The Crazies, a remake of the 1970s George A. Romero movie of the same name, dips into familiar horror movie themes. Fortunately, it does so well enough to be an entertaining B movie.

The town of Ogden Nash is a peaceful farming community straight out of small town America. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) seem to have few cares beyond the town baseball game. Doctor Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell), the sheriff's wife, takes care of folks and is pregnant with her first child. Becca (Danielle Panapbaker) is a teenager eager to spend time with her boyfriend Scotty (Justin Miles). When townsfolk start staring into space, it's a little unnerving. When they suddenly start killing friends and family for no reason, it's disturbing.

But in the tradition of many many horror movies, the authorities are just as great a threat as the monsters. Shortly after the killings start, government troops in containment suits start rounding up the people of Odgen Nash -- and follow a policy of "shoot first, don't question later" when it comes to the infected. (Since George A. Romero is an executive producer of The Crazies, this element is no surprise.) Aerial shots of the town and its people reinforce the idea that Big Brother is watching.

Soon, with the town virtually empty, David, Judy, Russell and Becca are trying to get to the next town over -- while dealing with the infected, the military, and even other survivors. Of course, they also have to worry about each other possibly being infected...

The Crazies is straightforward, violent horror movie entertainment. While thecharacters are very black and white, there are some impressively scary scenes (notably a trip through a car wash that only allows glimpses of those after them) and violence that's extreme but not overdone. The Crazies offers lots of scares and proves to be a solid, smart horror movie.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



In some corner of the universe I've never visited, high school is 100% about cheerleading. A hyper-perky version of this world is presented in Bring It On.

Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) just became the captain of the Toros, the national cheerleading champions of Rancho Carne High School in San Diego (whose football team is truly awful). Torrance is thrilled to be leading the squad, and excited about new member/"punk" rebel Missy (Eliza Dushku) -- plus her cute and cool brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford) -- until scandal strikes.

It turns out that Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), the squad's previous captain, had stolen the routines from the East Compton Clovers, an inner-city high school. Isis (Gabrielle Union), the Clovers' captain, throws the theft in Torrance's face -- and plans to have the Clovers compete agains the Toros in the national cheerleading championships. Can Torrance come up with a new routine? Will she realize what a jerk her college boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman) is?

As you may have gathered, Bring It On isn't about life-or-death issues -- though it feels like it is to the movie's characters. This movie is knowingly silly, from bitchy teens and goofy choreographer Sparky (Ian Roberts) to slow-motion moves and a soundtrack that rears up every time we're supposed to feel an emotion.

Director Peyton Reed keeps things moving at a good clip, and he plays to his actresses' strengths: Dunst as the perky idealist, Dushku as the loner-with-a-heart-of-gold (who oddly becomes Torrance's best friend quickly, despite the latter's much longer relationships with her squad members), and Union as someone who feels slighted at beign ripped off but still has plenty of integrity.And the final competition is a very nice display of choreography and energy.

Despite some fun leads, Bring It On is both predictable and superficial. DVD extras are also fairly sparse: a little behind-the-scenes, factiods that pop up during the movie, and a composite of the handheld movies made when just about every crew member turned up for the bikini car wash scene. Bring It On is fun at times, but this is one clearly for teens.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


When one thinks of things that go together, "slack" and "Lovecraftian horror" do not often come to mind. Yet the funny, twisted people have merged the two unlikely elements of goofing off and eldritch horror in Chez Cthulhu, the latest in their "Chez" line of games.

Each player is a roommate, with a randomly determined job (from Dog Walker to Street Corner Shouter). Jobs have Free Time (how many actions a person can take each turn), Income (to buy Things), Slack Goal (how much Slack a player needs to win), and special bonuses. Turns are the same as in the previous "Chez" games. A player rolls a die to try and call people who give Slack into their room, send people worth zero Slack (and with negative elements) to other roommates, and rolls to try and send bad people out of their room and into that of a roommate. Players then use their Free Time to shop (buying Stuff up to their Income for that turn) or pursue activities -- both of which can give Slack. And, of course, other players can use cards to counter your activities.

