On Vacation

July 29, 2008

I’m in Iowa City for the next couple of days, so I’ll not be posting here again until Thursday.  I’ll have reviews of the new Matthew Sweet album and the Chelsea Handler audiobook when I get back, however, so check back in a couple of days!

Thanks for reading!

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Excellent soundtrack to what is probably going to turn out to be the biggest movie of the year, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the latest installment in the Batman franchise. Being a superhero movie, the score, written by both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, has a definite epic quality to it, but it also avoids being bombastic or overly melodramatic, instead often going in the other direction, towards subtlety and simplicity. The music is a mixture of classical and electronic elements, with some rock thrown in for good measure. “Why So Serious?,” the opening track, is by turns eerie, unsettling and thrilling, starting quietly, rising in intensity, then descending again into near silence at a crucial point. Zimmer and Howard’s contribution to the success of the film is considerable, and if you enjoyed The Dark Knight as much as I did, you may want to check this soundtrack out. Standout cuts: “Why So Serious?,” “I’m Not A Hero,” “Like A Dog Chasing Cars” and “Agent of Chaos.”

Conor Oberst

July 24, 2008

“I watched your face age backwards
Changing shape in my memory
You told me victory’s sweet
Even deep in the cheap seats…”

Shedding his Bright Eyes moniker for the first time, Conor Oberst traveled to Tepoztlán, Morales, Mexico for this self-titled collection, working with a full band and continuing the expansive sound found on the last Bright Eyes release, Cassadaga. The opener, the anti-nostalgic “Cape Canaveral,” perhaps the highlight of the album, instantly became my favorite song of the moment: Like much of the rest of the album, it’s beautiful without being sentimental, literate without being overly cynical or clever, and possessed of an earthiness and a thorniness all Oberst’s own. The music is mostly in the alt-country and folk influenced rock mode, with echoes of the Band and Wilco, but there’s also “I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital),” a high spirited honky tonk rave-up squeezed in right in the middle of the album. The overall mood is relaxed and introspective, and mostly upbeat, as there is more hope and joy than despair and sadness to be found here in the music and lyrics. I resisted Oberst’s work for a long time, but I’ve since been won over, and it’s because of the kind of work he’s offering up here on this self-titled album. Definitely recommended, and perhaps for some listeners, even needed. Standout cuts: “Cape Canaveral,” “Danny Callahan,” “Souled Out!!!” and “Milk Thistle.”

http://www.conoroberst.com/

http://www.myspace.com/conoroberst

Music fans probably know Albert Hammond, Jr. best for his work as rhythm guitarist for the Strokes, though Como Te Llama? marks his second release as a solo artist. Whereas his 2007 debut, Yours To Keep, largely could be construed as a paean to 70’s era pop music, this latest album is more experimental in nature, with a lot of New Wave rock and pop influence this time around, and just a touch of 90’s era psychedelia sprinkled here and there. Of course, being a member of the Strokes, Hammond Jr. throws in some music that will remind you of that band and of their own influences. Como Te Llama? rocks more than its predecessor, and in general, it’s a more accomplished album, as Hammond, Jr. has gotten to be an even better songwriter. There’s not a dud to be heard among its 13 tracks. Though a Strokes album is now very overdue, Como Te Llama? should make the wait easier for fans. Standout cuts: “Bargain Of The Century,” “In My Room,” “GfC” and “Feed Me Jack Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Peter Sellers.”

http://www.myspace.com/alberthammondjr

Had Los Angeles based band Bodies Of Water just served up more of the same grandly scaled, gospel inflected and Americana inspired music found on their 2007 full length debut, I would have been more than satisfied. Happily, however, they’ve chosen to expand their sound with some punk and New Wave style guitar riffs, some Ennio Morricone influences, a lot of prog rock and even a bit of heavy metal by way of Black Sabbath on “Darling, Be Here.” The singing and playing is as passionate and thrilling as it was on their debut, though some of the big choruses have been dialed down a bit, but only a bit. I really love this band’s music, and I hope you’ll check them out. Standout cuts: “Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey,” “Under The Pines,” “Darling, Be Here” and “If I Were A Bell.”

http://www.myspace.com/bodiesofwater

“WARNING: DO NOT LISTEN WHILE OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE

THIS PRODUCT IS NOT FAULTY – ALL SOUNDS ARE INTENTIONAL AND VALID AS A WORK OF ART”

Minneapolis based singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s latest album, 49:00, is one continuous 43:55 track, with at least 12 full songs, with a few covers of the Beatles, Alice Cooper, Steppenwolf and the Monkees woven in. Maybe “woven in” is the correct term, as 49:00 represents a sort of crazy quilt approach to music, with the songs mixed so they run into each other, and in the case of “Goodnight Sweet Prince,” over and under each other, then side by side. Random noises and often seconds long fragments of other songs serve as segues of sorts in between the full length songs, and the result sounds a bit like the radio shows that Negativland used to do, albeit programmed by a wandering, restless, and thoroughly engaging musical mind. Some of the songs are lo-fi sounding, but most of the album sounds crisp and sharp, so as eccentric as 49:00‘s presentation may be, it’s hardly a throwaway. Indeed, it’s one of Westerberg’s best solo albums ever, and certainly one of the most fun to listen to.

Man Without Ties – The Paul Westerberg Site

I’ll have a review for you later, but respected and wildly talented singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg has just released his latest album, 49:00, with an asking price of a mere 49 cents. I picked it up, and I’ll have a review for you later, but for now you can find details here:

Man Without Ties – The Paul Westerberg Site

Au – Verbs

July 20, 2008

Though Portland based band Au’s second album Verbs has been touted as psychedelic, that description doesn’t much prepare listeners for the music that’s actually in store for them. It’s experimental music that will appeal to fans of Animal Collective and Panda Bear and bands like them, but the tracks here are largely influenced by classical music and fusion jazz, and it’s frankly refreshing to hear a band working in this genre that isn’t all about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Verbs is a work that allows itself to wander from joyous sounding songs with big choruses and harmonies, to songs punctuated by ambient touches and then marching band style music. Sometimes the album feels a bit aimless, but it always finds itself again, introducing elements that are interesting, engaging and sometimes surprising. Though it wasn’t designed to repeat seamlessly, I found that when the album started again, I thought another song had just begun. Verbs is an album you can wander through a few times, discovering new things. Standout cuts: “Are Animals,” “rr vs. d,” “Two Seasons” and “The Waltz.”

http://www.myspace.com/peaofthesea

If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight isn’t the best superhero movie ever, then it’s pretty damn close. The Dark Knight takes place in a much less stylized Gotham City than its predecessor Batman Begins did, and so the action, though still summer blockbuster scaled and often spectacular, takes on more of an immediacy. Nolan has also much improved as a director of said action: Whereas Batman Begins was marred by incoherent action scenes, it’s not only clear what’s going on in The Dark Knight, but also clear what’s at stake. The acting is also top notch, with Christian Bale and Gary Oldman doing effectively understated work as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jim Gordon, respectively, Aaron Eckhardt very good in a very difficult role as Harvey Dent, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman employing their considerable charm and intelligence as Alfred and Lucius. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel from Katie Holmes, and puts her own spin on the character, adding some shading and dimension. The role that will get the most attention, and perhaps justifiably so, is Heath Ledger as the Joker, who frequently got applause for his scenes at the premiere midnight showing I saw. He drew laughs while at the same time being utterly hateful and frequently scary. It’s a mesmerizing, unforgettable performance. Nolan, however, is a smart enough writer and director not to let Ledger’s Joker take over the movie, instead limiting his appearances and then using them to maximum effect. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have also crafted a unique, often eerie score to complement the often stunning visuals onscreen. The Dark Knight is not without flaws, mild overlength, for one, and there’s some hokeyness that creeps into the last act, but in general, it’s the one superhero movie that absolutely means to transcend its genre, and ends up, especially in its last moments, elevating itself into the realm of myth and legend.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

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

Twin Cities based singer-songwriter Haley Bonar takes a huge leap forward artistically with her latest album, Big Star. She retains the alt-country, folk and Americana aspects of her relaxed, easygoing sound, while adding a bit of a pop sheen to some tracks, resulting in her best, most infectious and catchy work yet. She’s always been a likable artist, but on this, her third album, Bonar really comes into her own, her songwriting having matured so that she puts her own unique stamp on a genre of music already brimming with other talent. At 31 minutes, its 11 tracks zip by all too fast, but Big Star is good stuff, and should rightfully earn her scores of new fans. Standout cuts: “Green Eyed Boy,” “Big Star,” “Something Great” and “Highway 16.”

P.S. I have no idea what to make of her expression on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s the furry hat?

http://www.myspace.com/haleybonar