Friday, July 31, 2009


I just wanted to let you all know that I'm still working on my docket. The Wilco review should be up soon. I am on vacation, so that's part of the delay...but the other part is that I'm working on a very exciting new project that I'll be posting here soon. Stay tuned!


Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Review: Orphan

Requester: CC & MS

Normally, I would make a feeble attempt at a clever introduction or interesting analogy to open this review. However, watching Orphan has drained me of any ability to be original or compelling. This is one of the most laughably awful movies I have seen in some time. I was really banking on the ability to say, “at least it was better than Transformers” for most of the summer. Well, now I can’t. Thanks a lot, Orphan.

Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations. If you go to Orphan expecting a psychological thriller or effective horror movie, you will be sorely disappointed. If you’re looking for a movie where the character’s actions don’t make sense, the dialogue is implausibly awful, and there’s a twist so ridiculous you’ll laugh, then Orphan might be a five-star experience for you. The only slightly redeeming quality to this movie is Vera Farmiga’s performance as Kate, a recovering alcoholic who’s plagued by the miscarriage of her third child. Farmiga’s level of commitment to her character is admirable, considering she’s steering a sinking ship. Aryana Engineer is also effective as Max, Kate’s five-year-old daughter, who’s deafness lends itself to the only cleverly crafted horror scene in the movie.

Well, that’s the “positive feedback” portion of this review. I really don’t know if I can properly describe how awful the rest of this film is. I think I found myself laughing at the movie more than anything else. I think the most offensive thing about the movie was the way in which Isabelle Fuhrman was exploited as the title character. The deplorable things she had to do and say made me worry about her future. In a film like the Exorcist, it was pretty clear that Linda Blair wasn’t involved in the really terrible things her character was doing. Not so in Orphan. When Esther murders someone with a hammer, it’s Fuhrman. When Esther tries to seduce an older man, it’s Fuhrman. Etcetera.

Also, the movie is ridiculously scary. Let me clarify. It’s not scary to a point that’s ridiculous. Its attempts at scares are ludicrous. The clichéd use of mirrors, fridge doors, and loud noises make it seem like this movie is trying to be a traditional horror movie. Combine this with the psychological component and you have something that’s too big for its metaphorical britches. Jack of all trades and master of none, so to speak.

This movie sucks. What a waste.

Rating: 1/5 stars

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Movie Review: Labor Pains

Requester: LF

Well, I did it. I think the novelty of the idea was too strong to resist. It was stronger than my pride. My dignity. My desire to have a normal evening. I watched the ABC Family premiere of Labor Pains, the newest movie from Lindsay Lohan. I tried to play it off like it was an excuse for drinking games, but the truth is that I wanted to watch it. I wanted to see Lindsay fail or, perhaps, I wanted to see Lindsay redeemed. I don’t really know why I did what I did. All I know is that I’ve lost two hours of my life that I can never reclaim. Thanks, Lohan.

The premise of the movie is ridiculous. Lindsay is terrible at her job (shocking, I know) and in the face of being fired, she pretends that she’s pregnant to keep her paycheck. Then, instead of coming clean or faking a miscarriage, she keeps pretending to be pregnant because her life is so much better when people think she’s knocked up. She gets promotions. The office secretary bakes her brownies. She breaks up with her loser boyfriend and falls for her boss’s second-in-command. All of these things only happen because she has a pillow strapped to her stomach. Maybe if Lindsay shows up to her next photo shoot with a baby bump, someone will think to check if it’s real.

The worst part of this movie is that it isn’t terrible. It’s so mundane and average that the monotony of watching the movie bores into you. I remember thinking “Wow, this movie sure has been going on for a while,” only to realize that I was 36 minutes into the movie. That includes commercials. The acting is blah. The story is blah. The script is blah. It’s not so dramatically terrible that you can scoff at it (at least I Know Who Killed Me had that going for it). Lohan does a passing job in the title role and there are some mildly humorous supporting characters. However, nothing redeems the movie’s predictability and clichéd plot. At least Baby Mama had Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

I hope nobody else has to suffer through this. That being said, it was better than Transformers 2.

Rating: 1.5/5 stars.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Docket 7/20

Here's the docket for this week:

Wilco (EAN)
We are Golden by Mika (ALR)
Labor Pains-(Riha)

Future reviews:
More to Love (ALR)
Julie & Julia (ALR)
Superhero by Shoshana Bean (Christine)

Don't forget to submit your requests in the comments section!

Movie Review: Bruno

Requester: Gays of America

Well, it took me much longer than I would have liked (see my Transformers review for a more detailed explanation), but I finally got around to seeing Bruno. For the few of you that do not know, Bruno is one of the characters of Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Borat and Ali G. Before seeing the film, I was filled with apprehension. I was worried that the way in which Cohen portrayed gay stereotypes would cause audience members to laugh at him and not with him. Well, the good news is that I did not feel that Cohen’s “gay-face” set the gay community back in any way. The bad news is that I did not really think the movie was that good.

Nevertheless, the film has its funny moments and there’s enough social commentary for me to appreciate the purpose of the movie. However, the movie has many shortcomings that I feel will prevent it from achieving the popular status that Borat holds.

The biggest issue is that many of Cohen’s attempts to make a statement fall flat. For example, Cohen’s trip to the Middle East seems to serve no purpose except to provoke that culture. Although it was mildly humorous to see Cohen strut about the area in offensive outfits, seeing him chased down by the people there did not really make me feel like he was exposing a hidden truth. It didn’t seem like their reaction was a result of his homosexuality—rather it could have just been a reaction to his inappropriate attire. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t really properly developed for the audience.

In general, it seemed like Cohen was pushing too hard for laughs. I felt as if I were with someone who wasn’t really that funny, but had enough self-awareness to know he wasn’t funny. So to compensate, he just says the most outrageous and offensive things to provoke the audience. Watching Bruno get screwed by a bike with a dildo served no other purpose than to offend. I know Cohen is capable of great humor, so it’s disheartening to see him stoop so low.

