Thursday, December 8, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Black Rock (2010)

1. Steal Your Heart Away
2. I Know A Place
3. When The Fire Hits The Sea
4. Quarryman's Lament
5. Spanish Boots
6. Bird On A Wire
7. Three Times A Fool
8. Night Life
9. Wandering Earth
10. Look Over Yonders Wall
11. Athens To Athens
12. Blue And Evil
13. Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind

Like Sloe Gin, Black Rock is another experimental departure for Joe. It was recorded in Greece (at Black Rock Studios in Santorini), and features a mediterranean, "world music" sort of flavor, with the addition of various folk instruments. It rocks considerably harder than Sloe Gin, but the songs feel a little disjointed, and in my opinion actually suffer from an attempt to fuse different musical forms, instead of planting themselves firmly in one camp or the other. Prior to reminding myself of the extent to which Sloe Gin is an acoustic album during this retrospective listening marathon, I had considered Black Rock to be my least favorite Joe Bonamassa album (even below So, It's Like That), and it's still among those I listen to the least frequently, surpassed only by the likes of An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House.

But saying that I don't especially like the album doesn't mean that it is entirely without merit. Notable highlights might include the Jeff Beck cover, Spanish Boots (though appropriately European-themed, it pales in comparison to the best of Joe's earlier period classic rock covers); Joe's "long time coming" duet with lifetime mentor and celebrated blues legend B.B. King on Night Life (although, as with Eric Clapton's guest appearance on Live From The Royal Albert Hall, the recording cannot hope to reflect the momentousness of the occasion); and my personal favorite, Blue And Evil, which opens with an acoustic riff but quickly blasts into full electric force (with the meanest riff since Cream's Politician), reminding me of an earlier favorite: The River from Had To Cry Today.

The album opens on what is probably its strongest foot, with Steal Your Heart Away, a solid rocker, and the John Hiatt-penned I Know A Place, followed by When The Fire Hits The Sea (a title that evokes mental images of Greek fire). That last one has a strong vocal part, but like much on this album, I don't feel that it reaches the extra mile to distinguish itself as "great". Upon repeated listening, Quarryman's Lament (possibly a sequel to Story of a Quarryman from The Ballad of John Henry) has grown on me the most, and is what I would call the best demonstration of the bouzouki and clarino accompaniment on this album (which, quite honestly, can get in the way on some of the other songs), giving it a flutey, stringy kind of sound.

For an album that features both a Freddie King and an Otis Rush cover (Look Over Yonders Wall and Three Times A Fool, respectively), I don't really feel that it brings the blues. Maybe it's just the context of the album they appear on, or that they're more blues fillers than showstoppers, but I like the original artist's version better in both cases. Wandering Earth (an original) is probably the most traditional-sounding Joe Bonamassa track on the album, but as an electric blues, it feels kind of lethargic. Joe's cover of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire is sweet and gentle, but it makes me wonder if this is part of Kevin Shirley's ploy to expand Joe's popularity into the female demographic. The other strictly acoustic track on this album, Athens to Athens, similarly leaves me dry.

Finally, the album closes with a lightweight acoustic ditty - a cover of Blind Boy Fuller's Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind - that reminds me of Van Halen's Ice Cream Man, albeit not so gimmicky, and with less vocal theatrics (as opposed to, say, Joe's cover of Jelly Roll from Sloe Gin). It also kinda dulls the thunder of Blue and Evil, which directly precedes it, and would have made for a more climactic finish to the album. Coming to Black Rock as a fan of Joe Bonamassa the blues rock titan, it doesn't get me very excited. But you might find it considerably more interesting if you're someone with a deeper appreciation of Greek or "world" music. And, hey, every new fan of Joe helps to build his legacy as one of the greats! But if I had to choose, I'd just as soon put another of Joe's discs on the turntable for a spin.

Rating: 💿 Rare Spin

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Holidays (2016)

Good or bad, regardless of the outcome, this is a horror anthology after my own heart - like something pilfered from my metaphorical sketchpad of ideas - with each segment themed around a different holiday. Anthologies are fun; the themes give each segment a creative anchor to dance around; and together they form a set! It's too bad, then, that this anthology is so reminiscent of The ABCs of Death, with more often than not meaningless sequences with inconclusive endings that do not shy away from gore and nudity (although just as likely designed to repulse as titillate).

