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August 2004
c o n t e n t s

Personal Life of a Drug Mule Revealed in Stunning 'Maria Full of Grace'

'Open Water' A Thriller With Bite

Demme’s New ‘Manchurian Candidate’
a Taut Thriller

Don't Open 'Little Black Book'

It Takes ‘The Village’ to Disappoint an Audience

 
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RED Reviews
 
by Brent Sallay, Janean Parker, Jordan Scrivner and Autumn Thatcher

Medulla
Björk
Elektra

Björk. I shouldn't have to say much more than that. Not only is she arguably one of the most fascinating artists of the past 10 years, with a voice that's quite simply leagues beyond most, but she has a strong work ethic to back her up. So if you're a Björk fan, you don't even need to read reviews really. You know you're getting a solid effort each time out that's impeccably produced and yet never a retread of her previous work.

Especially with Medulla. For her latest release, Björk has enlisted some of the top beatbox artists in the world to create an album that is almost entirely true to its title—an album whose every sound is created by the human voice. Granted, someone like Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional) couldn't get away with that. No, if anyone was meant to make such an album, it simply had to be Björk. But the question is, did such an album need to be made? And does it rise above its gimmick?

Well, to be honest, Medulla doesn't completely succeed. Though expertly executed, the album is an experimental one at heart, and about a third of these tracks come off sounding like just that—experimental scraps that while often fascinating, fail to invoke obsessive listenability like her best experimental albums, Homogenic and Post.

When both qualities are working together, we have songs like “The Pleasure Is All Mine,” “Who Is It?,” “Oceania,” or “Triumph of a Heart,” which easily rank as some of her best work, and don't sound gimmicky at all.

Unfortunately, the brilliance of these songs only leaves one wanting more on some of the spare tracks. And then there's “Ancestors,” which, while I respect the sincerity of it, is just kind of gross, and even worse, it cheats—it features the sound of what is quite obviously a piano.

So to answer the question, Medulla may have been better trimmed down as an EP (with tracks chosen at my discretion, of course), but it is still one of the most daring and interesting listens that's come out this year.
BS


Your Voice Repeating
Namelessnumberheadman
Record Machine

Maybe I'm letting the name of this band get to me, but I can't help but feel lost in this music. Genre mixing is nothing new, but usually when a band does so, you still have a pretty good grasp of what's going on. Like this is the song where they mix jazz and electronic, or rap and metal, or some other (no longer) unlikely combination.

But with Namelessnumberheadman (named after a character in Steven Soderbergh's “Schizopolis”), it’s not that simple. Often a song will start off as the ambient folk song, or the skittering electronic song, or the pummeling disco song, but then not a minute later the poles have completely reversed, and I don't remember who I am or what I'm listening to. I don't remember the transition, and I don't remember the destination. I've listened to this album at least 10 times by now, and I'm still as lost as I ever was.

This is a very good thing. Most albums nowadays are content for the only surprise in a song to be how many times the chorus will be repeated. Every so often you'll find an album that manages to surprise you in the first few listens, but soon most of the secrets are revealed and you still enjoy the album but it's never quite the same the first few listens.

And then you have Your Voice Repeating, which, perhaps in some inspired glitch in the copy-protection process, actually manages to erase your memory of it as it goes along, to the point that by the album's finish, you have no concept of the album, you cannot describe it to others, and you certainly cannot write a coherent synopsis of it. And so you stumble into some sort of lazy meta-review with weak allusions to much more competent storytellers than yourself. You become me, and you are writing the review, and meanwhile I am lost somewhere in the Record Machine.

And then, without warning, the album ends. Wait. Already? But it just started. Have 40 minutes passed already? I still have nothing to say. I still have nothing to say. I still have nothing to say.

This is your voice repeating.
BS


Garden State: Music From the Motion Picture
Epic Records


 
The story goes that when Zach Braff (writer, director, and star of Garden State) went to pitch his movie to the studios, he took his homemade compilation of chosen songs with him.  One studio after another turned him down but kept the CD.  Later a few of those studio reps mentioned to Braff that they really liked the songs on the CD. 
 
The Garden State soundtrack contains thirteen tracks by twelve artists.  The Shins have two songs because, as Braff states, “...they are the greatest band in the world.”  [Note:  RED knew this even before Zach told us.]  Other featured artists include Coldplay, Zero 7, Colin Hay, Cary Brothers, Remy Zero, Nick Drake, Thievery Corporation, Simon & Garfunkel, Iron and Wine, Bonnie Somerville, and playing that great song during the trailer teaser:  Frou Frou.   
 
Now that the film is playing, some people who will remain nameless are saying that the movie doesn’t live up to its own soundtrack.  Indeed, this soundtrack sets a really high standard.  This collection of songs is the most coherent compilation I’ve yet encountered (which I haven't made myself).  With no mood interruptions, each song leads seamlessly to the next allowing a calmly joyful mood to grow for the entire 53 minutes (and one second).  The songs I knew I already loved, and the songs I didn't know are becoming loved now.  I may even have discovered some new favorite bands.  Thank you, Zach!  

My only complaint is that the album ends.  There's room for 80 minutes on a standard compact disc.  Until Braff makes a second Garden State soundtrack album, I'll just have to keep this one on 'repeat.' —JP


Kim Berlin
The Muggabears

It must feel pretty good for a band to make a classic album on your first try. The band in question—The Muggabears, one of the indiest of indie bands from Norman, Oklahoma—makes this task seem easy. Kim Berlin, the album in question, is laced with a breezy confidence that I haven’t heard in a debut since Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted.

