Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Bonnie Raitt "Nick Of Time"

Nick of Time
Time and The Nick of Time
3 out of 5 Stars

The stars aligned for Bonnie Raitt and her tenth album. A new record company (Capitol) that was hot to break her after a couple decades of cult status, a hot producer (Don Was) and a batch of songs tailored to her rough but tender pop-blues style. Combined with a couple great videos (especially Dennis Quaid in "Thing Called Love"), and things just seemed right. Suddenly, "Nick Of Time" started selling in tonnage and Bonnie Raitt jumped from critical darling to stadium act. Add the the self-penned title song captured a worried baby-boomers' aging zeitgeist, and the album suddenly became Grammy bait. (See also Genius Loves Company and Raising Sand.) After all, the academy loves a good comeback story if the music is as firmly middle of the road as is "Nick of Time."

Was helped in that department by smoothing everything up to a fine polish. If you compare Raiit's gently rolling "Thing Called Love" to John Hiatt's spiky original, you'd see what I mean. Fellow cult singer Bonnie Hayes got a sudden rush of exposure by having two songs included, the sweet "Have A Heart" (plucked as the theme to a Bob Hoskins movie) and the surly "Love Letters." Jerry Williams' "Real Man" also highlights Raitt's smooth, honest style. The original first half of the album remains a flawless set. It sent Raitt home from the 1989 Grammys with a pack of awards, including album of the year. It also set up the successful pattern for following albums, including the delight of Luck of the Draw.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Todd Rundgren "Hermit Of Mink Hollow"

Hermit of Mink HollowAnd a Bell In Your Head Will Ring, 
4 out of 5 stars

The Hermit Of Mink Hollow was one of those moments when Todd Rundgren locked himself alone in a studio and poured his heart out onto tape. Playing and singing everything himself without much pretense, "Hermit" is one of Todd's most direct and purest pop albums. It even offered up one of his few top 40 singles when "Can We Still Be Friends" snuck up the charts in the bicentennial year of 1976.

That sad little ballad underpins the emotional state of this album. Rumored to have been written in the aftermath of breaking up with then girlfriend Bebe Buell, heavy songs like "Hurting For You" or "Lucky Guy" just ooze heartache. Even the socially poignant songs ("Bread" and "Bag Lady") come from a pained place. At the same time, Todd's pop skills are in full evidence here; both "Hurting For You" and "Friends" are incredibly memorable.

Even with the sadness, there's still plenty of fun here. The ersatz soul of "You Cried Wolf" and the 100 seconds of silliness that is "Onomatopoeia" keep things from bogging down, and he lets loose with a concert ready rocker on "Out Of Control." Todd is too savvy a songwriter to let things get overly draggy. He can plunge into drawn-out works when so inclined (Healing, early Utopia albums), but here he kept it concise. The whole album clocks in at just over a half hour, and not a slot is wasted. As a result, Hermit remains of of his best albums and a minor primer in pop classicism.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Not Everyone Likes Tie Dye

My Amazon Reviews: Radiohead "Pablo Honey"

Pablo HoneyAM Radiohead
3 Out of 5 Stars

Before Thom Yorke decided he hated the world and began writing about it, Radiohead debuted with modest rock and roll album in 1993. Granted, it is easy to see that these guys were art-school rockers with some ambition, but the bulk of "Pablo Honey" mixes punky, Replacements like thrashing with the them coming to prominence of grunge. It's an otherwise inauspicious debut, the dawn of a band.

That is, except for the hit. "Creep" played off the soft-loud-soft-loud grunge blueprint with a heaping dose of pre-hipster self-loathing irony and managed to become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. "You're so f---ing special," moans Yorke as guitarist Johnny Greenwood's stabbing cracks the docile surface, "I wish I were special, but I'm a Creep." Despite the fact the the band soon came to loathe the song (on The Bends they slag the success of their hit during "My Iron Lung"), it did set the tone for much of what Radiohead would develop as a band attitude later.

That said, the rest of "Pablo Honey" has a few gems to be found. The more acoustic based "Thinking About You" is as plain a song as the band's ever done. "Anyone Can Play Guitar" is pretty much a fun song, and the time-workout of "You" is a lot more complicated than it sounds at first blush. Given the incredible path Radiohead would blaze within a few years, "Pablo Honey" shows a band working to find what eventually would be a unique voice on the alternative rock pantheon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

O No More Snow

The Weather Forecasters in our area are predicting a major storm to start in our area late Wednesday night, with snow all through Thursday and maybe into Friday. Winds could peak at 50 MPH, and snow may accumulate up to 18 inches. Given that we have already had 70 plus inches this winter, we could top 80 inches with this new precipitation mess.

Florida and California are looking awfully seductive right now.

Beach Boys - 20 Good Vibrations, The Greatest Hits (Volume 1)

My Amazon Reviews: Snow Patrol "Up To Now"

Up to Now
Snow Job 
4 Out of 5 Stars

Seeing how Philadelphia received a record amount of snow this winter, it seems fitting that reviewing this 30 song compilation by Ireland's Snow Patrol should be posted. Not just for the historical amount of white stuff dumped on my neighborhood, but for the cool music this double disc set contains. There's some deep talent to be found here. And I, for one, did not realize that Snow Patrol was almost a 15 year old group.

Those in the USA who came to Snow Patrol via their worldwide breakthrough "Chasing Cars" will be surprised by the artier songs that date prior to 2000. The band very quickly evolved into a slick alternative outfit and by 2003, the UK hits started coming off of Final Straw.The first song on "Up To Now" is the melancholy "Chocolate," which found lead Patrolman Gary Lightbody going for the lush world of Coldplay. He also started writing stronger ballads, as "Run" will attest.

After that, Lightbody started swinging for the bleachers. The sound got noticeably bigger on Eyes Open, with both "Shut Your Eyes" and "Chasing Cars" making Snow Patrol now sounding more like band than the sum of their influences. There's also much more atmosphere than before, allowing the epic guitars to chime. When 2008's A Hundred Million Suns appeared, the band began hitting the kind of heights U2 often does, like "Take Back This City," Snow Patrol's hardest rocking single to date. However, frontman doesn't have the mammoth ego of Bono, nor Chris Martin's sometimes exasperating over-eagerness.

That's even more obvious on one of "Up To Now's" new tracks; a cover of Beyonce's "Crazy In Love." Keyboardist Tom Simpson is apparently a pretty cool DJ (who knew?). The other is a brilliantly produced "Give Me Strength," which plays right into the band's considerable...err...strengths. It's a slow building anthem that rises to a chorus of rejuvenation. Snow Patrol is a band that wants the stardom, but isn't afraid of getting heroes like Martha Wainwright to sing on "Set The Fire to The Third Bar" or name dropping Sufjan Stevens in "Hands Open." "Up To Now" is the portrait of a modest band that is now making terrific music.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Cat Stevens "Tea for The Tillerman"

Taking the Bull by The Horns
Catch Bull at Four4 Out Of 5 Stars

After the massive success of his albums Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, Cat Stevens began to show the mental strains of stardom though the music on Catch Bull at Four. He started off with his usual meditative style with the Top 40 single "Sitting" and letting out a joyful cry with "Can't Keep It In," but the second half found him wishing he could get aboard a UFO and get away from everything in "Freezing Steel." Finally, as he sings in the war-torn walk through "Ruins," Stevens cries for the lost paradise of Eden and wonders where we all went wrong.

In the old side one and two days of vinyl, the happy was side one, the sad was side two. Stevens seemed to intentionally break these emotions into half here, walking you into his dilemmas after hooking you with his typical sounds one the first side. The lovely fairy tale that is "The Boy With The Moon and Stars on His Head" would be disillusioned by the deeply sad woman of "Sweet Scarlet." "Ah, but the song carries on," Stevens sings to Scarlet, even though he sounds more pained than ever before.

The music is still beautiful, despite the anguish that has begun to creep in. The urgency of some of the songs (like "Ruins") pushes Stevens more than he had done before, which means there are no peacemakers like "Morning Has Broken" to be found here. And by the next Cat Stevens album, Foreigner, it was obvious Stevens felt he could no longer relate to what he was doing and that he believed himself to be turning more and more into an outsider. "Catch Bull at Four" is the album that shows Cat as he started trying to navigate that space.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Amazon Movie Reviews: Bronson

Bravura Brutality
Bronson (Widescreen Edition)4 Out of 5 Stars

Tom Hardy magnetizes the screen with his performance as "Britain's Most Violent" criminal, Charlie Bronson. "Bronson" is a semi-true tale about how a man born Michael Peterson decided he needed money to support his wife and new baby, so the 19 year old robbed a post office..and then began his first jail term. Michael discovers his real calling is violence as mantel to fame. Before long, he has a reputation as brawler, a kind of anarchist inmate done up as circus strongman. In the one period he actually gains freedom, Michael heads off to a whorehouse, hooks up with trannies and prostitutes then becomes a prize fighter who gets christened Charlie Bronson by his roguish hustler/manager.

Soon after, Bronson commits a crime that sends him back, and he becomes the celebrity Charlie. Hardy burns with the violence of a psychotic carny; he spends parts of the movies telling Bronson's story onstage in stylized characters. The guards are terrified of him, yet he takes all comers with an almost celebratory glee until he is left bloodied and - once again - free to expand on his legend. hardy also took on an amazing training regiment for the movie, gaining almost 42 pounds in bulk by doing 2500 push-ups daily to not only get into physical form, but the mental one.

"Bronson" seethes with mentality. From the surrealistic asylum dance scene to the narrow cage Bronson is locked into at the film's end, the film applies its excessive violence without much rationale; Charlie acts violently because he just is. There are more than a few comparisons to A Clockwork Orange here (especially in the cross cutting between Bronson's monologues and his history) but this movie, due mainly to Hardy's stunning performance, packs a wallop that few others in the true crime genre can match.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: 30 Seconds To Mars "A Beautiful Lie"

A Beautiful Lie
4 Out of 5 Stars 

It's a scientific fact that most actors suck rocket gas as rock stars. And usually vice versa. Jared Leto has proven to be the exception to that rule in the case of 30 Seconds to Mars. The band's debut was a decent modern rock album with spacey flourishes and managed to gain attention for - frankly - not sucking. But it was mostly a two man operation, with Jared playing and singing most everything and his brother Shannon.

For the second launch, 30 Seconds To Mars is now a band. The touring unit went into the studio and emerged with a more solid album that trims the space and gets a bit more down to earth. "A Beautiful Lie" comes of as the equal of Breaking Benjamin or The Used, in that they rely on dark atmospherics while sustaining memorable melodies. It's easy to remember the title song and the spooky closer "A Modern Myth" hold their own with most emo-screamo bands. They even invest a bit of My Chemical Romance's drama on "Was It A Dream."

Then again, Jared Leto is an actor, so dramatics should be expected. While I would not call "A Beautiful Lie" a masterwork, it's well beyond most thespian rock. And Wicked Wisdom, Dogstar or Bruce Willis this ain't.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Raspberries "Greatest"

America's Best Power Pop Band. Ever. Period.
Greatest4 Out Of 5 Stars
In a short career that spanned barely 5 years and 4 albums, The Raspberries ran up a string of brilliant singles. Their goal was to reclaim the mantel of early Beat;es and Who singles, while rejecting the overblown pomposity much of 70's prog rock had meandered into. They even wore matching suits and poofy hair on the first album cover, along with a scratch and sniff Raspberries sticker. The first hit from that album, "Go All The Way," roared out with loud, sweet guitars and Beach Boy harmony, setting up the future for the band.

Centered mainly on Eric Carmen's McCartney-esque voice and songwriting, The Rasperries began knocking out single marvels with the consistency of the best Badfinger hits. They used lyrical teases instead of blatant come-ons to make their songs cover more ground, like when Carmen chirps "Oh! I wanna be with you! So Baaaaaaad!" or the winsome want of "Let's Pretend." The band also were excellent mimics, with "Drivin' Around" a flawless Beach Boys concoction.

However, Carmen began to exert domination over the band and tension caused both Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti to split after Side 3. Regrouping led to the appropriately named Starting Over and Carmen's last single masterpiece with The Raspberries. With the plea for success that is the pocket symphony "Overnight Sensation," Carmen blended Brian Wilson's songwriting with Phil Spector production to create one of power pop's perfect four minutes. About midway into the single, Carmen and the band get sucked into a car radio and the tinny speaker cranks out the boys as they chant "want a hit record, yeah!" across the nation's airwaves. I can still occasionally get the goosebumps when I hear this song.

That bit of wishful thinking not withstanding, The Raspberries broke up soon after. Eric Carmen had a fairly successful solo career and Wally Bryson went on to join power pop maestros (and cult faves) Fotomaker. But for a brief and fiery moment, The Raspberries made the kid of guilty pleasure music you didn't have to feel guilty about.