Sunday, February 27, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Achille Lauro, "Indiscretions"

25 points, t-437, voted on by Adam Goldstein

The best thing about Achille Lauro is the bio on their Myspace page. It starts out like this: "Easily the sexiest thing to come out Denver since Don Cheadle, Achille Lauro has spent the past 5 years building a dedicated and bloodthirsty fan base across the front range." It only gets wackier from there (the thought of MIA fronting a garage band Radiohead trying to recreate the soundtrack to Amelie will give me nightmares for the rest of the week).

You can safely tell the book by its cover here -- in this case, the cover of the EP features a group of goofy looking hairy guys in their underwear. What could we possibly have here? Yep, it's part west coast hippie jam band, part indie-derived slacker-ism. There are a lot of interesting little individual things going on here, like the fun and quirky brass-punctuated coda to "No Brakes" or the vaguely funky synth line that opens up the completely un-funky "Unrivaled in Class". And yet oddly enough, "Indiscretions" is pleasant to listen to but completely unmemorable.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 14

I couldn't care less if PC parents hate this episode or not (I couldn't help but notice that the producers hedged their bets, sort of, by having Brittany and Santana ruin the assembly performance, i.e. it's already been established that they're two no-good damaged goods sluts, which allowed them to avoid the kind of moral quandary they'd have if someone like Mercedes developed a drinking problem) because what's not to love about "Glee" kids getting wasted, acting stupid, and dancing to Far East Movement? And how could anyone possibly hate ...

"Don't You Want Me". A. I take back everything I said about Lea Michele always striking out during big dumb pop songs, and everything I said about Darren Criss possibly being a one-trick pony. "Glee"'s most unlikely couple bouncing around to an hi-NRG version of Human League's most famous song while the rest of the cast makes out or mouths the words or scowls with jealousy all around them? Hell yes. In this case, their stage-ready seriousness brought a touch of polish and professionalism to a song that wouldn't ordinarily need it, and it looked loose and totally natural because they were supposed to be drunk. Totally fantastic in nearly every way.

"Blame It". B. It's been a while since they've done a solid ensemble piece -- everyone got to do their bit in this one, and although it wasn't spectacular, it was perfect as mid-show filler. That might sound like a negative thing, but it isn't. Most "Glee" episodes could use stronger mid-show filler.

"One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer". D. Speaking of which, we have this terrible bit of mid-show filler. Not only is the Schuester-Bieste pseudo-romance creeping me out, but the performance was lifeless (there was more energy from the square dancers in the audience than from the singers on stage), the singing sounded forced (this is NOT Matthew Morrison's genre), and even the unlikely couple of Toni Braxton and Taylor Hicks had more chemistry.

"Tik Tok". B+. Ke$ha's fame is completely baffling -- she can't sing or dance, isn't particularly good looking, and her clothes and look are ripe for parody. What could be better than one Ke$ha? How about the whole cast of "Glee" dressing up like a Ke$ha girl band and the male extras from her videos, owning her biggest hit, and engaging in unintentional projectile vomiting? Even Principal Figgins loved it, and who am I to argue with him?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Mogwai, "Special Moves"

25 points, t-437, voted on by Daniel King

Out of the ten albums on the "One and Done" list, this is the only one that I heard in 2010 (which is probably not at all surprising).

It's not surprising that they'd eventually do a live album (unless "Government Commissions" counts -- the band calls "Special Moves" their first ever live album so I'll side with their interpretation of the term "live album") since basically everyone agrees that Mogwai kill it live and always have. Even the people who stopped caring about their studio albums years ago still acknowledge that Mogwai are great live. So "Special Moves" should be a slam dunk success that everyone can agree to like, right?

Maybe I'm burned out from hearing so many bootlegs of live Mogwai shows over the years. That's partly true, no doubt, but I never get tired of hearing new versions of "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" or "Friend of the Night", so there's more to it than that. Maybe it's because I've heard so many live Mogwai shows that I simply can't be impressed by hearing yet another live document to add to the dozens I've already heard. That's also partly true, but it was only a few months that I heard (for the first time) what might be my favourite ever live version of "Mogwai Fear Satan" (from their Glastonbury 1999 set), even after I figured that I'd heard every live incarnation/evolution of MFS over the years and couldn't be surprised by it anymore. Same goes for a live version of "Like Herod" recorded in Austin, TX in 06/2001, which was definitely surprising because I've never cared much for that interminable song either live or on record. Maybe the vinyl version of the album (which I haven't heard), which has six extra tracks, is the definitive, sprawling way to hear this live project in all its epic glory.

No, I'm going to dismiss most of the above excuses and go with the obvious -- none of these live versions are all that good. They've done much better. These can't possibly be the hand picked best performances from the last tour. Maybe they intentionally compromised on quality because of running times, or because certain noisy bits don't come across well during mastering, or because they absolutely had to have equal representation from all their records. It's nice to hear a clean, polished, professional-sounding live album from Mogwai, but it's hardly essential listening even for devoted fans.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 13

Not much going on here, plot-wise, unless you were one of the two or three Glee fans who was invested in the Quinn-Sam relationship or were gullible enough to fall for "Sue teases becoming a nice person and making peace with Will only to turn on him and go back to being evil, Part 429". But musically, this was all over the map and in a good way. The Waitresses and Justin Bieber in the same episode? And this was one of the rare episodes lately where it didn't feel like they were trying to promote then-current chart pop or advertise for the Grammys.

"Baby". C-. Yes, this IS a good song. However, the key problem here can be chalked up to something we can call "The Minipops Principle". "Glee" works in no small part due to the Minipops Principle -- that is, people get a kick out of seeing kids perform songs by adults. But kids performing songs by kids? I'll pass.

The Britney Spears episode might seem like an exception, but it really wasn't. Even though Britney was a teenager when she recorded most of the songs in that episode, she's now in her late 20's and has been around so long that she seems more like an adult -- particularly in the eyes of the "Glee" characters, who were little kids when Britney began her career. If there's an exception, perhaps it's ...

"Somebody to Love". B+. Did they just go there? What, a SECOND Bieber song? This was the best kind of overkill. If you're going to do Bieber, then DO IT -- the hairstyles, the hooded sweatshirts; the lighting, camera angles, and slo-mo chalk dust sequences from the video; as the name suggested, this WAS the Justin Bieber Experience. Watching this for the first time, I was shocked that there was really a pay off to this Bieber-related mini-plotline.

"Take Me or Leave Me". B. I'm always saying that they should turn Lea Michele loose on more showtunes (although sassy songs like this aren't really her forte, we all know she's Barbra at heart) and the normally intolerable Amber Riley turned in a great performance too. The source material drags this way down however.

"I Know What Boys Like". B+. We went from all-Bieber, all the time to "Glee: the Cratedigging Edition" in the span of twenty minutes. Could they have chosen a more perfect song for Lauren's first solo performance? All she had to do was cruise along in a bored monotone while amping up her usual big mama raunchy shtick to 11. Tina and Brittany falling under the Zizes spell and assuming the roles of her personal hoochie bitches for two minutes was the icing on the cake.

"Sing". C+. Much like "Take Me or Leave Me", this was a good performance dragged down by a lousy song. Or rather, this is an abomination of a song (and video) in the hands of My Chemical Romance, but New Directions nearly did enough to convince me that that the song was the anthem they were making it out to be.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Random music notes from Istanbul

1. Turks love music. They love watching buskers on the street. They love singing as they walk down the street. They love listening to live music while they eat and drink. Many restaurants have musicians that will serenade the diners with traditional Turkish music. This tradition of having live musicians is not at all confined to fancy, upscale places like it is in most of the West.

2. Arcade Fire won a Grammy and massive fallout/bitching and complaining ensued. First, Enimem hardly got screwed over here, he'd won 10 Grammys before this year (after this week his total is 13) and that's a hell of a lot. Second, is there anybody over 40 who had never heard of Arcade Fire who watched their performance of "Month of May", tapped their toes, and thought "damn, I need to run out and get this album"? The band could have tried to make a huge TV audience happy, instead they tried to make their fans happy (caveat: I have no idea who actually chooses and/or approves the song selections for the Grammys ... if the band was so keen on doing "Month of May", would they have changed their minds if they thought they had a chance of winning? Or does that even matter?). To all the haters: you only WISH that your favourite bands would thumb their noses at the establishment like this.

3. I bought a couple of CD's of Turkish Jewish music at the gift shop of the Turkish Jewish Museum -- one disc of liturgical music and one of folk music in the classical Turkish style, with lyrics in Ladino. The liturgical music (performed by the Yako Taragano Synagogue Hymns Choir) is a nice listen but I don't find it particularly moving, which tends to be the case with me and just about all Sephardic liturgical melodies. I guess it depends on whether you prefer Middle Eastern or European music in general. "Yigdal" is featured on the CD, which isn't too surprising since it's the "Yesterday" of Jewish liturgical music.

However the secular CD, recorded by Los Pasaros Sefaradis, is a joy to listen to. All the band members have been involved in theatre and music performance for over 30 years, and when they say they're leading the charge to preserve classical Judeo-Turkish musical traditions, I believe it.

4. The new Radiohead album "The King of Limbs" happened to be released on a day when I was trying to unwind from a busy week. I was catching some R&R and the entire album got posted to Youtube almost instantaneously so I figured what the hell. But first, I watched the video for "Lotus Flower". And what a horribly pretentious video it is. Thom Yorke doing modern dance and twisting his body and flapping his arms for five minutes? What the fuck? And let's not even get started on how sonically, they're ripping off stuff that Warp and Too Pure were releasing in the mid-90's. Didn't Appliance and Moonshake already record this song a thousand different ways 10-15 years ago? And you know what else is pretentious about "Lotus Flower"? The fact that it's called "Lotus Flower". Good god.

Can you believe that I still listened to the album after seeing that video? And you know what -- it's good. It's really good. Even "Lotus Flower" sounds better in context. Even "Give Up the Ghost", which could have been a shlocky electronica-country experiment gone disastrously wrong, is really affecting. Comparisons to krautrock and Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" are spot on, as Radiohead have finally figured out how to jam not in a "Live at Red Rocks" sort of way. This is also what happens when they try to capture the spirit of Brian Eno (both the rock and ambient sides) without literally copying him like they did on "Kid A".

5. I was looking forward to a real Turkish live music experience when I went to see Pantha du Prince perform live last night at the Babylon club. Unfortunately, the club felt more packed with foreigners than with actual Turkish techno fans. Not only that, this particular group of foreigners seemed to be incapable of doing the basic things expected of fans at gigs, like standing still for more than ten seconds and watching the gig without having to push to the front or head to the bar, or even staying in the venue until the show was over. Opening act Onor Bumbum didn't do anybody any favours with their drab impression of the Junior Boys either. And the club management didn't do itself any favours by not wiring up the building properly (there were two power failures, one for the opener and one for the headliner ... and the sound was no great shakes either, as the speakers couldn't handle the low-end bass at appreciable volumes).

Pantha du Prince really was wonderful though. Focusing on material from his most recent album "Black Noise", he made the best of an imperfect environment.

One more:

6. "I Walk the Line" was on TV in my hotel, and every time somebody took a drag from a cigarette in the movie, the cigarette was blurred out. The smoke itself wasn't censored, just the physical act of inhaling from the cigarette. Are there regulations about "showing" smoking on Turkish TV or something? Because if so, it's a totally ridiculous rule. It's like the blurring of genitalia in Japanese porn ... why? Is there any possible confusion about what could be happening in the scene? It's obviously OK to show tits and moaning and people drinking and exhaling smoke and chugging pills and all the other indecencies in the picture, so why not show everything?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, "Up From Below"

25 pts, t-437 (voted on by Matt Thomas)

This album was actually released in 2009 and in fact received five mentions on the 2009 P&J, finishing in a tie for 252nd place with 53 points. That certainly helps to explain why nobody else voted for it in 2010, and if I'd known about this earlier then I probably would have disqualified this album from my list of ten "one and done"'s. But it's too late, I already heard the album ...

... and I'm glad I did, because it's really good. I'm also glad I heard it before reading the allmusic review, because phrases like "magic bus", "Eastern mysticism", and "quasi-mystic juju" would have caused me to cackle in horror at what I was getting myself into. But the review is accurate and fairly captures everything there is to like and not like about this album, right down to "40 Day Dream" being the litmus test for the entire album.

I'm sucker for big ensembles, although I tend towards the bands with ten people playing instruments rather than ten people shouting along. But "Up From Below"'s brand of frenetic chaos won me over immediately -- it's equal parts The Go! Team (teenagers hopped up on sugar) and the Mekons (beer-soaked pub rock shoutalongs).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 12

This was a great episode, plot-wise, especially considering that most Valentines Day themed TV episodes are insufferable. There was almost nothing involving Mr. Schue and the Bieste (yay), nothing at all from Sue (boo), plenty of things happened and yet I still have no idea what's happening with Finn and Quinn or with Blaine and Kurt or with Lauren and Puck. Nothing about anything is clear and love is confounding for one and all -- just like real life! Bonus points to this episode for making Quinn and Finn interesting characters again.

And the songs?

"Fat Bottomed Girls". B+. Puck is on a roll, making baby steps away from his soft rock comfort zone first with "Need You Now" from the Superbowl episode, and now finally leaping into something entirely new (for him). The harmonies on this sounded great, but the facial expressions of the entire ensemble are what really made this segment great.

"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)". C+. One guy tried to sing like Michael Jackson, the other tried to dance like him. One was a lot more successful at his half of the impression, and it's not the one I would have expected going in. There was nothing particularly bad about this, but Kevin McHale's voice didn't come close to being up to the task (which was also the case with last episode's "Thriller"). In the meantime, Mike Chang is becoming kind of a genius. This guy can dance to anything!

"When I Get You Alone". C-. The scene that set this up was totally classic ("the Warblers haven't performed in an informal setting since 1927!") and convinced me that a Warblers-centred spin-off series has to happen. Watching uniformed Warblers geeks popping up from behind clothes racks in the Gap was hilarious, ditto for how the number concluded with a dance-off in front of the cash desks with all the customers dancing around the perimeter (there have been a LOT of nods to Michael Jackson on "Glee" lately).

There were two huge problems with this however. One, I'm starting to feel that Darren Criss is a one-trick pony, because if you hit mute and just watch his mannerisms, all of his performances (with the exception of "Baby It's Cold Outside") look exactly the same. And even musically, the fact that every Warblers rendition uses the same circa-1999 Backstreet Boys beats isn't doing them any favours (I mean sure, that's the whole POINT of the Warblers, they're a boy band reborn as glee clubbers, but watching and listening to the same thing over and over again is getting old fast). And second, Robin Thicke sucks and his song does too.

"Firework". B. Lea Michele tries yet again to turn a mega-pop hit into a show tune. I just don't get why she doesn't go more OTT with these kinds of songs, because her rendition sounded exactly like Katy Perry's except for a more satisfying delivery in the chorus. I like the song, and Michele almost always earns decent grades just on the basis of being a great singer, but just bring on the "West Side Story"-themed episode already.

"Silly Love Songs". C. The definition of average, but a good choice for the end of the show -- simple, sappy, and short.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 11, "The Sue Sylvester Super Thriller Shuffle"

When you get the mother of all lead-ins airing before your show, you'd better make it count and pull out all the stops. In this case it means having spectacle for the sake of spectacle (cheerleaders with fireworks shooting out of their breasts, an elaborately staged Michael Jackson song), introducing a novice audience to all the show's main characters even if they have nothing to do and don't figure into the plot at all, and a storyline that revolves around football. Regular fans know that it's a break from their regularly scheduled "Glee" and don't mind if the show feels different, but how much of that massive TV audience (the viewership was nearly double the previous record for the show) will be fooled into thinking that "Glee" is really about football and cheerleading and will tune in next week?

"Need You Now". B+. Nothing like a little Lady Antebellum to show a team of neanderthal football jocks that glee club is cool. On one hand, Puck remains stuck in his usual semi-acoustic balladeer rut (solid but never spectacular) but on the other hand, the chemistry between him and Rachel was unexpectedly great and made the performance seem special.

"She's Not There". C-. Oh, I get it, they're zombies. And they're singing a Zombies tune. Mr. Schue, I disagree: there's nothing awesome about watching people stagger drunkenly around a stage.

"Bills, Bills, Bills". C. I've been fairly forgiving of the Warbler's past performances, but this one was ... the phrase that comes to mind is "full of themselves". I liked how they reveled in their overbearing whiteness and managed to come up with genuinely original takes on the songs they did. This performance was just too much though. The producers of Glee know they've got a mini-phenomenon on their hands with Darren Criss and his band of preppy gleeks and they've chosen to exploit that by having them exaggerate *everything* from freaky dance moves to OTT attempts at "getting down", to Criss' herky-jerky hand motions and pained "soulful" facial expressions.

"Thriller"/"Heads Will Roll". C+. "Glee" never manages to pull off a half-decent mashup, and this one was no exception -- these songs don't mesh together in the least. I also couldn't make any sense of the group choreography. Too much wandering around trying to twist themselves into weird shapes, not enough synchronicity (ironic, considering that the moral of the episode was about people from different social sub-groups learning to work together and appreciate what the others are doing). The makeup and costumes were pretty rad though. This episode was also about becoming bored as the result of constantly searching for (and expecting) unrealistically large spectacles to entertain oneself. This was supposed to feel like an "event", but for me it was just there, and not nearly as impressive as plenty of other "spectacle" performances in the show's history.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Pazz and Jop 2010 -- one and done

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was the only person -- out of over 700 participants -- to vote for Third Eye Foundation's "The Dark" in this year's Pazz and Jop poll. It was also my #1 album of the year, the first time I cast the lone vote for my #1 album in the six years I've been voting in the poll. "The Dark" ended up in 479th place with 23 points, but there were fourteen albums that finished higher on the list despite getting only one vote. Out of those albums, three were listed at #2 on the writer's ballot, and one was ranked #1 on a ballot that had just two entries -- AFAIC, voting for just two albums and giving them both 30 points doesn't constitute a real ballot (sorry, Nana Brew Hammond).

That leaves ten albums by critics who cast the lone vote for their #1 album and finished higher than my lone-vote #1 for Third Eye Foundation. I'm including points ties among these ten, IOW, I didn't mind if someone gave their #1 and #2 albums the same number of points, as long as the album in question was actually listed at their #1.

My goal over the next little while is to hear all ten of these albums. Call it a solidarity exercise.

This series of posts is dedicated to a couple more bits of post-2010 cleanup:

Justin Bieber, "U Smile (800% Slower by Shamantis)". This finished 105th on the singles poll, with seven mentions. After a few minutes of listening to glorious waves of shimmering ambient sparkle, it dawns on you that you're listening to JUSTIN BIEBER. Is there anything particularly new about time-stretching? Is this really an all-time classic piece of ambient music? No on both counts. It's more like "I can't believe I'm chilling out to the Bieb, and BTW the track happens to be pretty damn good." And it never ends -- it's the same wash of squeaky-clean balladry gone angelic ambient headswim for a nearly interminable 36 minutes!!

Wold, "Working Together For Our Privacy". Nobody voted for this in P&J. Nobody voted for their last album, "Stratification", in 2008 either -- except for me. Unfortunately, I flat-out missed this one and didn't even know they had a new album in 2010 until a couple of weeks ago. Which is too bad, because this is loads better than their last album. Whereas "Stratification" was metal distorted to all hell and relied a bit too much on exactly that gimmick, "Working Together For Our Privacy" is three tracks and 35 minutes worth of top-notch industrial noise clatter.


One album into this little project and I'm already way out of my element:

Shinyribs, "Well After Awhile", t-472 on P&J, 25 points (voted on by Philip Martin)

I don't listen to country music. I like country, I just don't listen to it at home, and most of my exposure to the genre consists of the pop-country that turns up on the radio. I have no idea what is considered quality for the album-oriented country fan, and the last time I listened to a new country album was ... hmmm ... Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (which is awesome though)? Or one of the Johnny Cash "American Recordings"?

Kevin Russell aka Shinyribs is apparently known for being an eccentric with a kooky sense of humour. "Country Cool" deals with country culture and the pride associated with being from the country -- a standard topic, I know, kind of the equivalent of rap artists talking about being better than every other rap artist, or rock artists lusting after some girl, or trance artists using variations on the same breakdown all the time. But at least I feel comfortable judging the nuances in those other genres and being able to separate (at least to some extent) the artists following the crowd from those who show real ingenuity. Luckily, the humour on "Poor People's Store" is obvious enough to be appreciated even by an uninformed dope like me.

"Morning's Night" strays furthest from the country/Americana vibe of the rest of the album, and it's shimmering ending could almost be something off of 4AD. This is followed by his sparse acoustic cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", which is a bold contrast in styles and a sweet bit of sequencing that really pays off.

I can't say that I'm a fan of this album, but it's tuneful, breezy, and very easy to listen to. There's a lot of Grateful Dead in here too (early 70's version), and the cover art is fantastic -- very "Where the Wild Things Are"!

(side note: this was the first I'd ever heard of Kevin Russell -- or so I thought. While writing this post and searching for more information about Kevin Russell, I realized that I'd heard his band the Gourds a number of years ago, via their fairly well-known cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice"!)