The Breakup

Imagine that your favorite romantic comedy meets The War of the Roses, and you've got the formula for The Breakup. This film features Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn.

The Breakup starts with their chance meeting, and is quite like any number of romantic comedies. During the intro credits we gain a sense of their relationship as these two strangers work on getting to know each other, and to build a life together. The rest of the movie shows us that breaking up can be a quite difficult and painful experience for all concerned. The discontented couple proceed to bicker about every aspect of each other's lives- including the bowling team, for example. Their divided friends offer advice, which is occasionally helpful, and insightful, and just as often is not. There are just as many heartfelt scenes as laughs along the way as we cover the full range of human emotion as the story proceeds.

Enhancing the plot is the rich location of the city of Chicago. The Breakup does a great job of integrating in some unique "windy city" locales, and providing some context. This is cleverly done as Vaughn's character plays a local tour guide.

I generally am not a big fan of Aniston as she rarely progresses beyond the stereotypical exemplified on her role on "Friends," but this is her best effort thus far. I thoroughly enjoyed The Breakup, and appreciated its less common theme. It's almost like this is a sequel to any number of romantic comedy movies where they ride off into the closing credits, and we are led to wonder if things would really work out.

Overall Grade: A-

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The Jesus And Mary Chain, Psychocandy (Blanco Y Negro, 2006 Reissue)

The Jesus And Mary Chain were a band with a mission. Twenty years ago, this quartet from the Glasgow suburb East Kilbride released their debut album Psychocandy. This album takes takes influences as diverse as The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, and even The Ronettes (the "Be My Baby" drum intro can be heard leading in several of the songs on this album), and torches them with searing, overamplified guitars and heavy doses of white noise generated with guitar feedback. The noise you'll hear on this album is no accident -- singer/guitarist Jim Reid said they spent months in the studio getting exactly what they wanted out of their amps. Psychocandy sounds like nothing that came before it, but it's influence on the grunge movement, not to mention some of the better current bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, is unmistakable. If anything, The Jesus And Mary Chain make bands like Nirvana sound tame in comparison, but at the same time the 60's pop influence gives their sound an element of musicality and accessibility that most alternative music of the past fifteen years lacks. It is this combination that makes Psychocandy the kind of album that any serious fan of rock music needs to hear.

Curiously, the album's three singles, "Just Like Honey," "Never Understand," and "You Trip Me Up," didn't interest me as much as a few of the other songs did. "The Living End" and "Taste The Floor" not only bring more volume and abrasion to a song than even most punk bands could handle, but The Jesus And Mary Chain proceed to taunt the average punk band by throwing in an accessible melody and even a fourth chord. The sheer violence of the beginning of "In A Hole" makes it one of the definitive intros in all of rock. Try it with headphones and the volume up to the edge of your tolerance threshold; you won't be disappointed. The simple riff on the bass guitar that begins "Inside Me" lays the perfect foundation for some of the band's most anarchic guitar work. None of this is pretty, mind you, but it's real and powerful nonetheless.

This particular re-issue of Psychocandy comes in the special DualDisc format, with a CD on one side and a DVD on the other. The DVD side has enhanced sound relative to the CD side, but your DVD player needs to be state-of-the-art for you to take advantage of it. Furthermore, some older CD players may have difficulty handling the CD side. So if you only have older technology in your audio or video equipment, you might want to look for an older version of this CD. The DVD side also includes videos for the three singles. The videos are typical low-budget 80's fare, but you do get to see the band up close, as they were in their prime. I don't remember seeing any of these videos, which kind of irks me; I spent all those years overexposing myself to MTV, which indelibly etched in my mind plenty of bands I wish I could forget like Kajagoogoo and Dead Or Alive, but not this. Then again, I was a classic rock purist at the time, so I might not really have known what to make of The Jesus And Mary Chain twenty years ago.

Psychocandy is not for the musically squeamish. It is loud, ugly, unpleasant, dissonant, jarring, and quite deliberate about it. However, these qualities also make it essential rock and roll. Very few albums from twenty years ago hold up as anything more valuable than cheesy nostalgia, but Psychocandy sounds fresh and vital today, as though it had just been recorded.

