Monday, July 11, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force (Abridged)

Since the cat is now out of the bag with respect to my ongoing chronicle of Joe Bonamassa's greatest hits, I figured it'd be a good idea to document my compilation of live tracks from Joe's phenomenal Tour de Force, which I put together a couple of years ago when those live albums/DVDs came out. As a bit of a preface, Joe's always been a hardy touring musician, but lately, with encouragement from record producer and creative collaborator Kevin "Caveman" Shirley (who has worked on records since the '90s by such high-profile bands as Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Journey, and more, and was also Silvertide's producer), he's done some spectacular themed live concerts.

As an example, there's one scheduled for this very month, in which Joe plans to honor three of the seminal legends of the British Blues explosion - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. (I'm looking forward to that CD/DVD)! I actually have yet another disc of greatest hits planned to honor Joe's Muddy Wolf (= Muddy Waters + Howlin' Wolf) and 3 Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie) tributes (I'm going to call it "Legends of the Blues"), but the one thing currently holding that up is that the 3 Kings concert has yet to be released due to (I hear) a petty complaint from Freddie King's estate (here's to hoping they get that settled, one way or another).

For the Tour de Force, Joe was tasked with performing on four separate nights at four separate classic venues in London, with four separate bands and four separate setlists. (Realistically, there was a little bit of overlap in bands and setlists, especially on the last two nights, but that was inevitable). On the first night, Joe dived back into his early years with a power trio approach at The Borderline club, which was a small affair. Then he put together a horn section for a blues-themed night at the larger Shepherd's Bush Empire. On the third night, he did a straight-up rock show at the legendary Hammersmith Apollo. And on the final night, Joe made his triumphant return to the Royal Albert Hall, with a half acoustic, half electric set.

It should go without saying that I was extremely excited when I heard about this special tour event in 2013. I waited with bated breath for the eventual release of the DVD (because as exciting as that would be, I'm not in any position to spend thousands of dollars to fly across the Atlantic for a concert). The concept of the tour was thrilling enough, but let me tell you, Joe was on fire all four nights. I easily rate it one of the live highlights of his career. I have no doubt that he was nervous, but with his talent, and the consummate professional that he is, he used that to his advantage and poured all of his energy into the music.

I couldn't even wait for the later CD release - I confess that I ripped the audio from the DVDs and started putting together a "best of" abridged version of the tour right away, which I only finalized when the CD came out and I was able to get my hands on the official audio. Each of the four concerts was a two-disc affair, so we're talking about distilling eight discs of high quality material. Needless to say, I ended up with not one but two discs of music. I call them the 'A' and 'B' sets, because each one could potentially stand alone (they both contain songs from all four nights), but I put the best songs on the first disc, and the only slightly less best songs on the second. Here's what I picked:

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force (Abridged)

'A' Set

1. Blues Deluxe               {8:38} [Borderline]
2. Pain And Sorrow            {7:54} [Borderline]
3. Midnight Blues             {8:38} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
4. Chains & Things            {7:36} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
5. The Great Flood           {10:17} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
6. Tea For One                {9:43} [Hammersmith Apollo]
7. Sloe Gin                   {8:59} [Hammersmith Apollo]
8. The Ballad of John Henry  {13:13} [Royal Albert Hall]
                      Total: {74:58}

'B' Set

1. The River                  {6:57} [Borderline]
2. Happier Times              {7:53} [Borderline]
3. So Many Roads              {6:25} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
4. Slow Train                 {6:45} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
5. Dust Bowl                  {7:12} [Royal Albert Hall]
6. Dislocated Boy             {9:52} [Hammersmith Apollo]
7. Lonesome Road Blues        {4:57} [Hammersmith Apollo]
8. Just Got Paid             {12:25} [Hammersmith Apollo]
9. Django/Mountain Time      {11:44} [Royal Albert Hall]
                      Total: {74:10}

For those of you keeping track at home, here's a reminder of what each of the four nights were:

1st Night: Borderline = Power Trio
2nd Night: Shepherd's Bush Empire = Blues
3rd Night: Hammersmith Apollo = Rock
4th Night: Royal Albert Hall = Acoustic/Electric


Conceptually, I think that the most interesting of these four concerts was the first - the Borderline gig - only because it was the most of a stretch for Joe. Blues, Rock, Acoustic/Electric - these are not only perennial elements of his live show (less so the acoustic, but that's certainly been a thing lately), but represent the kind of shows he's been doing of late. To see him turn back the clock about ten years, and return to the mindspace and musicspace he was in when he was just getting started as a solo artist - the point in his career that turned many of us, myself included, into Bonamassa fans (it was the A New Day Yesterday Live album that accompanied his first studio album - and particularly the title track from it - that turned me into a fan when I first heard it circa 2004 or thereabouts) - was fascinating.

And, true to form, the emphasis in a lot of these songs - performed in a power trio format - is guitar virtuosity. Not so much on the songcrafting, but just busting out stupid ridiculous extended guitar solos à la Cream. No track represents this better than Joe's cover of the Rod Stewart-penned, Jeff Beck-recorded Blues Deluxe. This is one of his best recordings of this song ever. Along with it, I put the slow burning Pain And Sorrow on the 'A' set as well, as it is one of my favorite deep cuts from Joe's early days (a shining beacon hailing from what most would consider his worst album, the sophomore record So It's Like That, recorded during the ill-advised period before he completely rejected the notion that a successful musician is defined by his commercial radio hits).

