gonzoAlex Gibney’s feature documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is about two/thirds an excellent look at the legendary and deeply influential American writer’s life. It briefly notes his early years as a young man growing up in Kentucky, then goes into more detail about his early success with his first published book, Hell’s Angels, his nationally publicized run for sheriff of Aspen, his breakthrough success with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the political writing that culminated in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. For all practical purposes, though, its look at Thompson’s work ends with an account of a failed article for Rolling Stone in 1974 about the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. After that, according to Jann Wenner (co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine) and Sondi Wright (Hunter’s first wife), two of the impressive range of figures in Thompson’s life interviewed on camera for the documentary, Thompson’s career went into a decline. Wright claims Thompson couldn’t write after that, and the last third of the documentary runs with this, characterizing Thompson as a person overwhelmed and finally defeated by his own fame. The problem with this is that Thompson did in fact continue to write and publish all the way up until his death in 2005 by self-inflicted gunshot wound, and while it might not have been equal to the standard that he set for himself with his earlier works, and while it might not have been the writing some people thought he should be doing, he did continue to build a body of work. Gonzo acknowledges this to some degree, but just barely, cleaving mostly to its “rise and fall” version of Thompson’s life. It also completely leaves out his involvement with the Lisl Auman case in the last five years of his life. Auman was a young woman sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Denver policeman committed by a companion she barely knew and during a time in which she was already in police custody. He campaigned on her behalf, wrote an article about her case for Vanity Fair magazine, and recruited others to her cause, which ultimately resulted in her sentence being reversed, two weeks after Thompson committed suicide. That Gonzo doesn’t even mention this case is a gross omission, as it illustrates that while Thompson’s writing career might declined, the interest and commitment to social justice that marked his best political writing never did. (For a look at Hunter and the Auman case, see Wayne Ewing’s documentary Free Lisl: Fear And Loathing In Denver.) I can recommend Gonzo on the basis of its first two/thirds, but I would advise potential viewers that as a look at Thompson’s life and work, it’s necessarily incomplete and even perhaps a bit misleading and unfair with regard to his accomplishments in his final years.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

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kanyewestKanye West premiered “Love Lockdown,” the first single from his new album, 808s & Heartbreak, at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards. It was a brilliant, powerful performance and the studio version, while lacking some of the power of its live counterpart, is the highlight of the album by far, and with its minimalist production and West’s Auto-Tuned vocals, it sets the pattern for most of the rest of the album. A well timed exception is the amusing “RoboCop,” which boasts a string section and is one of the lighter songs on an otherwise downbeat, often starkly emotional album that addresses both the recent death of his mother and his breakup with his fiancée. West isn’t breaking any new ground music wise (though his lyrics are as incisive and intelligent as ever), and I’m not sure I’d want to hear another entire album exactly like this from him, but as an expansion into new territory for him, 808s & Heartbreak is a success. Whether or not his fans will think so remains to be seen, but it’s definitely worth a listen. Standout cuts: “Say You Will,” “Welcome to HeartBreak,” “Love Lockdown” and “RoboCop.”

http://www.myspace.com/kanyewest

The Killers – Day & Age

November 25, 2008

thekillersThe fourth release from Las Vegas based band the Killers, Day & Age, may not be “one of the best albums of the past twenty years,” as lead singer Brandon Flowers declared Sam’s Town would be, but it’s pretty good, anyway. It’s less ambitious than Sam’s Town, but no less focused on soaring, epic pop melodies, guitars blazing amid washes of synthesizers, big choruses, and Flowers singing with his trademark passion and commitment. There’s the usual 80’s New Wave retro sound that they’ve been honing since their debut, Hot Fuss, and there seems to be a David Bowie circa Young Americans influence floating through some of the songs, as well as a disco and a tropical feel that produces mixed results in “Joy Ride” and “I Can’t Stay,” respectively. Most of the best material is weighted towards the first half of the album, with “Losing Touch” being an ideal album opener, followed in short order by the current single, “Human.” The latter song is hampered by a chorus refrain, “Are we human or are we dancer?,” which is a reference to a Hunter S. Thompson quote about American raising “a generation of dancers,” which makes sense in that context, but out of context, it just sounds distractingly weird. It’s nevertheless a pretty good tune. The album ends strongly with the moving anthem, “Goodnight, Travel Well,” which skirts sentimentality in favor of genuine emotion. All in all, this is a good album with some great moments from the Killers, which should please their many fans, though it may not necessarily gain them many more new ones. Standout cuts: “Losing Touch,” “Human,” “Spaceman” and “Goodnight, Travel Well.”

http://www.myspace.com/thekillers

loveisallSwedish band Love Is All’s second album A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night sounds suitably restless and more than a little frenetic: The 11 tracks contained here are a noisy fusion of punk rock, surf music, ska and New Wave pop, with any number of influences floating on the surface, Romeo Void, Sugarcubes, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Pylon and the B-52’s among them. Once it gets started, the album doesn’t slow down until “Giants Will Fall” and then two tracks later, “A More Uncertain Future,” both New Wave styled ballads by way of Phil Spector. Most of A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night is furious and frequently heavy on the dissonance, and I expect listeners will either hear an inspired mash-up of styles or an overly busy mishmash. I tend to hear the latter more than I hear the former, but I’d encourage listeners to listen to more than one track before making up your mind about Love Is All. Whatever you end up deciding about Love Is All and whether you find their music energizing or just exhausting, I think A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night is worth a listen, anyway. Standout cuts: “New Beginnings,” “Wishing Well,” “Big Bangs, Black Holes, Meteorites” and “19 Floors.”

http://www.myspace.com/loveisall8

tropicthunderBen Stiller’s Tropic Thunder is a profane, sometimes quite gory Hollywood satire about four self-absorbed stars (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr. and Brandon T. Jackson) and their naive, film nerd co-star (Jay Baruchel) who, while filming a Vietnam War movie, inadvertently find themselves battling an actual jungle militia. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Richard Rush’s 1980 movie-making satire The Stunt Man, mostly because its aim tends to be a lot lower, but Tropic Thunder is nevertheless frequently hilarious and well worth seeing for its impressive array of comic actors working in top form. Downey, Jr. gives a fearless performance as a pretentious multi-Oscar winning Australian actor who undergoes cosmetic surgery to play a black soldier, but Stiller gives everyone a chance to get laughs, including Steve Coogan as the harried director, whose priceless reaction to one of the character’s lines is one of the best moments in the movie, and Tom Cruise, who has some explosively funny moments as an obnoxious producer. If there’s an overall flaw in Tropic Thunder, it’s that the idea of what’s happening onscreen is often funnier than the actual execution, but when it delivers, it delivers in a big way, so it’s easy to forgive it for the moments when it doesn’t.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

Ladyhawke

November 20, 2008

ladyhawkeThe self titled debut from New Zealand singer/songwriter Ladyhawke (Pip Brown) is charming, ingratiating synthesizer driven rock that immediately hits all the pop pleasure centers. Her music evokes such 70’s and 80’s acts as Kim Wilde, Gary Numan, Devo, Sheila E, Missing Persons and Depeche Mode, and has a decidedly retro feel, but she’s so good at finding new hooks in music from a bygone era that most listeners will be happy to party like it’s 1985. It drifts a bit too far into Belinda Carlisle solo territory towards the end of the album for my taste, but in general, Ladyhawke is a lot of good, uncomplicated fun. Fans of bands like Cut Copy, Freezepop, Ladytron and Santogold will want to take note of Ladyhawke’s unabashedly entertaining music. Standout cuts: “Magic,” “My Delirium,” “Paris Is Burning” and “Dusk Til Dawn.”

