Britney Spears, FEMME FATALE

In a music world where pop is dominated by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, is there still room for Britney Spears? Femme Fatale, Spears' seventh studio album, has the singer trying to be both sexy and naughty. The key word in that last sentence is "trying."

Femme Fatale peaks early, with two songs already released on the radio: the dance-club anthem "Till the World Ends" and the slightly catchy "Hold It Against Me" (even if the latter includes one of the cheesiest pick-up lines in its chorus). From there, Britney is "taking out my freak tonight," whether it's a hook-up before a final break-up ("Inside Out"), sheer physical attraction ("(Drop Dead) Beautiful"), or whatever this is: "I can be your trouble, babe/you can be my bass."

It's a toss-up between which is weaker on Femme Fatale: the lyrics (none of which were written by Britney Spears this time around) or the vocals. I suspect when, at the end of 2011 rolls around, music critics will be combing through this album for several candidates for the worst lyrics. For me, it's a tie between: "I will pay whatever just to get a better view/and yeah your body looks so sick I think I caught the flu"; and "A spark, and it's like gasoline/ I start purring like a machine/ my heart only runs on supreme/ so hot, give me your gasoline."

And while much music is bad poetry (though usually not this bad) set to singing, the singing here is indifferent. While Spears has never been known as a powerful vocalist, on Femme Fatale the songs are either simply spoken or delivered without any passion or interest.

Femme Fatale won't prove fatal to Britney Spears' career -- her very public ups and downs, plus plenty of criticism, prove that -- but wow, is it a bad album. This is what happens when a superficial pop princess phones it in; and it's not pretty.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch



You're in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts in 1926. Unspeakably powerful entities are stirring, creating Gates that enable monsters to pour out into the streets. An eclectic group of Investigators struggle to battle the monsters, close the Gates, and if necessary make a final, desperate stand against the Ancient Ones themselves. No, you're not playing the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, but the cooperative boardgame based on it: Arkham Horror. This game (the latest version is from Fantasy Flight Games) captures the absolute feel of the world of H.P. Lovecraft -- and a game that can be overwhelming in its detail.
Each player has an Investigator, with quite a few stats: Stamina, Sanity, starting location for their marker on the board, starting possessions, and three sets of skills that decrease one if the other is increased: Speed/Sneak, Fight/Will, and Luck/Lore. The players are in Arkham, represented by a sizable and detailed board of nine districts, composed of buildings (some of which let you do certain things at them) connected by streets. The board also has the Terror Track, eight locations in the Other World, and spots for the Outskirts, the Sky, and Lost in time and space. And you better leave space around the board (which isn't small) for the numerous decks (nine locations, Gate cards, Mythos cards, Allies, Common Items, Unique Items, Spells, Skills) and tokens (Doom tokens, Gate markers, money, Stamina, and Sanity), not to mention each player's Investigator sheet. (This is just the core game: There are numerous expansions, from other opponents to whole new locations to miniatures for the Investigators.)
At the start of the game an Ancient One is chosen for the main enemy. They have several stats, from their continuing effect on the game to a Doom Track (showing how close they are to breaking forth on our world) to the combat conditions if they do make it and the Investigators have to battle them directly. As for the monsters that come into play, they also have several stats: How difficult they are to evade (using Sneak), their Sanity loss (opposed by Will), their physical combat damage, how they move (five types of movement!), toughness to defeat, and possible special abilities.
The turn sequence is straightforward. First, upkeep is performed. Then the player can move, based on their Speed (evading or fighting monsters). If in an Arkham location, they have an encounter: either drawing an Encounter card for their location or using the special ability of a location. If at a Gate, they can pass through it to go to its corresponding area in the Other World. If in the Other World, they move to the second Other World area (and have an Encounter) or, if in the second area, they return to the Gate in Arkham and can try and close it. Players can also try and collect Clues, which can be spent to add dice to skill rolls; five can be spent when a Gate is closed to put an Elder Sign on it, permanently sealing it. Afterwards, the player draws a Mythos card, which opens a Gate (unless blocked by an Elder Sign), adds a Doom Token to the Ancient One (if a new Gate opens), and sends a monster through a new Gate, or if the location had a Gate sends a monster to every gate in play. And if a player is at the location where the new Gate opens, that player is sucked into the Other World.