On the 'B' set, I chose The River, which is a bluesy, slide guitar song with a nice build to it that I've liked ever since seeing Joe perform it on the forgotten Live at Rockpalast concert DVD (advertising for which I don't doubt has been intentionally suppressed due to the venue's habit - as reflected in the way the show is filmed - of putting half-dressed girls on stage to dance while the band plays (not that there's anything wrong with that :p)). Along with it is actually a song from one of Joe's middle period albums (The Ballad of John Henry) - titled Happier Times - which is a bit of a sleeper hit that I never really latched onto until I heard him perform it here at these shows.

Musically, I think I was most looking forward to seeing the Shepherd's Bush Empire gig, just because I'm a huge fan of the blues. And, while I don't generally share Joe's opinion that a good blues band needs a horn section, I'd say their inclusion in this case was tasteful and not overwhelming. The two songs that made it onto my 'B' set are predictable, but excellent demonstrations of Joe's blues rock approach. The first one, So Many Roads, is an earlier cover of a track that was recorded in the '60s by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, featuring one of my personal favorites, Peter Green, on guitar. The second one is Joe's Slow Train, from his Dust Bowl period, which is a powerhouse rocker that features a very convincing musical emulation of a train starting up. I saw him perform this one live in concert one of the several times I've caught Joe Bonamassa on tour.

The 'A' set features a few even more exciting tracks from this show. First is a cover of (sadly, the now late) Gary Moore (who inherited Peter Green's guitar)'s Midnight Blues. While most people probably remember Gary Moore for his flashy ballad Still Got The Blues (and in this case, with good reason), Midnight Blues is a great, minor key song that perfectly encapsulates the theme of Joe's blues night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Following that on the 'A' set is a cover of Chains & Things, one of the most scorching guitar tracks in B.B. King's recorded legacy, and one of those rare cases of finding out a musician you like is covering one of your favorite less popular songs by another artist.

My final pick from this show is another of Joe's mid-period songs, The Great Flood, and another one (like Happier Times) that I didn't latch onto until I heard this concert. But it is now one of my favorite songs that the man performs (although there are a lot of those). I remember watching Joe perform it on the DVD, and wondering what song this was, because it's not one of the ones you immediately recognize when you first listen to it on the album (such as, for example, the title track from the same album, The Ballad of John Henry), and it doesn't have a catchy chorus or anything. But it's very slow, and melancholic, and lures you in to a false sense of security, until, towards the end, it unexpectedly erupts into a searing guitar solo. Rarely have I experienced a better musical rendition of depression followed by anguish, and watching it the first time actually caused my eyes to well up with tears (and I love it when music can touch me like that).

I'll give it to you straight, the last two nights of the Tour de Force aren't all that different, aside from the extended acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall. But while a couple of acoustic tracks made it onto an early version of this compilation, I ultimately decided that they just aren't interesting enough, to me personally, to take space away from the electric tracks. But if the last two nights are similar, that doesn't mean they aren't spectacular. This is where the mainstays and concert centerpieces come to roost, and the best opportunity on this particular compilation to represent some of Joe's then-newer songs in the live format. To that end, the 'B' set's got Dust Bowl and Dislocated Boy. The former features an impassioned lead with some liquid guitar licks, and the latter, hailing from Joe's Driving Towards the Daylight album, features a maverick keyboard solo by Arlan Schierbaum (if you watch the DVD, you'll note that he stands up on his keyboard while playing during this solo)!

On the 'A' set I threw in a live version of Joe's cover of the Led Zeppelin track Tea For One, featuring Doug Henthorn on guest lead vocals. Joe is an incredible talent of a blues rock guitarist, and he's built a reputation on recording incredible covers of British blues songs, but Led Zeppelin is still rock royalty, and one dares not tread lightly on their legacy, if one expects to be well-respected on one's own merits. Hearing that Joe was going to cover a classic Led Zeppelin track alone is enough to get fans excited, but the somewhat underappreciated Tea For One - a mournful, slow blues - was an inspired choice, and Joe did an amazing job doing justice to the song, effectively conjuring the feel of the original. Even more incredible is the fact that he was able to perform it live in concert, as he did during the Tour de Force at the Hammersmith Apollo.

The other track from the Hammersmith Apollo that I put on the 'A' set was Joe's signature number, a cover that brought new life to a song first recorded by actor/entertainer Tim Curry - Sloe Gin. This song is, in essence, Joe's Stairway To Heaven (as clichéd or pretentious as it may be to say that), and is not only a concert staple, but always a highlight of Joe's live show. On the 'B' set, I ended up throwing in Lonesome Road Blues because, even though it seems like a "filler" song thrown in between greater spectacles, the energy and audacity with which Joe attacks the song is so palpable, and it's a perfect demonstration of the mindset Joe must have been in, completely daunted by the work flow propped up on his shoulders, but tearing through it with no less gusto, like a hungry wolverine.

