Godzilla (2014)

godzillaDir. Gareth Edwards, 123 min., in theaters

As it’s summer, I once again to return to tell you my boring opinions on movies you’ve probably already seen. No goals this year for how many films I want to watch, but I’d be surprised if I top 40. First up, everyone’s favorite building-stomping lizard.

As a point of comparison, nothing could be worse than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 stab at the identically titled film (Nathan Rabin sums up the disappointment pretty well). It could be that the mists of time cloud my recollections (I saw this film in theaters as a high school junior), but I remember loud “boo”s ringing out when Godzilla was resurrected near the end of the film and had to be defeated yet again by tanks and jet fighters.

Employing characters that actually have depth (instead of one-line, “cast of characters” descriptions), as well as coming up with monsters that have a (semi-)plausible raison d’etre, massively vaults Edwards effort over his predecessor.

Without giving too much away: Bryan Cranston (Brody) plays a disgruntled loner, trying to prove that the site of a terrible nuclear accident (strongly reminiscent of the tragedy at Fukushima) is actually a massive cover up of a large monster. Meanwhile, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a scientist who studies ancient, nuclear-feeding monsters (Ken Watanabe) become enmeshed in the subsequent events (sometimes unrealistically, as Brody’s son always seems to be wherever the monsters are).

I got a kick out of the character name, as there is a similar Cheif Brody in another summer blockbuster movie trying to convince the world of the existence of a “prehistoric” monster; the film itself is not without some humor, but mostly this is a special effects showpiece that uses character development just enough to make us care whether these people get crushed under a monster’s foot.

The effects are pretty good, though watching one building get crushed is no more exciting than watching the next. The monster battles are equally entertaining, and the showdown with Godzilla and his adversary is on par with King Kong battling a T-rex. The cleverness of the Godzilla origin story pays homage to the horrors of the nuclear age, while similarly (and smartly) avoiding any hint that the current USA has anything good in the way of technology or ideas to contribute to this monster hunt.

Ken Watanabe is predictably underutilized in this Americanized rendition, but far from the borderline offensive Emmerich take on the Japanese:

Watanabe instead comes across as a “quiet man” type, burdened by his own painful connection to the nuclear age. Cranston gives a strong performance, though I don’t have much to baseline him on as I’ve still yet to watch that famous TV show he was on (what was it called again?). The rest of the cast is serviceable.

Is there a future for Godzilla after this film? IMDB already lists “Godzilla 2″ as a future directorial credit. I suppose I’d probably go see it, and that’s about as much of a ringing endorsement as you’ll get out of me on any monster movie.

AV Club: B+
Dissovle: 3.5/5
RT: 73%
Me: B+

The best songs of 2013

Once again, I publish a list of the best songs of the year. They are all in my “Best of 2013″ playlist on Spotify.

I hedge by telling you that I read fewer reviews than last year and that I had a *large* listening gap over the summer. I also listened to less bluegrass and rap than last year. I was skewed towards indie and (quizzically) electronic this year.

Without further ado:

20. Thomas Rhett – “Beer With Jesus”
19. Ben Howard – “Keep Your Head Up”
18. Cage the Elephant – “Come a Little Closer”
17. Cold War Kids – “Miracle Mile”
16. Phosphorescent – “Song For Zula”
15. MGMT – “Alien Days”
14. Daft Punk, Panda Bear – “Doin’ It Right”
13. Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?” / “R U Mine?”
12. Yuck – “Middle Sea” / “Out of Time”
11. New Politics – “Harlem”
10. Low – “Just Make It Stop”
9. Queens of the Stone Age – “My God Is The Sun” / “I Sat By The Ocean”
8. Phoenix – “Don’t”
7. Waaves – “Sail To The Sun” / “Demon To Lean On”
6. Daft Punk, Julian Casablancas – “Instant Crush”
5. Kanye West, JAY-Z, Big Sean – “Clique”
4. Parquet Courts – “Master Of My Craft” / “Borrowed Time” / “Donuts Only”
3. Drake – “Started From the Bottom”
2. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
1. Kurt Vile – “Never Run Away”

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Speedy Ortiz – “Tiger Tank”
Dum Dum Girls – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
John K. Samson – “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”

On why Ventra is a problem (and my experience with it)

ventraslide1Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that the Chicago Transit Authority has privatized their fare collection system with Ventra, which is a subsidiary created to manage the fare collection for Chicago but is really owned by a larger company, Cubic Transportation Systems. According to Cubic, the CTA agreed to a $454 million, 12-year contract for Ventra to provide fare collection on CTA busses and trains.

Some background

I am generally against long-term privatization deals for the administration of public services since private companies are not in the business of providing good service at the expense of their own profits. Public sector (essentially non-profit) work is not in the interest of corporations in the capitalist model; pleasing shareholders with steady investment returns is.

The predominant line of thought in politics in the City of Chicago seems to be that private companies can perform services formerly paid for by taxpayers for a great deal less money. The oft-cited benefit is that such a model provides “savings” to the taxpaying public, but what does “savings” really mean? Where do those “savings” go?

One would typically think that in a balanced budget, any savings on public services would return to the taxpayers in the form of a tax refund or reinvestment in the interest of improving public services. The problem is that Chicago runs a large budget deficit (approximately $339 million for FY2014), which invariably means that savings to taxpayers are used in the part of the calculation which reduces said deficit and doesn’t necessarily return to the taxpayers in any tangible form. The CTA is no different, except that their budget deficit is much smaller proportionally than the city’s and they do not (for the most part) run on taxpayer support (52% of their operating funds for FY2013 will come from system-generated funds as opposed to a relatively modest 48% public contribution).

Thus, fare collection is really the CTA’s rice bowl: without efficient fare collection, they are sunk. For years, the CTA relied on the hybrid Chicago Card system (which used touch cards [similar to credit cards but without numbers] loaded with money either online or at pay kiosks at train stations) and temporary use plastic cards with magnetic stripes that must be inserted into slots in a pay station on a bus or at a train station, and are only rechargeable at said pay kiosks. If those options didn’t appeal to you, however, you could purchase passes for short durations (e.g. one day or three days) as plastic mag-stripe cards, or longer passes (e.g. thirty days) as automatically loaded values to your Chicago Card. This was admittedly clunky, as there were two systems that needed two different fare collection infrastructures to work (touch or insert). Also, those temp plastic cards, lost with value on them, were gone forever (like lost cash) with no way of retrieving that value.