There's also a monster limit, which if exceeded sends monsters to the Outskirts, which if numerous enough raises the Terror Level, which can make shops closed. Combat isn't any simpler, involving a Terror check, Fight rolls for combat, and either beating the monster (and keeping it as a trophy, which can be sold or used in the game) or taking damage. And an Investigator who loses all their Sanity or Stamina isn't gone (unless it's the end of the game), but loses many of their Items and Clues, turning up in St. Mary's Hospital or Arkham Asylum on their next turn.

If all this sounds overwhelming, it can be. This is a pity, as this amazing amount of detail also makes Arkham Horror a very faithful re-creation of the Lovecraftian mythos. The art (much is the same as in FFG's Call of Cthulhu card game) captures the shadowy world of haunted Arkham very well, from the hideous monsters to the intrepid heroes struggling against the darkness. The different areas of Arkham have their own unique feel: You're likely to find information in the area of Miskatonic University, trouble in Rivertown, and the supernatural at Uptown. With players working together, they have to both try and defeat the monsters (as locations close, the players lose the benefit of those places) and permanently seal the gates (since it's very frustrating to go through the trouble and turns needed to close a Gate, only to have it reopen a turn or two later). And it is possible to defeat the Ancient One -- but very, very hard. It's much easier to try and win by closing all the Gates on the board.

Arkham Horror has an estimated playing time of two to four hours (not including setup), and playing it can be quite daunting, between the numerous cards and all the rules. That said, if your players can handle the time and effort it takes to play, Arkham Horror is a very detailed and faithful trip into the world of H.P. Lovecraft -- albeit one where the monsters are literally wandering around the streets. This is not an easy game, but with dedication it can be fun.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



It's ironic that in the movie Sucker Punch so much detail went into creating a computer-animated world of diverse fantasy, yet so little went into the characters. This is a movie more about cool stuff than coherence, with plenty of contradictions to boot.
Sucker Punch has stories within stories within stories. At the movie's melodramatic and dimly-lit opening, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is committed to a depressing insane asylum when her mother dies and her ultra-evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) drunkenly kills (and possibly rapes) Baby Doll's sister and commits Baby Doll to get the inheritance for himself. Baby Doll overheard doctor Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) taking money to forge a form that will get her lobotomized in five days. The main area of the asylum is called the Theater, where Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) tries to use music as therapy for the all-female patients.

So much for reality. The institute morphs into a burlesque club/brothel where Blue Jones is the sleazy owner and Gorski is the dance instructor for the dancer-prostitutes. Here Baby Doll meets her sexy dancer-prisoners: friendly Rocket (Jenna Malone), her protective sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and generic sexy female characters Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). None of it like it there but they're too scared to try and escape. And in five days the High Roller will be coming for Baby Doll. So... cue another reality!
Every time the music plays, Baby Doll has visions. A Wise Man (Scott Glenn, doing his best to impersonate David Carradine) tells Baby Doll she needs five things to earn her freedom: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing that's a mystery. Back in the club, Baby Doll comes up with what could sort of be considered a plan: When music plays, Baby Doll will dance, which is so enthralling that her friends can steal what they need while Baby Doll is watching. And we never see Baby Doll dance, because as soon as she starts we see her imagining herself and four friends -- armed with guns and swords, battling inhuman opponents -- to get the items they need for freedom (with the Wise Man there, giving mission instructions and cryptic advice).
There are several disconnects in Sucker Punch. First, the story in a story in yet another story leaves the viewer several degrees removed from the action. The gigantic battles are meant to parallel the situation in the burlesque club, but it's a hallucination from a person standing and dancing, not a real struggle. Second, the movie tries far too hard to be cutting edge, from dark covers of cool songs (like "White Rabbit" and "Tomorrow Never Knows") to strange creatures (steampunk zombie German soldiers! a dragon! shiny robots!) to the industrial-Goth feel of the movie. Third, while the movie goes for a grim and gritty visual tone, the characters are pure good or pure evil. And while the movie shows almost all the men as lecherous, the filmmaker has the women always dressed as fantasy objects, like Baby Doll's Japanese schoolgirl-type outfit or the cleavage-showing soldiers. It's like complaining about sexism while putting the cast in sexy outfits. And sadly, the characters are paper-thin: Each one is lucky to have one distinguishing trait.
Sucker Punch showcases what cgi can do with action scenes and a unique world -- and serves as a reminder not to forget the story, message, or characters. Director Zack Snyder has done other computer-generated movies before, and I'd suggest he go back to the basics of movies before continuing to focus solely on the visual and action elements. Sucker Punch delivers some pretty good action sequences, and it's interesting visually, but that's about it.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



There have been plenty of movies about aliens visiting Earth -- but not many where the humans have seen all those other movies. This is the basis for Paul, a comedy about geeks and their close en-- er, road trip with life from another planet.

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two English science-fiction fans (Clive writes it, Graeme illustrates it) in America. Having just attended ComiCon, they decide to take their RV on a road trip to sites of famous alien encounters. What they don't expect is to meet an actual alien.
Paul (a cgi version of the typical "gray" alien -- large head and eyes, small body -- voiced by Seth Rogen) is the visitor from another world, having crash-landed here in 1947. He needs Graeme and Clive to take him somewhere, and fast! While Paul does have some amazing powers (turning invisible by holding his breath, transferring knowledge through touch, healing others), he's also a typical Seth Rogen character: foul-mouthed but lovable, a smart-ass, and, yes, there is a scene with a joint.

The trio wind up with another passenger on their trip: Ruth Buggs (Kristin Wiig), a serious Christian fundamentalist who winds up kidnapped after seeing Paul -- and who learns to curse and to flirt with Graeme. Ruth's father Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch) is a redneck who heads out to save his daughter -- with a shotgun. Extremely serious and deadly Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) is hot on Paul's trail; so are the two comically inept agents Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio). Graeme and Clive also seem to keep running into two hillbillies whose truck they backed into. There are also appearances by: Jeffrey Tambor as an obnoxious science-fiction author; Blythe Danner as the elderly woman who first met Paul when he... landed here; Jane Lynch as a waitress; and "The Big Guy," whose identity I won't reveal (though they are in several previews) and who follows Agent Zoil's progress with growing impatience.

Paul was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and while their previous movies have gone pretty in-depth in spoofing their genres (Shaun of the Dead took on zombies, while Hot Fuzz skewered action film), this one goes a different direction. Sure there are references to everything fro Star Wars to Close Encounters (not to mention Paul's claim that he inspired most contemporary sci-fi), but their newest movie is more about chasing than spoofing. The acting is fine, and Rogen is quite good (if doing the same character he always plays; just in an alien body this time), but this is as much a chase movie as a comedy. (It also gets pretty violent towards the end.) While I laughed a lot at Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I mostly chuckled during Paul. It's a decent movie, just one that could have had a lot more fun with its mix of alien and geeks.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Elbow, The Seldom Seem Kid (Polydor, 2008)

Elbow are a band from Manchester, England consisting of Guy Garvey (vocals), Mark Potter (guitars), Craig Potter (keyboards), Pete Turner (bass), and Richard Jupp (drums). They have played together since 1990 and released their first album in 2001. The Seldom Seen Kid, released in 2008, is their fourth outing.

You don't have to listen to Elbow for too long to realize that nearly everything revolves around Garvey's distinctive lyrics and voice. Garvey is one of the few people I'm aware of that can write and sing about love from a guy's perspective, and get it right. He also has a better poetic sense than most of his contemporaries, whether expressing romantic euphoria ("We took the town to town last night. We kissed like we invented it.") or the motivation behind taking that leap ("So in looking to stray from the line we decided instead we should pull at the thread that was stitching us into this tapestry vile and why wouldn't you try. Perfect weather to fly."). The songs are populated with compelling characters as well.  Some of these characters are light-hearted, like the two racetrack employees in "The Fix" who think they have the perfect, foolproof, get-rich-quick scheme.  Other times the story is darker; in "Some Riot," Garvey's protagonist laments the decline in his drug-addled friend.