Finally, closing out each disc, we come to the epic centerpiece songs - the ones that feature extended jams, and regularly exceed ten minutes in length from start to finish. I had to shuffle them about a little bit, due to time constraints, so that at least one of the two that turns up on the 'B' set is good enough to be on the 'A' set. On the other hand, the two that ended up on the 'B' set are also represented on one of my other Joe Bonamassa greatest hits compilations (from a different live album), so if anything, the one that made it onto the 'A' set is probably the most "essential" inclusion of the three. That one is Joe's The Ballad of John Henry, which, if Sloe Gin is Joe's Stairway to Heaven, this would be his Dazed and Confused.

But, speaking of which, one of the two that ended up on the 'B' set is Joe's cover of ZZ Top's Just Got Paid, which features an extended instrumental section in which Joe has taken it upon himself to resurrect the guitar solo from the actual song Dazed and Confused! (I hope this isn't too confusing). Suffice to say, it's awesome. This version comes from the Hammersmith Apollo, whereas the other two songs I've been talking about in these two paragraphs both come from the final night at the Royal Albert Hall. The last song I have yet to name, and the last song on the 'B' set, is the medley of Django/Mountain Time, the latter part of which is a pretty song that's long been one of Joe's concert highlights, that builds up to a crescendo, and is a nice way to end the compilation.

Altogether, this is two discs (or if you're really pressed for time, you could squeeze it down to just the first one - although I wouldn't recommend it) of incredible music, and some of Joe's best live performances ever recorded. To date, that is - as he is ever producing more material, in the studio and on the stage, and at an almost inhuman pace. But what may come in the future, no matter how good it might be, won't change the quality of what we've got right here, collected for posterity (and a damn good, rocking time)!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Black Country Compilation

For context, read the preface here.

It's a testament to how good this band is that I had a really hard time picking and choosing the best tracks to put on this compilation. Throughout their entire discography - which only spans three studio albums and one incredible live album - there are really very few tracks that feel like filler. The band is consistently firing on all cylinders. It would be extremely pretentious of me to compare this band to Led Zeppelin, but...well, I'll just leave that right there. -_^

Lol, anyway... Joe Bonamassa is on fire in this band, with myriad scorching guitar tracks. (Although, ironically - barring one or two exceptions - I tend to prefer him as lead guitarist to singer/songwriter - that's what his solo career is for!). Glenn Hughes is just an incredible rock singer (slash bassist), and he really brings it to every single track. Jason Bonham lays down a solid rhythm on the drums, with plenty of flair sprinkled over top - he's his father's son, there's no doubt of that. And while the keyboards are tastefully restrained throughout most of this music (too much keyboard can easily water down the sound of a hard rocking band - although considering Glenn Hughes' tenure in Deep Purple, one of the best and hardest rocking bands that featured a virtuoso keyboard player, I'm sure they knew what they were doing), Derek Sherinian adds a welcome rhythmic accompaniment to the rest of the music, and even takes a rare moment to shine here and there. Altogether, these four incredible musicians had a fantastic musical chemistry, and even though the band didn't stick around for long (albeit longer than some bands do - I'm looking at you, Silvertide), they left a fantastic recorded legacy.

Case in point - the trouble I had picking out songs for this compilation. Frequently - and to my surprise - I found myself ousting tracks that I would have thought were shoe-ins, because they feature some of the catchiest choruses (e.g., One Last Soul, Medusa, Man In The Middle, Smokestack Woman, I Can See Your Spirit, Cry Freedom, and the list just goes on). On another person's compilation - or perhaps even an official "greatest hits" package - these tracks might certainly have made the cut. But I opted less for the catchy radio hits, and more for the sort of hard-lined tracks that I feel represent the band at their absolute finest. But if there's a lesson to be learned, it's that this band brought their A game to every single track.

Oh, the incredible guitar solos I had to cut out (I'm looking at you, Common Man)! If you're so inclined, I would absolutely recommend you just go out and buy the band's entire discography - you won't regret it. I want to say that the first album is their strongest, but that might just be because it was my introduction to the band - it made the biggest impression on me, and is probably the one I've listened to the most times. But their second studio album is also fantastic, with a lot more great songs. Their last studio album is slightly less memorable, but it still features some fantastic music. And if you like live albums, you will not be disappointed by this band's. Like all of the best hard rocking bands, these guys were at their finest in a live setting. On the DVD, you can even watch them perform many of their greatest songs, some with extended jams. Don't miss their rendition of The Ballad of John Henry from Joe's solo career (a great choice for this band), and also their rollicking encore of Deep Purple's Burn.

Black Country Compilation (all songs by Black Country Communion)

 1. Black Country             3:15 {1}
 2. The Great Divide          4:45 {1}
 3. Beggarman                 4:51 {1}
 4. Save Me                   7:42 {2}
 5. Little Secret             6:59 {2}
 6. Cold                      6:55 {2}
 7. Midnight Sun              5:17 {3}
 8. The Circle                7:01 {3}
 9. Song of Yesterday (Live)  9:11 {Live}
10. Sista Jane (Live)         7:44 {Live}
11. Too Late For The Sun     11:21 {1}
                (Total Time) 75:01


The first three tracks hail from Black Country Communion's self-titled debut album, released in 2010. I had the most trouble culling tracks from this album (as you'll see, I managed to sneak in a few more later). These three are probably the tip top. The first one, Black Country, opens the album, and is the perfect introduction and mission statement for the band (which was originally just going to be called Black Country, until there was a conflict with another band of that name). "I am a messenger; this is my prophecy: I'm going back - to the black country." The Great Divide is one of their best straight-up hard-rocking tracks. And Beggarman is a fun, catchy song with an incendiary guitar part. You have to love the way it opens with Joe just fooling around on guitar in the studio, and going right into the song. They did a good job duplicating this effect in concert, but it's impossible to copy the serendipity of the original.

The next three tracks hail from BCC's second album, simply titled 2, which was released in the following year. It was a little bit easier to pick out the standout tracks on this album, but that's not to say that the ones that didn't make the cut aren't really good. The ones that did are a little bit slower (but not necessarily any softer) and a little bit longer than the ones we heard from the first album. The lyrical material is also a little bit heavier. Save Me conjures an image of a man on a ledge, just crying out for a reason not to leap. And Cold, as Glenn does a good job of explaining on the live album, is a song about the friends we've lost, that we never had a chance to say goodbye to. I like the way it depicts the profound incredulity of being faced with the stark reality of death. "The sky is falling, now that you're growing old. And I feel I'm dying - how can you be so cold?" The song that's sandwiched between them, Little Secret, is one of Joe's best and bluesiest performances with the band.

We skip over the live album for the moment (with good reason, as you'll see), and jump ahead to BCC's third and final studio album, Afterglow - both of these were released in 2012. While this album isn't as strong as the previous two, it's still a solid album from start to finish, and it was the hardest one for me to pick out the standout tracks. The Circle was the only easy choice. "I'm in the middle of a dream - I just don't know what it means. I am at war with my fear, and I'm lost in the circle again." I wavered between Common Man and Midnight Sun, but while Common Man has an incredible ending guitar solo, I like Midnight Sun as a song overall a little bit better. Plus, it's still got some great guitar parts, and it's also a really great opportunity for Derek Sherinian to show off his keyboards.

The next two tracks come from the live album, Live Over Europe. It's a double album, with a lot of great material, so I really went ascetic on this one. I wanted to limit myself to tracks that could be considered both some of the highlights of the live show, and also songs that benefited from the live atmosphere, and are an improvement over their studio counterparts. In a lot of cases, I preferred the purity of the studio versions. That having been said, the live versions of Save Me and Cold are both fantastic, and I could easily have switched them out for their studio versions here. The ones I picked, however - Song of Yesterday, and Sista Jane - fulfill both of my conditions. Plus, they gave me an excuse to fit a couple more songs from the first album on this compilation.

But don't complain - both songs absolutely deserve to be on this disc - and their live versions are incredible. And they serve still yet another purpose, too - by bringing us back into the mindset of the first album, they pave the way for the closing track, Too Late For The Sun. Along with Little Secret, this is one of the tracks I discovered in creating this compilation that I hadn't realized were so good previously. This is a long, jamming track - when the last verse gives way to the instrumental outro, the song isn't even halfway over yet! - and my favorite choice to close the disc. You might note that this compilation both starts and ends with the opening and closing tracks of the band's first album, but again, that just goes to show. Still, don't let that be an excuse to ignore the rest of this band's output. (I'm sure no two BCC fans would agree on which songs belong on this compilation!).

Black Country Compilation (Preface)

So, I was starting to think about my fourth disc's worth of greatest hits that I've been compiling over the last ten years or so, as I chronicle the continuing musical career of Joe Bonamassa - who, through time and longevity, has proven to be my all-time favorite musical act, rivaling even the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Actually, if you want to put it consecutively, while Pink Floyd was my favorite band and characteristic of my high school years, and Led Zeppelin was my favorite band and characteristic of my college years, you could say that Joe Bonamassa is my favorite musical artist and characteristic of my post-college, adult years.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was starting to think about my fourth disc's worth of Joe Bonamassa's greatest hits, and getting it into my head that I could someday do what my compadre Tenzin Swift has begun doing to honor one of his favorite musical artists - and another artist with a long and lucrative career - Neil Young, by compiling the artist's 100 greatest songs. (I have no doubt at all in my mind that even before the end of Joe Bonamassa's career, I will be able to put together 100 songs worthy of a greatest hits mega-compilation, and that's even if he's less prolific from here on out than he's been so far - I'm already at least halfway there and he's only been putting out music for about 15 years so far).

Ahem. So I was thinking about my fourth greatest hits compilation (not including two discs' worth of top quality live material from the Tour de Force), and it hit me that I could do a whole disc just from Joe Bonamassa's tenure in the supergroup Black Country Communion. You could probably do a whole other disc on Joe's collaborations with various artists - call it Joe Bonamassa & Friends - including Beth Hart and Rock Candy Funk Party, but frankly, I just don't find myself as inspired by those projects because they veer a little too far from what I like about Joe's music, which is the blues and the rock. I think it's fantastic that he has these projects for people who maybe have more eclectic tastes, or who are into other genres like funk and soul, and it definitely demonstrates his undeniable virtuosity.

But out of all his side projects, Black Country Communion is by far my favorite, because it's a good old-fashioned hard rock supergroup. And while compiling greatest hits for Joe's solo career is a messy endeavor, given that he's continuously and consistently putting out new material every year (I'm a huge Bonamassa fan, and I go out and buy his albums religiously, and even I have trouble sometimes keeping track of everything he's doing, and everything he's putting out); plus, there's the fact that there are not usually clear dividers between where one compilation should end and the next should begin. Eras and stuff like that become evident only in hindsight, and just not enough time has passed to determine that. I mean, you can't even separate it into decades because it's only been one and a half so far!

I was even toying with the idea of doing one disc of acoustic material (Joe Bonamassa Unplugged), culled from various albums and live shows (not just the Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House concert he put out), but my motivation wavered when I realized that while there are some great acoustic tracks, I just don't know that I like acoustic music enough to make a whole disc out of it. But I might change my mind in a decade or two.

Getting back to the topic at hand (I had no idea I'd end up going on this many tangents, but I guess it makes sense - this stuff has been brewing in my head for years, and this is the first time I've put it down on paper - er, typed it on a screen?). Barring a future reunion album/tour (let's all keep our fingers crossed!), for better or worse, Black Country Communion has come and gone. They put out three strong studio albums, and one fantastic live album, which means there's a finite amount of material for me to work through in order to pick out one disc's worth of the best (five discs - the live album is a double album - down to one is a pretty strong distillation). So I spent the last month or so totally binging on Black Country Communion (it was awesome - what a great band), and I think I've finally decided on a tracklist. It wasn't easy, but I'm pretty satisfied with the results.

See the list and my comments here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 4

I wrote notes down after each episode this season to make my work flow a little easier for this review. So much happens over the course of a season that by the time you get to the end, your comments about the stuff at the beginning start to become irrelevant. But by the end of the season, I kept coming out of each episode just speechless, without words to describe what I was seeing (at least not right away, before I had a chance to take some time and process the events). But let's just go through this episode by episode, and I'll copy down my notes, and add some thoughts as necessary.

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the fourth season of Breaking Bad.

S4:E1 "Box Cutter"

Let me just start with this: I can't believe Jesse actually did it. I mean, I believe it - this is Breaking Bad, after all. But, damn. The theme of this season is definitely "speechless".

It was fascinating to see behind the scenes some of the earlier interactions between Gale and Gus, explaining why Gus was so insistent on working with Walt, after he'd obviously kept fumbling about with his early dealings with Gus. On the other hand, it reveals that Gus was never interested in doing fair business with Walt - he only intended to keep him around long enough for Gale to learn a few things and perfect his own cooking game. Gus is a character I wanted to like - he's professional, calm under pressure (notwithstanding the incident with the box cutter - although even that was a calculated move, as it turns out). After dealing with Tuco, who was always on the verge of losing it and going postal, Gus seemed like a guy Walt could trust. But now it's back to dealing with your enemies, always having to watch your back. I thought Walt was just being paranoid last season when he kept hinting that Gus wanted to kill him. But I guess he was right all along. (Walt's a lot of things, but "sucker" isn't one of them).

Gotta say (I'm trying to replace a lot of the swears I have in my notes - but that goes to show how affecting this series is), that scene in the lab was intense. I didn't even realize it until the end, but Gus didn't say a single thing through it all, until the very end. Yet he made quite an impression. I was sure he was going to kill Jesse to retaliate (because he can't very well kill Walt), but I guess that goes to show that Walt really does have the collateral in this exchange. It's clear from later episodes that Gus was tying up loose ends with this act, but I wouldn't be surprised if part of it was also him letting out some frustration over Gale's fate, as well as instilling some healthy fear in Jesse and Walt (it worked!). It's episodes like these that make me realize that this show is as much a horror as anything else. It really shows the dark underbelly of humanity sometimes.

S4:E2 "Thirty-Eight Snub"

I worry about Jesse. The thing he did for the girl he met in rehab, who had the kid that was killed by the drug dealers - that was nice. Really hammers home the fact that he's a "good" person, in spite of the way his life has gone. I'm starting to wonder what's going to happen to him at the end of all of this. I fully anticipate Walt not surviving the series, seeing as the initial premise started out with him having terminal cancer and all. But I'd like to believe that there's some kind of happy ending for Jesse, in spite of how deeply Walt is dragging him into the abyss. Like witness protection or something. It's frustrating that he's squandering his potential for goodness on a life of drug production, dealing, and consumption. I mean, he's responsible for a lot of those choices, I guess, and that should factor in to whatever fate he deserves, but... I just wonder where he'll be after the dust settles, if he's even still around at all.

S4:E3 "Open House"

I feel like there's a lot of tension building up. Sooner or later, it's going to blow - and I'm sure it'll be exciting.

The whole "Jesse takes drugs to deal with stress" thing is a lot like last season (two seasons ago?) when his friend was killed dealing (I guess it's a pattern for him), but I didn't really sympathize with Jesse then. But I do now. After Gale...

Really glad to see Hank back on the case!

At the beginning of this episode, I was kinda perturbed that Skyler was getting all up in Walt's business, stressing the cockamamie car wash plan. Like, bringing her in to all of this is dangerous - what if she's a weak link, and somehow blows Walt's cover? But then, by the end of the episode, she almost seems paranoid in terms of constructing a consistent story, even accusing Walt of being too lax (buying an expensive bottle of champagne after Skyler manages to buy the car wash), and I'm thinking, what if she's right? All that effort she's putting in to this, she might just be an asset after all.