Overall grade: A

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Zero 7, The Garden (Atlantic, 2006)

Zero 7 revolves around the songwriting, producing, keyboard playing, and programming tandem of Englishmen Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker. They work with a core of backing musicians that includes Dedi Madden on guitar, Robin Mullarkey on bass, and Tom Skinner, but have used a rotation of singers over the years. Their sound is generally described as "electronica", but that label is too narrow to describe the Zero 7 sound; yes there are plenty of synthesizers and electronic effects, but the music tends to be laid back, with a strong soul influence. For the third Zero 7 album The Garden, the primary vocalists are Swedish singer José González, a newcomer to the Zero 7 fold, and returning member Sia Furler. Both have active solo careers complementing their work with Zero 7. Sia is best known for the song "Breathe Me" that played in the final sequence of the series finale of Six Feet Under. Binns plays an active role in supplying the backing vocals for the first time, and even sings lead on "Your Place."

As with the previous Zero 7 album When It Falls, The Garden contains a number of likable songs, and the collaborations with different singers bring a healthy amount of variety to the mix. Sia's soulful vocals succeed at being sexy in a way that's smooth and subdued, not raunchy or over-the-top. Her highlights on this disc are the waltzy "Pageant Of The Bizarre" and the snappy "This Fine Social Scene." González contrasts this with songs that are a bit darker and more cerebral. The acoustic-flavored opening song "Futures" features some fine multi-tracked harmonies, and the simmering extended piece "Crosses" is carried along by a very distinctive riff on the electric piano.

For all the electronics, Zero 7 aim to make music that's accessible to mainstream rock and pop audiences in addition to alternative audiences, and they generally succeed. Unfortunately for them, The Garden is the hardest kind of album to promote commercially; it contains many pretty good songs, but lacks an obvious single. This would have hindered their chances for a breakthrough in the past too, but in the current age of iTunes, iPods, and single-song downloads, they're really fighting an uphill battle. This is unfortunate, as The Garden works very nicely as a whole, and gets better with repeated listens.

Overall grade: B+

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Fire Ice

Fire Ice is the 3rd in the Kurt Austin series of Cussler novels, that are cowritten by Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos. Substitute in Kurt Austin for Dirk Pitt, and a new sidekick that feels very much the same, and you get the idea.

It's always a challenge and risk for a well known author to dilute their efforts and collaborate with another to tell their story. Thankfully this duo does better than most.

The background history, which is the hallmark of any Cussler novel, is that there is surviving line of the Romanov royal family of Russia. On top of that, their ship went down with the royal treasure. While this is rather implausible, it does form a basis for what follows.

On top of this, we have a whole research submarine that is lost at sea. Kurt with his NUMA crew work to set this all right. There are also the requisite visits that provide the sage advice of his computer and nautical lore experts.

I have read most of Cussler's novels at this point, and I will say that this novel is not one of my favorites. It doesn't fit together as well as Sahara or Atlantis Found. The dialogue is a little less believable than usual. Also, the plot takes a few twists that just don't feel right, and the novel ends a little abruptly for my taste. The descriptions are a little less rich. The science is slightly suspect and somewhat hypothetical.

Still, to compare this author against his previous work is a very tall comparison indeed. Fire Ice is a fine novel if we consider it "escape fiction-" perfect for cuddling up with on a rainy day and being whisked away to a far off land with some alternative history. If you're a Cussler fan enjoy, but if you want to start reading him, I'd start elsewhere.

Overall Grade: B

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Also reviewed by Cussler




When you hear several music hits of diverse genres blended together into a polka, that can mean only one thing: “Weird Al” Yankovic has a new album out. With STRAIGHT OUTTA LYNWOOD, the great weird one is back in form, providing hilarious songs – both parodies and originals.

Rapper Chamillionaire established his street cred with the song “Ridin,” and “Weird Al” effortlessly uses the same sound to establish his geekiness with “White & Nerdy” (“I order all of my sandwiches with mayonnaise/I’m a whiz at Minesweeper, I could play for days”). Other musical victims include Green Day (whose angry political message gets transformed into an anti-Canadian tune), Taylor Hicks, Usher, and R. Kelly. As always, “Weird Al” and his band match the music perfectly while creating hysterical lyrics.

Never content to just parody, “Weird Al” offers several fresh songs here too. “Weasel Stomping Day” is a joyous celebration of a truly… unique holiday. Computer users will appreciate “Virus Alert,” warning all of the latest threatening computer virus (“It’ll make your keyboard all sticky/give your poodle a hickey/and invest all your cash in stock in Euro Disney”). Other tunes cover excessively picky boyfriends, massive litigation, and the dangers of downloading. (Sadly, the album’s weak point is the original “Pancreas,” a faux love song to a favorite organ.)

As with all “Weird Al” albums, there is a level of topicality to the parodies: They’re great now, but they lose some of their edge when the originals become forgotten or dated. Some parodies also work better than others depending on your enjoyment of the originals: I for one could have managed without a R. Kelly parody that’s over eight minutes long. With that in mind, STRAIGHT OUTTA LYNWOOD is another wonderful comedy album that’ll have you laughing out loud. Stay weird, “Weird Al”!

(There’s a bonus DVD with animated videos for several of the songs. Sadly, the video for “White & Nerdy” was left off, and much of the animation is cheap. But it’s worth it just to watch the show ROBOT CHICKEN bring “Weasel Stomping Day” to life.)

Overall Grade: A-


Friends With Money

Jennifer Aniston stars in the quirky drama Friends With Money. She plays a high school teacher who gets "fed up" one day, and quits her job. To subsidize her unemployment, she takes up housecleaning. Compounding this unlikely plot is that her friends are all millionaires several times over. What follows is one of those "slice of life" style plots where the paths keep crossing, with the emphasis on Aniston. Along the way we explore issues of self esteem, dependent relationships, and, not surprisingly from the title, money.

Friends With Money is quite simply a well acted, too slow paced, downer of a film. If you have too much sunshine in your perfect life then by all means, enjoy. The rest of us will likely find better entertainment elsewhere.

Overall Grade: C

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Nordic Roots Festival 2006

Since it's inception in 1999, the Nordic Roots Festival has lured fans of Scandinavian folk music from all across the country to spend a weekend each year watching world class musicians perform at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. This was the sixth of the eight Festivals that I've had the pleasure of attending. A big part of the Festival's enduring appeal is that it has the air of a family gathering; at this point I look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces, both on the stage and in the audience. The performers also come very eagerly, as they have a hard time finding audiences this receptive to their music even at home. And of course, there is the music. The genre of new Nordic folk music has a lot of original and creative performers putting their own distinctive stamps on a tradition rich in quality music, and all of the best acts have shown up at the Festival at least once over the years.

For the first time since 2001, the Festival began on a Thursday night instead of Friday. Performing on Thursday night were frequent Festival headliners Väsen. Simply put, Väsen are one of the planet's great live bands, due to the unmatchable onstage interplay between nyckelharpist Olav Johansson, violist Mikael Marin, and guitarist Roger Tallroth. For this show the trio added a bit of a twist to their usual set by inviting up American fiddler Darol Anger, with whom they've recently been collaborating. Anger brought a quirky, jazzy sound to Väsen's arrangements, adding a few solos above the band's backing. I welcomed the change of pace as a fresh look at a lot of material that is very familiar to me at this point.

Given that there were no shows on Friday afternoon and I had a rental car, Friday was an ideal time to go exploring unfamiliar parts of Minneapolis. My friend Mai and I settled on scenic Minnehaha Park in the southeastern corner of Minneapolis. The beautiful falls inspired Longfellow's "The Song Of Hiawatha," and continue to leave lasting impressions more than a century later.

Friday night's concert began with the Festival only first-time performers, Vajas. Vajas are three Sámi from the extreme north of Norway. Like the Finnish Sámi performer Wimme, Vajas combines modern electronics with joiking, a traditional Sámi style of wordless singing. Joiking reminds many people of Native American singing, a connection that does not appear to be lost on Vajas singer Ánde Somby; he composed much of their debut album Sacred Stone in the heat of the Pima Desert in Arizona.