http://www.myspace.com/ladyhawkerock

belleandsebastianThe latest release from Scottish band Belle and Sebastian collects live tracks recorded for the BBC and Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq and John Peel, respectively, from 1996, when the band first emerged, through 2001, shortly before Isobel Campbell left the band to pursue a solo career. (Co-founder Stuart David had left in 2000.) Their oft imitated mix of acoustic folk, 60’s inspired orchestral pop and a decidedly sardonic and sometimes deeply cynical worldview that often belied the sunny feel of the music has been so deeply influential that it’s hard to appreciate just how groundbreaking their music sounded in 1996. To say this collection is going to be essential for Belle and Sebastian fans is almost an understatement, as almost all of the tracks featured in these sessions differ from their studio counterparts, and offer a rare opportunity to hear a band perform in a live setting at a time when these instances were rare and during a period in their career that many listeners think represents the band at their artistic peak. (The CD version of this collection includes a second disc that contains a complete live show from 2001 broadcast on BBC Evening Session.) Standout cuts: “The Stars Of Track And Field,” “Sleep The Clock Around,” “The Magic Of A Kind Word” and “Nothing In The Silence.”

http://www.myspace.com/thebandbelleandsebastian

Dido – Safe Trip Home

November 18, 2008

didoSafe Trip Home, the third album from UK based singer/songwriter Dido, makes another strong case as to why she’s one of the key artists in the pop electronica field: Working with Jon Brion, Brian Eno and frequent collaborator (and brother) Rollo Armstrong, she’s crafted a set of subtle, sophisticated music that’s almost equal parts romantic and melancholy. If the album suffers from any flaw, it’s that some material is so mild and laid back that it threatens to become bland, but fortunately, this is the exception on Safe Trip Home, not the rule. One of the highlights is the Eno collaboration, “Grafton Street,” an almost sublime mix of folk, world music influences, strings and cool electronic textures that represents all the best qualities of Dido’s music. She may not necessarily break any new ground with this album, but neither is it a rehash or a retread. Instead, it’s the sound of an artist comfortable in her own shoes, finding fresh approaches to her songs in musical territory she helped stake out. Standout cuts: “Don’t Believe In Love,” “Quiet Times,” “Grafton Street” and “The Day Before The Day.”

http://www.myspace.com/dido

quantumofsolaceThe second James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig, Marc Forster’s Quantum Of Solace, may divide fans the way For Your Eyes Only did in 1981: It’s essentially a machine built for thrills, a stripped down, fast paced action film that begins in mid-chase and almost never lets up from there. It’s not quite the movie Craig’s memorable debut Casino Royale was, but then it’s a different type of film, and at a comparatively lean 106 minutes, it doesn’t suffer from overlength as Casino Royale did. Like its predecessor, Quantum Of Solace resists the gadgetry of years past and focuses on more realistic action, though it does up the ante considerably, in particular during a aerial action sequence that’s genuinely exciting, but is also admittedly a bit over the top. What keeps things interesting is the ambiguity of Bond’s motives throughout the film: Is he a vengeful, murderous thug as M (Judi Dench) fears he is, or is he acting out of “duty,” as he claims at one point? It can go either way, as he kills without hesitation, but also is capable of acts of unexpected compassion, as in a effective scene with a fellow spy named Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). The Bond girls, while both stunningly beautiful as usual, aren’t given much to do this time around, in particular Gemma Atherton as Strawberry Fields, whose role is sorely underwritten. Olga Kurylenko as Camille fares better, but ends up being underutilized as well. All in all, I thought this was a worthy followup, though I hope for the next film, they are able to find a happy medium between the action oriented approach taken by Quantum Of Solace and the more character driven Casino Royale. One thing is certain, however: Craig owns this role now.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

Stars – Sad Robot EP

November 12, 2008

starsSad Robot, the new EP from Montreal based band Stars, is being made available digitally and in a limited edition CD, and the question is, should you be interested in picking up either version? Well, I say yes, especially if you’re a Stars fan, because it’s excellent work, the four full length songs included here, in particular “A Thread Cut With A Carving Knife” and “Going, Going, Gone” being pitch perfect examples of the beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant pop music for which they’ve become known. If you’re not a Stars fan, these are four reasons for you to become one. Musically, it’s an inspired continuation and an expansion of the sweeping, beautifully layered sound heard on their last full length release, In Our Bedroom After the War, with the vocals shared by Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. Consider Sad Robot Stars’s holiday gift to you.

http://www.myspace.com/stars