S4:E4 "Bullet Points"

A couple things I liked about this episode (bullet points, if you will :p): the scene between Hank and Walt with Gale's Lab Notes, and the W.W. initials. This series has had a few scenes like that, where Hank gets so close to busting Walt. Walt's pretty good at keeping his cool, although I have to say I can tell every time he starts to clam up. (I'm sure this is 100% intentional on Bryan Cranston's part). Also, the scene between Jesse and Mike, with the thief, and the blindfold - hot damn, Jesse totally pwned Mike on that one!

And, they took Jesse. You know, I was actually thinking that they were going to do something to him. I know Walt insisted on the fact that the two of them are a package deal, but the only thing keeping them alive is their ability to cook that perfect meth. Walt can try to leverage Jesse's life, but what is he going to do if they kill him anyway? Stop cooking? Then he's as good as dead. I don't think they'll kill Jesse, just because he's a lead on this show, but I wonder now what's going to go down, and if Walt will be able to stop it in time.

S4:E5 "Shotgun"

I don't have a lot of notes for this episode - I'm thinking the show is in a building phase now. Jesse and Mike, and Gus. Walt and Skyler. Gus definitely has something planned for Jesse - he's totally got his psychology pegged, needing to feel like a hero/the good guy. I'm just glad he seems to be rediscovering a purpose for his life.

Oh, man. The dinner scene. Hank was ready to give up the chase, thinking that Gale was Heisenberg. But then Walt, with his pride (and a little bit of alcohol), had to go and egg him on. Total self-destructive behavior. And now Hank's on to the Los Pollos Hermanos connection!

S4:E6 "Cornered"

I was thinking that Gus would have those cleaning ladies killed after Walt brought them in to the lab. (For their sake, I hope they're only being deported). How long can Gus and Walt keep pissing each other off until one of them cracks?

I wonder if Gus' plan for Jesse is to get him feeling overconfident, and then put him in danger, so he'll go and eventually get himself killed.

"Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."

In previous seasons, I've identified the way this story has been chronicling Walt's reinvention as a libidinal creature (if not in an overly sexual manner) - driven by an instinctual desire for power and significance, and the ability to "protect" his family in an oversimplified context, in which insane sums of money are more than enough to balance the perils of delving wholesale into an illicit and illegal drug trade populated by hardened criminals.

And while in these past two seasons Skyler has dragged herself into the midst of this madness - ostensibly in order to maintain her son's illusion of having a great father - instead of taking the advisable course and getting as far away from Walt's criminal enterprise as possible, we're seeing a definite difference here where she's willing to suppress her ego, and be "the bitch mother", if that's what it takes to actually protect the family unit (at this point, from being outed).

It could be looked at in different ways - e.g., taking on the mantle of suffering, a form of self-sacrifice, for the greater "good" - but I can see a point formulating out of this comparison, that seems to suggest that what makes a man feel good and what makes a man a good person are not necessarily the same thing. Which I guess has been the point of this show all along. Walt has been seduced by the dark side - the lure of power. He wants to believe that being a good person (as Gus manipulatively put it - "providing" for his family) is as simple as that - doing whatever it takes to secure their futures. This is easy. It's instinctual. We want to believe it. But it's not true.

And as much as I am loathe to reference religion, it reminds me of that one part of Jesus' message: the meek shall inherit the Earth. I think that, itself, is an idealistic fantasy - the meek will never inherit the Earth. Walt the drug lord bought that car wash. Walt the struggling cancer patient would never have been able to do that. Walt the struggling cancer patient may have been a more righteous person (and that's why, in spite of the decisions he made, he was so sympathetic in the first season), but yet, we, being libidinal creatures ourselves to some extent, can't help also sympathizing with Walt the drug lord. Because even if he's a bad person - damn, but doesn't power feel good? Why can't it be that simple?

"I am not in danger; I am the danger."

S4:E7 "Problem Dog"

Boy, Walt just keeps pressing Jesse's buttons, bringing up the crap he's had to go through, and it almost seems like he doesn't realize what it does to him, although surely he must know.

Is Jesse turning into a hardened killer now? This doesn't look good. Sucks to be in therapy and not be able to talk about what's really bothering you - to have to dance around the issue...

"If you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point?"

Interesting. What Jesse needs is not self-acceptance, but to accept that he did something wrong (and for others to recognize that). Where does that put therapy? Maybe it's just not the right (or a universal) approach.

Oh, Gus - schmoozing with the DEA agent once again. That was really suave on Hank's part, getting Gus' fingerprints. He really is an investigative genius - notwithstanding Walt sneaking around right under his nose (but he's biased in that case, and can't see Walt for who he truly is). I really appreciate seeing someone for whom a passion for their work gives them a driving purpose in life. His myopic focus on the blue meth case has been a little irritating in the past, getting in the way of his career advancement and all, but it's really starting to pay off now (finally). I think, in the end - if he survives - this will demonstrate what a great agent Hank really is, that he even turned down a promotion in order to put the work first, before any kind of honor and prestige (I know a lot of that was actually Hank's negative response to the stress and trauma, but I could totally see it being interpreted in this positive way when everything's said and done).

I'm starting to wonder, though, now, if Hank is going to end up being the one to take care of "the Gus problem" for Walt and Jesse (without realizing he's helping them out) - not entirely unlike what he did to the Bruiser Brothers last season. All the more fuel to add to the fire of betrayal when Hank eventually finds out what Walt's been up to all this time. (For a while there, after the hospitalization, and with Skyler taking a different direction than I expected her to, by getting involved in Walt's business, I was starting to wonder if maybe Hank was going to drop out of the race, after all. But no, his part is too important in all of this. I just hope I'm not hyping up the inevitable confrontation between Hank and Walt in my mind too much, to the point that when it actually happens, it fails to live up to my expectations. Ah well, from my experience so far, I trust this show's creators to get the drama and pacing down perfectly).

S4:E8 "Pollos Hermanos"

Finally, Walt's cancer is mentioned again! He kind of started out being a dick to that other guy in the waiting room, but then by the end, he actually seemed to have some good advice about not giving up control, and how every life has a death sentence. I mean, any advice Walt gives has to be tempered by the fact that he's a drug lord, but still, it sounds nice. Which I guess is Walt's whole thing. Go for the ego, not the moral superiority.

Gus has always been the picture of total zen calmness. (I mean, he was pretty pissed after the Gale thing, but even as he killed that guy, he was in total control). It's interesting to see him now in the hot seat, with the detectives closing in on him. He's such a professional and all - how could he make a mistake? (Of course, it's Walt's fault, ultimately - he should have known better than to get greedy and hire him, knowing from the start that Walt was sloppy; I guess this might just end up being his downfall).

Good story, though - I wonder if it's a lie. Kinda hammers home how difficult it must be to make up a credible story. Whether it's partly true or not, I'm sure Gus had it all together beforehand. He's smart enough to have put the pieces together and known what he was being brought in for. I know some people are better at lying than others, but you gotta be smooth as molasses to throw a story together on the spot that a group of professional investigators can't immediately see through. But then, Gus is a pro.

Ah, we see the origin of Gus' feud with the Mexican cartel (also the "hermanos" in Los Pollos Hermanos). But I wonder who he was in Chile...

S4:E9 "Bug"

"A guy this clean's gotta be dirty."

Will the IRS ultimately be Walt's downfall? All because of Skyler's involvement in Ted Beneke's tax fraud? I was disappointed to discover that Skyler was inflating her own sales at the car wash, but I guess with the experience she's had with Ted, in addition to Walt's "side" business - if he's doing so well by breaking the law, why can't she? Especially now that she's caught up in it, too. Skyler's dumb secretary act is hilarious. She's a pretty good liar - but, as she herself has said, she learned from the best. Don't tell me Ted Beneke is going to come under the umbrella of Walt's finances now, though. That would be seriously dangerous. He's an okay enough guy, but not someone I would trust with something like this.

And the episode ends with Walt and Jesse's "spat". My original notes, in full, simply contain the phrase, "no words...". Looking back on it now, that's just a devastating scene. It's a long time coming, and serves as a bit of a catharsis, with all the conflict between these two characters. But to see them actually going at each other like that - it's heartbreaking.

S4:E10 "Salud"

The look on Jesse's face before he gets in that helicopter... Aaron Paul is not such a bad actor. Maybe it's hard standing in the shadow of Bryan Cranston, or maybe that causes you to bring your A game. But I really like Aaron Paul in this role.

I know Gus is in a tight spot and all, but trusting Jesse in such an important position? I wonder if he intends to use him as some kind of sacrifice (you know, like a gambit in chess). To temporarily assuage the cartel and deflect their attention, before making some kind of definitive strike, in which Jesse will become collateral damage.

Jesse totally pwned that cartel chemist... Amazing how you can see the pride and satisfaction in Gus' face, considering that he barely moves his facial muscles (good, subtle acting work there). It's reassuring to learn that Walt's boast last season that Jesse's cook was good was true after all, and not just a manipulative compliment (although it could have been both).

Wow, Ted's a real piece of shit. (I'm guessing this was the scene where he used Skyler's money to buy a Mercedes instead of paying off the IRS). My respect for him just plummeted.

The cartel party...oh my god, what is with this show and episode endings leaving me speechless?! (In hindsight, the cartel hit was definitely one of the highlights of this season, and the series on the whole. Great scene).

S4:E11 "Crawl Space"

Oh my god, this Ted Beneke situation is getting entirely out of hand...

Walt's feelings for Jesse are finally brimming to the surface, and he's finally beginning to get his comeuppance, as Jesse finally comes into his own, and has a leg to stand on. I hope it makes Walt learn to treat Jesse with some more respect.

And, this is the third episode in a row that has left me speechless at the ending...

S4:E12 "End Times"

I feel like everything's hanging together by a fine thread now. I know there's a whole 'nother season after this one, but it really feels like things are progressing to a climax. Either the status quo is about to switch up majorly, or the writers have done a great job making it genuinely feel like that's possible.

Good to see Walt and Jesse working together again, though. I think Walt's character improves through his feelings for Jesse, when it becomes clear that he actually cares for/about him, and not just as a punching bag. (Assuming he didn't manipulate the poisoning of Brock after all).

S4:E13 "Face Off" (literally)

This is it! The season finale! The emotion and excitement of the last parts of this season have consistently defied analysis for me. But I guess the real issue on anyone's mind at this point in the series is the relationship between Walt and Jesse. I really thought it was finally straightening itself out. But then we learn about the Lily of the Valley. I swear to God. I knew it in the back of my mind. But I wasn't sure. I had this creeping suspicion that I couldn't shake. But I didn't want to believe it. That Walt was responsible. I didn't want to believe that Gus was responsible either - turns out some of his most despicable moves weren't even his own (although it really didn't help his case when he threatened to kill Walt's family). Walt doing it is entirely in keeping with his character. And yet, it completely destroys what I thought was going to be a long time coming reconciliation between him and Jesse! That's why this is such a great series, though. (Well, one of the reasons). It's not afraid to punch you in the gut.

Now for a few quick afterthoughts, before I head in to the next season.

I was thinking that with Gus out of the way, this would be the perfect opportunity for Walt to finally step up and be the big drug lord I always wanted to see him be. I mean, like, between Gus' operation, and the Mexican cartel, Walt is pretty much the last man standing (though I wonder how Mike is going to respond to all of this). But now I'm thinking that maybe that's not in the cards - this series hasn't quite gone the direction I expected it to, in a number of ways, when I started watching it in the first season. (Speaking of which, still no further word on the cancer...). It seems like now might be the perfect opportunity instead for Walt to actually walk away from it all, and possibly get off scot-free.

Yeah, right. After all that Walt's been through, could he go back to a normal life even if he tried? Seems to me that he's a changed man. It would be poetic if he had the opportunity here to get out clean and free, but got embroiled back into the madness, and eventually got caught (or killed), all because of his insatiable greed and hunger for power. Because he couldn't just let things alone when the time was right. He couldn't walk away. I don't know what the final season is going to be like, but I'm sure it'll be good. I can't wait to find out how it all ends, although I'll also be sad for it to be over.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

I like to view this movie as Elle Fanning's version of her sister Dakota's The Runaways - a mature film coming on the cusp of her (hopeful) transformation from precocious child star to serious adult actress ("adult star" doesn't quite sound right), that is daring, edgy, and not a little bit sexy. Other movies in this vein include Emma Watson's The Bling Ring, and Spring Breakers - all featuring young women getting up to no good. This movie, however, steers more towards horror than any of those others, drawing parallels to the similarly introspective Black Swan, and, in hindsight, very appropriate comparisons to Dario Argento's Suspiria. The latter is evident in this film's stylistic idiosyncrasies. Working from a clever (if at times subtly written) script, writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn (whose name alone suggests that you've wandered down the rabbit hole) utilizes a confident command of his actors, as well as a swirling mixture of light, colors, and sound (including a very effective use of silence at all the right moments), to create a surreal cinematic experience that is profound and unsettling.

I have always thought that Elle was a bit "artsier" than her sister, and this choice of role bears that out. Compared to some of the other things I've seen her in over the last few years, this movie is much better than the quirky Twixt, and her role is far more central than it was when she took up the coveted mantle of a Disney Princess (Aurora) in Maleficent, a movie that insisted on shoving the princess aside in order to tell the villain's story. Here, in The Neon Demon, Elle is not only the lead, but the shining star around which the world seems to turn. Perfectly cast as a young, impossibly pretty girl named Jesse, who arrives in L.A. to try her hand at a modeling career, she must quickly learn to navigate the attentions of a protective boyfriend, a predatory landlord (Keanu Reeves, having a blast in what amounts to a minor role), and a pretentious fashion designer, while befriending a hypersensual makeup artist (Jena Malone) and her critical, self-absorbed modeling friends.

I have to admit, I was a little bit worried that this film would devolve into another dime-a-dozen cautionary tale about the clichéd dangers of the soulless modelling industry, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is instead an intelligent rumination on the power of Beauty (with a capital 'b'), and its effects on both those who have it, and those who want it. Case in point: there is a scene that seems to be setting itself up as a stereotypical case of model abuse, but turns out instead to be a poignant demonstration of the artistic process, whereby a creepy photographer is presented a ridiculous makeup job, surveys the canvas, and finds just the right way to turn it into a sublime work of art (that's professional genius right there). It's a brilliant scene that is marred only by the actress' conspicuous shyness about nudity, arguably managing to undermine the point it's trying to make - that concepts like "art" and "beauty" are primal, and do not subscribe to society's taboos (explaining how "pervy" photographers with talent can keep getting work).

Regardless, Jesse finds out that, rather than another lost angel on the road to ruin, she is a rare diamond in the rough, with an unparalleled, natural beauty that causes heads to turn everywhere she goes (did I mention that Elle was perfectly cast? :p) - and she is transformed by this intoxicating revelation. What, then, is the "Neon Demon" of the title? Is it the false lure of the power and prestige that the fashion industry uses to deceive and exploit the innocent? Or the girl who knows she is pretty, and understands the power she has because of it? I can't say for sure. Yet, I think this film does an excellent job of demonstrating that the girls we describe as "dangerous" because they are beautiful - the heartbreakers who can wrap men around their little fingers - are actually in a unique position of vulnerability, because, as beacons of desire, they will inevitably attract every predator on the block. I think that, if anything, the Neon Demon is a metaphor for envy, and the disgusting lengths to which it leads us in our quest to become the things we desire.