6.28.2009

Warsaw Village Band, Infinity (Barbes Records, 2009)


We now return to our regularly scheduled assortment of obscure music. With their albums People's Spring (2001) and Uprooting (2004), the Warsaw Village Band had already established themselves as one of the best international folk acts of the decade. The sextet of Maja Kleszcz (vocals and cello), Magdalena Sobczak-Kotnarowska (vocals and dulcimer), Sylwia Swiatkowska (vocals and fiddles), Wojtek Krzak (violin and nyckelharpa), Piotr Glinski (drums and percussion), and Maciej Szajkowski (frame drums) may root their sound in the fiddling traditions of their homeland, but there is quite a bit more to the music they make than that. They have always had an aggressive, punkish edge, for one thing. Plus, much like the Finnish band Värttinä, they incorporate folk influences from across Europe and the globe, especially styles that suit their three-part female vocal harmonies well. It's not always easy to tell which aspects of their sound are in fact Polish in origin. But the band wholeheartedly embrace the present as well, and are particularly fond of black American music in its many forms. On their brand new album Infinity, you can hear traces of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and the blues mixed in with Polish and European folk fiddle music. Happily, Warsaw Village Band have the musical skill it takes to make the combination sound perfectly natural.

The story of Infinity begins with the birth of Wojtek and Maja's first child. In the liner notes for the album, Wojtek describes the album's concept as "the need to take a dip in tradition, derive from it and create contemporary and modern compositions -- to inspire other generations." Wojtek and Maja composed most of the music on Infinity, with the lyrics continuing to come from from mostly traditional sources as they had on the previous albums. It appears as though the fiddler and the cellist have assumed a much greater degree of control of the band's musical direction than they had in the past, but the quality of the music is certainly not adversely affected by it. If anything, the band sounds better than ever.

Infinity opens much like Uprooting did, with a potent song in a jig rhythm called "Wise Kid Song." From there, the band rattles off one strong track after another. The ominous minor key ballad called "1.5 h" features viola and Eastern-inspired vocals from Tomasz Kukurba, a member of a prominent Polish klezmer band. The unusual "Skip Funk" which mixes the scratching of a DJ with plucked string instruments and a very jazzy vocal from Maja. "Is Anybody in There?" is the albums strongest track and an instant classic, setting a traditional Polish work song with energetic group vocals to the beat of African-style drumming. "Heartbeat" is an intriguing duet between Maja and a Polish R&B singer named Natalia Przybysz, with whom Maja went to music school. Maja plays her cello like an upright bass while Wojtek plucks his fiddle like a mandolin, but the soulful vocals and a chord progression worthy of Stevie Wonder make this song really make this song special. The ironically titled instrumental "Polska fran Polska" is a tribute to the embrace of the polska, originally a Polish style of tune and dance, by the folk musicians of Sweden. The band recaptures the frenzy of some of their earlier instrumentals with "Polka Story." "I've Met the Girl" mixes string harmonics with insistent percussion and some the group's best vocal work.

Simply put, Infinity is a carnival of delights, providing listeners with an eclectic and exceptionally good combination of the familiar and the unusual. Warsaw Village Band are not afraid to take chances, and right now they have both the energy and the superior musicianship to pull off anything they try. They are a great band that's on a roll. While I'd strongly recommend all three albums of theirs that I have, Infinity is the best of the three, and better than any album I've yet reviewed for this blog.

Overall grade: A+

reviewed by Scott

A promotional clip for Infinity. Yes some subtitles would be nice, but it does give a good glimpse into the workings of the band.

6.27.2009

Michael Jackson, 1958-2009


I've been trying to figure out the right things to say regarding the sudden death of Michael Jackson on Thursday. As anybody familiar with my reviews has probably already figured out, I'd much rather talk about unfamiliar musicians that I do like than overly familiar musicians whom I never really cared for. On the other hand, Jackson was a cultural icon and somebody everyone close to my age more or less grew up with, which makes him too important a musical figure for his passing to go unacknowledged.

