I want to apologize for this being so late. I’ve had some PC issues. This week is a slow one (it seems like I say that three weeks in a row, and then there are suddenly sixty films to talk about).
Ah well – let’s take a look at things…
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (CRITERION)
After a long stint as a lackluster Sony DVD, Otto Preminger’s depressing legal drama makes its way to Blu thanks to Voyager. Did I say drama? Maybe it’s a thriller – it’s certainly one of the most intense “people standing around talking” movies of all time, and it’s the template for so many films like it. A Few Good Men and Primal Fear owe massive debts to this film. Check it out.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
It’s kinda’ insane that there’s a film that features a brilliant performance from an Olson sibling – but here you go. I wonder if those two creepers talk to the talented sister, or if they just hate on her. Anyway -it’s not so insane that there’s a brilliant performance from John Hawkes – it’s been like that since FREAKED.
WORLD ON A WIRE (CRITERION)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sci-fi opus was thought to be missing in its extended form, but leave it to Voyager to find a way. Made in 1973, World on a Wire was originally a miniseries based on a book called Similacron-3 (a novel that also inspired the almost utterly forgotten but interesting The Thirteenth Floor). Fassbender’s film is said to explore the nature of identity, reality, and humanity, and now we can see it without pirating it. Thanks Criterion!
5 Star Day
American Experience: Clinton
Anatomy of a Murder Criterion Collection
Apostle Peter and the Last Supper
Dinosaur Jr.: Bug Live At 9:30 Club, In the Hands of the Fans
The Fades: Season One
Lady Gaga: The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Nurse Jackie: Season Three
On The Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin Volume 1
Santana: Live at Montreux 2011
The Son of No One
War of the Arrows
Weeds: Season Seven
Where the Dead Go to Die
World on a Wire (Criterion)
WWE: The Rock
SLEIGH BELLS – REIGN OF TERROR
I always distrusted the binary reaction to this band’s first album: “You either love ’em or hate ’em,” which suggested there wasn’t actually anything worth thinking about going on. I frankly thought that Treats presented Alexis Krauss as an unusually canny songwriter for a debut album, and the fact that the production made you work harder to hear just what she was up to was every bit as valid a musical choice as the drawl that Mick Jagger’s always affected to force listeners to work to parse something like “Brown Sugar.”
Opening the album with recorded arena-crowd roars is a nicely cheeky kiss-off to anyone who still doesn’t get the idea that Krauss and Derek Miller are thinking big (or at all): “True Shred Guitar” is as big and bold as any Leppard/Scorpions/Dokken outing, but with slamming, broken beats pushing Krauss’ chanted vocal into wonderfully parodistic territory. The fear/friendship-attraction/repulsion dichotomy continues to fascinate them: “Don’t run away from me baby / Just go away from me baby;” and they’re already starting to look at the seductive, dangerous two-edged sword of pop music fame: “Teenage metal-heads / In your denim vests / You’re holding hands / Through your favorite bands,” calling back to the infamous “incitement to suicide” lawsuit brought against Judas Priest.
Krauss isn’t the only one moving forward musically: Miller’s guitar work on tracks like “Road to Hell,” “D.O.A.,” and “You Lost Me” show him exploring the kind of palm-muting tricks and wildly arpeggiated soloing that seem to fit perfectly with the resurgence of Van Halen, while also suggesting that there might be more interesting things to do with the technique than dig out 20-year-old demos. And for every metal-cheerleader stomper like “Comeback Kid” or “Demons,” Reign of Terror has a sly “You Lost Me” or a stark “Never Say Die” to provide welcome complication.
FUN. – SOME NIGHTS
I don’t know how many of Fun.’s fans felt validated by their being discovered by the producers of “Glee,” and how many felt abandoned, but their latest album suggests that, for the band themselves, it was emphatically the former. And why not? A band that owes as much to Queen as they do to, say, Weezer, is clearly thinking big, and the fact that it was network TV that moved them out of the indie ghetto into next-big-thing is not inherently worse than the old days when it took liberal applications of payola and/or pot to achieve similar results.
When the title cut of your latest album hooks itself on “What do I stand for? / Most nights / I don’t know“, though, you’re pretty much planting your flag on the music to carry the day, not the words, and for better or worse, Fun. has smoothed out much of the interlocked experimentation of Aim & Ignite: instead of that musical crazy-quilt, we get no more than one or two musical influences per song, and while Nate Ruess is a strong, distinctive singer, he’s not songwriter enough to make simplicity work for him just yet.
The first warning sign for long-time (i.e., pre-“Glee”) fans comes on “We Are Young:” given that it features a guest appearance from Janelle Monáe, some of her adventurous musical sprit would have been welcome, rather than simply having her add her voice to the chirpy wall of radio-ready sound. And while I suppose the band can’t be responsible for contextual coincidence, much of the “Glee” audience will have associations with the phrase “It Gets Better” that undercut that song’s auto-tuned self-absorption. “Carry On” and “Why Am I The One?” feel as though they’re right across the musical plate of today’s “Lion King / Billy Elliott” Broadway fans, with all their snappy playing and cheeky harmonies. The mess-around funk of the 7-minute “Stars” that closes the album proper would have been more welcome if spread liberally over most of what preceded it, and bonus track “Out On The Town” has a petulance that suggests that Reuss and company are already wondering if they’re headed in the right direction (“I can learn to live with all the stupid shit I’ve been doing since ’99“). Fans that are OK with a slightly less complicated direction than they might have been expecting will likely be just fine with it, though.
THE CHIEFTAINS – VOICE OF AGES
One of my brothers looked over the guest list on the Chieftains’ latest (50th Anniversary!) Celtic monster rally, and asked if the thing had been programmed by someone reading over the “recently played” section of my mp3 player. And while that’s patently absurd (where’s Thievery Corporation? Dengue Fever? Plus, my player doesn’t even have that feature), there’s no question that whoever assembled the cast shared my enthusiasm for that musical Venn diagram where Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, the Carter Family, and the Staple Singers meet.
What strikes you first about the album is the reliance on vocal harmonies, maybe more so than on any of the Chieftains’ previous similar outings. Both the Pistol Annies’ “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” and the Secret Sisters’ “Peggy Gordon” manage to play down their trad-country syrup, reaching back to the musical mingling of the roots of Celtic and Appalachian music, for some of the most affecting work either has produced; while the Civil Wars lend dark, rich vocal interplay to “Lily Love.” More obviously matched, though no less effective for that, are the Punch Brothers’ exhilarating collaborations on the “The Lark in the Clear Air” and “The Frost Is Over,” and Carolina Chocolate Drops helping the Chieftains celebrate “Pretty Little Girls,” with a wonderfully raucous vocal from Rhiannon Giddens. If there’s a single standout vocal performance, though, it might be Lisa Hannigan’s achingly simple “My Langan Love.”
Not everything works seamlessly: Justin Vernon and the Low Anthem sound rather at sea with “Down In The Willow Garden,” and “School Days Over,” respectively, while Colin Meloy seems to be having trouble getting his tongue out of his cheek on “When The Ship Comes In.” The album reaches its frantically amazing climax with the eleven- minute “Reunion” of all the surviving past and present Chieftains, then takes the kind of unexpected left-turn that’s allowed this band to remain so fresh through the years: Chieftains fan and NASA astronaut Cady Coleman phones in her flute from the space station, while the band joins in from Earth below on the delightful “The Chieftains In Orbit.”
EDDIE HAZEL – GAME, DAMES, AND GUITAR THINGS
The fact that a major talent like the late P-Funk guitarist Eddie Hazel needs to be re-introduced every few years isn’t surprising: like his idol James Brown, George Clinton kept a tight rein on his bands, and wasn’t particularly interested in sharing the credit for the pioneering work he was doing. There’s also the fact that, following his incarceration for assault and drug possession, and despite his long-simmering feud with Clinton over songwriting credit and royalties, it was Hazel who recruited the amazing Michael Hampton to take his place, only to have the subsequent release, 1978’s One Nation Under A Groove, become the album to finally cross P-Funk over to an audience of white rock fans, bringing Hampton the accolades that, though well-deserved, would once have been Hazel’s. It’s a mark of the continuing shame of the industry’s legacy of poor treatment of its African-American pioneers that Hazel’s death in 1992 was simply another in a long line of obscure passings of musical giants.
Parliament’s 1971 Maggot Brain, with Hazel’s astonishing 10-minute guitar solo on the title track, is the place to begin catching up; and his effective swan song as a full member of the Clinton band, 1974’s Standing On The Verge of Getting It On, was written or co-written completely by Hazel; despite the prickly relationship between the two men, Hazel and Clinton continued to collaborate off and on into the 80’s. But while most of the Clinton catalog remains easy to find, Hazel’s solo work was much more sporadically available even on first release, and 1977’s Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (which features contributions from Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and other P-Funk regulars) was the only full-length album he released in his lifetime. It’s been out of print on CD for a few years now, and will probably pass that way again in the future, so I recommend grabbing it while you can.
Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs can be mildly disappointing on first listen: given that Hazel was becoming such a strong writer that not even Clinton’s ego could keep him from shaping the classic version of the P-Funk sound, the fact that three of the album’s seven cuts are covers feels like a bit of a retrenchment. And the choice of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as the album’s nine-minute centerpiece is particularly curious, as the original is one of the great examples of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Martin playing a recording studio like a musical instrument; and while Hazel tosses around some typically amazing light-fingered, fleet-footed soloing, the echo effects feel gimmicky next to the rich focus of the original, and the result almost feels like a sound-check or warmup for a recording session. The album opens and closes with Hazel’s takes on “California Dreamin'”, which provide fascinating counterpoint to the legendary Wes Montgomery version, and are actually most interesting for the choral arrangements that Hazel hands to the Brides of Funkenstein on the final reprise.
The first original, “Frantic Moment,” is an upfront strut, opening with Pepper-style feedback loops giving way to Collins’ loping bass setting the tone. Hazel is in familiar territory, snaking in and around the moaning vocals from the Brides, and if this album should be your actual introduction to Hazel, you’ll just have to accept the fact that the man loved his wah-wah pedal more than anything save maybe his mom; not everyone takes to the sound he gets, but the wealth of musical ideas he compresses into any given few bars make it worth the effort. “Frantic Moment” fades out in the middle of the vocals, and “So Goes The Story” picks up where it left off: it opens with a similarly staid rhythm line and muted vocals, but quickly goes off the rails, with Hazel daring the band to keep up. “What About It?” is, for me, the album’s high point, with Hazel and Hampton trading licks (for what may have been the only time?—Clinton scholars can weigh in on that point); it’s not much more than a funk vamp, but the interplay is so tight and expressive that, at 3:45, it leaves you wishing it had been twice as long.
As a value-for-money proposition, the previous Rhino CD issue of this album included the EP Jams From The Heart, which features even more Hazel guitar goodness over a series of undistinguished funk tracks. But there’s something to be said for hearing this thing, warts and all, just the way that Hazel delivered it, and the eerie fade-out of “California Dreamin’ (Reprise)” feels like Hazel’s bittersweet farewell, 15 years early.
OTHER NOTABLE 2/21 RELEASES:
Tyga – Careless World: Rise of the Last King Not available for preview, but as big a hip-hop monster rally as you could ask for, with guests including Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj.
Buckethead – Electric Sea If you’re a genuine guitar junkie, you ran out and snagged the Eddie Hazel reissue. In the mood for more up to date freakout? Th’ Bucket’s yer man.
Sinéad O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? I always try to make allowances for an artist whose public notoriety threatens to strangle what made them interesting in the first place, and I will admit that O’Connor still sounds great, and still sounds angry: “The Wolf Is Getting Married” is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. But “He’s no wuss / Girls, you know his love is serious“? And really—outrage over MTV at this late date?
Galactic – Carnivale Electricos Second-line meets Carnivale meets Hip-hop? All praise to the Nevilles for making the introductions.
Jim White – Where It Hits You White’s unlikely to ever surpass “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” at least in terms of impact and cultural context, but his latest is a wry collection of songs, “inspired”– if that’s the right word — by having his wife walk out on him, ranging from the dreamlike reminiscences of “Chase The Dark Away” to the hard-driving affirmation of “Here We Go.”
Jeff Hamilton Trio – Red Sparkle I’m a sucker for drummer-fronted jazz ensembles, and Hamilton’s staggering technical range never threatens to overwhelm the group’s emotional core: don’t miss “Ain’t That A Peach,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” or the samba-fied take on Monk’s “Bye Ya.”
Grimes – Visions If you found the “rave” sequence on the Grammys a sort of facile introduction to contemporary dance culture, here’s the antidote: a wit too sly for network TV, set to beats that will have the neighbors up and dancing, rather than complaining about the noise.
Lambchop – Mr. M The original album title, Major League Bummer, and the dedication to the late Vic Chesnutt, suggest the melancholy that suffuses the proceedings. Often moving, but usually in ways more obvious than an original like Chesnutt would warrant. Honestly, the result sounds like an unusually intelligent Cat Stevens album.
Don Byron Gospel Sextet – Love, Peace And Soul Jazz often works best when it subsumes its influences, rather than co-opting them, but there are always exceptions, and Byron infuses every minute with the soul of Thomas Dorsey or Rosetta Tharp.
METAL GEAR SOLID: SNAKE EATER 3D (3DS)
A lot of people (myself included) just paid for a shiny new HD version a few months ago, and in a few months we can all pay for it again when the HD collection hits the Vita. But before that happens, we can all pay for it to be in 3D instead of HD. Seems like a strange tradeoff, but I’m a sucker and I’ll take the bait. It’s nice to have the option to play one of the best games of the last generation pretty much anywhere and with lots of different coats of paint and gimmicks. The game is so good, it’s an easy sell to anyone who’s played it before. And if you’ve never played MGS3, you should probably do that. Despite being almost as insane and frustrating as the rest of the series, MGS3 can easily be played on its own. And now you can take pictures of shit with the 3D camera and make camouflage for Snake. Which is actually a good deterrent from buying the game used. Unless you like penis camouflage.
ASURA’S WRATH (360, PS3)
This game looks like interactive fiction based on a non-existent shonen anime. CyberConnect2 usually makes really pretty Naruto games, so normally this would seem like a good fit. But everything points to Asura’s Wrath being extremely light on the ‘interactive’ part, with most of the game being really pretty QTEs at best.
SYNDICATE (PS3, 360, PC)
Another isometric tactics game rebooted as an FPS. But unlike X-COM, this looks fun – and will actually come out. Starbreeze hasn’t failed to at least bring a fresh take on the genre yet, and hopefully this will keep up their unique track record.
The Vita is finally launching in the US. Yay?
It’s sexy hardware and it’s nicely-priced, but I just can’t get excited. Sony has become more user friendly as a hardware developer over the years, but they always seem to fuck up at least one or two major things every time. Proprietary memory cards…seriously? Even from a business standpoint that makes no sense. Charging the consumer so much for so little memory puts a massive barrier between them and the digital content the Vita seems so heavily focused on. The lack of backwards compatibility with the PSP’s UMD disc is also pretty irritating. I sold my PSP ages ago, but kept a really strong library of UMD games just for the inevitable upgrade. Half of the titlees aren’t available digitally – and the ones that are would require another full-price purchase to play on the Vita.
Gripes aside, shit is hot. It’s got a crisp screen, well-placed buttons, and isn’t as ugly as you think it is. The launch lineup is huge – and surprisingly enough – it’s not made up of 80% Ubisoft cell phone ports.
I feel like I should mention Alan Wake: American Nightmare. Although I’ve never played Alan Wake, I dig that there are now three games (what up, Deadly Premonition!) that are blatant Twin Peaks ripoffs. I got a good feeling my iOS racing game based on The Straight Story has a chance now.
And so there you have it. See you in a couple of days!