Ben Ottewell, Shapes & Shadows (ATO Records, 2011)

Ben Ottewell is best known as one of the trio of singer/guitarists in the UK band Gomez. Recently Ottewell took a short timeout from the band to co-write a number of songs with Sam Genders, formerly of the band Tuung, and recorded these songs as a solo album called Shapes & Shadows. The album will interest fans of Gomez, although the familiarity of the sound may be something of a mixed blessing.

Ottewell's distinctively husky voice as always been one of Gomez' strongest assets, and it's predictably the main selling point here. Unfortunately, Ottewell keeps the album a little too laid back to make maximum use of his voice. The overall sound on Shapes & Shadows is more acoustic and scaled back than a typical Gomez album would be. This isn't such a bad thing if you take each song individually, but the album as a whole becomes a little too predictable. The songs are all at least decent, but they're also all very similar, and none really stays with you once you stop listening. It's only on the penultimate song "Step Right Back" that Ottewell allows himself to get a little bit edgy, and the album really could have used a bit more of this.

Shapes & Shadows is a passable first try as a solo artist for Ben Ottewell, but it lacks energy and variety. Ottewell is back with Gomez, who just released a new album called Whatever's on Your Mind on June 21. Hopefully they will liven things up in comparison.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

Ben Ottewell does a solo acoustic version of the title song "Shapes & Shadows"


Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music, 2011)

For nearly half a century, Paul Simon has been writing thought-provoking songs, with lyrics that generally take more than the usual amount of listens to fully digest.  His latest album So Beautiful or So What, only his fourth in the last twenty years, finds Simon taking a more spiritual tone than normal.  But otherwise, he's very much up to his old tricks.

Simon begins the album with two songs that combine a quest for contact with God with a strong sense of irony.  His lyrics on the opening song "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" are sung from the perspective of a man working two jobs just to afford presents, whose nephew is once again likely to spend the holiday in a combat zone in the Middle East. Inserted between the verses is a 1941 field recording of a Baptist sermon on the religious significance of the holiday.  "The Afterlife" is an amusing story about waiting for the ultimate meeting with God, only to be completely overwhelmed and incoherent when you get there. The religious and spiritual themes re-emerge later on in the album as well, with "Questions for the Angels" being particularly effective. Simon asks, "If you shop for love in a bargain store and don't get what you bargained for, can you get your money back?" The listener is left to ponder the answer.

The musical arrangements on So Beautiful or So What reflect the many different phases of Simon's career.  There is some fine acoustic guitar work, a couple of more upbeat rockers, and a few songs flavored by the music of Africa.  "Amulet" is a quick instrumental, showcasing Simon's underrated guitar playing. Simon goes electric on "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" and "So Beautiful or So What," which simmer with an intensity not often heard on Simon's work. "Dazzling Blue" and "Rewrite" recall Simon's Graceland album (I refuse to believe that was twenty-five years ago already), although the easy groove and the presence of the kora on "Rewrite" indicate that Simon's African musical voyage has moved north to Mali. His understanding of African music has reached the point where he can do the guitar parts himself, and again his playing is really exceptional.

So Beautiful or So What may not have any songs that would make the short list of Paul Simon's very best, but it's a consistently good album throughout.  Simon remains one of the most dependably interesting and compelling songwriters making music.  It was true in the sixties, and it's still true now. This is easily his strongest work since Rhythm of the Saints. I hope for his sake that he no longer finds it terribly strange to be 70 (he'll reach that milestone later this year), but at any rate he's still quite capable of making a quality record.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Paul Simon discusses the songs on his new album.

Murder in Grub Street - Bruce Alexander (1995)

Murder in Grub Street is a "Sir John Fielding Mystery," set in 18th century London. Our narrator is a man recalling his service as a lad in the household of John Fielding, "the Blind Beak," a magistrate at Bow Street. It falls, therefore, into that loose sub-genre, the historical mystery.

Ironically, it is not really a mystery. From very nearly the outset, it is clear who the villain will be, and there are no real red herrings to speak of. Further, the conclusion is of a type which I find to be the least satisfying of all in the genre, the "we can't prove it, so we'll lay a trap," type of ending.

And yet ... it's a pretty good book. Reviewing this book hard on the heels of my recent review of The Forge of Mars, I found myself considering why I have such divergent opinions of the two. The answer, or part of it, lies in the question of setting. For a novel to be effective, the setting, the world if you will, must be believable. That is not to say that it must real, but that it must be consistent. On some level, it must make sense to us. The premise can be ludicrous, sparkly werewolves live in our kitchen cupboards, but we'll go along with it, until for no reason whatsoever all the werewolves suddenly become zombies. Even if they continue to sparkle.

That is where Grub Street succeeds and Forge of Mars fails. Alexander has an historical setting, but that doesn't mean his job is necessarily easier. In some ways, historical settings are more difficult to carry off effectively, since they must not openly contradict history. In the case of Grub Street even though the mystery is thin and the ending a bit cliché, the writing is evocative and draws you effectively into the world of the story. Even the lack of mystery qua mystery can be forgiven somewhat if you think of the story as a thriller rather than a puzzle.

Forgive me if I have rambled somewhat. The point of all this philosophy is to say that the Murder in Grub Street (and, for that matter the preceding book, Blind Justice) is an entertaining and well-written book, that captures the feel of a time and place at some remove from our own. The characters are engaging, and if the plotting is more thriller than mystery there are far worse crimes.

Overall Grade: B+


"Weird Al" Yankovic, ALPOCALYPSE (deluxe)

We may have missed the Rapture a few weeks ago, but not Alpocalypse from "Weird Al" Yankovic. This album -- a collection of parodies, original comedy, and the standard polka compilation of populas hits -- shows why Mr. Yankovic has been going strong in musical comedy for over 30 years now.

Alpocalypse is split very evenly between mock-ups of big songs and "Weird Al" originals. The current hit "Perform This Way" is the only one that actually addresses its inspiration, as Yankovic pokes fun at Lady Gaga's public excesses. The other songs keep the melody of the original but take it in a different direction: a Miley Cyrus tune becomes about secret agents, Taylor Swift's romance turns into the stalking of TMZ, etc. They're all very nicely done. And Yankovic demonstrates that whether it's Lady Gaga, Flor Rida, Justin Bieber, or Lady Antebellum, top 40 music can be transformed very easily into a polka.

Of course, being known for parody can make originals less known, which is a shame because Yankovic does some pretty good original material, as featured here. There's a heavy-metal ode to Charles Nelson Reilly, the pathetic fate of an actor ("Skipper Dan"), an ill-fated love song, and the album's closer, the simple-yet eloquent plea "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me." Most of this is pretty funny stuff as well.

The deluxe edition of Alpocalypse has something that should be required for the die-hard "Weird Al" fan: a dvd with music videos for the album! This has animated features for every song but the polka melody and "Perform This Way." (The latter is an odd omission, as it's the video getting airplay on VH-1, at those rare times they actually play music.) "Weird Al" has always done a good job adapting visuals for his music, and this one is no exception, from a Bill Plympton 'toon to the online flow of words begging to "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me." The music works very well on its own, but the videos are a great addition to the album.

Not every song is perfect, and five of them were previously available online as Yankovic's Internet Leaks e.p., and the parodies are only as timeless as their subjects -- but Alpocalypse is pretty funny. And so are the videos, so my recommendation is to go deluxe.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Forge of Mars - Bruce Balfour (2002)

The Forge of Mars sets out to be a rollicking near-future sci-fi adventure, with trips to Mars, alien artifacts, and all the trimmings. What it ends up as, unfortunately, is a fairly pedestrian book that is a mix of all sorts of genres, themes and plot devices, none of which really manage to coalesce into a really riveting narrative.

The story starts with our hero, a rebel fighting the system from within as a NASA scientist - and shadowy secret organizations are starting to take an interest in his radical concepts and breakthroughs. So far, so good. But ... we never learn much about the evil super-secret organization, or why they're interested. They kill some people, infiltrate some traitors, but never get fully fleshed out.

In fact, that's the central problem with the book. The skeleton of a good book seems to be in place, but there's hardly any flesh on those bones. This makes reading it an exercise in frustration at times. To give another example, our hero, Tau Wolfsinger, does go to Mars, and makes first contact with an alien race! And ... we never really learn much more about the alien race. They provide him with some sentient war-machines in order for him to stave off the bad guys on Mars, but why they do so is not adequately explained. And then they all go away again. And the reader, at least this reader, is left sputtering and saying, "That's it? The aliens leave, the bad guys tidy up their loose ends and the good guy gets married? That's not a novel, that's a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta!" (Actually, that might make a good G&S. And you don't worry about the loose ends.)