Jackson grew up in a large family in Gary, Indiana, a bleak-looking industrial city on Lake Michigan. Gary is the kind of place where you need to have dreams to keep yourself going, and the Jackson family dreamed big. When Motown first signed the Jackson 5 in 1968, Michael was just ten. He was the youngest member at the time (younger brother Randy would join up later), but the group revolved around him; his superior singing and dancing abilities were obvious even then. The Jackson 5 had a string of hits, and the recurring pattern of child/teen acts making a big dent on the pop charts every few years or so essentially started with them. Michael was destined for bigger things than the rest of his brothers, though. He made some solo recordings in the 1970's, but it wasn't until he teamed up with producer Quincy Jones that he became the superstar we all know. Their first album together, 1979's Off the Wall, sold over 20 million records. Of course, 1982's Thriller has sold over 50 million worldwide, more than any other album ever recorded. Aside from the music, Thriller clearly benefited from Jackson's grasp of the nascent art form of music videos. Jackson was already a star, but the string of videos he made for the Thriller album, combined with the exposure that the new network MTV provided for these videos, enabled him to conquer the world.

Then things started getting weird. Tabloid journalism feasted on his many plastic surgeries, his unnaturally high adult voice, his skin that lost its color seemingly overnight, his marriages and divorces, his eccentric lifestyle and reclusive behavior, and especially his fraternization with other people's children that would be creepy and disturbing even if all the allegations leveled against him are actually false. The stories are all too well-known to dwell on at length, and I see no point in speculating on what really happened behind the scenes. As for the music, everything Jackson did after Thriller seemed to plunge him deeper and deeper into an abyss of self-absorption and self-parody. Ominously, he looked increasingly frail and unhealthy as he got older.

If you pay any attention at all to the world of entertainment, it's hard to escape stories of many different performers who were stars as children and now have (or had) many issues as adults. No child performer was a bigger star, or grew up to have more issues, than Michael Jackson. He needed people's love and adoration badly, of that there can be no doubt, but he seemed to cower from the attention when it involved any kind of scrutiny. Most poignantly, his behavior frequently suggested that he lacked the love of the person from whom he needed it most: himself.

In some ways Michael Jackson's life mirrors that of Elvis Presley. In the beginning, the youthful energy and motion he coupled with his singing turned him not just into a megastar, but into the most visible symbol of American popular culture in the eyes of the world. And by the end he was already a ghost of his old self, painful to both listen to and look at. He had everything, and yet he had nothing. History has a funny way of repeating itself sometimes.

posted by Scott

6.24.2009

THE RED DRAGON INN 1 and 2


Okay, so your party of brave adventurers have wandered the dungeon, battled monsters, thwarted traps, and reaped the rewards of your epic deeds. What now? Time to hit the inn for some downtime! The Red Dragon Inn and The Red Dragon Inn 2, from Slugfest Games, follow the medieval fantasy party to their next activities: drinking and gambling.

Each of these games provides players with a choice of character. (In fact, the different characters are the sole difference between the two games.) The original game contains Dierdre the Priestess, Fiona the Volatile, Gerki the Sneak, and Zot the Wizard. The second game gives you Gog the Half Ogre, Fleck the Bard, Eve the Illusionist and Dimli the Dwarf. The different characters have their strengths and weaknesses, but they're quite balanced against each other.

Each player has a card to keep track on their Fortitude, Alcohol Content, plus slots for their deck, discards, and Drink Me! for their face-down drinks. Each player starts with 20 Fortitude, 0 Alcohol Content, and 10 gold. During a player's turn they follow the same four phases: discard and draw up to 7 cards, perform one action, buy drinks (putting a card from the Drink deck on another player's Drink Me! slot), then drink (by turning over the top card off their Drink Me! slot) and increasing their Alcohol Content. If a player's Fortutide ever meets their Alcohol Level, the player is out of the game.

One of the actions a player can do is start gambling. Players ante one gold, then use cards from their hand to take control of the round (by raising, using a Winning Hand, or cheating), and the last one with control wins the pot. And if a player loses all their gold, they're out!

Players can use Sometime cards at specific times (such as avoiding a Fortitude loss or making someone else's drink more potent) or Anytime cards (to steal gold or gain Fortitude).

