Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tweaker ‎– The Attraction To All Things Uncertain (2001)

Ex-NIN Chris Vrenna's impressive Industrial Electro Rock Debut

To understand Tweaker’s music, it is important to first examine this painting (also the album’s cover). When former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna saw artist Joe Sorren’s rendering of this pale, slouching, ill-proportioned, coffee-drinking man staring anxiously at a typewriter hanging in an LA art gallery, he became obsessed, visiting the gallery every week just to look at it. A friend eventually purchased the painting for Vrenna, and it has apparently hung in his home ever since. Finally, his obsession culminated in the creation of The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, Vrenna’s first solo album and attempt to tell this character named Elliot’s story through music. The painting hung in the studio as Vrenna recorded the album, Elliot silently watching the process.

Vrenna uses a mix of mysterious, swirling electronics, a few bleeps and bloops, and the occasional rock guitar assault to create Elliot’s story. His NIN background is apparent at times, most tracks showing at least some Industrial edge. However, Vrenna does much more than simply play backup to Trent Reznor’s ego – he has been an instrumental producer in Alternative Rock, working with the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Rob Zombie, and many more. He has even re-mixed such artists as U2, Weezer, and even Nelly Furtado, and worked on collaborations with Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre. Vrenna obviously knows his way around many different types of music, and it shows. 

The Attraction to All Things Uncertain starts out dark, with a large weight on Elliot’s mind perhaps, and becomes progressively lighter as Elliot supposedly resigns himself quietly to the fact that his life will pass largely unnoticed. The first section is more rock-based, the first track almost bordering on Nu-Metal. Massive drum beats come together with creepy electronics, Alterna-fuzz guitar, and haunting samples for a large, dark sound. In contrast, the last tracks are almost Electro-Pop, bringing in lighter synths, more obvious dance beats and less bassy sounds. These tracks seem like a sigh of relief after the album’s harsh beginning. 

Another testament to Vrenna’s varied experience is his choices for guest vocalists. Though there are only four vocal tracks on the album, they are placed perfectly to give the listeners a more obvious idea of what’s going on with their new friend Elliot. David Sylvian (Japan) starts the album off with a dark, creepy, vocal track “Linoleum” that breaks down with harsh guitars and presents Elliot’s somber sense of confusion. Buzz Osbourne (Melvins)soon follows up with "Swamp", Will Oldham (Palace) then turns up about halfway through with "Happy Child" the album’s turning point, still creepy yet somehow a love song. You’ve never heard Oldham like this. Finally, Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think) closes off the album with "After All", a more hopeful feeling, his lighter vocals delivering lines like, “Dark night is dawning after all…I do not fear this after all.” 

The album is at it’s best on the tracks with sparsely-used samples. They give an idea of Elliot’s thoughts, like “Where do you see yourself six months from now?” while still allowing the listener to add his or her own interpretation. “Microsize Boy” is also an excellent tribute to the vocoder, although it seems slightly out of place with it’s retro stylings. All in all, the straight-up electronic tracks are well done. Since each has it’s own place in Elliot’s thought process, each is different, and the listener can decide for him or herself exactly what Elliot is thinking at any given point. 

Tweaker’s story of Elliot is a direct challenge to anyone who argues that electronic music is impersonal and unemotional. Even without the story provided by the vocal tracks, one could easily follow Elliot through his self-realization process with simply music alone. If only we could all have such a soundtrack for our own lives.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

R.E.M. - Monster (1994)

The standout R.E.M album

Few bands can claim to have been the best in the world without sounding completely ridiculous. The American jangle pop alternative rock band R.E.M. was one of those bands. R.E.M not only won the respect of their musical peers but were also a huge commercial success and had and still have some of the most devoted fans in music today. And they made it stand out with Monster, their ninth studio album that was released in 1994.

If their preceding two albums, Out of Time (1991) and the best selling Automatic for the People (1992) were kind of slow rockish quiet records full of mandolins, pianos, and acoustic guitars, Monster is a powerhouse, completely unlike either of those records. Musically different, it is an ambitious album full of cutting electric guitars and distorted vocals that makes you sit up and listen. Sounding like early vintage R.E.M, the band takes the traditional guitar-bass-drums route and make it all seem new again but with a rocking edge.

The chart tapping first track, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" sets the tone with its catchy appeal. Its indeed a great track with a lovely tune. Incidentally, it was also the fastest-rocking song R.E.M. had recorded in years. "Crush With Eyeliner" is next, and it's another guitar-driven rocker in which Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth also makes a guest appearance. In the lyrics to "Crush With Eyeliner," Stipe toys around with his often-questioned sexual orientation. In fact, Stipe's sexual preference also pops up again on "King of Comedy" in which Stipe sings "I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi." 

Many of the songs on Monster use the old R.E.M. trademark of burying Stipe's vocals under layers of music. Notably songs like "Circus Envy," "Let Me In," and "Star 69" all sound reminiscent of the band's earliest albums because it's hard to hear what Stipe is singing. On "Let Me In," Stipe sings about the loss of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain as guitarist Peter Buck lays a backdrop of distortion and feedback. 

Fans who hadn't discovered R.E.M. until "Losing My Religion" may have been in for a bit of a shock and a reason why the album didn't too well commercially, but Monster was also the album that old R.E.M. fans were waiting for. Its raw, full of contrast and a nostalgic reminder of the great sounds of the 90s! 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jeff Buckley - Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998)

An outstanding album (of sorts) from a star who died too soon 

Critically acclaimed Singer Songwriter and Guitarist Jeff Buckley (1966-1997) released only one EP and one full-length album Grace before his untimely death. Buckley drowned in Memphis in May of 1997 while working on his next album, tentatively titled My Sweetheart the Drunk. Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk compiles all of the raw demos and completed studio tracks that Buckley recorded with his band prior to his unfortunate death. 

Of the 20 tracks on Sketches... many are clearly rough demos but there are others which indicate that Buckley was recording a fantastic album. Buckley’s voice was a rare instrument, and it sounds as though he was testing its limits on these tracks. That voice takes the spotlight on the a cappella "You and I," one of a handful of dark, haunting tracks on this stellar album. 

The darkest moment comes on "Nightmares By the Sea." It’s a song that is sure to please the morbidly curious, as Buckley sings "I’ve loved so many times/ And I’ve drowned them all." On "Everybody Here Wants You," Buckley sounds like an old torch singer with an odd falsetto. One can only wonder if this little experiment would ever have seen the light of day if Buckley had lived. The set closes with "Satisfied Mind," the song which apparently was played at Buckley’s funeral. Just as the song summed up Buckley’s unfinished life, it also sums up this unfinished album. We are once again left wondering what might have been. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Meteorites! (1998)

A disaster TV Movie that's so bad its actually good!

A blogger friend of mine tells me that Tom Wopat, the heroic family-man protagonist in this Sci-Fi Channel original movie, was once the hunky Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. This seems appropriate since Meteorites is an instance of what I call the The Dukes of Hazzard Phenomenon: to wit, a cultural event-be it a film fad, a television show, or a famous scandal-enjoys massive popular attention even though any particular person will tell you he or she has no interest in it whatsoever. In my experience, The Dukes of Hazzard was this curious phenomenon's prototype; for several seasons the show enjoyed fabulous ratings even though, at least publicly, everybody said they thought it was stupid. 

So too with the spate of asteroid movies, the anchors of which-Deep Impact and Armaggedon-both suffered horrible reviews and much popular derision in the remarkable year of 1998. These movies nevertheless did well enough commercially to earn the flattery of t.v. and direct-to-video filmmakers, who wooed them with Asteroid (a terrible film targeted to Blockbuster's shelves) and our current offering, Meteorites

"What are the chances of a meteor hitting Leroy [our provincial town]?" Tom Johnson (Wopat) asks the local astronomer. "None," is the answer. Meteors don't hit the Earth by definition, the astronomer explains. But meteorites are a different question altogether. This game of semantics underscores the fact that both of these made-for-the-living-room movies are named after the celestial rocks themselves, whereas their cinematic inspirations take the central event-the rock's ultimately-averted act of hitting the Earth-as namesakes. This semantic game also covers up the fact that names don't matter. The point is that enormous rocks might be hurtling toward Earth to end our way of life in a fiery cataclysm. Call them what you like, you blind fool. 

The film opens as Tina McConnell (Tracey-Louise Smith), first in this movie's procession of featured adolescents, bitches out her parents for not letting her take illegal drugs. "I wish you would all die," she shrieks, "so I could do what I want." She storms out of the house and sulks on the swings in the backyard, thus procuring survival when a meteor (meteorite, sorry) slams into the McConnell household and kills everybody else. 

John Whitehorse (Pato Hoffmann), Leroy's native-American sheriff, calls in the hunky-though-old Tom Johnson to help him investigate the McConnell wreckage, because Tom has a background in explosives. Tom's son Mac (Darrin Klimek) is trying to have sex with Crystal Cassidy (Amiel Daemion), the Mayor's daughter, and Tom's daughter, Rene, is a finalist in Leroy's Miss Teen UFO competition. Crystal's dad, Mayor Cass Cassidy (Marshall Napier), has cooked up an insurance scam to pay off various creditors, because the Cassidies have feuded with the Reigerts for decades and this has spurred Mayor Cassidy into a number of bad investments to live up to his father-legendary around Leroy for his "Midas Touch"-and thus maintain the family reputation. Crystal and Mac start having sex at the Mayoral mansion but are interrupted by the burglars (who are, incidentally, Reigerts) Mayor Cassidy has hired to rob his own home. The Reigerts hold Mac and Crystal hostage and fuss over them for a while, but then meteorites start landing on everybody and they have to think fast. I probably forgot to mention that Rene's (Tom's daughter, Mac's sister, are you getting all this?) Miss Teen UFO contest is but a single event in Leroy's annual UFO Festival, which is being investigated by an unscrupulous reporter for a tabloid called "The National Interrogator." Mayor Cassidy ignores Tom and the Sheriff's entreaties to cancel the festival in light of the impending meteorite shower because the festival generates revenues for the town. Oh, and Tom is riddled with guilt because years ago someone named Tony perished when Tom and Tony were partners in a bomb squad.

I spent all this time explicating the complicated character relationships in Meteorites-well, for the most part because I was bored, really, but also because of the role these character relationships play in this movie, which is similar to the role they play in Deep Impact... as well as Outbreak, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, The Day After, The Poseidon Adventure, et cetera. That is, a maze of complicated human dramas is established, only to have an enormous, blazing non-sequitur (comet, hotel fire, nuclear war, sinking ship) come barging unannounced into the storyline and disrupt it all, making it largely irrelevant. Occasionally a pre-disaster plot point or character element will resurface--Tom's experience with explosives pays off, for instance, as do his protective, paternal instincts-but generally all these soap-opera human relationships amount to a sandcastle that is swept away in the tide of disaster. 

So why go through all the trouble of learning about these characters' personal lives, if in the long run these films aren't actually about them so much as they are about a comet, fire, or earthquake? It's a difficult question, I imagine, but an important one. Armageddon is the miserable failure that it is because it paradoxically gives the disaster too much screen time, focusing for the most part on the mission to destroy the Texas-sized asteroid and not so much on the characters' personal lives. Meteorites, whatever its made-for-t.v. flaws (fair to poor performances, conspicuous exposition, awkward cinematography, implausible plot developments), delivers that most precious disaster-movie commodity: its disaster rips apart not a half-realized fictional world but an elaborate and complex one. 

And maybe that's part of why these movies are such guilty pleasures (millions of people watch them but later aren't willing to admit they liked them). The catharsis these movies offer seems juvenile: this childishly destructive pleasure of watching the filmmakers work hard to create something only to then blithely destroy their creation. It's hard to say why so many people, myself included, find this enjoyable. It'll probably continue to be hard to figure out until we actually admit to ourselves that we enjoy it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The President's Analyst (1967)

A underrated lampoon that was ahead of its time

Has anyone else ever heard of this satirical cult gem? Long before Watergate shook Hollywood out of its government-is-your-friend fantasy-world, The President's Analyst directed by Theodore J. Flicker and starring James Coburn, entertained the preposterous notion that an American secret agent could assassinate one of his own countrymen, and this amusing movie is bold enough to play this cynical scenario for laughs. Move over The Parallax View and Capricorn One, here comes the real deal. 

Though positioned as a comic thriller, it's kind of stupid for a lot of reasons and commercially bombed but it was also ahead of its time. The plot has sci-fi overtones with James Coburn playing Dr. Sidney Schaefer, psychiatrist who is hired by the United States Government as the President’s ultra top secret personal psychoanalyst. After the initial euphoria of working for the worlds most important man, the stress of the job creeps in setting the stage of his descent into paranoia and suspicion. Instead of the normal thrills we would expect, this movie instead takes on the humor tinged, spoof track! Watch for the scene when James Coburn spins around looking for imaginary pursuers while a female chorus line imitates a theremin on the soundtrack ; I was on the floor! 

Funny as this movie is, it plays into your dark fear that the Canadians are up to no good. Here they are right next door to the most powerful country in the world -the U.S. of A., is who I mean -- and you're going to tell me all they're worried about is keeping warm? There's no way they don't want a piece of the American pie, and in our false sense of security we probably aren't even monitoring our Northern border so that when the million-some-odd mounties that have been massing there flow into our motherland we'll be taken completely by surprise and helpless to stop them. I've kept this fear secret lest people think I'm crazy. But lo and behold, The President's Analyst features a militant, gun-toting, anti-American Canadian agent. It's the only movie I've ever seen that does and the music scored by Lalo Schifrin rightly amplifies the paranoia.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ride the High Country / Guns in the Afternoon (1962)

A tepid showdown in the high sierras

This was American action director Sam Peckinpah's second film and it bears only a few traces of his 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. Even though Newsweek called it the Film of the year, you'll most likely yawn, roll your eyes, and fidget uncontrollably until the closing scenes. The film lacks the raw violence and debauchery that cements each scene of the later film. 

Ride the High Country (released in the UK as Guns in the Afternoon) is set in California's High Sierras, which is a welcome contrast to the Monument Valley backdrop that typifies the 1950s westerns directed by the likes of Hawks and Ford. The scenes in the high country are awash with warm yellows and russet tones evinced in the aspens, sorrels, and tarnished leather vests. The film's conceit and for that matter the conceit of most of Peckinpah's westerns is that times are a changin' and leaving behind old men, who adhere to a shared code of honor. 

Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) team up to bring gold back to the town of Hornitos from a distant mining camp. They take a young upstart named Heck Longtree (Ronald Starr) with them and wind up with an unexpected burden en route when they stop for the night at a remote farm. This burden is a young woman, Elsa Knudson (Mariette Hartley), who is running away from her father and who wants to marry a former suitor in the mining camp. 

The script hints at an incestuous relationship when Elsa tells her father, "It seems every kind of man is the wrong man except you." Some of the stereotypes are particularly annoying. For example, although the sniveling, quivering bank clerks, who enter into a contract with Westrum, are supposed to make the hero look even more heroic, actor Scott simply isn't all that convincing. What's more, the two old men reminisce at length about the good old days when they were partners, but the stories they share about their feats make them seem more like tin men than iron men. 

What works in the film is when the old timers shut up about their past and start talking about their predicament. It's then that their past deeds become easier to swallow. After Elsa gets roughed up (read almost raped) at the camp by her fiance, Billy Hammond, and his three brothers, the couriers not only must return her safely to her father but also get the gold back to the town. 

What then unfolds is a shootout at close quarters reminiscent of the gunfight at the OK Corral. At one point, having already taken one round in the gut, Westrum tells his partner, "Let's take 'em head on, halfway like always." Then, as the two climb out of the ditch where they were hiding and face off with the three remaining Hammond brothers, one of brothers shouts, "Start the ball, old man!" Despite the movie's tiresome build, it's worth watching to see who buys it in the end and who doesn't. Besides, its considered by many critics as one of his finest!  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sufjan Stevens - Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)

Eclectic Electronic Noise Pop and more!

The American indie folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ electronic laden musical style is just about the last thing that listeners would have expected from a former member of a locally popular but largely obscure indie folk quartet Marzuki and  then touring organist, toy pianist and banjo player with wacky indie gospel pop psychedelia group The Danielson Famile. I know, you have to be hardcore indie folk addict or a music historian to know this!

On his second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, Stevens presents nearly 80 minutes of what he calls “a collection of programmatic songs for the animals of the Chinese zodiac.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, Stevens uses a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments (and though it is hard to believe, no external samples) for a sound that falls somewhere between a cheesy 80s cop-show theme song on crack, creepy circus music, and Mouse on Mars playing the soundtrack to Braveheart

Each song is unique as he extracts fragments of Pop, Rock, and even Celtic music, throws it all together in an electronic mix with synths and glitches, then takes it all apart and puts it back together again. With melodic sections interspersed throughout portions of fragmented, deconstructed musical chaos, listening to the first part of Enjoy Your Rabbit feels like getting a garbled transmission of someone flipping radio stations in outer space. 

One of the album’s highlights is the title track, which sounds like an electronic musician’s take on Math Rock, then ends with an off key James Bond theme reference. “Year of the Monkey” is also fun, with a fuzzy beat and a wah-wah riff combined with warped music-box sounds that collapses into itself and ends in an onslaught of fuzz. 

On the rest of the album, Stevens tones down the glitch and focuses more on multi-layered, orchestral numbers. These give him away as someone who has written music for films – they would serve as a creepy but perfect backdrop to a freaky technological thriller. If anyone ever decides to remake Tron again, they should ditch Daft Punk and call Stevens for the score. 

Note - Enjoy Your Rabbit was Stevens’ second album, and the third release from his independent New Mexico label Asthmatic Kitty. In 2009, the entire album was completely reworked and rearranged by the Osso String Quartet and re-released as Run Rabbit Run. If you like this album, you must check it out too! 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

S&M - Metallica (1999)

Reliving Metallica's most musically unusual album ever!

While the pairing of superstar American Heavy Metal band Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on this one of kind live album might seem musically bizarre at first notice, the weird combination recorded on April 21–22, 1999 at The Berkeley Community Theatre in California is actually a logical fit. 

Metallica's music had and has always been full of the kind of dynamic shifts that are often found in classical music, and Michael Kamen (1948 - 2003), the famous American composer of films like X-Men, Brazil, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, had worked with established rock bands like Queen, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Queensryche, Def Leppard, Rush  and Pink Floyd for years. 

The first CD in this two-disc Album set opens with two instrumental pieces before launching into "Master of Puppets." This track sounds awkward, as if the band and the orchestra were still getting comfortable with each other. The orchestra plays a small role on this track, providing brief symphonic flourishes in between Metallica's waves of heavy metal thunder. "Of Wolf and Man" and "The Thing That Should Not Be" work better, as Metallica backs off a bit to actually play with the orchestra. By the time the band reaches a stellar track "No Leaf Clover," both parties seem to be delightfully in sync and actually feeding off of each other's intensity beautifully. 

Disc two begins with Metallica's majestic super hit "Nothing Else Matters." If any song in the band's repertoire is suited for the orchestral treatment, this is the one. Unfortunately, singer James Hetfield's over-the-top performance prevents the song from being a total standout. That honor goes to "One," the band's epic tale of a critically wounded soldier. Two of the heavier tracks on disc two, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Enter Sandman," are highlights as well. 

Needless to say, the orchestral flavor is often drowned out by Metallica's bang-and-slam attack, but overall this odd combination works and works rather well. There are even times when Michael Kamen and his orchestra steal the spotlight. When the two groups really work together, as they do on "One" and the instrumental "Call of Ktulu", the results are impressive. Ignore the lukewarm reception this album received from the critics and listen to it for a unique collaboration of musical style it provides! Besides, there must be a reason why this still sold over 8 million copies worldwide!

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