Portico Quartet, Isla (RealWorld, 2010)

Portico Quartet are a London-based jazz ensemble consisting of Jack Wyllie on saxophone, Milo Fitzpatrick on bass, Duncan Bellamy on drums, and Nick Mulvey on an instrument called the hang. The hang is a 21st-century percussion instrument with a sound much like that of a steel drum, and adds a bit of a unique dimension to the group's sound.  Isla is Portico Quartet's second album.

While the hang does give Isla some Carribean and African flavor, the album will still appeal primarily to jazz audiences.  The saxophone handles all the melodies, with the hang assuming the role normally taken by a piano in a jazz quartet.  Like a lot of jazz recordings, Isla alternates between melodic passages and interludes with often dissonant experimentation and improvisation.  While the more pleasant parts work pretty well, there are moments on Isla where things just degenerate into an ugly mess, and I really didn't hear anything of value in these stretches. I'll admit that I haven't really delved into jazz enough to make a fully informed opinion on particular recordings, but I know it's possible to be jarring without losing your sense of musicality, and Portico Quartet really don't succeed in that regard.

Isla has its moments, and certainly the hang provides enough justification for curious listeners to give Portico Quartet their attention. While their attempts at being edgy just didn't work for me, fans of smoother should find a few tracks to their liking here.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott



Horse Feathers, Thistled Spring (Kill Rock Stars, 2010)

Horse Feathers are a distinctive quartet hailing from Portland, Oregon.  Justin Ringle sings and plays a bunch of instruments (mainly guitar though), Nathan Crockett plays violin and viola, Catherine Odell plays cello, and Sam Cooper plays just about everything but primarily the banjo.  Their sound can be best described as "chamber folk," with a classical touch added to some pleasantly rustic songs. Thistled Spring is their third album.

Ringle does the singing and songwriting, but the whole band contribute significantly to the finished product, and I think that's a big reason why Thistled Spring works so well.  The guitar and banjo blend together seamlessly, and Crockett and Odell do a fine job varying the feel of the string arrangements from stately to folksy to aggressive.  "Belly of June" stands out as the clear choice for a single, and the percussive "The Drought" and the darker "Veronia Blues" are solid as well, but the album really doesn't waste a track.

Thistled Spring is an impressive effort from a group that mix some basic musical ideas together and come up with something fresh and interesting.  Justin Ringle shows considerable promise as a singer/songwriter, and the rest of Horse Feathers do some fine supportive work as well.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Belly of June"

Richard Thompson, Dream Attic (Shout Factory, 2010)

After more than forty years in the music business, Richard Thompson shows no signs of slowing down.  With his new CD Dream Attic, Thompson takes the unusual approach of recording a full album of new songs live in concert.  The album succeeds due to some strong musicianship, most notably and predictably from Thompson himself.

Thompson's supporting cast consists of long-time collaborator Pete Zorn on sax, mandolin, and acoustic guitar, Joel Zifkin on electric violin, Tarascan Prodianuk on bass, and Michael Jerome on drums.  For Dream Attic, Thompson sticks to the electric guitar. People who are particular fans of his acoustic work might not like that so much, but there are some great solos here on songs like "Haul Me Up," "Crimescene," and the closing song "If Love Whispers Your Name."  The rest of the band is top notch too, although I think there's something unclean about the sound of the electric violin that you really notice on the quieter songs.

Thompson's lyrics find him covering subjects both familiar and unfamiliar, with his usual wit and biting sarcasm.  "The Money Shuffle," which opens the album, pokes fun at the bankers who've made a mess of things lately.  " Here at Warbrook and Jones it's all tradition, we never pimp and we don't hustle.  If you'll just bend over a little, I think you'll feel my financial muscle.  Spread it wide, wide as you can, to get the full benefit of my plan."  "Burning Man" recounts a brief encounter at the notoriously outside-the-box festival in the Nevada desert.  " Here Comes Geordie" satirizes an excessively vain and falsely idealistic rock star.  "Sidney Wells," set to a frenetic slip jig, tells the tale of a notorious serial killer.  On "A Brother Slips Away," Thompson pays tribute to a pair of departed friends.  Forty-two years after penning "Meet on the Ledge," Fairport Convention's signature song, it's both poignant and telling that Thompson still needs to cope with loss in his music. "Bad Again" is a humorous look at a man who just can't seem to stay on his wife's good side.

