12.31.2010

My Chemical Romance, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (Reprise, 2010)


New Jersey's My Chemical Romance have been around since 2001, blasting their way to an increasingly large audience over the past decade. Their newest album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is a concept album set in a sort of post-apocalyptic California in the not too distant future. The band members take the roles of outlaws against an oppressive corporate state.

Danger Days is inspired by a lot of earlier bands who filled arenas in their day, with My Chemical Romance modifying the basic ideas to fit their own style in the present. Concept albums about rock and roll fighting back against a towering, oppressive status quo go at least as far back as Pink Floyd's 1979 album The Wall, if not Pete Townshend's Lifehouse concept that was partially presented in The Who's 1971 album Who's Next. The idea is an appealing one even if society isn't nearly as bad, or rock and roll nearly as much a force for good, as these albums generally lead you to believe. But I guess every generation needs to learn that in their own way at their own pace. Sonically, My Chemical Romance are a peculiar combination of let-it-all-out 90's grunge, the operatic grandiosity of Queen, and the bubble gum of bands like The Bay City Rollers. (The artistic leap from "S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y... night!" to "Na, na na na, na na na, na na na na na na na" is not as big as you might think.) The band members don't care for the "emo" label, but The Bee Gees didn't like being called disco, either. The album begins with commentary from a DJ, who makes two more appearances later on. The dialogue sounds like it came from an intermission in a first-person shooter, but My Chemical Romance do seem to know their target audience.

But even if you can argue that My Chemical Romance sling their guns in defiance all the way to the bank, the album does have enough fun, energetic songs to justify a few listens. The chorus of "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)" may not be poetically deep, but everybody can jump up and down while singing along with it. The positive, anthemic "SING" transcends the album's otherwise dark concept. "Party Poison" and the closing song "Vampire Money" are effective punk rave-ups guaranteed to send bodies flying at their shows.

I can certainly see the appeal of Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, but I had the unusual (and rather disturbing, to be honest) sensation while listening to it that I was too old for it. My Chemical Romance clearly aim their music at teenagers and adults younger than themselves (i.e., way younger than me), but they do seem to hit their targets for the most part.

Overall grade: B-


reviewed by Scott


"Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)"

Loreena McKennitt, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Quinlan Road, 2010)


Like a lot of performers who have become sufficiently well established that they no longer need to prove anything to anyone, Loreena McKennitt has started to take her time putting out new music. Her 2006 album An Ancient Muse came out nine years after its predecessor, The Book of Secrets. Four years after An Ancient Muse, McKennitt has decided to throw her patient fans a bit of a carrot in the form of a mostly traditional album called The Wind That Shakes the Barley. McKennitt's sources of inspiration have become increasingly global over the years, but her sound has always been Celtic at its heart. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a collection of some of the Irish songs that first led McKennitt into making a life out of music, and the songs are interpreted with the reverence and the quality that anybody familiar with her music would expect.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley does not unearth any rare treasures; instead, McKennitt focuses on songs that will be familiar to anybody with a sizable collection of Irish music. McKennitt has a bit of fun with the first two songs on the album, both of which generally go by the title "As I Roved Out." (The second song, which has been sung by Andy Irvine with Planxty among many other people, is here titled "On a Bright May Morning.") "Down by the Sally Gardens" is certainly an Irish folk standard, and McKennitt gives it a particularly nice rendition here. "The Star of the County Down" will appeal to anybody who knows a "fair colleen." My favorite piece is "Brian Boru's March," the first of two instrumentals, which is played here as a Medieval jig. It's the most exotic-sounding track on the album, though. Otherwise, McKennitt sticks to a basic combination of Celtic and New Age, leaning more on the Celtic side of things. She established her musical career initially by adopting this approach, and here she makes it look easy.

Indeed, the best and worst thing you can say about The Wind That Shakes the Barley is that it sounds so natural that it comes across as almost being effortless. Loreena McKennitt's mastery of Celtic music remains beyond reproach, and there's nothing on this CD that her fans won't like, but she's shown more ambition elsewhere.

Overall grade: B+


reviewed by Scott

a nice photo montage that somebody on YouTube set to "Brian Boru's March"

TRUE GRIT

The American Western returns to the big screen with True Grit, a remake of a John Wayne movie done by the Coen Brothers. This time around the result is both quirky and traditional.

The story in True Grit is about revenge, both legal and vigilante. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a very mature, blunt, and serious 14-year-old girl, is after Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her father in Arkansas. He fled to the Indian territories, where the law is uninterested in pursuing him. Mattie ignores the calls for her to head home; instead, she (comically) sells off some ponies to hire people to pursue Chaney, capture him, and return him for trial and execution.
Mattie winds up with two very different cowboys. U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a mess: old, fat, drunk, and one-eyed. He also has a reputation for being tenacious and more willing to kill a target than let him escape, so Mattie hires him over other candidates. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has been pursuing Chaney since the latter killed a Texas senator. LaBoeuf is more civilized than Cogburn, but possibly less experienced. And naturally, Mattie accompanies the two men on the manhunt.

True Grit is a blend of the romantic and realistic. There's a feeling of nostalgia for the West, as the trio travel through scenic terrain through much of the film. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are contrasts of the code of the West: the former is a wreck but gets the job done, while the latter is polished and prideful but may not have much backing him up. At the same time, this movie is very violent, from a public hanging early in the film to numerous scenes of bloodshed that are far from romanticized.

The Coen Brothers bring a few oddball touches to the film -- a wilderness doctor wearing a bearskin for warmth, Mattie's grandmother sharing a bed and stealing the covers -- but this True Grit is, by and large, a traditional Western, complete with dangerous terrain and shoot-outs against incredible odds. The acting is all very good (though young Hailee Steinfeld is given an edge with her serious dialogue over Jeff Daniels' almost clownish drunken buffoon) and the Coen Brothers know how to pace action and create tension. True Grit doesn't redefine the Western, but it's a good journey into the Old West.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.28.2010

Jesca Hoop, Hunting My Dress (Vanguard, 2010)


Jesca Hoop has had an unusual career trajectory, to say the least. A native of northern California, Hoop got her foot in the door in the music business by serving as a nanny for Tom Waits' children. After her first CD Kismet came out in 2007, Hoop made guest appearances on The Ditty Bops' 2008 album Summer Rains and also made friends with the Manchester, England band Elbow. Elbow's singer Guy Garvey talked Hoop into moving to Manchester, where Hoop put the finishing touches on her second album Hunting My Dress.

Hunting My Dress
is a quirky, eclectic, and strongly compelling collection of well-written songs. Hoop's music covers a broad spectrum between simple acoustic folk with subtle African influences, edgy alternative rock, and more dissonant, anarchic rock evocative of her former employer. Her lyrics range from giddy love songs like "Intelligentactile 101" (included as part of a bonus five-song EP) to more erotic songs like "Feast of the Heart," to surreal songs like "Four Dreams" inspired by her ability to vividly recall her experiences while sleeping, to more poignant songs like "Angel Mom" about her deceased mother. Hoop's vocal delivery is likewise diverse and unusual, running the gamut from angelic to aggravated. She even varies her accent in some of the songs, making some of her protagonists sound like they come from Manchester, for example.

Somehow, it all works. "The Kingdom" starts out as a solo acoustic song, but the addition of percussion an a change of rhythm magnify the tension dramatically. The strong, aggressively sensual single "Feast of the Heart" screams out for more airplay than it has presently gotten. "Murder of Birds" is a sublime piece of folk music, with a lead acoustic guitar nicely imitating a kora. "Bed Across the Sea" and "Tulip" have an insistent, unsettling drive to them. While I suppose most of the music on Hunting My Dress would be categorized as folk (at least to the extent that it can be categorized), Hoop is not afraid to challenge her audience or give her music an edge. She reminds me in good ways of Kate Bush at her best, not because they sound all that similar, but in the way they combine an appealing sort of weirdness with genuine artistry.

With Hunting My Dress, Jesca Hoop accomplishes the impressive double feat of making consistently excellent music without really sounding like anybody else. She's unique, off-kilter, very much outside of the box, and best of all, very good. Barring my acquisition of something super good in the next week, this will be my favorite album of 2010.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"The Kingdom"

Junip, Fields (Mute Corporation, 2010)


A Swede of Argentine descent, singer/guitarist José González has developed a respectable following in folk and alternative circles in recent years both as a solo artist and as a contributing singer to the group Zero 7. However, he had previously released an EP in Sweden as part of a band called Junip, with a pair of long-time friends Tobias Winterkorn (keyboards) and Elias Araya (drums). Junip recently re-united after a five-year hiatus, and their new album Fields is their first full-length release.

While González' characteristically dry vocals are unmistakeable, the backing of Winterkorn and Araya gives Junip a very different sound than people familiar with González' solo album In Our Nature might expect. Winterkorn's proficiency on electric piano, Moog, and organ are heavily influenced by the progressive rock of bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, and Araya's solid but steady percussion give the songs a good energy. Fields winds up having a considerably edgier overall sound than In Our Nature had. This may not please every José González fan, but I found it to be a refreshing change of pace.

Fields starts out particularly well, with two excellent tracks in "In Every Direction" and the single "Always." While these are the best two songs, the rest of the album is at least decent. "Rope & Summit" comes across as space-age jazz, and Araya's insistent drumming on "It's Alright" really enhances González' finger-picking. "Howl" and "Off Pont" have a driving rhythm that would have been out of place on In Our Nature, yet fit nicely here.

I already knew that José González was a promising upcoming artist, but I guess I can count Junip as a promising band as well. People who liked In Our Nature will definitely want to check Fields out, although I don't think Junip and José González' solo work will appeal to exactly the same audience.

Overall grade: B+


reviewed by Scott


An in-studio performance of "Rope and Summit"

12.22.2010

MUNCHKIN BOOTY 2: JUMP THE SHARK and FISH & SHIPS








Talk Like A Pirate Day isn't until September 19th, but Munchkin Booty -- the most recent game in the Munchkin series from Steve Jackson Games -- lets players act (and talk) like pirates any time they want. The two expansions for this game are Munchkin Booty 2: Jump the Shark and Fish & Ships, offering differing amounts for the original game.

Jump The Shark (sample cards shown below) doesn't change the original game as much as it gives it more th' same (to borrow a Lovecraftian phrase). There's one new class -- the Explorer -- and an odd way of supporting our troops: Four monsters suffer a penalty to current or former members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines, while current or former members of other military areas start at level 2. Otherwise, Jump the Shark gives more -- 112 cards more -- of the monsters, curses, treasures, modifiers, and classes that make Munchkin Booty so much fun.
Fish & Ships gives exactly what the name says: more fish-based monsters and more ships, along with modifiers for each. This is a substantially more modest set -- 15 cards -- but this also adds to the pirate feel of the game, as adding Fish & Ships to Munchkin Booty greatly increases the odds that players will get a ship, or ships, during the game. (Whether the opponents let them keep those ships is another story.)
Steve Jackson Games seem to be experimenting with both large and small expansions for their Munchkin games (Star Munchkin has a large expansion (The Clown Wars) and a 15-card set devoted to ships). While I'd be happier if the expansions were consolidated into one, they manage to keep the sense of humor and cutthroat competitiveness of the original game without making it impossible to play without them. I liked Jump the Shark more for providing a much greater variety (and quantity) of cards, but Fish & Ships certainly delivers what it promises.

Overall grades:
Munchkin Booty 2: Jump the Shark: B+
Fish & Ships: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.21.2010

EXIT TO EDEN

Thanks to writer Peter David, I know that when some authors make their work available for adaption by movie studios they do so unconditionally, letting the studios make whatever changes they want. That certainly explains how Anne Rice's erotic drama-romance novel became the Garry Marshall 1994 comedy Exit to Eden. The result is... flawed.
Exit to Eden is three movies squeezed into one. The first movie is a police flick, with undercover police officers Sheila (Rosie O'Donnell) and Fred (Dan Aykroyd) on the trail of murdering diamond smuggler Omar (Stuart Wilson) and his partner Nina (model Iman). Omar has never been photographed, until Australian photographer Elliot (Paul Mercurio) snapped his picture at an airport, leading both cops and criminals racing to get to Elliot and his film. Unfortunately for both, Elliot has gone to Eden, a BDSM island resort.
The second movie here is a comedy, as Shelia and Fred go to Eden undercover, as a guest and maintenance man, respectively. Most of the humor comes from Fred being uptight on an island of hedonists, while Sheila keeps spurning the advances of her submissive Tommy (Sean O'Bryan).

The third movie is a romance, as Elliot falls for Mistress Lisa (the lovely Dana Delany), who runs Eden. This plot is closest to the original novel (though toned down somewhat), but compressed as it competes with the other two plots for screen time.

Sadly, these three plots don't mesh into one satisfying movie. Top its credit, Exit to Eden resists the usual cinematic urge to portray kinky folks as either evil or goofy (though Tommy falls into the latter category). But the police story is extremely simple, and most of the comedy consists of O'Donnell's annoying shtick (which is almost every line she has) and Aykroyd acting uptight.

Then there's the romance. This might have worked -- the two actors are certainly attractive enough -- but there's not enough time on screen for it to feel anything but rushed. (I'm also very skeptical that a dominatrix in charge of a hedonistic island would start acting like a schoolgirl with a crush so quickly.) And if anyone's interested in this movie for prurient reasons, it does feature almost much male nudity as female (though the men don't get the occasional full-frontal treatment the women do). And if you ever wanted to see O'Donnell in a leather bustier, this may be your only chance.

Exit to Eden could have been a decent romance, or even a decent softcore porno (it had very nice costuming and a beautiful island), but by mixing those elements with attempted comedy and a typical cop plot it became an unfortunate muddle of genres that never fit together. Changing the original work so much absolutely did not work.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.18.2010

Simon Fagan, Outside Looking In (Loose Robe Productions, 2010)


Simon Fagan is a singer and songwriter from the town of Navan in County Meath, Ireland.  Most of his first full-length album Outside Looking In can be described as blue-eyed, husky-voiced soul along the lines of the Scottish singer Paolo Nutini or Andrew Strong from The Commitments, but there are some touches of folk and gospel here as well to keep things interesting.

The good news about Outside Looking In is that it doesn't waste a track, and a few songs are particularly good. "Damn Honey" is a nice, lively single, and the brassy "Never Really Cried" is first-rate soul.  "Won't Let Go" is a solid rocker, while the spiritual "Water's Edge" is lively and uplifting.  The minor-key "Love Don't Work" has a noirish quality that actually does work pretty well.

The catch with an album like this is that while there may be something on it for everybody, there may not be that one song that forces its way onto the radio or into people's iPods.  I've been worried for a while that the album is becoming something of a lost art, and that there is not enough reward for performers like Fagan who can be consistently good. Obviously, I hope I'm wrong.

Whether it gets to be a hit or not, there's plenty to like about Outside Looking In.  I look forward to hearing more from Simon Fagan in the future.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Damn Honey"

12.17.2010

TRON: LEGACY

The original movie Tron was a special effects-filled world where a human was sucked into a world where computer programs had lives and personalities -- and had to battle an evil, controlling program. Tron: Legacy follows a very similar story, though the sequel's special effects are a substantial improvement over the original's 1982 graphics.
Tron: Legacy begins seven years after the original movie, with master programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) telling his seven-year-old son Sam about a miraculous discovery -- and then disappearing. Jump to the present, and Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is a reckless daredevil and tech genius, giving company Encom's programs away for free (like Dad would have wanted) and getting in trouble with the law. After Sam's family friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role from the original movie) says he got a mysterious page from Kevin, Sam goes to investigate -- and gets zapped into a computer world.
The computer world is a brightly-lit wonder, where programs live and die at the whim of a master program named Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges, though looking 30 years younger). Clu was created by Kevin to create a perfect world, but instead Clu destroys imperfections and forces programs to battle with flying discs and light-cycle battles (much like in the original). And Clu has a master scheme involving Kevin.
While an action movie has enemies, it also needs allies. Sam finds both his long-lost father and a sexy cyber-babe named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) that is father's apprentice and his comrade in arms. It turns out that Kevin has been trapped there, hiding from Clu. There is a portal back to the real world, but it will only be open for a few more hours. Can Sam reach it in time? What is Clu's secret plan? What character is more than they appear?
Tron: Legacy is absolutely terrific to look at, with a cgi-generated neon atmosphere running through everything and action sequences that take full advantage of the movie's 3-D. There's also plenty here for fans nostalgic about the original movie, from the battles to the tank from the arcade game and a poster for The Black Hole, another Disney sci-fi movie (that is, not coincidentally, getting remade).
What's less impressive is the story and characters. The story is almost too similar to the original, complete with more elaborate-but-still-repeated battles from the first. There are also several lapses in the logic of the computer universe, notably towards the somewhat disappointing finale. The characters are pretty simple as well: Sam is a thrill-seeker glad to be reunited with his long-lost Dad, Kevin is a combination hippie and tech genius (at times it's hard not to imagine Jeff Bridges is borrowing from the Dude in The Big Lebowski), Clu represents control gone overboard, and Quorra is a curious sprite-like innocent.

But since Tron: Legacy is almost a video game (and sure enough, one has been released to coincide with the movie), plot and character are secondary to visuals and action. For all the philosophy about existence and father-son bonding, this movie's world is about the good guys glowing blue, the bad guys glowing red (or, in Clu's case, orange), and beating the ticking clock to save the day. Tron: Legacy is fluff, but visually impressive fluff.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.16.2010

THE COMPLETE BOOKS OF CHARLES FORT

Author Charles Fort described himself and his interests so: "I am a collector of notes upon subjects that have diversity -- such as deviations from the concentricity in the lunar crater Copernicus, and a sudden appearance of purple Englishmen -- stationary meteor-radiants, and a reported growth of hair on the bald head of a mummy -- and 'Did the girl swallow the octopus?'" He was a skeptic, an explorer from libraries, a challenger of orthodoxy, a possible lunatic, and a reporter of the bizarre. The Complete Books of Charles Fort gives readers a chance to decide which label(s) fit him best, through his four books: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents.

Charles Fort assembled thousands of notes by poring over newspapers and scientific journals, gathering reports from the 1800s to his present. (His books were written between 1921 and his death in 1932.) Much of what Fort found was the strange: rains of frogs and fish and blood, shapes seen on the faces of the moon or planets, spontaneous human combustion, possible UFOs, bizarre weather, stones falling inside houses. He also noted patterns in these events, and his skepticism in many of their explanations: "In the explanation of coincidence there is much of laziness, and helplessness, and response to an instinctive fear that a scientific dogma will be endangered."

Fort was highly critical of much conventional science -- especially astronomy -- feeling that it ignored or explained away any data that challenged its existing beliefs. (In The Book of the Damned the "damned" refers to any data that conventional scientists refused to explore.) Fort is often at his most impressive when presenting the cases skipped by science, giving examples of their weak justifications and omissions of admitting when they are wrong: "Who could not be a prize marksman, if only his hits be recorded?" He brings up often the unsatisfying (to him) explanations of coincidence, human mischief, mass psychology, confessions that don't cover everything, and mysterious storms not reported by anyone.

Fort's approach was to present the information and to let the readers laugh at him and decide for themselves: "I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes, and superstitions. To some degree I think so, myself. To some degree I do not. I offer the data." He isn't gullible and dismisses many hoaxes, but he examines much that is taken for granted.

As for Fort's beliefs, they are often... unique. He argues, among other things, that: some appearances of objects on the ground fell from an area of no gravity which he calls the Super-Sargasso Sea, hovering over earth; the earth doesn't rotate, and stars and planets are far closer than astronomers believe; the stars may be slits in a gigantic dark shell enclosing the universe; and what was considered witchcraft may be superhuman abilities (his "wild talents") from the past appearing in the present. His belief as an Intermediatist comes very close to relativism, where nothing is right or wrong: "Our intermediatist means of expression will be that, with proper exclusions, after the scientific or theological method, anything can be identified with anything else, if all things are only different expressions of an underlying oneness."

But you don't have to agree with Fort's beliefs or conclusions to enjoy The Complete Books of Charles Fort. The man has a mischievous writing style, whether creating clever phrases ("The outrageous is the reasonable, if introduced politely;" "History is a department of human delusion that interests us") or stringing together series of fragment from previous examples. While he often kids about his own ideas ("Not that I mean anything by anything"), he also points out many of the flaws in accepted orthodoxy of his time (and, sometimes, ours). The Complete Books of Charles Fort is a flawed masterpiece that may be a masterpiece because of its flaws.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.14.2010

Faun, Renaissance (Noir, 2005) and Buch der Balladen (Banshee Records, 2009)



Germany has a very active scene for bands performing music from, and inspired by, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  I've already reviewed albums by Corvus Corax and Adaro, and the latest of these bands to get my attention is a group called Faun.  Faun are a little bit different from the other German neo-Medieval bands I know in that they're more strongly influenced by contemporary European folk music, particularly from Scandinavia.  Their fourth album Renaissance was released in 2005, while their sixth studio album Buch der Balladen (The Book of Ballads) came out in 2009.

The Faun lineup on Renaissance consisted of original members Oliver "Sa Tyr" Pade (vocals, bouzouki, nyckelharpa, harp, jews harp), Elisabeth Pawelke (vocals and hurdy gurdy), and Fiona Rüggeberg (vocals, whistles and recorders, bagpipes), plus Rüdiger Maul (percussion) and Niel Mitra (electronics).  The wide range of instruments enable Faun to achieve a more diverse sound than you might normally expect from a Medieval album.  Most of the lead vocals are shared by the women, perhaps owing some debt to Scandinavian bands like Hedningarna and Ranarim, and the songs are sung in several different languages.  The song "Da Que Deus" and the instrumental "Rhiannon" are performed in a jig rhythm, giving the album a bit of a Celtic flavor, but the modal melodies evoke a time well before jigs became associated primarily with Ireland.  Faun also venture into Middle Eastern, belly-dance style music on the song "Sirena." While there are some electronic touches in the arrangements, they are generally subtle.  The percussion is likewise mostly subtle, but the exceptions like "Satyros" and "Iyansa" are some of the album's highlights.

For the new CD, Pawelke was replaced by Sandra Elflein. (Elflein was herself replaced earlier this year by a singer named Raida.) Faun set to music segments from legends and epic poems, with particular emphasis on the connection between Norse legends and the folklore of their homeland. Much of Buch der Balladen revolves around the legends surrounding Sigurd and Gudrun and the saga of the Nibelungs.  Although the earliest written versions of these stories come from Iceland, they form a major part of German folklore as well and were of course immortalized in the operas of Richard Wagner. They have been translated into English as well by several authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien. Faun use texts from the Faroe Islands (yes, them again) for their own arrangements, as opposed to the more familiar Icelandic edda. The international flavor to the music on Buch der Balladen continues with "Herr Heinerich," a German translation of a Scottish ballad about a king's encounter with troll, a mythical monster of Scandinavian creation. Faun follow this with the instrumental "Sen Polska," a type of Swedish folk dance. Other ballads on the album include "Der Wilde Wassermann," a German legend about an encounter with a water elemental, and "Belle Dame Sans Merci," a German version of an English poem (by John Keats) with a French title.

