Wednesday, November 9, 2011

21st Century Fandom

Just a quick post this evening. When I was a kid, getting a letter from a celebrity or getting the opportunity to speak to a celebrity was a really big deal. These were people who were seemingly inaccessible to the average person. One encounter that sticks out in my mind was when I got the opportunity to speak to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen on Westwood One's syndicated show Rocklines. I also got a copy of their latest CD as well as a special compilation disc created exclusively for callers. This was 1989, and I was over the moon. i even remember the question I asked, which was about the closing track of the album, "The Miracle". The track was titles "Was It All Worth It", and it turned out to be eerily prophetic of the band's demise.

Fast forward 22 years, and my musical tastes have expanded into indie music territory. My first post on this blog was notionally about how independent artists deserve our support far more than the arena behemoths who are seeking to drain every last penny of royalty money out of our pockets. One of those bands is Hellogoodbye, who are a fantastic live band and deserve every fan they have. On 17 September of this year. Hellogoodbye ran a promo with respect to their latest album: if their Facebook page got a certain number of likes by the 17th, they would open an offer to buy the album on CD for $1. The fan response was phenomenal, and we decided to participate. As a result, (the band's online store) got severely backlogged with orders, and CDs have only begun shipping recently. In the interim, the online store sent us a code that unlocked high bitrate downloads of the songs on the album while we were waiting for the physical copies to arrive. Given the shipping and handling costs, we decided to buy 2 CDs and a tote bag to make it more worthwhile. As it turns out, they ran out of the tote bag, but their customer service people (who I can only assume are close friends and family of the band) let us know almost immediately about the shortage and gave us other options. What really floored me was a personal email from Forrest Kline, the band's lead vocalist and guitarist, which I received this morning, further advising me on the tote bag situation, and letting me knw that he's already gone ahead and shipped the CDs, rather than waiting for new tote bags to arrive. This level of dedication to the fans is something peculiar to indie artists, and is yet another reason why they get my support. Every time I buy from an indie band, I know exactly where the money's going. In what other situation can you say that?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Star Wars Burnout

Soooo.... The Star Wars "Saga" is coming out on Blu-Ray Disc this month; September 16th, to be precise. Back in the mid-90s, when the Trilogy (as it then was) came out on VHS and LaserDisc "one last time", I was all about getting the widescreen VHS (LaserDisc really hadn't caught on in my neck of the woods) and went to great lengths to do so. When the "Special Editions" came out in 1997, I had to get them. I even bought the DVD set, which had even further changes in late 2004, albeit at a seriously reduced price. And now? I really don't care anymore.

I suppose an explanation is in order. At first I thought the changes to the SEs were kind of cool, but then they began to gnaw at me, enough to lead me to join the forum, which was dedicated to getting the powers that be (read: George Lucas and 20th Century Fox) to release the original versions of the films on DVD with the attendant care associated with transferring such material into the digital realm. Their response was to take LaserDisc transfers from the 90s and put them on DVD. I could go into why this is insufficient, but again, that isn't the point. The point is that I feel like I have outgrown them. This became even more true as I worked my way through the prequels, which are not terrible films, but not great either; you have to be in a certain frame of mind to watch them.

Star Wars was my entry point into the worlds of science fiction, special effects, and an overall love of film. This was a film that said that a movie could be made on a relatively low budget and still have stunning special effects with a plot that really moved. Dialogue wasn't necessarily the best, but that's beside the point; I had been introduced to the world of film at the age of 6, and there was no turning back. I had actually contemplated a career in film, but moved into other areas instead. As I got deeper into film, I found even better films and gained an appreciation for more cerebral works, but could still go back to Star Wars and enjoy myself. Along the way, that became less and less the case. Part of that is attributable to George Lucas' Antonio Gaudi-esque need to have the films change perpetually, but more to the omnipresence of Star Wars. Spike runs the films almost as often as TBS used to run James Bond movies, along with their snarky commercials involving characters from the Star Wars universe, which were amusing at first, but have now become tired.

Star Wars has become the equivalent of a worn-out security blanket, which has been patched over with mismatched newer fabric; it's still recognisable, but it no longer serves the same purpose. Will I buy the Blu-Rays? I really don't know right now; it's not a priority anymore. I suppose if my kids beg and plead for them enough, I'll give in, but for now, I'll just be happy with my pancake moulds I got at Williams-Sonoma and my Lego toys.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Of the Oscars, Top 10 Lists, and Other Thoughts.......

So...... how about them Oscars? I was so enthralled, I was working on about 3 or 4 other things at the same time. As far as the awards portion of the show goes, that usually is a predictable snoozefest, with one or two surprises thrown in for good measure (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, my hat is off to you for winning the Best Score Oscar for The Social Network, the first electronic soundtrack to win since, oh, Chariots of Fire?), but the real bore of this year was the extremely safe choice for Oscar hosts. James Franco and Anne Hathaway? C'mon! We all know they're pretty and relatively intelligent, but the writers didn't know what to do with them, making for a very dull telecast. I would almost rather watch C-SPAN or CPAC (Canadian equivalent of C-SPAN).

The King's Speech predictably walked off with four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, Inception with a bunch of technical achievement Oscars, The Fighter with a pair of Supporting trophies, and Natalie Portman wins for playing an unhinged ballerina in Black Swan. Oh, and Pixar gets another trophy for its crowded shelf with Toy Story 3 winning for Best Animated Feature. No drama, no excitement apart from the aforementioned Score win and the best live action short winner (I really want to see his film now, and may download it from iTunes when I get the chance). Sadly, the Razzies weren't any more exciting, since we all knew that The Last Airbender and Sex and the City 2 (it pains me even to type those words) would win the lion's share, and any year where Ashton Kutcher is nominated as Worst Actor is an automatic lock.

It has been said for years that the Oscars are too "safe" and predictable. Why this is a surprise to anyone is beyond me. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is top heavy with baby boomers and octogenarians angling for a lifetime achievement award, precisely the kind of people who will always make the "safe" choice when it comes to both nominees and awards. It pains me to say that possibly the only reason Reznor and Ross picked up their Best Score Oscar was that for all its electronic gloss, The Social Network's music did precisely what it was supposed to do: enhance the mood of the film without drawing too much attention to itself. Daft Punk's score for Tron: Legacy did much the same thing, but had too much of a hit single with the track Derezzed; ergo, it disqualified itself for being too cutting-edge for the Boomers. There is no cure for the Oscars but time, and even that may come too late. The Oscars had edge when they gave the Best Picture award to Midnight Cowboy, an (at the time) X-rated film, which I loathe and detest, but that is a topic for another post. Now, because it is filled with so many hand-wringing former hippies and bleeding hearts, the Academy has no teeth (both literally and figuratively), and has become a bastion of political correctness and "safety." There will be no house-cleaning for some time to come.

What does this mean for the rest of us? We vote with our dollars, and reward those films which make us happy, not the ones the Academy tells us to see. To that end, I have compiled my own top ten list of films from 2010. My list of favourite albums from 2010 (because I'm a dinosaur that way, and still collect albums) follows it. You will notice that some of my picks did get Academy nods, but that's not why they're here.

Top 10 Films of 2010
This list only includes films released in 2010 that I actually saw.
10. Kick-Ass
  This was so ridiculously over-the-top in so many ways, I don't know where to begin. Yes, it's foul-mouthed, violent and bloodier than many slasher flicks. It was also incredibly funny in the subversive way that it simultaneously mocked and celebrated the superhero genre. For an in-depth examination of the superhero mystique that isn't a comic-book movie, see The Incredibles or Unbreakable. If you want to see what it would really be like for someone to pull a Batman, see this.

9. Iron Man 2
Not as good as the first in some ways, better in others. Like any good sequel, it took the world created in the first and allowed the characters to play in it. What's not to like?

8. Tron: Legacy
 I am old enough to have seen Tron in theatres, and was absolutely enthralled. It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, and I willingly double-dipped for the 20th Anniversary edition when it came out. I didn't see Tron: Legacy until it was close to the end of its run (in 3D), but it was well worth it. Cheesy dialogue? Check. Contrived plot? Check. Wooden acting? Not so much this time around. Mind-blowing visuals? Check and double-check. If atmosphere was mandatory for a film to qualify for an Oscar run, this had it. Did I mention how much I loved the Daft Punk score?

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
I struggled with whether or not to put this on the list, as it's an incomplete film at this point. However, it is a showcase of the evolution Daniel Radcliffe et al have made as actors as they've grown up onscreen. I really can't wait for part II.

6. Despicable Me
A lovable movie. Steve Carell sold me as the vaguely Eastern European villain who turns out not to be as bad as he thought he was, and Agnes is just plain adorable. If they make a sequel, please just give the Minions their own movie, because I could watch their antics for hours.

5. The Losers
There were a bunch of similarly themed "mercenaries out to clear their names" films, including the TV-based "The A-Team", which I still have yet to see. This was the first out of the gate this year and was just plain fun. Although based on a graphic novel series, no one is taking him or herself too seriously, making this an enjoyable ride of a film.

4. RED

This has a lot in common with #5, except that the names are more recognizable. A fun piece of the action pie, again based on a graphic novel series (from the same publisher as The Losers, no less), and the rare kind of action movie that even my wife enjoys. Wouldn't mind a sequel in the least.

3. Toy Story 3
Pixar has yet to make a movie that I dislike. The ending came very close to making me cry. Why is it that a computer animation company is one of the very few making films with heart these days?

2. Inception
 Call me a sheep if you like, but I found this latest project from Christopher Nolan to be one of the best made films this year. Much like The Prestige, just thinking about it makes me appreciate it more.

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
I'll just admit right now that I am a huge fan of Edgar Wright's work, but this movie took Wright's hyper-caffeinated personality and visuals and put it to its best use yet. Those Michael Cera haters who actively resisted this films charms, get over yourselves and see this now, because this was the most visually inventive, genre-busting film of the year. Also one of my favourite soundtracks this year.

Top 10 Albums of the Year
I'll dispense with the images this time around, and warn that when it comes to music, I don't rank the albums, as each has it's own unique merits.
10. OK Go- Of the Blue Colour of the Sky
This little mind-bending opus, produced by Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT) cranked the fuzz and distortion to 11, offering a falsetto-drenched homage to the music of the 80s. Its closest cousin would be Beck's Midnite Vultures, but Damian Kulash and Co. do much better at the whole blue-eyed soul and funk thing.
9. Deadmau5- 4x4=12
I have only recently discovered Deadmau5, but like good dance music before him, there is a constantly transforming groove (think Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, etc.). This is great driving music and since I spend most of my time in the car these days, I can heartily recommend it for that purpose.
8. Hot Hot Heat- Future Breeds
Some bands thrive in the major label world, while others get stifled after awhile. Hot Hot Heat definitely falls into the latter category, as their latest album really seems to benefit from their newfound freedom. Just listen to tracks like 21@12 and Goddess of the Prairie and feel the joy of liberty. It's infectious.
7. Mike Patton- Mondo Cane
It is indeed a crazy world as Faith No More's best known frontman and one of the most amazing voices in rock music takes on Italian pop and movie themes. It doesn't matter that you can't understand a word that he's saying, because the craftsmanship evident here is outstanding. Plus, you can always drive your family nuts by putting the primal screams of Urlo Negro on your alarm clock. They may never forgive you after it gets stuck in their heads.
6. Daft Punk- Tron: Legacy Soundtrack
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter don their shiny helmets and dance us into the world of the machine- "The Grid". Along the way, something interesting happens: they turn in an album that is equal measures electronic bliss and classic orchestral scoring that can stand with the best of the traditional film scorers. 
5. Various Artists- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Soundtrack
I will admit that some of the music on this set isn't exactly new, but the material created specifically for the film by Beck, Broken Social Scene, Metric and others really rocks and really sets the tone for the film. If you can track it down, find the original score album with contributions by Nigel Godrich and Dan the Automator among others. I'll shut up now to save myself the embarassment of gushing too muc about this movie and its music.
4. Florence and the Machine- Lungs
This album really rocks. As modern rock albums go, this is tops.
3. Linkin Park- A Thousand Suns
Minutes to Midnight marked a change in direction for Linkin Park, and some said it went too far away from their nu-metal/rap-rock roots. Listen to this one and you'll hear the sound of a band maturing and honing its sound; not in the narcissistic way U2 did with The Joshua Tree, but in a logical and natural fashion.
2. The Black Keys- Brothers
The Black Keys are like the anti-White Stripes, in that even though there's only two of them, it doesn't sound like just two people. Their authentic-sounding swamp blues reminds me of another white band that nailed that Southern-fried feeling, yet created a sound all their own: Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love this album.
1. Crowded House- Intriguer
There's something to be said for aging gracefully. Neil Finn is still the greatest modern songwriter my generation has had the opportunity to experience. There is an aching beauty to his music not present anywhere else.

That's it for this time. Next topic TBD....................                       




Monday, January 17, 2011

Music Today, and Why the Third Album Theory May No Longer Be Relevant

The music landscape today is a labyrinth compared to the pre-MP3 era. It used to be that we were fed a steady diet of music according to genre by the radio; if you heard a song you liked, you waited until the radio announced the name of the song and the recording artist, and you would head off to either the record store or the department store to try and find either the single or the album. I know I'm dating myself with those terms, but that was the way it was. Now, you either browse through iTunes, check out artist profiles on mySpace or Facebook, or swap playlists with friends. This fragmentation has yielded two results: audiences for an individual group or artist are smaller, and at the same time the pop music industry has become more homogenous and beat-oriented than ever. There are only a handful of acts who can still command stadium crowds, and those acts aren't getting any younger. Some artists can ride the coattails of these acts and widen their fanbase, but a lot of people are mourning the loss of the "album artist." While I think such mourning may be premature, it is a hard reality that the recorded music industry is a shadow of its former self.

For the record, I came of music-buying age when vinyl was still king, but the cassette tape was rising through the ranks, and the 8-track was dying a slow and painful death. I preferred cassettes for their portability and recordability, although my first music that I actually had a hand in choosing was vinyl. One Christmas, my brother and I both received albums: he got Queen's Greatest Hits, and I got Time by ELO. I loved that album, and it became a gateway to discovering other music by ELO, which I later discovered stood for Electric Light Orchestra. I began rabidly devouring whatever I could get my hands on by this band, but rapidly discovered that a lot of ELO's back catalogue was not locally available. I would have to hunt around, particularly on vacation in hopes of securing an elusive older album. Most of such hunts would be fruitless, but part of the fun was discovering other bands along the way. Now, I can simply look them up on iTunes or any other online content provider and discover most, if not all of their back catalogue available for download. While this is a boon, it is also a two-edged sword: there is no thrill of the hunt anymore.

There is also no gradual uncovering of a band's evolution, which leads to the second half of this week's title: the Third Album Theory. This is an unwritten rule in the music industry, which goes something like this: a band or recording artist's musical direction is usually cemented by the content of the act's third album. To take ELO as an example, their third album was (appropriately enough) On the Third Day, a title which denoted a third album, as well as making reference to the "let there be light" passage in Genesis, which occurred on the third day of Creation, of course. This album laid out the general musical direction for subsequent ELO albums, being a more pop-oriented and less experimemtal direction than ELO and ELO II (not to be confused with ELO Part II, which is a completely different story). Eventually, the band would experiment more with electronics, almost completely abandoning strings, but the pop focus would remain. Since I "discovered" ELO late in its life cycle, I wouldn't realise the evolution that had taken place until much later in life, but I did discover other artists and bands that fit into the Third Album mould:
Queen- Sheer Heart Attack--a drastic departure from the epic song suites and prog-rock of their first two albums.
U2-War--an album I still consider their best, and a clear indication that the band was heading into more political, yet more pop and less punk-oriented sounds.
Ultravox-Systems of Romance and Quartet--this one's a bit of a cheat, as I picked the third album by both iterations of this band, but the theory really does apply. A cohesiveness exists in Systems of Romance that would go on to inform the next iteration of the band, and Quartet cements the musical direction of the so-called "classic" lineup of Ultravox (plus it's produced and engineered by Beatles studio mentors George Martin and Geoff Emerick respectively)
INXS-The Swing--Again, still the band's best, and a foreshadowing of the funk the band would mine for the rest of its career. The list goes on...

Of course, there are just as many bands that don't follow the Third Album Theory, especially those who came to prominence in the 60s, because output was king, and it wasn't unusual for a 60s band to release two or more albums in a year. A prime example is the Beatles. By Third Album Theory rules (and I only count the UK releases as actual albums; I know this may be seen as snobbery by some, but the UK albums are the only ones with any cohesiveness to song selection), the Beatles future musical direction would have been determined by A Hard Day's Night, a fine album to be sure, but not really indicative of what was to come. My pick for The Beatles' defining album would be Rubber Soul, which was really the first album by The Beatles that wasn't merely a loosely connected selection of songs, and dabbled in some of the musical experimentation to come.

Of course, the main thrust here is: Does the Third Album Theory even apply in the modern age of music? I would say it does on a much more limited basis than it did in the 70s, 80s or 90s. There are still bands out there that fit nicely into the Third Album criteria, but these are bands that are still actually making albums. With the single focus of today's pop music, these types of bands are becoming fewer and fewer. For your consideration I present the following:
Muse-Absolution--a song suite that alludes to both the hard rock and classical leanings of future albums. Go ahead, listen to "Butterflies and Hurricanes" and tell me you don't hear the roots of Exogenesis Symphony from The Resistance. I dare ya.
Linkin Park-Minutes to Midnight--the band does a complete 180 from their previous output and dials down the hip-hop elements of their sound without completely eliminating them. Again, their best song from A Thousand Suns, Waiting for the End, would not exist without the change in direction that occurred on Minutes to Midnight.

In conclusion, the musical landscape is a very different place from when I was in my formative years. I cannot say whether it is better or worse, because more choices are available, but the instant access limits the opportunity to really discover and stick with an artist. That being said, if it weren't for the internet and downloadable music, I doubt I would have found one of my favourite albums of 2010, Mondo Cane by Mike Patton. If you're curious, Google it; you won't regret it, even if you don't like it.

The time has come to say adios. Next topic is yet to be decided.......