The Year’s Best Albums (Thus Far)

July 31, 2008

Like any year, 2008 has seen good and bad moments in music: inevitable highs (R.E.M., Coldplay) and lows (Flo Rida’s, umm, “Low”) started hitting the charts as soon as Radiohead released the year’s to-be best (In Rainbows) on January 3rd. But after filtering out the schmaltz, ’08 is shaping up to be a pretty good year in music — though any record exec, including the ones who still have their jobs, might disagree. Below is my Top Ten from the first half of this year.

10. R.E.M., Accelerate
There was a time not too long ago when critics and fans alike thought that R.E.M. should be put to sleep. The band’s latter-day album catalogue was continually waning, and newer hits like “Everybody Hurts” were just a parody of older, better hits from the band that more or less invented college rock. Then came Accelerate, a great new collection of songs lead off by the instantly hooky “Supernatural Superserious.” The best part? The new disc ain’t that serious. Opener “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is R.E.M. having fun being mean; “Man-Sized Wreath,” on the other hand, is as wacky as its title. Ultimately, the eleven-song set excels at saying “don’t count us out just yet” with a smile.

9. Robyn, Robyn
There’s a smartness to seemless pop music, and Robyn’s R&B IQ might just be a little higher than yours. On Robyn, her long-delayed third album, the Swedish pop princess makes clear that her intentions are to beat your best beat — and she absolutely succeeds in doing so. There’s a song named after a Dave Chappelle skit (“Konichiwa Bitches”), one named after a Madonna track (“Who’s That Girl?”) and even one dedicated to every other actress in Hollywood (“Crash and Burn Girl”). But better yet are Robyn’s personal songs, which paint her as pop’s premier anti-romantic: first there’s “Handle Me” (you can’t), closely followed by “Be Mine” (you never will). Both mix electric beats with somber strings, and both are as danceable as they are depressing. But I guess there’s a certain smartness in sadness too.

8. Coldplay, Viva La Vida (review here)
Coldplay released Viva La Vida — their fourth and best full-length — in the height of summer, and the first line of the first single (“Violet Hill”) is something about a “long and dark December.” Then come lyrics about gun-toting priests, carnivals of idiots and, oh yeah, love. So while it’s not exactly what you expected, it’s still Coldplay — which might as well be the byline of this album. Now well on its way to international platinum status, Viva is somewhat of a tour-de-force as far as blockbuster albums go, packing more invention and ferocity into its first two singles than in the entirety of Coldplay’s back catalogue. Basically, this album is the one that starts Coldplay’s new future — an interesting note given that its lyrics, many of which criticize society and its talking heads, are very much rooted in the past. On the title track, for instance, Chris Martin details the fall of a roaming empire; on proper album closer “Death and All His Friends,” meanwhile, he’s preoccupied with his forlorn fate — the same fate that eventually buries each and every one of us. But that unending everymanism is what underlies Coldplay’s success, and it’s quite interesting to see a band sneak in criticisms of the same masses to which it caters.

7. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
If you must, take time to scoff at MGMT’s laughably-ridiculous debut album title. Then play the thing and you won’t stop laughing ’til it’s done. After two years of hipster ridicule, Connecticut’s MGMT have transformed themselves from the band you laugh at into the band you laugh with — and the first ten tracks of their career are the source. Opener and lead single “Time to Pretend,” for one, is a rollicking look at rockstar-ism: “Choke on our vomit/That will be the end,” sings the group on the track. “We’re fated to pretend.” The rest of Oracular is a similar mockery of pretension, with danceable electronica and heavy drums making up the majority of the aural aspect. But ultimately, the band proves its mastery of the concept that making fun of other people’s good times is itself a damn good time.

6. Santogold, Santogold
On the fifth track from her debut LP, Brooklyn’s Santogold calls herself a “creator” — but she sounds much more swamp creature than creator on the album. One reason for that might be the disc’s murky production, which melds together reggae, dub, punk, electronica, trance and even a little bit of hip-hop on its twelve songs. Another might be her shaky vibrato, which sounds sinister on lines like “I’m a lady” and sweet on lines like “Shove your hope where it don’t shine.” But most likely to blame is Santo’s general presence on the record, as the up-and-coming songwriter always seems to hover above and beyond the distorted disturbia bleeding from your speakers. Never has a voice so distant been so clearly here to stay.

5. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
If you released a mixtape-per-minute like Lil Wayne, you probably wouldn’t have time to listen to your peers’ output. But as Weezy makes clear on Tha Carter III, today’s best hip-hop draws from the past. Just check the album’s cover, where Wayne’s baby-face alludes to similar images of Nas on Illmatic and Biggie on Ready to Die. The album’s title, meanwhile, evokes the three-part CD series of Jay-Z and Kanye, both of which (arguably) culminated in the third installment. So too does Weezy’s series: TC III is a pitch-perfect rendering of all of Wayne’s idiosyncrasies, from his syrupy alien flow to his lol/omg/wtf?!? lyrics. Like any rap CD, it doesn’t all work; the “Snap Yo Fingers” rehash of “Got Money” is one particular lowlight. But not since Dr. Octagon has funk met finesse like on “Dr. Carter,” and not since beefing with Nas has Jay-Z worked so hard not to be outrapped (listen to “Mr. Carter”). Better yet? Jay is indeed outdone, as there’s a newer, better Carter in town.

4. The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely
“How you gonna top yourself?” purrs Jack White to a former lover on “Top Yourself,” the seventh track from The Raconteurs’ sophomore disc Consolers of the Lonely: “Guess you better get yourself a sugar daddy to help you!” The line is both comic and cruel, not unlike White’s cynicism with the White Stripes, but it cuts deeper because Jack seems constantly involved in his own endgame to, well, top himself. Such is the case with all of Consolers, where he and co-lead-singer Brendan Benson duel to write the best song the Rolling Stones never did. And they come pretty damn close: “Many Shades of Black” swirls from traditional rhythm and blues into a manic, six-eight march; “Hold Up” draws equally from the Bar-Kays and Tom Petty; even first single “Salute Your Solution” closes with a funky, full-band singalong. And unlike with the Stripes, where Jack’s production pallette is basically limited to drums and guitars, this Raconteurs album is chock full of Sixties studio staples: shimmering tambourines, Memphis horns, dirty organs, even saloon piano. The band’s lyrics, meanwhile, are cloaked as ominous threats; even on the delightful alt-country tune “Old Enough,” Benson sings words of warning: “Maybe when you’re old enough/You’ll realize you aren’t so tough/And some days the seas get rough, you’ll see.” Put simply, Consolers is leagues ahead of the Raconteurs’ debut, and it really makes you realize just how much these dudes wish they played during the birth of rock ‘n roll. If only they were old enough.

3. Portishead, Third (review here)
On “Machine Gun,” the first single from Portishead’s third LP, Geoff Barrow establishes parallelism with percussion that sounds like shots being fired. (Talk about a little drummer boy.) But on disc opener “Silence,” the band is found at its absolute noisiest. So here’s my point: try as you might, you can’t figure out the mechanism(s) behind Portishead. Sometimes lead singer Beth Gibbons is lively and hopeful, as on “Deep Water” (“Deep waters won’t scare me tonight”); other times she’s just hopefully alive (“I am nowhere,” from “Plastic”). Her band’s only constant is its mystery, from its ever-elusive melodies to even weirder instrumentation. Third features wobbly percussive loops, tweaky horns, eery synths and battered guitars, all of which mold a sound that matches the creepiness of knowing something’s there even when you can’t see it. Perhaps that’s the comfort of deep waters: never do they leave Portishead unhidden.

2. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
A common misconception among popular DJs is that their primary goal is to get the party started. But Gregg Gillis, the one-man mastermind sporting the mash-up moniker Girl Talk, knows he’s there to keep it from stopping. 2008’s Feed the Animals, another dose of Gillis’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to remixing, is his most expansive set yet — and his most rewarding for baby boomers through baby mommas, as it culls not only from modern rap but also from classic rock. Just listen to opener “Play Your Part (Part 1),” which explodes into a mindmeld of The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem” in mere seconds. Similarly intoxicating is the entirety of “Still Here,” which goes from Youngbloodz/Procul Harum to “Flashing Lights”/”No Diggity” and manages to incorporate Radiohead, The Band, Yung Joc, Ace of Base and 50 Cent on the way. And that’s one track. In total, the whole mixtape runs for fifty uninterrupted minutes through five consecutive decades — making clear that where other DJs stress drum ‘n bass, Girl Talk stresses cut ‘n paste.

1.5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (review here)
Omitted from my original list, and for no good reason: the Black Key’s Attack & Release is the group’s best to date. For the first time on record, the band sounds like more than just a duo — thanks no doubt to Danger Mouse’s fill-in-the-blanks production style, on display in full force throughout Attack. It’s he who provides the banjos, pianos, basslines, atmospherics and organs; the Keys respond with a heavy dose of battered, blue-eyed lyricism and Sabbath-serious riffing. (“You see me out your window,” sings leader Dan Auerbach at one point, “Even when you close the blinds”; the line takes on new meaning in the context of Danger Mouse not overproducing the Keys’ signature sound.) But with drum fills that sound like guitar riffs and guitar riffs that sound like drum fills, it’s hard to mistake this disc for anyone but the world’s only Akron-based blues outfit.

1. Radiohead, In Rainbows
Leave it to Radiohead to release 2007 and 2008’s best disc with one swift stroke: In Rainbows, released digitally in October ’07 and physically in January ’08, earned the band a second #1 album and their highest critical marks since the last #1 (2000’s Kid A). The record is a return to form with significant returns, as Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want distribution scheme generated a rumored $10 million in digital sales alone. But more important than the album’s economy is Thom Yorke’s lyrical economy; terse metaphors like “I’m just an animal/Trapped in your hot car” make In Rainbows Radiohead’s sexiest yet, and the instant gratification of the band’s poppiest hooks since ’95’s The Bends confirm the hedonism. “Bodysnatchers” sounds like early Pearl Jam, which is interesting because Radiohead debuted in the heights of grunge. And “All I Need” is ’90s trip hop in the vein of the Primitive Radio God’s “Phone Booth.” But despite those few classic turns, Rainbows is the sound of a band so ahead of their time that they already know we’re all doomed to hell. Just note the simple chorus from the Bush-aimed “House of Cards”: “Denial…denial,” sings Yorke, putting into words a greater criticism than the greatest pundit. His band, at this point in their lofty career, is as easy to like as their lyrical targets are to hate.


Trailer Predictions

July 25, 2008

August is going to be a pretty lame month of movies. As we watch “The Dark Knight” topple record after record, “Pineapple Express” is likely to be the only thing that gets me to the theatre. So, that’s a good excuse to start looking toward Oscar season, because believe it or not, we know more than we did four months ago. Using Kris Tapley’s list of Best Picture contenders, I found that eight movies currently have trailers released. I don’t know if it’s possible to judge a movie by the trailer accurately, but since many people decide whether they will see a movie depending on the trailer, I think it’s fair to judge its Oscar prospects in the same mentality. Here’s my best attempt:

Australia: This is, I think, going to be what “Pearl Harbor” wanted to be. Baz Luhrmann’s project looks like an epic, but it’s impossible not to wonder if he’s aiming a little big here. It’s funny, because in the trailer, Nicole Kidman’s look is very similar to hers in “Moulin Rouge” and it took a minute to remind that both are Luhrmann’s. I think Nicole has a better shot at an Oscar nom than Jackman from the look of things, but I’m not convinced we have a Best Picture nomination here. If it connects, if Luhrmann doesn’t miss a note, it’s epic enough to win Oscar gold from the look of things. But if it misses, even a little, I don’t think it gets nominated.

Blindness: I saw this trailer during my first “Dark Knight” viewing, and boy, I didn’t see that coming. It is, for me, the favorite right now to win Best Picture. I mentioned to a friend in the theatre it has a “Children of Men” vibe to it, and if Cuaron has had an influence on Fernando Meirelles (“Constant Gardener”), watch out. The reviews from Cannes weren’t great, but we all know there’s a long time between Cannes and release day. This looks like a powerful movie believing in people, and it looks like both Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal will put in dynamic performances. I’m excited.

Body of Lies: Not surprising that after the success of “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott’s next turn is another movie that looks to be about 99% between two actors. This goes against about everything that I normally believe, but the trailer actually makes Russell Crowe’s performance look better than Leo’s. I think it’s going to be one fun movie, and one Hell of a ride, but I don’t see it being a product the Academy would love. If they can fit Crowe into the Supporting Actor category, it seems like that might be the best road to a nomination.

Burn After Reading: This is obviously going to come with big expectations, because it’s the Coen Brothers first effort since “No Country.” It’s a monster cast, but it’s a different vision than most Oscar contenders. I don’t deny that with this cast, this is going to be a good movie. But it also looks like the Coens went to humor here, and it probably means an 0-for-nominations. Maybe something in supporting for Malkovich or McDormand, and maybe another screenplay, but no wins and no Best Picture. Move along.

Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I know better than to predict too much from a David Fincher movie, who is an all-or-nothing director if there is one. At worst, in my opinion, he makes the movie 200 minutes long and feel longer than “Zodiac.” At best, Brad Pitt wins an Oscar, and Cate Blanchett and the fabulous (fabulous!) Taraji Henson get Academy talk. I think it’s more likely to see a win from an actor in this movie than the movie as a whole, but that’s only after a 90-second trailer.

Defiance: Not everyone loves Edward Zwick, but one can only hope that his WWII epic is the compilation of what he learned in “Glory” and “Blood Diamond” and “The Last Samurai.” It looks fabulous; for me, second behind “Blindness” in the best trailers of the bunch. I think Liev Schreiber might be in good position to get a nod from the Academy, which is nice. I don’t know if I believe in Daniel Craig enough to say he gets a leading nomination. Instead, I think it’s more likely the film, which looks a little more put together than WWII counterparts “Australia” and “Miracle at St. Anna”, is nominated for Best Picture.

Happy-Go-Lucky: An off-the-wall choice by Tapley, clearly trying to throw in a few underdogs on his list. Surprised this made it and “Hamlet 2” didn’t, frankly, but Tapley spent time in London so I’ll give him credit here. It seems like Sally Hawkins might just be in line for a surprise nomination for playing Poppy, but I doubt this movie has the legs to make it all the way. Too cutesy, and while some would say that about “Juno,” I think Diablo Cody’s script did have some edge.

Miracle at St. Anna: This is Spike Lee’s biggest undertaking in years, certainly more so than the forgettable “Inside Man” that is referenced in the trailer. I haven’t liked a Lee movie a great deal in 16 years, since Denzel Washington nailed “Malcolm X” into my memory. This is much more of an ensemble cast than this, so this is the opposite of Benjamin Button: it’s more likely a Best Picture nomination than anything from the actors. I think it misses the mark slightly, though, falling short to Defiance and aiming a bit too large like Australia.

Most Likely Best Picture Nominees: Blindness, Defiance, Curious Case of Benhamin Button, Australia
Most Likely Best Actor Nominees: Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig
Most Likely Best Actress Nominees: Julianne Moore, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman
Most Likely Best Supporting Actor Nominees: Heath Ledger, Russell Crowe, Liev Schreiber, John Malkovich, Gael Garcia Bernal
Most Likely Best Supporting Actress Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Frances McDormand, Taraji Henson

Best Guess at 5 Best Picture Nominees: Blindness, Changeling, Defiance, Milk, Revolutionary Road.

WHAP Concert Series: Coldplay

July 24, 2008

When: Wednesday, July 23
Where: The United Center, Chicago

As a concert-minded songwriter, one of Chris Martin’s best moves was to name his biggest hits after colors — or colours, as he might say. Just ask the 11,000 strong at last night’s Coldplay show, who over the course of the night heard hits of a vivid trajectory: the early highlight was “Violet Hill,” sans the thirty seconds of white noise that precedes it on new disc Viva La Vida; the ultimate peak was a singalong version of “Yellow,” the sole concert cut from debut disc Parachutes; and the show ended with an acoustic take on “Green Eyes” from the excellent Rush of Blood to the Head LP. Even if you don’t particularly care for these tunes, they sure make sense in the midst of a lights show — which sure makes sense to do in an arena. Coldplay’s entire set, in fact, could be summed up as songs that made sense.

The four-piece Londoner ensemble, of course, is making more than a few cents off their latest album: Viva has sold 5 million copies in a month, and the accompanying tour is selling so well that bigger cities — Chicago included — are being treated to two nights of performance. I caught Coldplay’s second Windy City set, which Chris Martin promised was better than the first. And after two encores, two album-length takes on new single “Lost!” and two full hours of music, I can’t call him a liar.

Essentially, Coldplay excels at being recognizable. Their concert was the first where I knew every single song, even the deep cuts from the new disc — “Death And All His Friends”; a rollicking, pitch-perfect “42” — and the old ones cloaked in electronica and drum machine reverb — “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face,” from Rush of Blood. Outside of that, two songs tested unfamiliar waters: a traditional folk tune sung by drummer Will Champion and a two-minute take on “The Dubliners,” a new ditty that approximates an Irish drinking tune. The set was otherwise infectious, from a rousing rendition of “In My Place” (with crowd-sung “yeah”s) to a laser-assisted romp through the concert stock of “Clocks” (improvised harmonies included). And the decision to only play singles from X & Y — that’s the wide-eyed balladry of “Fix You” and the contemplative piano pop of “Speed of Sound” — was a wise one, as too much mediocrity would have chipped away the artistic armor of Coldplay’s new material.

That said, two brand new songs provided the night’s lowlights. The first was “Yes,” which was overly-reliant on synchronized stereo strings and plagued by Chris Martin’s ultimately-too-weak lower register. Then came the aforementioned double-take on “Lost!,” whose central organ riff was overwhelmed by an attempt to accurately approximate the song’s jungle-thump beat. (The band played two takes because they’re filming concert footage for the song’s upcoming promo video, but one good rendition in lieu of two formulaic attempts — both dependent on Martin’s anti-rock-god flagellantism — would have been better.)

Blunders aside, however, the show was an exercise in slightly exceeding expectations — which is more than enough from a band who tires of playing their material well after you tire of hearing it. Throughout the set, six giant orbs projected images of the band members high above the stage, and an arching video screen flashed images congruent to their simultaneous song: Bush clips during a soulful and more-relevant-by-the-day “Politik”; Eastern imagery throughout “Lovers in Japan”; even psychadelic fruit displays on “Strawberry Swing.” Then there was Chris, as self-deprecating as ever, who despite fame and fortune seems convinced he could lose it all as quickly as it came. But that’s the science of Coldplay, the science outlined in the lyrics of “Lost!”: “You might be a big fish…[but] along may come a bigger one.” The band’s just big fish for now, but that’ll do for a sea of people on a given night in Chicago.

WHAP Reviews: The Dark Knight

July 24, 2008

In “Batman Begins,” the first installment of Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy, Bruce Wayne is put under a microscope. Nolan went to great lengths to show what makes Wayne tick, and more importantly, how his dogmatic personality translates to becoming a symbol for justice. It’s, reduced, not much more than a character study, but it worked with Nolan’s fabulous film noir take, Christian Bale’s step onto acting’s A-list, and just enough controlled performances from actors that could, and have, been the lead in other movies.

However, we find out now that is was little more than a foundation, enough of a necessary understanding to allow us to delve much deeper. “The Dark Knight”, quickly crashing every box office record known to man as it hunts down “Titanic” for ultimate box office supremacy, pulls out a far larger microscope. No longer do we leave Gotham City for half the movie — we leave it, but only as a quick aside — because this is a movie about Gotham City. What does it say about a town that allows a masked man to become their vigilante for justice?

One thing that it allows, as we see, is for a masked juxtaposition. Just as the mob has begun to become scared by the Batman’s light in the sky, a new “class of criminal” arrives in town that is unafraid of everyone and everything. The Joker’s first course of action is to steal $70 million from the mob, but it’s only done to turn their heads. HIs true destiny is against Batman, as a symbol for justice meets an “agent of chaos.”

The Joker is a character that, for his own ridiculousness, is pretty smart. He claims to be a spontaneous criminal, but doesn’t give himself enough credit, as we never see a plan that isn’t well-thought out and designed to turn things on his head. Against Batman, he uses everything Batman stands for against him. The vow not to kill? Against Joker’s hunger to kill, it’s truly an “irresistible force meeting an immovable object.” His mask? Joker calls for it to go off, and the movie is set into motion by his vow to kill until the human beneath Batman’s armor is revealed.

Throughout the movie, there is one “ace in the hole,” that has an effect on this battle between good and evil. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s new D.A., is Gotham’s white knight. Wayne develops a great deal of respect for Dent, who is unafraid taking down the entire mob at once, unafraid showing his own face. It Batman is a symbol, Dent becomes a face.

And then, on the flip of a coin, he becomes Two-Face. In a series of events that leaves Dent on a vengeance quest, and he flips, becoming Nolan’s No. 2 villain and giving the Joker what he wants — to show the line between good and evil can be crossed by anyone. The film is about, no less, whether or not Gotham City is a town that can believe in the good of people. Bruce Wayne and Batman believe that it can be, that it is, and the Joker believes it’s a desolate environment where everything is headed South.

As much as it’s a story about Batman, it might be more a story about The Joker. Unlike Tim Burton’s “Batman”, Nolan gives us no explanation, just hints, at the Joker’s backstory. His insanity is unchanged, which offers Heath Ledger a chance at controlled consistency in an unstable role. Ledger shines in every scene, so much so that he actually outshines everyone else in the movie. Short of Daniel Plainview, it’s probably the best performance of the decade, and almost certainly the best supporting role. Ledger’s humor, juxtaposing his actions, give such life to a character that is so fictional.

My criticism of “The Dark Knight,” which borders on my only criticism after a second viewing, is that the Nolan Brothers screenplay in ways throws the baby out with the “Batman Begins” bath water, and to mix metaphors, throws Bale under the bus in doing so. Title be damned, this is not a story about Batman, and it’s not a story at all about Bruce Wayne. Bale is given nary an opportunity to react emotionally, to show us that underneath the suit lies an actor with some pretty good acting chops.

Per usual, Nolan handles the rest of his supporting cast with a watchful eye. Eckhart is brilliant as Harvey Dent — for which his role in “Thank You For Smoking” was an interesting precursor — and okay as Two-Face. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to show great selflessness in reprising their small roles, but Caine is such a good Alfred, I can’t imagine we ever saw the butler as someone different. The lone issue most have is with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who just seems an awkward fit; her fire just comes off different from Katie Holmes.

However, the beauty of this movie is the combination of blockbuster and film noir. The movie will almost certainly win an Oscar in sound editing or mixing, in art direction or because of The Joker’s make-up. However, Nolan has veered from cheesy at every take in this series, and it never feels like it belongs in the superhero genre. Nolan goes after his characrers mercifully, showing us motivations and weaknesses, and showing us that every town has an underbelly. It might not be led by capes, face paint or the Mob, but it’s there, and it’s up to the good to repel it.

With “Batman Begins,” Nolan built himself a foundation. With “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s interest in this series was truly unveiled, and thanks to Ledger, Nolan’s scope doesn’t feel too big, even if it might be.

WHAP Rating: 4.5/5.0

WHAP Reviews: Beck, Modern Guilt

July 20, 2008

At this point, the one tedious thing about any Beck album is wading through swamps of hype before even hearing a guitar chord. And in the case of Modern Guilt, his tenth full-length and — at 33 minutes — his shortest ever, it’s laid on thick.

First came the announcement that our favorite changeling had hand-selected producer-du-jour Danger Mouse to helm the disc, and that the two of them had spent six months in L.A. trading old records like musical alchemists to prepare. Then came the sonic blueprint for the record — psychadelic sixties pop — and everyone got giddy over the fact that Beck and Danger Mouse, both arguably ahead of their time, were engaged in an effort to sound decidedly behind their time. After that, drop a few names for good measure — like Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) on backing vocals, or Beck’s own father handling the string arrangements — and all of the sudden a routine Beck CD is the Dark Knight of the indie music world. But after numerous spins, the byline on Modern Guilt is neither compliment nor criticism. Instead, it’s more like a blanket statement, and one that comes as no surprise given the mystical aura that’s surrounded Beck ever since he traded samples for Scientology: this record underscores the two great paradoxes of his career.

The first one, of course, is that Beck is the only modern artist who gets brownie points for revisiting his previous work. Normally, there’s a stigma attached to bands that don’t change their sound; this is why Nickelback is critically loathed, why Pink Floyd and Radiohead are seen as visionaries, and even why the Beatles are considered more prolific than the Rolling Stones despite playing together for thirty fewer years. But ever since he made 1996’s groundbreaking Odelay, which fused together everything from James Brown to Big Black, Beck has been tempting critics with claims that he’ll reinvent that very wheel. He never has, mind you, but 2005’s Guero came close enough to earn much higher marks than it deserved — while other records like Mutations and Sea Change strayed so far from the Odelay sessions that some critics were awed while others were put off. I’m in the former camp, so here’s some good news: Modern Guilt is about as far from Odelay as it gets. But there’s bad news too.

The bad comes, I guess, from the second paradox of Beck: his music sounds more like plagiarism when he’s not actually plagiarizing. When I said that Odelay contained elements of James Brown, I wasn’t kidding: Beck sampled the Godfather of Soul on that record, along with so many other songs that not one of Odelay‘s tracks was entirely unassisted by the open gamut of previously recorded music. Even incorporating those hundreds of samples, though, not one song off Odelay sounded copycat. Modern Guilt, by comparison, is written in full by Beck — but it doesn’t escape the pitfalls of being overly familiar, which makes this record feel more like a covers album than an original piece of art. Take the title track, where a staccato bass line is lifted directly from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and choral surf guitars are nicked from Cream. The song is menacingly bouncy, not unlike the Doors at their poppiest, but it ultimately sounds too close to being stolen for its own good.

A similiar problem plagues well over half this disc. “Youthless,” while wise to incorporate alternately ascending and decending keyboards, is a cheap rehashing of Beck songs like “Hell Yes” and “We Dance Alone”: one cool musical motif, in this case guttural guitar funk, with little invention atop it. “Soul of a Man,” meanwhile, veers into a guitar solo at the minute mark that’s suspiciously familiar to a line from the Black Keys’ “Breaks” — which wouldn’t be so bad if Danger Mouse hadn’t worked with the Keys less than three months ago. Even “Profanity Prayers,” marked by some as one of Modern Guilt‘s standouts, is the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” at twice the speed. Never before has Beck been so predictable.

Thankfully, there is a saving grace on this album — but it has nothing to do with its production. Actually, Danger Mouse comes up short on many occasions; when first single “Gamma Ray” breaks into eight bars of twangy guitar solo, for instance, a George Clinton-style bass line could have upped the aural ante by leagues. Similarly, Beck and DM’s reliance on sudden song endings quickly loses its shine: when six of ten songs stop abruptly in the middle of momentous times, the listener thinks less that it’s cool and more that it masks an inability to write actual song conclusions. Certainly a half-hour album could have incorporated a few more minutes of music without testing our patience — and relied much less on a whooping, saloonish snare drum that Danger Mouse peppers almost everywhere.

That saving grace, then, is a bound in maturity in Beck’s lyricism — particularly unexpected from the man who said in interviews that he was primarily concerned with Modern Guilt‘s sound, the same man who admitted to writing scratch lyrics (i.e., lyrics on the spot) for the majority of Odelay. Beck pulls off some gems throughout this disc, including a line from album closer “Volcano” that might as well be directed to his critics: “I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased,” he sings, taking a shot at modern hedonism. “But I still want to please you.” Elsewhere he’s a paranoid poetic, like on the excellent “Walls”: “You know that we’re better than that/But some days we’re worse than you can imagine.” Maybe a third paradox enters the equation here: as Beck focuses on how he sounds, he improves more so with what he says.

Truth be told, the lyrics aren’t the sole highlight on this album. A few tracks work extremely well: “Chemtrails” is tribal, acidic and funky at once; the aforementioned “Walls” uses sweeping synthesizers to accurately mimic the sound of collapsing walls; and “Gamma Ray” (see below) alternates between TV-theme guitar riffing and pudgy piano pop. But the best is far outweighed by the rest on Modern Guilt — and it’s hard to shake the feeling that if great minds like Danger Mouse and Beck do indeed think alike, perhaps they need to be kept apart to do so.

WHAP RATING: 2.8/5.0

Top 25 of 2008: Part 10

July 18, 2008

It’s hard to believe, but we’re already halfway through 2008 — so I’m continuing my quarterly Top 25 of this year’s most infectious singles. Eligible for this round are springtime singles, ranked according to personal preference but compiled based on chart success and digital sales. We end today with nos. 5 through 1.

5. Duffy, “Mercy” (Billboard Peak: #27)
Doing for summer ’08 what Amy Winehouse did for summer ’07, Duffy steals some of the most obvious sounds from ’60s soul for debut single “Mercy”: a major seventh organ line, a “Stand By Me”-style bass riff and even the kind of background singers who do choreography in between scattered “oohs” and “yeahs.” Put together, the elements prove undeniably infectious — whether the Welsh songstress deserves those Dusty Springfield comparisons or not.

4. Gavin DeGraw, “In Love With A Girl” (#24)
If “I Don’t Wanna Be” proved anything about Gavin DeGraw, it was that his vocal abilities walked circles around his songwriting chops; new single “In Love With A Girl” reverses that logic. Mixing his adult contemporary instincts with some ’90s alt-riffing flair, DeGraw achieves a sound tailor-made for this decade’s Buzz Ballads compilation — which he hopefully won’t end up hawking in infomercials come 2020. (You laugh, but Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray has been there, done that.) And by all measures, Gavin’s well-placed vocal overdubs make “Wants to make love when I wanna fight” the line of the summer.

3. Estelle feat. Kanye West, “American Boy” (#35)
If I namedropped Dusty Springfield in a Duffy review, then it’s only fair to compare Estelle to Chaka Khan here — what with her rhythmic phrasing, off-kilter harmonies and comfort around thick funk. And while I could have done without another pointless guest rap, Kanye West’s production — one part lazer-heavy synths, one part Max Martin slap bass — more than makes up for it.

2. M.I.A., “Paper Planes”
How’s this for violence in the media: ultra-cool M.I.A. buffs out her catchiest single yet with four gunshots in its chorus. Otherwise, “Paper Planes” is an AM-radio affair; just check how closely the backing track approximates The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” But the real treasure is M.I.A.’s lyrics, including a claim that she’s got “more records than the K.G.B.”

1. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida” (#1)
Giving Coldplay top honors on this list is like sending charity to the Rockefeller estate, but I’ll be damned if they don’t deserve it. In seven months, “Viva” will catalyze a Grammy sweep for Coldplay — who are right in line to take home Record, Song and Album of the Year unless U2 hits the studio immediately. And why not: the song’s quivering string solos and monarchic lyrics are enough to catapault it into the era where they actually used catapaults. Put simply, this isn’t the kind of song that sounds different than everything else; it’s the kind of song that sounds better than everything else. And for that it’s a classic.

The Last Performance

July 18, 2008

I will indeed get around to reviewing “The Dark Knight.” But, after seeing the 12:01 show tonight, I texted a friend that the movie was: “very good and very complex.” So until I come to terms with some of the questions in my head, this will have to do.

This was the role that Jack Nicholson played. It was, infamously, the role that Jack warned about. It’s a role that demands two faces, Harvey Dent be damned — between humor and anger, between psychopathic and plotting. It’s a role that has been getting Oscar talk since the first day Michael Cain was on set. It’s also, of course, the last role of a great actor’s life.

Put it all together, and the following is hyperbole that fits: it is the most anticipated performance in the history of cinema.

Needless to say, with anticipation comes a divergence in strange opinions. Some claim that this is the role that killed him. Some claim that it’s an injustice that the last time we’ll see Heath Ledger on screen is portraying a delusional face of evil. Some claim the posthumous Academy Award already belongs in the grave. It’s expected given the man, the death and the role, but it’s all a bit ridiculous.

I’ll first say that I don’t think this is the role that killed him. I believe Christian Bale when he says that he saw Heath having fun with this movie, having fun with this role.

Why do I believe that? Because it shows on screen. Looking back, if I can say one thing about Ledger’s performance, it’s that he was pitch-perfect in every comedic note. More than anything else, he made an anxious theatre erupt in laughter more than once. Personally, it came as a relief, that the darkness of the role was overshadowed by the comedy of it. Heath didn’t go out as some face for evil, he went out painted like a clown and acting like a brilliant comedian.
As far as the Oscar, this is dangerous territory, especially seven months out, especially without a deep knowledge of the performances yet to be seen. Speculating or handicapping his chances is a fool’s errand. But I’ll say that Nolan’s script is monologue-heavy, and if Supporting Oscars are awarded to the man that steals the most scenes, Ledger is in good position. That Batman’s actions speak louder than his words allows for Joker’s voice to be the most vocal in the movie.

Walk out of the movie, and think of a scene. It will be one of Heath’s, almost assuredly.

Before his death, Ledger talked about the difficulty of the role because — and I’m paraphrasing — the Joker is a character without conscience. He kills, but there’s not an ounce of remorse. He doesn’t kill to make a point. If I recall correctly, the Joker refers to himself as “an agent of chaos.” It’s a nuanced role, and for the first third of the movie, I questioned whether Heath was giving the nuanced performance that was promised. For awhile, the comedy was shining too bright, it was casting a shadow over the other aspects of the character it was supposed to balance with.

And rather than overstep my boundaries, I will say that he flips on the switch, turns the performance on the head and takes off. Nolan’s monologues get some of the credit, but halfway into the film, Ledger toes every line.

We wondered, and some worried, whether “The Dark Knight” would be the fitting conclusion to Heath’s legacy. In the end, I’m happy to report, Heath Ledger will be “The Dark Knight”‘s legacy.