Friday, May 26, 2006

The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers

Raconteur, (rak' on-ter) n, person clever in telling stories, anecdotes, etc.

Remember a time
when all was not fine
and up from the dingy sewers
came four lousy thieves
who flourished like trees
behold The Raconteurs...

I was anticipating this one with great interest and I'm pleased that my man Jack White has not let me down. Unless you're new here, you'll already know that I adore Jack. Here he is one quarter of a band which includes singer-songwriter guitarist (and adorably cheekboned scruffy guy) Brendon Benson, as well as drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence of the Greenhornes.

Jethro couldn't wait to hear what ol' Jack could do with another guitarist, and --gasp--a bass player! and --gasp-- a REAL DRUMMER! (I do like Meg. I think she's unique but most drummers I know don't get her thing. Y'know.)

I regret not getting to last September's White Stripes concert on time to see the Greenhornes. (Something about waiting in an unnamed studio waiting for a certain engineer to finish editing something...story of my life...)

These four guys mesh like this is the third album, rather than first. White and Benson trade vocals seamlessly. They also take on the production roles. Not everybody should take the do-it-yourself approach, but they can get away with it successfully.

This album is short and sweet and slightly mysterious. My first impression on listening to it is the timelessness. What era is this? These guys all favour vintage gear and analog tape. I'd also guess that Jack White's spent some time listening to Robert Plant.

All the elements of a Beautiful Mess are there: the tape hiss, the glorious amplifier buzz, the count-ins, the murmured snippets of conversation before songs. Don't kid yourself though. Everything is intentional. I listened to it in the family room in surround. There's a lot of detail.

I put it through a few tests:
The dining room test: Passed. It's groovy enough to enjoy while dining with the kids. It's not so dark and down that it'll turn you off your food.
The rainy day test: Passed. Oh yeah. For real.
The Jethro/Jetta test: PASSED! Yay! When he could no longer deal with the hot mastering on the Chili Peppers record, he put this in and said something like, "There. Hear that? That doesn't hurt. I can turn it up and it doesn't hurt me. Can you get that?"
Plus, he's pleased with the songwriting. Those are his sticking points. And yes, it's pretty good highway music.
Family room stereo test: I put this on downstairs and sat on the couch, directly in front of the speakers on the front wall and between the surround speakers. I turned it up to 40. Wow. Just, wow. What a production. It all sounds so simple at low volume but there is so much going on!

(I love this. I wish I could get paid to listen to music and be wowed.)

The songs, all written by Benson and White, are solid and memorable. The standout tracks are; Steady, As She Goes, which is the first single; Intimate Secretary; Store Bought Bones; and the stunning, and lovingly Zeppelinesque, Blue Veins. It stands up as a whole complete album, rather than a collection of singles.

The packaging adds to the era-confusion. With earth tones, gilded details, and calligraphy, it has an old look to it. You'll know by looking that this isn't a happy sunshiney fun times party record. My only complaint is the lack of lyrics. Having said that, it's not hard to hear the words, and I suspect that these story tellers are forcing us to listen.

This record is cool, moody, and dark. It makes me want to walk around barefoot in jeans and a corduroy shirt, with my hair centre parted and hanging in waves over my cheekbones. It makes me wish my truck was twenty years older.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Red Hot Chili Peppers STADIUM ARCADIUM

I love Red Hot Chili Peppers. However I do not personally know or am related to anybody in this band, so this will be a reasonably unbiased review. Other than, that I dig them. But if you've been here before you'll know what a breathless fan I am.

Here are the facts: It's been four years since the last album.
They spent almost two years on this one.
Rick Rubin was involved. (We heroize Rick Rubin here.)
Nobody is on drugs anymore! Yay!
This is not just an album. This is TWO ALBUMS. Two discs. Fourteen songs each. Twenty eight songs in total.

With a quantity like that, the potential for suckitude rises substantially. However, these guys have done the improbable: they have just put out a double album with twenty eight songs and NONE OF THEM SUCK.

I got my hands on this piece of work on Thursday and I'm writing this review on Monday evening; it's been spinning steadily. I've put it through its paces. Here are the results:

The Discman Test: Passed. I liked Dani California real good on my one-speakered clock radio but through the phones I heard very interesting things.
The Dining Room Test: Passed. It sounds good on my daughter's little player sitting on the extra chair.
The Road Test: Passed. There's a good mixture of vibey grooves and rockin gas pedal pushers.
The Jethro-Jetta Test: Failed. That's right. Sadly, failed. Something about the pre-amps in the VW car stereo and how Damn Frickin Loud The Mastering is, and that all the high notes are distorting and causing his golden ears agony.
I'm not being sarcastic here, because Jethro really does have golden ears, which provide us with our living, and we protect his ears. The thing is, deep down, Jethro is a headbanger, and he likes it loud. He's totally bummed out that this Rick Rubin production, with his carefully chosen engineers, got sent off to the mastering studio and got pushed all the way up as loud as it could go and now this disc is punishing him.
It's not even the mastering engineer's fault. Everybody's doing it. This is how discs are mastered these days. This was recorded on analog and it still distorts in the top end.
The Gramma Test: Passed. She didn't mind it in her car or her living room.
The Strict Mommy Test: Passed. Can you believe it??? I have listened to it repeatedly, I've scoured the lyric sheets, and there is no swearing. Did you hear me? This Red Hot Chili Peppers record has no swearing. My daughter is thrilled. Okay, there are a few uh, references that I hope will sail over their innocent heads. But there's no swearing!
The Sex Appeal Test: Passed. Duh.

Now let me tell you about the packaging. It's excellent. It's all done in contrasts of hot and cool colours. The two discs are called Jupiter and Mars, which is appropriate since the whole project is rather spacey looking. All the lyrics are included, so that you can examine all the crazy rhymes. There are individual photos of each guy and a group shot amidst the fiery remains of an apparently hot rehearsal.

The music! This is perfect, classic Chili Peppers. There is a maturity here, but these boys have not forgotten that they are a funk band. The Chad Smith & Flea rhythm section is smokin. Listen to Flea; you must. Guitarist John Frusciante is still the master of the spidery riffs but can pull out a heavy squawk of power chords. While Flea plays the melodies, and Chad sets down the killer beats, John vibes out the riffs from outer space, over which Anthony shouts and sings the perfectly sensical nonsense.

The biggest pleasant surprise would be the vocal confidence in frontman Anthony Kiedis. He didn't start off as a singer. He was the shirtless rapping crazy frontman who kind of learned to sing out of necessity. He's still not ranking among the most technically skilled singers, but he is singing! He's developed a nice little vibrato and is using it sparingly. He sounds strong, and keeps his unique sound. (I didn't ask Jethro if he'd been Autotuned to death. I can't tell and I don't wanna have the bubble burst.)

If I may quote myself here: He's putting some effort into it instead of just lying on his back with his hands behind his head, grinning. (That's a good one eh? Mental image alert!!!)

There are so many standout songs. Dani California, the catchy first single, stays true to Anthony's favourite subject of the troubled sexy young woman. This song has the rapid rhyme verses, singalong chorus, and funky bridge. They ended it with a guitar solo- with a flange effect on it!- and a bass climb. Genius. It's followed up by the vibey Snow ((Hey oh)) which lopes along smoothly. The title track is trippy and mellow, but is then followed by the perfectly funky Hump de Bump which MUST be played at your next party.

Slow Cheetah is hypnotically sad. Especially In Michigan is big and rolling. I don't know why there are lions and tigers in Michigan but what a cool tune. The Mars disc has, in my opinion, the best marriage proposal song I've ever heard, Hard to Concentrate. (If you can't give it a listen, go read the lyrics on the website.) It also has the grinding Readymade and Storm In A Teacup. Desecration Smile will have you singing along and waving your lighter or cellphone, depending on your age and bad habit preference. The whole thing ends with the grand Death of a Martian.

I think this is the grooviest I've ever heard them. And, it's the most varied.

Many of the songs aren't arranged in a traditional verse-chorus-verse form but they work. These guys know how to push and pull a beat.

A large cast of guest musicians rounds out the huge production, including guitarist Omar Rodriguez, a choir, percussionists, and a cellist. Don't be alarmed. They are not in a Power Ballad With Strings phase. I doubt they ever will; they're too naturally cool.

I also have to note that I'm really falling in love with John Frusciante. He's contributing backup vox, something he took on with 2002's By The Way. He looks content, healthy, dare I say, beatific! His brain fascinates me. Interviews with him are incomprehensible (I assume, for most people). He tells SPIN that he resents being told what to do by his brain. I know, John!! I know!! It's really a good thing he didn't have to have an arm amputated a few years back when he had that little dirty needle abcess problem. Geez. Rock stars.

Speaking of looking good...Check out this magazine cover photo. I have to call attention to Flea. How fit is this guy? Is that what surfing and bass playing can do for the physique? Anthony looks good. Of course. And Chad looks...happy! He has discovered smiling!

This one has always been an interesting band. They have never sounded like anyone else. They've kept doing what they're good at, and not content to cruise effortlessly, have pushed themselves.

Should you spend your hard-earneds on this record? Heck yes. From a purely dollar per song basis, you win. And it rocks.
And finally, I just want to say...


I did not illegally download your record. I drove to the store and bought it. I'm glad I did. I would never break your sweet precious hearts by stealing your music. Thanks for another great album.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Lemony Snicket: The Penultimate Peril

(Note: If I had extra cash I would have a copy of Stadium Arcadium in my hands last week already, and as of today I'd have grabbed up Broken Boy Soldiers, but that is not the case. No new music for me yet. So I'll happily gleefully review a book I finished last week. Out of rockin mode, into Snicket mode...)

If you're not familiar with Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, heed the warnings. These stories really are too terrible to read, and you'd be better off finding something more pleasant to occupy your time. There is little joy in the sad tale of the Baudelaire orphans, whose parents perished in a Terrible Fire. Since then they have been placed in the not-so-caring care of many inept adults, all the while thwarting the Nefarious Count Olaf, "nefarious" here meaning, "a very greedy dirty man who schemes elaborately to destroy the children in order to acquire their fortunes."

I own every book in this series including the Unauthorized Autobiography. What does this say about me? That I have a dark side...

Let me start with the packaging. In this case, it's above the bar of excellence. There is something distincly old fashioned about the look of the books but it's from a time that may not have existed. The paper is thick and each edge is carefully frayed. The spines have a canvas bound appearance, the font does not have a modern look, and most of the pages have some form of decoration on them.

Illustrator Brett Helquist, a talented artist, has given life to the stories perfectly. The Baudelaire's world is shifty and timeless; partly seedy and grimy, but at times brilliantly bright and sharp. It's a time period when people live in gothic mansions and wear spats on their shoes. It's a country where people have every accent and style of dress. It's a place where adults are stupid and children try their best to be respectful but are constantly told how little they know. The sadness and futility come through in the spooky, elegant pictures.

By this point in the story, the orphans have gotten free from their string of awful guardians and have been on their own, trying to unravel the mysteries about their lives and the deaths of their parents. Book the Twelfth now finds them hiding out in the Hotel Denouement, undercover, trying to decide who they can trust. Apparently, nobody. This is especially frightening since every nasty character they've come across has gathered here for a very important meeting.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'll let you in on something significant: EVERYTHING in this series is significant. Every book has thirteen chapters. This being the "penultimate" book, you know it'll go to thirteen books. Each book has been a little bit thicker than the one before it. If I wasn't so lazy, I could go right now to my bookshelf and most likely find that each one is thirteen pages longer than the one before.

This importance of detail is why my only complaint about this book, is that I could barely keep track of what had happened before!

Small complaint. The writing is as perfect as ever. When you read this (and you will, despite the warnings not to, because you are a curious beast) bring a dictionary! It's worth it! Mr Snicket uses his usual gimmicks and repetitions and alliterations to move us through the story. Be on your toes for literary references too. I just found another one, just now. ("be on your toes" here meaning "Mr Snicket brilliantly borrows things from previously written works")

He's true to his characters. The children are growing up, and this is one of the most heartbreaking aspects: they don't stay young forever. Violet and Klaus are teenagers now, each with an endangered love interest. Sunny now speaks in phrases several words long and has become a good cook. Meanwhile, Count Olaf has a new dramatic affectation. The nefarious ex-girlfriend Esme Squalor is as IN as ever.

And true to form, there is betrayal, despair, mystery and confusion. There is invention. There is a library. And there is food. And of course, somebody has to die!

This truly is a sad book. It really is Quite Awful. But you know what? Your life won't be as despondent as those of the Baudlaire children, but you could still be the victim of misfortune. Parents sometimes die, and children face a very different life in the aftermath. There are times when you don't want to be told that things could be worse. There are times when you need to be told that Yes, This Is Very Bad.

The saddest part for me is that there will only be one more.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sarah McCully: Virtue

Straight up, this is a biased review. I know Sarah McCully and I appreciate her as a person as well as an artist. But at times, someone I know and like makes a record that rocks my world, and this is one of those times!

"Virtue" is that rare album that delivers the whole package, combining solid writing, brilliant musicianship, talent, and craft. This album sounds good. And you know I'm a sucker for the visuals: the artwork and photography are excellent.

I've been road testing this one since it landed in my hands a couple of months ago. My friend who likes Sheryl Crow and Led Zeppelin and Dixie Chicks likes it. My sister who listens to all the mono-monikered divas thinks it's good. My daughter who digs Gwen and the White Stripes and Audioslave likes it. My son who is into Audioslave and Soundgarden and Audioslave, even he likes it. My husband who listens to everything for a living likes it. My mom likes it!

This album has passed the dinner party test. Played on a low volume, it incited someone to ask who we were listening to.

I've taken it on several car rides. It works in town. It absolutely soars on a tar & chip road with hills dropping away from the ditches.

So what's it all about? I hate to label it. It's not country, but it's not pop. It's a damn fine singer backed up by a great band. Producer Justin Abedin does an amazing job of handling all guitars as well as banjo, resonator, & mandolin. How can you not love banjo? Banjo rocks!!!

Sarah has a laid back, sexy, drawling approach to the vocals, but there's nothing slovenly about it; every note lands precisely where she intended it to. As a singer she has a full tool box. Sometimes breathy, at times growling, and just the right amount of vibrato in only the right places. Her voice is beautiful, clear and passionate.

There's a good mix of uptempo songs (Mistake, Conquered, Hardest Thing) and ballads (Beautiful, Holding On, Take With You). At times this record goes downright haunting, such as in Never Wanted You More and especially Old Wounds, which goes rather Zeppelinesque in its climax. The title track, as well as the closer, Man of Me, are both jaunty and totally sassy.

This album, to me, is very womanly. It's got all of the love and hate and guts and questions and desires. It's a totally cool record but there's nothing cold about it; there's a lot of heat generated. If you are a woman you'll like it. If you like women you'll like it.
Whether you're into country, pop, folk or rock, there's something for you here. Go over to Sarah and take a look and a listen.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Will the Red Hot Chili Peppers wait for me?

I refuse to break John Frusciante's sweet little heart by downloading it illegally. I'm going to go buy it next week when I got some cash in my hands. Don't they look awesome? They all look healthy. I hope I love this album as much as I want to...

Monday, May 08, 2006

100 hits!

It's not a classic rock compilation album. I got a 100 hits on this blog! Mind you most of them were from me, checking, like an impatient child. But hey, I'll take what I get.

coming up:
Virtue by Sarah McCully
She Got Up Off the Haven Kimmel
The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket

and of course, I'll be buying a some CDs in the next few weeks. I might even sit down long enough to watch a movie. Thanks for coming over to visit and come back again!

Monday, May 01, 2006

"Falcon" by Helen Macdonald

How would I have known about this gem of a book if I hadn't been reading Fretmarks? I strongly suggest you head over there and have a little read. Don't just read what's there; go back and read a few postings as well. This is good writing. It's interesting, funny, moving and very different. There's even a good chance that at Fretmarks you might-gasp- learn something!

When our girl Pluvialis announced the release of her book I was so gripped with curiosity I had to buy it. I'm glad I did. It wasn't a risky purchase since I already knew how much I enjoyed her style. I was not disappointed!

"Falcon" is part of the Animal Series published by Reaktion Books. Other books have titles such as Dog, Bear, and Cockroach. Shudder. I think I'll pass on the Cockroach one...At 208 pages, this is a dense, satisfying read. The presentation of the book itself is excellent, with quality paper, elegant font, and amazing pictures. I can't help it, I fall for the packaging easily. If you want to keep me interested, I need my visual and tactile rewards! (In more simple terms, I likes my books with a few pictures in 'em.)

The book is set up in six chapters, all of which smoothly segue into the next; it doesn't read like a dry information lesson. At first, we learn about the falcons themselves, free of all the cultural and historical weight we have put on them. Helen shows us what the bird is, pure and simple. Species are discussed as well as anatomy and flight mechanics. In any other hands this could be just another science text book but Helen draws us in- Yes! I want to know what it's like to be a falcon!

The book covers Mythical falcons, Trained falcons, Threatened falcons, Military falcons, and Urban falcons.

I'm so tempted to say that this book is as much about us as it is about our feathered, elegant, fierce friends, but that wouldn't be fair to the falcons. This book is about them. But we can't learn about them without learning about how humans have interacted with them.

As humans, we see everything through the eyes of our own experience, and it appears that falcons have suffered or thrived because of this. Throughout history they have been revered or reviled, depending on what people need them for.

For example, it had never occurred to me that falconry had once been a sport of kings, but once wealthy men began hunting with rifles, those birds of prey became the competition.

Reading this was a fascinating look into a culture -falconry- that I wasn't familiar with. I couldn't help but think about horses as I read this. I really do believe that although our creatures are different, falconers and horse people share a kind of obsessiveness.

The most amazing thing about this book is the way the author pulls in the unexpected. Nothing gets past her. Pages are decorated with photos, diagrams, advertisements, rock band logos, movie publicity shots, old paintings and cartoons. Culture, pop culture and art coexist beautifully. She's got the hawk eyes (geddit?) to find all these connections and pull them together in a way that makes perfect sense. If you're sharp enough you might even find some sly humour!

I especially love the way the story ends. It's tempting to think that wild animals simply don't live in cities. But they do. Once you've read your way this far, it will make perfect sense that a falcon would be very comfortable nesting on a high rise building. We may think we rule the world or ruin the world; either way, the falcons don't care. They will keep doing what they do.

I gained a new appreciation for the falcon after reading this book. I found myself daydreaming about a perfect grey sky and a big haughty eye blinking at me.

Should you read this book? Yes. I suggest bringing a dictionary along. She's a sharp woman who uses words that I wasn't clear on; once I looked them up I realized that it truly was the best word for what she was telling us. Don't fear the big words! Embrace them! Let them love you!

It's not a light fluffy read. It's an involving, interesting read. This one, you soak up slowly.

Should you buy this book? Yes. If you love animals, nature, science, art, and history, you should own it, because you'll want to read it more than once.