Elbow's sound is fairly diverse, covering a broad range of moods, volumes, and tempos within the general context of pop and rock. The music, while immaculately arranged and produced, isn't quite as memorable as the words. Most of the arrangements aim for ambience, being light on distortion but heavy on reverb, and while the mood and tempo vary the style still comes across as a bit formulaic.  The band try to get ambitious on the penultimate song "One Day Like This," but the dragged out final chorus comes across like a futile attempt to re-create "Hey Jude."

All in all, though, The Seldom Seen Kid is a pretty solid record. Elbow come across as a promising and intriguing band with a very charismatic frontman, and I'd certainly recommend them to anybody looking for some literate music.  Elbow have a new record called Build a Rocket Boys that is already available for download and will be released on CD in April, so you can expect another review of their work very soon.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Elbow perform "Mirrorball" with the BBC Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios



The Wild West is a ripe setting for adventure, discovery, heroes -- and a chameleon? This is the setup for Rango, an animated movie that's about a fish out of water -- or, more exactly, a reptile in a town just about out of water.

Rango opens with the title reptile (Johnny Depp) as a family pet, practicing his acting and very, very lonely. A bumpy ride leaves this reptile stranded in the desert, near the highway, where a philosophical armadillo (Alfred Molina) sends the reptile to the aptly-named town of Dirt.

In Dirt, water is the town commodity -- and in very short supply. The reptile creates a larger-than-life persona for himself called Rango and, through tall tales (killing the Jenkins brothers with one bullet; "All seven of them?") and an accidental victory over a hawk, becomes the town sheriff out to solve the mystery of what happened to the town's water.

For a romantic interest, Beans (Ilsa Fisher) is a reptile out to save her daddy's farm; she also goes motionless from time to time -- "It's a defense mechanism." For a cute kid, Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) is a sloth-like critter that is always armed. The Mayor (Ned Beatty) is a turtle with a motorized wheelchair and a suspicious way about him. Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton) is a blind burrowing bank robber whose kin ride bats and throw dynamite. A chorus of mariachi band owls provide commentary during the movie. Finally there's Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a terrifying, giant villain who is merciless, has a gatling gun at the end of his tale -- and only stayed away from Dirt because of the hawk Rango killed.

Rango brings Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski together again (they also work on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), and Rango shares some of the flaws of the Pirates films. Johnny Depp's voicework is reminiscent of Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog, but after a while his bragging, comically inept, accidentally lucky persona starts to wear thin. The movie owes a lot to Chinatown (a whole lot) and the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now, but it's a pretty straightforward kids' film about false hope, disappointment, and redemption. Rango is also slightly long: There are at least two action sequences where they could have wrapped up the film, instead of the actual finale.

The only thing that stood out for me here were the visual effects -- and they are stunning. The texture of every creature here is amazing, from hairy sloths to the skinny Rango to the monstrous Rattlesnake Jake. You'll feel thirsty after seeing the desert town of Dirt: Dryness and the parching sun seem to have left its mark on everything. Apart from the tremendous visual impact, though Rango is ordinary stuff.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Face Off, the Syfy Channel's latest foray into reality television, has artists competing in a series of challenges -- and getting eliminated -- on the way to the grand prize. The formula is very typical of these shows, but the process of creation is interesting; and it keeps the wretched "Syfy original movie!" and wrestling at bay for a little while.

The show began with twelve contestants, living together in an apartment building and talking with or about each other. Every week the contestants, either individually or in teams of two, get a makeup challenge: create an alien, do a gender swap on an engaged couple, etc. These challenges sometimes have a twist -- when designing a zombie, for example, in addition to creativity and technical quality the makeup had to be able to being worn during a dance routine. We see the contestants working, from initial sketches and making molds, to final touches on their models. Also, of course, there are voice-overs and comments from the contestants.

