Sunday, January 26, 2014

Beck's Journey To A "Sea Change"

With recent news of a new album coming from Beck next month, let’s take a look back at his 2002 release Sea Change, which was a change of pace for the singer at the time. In the early 2000s, Beck was riding high on the success of releases like Odelay (1996) and Midnite Vultures (1998). He had become a favorite of alternative rock fans for his innovative use of electronic sounds & tape loops to underscore his unique songs. In early 2001, Beck & fiancĂ© Leigh Limon split up after a long relationship. The music Beck was preparing for his next record was heavily influenced by this event. He began writing songs that were more introspective & soul-searching than anything he had done before. The resulting album became one of his most heartfelt & powerful releases.

Some of the songs had been played at live shows before Beck brought them to the studio sessions. Working with his band & longtime producer Nigel Godrich, the artist crafted a song cycle that traces the ups & downs of romantic relationships. Beck had started out as a folk singer, and this album is firmly entrenched in that style & sound. Songs like “Lost Cause, Guess I’m Doing Fine & It’s All in Your Mind” have passionate lyrics & a distinctly emotional atmosphere. Other tunes like “The Golden Age” and “Lonesome Tears” have a country-esque flavor. In many ways, this is the Beck album you’ll appreciate even if you’re not really a fan of his other music or albums. This is a work that stands apart.

While the disc was a success, it wasn’t as big a hit as some of his earlier releases. However, it has gained stature with fans & critics over the years, making many best of the decade lists. The album has often been compared to the work of Bob Dylan & British singer-songwriter Nick Drake. For me, the record has always been a favorite. This is an amazing album; Sea Change is about love, loss & the pain of broken relationships, but ultimately has a sense of hope for the future. It’s one of Beck’s finest, most fully realized works. Reports say his new disc, Morning Phase, will be a companion piece to Sea Change, and is very similar in tone & execution. Look for it on February 25. For now, if you haven’t heard Sea Change, I recommend you give it a listen. Here’s a link to the video for “Lost Cause,”

Trivia notes: Roger Manning & Jason Falkner, former members of the well regarded power pop band Jellyfish, both played on the album. The track, "Ship In a Bottle," was left off the original release, but added to later re-issues of the disc.

Next time: A visit with "Doctor Sleep"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

American Hustle: Is the Art of the Con the Art of Survival?

David O. Russell is one of the most interesting film directors working in the field today. From early films like Flirting With Disaster (1996) & Three Kings (1999) through recent successes like The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he’s shown an uncommon talent for picking good material and great actors to bring those stories to life. Now, with 2013’s American Hustle, he catapults to the front line of American filmmakers. The movie is a fictionalized version of the late 70s/early 80s FBI operation known as ABSCAM. As the tagline at the beginning of the film states, “Some of this actually happened.”

The story concerns Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist who is working scams with his partner and lover, Sydney Prescott. They are deeply in love, but Irving refuses to leave his wife & son for her. An ambitious FBI agent named Richie Dimasso catches them working a loan scam, but offers to let them go if they help him make some big-time arrests. What follows is a scheme that spirals out of control, as Irving & Sydney try to entrap Carmine Polito, a New Jersey mayor who’s working hard to bring casino gambling & resorts back to Atlantic City, in order to create jobs & grow both the state & local economies. As things escalate, all of the major players will be affected in ways they can’t imagine.

What’s interesting about the characters is they’re all scam artists in their own way, though sometimes they’re only conning themselves. Irving wants nothing more than for things to continue the way they’re going, running low-end scams, and enjoying his life with his mistress, while never leaving his wife. Sydney wants to be with Irving full-time, and deludes herself into believing he’ll leave his wife Rosalyn for her. Richie thinks a big bust will get him respect within the Bureau. Rosalyn thinks she can control Irving, and make him stay with her through guilt and intimidation. But her off-kilter behavior just might derail their carefully laid out plan to snare Polito. In a way, they’re all dreamers as much as they’re con artists. They all learn something by the time the story is over, though it may not be the lesson they expected; they learn how to survive. As Irving says at the end of the film: “The art of survival is a story that never ends.”

The cast is brilliant, with an unrecognizable Christian Bale letter perfect as Rosenfeld. He’s matched by co-stars Amy Adams as Sydney, Bradley Cooper as Dimasso, and Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn. The four leads offer us a master class in acting, and are outstanding in their roles. They all give brave, powerful performances. The supporting cast is amazing as well, led by Jeremy Renner as Polito, and a host of familiar faces in minor roles. The film looks fantastic, courtesy of cinematographer Linus Sandgren & art director Jesse Rosenthal. The song choices, which range from ELO to Jack Jones to Donna Summer, recall the way Scorsese uses music for effect in his movies. Another thing Russell’s film shares with some of Scorsese’s is the use of multiple (and possibly unreliable) narrators to relate the story from their viewpoint.

American Hustle is one of the best films of 2013, and truly deserves the accolades & awards it has received so far. It was just awarded 10 Oscar nominations, including nods in all four major acting categories, a feat it shares with director Russell’s last movie, Silver Linings Playbook. This may be his best film yet. This darkly comic tale is currently in theaters, and is one of those films that’s worth going out to see on movie night. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Family Tales & Unexpected Road Trips: Brief Reviews of Two Films

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) – It’s a tough balancing act to tell a good story that’s got one foot rooted in the real world, and another in the magical. Tim Burton has pulled this off in movies such as Big Fish (2003), but there are other cases where it doesn’t work at all, like Woody Allen’s Alice (1990). Director Peter Hedges’ The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a touching tale of a couple (Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Garner) that has been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby. One stormy night, they write all the best qualities they’d want in a child on pieces of paper. They place them in a box and bury it in the backyard. That same evening, a mysterious boy appears at their back door. He appears normal except for some leaves sprouting from the bottom of his legs. The boy says his name is Timothy, and addresses them as Mom and Dad. He says he's there for them. But who is he?

What follows is a seriocomic story of Timothy teaching his parents (and his extended family) some important lessons about life. Like the best fairy tales, there are moments of humor, sadness, triumph, loss, and ultimately, joy before the story is over. There are some good performances, especially by Garner and CJ Adams as Timothy. If (like me) you’re a fan of these types of sentimental films, you’ll enjoy this enchanting story. It's a touching, sentimental, extraordinary tale that will tug at your heartstrings. It didn’t make much of a splash when released theatrically, but it really is solid family entertainment. Highly recommended. It’s now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

The Guilt Trip (2012) – Andrew (Seth Rogen) has a problem. He’s about to embark on a cross-country trip to visit potential clients & try to sell a product he’s developed. A brief visit to his overbearing Mom (Barbra Streisand) has some unexpected consequences. She ends up going on the road with him. Of course, the usual comic misadventures & misunderstandings occur. As the trip continues, they end up growing further apart, then closer together, and finally come to understand each other better. And maybe they even learn something about each other….perhaps Mom isn't so bad after all?

Rogen can play this kind of affable nerd in his sleep these days, and he & Streisand work very well together. It’s truly a kick to see her playing the Mom here. When she’s on screen the movie shines. Otherwise, it’s a predictable but enjoyable comedy, that’s worth a look for fans of the two stars. Directed by Anne Fletcher, the movie’s story is actually based on a real life road trip that writer Dan Fogelman took with his Mom. The Guilt Trip is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and for digital download. Here’s a link to the film's trailer:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Prince Reigns At Mohegan Sun Arena

Prince jams during the show
For the final show of his 3-night weekend residency at Mohegan Sun on December 29, Prince & some special guests brought the audience some soul, funk & old school R&B. After keeping the audience waiting almost an hour past the scheduled start time of 8pm, opening act Janelle Monae was wheeled out onto an asylum-like mini stage. She busted out of her strait-jacket to wow the crowd with a fantastic performance featuring songs from her recent release The Electric Lady. The early part of her set even included a cameo by Prince on the song “Givin’ Em What They Love,” where he said to the ecstatic crowd “I command you all to dance.” Monae powered through an energetic hour long set that included two excellent cover tunes: a wonderful version of The Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back” and (in a ballsy move): a faithful take on Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Monae is a talented singer whose look & sound channeled equal parts Michael Jackson, David Bowie, James Brown and a dash of 80s funk.

After Ms. Monae's set concluded, the audience expected our headliner to arrive. Instead, the lights went down and we heard a voice shouting, “My name is Doug E. Fresh and the party starts now!” The rapper played DJ & dance party host, spinning a generous helping of old school soul & rap classics, including Rappers Delight, September, The Humpty Dance, Brick House and more. Doug got the crowd dancing, cheering, laughing and singing along. Just when things were at a fever pitch, it was time for the main event: The Purple One himself.

Prince (on right) from the evening's 3rd & final encore
Prince took the stage, proclaiming, “My name is Prince. I am not a cheap date. I am high maintenance” and for the next two hours we were treated to a phenomenal show mixing old & new material. Songs performed included “Let’s Work, Nothing Compares 2 U, 1999" and a rocked out, Led Zeppelin infused version of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The combined raw power, drive and instrumental & vocal artistry of the backing bands 3rd Eye Girl and New Power Generation was nothing short of amazing. In fact, every song was a musical highlight, as His Purple Majesty kept everyone enraptured with stunning readings of tunes such as a beautiful cover of The Soul Children’s “The Sweeter She Is” and a fantastic version of his own “U Got The Look.” He was in top form, and this show was a celebration of Prince's music & his power to thrill & entertain an audience. And by the way, the man can absolutely shred on guitar, as he proved on a spectacular version of "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)."

You couldn’t help but dance, scream & shout all night long at this electric, supercharged concert. There were a total of 3 encores, including the classic “Purple Rain.” The final song of the night, “Plectrum Electrum,” was performed after the house lights had already come up & the audience was filing out of the venue! This sent many people rushing back inside to hear one more song from Prince. He's an iconic, multi-talented artist, and when he declared “This is MY house now,” no one at Mohegan Sun Arena disagreed. Here are links to performances from Janelle Monae with her cover of "I Want You Back," and Prince doing the rock version of "Let's Go Crazy" at the 2013 Billboard Awards,

Set Lists:
Janelle Monae:
Givin' Em What They Love (cameo by Prince)
Sincerely, Jane
Electric Lady
I Want You Back
Cold War
Prime Time
Let’s Go Crazy
Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)

Doug E. Fresh:
DJ Set between acts, where he spun a batch of R&B, funk & rap classics, and got the crowd dancing, partying & singing along.


Big City
Nothing Compares To U
Let’s Work
U Got The Look
The Sweeter She Is
Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)
Let’s Go Crazy
When Doves Cry
Nasty Girl
Sign O’ The Times
Forever In My Life
Pop Life

Encore 1:
Purple Rain
Encore 2:
Take Me With U
Raspberry Beret
Cool (cover of The Time song, medley with Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough & other tunes)
  – with special guest Doug E. Fresh
Encore 3:
Plectrum Electrum (performed after the house lights went up)