Behind the Music: Bond Edition

This post doesn’t really have anything to do with anything relevant, I’ve just always wanted to share this. Not that this blog needs anymore Alice Cooper related posts (I still got one later for Shocktober, sorry) but I thought it would be just as good as time as any to talk about something that I discovered while watching Bond films last summer.

So last summer I was reading about all the Bond themes when I discovered that who else but the Alice Cooper Band recorded their own Bond song once. The year was 1973 and knowing that Man with the Golden Gun would be the next Bond film Cooper and his boys recorded a song called “Man with the Golden Gun” with the hope that they could get the attention of Bond producers. However the song never really took off as a single and the Bond producers instead opted a song written by Bond composer John Barry and sung by Scottish singer Lulu. So for fun I thought I’d compare both versions in videos I found that have each song set to the opening credits.

First I present the song by Lulu that the producers went with.

And now the version by the Alice Cooper Band.

Going with Lulu was probably the safe decision (whatever safe is supposed to mean) but I like Cooper’s version. Though seeing as I am a Cooper fan I suppose I’m somewhat biased. What do you think?

“Why are my dreams always nightmares?”

Alice Cooper- Welcome 2 My Nightmare

I don’t think there was ever really a moment where I thought this album would be any good. Just look at that cover it’s horrible! But I’m a big fan of Alice’s 1975 concept album Welcome to My Nightmare and when I heard he’d be reuniting with the original Alice Cooper Band and producer/composer Bob Ezrin (basically Alice Cooper’s George Martin) l I had to at least give it a little taste. I mean it’s getting close to October right? And what better way to bring in the Halloween season than with a review of the latest from the king of shock rock?

Usually when I review something as “bad and good” I like to call it a mixed bag. So just picture a bag of halloween candy, some of it will contain delicious fun sized candy bars but some of it will also contain candy that has razors wedged inside. Welcome 2 My Nightmare (Bad title by the way) is more like two or three good pieces of candy and then about a dozen razors.

What I didn’t discover until after downloading the album is that the Alice Cooper Band only plays on three songs. Damn it! I’ve been fucking duped! I thought this was going to be a full on reunion! It’s always been my opinion that the Alice Cooper Band is what made Alice Cooper even worth listening to, I mean it was those guys that wrote the music. Don’t get me wrong, Alice is a spectacular showman but he really isn’t much of a musician.

On to the album in question, W.2.M.N. opens with the song “I Am Made of You” a song that Alice has described as an “epic masterpiece” but I have a much more appropriate word for it “bad”. I can’t believe I’m actually listening to Alice Cooper sing a song using Auto-Tune. That kills it, I don’t even care to talk about the rest of the song. From here we move into more familiar territory with some pop rock on the song “Caffeine” a passable track. Afterwards we get one of those tracks that mostly exists to progress the concept (which is someone’s nightmare by the way) called “The Nightmare Returns”, mostly Alice and piano, it’s okay. I’d like to keep going on describing each track seeing that they there all so different, but let’s skip ahead to a song that I actually like. “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” features the Alice Cooper Band and actually sounds like it could of been one of the band’s hit songs from the 70s, it’s easily the best thing on this album.

Probably the worst thing on this album is a song that features Ke$ha. Do you ever wish you could “un-hear” a song? I sure did after this. I should of stayed clear of this album just for that. Another bizarre song is a semi-electronic song called “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever” because disco of course is as relevant as ever. I probably should of checked out the featured personnel on this album before listening; Ke$ha, Rob Zombie, John 5, Kip Winger? That’s basically everyone I hate.

What pains me so much is I do hear some good melodies and ideas buried under all of Ezrin’s over extravagant production. Don’t you hate it when older artists use a bunch of effects and shit to cover up the fact that they can’t sing anymore? Look at someone like Neil Young, he doesn’t hide behind anything and he’s just as good as ever. So for any Cooper fan curious about this album I suggest you just keep to the original Welcome to My Nightmare, that album was shockingly awesome.

Favorite Track: “I’ll Bite Your Face Off”

World’s Finest

Patton Oswalt – Finest Hour

Stumbling upon this was kind of happy accident for me. There I was just browsing through the comedy section of my itunes library and wondering “I wonder when the next Patton Oswalt album comes out?” So I looked it up on the web and without any prior knowledge discovered it had come out that same day, don’t you love it when stuff like that happens? Of course I was ecstatic as Patton Oswalt is my favorite standup comedian, though the origin of that is quite unusual. I missed my chance to see him at Sasquatch (this was before I was a fan) to go see OK Go and after hearing about it from Sean and Colin I felt the only way I could make up for it was by checking out one of his albums. Since then I’ve bought or downloaded all of Patton’s comedy albums and seen most of his specials and I gotta tell ya, it’s my kind of humor. It’s like it combines the intellectual humor I like from comics like David Cross and then the fat/lazy guy humor I like from comedians like Jim Gaffigan, so it’s the best of both worlds. Though I’m younger and I don’t think I’m quite the caliber of nerd that Patton is I can still find his humor highly relatable and easily accessible, this album is no exception.

Recorded at the Moore Theater in Seattle (wish I could’ve been there) Patton returns to tell more cynical misadventures from his every day life. A strong recurring theme this time seems to be sweatpants, including many jokes where Patton is wearing sweatpants with a t-shirt that’s the same color. This subject leads to an album highlight about a fat guy buying ham, a joke I had heard much about before this album came out. As a matter of fact many of this album’s best jokes are about fat guys, just the way Patton describes them. How Patton will describe a guy as “tragic avalanche fat” and then talk about that same guy eating a hamburger, “It’s like he took three bites and then reassembled it whole it in his mouth. I solved the puzzle!” I can’t get enough of his fat guy voices.

But Patton has always been well known for his edgy topical side as well, discussing politics or whatever is current. My favorite one here is about gay marriage and how Patton decides to make fun of some people’s blind devotion to the bible. “Just because you like something in a book doesn’t mean you can have the thing you like in the book happen in real life! That’s what crazy people want! I can’t go to the white house with a bunch of Green Lantern comics and go I WANT A GREEN LANTERN RING!” He’s always been great at tearing down issues to their most simplistic form and here he kills it.

Though perhaps my favorite moment in the entire show is a very brief bit where Patton talks about how he “Jock Rocks” his life by constantly singing to himself. He does a few examples but my favorite by far is when Patton sings “Jerking off to internet porn in my office when I should teach my daughter to read!” There’s so many great moments and though I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as his last album My Weakness is Strong and of course nothing will ever beat Werewolves and Lollipops it’s another fine addition to an already stellar comedic career

Retrospecticus: Wilco

I wasn’t really sure whether it’d be worth it to do this retrospecticus or not, but the fact of the matter is I’ve heard all of Wilco’s albums, so I figured I’d give it shot.  Much like the new Beastie Boys album, I’m not really that excited about Wilco’s new album since, let’s be honest, these guys hit their peak a while ago.  Still, they managed to record one of my favorite albums of the last twenty years, so I figure they deserve it.

A.M. (1995)

I guess Wilco basically evolved out of the band Uncle Tupelo, whom I really know nothing about.  Anyway, most of the members of Wilco had been a part of Uncle Tupelo, and A.M. was kind of seen as sort of a continuation of the alt-country sound of this former band.

A.M. kind of tends to get a bad wrap, since it really doesn’t show much of the potential for artistic growth that you see on all of the subsequent Wilco releases.  Still, I think you see plenty of promise in Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, which has always been at the backbone of Wilco, despite all the different band members that have come and gone throughout the years.  A.M. is pleasant enough, but none of the songs really stand out as being anything more than decent country-infused Stones-esque rock.

Favorite Tracks: “I Must Be High”, “Box Full Of Letters”, “I Thought I Held You”

Being There (1996)

Now here’s where this band really started to get interesting.  Like any double album, it’s certainly not perfect, but the sprawling quality of Being There shows the band really starting to hit their stride.  Much of it I think had to do with Tweedy’s growing confidence as a songwriter, but another part of the equation would have to do with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who joined the band on this album.

There really is a disparate nature of the songwriting here, as the upbeat numbers on the album are pretty damn upbeat, as songs like “I Got You (At the End of The Century)” and “Outta Sight (Outta Mind)” have an almost sing-a-long quality to them.  But on the other hand, the slower songs are increasingly dark and introspective.  All the while, you also see the band looking towards new kinds of sonic textures to go along with their signature Americana-infused aesthetic.

Favorite Tracks: “Outta Sight (Outta Mind)”, “Red-Eyed And Blue”, “Was I In Your Dreams”

Summerteeth (1999)

Pretty much from that first riff you can tell that Wilco aren’t really doing that same old alt-country stuff that they were doing on their first two album.  This is an album that uses that classic rock mentality, but infuses it with an interest in sonic noodling as well as a pallette for bigger and bolder sounds.  On top of that, you’ve got the tuneful Tweedy and the more experimental Bennett really coming together as a true songwriting team to be reckoned with.

It’s a shame that Summerteeth kind of has to live in the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, since it really shares some of the best qualities of that album, all while featuring some of Wilco’s most affecting songs.  Though it’s not a terribly long album, it still has that sprawling quality that was seen on Being There, as the songs vary from sweepingly orchestral (“A Shot In The Arm”) to infectiously rockin’ (“I’m Always In Love”).  Also, you get some of Tweedy’s darkest lyrical moments, such as “Via Chicago”, which begins with the memorable line “I dreamed of killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”.  But most of all you see a small-time band knocking on ambition’s door, with no intent of holding back.

Favorite Tracks: “I Can’t Stand It”, “A Shot In The Arm”, “ELT”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

There aren’t many albums from the last decade that I would give five stars to, but I really have no problem admitting that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is pretty much a masterpiece.  From start to finish there really isn’t a bad track, and some of this stems from Tweedy and Bennett’s masterful songwriting, while some of it also stems from their ability to infuse the songs with a playful unconventionality.  Either way, I think the clashing of Tweedy and Bennett’s talent as well as personalities is what drives the album, and you can see that by this time the two weren’t very fond of each other in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

At the time of the album’s release, much was made of the fact that Wilco’s record label refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the band was forced to release it independently on the internet.  But as time has gone by, the album’s quality really speaks for itself despite how much of an impact it had on the way albums would be released in the coming years.  Yet the weird thing about YHF for me is how muted of a musical impact it’s had since being released.  I like to think that most “five star” albums were ones that really changed the direction of music and influenced a lot of other artists, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t really like that.  It really just stands as the work of a band reaching for something bold and ambitious, and pulling it off brilliantly.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Favorite Tracks: “Jesus, Etc.”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Pot Kettle Black”

A Ghost Is Born (2005)

As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of what Jay Bennett brought to Wilco, so I’m not nearly as huge of a fan of the albums Wilco released without the late Mr. Bennett.  A Ghost Is Born was the first album without Bennett, and I think it’s pretty uneven in comparison to an album as bizarely cohesive as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In place of Jay Bennett’s lush atmospheric noodling, you had the addition of guitarist Nels Cline, whose guitar work often leads the band towards more jam-like territory.  It’s a little surprising how well this works on a song like the ten-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, but at other times the guitar interludes seem just kind of tiring.  There are also still some nice piano ballads featured throughout the album, like “Hell Is Chrome” or “Hummingbird” while there are certainly some experimental moments like “Less Than You Think” that are just frustrating, as the song last 15 minutes, 12 of which are basically just white noise.  So you get the idea that Wilco wasn’t really sure where exactly to take the sound they had laid down in their last few albums, and making a slightly difficult album was the path they chose.

Favorite Tracks: “Spiders (Kidsmake)”, “Hummingbird”, “Handshake Drugs”

Sky Blue Sky (2007)

Here’s where Wilco started to get a bit more mellow, not that they haven’t always maintained a pretty unassuming quality to their music.  But on Sky Blue Sky, you really don’t get the sense that the band is trying to use the studio in a really innovative way anymore.  And that’s OK, since Sky Blue Sky relies more on a “live band” mentality, with the songs focusing more on the dynamic that exists between the band as they bash out these songs.

Again, you’ve got Tweedy’s strong songwriting at the backbone of the band, while Nels Cline seems to find a way of making his guitar a little more suited to the band’s softer side, as he displays on the sprawling guitar solo of “Impossible Germany”.  I’m sure there are some people that detest the acrobatic nature of Cline’s guitar playing since it is more showy than your average indie rock guitar playing.  But I think for the most part it adds a nice texture when some of these songs could come off as “just another laid back Wilco song”.

Favorite Tracks: “Either Way”, “Impossible Germany”, “Shake It Off”

Wilco (The Album) (2009)

Though I have no problem admitting that there isn’t really anything groundbreaking about Wilco (The Album), I still have kind of a soft spot for it.  Maybe it’s because it was the first Wilco album I got into after hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but at the same time I think it is in a way “a return to form”, as much as I detest that phrase.

I guess the aspect I like about this album is that for the first time in a while it sounds like these guys are genuinely having fun.  Songs like the album’s title(ish) track or “You Never Know” return the band to the Being There or Summerteeth days, when the band would rip into some country-infused rock boogie.  Then of course you’ve got some nice ballads that show Jeff Tweedy’s always reliable introspective side, including the Feist duet “You And I”.  Most of all, Wilco (The Album) sounds like a veteran band getting comfortable with themselves and their place in the world of rock music.  I guess we’ll see if they keep doing this same kind of thing on The Whole Love.

Favorite Tracks: “Wilco (The Song)”, “You And I”, “I’ll Fight”

You Drive Me Crazy

Drive

 Adapted from Jame’s Sallis’s 2005 crime novel of the same name Drive was originally planned to be a big budget action flick staring Hugh Jackman, thank god that never happened. Several years later Ryan Gosling became attached to the project and sought out Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn to direct. I’d seen Refn’s last two film’s Bronson and Valhalla Rising and when it was announced he would be taking on the project I knew Drive was a film that had to be seen. For those who aren’t familiar with Refn’s work I can definitely tell you that he’s one to watch. Debuting in the mid 90s with the Pusher crime/thriller trilogy, Refn has already made his mark with some excellent moody films well complimented by inventive cinematography, chilling electronic scores, and subtle yet spectacular performances from his actors. Drive is all those things and maybe more as Refn’s mainstream debut, though there’s nothing mainstream about the contents of this dramatic thriller.

Drive is simple enough on the surface, Ryan Gosling plays a no-named stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists. He has little to look forward to in his life but driving until he meets and falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) living with her son while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) finishes up a prison sentence. Upon Standard’s release he’s introduced to the Driver and rather than feeling threatened he befriends the solemn wheelman. Way over his head in gang related debt, the Driver agrees to help Standard in a heist. Meanwhile the Driver has made dealings organized by his friend and co-worker at a garage Shannon (Bryan Cranston) to race for Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) a shady film producer surrounded by equally shady individuals such as Jewish gangster Nino (Ron Perlman). The heist eventually goes down but takes a dark turn when Standard is shot dead. Soon after the Driver discovers that Nino was somehow involved with the heist and sends men after the Driver to get the money. It gets a bit messy here there with the story, but with this film it’s more about the ride than the little details.

In any other hands Drive could have been a very ordinary action thriller, but with Refn it’s become a very unusual, extraordinary experience. The 80s synth cues are all pitch perfect as Goslin cruises through the dark neo noir-like setting of late night L.A. The violence and action sequences make your skin crawl and keep you teetering on the edge of your seat. The performances are subtle but impressive with Albert Brooks giving my favorite performance. Known in the past for his cynical yet comical L.A. comedian persona this is an Albert Brooks we’ve never seen before. Gosling plays it simple much in the way Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood would handle a tough guy role. Gosling spends most of his time giving off intense looks that say more than any words could. Carey Mulligan as one of the premier young actresses today brings a lot to character that may seem underwritten but really has a lot brewing under the surface.

The bottom line is that Drive is a brooding and refreshingly unconventional thriller from a group of very talented people. Gosling has more or less proven himself as one the most interesting leading men working today and director Nicolas Winding Refn has shown that he can still keep his artistic integrity with a widely released film, it’s an exciting time for the movies.

P.S. If you liked this movie you have to check out Refn’s film Bronson (currently on Netflix Instant Watch) it’s really something.

Band of Dudes

Gears of War 3

There’s always been more to the Gears of War franchise lurking under the surface. Sure, the games themselves seemed like mindless macho brosturbation, there were the artsy trailers. There was the fact that the world seemed to have so much lore, but we only saw a little of it. After all, you play as simple COGs in the massive gears of war. Gears of War 3 finally takes the story where it has always yearned to go, making it one of the most satisfying campaigns of the year. Couple that with one of the most complete multiplayer suites and you’re in for quite a time.

Times are bad in the Gears universe. The war between humans and locust took a turn when the last city, Jacinto, was sunk, flooding the locust. The remnants of humanity managed to take brief salvation on an island, but their hopes for peace were dashed when the lambent, locust mutated by the planet’s mysterious fuel imulsion, attacked. With no military or government left, our heroes are now adrift on a helicopter carrier, just trying to survive. So, to recap: the world’s dying, there’s a three-way war going on, humanity is fucked.

And it’s taking a toll on our heroes. Marcus is haunted by regret and remorse about his past. Dom, who has lost his children and wife to this lengthy war, is in a fragile mental state. Cole is going through a mid-life crisis, realizing his days as a professional athlete really are gone. Baird’s still kind of a dick. Anya’s on the team now too and just about everyone from the first two games is back to some extent, as are a few newcomers. Most importantly, we’ve got Jace, played by Friday Night Light’s Michael B. Jordan and Sam, played by Uncharted 2‘s Claudia Black.

Gears of War 3 has a substantial campaign that’s a real delight to play through. I give a lot of credit sci fi author Karen Traviss, who was able to turn down the bro-isms and find the depth in the characters. My only complaint about the campaign is that it felt a little to padded out with needless sequences. A few too many times I had to go get fuel or go flip a set number of switches, which hurt the games pacing. Notably, there’s a lengthy detour with a character played by Ice T that is awesome, but adds literally nothing to the story but time. But in the end, the game is fun and I can’t really complain about getting to play more of it.

The shooting in Gears of War 3 is simply the best of any third person shooter. Everything feels just right. There’s enough of a variety in the campaign enemies to keep you interested and keep your tactics from getting stale. I found hardcore to be the best difficulty for me, it was challenging but never truly frustrating. I played with AI allies, and I imagine it’s even more fun with three real human coop partners. That’s right, the game is up to four player coop. I told you, this game has all the multiplayer you could want.

Horde mode, Gears of War 2‘s biggest contribution to gaming, returns with new tower defense mechanics. You can build and upgrade barriers to keep your team safe against the waves of AI enemies. There’s another, new coop mode too: beast mode. It’s like reverse horde mode, ala Left 4 Dead. You play as locust beasts, from the lowly tickers all the way up to berserkers, and try to kill a group of AI humans. Beast mode is a neat addition and surprisingly fun to play, give it a shot.

All the versus modes are back, with the addition of a new casual option. This means I can play without just getting mercilessly shotgunned in the back, but I fear I’ll get kicked out of casual eventually. In the meantime, I’m having a lot of fun. There are plenty of characters and weapon skins to be unlocked, although there’s also an absurdly expensive collections of skins you could just buy too. But don’t do that. It’s almost as bad as horse armor.

Hands down, Gears of War 3 is the best game in this already stellar franchise. The story is easier to follow, more emotional and gives closure to most (read: not all) of the plot threads. The multiplayer is just about everything I could ask for. Get some friends together and have some fun. If nothing else, enjoy playing the only game in which Ice T rides off into the sunset giving you the finger.