That being said, a few scenes managed to capture the bite of Borat. When Bruno goes to the karate studio for self-defense lessons, the owner’s willingness to condone violence against homosexuals was alarming. Additionally, the scenes with the parents who were willing to exploit their babies were frightening. Considering the plot of the film is just a vehicle for the interviews, I sort of wish Cohen had focused more on scenes that portrayed dramatic homophobia and celebrity obsession rather than inappropriate penis humor and Hitler references.

Some of my friends were offended. Some thought it was genius. I suppose it’s really a matter of personal taste. The only way to really find out is to go on your own. However, it’s something I personally would not recommend.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Album Review: Battlefield

Requester: Riha

It’s been said that Jordin Sparks is trying to emulate Kelly Clarkson’s career: A mildly received debut album followed by a sophomore pop masterpiece. Well, although I can see how Ms. Sparks has put a great deal of effort into her sophomore album, Battlefield, I think there are some striking contrasts between Kelly and Jordin that make me wonder if Jordin will reach Kelly’s level of success. The bottom line is that Battlefield is a good album with many strong songs, but the way that Jordin has cast herself as an artist may impede her ability to reach multi-platinum sales. Wow, that was formally written.

Let’s start with the good. The production value on Battlefield is clearly much higher than it was on Jordin’s self-titled debut. The songs have bigger hooks, stronger melodies, and better lyrics. The title track is a power ballad of epic proportions, with a chorus that soars above most other pop fare. Walking on Snow, the album’s opener, has a slick guitar line that evokes some of Kelly’s best songs (I promise I thought of that before Slezak wrote about it) and has a feel-good message about a broken relationship. In fact, there really is not a song on the entire album that I would consider a disaster (something I would not say about her debut). Well done, Jordin.

Another thing I have to comment on is Jordin’s songwriting. Four of the tracks on Battlefield were co-written by Jordin and, although I don’t know how much input she actually had, the final products are quite good. The Cure, which closes the album, is perhaps one of the best songs on the entire CD. The chorus is quite effective, the hook is irresistible, and the lyrics are surprisingly touching. Faith is another strong track, also co-authored by Sparks. She performed it during the inauguration, so the song has been floating around YouTube for a while. Nevertheless, it’s nice to hear the studio track because the grainy, hand-recorded video does not capture the power of the song. The common thread is that her voice is the clearest on these tracks and I really feel that these songs most strongly represent who Jordin is as an artist.

Now, for the criticism. In the pursuit of pop perfection, Jordin has sacrificed much of her identity as an artist. When Kelly released Breakaway, she refined her image and produced some of the best pop songs of the past decade. On Ms. Clarkson’s debut and through her tenure on American Idol, she had a rock edge in her voice—something she capitalized on for her second CD. Jordin, on the other hand, has sacrificed her defining characteristics: A sweet, virginal personality with a good deal of innocence. For all the faults with her debut, her naivety was there and her pure, strong voice was intact. Now, Jordin’s voice is over-produced and auto-tuned on much of Battlefield. Her tracks have adult lyrics, which seem a bit off coming from Jordin. It comes across as disingenuous and eliminates some of the honest emotion she was able to convey on her debut. The last few tracks are clearly Jordin, but songs like Emergency (911), Watch You Go, and S.O.S. (Let the Music Play) cast her as a dance hall artist, yet her voice is stripped of any defining character. She may have better material to work with, but instead of refining herself she’s lost herself. Kelly Clarkson, she is not.

The bottom line is that I really enjoy listening to the songs on Jordin’s CD, but in losing her voice I do not think she’ll become a superstar. There’s no identity on Battlefield. Is it better than her debut? Yes. Is it more Jordin? No. That’s a shame.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Savage Songs: Battlefield, The Cure, Walking on Snow.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Welcome to Riha Reviews!

Hello everyone.

So, I like to review things. I started as a sophomore when I was contracted by my boss to write reviews for a professional website based in California. Essentially, I brought in a particularly nasty review of The Break Up and she thought it was funny. So, I've been on and off reviewing things ever since. I don't think I'm a very talented writer, but I do enjoy writing about TV/movies/music a great deal. This is where you come in. I'd like to review your requests. I can't promise to review every request I get, but I'd like to stretch my horizons by expressing my opinions on new media that others suggest for me. You can leave a comment with your request in any place on this blog.

Periodically, I will post a docket. This docket will show what reviews are on the horizon so you can see if your request is coming. I like to post the initials or user name of the person making a request. Should I receive multiple requests, I will honor the recognize the original requester. Sometimes I review things without a request because I'm already interested. I've already populated this site with a good deal of content, so hopefully you can see my thoughts on something you're already familiar with!

Docket 7/17/09

Kings of Leon (DI)
Jordin Sparks, Battlefield (Riha)
Wilco (EAN)
Julie & Julia (ALR)
More to Love Premiere (ALR)

Album Review: Only by the Night

Requester: DI

As a part of this blog, I’m hoping to expand my musical horizons by attempting to review songs and albums from artists I do not already know. I’m very excited by this prospect, but it is a bit challenging. When you review what you know, there’s so much more you can say. You can draw on your knowledge from previous works, the artist’s history, and make savvy pop culture comments. It’ll be harder for me to do that with new artists. I cannot compare what I am listening to with earlier works, which will be my biggest challenge. Knowing how an artist has grown or changed on a new disc gives invaluable insight to the artist’s goals with an album. I do not have this, yet I will press on. Please lend me your patience when I review new works. The benefit, however, is that I will have to focus solely on the music. I feel that’s the purest way to review an album. I just hope these reviews are interesting to read.

