Now is the winter of our discotheque.
It’s another bleak weak in Special Ed – especially if you don’t give a big log about Downton Abbey (as I’ve said all along, I prefer Cougarton Abbey). Casino Royale (with cheese, not the Craiggers version) comes to Blu, and it’s a film that is almost completely terrible, so who cares? There’s a Ben Hur announcement – but that’s been available in vanilla and supra mega Collector’s Edition for some time at all Best Buy locations, so that’s not something that matters a whole lot, either. Love Story makes its Blu bow – so now we get to watch Ali McGraw be bland and die in full 1080p. This is the film that wounded my perception of Ryan O’Neal for all time.
And there’s another SKU for Jackass 3? Wake me when that’s a 3D BD (or should that be 3D BM…?). Perhaps a better buy in the realm of raucous comedy might be A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas? Looked funny to me.
On the music front, Umphrey’s McGee: Live comes to Blu Ray. Spacey and eclectic, “Umphrey’s” is nevertheless dull, uninspired “Jam Band” nonsense concocted to insult the limited intelligence of people too stoned to be annoyed by the pandering. It always hurts when performers of obviously immense talent take the stage to endlessly noodle.
A single episode of CSI gets released to Blu Ray? Why? Oh – because Quentin Tarantino directed it, and CBS/Para/Bruck are all hoping that QT fannerds will buy it just because he’s involved. And they’re probably right – I’ve got that episode of The Golden Girls where he does Elvis, and I hated that show.
You might think that we’re going to be treated to loving close-ups of Marg Helgenbergengergenger’s feet and a score cribbed from Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary…and maybe Will Graham goes on a wiseacre rant about how stupid it is that people – okay – these dumb motherfuckers – leave semen at the scene of every crime ALL THE TIME, alright?
Turns out that, by all accounts, you’d never know that Tarantino directed the episode – which was probably the point. A director steps in to something like this to show that he can adapt (and in this case, probably to wrest Manhunter stories outta’ Billy Petersen).
But there are a couple of things worth your time:
A FISH CALLED WANDA
Formerly a Wal Mart exclusive, you can now find the film in locations that aren’t pants-optional. So do. This is a sublime, sinister comedy classic, and I’m happy to upgrayedd.
LA JETEE/SANS SOLEIL (Criterion)
Chris Marker’s strange sci-fi short makes it to Blu Ray via Voyager, and I’ll bet this narrative concocted from a series of stills has never looked better. Sans Soleil is an outré documentary in 16mm, and I saw it on crappy VHS a million years ago and can’t remember a thing about it. Now’s my chance, I guess.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – Grave Danger
Day of the Dead: The Need to Feed
Downton Abbey: Season 2
Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat
Filth to Ashes, Flesh to Dust
A Fish Called Wanda
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Jackass 3.5: The Unrated Movie
La Jetee / Sans Soleil
Lady and the Tramp
Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace
Lindsey Buckingham Live: With Special Guest Stevie Nicks
Owl City: Live from Los Angeles
The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall
Sengoku Basara 2: The Complete Series
The Sunset Limited
Throw Momma from the Train
Umphrey’s McGee: Live
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas 3D
A Warrior’s Heart
XAMD Lost Memories: Complete Collection
The Yakuza Weapon
VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH
The term “retro” gets such a bad name that it’s a pleasure to see these dudes embrace the concept so wholeheartedly: not only did they turn back the clock to the days when “Diamond Dave” was a household name, they steadfastly refused to write any new songs, instead constructing the album from some two-decade-old notebooks and demos. And from the cascade of guitar overdubs to the “my-goddam-spandex-pants-are-too-tight” squeals of the now-57 Roth, it’s like they never went away.
I’ve seen some complaining about the first single, “Tattoo,” and while I agree it sucks, it would have sucked just as badly in 1986, and back then you’d have had to watch it on MTV all day, to boot. I understand that there are “old-school” Van Halen purists (I don’t really qualify, but I did see them at the Starwood shortly after the first album came out, for what that’s worth), for whom the old “live” VH sound was more appealing than the studio wizardry that the band later fell in love with, and is still very much in evidence here. But that command of the studio, and its concomitant radio exposure, is what transformed Eddie from super-shredding young turk into guru and mentor for a generation; on the new album, it showcases him just fine. And trust me, if you skip over “Tattoo,” you’ll be rewarded with the vintage cock-rock of “She’s The Woman,” (“I wanna be your knight in shining pickup truck“), the jackhammer pulse of “China Town,” the classic build-and-release of “You and Your Blues;” and you gotta love the boys getting all down-home on “Stay Frosty” with Roth constantly one-upping Eddie’s fluid finger-picking before the rest of the band joins in.
I’m not all that familiar with the ins and outs of the band’s workings, but I’ve been given to understand that Eddie used to record (re-record?) a lot of the bass tracks himself; whether that’s still true, or if his kid inherited the genes, whoever it is locks in nicely with Alex’s drumming, giving it the appropriate booming sheen. For all that both Roth and Eddie were larger-than-life personalities back in the day, the integrated sound of Van Halen, at their best, was as smooth and sleek as a dynamo, and if you allow for the passage of a few decades, it pretty much still is. If there’s a criticism, it would be that the loss of Anthony homogenizes the backing vocals more than you might prefer, but let’s face it, that’s pretty small potatoes in this context. I’d be hard pressed to imagine a Van Halen fan not loving the hell out of this.
CHUCK PROPHET – TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL
The City By The Bay has plenty of musical associations, from Tony Bennett to Journey (either of whom I could gladly live the rest of my life never hearing again). From his days with Green on Red, Prophet has dipped now and again into the vitality of the San Francisco arts and music scene, but Temple Beautiful (inspired by the legendary punk club that was located on the site of Jim Jones’ original Peoples’ Temple) is the first time he’s dedicated an entire album to subjects relating specifically to San Francisco, with special attention paid to some of the darker moments of its cultural history.
Opener “Play That Song Again” lays its bright, fresh melody over an insistent hammering guitar track; like much of the album, the inspiration that Prophet draws from San Francisco is shaped into something more universal than place-specific. But “Castro Halloween” is the first of several tracks presenting the darker side of the City’s history, lamenting the murders and rioting that destroyed the Halloween celebration in the Castro that was one of the city’s more endearingly freaky traditions (“When the shots rang out / And two men died / You took off your mask / Just to see me cry“). And while Prophet’s on his game all through the album, with tearjerk (“Museum of Broken Hearts”), iconography (“Willie Is Up At Bat”) and cheerful bravado (“I Felt Like Jesus”), it’s “White Night, Big City,” placed second to the end, that stands out: a tough, Lou Reed-like treatment of the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and the riots that followed in the wake of Dan White’s lenient conviction. The final track, “Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)” is a historical tall tale that feels like a bittersweet farewell to a quirkier, crazier San Francisco than the one Prophet has had to learn to accept. The basic band (James DePrato on guitars, bassist Rusty Miller, and The Tubes’ Prairie Prince on drums) gives excellent support to Prophet’s Telecaster twang and enthusiastically adenoidal singing. Plus, guest vocals from the original Flamin’ Groovie hisself, Roy Loney!
SHARON VAN ETTEN – TRAMP
I’m sort of assuming that the album title derives from Van Etten’s year or so spent crashing on friends’ couches and holed up recording in Aaron Dessner’s garage; but the increased confidence she shows here since her last outing suggests a woman unlikely to be terribly bothered by any of society’s uglier epithets.
“Serpents” was the advance single and it’s a definite high point: a statement of purpose from a narrator already wearied of a life of compromise (“I had a thought that you would take me seriously“), Van Etten’s voice soaring darkly over the twin-guitar attack. The album proper opens with the jagged guitar figure of “Warsaw,” which ends with an abrupt crash of cymbals; “Give Out” then provides the first of an album’s worth of kiss-off to a lover/friend/relative who can’t take Van Etten on her own terms (“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / Or why I’ll need to leave“), set to an eerie, droning melody. From the whispered opening of “Kevin’s” to the military waltz of “Leonard” (“I am bad” eventually morphs into the rueful honesty of “I am bad at loving you”), Van Etten’s voice replaces neediness with self-reliance, and the sense that her affection must now be earned.
The band is composed of members of, among others, The National, Wye Oak, and The Walkmen; the most significant participant, though, is Beirut’s Zach Condon, providing additional songwriting and vocal support, most notably on the honeyed ukulele sound of “We Are Fine” (“Take my hand and / Help me not to shake / Say I’m all right“). In the end, Van Etten expects to learn from pain (“I want my scars to help and heal“), and the final song, “Joke or a Lie,” takes the album back to its beginnings, building its four hushed minutes to a reprise of the opening of “Warsaw.” Tramp is a remarkably frank collection, and Van Etten a dark-voiced successor to Joni Mitchell.
THE TORD GUSTAVSEN QUARTET – THE WELL
As the name implies, pianist Gustavsen’s band is back to a four-piece (with Jarle Vespestad on drums, Tore Brunborg on tenor sax, and Mats Eilertsen on double bass), and on his fifth ECM release, he’s working in a gospel-tinged, purely instrumental, mode. Not that an excuse would be needed, but the “gospel” feeling is entirely appropriate, as some of the music here was commissioned for the Oslo Church Music Festival.
Gustavsen’s previous outing, Restored, Returned, featured the band backing vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen on a selection of songs and poetry readings; that same level of simpatico, of the musicians concentrating as much on hearing each other as on their own playing, carries over into this latest release, even as the structure moves away from conventional song structure. After the lushly dark opener, “Prelude,” Vespestad’s lightly martial beat propels the Satie-like melody. “Suite” is an eerie meditation, followed by the first of two version of “Communion,” with Brunborg’s haunting sax lines laid over a deep, simple bass line, and underpinned with the barest of percussion from Vespestad. “On Every Corner” has all the dark bleakness of a vintage film noir score, and when “Communion” is reprised in a set of variations, Eilertsen’s bass wails like a lost soul, and “Inside” is the contemplative closer. It’s not all structure and mood, though: both “Intuition” and the title track provide breathing room for strong, if restrained, improvisational flights.
OTHER NOTABLE 2/7 RELEASES:
Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks If I was as depressed as Kevin Barnes seems to be (“It’s fucking sad we need a tragedy to occur / To gain a fresh perspective in our lives,”), I might get more out of the dark-toned rambling on tracks like “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” which is sort of his baleful answer to “Heroes and Villains” or “Revolution #9.” But I don’t think I am, so I kinda prefer the 14-minute “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” which is even funnier than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And where’s the Liam Neeson guest spot on “We Will Commit Wolf Murder”?
Paul McCartney – Kisses on the Bottom Fun with math: It’s been nearly fifty years since “Love Me Do”… but less than twenty years separated that song from choices here like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” So here’s Paulie warbling the songs he loved as a kid… but for today’s listeners, he’s pretty much already a contemporary of writers like Johnny Mercer or Harold Arlen. What’s most remarkable is that, just a week after Ringo’s latest album, here’s the other surviving ex-Beatle with an even less ambitious release. Your mother should know.
The Fray – Scars & Stories The big radio-ready choruses are here, and you don’t get albums with songs about both Norman Rockwell and the Berlin Wall every day of the week.
Dierks Bentley – Home If you can get past the sappy title song with its Americana clichés and pandering arrangement, then you might enjoy the cheerful sexism, hair-metal banjo, and good ol’ boy ruckus. But I can’t.
Air – Le Voyage Dans La Lune Thanks in part, no doubt, to Hugo, we’re now getting a faithfully-restored version of Melies’ classic. I cry “shenanigans” in setting it to music with instruments that hadn’t even been invented in 1902, though. Modern advances are all well and good: Melies would likely have approved of painless dentistry, but I have no reason to think that he would have got much out of this kind of synth noodling.
Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral While stuff like “…the dark heavy rain / Where the gravedigger’s song is sung” still sounds like Nick Cave-lite to me, Lanegan puts even his most derivative stuff across with dark conviction.
Die Antwoord – Ten$Ion Haven’t heard it. Bet it’s a riot.
Dr. Dog – Be The Void As in void of any musical idea more recent than 1975?
Ben Kweller – Go Fly A Kite Wish I’d had time for a proper listen before deadline, as Kweller’s smart writing and trim guitar riffs could serve as an object lesson in repurposing vintage tropes into something that honors the classics by not simply repeating them.
Let It Be Roberta – Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles She sure does.
Tim Berne – Snakeoil It’s been eight years since Berne’s last new studio release, and he’s clearly been saving up, because the six tracks here are absolutely bursting with musical ideas, particularly the 14-minute opener, “Simple City.” The interplay between his sax and the clarinet(s) of Oscar Noriega is some dizzyingly amazing shit.
KINGDOMS OF AMALUR: RECKONING (PS3, 360, PC)
This game is full of odd, untested talent. Talent I don’t much care for. And a baseball player. It’s also a prequel to an upcoming MMO. None of these things are good omens. Thing is, Reckoning wants to be a huge open-world RPG with combat that doesn’t suck. It seems like a novel idea. I’m so used to flailing about and wishing in western RPGs that even the tiniest innovation will feel like God of War. Honestly, the only reservation I have left with Reckoning (beyond the smug title just acting like it’s already part of some hip franchise) is that Todd McFarlane will indirectly benefit from my purchase.
THE DARKNESS 2 (PS3, 360)
The first game did a lot of interesting stuff with the genre and managed to keep me engaged despite being from a franchise I couldn’t know less about. The sequel switches the developer and visual style up, but looks to bring more of the same. Which hopefully means more fluid combat, a unique story, and Mike Patton. It has one of those things for sure. I wouldn’t say Mike Patton is a reason to buy a game, but Mike Patton is pretty awesome. Plus, 2K wants your money. They may not deserve your money, but they really need it to make rent this month.
RESIDENT EVIL: REVELATIONS (3DS)
Revelations is being called a throwback for the series. Despite having recently tried to revisit the older games, I’m okay with that. I grew up with the PSX era Resident Evil games and I’m for something in that style that doesn’t control like a sadistic bondage fantasy. If this game has the tension of the earlier games, just now with mediocre 3D, that’s enough. It’s an odd choice for 3DS, but I’m glad the system is finally getting bigger games.
That it isn’t nativity able to play properly. Revelations looks awesome, but it’s also the way Americans are suckered into buying into Nintendo’s latest archaic add-on, The Circle Pad Pro. It’s a second analog stick, so you can actually play 3D games. That’s innovation. I’m sure Revelations controls fine with one -analog stick, but now you can have two so it controls better. I’m sure the Circle Pad is some contractual obligation that was part of their Monster Hunter coup, but it really shows how lost Nintendo is. They not only left out a feature that is an integral part of 3D gaming, they half-heartedly shit it out less than a year later as a clunky addition that turns the already unimaginative-looking 3DS into a fuckpile of vestigial industrial design. My 3DS is officially one worthless plastic snap-on away from becoming a Tower of Power. And it still has nothing as cool as a Power Base Converter.
Gotham City Imposters is a Batman game where homeless Batmen shoot homeless Jokers. It’s Team Fortress with a license it’s using just for cool hats. The beta was a blast. The reward system makes for some unique class-based multiplayer. The game is fast and even has a bit of a Quake II vibe. Even if it played like shit, I’d be excited for this game simply for the complete fuckery of the license. It’s a cool little comic book-y interpretation that we don’t normally see with games.
Finally, Shank 2 is hitting PSN, XBL, and Steam.
So now it ends…See You Next Wednesday – er, I mean Tuesday! Tuesday…