Vajas were followed by Gjallarhorn, from the Swedish-speaking region of Finland. Gjallarhorn's 2000 CD Sjofn is one of the essential albums of the new Nordic folk genre, and one of the best albums of any genre in the present decade. Only singer Jenny Wilhems remains from the Sjofn line-up, but Gjallarhorn still sets Medieval ballads to modern arrangements heavy on percussion and bass droning. The biggest change in their sound comes from the replacement of the Australian digeridoo with a more tonally flexible baroque instrument called the sub-contrabass recorder. It's weird and wonderful both in its look and its sound. Its player, Göran Månsson, jokingly informed the audience that it was available at Ikea in both white and black. Gjallarhorn's set focused on material from their new album Rimfaxe, which focuses on the role of the horse in Nordic mythology. (A legendary horse whose name ends in "faxe"? That sounds awfully familiar, wait don't tell me...) The new material sounded excellent in concert, and Wilhelms is a powerful singer in spite of her diminutive size.

With no guitar workshops to attend this year ( there were a pair each of voice and fiddle workshops, though), I had more time to explore Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon. My girlfriend Donna arrived on Friday night, and she was eager to see the Mall of America. The mall is, well, big. It has an aquarium, a dinosaur exhibit, and at least one indoor amusement park, but we didn't notice anything special or noteworthy from a shopping perspective. Then again, we covered about 5% of the mall in two hours.

Saturday belonged to the Finnish performers, particularly the outstanding accordionist Maria Kalaniemi. The afternoon set featured Kalaniemi, guitarist Olli Varis, and pianist Timo Alakotila paying tribute to the Finnish tango. Originally from Argentina, the tango was embraced in Finland decades ago, and remains a staple there among both folk and popular musicians. The middle of the floor was left open for dancers, who had a crash course for about half an hour before the show. Kalaniemi's effortless playing makes the accordion sound as graceful as a swan, and her tangos would go over well in any context. She came back in to open the evening concert as a solo artist, occasionally accompanied by Varis, playing pensive, meditative music from her new CD Bellow Poetry. The most striking feature of Kalaniemi's evening set was her newly found willingness to sing. She actually has quite a good voice, but this was the first time I'd heard it. Still, you pay to see Maria Kalaniemi play the accordion, just like you'd pay to see Eric Clapton play the guitar. Anybody who bought the Festival Pass got their money's worth from her twice on Saturday.

The Saturday evening show was headlined by the Finnish kantele quartet Loituma. Loituma haven't recorded for six years, and haven't really done anything together since 2003. Indeed it seemed doubtful that the band had any future, until something really strange happened. An anonymous blogger posted a little cartoon of an anime character twirling a leek, for no apparent reason, in a repetitive loop. The leek was being twirled to the recording of Loituma's goofy a capella number "Levan Polkka." Somehow, Loituma and the twirling leek made their way across cyberspace, and soon many short films set to "Levan Polkka" could be found online. Interest in Loituma's music soared, and just like that they're playing together again. As they didn't have any new material, their set mirrored what they played when I saw them at the Festival in 2000. This wasn't a bad thing, as I'd forgotten how much I liked them. In addition to being good singers and musicians, they have a good sense of humor and an endearing Finnish charm. Predictably, they closed the main part of their set with their "hit."

On Sunday morning we visited the Global Market, a quirky mini-mall featuring food and clothing from all sorts of different cultures. It had much more personality in much less space than the Mall of America, if you ask me. And naturally, the lady selling Swedish pastry was going to the Sunday night closing show. In the meantime, Sunday afternoon featured Timo Alakotila performing an off-the-cuff set with a lot of different performers coming up to make guest appearances. Most of the guests were not surprising, given that they were already performing at the Festival. For example, Maria Kalaniemi played some tunes with Alakotila on accordion, as did Swåp's Karen Tweed, who had previously recorded an album with him called May Monday. A few unexpected twists did happen, though, including young fiddle students from the Suzuki program at nearby Augsburg College coming on stage to play a couple of tunes from the repertoire of Alakotila's primary band, JPP.