The Kings of Leon, apparently, have been on the scene for quite some time. However, before the release of Only by the Night, their popularity was mostly confined to the United Kingdom and similar countries that speak English very properly. Well, now the Kings have broken into the United States and it’s not hard to see why. Their sound seems to be pure rock, but with a pop accessibility. In other words, their songs have hooks and melodies that are easy to get into, but contain enough edge and originality that nobody will ever accuse the Kings of being pop/rock douchebags in the vein of Daughtry and Nickelback. They write good songs. They create good arrangements. The have a strong rock sound. I enjoy listening to their music.

The two most recognizable songs, Sex on Fire and Use Somebody, are very good tracks. After I started listening to the album, I found myself humming those tunes more often than any of the others. However, I think their best track is the album’s opener, Closer. I applaud this track because it explores a slightly different sound than the rest of the album. Although the rock influence is apparent, the opening sound effect creates a very interesting infusion of electronica into the song. It’s a weird and moody concoction, but it’s very effective. The rock elements build as the song moves along and help transition into the more traditional sound of the rest of the disc.

I also enjoyed the more tender moments on the album. Revelry is a more gentle song, with some very nice imagery in the lyrics as Caleb Followill, the group's very effective lead singer, laments the loss of love. Cold Desert is another one of my favorites. It's very mellow song with more metaphorical lyrics and is quite lovely.

My largest criticism is that, although the Kings are much more original than typical pop/rock artists, they’re not quite original enough to rule the world of pure rock. As pop rockers, they could be terribly creative and new. However, I do not feel that they want to belong in that realm. As I listened through, I could hear the influence of Coldplay and Radiohead on a number of tracks. Even the song 17 made me think of Rilo Kiley, albeit only for the thematic reference. Clearly the Kings stand on the shoulders of many great predecessors, but they still have a little bit more to accomplish to carve out a unique identity. I think they should reexamine Closer and follow that path. Perhaps that’s the road to pure rock greatness.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Savage Songs: Closer, Use Somebody, Sex on Fire, Revelry

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Requester: GP

I feel like there’s no way a review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HBP) can be completely objective. The reaction to this movie depends on many factors: Your level of love (or hate) for the book series, the specificity of your knowledge about this sixth book, the amount to which you understand why the filmmakers included or ignored certain aspects of the books, etc. One person could have no knowledge of the books and be completely confused. One person could love the books and love the movies just for having the Harry Potter name. The bottom line is that this review is coming from my own personal perspective—one that you should have in mind as you read this.

I am a huge fan of the books and movies. As the books became darker and more mature, the movies corresponded in both plot (clearly) and aesthetics, something that I’ve greatly enjoyed. I feel like HBP is no exception to this. It’s a visually stunning and dark film that explores both the major plot points of the books and takes a good deal of time to further develop the characters we’ve come to know and love.

However, I do have one qualm. Perhaps my memory is not serving me correctly, but I seem to remember the book having a darker feel than the movie. There is a great deal of levity in many scenes of the movie—particularly those involving Lavender Brown (coincidentally, this is the one performance that I did not like. I felt that she was too over-the-top from the onset). Now, as I mentioned before, this reaction is a byproduct of my love for the books. Looking at the movie as an entity, I felt the added scenes of banter between our protagonists (and supporting characters, particularly the delightfully dreamy Luna Lovegood) were enjoyable and meaningful. I only felt like they were more prevalent than I remember them being on paper. In essence, my criticism is with how the movie upholds the book. I’m not going to let this affect my judgment of the movie as an independent entity.

Another aspect of this movie I really loved was the art direction. Many of the scenes were staged with such beauty and grandeur that I was breath-taken. The cold, dreary initial scene in London with the death eater’s attack; the dreamy, murky recollections of the Penseive; the epic and chilling scene in the underground lake—all strong examples of the creative vision planned into each shot. The cinematographers also did a great job using the camera to highlight the art director’s work. There were a number of swooping pan shots that captures the scale of these scenes. Overall, the film was very majestic.

The actors seemed to be very comfortable with their roles. One thing I did notice is that the producers have realized that Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are much bigger stars than Rupert Grint. Ron seemed to have a slightly lesser role than Hermione and (clearly) Harry in this film. Although he was present for much of the movie, Hermione had more speaking scenes with our hero. Again, this is more of an observation because this change did not have an effect on the quality of the film. I was just a bit put out because I am a fan of Grint’s portrayal of Ron. As far as the supporting characters go, Helena Bonham Carter stands out as the deliciously evil as Bellatrix Lestrange. Granted, that could be because she’s a newer addition to the series and I now take more established characters for granted. (Don’t worry, Alan Rickman, I still think you’re great). Either way, her giddy chant of, “I killed Sirius Black” will ring in your ears after you leave the theater.

The bottom line is this is a fantastic film. I sincerely hope that those who do not read the books appreciate this movie as much as I did. It’s extremely well made and, mostly, is faithful to the original text.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Monday, July 13, 2009

Single Review: She Wolf/Loba

Requester: Riha.

When we last heard from Shakira, she was shaking her assets with Wyclef Jean on the smash hit single, Hips Don't Lie. To date, that song remains the only song of her's where I prefer the English version to the Spanish rendition. Granted, I've never heard that song in Spanish, but you shouldn't let that detract from the compliment. Now Shakira is on the prowl with her latest single, She Wolf. For the purposes of this review, I will refer to the song as "She Wolf" unless I am specifically comparing the English and Spanish version, at which point i will use "Loba" to refer to the song en español. Take a guess which one I like better.

My initial reaction to the song was disappointment. To me, I expect Shakira to deliver strong vocals and attitude on all of her songs. Whether it's the dancehall vibe of Hips Don't Lie or the sultry fire of Objection (Tango), Shakira is best described by her strong personality. With She Wolf, Shakira is presenting an entirely new side to her vocals and sound. So my original disappointment resulted from my unmet expectations. However, it's not fair to review a song by how well it meets your preconceptions. Further listens made me realize: This may not be the Shakira I know, but this is a Shakira I could love. She Wolf is awesome.

First and foremost, this song sounds like nothing else on the Top 40. It's a bit jarring at first. The new wave guitar line and odd lyrics about lycanthropy and moon references make this song seem like an strange creation--sort of Blondie meets auto-tune. However, it all works. It may not demand your presence on the dance floor like Hips Don't Lie, but it does something more substantial: It creates an effect. Listening to the song, you almost feel moonlight washing over you. She Wolf has an almost dream-like quality...something that pairs with the magical realism of the song quite well.

If you struggle read or don't notice sarcasm, you may have failed to notice my preference for Loba over She Wolf. The lyrics are much more poetic. I cannot properly convey this to those who don't speak Spanish, but I will try with the chorus serving as an example. "There's a she wolf in the closet/Open up and set her free/There's a she wolf in your closet/Let it out so it can breathe" versus "Una loba en el armario/Tiene ganas de salir/Deja que se coma el barrio/Antes de irte a dormir." As you can see, there's some obvious repetition in the English version which doesn't exist in the Spanish version. The chorus in Loba takes the opportunity to create an image of this she wolf tearing up the town. The Spanish lyrics more strongly capture the wild and untamed nature of the loba. This is sadly lost in translation.

That being said, both versions are very enjoyable. I have high hopes for Shakira's upcoming release, even if it does not sound like the Shakira I already know and I love. However, I'm happy to have a new Shakira sneak up on me. Sigilosa al pasar, no?

Rating: She Wolf 3.5/5 stars. Loba 4/5 stars (A rating I admittedly have been giving quite frequently. I NEED MORE SUGGESTIONS! I need to review more music I do not like).

Movie Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Requester: Satan

I have to say. The fact that this review even exists is the result of a cruel and horrible twist of fate. This past weekend, I attempted to see Bruno three times, and on three occasions the movie was sold out. Yes, I could have ordered my tickets in advance and yes, I could have purchased tickets at the theater for another showing. But alas, I was so disheartened I just walked away sadly. Cue Charlie Brown music. After my most recent attempt, I decided I would just see a movie. Any movie. I should have been more specific, because that movie ended up being Transformers.

There are so many things wrong with this film. First of all, the movie assumes you retained a good deal of information from the first Transformers movie. I apologize that the intricacies of the Deceptacon and Autobots agenda may have slipped my mind in the last two years. I'm sorry that I forgot the purpose of the magical cube in the first film. I lament that I needed more information on Ben's ancestor that knows stuff about whatever and robots. STOP JUDGING ME. It was hard enough to follow the convoluted plot without many details about the first film. Yes, there were a few, but they were insufficient. SHAME ON YOU, WRITERS! I LOOKED YOU UP ON IMDB! ONE OF YOU WROTE THE RING, AND THE OTHER WROTE STAR TREK!!!! WTF?!?! LOOK HOW FAR YOU'VE (revenge of the) FALLEN!! READING SOMETHING IN ALL CAPS RECREATES THE FEELING OF WATCHING TRANSFORMERS LOUD NOISES BRIGHT LIGHTS WHISTLE BANG!!!!!! I can't even bring myself to talk about how horrible the dialogue is. The lines are either extremely blunt recapitulations of the plot or really bad jokes. Most of the jokes come at the hands of the two "twin" robots. There's a bit of controversy surrounding them because they allegedly reflect racism on the part of the filmmakers. I mean come on. They're robots. Just because they talk like black stereotypes and one has a gold tooth, doesn't mean anything. And if watching them caused me to think, "oh stewardess, I speak Jive" for most of the movie, you should not jump to conclusions. AND ONE OF THEM LOOKS LIKE A DIRTY ICE CREAM TRUCK WITH SEXUALLY SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON IT. Micheal Bay is not racist. He's sexist and racist. More on the sexist part later.

However, who cares about plot when you have ROBOTS FIGTHING OMG WTF ROFL!! I'm pretty sure you went an average of 45 seconds between fight scenes. If you've seen the Imaginationland South Park, their pardoy of Michael Bay 100% encapsulates his work on Transformers: Revenge of the Boring Robots. Robot cars fighting! Robot planes fighting! Robot insects fighting! Robot giant pyramid sucking thing fighting! It's relentless. You have to admire how shameless this movie is. If you go with the sole purpose of wanting to see robots fight, you will get that. Literally that is all the movie has to offer. The plot sucks. The music is uninspiring. The bevy of unnecessary slo-mo shots is laughable. Robots in disguise is what you get. Period.

OH WAIT, JUST KIDDING CAP LOCKS TRANSFORMERS AHHHH. Megan Fox is in the movie. The first shot is of her in cutoffs, cleaning a motorcycle. Need I say more about Michael Bay's sexism? She basically serves to pout her lips, stick out her chest, and say meaningful things like, well, I honestly can't remember because it's so trivial and vapid I've already forgotten. There's some other unrealistically gorgeous girl in the movie. You see her panties. I can't remember anything else about her. I guess if I were a fourteen year old heterosexual boy with nerdy tendencies, I might have popped a boner for the entire film (and then had to call a doctor because this movie is almost three hours long) but alas, I am not so the beauty of Megan Fox and robot death orgies was lost on me. Don't see this movie.

