Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beck - Midnite Vultures (1999)

A memorable mix of funk rock, R&B with an alt rock twang

In spite of a Grammy award for the Best Alternative Music AlbumBek David Campbell aka Beck's 1998 release Mutations, was little more than a side project, apparently finished in 14 days – an album to keep the fans content while he was busy working on the proper follow-up to the critically adored Odelay (1996). So, on his 1999 seventh album effort, Midnite Vultures, Beck took his musical playfulness and experimentation to a whole new realm. 

Midnite Vultures is a cut-and-paste alt rock blend of 70s funk, 80s hip-hop, 70s R&B and 80s dance music. If Rick James and Kraftwerk had made an album that was produced by the Beastie Boys and engineered by Prince, the result would have sounded a lot like this. For an album that's mostly about sex, Midnite Vultures oozes sexiness all throughout. Just as Beck takes a unique approach to his music, on this album he takes a unique view of sex and what is considered sexy. 

At various times, Beck is both admiring and parodying the likes of Prince, Rick James, and Barry White. Just look at the album's horns-and-bass opener, "Sexx Laws" The chorus finds Beck singing "I want to defy/ The logic of all sex laws/ Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists/ I'll let you be my chaperone/ At the halfway home." On "Nicotine and Gravy," Beck's narrator tells a potential conquest that he'll "leave graffiti where you've never been kissed." The song bounces and oozes along on a drum and bass groove until it gets to the snake-charming synth break in the middle. Never before has the line "Her left eye is lazy" sounded more seductive. "Mixed Bizness" is the best funk number on Midnite Vultures, and finds Beck singing that he'll "make all the lesbians scream." 

"Get Real Paid," a warped little '80s techno number, features the line "Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again" followed by the line "Touch my ass if you're qualified." Needless to say, we're not dealing with your basic "Oooh baby I want you so bad" lyrics here. The rolling, twangy "Peaches and Cream" is one of the wilder sexcapades on Midnite Vultures, as Beck sings "You look good in that sweater/ And that aluminum crutch/ I'm gonna let you down easy/ I've got the delicate touch." Other lyrics include "We're on the good ship menage a trois" and "You make a garbage man scream.

Beck's most blatant parody of the sex music genre is the hilarious "Debra,". It's the wickedly funny story of a guy who picks up a girl at JC Penney and takes her for a ride in his Hyundai, all sung in the most sincere Prince-like falsetto. Simply brilliant. 

For most artists, albums like Mellow Gold (1994) and Odelay would be considered as creative highpoints. But for Beck, after listening to this 'album of the year' Grammy nominated album, it appears that those albums were just the beginning, he exceeds even your highest expectations.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Utah Saints - Two (2000)

Vintage Slice of Techno from the late 90s

Here’s another dance album from the early 2000's from another electronic techno British duo who took a while to make their sophomore CD. The Utah Saints, however, took an extra long time – almost 8 years from 1992 to be precise to release their second album - incidentally titled Two in 2000 and their third album even after 14 years is still in the works!! 

Those of you who have now probably crossed middle age might remember the last self -titled Utah Saints debut album. It’s the one that spawned the club rave hit “Something Good” thanks to a well-placed Kate Bush sample. Kate Bush is nowhere to be found on Two, but Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame appears on two tracks (“Sun” and “Punk Club”). His contribution sounds like little more than a rambling answering machine message that the band then cut up and turned into a vocal track. Chuck D of Public Enemy fame also appears on Two, providing a little muscle to the pounding beats of the appropriately titled “Power to the Beats.” 

On Two, the Utah Saints duo Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt sound like a electronica techno band that’s been around for a long, long time but hasn’t stopped recording. There are tracks here that represent all phases of the last 2 decades of electronic music. You can hear the influence of everyone from Fatboy Slim to the Crystal Method to the Propellerheads to Daft Punk on this disc, which actually sounds more like a mediocre techno outfit’s “Greatest Hits” compilation than one band’s current release. Still, this is an authentic vintage slice of the late 90s music that every techno fan must listen to! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Entertaining Big-Budget Superhero flick, JohnnyTwoToes gives you the details

Captain America - The Winter Soldier is a rousing adventure flick with loads of great action scenes and Chris Evans in top form really coming into his own as an actor. Seen in a good film earlier this year, Snowpiercer and the Marvel films, Evans has an All American quality which is quite winning and it comes through on screen. I was not a fan of his, based on his earlier films which were mostly garbage, but I have become a fan and here he is the star and is having a great time. You can tell, too and that makes Captain America such a fun time. 

Sure the plot is ridiculous (global domination, anyone?) but it exists solely as a set piece for very extravagant action in which there are fights in elevators, on planes, trains and automobiles, oh me, oh my. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Natasha Romanoff A.K.A. The Black Widow as does Coby Smulders as Maria Hill, last seen in The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury and a pleasing addition of Robert Redford (Yes, THAT Robert Redford) as Alexander Pierce. Anthony Mackie is terrific as the latest edition hero named Falcon or otherwise as Sam Wilson. 

I liked the first Captain America and REALLY loved this second film. It is wall to wall action but there are characters that have depth to them and are multi-dimensional so the action means something. We care what happens to them, quite simply. Directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo have made this film even more exciting and interesting than its predecessor and script writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have written an intelligent script that deals with the trappings of ultimate power and how the future could be shaped by those who wield that power; good or evil. It is an intelligent script but has a lot of humor, too, to keep you smiling. 

Not to be disappointed for film score fans, Henry Jackman's score is equally robust and elevates the action effectively and you will hardly know that this film is a good, solid two hours and sixteen minutes long with at least two additional scenes during the end credits. I truly thought seeing Robert Redford, who is in his mid 70's, in a Marvel comic book film was a complete joy for me. He is a fine actor and everyone in this film does a fine job of selling this plot, no matter how many times we see a global domination plot used. Here, it is fresh, exciting, fun from start to finish and worth viewing on DVD besides the film score is also a good buy. Captain America The Winter Soldier-****

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes reviews one of the best biographies in recent times 

Saving Mr. Banks tells the true story of two weeks in 1961 when Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers met in Beverly Hills to discuss the rights to Ms. Travers wonderful book. Now there have been a number of liberties taken by director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith BUT the gist of the story is true. In actual reality, when Pamela (P.L. Travers) came to Los Angeles to meet with Mr. Disney, the Sherman Brothers song team and scriptwriter, Don DaGradi, she had already signed over the rights but was still hammering out the details of the script. When Saving Mr. Banks opens, she has yet to sign anything over. Her dwindling residuals from all of her books have put her into a tough position so that she HAS to do something. The rest of the film is how it happened. 

Most of Saving Mr. Banks is primarily based on eyewitness account, and personal correspondence between Travers and Disney via phone or letters. Her driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti) is fictional, as Travers had several different drivers while she was in America, but one man named Bill Dover, a storyboard editor, was her assigned primary companion while she was in California. Having covered these details, I can simply say Saving Mr. Banks is a total delight. 

Emma Thompson as the prickly P. L. Travers, has the right amount of negative passion that we can understand her concerns. Thompson'a performance is Oscar worthy (although Saving Mr. Banks was nominated for Best Score, ONLY) as she precariously balances herself between a nervous breakdown and trying to make a film she can live with. Her life is seen as flashbacks with her loving father and a mother who loves her, but knows or at least suspects Pamela loves her dad more. Her father was Travers Goff, a banker with a penchant for booze and a man whose head is in the clouds; a dreamer. 

Colin Farrell is Travers at a young age. Handsome and very doting on his girls, he is a consummate screw up who is always being let go for any number of reasons. Farrell's work here, is the best of his career and to me, that is saying something. He is a fine and underused actor. Which brings me to Tom Hanks ( in real life Hanks is a distant relative to Walt Disney) as Mr. Walt Disney. So many people have said that, upon seeing this film, he was a liar and a bully. I don't know what film they watched, but I saw a kind generous business man who wanted to bring a classic book to the big screen. Ms. Travers had problems with just about EVERY detail that Disney wanted to include in the film, "No animation, no color red", were two of the most stringent demands that Ms. Travers had. "That dreadful Dick Van Dyke will not do", Pamela spits out upon her first sit down with the Sherman Brothers and DaGradi. "But he is a classic', the three chime in. Pamela laughs, "No, don't be ridiculous. Olivier is a classic. Guiness is a classic. Mr. Van Dyke is MOST CERTAINLY NOT a classic. He won't do at all." Walt is concerned but he feels he is charming enough to convince Pamela otherwise. Hanks shows why he is at the top of the Hollywood elites in acting. His performance is real and sincere down to Mr. Disney's mannerisms and how he even stood in a room. Hanks is simply wonderful; kind and genuine. 

The supporting cast of Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, B.J. Novak and Jason Scwartzman as the Sherman Brothers, Ruth Wilson as Travers' long suffering wife, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths (as Aunt Ellie who was the inspiration of the character, Mary Poppins) and Kathy Baker as Mr. Disney's associate are all terrific and enhance this film even more. Director Hancock and the script writing team have made a film filled with good cheer (despite some of the tragic elements that shaped Pamela's life) and a lot of heart. The film deals with life, loss and how it affects us through our childhood and even into our adult years and it does it with poignant grace. It will make you laugh and cry and you will never watch Mary Poppins with the same eyes when you see Saving Mr. Banks. The fact that Saving Mr. Banks was not nominated for anything EXCEPT Thomas Newman's tremendous score (and it did not even win that) is mind blowing. How could they not see this was one of the best films of 2013? It is! There were ludicrous statements made that Hanks had already been nominated enough but that apparently did not stop them from nominating Meryl Streep for the 18th time. 

For whatever the reason, Saving Mr. Banks is a delicious treat for the entire family and it will run the gambit with your emotions, but you will love every minute of it. This is a truly great film. Saving Mr. Banks-**** out of 4

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sixteen Deluxe - Emits Showers of Sparks (1998)

Bouncy alternative rock from the 90s

This Austin, Texas based band made their debut in 1995 with Backfeed Magnetbabe. That album earned the band an indie following and a reputation for noisy, loud, psychedelic pop-punk. On Sixteen Deluxe’s major label debut, however, much of that indie noise was replaced by major label sheen. That’s usually a recipe for a lackluster album and although indie purists will find it hard to believe, there are still certain indie acts who actually improved after making the jump to a major label (the Pixies and Beck for starters).  But Sixteen Deluxe bucked the odds and turned Emits Showers of Sparks into a showcase for their songwriting and musical talents. 

The first single from Emits Showers of Sparks is "Purple", a bouncing, lively track centered on the lyric "I don’t know anything at all." Vocalist/guitarist Carrie Clark sings the line in a detached manner, giving the impression that the lyric is meant to be sarcastic. Clark can also display a real connection with her lyrics, however, as she does on the beautiful "Let it Go." This track can best be described as the great ballad that Chrissie Hynde always wanted to write. "Let it Go" has a bit of a Mazzy Star vibe to it, but Clark seems to have a personal attachment to the song’s lyrics. 

On "Burning Leaves," Clark duets with guitarist Chris Smith. On the tracks which feature both of them singing, Clark and Smith play the roles of X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe. Smith even sounds a bit like Doe from time to time, especially on the distinctive "No Shock (In Bubble)." Smith’s voice works well on some tracks, like "Wrist Rocket," but not on "Honey" (the album's one true clunker). 

The centerpiece on Emits Showers of Sparks is the epic "Mexico Train." This song finds Sixteen Deluxe in full indie mode, and it’s a real show-stopper. The lyric "With hugs and kisses/ And an occasional lick/ Apologies still on your breath" should give you some indication of the song’s direction. 

At times, Sixteen Deluxe come across like My Bloody Valentine with a serious Pretenders fixation. And while the band does sometimes flirt with guitar noise on this album, the focus remains on the songs’ melodies, rhythms, and strong hooks. Unlike the band’s debut effort that in spite of its raw energy did need a little attention, the songs on Emits Showers of Sparks however will grab you on the first listen. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pink Floyd - The Final Cut (1983)

Rewinding the progressive rockers last album to feature Roger Waters

On my desk sits a copy of Pink Floyd's The Final Cut, a seminal concept album I haven't cracked since high school, when it was one of my all-time favorites. Needless to say, what I love and what I hate have changed a lot since then. In light of those changes - and for the edification of you, dear reader - I will now re-listen to The Final Cut for the first time in  more than a decade, commenting as I go, devoid of prejudice, trying to see whether or not it still stands up. 

0:19 - The Final Cut, I should note, was intended as a kind of spiritual sequel to Pink Floyd's classic double-album monument to overindulgence The Wall. On the All Music Guide, the ubiquitous Stephen Thomas Erlewine has this to say about it: "The Final Cut alienates all but the dedicated listener…it's damn near impenetrable in many respects...Distinctive, to be sure, but not easy to love and, depending on your view, not even that easy to admire." Bullshit! Erlewine obviously doesn't remember what it was like to be a teenager, because, as I recall, there was no album that more perfectly captured my sense of weltschmerz and all-encompassing egoistic pain and melodrama than The Final Cut. I loved Roger Waters' wounded-child yelping! I loved the aggressive, frightening dynamics! I loved the soothing instrumental textures! I learned how to bang out almost all of the album's 12 tracks on acoustic guitar. 

2:31 - "Oh Maggie, Maggie what did we do?", sings Waters near the end of "The Post-War Dream." Wondering who "Maggie" was in my pre-political ignorance, I always assumed her to be this kind of eternal rock archetype - the Maggie of "Maggie's Farm," by Bob Dylan, of "Maggie Mae" by the Beatles, of "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart - matriarchal and sad-eyed, a source of shelter and solace for cheeseball rockers the world over. Not knowing any better, this was how I interpreted Waters' "Maggie" in The Final Cut, as a meta-Maggie of sorts, appealed to with fervent and childish earnestness. This seemed, to me, inexpressibly touching - like praying to rock and roll to save you from real life. Which is an idea to which most every teenager can relate. 

3:02 - I now know that the weird spacey effect on the rhythm guitar in "Your Possible Pasts" is called "flanging," a word (and process) invented by George Martin, who, during his long tenure as the Beatles' producer, oversaw a tape operator named Norman Smith. Smith, in turn, went on to produce Pink Floyd's first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, an album whose Syd Barrett-helmed psychedelic madness couldn't possibly be further removed from The Final Cut's Roger Waters-dominated manic bathos. Just an aside. 

4:03 - "Do you remember me? How we used to be? Do you think we should be closer?" This line kicks off what may be the classic Final Cut sadistically dynamic explosion, and shortly after it we get the album's first Searing David Gilmour Solo, that element of Pink Floyd which forever types them as a "classic rock" band. Personally, I was never much into Gilmour's wankery, though I acknowledge that he's a more substantial and emotional wanker than most. Back in those days, as band roles go, I was always more into the soul-baring songwriter than the wanking lead guitarist, probably because I was such a damn pussy. 

14:44 - "The Gunner's Dream" was probably my favorite song on this album back then. But, for one reason or another, the surging strings, the throat-shredding screams, the pitiful lines like "no one kills the children anymore" and "take his frail hand and hold on to the dream" aren't really having any effect on me this time around. Even worse, I'd forgotten entirely that this song is deeply marred by the skronking nuisance of a Bad Saxophone Solo. Traumatized, I must have blocked it out of my memory until now. 

16:55 - Now "Paranoid Eyes," on the other hand - beautiful! Sure, the lyrics are a little bit over-the-top, but the delicate, sensitive backing is gorgeous! 

17:42 - Oops. Said gorgeous backing was just compromised more than a little by a rattling vibraslap excessively panned - Foghat style - from the corner of one ear to the other and back again. I'm starting to realize that one problem with Pink Floyd in the twilight years of their Waters period is that the lush, effects-intensive "wet" sound they'd developed on Dark Side of the Moon and perfected on parts of The Wall soon devolved to the point where every single tearjerking line Waters uttered was accompanied by a wacky sound effect. He'd sing "phone" and a distant phone would ring; he'd sing "TV" and a distant 50's TV voice would chime in; he'd sing "half-empty bottle of Yoo-Hoo falling off a three-story Manhattan balcony onto the back of an ant walking south-west in mid-winter" and…you get the picture. The bad part of this is that, after awhile, it gets hard to tell the difference between latter-day Pink Floyd and classic-era Spike Jones. 

20:55 - Aah, "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert," with its infamous exploding bomb sound-effect - still deafening after all these years. What's more interesting to these contemporary ears is Waters' little litany: "Brezhnev took Afghanistan, Begin took Beirut, Galtieri took the Union Jack," which segues into more talk of the doings of Eternal Rock Music Maggie. Just goes to show the past isn't past, as the sentiment "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert" is still alive and well as I write this, and, come to think of it, Waters' bomb sound effect wasn't all that funny during this most recent hearing. 

21:48 - "The Fletcher Memorial Home" is the only song from The Final Cut that Capitol Records saw fit to include on Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, whose assemblers had the unenviable task of trying to make the band that recorded both the playful and wacked-out "Bike" and the bland and radio-ready "Learning to Fly" seem somehow coherent. I wonder if they chose "The Fletcher Memorial Home" because of its Searing David Gilmour Solo, its relatively normal dynamics, or some other factor, because I can think of far better Final cuts to include on a best-of.
"Southhampton Dock," for example, is one of the most enduring and powerful songs on this record: simple, epigrammatic, and heartbreaking. Far from the crushing obviousness of this album at its worst, this gem contains wonderfully oblique and evocative lines like "no one spoke and no one smiled; there were too many spaces in the line" and "still the dark stain spreads between their shoulderblades." Lovely.

Meanwhile, the album's title track is a dead-ringer for an outtake from The Wall; the song overshoots all the strictures of taste and discretion and sails into the sun, incandescent and majestically melodramatic, ecstatically high on its own surging wave of world-obliterating pain. Any critical "distance" I could have from this admittedly bathetic song is wiped out by its force and its urgency. Let somebody else criticize it - I don't have the heart.

32:53 - I was never quite sure if "Not Now John" - which shamelessly comes on to disco where The Wall's "Another Brick in the Wall" just shyly flirted with it - is good or not. With its black-girl chorus that intersperses "ooh-laa"s and "shoop shoop"s with cries of "fuck all that!", it seemed like, whether the song succeeded or failed, you still had to hand it to Rogers. Listening to the requisite Searing Gilmour Solo (the album's third) this time around, I'm less inclined to be charitable and I think it's just kind of silly. Especially when it falls apart into distant and chaotic Waters yelping. 

40:24 - In the end, though, you've got to give Waters credit for the consistency of his vision. He concludes this album with the conclusion of the world; the breezy soft-rock account of nuclear holocaust that is "Two Suns in the Sunset" makes a brilliant, horrifically downbeat ending to this horrifically downbeat record. As an added bonus, we get some more beautifully grim Rogers imagery - "like the moment when the brakes lock…you stretch the frozen moments with your fear." 

40:30 - But, on the down side, Rogers has to go and mar this unassuming song with some more studio-recorded sound effects, this time of children screaming. Oh, yeah, and then there's another Bad Saxophone Solo. Yuck. 

43:01 - In the end, though, as that solo fades out, I'm realizing that The Final Cut is both better and worse than I remembered it. It's dated. I'm different. It's kind of ridiculous, just like I was kind of ridiculous. Still, though, it has managed, in 43 minutes and 10 seconds, to reach back through time and into my chest, find those dusty old heartstrings and, for old time's sake, give them a good hard tug. Will Robinson Sheff

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