People familiar with Richard Thompson know they can expect a certain standard of quality from his albums, and Dream Attic is certainly no exception.  I've said in the past that an average album by his standards is a safe bet to make my year-end top ten list, and this album is a bit better than average.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Bad Again"



In Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Indians several strangers are trapped together in a remote location, and one of them is a killer who brought them all together. Replace the killer with Satan and the remote location with a stuck elevator and you have the horror movie Devil.

As narrated by security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), sometimes Satan travels on Earth, tormenting the damned before killing them. This time, it involves five strangers trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper. These people are more generalizations than characters: a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a salesman (Geoffrey Arend), an old woman (Jenny O'Hara), a rick young woman (Bojana Novakovic), and a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green). The five aren't happy when their elevator gets stuck mid-floor; and far less so when something bad happens every time the lights go out.

A movie set in an elevator could get boring pretty quickly, so Devil alternates with the outside world. Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) trying to figure out who the passengers are and other people work to get the elevator working, or to get to it. Horrible accidents seem to befall everyone who gets close to helping, and gruesome images flash on the video screen for the elevator. Then the trapped start dying...

Sadly, Devil doesn't go far beyond its initial premise. While the characters may be strangers to each other, there's almost no depth given to any of them (except Bowden) through the whole movie. Ramirez' narration is necessary to set up the premise for the movie, but it continues through the movie, removing a lot of the surprise of what happens next. Even darkness gets wasted: In many movies a scene in the dark generates suspense by leaving the audience what is happening, but this is used so often here that it gets too repetitive. ("The lights went out. I wonder what horrible thing will be there when they come back on this time.") And by the time you find out who the Devil is, it's not much of a payoff. Devil is a little more thoughtful than a slasher flick, but it's not that much more.

Overall grade: D+
Reviewed by James Lynch

Sequentia, Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland (DHM, 1999)

Sequentia are an early music ensemble, co-founded and led by Benjamin Bagby but employing a rotating cast of performers depending on the needs of a particular project.  Bagby's goal with Sequentia is to recreate pieces of Medieval music in as authentic a manner as possible.  With the project Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland, released in 1999 but based on several years of preliminary work and performance, Sequentia created musical presentations of Norse myths and sagas preserved in Icelandic texts in an attempt to re-create the kind of storytelling that likely took place in the great Nordic halls of the early Middle Ages.  The album marked the end of an era for Sequentia for unfortunate reasons; Bagby's wife and musical partner Barbara Thornton succumbed to a brain tumor before Edda could be released.

On Edda, Sequentia consisted of Bagby on vocals and lyre, Thornton and Lena Susanne Norin on vocals, and Elizabeth Gaver on fiddle. The source text used in Edda is derived from two 13th century Icelandic manuscripts. The Prose Edda is the work of Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar and historian who singlehandedly saved much Nordic folklore from being lost to history. The Poetic Edda, from which Sturluson quoted in his own work, had actually been lost for several centuries before re-appearing in 1643. The poems from this text are best known in contemporary terms for their influence on the music of Richard Wagner and the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.  To create the melodies and backing music, Sequentia needed to go beyond existing sources and take a few leaps of faith.  With next to nothing written down to serve as a guide, the group had to work backward from more recent traditions, trying to identify in existing music the primeval modal structures from which the music evolved, then developing song patterns based on these modes that fit the texts being used.  For the fiddling, Gaver identified the older elements in the musical structures within the Norwegian hardingfele tradition, and then applied the style to more primitive fiddles that existed at the time the stories in Edda would have been musically performed.

From an academic standpoint, Edda is an extremely impressive accomplishment.  Years of research went into making this recording, and it can be fairly said that Sequentia open a door to a place and time in the distant past and breathe new life into it. I felt that much of the music seemed to be missing something, though, that I'm having trouble trying to tangibly define. I've been a fan of contemporary folk music from Scandinavia for most of my adult life, and parts of what attracted me to it is that I feel a certain primal spark in much of it that probably does have Medieval roots. It was only in the last few tracks on Edda that I felt that Sequentia started to find that spark. "Ragnarok," the fiddle interlude between the two portions from "The Prophecy of the Seeress," was Gavner's strongest contribution to the project. It was almost like I could hear her going to a bunch of workshops and instructional sessions on the hardingfele, immersing herself in the tunes and the styles until, just like that, one day it clicks. Likewise, there's a point in the last part of "The Prohecy of the Seeress," where Bagby enters the musical narration with the two women and everything just seems to start working (although I also got the sense that there was room for some percussion in their arrangement).