The final show of the Festival featured two bands who've been part of many of the previous Festivals, and are always received very warmly. Swåp consists of guitarist Ian Carr and accordionist Karen Tweed from England, along with Swedish fiddlers Ola Bäckström and Carina Normansson. They always put on entertaining and energetic shows, and this was no exception. The quartet play off each other terrifically, and like many of the Festival acts, they make the crowd laugh between tunes. Unfortunately, Swåp faces a murky future; Tweed had announced on her website that she'd be leaving Swåp at the end of October to focus on other projects. While she was apparently reconsidering her decision at the time of the Festival, there's no guarantee at present that Swåp will perform at the Festival again in this configuration. This would be a shame, but if true, I can take plenty of solace in the memory of many fine shows over the years.

At the 2005 Festival, the Swedish folk/metal party band Hoven Droven put on the kind of show whose legend grows with each retelling, at least among the Festival attendees. The band and the audience fed off each other in a way that I don't think I could do justice describing to anybody that wasn't there. The performance was recorded for posterity, and Hoven Droven's headlining set at this year's Festival coincided with the CD release of that performance, titled Jumping At The Cedar. The band made a brilliantly warped entrance, coming out with banjos and mandolins and singing some country song in English that had really silly lyrics. Then they promptly left the stage, coming back a few minutes later with their usual heavy artillery. The set went over the top at a few points -- perhaps the band tried a little too hard to outdo the previous year's show -- but was wildly entertaining nonetheless. In Hoven Droven's world, traditional polskas can morph into "Manic Depression" by Jimi Hendrix, and nobody thinks twice about it. Given that the Festival was otherwise mellower than normal, the crowd by this point was eager to release some energy, and the band had little difficulty working them into a frenzy. The seats were put away halfway through the set, and the party just picked up steam from there. I guess I'd have to put their 2005 show ahead of this one, as what happened that night was something almost impossible to duplicate, but Hoven Droven certainly left the crowd satisfied again.

As usual, I didn't really want to go home the following morning. But next year's Festival is well into the planning stage, and I'm already counting the days.

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The Ditty Bops, Moon Over The Freeway (Warner Bros., 2006)

Girlfriends Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett had been together for quite some time before the thought of starting a band ever occurred to them. Thankfully the idea stuck, as The Ditty Bops' sophomore effort Moon Over The Freeway contains some of the most catchy, melodic, and singable material I've heard in years. DeWald (vocals and guitar) and Barrett (vocals and mandolin) largely embrace musical styles from the early part of the last century, combining ragtime and Hot Club jazz with more familiar folk rock. They also benefit from a strong supporting cast, including veteran producer Mitchell Froom and drummer Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's Attractions, but most especially from some rollicking piano playing from Greg Rutledge. The Bops themselves provide clever lyrics, infectious melodies, and some truly sublime two-part vocal harmonies.

Most of the songs on Moon Over The Freeway have a gentle swing to them, including the brilliant single "Angel With An Attitude," which subtly and sarcastically lampoons people exploiting others in the name of religion. The album has plenty of other gems as well. The ominous "Aluminum Can" uses abrupt tempo shifts to great effect. "In The Meantime" evokes the fiddling of Django Reinhardt's long-time partner Stéphane Grappelli. On the joyously upbeat "Get Up 'N' Go," Dewald and Barrett sing about finding and taking advantage of any excuse to go off on an adventure. "Nosy Neighbor" makes fun of being overly curious about what's going on next door. With the final song, "Your Head's Too Big," the Bops playfully warn somebody to be a bit less self-absorbed around them.

Unfortunately I missed The Ditty Bops' recent tour, for which they traveled from city to city on bicycle. Their live shows have a reputation for crazy pranks and multiple costume changes -- they've been known to perform in pirate outfits, for example. Still, their shows wouldn't be that interesting if they couldn't back up their act with some good songs, and there are a bunch of really good ones on Moon Over The Freeway. The Ditty Bops sing well, they harmonize beautifully, they're clever, they're funny, and they're fiendishly catchy. In other words, they're the full package.

Overall grade: A

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