Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Comets on Fire - Avatar

Comets on Fire - Avatar (5/5)

If you play this CD in reverse it says “Jesus is Satan.”

Comets on Fire are dense. Blue Cathedral was a punishing wall of noise. Listening to it I felt like one of those explorers in the black and white Tarzan movies equipped with a machete inching through the foliage. However, once you carved out your own path the album rewarded you tenfold. Comets are unapologetically classic rock, but instead of just breaking out the old Hendrix and painting by numbers they added some proto-punk and an echoplex.

Some thought Blue Cathedral was more attitude than it was songwriting, and to them Avatar is the perfect rebuttal. Here the Faces riffs and Robert Plant vocals are slowed down to further reveal the songs to the point where someone who hated Blue Cathedral might actually like Avatar. Don’t worry, there’s still use of the echoplex, and the songs are drawn from six to eight minutes in length (with one exception), but Comets have traded in some of their feral energy for a more dynamic sound.

Benefiting the most from the new dynamics is the bad acid sounding “Lucifer’s Memory,” a song that sounds like a flower wilting. There’s a certain cadence that plugs along with the chugging vocals pushing the song towards its seven minute mark. It has quickly become my favorite new song of this year.

While there are still some rockers, such as the opener “Dogwood Rust” which sounds as if its beginning should be found somewhere before you pressed play, just as the closer sounds as if it ends before the song has stopped, even these rockers sound less brutal than their predecessors. Only “Holy Teeth” has the same long-haired head banging attitude as Blue Cathedral, and it only lasts three minutes (only a minute in Comets on Fire time).

At almost nine-minutes “Soup Smoke” pushes the limits of pseudo-tribal beats. Instead of punishing noise Comets are pounding repetition into our heads. Just thirteen more seconds and I think I would have had a spiritual vision.

At only six minutes long the closer “Hatched Upon the Age” proves that it takes more than just length to be epic (six minutes is pretty short for a Comets on Fire song) and more than just noise for a crescendo. The miracle of the album is that through all of the interplay between the instruments sometimes it needs just a couple of simple repetitive piano keys to bring it all home.
Avatar is easily one of the best releases of ’06. Very few bands can bring me back to that feeling I got discovering classic rock bands in middle school. But don’t break out your eight tracks and dust off the old bong yet. Unlike with most bands, retro is only half of the story for Comets on Fire. Comets on Fire are ultimately timeless. Try as I might, I cannot lump them with all the other seventies rockers, but their sound hardly seems contemporary. It’s as if they’ve found some time wormhole so they can rock on across the ages. I’m there, man, I’m there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The Futureheads - News and Tributes (4/5)

Lazy critics lumped The Futureheads in with the whole neo-new wave/angular movement without much thought. However, once you scrape away the glossy sheen it becomes apparent that The Futureheads offer much more: a cappella harmonies, British invasion melodies, and post-hardcore guitars were often found within a single song. Each ingredient was added with some thought to the other, and none were overpowering. With their myriad of influences The Futureheads were poised for a colorful and diverse new album to eclipse their debut.

Did they succeed? Well, yes and no. This is a Futureheads album so the good far outweighs the bad, and while News and Tributes certainly expands The Futureheads’ sound, it fails to best their debut. Of course, nothing short of the second coming could have satisfactorily followed up the best album of 2004.

News and Tributes lacks the razor sharp edge The Futureheads used to carve out the taunt songs on their debut. At times this works to their advantage on the Brill Building-ish “Thursday” and some of the poppier numbers (“Skip to the End,” “Fallout,” and “Worry About it Later”), but when things get too slow the songs don’t hold together as well. “Burnt,” for example, seems obligatorily heartfelt. Tellingly, two of my favorite songs – “Yes/No” and “Area” – could have been b-sides from their eponymous album.

However, the aforementioned “Thursday” shows that the band isn’t afraid of letting a single style dominate, and the fact that this song exists on the same album that houses “Return of the Berserker” – faster than anything seen on their debut – proves that The Futureheads have the kind of range other bands couldn’t cohesively keep together. What does keep this album together is the simple fact that these guys are great songwriters with no shortage of ideas.

Now that The Futureheads have shown their range you can be certain this album will be in my rotation until their third one marries diversity with consistency. When that happens I’ll be well prepared for the sky to crack open and The Futureheads to lead us to the promised land.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Those 9/11 Films

So, this weekend marks the opening of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Mr. Stone is one of the few directors who has the honor of putting his name before the film title, and is a wildly uneven filmmaker. From the superb Platoon to the perplexingly bad Alexander, Stone is never afraid of bombast, which would either make him the worst or best choice for a director of a 9/11 film -- depending on who you ask of course.

I'm going to go ahead and pull a Fox News and comment about a film I have yet to see.

Can a respectful 9/11 film be made? Of course it can, and judging by many reviews of both World Trade Center and United 93 two respectful films have been made. However, it is difficult to watch these movies without an eye towards the political. Sure, sure, both directors have eschewed any political grandizing, and claim their films are also without politics, but can a film ever be completely separate from the world of viewers it reaches? In other words, isn't a film always political because the audience will be political?

In my opinion, you can't separate a key historical event from the politics of the day, especially when that event is being bullhorned at the American public to justify a whole range of issues. I cannot see myself going into the theater and shuting off the news of the day while watching the movie.

The service these films provide is to remind us that great heroes stepped forward and accomplished some incredible things. I, for one, have never forgotten that part of 9/11. However, in the aftermath the Republicans have used the heroics and sacrifices of the American people and wrung their bodies for every drop of propaganda. For the Republican party 9/11 didn't represent a tragedy, it represented a Machiavellian opportunity.

America had a chance to bring the world together over this tragedy, a day when everyone was an American, but instead they squandered that opportunity by using it as a false justiffication for a war that is sending the Middle East heardfirst over a cliff. Perhaps ten years from now I will be able to go back to these movies and remember just the heroics, but until then the films will not be just about the heroics, but also about how the Republican party hijacked a national tragedy for personal gain.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Escapists #1 by Brian K. Vaughn

The Escapists #1 by Brian K. Vaughn

Gotham, New York City, Metropolis, Coast City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Central City, Keyston City, New York City…oh, wait did I already mention New York. There’s one city that’s missing: Cleveland. For a city that has spawned Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the original superhero, Cleveland has few superheroes of its own. Sure we have Howard the Duck, but I have a sneaky suspicion that’s because of Cleveland’s natural ability to find its way into bad jokes rather than its good qualities. Hopefully Brian K. Vaughn can change that.

I was born in Cleveland but have lived in Seattle and Boston, and yet I still think of myself as a Clevelander. Cleveland has long been the punch line to rust belt jokes and there is a perverse kind of pride one gets from living there. It’s the underdog story, and no matter whether you win or lose, being an underdog is a bragging right in itself.

Here’s another list: Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster, Harvey Pekar, and now Brian K. Vaughn. These Cleveland natives have each revolutionized the comic industry for the better. Not only is Cleveland the home of rock and roll but it’s also the birthplace of the superhero as well as the nexus of independent comics. That is why I was giddy over the fact that Brian K. Vaughn set his homage to the already classic The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in my birthplace.

For the two of you who don’t know, Michael Chabon wrote a what should have been voted the greatest novel of the past twenty-five years (Toni Morrisooooooooooon! [a native of Lorain, Ohio, just west of Cleveland]) called The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that followed the lives of two Jewish immigrant cousins in New York who created the superhero The Escapists. Since the novel was published it has not only won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but also has spawned a series of comics that treat Kavalier and Clay’s lives as fact.

Vaughn does not tell the predictable Escapist story by pretending it’s an old issue, but rather focusing Max, who inherited a basement full of old Escapist comics and memorabilia after his father passed away. Years later Max’s mother also passes away. This Egger’s-like travesty results in Max inheriting $150,000 which he quickly uses to buy the long dormant rights to The Escapist. Max also recruits two friends for the roles of artist and letterer. It’s a story more fitting for a indie rather than Dark Horse comics (who have all but officially changed their name to Star Wars comics), and it’s also rather refreshing.

It’s difficult to judge a comic series based on the first issue, but the set up is intriguing enough to see where Vaughn is going. The idea of three kids going up against the big two publishers in their home court using a forgotten golden age superhero makes you wonder what Vaughn has up his sleeves. Oh, and it only costs a dollar. A dollar! Now you have no excuses.