So what's different in Chez Cthulhu? The new rule is: Madness! Some cards give Madness tokens; these initially detract from your total Slack, but if you get enough Madness you go Stark Raving Mad -- and further Madness tokens are added to your Slack! The types of cards are also a combination of horror and humor, from the numerous Sacrifice and tentacle cards to the card names (Indescribably Horrible Nookie, Unspeakable Manifestation) to the flavor text (Miniature Golf: "Two golfers enter, one golfer leaves!"). You can mix Chez Cthulhu with the other "Chez" games, but it'll be easy to tell which cards are from this one.

Chez Cthulhu is a lot of fun. While gameplay is extremely similar to the past "Chez" games, the Lovecraftian flavor is a surprisingly good fit -- helped greatly by the goofy artwork from John Kovalic. Chez Cthulhu is a nice beer and pretzels game: pretty simple, easy to learn, quick to play, a good light time for friends (who preferably have read H.P. Lovecraft). You don't have to be Stark Raving Mad to get enough Slack before your roommates do -- but it helps!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



One aspect shared by the superhero and soap opera genres is the evil twin. There are innumerable cases of heroes who either face an opponent with the same powers as them, or an alternate universe where our heroes are their villains and vice versa. The latter is the case with Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, the latest straight-to-dvd cartoon from DC Comics.

This time around the Justice League is made up of its core members: Superman (Mark Harmon), Batman (William Baldwin), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), Green Lantern (Nolan North), the Flash (Josh Keaton), and the Martian Manhunter (Jonathan Adams). The team is in the process of putting together their headquarters when news comes in that Lex Luthor has turned up at a police station. But this Lex Luthor (Peter Noth) is the hero of his universe -- and he's come for the Justice League's help.

In Luthor's world, a group of villains called the Crime Syndicate terrorize the populace. The Crime Syndicate are composed of Ultraman (Brian Bloom), Owlman (James Woods), Super Woman (Gina Torres), Power Ring (Nolan North), and Johnny Quick (James Patrick Stewart). These villains have their own gangs, give super powers to their most trusted members, and exist in a state of mutual fear with the government (the government has nukes, but the Crime Syndicate can kill almost anyone). Luthor wants the Justice League to bring down the Crime Syndicate, and everyone but Batman goes to do this.

So the heroes arrive to fight the villains, the villains are working on a superbomb to counter the nuclear threat, President Slade Wilson (Bruce Davison) fears what will happen if the villains are stopped, and his daughter Rose (Freddi Rogers) is an optspoken critic of the Crime Syndicate -- and may be starting a romance with the Martian Manhunter.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a fairly basic slugfest, as heroes and villains fight, and fight, and fight. There's really nothing done with the dual versions of the same character, and the ultimate resolution is a bit of a letdown. I was surprised that the same actors didn't voice the two versions of the characters (except for Nolan North, who has very few lines as either Green Lantern or Power Ring), and the voice quality varies: William Baldwin isn't as good a vocal Batman as previous voice actors, but James Woods brings an eerie calmness to Owlman. Bonus features include clips from other DC animated specials, a Spectre short that's a combination '70s detective movie and horror revenge flick, and two Justice League episodes where the Justice League face off against alternate universe of themselves.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



When it comes to a muse, a photographer could not ask for a better source of inspiration than the lovely Heidi Klum. The photographer Rankin has collaborated with Klum over several years, and Rankin's Heidilicious collects over 200 pages of his photographs of her taken over several years.

Following a foreword by Klum's husband Seal and a question-answer session between Rankin and Klum, Rankin's Heidilicious jumps straight into the photographs. As one might expect, there are numerous glamour and beauty shots: Klum in lingerie, bikini, and outfits that are more fresh air than fabric. But there are also numerous different and playful pictures here as well, from Klum going punk to her drenched in chocolate to her becoming a blue-skinner multi-armed Indian goddess. Rankin brings out both the beauty and playfulness in Klum, and the photos are all stunning. These photographs are certainly worthy of this coffee table book.

My only complaint with Rankin's Heidilicious is this book's lack of information. The only details given about each group of photographs are the hair, makeup, and stylist, so we don't know where the photos originally appeared -- Victoria's Secret? Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue? advertisments? -- or what the chronology is for when the photos were taken.

