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Archive for July, 2008

I have been an off and on subscriber to Entertainment Weekly for about fifteen years. Usually I subscribe because it’s cheap and I enjoy it. Then something happens to let my subscription lapse (usually it’s when I move). And then I resubscribe some time later. I’ve been steadily subscribed now for about 5 years.

It’s been a decent magazine. I don’t really care too much about the celeb gossip or even the cover stories, for the most part. They’re just an excellent resource for stuff that is about to be released. They give release dates and lots of reviews. Even if I don’t agree with the reviews, they at least give me an idea of what the book is about or what the disc sounds like. And, even more importantly, they do lots of genres in books, independent films and even indie rock.

So, when they celebrated their 1000th issue recently, imagine my surprise to hear that their new format starting with issue 1001 would feature: MORE WHITE SPACE, and be EASIER TO READ! Now, even the people who write letters to EW (and here, you should listen to the Paul F. Tompkins “Letters to Magazines“) know that more white space means less black space. In other words, fewer of those pesky words. That’s right! For our subscription dollars, we now get not 15-20 reviews, but 3. THREE! As you can imagine, all of the indie sceen is basically disregarded now.

There’s another new feature “The Ausiello Files” with some guy who says he’s an “insider.” And we see inane questions that no one would every have really asked getting answered with “insider” information. Rather than a review of the new Constantines album, we get great stuff like “What’s the scoop with so and so’s pregnancy on NCIS??” Come on, it’s Entertainment Weekly, not US Weekly.

I am thoroughly annoyed by this new look. And one way that you know that no one likes the new look is that they haven’t even run the “I love the new look” raves that they inevitably run whenever they feel smug about themselves.

The only thing I can figure is they must have fired a whole bunch of people to be left with such a paltry, pathetic magazine. Right now the only thing keeping me subscribing is that they haven’t cut the TV section. But come fall, if they stop talking about the shows we watch, EW gets the ax for good.

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SOUNDTRACK: MASTODON-Blood Mountain (2006).

As I was in a metal/Black Sabbath kick, and Mastodon is always mentioned as a fantastic metal band, I figured I’d give them a try. As with The Sword, I saw no resemblance to Black Sabbath, and at first I was afraid it was just another sludgy death metal record.

[DIGRESSION]: I just read a great article in The Believer about the USBM (United States Black Metal) scene, and how it compares to the black metal in Norway and other European countries where the bands take the music seriously enough to burn churches and such. The article was really interesting. I knew some of the bands that he talked about, but the only ones I had heard were the “grandfathers” of the genre, like Venom and Bathory. Any of the new bands that he focused on, if I’d heard of them at all, I certainly hadn’t heard them. Regardless, it was a great read, and really got me hankering for a band like Mastodon, even though they’re not really in the genre at all.

Anyway, after two listens, I really got into the Mastodon album. I don’t know anything about their previous releases (except that they are heavy), but Blood Mountain is all over the map. It is a fascinating mix of thrash metal, hardcore, beautiful melodies, prog rock, and total chaos. In fact, the song “Bladecatcher,” is three and a half minutes of total insanity. I haven’t heard anything lie it since John Zorn’s Naked City. There’s a beautiful melody which progresses into a screaming guitar riff, which morphs into a headbanging thrash part which basically just unravels into a noisy spasm, wherein the high-pitched noises might be voices, or might by keyboards, or might just be the machine melting. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE SWORD-Gods of the Earth (2008).

So I used to be really into heavy metal. I’m not so much anymore, although I do enjoy the occasional bout of heaviness. However, I had been listening to some Black Sabbath recently, and I guess I was in the mood, because when I read some descriptions of The Sword, I was intrigued. Black Sabbath kept coming up as an obvious precurosr. So with that and the reviews saying they use silly middle earth swords and sorcery lyrics and they have screaming guitar solos, I had to get it. It sounded great.

And the first track, a fantastic instrumental, lived up to the hype. It’s fast, it’s furious, the guitars are totally something that I would have HAD to learn how to play back in high school. It was amazing. And then the second song kicked in, and it was great too. Finally I got to hear the singer, and when he started singing, the lead guitar played the vocal line in tandem and it was awesome. And then the lead guitar stopped and the voice was….where? It was mixed way way way in the background, sounding like he was in the next room. What was the point of all the weird fantasy lyrics is you couldn’t hear them?

And so it is with the bulk of the album. The music is first rate: excellent riffs, great harmonized guitar solos, Middle Eastern (by way of Led Zeppelin) atmospheres. The acoustic guitar even pops up in a couple of places too, showing a nice range of diversity. All kinds of things that make metal so wonderful. And yet, it’s so hard to get into the voice. It sounds kind of reedy and thin. If you crank it up really loud, it kind of works. His voice does creak through on occasion. And yet, with bombast like this, you expect the voice to be out there in front, leading the way like Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford. I guess if you grew up listening to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, you have a certain, if not standard, then expectation. Maybe if you grew up listening to some of the great stoner bands of the 90s, the muted voice is just par for the course, which is fine, but the guitar riffs don’t jibe with that. And, frankly, I just don’t hear Black Sabbath at all.

The album ends with two strong instrumentals. The 5 minute, powerful, chugging along, rifftastic “The White Sea” and then an untitled acoustic-jam-type ballad that is totally incongruous with the rest of the disc and yet seems to put a mellow calm over the whole proceedings.

Reviews of their first album suggest that the overall mix isn’t like this one. It has more Black Sabbathy. I can’t decide if it would be worth getting. I may have to just pull out We Sold Our Souls for Rock n Roll instead.

[READ: June 30, 2008] “The Next Thing”

This was a wonderfully subversive story. It is actually quite simple in scope: on the edge of a small community, a new shopping center called “The Next Thing” is being built and causing rumors to fly. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GNARLS BARKLEY-The Odd Couple (2008).

So “Crazy” was Gnarls Barkley’s ubiquitous and fantastic single from 2006. The rest of St. Elsewhere was nowhere near as catchy, although it was all quite good. It was funny to see the backlash for this record because there was no “Crazy” on it. And yet, the rest of the album is not too different from the rest of St. Elsewhere. The same themes are there: lunacy, insecurity. And the production feels kind of claustrophobic like the first one did.

“Crazy” was a great single because Cee-Lo was able to unleash his mammoth voice. There are a couple of songs on The Odd Couple where Cee-Lo gets to unleash: “Surprise,” and “Neighbors.” But they’ve also got some great, subdued songs as well: “Blind Mary,” “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.”

The music from Danger Mouse seems to be busier and more complex on this one, too. There’s all kinds of samples on the record, but they are hard to distinguish from the original music: a true sign of great sampling. There’s a background chorus of some sort on “Surprise” that is just fantastic, and I can’t tell if it’s the sample or not (since I’ve never heard the original).

Perhaps it’s because The Odd Couple is fresher in my mind, by I think I like it better than St. Elsewhere, even without “Crazy.”

[READ: July 1, 2008] “The Perfect Game”

As I said, I don’t usually review articles in magazines. This one, however, had special resonance. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: AGAINST ME!-New Wave (2007).

I’m not sure why I never listened to these guys before. I’m not crazy about the band’s name: it makes sense, but it’s awkward to work with. And I think I lumped them in with the whole emo scene, which I was pretty well done with. Anyhow, I read a review of New Wave recently and decided they might be worth checking out.

New Wave is an astonishingly refreshing and heartfelt album. It’s fairly short, as the songs are fairly short, and they pack a lot of punch. In fact, I’ve been singing this great, catchy chorus all morning: “Protest Songs in a response to Military Aggression. Protest songs to try and stop the soldier’s gun.”

The songs are great: really diverse for what is essentially a punk album. And the topics are protestations that I haven’t heard in a while (at least not in such a catchy style): Lack of originality in the mainstream. (“New Wave” & “Up the Cuts”), Drug Addiction (“Thrash Unreal,” the latest single that I’ve heard). “Stop” is a change of pace mid-album, with a catchy chorus and an almost dance feel. “Piss and Vinegar” is a plea for honesty. And possibly the strangest item on the disc: the song “The Ocean.” One doesn’t expect a punk band’s verse to start like this: ” If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me she would have named me Laura” and it continues on in that vein. What a shockingly honest (presumably) lyric in a song.

The only thing I don’t like about the album is…the singer’s voice. I just can’t get past it, and I’m not sure what it is I don’t like about it. He sings on key, his voice is strong and impassioned. There’s just something about it I don’t like. Of course, I also don’t like the singer from Social Distortion either. I guess I’m more of a high, whiny voice than a gruff aggro voice. Despite this, whenever the band does harmonies, they sound great! All of the choruses have nice harmonies somewhere in them, and they really make the songs. Plus, there’s a song called “Borne on the FM, Waves of the Heart” which is a duet with Tegan from Tegan and Sara, and it’s really fantastic. They are a perfect match for each other. Normally, not liking the singer would make you not like a band. (How many people can’t get into Rush because of Geddy Lee’s voice?). And yet, I still think the album is great. I’m certainly going to check out some past records as well. I’m especially intrigued by this album title: Reinventing Axl Rose.

[READ: June 25, 2008] Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

I heard about this book when I was scanning the NPR stations and there was a story about authors/publishers making great websites to accompany books. Two of the ones they mentioned sounded pretty interesting, so I jotted them down and checked them out. This was the first one, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The site was pretty neat, but I didn’t spend much time there, as I was at work. I checked that we had the book and took it out that day. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: AGENT ORANGE on 21 Jump Street (1987).

Sarah and I are watching 21 Jump Street on DVD.  We were both fans of the show when it came out, but our only thought about it was to sing JUMP every once in a while.  So, we got Season One and have been very pleasantly surprised at how good the show is.  It holds up surprisingly well: the story lines are a bit over the top, and some very basic logical issues like: they go to a different high school every episode, just how many high schools are in this town?  And, what town in the world is as pervaded by so many different teen criminal masterminds?  But, once you get past that (and the egregious late 80’s fashion) the stories are really compelling.

Anyhow, the music on the original was very good, but like many DVDs, (Northern Exposure, I’m looking at you) the original scores could not be obtained so they have lame background music.  (Don’t even get me started on the bullshit factor of THAT).  But the last episode of Season One features music by Agent Orange (it’s about punks, you see).  I assume the band on screen is Agent Orange (although the singer isn’t the band’s singer, so maybe not).  Anyhow, there are several scene in a punk club, and the Agent Orange songs are really good.  I never got into them back in the day, probably because they only really put out two albums, but I am now intrigued enough to see what they were like.  I’ll likely be getting and reviewing their debut, which sounds very promising.

[READ: July 2, 2008] “The Case of the Severed Hand”

This was the only story out of all of the magazine stories I just read that I did not like. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STARS-Do You Trust Your Friends (2007).

Stars released Set Yourself on Fire in 2005. It was a surprisingly good and catchy pop album from a band I hadn’t heard of before. It was lyrically downbeat, and yet the choruses were sweeping and grand. A great paradox of a record that I liked very much.

Well, they gave the master tapes to a whole bunch of their Canadian band friends and had them remix or redo the songs. This collection is interesting in that the collective work is very strong and everybody makes a remix that is fresh and interesting. I didn’t know too many of the bands before hand (only The Dears) so the sound was pretty new to me. The Dears do an interesting thing with their track: they split their song into two songs, since the original had two distinctive parts. It’s a fun thing to hear.

Most of the roster comes from the Arts & Crafts label, so that may give you an idea of the sound; they include some dance remixes, some indie rock remixes and some straight ahead pop ones. Obviously, the original is better if only for the overall continuity, but this is an interesting and enjoyable listen in and of itself.

[READ: June 30, 2008] “Suicide by Fitness Center”

Joyce Carol Oates must talk in her sleep, and she must have a dictation service that records all of it. (more…)

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