Sunday, December 31, 2006

It's A Stiff

I was going to say that I'm against the death penalty generally speaking: 25% cuz I think it's a sick and macabre thing for a society calling itself civilized to do, and 75% cuz I think that matters of life and death are too important to be left in the hands of the legal system, if you get my drift.

Generally speaking, I was going to say.

I would have added, though, that I lack, sadly, an argument that can correlate the status of your typical psycho killer, no matter how vicious, with that of a certain ex-bastard who used the full power of the state to murder and inflict harm upon his own citizenry in the broadest of terms. That size matters. That it matters because it changes the relationship between the perpetrator and the society that's responsible for meting out justice.

Instead, I'll just say: let's partay. 'Tis New Year's Eve after all.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Cheryl Lajoie

From her husband Peter Farncombe comes news that the Cheryl Lajoie Award (for School of Social Work students at Ryerson University) is formally up and running. Cheryl, who died far too young in October '04, was a friend and co-op camp colleague of ours who was very active and highly respected in the family and social services world in and around her Riverdale neighbourhood.

The current bank balance will allow the Award, presented annually, to run for six years.

If anyone's interested in prying open their wallets and making a contribution, or just having a look, I've got a pdf brochure (not on-line) available upon request.

Torstar Declares Open War On Beaches!

Hey, no one has a monopoly on sensationalism (keep in mind that these two stories led the last two front pages).

Overreactions to overreactions suck.

I vaguely recall reading something about this in a local Beaches rag a few weeks ago, but the paper copy's gone the way of all recyclables and I can't find any trace of it on-line. You'd think a determination of whether the complaining group was substantial in number or comprised of two guys and their Weimaraners would be in order before unleashing the snotty editorializing about "tony Beaches enclaves" and widespread NIMBYism (a sentiment no doubt completely absent in less tony areas).

I thought The Star was opposed to collective punishment.*

*Bad Taste level yellow ("Elevated")

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beardie Weirdos

...givin' it up for their beliefs. God love 'em.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


A few days at the in-laws', a few tourist shots:

The girlz in Victoria Park.

That's not The Messiah--it's fucking Hegemony Or Survival!

Some rifle.

City Hall: don't have a clue why I like it but I do.

St. Peter's fiddly-ass Cathedral.

Another view of the fiddly bits.

London Life building, built in 1874. Makes me feel extremely insured.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Say Your Prayers, Councillor

Or not. There's an initiative afoot [oops, link now behind a sub wall--this one'll give you the background] by a tiny outfit called Secular Ontario (comprised as far as I can tell of members of the Humanist Association of Canada) to compel the removal of the Lord's Prayer from the opening proceedings of Ontario municipal council meetings. SO have identified 18 offending councils, which include St. Thomas, Ingersoll and Owen Sound, as well as a number of other townships and counties in Grey-Bruce.

This has been in the air for a while now, and its recent legal origins stem from the Freitag v. Penetanguishene Ontario Appeals Court decision of 1999. Now, I'm just a layman here mind so take my analysis for what it's worth, but it seems to me that the judge in that case made it quite clear that the practice of using a specifically denominational prayer doesn't have much wiggle room wrt The Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. In the case of Penetang, the decision was easy-peasy, as the practice wasn't even listed in the town's by-laws, making the actions of the Mayor in leading an opening prayer "not law but governmental conduct," i.e., not defensible via Section 1 of The Charter. Owen Sound, viz the article cited above, does have the procedure on the books--passed soon after the 1999 decision--but would still have to demonstrate the necessity of maintaining the status quo and explaining why a "compromise" invocation wouldn't do the trick, which should prove a hard sell.

The Province hasn't derived any official policy changes from Freitag, so it might take further individual Charter challenges to make the towns in question more compliant.

I'm of two minds (at least) about this. It isn't exactly the most pressing issue in the universe. It won't change the composition of local councils and from a practical point of view it won't effect how the pothole at the corner of Queen and Main (N.B. every Ontario town has an intersection at Queen and Main) gets filled. And are wussy, non-denominational prayers any better, from the point of view of the anti-theist? But, as always it's the opposition that gets the juices flowing. Stunning legal counter-arguments from Peterborough Mayor Paul Ayotte:

"These guys need to get a life," [he said]. "The rest of us have rights under the Charter of Rights. I have freedom of speech and of religion."

as well as Ingersoll Mayor Paul Holbrough:

“Our community was settled on Christian morals and values. It’s not like I’ve started this. It’s a tradition in council and our community . . .

Geez, the next thing is they’ll want to cancel Christmas.”

Someone definitely needs to go all secular humanist on these guys' asses.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Big Effin' Deal

But it is. The Deutsche Oper production of Idomeneo goes off without a hitch, albeit with a ton o' added security. No sign of protests by local radical Islamists or Poseidonites.

Audience members were advised on evacuation measures prior to the performance.

Why this hadn't been implemented for previous Mozart stagings remains unclear.

Related: Deutsche Oper gets new head.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pip Pyle (1950-2006)

I've just heard about the death on August 28th of Canterbury scene drummer Pip Pyle. Independent obit here, and a remembrance by Hatfield And The North/National Health bandmate Dave Stewart here.

Someone's even posted video from the funeral. Youtube, eh?

Pyle was a bundle of energy on the drum kit, always jumping up ahead of the beat no matter what the song's original starting tempo. He wasn't what you'd call a really technical player, but he had a great sense of decorum, whether the music required simple accompaniment or hell-for-leather. He was a very good writer, too: his speciality was the "extended song," some fine examples of which he produced for the Hatfields and Nat Health. He finally released his first proper solo album (loose collection of songs really), 7 Year Itch, in the late '90s and it's got some of his best-realized compositions, a great deal of charm, and some fine-as-ever playing from PP, Stewart and a large cast of characters.

He spent most of his later life, like so many of that bunch, living and playing on the continent, where there's more of an audience for their kind of thang. I regret never having had the chance to see him play.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Third Time Charming, Part The Second

All right, here we go again.

I'll get it right this time.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Records In Review: The Stills--Without Feathers

I can't tell you how tickled liberal pinko I am when I find Canadian indie-rock bands that I really like. Every record I listen to, it's the same old story: "it's okay, but, but, but..." I was starting to think that it's genetic, or perhaps the product of some youthful trauma involving maple syrup.

Enter The Stills. Album number two from the Montrealers is a serious departure from their very good full-length debut Logic Will Tear You Apart, which put an Interpol-type instrumental approach plus a pinch of bar-band attitude to work in dreamy jangle-pop and mid-paced power-pop settings. Drummer and main guy David Hamelin has taken up the vacant guitar position, which won't cause widespread rending of garments among members of the percussion fraternity, truth be told, and has taken over the bulk of the lead vocals. I'm not sure I can really judge the effect the latter has had, as, like the Torontonian in the reviews I have a hard time telling Hamelin and erstwhile lead Tim Fletcher apart--it's more in the delivery than the timbre. But more on that anon. Although the songwriting still leans toward the broad strokes and big chords, the band has ditched the Interpol thing, with its pounding 1-2-3-4 drums and ringing guitars, in favour of a style that encompasses folky roots-rock ("In The Beginning"), revivalist orchestral pop ("Destroyer") and piano-bar languor ("Outro"). There's a lot of Hammond organ and galloping dum-ba ba dum-ba ba dum rhythms.

If I was to make a sloppy and unsupportable analogy, I'd say that Logic is to Without Feathers as Modest Mouse's The Moon And Antarctica is to Good News..., in that both bands have gone from a fairly contained sound and static instrumentation to full and at times flamboyant orchestration*; also, there's a similar fearlessness about letting all kinds of styles and generic signifiers hang low and loose. In The Stills' case, the experiment is mostly successful, but there are a few spots on the album where single-mindedness would have been beneficial. The Rufus Wainwrightesque** (Hamelin actually sounds a bit like RW, mixed with The Strokes' Julian Casablancas' croakiness) addendum to the straight-ahead rocker "The Mountain" doesn't really cut it, nor does the showy intro and overripe finale to the otherwise catchy "It Takes Time." Distractions, distractions.

The album is at its best when the songs make sense from beginning to end and when the band let themselves be themselves. The Fletcher-penned-and-sung "Helicopters" is an excellent example and a great piece. It starts out really restrained, with an eighth-note piano rhythm, percussion and plucked string sounds all very reminiscent of the Arcade Fire's mid-tempo mutant new wave, then builds to a great finale of catchy chorus vocal hook and booming guitars. Other really good 'uns are opener "In The Beginning," which maps out the band's new-found rootsy territory very well; "Oh Shoplifter," a booming jangle-pop number arranged around acoustic guitar and handclaps; and "The House We Live In," the pensive and restrained hymnal finale to the disc. I probably lean more toward the guitar-driven material, but "In The End" is a particularly nice piano-based tune, unlike the very pedestrian "Halo The Harpoons." "Baby Blues" is the track most reminiscent of album number one. "Destroyer" makes up for what it lacks in subtlety with vibrancy, a bold brass section and great lyrics.

Both Fletcher and Hamelin are better at writing what I'd consider to be vocal hooks rather than melodies per se ("Destroyer" being a good example from this album, and maybe "Love And Death" from Logic), but for reasons which I can't quite pin down I find that overall the vocals don't match material as nicely on Without Feathers; perhaps the busier arrangements require a busier vocalist. Your thoughts on the matter may be submitted for review by the board.

I can't think of any other relative comparisons that would lead me to pick one album over the other; you'll either prefer the new style or you won't. I suspect that, as a more "adult" sounding record, Without Feathers might not have the same appeal for the younger listener. But, really, who cares about them? As I always say, excellent hearing is wasted on youthful ears. Recommendation: pretty damn good, but could have been better.

*The Stills do it with less, admittedly. Most of the principal arrangement is bass, drums, guitar, keys...just used in diverse ways.

**What gives with all of the whiny bitch Canuck singers? I want real men, damn you!

Friday, September 1, 2006

Records In Review: Editors--The Back Room

I'll start with an admission: my compact disc collection needs another johnny-come-lately example of this particular new-wave revivalist subgenre like I need an aperture in the cranial cavity. Very good though a lot of it's been, I've had more than my fill over the past couple of years.

But, but, but...this record is good. Very good indeed.

The debut disc from this Birmingham-based foursome isn't going to shock anyone stylistically; in fact, the first 8-16 bars of the opening track "Lights" are likely all the convincing you'll need to file The Back Room between the last Interpol record and The Killers' Hot Fuss on your cd shelf (I've done a few reviews on topic, so I won't bore the tits off you by going into all of the influences of the influences--oh wait, here's another). I don't even think it would be unfair to call the record derivative. So, what is so good here? It's useful to define the band's strengths in negative terms: less sepulchral and wearisome than Interpol, less stridently commercial and faux-ennui-laden than The Killers, less young man sturm-und-drangy than Bloc Party. What's left is incredibly tight songwriting, sound and performance, and a record that for the genre is frighteningly easy to listen to. It also ends better than it starts--excellent.

The album's sound is spacious and warm and covered with a modest layer of reverb. The instrumentalism displays good taste, rather than idiosyncrasy: rigidly metrical and ringy upper-range lead guitar ("as was the style at the time"); springy bass, often in the fifths and octaves new wave/disco style; and drums that efficiently hop along on the up-tempo numbers ("Blood")and create good and stuck-in grooves on the mid-tempo ones ("All Sparks"). Singer Tom Smith sounds at times like a composite of others' timbres and mannerisms, most notably the Interpol guy, The Chameleons' Mark Burgess (the breathy upper-range in "Fingers In The Factories"--frightening!) and Ian McCulloch (other comparisons being made to Echo and The Bunnymen in the press are IMNSHO bizarre) ; mostly, though, he's a pleasing if range-limited blend of crooning and declamation. The lyrics sing well but they won't be winning any Pulitzers.

The Back Room's a very strong set, with only the standard-issue misery-guts "Fall" drawing my index finger toward the fast-forward button. My favourite three tracks are one each fast, mid and slow: "Munich," the obvious single and catchy as hell in an Interpol/Killers kind of way, but livelier; "Bullets," the loudest thing on the album, with a chunky groove worthy of the New FADs; and particularly "Open Your Arms," the climax of which'll send a shiver up your spine. If I can't think of too much to say about the rest of the material, it's because it's all really good, from the tough and declamatory "All Sparks" to the dreamy and expansive "Distance."

I'll never say that originality is overrated (promise!), but The Back Room is proof positive that it's not essential. Whether something so easy on the ear will end up having, erm, legs is open to question, but for right now, I'm happy. And that's what counts. Recommendation: high now; in a month's time..?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Records In Review: The Futureheads--News And Tributes

Review of first album here. Read it so's I don't have to repeat myself.

The much-anticipated (by me, the only person who counts) second album from the Sunderland four-piece is a grower and a change-of-pace from their excellent and spirited self-titled debut. Sonically, there haven't been any radical changes: there's still the same noisy guitars, albeit with the occasional appearance of an acoustic, and reliance on multi-part harmonies (guitarists Barry Hyde and Ross Millard share the lead vocal duties in much the same ratio as on album number one, roughly 2:1). The record's got a different personality, though, with more measured pacing (which wouldn't be difficult!), and songwriting that doesn't play so much to the back of the hall and which is distancing itself from its obvious early influences XTC and Gang Of Four. If anything, there's a touch of mod influence on a few of the songs (like "Favours For Favours") that was only hinted at on The Futureheads. The production's hard-hitting, bordering on elephantine in places--the toms on "Burnt" threatened to put a hole in my speakers--and takes a few listens to warm up to. It's a terrible album for the Discman, as it always seems to be too loud or too soft. The mix is excellent, however, and there's some lovely separation of sounds, a good example being the break part in the wonderful first single "Skip To The End." The arrangements are I think an improvement: subtler without losing any of the crunch.

As for the songs themselves, what's good is top quality, but what's less good isn't so hot; fortunately, three-quarters of it's the former. Among the best is the aforementioned "Skip To The End," a mid-paced and volume, sparsely-arranged twitchy number that sounds unlike anything the band has done before; "Cope," an absolutely scorching stomper that sounds like an improvement on the better bits of Fire Dances-era Killing Joke; and "Worry About It Later," which integrates a surprisingly conventional but infectious mod-ish chorus hook into the group's customary spiky aesthetic with relative ease. The more relaxed vein works really well here too, with "Back To The Sea" and the dreamy "Thursday." The title track, a more-or-less recitative tribute to those lost in the Manchester United airliner tragedy of 1958, took the longest to grow on me, but it's one of the best examples of the F-head's skills at four-part (I think) harmony, and goes very nicely with a restrained marching beat. Add in lead vocalist Millard's glottal delivery, and you've got a less anthemic and more abstract Big Country.

I'm less impressed with the songs that bookend the album. "Yes/No" is good and loud once it gets going but has considerably less to say than The Futureheads opener "Le Garage," and takes twice as long to say it. The finale "Face" is ponderous and very wooden in terms of melody, and as for switches to double-time...well, let's just say I'm not a fan. I'm also baffled by the inclusion of the screamed, hell-for-leather "The Return Of The Berserker," which certainly doesn't have much to recommend it even as a noise experiment. If its purpose is to show that they're not pussies, it's wholly unnecessary and extremely disruptive to the album's flow.

Like a lot of bands who put their aesthetic first, there's the occasional bit of songwriting detail that gets missed; e.g.,"Favours For Favours" and "Burnt" have a couple too many finale iterations, and "Back To The Sea" could do a better of job of building toward its chorus. But whatever criticisms are to be made of News And Tributes, you can't deny the breadth of material and mood, and the impression that this is a band that's maturing in the best sense of the word. On the five-Geordie scale, I'm giving it 1/4 less than the first album. Recommendation: a brave and very worthwhile record, if just a wee bit short of material.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Records In Review: Sam Roberts--Chemical City

One of the good things about dreading the worst is that you won't easily be disappointed. But as that middle-class punk in Repo Man said, "It...still...hurts!"

Now, I am a Sam fan, don't get me wrong. I loved the first (proper) ep and very much liked We Were Corn In A Flake. I just felt that the latter (and accompanying live show) represented a musical approach with a short shelf-life, and unfortunately Chemical City does very little to disabuse me of that impression. I haven't read any reviews of this album yet, as is my habit, but just on the off-chance that the words "prog" and "rock" show up in a few of them, I pre-emptively shout "nonsense." A tendency toward long-windedness aside, it's the same fish here, just in different wrappings; or rather, the same beardy scruff with bedroom eyes, just wearing a different t-shirt and playing a little more electric guitar. SR still has his Dylan fetish and he still likes writing and singing shuffle-beat rhythms.

There's always been this pull between the popster and the old-school rocker in Roberts (probably more apparent live than in the studio). On his earlier stuff, this added interest and tension, but here, when he takes the hippie-freak route of longer songs with looser structures, things tend to fall flat. As the yobs say, he's gotta have the hooks! And some economy. The production on the album's better than on WWBIAF; it's harder-driving and less lo-fi. His band, intact bar the drummer from his previous tour, is very energetic and together when they rock out old-school, but not virtuosic, and they don't produce a sound with a lot of internal detail. I find this diminishes the effect of the ensemble playing and crescendos after a while [what are you writing for, Gramophone?--ed]. In any case, definitely an album for high-volume listening, if it's to be listened to at all.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the tracks I like best--two rockers, "Bootleg Saint" and "With A Bullet" and two quieter numbers, "Bridge To Nowhere" and "Uprising Down Under"--are the ones that are the most concise. "Bootleg Saint" is a slow, grungy scorcher with great hooks that begs to be turned up to the proverbial 11. Should be a hit with the stoner crowd. "Bridge" and "Uprising" contain echoes of "No Sleep" and "Taj Mahal" respectively from Flame, and the former would be a good choice for a single, with its bouncy rhythm, nice sing-along chorus and jangly acoustic guitar. "With A Bullet" has a much heavier feel than anything off previous records and balances control and hell-for-leather really well, as well as having some great arrangement and guitar.

The rest of the package ranges from okay to not so great. The pseudo-mystical "The Gate" opens the disc I suppose as a statement of intent, and it's half-successful. It has an attractive energy, but the lyrics are dumb, and the simple chord sequences combined with the loosey-goosey structure create an exemplar of muscle over brains. Smoking a spliff might up the enjoyment factor on this one. "Mind Flood" shows off Roberts' characteristic melodic facility and easy vocal patter, but goes on too long with a meandering instrumental outtro. "Mystified, Heavy" is alright but a bit stiff, particularly on the vocal front. Roberts' lack of variation in vocal delivery is a problem in a couple of places, actually, but particularly on the piano-and-vocals-only finale "A Stone Would Cry Out," which is inoffensive but about as exciting as this. The album low-points are the limp and humourless "An American Draft Dodger In Thunder Bay," and particularly "The Resistance," a definite case of trying too hard whose big musical statement is a switch to double-time. Nice acoustic-y finale part, though, if you haven't hit the fast-forward button already.

Flame wasn't a perfect album by any means, but it had a vibrancy and naivete that helped it get past the occasional duff bit (e.g., "On The Run"). Chemical City is more stylistically cohesive but in the end it just doesn't have enough attention to detail and craft to compensate for the ponderousness. Medium-to-big disappointment.

P.S. If you think I'm being overly critical, note that I didn't take one shot at the ridiculous band photo.

Records In Review: Neko Case--Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Right off the top, a confession: I have time for Neko Case's voice. An awful lot of time. In fact, if I was given to such things, one of my top musico-erotic fantasies would probably involve NC, Maggie Reilly, and a large consignment of Vista Bellas. But that's another subject for another blog.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, which I originally misread as ...Brings The Food (leading to some odd misinterpretations of the lyrics) is the alt-countryish Ms. Case's fourth studio album and it's been getting glowing reviews 'round these parts and has also been moving the odd unit, which is good news. For those unfamiliar with the husky-voiced artist, she's an honorary Canadian (a stint in Vancouver) and perhaps best known as a member of The New Pornographers, of whom I'm greatly enamoured, where she shares the vocal duties with Canuck Guy and Hippie Guy. But there be no power-pop here, fellow! Case's own music utilizes traditional country and folk motifs but comes across as decidedly non-traditional. There's a very dramatic, and often melodramatic side to her songwriting, but it's not Kate Bush dramatic--more of a sense of resignation--and the dynamics are often static and the atmosphere trapped in amber. Add some sonic thickness and you've got a music that's simultaneously pretty and creepy. The songs are generally short and often evanescent, and it's easy to imagine many of them being sung as asides by characters in a musical drama. I'm not exactly a font of knowledge on this genre, so I'm going to write in more general terms than usual, which is probably a better way of dealing with this record anyway.

This is a very good record, but I do have a few problems with it. If I liked everything on Fox Confessor as much as I like my four or five favorite songs, we'd be into rave territory, but life is seldom fair, even for the mere end-user of compact discs. The reliance on dramatics is something I'm not entirely comfortable with. My friend G-Love (Sans Special Sauce), who's more familiar with Case's ouevre than I, finds this aspect of her music (i.e., the end-product of a defined lyrical dramatic persona) slightly hokey. I'm not sure I'd put it in those terms, but I would say that there are times on the record when dramatic considerations and musicality are inversely proportional. I'm thinking here of songs like "Dirty Knife," which has very good bones but is prevented by its episodic nature from really getting going. The music feels almost incidental to the evoked mood. The lyrics are a bit much at times, too, especially when Case is in full wry drama queen mode: "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/I know it's not kind, but my own blood is much too dangerous." Call me judgmental, but I just don't think you should be writing stuff like that when you're in your mid-30s.

At her best, Case combines a strong melody with an exceptional vocal cadence. Two of the three tracks on the album co-written with The Sadies, "The Needle Has Landed" and "Hold On, Hold On" (from whence the cited offending lyric came) are standouts in this regard. They're both upbeat, straight-ahead and slightly twangy, with bouncy and sharp vocal rhythms that have a way of sticking with you for days. "That Teenage Feeling" is a bit kitschy for me, but again the vocal writing and performance is excellent. Other standouts are the cautionary but fatalistic (and creepy) "Maybe Sparrow," which features some nice details of arrangement, the brief bit of atmosphere "A Widow's Toast," and particularly "Star Witness," which is a great example of the aforementioned creepy/pretty thing, especially in the way that the static, loping three-beat verses give way to a beautifully simple chorus melody and some killer harmonies. Again, a bit much on the lyrical front. The rest of the material is of varying quality, mostly good, but the arrangements are uniformly strong and the vocal performances (you sensing a pattern here?) engaging. The second of the three Sadies collaborations, "Lion's Jaws," is my least favorite track, mostly because Case's singing is lacking in subtlety. In general, I'm happier with Fox Confessor when there's less of the dramatics and/or knowing winks at genre getting between me and the music.

Both the album and the songs are shortish, making this an easy listen in addition to being an engaging one. The production's boomy and the vocals reverberant so listening at low-to-mid volume's the thing to do. Recommended, with a couple of provisos.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Film Review: Cross Of Iron

Pelette and I took in the late-period Sam Peckinpaugh flick Cross Of Iron (1976) at Cinematheque on Saturday night. I'm sure that Sean will be posting a fuller and more insightful review soon, but in the meantime my humble and semi-literate efforts will have to suffice.

You can read the allmovie guide synopsis, but briefly: the film's setting is the Crimea in 1943, when the writing was clearly visible on the wall for the German regiments. James Coburn is Rolf Steiner, a fearless platoon leader who's only loyalty is to his men, James Mason is the well-intentioned and war-weary commandant (with David Warner--not playing an alien and/or miserable creep!--as his slightly shell-shocked Captain and intellectual confidant), and Max Schell is the Prussian aristocrat Captain Stransky: newly-arrived, old-school, uninterested in Hitler and his ideology, and on the make to pick up the Iron Cross as quickly and cheaply as possible. The conflict between Stransky and Steiner is really the basis of what plot there is here, and things start to heat up when the former's claim to the Cross, based on supposed valorous conduct in battle, is gainsaid by Steiner (a grunt who already has the IC) and his platoon. Steiner becomes a problem to be got rid of...

Cross Of Iron certainly contains a lot of different and interesting technical elements. The film's epilogue is a quote from Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which is quite telling as, while I wouldn't characterize Peckinpaugh's techniques as "Brechtian" exactly, there are a number of things, like the unexpected use of montage and the very occasional eruption of orchestral soundtrack that break up the rhythm of the film. All of this is filtered through the director's tendency to live in the moment and to big it up, American-style. Stylistically, there is a large helping of satire, some of it overtly comic (as in the excellent scene where Schell makes his introductions to Mason and Warner), more than a little chunk of melodrama and, this being Peckinpaugh, a generous spread of things and people being shot and blown slow motion, of course. "I say, anyone for tennis..?"

It's a good flick that certainly doesn't feel long at 2-and-a-quarter hours (this non-pristine European print contained an extra 11 minutes, where I don't know), but it is bedevilled by inconsistency. The script is one of the problems. There are great internal scenes and parts of scenes almost worthy of David Lean, and others, such as those revolving around Steiner's time recovering in the infirmary, that are a bit threadbare. The stylistic balance is also a bit out of whack. A lot of the film, perhaps by commercial necessity, is action and while a lot of it's good--the stealth movements by Steiner's platoon are particularly suspenseful--I got the distinct impression of different versions of the film competing for space. I for one would have preferred a few more scenes with Coburn, Mason and Schell and a few less of Russkies being machine-gunned in slo-mo. Given all of these contrasting and often conflicting elements, pacing is actually pretty good, with the exception of the ending which is very abrupt. The movie's really lacking a final scene (mostly due to production problems, I gather).

The acting's a strength. Lots of good moments from the minor players, but the principals are in fine form. Schell is at his oily and dangerous best (albeit slightly undercut by his character's buffoonery); Coburn's cod-German accent escapes him when he gets agitated, but he pulls off Steiner's combination of humanity and necessary ruthlessness brilliantly. Mason gets less of the glory but he's exemplary as the fatherly commander with a sense of perspective who's trying to salvage what lives, honour and dignity he can out of a bad and worsening situation. There's also a really interesting element of theatricality about the film that creates these odd, what I can only describe as "out of time" moments (viz the scene where Steiner frees the Russian boy that his platoon captured), which contrast effectively with the claustrophobic and impending doom-laden trench settings.

As I said earlier, C of I's a film that draws attention to its own technique, certainly more so than the main-sequence Peckinpaughs that I've seen. A good film that could have been better. If you like Peckinpaugh, you're surely going to find lots to like here, and if you don't, hey: he blowed up REAL good!!

Records In Review: Moving Units--Dangerous Dreams

The sub-heading for this review should be, with thanks to Dr. Nick Riviera, "you've tried the best, now try the rest!" Moving Units are a Californian entry in the new wave revivalist sweepstakes. Dangerous Dreams (2004) is the three-piece's first full-length release, and within its polycarbonate depths can be heard bits and pieces of a number of influences, both contemporary and ancient, which I'll go into as needs be, but I'll just say this one thing now: don't believe anything you read about this record resembling Gang Of Four in any meaningful way.

MU's principal musical mode is a crunchy, new wavey disco a la Franz Ferdinand, albeit lighter on the Brit jack-the-laddism and heavier on the west coast sleaze. Odd, considering that some of the bandmembers apparently came from the hardcore scene. The songs in this style, like the opening track "Emancipation," feature skronking, metallic guitar, fake-slappy octave-intervalled disco bass and loud 'n' messy drumming. The balance between the instruments is actually quite good, even if the band sound isn't particularly well-developed or detailed and the production is kind of in Nowheresville. The vocal production in particular is not good and consists of a thin layer of goop over almost all of the tracks that's guaranteed to get on your nerves double-quick (as will the vocals--more on that later). A few of the other tracks lean more toward electropop "Anyone" or the gloomy doomy sound of Interpol and the like ("Scars"). The lyrics range from not particularly good to godawful. The dance/disco-tinged tracks are of mixed quality, to put it mildly. They all suffer more or less from an approach that's neither subtle enough to be interesting nor over-the-top enough to be fun.

"Emancipation" is an okay beginning to the record. It's like a lighter, upbeat Franz Ferdinand; or, if you like, Hot Hot Heat with a stiffer rhythm section (same general harmonic landscape). "Unpersuaded," with its lounge guitar chords and herky-jerky slightly latinate rhythm, is the best of the songs in this style. The lounge-latin cheeze--maybe they picked it up from here?--is a persistent and persistently aggravating motif, and it doesn't do "Submission" or "Bricks And Mortar" (awful lyrics) any favours. My imagination conjures up conga lines, cruise ships, and paunchy, leering middle-aged crooners with sequinned suits and Brylcreemed hair. "Available" is embarrassing; I could only bring myself to listen to it through twice, the second time being of course "for science." Singer/guitarist Blake Miller's vocal performance, not one of DD's strengths and hampered by an oily, pseudo-Brit inflection, is particularly bad on this one and brings back unfond memories of this.

The remainder of the material's a bit better. My favorite track is "Between Us And Them," which is quick, concise and with one foot in the Interpol camp--picked eighth-note bass melody and gloomy chorus. You can really hear the influence of The Strokes' Julian Casablancas both on this song and on "Birds Of Prey," as Miller shares the former's penchant for stretching lines out and landing after the beat in faux/ironic-crooner style. "Anyone" features beatbox and keyboards, including some sounds that wouldn't be out of place on an early Ultravox/John Foxx album, and has some nice texturing to it. "Scars" is a bit overlong and features a vocal outtro that sounds like the mating call of the Baudet du Poitou (unsuccessful), but is otherwise a reasonable facsimile of the glum and grandiose Interpol/Chameleons/Cure school. "Killer/Lover" is nice and discordant, if a bit wooden on the songwriting front. The scratchy guitar in the finale is very Bloc Party.

In the final result, there's nothing on Dangerous Dreams that I'd consider essential listening, and there's too many distracting and/or taste-challenged elements on the album to make it listenable. Their contemporaries do it better, and more often. Not recommended.

Records In Review: The Decemberists--Picaresque

Album no. 3 from faux-gothic American mutant folksters The Decemberists. Damn--I really have to learn not to fire the bolt in the first paragraph. Well, please read on anyway...

Picaresque (released last spring) doesn't cosy up to you on the first listen. Hardly surprising: there's an awful lot of outlandish and over-the-top elements to assimilate right from the get-go, and the band's style ranges from hang-dog straight narrative folk ("Eli, The Barrow Boy," "From My Own True Love") to borderline power-pop ("16 Military Wives"), with a few stops in between. The line-up is what you'd expect from an outfit with folksy roots: acoustic guitar, upright bass, lightly-produced drums and accordion and/or hurdy-gurdy or something (don't have the liner notes), although augmented with a bit of electric guitar, some keyboards, and bold strings and horns that are fully integrated into the songs. Arrangements are uniformly confident, often swaggeringly so. Geetarist/mainman Colin Meloy has an unmistakable voice that not everyone is going to take to--extremely nasal with some strange diction. I find him distracting in a few places, but generally charming.

All other considerations aside, it's hard not to be impressed by Meloy's easy melodic facility, which really hits home with repeated listenings. One of my favorite tracks, the languid pop-folk "The Engine Driver," moves from section to section with incredible fluidity and grace because of the lovely vocal lines. The aforementioned and up-tempo "16 Military Wives," a hit single in my ideal alternate universe and a million miles away stylistically, is big and brassy but similarly derives a lot of strength from the forward motion of the vocals.

Back to the outlandish and over-the-top for a sec. The opening track, "The Infanta," (lyrics here) thunders along in all its semitonic glory like a psychotic bullfighting theme, painting a picture of the installation of a child queen. Exhilarating, but it's hurt a bit by its silliness, particularly in the break section, and could use a little editing and dialing back of the wild arrangement at the finale. Also in need of a little trim at the back is the otherwise excellent "The Bagman's Gambit," which effectively combines dynamically static acoustic guitar and vocal verses with some real foot-to-gas-pedal choruses--probably the most rockist approach on the album. The weakness in both songs is an (intermittent) hesitation about where to go next.

"The Sporting Life" (are these guys really Yanks?) is a very obvious Smiths homage, right down to the vocal inflections and intervals, and a very enjoyable one too. The lyrics are a light-hearted American transposition of The Mozzer's mopey loser shtick, which adds to the fun. The rest of the material I like very much, with the possible exception of "On The Bus Mall," which is fairly anonymous late-'80s jangle-pop, albeit very prettily arranged. The glacial "From My Own True Love" is, despite Meloy's annoying inflections in the chorus, my favorite of the folk tunes, but "Eli, The Barrow Boy" (I've double-checked: the band IS American!) gives it a run for the money. The nine-minute campy narrative "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is a hoot, but probably not for regular consumption. The guitar/vocal finale "Of Angels And Angles" is very pretty, and sounds like Nick Drake without the heavy hand. A nice palate cleanser to end the disc.

This review probably comes across as more critical than I intended. Even displaying a few errors in judgment, Picaresque is very lively and a good listen from start to finish, with variety and confident delivery to burn. Very much recommended.

Records In Review: Bloc Party--Silent Alarm

I'm beginning to think I've got "sucker" tattooed on my forehead; I'm such an easy mark for all of this new wave revivalist stuff.

If I was to compare London's Bloc Party to some of their generational colleagues, I'd say that it's the same ballpark, different hot dog. The influences on display on their debut album Silent Alarm are less of the mod set, Gang Of Four and XTC, and more of P.I.L., The Chameleons (yes, I know I keep bringing them up, but I will continue to do so until people stop ripping them off!) and a little bit of The Cure; so, it's no surprise that BP's is a sound that, like much of the output of these latter three, mixes the aggression with a touch of grandeur--and very successfully too. In terms of instrumentation, it's the guitars that steal the show, as they produce a lot of different sounds, from the sustained to the metrical to the scratchy and reverberated; they're complemented by some keyboard washes and effects here and there. The bass pulses, often with an implied "dubness" to it, and the drums are fairly frenetic, pounding and rough around the edges (usually in a good way, but occasionally with more blood than brains like in the opening to "Banquet"). I hear Martin Atkins in many of the drum patterns (hear "Positive Tensions"). Singer Kele Okereke alternates between subdued achiness and a glottal declamatory style that brings to mind either Robert Smith, Damon Albarn or John Lydon, depending on which song you're listening to. With the vocals, melody is usually secondary to rhythm and attack.

I have to admit that after the first three tracks, I thought that there might be too much of the emo tendency here for my taste, but the middle section of the disc is a peach and with mucho variety. The martial "Price Of Gas" is the most obviously P.I.L.-inspired (hear Okereke's Lydonesque yelps), with the bass and drums providing the foundation in the verse and intro parts while the guitars skitter along the surface. In contrast to this approach, you've got the infectious and radio-friendly new-wave/disco "Banquet," in which the rhythm section and guitars are pretty much working as one metrical unit. Another favorite is "This Modern Love," which, despite it's borderline wimpy-'80s-love-song opening, ends up as quite an exhilarating number. I think it's on tracks like this that the defined edges of the band's instrumentation are a real advantage. BP don't rely on indiscriminate washes of sound, even on the loud and monolithic "Pioneers." "Blue Light" is a sweet, gentle and welcome change of pace.

Back to my Chameleons obsession: I guess what I'm talking about is some of the twin guitar (the opening to "Helicopter" is a good example), the kind of drawn-out sectional songwriting on display in the powerful "Like Eating Glass," and the album's overall blend of wistful and earnest. The final track, "Compliments," does have more of The Cure's shoe-staring dirge quality about it, for those who're into such things. I prefer wistfulness to overwrought, but that's just me (and I am right).

The International Record Evaluation Standards (IRES) require me to deduct a half-cookie for the last few tracks not being up to the standard of the rest of the disc, and an additional quarter for dipping into the same harmonic well maybe once too often, but other than that, this one's yet another keeper, and a nice change from the jerkier styles of the likes of The Futureheads and Maximo Park. Amazing how many of these bands have created a unique sound, despite wearing their influences so boldly on their sleeves. Muchly recommended.

P.S. My burned copy of this disc appears to be missing track 11 ("This one doesn't go up to 11"). If this is the greatest song in the history of rock music, I will adjust my review accordingly.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Records In Review: Maximo Park--A Certain Trigger

More fruit from the new wave revivalist tree, courtesy of Newcastle's Maximo Park. A Certain Trigger is the debut lp from The Futureheads' down-the-road neighbours and genre cohabitants. And it is good. Hot damn good.

I almost don't want to analyze the record too closely, 'cos it's such fun to listen to and I don't want to kill the mood; but, I s'pose I owe it to posterity and the kids. This five-piece does have many traits in common with the F-Heads beyond the superficial resemblances to early XTC, but, as usual, it's the differences that are most interesting. There's more of a pop sensibility here courtesy of The Jam and the mod set in general, more sense of flow (despite myriad stylistic references), and a less elephantine sound. They've a full-time keyboard player, and that certainly makes a difference; the sounds used are mostly upper-range chamber organ and buzzy new wave synth, adding some space-age feel--well, what was considered space-age in 1978. Guitarist Duncan Lloyd utilizes lots o' sounds (see "Graffiti"), and the rhythm section is lively and self-assured.

Maximo Park are a band with exceptional musical instincts. All of the material, with very few exceptions, works, even when by rights it shouldn't. Songs come at you with a TON...sorry, TONNE of influences in consecutive sections and don't sound garish even when the contrasts are at their most extreme. I'm thinking here of the appropriately titled "Now, I'm All Over The Shop," which in the course of 60 seconds runs through mid-'70s Queen, Go 2-era XTC and The Housemartins. I think the reason it works is that the approach is consistent (a couple of exceptions, which I'll get to), even when the material isn't. I can't explain it better than to say that the songs are always moving forward with no dithering or wallowing. You'll just have to listen to hear what I mean. Also helping immensely is singer Paul Smith, who performs a skilful balancing act with his slightly wavery crooning, bringing neither too much sweetness nor gruntiness. I'm kind of glad that both Smith and Futurehead Barry Hyde don't try to play the tough guy--which might be tempting with this kind of music--because I have to shamefully admit that Geordie and other Northern accents in pop music often make me laugh; just can't stop thinking about my late grandmother and Dales farmers. The vocals also blend repetitive hook-based lines and looser melodic ones really well. The lyrics usually involve seeing or imagining exes with other dudes.

I have new favourite tracks on ACT every other day, but my current ones are: "Apply Some Pressure," which is fairly hell-for-leather with at least one foot in Futureheads territory; "The Coast Is Changing," one of the gentler numbers with an '80s-style picked bass and very nice and simple vocal melody; "I Want You To Stay"--a jerky, staccato Devo-ish keyboard rhythm gradually evolves into something completely different; and "Once, A Glimpse," which has the most overtly punky chorus, but also a very unexpected Chameleons-like ambient guitar section in the middle. "Going Missing" might move a bit too far in the modern rock direction, but it's far from banal, particularly arrangement-wise. I said that there were one or two exceptions to the band's consistency of approach: the last couple of tracks. "Acrobat" is the one example of atmosphere over energy on the record, reminiscent of The Stranglers' silky, spoken-word "La Folie." Very good, if a bit out of the flow of the album. The closer "Kiss You Better" is the weakest link and far less nervy than it needs to be.

A Certain Trigger vs. The Futureheads is pretty much a toss-up in the battle of fabulousness; it depends on whether you prefer gently bouncing up and down or doing the (theoretical) post-punk spazz dance. Either way, you win. Highly and wholeheartedly recommended.

Records In Review: The Strokes--First Impressions Of Earth

The Strokes' potted history: album number one luvverly, number two more impressive in certain respects but less enjoyable and with less staying power, and now First Impressions Of Earth, which manages to be both better and worse, more and less enjoyable than its predecessors.

I'm not trying to be cryptic or hedge bets here. This is a tough album to get a handle on, largely because it's a tale of two (almost) halves. The first 8 or 9 tracks are as good if not better than anything in the band's ouevre, and the remainder is...not, and sounds strangely detached from the album's main sequence. But more on this anon. FIOE sees Julian C. and the boys in a more relaxed mood. There's still the same disciplined aesthetic, particularly in terms of song structure, but there's been a movement toward--well, I wouldn't call it part-writing exactly, but rather a shift away from the wall-of-sound layering of the first two records. The bass is punched up, with an increased emphasis on surging lines rather than the customary eighth-note monotones, making for a formidable rhythm section in combination with Fab "The Very Loud Human Drum Machine" Moretti's metronomic pounding. Lead guitar steps into the spotlight a lot, with surprising boldness in one or two spots. And you can actually hear Casablancas' vocals! With the fuzzbox dialed back, it's clear that he's no slick crooner, but his voice is really quite characterful, with enough variation in delivery to keep things interesting. He also knows where the line between biting and snarky is drawn, and stays on the good side of it.

The best material on the album makes good use of internal momentum and instrumental counterpoint and contrast. Re the former: one of my principal beefs about The Strokes has been their tendency to fire the bolt in the first thirty seconds, leaving precious little for the chorus and break parts (I'm thinking here of Room On Fire songs like "Between Love And Hate" and "The Way It Is"). "Razorblade" is a great example of getting the balance right. It's really just an alternation between two sections, one loud and broad with a catchy harmonized guitar line, and the verse part with pulsing arpeggiated bass and an upper range guitar melody duking it out rhythmically with the vocal line, but it's exemplary in its use of noise and space--expansive without being overblown. "On The Other Side," another winner, has more of a loping, stop-start feel but uses the same techniques of contrast and space, as does the kick-ass "Juicebox," although it's busier in songwriting terms. A first for the group is "Ask Me Anything," which is nothing but vocals and mellotron-like strings and woodwinds. This one's particularly interesting in the way it contrasts a rigidly metrical new wave keyboard line with a sweeping and very uncharacteristic break part.

Sometimes the sectional contrasts work on FIOE, and sometimes they don't. "Vision Of Division" is my favourite track and one of their best, and it's part traditional Strokes melodic stuff and part hell-for-leather, scream-yourself-coarse quasi-metal, with an astonishing pentatonic-style guitar solo/precision drum freak-out thrown in for good measure. Not much left in the tank after that one! "Ize Of The World," on the other hand, starts out like a '70s cowbell rocker, goes all mellow, then wraps it up with a tribute to Interpol. Appalling. The broody "Fear Of Sleep" isn't terrible by any means, but the movement from A to B to C feels similarly effortful.

Which brings me to those last five songs. A nasty person might call them shite, but a glass half-full guy like me prefers to say that they require a different kind of treatment than this album was capable of giving them. It's almost like they came from a different recording session. I don't mind "Evening Sun," as it's evocative in an unusual way for the group, but "15 Minutes" is extremely ponderous and overwrought--I counted three songs in a row where Julian builds to a climax by screaming like a Rothman's-addicted banshee--and "Red Light," with its hippie-freak harmonized guitar, is just plain bizarre.

First Impressions Of Earth will probably be let loose from its jewel case more often than Room On Fire, but not for end-to-end play. The lesson here is that the perfect Strokes album length is 37 minutes. Half-to-two-thirds highly recommended; the rest...

Records In Review: The Arcade Fire--Funeral

All right, a day late and a dollar short, but hype brings out my contrarian side. And don't worry, I'll keep this short.

(read my review of The AF's first ep here!)

I've tried very hard with this record but I just can't get close to it, and I doubt if I'll ever have reason to listen to it again. I have a certain admiration for its construction, but I'm not sure what the big whoop is. I'd broadly describe Funeral as the offspring of New Order and Modest Mouse, with a little gene replacement therapy courtesy of The Flaming Lips and Neil Young (is that a tautology?). It's broad stroke music with a lot of detail--the former is dominant--mixed in a pot to create a veritable wall of sound, making it a great album to play at volume, that's for sure. It's much more direct and less whimsical than the first ep, and there's more emphasis on the guitar and less empty space in the mix. Singer Win Butler still sounds like a caffeinated whiny-pants, which doesn't do my ears or blood pressure any good. Prejudices about the voice are the hardest to overcome and I'm too old to change now.

I think it's the imbalance in favour of the broad strokes that's a turn-off for me. A number of the songs, like "Wake Up" and "Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)" involve weighty burdens of drama being carried by fairly basic song and chord structures, even if the sonic layering is nice. One interesting aspect of the album is the relationship between the three-piece new wave ching-ching-ching-ching and the wrap-around instrumentation of (variously) mallet percussion, piano, weepy strings and booming guitars and basses; I'm thinking here of "Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)" and "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)," the beat and guitar of which reminds me of a particular crappy New Order song...but these are both good. Also good 'n' pretty is "Une Annee Sans Lumiere," which benefits from being less melodramatic than some of its colleagues. "Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)," a quasi-hymnal reminiscent of "Old Flame" from the previous record, is one of the best and builds at its own pace. I get bored during the second half of the disc. Only the smash-hit "Rebellion (Lies)" piques my interest with its energy and earnestness. "Haiti" reprises the rhythms from "Power Out" in a gentler and less interesting form. "Crown Of Love" sucks donkey balls.

To each his own, I guess, but there isn't a song here that I prefer to "No Cars Go" from the band's rookie disc. I respect Funeral in many ways but I don't particularly like it. Oh well: I'm sure I'll get with the zeitgeist one day.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Records In Review: Martha And The Muffins--This Is The Ice Age

Martha And The Muffins/M+M have always fallen between the cracks of Canadian music history. Perhaps it was inevitable; after all, they've had a punky-new wave hit single, been perceived as ahtsy (no mean feat with such a dumb band name), split their sound between Toronto, London and New York, and have vocalists who sound like a show-tune singer and an art nerd respectively (you figure out which). In other words, their generic identifiers aren't always easy to isolate. They've certainly never been fully given their due. Fortunately, some reissues have been popping up recently, and Mark and Martha have been playing a few shows, updating the oldies. This Is The Ice Age (1981) was their third and possibly best lp, and this beautifully remastered edition came out last spring.

The first thing that hits you about this album is the sound. Co-produced by a then-industry-toddler Daniel Lanois and the band, it's extremely warm and spacious, with an Eno-like attention to sonic detail and restraint. I'm not an M+M completist and it's been a while since I've heard the old stuff, but I don't remember being awfully impressed by the first couple of Mike Howlett-helmed records, production-wise--trying too hard to sound "new wave." In terms of instrumentation, (electric) piano's always around but there's plenty of room to spare for the bright and generally unfuzzed guitar, watery chorused bass and layer upon layer of keyboards and electronic experimentation. Influences are worn on sleeve, with the aforementioned Bald One, King Crimson and (especially) Talking Heads being the most obvious, but this isn't derivative stuff; the mellow chord progressions and ambience are entirely the band's own, and place them well within the context of the contemporary local scene.

I'll call this record rilly rilly good, 'cos it's maybe one substantial song short of being brilliant (a term I don't throw around lightly). I'm pleasantly surprised how well the single "Women Around The World At Work"has aged; given the subject matter and the fact that it's not a great fit with the surrounding material, being "hookier" and more spastic, it holds its own pretty well (I'm not even as annoyed by the squawking sax as I used to be). "You Sold The Cottage" is the other concession to rocking out here, and it"s squonky and fun. A lot of the material is more pattern-based, which is where the contemporary T. Heads and Crimson comparisons come in. The drums in "Swimming" are very Remain In Light, somewhere between pounding and skittering across the surface, and you've got to give it to Mr. Gane for managing to sound like both Adrian Belew (with the elephantosity--if that IS a guitar) and Robert Fripp (intermittent line/solo) in the same song--and a good one, too. The title track utilizes the same Africanish drum pattern and is the album's high point. What you think is going to be a breezy pop song effortlessly slides into a perfectly paced, hypnotic but detailed raga through which tons of sounds and rhythms pass in and out. "One Day In Paris" follows on the heels of this, rising out of the mist like an aubade, and is as lovely and plaintive a piano and vocal interlude as you're likely to hear. In fact, the quieter stuff is all very good, particularly "Boy Without Filters" which tests Mark's spoken-style vocal abilities to the limit but gets away with it--just. "Jets Seem Slower In London Skies" is a very pretty piano and keys instrumental.

My two minor beefs with the album is the upbeat, positivity-soaked addendum to the otherwise good "Casualties Of Glass" which brings to mind the more annoying aspects of these guys, and the concluding "Three Hundred Years/Chemistry," which is underwritten enough to leave you wanting more, more, MORE! Of the bonus tracks, "I'm No Good At Conversation" is a very good up-tempo number, and "Twenty-Two In Cincinnati" is noodling around. I don't think either were missed on the original album release, but both are welcome here.

I should mention that This Is The Ice Age also has a mega-cool cover featuring a shot of an obscured BMO tower. And it was only $12.99. I'm sorry, why are you still sitting at your computer when you could be out buying this? Highly recommended and immensely listenable.

Records In Review: Medeski Martin & Wood--End Of The World Party (Just In Case)

After due consideration, and consultation with my family, I came to the inevitable conclusion that it was time that I got funky wid it. How delightful to live in a society where you can do this for less than $13!

Medeski Martin & Wood, for those not in the know, are a hot-shot NY instrumental three-piece (keys, drums and bass, respectively) who've been around since the early '90s and who play groove-based fusiony funky stuff. They're fairly traditional in terms of sound, if you strip away the processing, synths and occasional sample. John Medeski is perfectly at home with piano, electric piano, clavinet and organ, and often plays in a punctuated style that's quite guitar-like (perhaps by default, in a three-piece). Chris Wood uses both upright and electric bass impressively, and drummer (not that) Billy Martin is a small-kit player who doesn't stray too often from his syncopated bass drum, snare and hi-hat rhythms.

End Of The World Party is essentially a groove and some chops in search of a brain. I got a similar impression a few years ago from listening to their late '90s album Combustication, which I'd recommend over this one. The playing is top-notch, particularly from Medeski and Wood (Martin's a very detailed drummer, but too restrained; I wish he'd cut loose once in a while), but as is often the case with the genre, structure is not a strong suit and the grooves regularly amble off into noodlesville. I could deal with that better if the hooks and heads (as the jazzebos say) weren't so silly and stereotyped a lot of the time. I honestly can't tell in songs like "Sasa" (fusion hook) and "Queen Bee" (funky hook) if they're taking the piss or no. If yes, then they need to carry it a little bit further to be effective; if not, then there's a definite lack of gray matter on the songwriting front.

"New Planet" and "Curtis" are both pretty good and kick it a little harder than some of the other tracks. The former has a goofy, good-natured bass groove and clavinet and guitar solos, and ends with a processed flute space-out that had me thinking of Gong; the latter's a syncopated fast shuffle-beat thingy with great processed organ as its main point of interest. Other good ones are opener "Anonymous Skulls," which sets orchestral surges and samples to a skulking groove, kind of like Moby with 'tude, and "Reflector," which is as funky, fast and processed as it gets here. The rest of it I can take or leave, being as it's mostly wandering and/or not too clever. "Ice" starts out with a nice atmosphere and an octaved piano line, but doesn't really go anywhere. "Bloody Oil"--message? ya think?--puts a "middle-eastern" pentatonic melody through some interesting turns of production but the musical point is made in the first 30 seconds. I might appreciate "Mami Gato" more if I weren't allergic to most things latin. "Queen Bee" should only be listened to by middle-aged white men dressed in black, wearing berets, and snapping their fingers in time to the beat while ordering lattes.

I wouldn't say that MMW isn't my kind of thing, but I do prefer a little more oomph, directness and/or structure, of the kind that you'd find in another NY funky band from back in the day. I'd like them to sound like they're having a bit more fun with it, too. Recommendation: groovy wallpaper music.

Records In Review: They Might Be Giants--The Spine

Album number ten from inventive weirdo power-pop miniaturists They Might Be Giants. Over-generalize? Moi?

The Spine (2004) is an enjoyable and incredibly easy listen. Compared to the last (non-kids) TMBG album that I'm substantially familiar with, the unkindly (and unfairly) remembered Factory Showroom from the mid-'90s, this one has better flow to it and a fuller utilization of the band sound that helps to level out the more jarring contrasts between John's and John's material. It's also, unfortunately, a little too easy a listen. Masters Linnell and Flansburgh aren't pushing themselves terribly hard here, and it shows in the dearth of really, really A-1 stuff. The second coming of Flood it ain't.

The songwriting is split pretty much down the middle as it usually is, but Linnell's tracks show more boldly (I tend toward his songs, generally speaking; he's off in his own little world, which appeals to me more than Flansburgh's messing about with antique genre expectations). I particularly like the foot-stomper "Thunderbird," which is reminiscent of "Til My Head Falls Off" from Factory Showroom and which contains the immortal lines: "Before you walk you have to learn to crawl/You can't see heaven when you're standing tall." "Wearing A Raincoat" is also really catchy, a string of word-associated similes that lead you back to the beginning, with a lilting melody, moderate tempo and hypnotic feel. But the weird comic classic is without a doubt "Bastard Wants To Hit Me." How else to describe a slick, electropop song with cheezy Cher vocoder and lyrics about being targeted by a random nutcase in a parking lot? Flansburgh's contributions include, as is the custom, a few guitar-hero rockers like the catchy "Prevenge," as well as the odd suave lounge ditty like "I Can't Hide From My Mind." My favorite of his, "Spine/Memo To Human Resources," tends toward the latter camp and has a really nice and relaxed melody.

I can't bitch about the rest of the tracks, 'cos there's not really anything wrong with them per se. In fact, the songcraft on display is impressive, and the respective lyrical styles have developed quite nicely and don't feature quite as much overt goofiness as in days gone by. As I said, it's just a general impression of some of it coming a little to easy to the band. A few of the tracks certainly have antecedents (for "Au Contraire" read "Turn Around"), which diminishes their impact.

If I was to describe The Spine in one sentence, I would call it a letter from an old friend telling you that everybody's doing just fine. And those are nice letters to receive, aren't they? Recommended, for fun and stress-reduction.

Records In Review: Destroyer--Thief

Well, I did say a few months back that I'd be delving into the New Pornographers' and associated members' back catalogues, didn't I? Of course I did. So be quiet and listen, both of you.

Destroyer is the vee-hickle of NP occasional songwriter Dan Bejar. In the Pornographers, he's the indispensable, hippy counterpoint to mainman Carl Newman's tightly-wound and razor-sharp economy. On his own, he's a sardonic, occasionally arch folk troubadour whose music contains echoes of early '70s Elton John and David Bowie, among others (N.B. to any Bowie freaks: I don't wanna hear it), although much less presentational. Thief (1999) is his first full-fledged band album, and it features NPer John Collins on bass and Jason Zumpano, from that band whose name escapes me, on keyboards.

I've been flipping and flopping on this one for a while, but my Considered And Rational Judgment is that Thief would make an extremely good ep; at album length, the static pacing combined with Bejar's nasal recitativo starts to grate. On a song-by-song basis, the material's very good. I particularly like opener "The Temple," which has that EJ country-blues pace and a catchy melody. Bejar does craft some nice vocal melodies, which you might at first overlook 'cos he's very wordy and his singing style very percussive/punctuated. "Mercy" and "To The Heart Of The Sun On The Back Of The Vulture, I'll Go" (I kid you not) are also standouts; on both, the folky thing is balanced by a '90s low-fi approach which works really well.

The rest of the album could use some editing. By the time I got to "Queen of Languages" (track 8 of 13), I was itching for a change of pace and, frankly, for the Pornographers to show up and put some foot to gas pedal. I can't help thinking that this music could have been better realized. It needed to be taken farther away from its folky, solo-performer roots, so as to let the band stretch out more. That said, it does have a lot of charm, which shows well on upbeat tracks like "The Way Of Perpetual Roads." There's a few instrumental/ambient tracks that are nice changes of pace, if unspectacular. I haven't been able to find a lyric sheet, but most of the songs appear to be humorous digs at the music industry or the self-importance of pop singers (as in the title track). They're abstract enough not to be annoying.

Thief probably won't stop me from picking up some of the more recent Destroyer albums, but based on this I prefer Bejar in his other, better-known band, where he doesn't have to be the centre of attention and where his material's interpreted with more gusto. Cautiously recommended.