Saturday, March 01, 2014

Now You See Me - 2013

Hey, there's nothing that says I can't talk about recent stuff, and I don't think enough people saw "Now You See Me" for it to pass unnoticed. So, my love for a good heist film is certainly on record, and I enjoy stage magic as much as the next guy, which is part of why "Now You See Me" is so much better than you might expect. Part of why.

The premise of the movie is that four magicians, used to working on their own, team up and start committing crimes in a theatrical way under the pseudonym "The Four Horsemen," and the FBI is trying to figure out not only how these magicians have turned into master thieves, but also why they're doing it, and how they can stop them.

I don't want to talk too much about the movie itself, because that would spoil the fun of it all, but let me just tell you this - ensemble casts require a lot of great actors, each willing to play into their part and never try and steal the spotlight, and this cast does that wonderfully. Jesse Eisenberg plays the control freak, Isla Fisher the neo-punk, Woody Harrelson the mentalist, Dave Franco the rookie, Michael Caine the bankroll, Mark Ruffalo the fed, Melanie Laurent the international fed and Morgan goddamn Freeman as the debunker. Each of them gets their moment to shine, but the film is at its best when two or three of them are interplaying off of each other. There's a wonderful scene early on between Eisenberg and Ruffalo in an interrogation room that is just delightful to watch. The writing gives actors a chance to riff back and forth and build an easy rapport, and the film gives that space to breathe, letting the characters develop even as the story goes along. It's also not a film that force feeds things, letting the audience fill in some of the gaps from bits and pieces.

"Now You See Me" was, apparently, a 'sleeper hit,' in that it didn't generate a lot of noise, but a number of people went and saw it. Hell, it's the first film in a long time that I actually went and saw in the theater TWICE. And, I'm pleased to discover that a sequel was greenlit, so that's pleasant to find out, because this cast worked great together, and I look forward to seeing what comes along in the next iteration. The film isn't for everyone, though, as some people on IMDB called it "pretentious" and "idiotic." I find the film delightful and am willing to go along for the ride, but hey, some people want their plots to be so perfect that you can't pick it apart. (Those people don't do well in heist films, I've found, because they get annoyed by luck, chance, planning done off-camera, details the director didn't show for sake of dramatic revelation, etc.) Me, I'm fine with having some popcorn fun that sucks me in for a few hours, and to the people who didn't like "Now You See Me," well, you don't have to go to the sequel. Me, I can't wait...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Wipeout XL (soundtrack) - 1996

The way we get exposed to new music has changed a lot over the years. Back when I was a wee youngin', there was the radio and there was MTV. If you were really brave, you could try and listen to the college radio station and see what was being played there to find something new. When I got to college, we had the college radio, which was a good start, and there were a lot of places selling music that were always playing CDs they'd been sent, and on top of that, I was working for the college newspaper at the time, so I was writing music reviews every so often, which meant I was also getting sent free CDs, a lot of which were terrible, but a few of which were good to great.. I also started getting a magazine called CMJ New Music Monthly, which I found a ton of bands from as well. But you know where I discovered a handful of bands? From a videogame called Wipeout XL.

Wipeout XL, or Wipeout 2097 as it was called overseas, was the second game in the Wipeout series. My roommate had gotten a Playstation and we'd spent some serious time with the original Wipeout, so when the sequel came out, he picked up a copy. Needless to say, we were pretty excited, but I don't think we were quite prepared for just how much we were going to play the game, because we played the ever living shit out of it.

The Wipeout series is a sci-fi racing game, where players pilot hovering cars that look more like low-flying shuttles, and strap weapons to them, trying to outrace and obliterate their opponents. Basically, it's a cyberpunk version of Mario Kart. But here's the thing - Playstation games were released on CDs. They were jet black CDs, but they were CDs nonetheless. So one day, on a lark, I decided to take  the game CD and pop it into a CD player. The first track was nothing but noise, but when I skipped to the second track, lo and behold, there was the game soundtrack. Which brings me to the reason I'm talking about the game.

In terms of touchstones, the Wipeout XL soundtrack introduced me, for all intents and purposes, to techno. From this game alone, I found: Future Sound of London, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fluke and Underworld. It was almost like someone had decided "Let's get all the great techno artists we can and slap them on one game," and got away with it. When the soundtrack came out on a retail CD later, I was initially going to pass, but saw it had a few other people on it, including Orbital and Leftfield. From this initial springboard, I also jumped to people like Propellerheads, who were on the Wipeout 3 soundtrack, coincidentally enough.

The Wipeout franchise has, sadly, run aground. There was a PSN downloadable game, which was actually a pretty good entry, but it didn't do well enough, and last I had heard, the studio had been shuttered, as so many great videogame studios have been in recent years.

Hilariously enough, Wipeout XL also had a sponsor - RedBull. At the time, I remember thinking that RedBull was a weird name for a fictional company inside of a videogame. (Seriously, I didn't think they were real. I don't know that any of us did.) Little did I know what a force they would be in only a few years time. To me, the soundtrack reminds me that incidental music can very much affect people, and that the music people put in movies, tv, videogames, etc., should be chosen with care, but also with an intent for discovery and diversity. You never know when you could be just ahead of the curve.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Thanos Quest - 1990

I remember when I started exploring more off beat comics. I'd really started getting into Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men and was at Dragon's Lair enough that they were okay with me browsing through the racks a bit, picking up books, reading a few pages and then putting stuff back or deciding to pick it up. Comics were, at that time, about a buck fifty, if memory serves me right. It was 1990, so my memory isn't perfect, considering that's 24 years ago. But I tended to start sniffing around for other things, because while I loved X-Men, I was interested in finding new titles, new characters, more things to be reading. In just a short year or so, I'd be reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman, on the back of another short mini-series I'll talk about in a different post, but I remember this cover for a book called "The Thanos Quest" catching my eye.

I asked Bob about the book, and he said "Oh, Thanos is a Silver Surfer villain. It's only going to be a two-issue mini-series, but they're big issues, thus the higher cover price." I glanced at the cover of the book - it was significantly higher than your standard book. But there were also a lot more pages. And I read the first few pages, and decided, what the hell - it was only two issues, so if I didn't like it, I hadn't lost much.

Thank god that I took the risk.

So, here's the thing about Thanos Quest - Thanos is the protagonist, and yes, he's certainly more than a little crazy, but he's also, well, Shakespearean. The main thrust of the story is that Thanos has fallen in love with Death. No, not death with a lower case d, but Death, the personification of the higher power of dying in the universe. She's cold, aloof and not easily impressed, but Thanos wants to win her heart (if she even has one). To do so, he sets about to commit an act so grandiose, so impressive, that he's certain it will win her over, and to consider him worthy of her love. What could be so impressive, you ask? Well, she wants him to wipe out half the population of the universe in a single go. No small feat, obviously, except Thanos, smart lunatic that he is, has found something of a shortcut.

Thanos has discovered six gems, called the Infinity Gems, each with a special property over a feature of the universe - time, space, power, reality, the mind and the soul. With these six gems, he will able to wipe out half of the universe with the snap of his fingers.
Of course, he's got to pry the gems from the hands of their current owners, and none of them are want to part with their gems easily. But Thanos has a plan, and is more than clever enough to pose a threat to the gem's handlers, because he knows what the gems are capable of, and they don't. Also, Thanos, for whatever else he is, is incredibly smart. He plans to out think his opponents, and while some of his foes aren't too bright, there are a couple that are more than enough to be a challenge to the mad Titan called Thanos.

I was just starting to understand the idea of the crossover, where a bunch of characters appear in other titles to get exposure from one audience to another, but I wasn't really part of any of the audiences at the time. Thanos Quest was a book I picked up almost entirely at random, but it set the stage for the Infinity Gauntlet crossover that happened a few months later, and I picked up all six issues of that. The Infinity Gauntlet spun out of the events of Thanos Quest, and set the stage for Adam Warlock and the Infinity Watch to follow, although that series wasn't great.

Over the years, Thanos has worn a lot of hats in the Marvel universe - villain, god, reluctant hero, hermit... and with all of that comes one of the more interesting characters they have. Thanos Quest was collected in a one-shot in 2000, and can be found as part of the Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos trade paperback, or picked up digitally. Also, Thanos is the villain you see in the teaser at the end of the Avengers movie, so we're going to see him in the Marvel cinematic universe sooner or later. This is the place to start.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spiritualized - Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 - 1998

Jason Pierce is a weird guy. Originally he was half of Spacemen 3, a neo-psychedelic trance rock band that put out a handful of great albums before basically imploding in a disastrous fight between Pierce and Pete Kember, the band's other half. Out of the ashes, Pierce formed Spiritualized, which bore a lot of similarities to Spacemen 3, but added more instrumentation, more variety, more optimistic tones and even gospel/blues elements. There'd been hints of that in Spacemen 3, but here it seemed like Pierce was planning on going all out with it. And it's a good thing that he did, because Spiritualized has emerged as the better of the two bands that rose from the ashes of Spacemen 3, the other being Kember's Spectrum, which has done the occasional interesting thing, but on the whole has failed to be as relevant.

Spiritualized is a very heady blend of gospel and psychedelic space rock, and the band has certainly had its ups and downs. The best album they put out is "Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space" in 1997, and the last handful of albums have been sort of scattershot, with a few good songs but so-so on the whole. (It also doesn't help that the band went 5 years between albums, from 2003's "Amazing Grace" to 2008's far superior "Songs In A&E," but that's to be excused since Pierce nearly died from double pneumonia.) "Songs In A&E" is the best stuff they've done in the last decade or so, with the most recent, "Sweet Heart, Sweet Light" being pretty disappointing, but if you really want to know where I think the best stuff they ever did is, you'll find it in a live recording called "Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997," which see Spiritualized playing with a choir, a string section and a four-piece brass section, to give them a glorious transcendence never quite captured on a studio album.

 "Royal Albert Hall" functions as both a "best of" of the band's output up to that point, and a reinterpreting of everything they do right and how they can make it better. It's a 2-disc release, so for $15 or so, you get the band in their prime, with all of the big numbers at their biggest. You even get to hear the Spacemen 3 classic "Walking With Jesus," which Spiritualized has played live for most of their time as a band (which is fair, since it's Pierce's song anyway). But the best parts are the two sweeping epics that nearly close the show out, the build-build-build-build of "I Think I'm In Love" and the back-and-forth of "Cop Shoot Cop," before the show closes out with the lighter than air version of "Oh Happy Day."

Keep in mind, Pierce sacked most of this band not long after this show, so you won't hear this lineup again. The band said they weren't being paid enough. Contracts were drawn and signed, and shortly after he used those same contracts to dismiss the band. Apparently there was quite the fuss about it in the British music press. Between the constant lineup changes and the health problems that seem to spring up (their drummer had acute leukemia, apparently...), it's something of a wonder that the band is still going, but it's worth picking up "Royal Hall" to hear the band at the peak of their powers, and if that interests you, listen to some of their other stuff and see what catches your fancy.

(Normally I'd have a video here, but they didn't have video recording going at the show, so you just get a YouTube video with music play, the stellar "I Think I'm In Love" from that show.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Hudsucker Proxy - 1994

"You know, for kids."

That's sort of the catchphrase of the movie "The Hudsucker Proxy," the subject of today's deviation. It's a 1994 film from the Cohen brothers, and starts Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it's, well, like a lot of the Cohen brothers movies, it's a film out of its time.

The Cohen brothers have done a lot of films that people know really well - Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, O Brother Where Art Thou? and, my personal favorite, The Big Lebowski, but they also made a bunch of films that just didn't get the same level of attention, the best of which, in my personal opinion is The Hudsucker Proxy.

Part of the joy of the Cohen brothers is that they make movies from another era. Burn After Reading, for example, is a screwball comedy but done in the sort of Reagan-era Commie paranoia fearmongering in the eighties. The Big Lebowski is set in the early 90's, but is meant to evoke the sort of meandering plots of Raymond Chandler. It was, for lack of a better term, stoner noir.

The Hudsucker Proxy is also a screwball comedy, but one that seems to be somewhere between a Frank Capra film and a Mel Blanc Looney Tunes cartoon. It is definitely about big business, the little guy, rags-to-riches and the bizarre success of simple.

It's about the hula hoop. Sort of.

It feels like the kind of film you would've seen made in the 1940s, but with a very post-modern take. Tim Robbins is Norville Barnes (what a name, right?), a small-town guy with big ideas in the very big city, and he gets a job as a mail clerk, and before you know it, he's running the company, although not the way he intended and not for the reasons he thinks he is. See, Paul Newman is attempting to use Tim Robbins to run the company into the ground, so he can buy up the stock cheap and then rebuild it. But Tim Robbins has an idea, and since he's in charge of the company, he's gonna make it.

The weird charm of the picture is hard to encapsulate into a handful of words, but it's certainly not a film for everyone. A lot of critics at the time didn't care for it. They thought it was all style and no substance, or that the film lacked humanity, but to my eye, I think a lot of the critics missed the point. The style IS the substance, and the film has humanity in spades, but it's a simpler, less modern view of humanity. It's almost a fable in its elegant simplicity, and it's a pitch-perfect echo of the films it is shadowing. Those critics forget that a Frank Capra film seen through a modern lens looks, well, a little to "aw shucks" to be genuine, because those were simpler times. That's what this movie is trying to evoke.

I could get into the reasons I find so much of it delightfully hilarious, but explaining comedy isn't often a wise approach. Either the movie will speak to you or it won't, and it does to me. Hell, there are a bunch of actors in this movie that do more in a handful of scenes than some actors do over an entire career. (Particularly watch for Bruce Campbell killing it as "Smitty," a member of the newspaper staff.)

Gotta hand it to the Cohens - they like to be different.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Music - The Music - 2002

Jesus, The Music were too fucking talented for their own good.

With a band name as ambiguous as "The Music," you know a band had damn well better be planning on making a killer first impression. The first album, eponymous, from The Music in 2002 proved just that. They were not fucking around. Their music was big, blustery, accomplished, confident and a little crazy.

They were goddamn teenagers.

When the foursome got together in 1998, they were still in high school, and they wanted to blend some of the elements of modern electronic music with a classic rock feel, sort of Led Zeppelin bumping into the Chemical Brothers with a good dose of psychedelia thrown in. They had a style that was burning the candle at both ends,  the middle, where you were holding it and maybe even from the inside out. They put out a single in 2001, 1000 copies only, and it sold out immediately, with NME, the UK's equivalent of Rolling Stone, calling them "the best unsigned band in England."

When the album hit in 2002, I was already a raving fan for the band, having heard the single online and immediately having wanted more, so I was delighted to find that the whole album held up to that high standard. Their lead singer, Rob Harvey, sounded a lot like Geddy Lee from Rush. That was fine. Their guitarist, Adam Nutter, was evoking all sorts of wild sounds from his guitar. Stuart Coleman, the bassist, knew how to keep a groove going without overwhelming, and Phil Jordan was bashing out beats with his own personal flair.

Most of them were 19 when the album hit.

The album was only ten tracks long, but they were already being held up as the exciting new direction of rock'n'roll. I listened to the CD so much, I had to buy a second copy, because I was taking from my car inside my office back to my car and then back to my house and scratched it up, simply by proxy of so many changes. I eventually just left it in my car and used the second CD for home/work.

It wasn't all blistering loud/fast rock, either. They had the confidence to do these darker, more relaxed, expansive epic songs that bordered on blues, such as "Turn Out The Light," a song that feels like the end of a day that's just spiraling around the drain, refusing to go down, refusing to get better, refusing to move on, weary, world-wise... and this was their first damn album...

I remember thinking that either they were going to be utterly huge or they were going to flame out hard and fast. They sort of did both. They put out a second album, "Welcome To The North," in 2004, but it was clear they were starting to have problems, with Rob Harvey becoming a little more erratic. Eventually, it came out that he was battling substance abuse problems, but eventually he sorted himself out and the band prepped their "comeback" album with producer Flood, called "Strength In Numbers." It did okay, the band toured, and in 2010, they went back into the studio to start work on a fourth album, but Rob Harvey said he wanted to quit the band, and instead they just disbanded. They played a final couple of shows at Brixton Academy (which is available and should be picked up immediately) and they put out one last song free on their website from that aborted fourth album called "Ghost Hands" that was easily the strongest song they'd had in years, and I really liked all of their albums, so that's saying something.

Harvey's gone on to work with Mike Skinner, and there hasn't been any sign of the rest of the members of the band, which, to be honest, kind of pisses me off. I really want to know what the hell Adam Nutter has been up to, because the man was such an amazing guitarist, and he's got to be putting together a new band or a solo album or something.

All of The Music's albums were fantastic, but really, you should, at the very least, listen to their first one. Talent this good doesn't come along often.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Jesus And Mary Chain - Darklands - 1987

When I started writing this blog, I said that a lot of things were probably going to change and evolve as I wrote stuff down, and this is such a change. Moving forward, I'm probably not going to do any "band" posts and instead going to write about either albums or songs, so I can double-dip later, and not drain myself out of material too fast. And when I'm writing about music, I think I'll probably have different things to say about bands when talking about different albums. Hell, in many cases, bands change so much between albums that I'd probably need to redescribe them any way. That isn't so much the case for this band, who have generally been in one of only two modes, but I wanted to write about this album, so this is your warning - no more "band-centric" and now "album-centric."

Today I wanna talk about The Jesus And Mary Chain and their album "Darklands." The Jesus and Mary Chain (henceforth referred to as JAMC) are a pair of brothers, Jim and William Reid, from Scotland, and a bunch of other people who come and go. Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream was even with them for a while, before he formed Primal Scream, obviously, as their drummer. Their first album, "Psychocandy," released near the end of 1985. It was a blend of heavily fuzzed guitars and almost 1960s styled wall-of-sound production with endless reverb, and man, was it noisy. It was like Phil Spector producing the Sex Pistols, except the vocals were almost as stoned as possible.When people were talking about JAMC after "Psychocandy," inevitably the first thing people would talk about was the huge walls of feedback. described the album as "Beach Boys melodys meets Velvet Underground feedback and beats, all cranked up to ten and beyond, with plenty of echo." The album was the very definition of a hot mess. It was loud and wild and primal and crazy, and their live show were even crazier. They were fried after they toured behind the album, they parted ways with their manager, and for a while, it looked like they might not even make it to a second album. I'm telling you all of this, of course, because I need to set the stage for what a radical shift "Darklands" was, or at least what it appeared to be when it hit.

JAMC's  "Darklands" was released in the fall of 1987, and when it first came out, people were a bit shocked. At first blush, the album lacked some of the touchstones that people had latched onto from "Psychocandy" as "the JAMC sound," most notably the heavily buzzing guitar feedback wall and the endless amount of reverb. First impressions can be misleading, though, because those things are there, just not in the copious amounts they were in "Psychocandy." See, at their core, JAMC are a band that's interested in doing pop songs but by their own rules.

"Darklands" still has the same melodious underpinnings that "Psychocandy" does; they're just trying to hide it a little less. It's also entirely possible that JAMC didn't want to be pigeonholed as "those wall-of-sound-noise guys," which is entirely fair. So a lot of critics liked the album, but they said it wasn't as good as "Psychocandy." I've always disagreed. I like "Psychocandy" a lot, but I've always thought the songcraft on "Darklands" is just so much better - melodies wander around a bit more, the lyrics are a little more introspective and the drums are more underplayed (mostly because Darklands has a drum machine, as Gillespie had left the band). 

The song "Happy When It Rains" is still probably my favorite JAMC song, as if the sky had a nice summer rain going on and you were behind the wheel of your car, driving on a highway up the coast.  In fact, much of "Darklands" concerns rain. Two songs have "rain" in the title - "Happy When It Rains" and "Nine Million Rainy Days" and more than a few of the other songs mention rain in the lyrics, but I wouldn't call "Darklands" a gloomy album by any stretch. It's relaxed, comfortable.

After "Darklands," JAMC turned the volume back up again, although never quite to the level of raw carnage that "Psychocandy" was, and from time to time they'd bring the volume back down to softer tones, although never quite to the level of soft spoken closer of "Darklands," the melancholy and acoustic sweetness of "About You."

As a closing note, I have to admit, part of the fun of this for me has been finding out exactly how much of the world has been uploaded to YouTube over the last decade, and I'm seeing a lot of these music videos for the first time. For me, the music always came first, and while I got a lot from 120 Minutes, it pales in comparison to how much music I just glommed onto from somewhere around me without really ever being sure of where from. I'm not sure where I picked up JAMC from, but I remember the first song I heard from them was off "Honey's Dead" so it must have been 1992-1993. And I was too young (and on the wrong continent) to have caught the Rollercoaster tour they did in 1992. The bill? The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blur, Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine. Holy shit, to have been there...