Naturally, there's judging. A trio of industry professionals are there each week (plus the occasional celebrity guest judge), and they look at the results from a distance and up close, as well as speak with each contestant about their creation. Whoever the judges think did the best job gets to recommend which person gets booted off; the judges then speak to the worst performers for that week's challenge, before announcing who is gone. And that week's loser gets to pack up their makeup kit and exit.
Face Off is a show I'd describe as "seen it quite often, but..." All the usual reality show tricks are there, from people talking about each other behind their backs to dramatic music and quick cuts before a commercial break to build tension. On the plus side, watching the creations develop from a sketch to the final product is interesting (and they also show the model morph from their usual selves to what they look like with the makeup). This week is the finale, as we jump from the final three contestants to the winner. Unlike other reality shows, this is about the talent rather than the personality (American Idol, anyone?), which reduces personal favorites but keeps the focus on the work. I'm sure the winner of Face Off won't be a household name, nor am I waiting with bated breath to see who wins -- but I look forward to seeing the final creations of the competitors.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Throughout its publication history, Playboy magazine has always attracted celebrities. A sampling of the wide variety of these famous women who have posed for the magazine is collected in Playboy: The Celebrities, a coffee-table book with over 150 photos of these celebs posing for the world's most renowned men's magazine. "It is a powerful combination," observes Hugh Hefner in the introduction, "celebrity and naked skin. Enjoy."
Playboy: The Celebrities is something of a time capsule, collecting naked and semi-naked photos from Marilyn Monroe (the first centerfold) in 1951 to the Girls Next Door of today. There are supermodels (Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell), musicians (Debbie Harry, Belinda Carlisle, Deborah Gibson), television stars (Farrah Fawcett, Linda Evans, Charisma Carpenter), movie stars (Pamela Anderson, Melanie Griffith), and other iconic people featured.

The quality of the photographs is breathtaking. While there are plenty of nudes -- so many photos I couldn't use in the review -- there are plenty of lingerie and, er, carefully posed shots. Many of the subjects have multiple images used (notably Pamela Anderson and Dita von Teese), and the differences in posing, photo texture, and other features display what was sexy at the time the photos were taken.

When (if?) you get past the images, Playboy: The Celebrities does have its flaws. Apart from Hefner's introduction (and an afterword from Gary Cole, Playboy's director of photography), there's no information on the photos beyond the name and date the photo was taken. Considering almost all of these women did interviews to go with their photos, a bit more information would have been useful. Which people wouldn't pose fully naked? What drew them to do their photo shoots? We can but wonder.

Then there's the selection. Some of these are people I've never heard of (Janet Jones? Valerie Perrine? Kelly Monaco?), while there are lots of other celebrities who were left out of the collection (such as Sherilyn Fenn, Tricia Helfer, Kim Kardashian and Joan Collins). But this sort of selection is a necessary evil, as over five decades of celebrities have to be compressed to fit in one collection. And going with fewer celebrities but multiple photos of each does showcase the people that made the final collection. I just hope there's a volume 2 somewhere down the line.

Playboy: The Celebrities may be incomplete (by necessity with quantity, unfortunate with the lack of information) but it's still an impressive look at the combination of the famous and the famous men's magazine. This coffee-table book provides a visually fascinating trip through time, to see what and who were hot then, and now.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

P.S. For those wondering, the photos are, top to bottom: Pamela Anderson, Debbie Harry, Vanna White, Raquel Welch, Cindy Crawford, and Mariel Hemingway.



It's hard to believe, but R.E.M. has now been making music for over thirty years. Collapse into Now, their latest album, finds the Athens, Georgia trio of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck slightly aimless.

While 2008's Accelerate had the band going for loud rock, Collapse into Now feels like the band is searching for something. There's the overwrought yearning of "Oh My Heart," the arrogance of... someone... on "Mine Smell Like Honey," the strangeness of "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" and the semi-spoken word finale of "Blue."