The music on Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland may be more fascinating than breathtaking, but it was a worthwhile endeavor, and I can certainly appreciate the amount of work that Sequentia undertook to present the stories in as authentic a manner as possible. People interested in Scandinavian folklore and musical traditions will enjoy giving this a few listens.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch, 2010)

The Black Keys are a duo from Akron, Ohio consisting of Dan Auerbach on vocals and guitar and Patrick Carney on drums. After a brief hiatus in which Auerbach recorded a pretty good solo album called Keep It Hid, the band return this summer with their sixth studio album, called Brothers.

On Brothers, Auerbach and mostly branch out from the sparse but aggressive two-instrument sound of their earlier work. Most of the songs have at least some overdubbing, particularly bass guitar (played by Auerbach). The duo aim for a bit more of a soulful and danceable feel on a few of the tracks, including the single "Tighten Up,"the groovy but abrasive "Sinister Kid" and a cover of Jerry Butler's "Never Gonna Give You Up" (thankfully no relation to the Rick Astley song). This generally works well enough, but when Auerbach tries to sing falsetto like on the opening song "Everlasting Light," he misfires badly. Some aspects of the sound remain unchanged, though. Auerbach's affinity for vacuum tube amps continues to give his guitar playing a distinctively retro-sounding distortion, for example. And he remains at his best when he does swampy, bluesy, gritty rockers like "She's Long Gone."

With Brothers, The Black Keys recognize the need to try to diversify their sound. Their intentions are good, but the results are a bit mixed.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

the video for "Tigthen Up"

Crowded House, Intriguer (Fantasy, 2010)

When a band attempts a comeback, it's often the second album that determines the success of the attempt. Such is the case with Crowded House, a fine band from the late eighties and early nineties that only recently re-emerged from a long hiatus. Their 2007 album Time on Earth was their first in thirteen years. Dedicated to the memory of the band's original drummer Paul Hester, Time on Earth was an album the band needed to make for personal reasons, even if the subject matter was often very weighty and serious. Their new album Intriguer, though, finds the band having fun again.

While guitarist Neil Finn dominates the singing and songwriting as usual, Intriguer really feels like a tight group effort. Bassist Nick Seymour, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart, and drummer Gary Sherrod give solid performances throughout. Sherrod, who joined the group halfway through the recording of Time on Earth, deserves particular credit for fitting in so well. The band mix and match tempos nicely, and a couple of songs feature some impressively dramatic shifts in tempo and mood.

Most of the highlights on Intriguer occur early on the album. The upbeat "Saturday Sun," which opens the album, is an ideal single. "Amsterdam" and "Falling Dove," also from the first half of the CD, are strong tracks as well. "Isolation" is noteworthy partly because Finn shares the lead vocals with his wife Sharon, but also because it starts as a quiet, waltzy number and ends in a raucous, chaotic fashion.

Otherwise, Intriguer is par for the course. Long time fans of Neil Finn's work will know what to expect from the songwriting, and while they may not be overwhelmed relative to his previous work they won't be disappointed, either. Crowded House sound like a solid unit again, and that bodes well for the band's future.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

a live performance of "Saturday Sun"


BLK JKS, Zol! (Secretly Canadian, 2010)

BLK JKS (pronounced black jacks) are a South African quartet featuring guitarists Lindani Buthelezi and Mpumi Mcata, bassist Molefi Makananise, and drummer Tshepang Ramoba. Their eclectic sound combines edgy alternative rock with the musical styles of their homeland. Their newest release Zol! Is a five-song EP. While I wouldn't go nearly as far as the reviewer at Spin magazine who proclaimed "Let the mythologizing begin," the album does suggest that the band has some good musical ideas that can be developed further.

The band manage to cover a broad range of languages and styles over twenty-five minutes. The first song "Iietys" is straightforward rock, while the second song "Bogobe" is a bit jazzy. The third song and title track is pure township jive, mixing English and Zulu. "Paradise" is guitar heavy, with the band sounding like a jazzier version of Living Colour. These first four songs are OK, but the band save the best for last with "Mzabalazo." This song mixes a frenetic rhythm with the kind of Zulu chorus that will have non-natives trying to sing along.

Zol! is not a super recording, but it is a fun one. Rock fans who like South African music will certainly find it worth their while. BLK JKS are an interesting group with an inventive and diverse sound, and I think there's a good chance they can improve on this in the near future.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Mzabalazo," at the World Cup opening ceremonies



While some movies promote ageism in a world of hot, athletic stars in their 20s and 30s, Red goes the opposite way: an action flick where the people who are old enough to retire (and have done so) consistently shoot, blow up, or beat up the folks in their 20s and 30s. Otherwise, it's more or less the same old.

In the very quick opening, we see Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) living alone in his home. His life seems quiet, and his main occupation seems to be ripping up his social security check so he can talk about it with Sarah Ross (Mary Louise-Parker), a government underling who likes trashy romance novels and chatting with Frank. When a covert assassination squad shows up at Frank's home with machine guns, it's no contest: Frank kills them with ease! It turns out that Frank was one of the best secret agents ever. He realizes he's been under surveillance, so he visits and kidnaps Sarah to keep her safe.

The rest of Red has Frank trying to figure out why someone is out to kill him now. This involves his linking up with old (figuratively and literally) allies: steadfast friend Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), crazed conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (Jon Malkovich), and elegant killer Victoria (Helen Mirren). Chasing these retired agents are government hotshot William Cooper (Karl Urban) and his boss Cunthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon). There are also cameos by Brian Cox (as a Russian agent), Ernest Borgnine (as a keeper of secret records), and William Dreyfuss (as a corrupt businessman).

Red is based on a comic book (which I haven't read), and while the movie has no superpowers, it might as well: The stars can shoot missiles out of the air, beat up numerous people with ease, and apparently walk away from any area no matter how many opponents are swarming about. And that's the problem: While both the movie and the stars approach this more as a joke than a serious action movie (the title, for example, is an acronym for "Retired, extremely dangerous"), the over-the-top action and slowly unraveling conspiracy has been done plenty of times before. Red has more chuckles than excitement, and when you get past the fact that it's the older folks kicking ass, what's left is another deliberately ridiculous action movie.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Deluxe CDs are something of a mixed blessing: They can provide a lot more material than the original release, but they can force fans to either repurchase an album for the extras or miss out on them. Since I didn't pick up Shakira's Oral Fixation Vol. 2 when it came out, getting Oral Fixation Volumes 1 & 2 had no multiple purchase issues for me. It's also pretty good.

Shakira's Oral Fixation albums are essentially the midpoint in her American career, between her Ameican debut Laundry Service and her recent She-Wolf. Oral Fixation Volume 1 is an all-Spanish release, while Volume 2 is in English. Numerous songs are on both albums, and each has its own tunes as well. I don't speak Spanish, but I can say that Volume 1 sounds nice.

Oral Fixation Volume 2 shows a wider range for Shakira than one might expect. While "Hips Don't Lie" is that album's biggest single (and a concert staple for Shakira) and there are numerous romantic and flirty songs ("Hey You" being one of the best), other topics include: religion (the opening "How Do You Do"), pragmatism ("Dreams for Plans"), celebrity ("Costume Makes the Clown"), social commentary ("Timor") and forgiveness ("The Day and the Time"). Shakira's distinctive voice serves her well in all these efforts, making Volume 2 very enjoyable.

Oral Fixation Volumes 1 & 2 also comes with a bonus dvd, with five music videos and three live performances. This is a little sparse -- no background interviews, none of her earlier videos -- but since to date there hasn't been an official Shakira video collection, this will have to do.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Johnny Cash, American Recordings (American Recordings, 1994)

In 1994, Johnny Cash's career was at a crossroads. In spite of his reputation, he found himself struggling to find a record label. Evidently, a few poor sellers can sour a major label on anybody. Producer Rick Rubin, best known at the time for his work on rap recordings, took an interest in Cash and signed him to his American label. This began a remarkable series of albums that continued until Cash's death in 2003. The first of these was simply titled American Recordings.

The combination of originals and covers Cash sings on American Recordings reflects many of the themes Cash sang about throughout his career. There are songs about the dark side of human nature ("Delia's Gone," Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me"), the struggles of soldiers who've returned home ("Drive On"), and the quest for redemption and God's grace (Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord," Cash's adaptation of "Oh Bury Me Not," and Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train"). The subject matter will be familiar to anyone who knows Cash's body of work, but I think that's a big part of why American Recordings succeeded in reviving Cash's career. Rubin simply let Johnny Cash be Johnny Cash, and it works beautifully. Accompanied only by his guitar, Cash exudes the same mixture of warmth and earnestness that defined all his best work. His trademark bass voice was still in fine form as well. He also had a rare talent for making other people's songs sound like they were meant for him to sing all along. I've always liked Nick Lowe's version of "The Beast in Me," but it really just sounds like a demo in comparison.

