Saturday, March 08, 2014

Boom Boom Satellites - Out Loud - 1999

In some ways, Boom Boom Satellites are Japan's answer to The Chemical Brothers. There are a lot of similarities - big heavy thick beats, samples dancing in and out of the foreground, a driving sense of forward motion... but in a lot of ways, BBS are very different. While The Chemical Brothers first album was very much about the sensation of speed, the first Boom Boom Satellites album, "Out Loud," is a bit more varied.

Hailing from Tokyo, Boom Boom Satellites is made up of two people, a guitarist/vocalist and a bassist/DJ. The heavy inclusion of guitar chords steers the band a bit further away from some of their breakbeat contemporaries, but there's also a good amount of scratching intermixed with jazz elements like trumpet and sax. In fact, it's the sort of surrealist jazz blend that pushes BBS further away from people like The Chemical Brothers and The Crystal Method.

The band builds a very urban sound. Hell, "Batter The Jam No. 3" is built on very physical machine sounds - hammers, pistons, ringing bells. And then the sax comes in. And the live drums definitely add a sense of unpredictability, especially when the drums go crazy like on "Intruder" or on "An Owl," the most heavily jazz of the album.

The best piece on the album, though, is the epic "On The Painted Desert," which just builds and builds and builds. I would love to share the track with you, but apparently Sony Japan is particular about it, and there was never a video for it released here, but I can show you a video of a remix someone did of it. It doesn't capture the same majesty of the original, but it'll give you a feel of some of the elements in it.

The album is available on iTunes, as are a number of their other releases, excluding the recent and excellent "To The Loveless" sadly (although it's been on there before, so maybe it will be again, who the hell knows - international releases and iTunes don't follow the convention of logic...) The most very recent album, "Embrace," is on iTunes, but has an incorrect release date, which would confuse anyone. (It's listed as coming out in 2001, but it was a 2013 release... well failed, iTunes.)

If you just want the highlights, you can always pick up "Over and Over," which is their best-of up until before "To The Loveless" and beyond. You can then decide for yourself if you want to pick up "Embrace" and "To The Loveless," but of course, I think that you should. "Embrace" sees them moving a bit closer to Nine Inch Nails territory, but that's not a bad thing. They have always loved their guitars.

Let me leave you with one last track from "Out Loud" - the first track I'd ever heard of theirs, the single that made them a bit of smash stars, "Push Eject." It's not the full song, but it is from their official channel and should give you enough of a taste to get hooked...

Friday, March 07, 2014

INXS - X - 1990

INXS hold a rather personal significance for me. They were the first cassette tape I bought new and they were the first CD I bought. One of those two was "Kick," and the other was the wonderful album "X."

INXS was a six piece from Australia who'd worked very hard to climb up a bit at a time, only to see it all come tumbling down in 1997 when lead singer Michael Hutchence was found dead in a Sydney hotel room, having committed suicide. (There were reports that he'd died of auto-erotic asphyxiation but the coroner dismissed those for a lot of reasons. Not, honestly, that suicide is that much better.) The band's tried to come back a number of times, but Hutchence really was face of that band, and the other voices have always felt like they were just holding the chair for someone who isn't ever coming back.

"X" followed on the heels of the wildly successful "Kick." It's funny, when the band started recording "Kick," they set out to make an album where, according to Kirk Pengilly (guitar/saxophone) "every song could be a single." When they turned the album into Atlantic Records, the record company, reportedly, hated it. They said they'd never get it played on rock radio. According to INXS's manager, Atlantic claimed "it was suited for black radio." Despite their protests, they agreed to release "Kick" in 1987, and good thing they did. "Kick" went on to be six times platinum and had four top ten hits. It was the band's most successful album.

Three years later, "X" dropped, and it did well, but not as well as "Kick." It eventually ended up double platinum, which is nothing to sneeze at. It had two hit singles and two other singles that were relatively big. Critics were a little less kind, simply because they wanted it to be bigger than "Kick," and I'm not really sure that was possible. "Kick" was lightning in a bottle, and it's hard to capture that same kind of magic twice. The songs on "X" were in the same vein as "Kick," but were colored in a bit more, and yet, also a little less subtle.

"Suicide Blonde" opens the album with a squeal of harmonica and then a heavy guitar chord and a throbbing bass line. The song was written about pop star Kylie Minogue, who was Hutchence's girlfriend at the time. It's slinky and yet it chugs along like a machine. This was sort of the band's m.o. for the album - play into Hutchence's neo-Jim Morrison presence and back it with a blend of new wave and pub rock with just a bit of funk.

"X" also features my favorite INXS track, the more soft spoken "The Stairs." It wasn't even a single here, but it was the song that latched onto my psyche when I first heard it. I remember hanging outside of the church I was confirmed in (having to go through confirmation class - and no, before you ask, I don't believe in any of that, but the things we do for family) listening to the tape on my walkman, waiting for my ride home.

It seems like the song most people know from "X," though, is "Disappear," which was certainly the most new wave song on the album, even though new wave as a music movement was in its death knells by then. I think the song appeared in a few movies at the time, and it certainly got a lot of radio play in the midwest, where I grew up. And, really, any excuse to show you this video, which is so wonderfully late 1980s, just in 1990.  Anyhow, "X" is a great album and INXS is still missed.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses - 1989

I've still don't really understood how The Stone Roses never caught on as big in the States as they are in their native England. Maybe there's something about them that's just inherently British that doesn't connect as well with people here, or maybe we just weren't at the same headspace as that side of the pond in 1989. I mean, The Stone Roses were college darlings here, but they didn't take the world by storm. Compare that to the way they were treated in England, where their second album was called "Second Coming" and they weren't being too tongue in cheek about it. (Well, maybe a little bit.)

Formed back in 1983, The Stone Roses were playing together for a good long time before their first album came out. They put out a single, opened for Pete Townsend (of The Who fame), settled on their final lineup in 1987 and eventually scored a record deal, putting together an album in 1988, the self-titled "The Stone Roses." And thus, a legend was born. In some ways, here in the states, The Stone Roses were almost like the Velvet Underground - they weren't widely heard, but it seemed like everyone who heard them formed a band. You'll see a lot of people cite The Stone Roses as inspiration for them starting a band, which is interesting, because The Stone Roses sound hasn't really been imitated all that much.

The Stone Roses were, in many ways, the co-founders of the Madchester scene -  they were doing guitar pop mixed heavily with dance and rave music. (The other co-founder of the scene would be, of course, The Happy Mondays, although I wouldn't argue against people like New Order and James being put in there as well.) The idea was to take some of the elements of psychedelia and meld them with bits of disco. Lots of people were looking for something new, and The Stone Roses had latched onto something.

The first song from the album that started catching on was "She Bangs The Drums,"which you can hear is filled with sparkling guitars and a sing-song chorus that's almost dream pop, but it's all backed by a very danceable beat, swinging and catchy. Just listen to that chugging mid-section around the 1:30 mark, as you get what can only be called an interlude. The Stone Roses weren't afraid to let the groove dictate the song, and Ian Brown, the band's vocalist, was happy to ride the groove even as the lyrics blended through it. And the band realized that the groove was certainly catching on, and that people loved the blend of dance and pop. In fact, it was a B-side to their first album that really got the band catapulted into the limelight, a little song called "Fool's Gold."

If you listen to nothing else this week, listen to all nearly ten minutes of "Fool's Gold." It's the very definition of groove rock. There's a playful, wobbly bass line setting the tone and a steady dance beat that never backs off, and John Squire's guitar is coy and mischievous, hopping in and out of the spotlight, coloring in and out to paint the corners and sometimes be front and center. "Fool's Gold" was popular enough that the album was re-released in both the UK and the US to include the song, which was tearing up college charts here left and right.

Even if the band had never done anything again, the slinky, experimental dance-rock of "Fool's Gold" built an entire music genre. The band went through a mess of problems but eventually "Second Coming" was released in 1994, and I've always felt the album never got the fair shake it deserved. It was more bluesy, and a bit more upfront, but hell, it was a pretty damn great album. On tour for it, the band started to disintegrate and collapsed in 1996.

For years and years, there were repeated rumors of the band reforming, but they all dismissed it as "never going to happen." Meanwhile, the popularity of the band continued to grow and grow in the UK until they were legends. Ian Brown put out several solo albums, many of which were quite good, John Squire formed a new band called The Seahorses that put out one album and then disbanded, the drummer Reni played in a small band but didn't do much, and Mani, the group's bassist, joined Primal Scream, where he flourished.

And then in 2011, after 15 years, The Stone Roses reformed. They played a couple of shows in 2012, a couple of shows last year, and there's talk they're working on or starting or finishing a new album, and the hope is that we'll see them touring here this year or next, because god knows I'd love to see them live.

Let me leave you with one last track from the album, the album's original closing track, the swaggering "I Am The Resurrection."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Spanish Prisoner - 1997

My love of the con is well documented at this point, but I also particularly love films that are mind games, and "The Spanish Prisoner" definitely falls into both categories. It's also from David Mamet, who is no slouch when it comes to these kinds of things.

Mamet has a very particular way of writing dialogue. It's flashy, it's showy, it's confident and sometimes it's a little weird. It's filled with questions that aren't, sentences that don't finish and people talking into one another. He also writes wonderfully cynical people with absolutely razor wits. One of my favorite Mamet-isms comes from the money "Heist," in which Danny DeVito says, "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." He writes vicious, targeted dialogue that doesn't pull any punches. Mamet also writes in circles, elliptical wandering sentences that talk around subjects without actually talking about them, in such fascinating sentences as "Beware all enterprises that require new clothes." I mean, it sounds deep, but is it? Isn't it? Mamet's dialogue is like a puzzle, something to be pieced together, constructed and then dissected, torn apart until the truth shines through, except that the truth in any other light might be a lie. (Sorry, listening to Mamet and reading Mamet inevitably leads to writing a little like Mamet.)

The spark of the story is simple - Joe has invented a formula, or a process, or, well, something. Something that a lot of people with a lot of money are willing to pay a lot of money for, because they think it will bring them even more money. From there, well, things get a little tricky, and I certainly wouldn't want to spoil the fun.

I remember checking this movie out initially because it had two things I liked, a David Mamet con game and Steve Martin. I'd been reading about Steve Martin saying how he was going to try things other than comedy, and "The Spanish Prisoner" was one of the first films I'd ever seen where he wasn't out for laughs, and he made an excellent player in one of Mamet's shell games played with Russian nesting dolls. He's quite lovely in this film, playing his film with just the perfect amount of inscrutability.

And, of course, like most David Mamet films, it also features the wonderful Ricky Jay. Ricky Jay's done a ton of incredible things over the years, and I'm still annoyed there isn't a way to pick up the fantastic television special that Mamet directed called "Ricky Jay And His 52 Assistants." Ricky Jay, you see, is a slight-of-hand magician, and can do things with a deck of cards you simply wouldn't believe. Oh, you lucky people. While I was writing this, I decided to look and see, and sure enough, there's the whole special, free on YouTube. It's an amazing piece of sleight-of-hand and showmanship. He's playful, witty and a devilish raconteur. I've always wanted to see one of his shows live. Maybe some day. But there's a whole show for us all, on YouTube. The internet is a wonderful thing. Here it is, for when you have the time.

Perhaps the only thing that I'm not particularly fond of in "The Spanish Prisoner" is the only  thing that I'm not fond of in a lot of David Mamet's work - the acting of his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, whose acting always feels overly stilted to me. I've seen her in a bunch of stuff he's done, and I always feel like whatever part she's playing would be better served by a different actress. Maybe it's just something about her delivery. She's fine, I just think there could be better.

If "The Spanish Prisoner" appeals to you, there's a wealth of Mamet films you can get later, including "Heist" and the classic "House of Games." Mamet's also written a bunch of plays and movies that he hasn't directed, choosing simply only to scribe them, many of which are very good. You should look into them.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

American Football - American Football - 1998

I remember back in 1996 when I started picking up CMJ New Music Monthly. I was so excited that someone was putting out a monthly magazine with a CD, so not only could you read reviews of bands you'd never heard of, you could also hear songs from the better ones of them. And it must have been 1999 or so when I first heard "Never Meant," by American Football, and I knew I was always going to be trying to get CMJ whenever I could. (They're still around as a website these days, I've just found out. I lost touch with them when the magazine became damn near impossible to find, and I didn't want to spring for the ridiculous amount a subscription cost.) "Never Meant" was a playful, dancing melody, elaborate guitar over a soft spoken singer talking about the process of falling out of love. It was complex, emotional and fragile. I remember listening to the song endlessly.

"Not to be
I just think it's best
'Cause you can't miss what you forget"

Of course it was overly dramatic. That was the whole point of the song - that young relationships are always more intense than anyone can ever seem to describe, like no one else has ever known the pain you're feeling right then and there. I'd gone through a few breakups in college (on both sides of the equation, really) by that point, and the song spoke perfectly to the feelings I'd had then. I tracked down the album, and was delighted to find it was full of songs akin to "Never Meant." I was talking about it with one of the slightly older people at the Daily Nebraskan, the newspaper I worked at at the time, and he told me it was "math rock." I'd never heard the term before, so I did a little digging. It was a mostly Midwestern music movement focused around unusual time signatures, angular melodies and stop/start rhythms. I liked it, but I found quite a bit of the movement to be, well, tuneless.

American Football broke up after this album, and Mike Kinsella, the voice of the band, went on to found Owen, a mostly solo project that has echoes of American Football in it, but is a little less ornate. That isn't to say Owen hasn't done some amazing stuff over the years, but I find myself missing American Football now and again.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Richard Hawley - Standing At the Sky's Edge - 2012

It's funny, I don't seem to connect with any of Hawley's other work, but there is something about this album that is amazing. Richard Hawley was best known in the UK, apparently, as Pulp's touring guitarist, until a couple of years ago. He was also a member of the band the Longpigs, whom I've never heard of. But in 2001, he started releasing solo albums. I'll be honest, I'd heard bits and pieces of the first couple, but they'd never really spoken to me all that much. Hawley has a gorgeous baritone voice, but his style, sort of Roy Orbison meets Morrissey, just didn't connect with me. It was just a little too much brood and not enough

Fast forward to 2012, and the British music press is all aflutter about Hawley's new album. Normally I wouldn't care all that much, but the reviews all said the same thing - he'd rediscovered his rock side and folded it into what he'd been doing before. That appealed to me, as did the fact that a lot of the reviews said the new album had strong shades of psychedelia to it. People were even comparing it to Catherine Wheel, the sort of brooding shoegazing that I'm known to love. I figured I could give it a listen, so I tracked down the video for the first single, "Leave Your Body Behind You."

It was, as they say, certainly quite a change. Sure, the warm baritone voice was still there, but there was a snappy beat behind it, and the guitars did, indeed, have shades of Catherine Wheel. The song reminded me of the things I liked most about Kula Shaker, in all honesty, that sort of 1960s vibe without being beholden to it, while giving it a heavier touch. It also helped make Hawley's voice fold into the whole better, rather than being the blustering forefront it had been in so much of his earlier material. It had sweep and scope and a sort of breathless scale that made me want to hear more. I wasn't entirely convinced that the rest of the album would have this sort of big sky sound, but I was definitely interested. Could the retro-crooner really have gone full rocker?

The album, "Standing At the Sky's Edge," didn't come out here until about three months after it did in the UK, and by that point, the second single had dropped, and a lot more reviews had been written. The second single, "Don't Stare At The Sun," was more akin to Hawley's older work, but it still wasn't exactly in the brooding crooner vein he'd tapped so much before. Just listen to that guitar section that breaks into the song around the 3:20 mark, and just keeps spiraling, building, swirling, dancing. It's gorgeous, ensorcelling, entrancing.

Since its release, "Standing At the Sky's Edge" was nominated for a Mercury Prize (losing to Alt-J, whom just don't connect with me at all - they seem like a less effective version of the Beta Band) and it's gone on to be his best selling album. Let's hope his next one continues in this path.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Grosse Point Blank - 1997

There is something intrinsically weird about Grosse Point Blank as a movie, and I think that's why it's wonderful. It was made during the second renaissance of John Cusack, where he did High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank almost back to back, both of which were projects that absolutely sailed, and for highly different reasons. We need to get this John Cusack back, the one who knows how to pick the smart projects.

The premise of the film is surreal to start with. A hitman is invited to his ten year high school reunion. Coincidentally enough, he also has a job there. And, on top of everything, he's dealing with an impeding assassins union struggle (no, really) and his therapist won't return his phone calls. The guy's a mess, but then again, who isn't around the time of their ten year high school reunion?

I didn't go to mine, because I wasn't invited, but my twenty year is coming up next year, and I'll probably go to that, and I expect it to be as strange and unusual as the one Cusack's character goes to here. (One of the lines in the movie is "It was like everyone had swelled.") But before he gets to the reunion, he's going to try and reconnect with his past - the best friend he left behind, the girl he left on prom night, the house he grew up in. Needless to say, none of this goes as planned.

Yesterday I was talking about ensemble casts, and Grosse Point Blank really is an embarrassment of riches in this regard. Dan Aykroyd plays the guy trying to talk Cusack into joining his little assassin's union, Alan Arkin is Cusack's reluctant therapist, Jeremy Pivens is the best friend who's trying to figure out what the hell is going on and Minnie Driver is the girl he left behind. Oh, and John's sister Joan is his assistant/partner-in-crime. Hell, even Hank Azaria's in the movie.

The film is filled with crackling dialogue and wonderful fish-out-of-water moments made even funnier by the fact that it's an assassin in suburbia. HIS suburbia, rather, or the one he grew up in. But while he's been gone for ten years, his hometown has changed, and more than he'd expected, from the girl he left behind (who's a radio DJ now) to the house he grew up in.

Grosse Point Blank is also flush with the best possible 1986 soundtrack you could put together, from the mainstream stuff like a-ha's "Take On Me" to the popular but somewhat indie stuff such as Echo & The Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" or Faith No More's "We Care A Lot." The music for the film was so good they put out not one, but two soundtracks to it.

The star of the show is John Cusack, though, who plays the man adrift better than I even thought possible. This is a guy who's been trying to find himself for the last few years, after having lived a life doing some pretty bad things and telling himself he was doing it for the right reasons. He goes through so many different phases in this movie, it's kind of remarkable to watch, even as he's trying to see whether or not he can blend in with the life he left behind. He gets to play: frantic, subdued, tortured, ecstatic, nervous... in fact, it's a little like high school all over again. There's also an amazing thirty second scene where he's interacting with a baby, and it's almost like a capsule of the entire movie told purely through facial expressions.

We'll revisit Cusack a number of times in the deviations, but I can never believe when people tell me they haven't seen Grosse Point Blank. It's such a perfectly strange mix of pathos, humor and nostalgia, it's gotta be high school all over again...