Tuesday, January 24, 2012

“Pickin’ Up The Pieces” Of A Funky Debut Album

I’m an avowed fan of retro soul. There are many artists, including Raphael Saadiq, Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and of course, the late Amy Winehouse, who have recorded some excellent music influenced by the sounds of the 60s & 70s. Fitz & The Tantrums are an LA based soul band who fit right into the genre, but take it to new heights. Their 2010 release, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, mixes the sound of the classic Motown & Stax era with a touch of indie pop. It’s a funky, soulful delight from start to finish.

Lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick, who also plays keyboards, formed the group in 2008, shortly after a breakup. He decided to channel the emotions he was feeling into music, so he began writing & gathering the band together. The album was recorded in his living room, giving the record a gritty, homemade feeling. The funky, driving “MoneyGrabber” is probably familiar to music fans, having been featured in several TV shows & movies. But the entire album is filled with gems, like the keyboard driven opener “Breakin' The Chains of Love,” and the excellent title track, with Fitzpatrick & the amazing Noelle Scaggs (who also plays percussion) trading vocals.

In addition to the cool grooves, there really is an eclectic vibe to the music. Some of the songs even drop a little bit of an 80s New Wave sound into the mix. What’s really interesting is that there’s no lead guitar here, with the saxophone at the forefront on many of the arrangements. Aside from Fitzpatrick & Scaggs, the band also features Joseph Karnes on bass, James King on saxophone, flute, trumpet, and harmonica, Jeremy Ruzumna on keyboards and John Wicks on drums & percussion. Chris Seefried, who also co-wrote a couple of the songs with Fitzpatrick, produced the album.

Pickin’ Up The Pieces is a great debut from this excellent band. If you’re a fan of classic soul with a little bit of a modern twist, you can’t go wrong with Fitz & The Tantrums. And if you like their music, you can check out their EP Songs For A Break Up, Vol 1 (2009), which features two songs not included on the album. The group also contributed a cover of the classic “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)”  to the soundtrack of the 2011 remake of Arthur. 

Here's a link to a performance of "Breakin' The Chains Of Love"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The IMF Jumps Back into Action in "Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol"

I went to see Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol with some reservations regarding the film. The Mission: Impossible movie franchise has been one of Tom Cruises’ most successful projects, but I didn’t think the series truly earned its stripes until Mission: Impossible III. The first film in the series, 1996’s Mission Impossible was a decent action movie, but suffered from a third act twist that did a major disservice to one of the TV series’ most popular characters. Mission: Impossible II (2000), directed by John Woo, seemed more like one of his ultra-stylized Hong Kong thrillers, such as The Killer, than a Mission: Impossible movie. Once again, there were great stunts & action sequences, but both films seemed to have little in common with the original series.

When J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) directed Mission: Impossible III (2006), he delivered the goods with a solid spy thriller that took its inspiration from the TV series, and featured more of a team-based adventure, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt & his IMF crew facing off against a villain played by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. Fast forward to 2011; Abrams takes the producers’ chair and turns the directing reins over to Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles). No more reservations here: Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a thrilling, well-produced action movie, one of the best of the series.

This time around, Ethan’s in a Moscow prison and is broken out by the IMF (why he was there is explained as the story unfolds). He’s recruited to help identify a nuclear terrorist code-named Cobalt. But an operation to infiltrate the Kremlin’s archives goes wrong, and a terrible explosion is blamed on the team. The President disavows the entire IMF; Ethan & the crew must stop Cobalt, and clear their names. As rogue agents, they’re operating outside normal channels, and will have no help accomplishing their mission.

The film jumps from one thrilling action set piece & location to another, as the crew tries to stay one step ahead of Cobalt and stop his plan to initiate a nuclear war. There are some amazing stunts, including Cruise's climb on Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, widely seen in the film's trailer & advertising. Bird, directing his first live-action film, successfully applies the hyperkinetic energy of his animated movies to the M:I franchise. The plot has some good twists and turns, and some members of the team seem to have a hidden agenda as the adventure unfolds.

The cast features Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg (returning from the third film as tech expert Benji Dunn) as Hunt’s crew, and Michael Nyqvist (well known from the Swedish film adaptations of the "Dragon Tattoo" novels) as Cobalt. There are also a couple of neat cameos toward the film’s conclusion. Most film series are slowing down by their fourth entry, but this one seems to be revving up. The film is currently in theaters, and a fifth film is reportedly in the planning stages. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is one of the best action films of 2011.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Double Shot Of Gosling

Ryan Gosling is one of the most exciting actors working in movies today. He always gives interesting performances, alternating work in independent films like Half Nelson (2006) and Lars & The Real Girl (2007) with more mainstream fare like The Notebook (2004) and The Ides of March (2011).  I recently got to view two of his more recent efforts, Blue Valentine (2010) & Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Gosling was nominated for back-to-back Golden Globes for his work in these films, and they are both worth watching.