American Recordings was a simple, honest, down-to-earth work of a legendary artist left to just do his thing. Cash kept his failing health at bay long enough to record three more albums in a similar vein with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some more recordings were eventually released posthumously. Cash sang early and often in his life about spiritual redemption, but few veteran artists in the twilight of their careers have experienced the artistic redemption that Cash received with American Recordings.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Delia's Gone"



Have you always wanted to be a gopher rancher? Well, what if you just like constructing long passages out of puzzle pieces? If you answered "yes" to either of these, you should check out Burrows, a game of tourism and critters.

Burrows has a simple premise and almost as simple rules. Tourists are coming to the small town of Gopher Gulch, and they'll want to see gophers. There are three types of gophers: red (with a radish symbol), orange (carrot symbol), and purple (turnip symbol). There aren't enough gophers for all players, so the players try to lure the best gophers into their warrens for when the tourists come by.
Each turn three tiles with different burrows are put out: These have twisting and turning passages, sometimes an end with one of the symbols mentioned above, and sometimes a bus. On each player's turn they can either hold a tile without a bus symbol (to place along with another tile on a later turn) or add a tile to their current warren. If a player has the same symbol at both ends of a burrow and that burrow is longer than any other player's burrow for that symbol (by the number of tiles it crosses), that color gopher moves into the new burrow -- and stays there until a longer burrow of that color is created.

Oh yes, the bus. There are a row of pieces that show the Tour Schedule for tourists, made up of Schedule Pages. While early Pages are blank, soon they show a color gopher and 1-3 Complaint Symbols (frowning faces). Each time a player plays a tile with a bus, the bus piece advances on a tour track (three spaces in a 2-4 player game, four spaces in a 5-player game). When the bus reaches the end of the track, the player with the least number of the color gopher shown on the Pages get the piece with the Complaint Symbols, then the bus goes back to the start of the tour track. After the last Schedule Page is finished, whoever has the least Complaint Symbols wins! (A player also loses one Complaint Symbol if they had a tile waiting to be played.)

There is some planning to Burrows, between putting together longer and longer burrows and looking ahead at Schedule Pages to figure out the best time to steal a gopher away from someone and when to play bus tiles to stick other players with Complaint Symbols. This game is a bit simple, though, as the only real strategy after the beginning is building the longest burrows and advancing the bus once you do. Burrows is pleasant, and even a little interesting, but at its core this is mostly a simple puzzle game of twisting and turning passages.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



How is it that an amazingly antisocial guy could have created one of the largest social areas on the Internet? The Social Network is an exciting look at the creation of Facebook -- and the falling out among its creators.

The structure of The Social Network is a legal deposition in the present, with flashbacks showing what happened in the past. According to the movie, Facebook started with a breakup. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a student at Harvard who, in the opening scene, shows himself to be brilliant, successful, antisocial, sarcastic, and condescending. This gets him dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), which leads to Mark getting drunk and, with the help of his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), hacking several Harvard sites and making a website ("Facemash") where people vote on which of two Harvard women are hotter. This website gets so much traffic that Harvard's server crashes.

Facemash gets the attention of Harvard elites Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who want Zuckerberg to make an exclusive dating site for Harvard students. While helping them, Mark decides to make his own social website, with Eduardo as chief financial officer. Eduardo wants to get advertisers involved with "the Facebook," while Mark wants to keep it pure, not knowing how big it can become.

Their devil is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, using his celebrity experience to the hilt). Sean is a rock star of the online and business world, as the creater of Napster. He's also crashed and burned two businesses, is being sued by millions, and describes himself as broke. He also pushes Mark to move out to California -- and attracts the animosity of Eduardo.

The Social Network is a very energetic drama, thanks largely to the sharp script by Aaron Sorkin and directing of David Fincher. There's almost no background given to any of the characters here, but it doesn't seem necessary. Facebook is what defines these characters: Jealousy from the Winklevoss brothers, concern from Eduardo, opportunity for Sean, and an almost artistic creation for Mark.

Jesse Eisenberg played a slightly awkward but lovable nerd in Zombieland; he does a 180-degree turn for The Social Network, making Mark Zuckerberg a nerd and awkward -- but obnoxious and pretty unlikeable. The rest of the cast is very good (again, kudos to Justin Timberlake as the charismatic, dangerous celebrity to these Facebook founders). It may a little simplistic that Facebook is ultimately all about the woman who got away, but The Social Network is an interesting, fast-based and absorbing drama.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Corn Sisters, The Other Women (Mint Records, 2000)

The Corn Sisters were a short-lived country/folk duo in the late nineties, featuring Canadian Carolyn Mark and American Neko Case. The Other Women is a live album that was recorded at a small club in Seattle in 1998. Mark continues to have a respectable career as a folksinger in Canada, but Case was one of the very best artists of this past decade. The album is noteworthy for capturing Neko Case well before her career took off.

The Other Women mixes original songs (mostly by Mark) with covers of people like Loretta Lynn and Lucinda Williams and folk standards like "This Little Light of Mine." The instrumentation is sparse, consisting of an acoustic guitar and very light percussion. Mark comes across as being the more experienced and polished performer at the time, but Case's voice predictably takes the spotlight. Her lead vocals on Dave Lang's "She's Laving Town" and the country ballad "Long Black Veil," and her mournful wailing in the background on Mark's "Matinéed," are simply breathtaking; the recording equipment may not have been state-of-the-art, but the power in Case's voice comes through as clear as crystal. Case has moved a little bit away from her country roots in recent years, but The Other Women nicely reflects the foundations of Case's style. The snippets of between-song banter and songs like the upbeat but goofy "Corn on the Cob" (from which I'm guessing the duo took their name) reflect the quirky sense of humor that has come to characterize Case's live performances -- although to be fair, Mark was an equal participant in this.

Indeed, the problem with looking back on an album like this where one of the performers has become a star (at least in the indie and alternative sense of the word), and the other continues to perform at similar small venues, is that it's hard to be fair to the lesser-known performer. Carolyn Mark comes across as a likable singer, with a fun sense of humor, good taste in covers, and at least a decent songwriting ability. Neko Case has proven to be more than that, though, and while they may have been on equal footing at the time, the pronounced difference in raw talent is impossible to miss.

On its own terms, The Other Women is a pretty good no-frills country/folk recording from a pair of capable young artists. Fans of the subsequent work of either performer should like this recording, and people interested in Neko Case's history will find it well worth their while.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

A photo montage set to "Corn on the Cob"

Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin, 1998)

I don't often go back in time when looking for albums in review, but with a shortage of new albums getting my attention I decided to grab something I had been curious about for a while. Massive Attack were an English techno group consisting of Robert Del Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, and Andy Vowles, plus a rotating group of guest musicians. While they had their heyday in the nineties, Del Naja and Daddy G still perform together. I was impressed by Jose Gonzalez' cover of their song "Teardrop," the original version of which is used in the opening credits of the show House. The song comes from the group's 1998 CD Mezzanine, so I decided to give that album a listen.

What strikes me about techno in hindsight is that the one sub-genre of rock that could still be described as cutting edge in the mid to late nineties has largely fizzled out, or at least fallen off the radio, while most other styles have endured despite becoming blissfully stagnant. When you consider how quickly rock evolved in its first forty years or so, the relative absence of change in music since 1995 is disturbing and alarming. Massive Attack deserve credit for trying something edgy and different, but they seem to be on the losing side of history. Their sound is now attached to a particular, distant time.

This is a shame, as the band had plenty to offer. To begin with, the their name is a bit misleading. Massive Attack certainly weren't as relentlessly beat-heavy (and unmusical) as The Prodigy were, for example. "Teardrop," featuring the vocals of Elizabth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, is an excellent song with a solid melody that lingers with you. The raps on the album have a brooding, simmering intensity to them that is subtly effective. I don't know which member did them, but the rapper creatively turns his thick English accent into a musical asset. Guest musician Angelo Bruschini does some fine, if heavily distorted, guitar work on a couple of the songs as well.