The Red Dragon Inn and The Red Dragon Inn 2 are terrific party games. The rules are very easy to learn and each turn goes by very fast. There is some strategy in terms of what cards to keep or discard (offense, defense, or gambling) but the basic goal is easy: hurting other players while protecting yourself. Turns go by very quickly, there's a lot of humor in the cards, and even with only one possible winner this game will cause more laughs than hurt feelings. If you're looking for a quick, simple, and fun game spend the evening at The Red Dragon Inn or The Red Dragon Inn 2 -- or get both and have up to eight players unwinding with booze and cards!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

THE RETURN


Psychic visions have been a staple of many horror movies, and they're at the center of The Return. Sadly, there's nothing in this movie that stands out.

When Joanna was 11, she got separated from her father at a Texas festival and imagined a man talking to and walking towards her. This doesn't seem unusual as childhood experiences go, but it so affected Joanna that she left Texas and stayed away.

Now in her mid-twenties, Joanna (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has to head back to Texas on business. She's barely back before the radio keeps playing the same song over and over (even when turned off -- spooooooky!) and having visions of a murder and different places in Texas. There's also Terry Stahl (Peter O'Brien), the helpful, handsome loner with a bad reputation in town. And the more Joanna investigates, the more she finds that her visions are -- brace yourself -- from a crime in the past!

The Return is a dreary movie. The characters are flat, and all the actors seem to be drifting through the movie. There's nothing original done with the visions or possibilities, and everything is shot in muted, drab lighting. There aren't any scares per se, and the "action" consists of Gellar running away or sudden surprises mixed with loud bursts of music. (The dvd extras are a "making of," deleted scenes, and an alternate ending.) While not terrible, The Return is extremely unimpressive.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.22.2009

Moon

Science fiction has often gone beyond Earth, but Moon takes a more mundane view of outer space. The movie also focuses almost exclusively on one actor and manages to explore some intriguing areas.

It's some time in the future and humanity has finally found a source of clean energy: Helium-3, found in irradiated parts of Earth's moon. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is up on a base in the moon, launching the Helium-3 back to Earth and performing maintenance on the machines. Sam is two weeks away from finishing his three-year contract to be there, and his only companion is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Smith), an emotionless robot whose "face" is a series of changing smiley faces. Contact with Earth is cut off, and Sam survives by viewing recorded messages from his wife and their young daughter. Sam also seems to be hallucinating.

After an accident with a lunar vehicle on the moon's surface Sam awakens in the medical bay on the base. He resumes work as normal, until he goes out to repair the vehicle -- and finds something that makes Sam question everything about himself, his assignment, and his future.

Moon is a thoughtful movie, focusing on the plight of its protagonist and the impact of technology on people. Director Duncan Jones manages to keep the almost-static situation on the moon from being boring (as well as turning an approaching rescue into a "ticking clock" of danger), and Sam Rockwell turns in another fine performance as a man whose job is like a prison sentence, and with the end in sight everything changes. Even GERTY is something of an enigma, helpful one moment and evasive the next. Moon may not be exciting, but it's certainly interesting.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

6.17.2009

The Hangover

There may be no better and worse ad for Las Vegas than The Hangover. This movie demonstrates that Las Vegas may very well be the ultimate party place -- and that can be way too much for some visitors.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is two days away from marrying Tracy (Sasha Barrese), so he needs a bachelor party. He heads to Vegas for the weekend with his friends Phil (Bradly Cooper), a party animal, and Stu (Ed Helms), a nerdy dentist totally whipped by his girlfriend Melissa (Rachael Harris). The three buddies are joined by Tracy's brother Alan (Zac Galifianakis), who's more than a little bit off: "I'm not supposed to be within two hundred feet of a school. Or a Chuck E. Cheese." The four head to Vegas, get a villa, and have celebratory shots on the roof of the hotel.

Cut to the next day. Phil, Stu, and Alan are all hung over. Their villa is a wreck, Stu is missing a tooth, there's a baby in the closet, there's a live tiger in the bathroom, and no one remembers what happened the night before. Oh yes, and Doug is gone.

The Hangover isn't so much a road trip movie as a retracing-our-steps flick. The three groomsmen spend the whole movie following clues in the hopes of finding their missing friend, a quest that leads them to roofies, an emergency room, thugs, a stripper (played by Heather Graham) Stu may have married, Mike Tyson (playing himself), a stolen police car, and blackjack.

The Hangover may be the latest in the "crude guys with a heart of gold" movies, and as such it's a good one. The characters are a nice range of characters, all reacting in different ways to a frustrating situation and a ticking clock. The actors are all very good, especially Zac Galifianakis, whose character isn't so goofy as to be a cartoon, leaving him just weird enough to be perfect. Director Todd Phillips, who directed Old School, once again shows what makes men tick, and how it also makes them ridiculous. There's no depth to the movie (and not much for the female actors to do), but The Hangover is amusing and good for quite a few laughs. What happened in Vegas this time was pretty funny.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

6.14.2009

The Black Eyed Peas, THE E.N.D.

The Black Eyed Peas return with their hip hop-pop stylings with The E.N.D. This is the band's first new album since 2005, and it seems designed for party and radio airplay.

All the members of the Black Eyed Peas are back -- Will.I.Am, Fergie, Taboo, and Apl de Ap -- but the real star of The E.N.D. may be the technolgy. The album's title acronym stands for "energy never dies" and that energy could be the juice powering the drum machines and synthesizers that are omnipresent here. Heck, the brief song "Electric City" lists all the devices that go into making the music.

Anyway, with songs like "Rock That Body," "Party All the Time" and "Rockin to the Beat" it's clear that the Black Eyed Peas aren't shooting for high art here. What they do is mostly party fluff, whether Will.I.Am is rapping about being surrounded by ladies, Fergie is pretending to be too drunk to remember the lyrics ("Out of My Head"), or the words "ring-a-ling" being sung far too often. Towards the end of The E.N.D. there is some unexpected depth -- the world-peace song "One Tribe" is uplifting, while "Now Generation" is either celebrating or mocking the technologically-driven, a.d.d. culture of today -- but for the most part this is more techno and swagga' than creative and involving. The Target-exclusive version, pictured above, comes with several new songs and remixed, but they are no better or worse than the regular album. (Disclaimer: I work for Target. And I'm a natural redhead.)

The E.N.D. has its moments, but the repetitious format of most of the music makes this best put on in the background of a party, or on the dance floor at a club, if you're playing it start to finish. There are a few songs I liked, but just as many blend together.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

video

6.12.2009

The Lonely Island, INCREDIBAD

The Lonely Island -- comedy trio Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone -- became famous from their Saturday Night Live "digital shorts" but were making comic music well before then. Both songs and videos are on their album Incredibad.

Aiming to be "the greatest fake m.c.s on Earth," the Lonely Island love rapping the best. They go gansta several times, be it about the joys of being on a boat ("I'm the king of the world, on a boat like Leo/if you are on the shore then you sure ain't me yo") or conducting a job interview. They also do synthesizer-based songs about geeky sports fans and guys who are, um, easily excited and fake romantic songs witha, er, very personal gift. Yup, that parental advisory on the album cover is there for a reason.

Incredibad also features a very large number of guest appearances, including T-Pain, Justin Timberlake, SNL regular Chris Parnell, Norah Jones, Jack Black and Natalie Portman (who goes very gangsta).

Incredibad works pretty well. There are a couple of songs that are duds, usually one-joke bits where the joke isn't that funny. But the comedy trio attack even the simplest activities with street-tough zeal or pretentious stylings, and the results are quite funny. Including a dvd with the videos was also a nice move: They add a lot to the songs, though it's odd that some songs here don't have their videos included (no "I'm on a Boat") and there are a few videos where the songs aren't on the album. If you love the SNL skits, or you want some wild humor, go with Incredibad.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


video

6.09.2009

José González, In Our Nature (Mute Records, 2007)


A Swede of Argentinian descent, José González first came to my attention when he contributed a few songs to Zero 7's 2006 album called The Garden. His own music is considerably less electronic, however. Gonzalez deftly blends standard folk guitar styles with those of South America, and usually doesn't require more than some light percussion for accompaniment. Many of the songs on his second album In Our Nature are thematically linked, revolving around warfare and the need for humanity to resist its darkest impulses.

González may lack a broad vocal range, but he knows how to work around his limitations. For one thing, he writes melodies that affect the listener without making too many demands on his voice. It also helps that he is a superb guitar player. His rhythmic style of fingerpicking gives his songs some lift and energy even without much instrumental backing. The best example of his playing is the song "Killing for Love.". This song also includes the album's best lyric -- "You've got a heart filled with passion; will you let it burn for hate or compassion?" Another revelation on In Our Nature is a cover of the song "Teardrop" by the electronica group Massive Attack. I definitely need to find the original now.

In Our Nature
is a solid effort from a performer with a considerable amount of promise. If you're interested in acoustic music with a bit of a South American flavor, you'll find José González much to your liking.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


The video for "Killing for Love"

6.07.2009

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Seth Grahame-Smith

Jane Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice is a classic of English literature and the template for much of the romantic comedies that followed, but even its most devoted followers and academics cannot deny that it lacks both brain-devouring undead and ninjas. These have been added, in ample supply, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance -- Now With Ultraviolet Zombie Mayhem by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies follows the characters and plot of the original very closely, but with a few exceptions. In this version of Regency England, zombies have been returning to life and roaming the countryside so much that they've become commonplace. The Bennett sisters have become deadly martial artists after studying in China, with Elizabeth the most deadly, making her "Defender of Longbourne, Heroine of Hertfordshire." And while their father is focused on their lethal skills, their mother wants her daughters wed: "The business of Mr. Bennett's life was to keep his daughters alive. The business of Mrs. Bennett's was to get them married."

Enter Mr. Darcy, proud, stubborn, aloof -- and a formidable slayer. His friend Mr. Bingley is attracted to Jane Bennett, and he is nice even if not a formidable combatant. Lady Catharine de Bourge has a reputation as the deadliest warrior in England, and she openly considers her Japanese training superior to the Bennett's Chinese tutelage. All the other characters from Pride and Predudice appear as well, in one form or another (and sometimes suffering grizzly fates).

Given how closely Grahame-Smith's comic novel follows the original and often quotes directly from it (so much so that Jane Austen is listed as co-author), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies succumbs to being a one-joke novel: What if the events of Pride and Prejudice happened amidst martial arts duels and zombie attacks? There are plenty instances of dark humor -- from Jane Bennett given a decidedly bloodthirsty streak to a character whose gradual transformation to a zombie doesn't stop her from marrying and enjoying society -- and one or two off-color jokes towards the end certainly would have brought a blush to Austen's cheeks. By and large, though, it's as if references to undead, ninjitsu, and Japanese culture were inserted into the original.

That one extended joke can prove pretty amusing, though, and fans of the original work may indeed get a kick out of this novel of manners colliding with Night of the Living Dead. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is hardly deep and won't surprise anyone who has read the original, but it is an amusing, extremely violent take on a beloved classic.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.06.2009

Royal Pains

Ahh, the Hamptons in the summer. A Manhattanite tradition for ages, I always find it ironic that while "Everyone loves 'the City,'" come the weekend in good weather, the crowded masses flood onto the exclusive beaches of the South Fork of the East End. This forms one half of the new TV show, "Royal Pains."

The other half is that an Emergency Medicine doctor, a superstar in his own specialty (we're talking he does his own cardiac cath in the ED in the premiere opener- on his day off no less!), loses his job, and can't find work anywhere. After a month of slumming it, his furniture is repossessed, and his parasitic fiance heads for the hills as the bills pile up with the cash flow spigot stuck on off. His friend takes our fallen doc out to the Hamptons for some needed fun in the sun, and they wangle their way into a high society party. After a chance event, he ends up starting a Concierge Medicine practice despite his best efforts no to.

Huh? What the heck is that, you might be wondering. Well, Concierge Medicine is a national trend among the elite. Think of it as joining a country club. Rather than have a regular practice, these doctors typically restrict it to folks that pay membership dues, and limit the number of patients involved to an exclusive set. What they get is a personal physician on call 24/7 to respond to anything and everything (hence the title of the show). Cyberchondriasis anyone? Oh, and they don't accept insurance, so it is cash & carry only. And of course they want their doctor to help keep things discreet, and out of the news (better known as covering things up).

Does this really go on? Well, it does, and reportedly it is increasing in many areas. Apparently, rich folks don't want to wait in line for much. While I have no direct experience with this, I did hear a story once of a doc that made house calls to estates for flu shots. While hardly intellectually fulfilling, it did more than pay the rent supposedly. However, he did give it up, and move on to other things after a few years.

This shows is equal parts "Grey's Anatomy," "Gossip Girl," and "Dirty Sexy Money." I found the premiere to be fast moving, well written, and highly entertaining. Even on the typically mundane transition shots, I was entertained as they showed the LIE from overhead, and the new Mets stadium being built. I expect this to be the hit of the summer shows, so go ahead and check it out on the USA network, Thursdays at 10 PM.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

See the pilot here.

Ok, ok, you didn't think I could make it through a medical show without some criticism. In the opening scene, at the basketball game, the player goes down, and the doctor goes over to take care of him. Whoever the technical advisor was got a lot of this wrong. They check for a pulse, state that they find one, and then start compressions anyway in the next cut. This makes no sense, and is BLS that we all learned in high school. Here's the review, no pulse= start compressions, pulse= no compressions. BTW, you're not supposed to transport a patient to the hospital in an SUV. That's why they have ambulances, that cannot only do the transport, but also bring equipment such as oxygen, medications, and monitoring to a patient. Got it? Oh, and I've never, ever heard of an Emergency Medicine physician taking a patient to the cath lab. Why the heck would they do that when they can just page a cardiologist to do it anyway? The other cases had less errors, but I'll forgive them and chalk it up to entertainment license.

ROBORALLY

Robots -- race! The board game RoboRally has players using their robots to hit three checkpoints before their opponents. There's plenty of danger from the factors, from opponents, and from your own plans.

Each player controls a robot (different looks, same functionality) in the Grid Widget Factory. At the game's start each turn players nine Program cards that can move the robot (turn left, move 1, etc). Players select five Program cards, in order from first to last, then all robots execute their turns and moves together.

If this sounds simple, well, it doesn't stay simple for long. First, there is plenty of peril to be found on the Grid Widget Factory floor. If you wander off the board or into a hole, your robot loses a life; three lives lost and you're out of the game. Stationary lasers damage any robot ending its turn in their path. Walls can stop a robot in its tracks (treads?). And conveyor belts move robots, sometimes turning them in the process.

Then there are the other robots. Not only do robots blast any opponents they face at the turn's end, but they also push them. And this can royally affect your programmed moves: Being pushed a space can mean the difference between reaching a checkpoint and dropping down a hole.

Then there's damage. Each robot can take nine points of damage. Players draw one less Program card for each point of damage. To make matters worse, after four points of damage the robot keeps its Program card in its slot unless repaired, giving the controller much less choice in what the robot does. There are a few repair checkpoints on the board, but they're not easy to get reach. And while a robot can shut down for a turn and repair all damage, this makes them easy prey for any nearby robots to try and push them to their doom.

RoboRally was created by Richard Garfield (before he made the first collectable card game Magic: The Gathering), and it's an amusing exercise in the challenges of applying a static program to an environment in flux. In other words, you make your best plan and hope it works in a dangerous environment and against your opponents.

As you might expect, luck plays a tremendous part in RoboRally. It's hard to mount an offense (except against a powered-down robot), and since you don't know where an opponent will move to you can't plan to blast them. RoboRally is fun, as your robots plan their moves but largely stumble into opponents (often literally) and balance speed and damage as they race around the factory. It's easy to learn and quite enjoyable.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.05.2009

Valravn (Tutl, 2007)


In the nineties, New Nordic Folk bands like Hedningarna and Garmarna combined traditional music with modern distortion and electronics, incorporating the most primal elements of Medieval and modern music in the process. Neither band has done much lately, and a void has been left in the Nordic folk vanguard as a result. With their self-titled debut album, the Danish quintet Valravn try somewhat successfully to fill that void.

