Monday, June 27, 2005

About damn time

Since I have been slacking for a while, here are reviews of the albums I have bought over the last few months.

Bruce Springsteen - Devils & Dust

Devils & Dust is Springsteen's first album sans-E Street Band since 1995's The Legend of Tom Joad, and much like its predecessor it's a rather lo-fi album, with Springsteen on acoustic guitar accompanied by sparse occasional instrumentation. It is also an album of character songs, and Springsteen does his best to make them as personal and crushing as possible. On this album, Springsteen's message through his characters is how hard salvation and peace are to find; a soldier in a desert war realizes God can't be behind both opposing sides and the bleak realization takes his "God filled soul" and "[fills] it with devils and dust. A man shares a meaningless night with a prostitute in Reno: "not even [his] best / not even close." Two sons lose their mother, and an aging boxer relfects on a career made virtually on murder. Ultimately, salvation for these souls lies not in religion, but in eachother and a faint thread of hope that they can't even see; only trust in. [4/5]

Death Cab for Cutie - The John Byrd EP

In honour of their longtime sound technician, Death Cab for Cutie released this live EP. It also marked the end of their career as an independent act, a final (and retroactive) release on Seattle indie label Barsuk. Originally reported to be only available from the band's label and select independent record stores, I eventually purchased it at worldwide chain HMV. The songs are well-treated and well-played, and Ben Gibbard's inter-song speeches are pleasant enough, but in the end the album serves its purpose best as an introduction to the band for an interested party, or simply to complete the collection for serious fans. [3.5/5]

Johnny Cash - My Mother's Hymn Book

The Man in Black's latest posthumous release is a collection of songs originally in the Unearthed boxed set. No highly-priced set of rarities could hold this album back, however, an album Cash called his finest. The album was of personal significance to Cash; when his mother died, he inherited her hymn book. This book contained some of the music that meant the most to Cash during his childhood and later struggles in life; songs that offered him comfort when nothing else did. On My Mother's Hymn Book, Cash plays his favourite songs solo on an acoustic guitar. The entire album is surrounded by a hushed sense of love, faith, and wonder that transfers itself to the listener. For most of my life, I've struggled to find comfort in religion; I'm not even comfortable in most churches. However, this album soothes me. Cash's earthy baritone treats these songs so lovingly, so tenderly, that they take on a beauty no choir or congregation has ever translated to me. This is something that speaks to the uneasy faith deep inside me, that calms it and helps me find things I try to find. It is separate from religion, and comes straight from a soft faith. Even when I don't agree with some of the words, I can appreciate that I'm not afraid to challenge them. Cash has taken away the intimidation from these songs, and helped me make them beautiful. That's the best review I can give. [5/5]

Coldplay - X&Y

With their third LP, Coldplay are poised again to become the biggest band in the world. Whereas 2001's A Rush of Blood to the Head moved away from the Bends-era Radiohead-inspired guitar rock ofParachutes towards more stately piano, X&Y moves even farther into woozy atmospherics. This is Coldplay making their Joshua Tree, something the band has admitted. Opener "Square One" eases in but picks up quickly, as does the next track "What If." Much of the album uses atmospheric electronic flourishes to give the tracks extra effect, but ultimately the band is still taking far few risks and writing very familiar songs, even if they are pretty. X&Y has a few standout tracks, however, namely "Fix You" and hidden track "Til Kingdom Come." "Til Kingdom Come" is a subdued track, comprised almost entirely of Chris Martin and his acoustic guitar. The hushed feeling lends the song an extra air of importance, and it's tenderness is worthy of the man it was written for, Johnny Cash. "Fix You" is the band's finest song to date. It opens with an airy organ and Martin's choirboy falsetto as he sings your heartbreaks. As the piano enters, Martin's chorus tenderly promises to "try to fix you." Layers of organ, guitar, and percussion build up to a stunning Buckland solo and brilliant four part harmony. This is Coldplay's genius at its best, the stunning anthem the album builds up to and tries to regain. [3/5]

The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan

Much was made about the new direction Jack White was taking the White Stripes with their latest LP. While it was recorded in similar haste to previous efforts, with songs reportedly unfinished when their recording began, White made one large change. A renowned guitarist, he reportedly ignored the instrument for most of the songs in favour of piano and marimba. Pretty huge, right?

Not quite.

The rumours were true; White did indeed focus largely on new instruments. The problem is, not only did he use a lot of piano on De Stijl, he is still writing the same songs he always has. The structures are the same, the chord progressions are similarly designed, and Meg still can't drum. Despite White's changes, this is still a very recognizable White Stripes album, like The White Stripes, De Stijl, White Blood Cells, and Elephant before it. This isn't to say the album isn't good, it's just infuriatingly familiar for listeners hoping for something truly new. At times, I had to struggle to not hear White's absent guitar, because he plays the piano so similarly. Tracks like "The Nurse," "My Doorbell" and "Forever for Her (is Over for Me)" are brilliant, but they can't save an album plagued by misleading hype and White's ego. White's tight control over production may have also been what largely contributed to the disappointment, but in the end the album is simply good, but not great. [3.5/5]

Oasis - Don't Believe the Truth

Since their 1995 North American breakthrough (What's the Story) Morning Glory? Oasis have struggled to reclaim that success. 1997's Be Here Now was enough of a disappointment to North America that their later four releases went all but unnoticed. Probably for the better, because even though Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and The Heathen Chemistry had their moments, they were generally considered to be halfhearted meandering that even Noel Gallagher was quick to dismiss. With Don't Believe the Truth, they've tried to recapture the buoyancy and excitement of their first two albums. The opener "Turn up the Sun" has the cockiness and bounce of Definitely Maybe, and many of the songs follow in its stead. Lead single "Layla" is one of their finest singles in years. Two of the finest songs though, are some of the quieter ones more reminiscent of Morning Glory. Noel's finest song on the album is "The Importance of Being Idle," a fittingly laid back and swaggering song about taking time to yourself. The real surprise, however, is Liam's finest song to date, "Guess God Thinks I'm Abel." On this one, he's even gotten Noel stumped as he declares himself to be Abel, but also tells his Cain, "You could be my lover." Noel assumes the struggle in the song is that between two brothers, but for once Liam's seeing a far bigger picture. "Guess God Thinks I'm Abel" is a tender song about betrayal and trying to reconcile before things get out of hand. After years of trying, Oasis has finally regained both the swagger and the philosophy. [4/5]

Sleater-Kinney - The Woods

The Woods is Sleater-Kinney's first album on Sub-Pop and it also marks a change in style. While the band still bares their punk edges, much of The Woods is influenced by 70s era rock and roll like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, which the band studied extensively (read: got stoned and listened to) in the studio while recording. What results is a punk album that's not afraid to write longer songs and indulge in finer musicianship. "Let's Call it Love" is the best example of this shift, an eleven-minute jam that isn't afraid to explore. First single "Entertain" is an energetic indictment of hipster musicians imitating the 1980s and one of the album's highlights. With The Woods Sleater-Kinney have also grown more subtlety in their lyrics; still feminist, they can also be more construed in a universal setting. All in all, this helps to give a tight, solid endeavor more chances in a wider audience without alienating many of the listeners but still getting it's point across. A fine move for a fine band. [4/5]

Nine Inch Nails - With Teeth

Over the last few months, my view of Trent Reznor has changed exponentially. When I first heard of and listened to the Nine Inch Nails, I couldn't believe it. The lyrics were so melodramatic and self-indulgent that I was never able to enjoy the rest of the music. Then I heard "Closer."

Wow.

The layers, the energy, and the melody blew me away. For years I'd been drifting towards electronic music and building an appreciation of finer production, and finally I was able to look past what I still believed were often questionable lyrics and see the musical genius behind. On a friend's recommendation, I downloaded some songs designed to get me intrigued. Success. I convinced my cousin to buy The Downward Spiral so I could get a burned copy. I enjoyed it. Eventually, I was faced with a tough choice: should I buy With Teeth, Reznor's latest album in six years, or just test the water a bit more? I took the bait. Good thing.

With Teeth isn't necessarily Reznor's finest work, but it's incredibly solid. After the lukewarm reception to The Fragile, his 1999 double album, he retreated from the public eye and dealt with issues of substance abuse and depression that had been creeping up on him. When he finally started making music again, he focussed on making it sincere and true. What came out is With Teeth. It discards the Fragile-era navelgazing for a more aggressive approach in line with Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, but don't be fooled by this description: it's not a complete retreading. It's a bit smoother than his previous works and he does incorporate certain aspects of The Fragile in it. Songs like "The Collector" and "You Know What You Are?" are very aggressive, backed by Dave Grohl's steady drumming, but "All the Love in the World," "Every Day is Exactly the Same" and "Right Where it Belongs" are softer songs with their edges. Lyrically most of the songs are similar to Reznor's older works but with them comes a more surefooted voice. He's still angry and in pain, but he's come farther with it. With Teeth is the sound of a man making sense of his life. [4/5]

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses

By far this was my most anticipated album of the season. A few months ago, Ryan Adams' website featured a phone conversation between Adams and two of his label execs, in which he admitted he was planning on releasing "five or six" albums this year. With their insistence, he settled on the still-prolific three. The first of Adams' 2005 releases (Jacksonville City Nights will be released in August, and 29 follows in November) is Cold Roses, a double album. The main risk with double albums, even from a talented and prolific songwriter like Adams, is that it can seem bloated or grandiose (see the Nine Inch Nails' 1999 release The Fragile. Because of this, most artists simply whittle studio recordings to an LP and a number of b-sides. Not Adams.

Neither does he entirely disappoint. While it suffers to a degree because it's a double album, Cold Roses is Adams' most solid and cohesive album since his 2000 debut Heartbreaker;. By splitting his output for the year into the "honkytonk" Jacksonville City Nights, "story songs" of 29, and the more familiar alt-country of Cold Roses, Adams has perhaps finally allowed himself to make the cohesive three albums that Demolition should have been had it been the four albums he originally invisioned. Where he previously used punk and hard rock glimpses to break from alt-country, Cold Roses lapses more into a folksy Grateful Dead groove, with flourishes and trailing solos that give songs like "Sweet Illusions," "Beautiful Sorta," "Easy Plateau" and "Let it Ride" a new sound while remaining familiar. Adams sings in falsetto more than he has in the past, but without the strain that marred a few tracks on Rock N Roll.

Lyrically, the album is more straightforward and sparsely poetic than Adams has been in a few years. Songs like "Now That You're Gone" and "Friends," both previously available on 7" singles or bootlegs, would fit nicely on Heartbreaker or its unreleased precursor and follow-up Destoyer and The Suicide Handbook respectively. On many other tracks, Adams lapses into a rootsy brogue he's only danced briefly with before; on tracks like "Magnolia Mountain," "Meadowlake Street" and "Mockingbird" Adams uses a simpler style of speech, filled with colloquialisms and similes. It works.

However, Cold Roses is still a double disc, and while it is certainly neither bloated or conceited, it is at times somewhat meandering, especially towards the end of the second disc. Luckily, Adams finishes the album with the spectacular "Friends" and reminds listeners that this is an album filled with what he does best: simple songs and heartbreak.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Father's Day

I often have a hard time shopping for presents for members of my family. My mum's taste in jewellery and clothing is so picky that unless she picks out exactly what to get her (and even sometimes if she does) she will either return the gift or just never wear it. She'll say she loves a movie or album, but won't watch or listen to it if you get it for her. If you get her a book, she'll read it then take it to a used book store and exchange it for something else. My sister's tastes are so obsessive and rapidly changing that the only thing to get her are dvds. And I just don't know other members of my family well enough to get them gifts they'll like.

But not with my dad. My dad and I have always been close, and I've always been able to be inspired to get him gifts I know he'll enjoyl; gifts that will mean something to him. A few years ago he gave me his old favourite science fiction books, save one. This book was his favourite, and it was a loan only. It was Nine Tomorrows, a paperback collection of short stories by Isaac Aasimov that had been out of print for several decades. His favourite short story, "The Last Question," was in it, and I recommend it to all of you to read. He warned me not to lose it under any circumstances. I loved it, of course. Against his warning, I shared it with a friend, and promptly lost it. Often when we talk about "The Last Question," he'll muse about where his copy is, and every time I feel a wave of shame when I have to admit that "I think I lost it, I don't know for sure. I can't find it anyway." I always felt like I disappointed him somehow.

But this year is the year I make it up to him. I have located in California a first edition hardcover of Nine Tomorrows, in good condition, with the original dustjacket. It cost more than I usually spend on family gifts, but this is my dad. He's worth it.

My dad taught me to unwrap presents meticulously and neatly fold the wrapping paper, but I don't think he'll be able to keep from ripping it a little. I can't wait to give him a big hug and apologize for the grief I put him through, and just tell him I love him. I can't wait to see his smile. I can't wait.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Back when The Day After Tomorrow was released, I avoided it like the plague. The trailer looked overblown, the hype looked overblown, and every single review said the movie was implausible and, you guessed it, overblown. This morning when I got up for work, it was just starting to air on one of the digital movie channels, so I watched the first half hour. This evening, I watched the entire film.

I have to say, the movie was enjoyable. The starring cast played their roles solidly, if not spectacularly, especially Dennis Quaid. The romance between Sam and Laura (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum) was a little silly at times, but most of that was due to the fact that as a disaster film, simply not as much attention was paid to it as it was in say, The Good Girl, where it was sort of the point.

Missing the point is something a lot of reviewers take far too seriously. Overblown? Implausible? Mr. Travers, eyes front and centre. It's a disaster film. A disaster film based on sudden weather changes brought on by global warming. What did you expect? If we believed it, if it didn't have clich├ęs, it wouldn't be a disaster film. It would be a drama. Learn to make a distinction, or just please resign.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Yesterday morning started off very similar to any other construction morning. I barely clawed my way out of bed, checked the weather channel for signs of rain, made a lunch, got dressed, and quickly shoved an All Bran bar that I'd never get around to eating into my backpack. That is, until I looked at the cover of the entertainment section of the newspaper and caught a glimpse of something interesting: the name Adams.

That sent my heart aflutter a little.

Hesitantly working my way over to the table, wary of scaring away any good news, I read the best news I've probably heard all year: The Edmonton FolkFest, after several years of trying, landed Ryan Adams for the mainstage on the closing night.

Whoa.

Breath.

Don't yell.

Quit that dancing.


None of this really worked however, and I instantly found myself unable to sit still. Through the entire day of work, I couldn't think about much else. At home was an article that would tell me, if I ever got around to reading it, when I could buy tickets to my favourite musician.

Tickets went onsale today, and I made sure to get mine as soon as they went on sale. I still have no idea what if I'll even attend work that day, or if I'll stick around past the Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and Allison Krauss sets, but that's not important.

I'm going.