Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear

David Zucker's political shift is weird to me. Here he is making a movie all about environmental conservation and energy efficiency twenty years ago, and now he's making crap like An American Carol. Apparently he's still pro environment though. What's important is that he used to make funny movies. The sequel to the first Naked Gun movie doesn't have quite the same pizazz, as it covers a lot of the same ground and doesn't have a lot of truly memorable jokes. It has its moments, and it can be funny just to watch Leslie Nielsen eat dinner. But when you have a mundane premise for your wacky comedy like a cop trying to stop some evil industry executives, it takes a whole lot to keep the mood right the whole time. And it's still weird watching O.J. Simpson act the part of blundering sidekick (He murdered his ex-wife and her friend and got away with it).

Uh... man. I hate when this happens. Robert Goulet is a capable slimy villain and Priscilla Presley returns still competent in her role as Attractive Woman with Decent Comedic Ability which a movie like this always needs, despite being a bit old for it. Um. There's a scene where Nielsen fights off a goon in a bathroom that's pretty good. They're having that typical movie style fight where they're constantly grabbing items to use as makeshift weapons, but it's goofy shit like electric toothbrushes. It's funnier if you watch it. Though most of the jokes in the movie are like that.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Four Rooms

So Four Rooms is a bit odd. It's an anthology film, featuring segments by two filmmakers I like, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and two that I've never heard of, whose names I've forgotten. It takes place in a hotel during New Year's Eve, and tells small stories in four different rooms all featuring Tim Roth as a strange bellhop who's new to the job. The two unknowns go first, and the segments tend to improve as the film goes on. You'd like a bit more consistency in this format, but at least getting better with time is superior to getting worse. Apparently Richard Linklater was supposed to do a fifth segment early on, but he pulled out before production started. That would have been interesting, but the movie really didn't need to be longer than it was.

The first segment features a coven of witches performing a ritual in their room, and the supernatural elements don't exactly jive with the rest of the film. All of the pieces are sort of different stylistically though, so it isn't a huge deal. It's sort of funny, although in the first two segments Roth's performance is just a bit too weird and inhuman, while Rodriguez makes him more angrily maniacal and Tarantino chills him out quite a bit. The second part has Roth caught up in an unusual roleplay with a husband and wife, which like the first is a bit hit or miss.

The third segment has Antonio Banderas, fresh off my favorite film of his (Desperado), as cool as ever taking his wife to a party and leaving Roth in charge of looking after their two kids in the hotel room. I liked this one a lot, as early on it captures the feeling of being a bored kid in an unfamiliar place as well as anything I've ever seen, and it starts getting really insane as it goes on, culminating in a highly unlikely and entertaining situation that wouldn't seem out of place in an R rated Warner Bros. cartoon, complete with appropriately half-witty, half-corny punchline.

I'm not sure if I preferred Rodriguez' segment or Tarantino's, which is very much in his traditional style, with a lot of long takes, extreme profanity, and unexpected violence played for laughs. Tarantino casts himself as an eccentric and successful film director, Marisa Tomei has a highly entertaining single scene on the phone with Roth, and Bruce Willis shows up in an uncredited role for fun. It has a strong mix of humor, rising tension, and humor again, topping the film off in a way I've come to expect from one of my favorite filmmakers. Four Rooms really isn't a great movie, but it's an interesting experiment with plenty of fun moments.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2

A few things happened this season. Riker grew a beard. Doctor Crusher disappeared while another woman took her place temporarily. Her son continued to be an annoying punk. Worf got his groove on. Data constantly pondered the mysteries of being a human. Some things made Deanna pretty upset. Geordi continued to wait for his moment to shine. Picard kept on running the ship the way he wanted to. There were finally some pretty darn good episodes, like the trial deciding whether Data could be considered a life form or not. Some good stuff on the holodeck. They had the gall to end the season with a clip show, which is nigh inexcusable. I've found that I tend to enjoy the little moments between characters that reveal some small details more than the main plots of episodes, which are usually fine but not too exciting. For example, there's a scene where Riker cooks a meal for a few other officers, and thanks to the odd ingredients Worf is the only one who ends up liking it. So far at least, the show is at its best when it's just considering life a few hundred years in the future. They introduced the Borg this season, which are an interesting new foe but yet to be fully explored. Since the next season is the general consensus of when the show actually got good, I'm fairly excited to continue watching.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island