Apart from letting the photos speak for themselves, Rankin's Heidilicious is a terrific showcase of what happens when a terrific photographer works with an amazing model. "Heidilicious" is certainly the best word for this!
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

Gabriel Yacoub, De la Nature des Choses (Le Roseau, 2008)

French singer Gabriel Yacoub is one of those performers whose music may not overwhelm people or provide instant gratification, but who never fails to make an intriguing recording. Best known as the leader of the revered "Renaissance rock" band Malicorne, Yacoub has spent nearly forty years among France's finest musical exports, and along the way has embraced a number of different styles. At first listen his newest album De la Nature des Choses sound like a typically mellow recording in the singer/songwriter vein, but Yacoub mixes in a number of subtle twists that will reward those who listen closely.

The key to De la Nature des Choses is the unusual assortment of instrumentation which Yacoub uses to back up his singing. Yacoub himself alternates between guitar, banjo, mandolin, and autoharp. His primary accompanists on this recording are Yannick Hardouin on piano and bass and Gilles Chabenat on vielle à roue (French hurdy-gurdy), with additional periodic support from a horn section, backing singers, and some light percussion. The combination of instruments is unusual, but the arrangements generally work. I'm a fan of the sound of hurdy-gurdies in general, but the use of the vielle à roue as a support instrument in delicate arrangements is unique at least among the recordings with which I'm familiar, and it adds an otherworldly dimension to the overall sound that I found very appealing. Likewise, the horn section is used sparsely and delicately, but if you pay attention you'll hear how well it works.

I didn't think any of the songs De la Nature des Choses were as catchy as "Beauté" and "Ces Dieux-Là" off Yacoub's previous studio album The Simple Things We Said, but that could partially be attributed to the French in those songs being relatively easy for me to follow. Still, the new album has some highlights, particularly the melodically intricate "Elle Disait" and the bluesy "Le Bois Mort." Gabriel Yacoub is a venerable artist still finding new ways to express himself musically, and De la Nature des Choses really grew on me with repeated listens.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

a solo performance of "Il Aurait Du"



It takes a lot of guts to use a positive adjective as the name of your game, but that's what happened with Ingenious. Fortunately the game lives up to its name. This is a game that's fun, very easy to learn, and deceptiely simple.

The board is a giant hexagon composed of smaller hexagons; four-player games use all the spaces, three-player games don't use the outside ring, and two-player games don't use the outside two rings. Each side has a space with one of the game's colors: red, orange, green, blue, purple, or yellow. (Each color also has a different symbol, making them very distinct.)

Each player gets six tiles (each tile is two hexagons together, with the same or two different colors) which are held on plastic holders like those used in Scrabble. Players also have a score card, showing the colors and with spaces for scores from 0 to 18, plus color markers to keep track of the score.

On a player's turn they place a tile on the board. The player scores a point for each matching color space radiating in a straight line in five directions from the color on the placed tile (players don't score points off the placed tile itself), than advancing the color marker up their score card. If a player's color marker reaches 18, that player can play and score a second tile. A player then draws replacement tiles for each tile they played; if a player has no tiles with their lowest-point color, the player can discard all their tiles and draw six new tiles.

The game ends if a person scores 18 points in all six colors (that person wins) or when no new tiles can be played on the board. If the latter happens, each player's score is the point value of their lowest color, and the person with the highest score wins; if there's a tie, the tied players compare their next-lowest color.

Ingenious works very well on several levels. This game takes almost no time to set up, explain, or start playing, and each game is pretty quick. By having the colors very distinct and with different shapes, the board is bright and very easy to distinguish between the six different options for each player. The plastic tiles won't bend or color, and they fit together very well on the board. Best of all is the scoring system. Instead of players focusing on one color all game or going for the most points in a color, they are constantly working to improve their worst color, and then improving their new worst color. There's a decent amount of strategy here -- blocking other players, getting six new tiles or working with one's current ones, when go go for 18 points and place a second tile -- and the replay factor is quite high. Ingenious is very enjoyable, a fast-playing and simple-yet-challenging competition for one to four people.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Valravn - Koder på snor (Tutl, 2009)

The Danish quintet Valravn first got my attention last year with their self-titled debut CD. Combining folk instrumentation with dark electronica, the band evoked some of the strong Nordic bans of the nineties like Hedningarna and Garmarna. They didn't necessarily break new ground or improve on what was done in the past, but they did create a handful of pretty strong tracks. Now Anna Katrin Egilstrøð, Martin Seeberg, Søren Hammerlund, Juan Pino, and Christopher Juul are back with a new album called Koder på Snor. It's somewhat darker and angrier than its predecessor, with the tracks generally longer and more fleshed out, but otherwise it's more of the same.

Once again, the focal point of Valravn's sound is Anna Katrin Egilstrøð. If you're looking for something pretty or diva-like, she won't be your kind of singer. It's easy -- too easy, perhaps -- to compare the Faroese native to Björk, the most famous singer from Iceland. But while you can make the argument that Egilstrøð tries too hard to sound like somebody else, you could counter by pointing out that Björk channels the same primal elements in Nordic singing traditions as Egilstrøð and plenty of other contemporary Scandinavian singers do. Personally, I think the harshness works, and if anything I think there were opportunities for her to cut loose even more than she does on this recording.

Ultimately, if you liked the first Valravn CD, or Nordic techno/folk in general, you'll like Koder på Snor as well. I didn't feel that the new album went beyond its predecessor, though, and the band wear on their sleeves the influence of performers which to date they haven't been able to match. They're still worth a listening to and keeping up with, as they appear to have the skill to take their music to the next level.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

the video for the title song



Who's have guessed that some of the most sexy, humorous, and intelligent erotica would come in the form of a comic book. XXXenophile, written and pencilled by Phil Folgio (who's done everything , came out in the late '80s through early '90s and is a wonderful example of the fusion of sex and fun.

At the start of the collection XXXenophile: Big Book O' Fun Folgio describes the comic book thus: "A Lighthearted, but Informative Treatise upon some of the more Esoteric and Abtruse aspects of Human Sexuality, and how they can be Improved for All Concerned with the simple addition of Penguins, Marshmallows, and the occasional Sock Puppet. No, Really." For this book, the esoteric and abtruse is the stuff of fantasy. Not just sexual fantasy, but also impossible fantasy that the comic book format can easily portray: demons, dryads, robots, aliens, clones, duplicates, the monster under the bed, gods, goddesses, djinn, World War Three, "The Cat of the Curse-People," computers, robots, cyborgs, dragons, curses, witchcraft, centaurs, the monster under the bed, and why planes really fly.

Where XXXenophile really stands out is its intelligence and humor. Far from being just another collection of nekkid people doing fun stuff, the stories (the series is comprised of self-contained short tales, except for the full-length medieval fantasy Heart of Stone) are constructed intelligently, demonstrating in a short space how to write a smart, complete erotic tale. (Kudos also for taking Peter David's point about the dark nature of Red Sonja's origin and turning it around to a positive in "Blue Opal.")

As for humor, take this opening to the aforementioned sword-and-sorcery story "Blue Opal": "In the Third of the Darkening Years of the reign of Lestrel the Babyslapper, all of the Known World was in turmoil. The Matriatchs of the Corporate States had renounced the ancient 'Treat of the Blind Carp'; the mountain Tribes were overcoming their fear of being at ground level; the Master of the Gutta-Percha Throne had begun his mad jihad against the color Orange; and the Warriors of the White Deserts were tracking sand all over everything. Through it all strode one who would be a legend, if she had anything to say about it: Blue Opal. The Sword Broad with the Broad Sword." Not exactly what you'd expect to find in an adults-only story, but it works very well. Foglio's art also manages to be both sexy and goofy.

Sadly, the XXXenophile books are no longer available in print (neither is the fun little XXXenophile card game that came out -- which I have all the cards and an uncut card sheet from), so to find them you'll have to scour the local comic stores or Internet (and the latter'll charge you a goodly amound for 'em). Fortunately, the comics can be found in online formats through the official website. And in the world of adult entertainment (or any entertainment, for that matter), the XXXenophile blend of sex, humor, and originality is terrific!

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch



A beast roams in the night, horrific murders are happening, an ancient manor holds secrets, and the moon is full. Yes, it's The Wolfman. This remake of a classic horror film strives for a nostalgic feel but, sadly, winds up boring.

In late 19th century England stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) has returned to his family home when his brother Ben has gone missing. His father, big game hunter Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), takes of the family estate with his Indian manservant Singh (Art Malik). Ben's fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt) is worried about Ben and had contacted Lawrence for help.

In almost no time Ben's body turns up, terribly mutilated. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) thinks it may be a lunatic, while the superstitious villagers blame an evil beast; the gypsies are also convenient suspects.

Investigating a gypsy camp, Lawrence gets attacked by the wolflike creature. He survives, and soon his wounds are healing incredibly fast and he's having hallucinations. Old family secrets are also brought to light, while Lawrence and Gwen share some intimate moments.

The Wolfman alternates between pretty gory cgi fight scenes (lots of guts, blood, and severed limbs) and melodrama of romance, secrets, and suspicions. Alas, neither side is particularly interesting. Del Toro and Hopkins are excellent actors, but their characters are one dimensional and not that interesting. There's not much horror or suspense here, and just looking like a classic horror film isn't enough. The story also suffers a lot: We're meant to feel that the villagers are unfairly persecuting Lawrence -- but considering he is the monster, they are hardly misguided. The Wolfman is a mediocre horror film.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Before Phineas and Ferb spent their summer vacation creating new stuff every day and before Stewie built an arsenal to kill Lois on Family Guy, there was another young inventor. A genius. A creator. A kid who spews profanity and looks like a troll doll. This boy is Barry Ween, and his story is told through the comic book miniseries The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius.

Barry Ween is a genius -- and he's known that since beore his birth. Barely tolerating the kids at school and adults at home, he conducts his experiments -- from cloning to advanced weaponry -- as best he can. Whether he'll turn into a superhero or supervillain remains to be seen, but Barry has plenty of time to decide: He's ten years old.

Of course, Barry's experiments tend to get interrupted by things like giant interdimensional apes, covert military groups, annoying aliens, time warps, sasquatches, and a school dance threatened by a contagious monkey. Then there's Jeremy. Jeremy is Barry's best (and possibly only) friend. Jeremy is also a poster boy for A.D.D., not to mention obsessed with naked women, anything gross, and Oreos. Jeremy created plenty of trouble for Barry, but Jeremy is also the one most likely to keep Barry from solving a problem by disintegrating it. Later issues have Sarah, the cute girl Barry has a crush on.

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius is essentially a twelve issue miniseries, printed invididually, in four collections of three issues each, or one big collection. (I have the middle option.) This comic is anarchistic fun. Barry is neither hero nor villain but rather a protagonist, as ready to protect his friends as to mindwipe anyone discovering his intellect. The kids (and most adults) here curse as much as South Park, but without the bleeping. (As Barry says when Jeremy gets kidnapped, "You people are fucking with the wrong ten-year-old.") Most of the issues are self-contained, but the "monkey saga" in the latter books leads to a surprisingly touching finale. And writer-artist Judd Winick ended the story early enough so that it didn't get overdone or drawn out. The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius is often juvenile, always crass, but very, very funny.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

VALENTINE'S DAY soundtrack

"I don't wanna write a love song for the world/ I just wanna write a song about a boy and a girl." This line from Micahel Franti & Spearhead's "Say Hey (I Love You)" summarizes the soundtrack to the movie Valentine's Day, being released two days after, well, Valentine's Day. As one might imagine, the theme of the album is romance.

Valentine's Day features songs about love, be it love enjoyed, love hoped for, or love missed. There's a wide variety of artists here: old pros like Willie Nelson and Nat King Cole; newer artists include Taylor Swift (who has two songs here, possibly thanks to her role in the movie), Joss Stone, Jewel, Maroon 5, and Leighton Meester from Gossip Girl; and new artists (to me, anyway) like Black Gold and Steel Magnolia.

