Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thrice vs. Counting Crows: The Latest Attempts at the Concept Album

The Concept Album: The Good, the Bad, the Not So Much

How long has the concept album been around? If you look up the history it can be traced back to the 1930’s. Okay, maybe a stretch for what we think of as the modern concept album, but nevertheless, it can be said that by now we’ve had plenty of time to perfect it. For the modern concept album though, you will still find more misses than hits.
The reason? Primarily that the misses tend to come when the artist loses focus on the concept, seemingly in the middle of it all. It is as if from the beginning of the writing process they say, “Hey I just wrote two songs that have the same theme… let’s make a concept album!” A big “huzzah!” likely follows from the other band members and the artist begins down the road towards crafting the ultimate one-themed album that they hope will blow your mind by its inherent simplicity. But this is not to say some concept albums are not complex. Quite the contrary. In some instances the concept itself can be so abstract and taken to the extreme that it makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking in the first place. In the end the listener just gets lost in the mix of songs about metaphorical alien encounters or highly spiritual concepts.
Recently, two concept albums have hit the scene from two different bands with differing backgrounds in the rock world. You will find, however, that they end up with the same blunders down the confusing road of crafting the concept album.


First, the Counting Crows are back after a long and didn’t-they-break-up hiatus of six years. They didn’t break up, and over those years released a good live album, and oh yeah, got nominated for an academy award. The band has had some great success over their life span and has gained a huge fan base across the board. Some might say that they have yet to duplicate the mastery of their breakout album August and Everything After, but that hasn’t seemed to mattered to their critical and commercial success.
Now comes their concept album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. The concept is pretty simple. It deals with the craziness of Saturday nights out on the town drinking, partying, acting like a fool; and Sunday Mornings is the natural counter, like a remorseful hangover. The music as you can well guess follows suit with the lyrical themes. Saturday Nights is more buzz saw riffs and up beat blues-infused pop, whereas Sunday Mornings is more mellow, reserved and acoustic. Sounds like a great set up, and indeed it had me eager to find out what it would sound like, because surely a band as seasoned with previous rock-pop bluesy folk records as Counting Crows could pull it off. But, not so much.
The album becomes a victim of its own ambitious theme. Saturday is really a confusing mess of pop songs that lack sustenance, and really don’t stick to their supposed place in the Saturday night party. Not that the themes in a concept album have to be spot on with the overall idea, but when you put a song called “Sundays” on the side that is supposed to represent Saturday nights, it’s a little counter intuitive. The music does boast some decent efforts in songs like “Insignificant,” more of a straight forward, laid back pop rock song with a nice chord progression and some fun riffs. And “Los Angeles” is perhaps the most blues rocky song on the album, with a catchy chorus, though it is a little hard for most to relate to the woes of having rock star fame when lead singer Adam Duritz sings “If you see that movie star and me, and if you see my picture in a magazine… well, I’m just trying to make some sense out of me.”
Sunday is the better half of the album, but still remains foggy. “Washington Square” is a good folk song with primarily acoustic guitar, Duritz’ vulnerable voice, and a light touch from the piano. It also has some nice elements that are added by some light percussion and a gritty-toned harmonica.
But that song bleeds indistinctly into the next track “On Almost Any Sunday Morning,” which on its own is pretty good, but paired with the rest of the album just fades into the background. “Anyone But You” is a Ben Folds-like love song complete with “Bah bah bahs” at the end. Other highlights of the Sunday side of the album include the darker, more complex “Le Ballet D’Or” which seems to stand out the most from the rest of the album- the rest of the Sunday side probably should have followed this song’s tone.
But the whole of the album is an uneven sum of its shaky parts. Duritz revisits similar problems and flat out reuses lyrics from previous efforts, most notably in “When I Dream of Michelangelo” which Crows fans will remember as a line from “Angels of the Silences.” And it seems that the Crows got lost somewhere along the way with concentrating too hard on following the concept and either used it as a cop out or just really didn’t understand how to make it all work. The listener comes out somewhat annoyed and confused by Saturday night, and lacking from and indifferent to Sunday morning.


Similar focus-related problems arise in the complex and fractured release by Thrice- The Alchemy Index. The difference is, these guys stretched themselves and did so in a way that didn’t totally alienate the old fans and will undoubtedly bring in new ones. Thrice are a versatile heavy alt-rock band that have proven their original approach to rock music in the past with hugely popular efforts The Artist in the Ambulance and Vheissu.
With The Alchemy Index, the band themed four separate EPs around the four classic elements of Alchemy: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Volumes 1 and 2 were released last October 2007 and were the vastly different, and rightly so, Fire and Water.
Fire, as it might be obviously assumed, carried heavy rock songs that start in your face, dance around some reserved elements and end up just as powerful as they started. They are all well rounded tunes, though compared to Thrice’s previous heavy music, seem to fall short of the mark- granted they set the mark high, so short is still impressive. The first track “Firebreather” is a well-done hardcore ballad that begins with a deep chunk riff on an offset time signature, and ends with some epic singing that plays the song out. The disc is an enjoyable one, with another highlight being “Burn the Fleet,” a beautifully heavy track with some great guitar work and a chord progression that is definitely a departure for the band.
Water is a mostly digital disc that starts with the well-crafted “Digital Sea,” the album’s first single, likely due to its pleasing main progression that makes it a stand out, and is a dark pop departure for the band. The problem that arises with the disc is again in the concept. The digital music the band makes does sound bubbly and floating, which incurs that if water were music it might very well sound like this. However, when there are six tracks of the same floating and bubbles, they all just blend together. “Digital Sea” is exactly what it should have been, and perhaps the similar sounding “Open Water” should remain in tact, but the emotional lyrics of a song like “The Whaler” should have been more pronounced. Instead the song sounds like a remix of itself. There is an acoustic version of “The Whaler” that can be found on iTunes which is a beautiful and simple version of a great song lost in its own musical ambition to be “water-like.”

In April 2008 Thrice release Vol. 3 and 4- Air and Earth. Both of these EPs contain great songs that fit their themes well respectively, and on their own are standouts for the band. But the concept seemed to limit the band again, and the highlights get lost in the mix of the slightly more mediocre accompanying songs on the discs.
As for Air, the disc starts with the ambient and driving track “Broken Lungs.” It is an excellent track that is a progression for the band’s sound. It’s a more reserved version of the Thrice we know and the pace is set perfectly for the disc, for the album, and gives the song the ability to stand alone with sturdy legs. But so far as we have seen, just because the disc starts well, doesn’t mean it will end that way. What follows is more of the ethereal, more of the ambient, but without the direction or the correct pacing. Again, alone, the songs on this disc are unique, but they just do not serve the whole. The best example would be “A Song for Milly Michaelson” which is a brilliant, soft indie-rock song. It’s beautiful and reserved with a beating riff staggering on the same chord for most of the verses, and it rounds out with an excellent chorus. However, this is the clearest departure for the band on the whole album, and one is left to wonder where they were hoping this song would fit.
The album concludes with Earth. It’s a folk-rock disc with an emphasis on the rock. Again there is a great start to the disc with “Moving Mountains,” an upbeat song that plays well to the voice of vocalist Dustin Kensrue. Kensrue’s voice is gritty and low, which fits great for the crunchy screams he is known for, and fits just as well for the kind of down-to-earth (pun intended) music on this disc. But the instability of the previous discs is again present on the final volume. Five of the six tracks sound like they were recorded in a large bathroom with one mic in the middle. It’s not clear how the band connected “earthiness” with live recording on a single mic. The exception to that is “Come All You Weary,” which, aside from the problems this band has had with crafting a concept album, is perhaps the most fantastic song they have put out since their earlier, heavier days. This song has a perfect earthy-folk quality mixed with some heavy chords that hit straightforward in the chorus with the right combination of reserve and power. If you were to buy just one song off the album, without doubt, “Come All You Weary” would need to be it.

So what mark do these albums leave on the future of the concept album? It seems more of the same hits and misses as always. The differences we find are in mastery of style, and the similarities come with the difficulties in mastery of the concept. While the Counting Crows effort seems lost on all counts, never finding rhythm, balance, or a conceptual whole, there are still some remnants to be saved. As for Thrice, they certainly did a much better job with mastering and progressing on style; and while the concept seems irrelevant at times and tends to hinder the potential of the song writing, the band manages to come out with some gems that will define them for years to come.
As for the future of the concept album, there will no doubt be some monumental failures on the horizon. But if there’s one thing to learn from these albums, it’s that while going for a concept is good, the focus should still be the music and the individual song. The concept is what it is. Leave it at that.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man



Ok...I could just sit here and write, "This movie kicks ass, go see it." But that wouldn't even begin to describe to you just how much ass it kicks. So therefore, let me just take you on a journey to the seat I sat in last night at the theater.

Robert Downey, Jr. Yep, his name alone. That's how much ass this movie kicked. This guy, since coming back to the "scene" so-to-speak after cleaning up his little drug habit has not let me down once...not even close. His character in A Scanner Darkly was spot on. In Zodiac, his character stole every scene he was in, and in Charlie Bartlett his character was so complex, that only Downey himself could truly play this role, because he's just so complex himself. Bring this to the table and he is the perfect Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man.

Tony Stark is a pretentious ass, playboy, billionaire, smart-ass, alcoholic...he's basically RDJ to the tenth power. Things go awry and well, he's changed...sort of. He keeps the best qualities, and only hides the other qualities. It's an amazing transition that makes for a few laughs, still keeping his quick witted words with some great lines and some amazing scenes where things don't exactly go the way they're planned.

There's plenty to say for the supporting cast also. Jeff Bridges is believable. I mean, we're talking about "The Dude" with a bald head and major facial hair going on. Terrance Howard is fun in his scenes while trying to uphold a small inkling of sincerity. It just never happens around Stark, because Stark is all about fun, money, and girls- not military issues, even though he builds weapons for the military. Then there's Gwyneth Paltrow. I've always had mixed reactions to her, but she managers to find her place his this film. The chemistry between her and RDJ works like a hot knife cutting into butter. You would think that within a few weeks you'll be reading about their affair on the cover US Weekly, but no. These are just two talented actors, one with a golden statue (Oscar). Put this group of supporting actors into the mix with Downey, give them an AMAZING SCRIPT, a visionary director, and you've got yourself one hell of a movie. I'm not going to go through too many details and give things away. But I will make two little side notes that I think are worth mentioning.

1) Industrial Light and Magic- the effects team. While watching this movie, I don't remember a moment when I could "see" what was practical (real) and what was not. The CGI in this movie is so seamless, probably because there is such an intricate mix of real and non-real (computer animated) effects that you can't tell. Not to mention the movie keeps you reeled in for the entire 2 hour and 5 minute duration, you don't even notice, let alone give a crap. My hands applaud thee, ILM.

2) Stick around after the credits, this isn't JUST a cameo or extra scene. This points to something bigger from Marvel in the future...can anyone say "Avengers"?

So now, I will say it. This movie kicks ass, go see it.

-Matthew Ennis

Seven Reasons Why The Dark Knight will be the Best Film of the Summer


First, notice I didn’t say the highest moneymaker. Also, I didn’t say the best-reviewed film of the summer. No, regardless of ticket sales and despite what mood critics will be in, The Dark Knight will be the best film to be released this summer. And here is why.

The Man Behind the Mask
Christian Bale is hands-down the best Bruce Wayne/ Batman of them all. Let’s consider his predecessors. He is only the second actor to portray the character in two films, along with Michael Keaton. Keaton did a decent job and did the best job before Bale of being as sinister and dark as the dark knight of the comics, but was a bit of an oddball choice. He carried a somewhat nerdy quality that didn’t fit as well as Bale’s playboy turned heroic-everyman persona. Val Kilmer was another good choice, though his Batman was less serious and became an unfortunate victim of the campy quality of the film he was in. And speaking of camp, let’s not even mention George Clooney, even he regrets stepping into the suit and proves that even good actors don’t necessarily make a great Batman. With that said, Bale’s serious approach to the complexities of the character make Batman more realistically vulnerable, and make Bruce Wayne more believable as a vengeful young man turned beneficent hero.

The Writer/ Director
You might recall a little movie from 2006 called The Prestige. A superb, well-made film about two magicians, obsessed with their art, and with outdoing the other. It is arguably one of the top films of the past decade. It also starred Christian Bale and was written and directed by The Dark Knight writer/ director Christopher Nolan. Nolan, who also helmed Batman Begins, is an expert at crafting a film and is one of the top directors working today. He proved that Batman could be revived after he disappeared into campy oblivion, and made him more vulnerable and believable than he had been in any previous film. Nolan is known for letting his actors act and taking suggestions from them; and demands to be behind the camera on every shot, no matter if it takes longer to shoot the film. In short, he cares. He cares about the characters, about the story, about the crew, and about the audience. When you’re making a fantasy action movie, that kind of director is essential.

The Supporting Cast
Batman Begins, the precursor to The Dark Knight, boasted some pretty heavy-duty actors. This film brings them all back with even more top actors to join them. Heath Ledger will steal this film and leave an incredible exclamation point on his career, and I’ll elaborate on that in a minute. There are many small parts in this film that could be easily cast to decent lesser known actors that would likely do them great justice. But the caliber of the talent in this movie is unmatched. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Cilian Murphy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Eric Roberts. These are all actors that could and have carried many films on their shoulders alone. And all of them are in one film together? Then there’s Aaron Eckhart. Without doubt, you couldn’t find a better Harvey Dent. Plus (mild spoiler), Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face and will undoubtedly be the next villain in the likely sequel to this film. Eckhart is one of the most underrated actors out there today (see Thank You for Smoking), and will assuredly deliver a solid performance as the enigmatic Dent, who requires the subtlety of a great actor. To put it plainly, this is the best cast of the year, not just the summer.

The Story (no spoilers)
Good sequels pick up where the others left off. It obviously takes more than that, but it’s a good start as The Dark Knight picks up just hours after the last film ended. While quickly introduced in the last film, the main villain here is the Joker. As portrayed by Ledger, he isn’t the Jack Nicholson-crazy-old-man Joker (who did have his place in the Tim Burton original film). The Joker here is a psychopathic, ruthless killer, with a mission only for chaos and destruction. And what’s more, he is the product of Bruce Wayne’s decision to fight crime with fear through theatrics. The film explores the consequences that arise when the good guys start putting on masks. The latest tagline reads: Welcome to a world without rules. Interwoven in the story is the continuing relationship between Rachel Dawes (now smartly recast to Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Bruce Wayne, the connection between DA Harvey Dent and Batman, a new mobster running things in town, and of course the focus remaining on the complexities of Bruce Wayne himself and his struggles with becoming Batman. All of this makes for one heck of a complex action movie drama.

The Campaign
Viral marketing is under debate as being the wave of the future. Some think it’s a powerful way to get a lot more attention for a lot less money. It hasn’t proven to be a huge success as of yet, but that’s mainly because one of the biggest onslaughts of the viral campaign before this film was with the campy-on-purpose Snakes on a Plane which did poorly at the box office. The Dark Knight might not necessarily prove the success of viral marketing either, but it has created another world to get lost in. With the media receiving real birthday cakes with hidden tape recorders in them, and the over 20 websites with viral games and realistic Gotham City interaction, this viral marketing has connected fans of the film to the story to the story in a compelling way. You can read up on the news at TheGothamTimes.com, apply to the Gotham Police Department, join a campaign for Harvey Dent at his sit IBelieveinHarveyDent.com, and find a lot of Joker created campaigns if you search them. On top of all of it, there hasn’t been much revealed about the movie itself. It has truly been fascinating, eerie, and uncanny. The ability for anyone to be a part of the story makes it that much more thrilling.
(To get in on the action try whysoserious.com, clowntravelagency.com, ccfabg.com, and rorysdeathkiss.com just to name a few)

The Competition
You can’t claim a film to be the “best of the summer” without considering the competition. And this summer is no walk in the park. Last summer’s abysmal season full of threequels was a terrible mark on the history of summer blockbusters. Entertaining as some of them were, they were mostly horrible and pretty much signified the end to several franchises, including other heroes like Spiderman (thank the Lord for no more crying and emo haircuts). But this season boasts some really great adventures that are giving The Dark Knight a decent run for its money. Spielberg and company have created what is being called the best sequel of the Indiana Jones franchise. And other heroes are making their mark: the superb Iron Man starts off the summer, along with The Incredible Hulk (a do-over after the first bomb), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army will be cool, sleek, and fascinating. Plus there’s M. Night Shyamalan back to his horror roots, the epic new Pixar film Wall-E, a Chronicles of Narnia sequel, and Ben Stiller with his daringly hilarious Tropic Thunder. Whew! Catch a breath. But rest assured, all of these will have only elements of everything The Dark Knight will carry with it in its writing, directing, acting, and everything else already mentioned.

The Joker
Finally, we have Heath Ledger. It is an immense tragedy that this great actor and masterfully unique talent is gone. None of his peers are quite as daring, as authentic, or as dedicated of a talent as he was. It came out in his films and he was exciting as well as provocative, fascinating as well as exhilarating. He was born to do what he did, and it will be no more evident than in this film. Yes, it is a dark character, and some say it wasn’t the perfect note to end on. But if you have to end on something, why not end on one of the most electrifying performances of your career? Rest assured you won’t see Heath up on the screen. No, that isn’t what he wanted. You will see the Joker as an incarnation of vile, cruel and stunningly-fantastical evil. Heath will suck you in to his performance as he has never done before. His true talent will be in this film, have no doubt. The Joker will be an exclamation on his career, and he will steal every scene he is in. The performance will be as close to perfection as it can be, not because the camera angles were right, or the dialogue was perfectly written. It will be because Heath did what he always did best- inhabiting his character. So, no matter when you catch a glimpse of the sly smile or hear the chilling laugh of the Joker, you will know that was as real as the Joker could be. And the experience will be complete.

-Mark Wingerter

Movie Theatres: Proof of the Decline of Civility

(Part rant, part commentary)
I like to get to a movie before it starts, which means I like to be there before the previews begin. If I get there when I plan to, you’ll find me somewhere in the middle of the stadium-style seating, half way up and in the middle of the row. It used to be the perfect seat.

Stadium style seating should be the way to watch a movie. But in the age of stay-connected-or-die, it seems that no one can go to the movie theatre anymore and partake in the pleasure of escaping the world outside to dive into the adventure within. Such was the reason I found myself in the theatre recently, in my preferred section, with the lights down and the movie about to start when I looked down the rows to see what looked like the night sky all aglow with a flurry of stars. Those stars of course, were cell phones. While this has been happening since cell phones were invented and it wasn’t completely unexpected, it seems the stars are coming out more often and for longer periods of time. Lately, it seems that people care as little about the people behind their heads as the feature they’re texting their way through even though they paid half their paycheck to see it.

Honestly, can you not wait 90 minutes to find out that your best friend just can’t believe that her sort of friend is dating that cute guy she met once?

Meanwhile, I sit trying to ignore the starry night sky below me, when in walks a young family of four into a PG-13 rated action feature. And by young family I mean of course, a mother, a father, and their three year old and infant child. Now, I am not opposed to people bringing their kids to a movie, and I understand that parents can’t just get up and go to a movie whenever they feel like it. But I disagree with bringing kids to a feature they are legally not really allowed to see, and one that will most likely cause little ears hearing problems.

Now don't get me wrong, I love kids. I am looking forward to one day having my own, but I won’t be bringing them into films they are too young to see. It’s not only rude to the rest of the people in the theatre who have paid to see the movie, but also to the kids. An infant should probably not be exposed to THX sound blowing up all around them, nor to the germs of a rarely disinfected public place.

Which brings me to my next point- what’s that smell? Where else can you go to catch a whiff of body odor, stale popcorn, sweaty feet, and that sticky mess you just stepped in on the floor? Only the movie theatre. Granted, some theatres keep their place clean, and I applaud their efforts. But most of you can probably recreate the smell I just described and know which theatre in your area is most prone to have it. It’s true that theatres are public places, and there’s no telling who has been in your seat before you. But it is time to instill a better process for cleaning these places up so we all can benefit from not having to wonder if the last person who sat in the seat before us took a shower or not.

Still, regardless of how well a place is cleaned, and if the text message addicts decide not to accompany your viewing, and if parents hire a babysitter, there will still be those who think that a public movie theatre is there own personal living room. These are the folks who forget that no one cares to hear their loud and corny comments. Commonly referred to as the peanut gallery, they laugh at non-jokes, laugh even louder at the funny ones, scream bloody murder when they feel like it, and sit right behind you and talk their way through the movie, making their own edits and critiques of the film. No one cares to hear it, yet no one says anything. This is partly because we don’t want to be bothered by having to say anything to them, but also because there’s no telling what action they will take. The truly horrible ones will most likely curse at you or just get louder to prove their point.

Civility, it seems, is on the decline. Some people just honestly don’t care what other people think. They have no manners and they don’t mind. Perhaps it is especially appalling because some of us were raised to respect others around us. It’s really a simple concept, and a moral standard that so many have disregarded. True, there are plenty of those who are respectful and are in the same boat. But it continues.

The movie theatre needs a revamping. It used to be a privilege to buy a ticket and wait in eager anticipation of what would project on the big screen as the lights dimmed. But the eagerness fades with the growing impudence of some moviegoers.
It’s a shame we cannot let go of the reality of life even to escape for a few minutes of adventure. And if you can, good for you, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so during the summer movie season. Just try to ignore those around you who don’t know you’re there.

Some recommendations for avoiding the distractions:
Go to late night movies- half of the texters are of a younger crowd and the later shows are generally past their bed times.
Go to movies during weeknights- yes the movies are something to look forward to on weekends, but you’re more likely to enjoy your experience on a Monday or Tuesday.