The Pavement comparisons might as well start now, I suppose. The Muggabears members sound like their inspiration (one song even name drops such indie rock deities as Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore, and Billy Callahan), and band’s dynamic frontman, Travis Johnson, is also a history major, like Malkmus. And, like Pavement, the source of the band’s confidence feels like it’s coming from its singer. The Muggabears sound like Pavement Jr. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, your humble critic would definitely count it as a plus. Music that is meant to sound like great music can’t do anything less than impress.

For a band that uses the word “noise” in three different ways to describe their music, the songs on Kim Berlin are surprisingly catchy. Once you hear “Milky and Free” and “Wait Loss,” it’s almost a given you’ll here them again and again in your head. And I challenge anyone out there not to hum or sing “One Last Fuck” while they’re in the shower.

And, oh, the lyrics! The lyrics that make you laugh (“Wonder how/ how many kids/ Neil Diamond/ Has had sex with”) and lyrics that make you cry (“In your green and white wedding/ My brother drank so much/ He drank all he touched/ Sister, now”). Would great lyrics count as another Pavement similarity?

The “crying” song, “Sister Now,” is arguably the best song on the album. The Muggabears’ sonic chops are on full display in the last few minutes, and we see that the band has a very real chance to become the perfect indie rock band. The controlled chaos of the music is brilliant. “Blues For Chairs,” for example, sounds like it’s about to stumble and fall at any moment. It reminds me of the circus, and that act where a drunken clown walks on the tightrope. He’s all herky jerky, but his balance is stellar. Audience gasps and applauds are prevalent.

If I have one criticism about Kim Berlin, it’s that the ending is a bit anti-climactic. An album this sexy needs to have a finale that is matching in its sexiness. Endings of albums can go one of two ways. Either they can go all out at the end, or they can be subdued. Either two can work for completely different reasons. Kim Berlin’s ending feels subdued in a bad way. An album this good needs to have an ending that let’s you know it’s an ending. The album’s final track, “No No Waspy Wasp,” doesn’t.

After Kim Berlin, the Muggabears don’t have anywhere to go but up. If you would like more information about how ass-kicking and hard-rocking this band really is, please visit their website at www.themuggabears.com.—JS


23rd Street Lullaby
Patti Scialfa
Columbia Records

If you ask your parents who Patti Scialfa is, they will most likely respond by exclaiming, “She is Bruce Springteen’s wife! She was the female vocalist in his E-Street Band!” That will probably be the only response you receive as they close their eyes and travel back to a time where everyone knew who “The Boss” was and denim jackets and tight, cuffed jeans were the definition of cool. Truth be told, Patti Scialfa is Bruce Springsteen’s wife and was the female vocalist in his band. But her success as a vocalist does not end there.

At the ripe age of 50, Scialfa has released her second solo album in ten years. 23rd Street Lullaby is a beautiful album that tells the story of Scialfa’s wild youth through her mature and aged voice. Each track paints a picture from a scene in Scialfa’s life at a time when she was a struggling musician, playing her guitar and singing on the street to make money. Hers is a story that we have all heard. Certainly she is not the only famous singer who experienced hardship on the road to musical success. The difference between Scialfa and the many other musicians who try to depict their hardships through their lyrics is that Scialfa does it right.

The album is beautifully produced by Sciafla and Steve Jordan. Each song is clear and concise with nice instrumentations with guitar and keyboards. She successfully steps out of Springsteen’s shadow and proves that her vocal talents are enough to sustain her as a wonderful singer and lyricist. Though the album may be more appealing to the older generations, it works for everyone. The songs allow the listener to imagine New York City as portrayed through Scialfa’s smoky voice. It works as a cohesive whole and welcomes both young and old to take a trip down memory lane with Scialfa by entering New York through the eyes of an uncertain young woman as she arrived over 20 years ago.—AT


The Beautiful Letdown
Switchfoot
Columbia Records

Switchfoot has gained much success in various genres of music. Initially recognized as a Christian Rock band, the group has subtly made the crossover into the rock/pop scene without too many people realizing that Christianity is at the root of nearly all its songs. The band’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Beautiful Letdown is the band’s fourth studio release, and the first release on a major record label.

That Columbia Records picked up the band, and radio fans hungrily devour its singles are not enough to sustain the album. The Beautiful Letdown is a bit chaotic as a whole. It’s impossible to really grasp what the band is trying to capture. Even the recent addition of guitarist/keyboardist, Jerome Zahn has not enabled the band to truly find its sound. Boppy songs with weird techno incorporations nearly guarantee a sense of embarrassment over owning the CD. Just when you think that you have made up your mind to toss the album out of your car window as you’re speeding down I-15, a ballad such as “On Fire” comes on and you think, “Maybe I’ll reconsider”.

However, that thought really only lasts through that song, and maybe through “Dare You to Move.” Most of the other songs on the album possess lyrics that are positively juvenile and show no sign of depth or creativity. The eighth track on the album, “Gone” includes lyrics such as, “Gone, like yesterday is gone/like history is gone/…like a summer break is gone/like Saturday is gone.” The album’s last track, “Twenty-Four” is even worse, as it seems that lead singer Jon Foreman is on a quest to see how many times he can say the words “twenty-four” in one song. The current count is 14 times.

The Beautiful Letdown is inconsistent in sound and style. Most of the tunes are rather lame and arouse no feelings of excitement or curiosity, while Foreman’s voice tends to be monotonous. Perhaps the album’s saving grace is the hit single, “Meant to Live”, but even that can only last so long.—AT

 

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