Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Thoughts on the Season Finale of Lost

The two-hour season three finale of Lost was absolutely incredible. Twists, turns, promises fulfilled, great acting, some absurdly pleasing action hero moments, and several ticking clock plots. But for all that - for Charlie's heroic death and Jack and Juliette's kiss to the "I love you" proclamation to Hurley running a dude over in a van to Walt appearing before Locke as a vision - for ALL THAT, I can only fixate on the images of Jack, drunk and drugged out and completely lost in L.A.

In what appears to be a very clever flash forward device (and there were plenty of clues, not the least of which was the RAZR phone), Jack is back from the island and miserable. He is beyond sad, wants to kill himself, and can barely get through the day. To me, it is one of the most haunting things I've seen on a TV show and it left me hoping (begging) that the whole thing was an alternate universe or a Desmond vision or some other Lost-like creation that can be altered and fixed. Because I can take unsolved mysteries and characters dying, but I'm not sure I can deal with known futures devoid of hope. How do you root for these characters if you know things turn out so devastatingly bad for them?

Many seem to think that this finale signals a new trend for the show and that they will begin to show flash forwards off life after the island. I really hope that is not the case. Because a character devoid of hope, with a foretold future of tragedy, is the saddest character of all. And above all, Lost is a show about characters.

Amazing stuff. But haunting, rough stuff as well.

Now we wait for January 2008 to see if Jack's dad is somehow alive (which would prove some sort of alternate universe theory) and not just the result of the rantings of a shattered soul. I'm crossing my fingers, even if it means suspending my reality.

Album Review: Boxer by The National

Walking down a deserted (but perpetually shimmering) Michigan Avenue in Chicago the other night, listening to The National's fourth full-length album in my iPod, it dawned on me that I had to review this, and that it would continue a trend of only reviewing music that I love. I promise to rectify this by finding a truly crap album and crushing it sometime in the next month. Until then, bask in the positivity, people.

The first thing that strikes me about Boxer is that it sounds a lot like my other favorite albums of 2007, yet remains wholly original. Lead singer Matt Berninger sounds a bit like Andrew Bird, both in style (baritone, slightly monotonous voice) and substance (non sequiturs, clever imagery, and an extensive vocabulary), which is an absolute compliment. Bird's Armchair Apocrypha was probably my favorite 2007 release until Elliott Smith's New Moon. And if the vocals sound like Bird, the overall feel and mood of the album call to mind a more subtle and contained version of the Arcade Fire release Neon Bible. Again, this is a good thing.

The problem with comparing one artist to another is that it implies a derivative quality to the work; that the band is somewhere between an inspired cherry-picker with great taste and a rogue musical pickpocket. Know that resorting to such comparisons is the fault of the reviewer and not the band. Explaining all of the positive ways that an album matches other great works is the lazy man's method for expressing admiration. And tonight I'm feeling a bit lazy. But now, on to the album.

Boxer starts out with a bang, as the track "Fake Empire" works its way from a simple, subdued little song into an orchestral gem that climbs higher and higher and then just ends, without any ostentatious outros or distorted samples loaded with feedback and reverb. It is followed by the most pure "rock" song on the album, the quick, smart "Mistaken For Strangers." At the tale end of this "wow, they sound like they could be from Montreal" indie rock anthem, The National slows things down just a bit, fading out of the second track and easing into "Brainy," giving the listener time to absorb the first salvo and settle into the experience. Rarely has the first quarter of an album shown such care in regard to pacing. It is as if the three members of this Brooklyn band know some secret to engaging the brain's alpha frequencies.

If there is one criticism of Boxer, it is that the middle of the album lags just a bit. "Squalor Victoria," "Green Gloves," and "Start a War" are the only songs that feel like work the first couple of times through. That said, even from this tiny negative comes a positive, as "Green Gloves" became one of my favorite tracks on repeat listens. The first time through it bleeds into the background, but by lap number four, it actually stands out as a beautiful song with soaring instrumentals and perhaps the most melodic chorus on the album. Likewise, "Start a War" grows on the listener and seems to get better with each passing bus ride and jog through the park. These are among the most subtle tracks on the album and for that reason, they were overshadowed the first few times by more powerful and melodic songs such as "Slow Show" and "Apartment Story." In fact, "Slow Show" probably gets the nod as my favorite song on the album. It is a rich, escalating tour de force. The repeating line "You know I've dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you" is one of the best on the album and the anchor of a fabulously good and decidedly mature (i.e., not cheesy) love song.

After slowly building for nine tracks, the album finishes with a quiet flurry. "Racing Like a Pro" shows some of Berninger's strongest writing, offering clear, intelligent commentary and showcasing some of his most insightful (if still cleverly spun) storytelling to date. "Ada" is a brilliant song and is certainly aided by Sufjan Stevens' guest appearance on piano. And "Gospel" might very well be the best song on the album.

I've already heard some listeners bemoan the lack of simmering anger that was a hallmark of previous tracks by The National (most of them from 2005's breakout critical darling Alligator), but to me, this more subtle expression of joy, pain, boredom, claustrophobia (multiple songs are contained to basically one room) is far more rewarding. Rather than spell everything out with wild vocal inflections or searing lyrics, The National opted to weave together a tight tapestry of music, within which they could embed their stories and philosophy. On Boxer, they let the audience do its share of the heavy lifting in a way that is not dissimilar to a well-written television show or film.

This is not to say that listening to this album is hard work, because it's not. The Boxer is a smooth listen and an atmospheric experience (you simply have to find a deserted main street in a big city and give this a spin) and - bottom line - a really great album. It should be Exhibit A on how to make really smart, meaningful music that still sounds terrific.

Once again, I've got a new favorite album for 2007. I expect this one to hold on to the title for a while. Especially once I get to reviewing some real pieces of crap.

The Score: 9.3

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Album Review: New Moon by Elliott Smith

When I first heard about new Moon, the "new" double-disc, posthumous Elliott Smith release titled, I was extremely apprehensive. I suppose you could blame the estates of everyone from 2Pac to Jeff Buckley for the fact that music from the grave has became an uncomfortable proposition.

Too many posthumous releases are ragtag affairs; full of bits and pieces and sketches of songs that are slapped together by music engineers and producers and weaved into albums. Not surprisingly, they often aren't very good. In fact, the best releases are often those that simply never came out in time, such as Biggie's Life After Death (totally finished and just weeks away from hitting stores when he died), 2Pac's Makaveli: The 7 Day Theory (almost completely finished), and Elliott Smith's own From a Basement on a Hill (in later, if fitful, stages of completion) were all albums that came from the artist's own imagination. And when you compare those Pac and Biggie works with the abominations that came later, it is obvious why another Smith release might terrify me.

The possibility of New Moon being total crap was one fear, certainly. The other worry was that the album would be overwrought with meaning. My only problem with fully enjoying A Basement is that I couldn't separate the songs from the context. I kept searching for clues that would resolve Smith's awful death. Was it a suicide, or was he murdered? The L.A. coroners couldn't figure out, and neither can we. His last work-in-progress provided a peak into his mind; a mind that had been increasingly drug-addled and depressed in recent years but seemed to be finding some hope at the very end of his life. With all of that investigative work to be done, it was hard too just absorb the music. Furthermore, the details and circumstances surrounding Smith's death - indeed, the tragedy of him as a figure - lent the album an almost overwhelming dose of gravitas. Frankly, I wasn't ready to go down that path again.

Have a painted a clear enough picture? I was concerned. I was not eager to buy this. New Moon gave me feelings of trepidation.

For all of these reasons, I am both pleased and surprised to tell you that this is my favorite release so far in 2007. Granted, there haven't been a ton of masterpieces to challenge for that title, but I loved the new ones from Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and Andrew Bird, and also enjoyed recent efforts from The Shins, Peter Bjorn and John, and Panda Bear. (And also, I must confess, Redman.) So there is enough good new music that I still feel like that statement means something.

Normally when I review an album, I drill down and tackle it almost song-by-song, but in this case, my feelings toward New Moon are more macro. That doesn't mean there aren't great individual songs, of course. "Angel in the Snow" gets things off to a great start and immediately brings to the forefront Smith's intimate recording style. By all accounts, he played extremely close to the microphone, which allowed him to sing quietly and make room for his chord progressions and the tiny little imperfections that came with them. Everything about a good Elliott Smith song is authentic and organic and that doesn't even account for the genius in the writing, bur rather comes about almost strictly from the brilliant technique that is on full display here.

Favorites abound. There is "High Times," which flashes Smith's energy and righteous anger. and "New Monkey," which shows his versatility as a songwriter and reveals frustrations over the way he (and indie music) was often portrayed. "Looking Over My Shoulder," "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," and "All Cleaned Out" put on display his almost irreconcilable wisdom and perspective. There are the brief glimpses of optimism ("First Timer"), the aching sadness on songs like "Georgia, Georgia," where he muses "oh man, what a plan, suicide," and, of course, those beautiful melodies that can't help but make you think of the Beatles.

Again though, drilling down on individual songs seems to miss the point. In fact, many of these gems have been floating around for years. I had seven of the 24 songs in my iTunes collection already, "Miss Misery" and "Pretty Mary K" are merely alternate versions, and "Thirteen" is a cover that Smith often played at life shows. So listening to this album in search of novelty or fresh tracks gets away from what makes it great.

New Moon is a fantastic album because it is comprised of 24 full, real, and terrific songs. It is adhesive and forms a narrative, and authentically feels like a release from the 1994-1997 period of time from which these songs were culled. And ultimately, that is the beauty of the record. It doesn't feel like a new Elliott Smith album at all. Instead, it is as if my collection of Smith albums suddenly has another classic imbedded in it. Right alongside masterpieces like his self-titled second album and Either/Or and XO is another classic.

So maybe calling it the best album of 2007 is a misnomer. It is more like the best album of 1996, preserved in a time capsule until today. Either way, it is fantastic stuff.