Friday, February 24, 2006

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl (5/5)

“It’s time for a howdown ma’! Invite the cousins over and put the new ‘Black Rebel’ in dat ‘dem der new fangled disc playin’ merchine. Heeeeeehaw!”

No, no, no! Despite what everyone’s claiming, B.R.M.C. have not gone country—they’ve gone retro!

I’ve always wondered why a band who took their cue from the 80’s rock group The Jesus and Mary Chain would name the band after Marlon Brando’s gang in the 1953 film The Wild One. I don’t recommend judging a book by its cover but judging by B.R.M.C.’s name I would have expected something along the lines of The Raveonettes. If they’re going to name their group after a fictitious gang I would suggest The Lords of Hell (on a side note, you have to give props to a family film that keeps the line, “Don’t fuck with the Lords of Hell). On B.R.M.C.’s latest they take their sound back to the roots of rock and up the folk and country influences, but at its heart it sounds like 1950’s rock ‘n roll—well, with 50 years of musical evolution having more than a little influence.

B.R.M.C. came out of the gates with a ridiculous amount of hype (it was probably New Music Express). They were just asking for a smack down. When their solid debut album came out plenty of critics dismissed them as Jesus and Mary Chain rip-offs (fair enough) and then declared B.R.M.C. were juvenile delinquents who would amount to nothing (a little harsh I thought). When B.R.M.C.’s follow up, Take Them On, On Your Own, was a little sophomore slumpish you could hear bones splintering around the world as critics collectively broke their arms while patting themselves on the back. Things only got worse when B.R.M.C. were dropped from their label. To top it all off an ex-girlfriend stole their dog and showed up at a show only to make out with every guy there.

Down but not out, the B.R.M.C. have return with a triumphant left hook. Howl isn’t a return to form, it’s a complete reinvention. The Jesus and Mary Chain posturing is downplayed while folk, country, and gospel are embraced. The sounds conjure up the dustbowl west complete with lone churches set against a flat landscape. It’s hard to tell whether the incantations of religion are sincere or merely dressing for the new sound, but in the end I don’t think it matters much. Even if the album is style over substance, they have enough style so that it doesn’t matter. For a band to do a complete overhaul like this is impressive to say the least. I hope the attention Howl is getting will force those critics who dismissed B.R.M.C. to take another look.

I read that the title of the album, Howl, is a reference to the Allen Ginsburg poem of the same name. I don’t really see much of a connection. “Howl” the poem is loaded with urban imagery that Ginsburg seems so intent on railing against. At one point he intones “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets,” likening the urban landscape to the Old Testament idol the unfaithful worshiped. Despite Ginsburg’s distaste for concrete surroundings, his poem has its feet firmly planted in a city if only to condemn it. Ginsburg’s “Howl” strikes me as a Jeremiad pointing to a new way of life in an increasingly conservative America. B.R.M.C. are much closer to On the Road, the novel that follows Kerouac’s persona as he crisscrosses the country as if he was running from his Bible-black Catholic roots. It has the same grand sense of movement and a tortured sense of religion that would ultimately consume Kerouac just like his alcoholism.

My three favorite tracks: “Howl,” “Ain’t No Easy Way,” and “Sympathetic Noose.” Despite the organ, the title track sounds as if it has one foot dipped in B.M.R.C.’s last two albums (come to think of it, “Salvation” could probably have gone on this album with no problems). “Ain’t No Easy Way”—the obvious single—is a taunt song that ruminates on how it’s much easier to fall into love than to completely escape it. “Sympathetic Noose” makes great use of studio trickery. The song starts with the strumming of a raw sounding acoustic guitar only to have it backed by a percussion section that can only be produced by modern day electronics. It’s a great dichotomy, and in my opinion the best moment on the CD.

The B.M.R.C. have tossed off their leather jackets, gave their old label the finger, and completely revamped their sound. After listening to this album you might be asking yourself, “What are they rebelling against?” B.R.M.C. would pointedly shoot back, “Whaddya got?”

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Clash - Super Black Market Clash

The Clash - Super Black Market Clash (4/5)

My three favorite bands/artists are The Clash, David Bowie, and Nirvana (sometimes in that order). Several months ago I realized I had been buying a string of albums by new bands--many of them debut albums. (Well, I had been buying whatever CDs my meager school loans could afford me whenever I decided I didn't really need to eat dinner for the next two nights). This struck me as odd because I remember back in middle school and high school I would choose two or three bands and quickly consume their discography. I began to notice huge gaps in my CD collection. The Clash were one of my favorite bands, but I only owned four of their CDs. It was time to starve for a couple more days.

For weeks I could feel "the shakes" coming on. You know, the rumbling that moves from your extremities until it infiltrated your whole body. I half expected dead babies to start falling from the ceiling a la Trainspotting. So I gave in and bought a few CDs, and made certain I start filling in the gaps in my Clash collection.

I love the feeling I get when I'm peeling the plastic from the jewel case. It's like a miniature Christmas, but better because you don't have to return everything. I proceed to unhook the jewel case cover so I can remove the annoying sticker at the top (if there's already a plastic cover why do we need the goddamn sticker). I don't believe in God, so this is really the only ritual I take part in. My girlfriend even accuses me of being obsessive about my CDs whenever I count them (she doesn't know me like they do anyways).

Enough about my idiosyncrasies, lets talk about the music. Super Black Market Clash is exactly what a B-sides album should be: a handful of gems ("1977," "Groovy Times," "Pressure Drop"), some experimentation ("Justice Tonight/Kick it Over," "Radio Clash"), but is ultimately uneven. I have been put on the record as saying that a B-sides album isn't worth anything if it isn't uneven (well, on the record because I just wrote it now). If the band doesn't have some failures then they're really not trying, are they? They're just spending time lounging in the safe zone. There's nothing terribly wrong with the safe zone, it's nice, I'd visit, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there. The two biggest critical darlings had some massive failures. Radiohead's first album was absolutely grating (and not in an avante garde sort of way) and in my personal opinion the Beatles were mediocre until Help!. That being said, some of the songs off the second half of the album fall a bit flat. Even so, they're all interesting to listen to and don't permanently scar the album.

Super Black Market Clash is just the fix for those of you who have already bought the first three CDs (which I recommend doing immediately if you haven't already). Perhaps I have been avoiding finalizing my Clash collection because I just don't want to get to the point where I buy the final CD. Until several years ago I always had the ability to look forward to Joe Strummer releasing an album now and then, but once he passed away the prospect of reaching the end of The Clash's extended discography became very real. If there was an artist who was able to truly represent the world I live in it was Joe Strummer. His music always presented the world with a hard edged realism, and yet managed to be filled with hope. It was like sifting through the dregs of a garbage bin to find a Picasso. Who's going to be the soundtrack to the world once I do buy that final CD? I guess I'm just marching to the inevitable.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Chungking Express

Chungking Express (4.5/5)

Chungking Express is cut into two distinct but tangentially related stories. The first involves a police officer recovering from a breakup with his long term girlfriend May. He is so obsessive that every day he buys a can of pineapple juice with an expiration date of May 1st (also his birthday). Eventually his paths cross with a cocaine smuggler who has been double crossed. The two make an unlikely pair, but the film is smart enough not to play up the theme of lovers (well, more like a lonely pair who happen to occupy similar space) from the opposite sides of the fence.

The second story involves another police officer and a local restaurant worker. This is where things get good. The second police officer has also recently broken up with his stewardess girlfriend (stolen from him by the police officer from the first story). The stewardess leaves a Dear John letter and the keys to the officer’s apartment at the restaurant so he can pick it up. What follows is an energetic, funny, and ultimately emotional love story.

Much of the success goes to Faye Wong, who admires the police officer from afar (and eventually from not so afar). She’s charismatic and an absolute joy to watch on screen. In fact she has enough energy to match Wong Kar-Wai's frantic camerawork. The role could have easily been annoying or downright creepy. She’s downright charming. I should probably continue with the review lest my fawning will be seen as annoying and creepy.

I enjoyed the second story so much that I almost wish the entire film was devoted to it (although a majority of the movie is). Wong Kar-Wai seems to be playing with the theme of urban isolation. The contradictory feeling of seclusion when you’re surrounded by throngs of people. Yet somehow, despite the competing cultures and fast-paced non-interaction, there is a thin thread connecting you to everyone around you.

I don’t really know what Chungking Express is about, but I do know that it’s fun. It’s easily the best romance I’ve seen in a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an American romance that was any good (do they make American romance films anymore, or are they all comedies with romantic endings tacked on?). This is the kind of movie you feel elated when it’s over—the kind of movie you watch movies for.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Bubble (4/5)

One of the first shots in Bubble shows gravestones huddled around two American flags. The death of the American dream would be all but played out in art, if it wasn’t so damn relevant all the time.

Bubble begins with Martha and Kyle who work at a doll factory in a Southern Ohio town. Kyle lives with his mom and works two jobs to get by. Martha goes home to her bed ridden father she refuses to put into a nursing home. When a new factory worker, Rose, is hired a love triangle forms between the three. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Martha has romantic feelings for Kyle, but she does become jealous when her only friend starts taking smoke breaks with someone else. The monotony of the small town is broken up—ever so slightly—by the murder of one of the factory workers.

Bubble has gotten more press for its release strategy than for the film itself. It is being released in theatres and DVD simultaneously. I have been on record as saying that I oppose this business model because it will hurt the theatre owners and continue the growing trend of people avoiding the movie theatres altogether. Although, I did see this on DVD because no one wanted to see this movie with me. Fine, I’m a hypocrite, so sue me (I’m in law school so I feel perfectly safe saying you can sue me, because I’m reasonably certain hypocrisy is not remedied by law).

What is more interesting than the business model is the experimental nature of the film. The director, Stephen Soderbergh, uses all digital film, actually shot the film in Ohio, and uses non-actors. The result is largely successful. And it's got a sweet trailer (

Each character seems numb. They blindly go through their daily routine unaware that anything exists outside of their job and the small circle of people they know. Kyle and Rose are probably in their mid-twenties—about the time when the feedom of teenage years quickly gives way to an ever decreasing number of options. Martha is at least forty, and has long given up thinking about life outside of the town. When Rose says that she wants to get away, Martha asks why with a puzzled look on her face.

The characters in Bubble show almost no emotion, even when the murder occurs. They’re completely numb. A part of that numbness transfers to the viewer, and it does become a little difficult to care about what happens to them. Maybe that’s the point of the film, but it also subdues some of the emotional resonance.

I went to college in a city in Southern Ohio so this film had a little more impact on me. It was odd living on a campus where the springtime landscapers made certain every flower and blade was just right, while the city around us looked like it was crumbling. There’s a lot of Ohio that feels as if all the brick and mortar has been torn down leaving only a steel skeleton. In Springfield, Ohio, where I lived, certain areas of the city had rows of large mansions that were either vacant or carved into separate apartments by a landlord. You could tell that the whole city collapsed when the factory jobs were shut down and eventually sent over seas.

Because it was filmed in Ohio Bubble does a great job of showing the flat landscape littered with barely running factories or barely standing houses. It’s a film that’s actually concerned with places that aren’t on one of the coasts. While I have no evidence to back this up, perhaps one of the reasons Hollywood is taking a hit is because people finally want to see themselves or people they know up on the screen. The average person gets enough fiction from the daily news, and the public wants to see something real from today’s artists. This doesn’t always mean a documentary (although documentaries and non-fiction literature are immensely popular these days), but it does mean that books, movies, and television will have to start viewing the world through the eyes of the average American.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Addendum to Sliver: The Best of the Box

Addendum to Sliver: The Best of the Box

The other day I was listening to Nirvana's Best of the Box, but became so frustrated with it that I had to come up with my own list. Take a look if you're interested:

1. Spank Thru (1985 Fecal Matter demo)
2. Token Eastern Song (demo)
3. Ain't it a Shame (demo)
4. Blandest (demo)
5. Clean Up Before She Comes (solo acoustic)
6. Heartbreaker (live)
7. Mrs. Buttersworth (rehearsal recording)
8. White Lace and Strange (radio performance)
9. Floyd the Barber (live)
10. Even in His Youth (demo)
11. Polly (demo)
12. Opinion (solo acoustic)
13. Oh the Guilt (B-side)
14. Lithium (solo acoustic)
15. Verse Chorus Verse (outtake)
16. Curmudgeon (B-side)
17. Here She Comes Now (demo)
18. Sliver (solo acoustic)
19. Old Age (outtake)
20. I Hate Myself and I Want to Die (B-side)
21. Marigold (B-side)
22. Sappy (B-side)
23. You Know You're Right (solo acoustic)
24. Do Re Mi (solo acoustic)
25. All Apologies (solo acoustic)

It took me a while to come up with a way to make each side of Nirvana sound cohesive, but I eventually decided to organize the list by the eras represented by the box set. The first eleven songs are from the Bleach era. The next eight come from the Nevermind era. The final six come from the In Utero era. I think it gives it the feel of a documentary on CD. You really get to hear the gradual progression of the band, and maybe see where they were going. Enjoy.

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (3.5/5)

Horror movies almost always make money. It's an easy formula: create a monster, cast attractive people, and then have the monster kill them. All you really have to do is make people jump once or twice and your job's finished. It's also why most horror films are terrible. Land of the Dead, while not perfect, manages to be a unique horror film, because it believes horror movies can do something other than make people jump in their seat, although it does that too.

Land of the Dead is the fourth film in George A. Romero's Dead series. While the previous films involved the eventual decline of civilization, this film revolves around the last remnants of humanity trying to create a new civilization. The only problem is that the new civilization looks a lot like the old. In fact, it looks a lot like ours. Land of the Dead is a straight ahead allegory. It's not quite a mirror image of today's political climate, but it's awfully close. This is both a strength and weakness of Land of the Dead.

The plot revolves around a group of raiders who make a living going into the outlining suburbs and ransacking them for supplies. After a night of raiding, Cholo (John Leguizamo) decides that it's his last. He wants to buy his way into Fiddler's Green, a high rise building where all of the affluent live surrounded by the poor throngs, like Cholo, who work for them. When the owner of Fiddler's Green, Kaufman (Dennis Hoffman), makes it clear isn'tt Cholo isn't the kind of person who can live at Fiddler's Green (as Kaufman will say later on, a "spick bastard"), Cholo steals Kaufman's specialized armor vehicle Dead Reckoning. Cholo threatens to fire off Dead Reckoning's missiles at Fiddler's Green if he isn't paid five-million by midnight. Riley, one of Cholo's fellow raiders, is enlisted by Kaufman to find Cholo and stop him before the midnight deadline.

Oh, and there's a side plot about the zombies (often called stenchers) starting to gain the ability to think.

The analogy is there for anyone looking. Cholo starkly states that he's performing "jihad," and when he hears the demands Kaufman says he doesn't "negotiate with terrorists." Romero is examining how marginalizing certain groups causes dissatisfaction and anger to boil over into violence. There are many examples of this around the world, and one of the most recent were the riots in France. While Romero never asks us to like Cholo, he does expect us to understand why he's doing what he's doing.

I enjoy it when escapist fair tackles more serious subject matter. While they can never truly probe the problems as deeply as a more dramatic piece, the effect of recontextualizing real world problems in a fantasy setting can help us see things in a new light. It may never give us answers, but may help us tackle a problem from the flank rather than head on. There's a certain amount of catharcis in seeing such serious issues cut to their essence and treated as escapism. Such a blatantly political theme in a horror movie is brave to say the least.

The problem with the film is also its strength. At times the allegory becomes stretched. A ready example is when Riley chooses not to fire on a band of zombies because they're just trying to "find their way." I know the zombies are there to symbolize the marginalized people outside of our boarders, but c'mon, they're fucking zombies! Hell, they were just eating people! Maybe Romero feels that his message is too urgent not to shove it in our face, and while I can understand this proposition I feel it hurts his art. Romero was able to insert his political message into Dawn of the Dead in a less labored manner.

That being said, Romero does a fine job of creating a world out of a tiny budget. Seeing how much people can do with a small budget used to be one of the highlights of horror films. Would The Evil Dead be as good if you didn't know that it was filmed in a few months with virtually no budget and no experienced filmmakers? Now that horror movies are becoming less ambitious and special effects cheaper, I haven't seen a movie try and stretch a budget anymore. Romero does a fine job and adds a few details here and there that show you why he's so good in the first place. The first shot in the film is a diner sign spelling "eats." It's a clever bit of dark humor in a film about flesh-eating zombies. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but the gore is gleeful in its excess. When an army officer tries to throw a grenade, a zombie chops off his arm causing him to fall onto his own explosive and blow up. It's deliciously twisted. There are several scenes of gore that are painful to watch not because of the amoung of blood, but because they focus on things you could imagine actually hurting. You'll know them when you see them. Romero goes out of his way to show us things we've never seen in a zombie movie before.

While not on the level of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead should satisfy Romero fans. It's almost enough for me to forget the awful Dawn of the Dead remake. If Romero is back in the game, then hopefully other horror movies will try and keep up.