Monday, June 15, 2015

Welcome to Random Play!

This is the first in a series of reviews from my ever-expanding eclectic collection of music.The first half of the year has ushered in some great music as well as some real disappointments.  Here are my thoughts on some of the albums that I have added to the collection:

Likely my favorite album this year so far has been the Passenger album Whispers 2. After the commercial  success of his “All the Little Lights” and Whispers 1, he decided to self-release this album with all of the proceeds going to Unicef. No money was spent on marketing, so it is all word-of-mouth -- support it in any way you can. These songs have struck a chord with me (no pun intended), but perhaps it is just the time and place I find myself in.  Be warned, it is by and large a collection of wonderfully sad songs; one might deal with the complicated side of relationships whilst another tells the story of an unemployed ship welder. His music reminds me of Jim Croce in many ways, a sweet reminiscing sadness.  Basically I enjoyed every song off the album but my favorites are…Fear of Fear, Catch in the Dark, I’ll Be Your Man, David, 1,000 Matches, Words, The Way I Need You. I look forward to seeing him live in September.

Death Cab for Cutie's latest album, Kintsugi, has also been a joy to listen to. It is varied in terms of scope, happy to sad. It is on par with their Plans and Narrow Stairs albums, and far better than their previous release, Codes and Keys. My favorite songs off the album are Everything is a Ceiling, Black Sun, No Room In Frame, Little Wander, and You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.

The most recent release on the list is Florence and the Machine's album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.  Though not her strongest album to date, it is still packed with many great songs. A testament to her wonderful voice and talent. I was not expecting much from this album after hearing the song What Kind Of Man and it’s subsequent airplay on the radio. It in my opinion it is one of the weaker songs on the album. To me the jewels of the album are the songs Third Eye, Caught, Hiding (available on deluxe album), Long & Lost, Various Storms and Saints, and Queen of Peace

Lord Huron's second major release is entitled Strange Tails, and it is my second favorite of all my recent acquisitions. Seeing them live also helped cement that position -- they have a great stage presence and keep the show rolling once they start. Though you can pick out the influences on this album more-so than their first, they are still removed enough that they sound fresh. For instance, the song Fool For Love is heavily reminiscent  of 50’s pop music. The song World Ender is Dick Dale Misirlou through and through, but since there is nothing like it on the (congested and overplayed) commercial stations of today it is a breath of fresh air; the band and listeners have benefited from it.  It’s another album that I can’t find a song to fault. I also like how they create characters and sing the songs from their perspectives rather than limited themselves to first hand experience like many other artists. I believe it opens up many more avenues for songwriting.  My favorite songs are Night We Met, Cursed, Fool For Love, Meet Me in the Woods, Way Out There, and Yawning Grave.

Colin Hay, better know as the front-man of the 80’s band Men at Work released an album entitled Next Year People. He's come a long way since those days of fronting a pop band. His songs are now more mature and straight from the heart. No more 'Vegemite sandwiches Down Under' for his solo albums. Unfortunately, this album is also a fine argument for buying singles. Not every song is gold,  and many could be left out of the collection. Lyrical inspirations range from the dust bowl (and likely the current California drought where he finds his home) title song Next Year People, to the remorseful songs If I Had Been A Better Man, and Want You Back, to the song Mr Grogan about a man,his Labradoodle , and a fall resulting in a head injury. 

Lainey Wright... Yes, you never have heard of her. Though if you have… Good for you. She falls into the grey area of Folk/Singer-Songwriter/Country (the good kind) music genres. I discovered her while browsing Noisetrade, a site for legal free music (though you can -- and should -- donate to the artist as well). In general new artists use Noisetrade to release selections of their music to generate buzz.  In any case this was a complete album purchase entitled Till We Go Home. She has a pleading voice, and by that I mean it begs to be listened to, though some could possibly find it not to their liking. The album has a a wide range of tones from the upbeat to the melancholy.  My favorite upbeat songs are Oft I Stray, Hold You Up and Olive Tree. The more melancholy songs are What Love Does, Leave Me Not Alone, and  In My Head. In many ways I hope that Nashville never gets a hold of her. It's not that I don’t want her to have success, it is that I never want them to homogenize her and turn her music into pop crap. Don’t mess with what isn’t broken.

The married duo Weepies latest release Sirens blossoms with 17 tracks. That many tracks is a rarity in the usual non-deluxe album releases of 10-12 songs. The female portion of the duo, Deb Talan has a unique voice that your equally likely to love or hate. I fall mostly in the love category though I couldn’t listen to a marathon selection of just her. Luckily, as a duo they switch leads and work well together. Album standouts are Crooked Smile, Never Let You Down, No Trouble, Ever Said Goodbye, Fancy Things, River From The Sky, and the Tom Petty cover Learning To Fly (that says a lot as I am not a huge Tom Petty fan; I enjoyed his time with Traveling Willburys best) . I feel I got my money's worth on this album.

Probably the only flat out rock/industrial album on the list comes from the band The Dreaming (otherwise known as Stabbing Westward) entitled Rise Again. It's a slickly almost-overproduced album that doesn't break any new ground for them. That said, they certainly know how to sing about bitterness.  The standouts on the album are Alone, Rise Again, Afraid, and Destroy.

Now on to the biggest disappointment  of the year, Mumford and Sons latest release Wilder Mind. This is their third major release . When you usher in the latest wave of folk rock and you have a hundred similar bands follow you, what do you do next? I guess you try to re-invent yourself and prove that you're more than a folk rock band. You lay down the banjo, driving rhythms and plug in. Unfortunately you sound exactly like every other band out there (Kings of Leon, etc. etc.) I have given the album a dozen listens and I still can't remember a single song. They're all so very similar and -- for the most part -- forgettable. The best ones in my opinion are Tompkins Square ParkHot Gates and Monster. It's okay though: Every band has to have an experimental bad album and hopefully this is Mumford's last. With luck they will return to the genre in which they own, and are distinct and memorable in.

Stay tuned for next the next installment. Where I'll likely review upcoming albums from Glen Hansard, Chris Cornell and more.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"A Serious Man" Review

"It's a Coen brothers movie."

That was Brian's pitch to me. We had spent a good portion of our afternoon looking for movies at BuyBacks Entertainment in Erie, PA. Now, I'm not nearly the consumer of film that I used to be, but when Brian is in town, and when we decide to go to Erie, BuyBacks is almost always a stop. They were featuring a "buy three get one free sale," which I always find a good opportunity to catch up on some films that I may have missed. The problem I find is that it is often difficult to decide on that last movie. That day I was having a particularly tough time, because a used DVD store does not often have every film you could want for the price you want it for. I couldn't decide on the last film, and it was starting to get late in the day, so I told Brian that he could just pick one more movie and I'd use up one of my freebies to get it. To that end, he chose A Serious Man, which is a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Who are the Coen brothers?

I really don't know much about the Joel and Ethan Coen, other than they have directed some of the best movies that I've ever seen (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, et al), and my favorite movie of all time, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In short, they're excellent directors with an eye for detail and memorable characters. But my first response to Brian was, "Yes, but it's a Coen brothers movie that you've never heard of." You see, I found out long ago that while the Coens have a history of pitch-perfect films, they occasionally churn out a forgettable yarn. Such was the case with The Man Who Wasn't There starring Billy Bob Thornton years earlier when we rented it. After suffering through two hours of a character actor that I happen to like waste his talents on a completely disengaging film noir knockoff I was amazed that I had found a Coen brothers movie that I hated. Oh, it was competent, just not entertaining. This was the warning I gave Brian.

A game of chance

When we got back to Brian's parents' house, we realized that we only had enough time to watch one movie. I presented Brian with The Town (also known as that movie that saved Ben Affleck's career), which neither of us had seen, and Brian presented A Serious Man. We couldn't decide, so we left it to a coin toss. One could infer from the fact that I wrote this article and not a review of The Town as a pretty good indicator of which film won. We popped A Serious Man in and began watching.

The plot

The movie starts with a tale about a Jewish man who after a spot of bad luck of not getting full value for his wares and losing a wheel from his cart is helped by a kindly old rabbi, who is a friend of his wife's family. When he goes home and tells his wife the tale, she tells him that the person in question died of fever three years ago, and that what he met must have been a dybbuk (a Hebrew word for a dislocated spirit. Yes, I looked it up.). He tells her that he invited him to dinner, whereupon the cheerful yet otherworldly is announced at their door. The man invites him in, and the old man refuses some soup. The woman takes this as a sign that he is a dybbuk and stabs the old man with her paring knife. At first he laughs, and his identity as a dybbuk is revealed! No, wait... the old man starts bleeding and says he feels ill, then leaves (presumably to go off and die in the snow). That's the first five minutes. What does it have to do with the rest of the movie? Not much.

In conclusion

What? What's that? What's the rest of the movie's plot?

Oh very well. 

The rest of the film focuses on Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor who has been in many movies that you've seen, but never in any role that you'd remember. This is a period piece, and judging from the technologies that the characters use (and the fact that one character is obsessed with F-Troop) it must be the mid to late 1960s. This tidbit of information isn't really crucial to the plot, but then again, neither is anything else in this film. Larry is a professor of physics and a family man who... look, it's not really that important. All you need to know is that the movie is very Jewish (not like in the Woody Allen sense, but more like it is steeped in American Jewish culture and norms), bad things happen to Larry, every single one of which is exacerbated by the fact that he won't stand up for himself when the film's cast of detestable, selfish, self-centered individuals take advantage of him. Things start to go bad for Larry the moment his wife (played by Sarri Lennick in a makeup job so unsettling that she looks like every stereotype of a "Jewess" and succubus mashed together into one beautiful and terrifying hell-spawn) demands a divorce because she's into another man, widower Sy Ableman who is many years her senior. Have I mentioned that not one of these characters is likable? Not one? It's meant to be seen as a dark comedy (kind of like Fargo) I think, but the characters aren't particularly memorable, most of the "jokes" are just mean-spirited jabs at Larry's cuckold status, and the entire plot just slogs along at a snail's pace, so much so that Brian actually stepped out for a lengthy phone call and still didn't miss anything important (although he did miss the film's funniest moment BY FAR, when "the second rabbi" tells Larry a rambling story about a dentist's search for God. You really have to watch the film for context. But don't though, it's not that funny).

A seriously bad movie

I hated this film. No, there's really no way to sugarcoat it. I LOATHED it, and I really don't know the reasons why. The film is shot beautifully, with perfect set pieces that really give someone the sense of what Minnesota suburbs in the 60s might have been like. The main character is a wishy-washy idiot who won't take ownership of his own life, and every other character just uses him for personal gain or to make themselves feel self-important. Scenes start, scenes go nowhere. Interesting parts are merely dreams and recollections, everything is random and nothing gets resolved. But you know what the strangest thing is?

This movie is a phenomenal critical success

I can't figure this one out. It scores 79% out of 35 reviews on It scores 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's the same score as The Imitation Game, an actually entertaining period piece with actually entertaining characters that actually has something to say. I really don't know how this detestable piece of film stays so high up. Am I missing something? I'm not saying that I haven't - I had to watch No Country For Old Men twice before I got something out of it, but I never want to watch A Serious Man again. Hell, I don't even want to be in the same room with it. Adam Arkin couldn't even save it, and I like me some Adam Arkin!

Let the conspiracy theory commence

You know what I think it is?  I think that this film gets a free pass. That's all. Everyone likes The Big Lebowski, right? No Country For Old Men sure was deep. Okay, so I don't understand this movie, so it must be good -- on the level of the other Coen bros. films, I reckon. Maybe the 1960s setting appeals to aging film critics, hungry for a glimpse of their bygone youth. Or maybe it's more than that. Perhaps it's inflated by a community of Jewish critics so starved for works of cultural reference (if not significance) that the moment one comes along directed by Jewish filmmakers with a conscious effort to include as much Jewish periphery as possible, they jump for joy, kind of like the way evangelical Christians support all of their (unbelievably incredibly shitty) movies. That's all that I can figure out. This horrid film just gets a free ride. Please note film critics, that style on its own is not substance, good acting on its own is not good writing, and artistic merit on its own is not entertaining.