Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cynic's Musical Side: Bad As Me

Tom Waits has released a new album, which pretty much means one of two things: you've already bought it (or are buying it soon or borrowing from a freind who just bought it) or you have no idea who the hell I'm talking about. Waits seems to be one of those secrets that isn't really all that secret: he never advertises, he never merchandises, and finding people you know who are familliar with his music is difficult, yet he has amassed a huge and devoted following amongst musicians and harcore music geeks. I've never met a record store owner who wasn't a fan, Rolling Stone positively drools over his work, he was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the list of musicians who've expressed admiration for his work is about as impressive a list as you'll ever see: Norah Jones, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Krall, Solomon Burke, Joan Baez, The Eagles, the list goes on and on. That's not bad for a guy who drank and smoked away his voice in the mid '70s and employs melodic and harmonic ideas that send more casual listeners running for the fences. You see, his work isn't the kind that you don't just hear idly while you screw around with other things; you actually have to sit down and listen. Really listen. Do that, and you'll soon uncover hidden beauty in even his harshest, strangest songs.

As you may have guessed, I absolutely love Tom Waits. I own every single album he's ever released, and I'm not about to let this one slip through my fingers. But after all that, it's an understatement to say that Bad As Me has big shoes to fill. In a career that spans 19 albums and almost 40 years, the singer-songwriter, who turns 62 in November, has never released a single dud. Think about that for a second. There are artists that I like more than Waits who have released some total crap (I'm looking at you, Tower of Power), yet Waits has gone 38 years without writing a bad song- some that take getting used to, certainly, but not an actual, honest-to-god dud. And it's not like he's played it safe, either; Waits is one of the most original artists in the modern music world, crafting sounds that nobody's dared attempt to create, using apochriphal instruments and percussion made from found objects and other junk, and taking his odd voice to strange new places. But what about his new album? Does Bad As Me live up to the hype?

You bet it does.

First of all, it's hard to make a bad album with the lineup of studio musicians Waits has assembled: Les Claypool, Marc Ribot, Charlie Musselwhite, Flea, Keith motherfucking Richards- seriously, how could this not be awesome? Secondly, this couldn't be a better time for a Tom Waits record: times are tougher than they've been in decades, and Waits has been a sort-of musical patron saint of the hard luck case since he was in his early twenties. And for the fist time in a while (maybe ever) Waits has released an album where he gets genuinely, truly angry. Before I even listened to the album, I went through the lyric sheet and read every last stanza, lest we forget amongst the strange noise that Waits is one of the music world's greatest living songwriters, challenged only by the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Inside lie some of the rawest, most powerful stuff he's ever written. The opening track, Chicago, tells the story of a destitute couple moving on in the fading hope of a better life, while not even knowing what lies ahead for them in their destination ("the seeds are planted here/but they won't grow/we won't have to say goodbye/if we all go"). "Talking at the Same Time" and "New Year's Eve" both illustrate the kind of downtrodden lowlifes that he's always hand a knack for writing about, cementing his place as one of modern music's last true storytellers. But the centerpiece here is the brutal, chantlike "Hell Broke Luce", which records a soldier's fiery rage, set to thundering drums and machine gun fire. Wits has written anti-war songs about the war in the middle east before ("Day After Tomorrow" from 2004's Real Gone and "Road to Peace" from 2006's Orphans, respectively), but never like this. It is rawer, darker, and more chilling than anything he's written since "Tom Traubert's Blues" back in 1976. It may just be the angriest song he's ever written, and left me dumbstruck. Musically speaking, it's not the best song on the album, but it's the one that left the biggest impression on me. I feel confident that years from now, it'll be considered with his most revered work such as "Jersey Girl" and "Jockey Full of Bourbon". It just goes to show that, while Waits isn't usually one to make a statement in his work, but when he does, hearing it isn't an experience you'll soon forget.

But it's not all darkness and gloom. As anyone who's seen his gloriously, hilariously batshit interviews and stage banter, Waits has a prominent fun, tongue-in-cheek side. He can't resist fun, and he gives some great jams, such as the soul-blues influenced title track and "Satisfied", a tribute song to the Rolling Stones featuring Keith Richards on guitar. Let me repeat that for you: Tom Waits pays tribute to the Rolling Stones. With Keith Richards. And yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds.

This isn't just another solid record from the music industry's greatest living sideshow act, it's his best since 1999's Mule Variations, and deserves to be said in the same breath as classics such as Small Change and the pure genius Heart of Satuday Night (my personal favorite album of all time). If you're a Tom Waits fan, you'll love this album to death. If you're not, who knows. But give it a chance; you might be surprised. Grade: A+

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cynic Reviews two thrillers

I recently saw two very different movies that both demonstrate a concept that almost seems lost in the movie intustry: how to make a good thriller. One of them I just saw, the other I've been thinking about reviewing for weeks. And since it's the season for scary movies, I thought I do you a service and tell you about two that don't suck.

Movie #1: Contagion: A new disease has broken out in the world. The CDC and WHO cannot identify what it is, and race to find a cure while millions die around them. It's a simple story, and the sort of thing that's been told many times before. But that just goes to show how a good director can breathe new life into a tired concept. The director in this case is Steven Sodergurgh, one of our era's most talented directors (and one who is retiring, much to my disappoinment). Soderburgh is working with a taut script and surronds himself with a brilliant cast. Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen so many recognizable faces in a single movie. He also uses his old trick of the fractured narrative, making this seem a little bit like Traffic's horror-movie cousin. 

It's superbly detailed; I can't vouch for the science, but it seems like things check out. But what really makes this movie so gripping is the psycholigical element; Soderbergh dives very, very deeply into how society would begin to deteriorate during such an epidemic, making things uncomfortably real. This us a tense, suspenseful thriller that's definately worth forking over nine bucks to see in theaters. Grade: B+

Movie #2: I Saw the DevilA vicious serial killer murders the wife and unborn child of a Korean aecret agent. Struck with grief and anger, the agent tracks down the killer, but instead of murdering him, he forces him to swallow a tracking chip. This starts a tense cat-and-mouse game as the agent makes the killer's life a living hell before exacting a final, brutal vengeance... and losing his soul in the process.

This is a fantastically made movie- finely directed, tensely written, and brilliantly acted. It is one of th most gripping films I've seen in a while; I was afraid to blink in places. But here's a word of caution: I Saw the Devil is also the sigle most disturbing movie I have ever seen. Ever. Seriously, this is one of the most brutally graphic things you'll ever see; if you have a weak stomach, stay away from this. I mean it, because once you start watching this, you won't be able to stop. With a running time of over two and a half hours, I had planty of chances to stop watching but I didn't. I couldn't. I had to see how it ended. 

In the end, I am glad I saw this movie, but I don't think I ever want to watch it again. This is one of those movies that, if you can stomach it, you really should see, but only once. Trust me, you won't soon forget it. Grade: A-

The Cynic's Musical Side: Don't Explain

If there are any hipsters reading this, you may want to skip this sentence, because it will offend you: I believe that usually obscure music is obscure for a very good reason. Most music that never gains an audience really sucks; that's why it doesn't have an audience. Duh. It just doesn't seem like it, because when you do find a good artist that you've never heard of, it makes it kind of special; you can go and tell all your friends about what they're missing. Everybody loves that. This is also one of the main reason I love record stores (next to bargain bins; seriously, that shit is awesome). The first time I heard Fela Kuti was in a music store, and I have been an unabashed fan since. This brings us to Beth Hart's new album, Don't Explain. I was scrounging the bargain bin in a record store when the owner started playing this album. The opening track, the bluesy-as-all-hell "Sinner's Prayer" hits you like a baseball bat to the face. HotDAMN can Hart wail. So much so that I was shocked to find out that she's white. I had to know who this was. 

On top of that, you really have to admire her nerve. You see, there is a group of artists that people say you shouldn't ever cover, because there's a snowflake's chance in hell that you can do any better, and this album is a who's who of those daunting artists: Bill Withers ("For My Friends"), Aretha Franklin ("Ain't No Way"), Tom Waits ("Chocolate Jesus"), Etta James ("I'd Rather Go Blind", "Something's Got A Hold Of Me"), and- most dauntingly- Billie Holiday ("Don't Explain"). It takes balls of titanium to challenge artists of that calibur.

And. She. Tops. Every. Damn. One. Of. Them.

Teaming up with guitarist Joe Bonamossa, Hart gives us blues, soul, and jazz at their most bruising, filled with thundering highs and foreboding lows. They may all be covers, but Hart makes each song her own, using her powerful voice to its fullest potential. She has the perfect voice to sing the blues- rough and just raspy enough. She recalles great shouters such as Koko Taylor, Duffy Bishop, and Etta James herself. But best of all, while her voice is always powerful, Hart never oversings. It seems to be a disease plaguing modern music where perfectly good singers constantly feel as if they have to prove to us that they're good; filling their songs with pointless cadenzas and completely forgetting how to pick a note and fucking stick with it. All the great singers of old made it seem effortless; they knew that they had nothing to prove. They kept the notes steady and strong. Hart understands this well, and I think that the Beyonces of the world need to sit up and take note; this is how it's done. This is how you sing soul. Soul singers of the world, you just got schooled on your own music by a 38-year-old white woman. How does that make you feel?

Go out and buy this album. Right now. Seriously, what are you waiting for? It's nothing new, sure, but the blues has never been big on change. What Don't Explain is, though, is a singer simultaneously paying tribute to the singers and songwriters who have influenced her throughout her carrer while blowing them all out of the water. Plain and simple, it's a fun time with some great musicians and a singer who, while staying close to her influences, has a style all her own. It's full of verve and energy, and in this age of bland, listless, forgettable pop, that's always something to celebrate. Grade: A+

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Cynic's Musical Side: Reverie

I admit I'm not all that well versed in the work of Joe Henry. The singer-songwriter and record producer started out in the world of alt-country, which as most people who know me well can attest to, is far from my favorite genre in the world. But starting in the mid 1990s he has been changing his style drastically, taking influences from jazz and blues, finally culminating in his 2009 album Blood From Stars, a dark love letter to the blues that was distintly Waitsian in tone. That I would compare Henry to Tom Waits (one of my musical heroes whose new album, Bad As Me comes out on October 22nd) is a huge compliment. Henry isn't quite the poet that Waits is, but then again neither is anyone else in the music world. Henry is an accomplished songwriter, and Blood From Stars has since become one of my favorite albums. It's a haunting, bruising creature: dark and minor; a gathering of storm clouds that broke into thunder. Reviewers hailed it as the album that he'd been leading up to for his entire career, and while it may have been the only album of his that I'd heard, it felt like a magnum opus. Something about it seemed like the sort of album that a musician works their entire life to forge; a flawless meeting of the songwriter and composer in Henry. I highly recommend buying it.

  The question remains, though: how do you follow up what has been described as a career-defining album? When I heard that Henry was releasing a new album, I knew I had to find out how it compared. Intentional or not, Reverie does very much seem like a follow up to Blood From Stars, though as the title suggests, it is on a much more hopeful note than that album did. It is the light at the end of Blood From Stars's dark tunnel. It retains the bluesy atmosphere, though the arrangements are smaller and less foreboding, and it carries less of the heavy jazz influences that Stars did. I'm glad to say that he chose to keep the fantastic drums and percussion that his last album had, and his arrangements have the same snaking, layered quality. And Reverie isn't without it's dark moments, with tracks such as "Sticks & Stones" and the New-Orleans-piano-tinged "Strung". But where Blood From Stars was full of bitter, bruising crescendos and thundering drums, Reverie has moments of surprising tenderness, such as the beautiful solo piece "Tomorrow Is October". Stars was a beautful album, but it was a rough kind of beauty; the sad moments of this album come from a different, later stage of grief. There are a lot of transitions from major to minor that add a gorgeous third dimension to the songs.

But what I love most here is the same thing that made me fall for Blood From Stars: Henry's sound is unpolished, raw, and gloriously imperfect; the antithesis of the overproduced plasticness that plagues much modern music. All that gloss might seem nice on paper, but it sucks out the soul of the music, and makes it seem fake and shallow. A song can't get by on nothing but a nice voice and some clever rhymes; the arrangements and style have more to do with it than anything. Why do you think people like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who weren't good singers by any conventional standards, become so revered? Because they were real. They weren't trying to impress anybody; their music came from a sort of higher emotional calling. That's the mark of a true musician. Imperfection is a beautiful thing when used correctly, and Henry is one of this era's true masters of artful imperfection, along with artists such as Tom Waits and The Black Keys.

  Is this album as good as Blood From Stars? It's hard to say. They're so similar, and yet so different. In the end, if either album wins out it'll be by a very small margin. For me, I suppose that Stars has the edge, but I certainly can't speak for everyone. You'll have to decide for yourself, if only to hear two great examples of what a true master can do. Grade: A

The Cynic's Musical Side: For True

If you haven't heard Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews' 2010 debut album Backatown, please stop reading this review right now, go to your nearest music store, and buy that CD. Hell, buy it twice if you feel like it.

I know what you're saying: "Aidan, how can you like something this much? I'm surprised you like anything at all." First of all, screw you; I like plenty of things. Secondly, you obviously don't understand what Backatown is: namely the first time since the acid jazz movement of the early '90s that somebody has come along to completely turned jazz on it's ear. Also, bear in mind that after approximately a century of almost nonstop innovation, it's pretty goddamn hard to turn jazz on it's ear nowadays. I mean think about it: Satchmo brought us dixieland, Benny Goodman brought us swing, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie brought us bebop, Miles Davis brought us both cool jazz and fusion (and was on the ground floor of the modal and hard bop movements as well), Ornette Coleman brought us whatever the fuck The Shape of Jazz to Come was, and Herbie Hancock brought us damn near everything. There are more subgenres of jazz than any other genre of music on the face of the earth (yes, even classical). So many in fact, that it's become impossible to define what exactly jazz is. So how the hell do you turnthat on it's ear in this day and age?

Well, just listen to it. Backatown was two things: completely batshit insane, and utterly, utterly brilliant. Andrews, a New Orleans-bred musical prodigy (is there any other kind of musician in New Orleans?) created a monster of a sound, fusing jazz, soul, funk, metal, hip hop, and putting it all in a New Orleans brass band setting (plus a kick ass rythm section). It was so unlike anything else in the genre that he had to create a new subgenre: Supafunkrock, which I admit sounds significantly less awesome coming from a nerdy white guy from Oregon. The result was possibly the funkiest album in decades, complete with thundering drums, screaming judgement-day horns, and distorted guitars. Andrews gave us what has eluded fusion musicians since the late 1960s: a jazz album for the rock crowd that doesn't sell out the audience that made it possible in the first place. Andrews and his band Oleans Avenue have a sound that could make it big in any setting. In short, Backatown is a very, very hard act to follow. So when I heard that Trombone Shorty was going to release a new album, there was one thing going through my head:

Please, please, please let this album be good.

So how does For True hold up against Andrews' mind-blowing debut? The horns aren't as loud, but the funk is still strong as ever. The sound is a little more mainstream than Backatown, which wasn't completely necessary, but that by no means Trombone Shorty's sold out. Not by a long shot. Instead, it just feels like a musician trying to refine his sound. Backatown was a trial by fire, an all-or-nothing showcase of exactly what Orleans Avenue was capable of. For True is more focused- Andrews' isn't trying to prove anything here; he and his band are finding their groove. However, while he smoothed out the debut album's unevenness, it also removes some of the gritty, unhinged fun of his first album.For True is a great album, sure, but Backatown was a fucking party.

That isn't any death sentence, though. In the end, For True isn't as good as its predecessor, but that's nothing to be ashamed of. Louis Armstrong couldn't play as fast as Dizzy Gillespie, but they're both great trumpeters. The two albums are very different in tone, even if they're in the same style:Backatown felt like the world's greatest jam session, while For True is much more calculated. It will probably sell better. I still prefer Andrews' first album, but For True is still great, funky fun. Bring on album number three. Grade: B+