Rating: 1/5 stars

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Single Review: Zero

Requester: CS

Every year, I like to release a list of my Top 10 Singles of the year.  In the past, it's generally been the ten pop songs that I like the most.  The list shrugs off objectivity to serve as an expression of my personal favorites.  Admittedly, it's self-indulgent and I think very few people actually care which singles I choose for my list.  This year, I'm hoping to expand my horizons and create a list that I'm proud of because of its range and attempt at objectivity.  That's part of the purpose of this blog.  I review what other people tell me to, so I can find albums and songs I wouldn't normally discover by myself.  Well, this quest has led me to a glorious song:  Zero, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I'll be the first to admit that most of the lyrics are deeper than I care to think about.  "Shake it, like a ladder to the sun."  What does that even mean?  I don't think it really matters, because the song's layering and overall message make it for a very entertaining four minutes.  Although parts of the verses are cryptic, the song's point becomes abundantly clear during the chorus: "You're a zero/What's your name/No one's gonna ask you/Better find out where they want you to go."  Lead singer Karen O is clearly fed up with someone, and she's not holding back. 

I think the song's message and tone are very effectively matched by the instrumentation and build of the track.  The song opens with a minimalistic, pulsating beat that pushes the track forward without overriding the vocals.  Then, new instruments are added.  The intensity increases.  Karen O pushes the vocals harder and rougher.  The volume increases.  Karen O begins to wail.  At no point does she push to hard, but she matches the crescendo her band is creating.  Throughout this the lyrics repeat, with more and more anguish and frustration.  If I were this "zero," I'd back off.  Karen O is pissed.

To that end, I think Zero really succeeds as a single.  I can see people singing it in a car, dancing to it in a club, or just listening to it as they vent their frustration along with Karen O.  I know that there have been a few boys that deserve some of my rage.  Thankfully Zero is my release.  Instead of screaming at them, I scream with Karen O.  They're all zeros. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Single Review: Boom Boom Pow

Requester: LK

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I open myself up to recommendations from my peers in order to broaden my horizons, and someone suggests something as ridiculous as Boom Boom Pow. To me, asking for a Boom Boom Pow review is analogous to a student asking a teacher a question the teacher doesn’t know the answer to—something the student knows before asking the question. The goal isn’t to learn from the question. The goal is to watch the teacher squirm as he or she fumbles in front of everyone. I suspect this request was made to chuckle at my serious treatment of Boom Boom Pow.

Well, that being said, I’m going to do my best to analyze this track. This song is an exercise in extremes. The lyrics are so meaningless and empty that there’s literally no emotion tied to this song. However, the beat and production on this track are so futuristic and creative that the lyrics almost don’t matter. It’s as if the words in Boom Boom Pow only serve to prevent the song from being solely instrumental. Although the lyrics are nonsensical, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some clever turns of phrase. I particularly enjoy, “I’m so 3008, you’re so 2000 and late.”

Boom Boom Pow’s real power comes from its beat—an eclectic, occasionally sparse, maddeningly danceable creation from No matter how shallow one might think this track is, it’s very difficult not to find a way to dance to it. I think that speaks well to the Black Eyed Peas’ craftsmanship. They’ve been very candid, especially Will, when describing The E.N.D. It’s not an album. It’s a compilation of singles. They would like nothing more than for us to download our favorite tracks and get funky. To that end, Boom Boom Pow is a success. The Peas only wanted to create a fun single that would be successful on the charts. Needless to say, they’ve dramatically succeeded. After all, Boom Boom Pow is pretty 3008.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Single Review: Dead Flowers

Sometimes a great song does not make a great single, as evidenced by Miranda Lambert’s newest release, Dead Flowers. For the purpose of this blog, I will try to limit my observations to a song’s quality and not let its radio accessibility interfere with my judgment. However, I do have to point out that despite this track’s greatness, I doubt it will have a great deal of Top 40 success. That strikes me as sad, because Miranda Lambert is one of the most vibrant and interesting country artists in the business today. If this song is any indication, she’s forsaken commercial viability for artistic integrity and if a lead single is designed to generate enthusiasm for an upcoming album, Lambert has definitely done her part with Dead Flowers.

Now, let me try to back up my sweeping generalizations with some examples from the song. Lambert is one of the most gifted songwriters in the industry right now. On Dead Flowers, she has taken the concept of a dying relationship and tied it into some of the most vivid imagery I’ve heard on a song this year. “I feel like the flowers in this vase/He just brought ‘em home one day, ain’t they beautiful he said/They’ve been here in the kitchen and the water’s turning gray/They’re sitting in the vase, but now they’re dead/Dead flowers.” As the song continues, Lambert throws in more examples: Worn out tires, Christmas lights in January, and the recurring theme of dead flowers. Although they might not be what one would think of to analogize a failed love, Lambert’s deceptively simple use of language makes the connection.

Aside from her lyrics, Lambert’s singing is extraordinary. She doesn’t have the most polished voice. She can’t belt like Carrie Underwood. She doesn’t have the range of Martina McBride. What she does have, however, is the uncanny ability to infuse all of her vocal performances with an honesty and emotion appropriate for her material. On Dead Flowers, she almost deadpans a good deal of the song, to highligh how resigned she is to her relationship’s deterioration. The only sort of emotion erupts at the end, when she cries, “I’m living in a hurricane/All he can say is man, ain’t it such a nice day.” Now, I have to comment on why this song will not be a success on pop radio. Although it crescendos, it never reaches the emotional release that one would expect. It’s as if the track leaves you hanging at the end, without a clear sense of resolution. This might frustrate country radio, where most songs tell succinct stories, but given the song’s subject matter it’s a perfect musical representation of a relationship that is dying but will not end. As much as I want Lambert to charge into the spotlight, I’d rather have her artistic integrity intact. Mission accomplished.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Monday, July 6, 2009

Single Review: Battlefield

I wouldn't be a very good American Idol fan if I didn't review the latest single from one of my favorite winners, Jordin Sparks. On July 21st, the pop ingenue is dropping her sophomore CD, Battlefield. Based on the strength of her lead single (using the wildly original title, Battlefield), I have high hopes for this disc.

