Tuesday, June 25, 2013

album review: 'rise' by skillet

You know, religious-themed music didn't use to suck.

I mean, look at Johnny Cash or Elvis - both men made pretty solid albums exploring religious themes and styles in a mature, usually intelligent manner. And religious themes tend to crop up all over the place when one examines more gothic acts like Depeche Mode. Hell, Nick Cave has spent most of his career delving into various facets of religion, particularly in his most well-known song 'The Mercy Seat'. But all too often, whenever religion tends to crop up in music, the quality tends to drop exponentially (see the few albums Bob Dylan released when he embraced Christianity in the early 80s). Why is that?

Well, I've got a few ideas. For starters, I think one needs to consider the direction in which these acts are discussing religion and God. To me, the best of them deal with the very human experience of trying to contextualize one's beliefs while living in a very secular world. To me, that's potent material for songs, stuff that can make one think and question their beliefs. And if anything, the best religious-themed music tends to revolve around questions of faith and belief and yearning, trying to find what is at the meat of our human experience.

But you rarely see material that has the balls to ask these questions, and that's where the majority of Christian music tends to lose me in a hurry. At the upper end of quality in this group you tend to see a great of quasi-spiritual satisfaction, worship music without the drama of actual conflict. Now I have issues with this sort of music - basically, I'm not the biggest fan of mellow music as it is, and when you add the subtext of 'I got all of this because I accepted Jesus as my saviour', it can get more than a little insufferable. But on the other hand, it's essentially harmless, and if people are using said music to find solace in religion, I don't really have a problem with it.

No, the Christian music I and most critics take issue with is the stuff with the harder evangelical bent, which combines the subtext above with 'I've accepted Jesus as my saviour... and now YOU should too or you're going to hell for all eternity'. It's confrontational, in your face with its self-righteousness and complete lack of tact, thought, or humility - and as a Catholic, this really bugs the shit out of me. To me, religion should be about acceptance and love and tolerance and compassion and giving - not exclusionary pontificating and hatred. And yeah, the hypocrisy rings high and loud when these acts preach family values or attempt to cast themselves as the underdogs against the rising 'feminists and homosexuals'... and then get caught abusing drugs or getting blown by groupies in the back of a van (hi, Scott Stapp, you worthless piece of shit!). To me, these groups represent the worst of the evangelical movement, particularly in recent years, as they attempt to use the fandom of their music to convert people to their own breed of Christianity. And it really smacks of disingenuous motives when you realize that these bands stand to profit heavily off of their audience's religious fervour.

But those are moral objections to thematic elements in their music - what about the bigger picture? Well, as much as I'd like to say that these acts only signed to Christian labels when no other label would take them (that's untrue and a little unfair), my issues with Christian rock tend to come back to lyrical subject matter. Too often, the acts refuse to actually delve into the implications and deeper meaning behind their material, instead relying on shallow platitudes, emotionally-manipulating tragedy porn, or evangelical fervour. And the really frustrating part is that too much of the material quickly begins to repeat itself, with few new ideas other than an unearned, rather intolerable defensiveness against the rational progression of music and society as a whole.

And look, I'm not saying that on a musical level these guys aren't talented. Hell, I'll give Icon For Hire, an alternative metal act that exploded in 2011 with their debut album Scripted, a lot of credit for having extremely solid guitar and vocal work (to say nothing of lyrics that were actually had the balls to ask questions of religion and go deeper, which earned them praise from Christian and non-Christian review outlets). But too often you get acts like Creed or Evanescence (okay, Evanescence technically only signed to a Christian label and never really had evangelical music, but I really hate Evanescence) that are so dour and humourless and teeth-grindingly tedious that cast a pall over the entire genre, so much so that the majority of mainstream critics won't even touch Christian-themed music anymore, or any band signed to a Christian label.

But as I'm sure you've all realized, I'm not most critics, so let's take a look at the new album from the Grammy-winning Christian Rock act that Icon For Hire opened for a few years ago, Skillet. Starting in 1996, Skillet are widely considered to be one of the better Christian rock acts, and while I've never heard a single song of theirs prior to this album, their last album went platinum in the United States and sold over a million copies. If anything, that would suggest the band does have crossover potential into the mainstream, particularly considering that last album came out in 2009 (in an era where true platinum records were becoming something of a rarity).

And I've got to be honest, I've always been a little fascinated by the Christian metal scene. Just on a conceptual level, Christian metal is a study in dissonance, a genre ostracized by the Christian rock scene for embracing a 'darker' musical aesthetic and roundly disliked by the mainstream metal scene for their evangelical subject matter. In Skillet's case, the band has a reputation for industrial metal of all things - which, I should remind you, includes acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry - so I was definitely intrigued when I heard about the new album. I was less intrigued when I discovered that a song on their last album featured on the soundtrack to Transformers III, but hey, if that's not proof of their crossover potential, I don't know what is.

So what do I think of their new album, Rise?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

album review: 'in defense of the genre' by say anything (RETRO REVIEW)

I have to be honest, it's not often I do real 'retro reviews', and there's a very good reason for that. As much as I could go on and on about certain acts and how much I like their material, I feel that without the appropriate context/situation, there's isn't much of a point for me to talk about these acts. It'd be rather self-indulgent, and while I don't exactly have a huge problem with that, I'd prefer to actually talk about something that is relevant to the conversation today.

Now that's not saying I won't do retrospective reviews - far from it, actually. In fact, I think I can definitively nail down three reasons why I would do a retro review of an album or a movie: it relates to a current subject in a direct manner that allows me to fuse the review with an essay; it's something I didn't get a chance to cover earlier in the year and I want to cover it so I'm prepared when year-end rolls around; and finally, on request (and even then it's iffy, because there are some acts I will refuse to touch on principle).

And even with that, I haven't written that many retrospective reviews. There were the Nolan-Batman retrospectives (here and here), the reviews of James Blake and Tegan & Sara earlier this year (the latter of which I remember most for my essay on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope), and the two reviews I've written on request: that of Avenged Sevenfold's self-titled album and that of an album by The Beards. Completely unsurprisingly, the two albums I reviewed on request were not even close to good, which makes sense in a twisted sort of way. After all, the Internet likes to give critics shit to review so we can fly into highly entertaining rages.

I want you all to understand that to clarify that when I got the request to review In Defense of the Genre, the collaborator-studded album by Say Anything, I stepped in with high hopes but extremely low expectations. As a band with no real pop success to speak of - albeit some measure of critical acclaim, but that can mean anything these days - I had actually never heard any of this band's material before beginning this review. Keep in mind that when I started listening to the pop-punk and emo music of the 2000s, I jumped onto the bandwagon in 2007, which was in the peak of mainstream success but not critical acclaim (as I've said before, I spent the majority of the mid-2000s listening to power and symphonic metal). I might have been listening to Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and the occasional MCR or Jimmy Eat World track, but I certainly wasn't familiar with the more underground segments of the genre, so I was very unfamiliar with Say Anything. So as usual, I opted to examine the albums leading up to In Defense Of The Genre so I might have an idea about what Say Anything was like. What I did I think?

Well, I have mixed feelings. Say Anything burst into the indie scene with Baseball, an album that the band has never really been proud of and have refused to play tracks from for a long time. On the one hand, I definitely understand why: if we're looking for albums that embodied the teenage emo aesthetic, Baseball would immediately jump to the top of that list. With the haphazard production, sloppy but occasionally excellent guitar work, and raw anger and petulance in Max Bemis' vocals, Baseball would be indistinguishable from a dozen other emo bands of the time, but what impressed me was the genuine emotion in Bemis' delivery and the sharper-than-average songwriting. The band had a certain degree of wit around them that I can definitely see elevated them over their peers - within their genre, of course. And that's where the biggest problem with Baseball comes up - it's painfully high school when it comes to subject matter, filled with all of the associated drama from that period. And while I definitely can see why disaffected teenagers would love the raw, unbridled anger in Say Anything, anyone with an ounce of perspective would find Baseball more than a little juvenile. 

But on the other hand, I will give credit where it's due - Say Anything definitely captured that spirit with their opening album, and while the band might have lacked nuance, they made up for it with passion. So unsurprisingly, they got signed and released their second album ...Is A Real Boy, which managed the impossible: not only did the band preserve their sound and wit, they actually got better. In fact, ...Is A Real Boy really nailed down in my mind what Say Anything did well, namely they fused intelligently biting lyrics with real passion. I'm not reminded of any of the traditional L.A. emo bands but instead of The Barenaked Ladies, both in the acrid dark humour of the lyrics and the simplistic yet extraordinarily catchy melodies (plus, they reference Nick Cave multiple times, which is automatic bonus points from me). 

But what I find most fascinating about ...Is A Real Boy is the theme - while Say Anything could have chosen to focus inwardly about Max Bemis' own neuroses (and he did have them, as he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, actively abused drugs, and was eventually checked into a mental institution), they instead directed their attentions at their genre. Of course, they were an emo band so most of the songs were written from the perspective of the band, but they still had a much stronger tendency to focus outwardly. In short, much of their material was targeted at the music industry and the toxic culture surrounding it, and they had the smart songwriting to disguise their words behind some surprisingly intricate metaphors. And when they weren't attacking the industry, they were writing very literate, occasionally high-concept material like 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat' (one of the major highlights of the album, a nuanced discussion of human complacency), 'Every Man Has A Molly' (the nasty aftermath of airing dirty laundry through music - take notes, Taylor Swift), 'I Want To Know Your Plans' (probably the closest thing to an honest love song Say Anything ever wrote), and 'Admit It!!!' (my other favourite track, a brutally articulate spoken-word-filled diatribe against hipsters that's eons harsher than anything I will ever write).

So it isn't surprising in the slightest is that Say Anything very quickly built some major artistic clout in the industry, particularly around the L.A. emo scene, and combined with Bemis' growing reputation as a mad genius, it's not a surprise he managed to rope in twenty-three guest vocalists for his newest project and the topic of my review today. In Bemis' own words, the album had a twofold purpose: an autobiographical exploration of his mental breakdown and recovery; and a tribute to the other emo bands and genre Say Anything liked. Do they succeed?

Friday, June 21, 2013

album review: 'omens' by 3OH!3

Let's talk about the concept of liking something.

I know, it sounds incredibly basic and simple, but the more I dive into the critical analysis of works - particularly of satirical material - the more I find that the rote concept of liking something has become stupidly convoluted. Let's attempt to make this conversation a little simpler and disregard the mouthbreathing assholes who make comments like, 'If you like something / are a fan of something, you can't be objective!'. This line of argumentation is really goddamn stupid, mostly because it has its roots in a weird place: a desire for 'objectivity' that seems to be linked to the belief that 'human connection = bad' and that 'critical opinions = bad', mostly on the principle that nobody can be truly objective about anything, so thus everything is subjective and thereby illegitimate, with the illegitimacy easier to spot if you show any vestige of emotion towards something you might like.

Okay, this is horseshit, and for some very basic reasons. It's a nastier version of 'everyone's a critic', except that the purpose of a critic is never just a simple yay or nay, but to elaborate why a work of art works or doesn't work. If something can induce an emotion, subconscious reaction - either positive or negative - it is the critic's job to interpret that reaction, and use his human experiences to describe that context. As I've said before, I tend to use personal pronouns more than most when writing about my opinions on various albums - and the reason for that is because ultimately my reviews come from my point-of-view and I'd like you all to understand the context in which I deliver my opinion (you can debate all damn day whether it's 'informed' or not). To me, this sort of 'you're a fan, your opinion is illegitimate' might have some weight if the critic cannot articulate why he likes/dislikes something in a clear manner, but too often it's used as a defensive mechanism by people who want to be heard, but are too lazy or stupid to put anything thought into their argumentation. 

And thus, as a critic, I feel a certain degree of responsibility to not only convey my honest, unfiltered opinion about why I might like or not like something, but the rationale behind my liking of that material. I want to understand why I like something, to perhaps uncover something about myself I never realized, or about how that artist managed to affect me. That's also why you'll never seem me appreciate something 'ironically' or just to be contrary. For example, let's talk about my favourite musical of all time, Chess. Are there problems in this musical? Oh, absolutely - most of the various rewrites have serious structural problems, it tends to be a little broader than it should be, and one could argue that given the end of the Cold War, it has lost some of its relevance to the modern age. But despite all of that, I still love it because all of the things that work about the musical outweigh the flaws and it has the balls to embrace intellectual sincerity and end on a downbeat note. I could definitely go at greater length why I love this musical, but the point is that I'm definitely still a fan even though I can point out the flaws.

But too often in modern society, we're told that if we want to be a fan, we should shut off that critical voice. Indeed, we must show unequivocal support to an artist or be roundly castigated by the fans the art touched on a visceral level. Most of these fans aren't going to put the thought into contextualizing why they felt the way they did - and to some extent, that's okay. Film Critic Hulk actually wrote a superb essay on the subject on the levels in which we experience art, and I highly advise you all check it out, but he made two points I'd like to emphasize. Firstly, it's okay to view art in on a purely visceral level - it's not inherently worse than the critic who's looking for deeper themes and meanings. But the second point - and the one I feel is paramount - is that there should be a degree of awareness why we feel the way we do. To quote, 'GOOD MEDIA CONSUMPTION IS ABOUT AWARENESS... BUT GOOD MEDIA DIALOGUE IS ABOUT CONTEXTUALIZATION.'

Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering why on earth I'm talking about this at all. Well, the frustrating aspect of this whole conversation is that the accessibility of certain art can be limited by the choices of the artist, and the intentions of said artist can be misinterpreted - often completely in the wrong direction. This is a particular issue when it comes to satirical material, which is often designed to make a point regarding the genre or subject matter, and does so by apeing some of the conventions, aesthetic, or tropes of said genre or subject matter. I wrote extensively regarding Pain & Gain and how the audience probably will not get Michael Bay's point in that film: that he's not looking to glorify the lifestyle on screen, but to viciously satirize and condemn it - and yet, because of the way he presents the material, most of the audience won't get that message.

Now this leads to a very interesting conversation, as you can say the best art is meant to be enjoyed and experienced in a variety of ways. But if the artist set forth with a determined message in mind and the audience takes in the exact opposite of that message because they're experiencing it on a different level, is that a failure on the part of the artist? Keep in mind I'm not exactly a fan of the 'Death of the Artist' theory, but one has to acknowledge that sometimes the artist isn't intimately linked or aware of all of his/her influences in the artwork - even the best artists can fall prey to this. 

So ultimately, who is right? Well, as a critic, I'm not sure I can give you a direct answer to that question, because it's extremely difficult to see other perspectives outside of your own. I totally understand why people look at songs like 'Fight For Your Right To Party' and see them as glorifying the frat-boy douchebags who embraced the motto, instead of the Beastie Boys' true intention of satirizing that movement. Similarly, I get why some people think Ke$ha is a vapid bar slut, when in reality her music is satirizing the vapidity and emptiness of that lifestyle. But in both of these cases, I can definitely see the argument that one can experience the same visceral pleasure on either levels - and in the end, I can definitely see The Beastie Boys and Ke$ha being okay with either interpretation.

So with all of that in mind, let's finally talk about 3OH!3, the electro-pop 'crunkcore' act that is trying to do what The Beastie Boys and Ke$ha are doing, but can't quite make it work.

I should explain. Having their major label debut in 2008, the duo 3OH!3 struck up controversy with their hit song 'Don't Trust Me'. When accused of misogyny by critics on that album, 3OH!3 immediately made a defense that they were intending this material to be read ironically. Yeah, that song is misogynist and sketchy and goes way darker than it can believably pull off, but if I squint and turn my head sideways, I can sort of see what they meant. But here's my big problem with that defense: they may have intended to have that song be viewed ironically or on a different level, but viewed in that context, there's nothing that can be gained from the song other than the transgression, and that makes their justification seem hollow. I'll immediately confess I have something of a weakness for loud, obnoxious party music and crunk, but the fact 3OH!3 never could even resonate at that superficial level suggests that the duo can't back up their irony defense.

So why don't I like them? Well, besides the cowardice of hiding behind the irony shield - something Ke$ha, I should add, has never bothered to do, instead letting her fans interpret her material in multiple ways - they really don't distinguish themselves from the rest of the electro-pop slurry that clogged up the radio in 2008-11. Sure, they're obnoxious, but the problem is that they aren't looking to say anything with that obnoxiousness, and their songwriting lacks the sophistication or chops to rise above shallow party jams. And even on that standard alone, viewed from purely an alpha-male douchebag viewpoint, the beats are glitchy and haphazard, neither of the duo have great voices, the production is a mixed bag, and the lyrics are asinine. I'll admit they aren't quite at the level of gutchurningly stupid, worthless sound like brokenCYDE, but I don't really see anything unique that 3OH!3 provide to the modern pop landscape, particularly considering the club boom is over. 

And I really quite surprised that somehow they managed to pull another album together, ominously titled Omens. What do I think?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

album review: 'dancer and the moon' by blackmore's night

In the fall of 2012, many mainstream music critics were hailing the new indie rock explosion, and at the forefront of that wave we had acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips. Now, granted, I was never a huge fan of any of these acts, but I understand what they do and they occasionally managed to impress me. Yes, even Mumford & Sons (I stand by my criticism of the act that they really don't contribute anything to music as a whole, but they certainly don't embarrass themselves that badly unless you dig deeply into their lyrics).

But what I took a little umbrage to at the time was the genre classification of the majority of these acts, and how people were calling them 'folk rock'. It wasn't that I disagreed, per se - indeed, if I were pressed to come up with a genre classification of these acts other than indie, I'd probably call them contemporary folk rock and run with that. But what annoyed me a bit was the level of mainstream acclaim these acts received. Once again, I wouldn't call any of these acts bad, but at least to me, they sure as hell didn't represent the folk rock with which I was most familiar.

And with that, let's talk about Blackmore's Night.

As I mentioned before, when I was younger, I skipped straight from pop music and Eminem to power and symphonic metal, and in the process of using that old, unreliable bit of vapourware Limewire, I came across several songs that were mistakenly noted as Nightwish songs. As most of you probably remember, getting accurate song titles and band names in the days of Limewire (to say nothing of album names) was a nightmare, and pre-Wikipedia (this was around 2005), it required a fair amount of legwork to figure out what these songs actually were. Eventually, I managed to discover that these songs came from a  medieval folk rock act known as Blackmore's Night, founded by former Deep Purple virtuoso guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and his wife Candice Night. 

And as a teenage fantasy nerd, I immediately fell head over heels for Blackmore's Night. Almost all of the elements clicked - Ritchie Blackmore's impressive guitar work, Candice Night's ethereal voice, the backing instrumentation was properly modulated to build to impressive crescendos, and the lyrics were steeped in fantasy and Wiccan culture. They immediately set in my impressionable mind the definition of what I thought folk rock was, and that definition persisted until my uncle introduced me to Bob Dylan. 

So coming back to Blackmore's Night as a more mature music critic, does the band hold up to my expectations? Well, for the most part, yes. As with Deep Purple, the instrumentation is easily the biggest strength of Blackmore's Night, and Ritchie Blackmore's guitar work has remained as solid as ever. And I must admit a certain fondness for Candice Night willowy, ethereal delivery that perfectly matches the quasi-mystical feel the band is attempting to cultivate. Unfortunately, while the band does have an impressive repertoire of material in myth and legend to draw upon, they do occasionally repeat cliches between songs a little more than they should. And while they are more innovative and interesting songwriters than Deep Purple, I would hesitate to put them on any sort of pedestal here. It also doesn't help that they've done some pretty hit-and-miss covers over the course of their careers (the most egregious example being of 'Times They Are A Changin', which is just awful and embarrassing).

But if anything, I think the biggest 'barrier to entry' with regards to Blackmore's Night is the fact that they're a bit difficult to take seriously, specifically due to their genre. As much as I have issues with Game of Thrones, I will admit that the one net positive the HBO series is doing is increasing the mainstream public's tolerance for fantasy in their pop culture (a process begun in most cases by The Lord of the Rings films). But even with that,  it can be tough to buy into an act that sings about magic and fae and fantasy with wholehearted sincerity, and Blackmore's Night doesn't have an ounce of cynicism or winking in their subject matter. They believe what they're selling, and thus it's absolutely no surprise that they only tend to play live at Renaissance fairs and smaller, medieval-themed venues - which also puts a definite ceiling on any mainstream success they're aiming to have. But then again, I'm not sure Ritchie Blackmore is actively looking for mainstream success in the same way he was with Deep Purple - to him, Blackmore's Night is a passion project, and he's not going to turn it into work.

So with all of that in mind, how is their discography? Well, I'd describe all of their previous albums as good, but I'd have a hard time calling them great, mostly due to inconsistency. Typically per album you'll get three or four great songs and a whole lot of passable material, but not much more. Their most recent album Autumn Sky (released in 2010) was probably on the lower end of that spectrum - not as shaky as their debut album Shadows of the Moon, but not as strong as Village Lanterne (yeah, they spell 'lanterne' with an extra 'e' - they're that kind of band).

So, in the past week, they released a new album, Dancer And The Moon - how does it fair?

Monday, June 17, 2013

album review: 'yeezus' by kanye west

I think it's necessary to discuss my original plan for how I was going to write this review, both so you can get a glimpse of my process and so I can add a bit of context to this whole thing.

You see, the second I heard that Kanye West was going to title his next album Yeezus, I got the immediate idea that it might be kind of fun to frame the review like a letter to Kanye West, to discuss his ego exploding out of control in a way that can only lead to cataclysmic disaster at some point down the road (bear in mind I still suspect this'll happen at some point - hell, I've been predicting it since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). You know, frame it like an intervention, a bit like the way I wrote my little letter to Taylor Swift that doubled as an a review of her album Red.

And make no mistake, I would have had plenty of material for this letter, because Kanye West's career has been one of the most intriguing adventures to watch for the past several years. He burst onto the scene as a hit producer and made three reasonably solid rap albums that I like a fair amount to this day. Granted, I didn't think they were anything all that special - Kanye's gift for sampling and production always made his instrumentation a treat, but his weaker flow and clumsy lyricism never really impressed me all that much. In that, I was content to slot him into the list of acts I considered good, but not great.

And then something happened to Kanye West. His mother passed away, his relationship ended badly, and the resulting crises of faith and loneliness drove Kanye to make one of the most influential hip-hop albums of the past five years, 808s & Heartbreak. A choice to dive straight into introspective, autotune-layered electropop split his fanbase violently and was hastily predicted by most to be a flop, but the subsequent critical acclaim and surprisingly strong sales proved them wrong - mostly because the album is incredibly good. Kanye's choice to use autotune as more than just pitch correction and instead use it to emphasize his loneliness and the isolating feelings of grief do wonders for the atmosphere of this album. And in contrast to the majority of fans and critics, I found 'Robocop' (which had a bizarre yet compelling tonal juxtaposition between lyrics and instrumentation) to be my favourite song on the album. There was grief there, but there was also light at the end of the tunnel, as it felt Kanye was finally gaining some context and moving towards something brighter.

That didn't happen, after an infamous incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye descended deeper into the nightmarish rabbit hole and made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which achieved incredible critical acclaim, with many critics declaring it his magnum opus. It took the mad genius of Kanye's production and married it to eclectic samples, a host of guest stars, and lyrics that didn't just expose Kanye's insanity, but brandished it proudly before the masses. 

Now I've had a, well, let's call it complicated relationship with this album. When I originally reviewed it on Facebook, I pissed off a lot of people by saying it's really not all that great, and certainly not the perfection that so many critics had claimed it was. And while I tend to revisit the album about once a year - sometimes you need unfiltered insanity and darkness - I'm increasingly convinced that while the album contains some of the greatest highs of Kanye's career (seriously, 'All of the Lights', 'Hell of a Life', 'Power', even 'Dark Fantasy' and 'Blame Game' are mindblowing), but ultimately doesn't work as a whole. Yes, the instrumentation and production are top-notch, but I've always had issues with Kanye's flow and there are enough awkward lines to knock too many of the songs off their pedestals. And this isn't even factoring in the extremely hit-and-miss guest star inclusions, none of which I feel really add much to the album.

And that isn't even touching album themes and the twisted pathology lurking inside this album. I will definitely admit that as a slice of the insanity inside Kanye's head, it's something entirely unique, but whenever it tries to build towards a theme or a coherent driving mechanism, it feels unfocused, indulgent, and oddly sloppy at points. Kanye tries to come across as an alpha-male douchebag or seductive predator on this album (and I can't help but admit there are moments here that the asshole I was throughout 2010 and early 2011 fucking adores), but it's undercut at every turn because there's no perspective and Kanye is too honest as a performer to embrace something remotely untrue. Instead of a coherent and focused work, we get Kanye attempting to explore his darkest neuroses and eventually finding them hollow and token. It reminds me strongly on a thematic level of Nick Cave's darker material, but while Kanye only found sadness and emptiness at the base levels of his psyche, Nick Cave actually found something darker, creepier, and genuinely gripping when he looked, a real horror - and his masterful skill was making all of us realize that we had that darkness too. But with Kanye, we don't get that connection in the same way, and I left feeling oddly distant from the album at the end of it. And considering how damn hard Kanye was trying to put it all out there and create that connection to curb his loneliness (seriously, go back through his material in recent years, it's a definite undercurrent that Kanye feels he has no true peers - although I'm conflicted whether or not his choice to expose his inner demons was the best way to win people over, which might have been part of the point, loneliness being his punishment), I can't help but feel it doesn't quite work for me.

So after two albums of material (a collaboration with Jay-Z in Watch The Throne, which was solid enough but didn't really stick, and Cruel Summer, a label launchpad collaboration that just did nothing for me whatsoever), Kanye was finally back with a new album titled Yeezus. Frankly, when I heard the title, I was just expecting a continuation of the shallower themes in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just blown up to eleven. And given his material throughout 2012 and especially on Cruel Summer, I wasn't expecting much other than Kanye to wallow in his own ego. Hence, the 'intervention-review'.

I didn't get what I was expecting.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

movie review: 'man of steel'

I like Superman more than Batman.

I'll give you a moment to go find your socks that just blew off, but let me also explain why, because it's key to certain elements of this review and why I don't think the rebooted Superman works all that well (spoilers, I'm not the biggest fan of Man of Steel, if you want the review in a sentence). This mostly has to do with certain misconceptions regarding the character and the mythos surrounding Superman, and I'm going to try and clear some of those up (yes, it's going to be one of those reviews).

To wit, when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they were very much aware of the mythological parallels to the character such as Hercules and Moses, and they created him as a character who fought for social justice, an immigrant from another planet fighting for our world. It's also been theorized that Superman was considered a surrogate father figure, particularly to many of the young boys who read the comics in the 40s and 50s while their real fathers were engaged in the Second World War and the Korean War, not to mention the loss of Siegel's father in a robbery years earlier. Many, many writers who would follow them would take their own stabs and defining Superman, but in the end, a core distillation of Superman's role and values crystallized, as they did with Wonder Woman and Batman. 

Batman was the spirit of justice, Wonder Woman was the spirit of truth, and Superman was the symbol of hope.

I want you all to consider this for a moment. Superman is the symbol of hope, an alien from another planet, yet raised with our values and having a much stronger connection to Earth than he ever would the destroyed Krypton. He is a man who gains the most power not on his homeworld but on Earth, thanks to the yellow light rays of our sun. And yet he chooses not to represent himself as some ubermensch, some titan of power that rules us, but as a figure to which we all can look up. Many, many authors have played with the Christ symbolism in connection to Superman, and while I will argue there's definitely a grain of salt in that comparison, I don't think it quite encapsulates the other elements of his character - namely, his more human side. There's a degree of humility in Superman's choice of a secret identity - an unassuming reporter working for a newspaper, where he could inform the American public and ensure his travels could get him in places of danger that he could stop in his alter ego. His relationship with Lois Lane plays a big part in this story, both as a 'grounding' facet of his character and as a very real emotional link, showing his connection to us and our world.

Now, maybe it's just me, but that's potent material for writing a powerful story - but yet so many people don't see these elements in the character. Many tend to consider him a 'boring', 'stupid' character, overloaded with powers and strengths that make him invincible, and obviously a character without weakness can't have any notable threats. They don't understand why he doesn't just kill Lex Luthor or General Zod or why he doesn't enact the same brand of justice for which Batman is emblematic. Or, in a complete misunderstanding of the character, they point to things like this:

Yeah, it's a load of shit. As I stressed above, Superman is a person who has a much stronger and much more potent connection to his human roots than his Kryptonian ones. He was raised in Smallville, a little farm town in Kansas to be a good, compassionate, altruistic person (which is often where the 'stupid' adjective gets applied in the false equivalency where 'good'='dumb', which pisses me off to no end), and while he is aware his powers make him different from humanity, he does not think they place him above us. And from that, you can sketch out the best Superman stories, where it doesn't matter if he has incredible powers, but the ultimate futility of his task. He can't save everyone from everything, but he's going to try his damnedest anyway. He knows that people look to him as a symbol of hope, as someone whose values they want to emulate, and thus he must balance his very human desires with his chosen duty. He knows that people will look at him with fear and anger and jealousy and distrust, but he rises above that because he believes we all can be better.

It's no surprise kids fall in love with Superman. He's the adult who can fly and fight bad guys and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and he's going to do it no matter what and with a smile on his face once the bad guys are gone - in short, he's the idealized father figure for many of these kids. And yet the funny thing is that once those kids get past the teenager stage (where they all tend to embrace Batman over Superman because Superman 'isn't cool') and become adults, they tend to like Superman again, but for different reasons. They see him as the character who has to balance his love life and his job, who has to face impossible odds and somehow prevail, and who through all of it remains a good person. They don't care about his power set or his less-than-stellar gallery of villains - most can see past that and see someone deep down they want to emulate, an ideal to aspire towards.

That's potent stuff, there's real dramatic material there that has resonated time and time again, with the same archetypes stretching back through history. There's a reason Superman has persisted in the modern collective unconscious for as long as it has, perhaps putting the lie to Lois' first article in Superman Returns, 'Why The World Doesn't Need Superman'. And thus my interest was definitely piqued when I heard Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were teaming up with a stellar cast to retell the Superman origin story yet again. And believe it or not, I immediately thought that while the choice of a director was solid (Zack Synder, despite all of the problems with him, has a gift for comic-book-esque shot composition and 'epic' scale if the script can support it), the problems might come from Nolan and his writing team. They understood Batman (mostly), but Superman's a tougher character to nail down and requires a bit more maturity and careful forethought. Could they pull it off?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

album review: 'damage' by jimmy eat world

Ugh, I hate this. 

I hate that this is a factor in my enjoyment of songs, because it makes me look like the most nitpicking, audiophile asshole, the kind that bitches against iPods because of mp3 compression and only listens to FLACs, or the kind that remixes and remasters songs in his basement and because of that has an inflated feeling that 'he just knows music better'. Let me make this absolutely fucking clear - I completely get why people like listening to music at high bitrates, and I would be lying if I didn't say that I'd take the sound of good organic vinyl over some YouTube rip any day of the week. And yeah, I will completely stand behind artists like Nick Cave when he says that Henry's Dream didn't come out properly because of the shoddy production, and I will wholeheartedly support his choice to make a phenomenal live album where he basically replayed the album properly.

But with all of that in mind, music should be about music, not production. While there is a fine art to good production and mixing, it's arguably the least important element in comparison to the instrumentation and lyrics. The notes being played and the words being sung are the creative element, the raw spark of art - production and mixing are the editing desk, the polish, the filter from which the art is passed to us. It shouldn't matter if 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones is played mono or stereo or if it was run through a high pass filter or the reverb is a little too high on Jagger's microphone, it's still 'Satisfaction' by the fucking Rolling Stones

But as much as I don't like it, I can't help but admit that production and mixing matter. They might be the least important element in this process, but they're definitely an element in this process that is disastrous to overlook. And not for the first time, I can't help but feel that if an element of the production for this band had been improved, I'd like them a lot more.

So with that, let's talk about Jimmy Eat World, yet another entry in the list of acts that I can definitely acknowledge is good and that I can kind of like, but I can never quite love, no matter how hard I try. But unlike a case like Radiohead, I can pinpoint exactly where Jimmy Eat World doesn't work for me: the vocal production and placement in the mix has never consistently worked.

Let me expand. The band burst into the underground in 1994 with their self-titled debut, which was decent enough to score them a small cult following that was quickly squashed by their 1996 follow-up Static Prevails. Now, there are a slew of other problems with Static Prevails beyond the vocal production mix, mostly in that the songwriting was pretty lousy and the instrumentation wasn't as polished, but most of these problems were cleaned up by the 1999 album Clarity. And yes, I'll be the first to acknowledge that the best elements of Jimmy Eat World's sound - the extremely solid guitar work, the bigness in their sound, their heartfelt (if occasionally self-obsessed) lyrics - were all here. But as much as I tried, I could never get over the fact that lead singer Jim Adkins' vocals were buried midway in the track behind the guitars, and were more often than not barely audible. 

That was the other factor that always annoyed me about Jimmy Eat World, namely that the vocal performance was never very strong, as Adkins' vocals always struck me as rather thin. Fortunately the band compensated for that on their next release Bleed American, pulling the vocals more to the front of the track and adding reverb and backing vocals to support Adkins, and sure enough Bleed American was their strongest album yet. They'd follow it with Futures and Chase This Light, both albums I really like but don't quite love, mostly due to the swarm of little irritations that always seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind, mostly surrounding Adkins' vocals and the occasional sloppy or immature bit of songwriting (the worst thing I'll ever say about the instrumentation is that on a few occasions it got a little cluttered or repetitive). And yet always the persistent problem I had on all three of those albums is that every so often - often enough to be noticeable and frustrating - the vocals were just drowned out entirely behind the roar of the guitars, and while I'll admit that this will always be a pet peeve of mine, it rankles here all the more because of how much Jimmy Eat World consistently got right.

And then they released Invented in 2010, and... well, I'll be more polite to it than some of the more rabid fans and say it was uneven. Sure, the trademark elements of Jimmy Eat World were here, and the vocals were high enough in the mix that they could usually be pulled out, but the attempts to add electronic elements and a female backing vocalist did nothing to help matters, and the songwriting hadn't improved (both in technical proficiency or subject matter) since Chase This Light in 2007. But it was on Invented they let lead guitarist Tom Linton sing lead vocals, and it was here that my problem with Jimmy Eat World finally crystallizes - the vocal production on Jim Adkins' voice never fits with the production of the rest of the track. Sure, his thin tenor matches the subject matter of the songs fairly well (Jimmy Eat World has always been one of the wussiest bands in alt rock and power pop, and that's saying something), but in comparison to the crashing, epic sounding guitars and pounding bass and drums, he always sounds drowned out, which ultimately comes down to an issue of vocal production. In comparison, Tom Linton's rasp might have less range but the vocal production done for his part of the mix flows much better.

But now it's 2013, and Jimmy Eat World have been active for over nineteen years - surely on their most recent album Damage they will have figured out the vocal production balance, right?

Monday, June 10, 2013

album review: 'the wack album' by the lonely island

As I've mentioned in a previous review, I don't tend to like reviewing comedy albums, and this is mostly rooted in two factors. For starters, everyone has different tastes in comedy, and I've long ago accepted I have differing tastes in comparison to the general population. Thus, if I'm going to be judging a comedy album (and since, I'll stress, my reviews are my undiluted opinions and thus are framed through my contextual vision), I feel that my review might be misleading, even if I explain my point of view in advance.

But even if I did lay all my cards on the table ahead of time, I'm still not sure I'd be a good comedy album reviewer, mostly because my knowledge of comedy is - at least in my point of view - somewhat limited. I don't tend to consider myself funny, I understand the fundamentals of setting up a joke but really have difficulty grasping some of the subtleties, and I haven't seen a lot of the comedy gold standards. Sure, I'm trying to catch up, but in comparison with my knowledge of music (I can play an instrument and sing, I can read sheet music, I've done a bit of production work, I have an in-depth knowledge of the charts, and I listen to a grotesque amount of material), I don't think I'm at a level where I can speak to comedy with the same expertise.

So why am I reviewing the new Lonely Island album, an act formed by three SNL actors that is fairly explicitly a comedy act? Well, here's the funny thing: I have a hard time dismissing them as a purely comedic exercise. Or to put it another way, like with Weird Al, I actually will give them credit as musical artists. That's something I don't often say about comedy acts, or even comedians attempting to be musicians (in case you all forgot, Eddie Murphy had a semi-successful singing career).

Now some of you are probably asking why I give The Lonely Island a pass here, particularly when you break the act down to its disparate elements, they really only have one main joke: taking the shallow conceits and style of modern hip-hop and rap and talking about sillier material, with the joke being that it's inherently funny to see a trio of white goofballs behaving like hardcore gangstas. Now there's more in the details, but The Lonely Island have structured a great deal of their career off of this joke, and for the most part, it has held up. And I do not mean to dismiss the talent or the ingenuity of The Lonely Island at all here - while they occasionally go for the gross-out humour more than I prefer, they still have great comic timing and a wide variety of subjects they tackle well. It also helps that unlike former SNL acts of the past - namely the Blues Brothers featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd - The Lonely Island aren't trying to be taken as 'serious' musicians or demanding respect from the musical community.

But here's the thing - in a bizarre twist that could only be explained by the changing trends in hip-hop and rap, The Lonely Island got respect from the musical community, and the incredible plethora of high-profile guest stars they continue to recruit for their work speaks to it. And while part of it likely comes from the fact that some pop stars wanted to jump on the bandwagon after Justin Timberlake and take the piss out of their own material, the major point is that in the shallow and increasingly ridiculous pop and rap landscape of the late 2000s, The Lonely Island fit in astoundingly well. Songs like 'Jizz In My Pants', 'I'm On A Boat', 'Jack Sparrow', 'Dick In A Box', 'I Just Had Sex', and many more did surprisingly well on the pop charts because their lyrical content wasn't that far removed from the pop scene as it was. And coupled with the fact that Andy Samberg and the rest of his crew knew how to write decent hooks, it's not entirely surprising why The Lonely Island did as well as they did. Hell, I'd argue on the musical front they managed to beat a fair number of the 'legit' artists that were putting out material during the club boom, with the most immediate comparison point being LMFAO (with their one joke from 'Sexy And I Know It' being 'Heheheh, butts'). 

But now it's 2013, and the hip-hop/rap world has changed a bit. The wave of darker, more serious-sounding PBR&B isn't as easy to parody. Well, that's not quite true, but I'd argue that serious, more conscientious rap is a little tougher to make silly jokes about than the avalanche of ridiculous club music. And there's also the legitimate concern that The Lonely Island, by attempting to sound like the darker, bleaker rap might lose some of their lightweight and fun personality. So, can they pull it off?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

album review: 'grinning streak' by the barenaked ladies

What, you actually thought I wasn't going to open with this clip? Tsk, tsk, it's almost like none of you know me at all.
And yet, the clip raises an interesting point, and for an American audience, one could easily think that Jeff has a point here. After all, are The Barenaked Ladies that relevant or essential in today's day and age? Why do so many people leap to defend the band, when they've never quite earned the critical praise or success to merit such a reaction? To put it simply, why do people care about The Barenaked Ladies?

Well, I'm sure everyone has their reasons - I know I like them because they're excellent lyricists, have a gift for catchy hooks, and a real poignancy that runs through their best tracks - but I think it comes down to one simple fact: The Barenaked Ladies are a musical personification of the awkward yet adorable teenage nerd. Putting aside all of the songs that seem to be clearly written from that perspective, The Barenaked Ladies might be one of the nerdiest bands to ever perform. Sure, Devo and Depeche Mode fall into the same category, but The Barenaked Ladies seemed to be of a different type in that they clearly embraced their distinct lack of coolness and used it to make unironic, incredibly sincere music. And yes, there was plenty of hidden depths and darkness in some of their material, but for the most part, their discography is much lighter and happier than most would expect, particularly for an alt-rock band from the 90s. And in an era soaked in ironic detachment and a morose 'whatever' attitude, The Barenaked Ladies' wholehearted embrace of sincerity stood out. And thus, it makes sense why people cherish their memories of The Barenaked Ladies: they were the solitary rays of sunshine in the grunge-ridden alt-rock scene of the 90s.

That said, I also get why Jeff has a certain distaste for the band, and as a fan of The Barenaked Ladies, I would be hardpressed to consider all of their output solid. Part of me knows that their major label debut Gordon wouldn't have been nearly as popular without the bootlegging phenomenon of the time period, and while that album is indeed one of the best albums of the 90s, it's not surprising that many people thought the band would flame out, particularly considering their subpar followups with Maybe You Should Drive and Born On A Pirate Ship. Fortunately, the band had recovered by the end of the 90s and put out Stunt and Maroon, two ridiculously great albums that seemed to fit perfectly in the sunny, optimistic music scene of the time, even despite the occasional biting satire and hidden darkness lurking in each album.

And then 9/11 happened, and happy, optimistic music evaporated from the charts, taking The Barenaked Ladies' success along with it. It's really the only explanation I can think of why The Barenaked Ladies stopped having hits, because it wasn't as if they got less witty or their material got worse. In fact, many critics argued that their next few albums got even better, with sharp wit and an uncanny knack for memorable hooks anchoring their material. But this was the era of post-grunge and emo-driven pop rock, and while some alternative rock acts managed to notch hits, The Barenaked Ladies wouldn't have really fit well with modern radio. I hesitate to use the term 'too good' for airplay, because I don't think it's apt - no, if anything, I think The Barenaked Ladies stopped having hits because their music defiantly lacked a surface 'edge' to it. They never were a 'sexy' act, they were distinctly uncool, and while their songwriting had plenty of cutting words and barbed themes, I can definitely see where mainstream radio wouldn't have accepted them.

It didn't help matters that in 2009, Steven Page left the band amidst rumours of cocaine addiction. This was a big problem for The Barenaked Ladies, half because Steven Page was one of the faces of the band, and half because he was also one of the better songwriters of the act. His music tended to be more sour and complex, utilizing his acrid wit to disguise some real darkness in his material, and a lot of people thought that The Barenaked Ladies couldn't really survive without him. Yet in 2010, they put out the reasonably sold album All In Good Time, which worked as well as it did by focusing tightly on the departure of Steven Page and making that loss the emotional core of the album. And for the most part, it worked, mostly on the strength of Ed Robertson's incredibly emotive delivery and the lyrics that seemed to leap straight from the heart. 

But outside of the mild chart success of 'You Run Away', The Barenaked Ladies got nowhere with All In Good Time, mostly because alternative rock was getting nowhere on the charts. Keep in mind this was 2010 - the club boom was in full swing, and modern rock radio was on life support, subsisting on the Foo Fighters and whatever was left in the post-grunge wasteland. Even if The Barenaked Ladies had released another Gordon or Stunt, they wouldn't have broken through the club hits that year.
But now it's 2013, and the charts are much more receptive to rock music. 90s and 70s nostalgia is in, and if there was a band that could define the 90s 'mood' in popular culture, I'd probably cite The Barenaked Ladies. And on cue, they have a new album, albeit with the disquieting title Grinning Streak (those two words just sound awkward together, at least to me). So will it be the hit to catapult them back into stardom, or the final blow to sink their careers for good?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

album review: 'charlemagne: the omens of death' by christopher lee

Let's talk about vanity projects.

You all know the ones. These are the dreams of the rich auteur that nobody could expect or predict, the passion projects to produce something for which mainstream society did not ask. The artistic endeavours of solitary vision, often entirely bankrolled and controlled by the auteur himself. These aren't pieces to fill out a balance sheet or made for contractual obligations, these are works made often for their own sake, or to convey some artistic vision for which the auteur must have absolute control. These are projects like Tommy Wiseau's The Room, the new Will Smith movie After Earth, and Kanye West's Runaway short film.

But let me make something absolutely clear: just because something is a vanity project doesn't mean it has to suck. Indeed, you could argue that in some cases giving the auteur absolute control can produce art of mad genius that would have been inevitably axed on the cutting room floor. But there's a reason that most vanity projects tend to have a negative stigma, and that's because such works become rife with the absolute best and worst traits of the artist, and without a steadying hand, these projects can run wildly over budget or completely out of control. They're a nightmare for studios, because they're often rightly terrified that such projects will ultimately fail and potentially destroy their creators, not to mention prove ruinous to the financial backers.

So when Sir Christopher Lee decided to create his own record label and make a heavy metal album, it's hard not to see it as a vanity project, particularly considering the subject matter. I mean, it's a symphonic metal concept album based around the life of Charlemagne, Frankish king and first Holy Roman Emperor, filled with meticulous historical accuracy - outside of the sheer novelty of it, where is the audience for this?

Well, perhaps novelty would be enough, if not the sheer audacious awesomeness of the project. Keep in mind that in 2010, Christopher Lee was nearly ninety, with a massive career in film spanning over two hundred movies and several iconic roles (oh, and plus he was in the British S.A.S. and worked as a real Nazi hunter, in addition to playing Dracula and Saruman). And while he had done voice work before and even collaborated with other metal acts like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire, it was a little hard to believe that now he wanted to make his own full-length metal album.

But Christopher Lee was undaunted by age or typical conventions of what most people in their 90s do, so he made the album anyway, releasing Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross in 2010 and winning the 'Spirit of Metal' award in the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God ceremony. What I have found interesting, though, is that while many people have acknowledged that it is indeed awesome Christopher Lee was releasing metal albums at his age, very few people have actually listened to the album, or bothered to leave any sort of critical review on it. And really, who am I to criticize one of the greatest badasses - both on screen and in reality - who ever lived, a man with the passion and ambition to make heavy metal albums at his age and deliver a characteristically imposing performance?

And indeed, all of that is true. But having actually listened to Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross, I can't help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad by any stretch of the mind - Christopher Lee has done far worse throughout his career, believe me - but there are problems with this album that are really difficult to ignore. For starters, while the level of historical detail is impressive, too often the lyrics read like a history textbook, and certain segments become hard to follow. Another problem is that it really isn't as heavy or booming or impactful as you would expect a Christopher Lee metal album to be, and while the man has a great voice, there are too many times you feel that more energy on his part would have greatly strengthened the drama he was trying to create. And while some of the performers on the album do all right, I can't really think of any standout moments in the instrumentation or the lyrics or the performances. 

Once again, it's not a bad album - it's clear that it's a labour of love and it's incredibly articulate - but the lack of poetry in the lyrics and instrumentation doesn't lend itself to a good dramatic presentation of Charlemagne's life. And considering that Christopher Lee definitely chose the right genre and tone to encapsulate this bloody time in history, it's a little disappointing that he doesn't quite get the emotional stakes consistently. After all, there have been plenty of metal albums about war and bloody conflict and European history, but the best of the material tends to ground the stories in potent emotion and humanity, and there really isn't enough of that here. In comparison to, say, Les Miserables, which could have done well to appropriate some of the greater historical weight of Victor Hugo's novel, Charlemagne: By The Sword and The Cross could have done well to try for greater emotional stakes. As it is, the album sometimes feels a little inert, stylistically sound but lacking true soul.

Fortunately,  Christopher Lee wasn't quite finished with his Charlemagne story, and this year, he has released a new album of material (along with rumours that there was going to   be an adapted musical of By The Sword and The Cross, which might not really be a bad way to go). One thing that definitely intrigued me was Christopher Lee's statement that this album would be less symphonic metal and more death metal, heavier and darker. So what do I think of Charlemagne: The Omens of Death?