So what's here? There are lots of covers, of varying quality. Maroon 5 give an excellent big band feel to "I'm in the Mood For Love." Sausalito Foxtrot's perky "Everyday" won't replace the Buddy Holly version anytime soon. And I still don't know what to make of the Indian stylings of Anju Ramapriyam's "Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours."

While Valentine's Day is for the most part sappy and sentimental, the album does better by including artists with numerous styles. Taylor Swift's songs are her usual pop-country hybrids (though I found "Today Was a Fairytale" more country than most of her singles), but Joss Stone provides a jazzy touch with "4 and 20," Amy Winehouse delivers the blues on "Cupid," Michael Franti and Spearhead deliver a Caribbean tune, and Nat King Cole goes with the Spanish song "Te Quiero Dijate."

Overall, the songs are decent. As with most soundtracks the song quality varies, and few of the ones here really stand out. Then again, the songs are enjoyable as well, something light to listen to for getting in the spirit of the holiday. Valentine's Day is a nice little album, nothing awe-inspiring but a pleasant listen.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch


WHITE ROSE ENSNARED by Juliet Hastings

Some books are written with a passion and enthusiasm so great that their flaws are easily overlooked. This is the case with White Rose Ensnared by Juliet Hastings, a kinky historical romance from the now near-defunct Black Lace line of erotica.

Set in fifteenth-century England, White Rose Ensnared is the tale of a heroine and the two very different men after her. Lady Rosamund de Verney is in many ways a contradiction: beautiful, religious, and passionate, she is also married to a far older man and inexperienced and naive when it comes to romance and sex. She also has a submissive side, though with little outlet for it or knowledge about it.

The villain of the piece is Sir Ralph Aycliffe, an evil and greedy lord who kills Rosamund's elderly husband and wants to seize what are now her lands for himself. He also has a reputation for debauchery and ruthlessness, and he plans to take Rosamund as well.

Enter the hero, Geoffrey Lymington. A squire in the service to King Richard, Geoffrey and Rosamund fall in love at first sight and he vows to protect her. But what can one good man do against an evil army? What happens when the young lovers fall into the clutches of the villain? (Quite a lot.) And what happens next?

In a sense, White Rose Ensnared is a historical bodice-ripper, with the heroes and villains so clearly defined the could be wearing white and black hats; there are plenty of breathless, passionate declarations too. There is more to this book, though, in terms of exploration and discovery. Sir Ralph may be a one-dimensional selfish scoundrel, but there's a part of him that Rosamund cannot deny. (This book has lots of what I call "beautiful distress," something a person knows they should hate, but...) The kinky parts of this book (and there are many) are not for everyone, but for those not easily offended this will be a book you won't soon forget.

Overall, White Rose Ensnared is a wonderful read in the world of erotica. This is not a book for the timid, and it is sadly out of print, but for those looking for a thrill it's definitely worth finding.

(As an aside, the top image is the original cover to White Rose Ensnared, the second image is the cover when it was reissued, and below is when the photo was reused for a skin care booth in the mall. I didn't have the heart to tell the person at the booth where I first saw the photo...)

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


The family may be the most fertile basis for the sitcom: sibling rivalries, parent-child issues, and parents going through things with their kids that they had done. The new comedy Modern Family professes to portray the current, new form of the American family, but it follows many traditional storylines. Fortunately, it's also very funny.

Shot in the same fake documentary style that was popularized by The Office, Modern Family follows three branches of the Pritchett family. Patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) is the admittedly lousy dad trying to do better with his kids. He also just married Gloria (Sofia Vergara), a South American beauty well less than half his age; she also has a young son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is a serious, deadpan lawyer -- who just adopted a little girl from China with his life-partner, the pudgy and dramatic Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). And former wild-girl Claire (Julie Bowen) is married and handling three young kids -- plus her husband Phil (Ty Burrell) is more immature than any of them, while convinced that he's cool. ("I know all the songs from High School Musical.")

Modern Family wants very hard to be new with its three non-traditional family units, but the stories are pretty standard fare for family sitcoms: telling someone they're a horrible driver, having a young kid's birthday party, something embarassing that belongs to the dad being thought to belong to a kid, etc.