According to the CTA 2013 Budget, they were also facing the fact that their fare collection system was “at the end of its useful life” and would need to be replaced. This left them with a choice that has plagued the City of Chicago on two notable occasions (namely the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system): come up with money to upgrade the infrastructure by raising revenue or find a way to lease the system to a private corporation that will front the money to upgrade the system, yet will retain control and extract a significant profit over a term of many years in exchange for accepting the responsibility of maintaining that system. The city made that decision in extreme, leasing the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system, and all subsequent toll/fee collections, for extended periods (99 years and 75 years, respectively) in exchange for large cash payouts ($1.83 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively). Sadly, the combined $3.02 billion has been frittered away in filling budget gaps in subsequent years. Thus any “savings” that were accrued through these leases did little public good, as they were just stopgap kindling to keep the smoldering fire that is Chicago’s operating budget from dying out.

ventraslide2The CTA took a bit of a different route with Ventra. Rather than take a massive cash infusion, the CTA would pay no money up front to have Cubic update their fare collection infrastructure. Rather, the CTA would pay an indecipherable amount to Ventra each of the contract years (the amount is lumped in with “other expenses” on their budget statement), supposedly up to $454 million over the twelve-year life of the contract.

For 454 million dollars, customers will get the opportunity to pay with a card that is almost identical to the Chicago card in every way, however it can also function as a prepaid debit card. Likewise, you can use any major credit card with an RFID chip to pay. You can purchase a temporary card with cash as well at a payment kiosk, but you cannot pay with cash or an “into-the-slot” card (they are all touch cards using RFID now). There are some major downsides to these payment options that I will explain shortly, but this is a slight improvement in terms of streamlining payment.

On the other side of this equation is how much it would have cost the CTA to implement a new payment system themselves. That is an unknown, and seems to have been studied only to determine a “savings” amount (estimated in the FY2013 budget statement as $50 million over the 12 years). It’s worth noting that Cubic is not an Illinois company and it’s unclear how their takeover impacts the CTA labor market (I wonder who is servicing the fare collection devices? I could not find out if it is the same workers who serviced kiosks prior to the agreement).

Ventra will undoubtedly affect low-income persons disproportionately. There is a non-refundable 50 cent feel associated with temporary “Ventra Tickets” purchased at rail station kiosks (replacing the mag-stripe cards). 1-day and 3-day passes (typically used by low-income patrons and tourists) are only available when you register for a Ventra card, and can no longer be purchased at rail stations or retailers (like grocery stores). Likewise, there is a predatory effort to get users to deposit their paychecks into the Ventra operated MetaBank, which charges users additional fees for almost anything you can imagine and was fined for deceptive lending practices.

According to the CTA, users will also have the convenience of paying with smartphones. However, it’s really unknown why or how that will be more convenient than using a plastic card. I suppose if you had forgotten your wallet and only had your phone, this might be handy provided you took the numerous steps to link your prepaid account to your phone. Likewise, you can use any major contactless debit/credit card to pay your fare, but with a caveat: if it is linked to your online Ventra account you will pay standard fares – if not, you will pay a full fare of $2.25 each time you board a train or bus (no transfer credits allowed). These are all essentially penalty fees for f**king up and leaving your Ventra card at home not registering every single device and card to Ventra. If you cannot afford a smart phone or contactless card and rely on tickets, they are a transit tax on being poor.

I’ll only briefly mention the fees associated with a the prepaid debit option on these cards. Apparently there are a constellation of fees associated with almost every action on your account. Predatory lending at its finest.

My card experience

I received an email notice in July indicating that I should verify and port some personal information over to the Ventra website from my Chicago Card account. I took the time to verify my information, and waited. A month later, I received an email that said the process of sending my card was underway, and that I should plan on receiving it in 7-10 business days.

A couple of weeks after that, I got another email with the subject line “Convenience is coming!”, informing me that I’d be getting my card in 7-10 business days. In the meantime, they invited me to log in to the site and update my access code, which is different from the password you use to log into the website. I did as instructed and waited.

Finally, two weeks later, I received the card in the mail. I had been waiting for the card for about two months at that point. I went to log into the website to activate my card, but it had been so long that I forgot my password. Normally, this is no big deal for any website, but when I tried to reset and use the temporary password the website threw an error and told me to call. At this point, I already wasted hours of my life trying to set up the account, so I gave up.

Alas, the day came when I had to take the train a couple of weeks ago and I needed to set up the account right then. I tried the password reset feature on the site, and it worked this time. After I logged in, I began the most dysfunctional process I have ever undertaken.

The initial log in

I first had to call a card activation hotline, which was straightforward enough. Then I had to update my password. Most websites give you real time feedback on password strength so that you know when you have met the arbitrary minimum of complexity, but not Ventra. You must submit passwords that are highly complex, but conform to rigid guidelines as well, and only after entering them do you find out if it is complex enough. While this is secure, it is also less effective than a two-step verification process (using a smartphone app) and, on a site where one plans to log in almost never, will inevitably result in a lost password.

Finally arriving at a satisfactory password, I went to check my card value only to discover that it read zero. The money that was supposedly going to transfer to my card seamlessly was missing. Since I needed that card to board the train the next day, I grudgingly added $20 to my account. I then set up an automatic recharge amount of $20, which was supposed to be added after my account dipped below $10. I returned to my account page and saw, yet again, a zero balance. This began the second hour of my activation efforts.

Customer service

I called the customer support line. All of the regular menu options were, of course, not what I needed. I managed to access my account information after entering my account number and CCV code, and then I waited for 15 minutes for an account rep. When one picked up, and I started to speak, I was immediately disconnected, so I had to call back and repeat the entire process again, only this time I was on hold for closer to 30 minutes.

While I was on hold, I refreshed the account page and noticed that my balance was $58.25. Apparently, my Chicago Card transfer, one time addition of $20, and my automatic recharge all processed simultaneously. My problem shifted from having no balance to having a ludicrously high balance that would take me (an infrequent rider) a long time to use up.

Finally I began speaking to a representative. I explained my problem, and she listened patiently. At one point, she said “Some convenience, this card, huh?” I found this a little odd as she represented the organization that was promising me “convenience,” but I wrote it off as some kind of calming tactic used by customer service reps to build rapport. She asked if I had been to “Vertran.com, or something like that,” which piqued my suspicion that she had no clue about my issues.

After some discussion, she asked me if it were possible to reverse the charges to my account. I told her I didn’t really know, as I didn’t work for the company, and that I expected her to know if this was possible. Then she began asking me for personal information including my username, card number, security number, and email address. With even two or three of these pieces of information it would be no problem to hack my account. I told here I was not comfortable giving her any information, and that is when she said: “I’m supposed to tell you this. I don’t actually work for Ventra in Chicago. I’m in Boston and I need to take your information so a customer service representative can call you back.”

I told her thank you, but I’m not going to give out any more personal information without knowing exactly who is taking it. She told me, “That’s fine, but if you wait for them to call you back and resolve this problem and you miss the call, you’ll just have to call back and wait on hold again.” I told her thank you, but I’m hanging up now and I don’t care.

My Takeaway

I have used the bus and train several times since then, and I’ve yet to have a bus trip where my card worked without a hitch. A couple of times I have just not paid at all, which adds up to lost revenue for the CTA. I never got the obscenely high card credit resolved, so I guess I will spend it off over many months.

My friend Aja since advised me that the chips in the cards were from the Gameboy Advance manufacturer who stopped making them, and that is why the CTA had to change systems. I couldn’t confirm, but this doesn’t seem that far out there.

I humbly submit this as yet another tale of the effects of privatization of city services.

Nirvana: “MTV Unplugged In New York” (1994)

Nirvana_mtv_unplugged_in_new_yorkI’ve fallen a bit behind in my reviews of classic albums, so for this piece I’ll be relying on some of my old writings. But before I crtl-v, I wanted to introduce this piece and discuss some of the back story behind my relationship with Unplugged. If you read the earlier pieces in this series, you can tell that Nirvana is a benchmark by which most of the music I listened to in the first half of the 1990s was judged by. Not without good cause, as this album was integral to one of the most important cultural events (I would argue) in 1994: Cobain’s death.

I lived in the sticks, far away from cable television (at least until I turned 16), so my first experience with this performance was listening to the album. Cobain was already long dead by the time the album was released in late 1994, and I don’t think I actually listened to it earlier than December 1994. I don’t know if I ever said this, but my town did not have a music store. Both the long lag time in finding out about new music and the fact that I didn’t have any access to purchasing music beyond driving half an hour to a Best Buy store strike me as queer realities of coming of age in the 1990s. It’s so strange that there was no network available to us for the sharing of music or watching live performances, but it was the reality. Even when internet access became a reality when I was around 15 (I got free internet because I worked at a curious ISP in someone’s basement), there was no system for viewing videos of live performances.

When I first listened to the album, I had what one might call the realization that I was hearing a masterpiece. There are only maybe three other albums that I can say the same thing about (Kid A [Radiohead], Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Wilco], and The Suburbs [Arcade Fire]). In my youth, I probably listened to Unplugged about a thousand times. Although the filmed performance is full of iconic images in it’s own right (Cobain in his green sweater, hair in his face, eyes closed as he sings; Grohl delicately tapping symbols with brushes [as opposed to his usual pounding intensity]), sonically the music provides so many moments that it erases the need for images.

The opening notes of “The Man Who Sold The World” (electric no less) with Grohl’s tight drumwork leading in to Cobain’s raspy vocals. Ever the master of taking the explosion of emotion and intensity in the loud songs and packing that into the desperate sounding vocals in the quite songs, Cobain’s vocals here sound like a desperate plea. The guitar solo paired with the cello sound good only on the album (the mix on the film doesn’t do it justice), and they embody the desperate plea of the narrator in the song.

The bridge in “Dumb” is particularly moving, and once again the strings provide the added punch to Cobain’s melancholy vocals. Hearing most of these songs without the feedback and noise must have appealed to a large group of Nirvana fans, but for me it was really the first major introduction to these songs. They come off as refined, well constructed rock songs, yet folksy at the same time. Cobain must have realized the connection and was clearly influenced by his guests, the Meat Puppets. His performance of folk and standard songs is unique and powerful, despite detractors who (wrongly) saw this as a lack of originality or a failure to translate Nirvana’s biggest hits into acoustic arrangements. Particularly successful is the album’s final track, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an american folk song transformed into the Nirvana style. Slow, brooding, and climaxing with a blood curdling scream from Cobain, the song channels the creepiness of the Leadbelly arrangement while at the same time expressing Cobain’s deep personal discontentment with the music industry (he finds time to toss in a jab at David Geffin before the track) and his own personal anguish, which many people of the early 90s shared in earnest.

The songs that the band selects are appropriate, and unlike other bands trying to shoehorn in incompatible tracks into this format, Nirvana succeeds in effectively mastering the “stripped down” performance. Sadly, time does not always reward bold moves, especially in the consumerism of major-label music where the vast majority of the public expects bands to remake their most popular album ad infinitum.

Fourteen years later I took a course on celebrity at DePaul university, and I laughed to see literary critics trying to interpret Cobain and Nirvana as damaged, decomposing, and culturally irrelevant. I happened to be sick when I was reading his journals and watching the performances when I wrote a required response paper. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little pissed off when writing it, and I churned it out “punk rock style” (as much as getting an M.A. in Lit can be punk rock) in about ten minutes. It’s full of vitriol (and spelling errors) but I present it as I wrote it. I can’t even remember the shitty arguments presented by the literary “scholars” I quoted, but rereading it reminded me of why I am leaving the domain of literature studies behind me. Here it is, as I wrote it in 2008.

15 May 2008

Perpetual Dispossession: Cobain and the Self

At the conclusion of Mark Mazullo’s article, he surmises that “In the end, the idea of cultural authenticity stifled and devoured Kurt Cobain” (742). The authenticity that the celebrity consumer claims is ultimately self-defeating, since as Mazullo states the self of the celebrity is damaged or destroyed; he goes so far as to state that “we cannot know to what extent Cobain’s self or identity was ‘his own’” (738). If that is the case, then one seriously must question the motives behind reading his journals (although the term journal must be used loosely, since many half torn-up scraps and bits of writings and letters are casually and seemingly carelessly edited into the journals). The existence of writing to be published, while partially validated by some of Cobain’s remarks, only serves to extend the ability of the consumer to appropriate additional material from an artist who, according to Time Appelo, possessed only a “denial, repeated ad infinitum”; the current critical approach seems to validate a close reading of his journals and remove much of his voice trough posthumous destruction of his sense of self and reappropriation of his lyrics and image to generation x as a whole.

Marketing and capitalism seems to dominate the critical lens by which critics evaluate Cobain today. In stark opposition to the title page of the journals inviting readers to “please read my diary” (a statement that appears rich with sarcasm but devoid of any context), a note scribbled in two colors of ink laments the theft of his journals by obsessive fans and dissolves into exclamations of “Fuck you!” (263). It is clear that Cobain felt a deep sense of personal loss through the relentless (misguided) admiration of his persona and work. Mazullo envisions the 1993 Unplugged performance as a capitalistic snare set by MTV to entrap Nirvana and Cobain in their “corporate pretensions to art,” portraying Cobain as “lonely, angry, confused, and perhaps not quite as talented a musician as he had been made out to be” (716). Despite the authors obvious infatuation with David Bowie’s sound, the adjectives are surprisingly accurate to Cobain’s own representations of himself in his journal pages.

Tim Appelo argues that Cobain “often invited people to read his journals” and instructs the reader to not feel guilty about the act, but the highly questionable practice of reassembling excerpts from multiple sources in a juxtaposition of semi-chronological and sometimes completely irrelevant pieces (set lists written in blue ink on plain white paper) does not seem to portent the conditions that Cobain would have released his life and letters under. If anything, the most absent element of the journals is Cobain and his artistic intentions, which undoubtedly amounted to little if we are to believe that his voice and opinions were an amalgamation of a generation. The dispossession of Cobain’s self is continued by the poorly edited journals long after his body is gone.

OK, gotcha, next please:

I think at this point that I’m done with the early 90s (despite leaving out many good albums), so I’m moving on to around 95-98: my middle school and early high school years.

Beck – Odelay (1996)
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Green Day: “Dookie” (1994)

Green_Day_-_Dookie_coverI still don’t think I understand what punk music is. I missed the boat on that one a long time ago and never really got the chance to hop back on. I know that there was a scene in Chicago, but I was either too young or too restricted by the tyranny of distance to every really get into that scene. A lot of my friends listened to big name punk records (NOFX, Rancid, etc.) that I also listened to, but I never really dug deep into the genre.

Still, when I listen to Green Day’s major label debut Dookie now, I can say with 95 percent certainty that this is not really punk rock. They may have looked edgy in their punk attire with punk haircuts back in 1994, but I don’t hear any punk there. This is the pop treatment of punk that makes Sum 41 look hard.

I adored this record when it came out. It was the first CD I bought with my own money, and as I recall it had the explicit sticker on it as well, which made it even more badass. The punchy guitars and hooks really hold up well on a relisten, but the songs have a bit of a monochromatic feeling now. The chords and arrangement are all pretty similar, and there’s not much in terms of solo work to speak of. The “solos” as they are serve the perfunctory purpose of just bridging that time between the second and third verse without really expressing anything. No one needs a minute long guitar solo, but even short songs deserve about eight bars worth of solo work; economical solos that deliver the punch and then get the hell out of there are really refreshing (think Tokyo Police Club or, more recently, Parquet Courts).

Tracks like “When I Come Around” or “In The End” really just allow Dirnt’s bass playing to come to the front of the mix while Armstrong tosses in a few guitar flourishes; that’s not really a solo. Maybe this is just endemic in punk music, but I keep waiting for a guitar explosion and it never comes. The chords and melodies are great, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where one track ends and the other begins because the arrangements are so similar.

Also, I’m not really of the camp that you have to elocute like a proper gentleman when singing in a rock band, but Armstrong’s delivery on some of the tracks sounds like he never closes his mouth the whole time. Don’t even ask me to explain his slightly British vowel pronunciations, especially the ‘I’ which sounds more like ‘auI’ (maybe he’s a Shakespeare fan?). The recording, which supposedly was done several times to perfect the sound according to Wikipedia, sounds great on some tracks, but the guitars come across as tinny on other tracks like “Chump” for instance (perhaps there was some cross breeding of tapes?).

Some tracks still rock hard. “She” is the best song on the album: its arrangement is tight, and the guitar sounds are big and bold. I’m not sure if Armstrong is using some kind of vocal doubling tool, but his voice sounds big and pairs with backing vocals nicely. “Pulling Teeth” sounds like the fab four even if it is slightly overproduced. The sound that this three-piece band generates is really full given the time period, which I think is a complement. If you ignore the stigma of what punk is “supposed to be” then you can really appreciate the highlights of this album. If you want a harder edge, this album only hints at it, mostly on “F.O.D.” which one may call the last proper track on the album (the hidden track is more of an embarrassment than anything).

I know four years after I heard this album I got into the Violent Femmes and I asked myself “what the hell was that Green Day shit I was listening to?” Green Day shot themselves in the collective foot with later albums until trying to break away from the fart joke that had become their career by churning out American Idiot (2004), a potent (if sometimes lyrically challenged) attack on society that one feels actually said what they were thinking for ten years but didn’t have the balls to say. Since then, as with many of the bands I’ve profiled here, we know that they have been relegated to the laughing stocks yet again with a pointless Broadway musical and subsequent bombastic, then subpar efforts.

Sting: “Ten Summoner’s Tales” (1993)

Ten_Summoner's_TalesWell, I had a bit of a break as I was out of town. I’m just now catching up.

Reflecting on Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s an easy album to reminisce about. The songs themselves are all reminiscent in their own ways, evoking images and characters that are memorable. Perhaps in homage to the summoner’s tale in Chaucer’s seminal work, Sting adopts the guise of a balladeer, roaming the countryside and recalling the humorous, historical, wistful, and eerie in equal measure. His accompaniment is lighthearted for the most part, and can shift to romantic or mysterious and back again without much effort.

“Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)” is a parable about greed transformed into lust, which eventually leads to fratricide. The twangy backing leads to a jovial feel with steel guitars mixed in with a gospel like organ, and the melody hits just enough sour notes to reinforce the duplicitous nature of the narrative. “Heavy Cloud No Rain” draws on the same playfulness and shows how the problems of the rich (at least in the French Revolution) are pretty much the same as that of the farmer when you’re waiting on nature to deliver some help.

“Fields of Gold” comes across as somewhat sentimental and sappy, but as my review of 90s music continues, that is pretty much par for the course. Given my obsession with fantasy novels at age 11, the images of farm maidens and long, meaningful exchanged glances were probably well received at the time. Listening now, it is more than a bit cloying, and while the Northumbrian smallpipes (thanks Wikipedia) definitely establish that fantasy mood of the English countryside, my 30-year-old self thinks that they probably could have been reigned in a bit.

Upbeat, poppy ballads like “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” “She’s Too Good For Me,” and [shudder] yet another “days of the week” love ballad, “Seven Days,” fit right in with the rest of Sting’s solo cannon. They are somewhat saccharine, occasionally annoying, and generally agreeable as background music.

“Saint Augustine in Hell” is a bit more adventurous, depicting a tale of uncontrollable lust. Named after the famous Catholic convert and saint whose late-fourth century Confessions were a “sensation” of sorts, the song toys with unbearable temptation and even features a spoken word monologue from the downstairs boss:

Relax, have a cigar, make yourself at home. Hell is full of high court judges, failed saints. We’ve got Cardinals, Archbishops, barristers, certified accountants, music critics, they’re all here. You’re not alone. You’re never alone, not here you’re not. [maniacal laughter] OK break’s over.

The references seem somewhat personal (especially “music critics”) and I’m not sure if Sting had a score to settle. I’m not sure who delivers the monologue, but it sounds like it could be the artist himself donning a strong cockney accent. The whole concept of “you’re not alone” seems to be cajoling by the Devil for the protagonist to acquiesce to his urges, but it also seems to contain some additional meaning due to it’s emphasis.

That song ushers in the three more somber tracks that actually give the album some character. “It’s Probably Me” has a bluesy, city vibe with some fine saxophone work to drive home the grittiness of the setting. It reminded me strongly of James’ “Don’t Wait That Long.” Sadly, it was somewhat ruined when I learned that the song was written with Eric Clapton (who, if he plays guitar on this track is utterly forgettable) for Lethal Weapon 3 and builds on “motifs” from the Lethal Weapon song “The Weapon” (some less generous folks might say it “steals” those “motifs” and “recycles” them). Sometimes, it seems, it’s better not to dig for these things.

“Shape Of My Heart” has a Spanish-style guitar played by the song’s co-writer and longtime Sting guitarist, Dominic Miller. It is a meditative piece that tells the story of a lovelorn, world-weary gambler searching for solace in the patters of a deck of cards that might revive his chances (and desire) for love. You wouldn’t typically think of a harmonica solo working well in this vein, but the whole thing kind of evokes a gambling man with a passionate, Wild West spirit subdued by the repetitiveness of a sterile Las Vegas casino floor.

That same harmonica opens “Something The Boy Said,” which flashes to a band of travelers in a middle-Earth-like setting marching towards their impeding death. I still can’t really make heads or tales of the narrative in the lyrics. The ominous prophecy of the titular “boy” seemed to be better echoed by the composition of the song when I was younger, but it has a very easy-listening vibe to it as I relisten that doesn’t match well with the spirit the song is trying to capture. There are somewhat cheesy sounding synth vibraphones, and the shift from minor back to major key in the bridge before the last refrain, while a technically sound maneuver, dispels the mood of the previous verse that describes “burning corpses” and the feast of the “carrion crow” that the narrator is too petrified to look back upon as he flees the battle (or whatever it was); death metal this song is not.

“Epilogue (Nothing ‘Bout Me)” is a kitschy comment on privacy in the pre-Facebook age that sounds absurd. It evokes the stupidity of tracks like “Englishman in New York” that embody the worst of Sting in my mind. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of his solo career in the first place (I much prefer The Police), but there are some songs that are insufferable, and this one comes pretty close to fitting the bill.

To this day I am hard pressed to explain why exactly I liked this album at age 11. I suppose it has something to do with the “right place, right time” theory of music, but a relisten reveals that the tracks are still slick, somewhat appealing, and even (in some cases) lyrically potent. As a concept album, it is a failure. Sting, though a master pop song craftsman, only achieves the country balladeer feel in roughly half the tracks. The other half just come across as generic, serviceable cannon entries. Likewise, the somber turn in the album’s second half no longer establishes the requisite mood for me years later due to some of the more hammy musical tricks. In a stripped down version, the lyrics and fundamental composition of the tracks might shine more brightly and give the otherwise well-composed tracks on Ten Summoner’s Tales some new life.

The World’s End (2013)

The_World's_End_posterDir. Edgar Wright, 109 min., in theaters

Did we need another film in the style of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, or as some people are calling this, the third entry in the Cornetto Trilogy? No.

Like so many films I watch that are playing a nostalgia card, recycling old ideas with new actors in a desperate attempt to sell tickets and cover multi-million dollar budgets, this film comes off as unnecessary and boring. I myself became (overly) excited at the prospect of the actors and director that made two of my favorite films once again returning to lampoon society and cinema though exposing the silliness of both with a quick, dry wit. Sadly, this film delivers hardly any laughs as a group of aging sad sacks reflect on how old they feel (or should feel in the case of Simon Pegg’s emotionally stunted manchild, Gary). It plays like City Slickers but without the fun, and cops 60% of it’s plot from Hot Tub Time Machine while somehow managing to deliver less (and sometimes lazier) jokes than even that piece of shit.

Pegg’s character somehow reunites his high school mates, including Nick Frost’s Andy who he *spoiler* left to die in a drunken car accident some sixteeen years earlier, to relive the pinnacle of his youth: a pub crawl. While the original night is talked about as epic, and is clearly supposed to be the prime motivation for Gary, I am mystified as to why anyone cares about completing this ritual some twenty years later. Gary’s former friends barely tolerate each other, let alone Gary. They have all moved on to ho hum suburban professional lives, but when they reunite all they can talk about is what a bad idea this premise is (not the best move to engage your audience). The dialogue is so boring that at one point, I expected them to have a discussion on the merits of various 401k diversification strategies. That might have been funnier than their actual interplay with Gary, which swings from enabling his debauchery to utter disgust with the pathetic state of his life.

Once the shit gets real later in the film, I expected a more congenial ensemble to emerge and for the tone to get a bit more lighthearted, but it never does. The sparse laughs that do come about from Wright’s once master comedic timing are almost immediately dispelled in short order. One of Gary’s friends who was relentlessly bullied and savagely beaten by a high school tormentor describes in heart-breaking detail his misery early in the film. When he’s finally given his chance to deliver some comeuppance to a his tormentor’s robot analogue, he is rewarded by himself being killed and replaced with a robot. There might have even been time for a, I don’t know, joke or something, but nope. He’s just killed by robots.

There is also the ever present specter of the aforementioned drunk driving accident that defines Pegg and Frost’s chemistry. I’ve read a lot of short fiction and seen a lot of films that use drunk driving to drive the plot, but it hardly ever results in anyone laughing; this is no exception. It is finally revealed just prior to the end of the film that *spoiler* Andy’s wife has left him and he is, in fact, miserable. Not to be outdone, Gary reveals that he tried to commit suicide as a final escape from his demons, and that this pathetic pub crawl was the only thing keeping him alive. The premise is almost as disconnected as another Pegg outlet, Run, Fatboy, Run, where a character foolishly fixates on some arbitrary accomplishment as the solution to all his problems.

In total, the film’s laughs were frequently tainted by questionable material: jokes about having sex in bathrooms designed for disabled bar patrons, a somewhat disturbing sequence with our sad sacks perving out on teenage schoolgirl robots, and a bit about Gary’s mother dying from cancer – Gary lies about that to get his friends to agree to the pub crawl – and then actually dying in the ensuing apocalypse. At times I wondered if this was supposed to be a comedy at all, or if I had just misread the concept of the film entirely. The sparse goofball laughs and the discussions of this as part of a comedic trilogy suggest that I probably should have been laughing much more than I actually did. I don’t want to come across as a prig or say that certain topics are taboo for comedy, but it’s hard to get in a laughing mood when cancer, suicide, drug abuse, and drunk driving accidents are the topics the characters keep returning to.

I can’t say enough about the lameness of the ending. One of the reasons SotD is so hilarious is that it puts the oafish characters into a zombie film where they are both hilariously incompetent and simultaneously self-aware. The director succeeds there by bringing the audience in on the laughs, and as a result creates a solid zombie film entry in its own right. While this film is an obvious take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and maybe The Stepford Wives, replacing complete disregard for fawning obsequiousness), I wouldn’t even say The World’s End is half as good as that film; it adds little to nothing to that genre as far as I’m concerned. The robots seem more designed as a heavy-handed metaphor to further expose Gary’s patheticness. Gary is certainly made to be a despicable character, but his redemption at the end (if one can call it that) does nothing to change his story arc: even after the apocalypse he is still an emotionally stunted manchild who has actually regressed further (if that’s possible), though at least he drinks water instead of beer and schnapps on his Mad Max style pub crawls across the scorched Earth.

After reading some comments on various reviews I noticed that there are more Easter eggs and clever bits than I noticed on first viewing, but I can’t get over some of the more depressing aspects of the film. For instance, Gary’s suicidal, coked up loser is being critiqued by adults who clearly have their own desperate problems. The bullied friend still works for his Father in their car dealership and is upbraided by him for having a personal conversation at work, his Realtor friend is detached (constantly tuned in to his Bluetooth mobile earpiece), Andy struggles with his marriage and repressed rage over his misspent youth with Gary, and Gary’s second-fiddle counterpart is divorced and compensates for his inadequacies with a fitness instructor girlfriend. When thinking of why these folks are actually on this pub crawl with Gary I’m reminded of the reprimand Shaun gets from his flatmate: “Does it make you feel better having someone around who’s even more of a loser than you?”

Even at a lean 108 minutes, I was at times wondering “how long until the Goddamn world ends already?” The final 15 minutes is regrettable in that it feels about as tacked on as it can get. I don’t really agree with any reviews that claim Wright was up to his usual standards when making this film. Partly this may be my fault, as my expectations were sky high. I left thoroughly disappointed, and I’m not sure I’ll be so eager to see Wright’s next film.

AV Club: A-
RT: 91%
Me: D+

Phish: “(Hoist)” (1994)

Photo Aug 23, 10 29 27 PMI hinted before that I would be writing at least once about Phish, a band that I had an obsession with for about five or six years. I loved all things Phish during that time. I wore an extremely dorky Phish baseball hat, wore out two consecutive tie-die Phish t-shirts, and eventually owned every studio album and numerous bootlegs and live recordings. Embarrassingly, I also received and read the Phish newsletter, something that both dates me as someone old enough to care about receiving newsletters and as a youth who clearly had too much free time.

When I hit college, that mostly changed. My obsession died sometime during freshman year and never really rekindled, and I don’t really remember why. I think part of that shift in my listening life stemmed from a realization that while there may be some people just as into this music as I was, I wasn’t going to find them unless I was following Phish in an RV and going long stretches without bathing.

My strange introduction to Phish as a recording studio band as opposed to a live hippie-jam act may have led me to enjoy the band on an arc rather than an oscillating line. Hoist was the first album I heard by Phish, and its polished sounds and tight compositions are at odds with the majority of their work, which centers on improvisation and extended jam sessions.

I could probably talk a lot about each track, but you should really just watch the “making of” piece Tracking (1994). The film was shot and edited by the bass player Mike Gordon and is crude in terms of production values, but the sound (that I assume comes right off the boards) is high quality, and the film gives a nice glimpse into not only the endless work of recording track after track, but also the quirky recording process of the band and some of their improvised instruments (including a lemonade jug and rocks in cat litter pans).

Unlike their previous albums A Picture of Nectar (1992) and Rift (1993) the sound on the album is highly produced, and there are plenty of songs that have the sound of a single that A&R people must dream of; it seems like this could have been a huge crossover hit for the band, but it sold only a respectable 1M records after two years.

Hoist is star studded, with Bela Fleck playing banjo on “Scent of a Mule,” Alison Krauss singing a duet with lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio on the ballad “If I Could,” and my personal favorite, Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker from Star Trek TNG) playing trombone on “Riker’s Mailbox” (you can read about it here). All that fancification doesn’t really detract from the core quirkiness of Phish, and the album feels like a jam band taking a successful run at a polished studio album.

I talked last time about equal talent in bands, and Phish has some equally talented members, but Trey Anastasio is far more equal than the others. Anastasio is a talented folk and blues guitarist who really knows how to throw down. My only problem is that he occasionally slips into lazy repetitions on long jam tracks, but that isn’t a problem on this album as the tracks are carefully pared down to their essentials (excluding the somewhat incoherent “Demand” at the close of the album). “Axilla [Part II]” is by far his best performance, and the tape of him recording in the studio was treat to watch. That alone almost makes me want to see Phish again, but it also reminds me of one of the main reasons I moved away from their music.

By the time I reached college, Phish had already released live albums and more attempts at studio singles. When Farmhouse (2000) came out, it was clear that they were making an attempt similar to Hoist to cross over into the mainstream rock radio circuit. I had first encountered them on such an attempt (Hoist), but digging deeper I found a band that was deeply divided between extended improvisations in their live performances and their attempts to (re)create that atmosphere on studio recordings. I had too much history with the band at that point to accept their coming full circle, and while many of the people I met in college first encountered Phish through Farmhouse, my enthusiasm for their efforts of that type had already waned.

Oddly enough, the internet, which has brought me countless hours of music enjoyment and allowed me to discover hundreds of bands that I would never hear otherwise, was partially responsible for my declining interest in this band. As a young man with a CD collection I got a variety of bluesy and experimental jazz-type tracks from Phish, but once I was a master of P2P file sharing networks I branched out. Through P2P, I sought out obscurities like The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday and I even purchased some live recordings released in a massive series by Rhino (Phish did not tour central Illinois at all really, mostly stopping at Alpine Valley, which was far too expensive for me to drive up to in college). Alas, I couldn’t really sustain my interest in the band. My access to P2P sites ensured that I was able to have constant access to new music, relegating my CD collection to more of a secondary role (i.e. car rides and walking to and from classes/work).

On a relisten, the album is somewhat ruined by the note-for-note knowledge of each track that I forged on many long car trips and many, many hours cutting grass. The songs are generally good and the performances are well meshed, but my enjoyment has waned considerably. Watching Tracking briefly reminded me what superb guitar and backing vocals there are on this record, but I don’t see myself listening to this, or really any other Phish record, again anytime soon.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (9.4)
Green Day: Dookie (9.11)
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged (9.18)

James “Seven” (1992)

Photo Aug 14, 1 54 29 AM (1)For Christmas in 1992, I received two gifts that would change my life. The first was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for SNES that, for better or worse, would consume my free time for at least a year. The second, was a CD boombox, which, even though I had no CDs at the time, would became one of my most prized possessions. As I recall, I had access to John Lennon’s greatest hits, a few Christmas CDs, and some assorted classical music. Cassettes were still the dominant form of listening material in my household.

That changed when my brother Brad would come home from college for summer break. He brought with him his fancy, extremely expensive stereo system and his collection of CDs, which numbered in the hundreds. It seems quaint now, but that CD library was extremely important to me. We only barely got radio reception from Chicago where I grew up, and what stations we did get were very limiting. In addition, digital receivers were in rare supply, so one had to manipulate a very small dial to tune in a station; at the fringes of broadcast range, that task required the feather touch of a brain surgeon.

To expand my own meager music offerings, I began by recording songs onto cassette from the radio. However, DJs had the annoying tendency to talk over opening instrumentals, so most tracks on these tapes were littered with the detritus that is on-air chatter. Worse yet, cassettes were clunky and time consuming to dupicate (duplicating a cassette took as long as the recording time, 90 minutes [for both sides] in most cases) and stringing together tracks required precision on the FF and REW buttons, something most consumer tape decks were not designed for.

The CD boombox gave me a way to combat this. Any time I had a CD from any source for a day or so, I could record that CD onto a (relatively) cheap cassette tape. These tapes could be taken with me and played on my Walkman, whether it was a trip to Chicago or mowing the lawn. On a side note, those tapes looked pretty good (despite the poor audio quality) during skip-ravaged Discman years of my late teens.

It was on a taped CD that I first experienced Seven by a relatively unknown band in the U.S., James. It was in my brother’s collection, and I probably first heard it near the summer of 1993.

The sound is something very different from the grungy, harder rock I was listening to at the time. Whereas a lot of my friends were trending toward the metal bands like Metallica, funkier sounds like Red Hot Chili Peppers, or punk sounds from bands like NOFX and Rancid, I made room for more pop- and folk-sounding bands in my listening repertoire. James had their roots in folk rock in the 1980s, but Seven has a lot more emphasis on big-sounding, instrumental crescendos. To me it is one of the definitive sounds of the 90s, with the jangling acoustic guitar and horns as a symbol of the hippie, return-to-nature vibe of the 90s that followed the artificiality of the 80s.

Photo Aug 14, 1 56 00 AM (1)There’s no shortage of emotion from vocalist Tim Booth, who really holds nothing back (including his falsetto) on this album, especially the opening track “Born of Frustration.” It has an opening guitar lick that is probably memorable to a lot of people – the song was a minor radio hit and was used in several commercials – before Booth breaks in with his falsetto followed by the blazing trumpet of Andy Diagram. Clearly the producer, band mates, or some combination of both recognized Diagram was on a tear during the recording, because he is featured on fully every track and gives the band that signature sound. “Sound” (funny enough) encapsulates all of the album’s major elements: Booth’s subtle vocals that quietly erupt in the chorus, his well delivered falsetto, and the brazenness of Diagram’s trumpet (thought it is a bit subdued in this song). Both band members have their opportunity to shine, and it’s not difficult to imagine why Diagram would later leave the band as his talent and contribution is equal to Booth’s on this album.

“Mother” is some kind of unspecified war ballad, opening with the somewhat unconvincing line “This war’s a motherfucker, how many sons will we kill today?” I’m guessing this might be related to the clashes between the IRA and British army in Northern Ireland, but it’s unspecified vagaries combined with its ponderous tone make it laughable when compared with more substantial war ballads (e.g. U2 “New Year’s Day”) or songs that don’t take themselves so seriously (e.g. New Order “Love Vigilantes”).

Luckily, the band doesn’t dwell on such temporal subject matter; the content is much more intimate and driven by the space in the hearts, bedrooms, homes, and worlds of personal relationships. Whereas “Born of Frustration” targets the burgeoning sexuality of adolescence (or some kind of frustrated love) and serves as a genesis of the album – and maybe hearkens to the genesis of life given the image of the fetus on the album cover – the scope of the middle of the album narrows considerably to the frustrations of a relationship. “Don’t Wait that Long” adopts the slow jam beat of R&B, with the whispered lyrics of Booth and breathy, backing vocals sending out a sexy vibe. Booth’s falsetto vocals are still masculine, but with a touch of the feminine as well, presenting an androgynous vibe that works well in intimate tracks like this. The dreamy sound of Diagram’s trumpet in the background almost mimics a saxophone, and my (somewhat cliche) mind’s eye puts him on a street corner with steam rising from the subway grates. I’m not familiar with Manchester, but a hot night in the city is surely captured sonically in this track.Photo Aug 14, 1 54 48 AM (1)

“Next Lover” is somewhat a product of the band’s “jam” writing style and has a rambling, raga feel that seems out of place on an album as polished as this (as does the somewhat overactive “Bring a Gun”). It is followed by the divine opening piano and guitar of “Heavens.” The track itself is relatively straightforward and a solid entry in the album, but the opening is just wonderful. “Protect Me” is a desperate, waltz-like ballad that functions as a plea, and in some ways a regresses the narrator to the feet of his lover(/angel/god?) to shield him from the horrors of the outside world.

Perhaps the most fascinating track is the concluding, pseudo-suite “Seven” that is both mysteriously titled and simultaneously dispels and reinforces the centrality of love that the album embodies. Much like the grandiosity of the opening track, the narrator of this track professes “God made love to me” and repeatedly rejoins, “understand the world we’re living in, love can mean anything,” before finally admitting at the end of the song that “love can change anything.” It would come across as a callous, masculine blow off, except that the man is rejecting the love protestation of the woman. It’s open to critical debate, but that’s the way I read it. The guitars on the track are as crisp as they come, but there are some ambient sounds interlaced in the latter part of the track; although they are relatively rudimentary, they portend the ambient sounds James would explore with Brian Eno to good effect in later albums.

Overall, I have very little bad to say about this album, and, while clearly embodying the spirit and sound of the time, it holds up relatively well on a relisten. It was one of my first introductions to an album that was solid from start to finish with little filler material. It also, in combination with the next entry in this series, opened the door to a world of contemporary music for me that was neither grunge, metal, or punk, the major musical tribes sweeping across the landscape of my youth.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Phish: (Hoist) [apparently it has parentheses in the title] (8.21)
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (8.28)
Green Day: Dookie (9.4)
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged (9.11)

Stone Temple Pilots: “Core” (1992)

STPIn the self-revisionist biography created in everybody’s mind, most of us recollect comparatively few negatives as opposed to the vast quantity of positives that populate our memories. Often, we are reminded by signs and tokens of past foolishness that we carefully censor so as to avoid cringing our lives away.

This is part of the reason why I am so happy I lugged a box of jewel cases around to remind me of the many musical blunders that dot my music listening history. Stone Temple Pilot’s Core falls decisively in that camp, as I can’t possibly fathom putting this record on and enjoying it in the slightest. Yet at the time, it was probably one of the most important records in my limited collection.

I can only speculate on why I valued this record so highly, but here is my theory. Growing up I was surrounded by a wide variety of music: classical, oldies (which are quizzically the same songs played on “oldies” radio in this decade), contemporary pop/rock at my family’s printing shop and in my brothers’ cars, and so on. STP was a hard, aggressive, sometimes melodic sound that was very different from what the older generations were listening to (my grandparents still watched Lawrence Welk for Christ’s sake). Likewise, I had only a few CDs in my collection when I owned this album, so there wasn’t a lot of choice to go to. We all know of the desert island scenario, where at a certain point you go to the music you have when facing the prospect of hearing nothing at all. This is the best I can come up with for listening to this monstrosity.

I know for a fact that my older brothers hated this record. My oldest brother despised it, and my other brother (the aforementioned, Brad) told me that the STP were grunge posers, ripping off better bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. At the time I was defensive, but his assessment was correct in hindsight. This album is a second-rate knock off of Alice in Chains with very few redeeming qualities.

Photo Aug 04, 12 58 36 AMIn my youth, I was a music skipper. The advent of CDs as opposed to cassettes meant you could easily skip from track to track, listening to only the tracks you liked and relegating the remainder to the dustbin of history. I’ll surely talk about this again, but the gist of it is that on albums such as this I have almost no memory of the interstitial tracks that essentially pad out the radio singles. In this case it’s with good reason, as those filler tracks are just godawful.

Listening again, even the singles are of marginal quality, full of unjustified rock star machismo. An aphorism I have heard in various incarnations goes as such: “The best way to become famous is to act famous.” I find that thought to contain a glaring omission, in that nothing looks worse than someone arrogantly donning the mantle of success before it is earned. When Robert Plant assumes the stage in The Song Remains the Same he does so as an unquestioned god of rock at the heigth of popularity, delivering the gospel and smiting the nonbelievers. Unjustified in all regards is STP’s front man Scott Weiland arrogantly bleating out mediocre lyrics while doing some sort of zombified lambada.

Photo Aug 04, 12 59 12 AMThe album itself kicks off with the bombastic guitar pounding of “Dead & Bloated,” which is not to say that all the guitar work is horrible. Dean DeLeo plays some relatively solid guitar on many of the tracks, probably most convincingly on the regrettable “Sex Type Thing.” The track’s lyrics could not get much more rapey, including such perved-out gems as “You shouldn’t have worn that dress” and “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too.” It hits on the worst frat boy tendencies of vulgar bravado, and performing this song with a straight face should be a bit of an embarrassment, as would playing it on the radio 20 years later. Alas, it remains a hard rock radio staple, and is (somewhat justifiably) defended by the axiom of the artist not having to defend or conform to the values espoused by the narrator. However, a song must essentially say something, and the narrator of this song (in the guise of first-person narration) is totally unrebuked in his lust for date rape, leaving the listener to question: “what are audiences taking away from this music?”. I’m not going to get prudish or elitist – at least not for many years – and say the track is without any merits (as I said, the guitar work is really good), but it’s skirting a thin line that a better artist would be able to better justify. As Weiland comes across as a juvenile frat rocker (certainly at this point in his career), the track is somewhat indefensible.

Brendan O’Brien’s production work comes across heavily on Core. It sounds glossy and the performances are all very good, but unlike other O’Brien produced bands, this one has precious little to communicate. I take some seething undertones of rural (or perhaps urban) poverty from tracks like “Creep” and “Where the River Goes,” enough at least to connect Weiland’s gruff delivery to some of the rougher parts of grinding out an existence in the sticks. He’s definitely channeling the underbelly of America on “Plush” with the narrator scenting out a woman, yet the whole song seethes with barely-masked crassness: “And I feel so much depends on the weather, so is it raining in your bedroom?” This is definitely not music you put on over a romantic dinner, but the music does hint at prospects of moving on to a more pop-ish line of recording, something STP would prove more adept at.

The best I can say of this album is that it definitely sends out a vibe and creates a sound. Whether that sound is something you would listen to more than once is the ultimate question. If I heard this on the radio in my car now, I’d slap at the preset buttons frantically. At the time of limited musical options when I first spun this CD, I must have only barely grasped some of the now obvious themes that course through this piece like so much bile. Its sustained popularity (with many tracks in the multi-million listens on Spotify) attests to the fact that a lot of people found something true in the album, something perhaps closer to the undercurrent represented in the lyrics.

Later, STP would come back surprisingly strong with Purple (1994) and a couple albums that demonstrated they had more range lyrically and musically and could enter and exit the trashy, L.A. junkyard, sleezbag motif rather than dwell on it as they do in Core.

OK, gotcha, next please:
James: Seven (8.14)
Phish: Hoist (8.21)
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (8.28)