Friday, July 26, 2013

Pacific Rim: Del Toro's Monster Mash

Guillermo Del Toro has proven himself to be a master of fantasy films with well-received productions like The Devils' BackboneHellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Now he tackles the monster movie genre with Pacific Rim. It’s the near future, and monsters have emerged from a rift beneath the ocean, attacking cities across the world. To stop the destruction and defeat the monsters, Earth’s countries band together and build robots called Jaegers to fight the creatures. Each machine requires two pilots, telepathically linked, to operate the robot. For a while, the program is successful. But increasing numbers of monsters are emerging from the rift and it seems we can no longer keep them at bay.

The Jaeger program is going to be shut down in favor of building a wall to contain the creatures. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) the commander of the Jaeger forces, argues against this plan; he wants to make a final all-out assault on the creatures, and try to close the rift. He brings back top pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy) who lost his brother fighting the monsters, to help. As Pentecost marshals his forces, more facts about the creatures come to light, thanks to a couple of scientists working on the project. Will the tough as nails pilots be able to get along and work together to fight the monsters? Will Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) Pentecost’s protégé, be Becket’s new co-pilot? And what does the fact that larger numbers of monsters are coming through the rift mean?

There’s not much new or groundbreaking in the characters, which are what you’d expect in this kind of film. There are Saturday matinee and drive-in archetypes at work here, but the actors are good, and the film has more of a human element than most stories of this type. Elba, best known for the BBC series Luther, is very good, as is Ron Perlman (a Del Toro regular) who portrays a dealer who sells monster parts on the black market. There are a couple of inventive twists, and Del Toro’s penchant for combining and mashing up genres is fully in evidence. There are elements of fighter pilot movies, monster films, and end of the world sci-fi flicks all mixed together. You’re not seeing a movie like this for world class drama, but it delivers on what it promises.

If you’re a Japanese monster fan, there are a couple of intense battle sequences that will delight and amaze you. Del Toro and his crew neatly capture the feel, look & style of Japanese creature films, especially those released in the 60s and 70s. The monster designs pay homage to the ones we saw as kids when those flicks aired on Saturday afternoon or late-night TV. The only thing missing is that the creatures don’t quite have the distinct personalities of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and friends, But they’re all big, nasty (and still quite impressive) creatures. If you let the ten-year-old monster fan inside you out to play while watching the film, you’ll have a good time. Pacific Rim is currently in theaters: I saw the film in 2D, but it's also being screened in 3D and IMAX versions; here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"All The Hits! All The Songs! And More!"

Baby Come Back. The Things We Do For Love. Escape (The Piña Colada Song). If you grew up during the 70s & 80s, you couldn’t escape these songs, especially if your parents had an AM station blasting out of the car radio, the portable radio/cassette player in the backyard, or your house’s hi-fi stereo system. “Soft Rock” was everywhere, even in an era when hard rock, soul, punk, disco and country ruled the airwaves. You could even buy collections of “Today’s Top Hits” via mail order from a company called K-Tel. Remember those commercials? Critics often maligned the soft rock genre, but the songs were catchy pop tunes with memorable hooks, arrangements and lyrics. They could get stuck in your head for days.  Come on, who hasn’t hummed or sung along to a tune like “Believe It or Not” aka Theme From The Greatest American Hero? I know you did; don’t deny it. :)

Now executive producer Andrew Curry has gathered a host of indie pop artists to pay homage to these classic hits on Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock. It’s an amazing album. This was a very personal project for Curry, who secured a portion of the financing through Kickstarter, the online funding platform. The disc kicks off with a rocking version of Cliff Richard’s 1979 “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” by Michael Carpenter. In fact, many of the arrangements here turn the dial up to power pop, including Vegas With Randolph’s take on Little River Band’s “Cool Change,” Linus of Hollywood’s run through of Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say” and Bleu’s awesome version of Player’s “Baby Come Back.”

Then there are the surprises: Lannie Flowers re-works the Orleans hit ”Dance With Me” into a very different, rollicking direction. The Davenports cover “Just When I Needed You Most,” and I really liked their propulsive version of Randy Van Warmers’ ballad. Kelly Jones does a pretty, country-flavored take on England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and Lisa Mychols’ emotional reading of David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us” adds a new level of poignancy to the song. Eytan Mirsky adds some real rock edge to “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” originally by Rupert Holmes, and Willie Wisely brings a gypsy-esque flavor to Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You.”

The album has so many great tracks that you’ll be spinning it again and again. Mike Viola (from The Candy Butchers, LEO, and lead vocalist on The Wonders’ That Thing You Do) does a fantastic version of Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away” and An American Underdog jam on Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island,” which is a digital bonus track. David Myhr (one of my favorite power pop artists) gets it right on 10cc’s “The Things We Do For Love,” and Popdudes groove on Walter Egan’s “Magnet & Steel.” And like the commercials used to say, “There’s so much more!” It’s clear that the artists have a passion for these songs, and it comes through in the music. These tunes really are going to get stuck in your head all over again.

As a listener whose musical tastes run from Abba to Led Zeppelin through soul, country, jazz and punk into the blues and back again, I found this collection irresistible. I’m not ashamed to admit I sang along with many of these songs when they came on the radio back in the day, and you shouldn’t be either. This is truly one of the best tribute discs that have been released in this (or any other) year. It will be on “heavy rotation” in my car, on my stereo, and my iPhone throughout the summer, and for a long time to come! Here are links to Michael Carpenter’s version of  We Don’t Talk Anymore ;, and David Myhr’s cover of The Things We Do For Love ;, as well as two cool “K-Tel” style ads for the album, the second a bit longer with comments from some of the artists involved in the project: and can find the album at the iTunes store and other online retailers.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Rock & Roll "Starship" Lands In CT

Despite some ongoing drizzle, Starship featuring Mickey Thomas visited Hamden on July 12 as part of the town’s Free Summer Concert Series. After years of legal battles with Jefferson Airplane/Starship co-founder Paul Kantner, Thomas (who joined the original Jefferson Starship back in 1979) split off and formed his own touring version of the band, which has been active since 1992. On Friday, Thomas and crew took the stage with a rocking version of “Layin’ It On The Line,” from 1984’s Nuclear Furniture. From there, he led the group through a solid string of their hits. The songs ranged from 70s rockers like “Jane” and “Count On Me” to the 80s megahits “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and “Sara.” In fact, the setlist touched on all eras of the band’s existence, including a nod to the Jefferson Airplane days with vocalist Stephanie Calvert (a Connecticut native) doing an excellent job on “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Calvert’s voice was outstanding throughout the show, and it was a good match for Thomas’ own vocals, which are still in fine form.

The band was tight and focused, with John Roth’s energetic guitar, neat bass lines from Jeff Adams, Darrell Verdusco’s solid drum work and cool keyboards from Phil Bennett, including an extended solo to introduce “Find Your Way Back.” In between, there were some surprises, including “Set The Night To Music,” originally recorded by Starship, which later became a hit for Roberta Flack & Maxi Priest, as well as performances of a couple of the group's deeper cuts, “Winds of Change” and “Stranger.” Thomas also got the crowd dancing and arm waving with a great version of “Fooled Around & Fell In Love,” which he recorded with Elvin Bishop back in 1976. The on again, off again showers returned at a steadier pace by the time the band came back for their encore, the guilty pleasure “We Built This City,” which music critics hate, but the audience sure loved it, judging from the raucous response. Then Starship sailed off into the night, and according to one friend of this writer, arrived at a local pub for an after show drink.
A few words about the excellent opening act, New Haven’s own Beach Avenue. They played a solid opening set, including tracks from their just released EP, Driving That Road, which is worth checking out. The band has some great songs; lead singer Nick Fradiani’s voice reminded me a bit of Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas. I particularly liked “Songman” and “Freight Train,” both of which are featured on the new EP. And how many rock bands do you know that cover Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” as part of their set? Definitely a band to watch.

Beach Avenue performing at the show  - photo by John V

Here are links to Starship performing “Jane” and Beach Avenue with “Can’t Get Enough”

Next: Soft Rock Lives! In Indie Music Land?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Zombies Rise Again.....In Hamden

For a group whose biggest hit (Time of The Season) was released after the original band had broken up, The Zombies are still considered one of the iconic groups of the British Invasion era, and their songs are still staples of classic rock radio. The group has toured on and off in recent years, and original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent are on the road this summer. On Friday July 5 the band rolled into Hamden, CT’s Meadowbrook Park as part of the town’s Free Summer Concert series. The opening act, Et Tu Bruce, showcased their guitar-based rock & roll sound with Beach Boys-like harmonies and well-written lyrics. Their album, Suburban Sunshine, is worth checking out. After their set, The Zombies took the stage, performing 21 songs, and proving they can still rock with the best of them.

The set mixed music from their most recent disc, 2011's Breathe Out, Breathe In, with classics drawn from throughout their career. One of the highlights of the evening was a mini-set of songs from their 1967 release, Odyssey & Oracle, which didn’t sell well on it’s original release, but has since gained cult status. In 2012, it was chosen by Rolling Stone as number 100 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Many musicians, including Paul Weller of The Jam and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, cite the album & the group as a major influence. The songs included the album’s opening track “Care of Cell 44," the ballad "A Rose For Emily," and of course the classic “Time Of The Season,” which was released as a single after the original line-up’s demise.

There were some well-chosen covers, including the Motown classics, “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” and “What Becomes of The Broken-Hearted.” The group also offered a couple of performances of hits from their solo careers, including the crowd pleasing “Hold Your Head Up” from Rod’s solo group Argent, and “Old & Wise,” which Colin recorded during his stint with The Alan Parsons Project. Both Argent & Blunstone’s voices sounded fantastic, and Argent can still play a mean keyboard. The band was excellent as well: Tom Toomey played some wonderful acoustic & electric guitar; Jim Rodford played some grooving, energetic bass, and Rodfords’s son Steve played solid, kinetic drums that provided a solid backbone to the group. Bassist Rodford was a founding member of Argent with Rod, and he also played with The Kinks; Toomey has played in the Santana tribute band Jingo Santana.

Another nice part of the show was that both Rod & Colin took time between songs to talk about the band’s history, and the genesis of the songs they played.  They obviously love performing, and are genuinely proud of their music. The crowd was most enthusiastic about the hits, of course, but they were clearly enjoying the show. By the time the band launched into “She’s Not There,” (a personal favorite) they were on their feet and enjoying every note as they clapped and sang along. The encore featured “Just Out of Reach,” originally featured in the film Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), and “Summertime,” the group’s version of the Gershwin classic. All in all, a great evening of music, in a wonderful outdoor setting. The Zombies, featuring Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent, are on tour this summer. If you’re a 60’s rock fan or are partial to their music, it's well worth your while to attend one of the shows.

Here’s a link to a live performance from KEXP Radio, and to Time of The Season:, Care of Cell 44: and "Stars Fall" by the opening band, Et Tu Bruce:

Next Time: A "Starship" arrives in CT