Archive for December, 2012

Best Albums of 2012

2012 may or may not have been a good year for music, but it certainly wasn’t a good year for my music reviews. I covered only 55 albums, and just 21 of them were released this year. (And 17 of those 21 were reviewed this month in a frantic attempt not to let the year slip by completely.)

This makes me glad for the precedent I set last year, in which I chose my best five albums of that year, as well as five older ones that I’d finally reviewed. I spent much of 2012 catching up on a backlog, and I’m obviously going into the new year with a lot of this year’s gems still undiscovered.

I was tempted to stick to last year’s format exactly, but I’m going to cut my count down to three in each category. While there were many good albums among the ones I reviewed, there are only a few that I’d actually be confident defending on a “year’s best” list. I’d still stand up for all the ones I listed last year, and I shouldn’t confuse things this time by including ones that are merely “very good” in a year-end wrap-up. My selections may be incomplete, but at least I expect that I will look back on them at this time next year and still feel that they deserved this.

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Let the Right One In (Movie Review)

Let the Right One In DVD cover

Let the Right One In

After reading Let Me In (a.k.a. Let the Right One In), I watched the movie. To begin, I should confess that I had the version with the “bad” subtitles. You may remember this: A few years ago, every horror fan and every cinephile were up in arms over the fact that this Swedish movie was screened with one set of subtitles and then released with different ones that missed the subtleties. This has since been fixed, but you need to be careful about which one you pick up. I’ve seen enough examples online to agree that the version I saw is definitely weaker. However, I don’t think that would have sufficiently changed my opinion of this. Ironically, the complaints about the new subtitles missing losing the depth are similar to what people point out when they say the book was better. Having just read the novel, and admittedly dealing with the subtle erosion of meaning that I’ll have with any foreign movie, I think that my own internal narrative would have had to fill in most of the same gaps with either set of subtitles.

This movie definitely does have gaps that need filled. It’s a very faithful adaptation, cutting out many parts for time but keeping what it can almost identical to the source material. While I miss a lot of the parts they removed, it was an admirable job of paring the story down to its core. However, maybe it needed to be simplified further. There still didn’t seem to be time to establish characters and relationships, with the early stages of Oskar and Eli’s relationship feeling especially arbitrary. Worst of all, Håkan (Eli’s handler) has his story abridged so much that he ends up feeling unexplained and unnecessary. While I really think that the triangle between him, Eli, and Oskar should have remained part of the fundamental story, this movie would have been better off eliminating him completely than in keeping the fragments that it did.

Other than cutting things out, about the only changes this makes to the story are to fit the remaining fragments together as smoothly as possible. The actual modifications are so rare as to be notable, and are generally good character moments in existing scenes. (A little event in the final scene, for example, as well as Eli’s reaction when being offered candy.) As much as I loved the book, I wish the movie had tried to change more. Different mediums require different stories, and following the original so closely guarantees that the new version can be judged only by whether it’s a good copy or not.

Beyond the story, the movie is decent but not spectacular. The sets and direction create a sparse, bland world. It was probably intended, as it conveys a very mundane life interrupted by horror, but it adds to the feeling that this movie doesn’t flesh out everything that the viewer should know. The acting is generally good, but a lot of key scenes, especially with children, involve unnatural delays. These are awkward silences, not pregnant pauses, such as everyone standing around for a couple seconds after someone is hit and THEN suddenly acting startled. Also, Eli feels frustratingly human all the time, without the cues she should be providing, or even the isolated air that defines her character. However, as Oskar and Eli’s relationship progresses, their scenes together are poignant and effective. Coming from child actors, this is especially notable. Fortunately for the movie, this means that the scenes near the end are the strongest, and therefore the ones that everyone will remember afterwards.

I can only judge Let the Right One In from my perspective, which leaves me surprised that it felt like a fully-realized story to people who weren’t familiar with the book’s details. It’s still unique, though, and has many powerful moments. I’m still glad I read it first.

Grade: C+

 

Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Music Review)

Celebration Rock cover

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

How did I somehow miss out on Japandroids until a few months ago? I was sure that I’d sampled them and found their electronic experiments lacking. Their name must have led me to mix them up with someone else, because this band is pure American flesh and blood bar-rock. (Yes, even though they’re actually Canadian.) Celebration Rock, their second release, is an uplifting album seemingly designed for shouting along with new best friends after a night of hard drinking.

The most impressive trick of Celebration Rock is that it does feel like a celebration of life, but not with the facile, blindly positive material that name might imply. The subjects are complex and varied. Far from a Pollyanna attitude, their clear view is that life is worth it despite, if not even because of, the struggles. Of course, you’ll want to have a group of friends to sing along with when the chorus gets to the loud “Whoa-oh” parts. Expect some realistic downer lyrics, though, as well as a cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. It’s those portions that make the life-affirming songs relatable.

The standout track, and a great example of the band’s strengths in general, is “The House That Heaven Built”. An honest, clear-eyed assessment after the end of a long-term relationship, the song focuses on the bond the two will always have. “When they love you (and they will) tell them all they’ll love in my shadow”, sings the band. Rather than sounding creepy or controlling, it ends up being a testimonial to emotional growth. The next lines are, “And if they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell”.

Japandroids have a huge buzz, and their simple human rock is usually just what I want from my music. Despite that, I don’t enjoy this as much as you’d expect. The songs are powerful, and obviously meant for a live communal experience. (In fact, their live performances are a big part of their buzz.) The album doesn’t quite capture that, though. This is the sort of music that needs a producer like Steve Albini, and as it is the raw energy sounds packaged instead of natural. The recording is just slightly too muddy, and the joyous community they represent sounds like it’s on the wrong side of the security barrier from the listener.

All that makes Celebration Rock good instead of great. It’s still a group of powerful songs occupying a unique place in the modern music scene. Japandroids have convinced me that they deserve the hype, and I just hope the next album lives up to it.

Grade: B-

 

The Vaccines – Come of Age (Music Review)

Vaccines - Come of Age cover

The Vaccines – Come of Age

Don’t be fooled by the title of The Vaccines’ sophomore album, Come of Age. As the opening song explains, “When you’re young and bored and twenty-four and don’t know who you are no more, there’s no hope and it’s hard to come of age”. In fact, expect to hear sentiments like that frequently throughout the album. The band’s consistent message is that they’re confused, aimless, and are going to let you down.

Despite that, the songs actually sound too self-aware to be written by their callow narrator. The Vaccines sing about being young and stupid, rather than from the experience of being young and stupid. It’s a comfortable topic, and the songs flow by mostly inoffensively. The one exception is “I Wish I Was A Girl”, which definitely seems to come from an oblivious boy’s perception of what a girl’s life must be like. Depending on your perspective, it is either offensively ignorant of real people’s problems, or an accurate slice-of-life from their age group. For me, it splits the difference and ends up being an easily-forgettable track near the end.

Not much of the album is forgettable, though. This is Brit-pop at its catchiest. The band smoothed out the extremes of the last album, with none of the Ramones impersonations and much less of the slow “youth-soul”. In their place are much more consistent British guitar anthems. None of it is as startling or refreshing as the band’s initial hits, but it’s too slick and hook-filled to complain about.

I finished my review of that first album by worrying that their youthful burst of energy was going to burn out before they could put together a follow-up work. By that standard, Come of Age is a relief even if it doesn’t hit the same highs. The slick performance and winking lyrics of this new album feel a bit more smooth and calculated than what we had before, but they also give us some excellent pop anthems. The real test will be in what their next release sounds like. I could craft a narrative in which this is a natural progression of the band’s style, or one in which this is a cynical retreat to safe, test-marketed music. I’m not worrying about that too much at the moment, though; I just plan to enjoy Come of Age until the next album comes out.

Grade: B

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey movie poster

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There’s always some risk to writing sequels (or prequels) of beloved stories, but The Hobbit already ran into those pitfalls as a book. Fellowship of the Ring opened up with retroactive changes to The Hobbit in order to change The Ring from a fun magic trinket into a force of corruption. By making a movie with a full understanding of Tolkien’s entire repertoire, Peter Jackson has the unique opportunity to fix the existing problems. However, he also has to deal with the fact that The Hobbit is intended as lighter fare than Lord of the Rings. In this, he half-succeeds.

The problem is that after his previous trilogy, Jackson now has the budget and experience to make a movie even more stunning and epic than Lord of the Rings on every level. As fan service, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t always feel appropriate to the story. We see so many stunning vistas that the journey Bilbo and company take to the Misty Mountains feels longer than the entire trip to Mordor we saw before. The underground goblin kingdom is an excellent work of design and CGI, but it feels wrong that it outshines the machinations of the actual Dark Lord from the previous movies. And the fight to escape that kingdom is action-packed and well-choreographed, but the attempt of twelve Dwarves to run away just can’t feel as epic as the clashes of armies at Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith. It’s almost confusing to see something hit all the cues perfectly without feeling like a big deal.

Those pieces are still a lot of fun, though, and Jackson does show elsewhere that he appreciate’s The Hobbit’s role. The action feels a little more fast-paced and cartoony, while the more everyday scenes (such as the dinner that introduces the Dwarves) are a joy to watch. Actor Martin Freeman has a great handle on the character of Bilbo, and his reluctant hero act works well. By the end of this trilogy, Bilbo may be a more popular Hobbit than Frodo.

Yes, of course The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just part of a trilogy. In addition to dealing with the different demands of this story, Jackson also had to deal with an industry that has changed in the years since his Lord of the Rings movies. Remember when Fellowship came out, and all the fan outrage was about the things he’d had to cut out in order to fit it into a single long movie? Well, now everyone is talking about the things he added to make the much shorter Hobbit into a full trilogy. Sometimes, he simply pads out scenes or adds flashbacks. The history of the Dwarves before the story starts is fully shown, and it adds a framing sequence tying this into Frodo and the other movies. Gandalf’s barely-mentioned concerns about a gathering evil are now fully explored, with many completely new scenes that nonetheless do fit into Tolkien’s story cleanly. For the most part, these additions do feel appropriate, and help the story fit into the more epic style that Jackson wants to tell. The Dwarves now have distinct personalities, and their stubbornness and enmity with the Elves is given more attention. This should give weight to the later parts of the story.

Some parts feel very padded, though. Several unneeded minutes are given over to the giants that cause the storm in the Misty Mountains, and an additional plot about a vengeful Orc leader hunting them down feels more like generic fantasy than something Tolkien would have written. That’s not the only part that feels as if it were run through the Hollywood action machine: When the company flees up trees to escape pursuit, they are now precariously positioned next to a ravine, and end up climbing back down to fight anyway.

I think that three movies is pushing it, but there definitely would have been enough material here to give The Hobbit an excellent two-part story. At three, though, each weakened one will still be worth seeing, and that is probably a better result from the corporate point of view. It’s too bad, but I can’t get very upset about it. Fifteen years ago, I never would have dared hope that The Hobbit would be treated this well.

Grade: B-

 

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense (Music Review)

The Plot Against Common Sense cover

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense

Future of the Left, like Mclusky before it, is a vehicle for Andrew “Falco” Falkous’ absurdist rants. Whether doing a flat spoken-word delivery, staccato post-hardcore chants, or full-on electro-punk screaming, his sarcastic Welsh voice is a perfect match for the humorous, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness, lyrics. The Plot Against Common Sense, Future of the Left’s latest release, is more of the same in many good ways. Musically, it is their strongest yet, especially if you liked Mclusky’s intense songs narrated by faux-tough guys. However, over this band’s three albums they have become increasingly serious, and their intended messages just aren’t as fun as the tongue-in-cheek nonsense they used to spew.

It isn’t necessarily bad to mix music with a message, but the two goals often conflict with each other. Whether the results work is a matter of personal opinion, and you can’t always predict whether I’ll like the result based on whether I agree with the point of view. In this case, there are some successes. I particularly like “Sheena Is A T-Shirt Salesman”, partly because the music industry always seems like fair game for musicians to criticize, and also because Falco’s blistering delivery doesn’t slow down to make sure you get the point. Other than a hilariously apt message at the end (“This song is dedicated to the merchandise manufacturers who made it possible”), it’s just two minutes of clever wordplay and verbal hooks (“autistic autistic autistic radio/artistic license (celebrate a bus pass!)”)

“Sorry Dad, I Was Late For The Riots” is the complete opposite of that. The theme (trust-fund kids who aren’t really devoted to their causes) is also a frequent target for punk rockers, but this just feels painfully strident. The only clever part is the inversion of children caring less than their parents. (Ok, excusing his absence with “I’m sure that Chumbawumba will understand” is pretty funny, too.) Otherwise, it feels generally boring and a little preachy.

Most other songs fall somewhere in between those two. Surprisingly, the band chooses a lot of easy targets, such as unnecessary movie sequels and idiotic advice in Cosmopolitan. These songs have Falco’s typically-clever delivery: “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop” includes an on-the-nose description of Pirates of the Caribbean 47’s plot, and he responds to Cosmo’s fear of aging by foretelling a future in which “everyone is slightly older”. But his songs work best when he presents gripping but hard-to-follow visions (“This is a song about breaking bread with enemies of fantasy”), and finding an obviously-mundane message in it ruins the message.

Fortunately, not all the songs on Common Sense are derailed by meaning. “I Am the Least of Your Problems” is cheeky, hard-rocking fun, “Beneath the Waves an Ocean” has more self-referential jokes (“Three men walk into a cafe, take a corner booth, and wait for context”), and “Polymers Are Forever” is just my favorite name for a song since Falco formed this band. Future of the Left is still improving in many ways, and they are sometimes figuring out how to handle political and cultural statements. Those statements still get in the way more often than on past albums, though. On balance, it’s definitely a worthwhile effort, though I can’t tell whether they are getting better or worse.

Grade: B

 

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Music Review)

 Kill My Blues cover

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues

The Corin Tucker Band’s debut established themselves as a distinct entity from Sleater-Kinney, but unfortunately that was the best thing that could be said about it. They returned this year with Kill My Blues, which apparently tries to correct course by front-loading all the energetic songs for maximum Sleater-Kinney nostalgia. It even seems intended as an introduction for people who missed the last album, with Tucker explaining at the start that she’s been gone a while but is returned. Despite all that, the band still hasn’t found itself.

That Sleater-Kinney nostalgia is a powerful force, of course. “Neskowin” and “I Don’t Wanna Go”, especially, build up a lot of goodwill. Energetic and letting Tucker’s voice go all-out, these could practically be outtakes from her old band. They cover difficult territory, with the former about discovering herself as a teen and the latter about a loved one’s illness. They may not provide many details, but it’s easy to ignore that for a time.

The songs are consistently vague, though. It’s usually good for an album to offer one or two like “Joey” and “None Like You”, containing a personal message that the listeners will not fully follow. Those help to flesh out the band’s overall personality by giving a glimpse into the full life that they live. Maybe the problem here is that almost all of those songs are like that: These are personal messages not aimed at the listener, and if you’re not part of Tucker’s life, there just isn’t enough here to make the rest of us feel invested in it.

Worse, the few times the songs get a little more specific, they feel generic. “Blood, Bones. and Sand” is all about the feeling of having a child, but it doesn’t find anything original to say about the subject. The first track, “Groundhog Day”, asks if we’re all still trying to move society forward and admits to some guilt over dropping out of the public eye for a few years instead of continuing the fight. It’s appropriate to that song that she doesn’t find a resolution, but it still feels like another incomplete idea because the rest of the album never tries to engage in those themes at all. That first song allows basically no excuse for ignoring those fights, but then she just sings about loved ones and writes borderline-nonsense lines like “You can rent me a burro we’ll live off of churros/Let’s freak like we’re pharaohs/I’ll be your sparrow tonight”.

The band still offers a variety of styles to back up Tucker. However, the faster songs actually make the band feel a bit less varied than they were before. Their technique on those tracks is generally a fast, unvaried beat with competent indie rock riffs echoing it closely.

Corin Tucker will always be a star to some of us. Even so, her new band can’t achieve more than intermittently interesting songs. Two albums in, they haven’t figured out how to make their style work.

Grade: C