Let's get the bad out of the way right now. The lyrics aren't all that special. She analogizes love with a battlefield and I bet most people can think of at least one other song that makes that comparison. Cough. That being said, I am partial to the line, "Better go and get your armor." I think that's a turn of phrase that doesn't make me immediately recall other pop songs. Perhaps from the 80s. From a former opera singer. Am I being obvious enough? Nevertheless, the Pat Benatar (I couldn't keep it in anymore!) rip-off loses a few points in my book.

The good? There are two things I really enjoy about this track. First of all, I've always enjoyed the way that Jordin's songs use unusual or atypical instrumentations. From the weird cries in Freeze to the odd beats in See My Side, Jordin isn't afraid to experiment with different sounds. Thankfully, she hasn't lost that creative spark (shameless name pun, sorry) with Battlefield. The opening drum march with the sonar beep are a bit unsettling at first, but later effectively blend into the track.

The other aspect I love is the song's crescendo. It builds and builds until there's an outstanding middle eight where she bellows, "WHY DOES LOVE ALWAYS FEEL LIKE A BATTLEFIELD" and the backing track drops out and we're left with these odd sliding sounds. The overall effect is extremely dramatic and well-executed by her producers.

Hopefully this song will continue to climb the charts. Unfortunately, it's stalled around #30 on the Hot 100 but I'm optimistic it can continue its march (battle pun?) to the top.

Sorry for all of the lame jokes in this one. It's late.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Single Review: Obsessed

To be honest, I was surprised when I heard Mariah Carey was releasing another album. My last memories of Ms. Carey involve her stubbornly refusing to promote the divine I Stay in Love so she could galavant around the globe with her husband/jailbait. Not that I was bitter about that song's lack of success or something.

Well, that's in the past. Mariah is back, allegedly not pregnant, and releasing a new album. Her lead single, Obsessed, should be comforting for fans of R&B Mariah and disappointing for fans of "I can actually sing" Mariah. It's in the same vein as many of the songs on her most recent discs, The Emancipation of Mimi and E=MC^2. There's a nice groove and her voice glides through the track without expending a great deal of effort. Although I find the track pleasant to listen to, it doesn't jump out as anything particularly new or exciting from Mariah. I suppose the horse isn't dead yet, no matter how much she beats it.

That being said, I smirk at the thought that the song is geared towards Eminem. The lyrics, to me, are the one thing that raise this single above R&B Mariah's other songs (provided the Eminem references are true). If the allusions to Slim Shady are false, then the song comes across as a bit self-indulgent and arrogant. However, I choose to believe in Mariah's spiteful side. Besides, if someone lied and said they peed on me, I would fight back. I think that's what Mariah is doing

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.

Single Review: I Didn't Know My Own Strength

Well, Whitney Houston is off the crack-pipe and back in business. On September 1st, the pop diva will release I Look to You, her first full-length studio album in six years. This definitely one of the most anticipated comebacks in recent history, so the pressure is on for the former Mrs. Bobby Brown.

The good news: Her voice, albeit raspy, sounds strong and soulful on I Didn't Know My Own Strength, the first single from her upcoming release.

The bad news: The song is bland and weighed downed by pop cliches. Diane Warren has penned an underwhelming debut for Ms. Houston and I cannot imagine this song taking her to the top of the charts, pending an promotional overhaul from her record label and Clive Davis. The most disappointing aspect of the track is the weakness of the chorus. Give the song a listen, wait fifteen minutes, and call me on the phone. I'll ask you to sing the chorus. You'll struggle. It's that simple.

The track could be really spectacular if it delved into the dark times Whitney has gone through with some specificity. Instead of just saying, "I got through all the pain," "survived my darkest hour," etc., which are vague descriptions at best, she could really let loose regarding her failed marriage or drug problems. Unfortunately, pandering to pop radio restricts those themes, which is a shame.

I'm pulling for you, Whitney. I want your album to be a hit. However, if this is the best you can come up with, then perhaps your "darkest hour" is still on the horizon.

Rating: 2/5 stars, based solely on her voice

Album Review: Thriller

I think it is safe to assume that if there were an award for the most popular album of all time,Thriller would win without any serious contention. However, popularity is never an indication of quality, a fact that is reinforced by Transformers 2 holding the top position at the box office and the Black Eyed Peas maintaining the top spot on the Billboard 200 Chart. As a tribute to the late Michael Jackson, I am going to do my best to critically listen to Thriller and offer an objective review of this acclaimed album. I want to examine how well the album lives up to the hype.

The simple conclusion is this: Thriller is a wonderful album that sounds fresher today than many other discs by Jackson’s contemporaries. Although the album cannot completely shake its ties to the music of the 1980s, its pioneering fusion of pop, R&B, rock, funk, and soul created a formula for music that artists still borrow from today. It is hard to listen to Justin Timberlake without feeling the influence of Thriller.

Before getting into the specific details of the album, it is important to notice the historical context of this work. My tastes in popular music grew and developed in a post-Michael Jackson era, so I’ll never be able to listen to Thriller with the surprise and wonder that those living in 1982 must have felt. To my ears, Thriller sound a bit rehashed, only because I have heard many of its musical themes in works released in the album’s wake. I think it is important to recognize that my impression of this album comes from a point of view that will never be able to accurately represent the music scene in 1982. I will do my best, but inevitably I will fall short.

Finally, I am going to do my best to ignore the way that Jackson’s music videos influenced his songs. That’ll be a daunting task, especially with respect to the title track, but in order to objectively analyze the disc I’ll limit my observations to what was originally pressed onto vinyl. Let’s begin.

I was surprised at myself for not realizing sooner how paranoid Michael Jackson sounds on Thriller. Perhaps this is something that only stood out to me in the wake of his death. In Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ he’s under attack, along with his girl. In Beat It, “you wanna stay alive, better do what you can.” In Billie Jean, he is under accusation from a crazy baby mama. In the title track, the demons of the night are after his girl. Even in the saccharine duet, The Girl is Mine, Jackson is threatened by Paul McCartney’s love for his crush. I think it is pretty clear that fame is what is stressing Jackson, as evidenced by the lovely ballad, Human Nature. He yearns for a simpler life. Alas, that is something he will never have. Perhaps this theme in Thriller points to Jackson’s desire for a reclusive lifestyle. After all, where else can he avoid those fanatics who would “dance on the floor, in the round?”

Theme notwithstanding, the craftsmanship on this album is remarkable. Each song has a remarkable hook and there is not an ounce of filler on the entire disc. Musically, he ranges from disco funk (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’) to rock (Beat It) to R&B (Baby Be Mine) and everywhere in between. Admittedly, listing only one song for each genre creates a limiting portrait the actual range of styles and influence the album. This review could easily ramble on, so trust me when I say that Michael Jackson effortlessly blended genres to create songs that were uniquely his. Although you can see his fingerprints all over pop music today, to my understanding, nothing sounded quite like Thriller before 1982.

One other thing…This album would not be half as powerful without Jackson’s voice. I could go on about how talented he is: His piercing tenor, that easily slips into and out of falsetto; his scream, that gives Beat It its power; his smooth tone, that makes The Girl is Mine wash over you; his yelps and hiccups, that add to Billie Jean’s funk. I sincerely hope that years from now, his instrument will be remembered as one of the best in history

I do not have anything else to say about this masterpiece. I lack the talent as a writer to effectively use words that would do justice to Thriller. I really wish I could create a more moving and powerful tribute to one of the greatest pop classics of the modern era. Even without his music videos and historical perspective, I still find this album incredibly powerful. All I can say is that in the wake of his personal struggles, I hope that Thriller lingers in people’s memories and not the difficulties he faced in his later years. I know that I will do my best to honor his legacy. You should too.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Savage Songs: All of them. However, if forced to pick I would most strongly recommend Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Billie Jean, Thriller, and Human Nature

Album Review: It's Not Me, It's You

Lily Allen's most recent album, It's Not Me, It's You is a disappointment. That's a compliment. Ms. Allen built her reputation on being a foul-mouthed, unapologetic musician who's previous album, Alright, Still, dealt with issues ranging from her little brother's pot addiction to a man being "less than equipped" in the size department. All of these songs were laced with an inherent sarcasm that came from the juxtaposition of her light delivery with her nasty lyrics. In that sense, most people expected It's Not Me, It's You to contain the same attitude. It a degree. When it comes to the biting sarcasm of her debut, it seems that Allen is giving us the diet version of her typical attitude. Instead, she reaches not only for larger social commentaries but also for more personal and introspective sounds. So, her album is disappointing if you are looking for more of the same. However, it's a surprisingly richer and more mature album than expected. That's the compliment.

Before discussing the changes in It's Not Me, It's You, let's briefly discuss what this album has in common with Alright, Still. The two most blatant attempts at recreating her trademark sarcasm are Not Fair and Never Gonna Happen. Now, Not Fair should suffice for those wanting to hear more of Allen's potty humor. To what could best be described as a hodown beat, Allen sings about the virtues of a man and how those virtues mean nothing because this man is terrible in the sack. The song is actually one of the strongest tracks on the album, because of it's biting lyrics and original instrumentation. Never Gonna Happen is arranged in an inventive way, yet the lyrics don't quite match the sardonic nature of Not Fair or even Smile from Allen's debut. Overall, the bite is there, it's just not as sharp as it used to be.

Instead, Allen tries to save some of her wit for tackling societal issues. This leads to mixed results. The Fear, the lead single from the album, is an effective criticism of celebrity culture and society's obsession with it. When Allen sings "I am a weapon of massive consumption/And it's not my fault/It's how I'm programmed to function" you can't help but wonder if there's something slightly self-referential in her words, considering what a tabloid staple Allen has been in recent years. Some of her other attempts are less perceptive. Fuck You, a song dedicated to George W. Bush, would have been better served as a vague reference to bigots in general. It perfectly captures the tone of Alright, Still's best tracks. However, once the final verse comes and it's apparent this song is dedicated to GWB, the song seems outdated and slightly tacky. It's a shame, because the rest of the song is so strong. Finally, Everyone's At It is a ditty that expresses how Allen is tired of doing drugs but that drugs are everywhere...and that's just how things are. Allen want to know when everyone will be tired of "putting shit up our noses" but then suggests society should acknowledge drug usage, because, as the title says, "everyone's at it." The point of this song is unclear, something Allen admits when she says "I get involved but I'm not advocating." It seems like this is meant to be a criticism of drug usage, but Allen seems to be treading carefully to avoid hypocrisy. Treading lightly is not Allen's strong point.

The most surprising aspect of It's Not Me, It's You is the tender moments. Who'd Have Known and Chinese are lovely songs that show Allen's softer side. Who'd Have Known details a friendship blossoming into a new romance with such lyrics as "And even though it's moving forward/It's just the right amount of awkward/And today you accidentally called me baby." Chinese is a very pretty ode to spending time at home with family and friends, something Allen must miss while she's on tour. The way Allen is able to balancing waxing sentimental and being sarcastic shows a maturation in her sound, something that might suggest Allen has staying power. Although It's Not Me, It's You isn't perfect, it shows that Allen is making progress towards striking a sublime balance between sarcasm and sentiment.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Savage Songs: Not Fair, The Fear, and Who'd Have Known

Album Review: All I Ever Wanted

I have to say, the more I listen to Kelly Clarkson’s music and try to understand who she is as an artist, the more confused I get. Originally, she was America’s pop sweetheart: A wholesome girl from Texas and the inaugural winner of Fox’s hit reality program, American Idol. After a few successes from her debut, Thankful, she reinvented herself as a pop/rock artist the in vein of Avril Lavigne with her sophomore album, Breakaway. Breakaway was both critically and commercially successful—a shedding of her American Idol skin so that she could make music that was more her style. Granted, it still clung to a commercial sensibility, but it was a more cohesive effort that her debut. Then, Kelly decided to make an album that would completely represent her as an artist. My December was panned by her fans, but applauded by critics. It was a dark examination of love and relationships that showcased some of Kelly’s loveliest singing and, at the end of the day, Kelly could claim ownership because she wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album. Although the album isolated some of her core fans, the complete integrity with which she recorded My December was admirable

Now, Kelly returns with her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, and it takes about thirteen seconds to realize that Kelly has completely sold out. As soon as the beat kicks in on her current hit, My Life Would Suck Without You, it’s obviously that this album is a complete departure from the darkness of My December and, in some ways, a departure from anything she’s done before. This album seems to be specifically engineered to re-energize her fans with a constant barrage of glossy pop songs that are produced to the nth degree. Even the album’s most “tender” moments feel a bit disingenuous. On Cry, the album’s first power ballad, Clarkson says “Is this as hard as it gets/Is that what it really feels like to cry.” However, I have trouble believing her. Instead, I feel like she’s coloring in the lines to make her record label happy. I didn’t really give My December a fair chance. Now that I can see how the pursuit of pop perfection shows Clarkson’s sacrifice of artistic integrity and I actually think she knew what it was to cry on her last album. Now, I can’t decide if she’s a pop princess, rock goddess, or love’s philosopher. This time, she’s trying to be the jack-of-all-trades and the master of only one.

Despite my displeasure with how the album portrays Kelly as an artist, All I Ever Wanted does contain several moments of pop brilliance and should re-solidify Kelly as pop’s reigning princess. The aforementioned Cry, albeit a bit insincere, still has engaging lyrics and a soaring chorus. The glorious Already Gone is a beautiful ballad in which Clarkson describes leaving a relationship in order to help someone move on and heal. There are also some great up-tempo numbers. My Life Would Suck Without You will surely cause people to sing at the top of their lungs during the chorus and the Katy Perry penned I Do Not Hook Up is about as infectious as a song could get. Surely it will have radio success. The potential hits on this album are endless. It’s a bit overwhelming. Some of the songs even experiment with different structures. The bridge on Save You is unlike anything I’ve ever heard on a pop song, with inspiration coming from a classical piano melody. I Want You delves into a sound that seems partially inspired by Running, by No Doubt, and still manages to seem completely original. The downside of this is that All I Ever Wanted doesn’t feel like a complete idea. It’s more like a Kelly Clarkson’s Greatest Hits album, and most listeners will probably just pick their favorites and put them on repeat. I don’t really see many people looking to listen to the album in its entirety.

At the end of the day, I think I have to accept that I cannot have a Kelly Clarkson album that is an honest reflection of her artistic intentions and, simultaneously, a showcase of superb pop. I have to choose. However, just when I lose hope and think Kelly has sold her values for this album, All I Ever Wanted ends on a promising note. If No One Will Listen is Kelly’s most heartfelt and honest vocal on the album and seems to be the perfect bridge between the styles of Breakaway and My December. Kelly still confuses me, but these songs are engaging enough that I’ll keep playing them until I figure her out. Don’t worry Kelly, this time people will listen.

3/5 Stars

Savage Songs: My Life Would Suck Without You, Already Gone, and If No One Will Listen

Album Review: Chemistry

America is seriously deprived. Here in America, we think the greatest pop act of the last decade is a blond girl from Louisiana with a knack for public exhibition. We think that the best thing to come from a reality show is a spunky Texan with musical mood swings. We think that Britain’s most important girl group has already had its heyday. We’re wrong on all counts. Girls Aloud is what we Yankees are lacking, and boy are we missing out.

For the uninitiated, Girls Aloud was formed back in 2002 on a British reality program, called Popstars: The Rivals. The idea behind the show was to create a boy band and a girl group that would compete to have the number one single on Christmas Day. Needless to say, Girls Aloud trounced their “rivals,” One True Voice. Now, here’s where things turn into the Curious Case of Girls Aloud. By all accounts, Girls Aloud should have faded into obscurity. Nadine, Nicole, Cheryl, Sarah, and Kimberley weren’t great singers. They didn’t write their own music. They didn’t have anything in particular they wanted to say with their music. However, they have somehow managed to release five studio albums in the subsequent six years and remain one of the most commercially successful and critically lauded pop groups in the U.K. What other act from a reality show can claim that?

So, what is the explanation for this? Personally, I think that one needs to look no further than the girls’ third studio album, Chemistry, to answer that question. Released in 2005, it contained an eclectic mash-up of synth, 50’s bass lines, stitched together choruses, and odd song structure. Oh sorry, I was just referring to the song Biology. The album, believe it or not, has ever more to offer. Credit must be given to Xenomania, the production company that breathed life into this album. Their wild experimentation into what pop music can be have yielded some of the most original songs this side of the Atlantic—we just don’t know that yet. Whether you prefer the deceptively simple structure of Watch Me Go, the pulsating beat of Swinging London Town, or the blatantly sardonic nature of Racy Lacey, this album has such range it’s almost unbelievable. Even more shockingly, almost every song is amazing.

Almost. The ballad, See The Day, is a bit overwrought. To me, it’s the only blemish on what is nearly a perfect album. To be fair, an average Girls Aloud tune still manages to hold its own again some of the best work from lesser artists. Leona Lewis would probably have a hit with that song, but only because she doesn’t have much else to choose from. The standards are higher for these girls. Luckily, the girls show they can handle a ballad with Whole Lotta History, a lovely lament of a relationship gone sour. Plus, you can be sure you’ll never hear Leona Lewis sing “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

The bottom line is that Girls Aloud deserves international attention, but they’re content to focus on the United Kindgom and releasing masterpiece after pop masterpiece. If that’s the secret to their success, then more girl power to them.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Savage Songs: Biology, Racy Lacey, and Whole Lotta History