Friday, June 29, 2007

Heads Up: Interpol's Our Love To Admire

I was prepared to either ignore or be disappointed by the upcoming Interpol album, Our Love To Admire, but it leaked and I heard it. And, well, it's pretty breathtaking. I appreciate that, while it still owes a lot to the post-punk of the early 80's, it doesn't lean so much on anglophilia. There are some subtle but distinct American qualities on the album.

First single = "The Heinrich Maneuver"
It's like that first summer slice of watermelon. Enjoy.
Album is out on July 10th.

- Interpol website

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Tragedy of Chris Benoit, and The Tangled Web of Pro-Wrestling

On Monday night, following the breaking news that WWE superstar Chris Benoit had died in his home over the weekend with his wife and mentally-challenged son, Vince K. McMahon Jr. broke down the fourth wall between him and his audience. Vince was supposedly dead, a victim of a very poorly staged carbomb which was unfortunately widely reported on in the news media, but now, he was simply the boss paying tribute to a model employee; not many fans of pro-wrestling would argue that Chris Benoit was one of the greatest of all-time. He was infinitely more athletic and skilled than the Hulk Hogans and Steve Austins of the world, and when he finally won the Big One, the World Wrestling Entertainment Heavyweight Championship, it was considered by fans to be long overdue.

If asked, Vince would probably answer that Benoit's accomplishments over a 20+ year career were even more significant in the wrestling world because he didn't have the looks or charisma that someone like The Rock had, or the size that any number of famous monster champs had. Hulk was 6'6", Triple H & The Rock were 6'4", even Steve Austin was 6'2". Chris Benoit was 5'10" on a generous day, probably closer to 5'8", but he stilled suplexed the 7'2" Big Show out of the ring to win The Royal Rumble battle royale and his subsequent title shot at Wrestlemania 20. Of course we know it was all fixed, but you jump in the ring, the first of 30 men, last a whole hour, and finally get tossed around by a 500lb. giant, and let's see how you do... 40lb. forearms dropping on your back still hurt even if the punches are pulled. Benoit was a tireless worker. He busted his hump for the love of the business, and that was his persona; he didn't need to crack wise on the mic. He was vicious in the ring, first earning the nickname "The Crippler" because, well, he crippled a guy. Later, he was the "Rabid Wolverine" (no doubt because he reminded more than a few people of the X-Men hero after a haircut), and his gimmick was simply that he was missing a tooth, obviously knocked out in the heat of battle.

All the reports and interviews with co-workers are noting that his real life personality was the farthest thing from his frenzied in-ring character. He was a good friend to countless people, and selfless in helping others achieve their dreams. Now, as all the horrible details of this tragedy are reported by the GA Police department or leak out from every loose mouth in the news media, the WWE is faced with the unfortunate position of having paid tribute to a man that appears to have murdered his wife and son. They've pulled back, and put the PR machine on overdrive. It's sad really; I think what everyone is forgetting is that no matter what he did, that 3-hour tribute show was not for Chris Benoit the man, but for Chris Benoit the entertainer, the performer, the employee. It's not about who he was, but what he did in the ring, and that's separate from the darkness that surrounds his former home right now. After 20 years in service of the fans, Benoit deserves a respectful thanks and a moment of silence.

But the country at large probably won't give him that, because pro-wrestling is the new travelling circus. A lot of the fault lies at McMahon's feet. Vince's decisions in storylines have made the Entertainment in "Sports Entertainment" laughable on a regular basis, and whatever Sports are left, they mostly involve guys getting hurt for the viewing pleasure of others (falling right in line with our Jackass culture). Young men gather around the water cooler to talk about the weekly happenings in hushed tones because they don't want to admit they watch. It's become an embarrassment. I know this is true because I used to be one of these young men. I haven't watched in about 18 months, and I'm sure I haven't missed anything other than the departure of Kurt Angle (more on him later), but when I did watch and later talk about it, I usually looked around to see if any women were around before I let loose with my theories on whatever championship belt feud was going on. I didn't want to admit that I watched, but I still did. I could say that when I started watching in 1996 or 1997, it was a way for me to spend time with good friends that I didn't see enough; we just got together every Monday. It was easy. But then, I can admit, I got into it, despite later realizing that Vince McMahon and his creative team haven't had a fresh idea since those late 90's glory days, and that watching the shows every week was kinda like eating pizza everyday for lunch; ya know, everyone loves pizza, but after a while, enough is enough. By 2004, I was routinely nodding off throughout the shows.

One of the reasons the shows' quality declined is because Vince McMahon has a documented love for pushing the "Big Man" to the fore, with no regard for their skill level. Hulk Hogan is the classic example. He was 6'6", 330lbs., and looked like he was straight off Venice Beach, CA. He was better looking than the likes of Andre The Giant, and was memorable on the mic. But he couldn't really wrestle beyond the basics. He pulled out the same old moves for his entire career. Shit, he showed his most varied set of maneuvers in Rocky III. Since then, it's been a parade of larger-than-life men, with rippling physiques, which has repeatedly brought up the Steroid question. Look at a raging freak like Gene Snitsky, with his back acne (a noted side-effect of steroid use), or Adonis-types like Scott Steiner or Chris Masters, who have so many muscles they can barely move. Guys like this have nothing to offer beyond their size, and where do you think that size came from? McMahon and his company have denied denied denied for so long, but after Internet news sites reported on a new WWE steroid policy a few years ago, you saw Masters, Snitsky, and others shrink and lose definition. Hmmmm...

Now, along with the Benoit tragedy, comes the discussions. The comparisons to major league baseball's current troubles have started already, with some crying for government intervention. Government officials would probably shy away, stating that since pro-wrestling, with its outcomes being predetermined, is not a competitive sport, there is no playing field to level. Others would state the alarming figure, one that will surely be repeated frequently in the media for the next few days: in the past decade, 60 current or former pro-wrestlers under the age of 45 have died. This is a frightening statistic. Steroids may not be the cause of death, but turn the whole stat on its side, and see that the steroids AND the deaths are the effects of the business.

Like in baseball, when people talk about steroids, they point out the mass, the muscles, the mysterious growth of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi & Mark McGwire. But also like in baseball, the problem with steroids in wrestling might be more covert than that. Pitchers use steroids as much as power hitters, but the pitchers use it to heal faster. This is most likely the way in which a lot of pro-wrestlers use steroids; they're hurt on such a regular basis, they need something just to keep going. Wrestling personality and Steve Austin's ex-wife, Debra Marshall was quoted today as saying she saw Austin take steroids, and considering the time in his career when they were married, it is likely that he used the steroids for this purpose. This goes hand in hand with the well-documented and widespread addiction to painkillers across the pro-wrestling business. According to current TNA Wrestling star Kurt Angle, in his various radio interviews following his departure from WWE, Vince McMahon regularly encouraged his wrestlers to perform injured, and so the wrestlers, trying to keep favor with the boss, get addicted to whatever will keep them upright. It could be steroids or painkillers, or it could be booze, weed, or cocaine. It could be all of those things (See: the tragedy of the late Eddie Guerrero, Benoit's good friend). And one thing that came out in the reports for a lot of those 60 deaths is that the wrestler was severely depressed, a result of the drug abuse and hard profession. It is verging on an epidemic in the business. Could you look at Benoit's career, and blame the profession, the life, "The Sickness" as wrestlers call it, for his actions?

To make matters more complicated, there is the ongoing scientific investigation into the connection between multiple head injuries in NFL players and their effect on the player's mental state. Former wrestler Chris Nowinski had to leave the wrestling business because of a severe head injury, and now, according to a NY Times story, he dedicates his time to investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that can cause memory loss, depression and "bizarre, paranoid behavior". Despite a 2003 report of spousal abuse filed by Benoit's wife, Nowinski doesn't believe that Benoit snapped in a fit of "'roid rage" - he instead believes that it was "repeated, untreated concussions that might have caused his friend to snap."

This story will not end until the entirety of this chain is addressed. Is it steroids, painkillers, and drugs, because Vince McMahon pushes his talented employees too hard? Did Benoit take too many chair shots to the back of the head (Nowinski says yes, "[Benoit] was stupid")? Could it maybe be that 20 years of acting as a violent character, along with the other factors, would readjust your reality? Whatever the answers to these questions are, Vince McMahon needs to stop the PR machine from shielding his organization, walk out into the fray, and try his hardest to assist in solving this equation. Otherwise, his whole world will crumble around him, and he'll be holding many more tributes to lost employees.

- NY Times story, including the bit with Chris Nowinski
- Monday Night Raw intro, featuring Vince McMahon's original statement, and a 4-minute highlight reel of Chris Benoit
- Vince McMahon's...repositioning

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"They're swinging their dicks around..."

Who knew the best show of the summer would be on The Internet, and I'm not talking the shark-jumping Lonelygirl15. Clark And Michael is the hilarious new mockumentary series starring Arrested Development's Michael Cera, and his friend Clark Duke. According to IMDB, the first video was Duke's senior thesis. The duo do all the writing, help with directing and editting, and are also producers (the show is financed through CBS). Of the episodes posted so far (six), cameos have included Arrested alums David Cross & Tony Hale, as well as Andy Richter, Patton Oswalt, and Martin Starr (the "Shoe-Bomber" from Knocked Up). If you're a fan of the mockumentary style of Arrested Development, The Office, and Christopher Guest's work, then do yourself a favor and check out the site.

- Clark & Michael's website

Monday, June 25, 2007

Headphones: Arctic Monkeys' Favourite Worst Nightmare

The question for today is does 'The Sophomore Slump' have to be a bad thing? I say, not really. Jimi's Axis: Bold As Love, Massive Attack's Protection, and De La Soul Is Dead are three examples of classic second albums that are somewhat less than their predecessors. However, Favourite Worst Nightmare, the Arctic Monkeys' second album, is not good enough to be on that list... But, it's not really a slump either. I'd say it's more akin to albums like U2's October, Pearl Jam's Vs., or Interpol's Antics, albums that are good, and will hopefully lead to something better, but will be forever compared to the superior debuts.

The album's strength is in its opening bum rush. Despite some writers claiming that it's too hectic, I find first single & opener, "Brianstorm" to be the exact opposite - something can't be hectic if it's expertly measured and delivered. This is the Monkeys after a tune up, firing on all cylinders, and it's completely vicious; Matt Helders storms center stage after merely hinting on the debut that he's one of the finest new drummers in music. "Teddy Picker" and "D Is For Dangerous" are both as strong as the best songs from the first album, with the latter begging to be blaring out of indie club P.A.'s everywhere. Along with track 4, "Balaclava", the band has used the first 10 minutes to set you up with a more sinister sound, their melodies snaking their way through choppy riffs and knotty rhythms.

Then comes "Fluorescent Adolescent". It has the same summery lilt of "Mardy Bum" from the debut, but the narrative never takes off; it wants so bad to live up to vintage Blur ballads, but doesn't come close. It's followed by the airy, lightweight "Only Ones We Know", which is completely forgettable. If you have a superb drummer, and a new bass player, why aren't you showing them off 100% of the time? These two songs accomplish nothing except sapping the album's unstoppable momentum from the first four tracks. The Monkeys never really recover, but they do try.

Of the second half, "Do Me A Favour" is the best; it sounds like nothing else in the band's discography, which is excellent. It's a subtle, simmering number, floating an emotion that young bands don't usually tackle: worry. Alex Turner's uncertainty is tight throughout the intro, as his breaking-up tale winds him up until he lets loose at the end with "perhaps 'fuck off' might be too kind". "This House Is A Circus" and "If You Were There, Beware", are fun but they seem almost too complex for their own good. Guitarist Jamie Cook plays with some new tones and effects, and they work nicely, but the resulting songs are both more like a few song fragments pasted together. They'll probably work better live, as will "Old Yellow Bricks", which is little more than a good danceable groove. "The Bad Thing" sounds like a forgotten outtake from the debut, and closer "505" isn't the slow-burning epic it wants to be; by the time Turner is yelling in your ear, the song has bored you, and you're in the other room making a sandwich. Let's hope the Arctic Monkeys' career doesn't follow that lead.

Raz's Rating
MUSIC: Arctic Monkeys' Favourite Worst Nightmare

- Arctic Monkeys website

Friday, June 22, 2007

Headphones: The White Stripes' Icky Thump

A funny thing happened when I listened to The White Stripes' sixth album, Icky Thump for the first time. I loved it. All of it. As soon as it was over, I played it again. I ended up listening to it four times that day. That doesn't happen too often. Now, I love Jack & Meg, but full disclosure - I've never been 100% satisfied with their albums as whole works. I think Jack tends to cram too many songs on their discs, which leads to me reaching for the skip button; maybe it's because he has a big songwriting ego and can't decide how to cut the fat, or maybe it's because he would feel guilty making his fans wait for only 30 minutes of music, so he loads the albums up. White Blood Cells, the best of the previous five due to the most unified themes, was weighted down by some weaker tunes in the third quarter, and that ended up overshadowing the excellent tracks buried at the album's end. And so I'm wondering what this means about my opinion of Icky Thump; is it a too-good-to-be-true situation? On the surface, I want to jump up and say it's their best album, but I think I'd disagree with myself a few years from now. It just isn't that...grand a statement... But maybe that's the point.

If there's a statement being made at all, it's that Jack wants to let loose and rock the fuck out after buttoning the top button on Get Behind Me Satan and with The Raconteurs. The classicism of his other gig gives way here to Jack's most feral howling and ferocious guitar slinging in years, with Meg pounding out earthquakes. On "Catch Hell Blues", Jack sounds like both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at once, while Meg sounds like she recorded her drums in a cave. "Bone Broke" sounds like it could be a lost Rocket From The Crypt demo, and "Little Cream Soda" is particularly crushing. The Mexi-bombast of "Conquest" seems ripped from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack (This statement will be repeated by countless blog and magazine writers because it's the only logical description and cultural reference for the song). There is still some lingering exploration left over from Satan, but it's mostly confined to the Celtic Folk of "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" and the freak-out of its supplemental interlude "St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)". More apt would be the assimilation of the last album’s discoveries into these new songs, like the acoustic picking and electric piano on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” or the manic organ on the title track.

The loose feel of Jack’s riffs is echoed by a more flippant attitude than most of their other albums, and that’s very attractive when looking at the CD shelf and picking out which one I want to listen to. Instead of trying to be a gentleman, Jack’s playing the rogue, dropping wisecracks like David Lee Roth in the breakdown of every great Van Halen song; the great boogie of “Rag & Bone” even features some hilarious dialogue between Jack & Meg that’s reminiscent of the VH classic, “Hot For Teacher”. You see Jack relaxing his staunch traditional image as well, even acknowledging Hip-Hop by name-dropping Technics turntables, and elsewhere, tossing off quips like “Broke as I’ll ever be” with the cool of a seasoned MC. What’s really the difference between a stray cat strut and a pimp lean anyway? In some places, Jack’s whole concept for certain songs is more playful; closer “Effect & Cause” is built around a series of punchlines that crack up their narrator mid-song.

Having moved away from Detroit (Jack to Nashville, Meg to L.A.), The Whites have cast off the bad vibes – and bruised knuckles – from a judgmental scene that started to encroach on their ability to have a good time with their music. Maybe that’s why Get Behind Me Satan was so dour. Even if you just look at that album cover, with the duo standing rigidly, back to back, looking away from each other, and compare it with the comfortable slouch and engagement of facing one another on Icky Thump's cover, the message should be clear. Kicking back, The White Stripes have made their most fun album. Time will tell if that ushers it along to being their most universally loved release, but we’ll all enjoy ourselves while we wait.

Raz's Ratings
MUSIC: The White Stripes' Icky Thump

- The White Stripes website

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Headphones: Dizzee Rascal's Maths & English

I’d love for Dizzee Rascal to break through onto American radio and TV. I’d like to think he would be a star. His gruff charm would help him stick out from all the Southern hacks mugging for the camera in front of a mansion rented for the day. In the new video for Maths & English’s first (official) single, “Sirens”, Dizzee looks to shake game hunters down dark alleys just like the ones in early Wu-Tang clips; appearing shirtless under his winter parka, he cuts a similar figure to 2Pac, with scars from his stabbing filling in for the ‘Thug Life’ tattoo. In a genre where your street reputation is paramount, Dizzee is one of the most genuine ghetto urchins to bless a mic for a while.

When he debuted in 2003 with Boy In Da Corner, Dizzee came on like a one-man N.W.A., mostly because there had never been a truly gifted British MC. His rapid fire flow and post-jungle beats were a culture shock. Though singles “Dream” and “Stand Up Tall” were exceptions that raised his public profile, his second album, Showtime, was darker, further down those dark alleys, inhabiting the PJ’s pissy stairwells and elevators immortalized by Ghostface, Nas, and many others. On this, his great third album, Dizzee streamlines his sound and ups the tempo, while embracing a multitude of new sounds, from the cruising roll of West Coast G-Funk to Houston’s slurred Screwed sound, from the new Brit-Pop to the club play that American rappers cater to. “Excuse Me Please” rides a chilled-out Blaxploitation bassline that Ludacris would die for, while the absolutely mammoth “Hardback (Industry)” builds from the sub-woofer stress-tests of Paul Wall and Slim Thug to a cautious journey through the music business. Staying in the Dirty South, “Where Da G’s” brings in Houston legends UGK for a blunt examination of posers, while “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’” bridges Dizzee’s original Grime sound with the huge production of Lil’ Jon.

The middle of the album is where Dizzee goes for the dancefloors, with mixed results. “Suk My Dick” has the bouncy, playful, sing-songy delivery of Eminem, and even works in a bit of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and some off-key warbling reminiscent of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the trio of “Flex”, “Da Feelin’”, and “Bubbles” continues the floor filling. “Flex” recalls David Banner’s “Play”, “Da Feelin’” marries a laidback funk groove with the skittering beats of drum & bass, and “Bubbles”, one of the album’s highlights, sounds like Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” played at double-time and spun backwards. Unfortunately, of these, “Bubbles” is the only one that’s really memorable past its gimmick. Dizzee’s Pop experiments don’t fair well either; collaborations with hot UK acts like Lily Allen and Arctic Monkey Alex Turner don’t fit the vibe of the album. They would be better suited as a one-off single with Allen’s “Wanna Be” on the A-side, and Turner’s throwaway “Temptation” tucked away on the B.

Maths & English is best at street level. “Sirens” is a vivid, detailed crime narrative with metal guitar riffs and a clanging beat steamrolling anything in its path, while the vicious diss track “Pussy’ole” drops fuzzy synths all over the classic “It Takes Two” track while Dizzee sprays vitriol at his former friend, fellow UK MC Wiley; he doesn’t mince words, leading to one of the strongest beef blasts in Hip-Hop history, along with Jay-Z’s “Takeover” and Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline”. Like highlights “Bubbles” and “Hardback”, this deadly duo illustrate that, while his experiments might be admirable, Dizzee Rascal is at his best when he marries hints of other styles to his own unique street personality.

Raz's Ratings
MUSIC: Dizzee Rascal's Maths & English

- Dizzee Rascal website

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Heads Up: New stuff from The Go! Team

I was about to post my White Stripes album review, but I had to hip everyone to this early contender for best single of 2007. No idea when their new album's coming though.

The Go! Team: "Grip Like A Vice"

-The Go! Team website


I found these two pics from this past weekend's Bonnaroo Festival over at Pitchfork, and they made me feel very good about two of my all-time favorite bands, and one of my favorite musicians around right now...

I really like that, despite the assloads of money he has, Sting is still playing the same bass from like 25 years ago (I have similar respect for Bruce Springsteen, who poses with the same Telecaster on all his album covers; you can check the wood grain)

Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones & ?uestlove from The Roots??? It's like half of my dream band. Now if only we can get Britt Daniel and Josh Homme on that stage. Oh man!! That would be the sickest Soul-Punk band ever.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Random Thoughts on HBO's Sunday Nights (and now, Mondays too)

01. The Sopranos
I've done a lot of thinking about the finale while the rest of the world has seen fit to complain ad nauseum. And ya know...yes, it was a big fucking copout. I've heard now that the partyline being floated by HBO and creator/writer David Chase is that the show is primarily about family and not the mafia, so shame on the public and their bloodlust for wanting a massacre. OK fine, good point and all, but that's not why I'm unhappy with the ending. I'm unhappy because it just sucked. It was poorly written, as was most of the whole last season. The choices of the writers in the story arc were less than good, paramount among them killing Christopher. Plus, what were the points with Tony's Grand Canyon third-eye awakening and AJ's aimless depression subplot; in the end it was a cocktease from all angles and didn't matter for shit. The rumor in the ether of the message boards was that everyone in the diner was related to victims of Tony's violent business throughout the entire series, but HBO debunked that; said it wasn't the case. But fuck, THAT would've been a cool ending. Too bad David Chase didn't think of that.

02. John From Cincinnati
The first thing this show taught me was how to spell Cincinnati. The second thing it taught me (well, reminded me more like) was that I really like Bruce Greenwood. He is the traditional character actor routinely saddled with boring characters (troubled fathers, the US President), and Mitch Yost is just on the good side of boring. His best role is still his breakthrough in the 1994 arthouse hit Exotica, and at least I remember loving him on the forgotten mid-90's UPN show, Nowhere Man. Among all his forgettable political thrillers from the late 90's to today, his best work was in the sorely underrated submarine ghost story Below, co-starring some more of my favorite character actors (comedian Zach Galifianakis, Rushmore's Olivia Williams, a couple of the Lock, Stock guys). 2A would be a similar respect for Matt Winston, who leads the motel subplot on the show. He is less than a character actor in the Hollywood world, he is a character type; in the credits, when you see "Spanish man" or "elderly lady", Winston is that kind of actor. And yet, you remember him from somewhere (for me, it's as the "Seminary Student" hosed down in Fight Club). Somehow, he exists wholly in scenes with the great Luis Guzman and Willy Garson, and yet Winston is the focus, and credit due, big time. He is always cast as the "fairy", but he more than owns it here. The third thing that I've learned is that a quirky better-than-average drama can succeed on the back of one character, and that would be the titular John. He speaks only in shuffled phrases that he's heard from others, and he has the curious stare of a 4-year old that knows he's done something wrong and is waiting to see if a parent has noticed. He's got me hooked, and I have a feeling that the rest of the show is going to improve, snowballing after his lead.

03. Flight Of The Conchords
Hey ya know - I've learned that I'm not a big fan of the Australian/New Zealander accent. I had no idea. Thanks guys... PS, pssst, you're no Tenacious D, and their eventual movie kinda stunk.

04. Big Love
I don't love Big Love. Not the way I loved Six Feet Under, or the way I love The Wire. Of course, that's not entirely fair seeing as those are two of my Top 5 shows of all time, but I don't even love it the way I loved Carnivale. I do like Big Love, and there is a remarkable consistency with which it holds my interest. The three wives are played by three spectacular and well cast actresses, and Bill Paxton is never less than good in his own way. I gotta also say 'big ups' to the season premiere for showing a little more of the actual Mormon faith than I remember seeing in the first season. So, I'm in for season 2.

05. Entourage
I wasn't crazy-go-nuts over the first season. I was however totally into the second season. I can't figure how Adrian Grenier didn't become a star like Vincent Chase after that (The Devil Wears Prada was a smart move though). Then came the first part of season three last fall. It was a mess. Dom the bodyguard? No thanks. I love the characters too much to have abandoned ship, so I stuck it out, and fuck me if I wasn't rewarded. This spring, the episodes have been excellent, spreading more of the story love around instead of giving Piven all the good bits. And to top it off, no season finale - the show will run through the summer. How's that for a reward? Tonight's Pablo Escobarific episode bodes well for my summer Sunday nights.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Headphones: Queens of the Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

I never liked Josh Homme's original description for his band: robot rock. He spewed it in an interview at some point in 1997 or 1998, and it's always stuck. But it never fit. The Queens' music has always been too organic. The first three albums felt like the California desert that informs all of Homme's sun-damaged songwriting, and Lullabies To Paralyze ventured in the dark forests. They were somehow a roots-metal band, if that makes any sense. But now, with their fifth album, Era Vulgaris, Homme has recalibrated his band to actually sound, for the most part, like robot rock. It's a remarkably uneven album, infuriating and confusing at times. It advances the band's sound as experiments fail. It's one big contradiction.

The most mentionable aspect to the album is that it was written and recorded almost entirely in L.A./Hollywood. Right off the bat, it's the number one reason for the loss of the organic warmth and move towards a slicker, truly modern rock sound; Of course, you could argue this makes no sense since the only thing to change is the recording venue as Homme and Chris Goss oversee the process as usual. But the place is always in Homme's head; Songs For The Deaf was about the drive from L.A. to the Palm Desert, and it sounded as such. This is primarily an urban record; the upside to this is it highlights that most rock music out now has no feel at all, urban or otherwise. It's amazing to say that, somehow, the album does conjure the same vibes as a Hollywood classic like Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction, even if it doesn't come close to being that good. Some songwriters wear their hearts on their sleeves; Josh Homme wears his neighborhood.

Let's work backward: The tracks with the "newest" sound are "Sick, Sick, Sick", "I'm Designer", "Misfit Love" and "Battery Acid". The first thing that's clear is there's pretty much nothing out right now that sounds like this, but that doesn't mean they're successful. "I'm Designer" and "Misfit Love" emerge the most fully-formed, with the former wrapping a cyborg groove around a tabloid commentary, while the latter comes off as the band's heavy tribute to Michael Jackson's "Beat It", complete with falsetto and copped riffage in the intro; it will rank with QOTSA's best. On the other hand, "Battery Acid", the most "robotic" song on the album, is annoying and the one that makes me reach for the skip button most. While the band pummels the listener with riffs and drums, Homme lets loose with lyrics that never come together, a troubling trend on the album. It's a forgettable moment in the QOTSA discography and further illustrates that, working in direct opposition to Homme's exceptional melodic gifts, their heaviest moments are usually their worst (see Lullabies' beaten-dumb twins, "The Blood Is Love" & "Skin On Skin"). In this way, Era's closer "Run, Pig, Run" also fails, despite some excellent guitar work. It tries to do too much at once and squanders any chance of cohering.

It's starting to become evident, that despite their skill, the other full-time Queens, drummer Joey Castillo and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, might be a big part of the problem. A member since Dave Grohl returned to the Foo Fighters around the August 2002 release of Deaf, Castillo is a Heavy Metal drummer. He was in Danzig. His method is to pummel. Hard. I've heard him play light; he can do it, but it's not his instinct, and it seems like his playing pulls Homme back towards his metal past in Kyuss. Likewise, Van Leeuwen played in Failure and A Perfect Circle, the kind of slick, gloomy hard rock bands that make music that sound like this album and Lullabies. Despite being a real music fan, with his taste running from Bjork to The Cramps to Roy Orbison to Peaches to Cream, Josh Homme bounces his sound off his collaborators; former bassist Nick Oliveri seems more indispensable now than ever because his batshit-crazy punk and sunny 60's garage sounds meshed perfectly with Homme's aforementioned melodic skills. A song like first single "Sick, Sick, Sick" would sound totally different with Nick in the band. It might take the two great verses and the grand riff in-between, and have some fun. Instead, the muddled second half of the song jettisons the song's debauched fun and wastes guest Julian Casablancas.

Next, there are the songs that try to bridge the band's new direction with their old one, and these songs are also a mixed bag. "Run, Pig, Run" we've already covered; it's a mess, and sounds like a forgotten outtake from the last album. Likewise, "River In The Road" tries to recall the psychedelic swirl of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" but its vocals are just too monochromatic, losing Mark Lanegan in the hurricane of guitar lines and the martial beat (I even think there's a balalaika in there). Opener "Turnin' On The Screw" tries to revisit the choppy, layered sound of "Leg Of Lamb" from Rated R, but falters; the lyrics think they're smart but aren't, and a bungee riff used nicely for one measure in the beginning of the song is repeated for far too long later on, causing the song to overstay its welcome by at least a minute. "Suture Up Your Future" is the most troubling track on the album because it could've been really good if it weren't for its terrible lyrics. Musically, it works well with the new sounds, but because of the classic song structure, it reaches back for the old Queens, and in the process, the hybrid result comes out like a glam/goth ballad. "3's & 7's" is by far the best track on the album, kicking off with a riff reminiscent of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", but brighter, featuring strong lyrics, and utilizing the chugging, stripped, slightly disjointed style that so many of QOTSA's classic tunes feature.

And finally, there's the two songs that will feel most at home for longtime fans. The requisite Desert Sessions redux, "Make It Wit Chu" is pretty much exactly like the original, but like "In My Head" from Lullabies, unfortunately loses some of the original's verve and life. "Into The Hollow" is much better though, ranking alongside "3's & 7's" and "Misfit Love" as the album's highlights. Based on a runaway train groove, it's a soaring ballad that would've been the perfect centerpiece for Lullabies To Paralyze's dark fairy tale narrative. In the end, Era Vulgaris adds up to a hopeful disappointment. It's good to hear the Queens trying to branch out and explore new sounds, because that's more than most hard rock bands are doing, but it's just sad that they weren't more successful this time out. Josh should oil the robot's joints. Instead of blaring out of my open car windows all summer long, it will unfortunately get a few weeks play before being filed away on the shelf in favor of the great new discs by The White Stripes and Spoon...and probably QOTSA, Rated R, and Songs For The Deaf.

Raz's Ratings
MUSIC: Queens Of The Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

...We can save it. We have the technology. Where Era Vulgaris goes wrong, the band goes right, bestowing upon the music geeks of the internet who have initiative no less than six non-album tracks to create our own Era Vulgaris summer mix. The other tracks are the album outtakes "Era Vulgaris" (featuring Trent Reznor) and the orchestral "Running Joke", three covers: Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West", Elliott Smith's "Christian Brothers", and Billy Idol's "White Wedding", and finally, a re-recorded version of the epic "lost" Lullabies track "The Fun Machine Took A Shit And Died". All of these songs are better and more fun than half of the new album, so take from that what you will. Plus, there's also a remix of "I'm Designer", and acoustic versions of "3's & 7's", "Into The Hollow" and "Suture Up My Future", so you can check those out too.

It's safe to drink Vitamin Water again. Who knew?

My friends and I had a little field trip yesterday. Kim & Kyle, my girlfriend Veronica & I all hopped in Kyle's car to speed off to Brooklyn for the Renegade Craft Fair at McCarren Pool. It was pretty sweet despite the heat, and I got a wallet made out of recycled leather. After lunch at Sweetwater, they left and I hung around, reading free mags like Mean & Vice in the park, to wait for my childhood friends to come in and meet me. We celebrated Greg's 30th birthday with burgers at Dumont and by bouncing from hipster bar to hipster bar. Everything was sweet, but I was reminded of what my super-Smiths fan friend Liz said a couple weeks back, about not liking "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" anymore because it's gotten so played out. True - I heard it at 3 different bars last night. Anyway, all this has almost nothing to do with this post, so I digress.

On the way to BK, Kyle stopped to get gas, and I ran into the Gas Shop to get drinks. I'm a big fan of Vitamin Water, so I got the Lemonade (the aqua label), and Kyle got the new black-label XXX flavor or whatever (the one Veronica says tastes like Swedish Fish). The four of us got into a discussion about not wanting to give 50 Cent money, because he owns a share of the company. Plus, I've recently enjoyed his personal flavor, Formula 50, and I use it as a back-up when my job's cafeteria is out of my other favorites. I found out this morning though that he's no longer part of the company (which is kinda weird since they just started running the ads with him in them).

According to the few items I read on the web, it was announced on the Friday before Memorial Day that Coca-Cola bought Glaceau, the company that makes Vitamin Water, for $4.1 billion. It just so happens that on the same day, it was announced that 50 Cent's next album was being pushed back to September (probably cuz he's too busy working out & drinkng Formula 50). The rumors spread on the Hip Hop blogs that it didn't matter, since 50 had a 10% stake in the company, which meant he was getting $400 million. These figures were picked up by all the blogs and spread like wildfire. But as they say in Hip Hop - HOLD UP!! WAIT A MINUTE!! It turns out that the reports of 50's 10% share were leaked by his own camp as good PR to take the focus off his album woes. Coca-Cola's not saying how big his share was, but it's being implied that it was less that 10%. Shit, Mets superstar David Wright owned 0.5%, so he'll be happy with $20 mil. All I'm saying is now you can drink your Vitamin Water with a calm mind knowing you're not paying for 50's new bulletproof vest. You're just helping Coca-Cola extend their global empire. And I'm OK with that.

- The story on

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mix-Up: The Kinks

Who doesn't like making mix CDs for friends? If you answered, "Me!", leave now. No really. Get out of here. Yer bumming me out. So my friend Kim gave me the task of compiling a Kinks mix for her because she keeps hearing their classic songs on Sirius radio. But of course, such an open-ended request usual means I'll go a bit overboard. And so instead of me teaching Kim about The Kinks I learned that I really didn't know much myself. This process has been a win-win.

The first thing I did was wrangle everything I already owned, which is:
- The Kink Kronikles, the 1972 double-album compilation of thier peak-period
- 1967's Something Else By The Kinks, long considered their towering classic LP
- an import Greatest Hits which covers some of their early Pye singles
- 2 Konk/Velvel samplers from 1998, covering their 70's output.
All of this which I've never listened to nearly enough, like most of my gigantic CD collection.

Then I did some reading. As I have since I was a senior in high school (all those many years ago), I pulled the Rolling Stone Album Guide off the shelf. Even if you don't agree with their ratings, it's at least good as a starting point, a first batch of info if you will, that you can then play with and prove wrong (if you like). I took what I learned there over to the good ol' Wiki, and started exploring the discography links, and bouncing back and forth to Allmusic.

And of course I did what any self respecting music obsessive in 2007 would do: I downloaded their entire discography (almost two & a half GBs), then picked through what I needed.

The first thing you learn about The Kinks, from general consensus:
If you want to like The Kinks, and enjoy their great work, and be truly satisfied, then for Pete's sake, STOP at 1972!! Sure, there may be good songs, and maybe in there somewhere is a good album or two, but I want GREAT! And great stops with fuckin' "Celluloid Heroes". As it should. I started at the end. I had my last song.

The second thing I learned was that pretty much from the jump, they were contenders. "You Really Got Me" was only their third single. That's unreal. They're usually placed also-ran 4th after The Three *ahem* Great British Invasion bands. But what hipsters like me and thousands of others have been learning since Damon & Jarvis were dropping Ray Davies' name like kickass singles AND groupie panties in the mid-90's, The Kinks were just as good as The Beatles, Who & Stones, and those three ripped The Kinks off left & right. I learned that listening to The Village Green Preservation Society (from 1968) reveals that Paul McCartney's a fucking biter, and his "classic" song-suite on side 2 of Abbey Road (from 1969) borrows it's entire mood & style from The Kinks classic from a year earlier. And don't even get me started on Pete Townshend, who I love. It's like anything The Who did before Live At Leeds is suddenly just not as good, cuz The Kinks did it better...except maybe being loud. The Who had a better drummer & bigger amps. But Ray Davies owns Townshend in the tough-mod-with-an-insecure-center songwriting. When Davies' creative spark started to run out of gas, Townshend dropped Who's Next and took the spotlight for good.

The Beatles, Stones & Who all have a bundle of indesputable classic singles from the mid-60's, but the one thing that I got from exploring The Kinks singles discography is that their B-sides are almost always as good as their A-sides. That's very rare. While The Beatles were covering Chuck Berry again, or rerecording lyrics in German, The Kinks were banging out "I Need You", a massive proto-punk anthem and creepy emo-stalker theme song.

So right here, I unveil my 2-disc, 52 song journey through The Kinks' highpoints, covering "You Really Got Me" (their third single, from the fall of 1964) through the epic "Celluloid Heroes" (a flop of a single from the fall of 1972). If you feel inclined, have fun compiling your own copy.

Disc One
01. You Really Got Me (Single 8/64, from The Kinks)
02. All Day And All Of The Night (Single 10/64)
03. I Gotta Move (B-side 10/64)
04. Stop Your Sobbing (from The Kinks)
05. Tired Of Waiting For You (Single 1/65, from Kinda Kinks)
06. Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy (Single 3/65- UK A-side/US B-side)
07. Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl (from Kinda Kinks)
08. Who'll Be The Next In Line (Single 3/65- UK B-side/US A-side)
09. Set Me Free (Single 5/65)
10. I Need You (B-side 5/65)
11. See My Friends (Single 7/65)
12. A Well Respected Man (Single 10/65)
13. Till The End Of The Day (Single 11/65, from The Kink Kontroversy)
14. Where Have All The Good Times Gone (B-side 11/65,
from The Kink Kontroversy)
15. Milk Cow Blues (from The Kink Kontroversy)
16. Dedicated Follower Of Fashion (Single 2/66)
17. Sittin' On My Sofa (B-side 2/66)
18. She's Got Everything (Recorded in early 1966, B-Side 6/68)
19. I'm Not Like Everybody Else (B-Side 6/66)
20. Sunny Afternoon (Single 6/66, from Face To Face)
21. Dandy (from Face To Face)
22. Holiday In Waikiki (from Face To Face)
23. Fancy (from Face To Face)
24. Dead End Street (Single 11/66)
25. Big Black Smoke (B-side 11/66)
26. Mr. Pleasant (Single 4/67)
27. David Watts (from Something Else By The Kinks)
28. Love Me Till The Sun Shines (from Something Else By The Kinks)
29. Waterloo Sunset (Single 5/67, from Something Else By The Kinks)

Disc Two
01. Death Of A Clown (Dave Davies solo single 7/67,
from Something Else By The Kinks)
02. Autumn Almanac (Single 10/67)
03. Susannah's Still Alive (Dave Davies solo single 11/67)
04. Wonderboy (Single 4/68)
05. Days (Single 6/68, on European versions of
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society)
06. The Village Green Preservation Society (from The Kinks Are
The Village Green Preservation Society
07. Picture Book (from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society)
08. Starstruck (Single 1/69, from The Kinks Are
The Village Green Preservation Society
09. Village Green (from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society)
10. Plastic Man (Single 3/69)
11. King Kong (B-side 3/69)
12. Drivin' (Single 6/69, from Arthur (Or The Decline & Fall Of
The British Empire)
13. Mindless Child Of Motherhood (B-side 6/69)
14. Shangri-La (Single 9/69, from Arthur (Or The Decline & Fall Of
The British Empire)
15. Victoria (Single 12/69, from Arthur (Or The Decline & Fall Of
The British Empire)
16. Lola (Single 6/70, from Lola Vs. Powerman & The Moneygoround, Pt. 1)
17. Get Back In Line (from Lola Vs. Powerman & The Moneygoround, Pt. 1)
18. Apeman (Single 11/70, from Lola Vs. Powerman & The Moneygoround, Pt. 1)
19. God's Children (Single 4/71, from the Percy soundtrack)
20. 20th Century Man (Single 12/71, from Muswell Hillbillies)
21. Oklahoma U.S.A. (from Muswell Hillbillies)
22. Supersonic Rocket Ship (Single 5/72, from Everybody's In Show-Biz)
23. Celluloid Heroes (Single 11/72, from Everybody's In Show-Biz)

- Exhaustive Kinks discography
- Wikipedia: The Kinks [main page]
- Wikipedia: The Kinks [discography]
- Allmusic: The Kinks