Unfortunately, Collapse into Now never quite comes together, even with appearances by Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith. There are some good songs here -- "UBerlin" stands out -- but none really stand out or bring the album together. Perhaps the band is feeling its age, or maybe they wanted to avoid repeating the formula from their last album; the latter is a worthy goal, if not a worthy result. Collapse into Now isn't a bad album per se, but it a weaker entry into the R.E.M. body of work.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



I've always found it interesting and hypocritical that Blockbuster Video, as a "family movie store," won't carry porn but will carry R-rated movies that exist solely to show off scantily-clad women and barely bother with anything else, like plot or acting. If you took such a movie, tossed in some well-known actors (including an Academy Award winner), and made it supposedly about vampires but really about sex, you'd have Embrace of the Vampire. This 1995 movie does go a bit further with skin on the unrated edition but maintains all the flaws of this exploitative genre.

Embrace of the Vampire begins in medieval times. A man (played by Martin Kemp, former bass player for Spandau Ballet; really) has a romantic relationship with a chaste princess (Rebecca Ferratti, who has no lines and slightly more screen time), but he is attacked by three barely-dressed nymphs and becomes a vampire. (Since the movie never bothers to give him a name, let's just call him Vampire.) Jump to the present, and Vampire is, for some reason, three days away from death. But there's hope!

College freshman Charlotte (Alyssa Milano) is Vampire's soulmate, apparently because she sort of resembles his long-lost ex. Charlotte is a virgin (she was raised by -- I kid you not -- nuns) whose continuing chastity is frustrating to her boyfriend Chris (Harold Pruett). Charlotte wears white clothes, always has a crucifix on, and could only come across as more sweet and innocent if she were played by a stuffed animal. And she turns eighteen in -- you guessed it -- three days.

For some reason, Vampire won't die if Charlotte falls in love with him and gives herself to him. But he can't just grab and convert her (why not is never explained), nor can he kill off Chris (though he has no problem dispatching plenty of other teens in the movie). Instead, Vampire keeps sending her erotic visions or whispered dialogue on the futility of love, replacing her crucifix with an Egyptian ankh (which, we're told, has "sexual powers"), and sending sexy vampire Marika (Jennifer Tilly, the aforementioned Academy Award winner; but certainly not for this) to seduce Chris.

Of course, in this sort of movie sexual temptations are everywhere. There's Charlotte's friend Nicole (Rachel True), who urges Charlotte to play the field. There's bitchy popular girl Eliza (Jordan Ladd), who spikes Charlotte's drink at a party. There's sexy foreign student Sarah (Charlotte Lewis) who tries for a lesbian seduction via photography. Heck, even Charlotte's art history class is all about sex. What's a virgin to do?

The Embrace of the Vampire dvd has both R-rated and unrated versions, and if you're watching this movie you've got to watch latter version. As opposed to the Blockbuster-style exploitation film, this has Milano topless quite frequently, very close to naked sometimes, and even briefly in a foursome. (It wasn't easy finding movie stills I could use in this review.) It's safe to say that showing off her body is the reason Embrace of the Vampire exists.

Unfortunately, most of the movie doesn't involve nudity -- and those are the times Embrace of the Vampire falls apart. The characters are all paper-thin and forgettable, there's no subtlety (from the ankh glowing to Charlotte becoming a "bad girl" by switching to a red dress and black lipstick), and the plot really makes no sense. (Vampire survived for hundreds of years, but he somehow knows he'll die on Charlotte's eighteenth birthday? Vampire can kill everyone but his biggest obstacle?) Many works have explored the links between vampires and sexuality -- from the original Dracula to many works of Anne Rice to (shudder) the Twilight saga -- but Embrace of the Vampire contents itself with lots of nudity and vampires snarling a lot. This movie works if you want a skinflick that you can pretend is a horror movie, but it fails as anything else.

Overall grade: D-
(but A- for prurient reasons)

Reviewed by James Lynch


Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More (Glassnote Records, 2009)

Mumford & Sons are a folk rock quartet based in West London. The band are led by Marcus Mumford (vocals, guitar, drums, mandolin), with a supporting cast of Ben Lovett (vocals, keyboards, accordion, drums), "Country" Winston Marshall (vocals, banjo, dobro), and Ted Dwane (vocals, string bass, drums, guitar). While they are a bit unusual in that they switch instruments with each other between songs, their sound combines a lot of familiar elements in a way that should appeal to a diverse audience. Sigh No More is their debut CD.

I suppose Mumford & Sons will draw some comparisons to The Pogues, given that they play mostly acoustic instruments with an aggressive, punkish attitude.  Their style is a bit less Celtic, though, and a bit more foot-stomping bluegrass.  Most of the songs are quite energetic and dramatic, but in general they're a bit too similar to really distinguish themselves from each other.  The biggest exception, and the strongest track on the album as a result, is "White Blank Page," which is a bit more sophisticated in its buildup of energy.  The other noteworthy track is the catchy "Little Lion Man," boasting a very singable (if profane) chorus.  Otherwise most of the rest of the disc is pretty good, but "Dust Bowl Dance" is very overwrought.  (It also marks the second straight album I've reviewed where religion is invoked in an ineffective manner.)

Sigh No More is a decent album, generally consistent but not spectacular.  If you like folk music that's heavy on drums, you'll probably find Mumford & Sons' sound appealing.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"Little Lion Man"


Guster, Easy Wonderful (Universal Republic Records, 2010)

Guster have spent over a decade making alternative rock with a sunny pop sensibility.  When I reviewed their previous CD Ganging Up on the Sun, I noted that their music was consistently good, even if the lack of an obvious standout song hurt their commercial prospects somewhat.  Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner, Brian Rosenworcel, and Joe Pisapia (who's since been replaced by Luke Reynolds) returned in 2010 with their sixth studio album, called Easy Wonderful.  The results are, for the most part, more of the same.

As with Ganging Up on the Sun, there are plenty of songs on Easy Wonderful that are at least decent.  "Do You Love Me" is the kind of love song that could get lots of summer airplay, assuming one or two DJs found it in the first place.  "This Could All Be Yours" is a fun upbeat rocker as well, and "Bad Bad World" is an easy song to sing along with.  My favorite song is "What You Call Love," a rare breakup song that manages to be fun and catchy while still making its point.

Unfortunately, the album derails a bit when religion is invoked.  "Stay with Me Jesus" is either a painfully naive song of gratitude for being protected when other people weren't, or a failed attempt at irony.  The title line of "That's No Way to Get to Heaven" just doesn't fit with the rest of the song, and the meaning of the chorus of "Jesus and Mary" remains confounding after multiple listens.

As a result, Easy Wonderful is not quite up to the same standard of consistency that Guster have set for themselves in the past.  Having said that, there's still a sufficient amount of quality on the album to justify the purchase.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

The video for "Do You Love Me"



Unemploment has been hovering close to ten percent for a while now, but its effects have been around far longer than that. An intriguing take on it -- both personal and impersonal -- is presented in 2009's Up in the Air. This is an original, sometimes funny, sometimes difficult take on it from the perspective of an isolated man.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has an unusual job: firing people. His company sends him all over the country to fire people whose bosses can't do it themselves. Ryan spends almost all of his time in airports or in transit -- and he loves it: He is approaching ten million miles of travel, he has getting through airports down to a precise science, he takes pride in his job (being comforting to, without getting personal with, the fired; then passing them a folder with their severance information), and he enjoys the isolation. Ryan also has speaking seminars on his unfettered lifestyle: "The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks." He also avoids his near-empty apartment and his family, even with his sister's upcoming wedding.

Movies require a change or interruption to advance the story, and Up in the Air hits Ryan with three big changes. First there's Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), a young and ambitious new hire at Ryan's company who has a bold new plan: Fire people through the Internet instead of in person. Fearing the end of his life of travel, Ryan winds up taking Anna on his job, showing her firsthand what it means to lay people off.

Second, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveler and soon a romantic interest. They swap preferences on hotels, compare discount cards, and compare travel plans to see when they might meet next. For Ryan, Alex is a definite kindred spirit -- and possibly his first real connection with someone.