Musically, Faun are as much a contemporary folk band as they are Medieval re-creationists. They aren't academically committed, the way Sequentia were on their album Edda, to re-create performances as they would have sounded in the great halls of Medieval Germanic Europe, but they do put care into their arrangements and come up with some really nice music as a result. These arrangements are not as elaborate or as technically difficult as ones you might find on other folk recordings (compare "Sen Polska" with any polska on a Väsen CD, for example), but Faun succeed in turning their relative simplicity into a virtue. As far as early music goes I'm partial to the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, and consequently to songs like "Herr Heinerich" and "Jahrtausendalt."

Faun have been performing together for close to a decade at this point, and have built up a impressive body of music. Fans of the Medieval elements in contemporary folk music will like them a lot.

Overall grades:
Renaissance B+
Buch der Balladen A-


reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Herr Heinerich"

12.11.2010

BURLESQUE

Here's a wildly unoriginal idea for a movie: A small-town girl moves to the big city, struggles at first, and becomes wildly successful, famous, beloved by everyone, and adored by a cute guy. Toss in some risque dance numbers and you have the movie Burlesque.
Ali (Christina Aguilera) is the young woman leaving Iowa for a better life in California. After a very brief job-hunting montage she winds up at the Burlesque Lounge (a pretty unoriginal name for a, er, burlesque lounge) and is enthralled by the sexy dancing. Quickly chatting up cute bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), she gets a job as a waitress. But wouldn't you know it, she wants to dance! On stage! And she wants them to sing instead of just lip-syncing!
The club has its own problems. Owner/performer/surrogate mother to the dancers Tess (Cher) is drowning in debt and resisting offers to sell the place to real-estate developer Marcus (Eric Dane). Lead performer Nikki (Kristen Bell) shows up late, drinks too much, sabotages anyone she sees as a threat, and apparently has no redeeming qualities.
What else? Let's toss in a funny gay friend, Sean (Stanley Tucci, who steals every scene he's in), who's Tess's friend and works at the club. Let's make Jack more than a bartender, but a sensitive hunk who writes songs. Let's have Ali move in with Jack, but nothing happen because he has a demanding fiancee who's in New York. Let's have baddie Marcus romancing Ali. And, of course, let's have Ali go from a nobody to famous and the savior of the club.

Burlesque was painful, but not entirely so. The music was quite good, Stanley Tucci is hilarious, and the musical numbers are like a well-performed music video. (Burlesque is PG-13, so if you're hoping to see a lot of skin you'll get tease instead of totality.) Unfortunately Christina Aguilera is very dull when she's not singing, and Cher's role has her doing little more than being a den mother. Some of the dialogue is laughably bad, and the villains are so one-dimensional they should be wearing black hats.

According to the IMDB, writer-director Steve Antin got the idea for Burlesque after watching Aguilera performing with the Pussycat Dolls. If only he'd known that sexy dancing alone can't sustain a full-length movie...

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.10.2010

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK: DATING & SEX

Dating can be rough, sex can be rough, relationships can be rough -- but life-threatening? The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating and Sex by Joshua Piven, David Borgenicht, and Jennifer Worick gives advice for those who have a Murphy's Law approach to dating -- such as telling if your date is an axe murderer, or what to do if your cut your jugular while shaving to prepare for the date.

This book is divided into five sections -- Defensive Dating, First Impressions, Restaurant and Survival Skills, Bedroom Survival, and Relationship Survival -- and each section has multiple chapters, with advice from the authors and experts on how to evaluate and handle the potential problems before, during, or after a date. (The appendix includes a generic breakup letter, useful excuses, pickup lines to avoid, and a guide to body language.) The subtopics in each chapter are bright red, and there are often illustrations.

I'm uncertain of the necessity of this book. The authors do lighten their advice with humor frequently (after describing how to dine and dash, the book notes, "Stiffing the restaurant is illegal and may land you in jail, where the food is not very good"), and everything the authors advise makes sense. However, while the introduction says this is to help deal with problems instead of finding the right partner, this is quite a range of problems, from fashion difficulties to surviving snoring to dealing with a cheating partner (and the next chapter ironically covers how to have an affair without getting caught) to life-threatening situations and how to fight (and treat a black eye). Were this less serious, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating and Sex might be a parody of the potential pitfalls in the world of dating. Given its serious advice, however, the result is an odd blend of how to handle minor mishaps and devastating difficulties. In one place, that's an uneven blend.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.04.2010

Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2010)


A creator of elaborate but unusual concept albums -- he once intended to do a themed album for each of the fifty states, but only got as far as Michigan and Illinois -- Sufjan Stevens never fails to be interesting.  As anybody who knows my mother-in-law can tell you, though, "interesting" is not always a compliment.  Illinois, named the best album of the 00s by Paste Magazine, came across as the soundtrack of a cheesy musical that somehow managed to have some genuinely memorable moments; it's impossible to hear the choruses of "Chicago" or "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" without singing along.  But if Illinois was a play, then Stevens' new album The Age of Adz is a big budget sci-fi musical extravaganza -- directed, unfortunately, by Ed Wood.

The inspiration for The Age of Adz was Stevens' recovery from a fairly serious illness last year.  The basic theme of the album is to live life to the fullest, which is fine and good but could have been expressed more simply than it is here.  The best track on the album is actually the prologue "Futile Devices," a short, romantic acoustic ballad.  After that, Stevens' over-the-top grandiosity runs amuck.  Illinois had its share of orchestration and choral singing, too, but there was also a rustic pleasance to that album that is replaced here by a heavy, heavy, heavy dose of electronics.  You get the sense while listening to this album that Stevens mapped out every electronic beep, whirl, and gadgety effect carefully and precisely, and yet the overall effect is ultimately cluttered and intrusive.  There are some good melodies at points, like on "Get Real Get Right" and "Bad Communication," but they're almost completely buried.

And the lyrics, when given particular emphasis, come across as trite.  At the end of the penultimate song "I Want to Be Well," Stevens declares "I'm not fucking around!" repeatedly, to the point that whatever effect the use of strong language was supposed to have gets beaten into a silly submission.  If the repetition in that song is irritating, however, it becomes colossally ridiculous in the twenty-five minute closing song "Impossible Soul."  The first twelve minutes are tedious enough, but most of the second half of this song is dominated by the phrase "Boy, we could do much more together, it's not so impossible!" being repeated endlessly, relentlessly, interminably.

Heroically ambitious yet horrifically overwrought, The Age of Adz suffers from too much self-indulgence and not nearly enough real depth or musicality. I can't flunk it entirely, because Sufjan Stevens boldly goes places with his music where few recording artists would even dream of going. But like Casey at the Bat, he takes a mighty swing and comes up empty.

Overall grade: D

reviewed by Scott

12.02.2010

Johnny Clegg, Human (Appleseed Records, 2010)


Johnny Clegg has been one of my favorite performers for a long time.  (The fact that he is ultimately the reason I met my wife doesn't hurt his case, either.)  Whether he has performed as the white half of the legendary South African duo Juluka, as the leader of Johnny Clegg & Savuka, or more recently as a solo artist, Clegg has always written songs about the struggles of his homeland and home continent, mixing English and Zulu in his unique style.  His new CD Human finds him trying a couple of new things, but ultimately succeeding best with what has always worked for him over the past thirty years.

Clegg has tried his hand at some more mainstream rock and pop in his solo recordings, and Human continues this trend.  Songs like the opener "Love in the Time of Gaza" and "Hidden Away Down" are quality rockers, even if they lack the distinctively African touches that characterize most of Clegg's work. "All I Got Is You" veers towards electronic dance pop, while "Give Me the Wonder" has a decidedly Latin flavor, and the ominous opening chords of "Here Comes That Feeling" recall 90s alternative rock. 

That being said, Clegg has always been at his best when he's crossed cultures and styles together.  His back catalog is filled with many great songs combining English verses and Zulu choruses sung with powerful South African harmonies, and the new song "Congo" fits in with the best of these. My favorite song on the new album is the closing song "Magumede," an adaptation of a traditional Bhaca song. The lyrics are simple and humorous -- a boy asks his mother who has taken his pants, the mother responds by asking him where he slept last night -- but the group singing and humming are as irresistibly infectious as anything Clegg has done in a very long time.

Never one to shy away from politics, Clegg addresses a number of contemporary issues on Human. The inspiration for "Love in the Time of Gaza" came from a young couple talking in the background that Clegg noticed as a CNN camera panned across scenes of rubble and devastation after an Israeli attack. "The sky is black with gunships, but I'm dreaming of a girl." Some feelings and hopes transcend any location and even the most bleak of circumstances. CNN also provided the inspiration for the song "Hidden Away Down"; a friend of Ted Kennedy quoted Hemmingway at his funeral, saying that the world breaks everybody but that some people emerge stronger for having been broken. "Congo" addresses the unfortunate situation in the central African nation, whose natural wealth has increased the oppression of its inhabitants instead of liberating them from it. The control of the diamond industry has passed from one warlord to the next, and the people in general are only valued for the diamonds they can extract.

Johnny Clegg has made a remarkable career out of addressing the African condition in a way that is earnest and though-provoking on one hand, but lively and energetic on the other. The willingness to sing and dance along has always been a prerequisite for appreciating Clegg's music. As his first full album of new material to get officially released in the United States since the last Savuka album Heat, Dust & Dreams in 1993, Human has the potential to introduce Johnny Clegg's music to a new generation of fans; if you listen to Human and like what you hear, definitely delve into this great performer's history. And of course, people who've stuck with Clegg for a long time have every reason to go get this album as well.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

A solo acoustic performance of "Love in the Time of Gaza"

12.01.2010

THE VICTORIA'S SECRET FASHION SHOW

It's time for the annual hour-long commercial you'd be crazy to change the channel on: The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. This year's show went back to basics, which is basically hot models strutting down the runway in lingerie and, more often than not, very large and elaborate wings.

The format for this year's show/commercial will be familiar to anyone who's tuned in to this before. Most of the show is the runway walk, with quick clips of the stagehands ushering the models on and off the stage to get ready for the next appearance. Music consists of current pop hits and mash-ups of current pop hits, while runway themes varied from a farm to sports to an African forest.

There are also short behind-the-scenes features, which this year meant the models praising each other -- or saying how much they all want to wear some of the aforementioned wings.

Are the Victoria's Secret models now celebrities? If so, there were over 30 of them up on stage last night. No one returned from VS retirement (as Heidi Klum did last year), so it was up to the current crop of Angels to strut their stuff.
This year's musical guests were Katy Perry and Akon (picured below), and their singing certainly suited the occasion: festive, light, and appropriate for a party (or fashion show).
The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is at it has been: a commercial for the lingerie chain; a chance to see some of the most beautiful women on the planet in some of the skimpiest outfits on the planet; and another occasion for me to wonder why Victoria's Secret commercials air during this show. It's honest in its commercialism, it's well produced, and The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is an annual tradition that certainly delivers!
Reviewed by James Lynch
P.S. For those who missed it last night, The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show will play again on Wednesday, December 8th at 8:00 on the CW.


11.29.2010

Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins, Northlands (Northlands Music, 2010)


While they may fall under most people's radars, there are thriving scenes in the United States for many different types of folk music from around the world.  Fans of the traditional music of Scandinavia, for example, form a small but very tightly knit community that host weekly dances in big cities like New York and in rural areas as well.  Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins are prominent American fiddlers who specialize in the Swedish and Norwegian traditions.  On Northlands, the pair perform a set of mostly self-composed tunes dedicated to specific musicians and dancers in the Scandinavian folk community in America.

Northlands is actually a difficult album for me to review objectively.  Not only do I know Bruce Sagan, but I'm close friends with several people to whom tunes on the album were dedicated.  So I'll describe the music here in some general terms, before contrasting Northlands with an album I reviewed here a few months ago.  The primary style of tune or dance in Sweden is the polska, a 3/4 style with emphasis on the first and third beats.  The polska may have originated in Poland, but in Sweden it has evolved into many distinct varieties, each one peculiar to a particular village.  Waltzes and marches are popular as well, as are schottisches, which evolved from Scottish hornpipes.  The Norwegian variant of the polska is called the pols; a typical pols is faster and more energetic than a typical polska.  The melodic styles in these tunes are rooted primarily in the Baroque period, although some tunes go back a little farther than that in spirit.  The tunes on Northlands reflect the Baroque side of Scandinavian music, with one fiddler playing an intricate melody while the other plays a tightly structured harmony underneath it.  You can really hear the history in the style when Sagan and ievins switch from the fiddle to the nyckelharpa, a Swedish keyed fiddle.  Featuring a set of droning strings underneath the four main ones, the nyckelharpa resonates with a very distinctive warmth. Sagan and ievins cover as broad a spectrum of Swedish and Norwegian fiddling tunes as you can cover on one CD, so they maintain quite a bit of variety within their two-fiddle, melody-and-harmony format.

This spring I reviewed an album called Duets Abroad by Ruthie Dornfeld, another American fiddler inspired by fiddling tradition in Scandinavia.  Dornfeld works primarily with musicians from Finland on Duets Abroad, but the Finnish fiddling tradition evolved from music originally imported from Sweden. (The Finnish word pelimanni is derived from the Swedish word spelmanslag, which roughly translates as "fiddler's group.")  At face value the two albums might seem similar, but they reflect very different facets of the same tradition.  Duets Abroad includes some very primal-sounding tunes rooted in the Middle Ages, along with some arrangements that are very anarchic and avant-garde.  By contrast, Northlands is more conventional, with more structured melodies and tight but exquisite harmonies.  I'm equally fond of both albums, but I can certainly see why they might not appeal to the exact same audience.

Northlands is a fine collection of tunes in the Swedish and Norwegian fiddling traditions.  Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins are both very capable composers, and their playing is superb throughout. I'm partial to "Polska til Margie" and "Kry på Dig, Carolyn! (Get Well Carolyn)" for personal reasons, but the waltz "Längtan efter Sally (Longing after Sally)" is really good as well.  People in the Scandinavian folk community, here in America or elsewhere, shouldn't need my recommendation to go get this.  Otherwise, anybody interested in well-played violin or fiddle music will find this worth their while as well.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Bruce Sagan giving a solo performance of "Get Well Carolyn"

11.26.2010

BURLESQUE soundtrack


The art of burlesque involves both less and more than a striptease: less skin (but still skin) and more art. If you accept this, the Burlesque movie soundtrack makes a lot of sense: The songs here are both soulful classics and could be used to strip down. And they work very well.

This album has ten songs: eight from Christina Aguilera, two from Cher. Unlike Aguilera's far too electronic album Bionic, on Burlesque her voice is given a chance to shine -- and shine it does. Aguilera covers classic songs (Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold of Me" and "Tough Lover," Mae West's "A Guy What Takes His Time") extremely well, capturing the old-time soul of the songs without merely copying them. (Her teasing "But I Am a Good Girl" could also be from that era, but it's an Aguilera's original.) Aguilera also has what could be current club hits, from "Express" to a song that borrows the chorus from Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People," and these are terrific fun: a modern contrast to the classic-sounding tunes.

As for Cher, while I've always been indifferent to her music, her two songs on Burlesque are quite good. Her "Welcome to Burlesque" certainly feels like an intro to a burlesque club, and "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" is both sad and strong, about being tough when things get rough. Cher fans will be thrilled that she's singing again (even for just two songs), and they work well with Aguilera's music.

I haven't seen the movie Burlesque, but I really enjoyed the Burlesque movie soundtrack. This is sexy and fun, the classic and contemporary mixed together.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


11.24.2010

TANGLED

Some of Disney's biggest hits have been their takes on classic fairy tales, and this continues with their latest movie: Tangled. This cgi film is part action, part romance (very large part romance), part musical, part comedy -- and very entertaining.
The story starts with the evil Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnapping the baby Rapunzel, princess of the kingdom, to use her magic hair to stay young. (The hair lights up, can heal wounds, and can reverse aging -- when sang to. Go with it.) Jump ahead several years and Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is about to turn 18, has lived her whole life trapped in a high tower, thinks Gothel is her mother, dreams of leaving the tower to see the floating lights that appear each year on her birthday, and has very, very, very long hair. In Disney tradition, there's a cute animal sidekick: Pascal, a chameleon. Gothel keeps the young heroine staying put with scary tales of the outside world, and passive-aggressive insults to her "daughter."
Enter the lovable rogue Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), who just stole the royal crown and is fleeing from the royal guard (and animal antagonist Maximus, who acts more like a bloodhound than a horse) and the Stabbington Brothers (Ron Perlman). Flynn winds up captured by Rapunzel (their "meet cute" involves her repeatedly bashing him with a frying pan) and agrees to take her to see the floating lights in exchange for her giving him the crown afterwards. What follows is a series of adventures, from painting and dancing to a tavern filled with soft-hearted ruffians.
Tangled is, simply put, a lot of fun. Mandy Moore may not be a teenager anymore, but she certainly captures the exuberance, wonder, and conflict of being a teen (especially when alternating between glee and guilt about defying her "mother" and leaving the tower). Flynn Rider is very close to Aladdin from, well, Aladdin, but Levi does a fine job as the thief who's in love with himself, but grows (of course) through the film. And Gothel is an unusual Disney villain, relying on guilt more than magic; Donna Murphy voices her beautifully, reminding me a lot of Marina Sirtis (best known as Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation). The songs are mixed (Moore sings beautifully, though other songs are forgettable), and action is well done, there's plenty of comedy, and the romance is predictable but sweet. Tangled captures the enchantment of the fairy tale, making it a very entertaining movie.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch
(the only male in the theater when I saw Tangled)

11.23.2010

THINGS WE THINK ABOUT GAMING by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball

There are many facets to the world of gaming -- tactics, players, history, design, business -- and authors Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball act as agents provocateur in short form about almost all of them in their book Things We Think About Games. This collection of thoughts sometimes explains, often provokes, and will generate a lot of controversy.

The main body of Things We Thing About Games consists of 101 entries about the world of gaming by the authors. These entries range from several paragraphs to a single sentence; the main point, at the start or end of the entry, is always in bold type. Some of the entries are practical (how to determine if a die roll is cocked or flat), some are philosophical (the difference between strategy and tactics), some are aimed at players and some at game designers.

Many of the entries are opinionated, and often they will inspire debate, offense (the word "fuckwit" appears in four entries -- once in Latin), and possibly controversy. This is by design: as Tidball says in his introduction, "The hope is that short, provocative nuggets will spark your thinking and force you to make up your own damn mind." And this format works. While it's impossible to read Things We Think About Games from start to finish and agree with everything, this book does force the reader to examine what they agree with -- and why.

There's a lot more in Things We Think About Games than the authors' opinions. This book also has: introductions from Robin Laws (author of Hamlet's Hit Points) and celebrity geek Wil Wheaton; 26 more short entries from various gaming professionals; John August's "7 Lessons Learned from World of Warcraft"; and S. John Ross' essay "Cliche, Combat, Fellowship, Anarchy and Enigma." These additional writings are nice bookends to the entries from Hindmarch and Tidball.

Things We Think About Games generates the best sort of disagreement: the kind that gets you thinking and talking. The entries are sometimes too brief for their own good, as they can lack detail (the plus side is that this is a quick read: I read it twice on the day I got it) but they combine experience, attitude, and humor. The results of Things We Think About Games will be each reader's analysis of playing and/or designing games, player analysis and (hopefully) self-analysis, and a lot more thinking about the world of gaming.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Blind Faith - Ben Elton (2007)



Ben Elton's Blind Faith might very well be a minor masterpiece. In many ways it's an update of 1984, with dashes of the Spanish Inquisition thrown in for piquancy. It dwells on themes which seem to obsess Elton - fame, notoriety, the nature of celebrity, human stupidity, the mixed blessing of the Internet and of technology in general, and so on. He's explored these before in, for instance, Chart Throb and Dead Famous. Blind Faith is darker than those books but still manages to be funny, no mean trick.

Here's a quote that stuck with me, and one that summarizes neatly the setting of the near-future dystopia and how we got there:

"Almost anything that we might wish to read could be located on the net instantly and traced straight back to us. The internet was supposed to liberate knowledge but in fact it buried it, first under a vast sewer of ignorance, laziness, bigotry, superstition and filth and then beneath the cloak of police surveillance. Now, as you know, cyberspace exists exclusively to promote commerce, gossip and pornography."


In the Britain of the novel, privacy itself is seditious. One is expected to post to the Internet constantly the most intimate details of one's life, preferably with video. Failure to do so risks accusations of "thinking you're better than me," and inciting mob violence. Any complaint about another's behaviour, no matter how small the complaint or how outrageous the behaviour, is considered an attempt to infringe on someone's right of self-expression. It's political correctness carried to farcical extremes. And we can see the hints of it already. In American today, "elite" seems to be a bad word unless applied to military units. The slope is getting slippery.

The plot is not revolutionary (pun intended). Our unhappy hero begins a slow resistance to the oppression that he suffers under. He starts to rebel, and the weight of the state moves against him. He becomes something of an everyman hero. And, well, anything more would be a spoiler.

Be warned, this is not a happy book. Parts of it are very funny, but it is dark. It is an indictment of society today and a warning about where we might go. Is it a classic? Time will tell. Is it playing in the same league as 1984 and Brave New World? Difficult to say. But make no mistake, it is playing the same game.

Overall Grade: A

11.17.2010

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT PORTFOLIO: PARADISE FOUND

While the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is an annual tradition, a coffee table book of other pictures from that photo shoot may have become an annual tradition as well. This year's collection is Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found and it once again showcases beautiful women at beautiful locales wearing (or at least holding) beautiful swimwear.

The introduction goes from John Milton and Renaissance painter Tintoretto to Guns N' Roses in less than a page, but after that comes the reason for the book: swimsuit models, photographed in exotic places. (Actually, I count four photos before the introduction as well.) Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found features eighteen models, photographed by five photographers, in places ranging from India to Chile to the Maldives to California.
As in previous Swimsuit Portfolios, each "chapter" begins with the photographer's comments on the model, followed by several pages of photos of that model, followed with that model's thoughts of the shoot and/or photographer. There are different local features, not to mention several animals and even two shoots revolving around WWII planes, but the main appeal remains the models.

As always, the combination of women and location is nigh-flawless. I didn't recognize the names of most of the models here (exceptions: Bar Refaeli and Brooklyn Decker) but the photographs are all stunning. This is the identical format to the previous portfolios, but considering how well it works, why change it? Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found is indeed a collection of visual samples of paradise.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch