Eric Bogle, The Dreamer (Greentrax, 2009)

Although largely unknown to mainstream music audiences, Eric Bogle is a legendary figure in Celtic folk circles. The 65-year-old Scottish native who immigrated to Australia has amassed a large assortment of memorable songs over his long career. Some are funny, but his most famous songs are sharply poignant. Bogle has a particular skill in writing songs about war and the toll it exacts on the participants. Nobody forgets the first time they hear "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a much-covered song about an Australian soldier wounded at Gallipoli. "No Man's Land," alternatively titled "The Green Fields of France," similarly pays tribute to the Scottish soldiers of the First World War, while questioning whether the enormous sacrifice imposed on the soldiers lying in the vast French graveyards accomplished anything constructive.

Bogle has plenty of things to say about a variety of topics, though, and on his new album The Dreamer he gets to many of them. Bogle addresses American casualties in Iraq on "Bringing Buddy Home," his daughter growing up on "Flying Away," environmental pollution on "Someone Else's Problem," and last year's severe drought in "An Australian Prayer for Rain." A few songs stick out for me, though. The first is "Nothing Worth Saving," a tribute to a friend of his (and to committed activists in general) who are willing to make the extra sacrifice to preserve something they believe in. "For nothing worth saving comes easy or free, Nothing worth fighting for comes with a guarantee, that you’re going to win my friend, without sacrifice; for if something’s worth saving, there’s always a price." "Snowdrop," written and sung by longtime friend and bandmate John Munro, talks about the plight of homelessness in Russia, where bodies have a disturbing way of emerging from underneath the snow in the spring melt-off. Bogle gets autobiographical in the title song; he's been criticized for being a dreamer, but much like John Lennon in the song "Imagine," he wears the label as a badge of honor. "Yet I dream of a world without hunger, I dream of a world without war; Where we live at peace on this earth together, where the air tastes sweet, the rivers all run clear. Dream it first and it will happen, but if you don’t believe that it can, just leave me to my dreaming, because I’m happy where I am." "Lost Soul" tells the story of an Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal warrior who died fighting for Australia in the First World War, whose gravesite was discovered in Belgium by Australian students in 2006. Sand from his native area, the Coorong, was sprinkled on his grave, and dirt from his grave was brought to the Coorong to return his spirit home. On the closing song "The Last Note," Bogle talks about of the spirit of the music stays with him long after the performance is done. The song's significance was magnified by Bogle's announcement that his 2009 tour would be his last.

As usual with Eric Bogle's albums, the songs on The Dreamer tend to be weighty but emotional. I suppose I could be critical of this album lacking the usual amount of levity with which Bogle balances things out on his recordings. Still, listening to any new Eric Bogle album is like re-connecting with an old friend who's seen and done a lot in his time, and who understands the workings of the world and humanity better than most people do. People who like good storytelling songs will like anything that Eric Bogle puts out, and The Dreamer is no exception.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Eric Bogle and John Munro perform the title song on Bogle's Farewell Tour of the UK.

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2010 The Green Man Review


John Fogerty, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve, 2009)

In 1973, John Fogerty released an album of country, gospel, and bluegrass covers called Blue Ridge Rangers. While the album cover shows silhouettes of five different musicians, there was no actual band with that name; in fact, Fogerty sang all the vocals and played all the instruments on the album himself. A mere thirty-six years later, Fogerty decided to reprise the concept of his first solo album with a new album of rustic, rootsy standards. Fogerty employs a solid group of backing musicians for this record, but in an ironic nod to its predecessor, he titled the album The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again.

The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again opens with John Prine's "Paradise" and closes with The Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" (featuring a guest appearance from Bruce Springsteen), and also includes songs from the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, Buck Owens, and John Denver. Fogerty also includes a countrified version of his own song "Change in the Weather," originally off his 1986 album Eye of the Zombie. The song that sticks out most for me is "Garden Party," Rick Nelson's 1972 hit about the negative response he received when he brought his country band to a 50's revival show. The line in the chorus that goes "You see you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself" has a universality to it which still resonates after all this time. Nelson's embrace of country rock was a major influence on the early recordings of The Eagles, and Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit were very appropriate and very effective choices to provide backing vocals on Fogerty's version.

The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again shows John Fogerty having fun paying tribute to a numbers of artists who inspired him and brought him enjoyment over the years. There may not be any super-strong track on it, but fans of Fogerty will find the album as a whole to be an enjoyable listen.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

John Fogerty performs "Garden Party" at the Americana Music awards in Nashville in September.



The Sherlock Holmes archetype of the flawed genius is popular on many television shows -- Monk, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, House -- so why not reboot the actual character? The result is Sherlock Holmes, a somewhat faithful but hyperactive treatment of the world's greatest detective.

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Watson (Jude Law) are facing professional and personal challenges. Their case involves Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an occultist who was hanged and apparently returned from the dead -- after being pronounced deceased by Watson. At the same time, Holmes is having trouble dealing with Watson's upcoming marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly), which will deprive Holmes of his roommate and friend. Adding to the mix is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes' love interest and deceptive criminal; her involvement creates many twists and turns.

I was skeptical when I heard Guy Ritchie was directing Sherlock Holmes -- and this feeling was fairly justified. While Ritchie does capture the sometimes rough but deep friendship between Holmes and Watson, he's far more interested in action: Holmes engaging in shirtless bare-knuckle boxing; explosions; chases; etc. You'll leave with less of an impression of Holmes' genius and more of him as an action hero.

This is a pity, as the cast is pretty good in their roles. Downey Jr. portrays Holmes' brilliance and decadence, making him as unstable as he is smart. Law's Watson is smart and serious, admiring Holmes as much as watching out for him -- and not taking his manipulation. McAdams is more attractive than intriguing, though she does what she can with what she has, and Strong has little to do but appear mysterious and menacing.

Sherlock Holmes ends with a clear setup for a sequel. The leads would certainly be welcome again -- but a calmer director would be a nice change.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

Caesar's Women - Colleen McCullough (1996)

Caesar's Women is a meticulously researched historical novel of Republican Rome - although empire is just barely visible in the distance. Spanning a decade or so in the 7th century B.C., the action concerns Gaius Julius Caesar's political manoeuvrings in the Roman Senate. While that may not sound all that interesting out the gate, it is, in fact, fascinating.

The political world of Roman politics, as interpreted by McCullough, is cut-throat, violent and packed with enough special interests and personal vendettas that one cannot help but think "the more things change the more they stay the same." Written over a decade ago about events over two millennia ago, it almost seems like one could simply update the names, drop chunks of it into a newspaper or blog today and it wouldn't seem at all out of place.

McCullough writes very well and engagingly. The characters are vivid and inhabit a Rome which itself seems alive and vibrant. The research is in-depth and thorough, but not obtrusive; a glossary is provided for the various Latin words and terms which are used, but one needn't refer to it unless one is interested in the intricacies of, for instance, the Roman college of augurs or the Pontifex Maximus. The book is a long one, running nearly a thousand pages (although that includes historical notes and glossary), but it doesn't feel long since the action moves along at a good clip.

The book is fourth in a series of seven which chronicles the late Roman Republic.

Overall Grade: B+ (A- for those interested in Roman history)



Race against opponents! Solve puzzles! Collect jewels! This is the world of Ubongo, a fun little game from Z-Man Games that is as close as the world will ever come to a Tetris board game.

At the start of Ubongo a large number of jewels are placed randomly along several rows on a board. Players put their token at the base of these rows. The winner is the player with the largest number of gems of the same color; if players tie, they compare their next-highest number of same colored gems to see who wins.

So, how do you get gems? Puzzles! All players get a collection of differently shaped and colored pieces. They also have a number of tiles with boxes to be filled, and horizontal rows showing a symbol (on the game's die) and three or four of the aforementioned pieces. Each turn a player rolls a die. Then, when the timer is turned, each player has to fill in their tile's box using the pieces next to the symbol rolled on the die. (Easier games have players using three pieces, while filling it with four is much tougher.)

When the first player completes their puzzle, they shout "Ubongo!" and move their token from zero to three spaces on the board, and take the two gems closest to them on the row. The second player to solve the puzzle can move their token up to two spaces and collect two gems, the third player can move their token up to one space before collecting, and the last player can collect their gems from the row they're in. If a player doesn't solve their puzzle before the sand runs out of the timer, they get no movement and no jewels.

Ubongo is an interesting mix of visual coordination and strategy. Finishing puzzles the quickest gives you more options, but you also have to keep track of what gems your opponent has -- and may go for next. All puzzles can be completed, but after several rounds a player who couldn't solve their puzzle asked other players to solve it to see how it could be done. Games are pretty quick -- usually finished in less than half an hour, even with four players -- and it's competitive without becoming mean or cutthroat. The game is fairly repetitive, but while I wouldn't want to spend all day turning and shifting tiles Ubongo is a terrific game to play to warm up for something else. "Ubongo!"

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Chris Smither, Time Stands Still (Signature Sounds, 2009)

At 65, Florida native Chris Smither is a venerable elder statesman of the blues scene in this country. His first album came out in 1970, and his new CD Time Stands Still is his thirteenth studio release.

Smither's laid back, front porch approach to blues will definitely remind people of J. J. Cale, and maybe a little bit of Mark Knopfler as well. (The album closes with a cover of Knopfler's "Madame Geneva's," further cementing the connection.) So if you're a fan of those performers, you already know enough to justify looking into Time Stands Still. Smither is an excellent acoustic guitarist, producer David Goodrich provides some solid backing on electric guitar, and Zak Trojano fills things out on drums and percussion. His crotchety-sounding baritone might be an acquired taste for some, but Smither makes up for a lack of smoothness with plenty of warmth and character.

The album has a bunch of decent songs, but the brilliant "Surprise, Surprise" is worth the price of the whole CD. This song is a humorously cynical look at the current economic state of affairs. "Call Yourself" is another strong track, reflecting on the need for self-reliance when life gets difficult. Yes, the subject matter for
most of the songs on the album is weighty and dark, but this is the blues after all.

People looking for a fix of good picking music will like Chris Smither. Time Stands Still is a pretty good collection of songs with a couple of standouts. I may have to dig into Smither's work a bit further myself.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Surprise, Surprise." The feel-good song of 2009? Not quite, but a great song nonetheless.

Brandi Carlile, Give Up the Ghost (Columbia, 2009)

Brandi Carlile made a quick, favorable first impression when her self-titled debut CD came out in 2005. The combination of well-written songs, a powerful voice, and melodic yet energetic folk rock reflected a considerable amount of promise from such a young artist. Her second album The Story came out in 2007, and while it had some good songs it was still a bit disappointing; the energy level failed to match what I had seen in a great live performance the year before. Now Carlile has returned with her third album Give Up the Ghost, which matches the high quality of her debut.

As usual, the muscle is provided by Carlile's soul mates and songwriting partners, identical twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Carlile plays some piano in addition to guitar on this record, but the overall sound of Give Up the Ghost doesn't depart significantly from its predecessors. The lively songs dominate the album, especially the opening song "Looking Out" and the great single "Dreams." "Caroline" is also very noteworthy, not simply for being an overt expression of Carlile's sexual preference, but also for the fun sing-along chorus and the rollicking piano and backing vocal supplied by Elton John. The quieter songs are not as consistent, but "That Year" is an interesting reflection on a high school romance, and the closing song "Oh Dear" possesses some nice Beatle-ish harmonies.

(on edit: "Caroline" is actually about Brandi's niece, as a few people have pointed out. I read something about Brandi into the lyrics that, while not actually wrong (I did fact-check on that), does not apply to the song in question. I'm neither perfect nor above criticism, and while I do try to fact-check before I write reviews, it's not always easy to verify everything on severe time constraints, especially when I try to interpret song lyrics. I do appreciate that people actually read what I write and care enough to comment, and will try to hold myself to a higher standard in the future, or at least refrain from speculation that I can't back up.)

Brandi Carlile is a first-rate talent, and she and the twins have an impressive and expanding collection of good songs under their belts. Give Up the Ghost solidifies Carlile's status as one of the best performers to emerge this decade, and is definitely worth getting.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott



I must preface this review by noting that I am not a car person. I don't have a car; I'm not interested in Ferraris or Astor Martins; I couldn't change a car's oil; to me a good car is one that gets me from point A to point B, and a great car has a cd player. And yet I absolutely love Top Gear, a British show that's all about cars and other vehicles.

Top Gear is hosted by three men. Jeremy Clarkson is the big, dopey guy who's always thrilled with speed and power. Richard Hammond is a cheerful guy who suffers from innumerable jokes about his height and having his teeth whitened. And James May is the quietest, most thoughtful member of the show; he's also nicknamed "Captain Slow" due to his poor track record at the show's races. The only other regular cast member is the Stig, the silent professional driver who's always wearing a white racing suit and a face-concealing helmet.

As you might expect, Clarkson, Hammond, and May race cars -- some of the fastest, most powerful cars in the world. They also have the Stig drive them around a track, then keep a record of which cars have the fastest times. If that was all there was to Top Gear, this show would be pretty boring. But there's a lot more.

Every episode the three hosts face off against each other, or others, in a series of challenges. They had to build their own strtetch limousines (resulting in a 45-foot car, a convertible limo with no roof, and the front halves of two cars fused together) and drive a celebrity to an awards show; they had to make buy Astor-Martins for less than a thousand pounds and enter them in an Astor-Martin contest. (Hammond's car leaked so much coolant he had to crank it in from the driver's seat while driving.) Once a host raced down a snow-covered mountain, competing with two skiers heading down. And, in a full-length episode, Clarkson and May (in a specially-designed jeep) raced Hammond (on a dogsled) from Canada to the North Pole.

There are other features on the show. Celebrities drive around a track in a Very Reasonably Priced Car, with their results posted for all to see. News and strange items are discussed, from upcoming car plans to bizarre laws.

Top Gear is simply terrific. Even a car novice like me can tell that Clarkson, Hammond, and May are experts at cars, able to determine and discuss what makes a car great, awful, or simply fun. There's a lot of ribbing between the three ("It's a very elegant solutuon to a problem that never should have existed in the first place") and their competitiveness goes hand in hand with their playfulness. There are the occasional "Britishisms" -- references that may be hilarious or well known in England but mean nothing here in America -- but otherwise Top Gear perfectly captures the joys of driving and vehicles.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Porcupine Tree, The Incident (Roadrunner Records, 2009)

For well over a decade at this point, England's Porcupine Tree have been the leading proponents of contemporary progressive rock. Steven Wilson (vocals, guitar, piano), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Colin Edwin (bass), and Gavin Harrison (drums) have churned out a number of solid concept albums, the best of which was Deadwing in 2005. Their 2007 CD Fear of a Blank Planet wasn't quite as good, though, and I was worried that the band was starting to head in the wrong direction. Happily, the new album The Incident is a return to form.

The Incident is a double CD. The first disc is a continuous song cycle running about an hour. Wilson takes his inspiration from news events, like the raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas last year, and from less newsworthy but no less traumatic occurrences like car crashes. The underlying theme is that people keep themselves emotionally detached from sad or disturbing events when they hear about them, but the people who suffer through these events are just as human as the rest of us and have stories that need telling. It's a weighty subject to base a whole album around, but thankfully Wilson and the band churn out some solid rock and roll and keep things from getting too bleak. Like a lot of the "art rock" albums made by bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, or Genesis, the highlights on the first part of The Incident are often song fragments or portions of particular tracks; the chorus of "Drawing the Line" is especially inspired in that regard. This doesn't make the album particularly iPod friendly, but Wilson happily aims his work at listeners with enough of an attention span to listen to the album as whole.

The second disc is actually quite short, with four stand-alone songs. Of these, the last two songs are noteworthy. "Black Dahlia" has the best chord progression on either part of the album, and "Remember Me Lover" is a particularly potent break-up song.

Album-oriented rock has certainly become something of a lost art, but Porcupine Tree are firm believers in it. The Incident demonstrates that an album as a whole can be better than the sum of its individual parts. The underlying concept is dark but intriguing, and Wilson is skilled enough as a songwriter to make it work all the way through. Ultimately, though, the album depends on some strong musical performances to succeed, and Porcupine Tree delivers.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Some outtakes from the recording sessions.


Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky (Reprise, 2009)

After going through a long stretch of time where his album releases were few and far between, Mark Knopfler has had a very productive decade. Including his duet with Emmylou Harris called All the Roadrunning, Get Lucky is his sixth album over the last ten years. While he has shied away from his guitar hero past, Knopfler remains one of the best musical storytellers around.

As usual, Knopfler sings about life in working class England and Scotland, with references to his own childhood. The title song, for example, is about a transient worker that Knopfler met when he was fifteen; the man sang in bands in the winter then headed south to France to pick fruit or find truffles when the weather got warm, always looking forward to the next stroke of good fortune. "Border Reiver" tells of a Scottish truck driver making deliveries in to England in the late sixties. "Cleaning My Gun" is about an ex-soldier turned bartender who plans to be ready the next time mob goons come into the pub and try to smash the place. "Piper to the End" is dedicated to an uncle that Knopfler never met, who carried his pipes with him into his final battle in France in 1940. Knopfler's stories can be poignant or they can be humorous, but either way the songs succeed because even the fictional characters are palpably real.

Musically, Get Lucky continues the blend of laid back rock, folk, Celtic, and country that has characterized all of Knopfler's recent work. His core backing band, consisting of Richard Bennett (rhythm guitar), Danny Cummings (drums), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Matt Rollings (piano and keyboards), and Glenn Worf (bass), has remained constant since his first solo CD Golden Heart in 1996 -- a remarkable feat, given the instability of the Dire Straits lineups. The band is augmented this time around by renowned Scottish folk musician John McCusker, who plays fiddle, cittern, and whistle. I've complained in the past that Knopfler has gotten a bit too mellow for his own good, but after adjusting my expectations I can still say his music is worth a few listens.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Mark Knopfler plugs his new record on the BBC.


Some science fiction takes you to far-away places yet remains rooted in familiar ideas. This is the case with Avatar, a visually stunning James Cameron film that becomes very pedestrian if you stop looking and start thinking.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-bound marine sent to the planet Pandora, a jungle planet far from Earth. This planet is rich in a resource that the mysterious/menacing company wants to mine. Unfortunately, native species the Na'vi -- blue aliens twice as tall as humans, with with tails and large yellow eyes -- is hostile to humans and protects their land with bows and arrows. Worse, their village is on top of the richest deposit of this resource. Company man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants to avoid bloodshed if possible, while Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is ready for combat.

Hoping to reach a diplomatic solution, scientists Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) have created Avatars: a mix of human and Na'vi d.n.a. that looks like a Na'vi and a human mind can transfer into. Sully's twin brother was part of this project when he was killed, and Jake can transfer his brother's Avatar.

On Sully's first day out in his new body he becomes stranded alone on Pandora at night, where he meets and gains the attention of beautiful Na'vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Soon Jake is being taught the language and ways of the Na'vi, Grace and Norm are thrilled to be learning more about the Na'vi, and Colonel Quaritch wants intel on the aliens -- and promises to have Jake's legs fixed when the mission is done.

Avatar is about 60% cgi, and that part of the movie is absolutely stunning. The planet of Pandora is lush and mysterious, filled with floating mountains, various benign creatures and deadly predators, and even dinosaur-like monsters. The Na'vi (and Avatars) are remarkable creatures, alien to us and yet believable. I enjoyed seeing how each Avatar resembled its human operator. There's also a nice contrast between the natural ways and weapons of the Na'vi (organic bows, flying steeds) and the cold metal of the human military (large 'Mechs, hovering helicopters).

Unfortunately, Avatar is absolutely predictable. As with his previous movies, James Cameron has his good guys and bad guys so obvious they might as well wear white and black cowboy hats. Ditto for the antanogism--to-romance relationship between Sully and Neytiri. While we could all learn to be more respectful of nature, this movie really clubs its viewers over the head with that message. If you are ever going to see Avatar, see it on the big screen for the special effects. Just don't expect to be surprised or impressed by anything else in the movie.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



With Christmas approaching, so to do the Christmas specials. Some are timeless classics, like A Charlie Brown Christmas; others are more recent gems, such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Bad Santa. Then there are those specials that fall into the "what were they thinking?" category, with scary Santas, incoherent stories, and horrible sound and special effects. Fortunately, the Rifftrax folks are ready to gie these awful flicks the commentary they deserve.

Rifftrax Live! Christmas Shorts-Stravaganza has the MST3K folks -- Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy -- doing a live performance of their take on some truly terrible Christmas shorts (and, for some reason, specials on pork and summer aquatic sports) in the theater. The shorts selected are truly awful, from one focusing on a monotone voiceover covering a tree "of no account" to dolls coming eerily to life to Santa controlling people's dreams.

The Rifftrax humor ranges from topical jokes -- Twilight and the song "Poker Face" -- to sarcasm, sexual innuendo, and bizarre additions. Sometimes it's juvenile, but it's often quite funny -- sometimes at the same time. I wonder about the two decidedly non-holiday shorts, and I'm surprised they didn't do more with "Weird Al" while he was there. Still, the Rifftrax Live Christmas Shorts-Stravaganza was a lot of fun -- and a great contrast to the often-excessive sentimentality of the holiday season.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewe by James Lynch

Southeast Engine, From the Forest to the Sea (Misra Records, 2009)

Southeast Engine are an Athens, Ohio quartet consisting of Adam Remnant (vocals, guitar, piano), Leo DeLuca (drums), Jesse Remnant (bass), and Michael Lachman (keyboards). Their album From the Forest to the Sea is a morality play, in which Adam Remnant tells a story about a man's quest for redemption after giving into temptation.

From the Forest to the Sea
was recorded onto analog tape in an old schoolhouse from the 19th century, giving the music a creepy sort of ambience. Or perhaps the creepiness comes from Remnant trying too hard to channel Nathaniel Hawthorne; it's hard to tell. The band's sound leans heavily on psychedelic hard rock, with Lachman's organ playing making a lasting favorable impression. But if you think that it would be a challenge to combine sixties retro prog with heavily biblical allusions and pull it off, well, you'd be right. To be fair, the album has some moments, especially the song "Black Gold." That's really the only track that can stand on its own, though. Everything else stands or falls with the album as a whole, and the second half of the album unfortunately didn't work for me. The imagery involving Noah's Ark and diving to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee struck me as a very long-winded, and not particularly revelatory, way of saying that the album's protagonist screwed up and now it was time to repent.

Adam Remnant and Southeast Engine don't suffer from a lack of musical ambition. On From the Forest to the Sea, they swing for the fences but only occasionally make contact. "Black Gold" is worth a few listens, and I guess people interested in rock music with biblical themes will at least be curious about the rest of it. Otherwise, the band just didn't achieve the depth they were aiming for.

Overall grade: C

reviewed by Scott

"Black Gold"


Various Artists, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Earthworks, 1992) and Voices from Mother Africa (African Cream, 2007)

While a lot of indigenous music from across the globe has reached international audiences in the twenty-three years since Paul Simon released Graceland, the music of South Africa remains the most familiar form of world music to most mainstream listeners. South African music is dominated by two styles. One is called mbaqanga or "township jive," and is characterized by smooth, melodic guitar lines, simple major-key chord progressions, and steady but infectious rhythms. The other is a variant of a capella choral music performed by large groups of singers, as best exemplified by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Here I review a pair of compilation albums featuring multiple performers of both styles. The first, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto belongs to a series of similarly themed compilation albums of mbaqanga music, while the second, Voices from Mother Africa, is a recent assortment of South African vocal music.

Originally released in 1992, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto is exactly what the album's title claims it to be. It continues a string of sampler albums compiled by a man named Trevor Herman to promote South African music internationally. (The first of these albums was simply called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Released in 1985, it generated a significant amount of press even before the arrival of Graceland.) The album contains twelve songs from a number of different performers, the most frequently recurring of which are Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens. Mahlatini's endearingly distinct bass voice was a national treasure for nearly forty years, and his vocals really stick out on this CD. Virtually everything on the disc is fun, groove-oriented guitar music, and the album as a whole demonstrates the considerable depth and flavor of the mbaqanga style.

Voices from Mother Africa was released in 2007, and consists of fourteen songs from five different groups singing without accompaniment. The one common act to both these CDs is The Mahotella Queens, who have continued to perform on their own since Mahlatini passed away in 1999. The performances include all-male, all-female, and mixed choral arrangements. Ladysmith Black Mambazo do not perform on this record, but their influence is felt throughout, especially on the cover of "Homeless" performed by The Aba Khibesiwe Choir. The other song with a readily recognizable element is "Mbube," performed by Amaryoni. This song is a variant of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," except the jungle is vanishing and the lion is angry and now keeping his eyes wide open.

Either of these discs would serve as a satisfactory introduction to the music of South Africa, or a basis to explore further if your knowledge of the music doesn't extend beyond Graceland. I'd also recommend any of Johnny Clegg's music you can find, and if you like the sound of the group vocals you should also get your hands on some of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's own CDs.

Overall grades:
A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto A-
Voices from Mother Africa B+

reviewed by Scott



What happens when an unintentional comedy is remade as a deliberate comedy? Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical takes on the 1930s anti-marijuana Reefer Madness by adding musical numbers and upping the stereotypes of the original.

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical opens in a black-and-white classroom in 1936. A lecturer (Alan Cumming, who plays several roles in the movie) is showing parents and teachers his film depicting the perils of marijuana: "Creeping like a communist, it's knocking at your doors/turning all our children into hooligans and whores!" His lecture -- and movie -- is full of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and hyperbole (like the "fact" that marijuana is more addictive than heroin) -- and he treats any questioning or disbelief as a sign of anti-patriotism and anti-Americanism.
The movie-in-the-movie is about two all-American pure teen sweethearts: Jimmy Harper (Chris Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell). These two are in love, rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet (and she just knows it'll have a happy ending!), and getting ready for the big dance. But Jimmy can't dance -- and this leads him down the path of corruption.

Jimmy falls for the snares of slick marijuana dealer Jack Stone (Steven Weber), a slick, brutal man out to addict kids. His den of iniquity includes: Mae Coleman (Ana Gasteyer), an older woman who knows how evil weed and Jack are but can't kick "the stuff"; Sally (Amy Spanger), the beautiful temptress who has a habit of walking into things and endangering her kid; and Ralph (John Kassir), the burned-out weirdo who got hooked on pot in college and wears his varsity sweater all the time.

Naturally, one puff of marijuana turns the innocent kids into addicts, thieves, murderers, sex addicts, and even cannibals! And what better way to show all this than lavish musical numbers? From the initial G-rated dance at the soda shop (featuring Chris's sister Neve Campbell) to a Vegas-style number with a shirtless Jesus (Robert Torti) to a wild animated sequence, there's music a-plenty here!

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is a fun one-joke movie, er, movie musical. Not unlike The Colbert Report, the conservative view is delivered so excessively "serious" that it becomes its own joke. The cast here is excellent -- both in comic timing and at singing and dancing -- and the movie is an excellent parody of its unintentionally silly source material. (The dvd also includes the original movie!) So if you want to spend some time in a looney version of the good old days, threatened by the demon weed, then check out Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Norah Jones, THE FALL

Does a lovely singing voice equal a lovely album? Norah Jones has an always great voice very often employed in making mellow music. Despite a slight variety of styles, her new album The Fall remains very mellow.

The Fall is primarily an album about romance, be it thwarted by geography ("Back to Manhattan") or slightly mischevious ("you've ruined me now/ but I liked it"). Norah Jones' voice is beautiful, and the songs here are not just ballads but have elements of the blues, country, and even a little alternative.

Even with expanding her musical style, Norah Jones' songs tend to be a bit too mellow after a while. You can appreciate her singing, but the songs start to blend together after a while. Even the Target exclusive (discalimer: I work for Target -- or does Target work for me ?) covers -- Johnny Cash's "Cry Cry Cry," Wilco's "Jesus Inc." and the Kinks' "Strangers" -- made me more interested in hearing the originals than in Norah's versions again. The Fall is pleasant enough, though a bit slow.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The ninja. Deadly. Stealthy. Fast. Able to deliver a hamburger anyplace on the planet. What, you didn't know that last fact? Then you haven't played Ninja Burger: Secret Ninja Death Touch Edition, a card game from Steve Jackson Games.
Each player takes on the role of a ninja out to get enough honor to win. Each ninja has a number of skills (with "Other Stuff" used to cover any skill they don't have); sometimes they have advantages or penalties, which are balanced by lower or higher skills. Players start with three Fortune cards (used to help themselves or hinder opponents), some money (to buy Ninja Stuff, a type of Fortune card), and six honor.

Players win in one of three ways: having the most honor when the honor total among all players is ten times the number of players; having the most honor when the total honor among all players is less than four times the number of players; or having five more honor than the next-closest player.

To gain (or possibly lose) honor, ninjas go on Missions to deliver their burgers. Missions are in a wide variety of places, from Buckingham Palace to Office Cube 2357-B ("Be careful. 2357-A is in another building") to Mount Everest to a Nuclear Submarine. Missions have a number of skill checks (rolling the ninja's skill or less on three six-sided dice). If the ninja makes all the skill checks, they gain something, usually honor, money, or both. Failure results in a penalty, usually a loss of honor, money, or both. There are also Errands, which are easier than missions but have less reward.
Then there are staff meetings. Each turn players get a Mission card (along with a Fortune card and money) and can decide to attend or skip the staff meeting. (Everyone decides this together, at the same time.) People who attend the staff meeting get a Fortune card and can swap Missions with each other. However, a player can force a player with lower honor to swap a Mission with them. A person who skips the staff meeting can't trade their Mission or get a Fortune card, but they can reroll one failed skill check on their turn.

After everyone's had a turn, if only one player succeeds they gain one extra honor; if only one player failed, they lose one extra honor. Players then check to see if anyone has won, and if not the turn starts anew.
Ninja Burger: Secret Ninja Death Touch Edition is quick, fun, funny, and simple. There's plenty of humor here: silly flavor text ("No one has explained why the franchise has its own leopard. But it needs to be walked, right now"), art from Greg Hyland, exotic/ridiculous locations, and even cards letting a player swap skills but having to explain how they're doing it. This latest edition has the cards from the original Sumo-Size Me expansion (the Tip Jar, New Menu Items, Goals, Enhancers) that add a little more variety to the game; there are also money and honor tokens that cute but unnecessary extras. Gameplay can get pretty cutthroat, but the high humor level keeps things from getting too serious. Ninja Burger: Secret Ninja Death Touch Edition is a neat little game that's easy to quickly teach and start. There's no grand strategy involved, but this is a terrifically enjoyable game that proves that fast food delivery can be amusing -- providing you're a ninja, of course.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Ah, early December: Thanksgiving is a recent memory, Christmas looms, shoppers begin hitting the retail stores in droves, and some of the most beautiful women in the world strut in revealing underwear. The latter isn't a beautiful delusion of mine but the Victoria's Secret 2010 Fashion Show, where the lingerie company takes over CBS for an hour. This year had few surprises -- except a dive into the reality competition genre -- and lots of, well, Victoria's Secret models.

This year's show was hosted by Heidi Klum, shown right below, perky and charismatic as ever (and stunning, especially since she had given birth a few weeks ago). She discusses the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the show -- and also the competition. For this year's show, Victoria's Secret had a competition to find their next Angel, and in-between runway walks we got to see the competition, from the initial auditions to the top ten, top five, top two, and the during-the-broadcast voting to pick which person would walk down the runway on the show. Angel Boot Camp (their term, not mine) was strenuous but not interesting, and the whole contest felt like an attempt to cash in on the American Idol craze.

Musically, the Victoria's Secret 2010 Fashion Show had the Black Eyed Peas, with Fergie even dressing accordingly, shown below. There were also the usual club-style musical mash-ups (who knew Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" worked so well with the Police's "Message in a Bottle?") and current top 40 hits.
As always, the styles shown aren't for sale but are instead the inspirations for Victoria's Secret designs going into 2010. The one exception, shown below, is the $3 million Fantasy Bra, made with diamonds and worn by Marissa Miller.
This fashion show also included Victoria's Secret's Pink line, underwear aimed at teens and college women. Otherwise, Victoria's Secret 2010 Fashion Show offered the same as their previous shows: a perfect fusion of beautiful women and beautiful undergarments, unneded slow motion, and the odd inclusion of Victoria's Secret commercials during the breaks in the Victoria's Secret fashion show. So scroll down and enjoy some more pictures from the always-amazing Victoria's Secret 2010 Fashion Show.
Reviewed by James Lynch
(who is, mercifully, not shown below in lingerie)



Can a restaurant go from the brink of disaster to culinary and financial success? And can this happen in a single week? This is the challenge of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, a British show where chef and restaurant owner Gordon Ramsay tries to help restaurants turn themselves around in seven days.

Each episode features Ramsay trying to make a failing restaurant succeed again, along with his voiceovers and interviews with the restaurant's staff. Most episodes follow a pattern: The first day Ramsay visits for the first time and tries the food; the second day he inspects the kitchen; the third day he observes a typical dinner service; the next three days cover changes -- menu, decor, staff, etc; then the last day is a relaunch for the restaurant with the changes.

This sort of show hinges on the host, and Gordon Ramsay is certainly engaging. Very passionate (and swearing enough to get bleeped frequently, even on BBC America), Ramsay is critical and argumentative -- and willing to roll up his sleeves and do the grunt work along with the chefs and staff. He approaches each challenge with a new strategy (though simpler, less pretentious food is a frequent fix) and the receptions vary from unconditional acceptance to shouting matches. There's usually a visit a few weeks or months later, when we see how the restaurants have done after Ramsay's visit. (Some do well, some close, and one sued Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares for causing it to fail.) The show does use narration and dramatic music to manipulate the audience a little, but it's nice to see a show where the star is willing to do some real work -- and effect a real change.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Ah, the dream team: a collection of the best people in a field, gathered together for a spectacular performance. While the dream team often applies to sports, Sports Illustrated: Exposure assembles its own dream team of supermodels in an amazing coffee table book.

Sports Illustrated: Exposure is different from most Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots. Instead of having numerous locations, a wide variety of swimsuit colors and styles, and (more recently) body paint, this collection of photos was taken over a 10-day period in Harbour Island in the Bahamas. Photographer Raphael Mazzucco also had the models clad in a variety of all-white swimwear.

So, what makes this a dream team? That would be photos of eight women who have graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: Rachel Hunter, Rebeca Romijn, Daniela Pestova, Elle MacPherson, Yamila Diaz-Rahi, Elsa Benitez, Veronica Varekova, and Carolyn Murphy. To call these women beautiful is an understatement, and Mazzucco combines the perfect Harbour Island background with the models' posing, often with each other, in styles from sensual to playful.
Sports Illustrated: Exposure is a true wonder. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect collection of models to be photographed together (though if you can, we do have a comments section), and the photos are both stylish and natural. One may feel having nothing but all-white swimwear is limiting, but there's no repetitive feeling in the photographs here. Sports Illustrated: Exposure is, simply, amazing.
Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Whick of your friends would be the most likely to do something -- or the least likely? Knowing the answer to this, or knowing how someone else will answer, is the key to Party Pooper, a game from Out of the Box Publishing.

Out of the Box also published Apples to Apples, and Party Pooper shares a key element with that earlier game: One player acts as a judge each round (in Party Pooper they're "the host"), and the other players (in Party Pooper they're "the guests") try to guess how the host will make a decision.

At the start of each round of Party Pooper the host rolls a six-sided die that will come up either "Party Pooper" or "Party Animal." The host then draws a card which has a situation on it. The host has to decide which player -- including themselves -- would either be most likely to do what the card called for (if "Party Animal" was rolled) or would be the least likely to do it (if "Party Pooper" was rolled.) The guests decide who the host will choose. When everyone is ready, the judge says "One... two... three... point!" and everyone points at their pick. Every time a guest picks the same person as the host, that guest and the host each get a plastic chip. Then the person to the host's left becomes the new host. After a certain number of rounds where each player gets to be the host the same number of times, whoever has the most chips wins.

Party Pooper is fun -- with some qualifications. As with many party games you need to know the other players -- friends or family members work best -- to do more than blindly guess. Unlike Apples to Apples, players can't discuss what they think the best answer is. My biggest problem is the pointing: Anyone who pauses half a second can change their pick, resulting in more arguments and accusations of cheating than fun party antics. (I find it easier to have people write down their picks.)

But Party Pooper does provide some lighthearted fun. There are 400 question cards, so you can play a large number of games without repeating questions. The question cards are almost all family-friendly (though with my niece and nephew playing we skipped a card about nude sunbathers), and the situations presented are more silly than potentially insulting. Party Pooper has its flaws but is an enjoyable little party game.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Harlem Shakes, Technicolor Health (Gigantic Music, 2009)

As you might guess from their name, the members of Harlem Shakes are New Yorkers, although the quintet of Lexy Beinam (vocals), Todd Goldstein (guitar, vocals), Jose Soegaard (bass, vocals), Kendrick Strauss (keyboards, vocals), and Brent Katz (drums, vocals) were actually based in Brooklyn rather than Harlem. Their music combines indie rock with some rudimentary electronics. Technicolor Health came out this past spring, but since they've recently announced a split, their second album appears to be their last.

Technicolor Health has its moments. Beinam's pleasantly unassuming voice reminds me a lot of Nick Lowe, and suits the songs well. "Niagra Falls" has a nice piano part and a good bounce to it, and the really good single "Sunlight" boasts an infectious chorus. But most of the album lacks a real spark. Plus, the electronics often sound cheesy and do more harm than good.

So on the whole, you'll find a couple of songs worth a few listens or a download, but not enough quality to sustain a full album. Harlem Shakes might have been capable of eventually making an album that's strong all the way through. Technicolor Health is not that album, though, and it doesn't seem likely that they'll give themselves another chance.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

Harlem Shakes play "Sunlight" in front of their home crowd in Brooklyn.


Shakira, SHE WOLF

It's always refreshing to discover pop music that doesn't sound like everything else on the radio. This atypical and rewarding feat is achieved on She Wolf, the terrific new album from Shakira.

She Wolf uses lots of synthesizers and electronics, but these are flavored with other influences: Latin, Indian, and even folk music. (I could see "Gypsy" being written by the Indigo Girls as easily as by Shakira.) And it's all held together by Shakira's voice, which can go from sensual to powerful to playful -- sometimes in the same song.

This time around, Shakira sings almost completely about love and lust. ("She Wolf" and "Gypsy" are more about self-discovery.) Songs topics include repeatedly falling for the wrong guy ("Did It Again"), playful exhibitionism ("Spy"), and pure sensual fantasy ("Good Stuff"). The lyrics are light and fluffy, and if She Wolf has one flaw it's the occasional clunker in the writing: "I'm so happy I should get sued," "I'm starting to feel just a little abused/like a coffee machine in an office." But there is also clever writing here, from the dark obsessed and vindictive ex-girlfriend in "Mon Amour" to bemoaning a lack of eligible men in "Men in This Town": "The good ones are gone or not able/ and Matt Damon's not meant for me."

She Wolf has nine songs in English, three of those songs performed in Spanish as well, two live songs, and two songs with rappers Lil Wayne and Kid Cuti. The version from Target (disclaimer: I work for Target. Disclaiming: It's good for what ails ya) has a bonus dvd with two live performances, an interview with Shakira, the video for "She Wolf" and a making-of feature for that video. She Wolf won't revolutionize all music or become immortal poetry. What it is, first and foremost, is fun. Shakira has made an album that's very enjoyable and easy to listen to repeatedly. Aooooooooo!

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Väsen, Väsen Street (NorthSide, 2009)

Over the past fifteen years, no band has epitomized new Swedish folk music more than Väsen. A superior live act with an unsurpassed sense of instrumental interplay, Olav Johansson (nyckelharpa), Mikael Marin (viola), and Roger Tallroth (guitar) have built up enough of a following internationally that the organizers of the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival have started lobbying the town of Bloomington, Indiana to name a street after them. Whether their efforts come to fruition or not, Väsen Street can be enjoyed by anybody for the price of a typical CD.

On the new album, Väsen provide the usual assortment of self-composed and traditional polskas, schottishes, and waltzes. The schottishes (bouncy tunes in 2:4) get a bit more emphasis than usual, and "Garageschottis" is my favorite track on the CD. There are a couple of twists on Väsen Street as well. "Absolute Swedish" veers off in a bluegrass direction about halfway through, with the assistance of American musicians Mike Marshall (mandolin) and Darol Anger (fiddle). "Hagsatra Brudmarsch" was originally composed for Mikael Marin's wedding and played by a wedding orchestra; for the recording, Väsen are joined by Marin's wife Mia (from the band [ni:d]) and Emma Reid on fiddle, along with frequently recurring fourth member Andre Ferrari on percussion.

Otherwise, anybody familiar with Väsen will know exactly what to expect. This is something of a mixed blessing, as dependability often goes hand in hand with predictability. And their recorded output, good though it is, still doesn't match their phenomenal live shows. Having said that, on Väsen Street the band continues to meet the high standard of musicianship they've set for themselves, and if you like the sound of Swedish fiddle music at all, then it's impossible not to love Väsen.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Hey, I was there! Väsen performing what would become the title tune of their new album at the 2008 Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis.


Vieux Farka Touré, Fondo (Six Degrees Records, 2009)

With his 2006 self-titled debut CD, Vieux Farka Touré embraced the legacy left him by his late father, the venerable Malian guitarist singer Ali Farka Touré. The younger Farka Touré has quickly built up a solid reputation on his own terms, though. His second CD Fondo finds him largely going electric, finding a middle ground between the guitar and kora music of his homeland and some good old-fashioned rock and roll.

Touré's embrace of amplifiers and distortion on Fondo is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the album's high-energy songs really rock, especially the hyper workout "Sarama." Touré puts some percussion and some simple yet very effective drumming underneath his frenetic guitar playing, and the result is a really exciting track. On most of the quieter numbers, though, the electric guitar doesn't work quite as well as an acoustic guitar would. I also don't think Touré has the same melodic sense with his playing that his countryman Habib Koité does, and he frequently lets his guitar dominate the instrumental arrangement too much. For example, the song "Mali" has some nice accompanying instrumentation, but you have to listen closely to hear it underneath the heavily distorted guitar. By contrast, Touré shares the spotlight with kora player Toumani Diabaté on the really pretty instrumental "Paradise." Fondo would have benefited from more tunes like this one.

Vieux Farka Touré clearly builds most of the arrangements to the songs on Fondo around his guitar. While I'm sure this works perfectly well in a live context, it sometimes sounds as though the song exists merely as an excuse to set up the next guitar solo. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- Eric Clapton is probably more guilty of that than anybody, and I'm a huge fan -- but you do have to wonder how many of the songs really hold up independently of the guitar. Still, "Sarama" and "Paradise" are excellent recordings, and fans of Malian guitar music will probably find plenty else to like here as well.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

Co-producer Yossi Fine talks about the making of Fondo.