Third, there's the aforementioned wedding. The engaged couple Julie (Melanie Lynskey) and Jim (Danny McBride) don't travel much, so they give relatives (including Ryan) a large cardboard cutout of them to be photographed in the places they want to go but can't. This reminder of family is often seen poking out of Ryan's otherwise carefully-packed travel bag, as his family seems to pursue him on his once-simple travels.

Up in the Air is a very impressive movie. Ryan is a very complex character: He clearly takes pride in his lifestyle and his job, but he never sees the people he fires again and he never looks back. George Clooney gives this character enough charm to make him likable and enough depth to make him alone at the same time. The movie doesn't sugarcoat being fired (many of those fired are played by people who had been fired weeks or months before this movie was filmed), and the images of the recession -- offices stripped almost bare, pages literally filled with names of people to be terminated -- are quite powerful. Director Jason Reitman finds just the right tone with the other characters as well, from Anna's seeing firsthand what it's like to end a person's job to Alex and her carefree relationship with Ryan. Up in the Air is original, it's funny, it's even tragic -- and it's a powerful experience.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Several years ago, a friend of mine complained that the British comedy Coupling was just men acting like jerks and the women barely tolerating them. Take that description, toss in some issues of extra-marital fidelity, and you have the comedy Hall Pass. If only it were funny or thoughtful...

Rick (Owen Wilson) and Maggie (Jenna Fischer) are a married couple with three kids and virtually no sex life. Fred (Jason Sudekis) and Grace (Christina Applegate) are another long-married couple, albeit with no kids. Rick and Fred love to ogle women and dream of their "glory days" of being single. When the wives have enough, they give the husbands the titular hall pass: The marriage is effectively on hold for a week, during which the women will take the kids and go up to Cape Cod for a week and the men can do anything (or, for them, anyone) without any consequences.

The guys think the hall pass is a dream come true (as do their friends, who follow them around to live vicariously through their week of guilt-free sex). The women think by removing the taboo of other women, it'll lessen the appeal of other women to men -- plus remind them that the wives aren't the sole thing standing between the guys and hot women.

This being a comedy, Rick and Fred are absolutely horrible at meeting women, let alone seducing them: There are poorly-delivered pick-up lines, unrelated run-ins with the police, some pot brownies, and going to Applebees to meet women. It's only when their buddy and true ladies' man Coakley (Richard Jenkins) shows up do the guys seem to have a chance at getting laid. Well, that and hot Australian coffee server Leigh (Nicky Whelan), who Rick keeps running into.

Meanwhile, the women seem to have more success attracting men without even trying, which makes them realize the hall pass works for them as well...

Hall Pass fails on so, so many levels. For a movie that's supposedly about open marriage and the effect of unfettered sex, its attitudes towards the genders are disappointingly old-fashioned: The men are all juvenile horndogs, while the women are always complaining and uptight. Most of the humor is, well, not funny; and for a movie written and directed by the Farrelly Brothers (who did, among other things, There's Something About Mary), there are far too few over-the-top gags. Remove the cursing and one brief bit of nudity, and Hall Pass could easily be a multi-part television sitcom.
I don't know if polygamy or open marriages can provide the material for humor, but they certainly don't in Hall Pass. This comedy has far too many cliches of the sexes, and far too little originality or laughs.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Dirty Face by Emily Long

Songwriter Emily Long fronts a brutal and sexy rock 'n' roll band. Upon first listen, you might hear influences like Ronnie Spector and Freddie Mercury in Emily's voice, but the band nods to a more modern T.Rex or heavier Cars. Centered around Emily’s towering vocals, the lineup also includes finger-bleeding melody chemist Daniel Ryan Espy, as well as the clean and calculated Nik Lokenssgaard on guitars. The band’s rhythm section is composed of amp-kicking bassist Bret Ritter and the hard-hitting showman Zach Jones on drums.
I took a listen, and it definitely sounds like a modern rock anthem. It has a power, drive and passion behind it that is enjoyable, and reminds of the broad strokes from the 1980's, albeit with less electronics. At any rate, it is worth checking out, and there is a link to download the track in the player above.

Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas