Bunny Wailer – “Blackheart Man”

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Blackheart Man

Any music fan should own Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man.  It is an unbelievably soulful album full of conviction, passion, and truly great musicianship.  I would easily put it in a list of greatest reggae albums of all time, but it deserves exposure with fans outside of its genre. 

The playing and production are astounding.  When I listen to the album I am constantly reminded of a beautiful mosaic.  Lots of little pieces are put together to create a striking larger whole.  The record is full of interesting musical textures.  You almost feel like you could run your hands over it.  This is recording as art form.  It’s not simply trying to convey a message or song, but painting with sound.  The keyboards alone are some of my favorite on any record. One song begins with acoustic guitar.  The acoustic is manipulated ever so slightly, so that it becomes an interesting texture, something unique.  It is like they left no detail unnoticed in creating this record. 

Bunny Wailer’s voice is truly a beautiful thing.  It’s mellow, but there is a real stoicism to it.  You get the sense that he could weather any storm.  When the record touches on the political, and it is a spiritually political record, he sounds like the peace he wants to see brought about.  You have no doubt that Wailer will outlast any opressors.  The lyrics are great, but it is really the way that they are delivered that gives them their magic.  

This is the kind of record that could change conciousness.  If you love soul music, music for the heart, soul, and intellect, than this is a must. 

When I was just a kid, little children
My old man used to sing a little song
But now I’ve grown to be a man
But it still lingers deep within my soul
Oh yes it lingers deep within my soul

He say now this train it is bound to glory, this train
This train it is bound to glory this train, this train
This train it is bound to glory, This train it don’t carry no unholy
This train is bound to glory, this train

The Aviator – A Review and Reflection

The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004.  I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it.  This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood.  It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment.  It looks good, but it is emotionally empty.  The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.

However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting.  You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him.  Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.

That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus.  Scorsese is too smart for this.  The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography.  Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.

If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him.  Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.

Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer.  Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down.  We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order.  If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.

It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government.  When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large.  When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time.  In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.

Heart of the Congos and Great Music Criticism

Heart of the Congos – Reggae You Cannot Live Without

I mentioned that a musician I know turned me onto the album Heart of the Congos by the Congos, which is produced by the great Lee “Scratch” Perry.  I think the above link describes why this is perhaps the greatest reggae album of all time, and one of the best albums of all time in any genre.  The article linked to above not only does a great job of this, but has some other truthful comments on music and production in general.  It’s also a great piece of criticism because it makes you understand why something is important in the history of the art form, why it deserves your time as a listener, and on top of that it uses language to create original ideas that add to the appreciation of what it is talking about.  It’s a great piece of writing and worth your time if you love music and music criticism.

Lost River Review

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Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it.  If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it.  It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction.  It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie.  The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen.  I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it.  Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.

The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit.  Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home.  In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night.  It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions.  The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days.  What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.

The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones.  Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold.  In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.

The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself.  What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc.  This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.

The performances of many of the main characters are great.  The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state.  You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two.  Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully.  Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger.  Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film.  Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.

There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense.  Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here.  One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit.  The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.

However, make no mistake.  This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience.  Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics.  Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.

This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted.  However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime.  I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms.  However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try.  Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.

Black Death

“As sure as the sun rises and falls, witches will burn.”Black Death*

Tonight I had a couple good laughs watching the medieval horror/thrill Black Death.  The movie was not an intended comedy, nor do I mean to make light of the film or to say that it was intentionally funny.  But once you have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is hard not to remember it when there is anything to do with the Black Plague or witch burning.  This is not the fault of the filmmakers.  The movie itself is unique, interesting, and gritty.  Although it pulls from other films like The Wicker Man, it puts things together in an original combination.

The film stars Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne.  Redmayne plays a young monk during the bubonic plague in the 1300’s.  His monastery is wracked with the dead.  He has a secret love of a girl in the local village.  Due to this he secretly wants to leave the monastery and the death that surrounds him.  When Sean Bean, who is a knight in service for the church, says that he needs a guide, circumstances drive Osmund, Redmayne’s character, to lead Ulrich, Bean’s character, on a journey.  They are searching for a village that has not been touched by the plague.  They believe it has made it untouched by the plague due to a necromancer and black magic.

The movie treats the situation as realistic, from the viewpoint of the people that are living in that time and place.  The viewer does not know until late in the movie if there is any supernatural element to the movie, or it is just the superstition of a backwards religious people.  This is a dark film, with gritty violence and all manner of barbarism carried out in the name of religion.  It is suspenseful and bleak.  Torturing and many forms of dismembering take place throughout the film.

However, Hannah Arendt once said, “that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  As Monty Python demonstrated, through the clarity of hindsight, the beliefs of those times are completely absurd and ridiculous.  Although the characters may or may not be dealing with the supernatural, I don’t want to spoil anything, you know that they are largely on a fools errand.  When local villagers want to burn a woman at the stake for supposedly putting a curse on the local water supply, one can’t help but feel, knowing such things happened, as being a complete folly.  The actions of many of the people in the movie are so absurd, yet realistic, that is somehow passes through the looking glass and becomes somewhat of a comedy of human behavior.  I don’t want to portray the movie as a farce.  I’m not even saying that the movie depicts the actions of these people with anything other than serious.  However, it is because it is so straight that you realize just how absurd this behavior is.  When a character is drawn and quartered it is completely horrific.  Yet once upon a time our ancestors did that kind of thing.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder why this time period is depicted in more movies.  It is strange and horrifying enough to be almost fantastic, yet interesting because it is not fantasy.  This movie takes liberties with the time period, and the story itself is fiction, but many of the things that people do to one another, many of the beliefs, are real.  I found this movie to be entertaining, gripping, interesting, and yes funny at times.  It is also batshit insane.  When they are venturing out to find the possibly supernatural village they come across men walking down a stream whipping themselves and carrying a large cross.  These people are punishing themselves to make penance with God.  They warn the main group not to go any further.  If these are the people warning them, what kind of further insanity waits down the road?

Although this movie is first and foremost a horror movie or thriller, it does ask questions about the nature of evil, religious belief, and human nature.  One can’t help thinking about what is going on in the world currently due to religious strife while watching it.  It is entertainment with intelligence.  It looks and feels differently than the typical Hollywood movie and that is because it was filmed in Germany, even if it has several stars in it.  The camera work and art direction is gritty and realistic, though gothic in fitting with the time period.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy.  While I watched this film I couldn’t help but wonder what actions of modern times will look completely ridiculous to those hundreds of years in the future.

The famous witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

* This quote may be slightly paraphrased.  It was late, we were already watching something else, and my internet searches came up empty.  If not exact it gets close enough to the original’s intent.

NYT Brian Wilson No Pier Pressure Review

Brian Wilson No Pier Pressure Review

The above New York Times article is the best review I’ve seen yet of Brian Wilson’s new album, No Pier Pressure, based on what I have heard of the record so far.  All of the other reviews I have read have been either completely shallow, or seem to not be interpreting it correctly given his discography.  I am still forming my thoughts about the record and will write about it more at some point.  In the meantime I think that this is a good place to start reading about the album if you are interested in it.

Growing Up Live: Great and Ridiculous

Never have I laughed as much, while also genuinely enjoying something, that wasn’t a comedy, as while watching Peter Gabriel’s Growing Up Live DVD.  One of my first summers in Austin, my brother, a friend, and I, watched this DVD almost every night while maybe, or maybe not, being on various substances.  It’s fucking ridiculous.  He is dressed in an all black ninja outfit, while bald and looking like your uncle.  He, at various times, performs in a giant ball, while walking upside down, riding a bike, and while wearing a suit of lights, among other things.  (The suit of light is featured above in Sledgehammer.)  He gives serious sounding speeches about things like playing music with apes.  (Lead in to Animal Nation.)  Although he clearly understands the absurdity up to a point, you are never sure that he completely gets it.  (Band members are crying while playing Animal Nation, yes the very same song about playing music with apes.)

That all being said, the music is fantastic.  Gabriel is a great songwriter with an incredible band.  The arrangements are exciting and inventive.  The playing is top-notch.  The range of emotions expressed runs the gamut.  I am a genuine fan of his and I keep waiting for him to put out a new album of original music.

If you are looking to watch a concert that is genuinely entertaining, this is one I can’t help but recommend.  In fact it is probably one of the most entertaining I have ever seen.  It’s absurd, ridiculous, artistic, comical, and beautiful all at the same time.

Definitive Apple Watch Review

Apple Watch Review

I’m still cursing Apple for doing away with the iPod Classic, which for a music lover that travels constantly remains the best device for taking your music library with you.  (I’m not completely against streaming, but until it pays musicians a fair rate, I refuse.  I also don’t want to have to rely on something that needs an internet connection.  You think the world is high tech until you travel a lot.  Then you are aware of just how many places don’t have service.  I was in the Florida panhandle on tour and my girlfriend was working in Orlando.  I couldn’t even get basic phone or text service most of the time, let alone internet.)  I have never owned an iPhone.  I do really love my Apple computer though.  These aren’t pronouncements of shame or pride, just facts.  However, anyone interested in the latest Apple device will be well served by the above article.  It is an extremely in depth review, with plenty of demonstrative pics and graphics, by someone who wore the new watch for a week.  I personally can’t imagine wearing one anytime soon, but to each their own.

For All My Sisters Review

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I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

House of Cards: First Half of Season 3 Review

I am about halfway though Season 3 of House of Cards.  The season has gotten better as it has progressed, but I can’t help but feel that it is somewhat of a letdown.  The acting, cinematography, and subject matter give it the potential to be great.  It is still good entertainment, but nothing more.  I find myself wrapped up in it while I’m watching it, but as soon as its over I find myself not thinking about it very much.  There are scenes here and there that provide interesting ideas about the Presidency, but because there doesn’t feel like there are greater unifying themes at work, they fail to hit you on a memorable emotional level.  Truly great storytelling hits you on an intellectual and emotional level.  It communicates ideas and makes you feel deeply about them.  Although the performances are good enough that make you feel like you are seeing more while you are actually watching, this series has been too much of a melodrama.  If there is any big idea this season, and I don’t feel like it has been expressed coherently or fully so far, it is that the presidency, despite being the seat of power, is constricted because of the political realities of the day, from campaigning to micromanaging different interests.  There are also moments, even though there are also moments that make you feel like you are seeing something as it really is, that are highly unbelievable.  I’m not saying don’t watch, only that the show is capable of better.  I’m not real hopeful of the rest of this season, but I hope Season 4 will pull it together.

Spoiler alert!

An afterthought:  Did anyone else think that when Kevin Spacey’s character threw Kate Mara’s character in front of a train in Season 2, that it was really unbelievable.  There is no way a famous, powerful, and savvy public figure would ever do that or get away with it.  Power, in the modern world, is so hard to defeat, specifically because it is so good at insulating itself from its worst crimes.  We could only hope that one of our modern leaders, the obscenely corrupt men and women in our political and corporate criminal class, would do something that blatantly evil.  Usually the corrupt hide behind self made laws that give their crimes a legal and therefore “decent” facade.