Valentine's Day starts off with some locker room bullying à la Carrie, the target being a high school girl with a crush on her swim coach, who is in need of a heart transplant (I think you can see where this is going). In St. Patrick's Day, a creepy grade school girl lays down some voodoo on her teacher, leading to the line, "have you ever seen the Hollywood movie Rosemary's Baby? If you replace 'baby' with a reptile...", emphasizing that these segments are not meant to be taken seriously. One of the better segments, Easter is pure nightmare fuel on steroids, featuring the most terrifying depiction of the Easter Bunny I've seen yet, and aptly demonstrating the symbolic clusterfuck that is a holiday sewed together from both its pagan (chicks and bunnies!) and Christian (a man rising from the dead!) roots.

Mother's Day centers on a woman with a condition the extreme opposite of sterility, who manages to get pregnant without fail, even while on birth control and when her partner wears three condoms. Desperate and having exhausted all conventional avenues of treatment, she heads out into the desert to play the totem in a fertility ritual that may or may not be Satanic (as the abrupt and unsatisfying ending fails to clarify). On the other hand, Father's Day is another one of the better segments (notwithstanding its obtuse ending), constructing an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of Silent Hill, when a woman receives a tape from her absentee daddy, sending her on an emotional scavenger hunt.

One couldn't be faulted for expecting more from the Halloween segment, especially considering that it was written and directed by Kevin Smith (who, at least, demonstrated a surprisingly good grasp of horror in Red State). It plays up the sexualization aspect of the holiday (and not much else), with a story about a trio of cam whores exacting brutal and humiliating revenge against their deadbeat asshole of a pimp. But all it does is make me wonder, when will the day come when people start writing stories about what a fair trade porn industry should look like, instead of fueling moral conservatives' nightmares (and feminists' wet dream revenge fantasies) of dehumanizing abuse and degradation?

Seth Green stars in the Christmas segment (what, no Thanksgiving?), which shows the horrors of allowing commercialism to trump the spirit of good will, via a VR headset that taps in to the viewer's imagination. "Ain't the holidays hell?" But Black Mirror this is not. Finally, we come to New Year's, in which two lonely singles meet for an awkward first (and last) date, with a surprising twist proving that you can never predict who you're going to meet on a dating website. Having come to the end, I can't say I would give this anthology my glowing recommendation, although it was at least as worthy a potential endeavor as the ABCs of Death was. (But we all know how that turned out). If you could watch the segments individually, though, I'd say give Easter and Father's Day a try.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Live From The Royal Albert Hall (2009)

1-1. Django
1-2. The Ballad Of John Henry
1-3. So, It's Like That
1-4. Last Kiss
1-5. So Many Roads
1-6. Stop!
1-7. Further On Up The Road
1-8. Woke Up Dreaming
1-9. High Water Everywhere
1-10. Sloe Gin
1-11. Lonesome Road Blues
2-1. Happier Times
2-2. Your Funeral My Trial
2-3. Blues Deluxe
2-4. Story Of A Quarryman
2-5. The Great Flood
2-6. Just Got Paid
2-7. Mountain Time
2-8. Asking Around For You

The theme of this era of Joe's career is making it as an established artist, and this concert is the crystallization of that concept - Joe's first performance at the esteemed Royal Albert Hall in London, proof positive that he had very well and truly "made it". I would actually recommend you get the DVD over the CD, because this is a concert that's more fun to watch than listen to, because the DVD really hammers home the personal significance of this show for Joe, and the road he's taken to get there. And though it may have been, as Joe says, the "greatest night of [his] life" (up to that point), I have to be completely brutal here, because sonically, it's not his best live album.

And I hate to say anything bad about a Joe Bonamassa concert (much less one as monumental as this), because he's a remarkably consistent musician, and even on his "off" days, he still delivers an incredible show, and is heads and shoulders above his competition. And I'm sure this would have been a phenomenal show to have attended (and the DVD gives you a better feel for that), but when you have many different concert recordings to choose from (including another one at the Royal Albert Hall during the fantastic Tour de Force), the merely good inevitably gets passed over for the great. That's just how it goes.

From the very first time I listened to this show, I felt that Joe seemed uncharacteristically nervous, and that it affected his playing. Now, this is completely understandable - being such a landmark show, and having the pressure of performing a song with a lifelong idol and one of his biggest inspirations. But it's like he's trying too hard to put on a good show, when most of his shows seem effortlessly flawless. A lot of the songs sound loose and untamed (but with less of a wild ferocity than an aimless wandering), he pushes his vocals a little harder than they really need to go, and some of the older songs (particularly from the power trio days) suffer from overinstrumentation.

To start with, Eric Clapton's guest spot on Further On Up The Road is a bit anticlimactic. I hate to say that, because I'm sure it meant the world to Joe, but I've always had the opinion that Eric Clapton is a little bit overrated as a guitarist, given how massively influential he was. And in the category of special guests, Paul Jones shows up to play harmonica on Your Funeral My Trial. A lot of the songs heard on Live From Nowhere In Particular are repeated here, and don't necessarily sound any better than they did before. The acoustic powerhouse Woke Up Dreaming has notably been extended a couple more minutes, with an interesting new opening section. And it's great to hear a live version of Blues Deluxe, but though the guitar part sounds fantastic, the rest of the song drowns in the brass and piano accompaniment.

The highlights of this concert, musically speaking, would have to be the new songs from The Ballad of John Henry, heard for the first time live. Among those is, of course, the title track, which is exciting to hear, but it will take some time yet for it to grow into an epic rivaling Joe's other showstoppers such as Mountain Time and Just Got Paid (here pushed back to the end of the concert), and the encore, Asking Around For You, which - itself at ten minutes - is beginning to grow a little unwieldy. The rest constitute the best tracks from the album, including Stop!, Last Kiss, Lonesome Road Blues, Happier Times, and The Great Flood, although many of these are worth waiting for their Tour de Force versions. I know it probably doesn't sound like it from my review, but this is by no means a bad album. (And I still recommend the DVD). It's just that there are better ones out there, and I don't listen to this one as frequently.

Rating: 💿💿 Occasional Spin

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Colonia (2015)

Colonia (a.k.a. The Colony) starts out like a Chilean The Dreamers - starring the ever-effervescent Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl as globetrotting political activists and young lovers named Lena and, er, Daniel - complete with a rock and roll soundtrack (making excellent use of both Janis Joplin and Santana). But when things turn bad, and the local fascists start clamping down on revolutionaries, the movie veers into Midnight Express territory, based (in this case) on the true story of Colonia Dignidad. Lena joins an ultra-conservative religious cult which harbors facilities for the torture of political criminals in the hopes of rescuing Daniel. But once you go in, it's not easy to get out. Michael Nyqvist creates a chilling portrayal of the cultleader Paul Schäfer (not to be confused with the bandleader of the CBS orchestra), a spiritual guru intoxicated by his own ego, poignantly demonstrating the irony of a "holy man" who is nevertheless a textbook demonstration of cruelty and corruption. (Begging the question - at least in my mind - of how long we have to continue pointing out the ties between misogyny and despotism before people begin to realize that fighting and shaming our basic sexual natures (but especially that of women) is not the path to divinity). Anyway, it's a tense and suspenseful movie; I recommend it - and not just because it stars Emma Watson, either. ;-p

Friday, October 28, 2016

Honeymoon (2014)

It's crazy how movies can sneak up on you sometimes. And once again, I'm baffled by how disparate people's opinions can be, that I can watch a movie that I think is great, only to hear people complain about how awful it is, when the movie I thought was dreadful has viewers lining up to sing its praises. Sadly, it's almost predictable. I made up a shortlist for this October of lesser known horror movies that have received some accolades. As expected, they've been hit or miss; so you never know going in what you're going to get. The description for this movie sounded like a typical slasher setup - young couple's weekend in the woods turns into a nightmare. So I was pleasantly surprised when after the first night there was something considerably more otherworldly than a masked killer stalking the woods - something that looked suspiciously like a UFO searchlight. But, to its credit, this movie doesn't develop like a stereotypical alien abduction flick either. It's a creepy slow burner, that builds to a majorly anxiety-inducing crescendo. And for a movie that's focused almost exclusively on two characters, the production scored a couple of good actors with very natural chemistry together. They make for a very cute newlywed couple on their honeymoon, at least until things start to get weird. And the way that the one character begins to transform - little things that are off here and there that make you feel like something's wrong - is majorly unsettling. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Angel Heart (1987)

Now this is an old-fashioned horror movie. It starts with an intriguing premise - a 1950s era private investigator (Mickey Rourke) hired by a thinly-disguised avatar of the devil (Robert De Niro in a creepy portrayal, if somewhat more by-the-numbers compared to Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate) to track down a crooner who sold his soul for success, and then wound up a vegetable following his service in the war, precluding the devil from collecting on his contract. But what really sells the film is the atmosphere it exudes, right from the steaming New York City alleyways in the opening shot, to the voodoo-laced streets of New Orleans where the detective eventually ends up. Kudos also to this movie for not holding back, and crossing a particular line few ever dare to cross (even in horror movies that are supposed to be "messed up"). But as with most mysteries, the less I say about the plot, the better. "How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise?" Suffice to say that it's an excellent movie worth taking a couple hours out of your schedule sometime to sit down and watch.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - The Ballad of John Henry (2009)

1. The Ballad of John Henry
2. Stop!
3. Last Kiss
4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
5. Story of a Quarryman
6. Lonesome Road Blues
7. Happier Times
8. Feelin' Good
9. Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter
10. The Great Flood
11. From The Valley
12. As The Crow Flies

Whether or not you call it his best (there is a lot more greatness to come!), I feel like this is the quintessential Joe Bonamassa album. Upon reflection, John Henry is a perfect choice to symbolize what Joe stands for. A true American legend, John Henry was the steel-driving man who raced a steam-powered engine, and won. And though the effort conquered him, in The Ballad of John Henry, Joe Bonamassa sings, "bring me the hammer that killed John Henry, 'cause it won't kill me." What a show of bravado and confidence! And yet, coming from Joe - the hardest working musician alive - it sounds completely genuine. It's the reason why I count Joe Bonamassa not just an amazing artist whose music I enjoy listening to, but a genuine role model that I look up to in my life - someone with a dream, guided by a true passion for what he does, who just keeps on chugging along like a railroad train no matter what obstacles lie in his path. In my case, it may be a bit of wishful thinking, but we all need something to live up to, to drive us forward.

The Ballad of John Henry is a mature album. I said that Joe's music started sounding "modern" as far back as Had To Cry Today, but this is Joe as a professional musician, and not just a guitar wunderkind (as if that wasn't enough!). And if Joe demonstrated newfound control over his raw, unbridled talent on You & Me, on this album he displays a remarkable level of command - not just as a guitarist and singer, but as a songwriter, too, as a full half of the tracklist consists of Bonamassa originals (not including his contribution to adapting the title track from a blues ballad by Mississippi John Hurt). The music here is polished, with less reliance on clichés, and songs that aren't so easy to categorize into preconceived roles (such as "the slow blues", or "the pretty ballad"). Apart from the title track, there are less peaks (songs that immediately jump out at you), but the background quality of the album as a whole is higher than ever before.

Take The Great Flood, for example. This is a song I didn't even really notice until I was blindsided by the live version from Joe's Tour de Force. Now it's one of my favorites. It's unassuming, but it constructs a very melancholy atmosphere, before laying out a subdued (albeit less so on the live version) yet very soulful guitar solo, accompanied by a distant, wailing saxophone. It doesn't reach out and say "look at me!"; it's the man in the corner nursing a bottle whom you'd just as soon overlook, but given a chance, would regale you with incredible stories of woe from his life. And then there's Happier Times, which sounds like it would be more upbeat than it actually is, until you realize that it's not called "Happy Times". A couple albums ago, Joe was boasting that he'd go down any road there is, but now he's singing like a man who's already been around the block a few times, and has seen some things. But don't despair, for in the very next song, Joe sings about how he's Feelin' Good. And why not? He's managed to carve out success for himself with his own bare hands.

We've already been introduced to the recurring railroad theme in a lot of Joe's songs, but this album takes a detour from the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, and the electric blues clubs up north in Chicago, to head out west, molding those influences with a reverence for the American frontier (which we'll hear more of on Dust Bowl). To wit, Jockey Full of Bourbon (a truly inspired Tom Waits cover) sounds like something straight out of a wild west saloon (if, you know, they had electric guitars back then). On that note, and perhaps inspired by the success of Sloe Gin, there are some less obvious choices for covers on this album, such as Ike & Tina Turner's humorously titled Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter. For better and worse, Joe has evolved beyond the stage where his albums are defined by big name classic rock covers. (And though I've always enjoyed those covers, I love the new direction he's gone in - and it's better for his career and reputation in the long run).

The Sam Brown cover Stop! is an infectious hit (I tell you, Joe is introducing me to some eclectic music), and the Bonamassa original Last Kiss is another one that tends to stick in you ear ("tell me how long supposed to keep a good man down, 'fore he packs his suitcase and gets the hell out of town?"). Story of a Quarryman rocks pretty hard, with a nice, chunky riff, while Lonesome Road Blues is the best rock filler track Joe's recorded yet - but hold out for live versions if you want to hear some even more frenetic solos. The album finishes with a sparse and airy gospel-flavored acoustic instrumental titled From The Valley, which sounds very much like something from Michael Bloomfield's collaboration with Woody Harris, followed by an electric cover of Tony Joe White's As The Crow Flies (which I remember hearing on Rory Gallagher's Irish Tour album from 1974). It's a mature album from a mature artist, and a great record to spin. What's next for Joe? Headlining one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world (a far cry from "nowhere in particular"!), and inviting one of his lifelong idols up onto the stage to play with him!

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin