. It's Not Me, It's You is a good pop album for music lovers who like their sweetness with a bit of cynisicm mixed in.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



video

4.15.2009

ROLE MODELS

What happens when two immature, self-centered people wind up as mentors to today's youth? Role Models is the latest crude comedy with heart in which the worst possible role models have to spend time with some peoblematic kids.

Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are buddies who make a living travelling to high schools promoting Minotaur energy drink ("taste the beast!") and telling kids to stay off drugs. Wheeler is happy, dressing as a Minotaur and having lots of casual sex. Danny, already depressed about pushing energy drink for ten years, feels worse when his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) breaks up with him. Danny drives the Minotaur mobile onto a school statue, and to avoid jail the two guys have to do 150 hours of community service.

Danny and Wheeler are forced into Building Wings, a mentoring program run by ex-addict Gayle (Jane Lynch). Danny gets to spend time with Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, best known as McLovin from Superbad), an uber-geeky teenager who wears a cape and is obsessed with L.A.I.R.E., a live-action roleplaying medieval fantasy world. Wheeler gets Ronne (Bobb'e Thompson), a little kid who curses constantly and is obsessed with breasts.

There's nothing really new in Role Models, but it still manages to be lots of fun. Except for the somewhat sentimental ending, the movie never loses its sense of crude fun: Danny and Wheeler shouldn't be mentors to anyone, and their kids are handfuls unto themselves. There's a terrific supporting cast here -- Jane Lynch is hilarious as the unstable helper, Kerri-Kenney-Silver as Augie's mom who always seems sweet but never stops putting him down, and lots of silly folks at the big L.A.I.R.E. battle -- and the leads are very good in their roles. Director and co-writer David Wain strikes the right balance between making his protagonists likeable and jerks.

Role Models is a funny little comedy. (The dvd has standard extras: deleted scenes, interviews, and behind-the-scenes looks at making the world of L.A.I.R.E.) If you're not easily offended and want to spend a few hours laughing, check out these two models of bad behavior.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

DEADLIEST WARRIOR

People love to speculate as to who would win if two legendary people, or types of people, met and battled. Could the Hulk beat Superman? Who'd win if a pirate and ninja fought? Deadliest Warriror tackles some of these hypothetical match-ups with each episode pairing up two groups of fighters: apache vs. gladiator, samurai vs. viking, etc. Being on Spike TV, the show has as much sensationalism as science.

Following a brief history lesson on each group, Deadliest Warrior tests the science of the damaging impact of the weapons -- short, medium, and long range, plus a specialized weapon -- for speed and damage as they're wielded by experts in the warrior's style of fighting. (Mythbusters fans will regognize the ballistic-gel bodies and use of pigs as human analogues.) All the data is put into a computer, and at the end actors "show" which warrior would be victorious in a battle.

I'd have been more impressed with Deadliest Warrior if they had more actual science or combat and less acting. We don't know anything about the computer program that decides which warrior would win -- and the final acted-out battle is more like a fighting video game (with fighters jumping off bridges, using the terrain, and wielding all four weapons) than a clear demonstration of all the data collected. Using professionals with the weapons is a good idea, but I'd rather have seem them battle with non-lethal versions of the weapons than just have them trash-talking each other through the show. Deadliest Warriror certainly won't provide a definitive answer on which ancient warriors would win if they ever fought; it's also far more attitude than science.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.10.2009

KROD MANDOON AND THE FLAMING SWORD OF FIRE


A medieval land, ruled by an evil tyrant and opposed by a ragtag group of freedom fighters. These are certainly a string of fantasy cliches. Fortunately, this isn't a drama but a comedy: Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire. Unfortunately the comedy is also fairly cliche.

Krod Mandoon (Sean Maguire, seemingly cloned from Ryan Reynolds) is an inept leader and inept fighter wielding a sword that sometimes bursts into flame. His band of rebels is made up of: Aneka (India de Beaufort), the sexy thief who is Krod's girlfriend and is willing to, er, seduce anyone she has to (or feels like); Loquasto (Steven Speirs), the large creature who is totally inept with a crossbow; Zezelryck (Kevin Hart), the sorcerer who seems to talk fast far more than casting spells; and Bruce (Marques Ray), the boyfriend of Krod's mentor and a walking collection of homophobic stereotypes.

As for the evil, that's Chancellor Dongalor (Matt Lucas), a happy fellow who's likely to kill anyone at whim -- and often the wrong person. He rules the land, he has an ancient weapon of amazing power (that he doesn't know how to use), and he hates Krod. Also there's a prophecy that Krod is destined to lead the rebellion against Dongalor.

I'd enjoy Krod Mandoon more if it either found humor in poking holes at the cliches of the warrior fantasy genre (like The Gamers and The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising) or more interesting characters. Alas, the show falls flat on both levels. Most of the humor on the show comes from the characters speaking in the current vernacular; if Krod will have a catchphrase, it'll likely be "You are such a dick!" As for characters, they remain quite one dimensional: Aneka acts like a nympho, Zezekryck continually makes excuses for himself, and characters like Bruce shouldn't be allowed on television anymore. Sean Maguire plays Krod predictably (not sure of himself, but always rising to a challenge), and Matt Lucas is almost jovial as the villain -- but there's no antagonistic chemistry between them, necessary even in a comedy.

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire has some cute moments, but unless you think the redundancy in the title is hysterical, or enjoy seeing Loquasto shoot Krod accidentally in the back over and over, you probably won't care much about the fate of these characters or this kingdom.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.09.2009

VISITOR Q

Japanese films can sometimes be among the most daring and experimental creations out there. After watching Visitor Q, I couldn't help but think of this quote from South Park: "Dude, this is pretty ****ed up."

Visitor Q seems to begin as a commentary on the media, as Kiyoshi (Kenichi Endo) seems more interested in filming prostitute Miko (Fujiko) than sleeping with her. Things then shift to his family, where teenage son Takuya (Jun Muto) is bullied by other boys and takes it out on his mother Keiko (Shungiku Uchida) by whipping her. Keiko, her back covered in scars, prostitutes herself to get money for drugs. And Kiyoshi is hoping to start his television career up again by filming his son getting bullied.

So how could things get weirder? With the entrance of the visitor (Kazushi Watanabe), a cool handsome man who bashes Kiyoshi in the head with a rock -- twice -- so Kiyoshi brings him home. Then come firework attacks, killings, fetishes (one is indulged quite graphically and excessively), twisted humor, and corpse disposal.

While director Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer was deliriously excessive, his work in Visitor Q seems all over the place. The film seems to be everything from family satire to dark humor to the weak preying on the weaker -- but none of it is developed. Even the mysterious visitor is hardly a catalyst: While things change after he arrives, Kiyoshi and his family were quite messed up beforehand as well. The acting is over the top, neither the humor nor horror are sustained long enough, and the end result is discomfort without greater meaning. Visitor Q is just sick excess.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch

Joan Osborne, Little Wild One (Saguaro Road Records, 2008)


Her days of significant commercial success may be long behind her, but Joan Osborne has kept quite busy over the past decade. The Kentucky native's latest album Little Wild One is a collection of songs thematically linked to her adopted home of New York City.

For Little Wild One, Osborne reunited with the same team of collaborators that helped make her debut album Relish a big hit fourteen years ago. Producer Rick Chertoff, guitarist Eric Bazilian, and keyboardist Rob Hyman were the creative nucleus of The Hooters in the eighties, but they gave big boosts to the careers of Osborne and Cyndi Lauper as well. The combination makes Little Wild One Osborne's most melodic album, outside of her 2002 album of soul covers How Sweet It Is, that she's done since Relish. Highlights include "Sweeter Than the Rest," a mid-tempo rocker propelled by a classic 12-string riff; the stately ballad "Cathedrals"; the upbeat rocker "Rodeo," which features Bazilian playing a hurdy-gurdy (which I'm pretty sure he hasn't done yet on a Hooters recording); "Daddy-O," a requiem for the old Coney Island; and the gospel-tinged closing song "Bury Me on the Battery," an ode to her favorite city.

In addition to the focus on New York, Osborne's lyrics revolve around her usual themes of sexuality and spirituality. The combination may seem odd, but Osborne has usually made it work very well on her albums, and Little Wild One is no exception. Osborne's primary selling point remains her voice, though. She's one of the few white singers who really understands how to sing with soul -- in fact, there's a long line of contemporary R&B divas who could learn something from her. She also studied Qawwali singing under the late Nusret Fateh Ali Khan. While she has made some half-hearted attempts to incorporate the style into her own on past albums, songs like "Rodeo" and "Can't Say No" mark the first time she's been able to make it work and not sound out of place.

Joan Osborne is another one of those performers who's always worth checking in with when a new album comes out. If people have stopped listening, it's certainly not a reflection on the quality of her music. Little Wild One continues her string of solid records, and hopefully she has plenty more to come.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


Joan and her touring band in the studio playing "Sweeter Than the Rest"

4.06.2009

I-CON 28

Thousands of fans of science fiction, gaming, fantasy, horror, all things medieval, and pirates headed to eastern Long Island, NY. A college campus was swarming with people, alone or in groups, in elaborate costumes. And it rained. It must have been be I-CON!




I-CON 28 fell victim to one of the prime forces in human history: geography. Due to continuing construction at SUNY Stony Brook, the convention was moved from there -- the first time in the 11 years I've been going -- to the Suffolk County Community College at Brentwood. And it was held at a nearby Holiday Inn. And it was also held at a Marriott Hotel. The split venues were... rough. The bus schedule had several problems, making some folks very late or absent from panels when they had to go from one place to another. Even with a car, I planned many of my events based on how many were happening in the same building. I never made it to the Holiday Inn at all, and I missed most of the gaming events.

Apart from the locational difficulties, I-CON 28 was still a blast! This year I finally upgraded to a digital camera, and the convention was a definite reward. I snapped over 60 photos, from comic book characters to horror to comedy. (I was pleased that no one was dressed as anyone from Twilight.)


As always, there were great folks there. I got to meet and have some stuff autographed by Tory Belleci. (Yes, that's me in the photo with him. He looks great; I... don't.) There were authors, witches, scientists, casual fans, intense fans, and, as I mentioned, those people in the wonderful costumes. I-CON is a great place to meet a wide variety of folks.

For me, the key draw of I-CON is the panels -- and this year has a very good crop of 'em! Some of the panels that I attended included "Women and Gaming," "How to Build a Better Cultist," "From Pac Man to Master Chief: The Evolution of the Mascot," "NC-17 Fanfiction," and "Are Video Games Just Games?"

The panels also defied predictability. Some of the titles were unfortunately ambiguous -- "Animated Contraband" was all anime; "The Coming of the Borg" wasn't about Star Trek but rather real-life bionics and cybernetics -- but even when the topic was right on, there were surprises. "Fandon and Hollywood: How Movies Get It Wrong" somehow veered from superhero movies to a debate over teaching intelligent design in the classroom. "NC-17 Fanfiction" offered some great new ideas (and an effective demo) for creating adults-only fiction. And "Worst Fanfic X-Over Ever" -- where folks listed and then voted on the worst actual fanfictions seen out there -- had some staggeringly awful combinations. (If you're wondering, the final winner was The Diary of Anne Frank combined with Dragonball Z.)

For the past few years I've been running I-CON events, and this year I went with something old and something new. This I-CON saw my third annual "Super(hero) S&M!" lecture, which went pretty well. (Two people showed up quite late, leading me to present 70 minutes of previously covered material in 10 minutes; I used a lot of sentence fragments.) I also ran my first SubGenius Devival -- yes, I'm now an ordained minister of the Church of the SubGenius -- in which people laughed, questioned, laughed at the answers, and fortunately didn't give any money (or power of attorney) to the one true fake religion.

The central locale for I-CON 28, at least at the college campus, was the dealer's room -- and this was, as always, stupendous. If you were looking for just about anything related to fandom, odds are you'd find it here. There were dvds ranging from everything anime to superhero cartoons from the 1960s to the present. T-shirts ranged from movies and comic books to sayings in Latin, funny grammar (I bought two of them: one for me, one for a friend), comments on popular trends ("...and then Buffy staked Edward. The end.") and art you could wear. There was medieval garb, handmade leather and chainmail, Bags of Holding, books, magazines, toys (which, alas, included Twilight Merchandise), a tremendous number of games (alas, the convention was one week before Frag: Gold Edition hit the shelves), posters and prints, and all sorts of dice. If you wanted to shop, you'd wander the dealer's room. Often.


I was occasionally frustrated when I couldn't make it into a panel because of maximum occupancy (the folks at the Marriott really watched out for fire codes), and the driving around wasn't fun. Other than those two difficulties, I-CON 28 was terrific vacation. I hope I-CON makes it back to SUNY Stony Brook (and if it does, I promise not to complain about walking from building to building ever again) but if it's at the Brentwood campus again, well, everything I-CON offers is worth a bit of travel.

Attended and reviewed by James Lynch






























4.02.2009

Stanley Samuelsen, Tíðin Rennur (TUTL, Gateway, Nora Musik, 2008)


Stanley Samuelsen is a singer and guitarist from the Faroe Islands. As my prior knowledge of Faroese music consists of a pair of heavy metal records, I was curious to hear more music from that remote corner of the globe. So when a Danish record label asked The Armchair Critic to review Samuelsen's latest album Tíðin Rennur, I jumped at the opportunity.

Samuelsen wrote two of the songs on Tíðin Rennur himself, and for the rest he set Faroese verses to music. The subject matter ranges from songs about the sea, to the beauty of nature, and even a poem about an elvish queen. The album opens with a poem by J. H. O. Djurhuus, the most famous Faroese poet, about Sigmundur Brestisson, the 10th-century figure who led the conversion of the Faroese to Christianity. Týr's album Land also opens with a poem by the same author on the same subject. Sigmundur evidently didn't endear himself to everybody, and appears to still be a figure of much discussion and debate in the Faroes. At least, the people who make poems and songs seem to think so.

Musically, Tíðin Rennur is folksy in a conventional singer-songwriter sort of way. While Týr wholeheartedly embrace the rhythmic complexities of the Faroes' indigenous music, Samuelsen is content to keep things in 4:4. His guitar playing is very good, though. The language barrier might scare some people off, but fans of laid back, front porch guitar music will find plenty to like on this album. "Høgur Himin," for example, has a cool groove very reminiscent of J. J. Cale. Samuelsen also has a husky baritone voice that suits his style well.

All in all, Tíðin Rennur is a respectable effort by a very capable musician. Like most international folk albums, the subject matter of the songs might be lost on most English speaking would-be listeners. Stanley Samuelsen's approach to making music should still have some fairly broad appeal, though, especially to people who like mellow guitars.

Overall grade: B


reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Høgur Himin"

Anna Ternheim, Leaving on a Mayday (Universal Music, 2008)


Swedish singer Anna Ternheim made a very big initial impression with me last year when a self-titled six song EP of older material became her first American release. Halfway to Fivepoints, a full-length album that also contained older material, followed within a few months. In 2008 she recorded an album of brand new songs called Leaving on a Mayday. The new album was released in Sweden late last year, has just been released in the rest of Europe, and presumably will get to America soon.

Ternheim goes in a very different musical direction on Leaving on a Mayday than the dark folk and alternative of her previous efforts. While I always respect performers who aren't afraid to try new things, the change just doesn't work here. Producer Björn Yttling repeatedly tries to pair Ternheim's subtle alto and deliberate delivery with hyperactively busy percussion, and the result is more like oil and water than chocolate and peanut butter. Too often her voice gets overwhelmed by what's going on around her, whether it's the drumming or, in the case of "Let It Rain," a single note played over and over on the piano. Other additions, like strings and a group of backing singers, could have been used to better effect, but the arrangements generally lacked imagination.

Fortunately, Ternheim's songwriting remains strong enough to at least salvage the album. "Summer Rain," with Ternheim's guitar providing the only accompaniment, is a gorgeous track even though the backing vocals sound a bit crowded. Other highlights include "Off the Road," the other percussion-free song on the album, and the haunting closer "Black Sunday Afternoon." With songs like "Let It Rain" and "Losing You," though, you can't help thinking that they could have been much more effective if done differently.

And that's what makes this album frustrating; too many songs deserved better treatment than they got. Leaving on a Mayday is a textbook example of how not to produce an album. Anna Ternheim is a top-notch singer who brought a strong assortment of songs to the table, and yet somehow the result is a so-so recording. That should not have happened.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

A vocals only version of "Summer Rain"

4.01.2009

The Gaslight Anthem, THE '59 SOUND

The Gaslight Anthem bring a garage band sound to life with their album The '59 Sound. Filled with nonstop drumming and songs about lost women, this album may be a modern classic rock album.

The '59 Sound starts strong with "Great Expectations" and seldom slows down. Most of the songs are about women, whether lies to ex-girlfriends ("Here's Looking At You, Kid") or a former beauty ("you're getting drinks for the same boys who once bought you everything"). Led by singer Brian Fallon's vocals, these songs are reminiscent of Springsteen. The rest of the band supplies plenty of great music here.

If I have one complaint with this album, it's a lack of variety in much of the music. The Gaslight Anthem have a great sound, reminiscent of the Old 97's and the Replacements, but they rarely deviate from their sound, which can make the songs feel very similar by the album's end. That said, The '59 Sound is a really good rock album that kicks ass and gets the blood pounding.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch