Monday, November 26, 2012

album review: 'warrior' by ke$ha

I remember hearing 'Tik Tok' in late 2009 and hating it.

I'm not joking here. Throughout 2010, I distinctly remember despising Miss Kesha Rose Sebert, known only by her stage name Ke$ha. I thought the autotune was gratuitous, I thought her lyrics were beyond asinine, I thought her beats were processed, obnoxious sludge, I thought her vocal style was designed to piss off everyone who heard it. In short, I thought she was the worst possible product of the pop machine, the talentless pop starlet that is made by producers. And considering she was one of the potent forces of the club music boom, particularly on the charts, I was horrified by the fact that not only was Ke$ha not going away, but there was going to be a legion of imitators. 

But perhaps the thing that infuriated me the most was the theme behind her music, the one promoting the debauched lifestyle of drunk obnoxious sorority girls, devoid of class and responsibility. And considering how much I went to clubs in 2010 and how much I was exposed to this sort of music, it was an opinion that became pretty solidly ingrained in my consciousness.

But in mid-2011, I started reading reviews of Ke$ha's albums - and much to my appalled horror, they were positive reviews. I didn't get it - I mean, how could anyone like this or tolerate it beyond the shallow standards of party music? So, convinced of my own rightness, I downloaded both of Ke$ha's albums (Animal and the EP Cannibal), and I started to do my research on the girl.

I learned that she has a major hand in writing her own songs - which surprised me, but wasn't exactly evidence for her redemption either. I learned that her mother also helped her write songs - and that her mother had been a songwriter for Johnny fucking Cash. I learned that Ke$ha primarily drew her inspiration from bands like Iggy Pop & the Stooges and the Beastie Boys and Beck - and I thought well of course she says that, why wouldn't she?

But then I found out some other interesting things. I found out that she actually shows much better in pictures and in video than in real life, and that she grew up very poor, with no idea who her real father was. I learned she was an outcast throughout school, basically due to her general weirdness and unconventionality. I learned that she had aced her SATs, that she was actually intelligent, far smarter than what her music indicated. And then I learned that in order to do her legendarily terrible live performances, she had to either be drunk off her ass or coked out of her mind. That, in some way, she was dumbing herself down for her material.

And then I took a closer look at Animal and Cannibal, and listened through them a few more times... and about in May 2011, I finally got it - and very quickly, Ke$ha became one of the few pop stars I actually liked.

transgression, sensitivity, and art: a discussion

So the Grey Cup, the final game of the Canadian Football League, is wrapping up as I write this. I honestly don't give a damn about who won either way, but watching the Twitter feed, I did notice a few things that struck my interest regarding the half-time show. First was antipathy, given as Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen were cited as performers. Now, promoters, I get that these two are some of the biggest names in Canadian pop radio right now, but you have to realize that they aren't exactly the kind of acts you want for a championship football game. Personally, I think a rock act would be a lot better. Hell, Gordon Lightfoot, who also performed, would be a better choice, if only because he'd have more name recognition amongst an older Canadian crowd. 

And incidentally, I saw all the tweets ripping on Lightfoot and asking for Bieber to come back on stage - on the one hand, they don't know any better, but on the other hand, it's still fucking infuriating. Diversify your tastes in music, youth of Canada, and stop proving all of my suspicions about your generation correct!

But besides that point, the final act was a small step in the right direction with Marianas Trench. Now, granted, Marianas Trench are a pop rock act that probably has a fair amount of overlap with Bieber's audience, but they put on a good show and they are a pretty solid act. So when I checked out Twitter, I was expecting to see the typical fangirl squeeing.

Instead I saw a number of tweets accusing Marianas Trench of making fun of people with speech impediment by performing their song 'Stutter', a song from their 2011 album Ever After

Sunday, November 18, 2012

album review: 'dos!' by green day

You know, sometimes it really sucks to know a lot of music.

I understand that's probably one of the whitest, most hipster-esque things I could possibly say here, a statement that practically epitomizes 'first-world problems'. I mean, look at how that statement looks: 'Aww, look at Silens, he's bitching because he just knows about too much music because he has the free time and energy to listen to album after album. Yeah, I know I had a tiny violin stashed somewhere...'

I get how it looks - but I also can't deny that there is some rationale behind my feeling here. It's the feeling you get when you have submerged yourself in an interest so completely that nothing - nothing - surprises you anymore. It's the movie critic who can call every plot twist in the conventional family movie he's obliged to see, the TV critic who knows every beat of the filler episode, the video game critic playing a rehash or a remake without the slightest vestige of innovation. It's a really depressing feeling, because  the surprise has leaked from the experience. That thrill of discovering something new, that heady rush of excitement... it just fades away when you realize everything is going to be rote and by the numbers. 

It gets even worse when you know that you can squint slightly and directly trace the lineage of the art you're looking at to its ancestor, that you know exactly what they're building off of or ripping off. It's why so many professional critics get so damn excited when they see original IPs with interesting, fresh ideas, even if those IPs might not objectively be all that well-executed. They can overlook the slipshod nature or the shoestring budget or the clumsy story or the lousy production - it's something new!

Green Day isn't something new. And when I picked up their newest album Dos! in their trilogy of albums they are releasing in the last months of 2012, I had the sinking feeling that I could predict pretty much exactly what was coming. Considering that the first of the trilogy, Uno!, had basically been a recycling of their previous, better material - and not a good recycling, at that - I had low expectations going into this. Particularly when I heard that the album was basing itself on garage rock, and it's not easy to make material from that genre sound unique or interesting, or at least not completely done to death (punk/garage rock fans, settle the fuck down, I'll come back to this). And considering Green Day's penchant for recycling, I didn't have anything close to high hopes.

But then that irritatingly optimistic voice, the one that justifies my liking for S Club 7 and Aqua and Toby Keith and the Backstreet Boys and Panic! At The Disco, popped up and said, 'Silens, you loved 21st Century Breakdown even despite the fact the majority of the tracks were direct riffs from The Who and The Beatles and The Ramones! You defended that album because Green Day was at least attempting to build off of the material of the past in new ways with new themes and styles. And sure, while the thematic elements on 21st Century Breakdown didn't entirely work - at all - the album was still solid enough to appreciate the disparate elements as much as the whole!'

And that was true, I mused, as I started listening to Dos!. Indeed, you could never accuse Green Day of too much original thought. They aren't like Muse, who throw every good and terrible idea they've ever had onto their albums to see what sticks (basically my opinion of The 2nd Law in a nutshell, by the way). No, Green Day has always built their genre-exploratory material off of the punk and protopunk and arena rock of the past, which is at least a solid foundation. But what has always distinguished them from being deliberate ripoffs is that they actually do take a different reinterpretation of the basic structures from whence they build. Sometimes it works, sometimes it really doesn't.

And here...

I honestly thought Uno! was as bad as it could get for Green Day. I was wrong.

Friday, November 16, 2012

movie review: 'breaking dawn, part ii'

You know, I've talked before about art that one could call 'So Bad It's Good'. You know, when something is so appalling awful and unbelievably terrible that it curves back around and somehow becomes enjoyable. You're not laughing with the performers, you're laughing at them. For music, this category includes stuff like 'Ice Ice Baby' and 'Afternoon Delight' and pretty much the entire discography of acts like New Kids On The block. For television, certain episodes of The Newsroom and Glee leap to mind. 

And for movies, the pinnacle of this genre is the Twilight Saga.

Full confession: at this point I have seen every single Twilight film, and I've read all the books. I don't think any of you will be surprised when I say that they're all fucking atrocious. The plot is a stack of dull cliche and bullshit, the characters are either paper dolls or gut-churningly wretched, the writing is universally shit, and the overall themes and messages are appalling offensive on every level. The Twilight Saga, as a book series, is a misogynist, racist, abusive, wasteful, utterly dull heap of badly written Mormon dogshit that I wouldn't wish upon even the stupidest of the audience it panders to. And there are countless blogs, articles, essays, and even a shitty movie (Vampires Suck) lambasting this awful fucking series for the asinine crap that it is. I have read Karen Traviss, Kevin J. Anderson, Jean Rabe, late-period Terry Goodkind, and even fucking E.L. James (who, if I might remind you, turned her Twilight fanfiction into Fifty Shades of Grey), and I still think Stephanie Meyer is a worse fucking hack then all of them put together. I don't think I will ever hate a series more in my lifetime.

And for the most part, the Twilight Saga movies fall much in the same boat. Taken effectively word-for-word from Stephanie Meyer's insulting fangirl-esque word vomit, the movies are some of the most wretched, horrendous data ever committed to digital film stock. The acting across the board is universally awful, the leads have no chemistry, the special effects wouldn't pass muster in a mid-90s music video, the pacing and script are atrocious, the orchestral score is either underwhelming or completely crap, and the original songs crowbarred into these fucking movies are a perfect example of talented people completely wasting their time. In fact, that's a good way of describing these films: people who I actually know are talented (Kristen Stewart was in Panic Room and Adventureland, and Robert Pattinson was actually good in David Cronenburg's Cosmopolis) either collecting a paycheque or completely wasting their time and embarrassing themselves. And everybody - absolutely everybody - is playing this as straight as they possibly can, because SERIOUS BUSINESS and all that.

And if anything, that's what makes the Twilight movies some of the best works of comedy you'll ever see in your life. I'm not even kidding about this - while all the fangirls are sucked in by how 'romantic' they find Bella and Edward's relationship, I can't stop laughing at how terrible the entire thing is. And while I will admit part of the fun is laughing at the idiots who enjoy this shit without irony (people who I tend to regard with caution and keep at arm's length), part of it is just watching what a colossal disaster the entire thing is, marvelling at how much money they blew to create something that which Uwe Boll would be embarrassed. 

And from what I can glean from the press interviews, the two actors who seem to 'get' how impossibly bad this shit is are Michael Sheen and Robert Pattinson, the former who looks to be having the time of his life camping it up for all its worth (I'm reminded of some Tim Curry and Wallace Shawn performances), and the latter who described his horror at playing Stephanie Meyer's masturbation fantasy and described the throngs of Twilight fangirls as 'the sound you hear at the gates of hell.' Now, I'm not sympathizing with them - after all, they're getting paid disgusting amounts of money to star in this tripe - but they know that the people at this point who still take it seriously are beyond deluded, and they've figured, 'Well, might as well deliver exactly what Stephanie Meyer and her fans dreamed about!' They know how rancidly unwatchable the Twilight movies are, and the fact they aren't winking at the camera shows a certain commitment that's admirable in a bizarre way.

So, taken from that perspective, knowing that there's no fucking way that anyone could take this bullshit seriously if they possess more brain cells than the average termite, you have to wonder if the movies are worth seeing because of ironic hilarity. And make no mistake, even without RiffTracks, the first two Twilight films, Twilight and New Moon, are comedy gold mines. If you're taking them remotely seriously, it's like having your eye sockets raped with a garden hoe, but if you're laughing at just how much of a colossal failure they are, you can laugh all the way to the damn bank.

But here's where a problem popped up with Eclipse, arguably the most 'well-made' of the Twilight movies (it's from the guy who made Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night), because as the movie got better constructed, they got a lot less funny and a lot more hateable, half because it becomes so fucking dull and half because you're forced to realize just how contemptible all of the characters really are. Breaking Dawn Part I was much of the same in that regard, but added the further problems of shit-tons of padding and turning the most fucked-up elements of the series into utterly pathetic yet still incredibly insulting drivel. I mean, can you all imagine what Breaking Dawn Part 1 would have looked like with David Cronenburg directing, with the C-Section scene and the explicit violent sex and the goddamn imprinting? It could have been the most balls-out exploitation film released that year, with a chance of at least having one great gore effect to be remembered besides all the rest of the boring awfulness.

And really, I didn't expect much going into Breaking Dawn Part 2. I expected it to be reasonably well shot, full of characters I either don't care about or hate, the special effects to be a beer bong full of animal feces, and the soundtrack to be full of overwrought wailing from artists who should really know better.

And while all of that is there, I am telling you all that you need to go see 'Breaking Dawn Part II'. Because something of a miracle happened here, and to explain why, I'm going to have to spoil pretty much the whole damn movie, so after the jump, I'm going to spoil the fuck out of this. But I'll leave those who don't want to be spoiled with this: this movie isn't 'So Bad It's Good'.

It's 'So Bad It's Amazing.'

Thursday, November 15, 2012

album review: 'red' by taylor swift

Dear Taylor Swift,

You know, I thought about writing this review in other ways, but I quickly realized that I’d lose some of the essence of what I’m trying to say if I don’t make this as approachable as possible. Plus, I want to prevent this from devolving into a rant, so a letter is probably the only way this sort of thing can work.

So let’s deal with introductions. I’m Silens Cursor, a semi-professional music critic and – pay attention, this is important – a former fan of yours. Yes, I liked your music. Your first two albums are pretty damn good pop-country, and you earned a lot of kudos from me by actually having a significant hand in writing your own material. It lent a certain ‘realness’ to your lyrics and simple style that was surprisingly appealing. Granted, I’m fairly certain lurking inside me is the spirit of a teenage girl who listens to Avril Lavigne and Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy and the Backstreet Boys and, well, you and who appreciates all these acts completely without irony. I get that some of your appeal was the ‘cuteness’ of it all, for lack of a better term (I’ll come back to this), but I genuinely think you have some well-written material that has some widespread appeal outside of the target demographic.

And then something happened. I’m not sure where, but I’m fairly certain it started with Speak Now, the first album of yours of which I wasn’t really much of a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I liked ‘Back To December’ a lot, but it was here I was beginning to observe a dichotomy I think it’s important to discuss, because it’s an interesting phenomenon I saw both in your music and that of Avril Lavigne, an artist you really have a lot in common with. I guess that also makes this letter something of a warning, because I don’t want to see you go the way she did, and a lot of the major symptoms are starting to crop up.

You see, Avril Lavigne came from the world of pop-punk with Let Go and Under My Skin, two albums I still hold are pretty damn excellent for an early 2000s female act. She had a certain bratty authenticity in her delivery that didn’t drain her of the very real fragility she could display on her ballads. There’s a reason why ‘I’m With You’ is the best song Avril Lavigne ever wrote – it played to all of her strengths, and really turned her into a captivating performer. You know, sort of like with you and ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ (for the record, ‘I’m With You’ is better – sorry).

But here’s the dichotomy – you both were treading a very fine line between mainstream pop success and artistic authenticity. I’ll grant that Avril had it easier – she was working with a pop climate that was marginally more mature and ‘real’ in 2002 than yours was in 2008. But make no mistake, your careers have charted similar paths, and it’s an unnerving thing to know that it’s only a matter of time before you hit the tipping point.

You see, it’s a terrible thing, but there tends to be a shelf life for artists who work to preserve ‘authenticity’. That’s why you hear about acts ‘selling out’ – the point where artistic integrity is cast aside in order to produce trend-riding material that might sell well, but lacks a certain individual flavor. And given the alarming trend of acts selling out in the past few years – Maroon 5, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, I could go on – I knew it was just a matter of time before everyone’s favourite country princess might be coerced over to that dynamic. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, it was ‘when’. Sorry about the cynicism, but in this day and age, particularly when it comes to pop music, it only makes sense.

Now, I’ll admit that branding an act a ‘sell-out’ is a very serious charge, and not one I would level without very good reason. And it’s also particularly hard with acts that rely on certain definitive qualities that are central to their artistic integrity. You know, how with Pink it was her vindictive, painfully raw feminism, and with Avril Lavigne it was her bratty, shockingly sincere adolescence, and with Maroon 5… well, they always wrote the soundtracks of douchebags, but there was a distinctive loss of personality in their material.

But outside of isolated incidents (the autotune and Wiz Khalifa’s presence on ‘Payphone’), it can be a bit tricky to find the precise elements to truthfully brand an act a sell-out. To me, there are two main elements I can pinpoint: a shift in instrumentation, or a shift in subject matter. And while some elements remain consistent between Red and Speak Now, there are a few things that I can spot that make this album much less tolerable.