Archive for July, 2007

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Nine Inch Nails – Still

July 19, 2007

When Trent Reznor released the live album And All That Could Have Been in 2002, some versions were packaged with an individual “Halo” (his personal moniker for an album) called “Still.” You can’t find it in stores. It’s too rare. You used to be able to find it for purchase on Nine Inch Nails’ website, but it’s sale was discontinued. And if you were to find it in a used record store, it’s rarity would nail it at a ridiculous price. To be sure, this is the exact wrong Nine Inch Nails album to be the rarest, not only because it is a wonderful commodity to fans but also because of the unique and important place it holds in Reznor’s discography. The catch of this record is that it is Nine Inch Nails in it’s most stripped down form, most of the time featuring nothing more than Reznor’s voice, a piano, soft synthesizers, a few non-intrusive beats, and on one occasion an acoustic guitar. To put it simply, this is as close to a Nine Inch Nails Unplugged as anyone will ever get.

Having gotten this on a whim simply because it sounded interesting, it was at first off putting, mostly because I am so used to hearing Reznor’s brutal beats and blistering synthesizers. Whatever scary things I thought I had heard from Nine Inch Nails before, nothing could have possibly prepared me for Still. This nine track simplistic reinvention of Reznor’s music is much more destructive than The Downward Spiral and a vital part of his career that NEEDED to be released. In comparison, And All That Could Have Been simply pales and seems unnecessary. It is more emotionally powerful than the equally brilliant The Downward Spiral, and it rivals The Fragile in scope. To truly understand the record, one must rewind three years back to the release of The Fragile, the most progressive album in Trent’s career where his sound was completely reinvented and a whole new landscape of music was wrought out of raw emotion and studio know-how. Stylistically, Still sounds very much like The Fragile mostly because a lot of the songs are from the Fragile sessions. And in fact, a lot of what The Fragile was about was, go figure, musical fragility and the part it plays in music that is aurally huge. These songs are mostly just piano and are the very spirit of fragility.

What is certain is that this acoustic album is the core, the keystone, the ultimate facet of Trent Reznor’s career. Whether or not it is the greatest is up for grabs. The Downward Spiral and The Fragile are both killer albums worthy of much praise, but they both have their individual issues that push listeners away. Still, on the other hand, is in many ways a quintessential recording, and probably the most accessible and easy to understand record he has ever made. And yet with as much honest and forthrightness as Still contains, it is still emotionally biting and as destructive as any other Halo.

The song selection is quite interesting and highly effective. The first song, Something I Can Never Have, features only piano and vocals and, while not a complete reinvention, is quite moving. The problem here is the lyrics, which cannot be changed from their cheesy originals, but are still nonetheless given fine vocal treatment from a generally fantastic vocalist despite his mediocrity in lyrics. It is a good song that was meant for this album. This is not the only vocal highlight, though. The song The Fragile is given a wonderful, somewhat chilled rendition as well. And The Day The World Went Away is given similar treatment. What made the original so striking was it’s layered sound, and yet the melody stands just as strong at it’s barest. And possibly the most striking, And All That Could Have Been is an unbelievable display of versatility moving in waves of subtle melody through more intense sections and one of Reznor’s most pained vocal performances. These songs are true winners.

One song that needs to be individually addressed is The Becoming. Upon the release of The Downward Spiral, the song was dismissed as being annoying and kitschy with it’s repeating backdrop of the sounds of people screaming in terror. And yet it was one of the best songs on the album. In any case, the song is extremely heavy and probably not meant for Still, an album that prides itself on albums of the exact opposite stature. Some might say it works, and others might say it doesn’t. There is something completely convincing about Reznor not refraining himself from screaming his lungs out and doing the original version justice even in this stripped down version. It is an important song and represents The Downward Spiral very well. It is usually by the time The Becoming rolls around that the listener realizes that The Downward Spiral is a themed album, about someone going completely insane and throwing everything away, one piece at a time. The lyrics “it won’t give up/it wants me dead/god damn this noise inside my head” is the final straw that collapses the camels back and makes the listener realize what is going on with haunting precision. In this way, it is essential, even though it’s sound and anger does not fit in with Still. It is a more instrumentally reserved version that is well appreciated.

Four of the songs on the album are instrumentals of unmeasurable power and emotion, and are easily the greatest assets of the album. Instrumentals have always been an interesting strength of Nine Inch Nails, some of the best being La Mer, A Warm Place, and Just Like You Imagined (which many may know as one of the various themes of the movie 300). However, all the instrumentals here almost make everything else seem like a waste of time. The albums second song, Adrift And At Peace, perfectly represents it’s title and features the signature Fragile piano sound. Then midway through the album, the interestingly named Gone Still is more haunting than anything that preceded it. But the true, haunting resolve comes in the last two instrumentals which make up the last ten minutes of the album. They are completely triumphant in marking Still as Nine Inch Nails’ most telling, moving album.

If you ever had any doubts about the integrity or talent of Trent Reznor, this is the place you should go. This is the core of his career, created at the height of his drug addiction, at a time which his emotion was brought to the forefront in his music. Regardless of whether or not you like the rest of his music, chances are Still will move you in some way. If you are a Nine Inch Nails fan who doesn’t have this, make it an immediate goal to acquire it. And if you are looking for a place to start and you know someone who has this, go for it. I can’t stress enough how moving this album is. It might be his most valuable, rewarding disk. Triumph feels great.

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Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist

July 13, 2007

Having waited for this album for so long, I find it completely necessary to give it a thorough review, no more, no less. I’m not going to meander for set amount of long winded paragraphs or give it just two cents and leave it be. I remember looking at the website that was billycorgan.com for so long, when it was just a shriveled remnant of what was left of the artistic endeavors of our said celebrity himself. And then I remember reading the add in the newspaper straight from Billy Corgan, about reforming the band. This excited me on many levels. Possibly my favorite band reuniting, with the hopes of a new album and tour? Wonderful. I joked to myself, that I would be sitting by my computer monitor for years, as the seasons reeled outside my window. What is most unfortunate is that this actually happened. I figured it would be worth it in the end, to finally hear this album. What severely disappointed me was the absence of James Iha and D’arcy Wretsky in the group, who were replaced by…I don’t know, faceless pawns. I still held onto some hope that this album would truly be good in the end and justify all the pain and anxiety that preceded it.

Alas, my friends, I am at the pinnacle of disappointment. While this album should have kicked ass to hell and back, it just doesn’t cut it. The clues all add up. The fact that James and D’arcy are gone were the death spell, for sure, and this album has none of the spirit that the original lineup had. It proves that Billy and Jimmy are not all that is required to be the Smashing Pumpkins, and only half of the puzzle just doesn’t cut it. Another discouraging clue was the album cover, which is just as cheesy as most of the music has ended up being. Which is the albums problem. About half of it sucks horribly because it tries to be revelatory and meaningful. Not that previous Pumpkins albums weren’t, but none of them preached anything. Personal sentimental value came with the previous albums, and this is packaged with nothing but poor production. It just doesn’t sound right. The guitars are too buzzed over, and in no way beautiful like they used to be. And Billy’s voice sounds almost timid despite the fact that he is screaming. This is a generic album. Freeze-dried. And it feels just about as personal as The Future Embrace. And we all know how…goddamn impersonal that album was.

I don’t want to make it sound like this album does nothing right. To be fair, the first five songs are killer. Tarantula is a decent single, but unfortunately the weakest out of the albums good songs. In any case, it was probably worth it just for the awesome timing of the cover of the single, which is a scantily dressed Paris Hilton. You all know what happened a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty much the most ridiculous situation our fair nation has seen. Paris Hilton gets let out of jail for a day and you would have thought that some building blew up or the president was shot at. What felt like every channel on TV had faint blurred photos of Paris Hilton and rumors abash the screen. Paris Hilton is not a national crisis. This is probably part of what Zeitgeist is trying to say. Something about how impersonal our nation is, or has been since 9/11, or maybe just how downright ridiculous the country is now, or at least the people in it. The day that Mudhoney got political, people thought the world was going to spiral out into the endless abyss, but they had no idea that someday, for gods sake, the Smashing Pumpkins would get political. In any case, the first five songs are great. 7 Shades of Black is a great, almost dirty metal riff-fest, and a personal favorite. The rest are all more than great and probably could have stood as singles. But everything from track six onward is, in a word, cheesy. Billy Corgan seems to have forgotten that on his last release, he had a song that unnecessarily ended with a “z.” Starz is not the only song that has a dull and generic hook that just doesn’t really stand tall at all. Even the albums attempt at an SMP epic is flubbed pretty badly with United States. The rest are simply not worth mentioning. Except maybe for Neverlost and one other one, maybe. It’s a bad, horribly shaky album.

For those of you who skipped to this last paragraph to see how I felt about the album in short, the bottom line is, Billy Corgan has lost his edge. It makes sense though. When I think about it, the Pumpkins albums have actually gotten progressively worse through time, the only exception being Machina II which was probably better than Machina. Which really means nothing considering the first four were all so utterly fantastic that they could only be chosen between from personal preference. Using the word “worse” in their wake is a bit of a crime. Machina is the only one that stuck out like a sore thumb, because it was marginally worse than it’s predecessors. To put it plainly, when you listen to Zeitgeist, you will start to realize how great Machina is. And I mean that, sincerely. I can’t stress enough how good the first five songs are. But they really just played their best cards first. Everything else is graced only by scattered quality. The theme is tired. It’s poorly produced. It’s really only worth it to fans. Insert witty aphorism here.

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Five Shitty Movies

July 9, 2007

For years, one of my favorite hobbies has been watching horrible movies. Yes, it sounds stupid. But there are few things I enjoy more than making popcorn and watching a shitty movie. To me it is one of life’s finest pleasures. And trust me, I have seen a lot of shitty movies in my time. I have seen movies that I was told were shitty and turned out to be great, and I have seen movies that are said to be great and turned out to be shitty. Although it is all about perspective, some movies just take the cake, and are horrible films that I simultaneously love. I enjoy a bad movie, but it takes a special breed of shitty to make me feel the certain euphoria that drives the hobby. There are about five of these such movies that truly take the cake, my favorites I guess. Watch them. Soon.

The Blob

There are a few movies that I would consider very priceless and classic to the creature flick genre, the first and foremost being The Creature From The Black Lagoon and possibly Attack of the Giant Leeches. But The Blob is special in it’s own way, not just because it is a classic. What this gave birth to was the sub genre of creature flicks that featured a pathetically stupid antagonist, in this case a gigantic gelatinous pile of goo. This is, in some ways, a science fiction flick too, because The Blob does come from space. In the time that the beast spreads its greasy reign of chaos, it eats several residents of a small suburban town. When it sneaks into a movie theater, a classic shot is spawned when what feels like hundreds of innocent bystanders (a mildly impressive amount of extras anyway) race out of the building screaming, some with their 3D glasses still glued to their face. The final showdown between the blob, a terrified family, and the rest of the town is a joy to watch. As expected, the acting is horrible and the story is horrible. But it’s worth it just for the dull earthshaking bad ending. This is truly a great place to start in the realm of bad movies, because the realization that what you are watching is completely ridiculous takes a while to set in.

The Buddhist Fist

Another quintessential bad movie sub genre is the chopsaki kung-fu flick genre. I’ve seen a lot of chopsaki flicks. But I don’t think I have ever seen one as genuinely bad as The Buddhist Fist. It was one of those movies that I felt, at least for a time, was the worst I have ever seen. For sure it is the worst chopsaki flick I have ever seen. Every other movie of this kind has at least some kind of redeeming quality… Good one liners, good martial arts, good screenplay, SOMETHING. The Buddhist Fist is so astoundingly bad that there is simply nothing purposefully good about it. Instead, the movie is of worth on terms of hilarity only. The plot is incoherent and almost completely nonexistent, but you get the feeling if it did exist to a bigger extent, it would be severely retarded. It has something to do with two brothers who were both trained in martial arts, or something, that end up being enemies in the end. One of the movies best moments involves the lead actor killing his brother in the end, after which his master simply pats his shoulder and says, rather quaintly I might add after absolutely nothing is revealed or any higher ground is reached in the plot, “Now you understand.” I don’t feel bad about spoiling this, because it will make your eyes widen when you watch it even if you know it’s coming. Embarrassingly horrible moments like this are not few. The plot progresses with little to no rhyme or reason. The director is Yuen Wo Ping, who did the choreography for the Matrix. By those standards, I was expecting something at least half decent when I first bought this, but in fact, the choreography is absolutely horrible with obviously rhythmic and calculated, and completely stupid, “martial arts.” One of the catch lines was that this is also a humorous movie. That’s true. But only because of how much it embarrasses itself. The original dialog probably wasn’t even close to funny in it’s native tongue, let alone when dubbed poorly. The camera quality is deplorable on numerous occasions, the characters aren’t likable… You know what, I’m going to stop there. This is an astoundingly shitty movie that only reveals more faults every time you watch it. Essential martial arts film.

The Killer Shrews

This is just one of those movies that would have it’s effects tripled by gross amounts of marijuana. For several years, this has been the shitty movie of choice in my group of friends for many reasons. It was probably the first truly shitty movie I ever saw, introduced to me by my own mother, an avid fan of bad movies herself, when I was much younger. I can picture her screaming in laughter on a ratty old couch back in the seventies watching this movie, as the parade of dogs dressed up as Killer Shrews invade the house where our protagonists live, trapped on an island isolated from anyone who doesn’t smoke or drink in every shot. Some people actually cite this as a classic creature flick, which might be true. Sometimes, it actually does make some kind of sense, and it does progress in a way that could be entertaining to a mass audience. Perhaps this is why we like it so much…because we can make some kind of case for it. But make no mistake, the movie is absolutely abysmal. The acting sucks, the shews themselves are deliciously cheesy, and funny details are revealed upon numerous listens only reinforcing that this is one of the most poorly thought out movies ever. Just for a few small examples, the movie is obviously quite racist (think the classic quote “Automatic pilot can’t play Dixieland jazz on those banjos like I can!” and also the fact that god himself seems to smite our poor, sensible black accomplice), the main actress having an orgasm underneath the bizarre trashcan contraption that the team makes to escape the island, and the absolutely monumental train wreck of dialog in the final scene on the boat. This is a movie you come back to. This is a movie you watch every Halloween. Just say the name out loud, right now, in front of your computer monitor. The Killer Shrews. You know you want to watch this movie. Positively unfathomable.

Plan 9 From Outer Space

The phrase “worst movie ever” may be thrown around lightly in the world of film, but if you ask any given expert or film fan what the worst film ever made is, the chances are actually very good that they will mention Plan 9 From Outer Space. It is a movie that people talk about for a reason. Something this quotable or statistically loathed has to have something running for it, and it is true, this movie just might be the shittiest in existence. It probably isn’t the funniest in terms of poor quality, or even the most obvious, but it is a classic shitty movie. Astoundingly shitty. Written by cult hero Ed Wood, the movie is about bureaucratic aliens raising a select few zombies from the earth in hopes to take over the world, or at least save it from making the universe explode (a controversy that at first seems interesting until the viewer realizes how grossly implausible and stupid it is). And I suppose this detail might fairly represent how down-to-business this movie is in terms of it’s poor quality. From the getgo, people say stupid things, act poorly, and spot deliciously cheesy wobbling flying saucers in the sky. The magnitude of silly quotes in this movie is really uncountable. There was one good actor, Bela Lugosi, possibly the greatest hero of this entire genre. But he was given a part that held absolutely no significance to the movie and involved no dialog, the part of an old man who shortly after death was zombified by the aliens. At first this seems pretty awesome, because his specialty is bad movies. And in fact, he uses the same cape that he used in the original Dracula back in the day. But he died halfway through filming, and another extra was forced to wear the cape and hold it over his face, as if his part actually mattered or anything. Anyway, this movie definitely deserves it’s title, and perhaps through the years of shitty movies and endless questioning, it might still be the worst movie ever made. Ed Wood would accept no less.

Teenagers From Outer Space

In the great scheme of things, the most hilarious movie in the vein of “so bad it’s good” classic cinema is by far Teenagers From Outer Space. Almost nothing is good about it, and yet every bad aspect leads back to hilarity. This is the quintessential science fiction shitty movie. The premise is somewhat believable. A race of aliens that happen to speak English, and none of which are teenagers, seek to enslave the world to aid their lobster growing economy, except one of them, the son of the race’s supreme ruler (named Derek no less), who befriends the humans and wishes to turn the rest of the invaders back home. It makes some sense. The dialog is cheesy, and the acting is deplorably bad. The strongest point of the movie is it’s consistency to surprise. While movies like Plan 9 and Killer Shrews have their low spots where they are boring and do not surprise with any particular moments of idiocy, Teenagers From Outer Space stays really bad all the way through and has more memorable bad moments than other favorites. The sheer magnitude of stereotypes covered in this movie is, to many, off-putting, but it is likely that this movie staked many of them for the first time. Experts (aka my friend who knows ten times more about bad movies than I) cites some of the films best moments as the awkward alien/human cheesy love affair, classy rayguns that immediately turn all humans into the same plastic skeleton instantaneously, and the fact that the main nemesis is not a lobster, but the SHADOW of a lobster. I find few words to describe this movie. You really should get it. In fact, if you are going to get only one bad movie on this list, you had best be getting this one.

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The Magnetic Fields – The Wayward Bus / Distant Plastic Trees

July 5, 2007

It never occured to me that The Magnetic Fields had much else of immediate worth in their catalog other than 69 Love Songs until I was recommended this collection of two small albums. One of the reasons that 69 Love Songs was so amazing was that it covered lots of completely unique styles, the most notable of which is fragile ukulele driven folk ballads, but what people sometimes forget is that some of the best songs on 69LS are the more traditional, less ambitious ones. Traveling back in time almost ten years interestingly enough doesn’t do much to deter the staggering pop sensibility of Stephin Merritt. For the most part, these songs are finely crafted pop of typical structure with a completely unique style. And also interesting is the fact that they have aged fairly well even in the face of the bands later, more revered work.

What will strike fans first is that these albums are the bands first try. The rate of success in these songs is so consistent it is almost unbelievable. These songs are all lovely, quaint little love songs that have predictable but ultimately enjoyable melodies and hooks. A lot of what makes The Fields’ later work more enjoyable is how lightly challenging it is. But most of these songs are easy vocabulary for pop fans immediately recognizable. This makes the experience all the more immediate but that much less precious as far as lasting impact goes. The songs are very hummable and lovely, and the hooks are unique to each song and surprisingly all very great. And the amount of material there is here on this collection is very nice, and makes for a feast to the kind of music fans who enjoy these kinds of songs. the mood ranges from lovely and happy to almost tragically bittersweet.

But the more distinctive aspect of the records are what they sound like production wise. Most of these songs consist of simple synthesizers, that in some ways sound completely artificial while the melodies themselves “keep it real” so to say. This mixed with the fact that a lot of the songs simply sound like lovely little rural songs makes for a juxtaposition that sounds odd in words but surprisingly works in the music. The covers of these two albums depict a lovely scribbled suburbia that this style depicts well. The band also experiments with exotic instruments at times and creates atmospheres that can be likened to tropical islands or far eastern villages. Another difference in all this music that fans who have worked backwards will find interesting is the vocals. All of these vocals are done by Susan Anway, who has a very gentle sweeping voice that works very well for all of these romantic lyrics. As usual, the lyrics are completely superb. In fact, one of the greatest aspects about The Magnetic Fields music is how embossed the lyrics feel. New fans to the Magnetic Fields often cite the lyrics as one of the first things that pop out, and for sure, Stephin Merritt is an unbelievable lyricist who creates poetry that syncs perfectly with the music. Specific poetic standouts turn up in pretty much every song, and personal favorites are not few. I suppose a few really great ones are 100,000 Fireflies, Summer Lies, and Lovers From The Moon.

But in general, the consistency of the record is quite impressive. There are a couple of throwaways, but out of twenty one songs, a good fifteen of them are really strong. The differences between Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus lie mostly in the instrumentation, specifically the fact that cello and horns were introduced to The Wayward Bus. The addition of the cello proved to be a wonderful move that would positively impact the band for the rest of their career. The cello is a beautiful, sweeping instrument that works wonders over the bass, and serves up brilliant harmonies when it is present. Favorite songs of mine are When You Were My Baby, Lovers From The Moon, and Tar Heel Boy. In the end, this collection compiles two already good albums onto one disk and has many truly wonderful songs on it. As a purchase, this is simply awesome.