It's not a terrible book. I don't feel like my time was stolen from me, but neither did anything about really stand out for me. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. But, sadly I didn't.

Overall Grade: C-



"In brightest day, in darkest night..." Say these words to any self-respecting comic book fan and they'll recognize it as the opening of the oath of the Green Lantern Corps (the fan will probably finish saying the oath as well), the intergalactic protectors of the universe armed with rings, powered by will, that can create anything the user imagines. Green Lantern brings this world to the big screen for the first time; but while the technology to make the power rings and aliens seem real is here, the human elements -- like acting and story -- are lacking.

Most of Green Lantern is split between space and Earth. Somewhere in space, a powerful entity called Parallax has been freed and is charging across the galaxy, destroying civilizations as it either sucks people's fear from them (leaving their skeletons behind) or spits bolts of yellow energy at them. The Green Lantern Corps may find itself outmatched for the first time by this being. Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) was mortally wounded by Parallax and, crashing on Earth, sends his ring to choose his replacement.

That replacement is Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds). Hal is a terrific fighter pilot, but he's an irresponsible screw-up in the rest of his life (and scared by visions of his father dying in a plane explosion). He spends most of the movie thinking his getting the ring was a mistake -- a sentiment echoed by Green Lantern Sinestro (Mark Strong), a friend and admirer of Abin Sur.

For a romantic interest of sorts, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) is Hal's ex, plus a fellow fighter pilot, plus a wannabe businesswoman, plus the daughter of the owner of the company they work for. And nerdy scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) gets infected with a piece of Parallax, turning him into a large-headed villain with telekinetic and psychic powers.
As you might expect, a superhero movie relies largely on the actor playing the hero -- and Ryan Reynolds is a huge disappointment. Movies like this often have the hero's journey of discovery in their abilities, but Ryan spends so much time as the charming, lovable loser that his transition to hero seems unbelievable --as is his showing up the other, far-more-experienced Green Lanterns. Blake Lively is adequate as the moral support for Hal, but terrific actor Peter Sarsgaard is given a very one-dimensional role as the earthbound villain. (The movie also wastes the talent of Tim Robbins, playing Hector's father.)

Sadly, Green Lantern is also lacking in both story and action. Splitting the movie between space and Earth is distracting, plus it slows down the pacing to the point of frequent boredom. (There are also numerous "what the?" scenes where characters act in unbelievable ways.) And given the advances in cgi and special effects, there's a disappointing lack of use of the power ring -- one of the potentially most creative devices in the comic book universe -- through the movie. The pacing

Green Lantern has some chuckles here and there, but this was a letdown. If only they would have cast Nathan Fillion in the lead...

Overall grade: D+
Reviewed by James Lynch



I suppose if you wanted to create the perfect summer movie, you'd blend together nostalgia, small-town life, smart kids, a monster, a military cover-up, and families reuniting. Those are the ingredients for Super 8, the summer movie from writer-director J.J. Abrams.

It's the summer of 1978 in the fictional small town of Lillian, Ohio. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young kid, is still reeling from the death of his mother at a steel plant four months earlier. Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) can't connect with his son and wants Joe to go to football camp, but Joe would rather paint models and help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) complete a zombie movie they're making with a few friends.

One night Joe, Charles, and some friends sneak out to shoot movie footage at the train stop. Joe excited that cute girl Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) is helping with the movie. During the filming, though, Joe sees a truck drive onto the tracks and smash into an oncoming train. Everyone's alright, but the truck driver was their teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) -- and when the military shows up, he warns the kids that the military will kill them if they tell anyone what they saw. They flee -- with Joe taking one of the strange cubes that fell out of the train, and with Charles grabbing his super 8 film camera that recorded the crash.

Things get weird quickly. Lillian has blackouts, people are reporting that their machines have been vandalized and pets have gone missing, and several people have vanished (including the sheriff, leaving Jackson to be in charge of handling the events). Also, the military have arrived at the town in force, giving out no information and searching for something. And that cube Joe took starts to shake and move on its own...

While Super 8 is a mash-up of several genres -- action, horror, drama, comedy-- I'd say the biggest factor is nostalgia. This movie is a loving look back, from when a few kids could make a movie with no budget or equipment (and their final film is shown during the end credits) to when the grown-ups are either malevolent or clueless and it's up to the kids to save the day. Sometimes this makes Super 8 feel a little too pat and simplistic, but it works as the sort of throwaway movie you'd have caught on a hot summer night at the local drive-in. This movie has its strengths (the amazing train explosion early on) and weaknesses (the creature is a fairly standard cgi creation), but it's as enjoyable at the time as it is easily forgotten afterwards.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

Sometimes when he would introduce the members of his band at a concert, Bruce Springsteen would talk about his early days, and joke about how he realized that the band he was putting together "needed something. Something… big." Of course, the person he was getting ready to introduce was his legendary saxophone player Clarence Clemons, who passed away yesterday at age 69 as a result of a stroke he suffered the week before. At the time when Clemens and Springsteen met at a club in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1971, the saxophone had become something of a lost art in rock and roll. It had been a common lead instrument in the 1950s, but as rock music evolved in the sixties to be performed mostly by relatively small-sized and self-contained bands, the electric guitar became completely dominant. Some larger bands used a sax as part of a horn section, but the days of the sax solos in rock songs appeared to be over. Springsteen realized that the sax would bring an element to his sound that no other band at the time had, and Clemons was the right man in the right place at the right time.

You can make the argument that Clemons is the most famous backing musician in all of rock. Certainly, he was the primary reason that the members of The E Street Band became household names themselves. He could be delicate and jazzy sometimes, like on "Spirits in the Night" off of Springsteen's 1973 debut LP Greetings from Asbury Park, N. J., but he left his indelible mark on the songs where his part called for some muscle. His value was not lost on Springsteen; the cover shot of the 1975 LP Born to Run, which shows Springsteen leaning on Clemons, says everything about their professional relationship that you really need to know. That album has become iconic arguably as much for Clemons' sax solos on "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "Jungleland" as for Springsteen's writing.

While most of Clemons' professional work has revolved around Springsteen and the E Street Band, he did make a couple of solo recordings, and had a hit duet with Jackson Browne called "You're a Friend of Mine." He also toured with Ringo Starr, made a guest appearance on Joe Cocker's cover of Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart," and most recently made an appearance on Lady Ga Ga's new record. He had been performing live with Springsteen through their last tour, which ended in November 2009. Springsteen will almost certainly perform live again, most likely with the remainder of the E Street Band in tow, but the passing of Clarence Clemons has left a void that will not be filled.

Clemons, Springsteen, and The E Street Band grinding through "Rosalita"


Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys! (Polydor, 2011)

The Manchester group Elbow have spent over a decade making thoughtful, intricate recordings in an art-rock vein. I only discovered their previous album The Seldom Seen Kid fairly recently, but now Guy Garvey (vocals), Mark Potter (guitars), Craig Potter (keyboards), Pete Turner (bass), and Richard Jupp (drums) return with their fifth studio album, called Build a Rocket Boys! The band members definitely require their audience to have an attention span, as nearly all the songs on the new album are the kind you need to let grow on you. This may frustrate some listeners hoping for something with more of an edge, but on the whole it is still a worthy effort.

As I said when I reviewed The Seldom Seen Kid, there is no denying that Guy Garvery is the star in the band. He is certainly one of the most poetic lyricists in rock today, and all his songs tell compelling stories about palpably real people. In "The Birds," the album's opening song and standout track, Garvey sings of a secret relationship that doesn't last. But there's no point in dwelling on what was lost; "looking back," as Garvey sings, "is for the birds." On "High Ideals," Garvey sings from the perspective of a man in restless pursuit of an ideal, at the expense of neglecting the good things (a woman, in particular) that are right in front of him. The second verse is a good example of Garvey's sense of symbolism and irony: "There's a bayonet in my family things, it was made in the USA to defend the king. And though the sinew that thrust, and all the bones it splintered are dust, it's passed from hand to hand with the wedding rings."

Musically the album is a bit too consistently mid-tempo, but there are a couple of nice touches. "The Birds" has a haunting two-part harmony with a modal chord progression. "Neat Little Rows" shows that Elbow can elevate the energy level when needed. A couple of songs benefit from guest appearances from the Hallé Youth Choir, whether they're in the background on "The River" or singing along with the rousing chorus on "Open Arms." Otherwise, while the carefully developed arrangements tend to aim for subtlety. This is both a strength and a weakness of Build a Rocket Boys!, as the nuances that make the album interesting aren't really augmented with enough of a spark.

Elbow had already established themselves as one of the most interesting bands in rock to day. While Build a Rocket Boys! doesn't raise their stature, it doesn't lower it either. Elbow may not overwhelm you, but they'll hold your attention if you're willing to give it.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

an in-studio performance of "Open Arms"


Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (ATO Records, 2009)

Originally from Mexico but currently based in Dublin, Ireland, Rodrigo y Gabriela bring a uniquely eclectic approach to dueling acoustic guitars. Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero first played together in a thrash metal band in Mexico City, but their style owes as much to flamenco and Mexican folk music as it does to rock and roll. On their most recent CD 11:11, they pay tribute to a a diverse assortment of their musical heroes, often with outstanding results.

Rodrigo y Gabriela dedicate each track on 11:11 to a particular performer or group that has influenced their sound. The beneficiaries range from well-known rock performers like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, to flamenco guitar legend Paco de Lucia, to Palestinian oud combo Le Trio Joubran, to the world/jazz/Indian fusion group Shakti. The mixture of rock and world influences may seem unusual or unwieldy at first, but the duo make it work with a great combination of energy and chemistry. Rodrigo plays most of the melodies, while Gabriela's wonderfully percussive rhythm guitar is the dynamo that propels the arrangements. The overall sound is hard to describe simply; the best I can come up with is a two-guitar thrash flamenco symphony, but I don't know if that is even adequate. With only occasional percussive accompaniment and a memorable cameo by Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick on "Atman", Rodrigo y Gabriela create an upbeat and infectious sound while playing with a combination of aggression, sophistication, and dynamic interplay that puts the guitarists of most rock bands, even the heavy ones, completely to shame.

doesn't waste a track. Every tune is fun, lively, and superbly played. I can't really single out any piece in particular; they're inspired by different performers and may appeal to different people in different degrees, but they're all good. Fans of flamenco will certainly like the album, and people looking for good guitar music without being too style-specific will absolutely love this. Rodrigo y Gabriela have gradually built up a following over the past decade (11:11 is their sixth album), and their recent contributions to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides can only help boost their exposure to mainstream audiences. In an ideal world, though, they'd already be mega-stars.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Hanuman," the opening track off 11:11

THE BEST OF NELLY FURTADO (deluxe edition)

It's hard to believe it's been a decade since Nelly Furtado let us know that she's like a bird. The Best of Nelly Furtado shows how she has come a long way from her beginning, expanding to different genres and styles of music. And yet...

Nelly Furtado has a very sweet singing voice, and she manages to adapt it quite nicely in several different directions. She can do radio-friendly pop music ("I'm Like a Bird," "Turn off the Light"), sad ballads ("Try," "All Good Things (Come to an End)"), rap-club music ("Promiscuous," "Maneater"), and songs in Spanish (mostly from her all-Spanish album Mi Plan). Unlike many other singers, Nelly Furtado doesn't keep traveling the same musical path she had before.

Unfortunately, while The Best of Nelly Furtado is a fine overview of the singer's work, it also highlights a problem she has. While many of the songs are good, and several are pretty good, she never quite reaches greatness with her music. Sometimes it's trite lyrics, sometimes it's a certain mellowness in her delivery (like "Shit on the Radio (Remember the Days)" which should be much angrier than it is), but the end result is that her music comes across as enjoyable more than awesome.

And for those who have Furtado's previous albums, The Best of Nelly Furtado has three new songs, somewhat indicative of her frequent themes: a light party song ("Night Is Young"), a song about a problematic love ("Girlfriend in the City") and a ballad ("Stars"). The deluxe edition also has her duets with several performers -- from Michael Buble to Juanes to the Roots -- as well as an Arabic-sounding remix of "I'm Like a Bird."

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


What happens when you mix weed, zombies, tons of gore, and almost no budget? You get Bong of the Dead, a straight-to-dvd horror-comedy movie. And while I like horror, comedy, a mix of the two (Shaun of the Dead -- so so good), and even some low-budget films, this feels like the excesses of a high school horror fan on a trip.

For what it's worth, here's the plot. Meteors have crashed onto Earth, releasing fumes (or something) that turn some people into zombies who attack others, then happily sit around eating the flesh of their victims, of other zombies, or their own. Governments and media have collapsed, yet somehow the zombies have been moved into the Danger Zone and other areas are free of them.
Edwin (Mark Wynn) spends his days in the semi-post-apocalyptic world getting stoned with his buddy Tommy (Jy Harris). Edwin's latest discovery is that fertilizing his marijuana with powdered zombie brains makes the plants grow amazingly tall and fast. But they smoked all of their stash, so it's time for a road trip to the Danger Zone to get some zombie brains! Along the way is the obligatory tough-sexy-mechanic chick Leah (Simone Bailly), who thinks the two losers are on their way to Freedom Town. There are also zombie attacks, zombie-powered plumbing, a wannabe zombie general (with an army of two), and blood and guts. Lots and lots and lots of blood and guts.

While Hollywood often uses special effects as a substitute for plot, dialogue, or intelligence, Bong of the Dead does the same -- but with gore and cliches. The makers of this must have gotten a discount on fake blood and body parts, because limbs are flying, wounds are probed, guts are eaten, and blood spilled everywhere. As for cliches, there are numerous montages (armoring a vehicle, friends goofing around, slow-motion battle scenes), a semi-titillating shower scene, the lovable losers who somehow are the heroes, and lots of cursing.

Bong of the Dead is fundamentally juvenile. Rather than try for any parody of the genre, or anything new with the genre, or anything creative or smart, this movie settles for violence and gore for its own sake -- along with bad acting and a near-total absence of plot or well-written dialogue. Bong of the Dead feels like it was made by a high school student who just kept saying "Wouldn't it be cool if..." without bothering with anything like quality. This one was painful.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch


Enigma - Robert Harris (1995)

A good mystery novel has much in common with a good cipher. It should be difficult to penetrate, and yet, once solved, should demonstrate a clean elegance. Both the Enigma machine, and Enigma, the book, succeed in this task.

Robert Harris has chosen the code-breaking center at Bletchley Park, north-west of London, as the setting and backdrop for this novel. In World War II, Bletchley Park was the place where the famous, or rather infamous, German Enigma code was broken. Rather than walk us through the history, fascinating though it may be, Harris has chosen to create a fictional cast of characters and put them through their paces in a fictional mystery-thriller. He carries off this task admirably.

Our hero, Tom Jericho, after having a nervous breakdown, is summoned back from his recuperation at Cambridge to work on the latest crisis at Bletchley. The Germans have suddenly changed all the Enigma settings and unless they can crack the code, Allied shipping will suffer greatly at the hands of German U-Boats in the Atlantic. The code-breaking is an interesting side-plot, as the real plot centers around the question of why the Germans changed the codes. Is there a leak at Bletchley? And what can explain the strange behaviour of Tom's ex-girlfriend, the "arctic blond" Claire Romilly?

Harris writes well, and with an excellent sense of the time and place. The feel of wartime Britain pervades the pages, and is contrasted with the abstract world of the intellect in which the cryptanalysts labour. The plotting is intricate, and yet, when it resolves, it all seems so clear.

I won't claim that this is great literature, but it makes for a very pleasant few hours reading.

Overall Grade: B+


The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Golden Greats No. 1 (Akashic Records, 2011)

Before a concert of the Swedish sextet The Soundtrack of Our Lives, I got into a conversation with the person sitting next to me, who told me she had described the band to a friend as "stoner prog, but in a good way." And as much as I like the band, I can't deny that that's a reasonable description of their music. In order to appreciate the quality of their music, you do have to take their spaced-out lyrics and overly trippy song titles like "Firmament Vacation" and "Jehovah Sunrise" with a few grains of salt. But if you're a fan of old school classic rock, you'll be very hard-pressed to find a contemporary band who does it better.

I suppose that a discussion of their recently released compilation Golden Greats No. 1 requires a summary of their history. During their fifteen-year career, The Soundtrack of Our Lives have released five studio albums.  The first two, Welcome to the Infant Freebase and Extended Revelation (for the Psychic Weaklings of the Western Civilization), were recorded with the original line-up of Ebbot Lundberg (vocals), Björn Olsson (guitars), Ian Person (guitar), Kalle Gustafsson (bass), Martin Hederos (keyboards), and Fredrik Sandsten (drums). The band haven't really strayed far from the sound they established on these two recordings, and the anthemic hard rocker "Confrontation Camp" off their debut remains a staple of their live shows.  Lundberg wrote the lyrics and Olsson wrote most of the music initially, but Olsson quit in 2000 and was replaced by Mattias Bärjed.  Bärjed and Person have taken over most of the music writing since, and the band for the most part have only gotten better. Behind the Music, released in 2001, broke the band internationally. "Sister Surround" remains their biggest hit, and can lay claim to being one of the best rock songs of the 00s. They followed this up in 2004 with my favorite of their albums to date, Origin Vol. 1. "Bigtime" and "Believe I've Found" are worthy inclusions on this compilation, but the album had plenty of great rock and roll throughout. Originally the band planned to put out Origin Vol. 2 shortly thereafter, but they eventually scrapped that idea. It took four years for the band to re-emerge with the bloated, 150-mniute long double CD Communion. Communion boasts some fine acoustic songs like "The Passover" and "Flipside," and a catchy pop song in "Thrill Me," but it would have benefited from being shortened some.

The two "new" songs on Golden Greats No. 1, "Earthmover" and "Karmageddon," are actually holdovers from the Origin sessions. Neither sounds out of place here, and "Karmageddon" particularly exceeds any expectations that the title might leave you with. Otherwise, while not exactly the "best of" I would have made -- I feel that Origin vol. 1 is underrepresented here -- Golden Greats No. 1 does show The Soundtrack of Our Lives to be very good at times, even if they're sometimes good in spite of themselves. The band are devout believers in the power and majesty of rock, and they'll connect with anybody who's ever felt that way themselves at some point.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

the original TSOOL line-up performs "Confrontation Camp"

"Sister Surround"

"The Passover"



It's time for A Portrait of the Mutants As Young Men, I mean, X-Men: First Class. This summer flick is a prequel to the X-Men movies (and Wolverine: Origins), showing the events that led to Professor X, Magneto, and the X-Men (and their various devices). It's not bad, though as with the previous X-Men movies the large cast proves a bit unwieldy.

X-Men: First Class is primarily about Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto, and from the opening it's clear that their different experiences will lead them in different directions. Charles lives virtually alone in an English mansion, and when he meets the blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) he is thrilled to meet another mutant (Charles has telepathic abilities) and "adopts" her as his sister. Meanwhile, in a German concentration camp, Erik's magnetic powers attract a camp doctor (Kevin Bacon) -- who kills Erik's mother in front of him to make his powers surface.

Jump ahead to1962, and the paths of Charles and Erik are about to cross. Erik (Michael Fassbender) has found the Nazi who killed his mother -- and he now goes by Sebastian Shaw, a powerful mutant who can absorb energy and then unleash it. Shaw also heads a group of mutants called the Hellfire Club -- telepath/diamond-skin Emma Frost (January Jones), teleporting Azazel (Jason Flemying), and whirlwind creator Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) -- who are out to start a war between the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the Hellfire Club, which leads her to an expert on genetics -- Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) -- and his "sister" Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Despite their different beliefs about humanity -- Charles wants to fit in, Erik is distrustful -- the two find a common goal, and even friendship, in stopping Shaw and helping other mutants.
The "first class" are mutant kids brought together, to train in their powers: the flying and flame-spitting Angel (Zoe Kravitz); the sonic-screaming Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones); the instantly-adaptive Darwin (Edi Gathegi); the energy ring-producing Havok (Lucas Till); and finally, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). The latter is really the only member of the "class" with depth: a brilliant nerd who's ashamed of his powerful-yet-grotesque feet, Hank and Raven have feelings for each other, but he's focused on looking normal while she wants to be proud to be a mutant.

Like the previous three X-Men movies, X-Men: First Class suffers from too many characters: Most of them can be completely summarized in one sentence, and a few don't even have lines. This movie also jumps around geographically as much as a James Bond film -- Germany! England! Switzerland! Russia! America! Cuba! -- and while it doesn't make a parody of the 1960s, it also doesn't tap into the racial conflict that inspired the X-Men series. The tension in this film is all between the U.S. and Russia, not between whites and minorities.

Since the movie is mainly about Professor X and Magneto, it falls on McAvoy and Fassbender to carry the movie -- which they do decently. It's strange to see Professor X, the responsible leader of the X-Men, as a carefree youth (he uses genetics as a pick-up line in a bar), yet McAvoy does convey a sense of both decency and responsibility. As for Fassbender, his Magneto is less interesting, driven by revenge through the movie and not seeing the irony that his ultimate goal matches that of the target of his revenge.

Comic fans will enjoy some first appearances of items from the comics (including the Blackbird and Cerebro), and fans of the previous films will get a kick out of two cameos, one of which was virtually mandatory. Director Matthew Vaughn does what he can, but while the action sequences are very good, the large cast makes it hard for us to care about anyone but Charles, Erik, and Raven. X-Men: First Class is enjoyable for fans of the X-Men comics (yo) and movies (somewhat), but it would have benefited from more focus.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch