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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kaki King -- Everybody Loves You

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About ten years ago, I was up late as per usual, watching a cadre of late night talk shows. The musical guest on my longtime favorite, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, was a young woman named Kaki King. She played this song.

Needless to say, her insane guitar skills blew me away (I also thought she was cute, but soon found out I was not her type). I soonafter picked up her debut album, Everybody Loves You (I bought a lot of albums in those days based merely on witnessing artists' performances on late night talk shows). To my pleasure, the insane technical prowess King displayed on Conan was not an auditory mirage. Her unique, blazing-speed finger-tapping technique is all over Everybody Loves You. However, technicality alone does not make music enjoyable for most. Thankfully, King's playing also exudes a ton of emotion, and Everybody Loves You is also full of deeper, more meditative pieces, like Night After Sidewalk.

Finally, to make a point of how enjoyable this album is: I own no other guitar-only instrumental album. This is it(I'm serious. And also, I really wanted to write another parenthetical).

2003 Velour
1. Kewpie Station 2:14
2. Steamed Juicy Little Bun 2:01
3. Carmine St. 3:15
4. Night After Sidewalk 3:33
5. Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine 3:22
6. The Exhibition 3:09
7. Close Your Eyes & You'll Burst into Flames 3:19
8. Joi 4:36
9. Everybody Loves You 3:16
10. Fortuna 9:36

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

So Much For J

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Good grief, J. I've been working on you since September of last year. You've presided over some rough times in my life. But, hey, J! You've lifted me up! I never knew how good you truly were! You are incredible! Your albums received 18 "10/10"'s. EIGHT-TEEN!!! That is insane! I think that is more tens than I have handed out to every other letter before you combined! You house a multitude of talent! Your artists were brilliant! Surely "K" will pale in comparison! But reviewed, "K" will be, nontheless! EXCLAMATION POINT! EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!
Also, I don't own this, or even understand who commissioned or performed it, but as a final note, here is some European orchestra's excellent performance of Joe Hisaishi's timeless theme from Princess Mononoke.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Nicsperiment's Summer Break Movie Mini-Reviews, Part Two

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I (emphasis on I) had so much fun doing two-sentence movie reviews of all the films I saw during the early part of last summer, I've decided to do it again. With no time to watch any films during the spring, I've used whatever free time I've had at the start of the summer to totally cram them-- new and old. Here are my mini-reviews, with the same disclaimer as last year:
Because the one star to four star film review scale is limited, outdated, and silly, I am going to score these on a one to ten basis, just like my music reviews. Also, I got a minor in film theory in college the first time through, so that slightly elevates my perspective from "some jackass" to "some jackass who got a film minor a decade ago." In alphabetical order:

Captain America:The Winter Soldier -- 8/10
Does everything you want a comic-book movie to do--great, real-physical stunt-packed action scenes, excellent character work, and a decent plot. Then it remembers it's a Hollywood movie and gives you an extra thirty-minutes of monotonously extraneous CGI destruction.

Captain Phillips -- 10/10
Emotionally gripping, compassionate film, where kidnapper and hostage are both given their honest due. Kudos to director, Paul Greengrass, for toning down his trademark handheld shaky cam, and creating perhaps the best feature of his oeuvre in the process.

Elysium -- 4/10
Never digs past the surface of its intriguingly difficult premise. Some decent action, but irredeemably silly, throughout, climaxing in a finale that is nothing more than a goofy commercial for President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Godzilla (2014) -- 8/10
The first 45-minutes is a completely useless subplot that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The next 90 minutes is so, so, so, so badass, and does an exemplary job of building anticipation for the final epic showdown of monsters.

The House of the Devil -- 8/10
The opening hour is a loving, yet incredibly suspenseful recreation of 80's horror cinema. The final half-hour is gory insanity just crazy enough to payoff the premise.

Knowing -- 5/10
Virtuoso sequences paired with a bunch of incredibly awkward and badly staged scenes. In other words, it's a Nicholas Cage movie.

Man of Steel -- 5/10
One montonouos gray-toned action scene after the other with stalemate after stalemate and scheme after scheme making little impact--on top of that, Superman and Lois have absolutely zero chemistry. The Man of Steel just can't catch a break.

Pacific Rim -- 8/10
As good a giant monster movie as Godzilla, with less pathos, but more, and crazier action. Director, Guillermo Del Toro, creates a neon-glowing fantasy world, which makes the movie less emotionally resonant, but which conversely, ensures every second of its two-hour running length is a blast.

Riddick -- 7/10
Shockingly good for an under the radar sequel to a sequel (financed by Vin Diesel, himself). Evenly trivides into a survival film, a standoff film, and ending as a monster movie, doing each part quite well, despite some cheesy dialogue.

The World's End -- 9/10
The fact that this Cornetto-trilogy-closing film is about how time does and does not change everything weighed quite heavily on me, as the original posse I saw the first film with (a decade ago) is long since broken up. However, watching The World's End alone, I still laughed my head off (and blue goo shot out of my neck), somehow feeling incredibly moved at the same time--these guys are geniuses, and they saved the best for last.

X-Men: Days of Future Past -- 8/10
If he can stay out of prison, Bryan Singer should be the only person allowed to direct an X-Men film, ever. Days of Future Past is smart, fast, funny, emotional, and action-packed, even if Wolverine doesn't get a trademark mano y mano fight with anyone.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Louie Is a Great Show

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2014 FX Networks
Season Four
Score: 9/10

I recently caught a repeat of the last few season three episodes of  FX's Louie. FX re-aired the episodes in anticipation of the show's then upcoming fourth season. I really enjoyed them, remembered I have DVR now, and set the upcoming season to record. It ended Monday.
Wow. Louie is a really great show. I can't speak for the first two-and-a-half seasons, which I've never seen, but the last season-and-a-half has been absolutely incredible. I thought that Louie was simply a sketch comedy, but these last 17 episodes have been close to pure narrative drama, with sparing, but solid laughs. This season includes a six-part arc (essentially two-hour movie length) about Louie's attempts at a romantic relationship with a non-English speaking Hungarian woman. This arc also dissects at length Louie's struggles as a parent, why his previous marriage failed, the effect everything has had on the his children, as well as Louie's usual themes of loneliness, depression, and the longing for connection. The quality of these episodes blew me away, but the runaway winner is the season's penultimate episode, "Into the Woods." An extended length episode(90 minutes, versus the show's usual 30), "Into the Woods" is an exploration of Louie's 13th year of life. It is about as unflinching a view of the shift from adolescence to teen years as I've seen. The most incredible thing about "...Woods" is that Louie's star, director, writer, producer, and editor, Louis CK (yes he does everything), only appears onscreen for a total of five minutes. CK experiments like this throughout the season, like a French New Wave maestro somehow born in the late 60's.
I haven't even mentioned the show's greatest strong-suit: it is beautiful. Everything from a trip to the market, to eating at a restaurant, to walking up the stairs is filmed and edited together as the most wonderful and joyous experience in which a human being can partake. The season finale's final scene kind of knocks this idea out of the park, as an emotionally scarred Louie is asked to join another character in a bath. Reticent at first, Louie literally takes off his baggage and gets in, his volume displacing waterfalls over the edge and flooding the tiles to his and the other character's startled amusement. The metaphor is rapturous -- if you are willing, there is always more water than you need.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Fridge Nuked Nearly a Decade Ago: Reevaluating Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every now and then a South Park episode sums up the feelings of a generation.  Airing after the summer of 2008, "The China Problem" clearly lays out almost every 70's and 80's kid's opinion of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For most, the film was the figurative raping of a legend.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull received a nearly 80% fresh rating on the critical review aggregate website, Rotten Tomatoes, yet it is reviled by fans to an extent of hatred greater than even that held for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Why? What happened?

*      *      *

I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull at its midnight premier, with much of the same mix of family and friends with which I had always attended midnight premiers. After the film, much of my party was not shy to show its disdain. "That was terrible," seemed to be the consensus. I kept my opinion close to the vest, as I was not entirely sure what my opinion was. I did not think the film was terrible, but it came nowhere near my expectations. I did not feel any of the same action and adventure thrills that I felt (and still feel) when watching the three previous Indiana Jones films. While the filmmakers assured fans the film would be made like the previous films, I felt like the film was awash in CGI. I thought Harrison Ford and Karen Allen were still great in their roles, but I could find few other positives to take away from the film--and I tried really hard to do so. I love the Indiana Jones films. I didn't make it back to the theater to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull again that summer. A couple of months later, it, and pretty much every other film released that year, was completely overshadowed by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

*      *      *

Despite being underwhelmed by the film, I still picked up Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on DVD for Christmas (ironically, someone else gave me a Blu-Ray player just a few days later). One day, while visiting my parents, I decided to unpack the DVD and watch the film with my father, who had not yet seen it, and who has not stepped foot in a movie theater since 1996's Keven Costner-vehicle, Tin Cup. Despite his sparse theater attendance, I consider my father a closet-cinephile. He has always made a point to have movie-channel packages attached to his cable, and he often retires early to bed to watch whatever is on. He has seen a lot of movies. I believe in the early 80's, we watched every single film John Wayne starred in from the 1930's on to the actor's death. Wikipedia says John Wayne starred in 142 films, so that previous sentence probably isn't true, but I sure remember John Wayne gunning down a lot of outlaws. We did the same with Clint Eastwood's films. All that to say, my father is no stranger to the art of cinema, and he also bears more than a passing resemblance to one, Harrison Ford, to the extent that my siblings and I were a little frightened of our father after viewing Ford's villainous turn in What Lies Beneath. As a kid, I pretty much imagined Indiana Jones and my father to be one in the same, and a viewing of an Indiana Jones film with him as a time to watch a family video. Before viewing Crystal Skull, my father and I had not watched a movie together in quite some time. I wasn't even sure if he would make it through the movie. I did not think the weirder sci-fi elements would throw him off, as we had watched tons of b-movies together (Invaders from Mars being a particular favorite), but I was still worried he would find the film to be hokey, if he could even stay awake for its two-hour duration.

*      *      *

To my great surprise, my father enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I found that I enjoyed it far more watching it with him. He laughed at the parts that were supposed to be funny and he leaned closer to the screen during the scenes where he was supposed to be on the edge of his seat. He has always been one to converse with the TV screen, and he said no negative words during the film. Let's just say that isn't always the case. I watched the series premier of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my father, along with many episodes thereafter, and he is no less shy than those guys in vocalizing his displeasure of the night's entertainment. He legitimately enjoyed his viewing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It seemed that he found Indy's age and its effects relatable, along with Jones' caring more about protecting his family and living on with them than recovering the film's titular artifact, to "know everything."  This revealed one of the film's key strengths to me: Indy clearly learned the lesson his father taught him at the end of the previous film in the series--to "let it go." "It," of course, is chasing after fortune, glory, fame, and power, to instead age gracefully, and to be illuminated in one's place in the galaxy. At the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Indy is not tempted by the power of the Crystal Skull in the least. While the film's description of the Skull's power is nebulous--the one who wields it has access to all the knowledge in the universe and control over everyone's mind or something--the film does do a good job of placing it into context with the character of Indiana Jones. Getting home safety with his future wife and teenage son is exponentially more important than any power the skull can impart to him. This is contrasted by the film's villain, who cares for nothing but the Skull's power, and is literally consumed by it (in a scene far less impressive than the villain's deaths in the previous films, Crystal Skull's villian simply bursts into flames and swiftly disintegrates in a CGI whirl.). With this in mind, a thought crept into my head: perhaps my friends and I did not enjoy this film in the theater because it was made for someone other than us. At the time, I was in my late mid-20's, newly married, and feeling a bit invincible. My hobbies all involved activities that punished my body and put it in peril. I craved adventure in any way I could get it. Of course I wouldn't identify with a man who would rather just settle down. Watching the film with a man who had put the film in perspective...kind of. I never felt the gumption to watch the film again on my own.
Raiders of the Lost Ark viewings: About 100.
Temple of Doom viewings: About 100.
Last Crusade viewings: About 100
Crystal Skull viewings: 2

*      *      *

Going through and reviewing the majority of John Williams' catalog rekindled a fire in me. I even enjoyed his work on the Star Wars Prequels to a very high degree. I began to think of soundtracks by Mr. Williams that I did not own, and Indiana Jones and Crystal Skull immediately came to mind. On my two viewings of the film, nothing from the soundtrack really stood out. Perhaps I should watch the film again? I could not shake the thought. I began to ruminate on my two disparate viewings of the film. Now closer to my mid-30's than mid-20's, how would I react to the film? I made up my mind. I would not only watch the film again, I would attempt to critique it in depth in an entry to this very blog. This is that blog.

*      *      *

I come into this new viewing optimistically, wanting to like the film. I immediately see how my friends and I could be so quickly turned off. The opening moments of Crystal Skull feel like a direct disrespect to the fans and the franchise. The classic Paramount logo that in previous films dissolves into a mountain, an immense ringing gong, a majestic rock formation is now...a molehill. It literally went from a mountain to a molehill. This does not bode well--this reverses the classic idiom into something major being over-reduced into something very minor. Also, this is generally the moment where John Williams' music sets the tone for the film. Here, strings swell as the mountain logo is shown but immediately disappear as the molehill is revealed. We are then treated to, not John Williams, but Elvis--period music in a series of films that was, until this moment in this film, timeless. When Williams' music does make its first appearance it is nondescript and without honor. Also, where is Indy? It is minutes before he is even revealed, and when he is, the entrance is, to quote Spielberg himself, "ignoble." Indy is recovered and tossed from a car trunk. While, admittedly, the shot of Indy putting his hat on in shadow is very cool, the tone has already been set. And then there's the CGI everywhere. Indy's first scenes look like they were all shot on a green-screen set, with the exterior and interior of a military warehouse looking unnaturally lit in the custom CGI style of today...except they aren't CGI. This leads to the film's greatest co-flaw (the other being the story, which I will get to momentarily): the cinematography. This is not something I noticed, until I broke the film down on this third viewing. The original trilogy's cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, began to go blind many years ago, and was consequently unavailable for this picture. Spielberg instead went with his cinematographer of the last 20 years, Janusz Kamiński. Now don't get me wrong, Kamiński is an incredible cinematographer. In fact, he is one of the best in the business. However, Indiana Jones does not seem to be a good fit for Kamiński. The original trilogy had a classic cinematic look, with earthy tones befitting a series following a man who digs in the dirt for a living. While Kamiński watched the original trilogy for inspiration, he either missed something somewhere, or was told by the producers to go for a different look. As a result, scenes are overlit, and often feature a bright, unnatural light in the background. This is a usual trick employed when the only thing in the background is a green screen, but if one watches any behind the scenes footage from the film, one knows this is not the case. The warehouse exterior scenes were filmed on location, in the beautiful desert. The interior scenes were filmed on an intricately built set, full of real boxes. With the way Kamiński lights the film, the boxes and most of the warehouse look like they came straight from a computer processor. Unfortunately, this negative illusion continues throughout the film. The most egregious offense is Crystal Skull's showcase jungle chase, which was filmed in a real-jungle, at full speed, with few CGI additions. Due to Kamiński's haze and harshness, the scene looks fake, the actors tottering on stationary vehicles in front of a green screen (I wish there was a more creative way to call a green screen a green screen). This is a shame and an injustice to the director, actors, stuntmen and women, stunt drivers, location finders, and viewers. An insane amount of work went into this scene just for it to seem rote. The worst part of all of this is that the film does indeed contain some ridiculous CGI in the form of gophers, monkeys, and jungle vines. However, without Kamiński's lighting, these would only seem like unnecessary intrusions instead of par for the course. I think fans would hold the film in higher regard if they realized how little of the film was actually computer-generated, and how insane Harrison Ford truly is. The 64-year old did most of his own stunts, and when one watches any Crystal Skull behind the scenes footage, one sees how much peril in which Ford truly placed himself. That the lighting and cinematography obscure this fact in the actual film is Crystal Skull's greatest crime...
Or is Crystal Skull's greatest crime the script and story? We all know that when George Lucas has a bad idea, nothing will stop him from putting it in a film. Ewoks. Howard the Duck. JarJar Binks. Badly-formed politics. No matter how awful of a fit, or how unwieldy they are to be attached to anything that could be considered "good," Lucas will push to have these bad ideas projected on the big screen. In this case, George Lucas wanted Indiana Jones to forsake his Saturday Serial origins for a Sci-Fi B-Movie adventure, chasing after aliens. This again ruins the tone of the franchise. There isn't anything inherently wrong with this idea for a film, but an Indiana Jones film is supposed to feature Jones hunting after a terrestrially supernatural artifact in the style of an old Saturday morning serial. That's what Indiana Jones does. He's an archeologist, not a pseudo-scientist, or an astronomer. Also, while the endgame of Crystal Skull's actual artifact has meaning, in that Jones refuses to care about it, it is far too abstract and obtuse to hold any meaning to the viewer throughout the film. It is the Macguffin that isn't (Sadly, as quoted in that wikipedia link, Lucas is the one who originally said the audience should care about the Macguffin). But main plot isn't even the script's most egregious error. The biggest problem is unnecessary characters and events.
Let's start with the character, "Mac." Mac, whose name is already too close to Mutt (Jones' revealed son in the film), serves no true purpose in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Though he is in nearly half of Crystal Skull's scenes, the film's events would unfold exactly the same without his presence. Indy would still be captured at the beginning of the film, he would still have to fight off the Russians, still lose the Skull to start with, and he will still get captured again later in the film. Mac just occupies screen time and space in a film that already feels too long. He isn't likeable, or funny. His death in the film is a complete afterthought. No one cares when he dies, nor does he, nor do the filmmakers. His presence is lousy. If his traitorous existence is only to cast doubt on Indiana Jones' character to the government, he isn't necessary for that, either. Jones' survival of the film's opening events is enough. Add to that, the scenes and sideplot of the government doubting Indiana Jones' loyalty are also completely useless. They are there to serve the screenwriter's political agenda, to take potshots at the long dead, long decried into the ground policy of McCarthyism in order to cast shadows on the still-existent party he belonged to.  Politics has no place in an Indiana Jones film (or a Star Wars film, for that matter), and its presence here is simultaneously jolting and boring. I noticed several audience members check their watch during these early interrogation scenes, and they are only twenty-minutes into the film.  Worst of all, these scenes completely waste the acting talents of Neil Flynn. Some may say these events are necessary, so that Jones may be placed on leave for his job, and thus free to go on his adventure. Jones has been on countless adventures before this one, though, and he has never before needed an excuse. Lame. With these scenes and the character of Mac gone, the story could have worked harder on integrating the character of Professor Oxley, who the audience could care more about if he was given a little more development, and a better introduction.
Now that I've pointed out what I see to be the film's two greatest flaws, I can say this:
While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rarely works on any level as an Indiana Jones film, it does work pretty well as a family action-adventure film. Crystal Skull actually does a pretty good job with the Indiana Jones and Mutt father/son dynamic, as Jones advice to the young man changes vastly once he realizes their true relationship. Jones' relationship with love interest, Marion (from the first Indy film), and its flowering in Crystal Skull is fun to see. Thus, the family dynamic between the trio is enjoyable, and the most well done aspect of the film. If this were instead, simply a film about another aging adventurer, going on these wacky escapades with his long lost love, and their son, Crystal Skull would have received little criticism. Even with all of its flaws, I will still go so far as to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a good family film, made by family men. As an Indiana Jones film, though, it is severely lacking, eight years ago and today.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Juliana Theory -- Love

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Few bands deserved major label exposure as much as the Juliana Theory did in 2003. The band had put in grueling touring hours, and had released some truly stellar work on indie label, Tooth & Nail Records. Their time in the sun had arrived. Unfortunately...The Juliana Theory's Epic Record's debut album, Love, falls prey to just about every pratfall posed by a major label jump. That previous sentence fell prey to the alliteration monster.
Over-indulgence: At fourteen songs, and a full-hour, this album better well justify its existence. With most of its runtime filled with like-sounding, mid-tempo songs, Love does not.
Trading polish and technicality for feeling: The Juliana Theory traded drummers for Love, and the new drummer is technically far better than their previous one. In fact, every musician in the band is more accomplished on Love than ever before. Better doesn't necessarily mean "better," though. The band are now skilled enough to play a more generic radio rock sound, which is far less interesting and far more monotonous than the more beat-heavy, post-punk sound of their previous work. The album's smoother production, along with this more radio-friendly style means less diversity.
Joylessly re-tread a previous song: The sped-up, unnecessary re-make of previous album Emotion Is Dead's "Into the Dark" makes an already bloated album even longer. Its inclusion is no benefit to Love. Another band who also released a (in my opinion) disappointing major label debut later that year did the same thing.
Biting off a bigger concept than the band can chew: Love's final track, "Everything," repeats the phrase "love is everything" over and over again like the idea is so deep, no one has ever thought about it before. Actually, though, a lot of people have thought about it before. The larger stage has caused the band to grow more ponderous, and this is not a strength. Titling your major label debut Love is like asking people to hate you. Lyrics like "You're a jewel to sparkle around my neck/the fragrant scent of morning I cannot forgot" just add fuel to the fire. Being soulessly ironic is no good, but going so far in the opposite direction to naseously rotten cheese is just as bad.
Alright, I'll quit beating an already long dead horse. This album was a disappointment, and it took the band nowhere. After this, they came out with one more release(which I've never heard, and probably should), then broke up. Frontman, Brett Detar, grew a birdhouse-worthy beard and started making folk music or something--pretty much what every frontman of his generation did when their bands dissolved. He also got into film composing, though, something I don't think any of the other frontmen of his generation did. This helps to prove Detar is a man of many musical talents. He played guitar on one of the most revered metal albums in recent memory, put out some excellent rock albums with The Juliana Theory, embarked on a solo career different from everything he did before, then scored a film that has grossed more than 100 million dollars worldwide. With this kind of pedigree behind its central mind, Love is not a complete wash. It has its moments.
Moments: The one two punch of the aggressive "Bring It Low" with the poppier "Do You Believe Me?" segues excellently into album standout, "Shell of a Man." The song stands out far above its peers, focusing on a strong beat, unique musicianship, and an excellent piano lead. The extended piano outro (one of the few times Love actually takes a breath) is beautiful, and reminds me of a video game I was playing at the exact same point in history.

Metroid Prime rules.
"White Days" also stands out from the pack, containing a hard-to-identify, wistful beauty. "Trance" contains an excellently agressive outro. "In Conversation" is a lot of fun. Plus, my four-year old thinks the album is pretty good, so for all I know, my opinion could be completely off base. As it stands, though, Love is only slightly above average--not terrible, but nothing special in the discography of a band who was much, much better than much better that I suspect these songs must have contained a lot more pop in a live setting. With that said, I miss you, Juliana Theory.

2003 Epic
1. Bring It Low 2:48
2. Do You Believe Me? 4:29
3. Shell of a Man 5:41
4. Repeating, Repeating 4:36
5. Congratulations 3:33
6. Jewel to Sparkle 3:44
7. White Days 4:27
8. The Hardest Things 3:45
9. DTM 4:00
10. Trance 4:33
11. In Conversation 5:04
12. Into the Dark 4:10
13. As It Stands 2:17
14. Everything 6:15

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Juliana Theory -- Music From Another Room (EP)

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The Juliana Theory's Music From Another Room is another piece of great early 00's work, this time in short form.
The week my best friend died in a car accident, I bought three albums: Blindside's Self-Titled debut, my own personal copy of The Juliana Theory's Emotion Is Dead, as well as The Juliana Theory's freshly released EP, Music From Another Room (I also listened to "Grace" by U2 several hundred times). For whatever reason, Music from Another Room really hit the spot. The EP's sound, rock, just polished enough, beat heavy, with a discernible Pink-Floyd if they were a post-punk band influence, is a natural continuation of Emotion Is Dead, which was released only a year before.
Music From Another Room kicks off with the near progressive-rock epic, "This Is the End of Your Life," which features the heaviest of the previously-mentioned Floyd influence. It's a great song, maybe The Juliana Theory's crowning achievement, kicking off with some pretty psychedelic keyboards before the full band suddenly blazes brightly to life. From there, the song is a great study in quiet to loud dynamics (used far more naturally than the alliteration in the previous sentence), as well as using the bridge to create tension. "This Is the End of Your Life" is followed by the emotional, but musically gentler, "Moments...," succeeded by "In a Fraction," which effectively functions as its tremolo-heavy outro. "Liability" then kicks off with a bang, featuring a techno-charged intro (which is actually pretty shocking, and shockingly effective) that leads into one of the angriest songs The Juliana Theory ever recorded. The chorus is We know you're lying through your teeth, with "you" being the government. Though my recently deceased buddy was a serviceman, the military played no cause in his death. For some reason, this song still proved quite cathartic for me. "Liability" segues pretty naturally into the ascendant "Breathing by Wires," a song which lyrically sounds a bit silly in this day and age. Frontman, Brett Detar, calls out computer addicts, but the 2001 version of him would be horrified to see most of today's population's faces glued to the CPU-fueled glow of their cell-phones.
The EP is closed by an older-written Juliana Theory track, "Piano Song." Detar himself admits in the liner notes that the song doesn't quite fit with the other five tracks, and it doesn't. It's a piano-led ode to a friend going through hard times. The whole band shows up for the song's climax, and it really isn't a bad track. Its odd out-of-place-ness actually makes for a strangely fitting finale. And we're done.
Someone 3-D sounded this song. I'm not sure what that means, but cool.

2001 Tooth & Nail
1. This Is the End of Your Life 5:53
2. Moments... 4:11
3. In a Fraction 1:40
4. Liability 5:23
5. Breathing by Wires 3:51
6. Piano Song 6:33

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Juliana Theory -- Emotion Is Dead

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The third and final installment of this loose review trilogy of artists in "the zone" is on Brett Detar, previously of The Juliana Theory. Emotion is Dead is the Juliana Theory's second full-length album. While Detar's bandmates obviously have a lot to do with Emotion Is Dead's musical success, Detar always seems to be the band's guiding hand. Also, if I write about the whole band being in the zone, it just throws this whole "person being in the zone" thing off...nevermind, I guess my own narratives aren't as important to me as honesty. The entire five-man Juliana Theory crew is in the zone on Emotion Is Dead.
Thing about it is, thirteen years ago, I would have only given this album an eight. My brother won Emotion Is Dead from the radio show I was soon to host; I won Switchfoot's Learning to Breathe (in my opinion, still the best thing that band ever did) the same week. We split the take, often trading back and forth. I listened to his copy of Emotion Is Dead to the point that I just bought my own copy. I enjoyed it a lot, but I also took it for granted (much as I did another album I recently reviewed). For some reason, I assumed all modern rock albums would be thematically cohesive, consistent, capable of creating conflict, capable of resolving that conflict, and able to close out epically. I thought all rock albums could have their own unique, yet diverse sound (Emotion Is Dead's reliance on Neil Hebrank's simple, yet beat-heavy and infectious rhythms sounds absolutely revolutionary at this current point in history). It turns out now, it's a miracle if a rock album is just decent. In this day and age, Emotion Is Dead is an absolute gem, as it does all the things I just mentioned and more. It presents a consistent flow of emotion, starting in a place of uncertainty, finding happiness, the happiness dissolving, and then everything exploding in a final, unbelievably grand climax. Emotion Is Dead doesn't tell a straight story, but it does clearly tell an aurally emotional one that proves its title incorrect and ironic.
Detar and crew are definitely in the zone here. "To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children," "Is Patience Still Waiting?" and "If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?" are all immensely enjoyable rockers. "You Always Say, Goodnight, Goodnight" is the kind of closer Pink Floyd wishes it wrote, and yes, I really just typed that. But what really proves The Juliana Theory is in the zone on Emotion Is Dead are the songs that should absolutely not work. "We're at the Top of the World (To the Simple Two)" is the kind of over-the-top cheesy love song that should make someone like me vomit...but the only way that could prove true is if I vomited from singing along to hard. I can't listen to that song and not belt out the lyrics (also, if you want to feel awkward, check out Disney's Motocrossed, which features the song at a particularly awkward moment). "Something Isn't Right Here" is essentially a boy band song, featuring Detar and his posse signing together and snapping their fingers, and it should suck so bad, and it doesn't, it's awesome. It's the zone, man. I'm telling you, for this one album, The Juliana Theory were in the zone, and it's A PENNY ON AMAZON. FOR ONE PENNY, PLUS SHIPPING AND HANDLING, EMOTION IS DEAD'S BIG GIANT DRUM BEATS, THICK BASSLINESS, GNARLY GUITAR RIFFS, SWEET HARMONIES, AND DETAR SOUNDING LIKE HE MEANS IT CAN BE YOURS. C'MON!

My apologies. This review sniffed a pixie stick.

2000 Tooth & Nail Recoreds
1. Into the Dark 4:03
2. Don't Push Love Away 3:17
3. To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children 3:52
4. We're at the Top of the World (To the Simple Two) 3:17
5. Is Patience Still Waiting? 3:51
6. Emotion Is Dead Pt. I 2:04
7. If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop? 3:52
8. We're Nothing Without You 4:14
9. Something Isn't Right Here 2:07
10. Understand the Dream Is Over 2:56
11. This Is Your Life 3:35
12. You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight 9:30
13. Emotion Is Dead Pt. II 4:45

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Joy Electric -- The White Songbook

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The second artist featured in this review trilogy of artists in "the zone" is Ronnie Martin, who writes music under the moniker "Joy Electric." Martin was unfortunately born both 15 years to late and 15 years too early, as he could have easily composed music for NES games in the 80's, or could have easily struck it big in today's burgeoning "chiptunes" scene. Instead, he has labored for a largely indifferent populace since the mid-90's, producing some really incredible synthpop music for those interested and in-the-know. While Martin has released some excellent work, 2001's The White Songbook really stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The White Songbook is the first album in Martin's "Legacy" series, as well as the first to be created using one sole synthesizer, in this case the Roland System 100. The album sounds like the soundtrack to an old video game set in a winter wonderland of snow and candy-canes, crossed with Ronnie Martin's emotive, Depeche Mode-quality vocal hooks. From interviews I've read, The White Songbook's creation was quite a trying experience for Martin. Being in the zone isn't always a pleasant experience, but all of the blood Martin shed on the keyboard pays off immensely. Each song is so meticulously well-crafted, Martin's programming skills seem virtuoso. The diversity he displays, despite using only one instrument, two including his voice, is astounding. From restful to aggressive, pensive to angry, The White Songbook runs the gamut of emotional tones. Martin conjures fanciful imagery at times, and soul-baring emotion at others (as a bonus, the album ends with one of the greatest non-sequiturs of all time). For an album entirely composed on a keyboard from the mid-70's, The White Songbook contains a timeless everything. 474 views. This Earth isn't fair.

2001 BEC Recordings
1. The White Songbook 4:15
2. Shepherds of the Northern Pasture 6:12
3. And Without Help We Perish 5:12
4. The Boy Who Never Forgot 3:51
5. Unicornucopia 6:42
6. Hunter Green and Other Histories 1:39
7. A New Pirate Traditional 3:42
8. We Are Rock 3:35
9. The Good Will Not Be Cloned or Why Should the Christians Get All the Bad Music 3:33
10. As Children We Are Growing Younger 1:41
11. Sing Once for Me 6:31
12. The Heritage Bough 6:45
13. A Frog in the Pond 0:27
14. The Songbook Tells All 6:29

Monday, June 02, 2014

Josh Garrels -- Love & War & the Sea In Between

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I don't like folk music. Sorry, I guess. I don't like bluegrass, or any of that stuff, either. It puts me to sleep. Following this logic, I should not like Josh Garrels' music, but music and logic have little to do with one another. Josh Garrels began creating Love & War & the Sea In Between during a time of change, and with a fire in his belly. This album is brimming with energy, and a combative feeling against stagnancy. The care and thought Garrels put into each of these tracks is as apparent first listen as it is on the 30th. The opening tracks are brimming with mystery, and then Garrels raps in a faux British accent. This should be terrible, but the clear auditory fact that it is not proves Garrels recorded this album in the mythical "zone," where he could do no wrong. Everything he throws at the wall sticks, and the complete painting is just as beautiful as the individual parts. Even during Love & War's... relaxed middle, which should stagnate and put me to sleep, Garrels gently swirls the waters of sound. In less pretentious terms, even the slow, chill songs aren't boring, feel dangerous. Everything works. Garrels even uses these softer tones to build back up to a climax worthy of an eighteen song opus, before gracefully sailing off into the night. Love & War & the Sea In Between is a remarkable achievement in musical artistry, and its power and beauty have dulled none in the three years since its release. I am as taken aback by its brilliance now as I was in the distant summer of 2011.

2011 Self-Released
1 White Owl 5:47
2 Flood Waters 3:17
3 Farther Along 5:04
4 A Far-Off Hope 2:45
5 The Resistance 4:42
6 Slip Away 4:28
7 Sailor's Waltz 1:42
8 Ulysses 4:16
9 Beyond the Blue 4:05
10 For You 2:32
11 Million Miles 4:31
12 Bread & Wine 3:54
13 No Man's Land 2:10
14 Rise 4:43
15 The March 2:31
16 Revelator 4:49
17 Pilot Me 3:11
18 Processional 1:38

When You Are In the Zone

Let me preface this: It's a bit unfortunate that I recently reviewed the work of two of the most musically talented men of the past century. I don't want to seem like I just throw out 10's on a whim. Granted, I am reviewing my own collection, and thus, mostly stuff I at least like a little bit, but the letter "J" is going to feature more 10's than any other letter by far.
With that said, I am about to review three albums by three consecutive alphabetically chronological artists "10"'s. Three "10"'s in a row. Please forgive all the gushing. The three different men who recorded them were all, for a short while, in a place most people would call "the zone." When a musician is in the zone, they can do no wrong. If they hit a bum note, it sounds better than the right one. When they write a song in a genre they shouldn't be anywhere near, it sounds incredible. Everything this artist does while in "the zone" is golden, and whatever music they make at the time is something they could never duplicate before or after. That is not to say he or she will never be in "the zone" again.
Over the course of the next three reviews: three artists I think were in the zone.
No quotations on "the zone" that time because it would have made this post even more obnoxious.