In Crazy, Stupid, Love, Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is shocked when he is told by his wife Emily (well played by Julianne Moore) that she has cheated on him, and wants a divorce. He moves out, and starts frequenting a local bar, where he meets Jacob Palmer (Gosling), a womanizer who regularly picks up women for one-night stands, and forms no emotional attachments. Jacob becomes a mentor to Cal, teaching him how to dazzle & seduce women.  But Cal realizes he still loves his wife, and Jacob meets a woman named Hannah, who appears to be immune to his charm. Both men begin to question their dealings with women, and the impact of love in their lives.

We also watch Emily as she dates the guy she cheated with, and Cal & Emily’s young son Robbie, who has a crush of his own. Like most romantic comedies, the stories begin to intertwine as the film runs its course, with some predictable results. But this movie is sweet & funny, with characters you can relate to at its core. It has some bittersweet moments, and is a well-written reflection on love, longing & 1st crushes. The performances are all good, and Gosling is very effective as a ladies’ man who yearns for something more. Crazy, Stupid, Love is one of the better films of its genre in recent years.

Blue Valentine is an entirely different kind of movie. A searing, emotional drama about a troubled marriage, it was highly acclaimed upon its release in 2010, and Gosling’s co-star Michelle Williams was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress. The story follows Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), a couple whose relationship is crumbling. The film moves back & forth in time between their courtship, marriage and the end of their time together. It's a sensitive, sometimes dark, but very honest portrait of the emotions these two people feel during the course of their lives together.

Director & co-writer Derek Cianfrance encouraged his leads to improvise the dialogue in some scenes, and it gives the film a very realistic feel. The film is shot in a gritty, low-key style and Cianfrance also makes excellent use of music (much of the score is by the indie band Grizzly Bear, but a key scene makes perfect use of an obscure 70s soul song by Penny & The Quarters) Both leads are amazing, and give outstanding performances. You really feel for (and with) these characters; Gosling & Williams truly embody these wounded souls yearning for love & a better life. This effective drama is a must see. Ryan Gosling really is an actor to watch; he just keeps getting better in each role. The 2011 crime thriller Drive received a lot of critical accolades last fall, and that film will be released on video January 30. I missed it in theaters, but look forward to checking it out at home.

Both Crazy, Stupid, Love & Blue Valentine are currently available on Blu-ray & DVD.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Covers Gallery" Part II

Another dozen (plus two) of intriguing, imaginative and just plain fun covers. Feel free to post comments below.
1.     I Want You Back by The Civil Wars from Barton Hollow. This folk duo re-invents the Jackson 5 classic as a ballad. Beautiful, breathtaking and sensual.
2.     It Don’t Come Easy by Bettye Lavette from Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Soul singer Lavette covers the Ringo Starr classic; from her fantastic collection of soulful re-imaginings of rock classics from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and more. Highly recommended.
3.     Babe I’m Gonna Leave You by Great White from Greatest Hits. The hard rockers do a faithful adaptation of the Led Zeppelin song.
4.     Make You Feel My Love by Adele from 19. There have been many covers of this Bob Dylan song, but Adele’s is the most emotional, heartfelt and beautiful.
5.     Los Tiempos Van Cambiando by Franky Perez & Los Guardianes del Bosque from Songs of Anarchy. Speaking of Dylan, here’s a wonderful version of The Times They Are A Changin’, which was used on the TV series Sons of Anarchy.
6.     I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick of Time By Bon Iver from Bon Iver. Another folk rocker who totally re-works a song (actually, two songs) to his advantage, re-doing the Bonnie Raitt hits from Nick of Time.
7.     Cry Me A River by Michael Buble from Crazy Love. Yes, Michael Buble! He takes the Julie London hit and turns into a lost 60s era James Bond theme.
8.     Only The Strong Survive by Elvis Presley. In 1969, Elvis went to Memphis and recorded with some great R&B and gospel musicians and producer Chips Moman. They created the classic album From Elvis in Memphis. This is an excellent version of the Jerry Butler ballad, which was recorded during those sessions.
9.     To Love Somebody by Nina Simone. The amazing Nina takes The Bee Gees classic to new heights. From The Very Best of Nina Simone.
10.  When You Were Mine by Cyndi Lauper from She’s So Unusual. Cyndi’s excellent cover of the Prince original. It’s always been one of my favorite performances by Ms. Lauper.
11.  Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters by Mandy Moore from Coverage. From her collection of 60s & 70s covers, Mandy does a nice job with the Elton John song. Reportedly, Elton himself liked this version, and contacted Ms Moore to let her know.
12.  Needles & Pins by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers from Pack Up The Plantation! Live. Tom & the boys (with guest Stevie Nicks) cover The Searchers hit.
13.  Dead Flowers by Jerry Lee Lewis from Mean Old Man. One of the original wild men of rock & roll tackles The Rolling Stones classic, with a little help from Mick Jagger.

Bonus Track: Since we ended with a Stones cover, another wonderful one is The Sundays version of Wild Horses, from the album Blind. More covers playlists to come in the future!