Monday, March 30, 2009

Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By


Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Island Records

If Polly Jean Harvey ever wanted to avoid the often inevitable record company ‘Best Of’ compilation album, A Woman a Man Walked By (released tomorrow) would suffice as a nice little retrospective of her music thus far. While the record features all new material, and technically exists as the second collaboration LP with musician and longtime producer John Parish, Walked By manages to sum up an exciting career, spanning almost two decades. 

To take care of some of the technicalities behind this record it should be noted that A Woman a Man Walked By is the musical love child of both Harvey and Parish–the former writing all lyrics and taking care of the vocals, with the latter writing and performing the music. Parish has been a longtime friend and musical partner, having produced and played on three of Harvey’s past studio albums, as well as a prior collaboration project, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. Here it's as if Harvey was able to focus solely on her writing and vocal stylings (a similar collaboration worked wonders last year for David Byrne and Brian Eno).

The result of this recent partnership is a genre-bending album from Harvey’s past and present. From the heavy alternative blues rock of Dry and To Bring You My Love, to the atmospheric folk tunes from 2007’s bizarre concept departure, White Chalk, Harvey skips from one familiar sound to the next with the confidence of an artist summing up her artistic existence, while also bringing to the forefront a bevy of some of her best songs to date.

Is the album as ambitious as White Chalk or as prolific as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea? No. Does it showcase her abilities as a raging blues guitar banshee? Not quite. Where A Woman a Man Walked By succeeds is in is Harvey’s knack for writing haunting alt-rock songs and her full-fledged vocals, which casually shift from grunge to ethereal folk.

On the rip-roaring opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a welcomed heavy rock song that is worlds apart from White Chalk’s exercise in cryptic piano lullabies, Harvey aptly sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know.” It's as if she's asking us if we’re ready to embark on whatever lies ahead. The short answer to this instant classic–yes.

On “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” Parish’s acoustic guitar riffs pick up where Jimmy Page left off on Zeppelin III’s “Friends,” while Harvey croons about an ill-fated game of hide and seek.

“Leaving California,” The Soldiers,” “April” are the record’s three unofficial continuations from White Chalk, relying heavily on Harvey’s newfound love of soothing child like piano/organ riffs and falsettos. The latter of the trio features one of the most chilling musical ascents of any song Harvey has ever recorded behind a sparse drum march and a Hammond B3 Organ tuned to ‘haunting.'  

The album’s title track–a two-part anti-love song (?) culminating with a rather jarring but beautiful instrumental piece–pays homage to Harvey’s gritty punk past circa Dry, and may be the only song to ever feature the lines “he had chicken liver heart made of chicken liver parts / liver little parts” followed by “I want his fucking ass.” Sung with the same razor sharp virtuosic pipes that once established Harvey as badass singer songwriter she’s evolved from, this is one of the album’s highlights. one that definitely grows on the ears after its initial lyrical shock and awe.

A Woman a Man Walked By’s most surprising tracks also couldn’t be farther apart in nature. “Pig Will Not” might be the record’s most forgettable track, although its screeching guitar/vocal distortion will appease the fans of past songs like To Bring You My Love’s “Long Snake Moan.” At the other end of Harvey’s spectrum is the record’s closer, “Cracks in the Canvas,” an atmospheric two-minute spoken word exercise that would feel right at home in a David Lynch film, most likely sung by a perfect ‘10’ blonde with a This Mortal Coilesque, dream-pop voice. At the end she leaves us with:

I'm looking for an answer
Me and a million others
Disbelievers
Desserted lovers
Dear God, you'd better not let me down this time
Cracks in the canvas
Look like roads that never end

It could be that A Woman a Man Walked By is yet another side project/segue to Polly Jean’s next musical direction, similarly to her last collaboration with Parish, which followed the extremely successful To Bring You My Love. Perhaps it’s simply just a pet project of the two that had been long overdue. Whatever the album’s goal might be is trivial. The ten songs that fill this album channel an unprecedented career from one of finer musicians working today. For Harvey fans this may ultimately serve as a bridge to her future endeavors. For anyone just jumping into her music it just might be the perfect catalyst for a an appreciation of Harvey's music.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Film Review: Knowing



Film Review: Knowing
Directed by: Alex Proyas
121 Min. Feature Film, 2009

The recent wave of apocalyptic, disaster films is a troubling sign of the times. The big budget, Blockbuster trend began with Independence Day (menacing aliens), followed by the geological heavy duet Dante’s Peak/Volcano (menacing magma), accelerated to its own genre with Michael Bay’s Armageddon (menacing asteroid)continued on with The Day After Tomorrow (menacing global warming), and has even made it’s way to the animated film realm with last year’s perfectly crafted Wall-E (menacing human nature). With the recent release of Knowing, yet another flawed Nicolas Cage vehicle, this trend seems to still be chugging along, now adding a biblical sci-fi element to the blend. 

Cage, whose career has been on a downward spiral since his first venture as an action leading man in The Rock, stars as John Koestler, a seemingly brilliant MIT professor and astrophysicist (hardly a stretch for the man who once swapped faces with John Travolta). His wife recently died in a freak hotel fire, leaving him alone to raise his son and keep from succumbing to his growing alcoholism (post Leaving Las Vegas, the bottle seems to be Cage’s go-to channel for droopy-eyed dramatic tension). In the classroom he is struggling with his theories on the randomness of world events. With his family he has given up on faith and religion, as seen through an underdeveloped plot element regarding his preacher father. 

One day his son brings home a series of numbers scribbled on a note that had been locked away in a school time capsule for 50 years. When the random digits eventual uncover a series of dates, time, and location points for some of the most horrific fatal disasters of the past (and present), Koestler tries desperately to warn the world of what he knows while also trying to unearth the why behind the numbers’ existence. 

While the events leading up to Koestler’s discovery of the digits’ secret –the eerie girl who pens the list and hears whispers–create a level of intrigue, the film ultimately takes a turn for the worse when Cage, the action star, enters the picture to prevent the inevitable and ultimately save the world. 

To this end Knowing’s greatest fault is that it is two films wrapped in one collective flaw. The first half begins as a fairly unique tale of theological premonitions, mathematics, the curse of natural sciences, and even a possibly supernatural suspense element. When the film’s big budget special effects come into play (less so with a pretty remarkable plane crash), the film shifts its gears from the thinking man’s film to what could essentially be viewed as disaster porn (the grisly Final Destination triptych would also fit comfortably in this subgenre). 

Towards its unexpected but silly finale the film borrows elements from the brilliant Danny Boyle sci-fi flickSunshine, which also dealt with the eminent threat from our Solar systems biggest nuclear weapon, the sun. Eventually Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets its possibly unintentional nod and wink, and the film goes from original to passé.  

Director Alex Proyas was once one of the more fascinating under-the-radar filmmakers working in, or rather, outside of the mainstream. Starting out in music videos, Proyas first jumped on the scene with the dark comic noir film The Crow, a genre classic that has somehow managed to age rather well over the years. His masterpiece, 1998s Dark City, was a one of a kind surreal sci-fi classic, paving the road for a promising future. Even early on Knowing features some familiar stylistic elements from Proyas’ inspired past, most notably with the mysterious ‘Whisper People,’ who, like ‘The Strangers’ antagonists in Dark City, wander the night with hauntingly pale faces.


Sadly the film’s CGI heavy latter half, most notably the uninspired eminent apocalypse, more closely follows Proyas’ underwhelming pseudo film adaptation of Issac Asmiov’s I, Robot.

Knowing is yet another forgettable disaster blockbuster that is all flash and no substance, even when it tries. The film is also another forgettable addition to Cage’s mounting gamut of mediocrity. With the upcoming Hollywoodization of the 2012 doomsday lore, Knowing certainly won’t be the last piece of entertainment depicting the bleak end of the world.

Bob Dylan Album #2, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #2 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1963

It’s easy to take for granted songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times Are a Changing,” and “Like A Rolling Stone” since they remain Dylan’s most widely known. With “Blowing,” Dylan couldn’t have written a better opening song to what would ultimately be his most fruitful, decade-long run of albums. It is also the proper introduction to Dylan the poet, prolific songwriter, political activist, and romantic.

The first side of Freewheelin’ definitely outweighs that of its latter half. The opening trio alone, consisting of “Blowing,” “Girl From the North Country,” and “Master of War” remain three of Dylan’s finest achievements. Add to this the one-two punch of the record’s two blues tracks, “Down in the Highway” and “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” Finally side A ends with the apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song that has remained a steady part of Dylan’s live repertoire and has seen many different incarnations over the years, most notably circa his Rolling Thunder Revue days. When Dylan sings “Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten / Where black is the color, where none is the number,” it’s clear this young songwriter from Bleecker street is a voice to be heard.

Originally envisioned as a blues record entitled “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” Freewheelin’s second half features the majority of the album’s exercises in simple, folk style blues.

With the exception of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” which, combined with “Girl From the North Country,” shows Dylan’s knack for writing emotionally triggered love songs, side B at times feels like a more polished/original extension of Bob Dylan

Whereas Bob Dylan consisted of only two original songs amidst a collection of covers and traditional folk songs, Freewheelin’ is Dylan breaking out of his shell. Only two traditional covers–“Corrina Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”–are featured on the record and are ultimately the album’s two forgettable tracks. The remaining eleven songs introduce a confident and assertive Dylan whose songs range from tender to poignant, tragic to playful. 

The album’s closer, “I Shall Be Free,” returns to a bit of the humor found on Bob Dylan but maintains Freewheelin’s political timeliness. Opening with the line, “Well I took me a woman late last night / I was ¾ drunk, she looked alright” and eventually culminating with a fictionalized phone call with President Kennedy asking, “Bob, what do we need to make the country grow? I responded, Brigitte Bardot,” it’s obvious that Dylan’s tongue is in his cheek. 

Freewheelin features some of Dylan’s finest songs and would have been a monumental debut for this rising musician. Many of the tracks would receive various makeovers throughout his touring years. “Girl From the North Country” would later be re-released as a crooning duet with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline, not to mention a musical doppelganger on The Times They Are A-Changin’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “Hard Rain” transferred flawlessly to Dylan’s gypsy electric phase in the early 70s, and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” remains a staple encore set piece for Dylan’s current Never Ending Tour.

As a whole entity, the album’s overall focus is never truly defined but rather the collection of songs seem to be introducing audience to a new side of Bob Dylan (a rebirth formula he would ultimately use again, and again). The two covers feel tossed on last minute, while a number of B-side tracks from the album (later released in the Bootleg Series 1-3) would have been right at home on this release. Overall we get Dylan the bluesman, Dylan the romantic crooner, and for the first time in his career, Dylan the activist, a role that would play a crucial role in his following release, The Times They Are A-Changin’. 

8.5/10 

Key Tracks: “Blowing in the Wind,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “I Shall Be Free.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

Album Review: It's Blitz!



Album Review:

It’s Blitz (2009)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Interscope Records

The third album from any promising artist or group is more often than not the most critical and decisive release of a career. After wowing audiences with the debut and then taking things up a notch with the sophomore release, the general rule of thumb for the third outing is either follow suit or stir things up, the latter being the risky gamble that can break or make careers. Radiohead planted its seeds of musical relevance with its third release Ok Computer, Springsteen on Born to Run, PJ Harvey with To Bring You My Love and now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with its latest release. 

It’s Blitz! (Interscope Records, 2009) may come as a bit of a shock to some fans expecting yet another record propelled by Karen O’s fiery shrieks and falsettos. When looking at The Yeah Yeah Yeahs natural progression since it’s monstrous debut, Fever to Tell, the band’s third album fits nicely in its budding catalogue.

The aforementioned shock would undoubtedly arise after listening to It’s Blitz!’s opening two tracks, “Zero” and “Heads will Roll,” which are both terribly catchy dance-pop numbers. With Nick Zinner’s distortion soaked guitar riffs replaced with synthesizers and Karen O’s signature highly sexual screeches and moans toned down to a more refined (albeit welcomed) take on conventional pop vocals, the early moments on It’s Blitz! are bizarre enough to warrant a double check that this is, in fact, the same Yeah Yeah Yeahs that once wrote I gotta’ man who makes me wanna’ kill

Whereas the opening tracks would feel right at home at the club or late night in the car when nobody can see you jamming out, a number of the following songs feel like extensions (or shall we say improvements) on the band’s surprise 2003 hit, “Maps.” 

“Skeletons,” one of the most strikingly beautiful songs Karen O has ever SUNG–lyrics tend to be The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Achilles heel. Beginning with a dreamlike synth loop, the song crescendos to a massive soundscape finale, which ceaselessly segues into “Dull Life,” the first song on the disc even remotely reminiscent to the group’s art punk past.

The record’s pinnacle exercise, “Runaway,” starts off as a hauntingly stripped down piano ballad showcasing O’s more delicate vocal range but eventually morphs into a powerful free-for-all of frantic string arrangements and thunderous drumming from Brian Chase (another venture away from the drummer’s conventional kit minimalism).

“Hysteric” very well may be the album’s “Maps,” a love song with lyrics like, Flow sweetly hang heavy / You suddenly complete me. An equally effective bonus acoustic version of the song hints at what alternate live versions of these new songs may sound like. 

It should come as no surprise that with this record the band called upon rising producer and member of TV on the Radio Dave Sitek for input. Radio’s third record, the masterful Return to Cookie Mountain, also secured the band’s status as one of the few current bands that matters. Sitek has a penchant for deconstructing all prior notions of what dance music should be.

It should also be noted that past Yeahs songs have led up to It’s Blitz! whether of not it was intentional. The closing trio on Fever to Tell–“Maps,” “Y Control” and “Modern Romance”–were fairly significant departure from the album’s prior tracks, possibly hinting at what was to come.

For The Yeah Yeah Yeahs it might have been easy for the trio to just continue the formula that lumped them with a budding minimalist post punk genre consisting primarily of The Strokes and The White Stripes. Unlike its contemporaries The Strokes, which tried to stir things up with its third (and also most pop-friendly) album First Impressions of Earth but was overly ambitious for its own good, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have broken free from what’s expected of them and are on a path to sparking listener curiosity for future records.

Short, loud alt-punk vignettes propelled Fever to Tell, while 2006’s Show Your Bones was less aggressive, opening up the floor for some more alt-experimentation. With It’s Blitz! the band has made its dance record, and done so without a hitch. Let’s just hope the band keeps evolving come record number four. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Album #1, Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #1 Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1962

All of the greats get their start somewhere. For Bob Dylan, who recorded his self-titled debut in 1962 at the ambitious age of 20, it was a promising start indeed.

Preluding the stellar lineup of masterpieces that soon followed Bob Dylan–starting with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and carrying on until his rewriting of rock and roll with Blonde on Blonde–Dylan’s premiere album is easy to overlook. Mainly comprised of straightforward covers of contemporary and traditional folk tunes, a handful of originals, and one ode to his idol (Song to Woody), Bob Dylan was less an exercise in genius or unrivaled creative masterstroke (the brilliance would come soon after) but more the perfect groundings to what would ultimately be an expansive and unprecedented career. After all, despite the many musical transformations over the years–acoustic to electric, political to spiritual, soothing vocals to sandpaper crooning, etc. etc.–at the core of Dylan’s music is an adoration of traditional folk and blues. 

In terms of vocal prowess Dylan comes across as young, fairly untrained but confident nevertheless and his interplay between the verses and his choo-choo train harmonica shows an early mastery of the harp. Songs like “Pretty Peggy-O” and “Gospel Plow” come off as simple, casual and almost playful as Dylan interrupts the choruses with quick hoots, yelps and giggles. Whereas Dylan’s take on the traditional “In My Time Of Dyin’” and “House of the Rising Sun” are more refined, with a tilt towards the blues. On other songs, particularly the album’s sparse opener “You’re No Good,” it’s clear Dylan’s singing out of his range, in many ways paying homage once again to Woody Gutherie.

Musically the songs rely on the purity of a man and an acoustic guitar. The picking is proficient but hardly grandiose (again, Dylan would unleash his true guitar chops later). The recording sessions of all 17 tracks (only 13 would make it to the final album) took roughly three afternoons to record and cost a meager $400. Dylan has often said that it only takes him two or three listens of any song to master it and by the time Bob Dylan was recorded the artist had already been playing the coffeehouse circuit and sitting in with a number of his contemporaries, becoming fluent in the folk repertoire with every song he learned. 

The album only has two original tracks, with the timeless “Song to Woody” being the most famous. As a result the album only reveals a taste of the real Bob Dylan, enough of course to land him a five-record contract with Columbia and enough to prompt the album’s more personal follow-up The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.

A handful of the songs on Bob Dylan would be added to his live rotation during the early 1960s, and post his1966 electric transition only five of the thirteen were played in concert, including a driving, blues rendition of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” with his fiery backing band, The Band (then still The Hawks).

Bob Dylan would not be the go-to album for someone unfamiliar with Dylan to embark on his massive canon. Like David Bowie’s self-titled debut (which was also a melting pot of covers and influences), the album is in many ways merely a glimpse into the music of his childhood, the songs that inspired him to pick up the guitar and step up to the mic. The true Bob Dylan wouldn’t be unleashed till the follow-up but for understanding his career spanning progression the album is a necessary reminder of his roots.

7.5/10

Key Tracks: “In My Time of Dyin,’” “Talkin’ in New York,” “Gospel Plow,” “Song to Woody.”