Friday, September 28, 2012

Two Great New Records

The Tragically Hip's Now For Plan A, 2012

As far as longevity, consistency and quality music, it is hard to top Canada's Hip. As time goes by, I admire them more and more. 2010's We Are the Same was a bit too slick for many Hip fans, although I rather enjoyed some of it (I still think "Morning Moon" is one of the greatest songs in their entire discography). But they definitely return to their rawer sound on some of their 13th album (15th if you include their Canadian debut EP and live outing), opening with the savage "At Transformation," one of those great Hip grinders as Gordon Downie snarls his way through.

ABOVE: "At Transformation." This is not the wussy sound of We Are the Same

This is a very good latter day Hip record, as there is much here to savor for the loyal fan or newbie alike. Tunes like "The Lookahead," "Streets Ahead" and soaring closer "Goodnight Attawapiskat" are generous with melodic hooks that in a more just world would be all over modern rock radio. There's really not a stinker in the whole batch (which, to be honest, is rare for a recent Hip record), but the centerpiece is "We Want To Be It," a song they've been featuring in their live sets for well over a year (known to fans up to this point as "Drip, Drip"). It is in the vein of "Grace, Too" or "Nautical Disaster" (both from their moody underrated 4th record, Day For Night) in that it builds with an almost creepy intensity in a fashion unique to oddball poet/singer Downie, who remains one of the most interesting vocalists and lyricists in the business.

ABOVE: "We Want To Be It"

A key feature of this record is balance. For every snarling rocker like "At Transformation" and "Streets Ahead," there are also moody pieces like the pretty title track and "Done and Done." The Hip have recovered from the alleged misstep of We Are the Same with a solid, near great record 25 years into their career. Quite impressive.

ABOVE: The lovely closer "Goodnight Attawapiskat"

*** out of *****

Los Lobos's Kiko Live, 2006/2012

NOTE: the show was recorded in 2006, but the disc was released this year to coincide with Kiko's 20th anniversary.

These type of releases are obviously not for the casual fan. It's not a new thing, but it is a practice that is getting more popular, where an artist will play one of their classic records live in its entirety. (Springsteen has done this in recent years, pulling out full length performances of Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the USA on the road).

Clearly the more the artist explores and changes things up, the more interesting it is. (That is why, for instance, Van Morrison's live release of Astral Weeks from a couple of years back is so great, he turns the record inside out, changing the order, slowing down the fast songs and speeding up the slow ones. Great listen.) I would expect Los Lobos to do interesting things with their masterpiece, Kiko (a record that is in my Top 10 favorites of all time). Los Lobos are a versatile band that loves to adventurously explore their material onstage. And, overall, they do not disappoint.

Opening with an extended "Dream in Blue" that really emphasizes the driving percussive pulse, they are respectful but also playful with the Kiko material. Kiko is a record of fascinating and intricate textures that cannot be reproduced live, so that, in a sense, opens the songs for shaking things up.

They don't best Kiko overall, of course, but some of the individual songs are actually made better. "Angels With Dirty Faces" and "Wicked Rain" have deeper grooves, and songs that were lesser songs on Kiko are actually made the showstoppers. Traditional-sounding Mexican folk song "Saint Behind the Glass" has more kick and features impressive playing on acoustic Mexican folk instruments, the title track is creepier, and "That Train Don't Stop Here" (which frankly on Kiko is a somewhat generic rocker) has a deep boogie and is turned into an eight minute guitar duel tour de force between David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas.

It's almost not fair giving this a rating, because they have the headstart of working with the best material of their impressive career. But they do right by it. It is familiar enough to where it is definitely Kiko, but they do enough with the material to make it interesting and fresh even if you know Kiko intimately.

**** out of *****

Sunday, September 23, 2012

From the Mouths of Babes

"Ray, you're ridiculous." - My two and a half year old daughter to me this morning at breakfast.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Some Music and DVD Quick Hits

The new Killers record Battle Born is good, but not great. I applaud them for their unabashed emotion and devotion to the soaring radio hook, but there is no "When You Were Young" in this batch. *** out of *****.

Bob Dylan continues his streak with Tempest. Honestly, I more admire his recent work than love it, but he has definitely solidified a late career legacy since the 1990's. No rating on this yet, since I have only given it a cursory listen.

I'm a little baffled by the negative reaction to the new Band of Horses record, Mirage Rock. Perhaps I don't have really high expectations to begin with. I never thought that they broke any new ground or anything, they were just a really solid band. I guess I just always took their debut, Everything All the Time, as sort of lightning in a bottle and never waited for it to be replicated. But the new one is pretty solid, definitely better than the snoozefest Infinite Arms. *** out of *****.

I also thought that with Rick Rubin turning the knobs, ZZ Top had a shot at capturing some of that old down home groove. Not the case. La Futura is just more of the same overdriven sh*t they've been lazily slinging since the mid-90's. Billy Gibbons can still shred on the guitar, but his voice is pretty worn. Dusty Hill actually sings better nowadays, I don't know why he doesn't take more of the vocals. Why can't they play anything as subtle as "Asleep in the Desert" or "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" anymore? ** out of *****.

Looking ahead...

...Looking back, but remastered.

It is the 20th anniversary of Los Lobos's masterwork Kiko, and they have released the requisite remastered version with some bonus tracks tagged on. I didn't buy it, but I do have on the way from Amazon Kiko Live, a recent concert performance of Kiko from start to finish that looks really promising. Considering that the Lobos like to expand and explore their music in the live setting, it could be a great homage to Kiko without merely replaying it note for note. At least that is my hope, I'll let you know.

Speaking of anniversaries, it is the 25th anniversary of Peter Gabriel's commercial breakthrough, So. He is celebrating in similar fashion as Pink Floyd did recently, releasing it in three new versions. First is a remaster of the album. But since his whole catalogue was wonderfully remastered already rather recently (all of which I bought, of course), is this a remaster of the remaster? But what I am excited about is the Deluxe Edition which includes a full live show from the So tour. Now that is something to get excited about, live Gabriel from that period is awesome. There is also a $100 Immersion Box that not even I will be shelling out dough for (which, funny enough, doesn't even include the fantastic b-sides from that era. How immersive is it when you don't even have the b-sides?) Since Peter continues to disappoint with his recent work, I can at least get pumped about material from the vaults from better days.

Now, I am really pumped about the new Tragically Hip coming out October 2, Now for Plan A. Many Hip diehards were pretty disappointed with the glossy We Are the Same (I wasn't, "Morning Moon" is one of their most gorgeous songs, I actually really like it when The Hip go a little mellow), but the cuts I've heard definitely respond to that complaint with grit and drive. This new one sounds like it rocks hard. I am so pleased that "We Want To Be It" is finally getting an official release. It is a tune they've played for awhile live (known to fans as "Drip, Drip"). Such a great song. "Goodnight Attawapiskat" is also top shelf Hip. Still one of the greatest bands out there, people!

Neil Young's had a busy year. He released the wonderfully sloppy Americana earlier this year. He has a book coming out next week. And next month comes the double disc Psychedelic Pill, filled with epic length Crazy Horse workouts from the same recording sessions as Americana, but these are all originals. I hope the man never stops.

Question and suggestion: when Bruce Springsteen released his stunning concert from London in '75 awhile back, I thought that was supposed to be the first in a series of archival shows he was going to put out, like Neil Young has been doing with his Archives series. But there hasn't been any more clearing of the vaults. Bruce, PLEASE put out that show from the Winterlands in '78!! What the hell is wrong with you? Readers, do yourselves a favor and go to Wolfgang's Vault and listen to the boot of this '78 Boss show. The next time you've got about four hours to spare. It is worth the time.

On the DVD front, Steven Spielberg has just lost some of the good will he earned earlier this year for his superb Jaws Blu-Ray release. I have heard that the new Blu-Ray version of Raiders of the Lost Ark is equally impressive, but I won't get to see it. Why? Because it is not being released on its own. You can only get it in the box set with the other Indiana Jones Blu-Rays. I'm not paying $70 for one movie. I have no interest in the crappy sequel, the grossly overrated third film, and the completely forgettable 4th. Raiders is one of my very favorites, but f*ck you, Steven.

I cannot wait for Universal's deluxe Blu-Ray restoration treatment of their classic horror films from the 30's, 40's and 50's. The original Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon are all being meticulously restored and from what I hear, will be absolutely beautiful. Can't wait.

Anything of interest that you know of?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is 'Breaking Bad' the Best Thing on TV Since 'The Wire'?

Yes. I'm a little late to the 'Breaking Bad' party, but my wife and I are a bit obsessed with the show at the moment. It is currently in its 5th season on AMC, and over the past two weeks (through the glory of streaming Netflix on my PS3), we've watched the first three seasons and are into the 4th. For those of you who do not know, it is the story of Walter White (played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, of 'Malcolm in the Middle' fame). White is a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher. He is a genius chemist who could have done great things, but success passed him by and he spends his days teaching bored students and working part time in a car wash for extra dough. His world is rocked when he finds he has terminal lung cancer. In order to make sure his wife and two children are provided for, he does the logical thing. He becomes the most sought after meth cook in New Mexico and the Southwest, making the most chemically pure meth the world has ever seen. Joining forces with one of his drop-out former students, Jesse (played wonderfully and with much nuance by Aaron Paul), they stumble into the drug world. I haven't spoiled anything, as this is all laid out in the first episode of the series.

Two things make this show really stand apart for me. First, the characters are so great. Yes, some are played broad and for laughs at times (and the show is laugh out loud funny quite often), yet as the seasons progress these characters get more and more interesting. And it does progress. So far, each season has built on the last and is better than the last. One of the rare shows that seems to get better as it goes (at least so far, and I hear outstanding things about Season 4, so I'm excited to dive into it). But while Walt and Jesse remain the center of the show, I love Dean Norris as Walt's badass brother-in-law Hank, who happens to work for the DEA, and Walt and Jesse's sleazy beyond compare lawyer (Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman), who schools them on money laundering techniques, among other things. Hank is the perfect example of a character who seems to be played for laughs initially (and he is really funny), but gets much more depth as the seasons roll along.

Also, as creator Vince Gilligan puts it, he wanted to create a show where the "protagonist becomes the antagonist." Walt is incredibly sympathetic initially, but he becomes increasingly less so as he gets deeper and more proficient at navigating in this dark underworld. One of the key themes is how Walt reluctantly gets sucked into this dangerous world of competing drug lords and dangerous cartel killers, and he gets better and better at it and most crucially, starts to enjoy the thrill. He gets more and more reckless, yet is more rewarded for his behavior. At least so far.

I can't recommend this show enough. I have been exhausted at work for weeks now, because after we put our daughter to bed, my wife and I try and catch at least three episodes a night. Midnight rolls around and "just one more!"

Sunday, September 9, 2012

If You Like Politics...

There is a lively political discussion going on over at my friend ANCIANT's blog regarding many of the important issues we are facing with this election. Here's the link. Instead of repeating all of the points, because there are some marathon posts there, I'd just direct you over there. Watch as Dez and Saxo give both ANCIANT and JMW an intellectual thrashing.