Azumi

Ryuhei Kitamura’s sophomore effort contains two of the greatest scenes in recent action movie-dom: 1) a teenage girl charging an army of 200 – and winning! – and 2) one of the most memorable decapitations of the “oh, wait, I just got nick…hiiissssss” sort. Yes, I know it doesn’t work like that, but dammit: it should.

Based on a popular Manga, Azumi doesn’t quite shake its pulp roots, but this probably stems more from Kitamura’s direction than the story itself. The kinetic overload of Versus is pared down as the plot takes on a bigger scope, but a few unfortunate directorial decisions throw off the pace every now and then. To wit: a random fight scene takes on Crouching Tiger-type wire-work and weird sound effects, while another throws in a Tex Avery-like anomaly in an otherwise straight battle scene; both scenes are jarring, but this is a minor complaint.

The lead is pretty dull, I have to admit. I gather she’s a pop star in her native Japan, but she’s not terribly interesting. Then again, it’s not like you have to wait very long for a fight scene to move things along, so who’s complaining?


  • Director: Ruyhei Kitamura
  • Cast: Aya Ueto, Kenji Kohashi, Hiroki Narimiya, Takatoshi Kaneko
12.01.2005 • Permalink

Rust in Piece

Poor old Dave Mustaine. In 1982, he was unceremoniously booted out of his first band for excessive drinking and drug abuse. He was furious, and got his act together, at least enough to start Megadeth; one of the seminal trash-metal bands, they quickly climbed to the pantheon of gods of such matters. His achievements were impressive, yet it was as much to get back at his old bandmates as for his own glory. After conquering the world, selling millions of albums and being hailed as one of the great innovators of the genre, one could forgive his former band for regretting his termination — unless, of course, that band happens to be Metallica.

In the recent Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, Mustaine admits that being booted out of that band was the worst day of his life. But, to be quite honest, I can’t say that I’m too broken up over dave’s predicament. After all, there’s nothing that says the sum of these parts would have amounted to something greater than the sum of what we already had. And let’s face it, if Mustaine was still with them rather than in Megadeth, we the public would likely have been cheated of both Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction. And that, dear reader, would be a loss: It’s difficult for me to verbalize exactly what it is about Rust that I find appealing, but I suppose that to summarize, I could say: Holy flippin’ fuck!!!

The first time I heard Holy Wars, I was bowled over. I mean, holy Christ, what was that?! The cascading guitars, the thundering drums and Mustaine’s pained yelping over it all — this was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was great. Unlike most of their peers, Megadeth always seemed to have sly sense of humour about them, as if they knew it was partly a joke. Hangar 18, whilst also swirling like a dervish (I’m told dervishes swirl) also deftly anticipates the X-files, with its space ships and hidden fortresses. One supposes that the lyrics as such is unimportant — the skill on display renders lyrical shortcomings irrelevant anyway — also, Mustaine is too smart a guy — and too funny — to really take this stuff all that seriously.

Thrash metal mostly did away with ghost n’ goblins and all that fairy bollocks that thanks to the hippies were the lyrical pinnacle, (At least until Limp Bizkit came around and it was all suburban angst, all the time.) and Mustaine always did have a knack for a political lyric. I won’t claim he’s written great poetry, but still: Bob Dylan wrote his share of clunkers, and given the choice, I’d go for this sort of technicolour extravaganza over early Dylan monochrome dirges most days. Mustaine sings lines like “Don’t look now/to Israel/it might be your homeland” with an urgency that belies the sometimes clumsy lyrics. And a line like “They killed my wife and my baby/first mistake/last mistake” is more clever than one surmises at first look. Mustaine is ppresumably singing about the Palestine/Israeli conflict (Nutshell problem: They’re all nuts. Quick solution: Fence ’em all in, let them fight amongst themselves and leave the rest of us out of it) in a clever way. He neglects to state who’s singing, it could be from either side. While deep analysis of the lyrics might ot yield too much, Mustaine deserves credit for trying to say something more than the usual crap: Hell, lines like “Don’t ask/what you can do/for your country/ASK/what your country/can do for yoooouuu” are priceless. Dave Mustaine, nihilist, flying a bright red flag.

Lyrically, it doesn’t really matter. Sophomoric, yes, but as stated, the music is what it’s all about. Thrash metal does not have trappings in which it’s easy to do anything interesting except play really, really fast. Rust In Peace is such a great album because it is unflappably melodic, heavier than a lead enema and faster than the roadrunner on speed. But the fact that the melodicism is so effortless within this sort of grind is nothing short of spectacular.

The line-up of Dave Mustaine (guitar), Nick Menza (drums), David Ellefson (bass) and Marty Friedman (guitar/big hair) is considered THE Megadeth line-up by most, and it’s not difficult to understand why. We have here the four virtuosi of the apocalypse, and it certainly sounds like it. Weird time signatures, changes in pace, and layered solos that almost reminds me of — dare I say it? — jazz. More precise than laser-guided missile and tighter than a chickens bum, very little can measure up to this.

Megadeth recently came to an end when Dave Mustaine sustained injuries in his hand. It was unclear whether or not he would ever play again, but he’s nothing if not a survivor (the guy’s even been clinically dead! Not one to do anything by halves, he fell off the wagon with a vengeance and died. Obviously, they revived him.). After some pretty extensive surgery and retraining, he apparently can play again. Sadly, Megadeth are to remain a closed chapter. Still, it was fun when it lasted.

UPDATE: Megadeth are back on the road.

07.01.2005 • Permalink

Man Child

Oslo, 09.05.04

“Jonathan, I LOVE YOU!!!” We’re halfway through the show at this point. Jonathan Richman, looking impudently young for a man going on 50, is smiling broadly.

“Uh, thank you…uh…thank you very much, I, uh, I love you too!” Laughter, cheers.

Jonathan Richman has not been in Oslo for a decade or so, maybe longer. As the night will prove, it’s well worth the wait.

I have not been aware of him for that long. Until 2002, he was but the guy in the tree in There’s Something About Mary. The, I heard some of his stuff and liked it. Then, I moved to New Jersey and wa utterly and horribly miserable and went to a bar to drown my sorrows. Ordering a beer, I notcied a line in th back. What the hell? I thought. I checked it out; turend out Jonathan was playing that night. I happily paid my ten bucks and was treated to one of the the best shows I’ve ever seen.

I suppose I didn’t have that high expectations this time around. I mean, lightning doesn’t tend to strike twice. Could it possibly be as good? No. It was far, far better.

Richman is such a singular personality on stage; it’s just him and Tommy Larkin, the drummer, on stage. Jonathan plays his guitar fluently. Tommy keeps the beat, nuthin’ fancy. Jonathan sings, laughs, jokes, dances while Tommy sits there stoically. It’s cute; they’re kind of like an acoustic White Stripes, except I’d rather sleep with Meg than Tommy if I absolutely had to.

I only have a few of his albums, so I can’t give you a set list. He did play a lot of his most recent offering, Her Mystery Nof Of High Heels and Eyeshadow; the live rendition of Springtime in New York is more exciting than the recorded one. It’s also warmer and made me miss that particular city in a way I hadn’t in a while.

Many of the old chestnuts came out, like Pablo Picasso, I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar and many, many others that I didn’t know or forgot II don’t do notes, I just write this stuff for my own amusement). It didn’t matter. His music is warm and friendly and inclusive: it invites you in for hot chocolate and cheers you up. Jonathan dances for you on stage and it’s like he’s trying to express something that words just quite can’t.

He’s been described as naivistic; fair cop, but naive or not, it’s still immaculately expressive and universally recognizable to a fault. It really goes to show: in English, French, Spanish or Norwegian, love and the emotions thereof are all the same. Now excuse me, I must go hug myself.

10.05.2004 • Permalink

Dark Water

darkwaterOne of the nice things to read about the impending remake of this Japanese horror movie is that the American company have opted for Brazilian director Walter Salles to helm the production rather than some MTV hack. This is a nice indication that they are taking it seriously and that we will be spared a “re-imagining” of this nifty little number for the vidiot MTV-generation.

Hideo Nakata also directed the original Ringu that was the basis for Gore Verbinski’s The Ring; Ringu was an effective horror gem that spawned several above-grade sequels and dozens of cheaper knock-offs. (check out http://www.teleport-city.com for a review and explanation of Ringu’s success)

Nakata made Dark Water in 2002. It’s the story of a recent divorcee, Yoshimi, who tries to make a new life with her daughter Ikuko, while finalizing her divorce and fighting her ex-husband for custody of Ikuko.

They move into a run-down old building. Things start to happen…stuff that tends to happen in horror movies*. A young girl disappeared from the building years ago. She went to the same school as Ikuko. Can there be a connection? Or is Yoshimi simply going nuts from the stress of divorce? She certainly can’t afford to lose it, as her husband is still hovering in the wings.

Nakato is, thankfully, not an Michael Bay-style director. His takes are slow and languorous; if it didn’t make me sound like some kind of perv, I’d say that he builds up the horror in an almost sensuous way; his use of relatively static cinematography, some dynamite sound engineering, as well as coaxing subtle and nuanced performances from his actor all come together to create an organic whole. There are a few instances of “kinetic” camera work, but since they are few and far between, they retain their power and ability to pack a wallop, both emotional and fright-wise.

Kudos to the actors as well: Their characters are utterly believable. Rio Kanno, who plays the 6-year old Ikuko, is wonderful: She is quick to laughter and fear and isn’t precocious or sarcastic beyond her years. Here is a 6-year old child allowed to be just that and the movie is all the better for it. Yoshimi is no less wonderful. Dealing with slowly finding out something is very wrong; that someone or something is stalking them, she remains equally convincing as the mother deathly afraid of losing her child or of not being able to make the payments.

This is another strength of the movie: Real life happens alongside the supernatural. Even if things go bump in the night, Yoshimi still needs to be at work in the morning. We find out that she, as a child, saw a therapist in order to deal with her own parents’ divorce. Juxtaposing the idea that Yoshimi may in fact be coming unglued with the more probable scenario of a haunting, Nakata deftly creates a suffocating atmosphere that just becomes more and more so. The gradual revelation of who or what our ghost is jars us further: it isn’t a faceless evil either, not really. The ghost is all too human: scared, lonely, selfish…and frightening as all hell.

Without wanting to give anything away, the climax is damn near perfect; claustrophobic and shocking, a mix of real horrors and supernatural ones: just as in Ringu, things don’t quite work out as planned for our heroes. Choices must be made, none of which are easy. The ending isn’t happy Hollywood fare and as viewers, we feel almost cheated. Nakata doesn’t let go, though, adding a coda that one at first would think anticlimactic. But revisiting our characters ten year later, we are treated to one last scare that is guaranteed to make you look twice over your shoulder (I know I did.), as well as add further pathos to an already sad conclusion.

There is no black or white here, just a lot of greys. That the ghost for a moment somehow wrings sympathy out of us makes it all scarier: We are given not only the very human horrors of Yoshimi and Ikuko, but those of the ghost at well. Dark Water is that all-too-rare thing: a proper horror movie. Not a slasher or gore movie. No blood is shed, nor are any limbs cut off; it’s a resolutely blood-free zone. The chills and the scares we experience are the work of a sound story, solid acting and atmosphere put together. Not many people can do this sort of thing nowadays. As a confessed horror fan, I hope Nakata will mine the genre for a looong time. This is the sort of exercise that goes a long way to dismiss the tag of lowbrow and stupid that is often (and often deservedly, I admit) attached to the genre. Don’t wait for the remake, just see this instead if you can. It’s worth your while, trust me.


  • Director: Hideo Nakata
23.04.2004 • Permalink

Blue Lights Shining: The Jayhawks

Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo, 15.03.04

Hearing the Jayhawks play live is like coming in from the cold, or curling up in bed in an old oversized sweater that, with any luck, still smells like someone you used to know. Most of all, it’s like seeing an old friend who cheers you up.

Having missed the Jayhawks on several occasions during my time in the states, I was thrilled to get the chance yet again. This time, I would not be denied. Rockefeller Music Hall is one of my favourite stages in the world. (Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence being another.) Dark and smoked-out, nicotine stains on the walls and beer stains on the ground: the decades of concerts it’s hosted have left their marks. Seeing a show there is like coming home. As it so happens, it’s become a favourite of many bands from the Big World Beyond as well. Oslo has in fact become a reasonably cool place to live, if you can afford to. I always knew that, of course, but I’m happy that you can always see the big acts here, but moreover the small acts and even the tiny acts. (In a month, Jonathan Richman swings by. He helped save my sanity in New Brunswick, NJ. I can’t wait.)

The room was nearly sold out, and after an opening act that sounded more like acoustic California indie rock than country, the Jayhawks sauntered, if not quite swaggered, on. The band seemed in good spirits and opened with a no-nonsense Stumbling Through the Dark that set the tune nicely for the rest of the evening: Travel-weary and whisky-soaked moments of dusty beauty. Such is the sound of the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks are not a sexy band by any measure. Tall and gangly, vocalist Gary Louris looked more like a teacher, possibly writer, in his suit than a proper rock star. But then, again, who wants to be a rock star these days? Bassist Marc Perlman looks as if he’d be just as happy pumping gas as to be on a stage, but did admittedly look damn cool with a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, the man himself facing the huge bass amplifier behind him.

It’s sad to think that a band like the Jayhawks never made it big, and at this point, probably never will. Is it their lack of rock glitz? Or is it simply bad luck? It’s certainly not due to songs or skill or enthusiasm. They’ve become one of those “almost-bigs” like Richard Thompson or Neil Finn or any of those other occupants of some little niche. I always thought they were better than fellow alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, but I’ve actually been yelled at over this, so I’m not making any categorical statements here. In a nice fan moment, Gary Louris actually said “This is for Asbjørn; he asked on the street if we could play this…” and then What Led Me To This Town flowed from the speakers. They might not be so sexy, but they seem to like the fans and the fans love them back for it.

“So many songs…so many songs” mumbled Gary Louris at one point, as they pondered what tune to play next. So many songs indeed: I noticed that when playing 20 or so songs in one go, the songs did blend together a bit. But at the same time, their craft is so good, it doesn’t really matter. They didn’t do The Man Who Loved Life, but I did get Blue so I have no complaints. A number by the Golden Smog also popped up at one point, in case you were wondering. The Jayhawks write standards, more than anything. It’s not as easy as it looks, writing a verse and a chorus and a middle eight. But that’s what the Jayhawks do, and it’s a real feat. A few chords and endless invention.

For their final number, they played a song I didn’t recognize, but approaching the break, they took it to a rockier place…long solos, avant-garde wailing, etc. It was interesting to hear the band going beyond their expected parameters, and convincingly so. But all good things come to an end and so did this evening and the lights went up, and beers were finished and cigarettes stubbed out. After the show was over, I found it had started raining. It was a cold rain, the early spring kind that feels tired and melancholy and somehow hurried. In fact, just the kind of rain that you’d find in a song by the Jayhawks.

16.03.2004 • Permalink

Lars Trier’s Five Obstructions

Lars von Trier – take him or leave him. Love him or loathe him: Whichever way you look at him, he’s a one-off. A talented filmmaker, his stubborn refusal to play by conventional rules led him to dismiss what had been and set up a new set of rules, the Dogme manifesto – to ensure “complete film” or some such nonsense. Ironically, and most likely fully intentional, The Dogme rules were more inhibiting than anything else, but made for a few good films until the novelty wore off.

The Five Obstructions is basically about Trier challenging fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human – a dull-looking exercise and incidentally Trier’s favourite short film. Trier sets up a set of rules – the titular obstructions – for Leth; in one film, for example, no shot may be longer than 12 frames (Michael Bay, eat your heart out!) and it has to be shot in a place Leth has never been and so on; in other attempts, Leth must star, has to deal with no set of rules whatsoever and it goes on and on. Trier tries to come up with challenges for Leth; the purpose of this is ostensibly to expose Leth’s humanity, Leth being considered a distant observer by Trier. This distance, Trier says, hinders Leth in his work and life. He babbles on about this being therapy rather than filmmaking; he wants there to be dirt in Leth’s work, as he himself loves it when actors do a crap job within the same parameters as they do good work. This is human. (Anyone familiar with Trier’s work can attest to his films being very human.)

There are certain laughs to be had, such as when Trier calls out to his assistant and asks whether they can afford to send Leth to Cuba. “Is it in the budget? He has to go to Cuba” – as Leth sits there, looking baffled.

Leth circumnavigates Trier’s obstructions deftly; each movie looks better and more compelling than the original. I realize I am probably being seduced by window dressing here – an inexcusable sin for a graphic designer – but the simple fact is that incomprehensibility in technicolour garb is still more enjoyable than in monochromatic. Compare Last Year at Marienbad to Donnie Darko, for example.

Trier loses, of course. Leth remains unfazed and unflappable, rising to the challenge every time. And, this “distant” human comes over as a rather affable person, quick to a smile and thoroughly enthusiastic about the work. The only times he seems worried is before the first obstruction, before he really knows what he’s doing, and before the fourth – and that’s mostly because he’s pissed off at having to make a cartoon, a style of filmmaking he hates. (He eventually goes to Bob Sabiston, the man behind the animations in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life for this)

The joke, of course, is that Trier ultimately shifts the focus of the film from Leth and onto himself with his final obstruction. Leth must agree to be credited as director as well as read a voice-over text that Trier has written for him. About Leth and Trier. Thus it is that at the end of the movie, we are left with a crap joke, a visual pun based on the original short and can only wonder whether Trier planned the whole thing like that. So the joke is on Leth. Or Trier. Or us. Frankly, who cares?

Did anyone really doubt it was Trier’s project? After all, the title is Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions. Sure, you say: the obstructions were Trier’s, but the work was Leth’s. Or was it? Trier can be an enthralling director when he stops and remembers to remove his head from his ass. Witness Zentropia for a compelling example – and downright exciting – art film; claustrophobic and mysterious. See The Kingdom for the laughs and chills that Stephen King’s insipid remake failed to provide at all; also note how it is possible to sustain a confusing storyline by having fun. (Trier lucked out with Ernst-Hugo Järegård’s death, though – now he doesn’t have to finish it) and lastly, The Idiots, a study in weirding and creeping the audience, pushing boundaries and reveling in filth and taboos. Not to mention full frontal nudity and penetration.

Trier can also be an infuriating director, weird for weird’s sake. A veritable ball of (affected?) neurotic beahaviour, Trier is apparently afraid of flying, an agoraphobic, a claustrophobic and so on. Not even Woody Allen makes so much of his state of mental health. But it’s also readily apparent that Trier also has a large, large ego, and this movie is a very effective example of that; after all, who else would challenge his own idol to remake his best effort in order to make it less perfect?

Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions is mostly for completists and students of the medium. The movie doesn’t give enough of anything. As a documentary, it fails, providing too little insight into the creative process, the technical aspect and the incentive to create in the first place. It also gives too little of the actual finished results, leaving us with short glimpses of the movie. In my case, I can appreciate that: I thought the original short version was a bore, so seeing the same thing five times in a row…well. Perhaps the DVD will give us more, perhaps not. Either way, Trier will soon start shooting the follow-up to Dogville. In the meantime, he has reminded us that, yes, he’s still here. And Leth? Probably back in his villa in Haiti, smoking his stogie and enjoying the café life…


  • Director: Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth
  • Cast: Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier
01.02.2004 • Permalink

On the Wings of Song

2003 was certainly an awfully eventful year and it’s probably fair to say it has more to condemn it than not, but at the very least, Britney Spears is losing popularity, for which we can all be thankful.

So with the year winding down, and me bored and having nothing better to do, I decided to write about 2003. As a reasonably and averagely intelligent – if hopelessly immature – person, I thought I could perhaps say something enlightening and entertaining about the year that was, war(t)s and all, but I was wrong. I wrote this piece instead, for you to peruse, should you be so inclined. (Funny, isn’t it, how I actually think anybody actually reads this?) This list, like all such lists, has about as much to do with my life in 2003 as it does with music. Quel surpris. Or quelle. Whatever. You have been warned.

Anyway, dear (non-)reader, I dutifully sat down and went through my CD collection to pick and choose, but since I’ve been pretty much broke the whole damn year, there wasn’t really too much to pick from. Of the tiny handful of albums I bought, I found only a few from 2003. Thankfully, they were all pretty good. Easiest list I ever made.

(If you are from New Brunswick, NJ, and happy about that fact, you may want to skip the first paragraph, the last one and the ones in between.)

The Best Albums of 2003, In My Humble Opinion

Welcome Interstate Managers | Fountains of Wayne
The finest two popsmiths currently working in the US, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, do it again. After two sublime efforts, their eponymous debut and the follow-up, Utopia Parkway, comes this wonder. Both a love song and a lament to New Jersey, it deals with lives being lived in all their grey and dreary glory. I remember sitting alone in a mostly empty room in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, drinking beer and listening to this, recognizing myself in too many of the scenarios. The Fountains are always being referred to as smug and ironic, but I never found that in their music: Adding humour and/or a twist doesn’t in fact mean youre taking the piss out of anything, it just means you’re adding humour and/or a twist. Some would even call it colour. Creating characters and telling stories is becoming a lost art in contemporary music, and I can relate a lot more to the lovelorn losers and desolate deadbeats slouching in the grooves of this disc, than to the impotent fury and immaculate angst you find on most introspective modern rock albums. On Welcome…, you realize both that you know some of these people, and also that you are some of these people. This is almost tantamount to the blues: To think, just to think, that anything this sweet-sounding can be so heartbreaking. It’s like love: It might be designed for pleasure, but it can break your heart so terribly bad if and when you let it. I’ve rarely felt sadder or more lost than when I listened to this, but at least I didn’t feel so alone. Whoever would have thought New Jersey is the place the blues lives? (Well…). The Fountains are not virtuosi, but thanks to some clever orchestration, their sound is fresh and snappy; it may also help that these timeless tunes all stand out in your head. But songs without lyrics are just songs without lyrics, and these puppies are abetted by some truly well-spun lines: Not one single word is out of place and I can happily claim that almost every rhyme is sublime. (To wit: Valley Winter Song’s downright Scandinavian description of winterish melancholy: “And Late December/Can drag a man down/You feel it deep in your gut/Short days and afternoons/Spent puttering around/In a dark house with the windows painted shut”) New Jersey is a state of mind, it seems, and I dig this a lot more than I ever did Bruce Springsteen. Also, this album was one of the things that made me leave the US (New Jersey being generally helpful in that respect): I just woke up one day and realized that, frankly, I didn’t want to end up as a Fountains of Wayne B-side. (New Brunswick Nobody, anyone?) Can I just repeat how much I dig this CD? Granted, there are a few duds here and there, but considering that neither The Beatles, The Stones, or even the Bay City Rollers ever managed to release a completely dross-free album, I can cope.

Poetry & Airplanes | Teitur
Danish singer-songwriter, sounding as sweet and sad as Elliot Smith (R.I.P.), although his melancholy bent is of a more Scandinavian nature. Not quite as druggy as Smith, and with fewer self-inflicted scars, this is oftentimes lonely and fragile music from a cold place where winter nights are long and attempted suicide is an option when there’s nothing on TV and you have nothing better to do. It’s also often sweetly orchestrated and performed, lush and warm, like a kiss before a fireplace when the snow lays heavy outside. Poetry & Airplanes contains one of the most intimate and plaintive childhood portraits set to music in Sweet Josephine (imagine Nick Drake channeling Ray Bradbury, circaa Dandelion Vine); furthermore, one of the loneliest musical postcards I’ve heard in a while is quietly strummed out on I Was Just Thinking. (I had that song on repeat for a week or so and it still breaks my heart to the tiniest fractions of atoms.) Being the soft sounds of a sensitive soul, Lester Bangs would really, truly, absolutely, completely, utterly and indiscriminately hate this album with a total, furious passion and complete conviction. But then again, Lester’s dead.

Scandinavian Leather | Turbonegro

Announcing the triumphant return of the world’s greatest homoerotic death punk band, this effort sees the Norwegian yahoos take to the airwaves yet again with ditties like Fuck the World, Sell Your Body (To The Night) and Wipe It ‘Till It Bleeds. Losing vocalist Hank von Helvete to mental instability and heroin addiction in Italy a few years back, they regrouped after he was released from the psych ward (I swear I’m not even making this up) and invoked the Denim Demon once again. Scandinavian Leather may lack an insta-anthem like Erection, but makes up for it with a fuller, beefier sound and better songs overall. The sound of chunder in the distance.

Absolution | Muse
Queen meets Metallica. Bombastic and histrionic, bordering on hysterical, but never over the top. Absolution may best be described as a Punk Metal Opera, all jagged guitars and high-pitched vocals, but that would be selling it short. Is to 2003 what Songs For the Deaf was to 2002, but better.

So Much For The City | The Thrills
Dublin band makes Wish-This-Were-California album. Warm and timeless; think Teenage Fanclub, the Byrds (country years) and the Wondermints.

Runner-Up

Let It Be…Naked | The Beatles

Not really sure why I put this on here: It’s not that great. Paul McCartney finally –Finally!– gets to redo Let It Be in his image and thus show the world what a good songwriter he is. This sounds a bit like the Let It Be outtakes on the Anthology 3 set. No huge surprises, then. To be honest, Let It Be was always a bit of a clunker and changing arrangements on the songs doesn’t change that too much. If Margaret Cho took her clothes off, she would still be funny, but she’d also be stark naked, and I’m not sure there’s really much call for that.

Honourable Mention

Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon| Warren Zevon
Having been a passionate Zevon fan for at least several months since he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, this should be on here. His last release, the posthumous The Wind, may be more appropriate, but I haven’t had the guts to listen to it yet: A friend described that album with tears in his eyes, and I don’t think I can deal with it yet. It’s stupid to let oneself be so easily manipulated by music, but since it took me months to listen to Queen’s The Show Must Go On without hiding in a cupboard and covering my ears with bagels, I figure I may as well be on the safe side. Still, I really do want to send a shout-out to Warren, but I’ll do it by putting down Genius, Rhino’s 2002 compilation instead. A good career overview of the laconic smart-ass, it mixes oddness, beauty and wit in equal doses. Affectionate farewells like Hasten Down the Wind or weird war tale Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, stand side by side, making Genius consistently entertaining. To me, though, it’s the sound of going from New fucking Brunswick, NJ, to Cooperstown, NY, to visit my close friend Kris. It will be the sound of that for a long time, and it’s a pretty good sound to me.

Songs That Meant A Lot


Valley Winter Song | Fountains of Wayne

Warm, wistful and wonderful, like candy canes for your ears, and unbearably sad, like getting a toothache from a kiss. Sounds like being lost at sea, sinking, and hearing something in the distance that can maybe –and maybe not– save you. It’s not much, it’s everything, but at the very least, there”s a brief comfort to be had there. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to be clever here. Either way, it’s my favourite track from my favourite album this year.

Fuglen | DeLillos

This number got me through the odd bad day. Frankly, the world needs more songs with bears (that aren’t Vinnie the Pooh or Fozzie) and sparrows in them. And fish. (Dave McKean could do the cover.) Pepe the Rabbit approves of this song.

American Jesus | Bad Religion

“I don’t need to be a global citizen/’cuz I got my nationality/I’m a member of a growing populace/We enforce our popularity” American Jesus was written in 1993, but you’d never know it. Sounds pretty relevant right about now.

Don’t Let It Bring You Down | Annie Lennox

The album itself, Medusa, isn’t up to much, but I kept cranking this song during my not-nearly-brief-enough stint in New fucking Brunswick, NJ.

I left My Heart In San Francisco | Tony Bennett

…and my liver in New Jersey. Not entirely sure which side of the Bay; I may even have lost it on the BART somewhere. Stupidly, I tend to carry it on my sleeve. If you see it, please try not to step on it.

Ain’t That Enough | Teenage Fanclub

“Here is a sunrise” goes the chorus of this charmer, in harmonies almost too sweet for words, “ain’t that enough?” Not if you live in New Brunswick, no.

Album Most Needed To be Reborn In 2003

Never Mind The Bollocks | Sex Pistols

Nevermind Y2K: Set your clocks to 1984! In a few paltry years, George Bush steals an election, fucks the environment gleefully, pisses on the concept of privacy and invades Iraq, causing Rage Against The Machine to go into sulk overload and BREAK UP, reforming as Audioslave with the former Soundgarden vocalist and a hitherto unknown Grand Funk fetish. As for Bollocks; back in ’77, Queen Elisabeth got this for her anniversary: I could honestly give a shit about the Brit class system, but no matter: Despite the protestations of Korn and Limp Bizkit fans, this is what angry music sounds like. (It’s also a total pose, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point.) That nobody has recorded anything that even attempts a sociopopcultural catharrsis like Bollocks in this day and age, is almost too sad a thought to contemplate. Michael Moore’s everlasting crusade against the Republicans can frankly get grating at times, but I think it’s high time he put the camera down and bought himself a guitar and a Marshall stack. If Tom Morello can’t get time out from remaking Vanishing Point for MTV, I’ll even show Mike a few chords myself. Then all he’ll need is a shocking name, like The Gay Socialists and The Limited Oil Supply (too psychedelic?) or maybe something really outrageous like The Welfare State.
Still, with Saddam’s capture by US troops, the somewhat surreal thought of US gunships in the Baghdad sunset, blasting We Are The Champions or possibly The Yellow Rose Of Texas is oddly amusing, in a Stanley Kubrick sort of way.

Best Live Performance

A tie, sorta: It’s either Justin taking me to see M. Ward in San Francisco this August, or walking into the Court Tavern in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, for a beer or six to anaesthesise the pain of living in New fucking Brunswick, NJ and then finding Jonathan Richman playing a gig downstairs. Both gigs were great, but as Richman alleviated the trauma of having to wake up for two consecutive months in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, he wins this one hands down. Neil Finn at the Warfield and Richard Thompson at the Fillmore were both pretty damn good too. Tom Paxton, that old fixture from the Gaslight and Cafe Wha?, is still going strong, and dropped by the Freight & Salvage in late January. Suffering under the yoke of a Republican administration must obviously agree with him: He was funny as hell, warm and wise in the way we want our elders to be and put on a really smoking show, but since I also missed out on Jessica’s birthday and seeing Oakland Raiders fans torch cars because of him, I am forced to subtract some points. Still, I got to pretend I was in the 60s and that the Man was still a force that could be opposed, or even that the Man actually gave two shits about us. I’d also say Ween put on a pretty awesome show in Oslo in early December, but as I was seeing double by the time they got around to performing, I’m not entirely certain.


Best Live Performance featuring Yours Truly

After enjoying the Starry Plough Irish Session most Sundays of the year, Christina held me to my cocksure promise of singing before BRT’s 2002-03 season was over. I held my word as the good boy I mostly am, and, after a feeble, near inaudible intro that had the MC looking worried (“He’ll be goin’ down in flames”, said his eyes), I belted out a Norwegian folk tune that they could most likely hear well across the street. (Thanks to the Speech and Voice class at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre: You rock, Domenique!) The tune was short and sweet and also a far more personal choice than I let on to my friends. For my troubles, I received a big round of applause and was actually asked to sing again the week after. (I declined) Much to everybody’s surprise, I didn’t touch a drop before singing.

Best Compilation Album 0f 2003

Again, like the best gig, it’s sort of a tie: It’s either the freebie that came with the November ish of Q, which has Thoughts of A Dying Atheist by Muse (“It scares the hell out of meeeee/The end is all I can seeeee”), or the birthday disc somone burned for us spring chickens. I’d probably go with the latter, as much for sentimental reasons as for containing the punk version of Cabaret, but since I lost the damn thing in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, it doesn’t much matter.

Best Music Writing


Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste | Lester Bangs

Since Bangs died in in 1982, before MTV ruled the Earth, this is hardly current stuff. Still, the re-release of Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung a few years ago found enough interest to justify yet another anthology. Like Reactions, Mainlines is chock full of acerbic wit and opinionated bile, funny as all hell. Some of it rings true, even if it’s a joke, such as his claim that I Will Survive will hold up better than anything by Throbbing Gristle, which is true (Unless Fatboy Slim gets around to some remixing), and some is so wrong it’s funny anyway. Some longer pieces, like his travelogue from Jamaica, shows what a fine writer he really was. It’s not as good as Reactions, which has more of his mature writing, and more Lou Reed rants, thus making it better, but it’s still a hell of a read. Like for most amateur critics and writers, Bangs holds a special place in my heart. He’s not the best American writer of the century by far, no matter what Greil Marcus might claim, (My money’s on V.A. Andrews) but he’s damn good and often even great, and should have done far more than just music reviews (Frankly, his writing is better than the subject often deserves), had he gotten his act together. And those are words to live by, aren’t they?

Most Useless Single To Get Needlessly Pissed Off About

Changes | Kelly & Ozzy Osbourne

I don’t much like Christina Aguilera, but at least she can sing. And when an annoying, no-talent brat like Kelly Osbourne disses her, well, I must concede Ms. Aguilera some grudging kudos. Changes is an old Black Sabbath number, from Vol. 4, a monster album (just listen to opener Wheels Of Confusion) in its own right. I never thought Changes quite fit in on it, but many people think it’s a rather loveley piece of fluff. However twee the original Changes seemed, it doesn’t hold a candle to this insipid remake. Kelly (Kellie? Who gives a shit anyway?) warbles away in her tuneless moan, Ozzy following suit, his vocals echoing the guitar/piano lines as they have since the dawn of time. The difference is that Ozzy’s vocals, limited that they may be, still have soul. Now that Ozzy lies in the hospital, banged up after pulling a Zimmermann 66 on his motorcycle, this has become his very first number one single in the UK. If anyone deserves one of those, it’s him. But what price, Ozzy, what price? If this single were a place, it’d be New Brunswick, NJ.

Bonus

Worst Gig That Never Even Happened
The one other time I was going to risk performing in public this year was at a BBQ; The idea was to pleasantly surprise the hostess; In the end, we were in fact both surprised, but not in a good way, by any kind of measure. I never even got my hands on her guitar, succumbing instead to stress, anxiety and confusion, some of my own making, some not. I drank too much, got even more depressed, tried unsuccessfully to compose myself in a corner, and expertly and rather deftly scared the one person I was supposed to cheer up, out of my life entirely. It’s pretty safe to say it was the shittiest gig of my life. Not quite up there with Bob Marley literally dying on stage, but not much better either.

14.01.2004 • Permalink