I almost feel like Martin Scorsese should have been born twenty years later or something. He's certainly impressed me with his older movies, but what he's able to do with the advantages of modern film equipment and techniques is nothing short of amazing. With the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson (who by no real surprise most recently handled the beautiful Inglourious Basterds as well), he's crafted one of the best looking movies I've seen, one that in general is elevated from its potential B-movie status by a sharp script based on a novel by an accomplished author, a great cast of mostly recognizable faces, and excellence in nearly every facet of its production.

The movie isn't perfect, of course. There are a couple missteps. The use of greenscreen is obvious in a few shots (although you wonder a bit if that was intentional to add to the uncertainty of the narrative), and a few lines feel clumsy or melodramatic. Overall though it's a well constructed, tense film that Scorsese seems in control of the entire time despite the somewhat kinetic way in which information is doled out. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal marshal named Teddy Daniels assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a mental hospital for violent offenders on an island off Massachusetts. He meets his new partner played by Mark Ruffalo on the boat ride over, and from there they soon realize that something is off. The island itself is intensely foreboding, introduced to some of the most sinister music I've ever heard, and it's not long before the marshals start to feel weird about the whole investigation. Ben Kingsley and the other hospital staff seem friendly enough on the surface, but it's clear pretty early that not everything is as it seems. The movie has a twist that I was partly already spoiled on, but it's completely woven into the fabric of the entire film, and it's not so much the surprise of the truth that's interesting but just the way it informs every little thing that happens.

While the normal parts of the story are interesting and well made, the movie stands out the most with its flashbacks to Daniels' experiences during World War II and a couple intense dream sequences that are drenched with amazing imagery and hint strongly at the truth behind everything. He also starts hallucinating at one point, and you're constantly being peppered with little touches that make trying to figure out what's actually going on a constantly entertaining exercise. Despite the certain visual and auditory treats, the movie wouldn't work without a good cast supporting it, and everyone seems to bring their A game. I wasn't sure about DiCaprio at first but he won me over with his reactions to the constantly increasing stress of the situation. Ruffalo is as solid as ever, Kingsley and Max von Sydow are wonderful in their intellectual menace, Michelle Williams is creepily effective in glimpses of Daniels' dead wife, and all the guards and inmates are perfectly leery and off kilter as required.

The story has the appropriate amount of twists and turns before the ending, which is of two parts. First the truth is laid bare, in a scene that might be just a bit too tidy but it ultimately effective mostly because of DiCaprio's performance, and then the plot is finally resolved in just about the perfect fashion. After everything is put together, you can either dwell on the results or think about how well it fits. Considering I was sort of looking for that already, I've already done some of the work, although it definitely still merits a second viewing. I'm not positive every single moment will still make sense, but at least the broad strokes seem to be in order. I expected to like the film, although not to be so impressed by the skill of its creation. Scorsese is definitely getting older, but I'd say his abilities are still pretty far from eroding at this point. It might even be my favorite work of his out of the handful I've seen. If I wasn't already convinced, I definitely have some catching up to do.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

So this was a strange movie. The whole thing is practically one long drug trip as Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro wander around Vegas hallucinating and acting crazy. It's frequently very funny, although just as often merely bizarre. I struggled to find a point to the whole thing, as it's based on a semi-autobiographical book by Hunter S. Thompson and just seems to be a snippet of one of the crazier times in his life. Based on a few old interviews I've seen, Depp's portrayal of the fictionalized version of Thompson was pretty spot on, although with some extra flair on some things like the odd way he walks everywhere while tripping. There's a lot of brief appearances by recognizable people sprinkled around, like Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci. I got the sense that they enjoyed making the movie, although in practice it's not as fun to watch. I liked a lot of it for the most part, but in general it was just a bit too intensely strange and wandering for my taste. For some reason del Toro's always been a bit of an enigma to me. He plays a lot of interesting parts and does unique things with them, but I rarely think of his performances as truly great or memorable. He gained a lot of weight for this part and has his moments (I love how he couched all his advice with the "as your attorney" bit, even when it had no relevance whatsoever), but in the end I struggled to find a point to his presence. Sort of like the whole movie I guess. I like Terry Gilliam as a guy, but so far I've yet to see his style really make a whole movie work. This was interesting but flawed, and I thought 12 Monkeys was held back a bit. He's allowed to keep trying, though.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ghostbusters II

I've actually seen like the first forty minutes of this before, but this is the first time seeing it through. Slowly but surely, I'm checking off all those wacky science fiction comedies from the 80s that I'd missed. I was surprised to find out that it had a lesser reputation than the original, when in my mind it was pretty much just as good. Obviously it's missing that spark of originality, as it doesn't bring much new to the table and is really just a rehash of the same basic plot. Nobody believes in ghosts despite the unmissable paranormal event from five years prior, but then something happens and activity spikes, business is booming until the ghostbusters are sidelined by political douches before an ancient evil, which has manipulated some weird guy who likes Sigourney Weaver into being its lackey, strikes and they are allowed to save the day. It's not Shakespeare, but it's fun while it's happening. This is where I would normally break for a second paragraph but I'm not sure I have enough left to say to justify it. What I like most about the movie is the chemistry of the main cast, as you get the sense that they like making movies together and are just having fun with the story. It doesn't really pay off the villain as well as the first film, but it's enjoyable throughout, funny pretty often and having the kind of special effects that don't look amazing but hold up pretty well for aging twenty years. It looks like things are shaping up for a third movie to come out next year. I'm not sure how much I like that idea, but I'm willing to give it a shot.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Role Models

I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of Role Models besides a few laughs, but it ended up about as solid as any comedy these days that dips into the same pool of actors. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott make an unlikely leading duo, and in a way they were both just carrying their own half movies that crossed over a number of times, but I bought their friendly if undesired (on Rudd's part) rapport. Rudd co-wrote the screenplay with some of his longtime comedy buddies, and it was a nice mix of some smaller faces with more currently popular names. Rudd's as wryly funny as ever, and Scott continues to somehow be likable despite his general personality being something that would usually make me want to shove a fist in his face. After an unfortunate incident they're forced to enlist in a Big Brothers Big Sisters-type program run by the hilarious as usual Jane Lynch in lieu of jail time. Scott gets a problematic kid, Rudd is assigned McLovin cast as a LARP-obsessed dork, and hilarity ensues.

I had some issues with the story, as things run just a little conveniently parallel between the two characters and the ending is perhaps overly tidy and happy for everyone. I'm not quite sure it earns everything it tries to do. It's not a big issue though, as I liked most of the characters and it was funnier than I expected. Everyone I already mentioned does a fine job, Elizabeth Banks continues to be underutilized for how good she is at this stuff, and Ken Jeong provides his usual unique brand of bizarre comedy as the "king" of the LARP community. It's not always his words that sell the jokes, it might be just the way he touches someone's face or just a look he does. And despite the general vulgar tone of the film, it actually does a few things to change perceptions of the unusual topics it covers. Again, the clean ending undermines a bit of the realism in the story, but overall it was a solid, funny movie.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

OutKast - Stankonia

I know I complained about The College Dropout lasting over an hour and being peppered with pointless skits, thought the same issues didn't bother me as much with Stankonia for some reason. Not to say the album is better, although I think I liked it a little more. OutKast is a bit different, more experimental and weird than most other successful hip hop acts. There are a lot of guests on the record, though they rarely outperform the main members of the group, Big Boi and Andre 3000. They sound pretty similar, although the content of their lyrics tends to differ, and Big Boi raps faster while Andre is more playful and enunciates more. He also tends to be the one singing the choruses, which are routinely damn catchy for what is otherwise not a terribly mainstream sound.

The singles are solid, with "Ms. Jackson" being endlessly hummable and "B.O.B." having an eerily prescient chorus sung by a choir and just about everything but the kitchen sink thrown in somewhere. Most of the interludes are brief and to the point, and serve as breathers between chunks of music instead of being distracting. Some of the additional performers are recognizable, with Cee-Lo having an unusual verse in his own style on "Slum Beautiful" and B-Real from Cypress Hill on "Xplosion", but in general the guests feel natural instead of being shoehorned in to grab attention and a few extra sales, especially since I haven't heard most of them. The album in general is an unusual mix of memorable production, catchy hooks, and technical proficiency, creating a sound that has few holes in it and is pretty fun to listen to throughout. The overlong self-titled closer drags a bit but that might be my only significant issue. Pretty solid.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kanye West - The College Dropout

Why are so many rap albums so long? I mean, Kanye got his big break as a producer when he did a few songs on The Blueprint. How did he look at that album, which has thirteen tracks consisting of fifteen three to five minute songs, and decide that the formula could be improved with several tracks of generally weak comedy and undeveloped half-songs and a coda where he rambles about his early career for eight minutes? He mostly makes up for it with the music, but the filler drags it down from a potentially great album to merely a very good one. What Kanye lacks in pure technical prowess he makes up for with some amazing production, genuinely catchy hooks, the occasional stroke-of-genius line, and an ability to get a lot of good talent working together on a song. Not every guest appearance works out, but enough do to make it a pretty fun and diverse ride throughout.

There are a few clunkers here and there, but most of the songs have at least a few good things going for them, and the album as a whole is just plain entertaining, not quite as much on the pure musical level of more dedicated emcees, but as an auditory experience. Even a track like "The New Workout Plan" which has almost nothing going for it on paper manages to be mostly listenable thanks to the bells and whistles. A bit gimmicky maybe, but there are a lot of different ways to enjoy music. The other singles are all consistently fun, with "Jesus Walks" being one of the few songs by any artist to consistently give me chills and "Through the Wire" being at the least an interesting experiment, and a successful one at that. Most of the songs that aren't singles could pass for such, and while it's my standard practice to enjoy music by listening to whole albums through, The College Dropout is definitely one of the most iPodable I've heard. The anti-education stance a lot of the lyrics take is frankly bewildering, but for the most part I'm sold on an artist I've been quietly admiring from afar for a few years now.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

Even when I'm reading the lyrics, half the time I don't know what Ghostface is talking about. But that's okay, because he's almost completely in his own world with his unique and intricate rhyme schemes. Other rappers make heavy use of punchlines to mask holes in their verses, but Ghostface pretty much gives you 100% the entire time. There aren't a lot of very memorable hooks or standout beats on the album. It's just Killah rapping for about an hour minus skits which are really just recordings of people he knows talking and sound clips from old Iron Man cartoons, along with several guest appearances by other artists, mostly members of Wu-Tang Clan. GZA and Raekwon are the only ones that I think really stand up to Ghostface's flow and creativity, the rest are welcome but either have unexceptional lyrics or just aren't that good at rapping.

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of point in calling out specific tracks. It's definitely not a situation where there are a few obvious singles and then some other songs to fill out the run time. Despite a bunch of different producers the sound is very consistent, and the goal was definitely to make a very good rap album instead of a few good rap songs. I guess a few of my favorites would have to be "Nutmeg", "One", "Apollo Kids", "Malcolm", and "Wu Banga 101". There's an interesting thing in a few tracks that don't last two minutes, but they're not little joke songs or anything, they're just regular raps that cut short faster than usual. It makes you wonder if they were unfinished and Ghostface liked them enough to keep them on the record but not enough to flesh them out. In any case, I liked Supreme Clientele well enough and I'm definitely interested in seeing what else Wu-Tang has to offer.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

As much as any artist I can think of, Grizzly Bear is a band that lives off moments. There are songs on this album that are brilliant all the way through, such as the piano driven and utterly infectious "Two Weeks". But a number of songs, especially around the middle of the track list, could easily be justified as at least a little bit boring. Nothing wrong with them musically, they just aren't particularly interesting for the most part. They're nearly all saved though by at least a couple passages, even if they only last a few seconds, that remind you how good this band can be at its best. In a perfect world, a band wouldn't have to remind you how good it is, it would just be apparent the whole time you're listening. And I'm sort of exaggerating the degree to which these "boring" tracks are uninteresting. They're all entirely pleasant to the ear, it's just that they don't stand up to "Southern Point" or "While You Wait for the Others". The album both begins and ends pretty brilliantly, and it's enough along with those moments throughout that middle to say I do like this album quite a bit. I think their previous release Yellow House was probably more consistently good throughout, those the highs of Veckatimest are every bit as lofty. Grizzly Bear would be hard pressed to work their way in as one of my favorite bands, but their early career so far is pretty darn promising.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Street Fighter Alpha: Generations

I don't have much to say about this. It's not very long. And it's not very good. I couldn't tell what was going on for a while. It seems to tell the origin of Akuma and then show Ryu for a while, although I didn't realize it was him. And I thought I saw the same girl in both parts but that doesn't really make sense. There's a couple characters that aren't from the games and they're pretty boring. Ooh, a wacky old man who's good at martial arts! Ryu's master was already killed, why does he need a new one? The animation is pretty decent, especially in the fights, but the character designs are pretty atrocious, both not matching the characters very well and also just being ugly. Um... you probably shouldn't watch it. The end.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Millennium Actress

I've now seen everything that Satoshi Kon's directed. He's one of my two favorite anime creators, so I guess I'm happy with that. Actress hit me less hard than any of his other work, which was either more profoundly moving, more inventive structurally, or just more immediately disturbing. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the film, which is a perfectly nice story told in a unique way. It's about a small film crew that goes to interview an old woman who suddenly quit her successful acting career thirty years earlier. She tells them her life story, and things quickly become interesting when you see how exactly that story will be shown. The producer and cameraman are thrust into the past, watching the early events of her life actually play out, and once she starts acting things get really interesting as things are seen through the lens of her various roles.

This isn't actually happening of course, as they're still there listening to her in her living room. It's just a really clever way to do flashbacks that turn it from a boring trope into something unusual and occasionally fascinating. It's sort of funny that this and Tokyo Godfathers were the last two Kon creations that I saw, because they're smack in the middle of his career so far and fairly non-insane, which led to a narrow view of what his range as a filmmaker really is. Actress isn't without some issues, as there were times when I found myself wondering what the point actually was. Things pick up once certain connections are revealed though, and the ending is as poignant and beautiful as you could ever hope from a story like this. It's sort of predictable in a way, but only because it's so fitting. Definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 1

So I've heard from multiple Trek fans that this show doesn't really get good until the third season. Of course, me being me, I couldn't just skip 48 episodes, so I started at the beginning as usual. And it was... fine. Seemed like normal Star Trek to me. I'm pretty sure I like the cast more than the original series. I mean, I'm still undecided on Kirk versus Picard, and Wesley is pretty annoying. But while it's hard to beat the original's trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, the overall main crew of The Next Generation is broader and more interesting. And when a regular departs, they don't just mysteriously stop showing up on the bridge, they get a proper send off.

I'm not saying bad The Next Generation is as good as the best of the original series, because in this first season there really aren't any standout episodes like Kirk and company had. There's just a baseline level of quality - watchable but easy to lose your attention. If I didn't have other stuff to do while it was on, I might get tired of it. But if I just have some episodic science fiction that doesn't require a huge investment on while I'm working on something, The Next Generation works out pretty nicely. I'll keep watching it for now, even if it will be another while before it starts setting my world on fire.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heroes - Season 4

I don't care if this is the last season or not. I'm done watching Heroes. Recent events have forced me to realize that I'm wasting too much of my time continuing to watch series I no longer like. Why have I persisted this whole time, as the show has done nothing but get worse? I've seen many blog posts about how a few changes could "fix" the show, but in my mind it's beyond saving. Even if they hired good writers and actors and it somehow became watchable again, I know in my heart that I will never care about this show for another second. It's like when a man cheats on his wife and that's it, she knows she doesn't love him anymore and she never will. It's over. Why was I still watching? It honestly was partly curiosity at just how bad it could be, but I think most of it was so I could write this stupid post about it. I tortured myself for 18 hours over the last few months so I could say how much I didn't like it. That's no way to live. I briefly considered stopping the blog altogether or at least only writing once in a while, but I still like doing it. I will however promise never to experience anything just so I can blog about it again. I will finish watching the current seasons of all my shows and write them up. Then I will look at all of them and decide if I actually enjoy watching them. If I do, great, see you next year if you get a new season. If I don't, that's it. I'm not wasting my time anymore.

Heroes fucking sucks.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Big Lebowski

I was watching this again with friends last night, for the first time in too long. While there are films I would name as superior artistic achievements, I really can't think of any that I love more. Few movies hold up to repeated viewings as well as this one, and there are only a small handful of flaws that keep it from being perfect. There's something special about it, like you could try to replicate its success with the same amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera and never find the same magic in a hundred years. Instead of pontificating on why it works, I'll just start listing little details you might not notice the first couple times but help show why it's such a cult favorite. It really is the epitome of that sort of thing, failing when it was in theaters, but it's hard to find someone in my age group who hasn't seen it at this point.

- There's a lot of stuff with shirts that's fun. Most people have noticed that Donnie's bowling shirts never actually have his name on them, but fewer know that between their first and second scenes, Jackie Treehorn's two thugs decided to switch what they were wearing.
- It's fun to think about how people became friends. Walter and the Dude get along but really don't have much in common, leading us to think they were put in a situation where they were forced to find common ground, like they went to college together and were roommates or something. Neither one seems to care much for Donnie, but you can see how they saw his bowling talent and befriended him so they could use him on the team, and him being so weird accepted the only friends he could get.
- A bit more mysterious is how the Jesus and Liam became bowling buddies. The best theory I've heard is that the latter is the former's parole officer.
- Not really a fun fact, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic in this movie. And it's the only time I've ever seen something make Tara Reid useful.
- When he's discussing the toe with Walter in the diner, the Dude gets angry and dumps some change on the counter to pay for his coffee. It's easy to miss that he picks up a joint he accidentally grabbed with the money before he shuffles out of the place a bit too quickly.
- Walter's inappropriate references to Vietnam are great, but I might like his flashbacks even more. It only happens a couple times, but he'll forget where he is for a minute.
- Have you ever made note of how many times the movie could have ended if the Dude just stayed out of things? Eventually he gets in too deep, but if Walter never told him to go see the other Lebowski, or if he didn't take that specific rug from the place, and so on.
- It's gotta be common knowledge for fans at this point, but it's great how much of the Dude's dialogue is taken from what he's heard other people say and how all the elements of his dreams come from somewhere else in the film. Perhaps the best instance of this is when he tells Larry he's going to castrate him.
- How sad is it that Donnie's bowling buddies are the only ones at his funeral. Does he really have no family at all? I assume they knew him well enough to contact them if he did.
- The entire arc of Jackie's pornographic doodle is great. For one thing, it's a great drawing. For another, why is he drawing that while he's on the phone? What the Dude does is one of his smartest moments, but he gets nothing out of it, and of course it's the only thing in his pockets after he's arrested besides his Ralph's card.

I'm running out of steam here, so I'll wrap it up. Like I said, there are some issues with the movie and I'll touch on those. When the Dude gets thrown out of the cab and Bunny zooms by, the shot lasts too long and the Dude's expression of bewildered dismay ends up looking artificial. It's a very small problem, but again, we're talking about one of my favorite movies ever. Another thing is that I think there's only one scene in the movie that doesn't feature the Dude, the very brief snippet where we see the nihilists ordering breakfast. It's not really necessary because the other scene shows Bunny's toes intact, and it would have been nice if you could say there is no scene in the film without its protagonist. It's a stylistic thing, and when you're that close, you might as well go for it. These are both minor quibbles of course, small bumps in what is still one of cinema's most enjoyable experiences. I don't doubt that I like the movie just a bit too much, but I'm okay with that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jay-Z - The Blueprint

I'm still just poking and prodding with rap, and I decided a good next step would be what might be the most acclaimed hip hop album of the last decade. It was released way back on 9/11, the same day when the towers fell. I don't know what it means that one of New York's most prominent rappers released possibly his best album on the same day of the city's worst tragedy, but there's definitely something interesting about it. Unlike using the events of that day to make political points though, The Blueprint still feels relevant nine years later. It helped lead a shift back towards using samples in rap beats, as Jay-Z and the various producers on the album (including Kanye West before he launched his own career) took a lot of 70s R&B and soul, and even a bit of The Doors, and made it sound new, with pretty much every track having its own sound yet a consistent feel with a heavy dose of bass. Some of the vocal samples are pitch-changed, and they're all used to add depth to the sound, and the album never sounds boring. I think Jay-Z is a talented lyricist and a pretty good rapper, but the star of the record for me is definitely the music.

I still remember a couple of the album's singles from back when they were playing on MTV, though they're honestly among my least favorite songs. They're not bad, and "Girls, Girls, Girls" redeems itself a bit with the second part crammed onto the end of the twelve minute final track, but most of the other songs just seem to have more heart and more interesting moments. The content of the album is heavily autobiographical as would probably be expected, and also a bit defensive, as he was getting some backlash at the time for being presumptuous about his place in the scene, although he's still very confident in his own greatness. To be honest though, I think the single best verse on the album belongs to Eminem, who collaborates on the track "Renegade" which is apparently a remake of one they did earlier. It's overall an extremely good song, with a beat that's unique to the album and some extraordinary lyrics from both rappers. "Takeover" is another one that sounds a bit different from the rest, and features some pretty brutal disses including two bars at the end that pretty brilliantly wave aside just about everyone. There's plenty of other good songs on the album, and there's not really a point in naming them because it's just such a consistently high quality achievement.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Antlers - Hospice

I tend not to get too emotionally affected by music, mostly because I usually ignore lyrics unless they're especially clever, and well, a lot of musicians don't try that hard. But it's difficult to pay attention to Hospice at all and not get hit by it. It figures that only a couple weeks after I wrote a "best of 2009" list which featured nothing that made a huge impact on me, I'd hear an album as gripping as anything in recent memory. The music itself is only part of the equation, and you can't talk about Hospice without mentioning its origins. From what I can tell it's more or less the true story of the singer falling in love with a terminal bone cancer patient at the hospital where he worked. You can probably guess how well that works out.

Despite the simple honesty of the lyrics, they never really hit you over the head with the message, and it's easy to ignore the content if you just want to hear a nice mix of shoegazing post-rock and indie folkiness (why isn't this a more popular combination?), though if you do you're not giving it a fair chance to do everything it can. Some people probably wouldn't want to hear an album that would only depress the hell out of them, and that's fine. But it's one of the more powerful listening experiences I've had in a while.

Despite the sorrow of the words and the sincerity with which they're sung, it wouldn't work if the music was bad, and fortunately it's not. There's a fair amount of time spent without much happening beyond ambient noise, and it's difficult to love every moment when it feels like you're being pulled out of the flow a bit. There's a push and pull with the general sound as it goes between a strumming guitar and louder noise elements, and it could have gotten bogged down in its own seriousness. Luckily it's catchy enough in places to just be enjoyable to listen to, even while they're playing songs about abortion and knowing that someone you love is dying. I don't want to name individual tracks, because it really should be experienced as a full album, and it all runs together like one long piece of music. If you just want a taste though, it's okay to look up the music video for "Two". I'm definitely interested in seeing what this group does next now that this story has been told.