Valravn consist of Anna Katrin Egllstrød (from, you guessed it, the Faroe Islands) on vocals, Martin Seeberg (previously part of Sorten Muld and Instinkt) on viola and flute, Søren Hammerlund on hurdy-gurdy and mandola, Ecuadorian native Juan Pino on percussion, and Christopher Juul on keyboards and electronics. A valravn in Nordic mythology is a man who has been transformed into a raven and must drink human blood in order to break the curse. This tells you everything about the band's sound that you really need to know; Scandinavian mythology is rife with sinister, ominous, often bloody tales, and Valravn take some of these tales and give them the dark treatment they call for. While the instrumentalists provide a firm backing, especially the drummer Pino, things clearly revolve around Egllstrød. Coming across in her best moments like Björk possessed by something evil, her vocals fit the band's material perfectly. A couple of songs on the album stand out, particularly the driving Icelandic ballad "Krummi" and the uncharacteristically bouncy "Ollavur Riddararos," a Faroese tale about a would-be groom who gets seduced by an elf maiden on the way to his wedding. There were points on the album, though, when I felt the band was holding back. They have the personnel to really cut loose in a furious way, but didn't do it nearly often enough. Even Egllstrød tended to get soft when hitting the high notes. Personally I thought some curdling of blood would have served the music better.

Valravn's music has a fair amount of the dark, primal Nordic beauty that characterizes much of the best folk music from Scandinavia. However, if they want to reach the same level that bands like Värttinä and Hedningarna have reached, they need to push the envelope even further than they did on this album. Their follow-up is due out soon, though, and it will be interesting to monitor their progress.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Valravn concert footage, set to their song "Krummi."

6.03.2009

DRAG ME TO HELL

I wish I could have seen Drag Me to Hell at a drive-in movie theater. This is a horror movie that's knows it's cheesy and revels in it, thanks to director and co-writer Sam Raimi.

Life isn't easy for Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). She's dating college professor Clay (Justin Long), whose mother doesn't consider Christine a serious girlfriend. At her bank job, Christine is competing with Stu (Reggie Lee) for an assistant manager position, and manager Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) is always alternating between Christine and Stu about who's first in the competition. He tells Christine that she has to make the hard decisions.

Enter Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an ancient gypsy with long yellow fingernails, horrible teeth, and a creepy yellow eye. Mrs. Ganush has had two loan extensions and needs a third or she'll lose her home. Christine chooses this time to become assertive, earning the anger of the gypsy.

And Mrs. Ganush is certainly angry. After she attacks Christine (in a battle involving a seat belt, stapler, ruler, and trying to bite someone when your false teeth have fallen out), Mrs. Ganush places a curse on Christine. In no time at all Christine suffers everything from flies coming after her to being attacked by an invisible force to seeing horrible visions and hearing noises.

Clay doesn't believe anything supernatural is happening, but Christine turns to Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a psychic who helps Christine (while always taking her money). Christine has three days to get rid of the evil spirit that Mrs. Ganush has sent after her, or Christine will, well, you know the title of the movie. (This gruesome fate befalls a little boy who stole from a gypsy, in a scene shown before the opening credits.)

It's nice to see a movie that is silly without being stupid. Sam Raimi returns to the horror he did with the Evil Dead trilogy (and fans of those films can spot several effects taken from them and put in this new film), relying not on hyperactive camera work and big budget effects but rather camera angles, roaring sounds, sudden visual surprises and a none-too-subtle soundtrack that kicks in every time menace looms. Drag Me to Hell has lots of tension and a few genuine scares, but the horror is often so ridiculously excessive it turns to comedy -- and Raimi knows this and uses it.

The cast is good, even if they're present in service of the scares. Alison Lohman looks, sounds, and acts just like Pam from The Office, as she moves from timid to assertive to terrified and slightly insane. Justin Long has little to do as the skeptical-but-supportive boyfriend, but Lorna Raver is wonderful as the decrepit old woman whose vengeance is relentless.

Drag Me to Hell is an enjoyable little horror movie, something that mixes scares and comedy to nice effect. This flick doesn't have great acting or original ideas, but it hearkens back to the age of the good B-movie matinee movie.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch