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Entries in Personal Favorites (10)

Tuesday
Apr062010

Blues Go Modern on Jason Ager’s Debut Lunchdate

Lunchdate available on iTunesOn his debut album Lunchdate, Jason Ager brings new weight to both sides of the term blues-rock.  With soulful songs about love and loss, arranged with upbeat instrumentation and allusive lyrics, Ager taps into a rich and varied American musical heritage. 

Lunchdate is full of songs that evoke the influences of blues artists like Muddy Waters as well as rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, the latter’s name inspiring a song title on the record.  Ager fleshes out the traditional blues progressions with innovative time changes and layers of vocal harmonies that offer a full, rich sound. 

The album starts off boldly, with Ager singing plaintive a capella to his absent muse, “Jocelyn.”  Four lines in though – Bam! – the music kicks in at high tempo and Ager’s voice is now given a compelling chorus effect as razor-sharp guitar lines guide him through the rest of the song.  Ager has cultivated a highly syncopated style of singing that accentuates his self-taught guitar style, especially present on “Sing-Along Jawn.”

Personal anecdotes provide the subject matter for Ager’s lyrics, and he packs them in, mixing plenty of romantic self-deprecation with poetic similes and a bevy of pop-culture references that provide a roadmap of his musical influences.  It is this blend of personal and cultural that makes the album so accessible. 

Full-out rockers like title track “Lunchdate” offer a glimpse of the blistering live show Jason Ager and The C.O.P.O. perform in clubs like Philadelphia’s World Café Live, singing to every girl in the audience that he’s “got you up on my mind.”  Long-time musical partner Austin O’Connor lays down inventive bass lines that push the tempo, and drummer Sheri Gallagher tightens the arrangement with her snare and hi-hat work.

Ager is also an active solo performer, bringing his acoustic act to stages such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  On “Strawberry Wine,” a song that would sound right at home in a Nashville honky-tonk, Ager explores the textures of harmonizing with his own voice which effect transports the listener to a back porch on a summer day. 

Recorded at Hatfield, PA’s Tritonix Recording, Lunchdate is an album that bridges many genres of American music, from R&B of the ’60s to the hip-hop of Biggie Smalls.  On “Rock Star,” Ager surfs on waves of organ music and “Na na na” choruses as he sings of his early days in the business, but then breaks down the final minute of the song into a rap that spits pure truth about coming to terms with illusions of grandeur. 


The combination of such distinct musical styles elevates Lunchdate to a place that resonates with contemporary audiences who appreciate hybrid artists in possession of a reverence for music history.  Ager succeeds in producing music that achieves a type of earnest pastiche infused with deeply personal themes.  Lunchdate is an album you will listen to again and again, gleaning new pleasure from every spin. 

Lunchdate on Itunes and CD Baby.

Jason Ager on MySpace, Facebook, and Last.fm.  

Friday
Apr022010

Fringe Solidifies Must-See Status with "Peter"

Fringe

FOX

Thursday 9/8c

Spoiler Warning: This article addresses plot points of the Fringe episode “Peter”. 

Although the recent trend of broadcast television shows going on hiatus mid-season is a bit frustrating, the excitement of their return offers an opportunity for a big payoff.  Fans of Fringe had their anticipation sated in dramatic fashion with Thursday night’s episode, “Peter.”

FOX“Peter” is the best episode of Fringe to date, largely because it emphasizes the characters’ humanity, and the drama comes from personal tragedy instead of sci-fi mythology.  John Noble’s Walter Bishop is regularly the best thing about Fringe, and this is the first time we’re seeing him in the past, fully confident and aggressive in his scientific beliefs.  We finally get to witness firsthand the event that has shaped so much of the present tensions between the parallel universes.  We see a father whose sorrow drives him to rip the fabric of space-time to save his son. 

I loved watching Noble as a younger, arrogant Walter.  The performance served as a great counterpoint to the sweet, damaged man we’ve come to know in the present.  Unyielding in his mission, he would let no one stand in his way.  The tongue-lashing he gave Nina Sharp was so satisfying, as he railed against the absent wunderkind, William Bell.  And we learned how Nina’s arm was injured, seeing it pushed out of phase by the window between worlds.       

But Walter’s arrogance is not the only agent in this ethical quandary.  The Observers play an integral role in facilitating the potentially catastrophic events.  It was an Observer who distracted “Walternate” from realizing he had found a cure, and later saved Walter and Peter from the lake.  Was this the same compassionate Observer we saw in “August”? 

I am very intrigued by the Observer characters, especially when they cease to be solely that.  We get a sense of larger forces at play, that Peter “is important.”  Where do the Observers’ loyalties lie and what is their investment? 

The family scenes with Orla Brady as Elizabeth Bishop contributed to the success of this episode because of their subtlety, the interactions truly conferring their love for Peter (well acted by Quinn Lord) and the pain they feel at his death.  The husband and wife relationship was summed up when Walter tells Elizabeth, “I need you to not doubt me.”  The power of this request in its first utterance is painfully subverted in its later use to deceive the alternate mother. 

Fringe has taken a season and a half to really find its stride, and can now truly be considered a successor to The X-Files because it has successfully merged character drama with an overarching mythology.  “Peter” gave us beautifully acted drama while also filling in the puzzle piece we had been skirting around for so long.  Show runner Jeff Pinkner has said that the remainder of the season will be filtered through this secret between Walter and Olivia.  I can’t wait to see what happens when Peter learns the truth about his past, and how he and Olivia utilize their uniqueness to face the coming fight.  Fringe has solidified its must-see status for the rest of the season.   

Wednesday
Mar242010

Unchained Melody: Richard's Song

"Oh, my love / my darling
I've hungered for your touch / a long lonely time"

~ Hy Zaret, "Unchained Melody"

"Ab Aeterno" was one of the most anticipated episodes of LOST in the show’s history, and it gave fans just about everything they wanted to know about the Island’s ageless wonder, Richard Alpert.  With enduring themes, faraway locales, and a pervasive sense of the eternal, the episode played like its own mini-movie.

ABC / Mario Perez

In an extended replay of the conversation in the hospital, we learn Jacob told Ilana that Richard would know what to do with the final candidates, but on the island, he is clearly not in any shape to provide leadership.  Jack says he’s lost his mind, and he’s not wrong.  That unstable titter, the claim that they’re all dead and in hell, lead us to believe he’s of no use to anybody.  I’m not quite ready to believe that, though. 

At this point, Richard feels betrayed, unraveled, like he has only been strung along instead of truly saved.  Has he been trusting the devil all along? As we see in his flashback, his loyalty to Jacob has been built on faith explicated by reason, for which he turned away from selfish desire.  His current pain is exacerbated when he thinks that he gave up any chance to see his wife for a perceived liar and manipulator like Jacob.  But it was the Man in Black who fed those conceptions.  Are these men as monochromatic as they seem? LOST continues to play with that question.   

So let’s talk about Nestor Carbonell’s performance.  The anxiety of his character’s current state is transported back to the Canary Islands in 1867, where he is rushing frantically to save his wife, Isabella.  As we watch him plead with the doctor and offer up everything of value to him, he inhabits the helpless role of a peasant, powerless in a world of controlling men, similar to the situation he came to understand himself in on the island. 

Carbonell is brilliant throughout the episode.  He gives us the fear and desperation of a man caught up in tragic circumstances, whose simple faith and burning love do nothing to save him from the wiles of evil men.  He repeatedly asks if he is in hell, and everyone tells him he is, denying him the smallest sliver of hope.  But yet he does have something driving him, for when confronted with things he does not understand, such as the captain killing the slaves and his subsequent death from the smoke monster, Richard yet remains resilient, struggling to escape from the chains of his bondage.  As Jacob forces him to declare, he wants to live.  Carbonell used that drive for survival as a visceral motivation for Richard.

Although he desires to live, the secret to his agelessness is not rooted in that mere instinct to survive, but rather as a bulwark against the pain of never seeing his wife again.  I didn’t love the fact that the request came about in an almost resigned, joking manner, but it worked in the context of the scene.  We also learned that there are limits to Jacob’s power. 

The language of damnation and the very word ‘hell’ strongly colored the theme of this episode, but as soon as Richard said it in the present, I knew the castaways weren’t in hell.  But what can we make of Jacob’s example with the cork?  Does this make the island some kind of purgatory, a buffer between hell and earth?  I don’t buy into it in exactly those loaded terms, but the idea of the island as a safeguard against a malevolent enemy does intrigue me. 

What I did not like about this episode was the occasional heavy hand in making the connections for us.  The most cringe-worthy line was hearing Titus Welliver actually say, “It’s good to see you out of those chains.”  We heard unLocke utter this line to Richard just a few episodes ago, so I think we could have enjoyed that connection through simply witnessing the Man in Black beholding Richard in the belly of the Black Rock, instead of hearing those exact words.  Same goes for his revelation as the smoke monster. 

Ultimately, though, this was a great episode of LOST, clearly the best so far this season, and it gave fans several satisfying answers.  We confirmed that Magnus Hanso owned the Black Rock, we learned how the statue was destroyed, and we learned more about the struggle between Jacob and the Man in Black. 

Back in the present, a distraught Richard tries to switch sides, crying out to the Man in Black.  Instead, he gets Hurley, who acts as an intermediary with Isabella.  Through him, Richard is able to finally say goodbye to his wife.  This scene was intended to pull on the heartstrings, but I’m glad they shot it in a way that maintained the illusion that Richard could not see her, even as she touched his face.  Now he has a new mission: to keep the Man in Black from leaving the island.  Yes! 

My interest had not waned this season, but "Ab Aeterno" got me even more excited to finish the show’s journey.  What did you think? 

Other thoughts and questions

  • When Canarians emigrated to Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico in the mid-19th century, they brought with them a tradition known as Festival de Máscaras (Masks), based on the biblical story of King Herod.  Yet another reason to talk about Nestor Carbonell’s eyes.
  • The Bible verse Richard was reading in his cell is Luke 4:24, and says, “Verily I say unto you, ‘No prophet is accepted in his own country.’” Who on the island could this be referring to?
  • Biblical imagery does have its place in LOST, and we witness Jacob “baptizing” Richard.
  • Titus Welliver was again great as the Man in Black, and we learn that his desire for freedom is not a newfound cause, as he tries to get Richard to kill Jacob.  His instructions are almost word for word what Dogen said to Sayid about killing unLocke.  What’s the deal with this knife?  It was a different knife that Ben used to kill Jacob, though, wasn’t it?

Links

'Lost:' Nestor Carbonell talks about the ageless wonder he plays

Monday
Mar222010

Breaking Bad Gives Us More in "No Mas"

Breaking Bad

AMC

Sundays 10/9c

Spoiler Alert: This post assumes you have watched Season 3 Episode 1 of Breaking Bad: "No Mas".

One of the best shows on television returned last night as Season 3 of Breaking Bad once again immersed us in the world of Walter White (Emmy-winning actor Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who starts selling methamphetamine after being diagnosed with lung cancer. 

In the Season 3 opener, directed by Cranston, everything is going wrong with Walt’s plan.  The family he sacrificed everything to provide for has turned on him and left, as Skyler (Anna Gunn) begins to devise how Walt came into possession of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Then there’s the small issue of 167 people dead as a result of the plane crash Walt help set in motion.  Oh, and of course, now the Mexican drug cartel is after the dealer they know as Heisenberg, as we are introduced to a pair of silent assassins played by real-life brothers. 

There always seems to be something going up in flames in the world of Breaking Bad.  Besides providing cool visual effects – How do you not flinch when a truck blows up behind you? – the fires represent the unexpected results of Walt’s actions.  Is Walt the same person who began selling drugs to provide insurance for his family after he is gone?  Yes and no. 

Walt is different now because he has experienced both the rush of power and the sting of regret that comes with his new profession.  There are moments where he has taken real pride in his chemist’s ability, and times where he despises himself for indirectly killing people to protect his own interests. 

He has not changed how he views himself, though.  Yes, he is shocked and ashamed at the results of his actions, but he has yet to take full ownership of them and be honest with himself.  The painfully awkward scene in the school gymnasium and the conversation with Jesse (Aaron Paul) clearly indicate that he is still trying to create distance between his actions and their terrible results. 

Even when he is forced to confess to Skyler (another great reaction shot from Cranston) it doesn’t help repair the damage in their relationship, instead making it worse.  Until Walt can come to the kind of conclusion Jesse did in rehab – "I’m the bad guy." – he will never be able to "survive" or "overcome" his current situation.   