I'm not sure how much sense this description makes, but Mezzanine sounds both dated and fresh at the same time. Massive Attack may belong to a style that pop culture has largely discarded, but they were worthy representatives of the style.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Teardrop"



Television shows have a tricky balance between consistency and innovation. If a show does the same thing all the time, it can get overly familiar and repetitive; if a show goes in a different direction, it can lose what made it appealing to fans. My Name Is Earl: Season 3 shows how a new direction can be weak without being catastrophic.
Previously, the focus of My Name Is Earl had been: the list. Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) was a scruffy low-class loser and criminal who found karma, made a list of all the people he'd wronged, and went about making it up to them to cross them off his list. The series regulars included: Randy (Ethan Suplee), Earl's dim-witted brother; Joy (Jaime Pressley), Earl's vain, selfish white-trash ex-wife; Darnell "Crabman" Turner (Eddie Steeples), Earl's friend and Joy's husband; and Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), a Mexican maid and stripper.
Season went in two very new directions. For the first half, Earl was in prison, no list but still trying to do good for people in jail. (It also helped that the hapless warden (played by Craig T. Nelson) kept reducing Earl's sentence for helping him out.) For the second half, Earl was in a coma, imagining his life was a '60s sitcom with his love interest Billie (Alyssa Milano). The prison episodes didn't change Earl but just had him acting as he was before in a new place, while the coma involved lots of flashbacks (and also a greater focus on the supporting cast).

While this new direction didn't always work, the humor remained strong in My Name Is Earl: Season 3. The humor that had made the show so funny remained, and the supporting characters -- all great, especially Suplee and Pressley -- did as well in their semi-leading roles. If Jason Lee had somehow left the show for a season or two, the other actors could have kept it going.

My Name Is Earl: Season 3 was largely an unnecessary detour from the show's main premise, but the show kept its sense of humor. The list returned in season 4, but the third season is still very funny. (DVD extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, and cast and producer discussions about the supporting cast.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Red Priest, Johann, I'm Only Dancing (Red Priest Recordings, 2009)

The Baroque period is the first musical era generally categorized under the broad -- perhaps overly broad -- umbrella of classical music. What I've noticed from my admittedly limited experience with Baroque music, though, is that the branches which led to later classical music and the folk traditions of Europe had not really diverged yet. For example, the oldest Swedish fiddle tunes tend to sound very Baroque, especially if they were composed for the nyckelharpa. And the most celebrated Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, composed his share of jigs. Red Priest, a British quartet consisting of Piers Adams on wind instruments, Julia Bishop on violin, Angela East on cello, and Howard Beach on harpsichord, specialize in contemporary interpretations of classical music. They take on the diversely flavored compositions of Bach with their latest CD, called Johann, I'm Only Dancing. They describe their approach to this recording as "rock-chamber-Bach," with an emphasis on the danceable elements of Bach's music. But while the album's title does suggest that the band know their rock and roll (it comes from a David Bowie song), I think the album will appeal particularly strongly to listeners with a background in instrumental folk music.

A common image of Bach, and certainly the impression left on me in my high school and college music classes, is that he was a stodgy maestro who hammered out these elaborate but somber minor-key pieces on a church organ. Red Priest understand that there is quite a lot more to Bach than that, and they succeed in conveying that to the listener. Some of the liberties they take would probably appall a purist, particularly the Latin syncopation in the first part of the "Brandenburg Concert No. 3 in G Major", but the rest of us can appreciate that it's OK when capable musicians have some fun while working out the arrangements. And ultimately, the whole point of the album is to show that Bach was a fun composer. Sure, he may have introduced layers of complexity into his music that were unprecedented for his time, but what folk fiddler or rock lead guitarist has never tried to cram as many notes as they possibly could into a solo? Bach could do that better than most people who've followed him, while maintaining very elaborate and precise chordal progressions, so there.

And yes, he even composed jigs. From the perspective of somebody who's spent a lot more time at Swift's Hibernian Lounge than at Avery Fisher Hall, Red Priest's arrangements of "Prelude in D Major" and "Introduction and Gigue" were major revelations. Red Priest are flexible enough as a unit to bring out the folk-sounding aspects of some of Bach's compositions. This perhaps best reflected in the toccata part "Toccata and Fugue in D minor," the opening line of which is recognizable even to people who otherwise know nothing about classical music. In Red Priest's arrangement, the melody is played on a recorder instead of a church organ. Instead of sounding memorably ominous, the piece winds up sounding light and airy; and yet, it still works.

It's always risky to take liberties with music that's succeeded quite well on its own terms for nearly three centuries. However, Red Priest know what their doing, and the music on Johann, I'm Only Dancing is really reverential to its source in spite of initial appearances. The music is performed beautifully, and the arrangements reflect a side of Bach that may be obscure to people unaware of the depth and variety of his compositions, but is nonetheless there.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott