Portishead – Third

April 30, 2008

I had no idea a new Portishead album was even on the way until sometime last week, but then it has been ten years since their last release, the Roseland Live NYC album. So to right down to business, is Third, the Bristol based band’s third album of new material, any good? Why yes, it’s very good, and seemingly designed to keep listeners pressing “Repeat” or at least rewinding, as there are all sorts of odd touches here and there throughout the 11 track album, strange samples or strangely familiar sounds, placed randomly, sometimes in the midst of a song, or at the end of one, as with “Machine Gun,” the current single. Some songs suddenly end or cut off, or simply drift away, while other songs seem like truncated versions of longer works. The overall feeling is of listening to music already in progress as the album begins, or maybe to music that never quite stopped. Portishead’s music remains rooted in electronica and trip hop, but there are folk and world music elements mixed in, and Third as a whole sounds thoroughly modern, rather than being an exercise in mid-90’s nostalgia. The album is densely layered and sometimes disorienting, but it’s also beautiful and compelling, a welcome return for one of electronica’s pioneering bands. Standout cuts: “Hunter,” “The Rip,” “Machine Gun” and “Threads.”


Superior psychedelic rock from Austin, TX based band The Black Angels: Directions To See A Ghost is their second full length release, and stylistically they fall somewhere between the heavy sound of fellow travelers Black Mountain and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s first album, though stopping just shy of full on retro take on the genre found on the Black Hollies’ latest, Casting Shadows. (What’s the significance of all these bands with similar sounds with the word “black” in their name? To quote Pee Wee Herman, “I don’t know!”) All comparisons aside, the Black Angels have carved out their own niche in an increasingly crowded field, laying on the guitars, thundering drums and bass, organs, sitars and tambourines in an often droning, slightly menacing mix. Though they’re not afraid of long tracks, as the 8 minute “Never/Ever” and the 16 minute album closer “Snakes In The Grass” will attest, the 11 tracks nevertheless go by quickly, much faster than you’d think an epic 72 minute running time would go by. It’s easy to get caught up in Directions To See A Ghost, and though it’s an often pretty dark trip, it’s one worth taking, courtesy of one of the rising stars in the neo-psychedelic rock field. Standout cuts: “You On The Run,” “Science Killer,” “Never/Ever” and “You In Color.”

(Available now digitally, and on CD on May 13.)


“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.” – Charlie Wilson

For the first half of the movie, anyway, Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War feels like the best political comedy since Dr. Strangelove. Wilson was the liberal Texas congressman who, after an eye opening visit to a vast Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan in 1979, used his connections to vastly increase military aid to the Afghans in their war against Russian forces. This eventually turned the tide of the conflict, and ten years later, the Russian forces pulled out of Afghanistan. Not long after, the USSR collapsed, for which the movie plainly gives Wilson a good deal of credit. While, to paraphrase Wilson himself, the movie doesn’t quite fuck up its endgame, it doesn’t seem to really know how to end, either, and so it more or less just stops telling its story. Until then, however, it’s fast paced, very entertaining and frequently hilarious, with eminently quotable dialogue and great performances by Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, a CIA operative who works with Wilson on his back room political machinations. Julia Roberts is also very good as a rich Texas socialite who initially presses Wilson into action, and Amy Adams has some great moments as Wilson’s administrative assistant. Though it just misses out on being a great American political comedy, Charlie Wilson’s War is still a very good one, and worth your time.


(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

“You’re probably addicted to all kinds of escape…”

Moody hip-hop from Minneapolis based Atmosphere (Slug doing the rhymes, Ant serving as both DJ and producer) will probably be too serious minded and deliberately paced for listeners looking for party music, but When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is otherwise an intelligent and piercing look at addiction of different kinds, adult and family life disappointments, and parental doubt, set to mostly live instrumentation and classic funk and neo-soul inspired beats. Most of the songs are streamlined, rarely more than three or four minutes, eschewing any excess or self-indulgent touches. It’s the sort of album you’ll need to pay some attention to, and if the material feels frequently downbeat, there’s also a general feeling that often the real triumph in life is to the ability and strength face things honestly and make the best of what we have, clear from the title, and that in order to carry on under bleak circumstances, we are often required to pick ourselves up and make our own hope and our own happiness. That such heavyweight stuff can sound this cool is an achievement in itself. Standout cuts: “Shoulda Known,” “You,” “Guarantees” and “Can’t Break.”


(I initially reviewed this movie during its original theatrical run. I’m reprinting it for its DVD release this week for your reading pleasure.)

“One, two, three…Knock on the wall…”

Truly creepy Spanish film about a woman in her late 30’s who returns to the orphanage she grew up in with her doctor husband and young son, with the hope of opening it up again as a haven for children with special needs. When her son disappears, she begins to suspect they are not alone at the orphanage. To say much more about the movie, which establishes a climate of fear and unease early on and then sustains it for most of the running time, would be to spoil some of the enjoyment. If the wrap up lacks some of the punch you expect it will have, contemplating what might’ve just happened will still creep you out. Sometimes a subtle approach makes for a far more frightening film than the cheap shocks and copious gore most so called horror films settle for in recent years. I rank The Orphanage up with the original 1963 version of The Haunting (definitely not the 1999 remake, which suuuucked), which is high praise indeed.


(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

Manchester based band Elbow’s fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, is a powerhouse mix of grandly scaled pop and rock with searing lyrics that detail, for the most part, personal frustrations, confusion and turmoil: Yes, “emotional complexity” is their middle name. Though they’ve been frequently and rather lazily compared to bands like Radiohead and Coldplay, Elbow share more in common with bands like the late, great Arab Strap and Doves, another Manchester band, with whom they share a knack for the forcefully anthemic and the bittersweetly introspective, sometimes in the same song. They’ve added more strings for this record, clear on the first U.S. single, “One Day Like This,” further expanding their sound to good effect, and there’s even a guest vocal by Richard Hawley on “The Fix.” Though there are quieter moments, as on the piano ballad “Some Riot,” The Seldom Seen Kid is the most aggressive sounding album yet from this most excellent band. Very much recommended. Standout cuts: “Startlings,” “Mirrorball,” “Grounds For Divorce,” and “One Day Like This.”


For their first album in four years, Los Angeles based band Phantom Planet fuses all of the musical phases their ten year history has seen them go through, from Beach Boys inspired power pop to jagged garage and punk inspired rock, into one immensely satisfying whole on Raise The Dead. The record leans more to the noisy guitar rock of “Big Brat” than the dreamy pop of songs like “California” and “Lonely Day,” but they haven’t lost their knack for hooks, as the first four cuts will attest, which start the album out with a bang and constitute some of the best songs. “Demon Daughters” and “Leave Yourself For Someone Else” are highlights from the second half of the album, which fortunately never runs out of gas throughout its 12 track, 43 minute running time. It’s a solid return for a band that’s never quite figured out what it wants to do, so it continues to try out a bit of everything. Time will tell if Phantom Planet will settle on a single sound, but it’s fun hearing them work it out in the meantime. Standout cuts: “Raise The Dead,” “Dropped,” “Leader” and “Do The Panic.”


Flight Of The Conchords

April 22, 2008

“Do they smoke grass out in space, Bowie, or do they smoke Astroturf?”

If you are already a fan of Flight Of The Conchords (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement), the folk/soul/funk/hip-hop/rap/reggae/
rock/pop novelty band from New Zealand, then you don’t need me to tell you this self-titled full length album (following their Grammy Award winning EP, The Distant Future of last year) is awesome and hilarious and that you should get it immediately. (Something I could not say while I was a DJ on public and college radio because that’s “a call to action,” which is against FCC public radio regulations. But this is a blog, so I can say whatever the hell I want.) While the album sadly doesn’t include every last song from their HBO show, of which this basically serves as a soundtrack, it’s got most of them, many of them re-recorded and expanded for this release, including “Think About It,” “Ladies Of The World,” “Robots,” “Boom,” “A Kiss Is Not A Contract,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room),” “Business Time” and “Bowie.” What hearing the 15 tracks collected here in one place really underscores is how amazingly varied the duo’s musical range is, not to mention how motherflippin’ funny their lyrics are. And by the way, if you’re sad that “If You’re Into It” and “Not Crying” are absent from this album, be sad no more, as they’re included on their EP, The Distant Future. As for the rest of the songs, like “Frodo,” “Sellotape (aka Pencils In The Wind)” or “Bret, You’ve Got It Going On,” well, maybe they’ll end up on the next Flight Of The Conchords album. We can only hope. The second season of their HBO series will begin airing next January. Until then, the album will just have to do.


mybloodyvalentineSince the 3-D (!) remake of this 1981 cult favorite comes out January of next year, I figured I’d watch the original, having never seen all of it. (I think the first time I saw it was on late night cable, and only caught bits and pieces of it.) My Bloody Valentine is afflicted with a lot of the same problems that afflict low budget 80’s slasher movies, that is, bad dialogue, spotty acting, highly derivative plot with the characters making the standard poorly thought out and often fatal decisions once they realize danger is afoot, but the movie nevertheless succeeds almost in spite of itself, mostly owing to its unique premise: A psychotic miner stalks Valentine party goers 2000 feet underground in a Canadian mine shaft. Once the action moves into the mine, the filmmakers exploit the location pretty effectively, working up an atmosphere of fear and tension, not to mention claustrophobia. A couple of standout scenes involve a harrowing trip up a ladder and a rail car ride to the surface. The killer also looks singularly scary, decked out in a jumpsuit with a miner’s helmet with a light, a gas mask and goggles. One great shot of him shows him slightly backlit at the end of a tunnel, his ax at the ready, and that shot alone practically made the movie for me. Relatively speaking, it’s light on the gore, having had 8 or 9 minutes of violence edited out owing to the threat of an MPAA X rating, but you end up seeing just enough for it to be effective. Another point in My Bloody Valentine‘s favor is its fairly brisk pace. A lot of slasher movies have long, boring stretches in between the times the killer makes his/her appearance, sometimes as long as half the movie, but this movie gets down to business almost immediately, the killer making an appearance every ten minutes or so. Of course, that also means a lot of characters meet a sorry fate, but that’s the way it goes with these sort of movies, anyway. A lot of people champion My Bloody Valentine as being one of their favorite slasher films, Quentin Tarantino included, and having now seen the movie in its entirety, I wouldn’t rank it as being my favorite, as Halloween will always occupy that spot, but it’s pretty good, especially for its genre. It remains to be seen as to whether or not a director’s cut of the movie, with the excised footage restored, will ever be released, as some hoped it would be when the movie was initially issued on DVD. Now that the remake is forthcoming, there’s renewed hope that this will happen, but if it doesn’t, oh well: What exists is good on its own. The print of the movie on the DVD is excellent, better than you would have expected for a 27 year old low budget release. No extras, though, but apparently that’s just how Paramount treats its 80’s horror releases, the Friday the 13th movies included. Is My Bloody Valentine a great movie? Well, no, but it’s a highly effective one, with some truly creepy final moments, and I definitely recommend it for horror fans.


(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)


April 19, 2008

“I want one…”

Especially once it gets going, French directing team Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside (À l’intérieur )is one of the most relentless, shockingly violent horror thrillers I’ve ever seen. The plot is simple: A young photographer (Alysson Paradis), four months after her husband’s traumatic death, is on the verge of giving birth when she finds herself terrorized inside her house by a psychotic woman (Béatrice Dalle). It’s been a long time since I’ve been truly horrified by a horror film, and I’d be surprised if Inside doesn’t turn out to be some kind of landmark of the genre. It’s well directed, very well acted, especially by Paradis and Dalle, and the music is subtle and effective without being intrusive. The gore effects, which graphically depict the movie’s interest in interiors violated and exposed, are startingly realistic, and are the reason Inside is unrated. The movie only stumbles a bit towards the end, but quickly recovers with a truly haunting finale. Inside is not for fans of PG-13 horror or casual fans of the genre, nor is it for squeamish viewers, as I expect even hardcore horror fans will probably cringe or look away from the screen at times. (I certainly did.) Those caveats aside, High Tension, Them and now Inside are ample proof that the French are the new masters of horror cinema.


(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)