Archive for November, 2007

Paul McCartney – Memory Almost Full (2007)

November 30, 2007

Let’s get the Beatles name-dropping out of the way: Paul McCartney was in the Beatles. The Beatles were influential, and – depending on who you ask – possibly
one of the (if not the) most important band of the past 50 years. That said, the four members never really escaped the shadow of the band with their solo careers. George Harrison’s solo releases were generally well-regarded, but the rest are a mixed bag: John Lennon was the epitome of this, and Ringo – poor Ringo – has released albums that veered wildly between insanely awesome and insanely bad. And then there’s Paul.

Memory Almost Full is McCartney’s umpteenth post-Beatles release; some have been good, some haven’t. But honestly, there hasn’t been a great one in years. The guy can write great songs, though. Memory Almost Full has some solid songs (“Dance Tonight,” “Gratitude”), but the bulk of the tracks sound like, oh, something mildly distracting that plays over the end credits to a romantic comedy. And the lyrics are nostalgia-soaked, so much so that I was left with the impression that Sir Paul spends every waking hour pining away for the days of yore.

This doesn’t jive with the breezy, upbeat nature of the music. Paul plays all of the instruments, and sounds like he’s having great fun doing so. But that’s one of the album’s few saving graces. Again, nothing is bad here; but nothing really stands out. Much of my favorite music is “average” compared to what some critics love, but at least I can remember the songs. I wish I could say the same for the stuff on Memory Almost Full.

-Jason Panella

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Across the Universe (2007)

November 30, 2007

Only proceed to read this review if you love Beatles music and can tolerate musicals. That being said, you might well like Across the Universe (if you can handle the hard-PG-13 rating, that is).

Across the Universe is set in the late 1960s; young British chap Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to America and becomes good friends with Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson), eventually becoming romantically attached to Max’s sunny and beautiful sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude eventually starts to question where his life is heading once Max gets drafted into the Vietnam conflict and Lucy begins to embody the anti-war activist prototype.

Although the idea of another anti-Vietnam-laced movie shouldn’t necessarily make one’s head spin, the fact is that the Beatles and the war did intertwine somewhat, and plus, a 60’s movie can’t be filled up with over-the-top psychedelic scenes alone. The film overcomes overall inexperienced acting with truly interesting plotlines that move along very well. But the real fun of the flick is the seeing how the Beatles’ songs fit into the story (or is it the other way around?), singing along and then guessing which one will come next. Highlights include “With a Little Help From My Friends” and its rowdy male-bonding, the sadness of death enunciated with “Let it Be” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the sensuality found through a tender rendition of “If I Fell” and the communal unity with the harmony in the haunting “Because.” Also, this writer must admit that Salma Hayek as a war nurse combined with “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was proverbial icing on the cake.

But what is Across the Universe really trying to say? Nothing much more than the Beatles ever did, that all you need is love, really. Yesterday, Jude might have been a nowhere man, but now this boy is practically Mother Nature’s son after finding the inner light and giving all his loving to Lucy. Let’s just hope that they didn’t turn out to be day trippers like the rest of the hippies.

– Jake Kauffman


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Carrie Underwood – Carnival Ride (2007)

November 28, 2007

American Idol sweetheart Carrie Underwood took some flak initially from country purists. Her debut Some Hearts, they said, was saddled with too many pop-clichés to really be a good country record.

Underwood settles into a more twangy mode for most of Carnival Ride, her second album. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate response to her naysayers, but whatever – it works. Her lyrics are sharper, the music better; Underwood has even penned some of her own tunes, as she has four co-songwriting credits. This isn’t Merle Haggard/rickety porch/backwoods country music, mind you; there are still plenty of pop moments. But the stronger emphasis on country instrumental and “traditional” songwriting really, really suits her well. This is best exemplified on “I Know You Won’t,” a great fusion of pop ballad and country torch burner. Man, the gal has a voice.

Underwood still hasn’t been around long enough to build up a rapport to challenge any legends in her genre, but Carnival Ride is a good start. If she keeps this up, she’ll be one of those legends soon enough.

-Jason Panella

SiCKO (2007)

November 28, 2007

One of my college professors, Quentin Schultze, made a great point about documentaries: documentaries are about the storyteller more than they are about the topic of the story they are telling. Unlike other films, which have a director telling a story that is often written by someone else and has the added freedom of fiction, a documentary is a vehicle for collecting and editing real footage to create a story. The best of these tell a coherent narrative.

This may seem like an inherent critique of documentaries. It is not. In fact, it makes the viewer more aware of what is going on, recognizing the biases that are unavoidable and hopefully listening and learning anyway. That means that Sicko is about Michael Moore, as are his other films. He has ideas and views that he wants to turn into stories, hopefully to change minds and behaviors in light of the information and narrative he provides. This sounds like propaganda but is in fact the role of journalism in a democratic society. Guess what? Journalism requires an audience of critical thinkers, which is one of the main problems with mass media at the moment – it often assumes that the audience is not thinking critically.

Some of the best parts of the film are Moore’s visits to other countries like Canada, England, France and Cuba, which give some contrast to the US system – even if it is a small glance at a large picture. The key to the film though comes about two-thirds in when Moore asks the American audience: “Who are we?” If part of the answer to this question is how we treat one another in a political system that includes how we should take care of the sick, then we need to seriously consider what we are doing. If nothing else, this film should help Americans ask the questions: Where did our current health care system come from? And how and why does it work the way that it does? These questions are important; not because we can then place the blame for anything that we think is wrong with the system, but rather that the answers provide guidance for being an engaged citizen and taking up the power to change it.

At times I find Moore to be patronizing of the everyday American that he is trying to represent in his films. But overall, I think Moore asks some really good questions that could provide the audience with some interesting things to consider and act upon.

-Greg Veltman

[Full Disclosure: I currently have no health insurance, and lived in Canada from age 5-18.]

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American Gangster (2007)

November 19, 2007

Gangster films have a mysterious appeal in American culture. Everyone (OK, maybe this is a guy thing?) has some hidden longing to be The Godfather or Tony Montana from Scarface, or if not to be them, at least admires them. These people are criminals and everyone knows it. Therein lies the attraction, gangsters are symbols of pride and power, and we secretly would rather be feared than loved.

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster take up a similar story, based on real events, with some interesting twists. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), decides to take advantage of the war in Vietnam, and buy directly from the fields of heroin, using military friends and relatives to smuggle it back in military planes. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a cop, and law-student, who gets further drawn into investigating the growing drug problems in NYC. The film follows both of these men as their lives get further and further entangled. The film highlights the arrogance that starts to take over Lucas’ life as he gains power and money, while showing the increasing vulnerability of Richie as his life is falling apart. The film avoids trying to be a detective crime thriller and instead becomes a character study of who it is Lucas and Roberts long to be, and the difficult choices we have to make to get there.

Gangster films trouble the idea of the American Dream while still holding the promise of its success. This film goes further by arguing that we might have to surrender the dream to something better and more real: the relationships of those closest to us. This film works as heightened metaphor for the choices we make and the people we want to become.

Greg Veltman

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UnChristian (2007)

November 19, 2007

In their aggressive and rather blunt book, Kinnaman and Lyons finally say what everyone else is thinking: Christianity has an image problem. Using state-of-the-art research tools and surveys from The Barna Group, the authors illuminate and evaluate “what a new generation really thinks about Christianity – and why it really matters,” as their subtitle indicates. In a worldview where our “insides” are far more often examined than our “outsides,” the authors tackle one of the most difficult and messy subjects of our generation and our “religion:” how we come across to others, and how it affects our witness and our relationships. And how we can fix that.

UnChristian begins with some hard-hitting pictures of the current generation and how it relates to opinions about Christianity. It then spends the majority of the chapters moving quickly from the who to the what – by focusing on what “outsiders” (or, unbelievers) see in Christians. Even though this portrayal is compelling to action on its own, steps for action are given later. Kinnaman and Lyons use integrity and forthrightness in giving clear examples from the life of Christ and from scripture, reinforcing their self-proclaimed goal of reteaching “Christian” faith.

Their observations are refreshing, disturbing, inspiring and credible. Perhaps one of the most stirring beauties of their solution is its refusal to simply “try harder” to overcome stereotypes. Their challenges are clear and right out of scripture: “you don’t love me as you did at first!” (Revelation 2:4). It’s not Jesus that’s outdated; it might really be our unacknowledged failure in our Christian practice that is the problem. Kinnaman and Lyons provide a vision for witness in the 21st century.

-Sarah Dompier

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The History of Love (2005)

November 14, 2007

In Isaiah 55, God states that His word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” This is a powerful statement about the efficacy of language as it relates to divine decree. The History of Love does not attempt to treat upon such lofty themes, but it is about the power of words, and explores their power long after they are forgotten by those who breathed life into them initially.

The book’s title refers to a fictional work within the story, a book written by the protagonist, Leo Gursky.  He wrote his magnum opus, The History of Love as a love letter to his childhood sweetheart after she emigrated to America before World War II. Gursky manages to survive the war and make it to America, but in the chaos believes his work to be lost. 

Krauss paints a poignant picture of the power of one man’s words, thought to be lost to the ravages of time and Nazism to draw together families and radically alter life. The book is beautifully composed, implementing the perspectives of multiple characters as first person narration. This novel provides an excellent entry point into extended meditation on love and the power of the written word.

-Nate Campbell

The History of Love at Google Books

Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block (2007)

November 14, 2007

After being captured by the deceivingly somber “Amsterdam” by Peter, Bjorn and John this past summer, I was thrilled to be able to listen to the Swedish pop band’s Writer’s Block, their third full-length release. 

The group has a humble, down-to-Europe demeanor in which they subtly insert interesting instrumentation in an ever-so-slightly experimental fashion (“instruments” include the thundersheet, the whip, and “oral sounds”). Sometimes fast, restless and rather insatiable drumming contrasts with mellow whistling, almost shoegazer-esque guitar and reverb-laden, resounding vocals to represent the possible conflict between subconscious anxiety amidst laid-back, usually nonchalant lyrics. Here’s a trio of guys yearning for ideal romanticism and thus come off as epicurean in their wariness to work through rough spots in their relationships: “When you decided to knock on my door did you remember what happened before? It just didn’t sparkle, it just didn’t grow; some things look better inside of the store” (“Let’s Call it Off”) or “let’s take the easy way out” (“Roll the Credits”).

However, the lyrics are not overly-weighty. They are often simplistically romantic: “While I’m sleeping, you paint a ring on my finger with your black marker-pen” (“Paris 2004”). Writer’s Block dwells and thrives upon fantastical ideals and the everyday situations which sometimes live up to them but so frequently do not, creating an ultimately dreary tone. 

Nevertheless, the album comes off as brilliant in its insidious gloom, especially if the listener is well-adapted to this sort of music in the first place. The musical highlights have to be the popular indie single “Young Folks” and the aforementioned “Amsterdam,” but the band might be trying to make its biggest lyrical statement in the album-closer “Poor Cow”: “I want to spend, in a never-ending story, but it always ends.”

-Jake Kauffman

Listen to Peter Bjorn and John on Myspace

Into the Wild (2007)

November 12, 2007

Into the Wild is the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book by the same title. Apparently, Sean Penn read the book a number of years ago and it stuck with him so much that years later he sat down to write the screenplay and didn’t even need re-read the book.

This is the story of Chris McCandless, a disaffected young man who eventually destroys his identity and sets out to experience life as never before. Chris’s family seem to have the American dream in hand: they have quite a bit of money, a seemingly loving relationship and a son who could be on his way to Harvard for law school. There’s one problem–Chris doesn’t want any of that. He cuts up his credit cards, burns his social security card and sets out as a tramp–Alexander Supertramp, to be exact.

The movie does a phenomenal job of chronicling Chris’s journey. Though there are certainly cliché parts to the film (Chris talking to an apple about how organic it is, for instance), the film is incredibly self-aware; so, moments after Chris calls the apple organic he makes a face at the camera. As we move through the story we learn more about what exactly Chris is doing and why, and we also meet a host of characters who affect Chris almost as much as he affects them. Through these relationships and experiences we see Chris move from an alienated individual to someone who is enjoying life to the fullest. The film ends in heartbreak when Chris dies in the Alaskan wilderness, miles away from anyone.

Although admittedly tragic, Chris is also heroic, and film shows this. It may seem at first glance that Chris’s struggle is merely anger or rebellion, but fortunately this isn’t the case. After the modern notions of truth and happiness that had surrounded Chris all his life had destroyed him enough, he left them, and went into the wild–both physically and metaphorically. Though it may seem as if Chris is merely a selfish loner who is attempting to escape society, towards the end of the film Chris is shown writing “happiness is only real when shared” in the margin of a book. Chris discovered more truth than many of us will ever know, and that is what draws me into his story. Chris knew more, loved deeper, experienced more than most of our surroundings would let us, and this shows through in the film beautifully.

-Chris Carson

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The Fiery Furnaces – Widow City (2007)

November 12, 2007

Quirky brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces return with Widow City, their fifth album in as many years. Brace yourself with The Fiery Furnaces. Singer Eleanor Friedberger sounds like a Grace Slick throwback, but this is not your parents’ Jefferson Airplane.

Widow City‘s lyrics are excellently “abstract specific,” giving the most idiosyncratic of lyricists like Van Dyke Parks a run for their money: “…the new school bus assistant snuck in charge of leaving seven sleeping children in their seats, in a trance, induced by air-conditioning” (“More Automatic Husband”). Lyrics are also laced with Arabic references (“My Egyptian Grammar”), prone to wry humor (“save a glacier name for my daughter” from “Navy Nurse”) and speak of ambiguous relationships (“Japanese Slippers”).

Matthew Friedberger’s music is brashly eclectic, restlessly changing about as fast as a ninth grader’s relationship status, and is ultimately unique, if not innovative. Amidst it all, though, catchiness reigns in songs like “Ex-Guru” or “The Old Hag is Sleeping.”

Unfortunately, Widow City seems a bit too disconnected from one track to another to be a landmark album. But, it remains an odd treasure for anyone strange enough to acquire such a brilliantly funky taste in sound or anyone just desperately jaded from modern pop radio. The Fiery Furnaces’ cryptic style either requires rigorous philosophic prodding in order to find truth, or the Friedbergers are just as mixed up as their music implies. In any case, Widow City is for anyone wishing to listen to something they’re not normally hearing in music.

-Jake Kauffman

Listen to The Fiery Furnaces on Myspace