Friday, December 28, 2007

My top 20 albums of 2007

The Guardian just printed its top 20 albums of 2007. The Times (of London) has also listed its faves, as has the New York Times. And last, but not least, Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (r.) has listed his fave records of the year. Great to see that Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Radiohead rate highly in just about all these lists.

So here are my faves of 2007 (with links to reviews):

2: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - "Raising Sand"

3: Jesca Hoop - "Kismet"

4: Radiohead - "In Rainbows"

5: PJ Harvey - "White Chalk"

The 5 records above are my very favorite albums of 2007. The rest below are in no particular order of ranking...

6: Blackfield - "Blackfield II"

7: Scott Matthews – "Passing Strangers"

8: Crowded House - "Time on Earth"

9: Marillion - "Somewhere Else"

10: Gary Moore - "Close As You Get"

11: Rush – "Snakes & Arrows"

12: LCD Soundsystem – "Sound of Silver"

13: Joni Mitchell – "Shine"

14: Robben Ford – "Truth"

15: Otis Taylor – "Definition of a Circle"

16: "Once" - soundtrack by Glen Hansard & Market Irglova

17: Amy Winehouse – "Back to Black"

18: Iron & Wine – "The Shepherd's Dog"

19: Rilo Kiley – "Under the Blacklight"

20: Modest Mouse – "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Peter Jackson to be Ringleader again

It seems that one ring truly does rule them all. After years of rancor and heated allegations in the press over a financial dispute, New Line Co-CEO Bob Shaye and director Peter Jackson have opted for a golden handshake to collaborate on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Put it this way, if these two men can set aside their differences, there's hope yet that Morrissey and Marr will reunite The Smiths.

Well, the Hobbit film is one good thing to come of "The Golden Compass," New Line's blah attempt to begin a new fantasy franchise. The film's poor box-office performance has seemingly spurred a flurry of phone calls between New Line and Jackson. Today's press release announced that the bare-footed Kiwi will executive produce a film version of "The Hobbit," a prequel of sorts to "The Lord of the Rings." Make that films. The first Hobbit movie will unspool in theaters in 2009 and the second part will arrive a year later. How will they create two movies from a book that seems like a mere pamphlet compared to the Biblical "Rings" series? A recent story in Entertainment Weekly speculated that additional material from Tolkien's "Silmarillion" book will be incorporated into the story.

Three questions remain. One: Will Jackson direct the venture? Sadly, the press release suggests that he'll merely oversee the creative aspect of the production while he works on finishing his adaptation of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" and his trilogy of Tintin, the red-head Belgian comic-book hero with a quiff of the sort not seen since Cameron Diaz's use of, er, "hair mousse" in "There's Something About Mary." Two: Will the films be in 3-D? No mention of whether that's the case in the press release but, given Jackson's interest in the medium – his WETA effects house is working on James Cameron's 3-D sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar," and "Tintin" will require theatergoers to wear special-effex specs -- I'm speculating that it could be a possibility. And, third, since Andy Sirkis is working on "Tintin," will he be available to play Gollum?

Additional statements and updates from Entertainment Weekly, here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The most fun concerts ever?

Crowded House has been living up to its name with a string of packed concerts across the globe – and for good reason. In part, it's because frontman Neil Finn's DNA isn't made up of nucleotides, like the rest of us. His double-helix is likely constructed out of musical bars containing bass, treble, and tenor clefs. Few possess such a genetic gift for melody.

But the other part of their success comes down to this: Few bands interact with their audiences like these musicians from Down Under. After taking in the Led Zeppelin reunion concert the previous night, Crowded House prepared for its Royal Albert Hall show by leaving sheets of paper on seats so that the concertgoers could make paper aeroplanes to aim at the stage. At another point, Finn said the band had always wanted to see themselves play live. So they handed their instruments over to their roadies, who proceded to play a perfect rendition of "It's Only Natural" while the band dashed over to one of the Albert Hall boxes to watch from afar. Then the band members clambered over the box and waded through the audience to return to the stage to finish the rest of the tune.

The previous night, the band played a 50-minute second encore, gleefully overrunning the 11 p.m. venue curfew. And, as is their custom, this band not only completely overhauls its setlists each night, they'll also gamely tackle audience requests of rare and obsure tracks they've not played in years. Wish I could have been there to witness it myself but I still have fond memories of their August show in Boston.

By the way, if you only Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," you're missing out on one of the great back catalogues in music. (America ignored the band just when they became superstars across the world on the strength of their two classic records, "Woodface" and "Together Alone.")

For starters, try "Distant Sun" or "Weather With You" or "When You Come." They're all on the Crowded House Best Of, "Recurring Dream" – 18 tracks of musical nirvana. Then drill down into the individual albums, Finn's solo work ( "Try Whistling This" is one of the best albums of the '90s), as well as his songwriting partnership on two albums with his brother, Tim, as The Finn Brothers.

Zep get the Led boots out

Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin's bear of a manager (by turns huggable and ferocious) may be long gone but his legacy remains the same. His policy of merciless treatment of bootleggers is very much alive today, even when those "bootleggers" are just ordinary blokes taking grainy, boomy minute-long video clips with their cellphones and posting them to the Internet.

Ever since Monday's reunion concert, YouTube has been working overtime to yank clips of the show from the site, citing a copyright claim by the Warner Music Group. Others theorize that YouTube, whose owner, Google, has been reeling from a $1 billion lawsuit by Viacom over copyright content, is merely following the behest of the band's management. So, why deny the millions who couldn't attend the show even so much as a glimpse of, say, "Kashmir"? One theory is that an official DVD is likely to be released, so what better way to gin up demand for it than quash existing footage?

It wasn't always thus. In interviews, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have talked about going shopping for Led Zep bootlegs in Japan. In fact, the duo's 1972 experimental jams with the India's Bombay City orchestra, once thought lost forever, resurfaced as a bootleg in the early 1990s and Plant, for one, was delighted. The orchestral arrangements of those Led Zep numbers seemed to have a direct influence on some of the eastern-flavored reworkings of Zep songs on the "Unledded" album. During that 1994-95 tour, Page&Plant even had designated spots for bootleggers to set up their equipment, much as jam bands such as moe. do today. As the most bootlegged band in Britain, it's arguable that tapes of the band's legendary live shows only added to their legend and mystique and must-see status.

But that's all changed now, it seems. Earlier this year, Jimmy Page appeared as star witness in a case against a Scottish bootlegger. It's hard to tell whether the band members are OK with amateur bootleggers making recordings for themselves or whether the Zep camp is irked by the professional bootleggers -- the one's that package their CDs and DVDs with handsome packaging, but for a price -- because they're making money off the band's work. The YouTube debacle may signal little tolerance for the amateur set, which is a shame since they're the one's likely to be doing it all for fun, rather than profit. And they're the one's buying all the reissues, going to the concerts, and generally carrying the torch for Led Zeppelin as evangelists for its legacy.

On a lighter note, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have announced their first tour dates, here.

And, in other news, Rolling Stone's David Fricke, a Zep aficionado, offers the most compelling review of the show I've seen yet. And here's a song-by-song critique by Kevin Shirley, engineer remaster of "How the West Was Won" and the reissue of "The Song Remains the Same." Dave Grohl, "the nicest man in rock" and would-be drummer behind Page, Plant, and Jones, salutes Jason Bonham, here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rebuilding the 'Stairway to Heaven'

An acquaintance on a chat forum had this verdict about tonight's Led Zeppelin reunion show: "I can honestly say it was the single best gig that I have ever attended in my life! Led Zep really delivered the goods and played for about 2 hours!" How was Plant's voice, I asked. "I was a bit unsure as he avoided the high notes in the first couple of songs. However once he warmed up he was hitting every note the same as he did at their peak."

By all accounts, a sensational gig. And, though the setlist excluded any acoustic numbers or "Achilles Last Stand," it did include the live debut of "For Your Life," one of their finest achievements with one of Page's greatest solos.


Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
Black Dog
In My Time Of Dying
For Your Life
Trampled Underfoot
Nobodys Fault But Mine
No Quarter
Since I've Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway To Heaven
The Song Remains The Same
Misty Mountain Hop
Whole Lotta Love
Rock And Roll

Some great reviews coming in from The Guardian, The Times , The Daily Telegraph, and the NME, too. The few clips that are beginning to surface on the Net sound pretty phenomenal even with the muddy sound and grainy footage of a camera phone.

Check out these photo links ( 1, 2, 3) to see which celebs attended the show. Basically, apart from a few musicians who would appreciate the music (Crowded House, Jeff Beck, Dave Grohl, David Gilmour, etc.) it's just a "People" magazine spread full of celebrities with the right connections. I defy Paris Hilton to name a Led Zep song beyond "Stairway." I coulda had her seat... grrrr

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Atonement vs. Atonement

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the heavyweight championship of two worlds. In the left corner we have "Atonement," a literary classic that climaxes with a clobbering left-of-field hook. In the right corner, we have the top-ranked fighter in the Oscar division thanks to its upper-class cut. If these two contenders were equally matched, it would end in a clinch. But as the ref, I'm calling this bout a knockout for Ian McEwan's book in the second round.

Director Joe Wright's film is the work of an assured filmmaker, but this adaptation falls short of its source material in its second half. Without giving away the plot, the book hinges on the naive assertion made by a 13-year-old girl, Briony Thallis, that leads to the imprisonement of a young man named Robbie Turner in 1936. The film's account of these events is stellar. But once it time shifts to the second World War, when Robbie has been freed to fight for England, and Briony takes up work in a military hospital ward, the script scissors its way through McEwan's text, cutting to the quick -- and, in so doing, cutting out the heart of the novel.

The book chronicles the long, desperate slog across the north of France during the British retreat of 1940, each stage of the journey plunging into concentric circles of Miltonesque hell as Robbie and his two fellow soldiers encounter horrific scenes of war. McEwan had done meticulous homework to chronicle what happened prior to the evacuation of Dunkirk and it leaves a searing impression on the reader. That section of the novel also tells us more about Robbie's mental anguish and it brings home the full magnitude of what he encounters as a soldier. The reader can almost hear the sobbing cries of blistered heels as they tear up at each footfall. By contrast, the film pretty much cuts out the journey and quickly brings Robbie to the beach where thousands of soldiers await evacuation.

Similarly, the author details the boot camp-like rigor and hardship that Briony endures as a nurse -- her self-conscious act of atonement for her sin at age 13. And so, by failing to capture the full measure and impact of both characters' respective experiences, the film inadequately prepares the viewer for the final rug-pull in the Third Act, set in 1999. There's an act of contrition, but it doesn't feel fully earned by the 123 minute mark. Indeed, there's far too little of Briony in the movie because of the inordinate focus on Briony's sister, Cecilia (perhaps because the role is played by Keira Knightley, the film's sole marquee name, who gets to wear exquisite, waifer-thin costumes.)

Much has been made of the movie's four-minute tracking shot across Dunkirk -- one reliant on the precise choreography of a cast of thousands. Contrast this scene with the uninterrupted camera shot in a battle zone in last year's magnificent "Children of Men." There, the shot pulls the viewer deeper into the moment and quickens the pulse. It's entirely organic to the scene and it's only after the film that one even registers that director Alfonso CuarĂ³n and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pulled off a continuous shot that outshines even the camera flourish at the beginning of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil." But in "Atonement," the shot feels so self-conscious that it pulls one out of the movie.

Finally, when Brenda Blethyn started attacking a car with an umbrella during a scene in "Atonement," I couldn't help but think of this infamous moment in 2007 taloid news...