Modern Family is elevated from being just another family comedy by the combination of terrific writing and terrific cast. These relatives and their families fight and bicker (plus support each other) just like real families, and the jokes come fast and often. The cast is uniformly terrific (though my favorite is Ty Burrell as the always optimistic and completely clueless dad) and they all work seamlessly together in whatever combination the show puts them together. Modern Family may not be as revolutionary as it thinks, but it's a very entertaining show.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

Top 10 CDs of 2009

So finally, after only a month of procrastination, I've reviewed all the albums I listened to in 2009 and can present to you my annual list of favorites.

10. Dan Auerbach, Keep it Hid: Some solid old-school rock from Ohio.

9. Captain Bogg & Salty, Emphatical Piratical: Aargh! Move up a few spots if you have kids. Move up a few more spots if your kids are into pirates.

8. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Communion: If they put the best half of this on a single disc, it would have gotten an A.

7. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Still cryptic, still alluring, still a killer voice.

6. Týr, By the Light of the Northern Star: A fun mix of history, Norse legend, and hard rock.

5. White Rabbits, It's Frightening: Drum roll, please!

4. Kris Delmhorst, Shotgun Singer: A really artistic record that kept growing on me.

3. Rupa & The April Fishes, Este Mundo: Wildly eclectic, globally conscious, and fun.

2. Boot, Soot: The best Nordic CD since 2000.

1. Warsaw Village Band, Infinity: Superior musicianship combined with brazen experimentation.

I've discovered, among other things, that I really need to rework my grading system, especially where the B+ albums are concerned -- a few of them made the list, and a few might not have even deserved a B. Oh well, back to the drawing board in 2010...


Rupa & the April Fishes, Este Mundo (Cumbancha, 2009)

If you follow this site, you know my taste in music is pretty eclectic. I've reviewed albums in all sorts of different styles, but I have a soft spot for works that can combine styles from many different places and come out sounding perfectly natural. Such is the case with Este Mundo, the second album from San Francisco's Rupa & the April Fishes. Fronted by singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, physician, and one-woman world music festival Rupa Marya, the group delves into cabaret, polka, reggae, salsa, samba, klezmer, hip-hop, raga, tango, and gypsy music. And I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out.

Rupa primarily alternates between singing in French and Spanish on Este Mundo, although there is one jazzy standard sung in English called "Trouble." I suppose you could argue, though, that Rupa sings most of her songs in the universal language of romance. She does get serious at points, though, drawing attention to the surprisingly large number of Mexican migrant workers who expire in the desert heat while trying to cross the border. The songs "Por la Frontera" and "Espero la Luna" address this issue, as two the titles of the albums two instrumentals, "La Frontera" and "El Camino del Diablo." Rupa also delves a little into her own philosophy of life. On "The Rose," she talks about not standing around when the road opens up in front of her like a flower. And on "L'Elephant," she compares herself to the hulking creature of the jungle, trampling over what's in front of her just to make her path.

In addition to Rupa on vocals and guitar, the band consists of Aaron Kierbel (drums and percussion), Isabel Douglass (accordion), Safa Shokrai (bass), Ed Baskerville (cello), and Marcus Cohen (trumpet). Given the diversity of styles and the often off-kilter arrangements, the musicians deserve much credit for holding things together. The album starts a bit slowly, with a curious intro followed by the sad French ballad "C'est Moi." But then things pick up in a really big way. "Por la Frontera" is an angry but effective polka, "La Linea" is infectious reggae, and "La Rose" combines the gypsy cabaret style of Paris Combo with a klezmer twist. The best song on the disc is "Soy Payaso," which begins with an ominous bansuri flute playing above a tabla, before surging into a frenetic mystical tale sung French but played in a very Balkan arrangement.

Este Mundo is a musical carnival, with a least one or two songs to suit just about everybody's tastes. It's mostly fun and upbeat, but Rupa & the April Fishes have a strong sense of purpose, and the musical skill to back it up.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Por la Frontera" and "Espero la Luna"