I’m having real trouble getting behind anything this week, honestly. So this is the list of this week’s Blu. I’ve written a little bit on just about everything – but I can’t actually tell you to run out and buy a whole lot of it.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
The Best Picture winner comes to Blu Ray as Uni’s Ani Celebration rolls on.
ALL THINGS FALL APART
50 Cent is 50 Pounds in this tale of a college(!!) football star stricken with cancer. For the video release, they’ve added an “All” to the title, but they probably shoulda’ just changed the name to Fiddy/Fiddy…
BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD: VOLUME FOUR
On Blu Ray? Certainly the animation will benefit from the high definition treatment…
Hey! You guys! STOP WITH THE FUCKING ZOMBIES ALREADY.
DR. SEUSS: THE LORAX
Just in time for the fantastic new animated feature…
ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN
Jose Padilha returns to the beast he created with another tale of guns and talks and treachery.
HAWAII FIVE-O: THE FIRST SEASON (2010)
Has anyone uttered “Give it to me Chin – whaddya’ got?” Then it’s not Hawaii Five-O
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2: FULL SEQUENCE
Released to foreign territories under its alternate title: TRYING TOO HARD.
NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS
Pandering, faux-grindhouse tripe is quickly becoming as annoying as zombies. “We meant for it to be shitty!” No you didn’t – you just had no choice.
THE PERFECT WEAPON
Just try him.
THE RUM DIARY
Bruce Robinson – the genius behind the genius Withnail and I – brings Depp back as Hunter (the real one this time). Goddess Amber Heard comes along for the ride.
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain star as a couple coming apart in the face of Shannon’s apocalyptic dreams, which cause him to build an elaborate shelter in the backyard to save his family. Is he breaking with reality, or does he see the truth?
THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (Criterion)
Tetsuro Tamba stars in a tale of three ronin who’ve hit rock-bottom. Two have been hired to murder the group of poor townsfolk who’ve abducted the daughter of a corrupt official. One of them stands to remind them of who they once were. The film is sort of an inversion of the typical Chanbara, in that two of the principal characters are essentially the villains hired to destroy the innocents rather than protect them. It’s a film that obviously speaks to class disparity in a way that remains timeless, as it asks our betters if they can honestly stand by and watch people starve in the street. The film’s director, Hideo Gosha, got his start in television – and that fact is demonstrated in his sense of dramatic pace and and his economic storytelling.
All Quiet on the Western Front
All things Fall Apart
Beavis and Butthead: Volume Four
Broken Blade: Complete Collection
Dr Seuss: The Lorax
Dr. Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, 2011 Christmas Special
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
Hawaii Five-O: The First Season
The Geisha Boy
The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
IMAX 3-D Triple Feature: Dinosaurs Alive/Wild Ocean/Mummies
Nature: Kangaroo Mob
Nude Nuns with Big Guns
The Perfect Weapon
Robin of Sherwood: Set 2
The Rum Diaries
Three Outlaw Samurai (Criterion)
Tiny Furniture (Criterion)
Vexille: The Movie
THE EXPLORERS CLUB – GRAND HOTEL
I’m always torn with regard to the obviously “retro” nature of the presentation of a band like Explorers Club. On the one hand, the twee iconography (right down to the faux vinyl-LP distress marks on the covers of their albums) sets my teeth on edge; on t’other, there’s no particular reason that the work of Brian Wilson or Burt Bacharach shouldn’t be mined for inspiration, or outright imitated, every bit as much as that of James Brown or Lennon & McCartney. And considering that the band is working with producer Mark Linett (who helped Brian Wilson complete sMILE, among other credits), they’re getting inspiration right from the source.
Grand Hotel sets out to grab you right away with its intricate, 60’s-perfect arrangements. Great pop songwriting, though, doesn’t require lush production to be put across, and the stronger material here – including the Walker-Brothers-meets Fifth-Dimension of “Run Run Run,” the Four-Seasons-versus-Derek-and-the-Dominoes of “Anticipatin'” or the Astrud-Gilberto-call-your-office of “Acapulco (Sunset)” – breathes with an ache of sincerity and melodic invention that would just as easily catch the ear if they were performed with solo guitar or piano accompaniment. And even the songs that feel more like genre exercises (“Summer Days, Summer Nights,” “Weight of the World”, which are also the most obvious Beach Boys cops) are so perfectly polished that they get under your skin despite their occasional thematic blandness.
The principal weakness here, as is often the case with such expertly-executed homage, is that singer Jason Brewer (rather like Mayer Hawthorne) lacks the vocal distinctiveness to make the material as compelling as his role models. And to be fair, it’s not a unique failing: anyone who’s heard solo work from, say, Carl Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach, knows that participating in the creation of great music doesn’t make you a great singer. There’s no shame in not being Mike Love or Dionne Warwick, though, and when Brewer blends his voice with his bandmates, the harmonies are as inventive and affecting as Brian Wilson at his best.
An easy album to fall in love with… or to. And the digital download version is only $4.99.
PUNCH BROTHERS – WHO’S FEELING YOU NOW?
I was always a kinda lukewarm fan of the polished perfectionism of Nickel Creek, and when Chris Thile spun off the first Punch Brothers album, I gave it a couple of listens, and filed it away with such expertly-played-but-rarely-compelling stuff as Umphrey’s McGee or Animals As Leaders. 2010’s Antifogmatic, though, revealed a new, focused, songwriting strength, and at its best (“Rye Whiskey,” “This Is The Song(Good Luck)”, “Next To The Trash”), it had an emotional candor that you wouldn’t necessarily expect out of this melding of prog, jazz, and bluegrass. If anything, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is even stronger.
From the keening wail of the opener, “Movement and Location,” the collective voice of the band is supreme confidence in the strength of the songwriting: no extended suites or pseudo-classical pieces; their stunning virtuosity is put to the service of more direct forms of communication. Thile, his bandmates, and occasional songwriting partner Josh Ritter have a great handle on their protagonist: the fuckup who wants to be wised-up. He’s not above asking The Big Guy Upstairs for a little help with his romantic problems (“I’d be the happiest backslider in the world / If You would tell her it’s Your will / For us to be together / I would never bother You again“), and he stumbles over the wry contradictions of a “Patchwork Girlfriend” (“I’m not sure what I’m saying / I just need you to believe me“).
Musically, the album is the natural extension from Antifogmatic: from the funky stop-time of the title song to the sweet pop of “Clara” to the bluesy “Hundred Dollars,” the band (including Thile on mandolin, banjo player Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and bassist Paul Kowert) aren’t simply showing off their breadth of influence, they’re synthesizing it into a pop-music sound completely distinct from even their most expert neo-bluegrass brethren.
My only mild disappointment is that, for a band that’s been known to cover an interesting variety of Radiohead tunes (one time I saw them, it was “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”), the one they’ve chosen for this album is the rather more obvious “Kid A.” Naturally, they play the fuck out of it, too (though I don’t know that it’s quite as mad as Brad Mehldau’s “Paranoid Android” from last year). Highly recommended.
HEARTLESS BASTARDS – ARROW
For all the rootsiness in Heartless Bastards’ music, it’s not so much Janis Joplin I hear in Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals: she’s more like a younger, leather-lunged Patti Smith (“Parted Ways” could have opened either side of Radio Ethiopia); she’s big-city streets rather than dusty oil refineries; Cleveland rather than Port Arthur. She does share with Joplin the ability to use her strong, flexible voice to elevate less-than-memorable songwriting— Wennerstrom’s problem is that she’s usually the less-than-memorable songwriter in question.
Opener “Marathon” sums up the album pretty well: it’s a fairly shapeless bit of doggerel, which only comes to life near the end as Wennerstrom rips into the repeated refrain of “I’m on my way…” worrying it like Van Morrison with a pork chop; it’s only the first of several places on Arrow that you surrender to the transcendence of her impassioned wail as long as you don’t listen too carefully. “Marathon” is also one of several tracks that give guitarist Mark Nathan the chance for some dark, expansive guitar raveups more than a bit reminiscent of Phil Wandscher’s work on Jess Sykes’ brilliant Marble Son from last year. “Skin and Bone” is a quick re-write of “Lola” that begs for some lyrical wit to match Wennerstrom’s dryly underplayed vocals, while six minutes is just too long for something like the sludge of “The Arrow Killed The Beast” to sustain any real interest. The album winds down on two of Wennerstrom’s canniest vocals: the mountain-music drone of “Low Low Low,” followed by the weary valedictory of “Down in the Canyon,” the band revving themselves into Crazy Horse territory, with Wennerstrom confidently atop the wall of sound.
Following the personnel shuffles of the past few years, Wennerstrom has brought back original HB drummer Dave Colvin and bass player Jesse Ebagh, and they provide her a solid bedrock when she lets loose, thanks to crisp production from Spoon’s Jim Eno. In the end, Arrow is a terrific-sounding album for anyone looking for some 70’s guitar crunch and bad attitude from a gal with a voice so tough she makes Grace Potter sound like Karen Carpenter. I can’t promise you’ll remember any particular song after it’s done, but hell, you can always just play it again.
KIRK WHALUM – ROMANCE LANGUAGE
I know the marketing department chose the release date, and I’m wondering if they came up with the album title, too. Yeah, it’s a collection of standards, but its goals are loftier than simply Valentine’s Day schmooze: Romance Language is a revisiting of the landmark 1963 album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann, where Trane specifically advanced the (perhaps radical) notion that accompanying a great vocalist didn’t have to relegate a musician to a subordinate role. Whalum’s brother Kevin takes on the Hartmann role, and it’s to their credit that, despite reprising the original album’s same six tracks (and adding another four), their take on the material is different and distinctive, if not in the same class with the original.
Whalum’s smooth jazz tendencies don’t make him the ideal candidate to step into Coltrane’s shoes, but the deep gospel underpinnings in his playing occasionally transcend the easy-listening patina of the arrangements. There’s also a nice Latin groove to much of the album, including some Jobim rhythm (“The Say It’s Wonderful,” “Dedicated To You”), and even a touch of flamenco from guitarist Michael Ripoll on “Autumn Serenade.” Overall, though, there’s a bit too much “quiet storm” jingly percussion and easy melisma to compel repeated listening. The contemporary songs chosen to fill out the album (including “I Wish I Wasn’t” and “I Wanna Know”) actually take to the smoothing-out more easily than do the classics.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that Kevin Whalum’s pleasantly mild voice lacks the burnished richness of Hartmann’s, and neither his phrasing or diction are even in the same ballpark. That’s particularly obvious when he steps aside to allow the brothers’ 83-year-old uncle, Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, to turn in a soulfully idiomatic vocal on “Almost Doesn’t Count,” much closer in spirit and timbre to Hartmann than his nephew manages. I don’t know that Romance Language works as any sort of commentary/counterpoint to its inspiration, but as a capably played collection of jazz standards, it’s pleasant enough.
OTHER NOTABLE 2/14 RELEASES:
Shearwater – Animal Joy I don’t know if it’s more folkie-prog or proggie-folk, but it doesn’t quite sound like anything else out there: singer/songwriter/bandleader Jonathan Meiburg has a commanding enough presence in his faux-80’s-soul vocal style to put across loopiness like “I am leaving the life!” and make you like it. Bon Iver for people who’ve already had their nap.
Band of Skulls – Sweet Sour Trite, I know, but it’s true-the album title sums it up pretty well: crunch-metal with sugary harmonies. And if “You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On” doesn’t sound like the most sensitive come-on ever, it’s really no worse than, say, “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep.”
Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer – Little Blue Egg Newly-discovered demos and rarities from the late Carter and his longtime musical and life partner. Melancholy by definition, but not without its sense of sly fun (“Three-Fingered Jack,” “Amazon”).
Tennis – Young and Old The retro-pop and gentle reverbed guitar are amped-up a bit this time around with an actual rhythm section, and Alaina Moore’s voice is still a lovely instrument. Not the album to buy instead of Grand Hotel, but maybe the obvious followup.
Cotton Mather – Kontiki (Deluxe 2CD Edition) Arguably the second-best power-pop album of the 90’s is reissued with a slew of live and unreleased goodies.
Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples Great Irish singer; decent, generally predictable material. But collaborations with both Imelda May and Janis Ian kick up the interest level a notch.
Earth – Angels of Darkness Demons of Light 2 I compared the first installment of this…um… project, to creating an endless loop of the first eight bars of Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs,” slowed to half-speed. This being Part 2, it’s actually a tad less stimulating than that.
TWISTED METAL (PS3)
The psychotic car combat series makes a late next gen debut. While a full price car combat game seems like an archaic idea, blowing shit up with customizable vehicles in an apocalyptic wasteland is always, ALWAYS awesome. Twisted Metal has always given great explosion, even when the series had it’s dark days in the late PSX era. With the original creators back and with the amazing Twisted Metal: Black under their belts, there is very little to worry about. They’d have to work pretty hard to fuck up the formula they perfected and, apart from some recent studio shakeups, it looks like they’ve only improved on the formula. As much as Rage tried, Twisted Metal is the closest thing we have to a Mad Max game. It may not have the story or style of the Mad Max films, but it has insane cars blowing the shit out of each other. Which is all I really want in a Mad Max game anyway.
RHYTHM HEAVEN (Wii)
Thank you, Nintendo! Thank you for not fucking us over again. Now please, for the love of Reggie, buy this game. It’s thirty dollars of concentrated fun. It’s a reminder of what Nintendo does better than anyone else. There is no simpler pleasure on the Wii. It’s a single button game that your Grandma could play (and love). Despite the simplicity, Rhythm Heaven is clever and challenging. If you need to remind yourself of why you bought a Wii in the first place, or you just love fun things, don’t pass this up.
Vita, Vita, Vita. The oddly named Playstation handheld kind of hits this week. You can get an early adopter bundle for a decent price this week, if you really want it a whole week early and don’t mind being stuck with a 3G model. Along with the bundle the first round of Vita software drops. The list is big and full of games that I would want to play if I didn’t already have bigger, better versions. And two sports games that can’t agree on what year it is. The full list is extremely underwhelming, but to be fair a lot more games hit next week when the actual, not a bundle for insane NeoGaf members, console hits.
Ben 10 Galactic Racing
Lumines: Electronic Symphony
Michael Jackson: The Experience
Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3
Eh, I’ll wait for Uncharted and Gravity Rush next week. If I happen upon two hundred and fifty bucks to spend on a handheld that I won’t use.
In other slightly-more-proven handheld news, Tales of The Abyss and Tekken hit 3DS this week. Abyss is a straight up port of the PS2 RPG, and Tekken is punching people with awesome hair.
Hey…I have awesome hair – come at me, bro!
Thanks for reading, everyone.