And with The Cousins, as they are named in the script, coming to town, survival may take on a whole different meaning. 

Other brief thoughts

  • The little blue ribbons the townspeople were wearing, the gymnasium scene, and Hank’s references to 9/11 were well-placed pointers to the idea that American society sometimes trivializes tragedy by literally wearing it on their sleeve.
  • We are used to seeing the new, destructive Walt, but we are reminded that his previously squeaky-clean image still perseveres when his one attempt at honesty (regarding half a million dollars in the duffel bag) is played off by Hank as humor.

Links 

Bryan Cranston talks with Dan Snierson about Season 3 at EW.com

Friday
Mar192010

Bad Religion: 30 Years of Punk Rock

“And I want to conquer the world
Give all the idiots a brand new religion
Put an end to poverty, uncleanliness, and toil
Promote equality in all of my decisions
With a quick wink of the eye, and a
‘God you must be joking!’”

“I Want to Conquer the World” No Control

Photo by Rick Loomis, LA TimesPunk rock is arguably the most influential and long-lasting movement in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, which is a great irony considering it’s live fast and die young mentality.  A living testament to that longevity, the seminal L.A. band Bad Religion can officially be deemed godfathers of the modern punk rock scene as they celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. 

Beginning March 17, Bad Religion will play multi-night residencies at House of Blues venues in Anaheim, San Diego, West Hollywood, and Las Vegas to celebrate their milestone.  To thank their fans for the years of support, the band will create a best-of compilation from these performances and offer it as a free download for those who sign up on the band’s website. 

I entered the Bad Religion world mid-stream, with the release of their first commercial success, 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction.  It’s funny to think that MTV helped introduce me to a punk rock band that rarely gets radio airplay, as the band’s most widely known song, “21st Century (Digital Boy)” was a staple in the late-night video blocks.  For a sixth-grader who had just begun to get into “modern” punk rock like Green Day and The Offspring, Bad Religion shone through as a mature, driven band that had a clear message.  I quickly dove into their back catalogue and followed the band throughout high school, a perfect soundtrack for those tumultuous years. 

But while Bad Religion’s “Crossbuster” logo might belie their antiestablishment views, the intellectual stimulation gained from listening to their music has shaped my worldview of a society too often ruled by the status quo.  Jamming exigent vocabulary and critical ideas into rapid-fire songs full of soaring harmonies, Bad Religion’s music encouraged me to think critically about the world around me.  These were serious people who had a message of free will and personal character expressed in a burst of artistic energy. 

Lead singer Greg Graffin does not identify himself as an atheist, rather, a naturalist who values the scientific method and a belief in the goodness of humanity.  Earning a master’s degree in geology from UCLA and a PhD in biology from Cornell University, he engages in dialogue that addresses the big questions of the universe, instead of railing against them with a battle cry. 

Brett Gurewitz, guitarist and other main songwriter for the band is an amazing story in his own right, and his absence from the band through much of the 90s left their material wanting.  Gurewitz founded Epitaph Records in order to put out Bad Religion’s material, and was instrumental in the success of bands like The Offspring. 

Bad Religion provided the soundtrack to dozens of adolescent scenes of discovery, yet they have remained a mainstay in my music catalogue and concert listings.  They will be recording their 15th studio album in May, and have no plans on quitting anytime soon.  The power of their longevity is magnified by fact that they keep producing new material. 

Graffin tends to stay modest about the milestone: “The greatest feeling about this anniversary is that it is happening at all. I'm mostly uplifted by the fact that a vibrant and evolving punk scene still inspires young people all over the world. If Bad Religion somehow serves as a symbol for the lasting importance of punk, then I am satisfied beyond words by reaching this milestone.”

I have barely scratched the surface of the monumental legacy of Bad Religion, but for now suffice to say they are my favorite band of all time. 

Recommended Albums:

Suffer 1988
Against the Grain
1990
Stranger Than Fiction
1994
The Empire Strikes First
2004
New Maps of Hell
2007

Books: Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?: A Professor And a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity

Bad Religion on Epitaph

Brett Gurewitz on Twitter

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