Monday, September 28, 2009

Album Review: Circus

Note: This was originally posted in December of 2008 on a different site (AKA immediately after the album's release and way before I was proven wrong about If U Seek Amy).

The media has been calling Circus, the latest album from Ms. Britney Spears, a comeback. I think this is a misnomer. To me, a comeback would imply two things: First, that Britney completely disappeared from the popular scene and second, that Britney has returned to the popularity that she once experienced. On both counts, I think that Circus fails to signal a complete comeback for Britney. The biggest issue here is that Britney never quite left the public's eye. Preceding her 2007 album, Blackout, Britney was constantly in the tabloids for showing her genitals or doing her Sinead O'Connor impression. Although she "disappeared" from the public after Blackout's release, Britney's singles still had a fair amount airplay. I can even remember hearing Break the Ice over the summer--weeks before her "redeeming" appearance at this year's VMA's (I'm going to try to cut back on the air quotes. I think you probably understand my sarcasm at this point). In essence, Britney has never left, so it seems like her comeback is happening a little too soon to be taken completely seriously.

Furthermore, Circus is similar enough to Blackout that it doesn't really seem like we're getting a reformed Britney with this album. Extravagant production, robotic vocals, and sexual suggestion permeated her last album. If this is her chance to break free from her past and show the world that she's in control again, it sure isn't happening musically. Hell, the closest thing we've ever had to a confessional from Britney occurred on Blackout (Piece of Me). I think my biggest frustration is that I was really rooting for Britney to pull her act together and show the world that she was ready to be a superstar again. As her most recent live performances have shown, she is taking baby steps towards success, but she isn't quite ready to be in the public eye. If this album were given another six-eight months to perfect, I think Britney easily could have had the comeback she deserves. Unfortunately, this is too little too soon.

Now, I understand that I've been judging Circus (up until this point) based on it's release date and relationship to a previous album. Admittedly, that isn't a very objective way to review an album. From this point on, I'll focus my thoughts and opinions on the individual songs and the way they work together on the album. Honestly, I like the album and think it's nothing that Britney should be ashamed of. However, I don't think it has the impact that Britney's career needs at this point.

Circus, by Britney Spears, is a pretty good album anchored by about five or six great songs. By now, most people have heard the album's best track: Womanizer, the catchy single that proves that lyrical diversity isn't a prerequisite to infectious pop (Although, Gimme More proved that already). It's hard to find fault with a song that has set download records and is Britney's first #1 single in about a decade.

After Womanizer, it's obvious that Britney has front-loaded her album with all of the strongest tracks. The title number is a potential dance hit, and slated to be her next single. She's tapped the director of the video for I'm A Slave 4 U, so I have high hopes that this video will be a success. As far as the actual song goes, it does effectively sum up that which is Britney: "All eyes on me in the center of the ring/just like a circus." Considering what a spectacle her career has been, it's clear why this track and album equate her life to a circus. It's just a letdown that this song values style over substance and doesn't dig a little bit deeper with the message. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. This is Britney Spears, after all. At the very least, this should be a hit.

There are two other tracks that jump out as dance hits: Kill the Lights and If U Seek Amy. Although Amy is clearly the better track, it's probably too lewd for radio airplay (and if you don't know why, I'm not telling). I think that bodes well for Kill the Lights' future as a single, however the song strikes me as a more upbeat and less meaningful version of Piece of Me. We get it, the paparazzi sucks. However, we're dealing with Britney Spears here. Does it really matter what a song is about if we can dance to it? Isn't that all she really wants?

Apparently not. Two ballads appear on Circus, which is the biggest different from Blackout. Out From Under is a surprisingly effective song, and perhaps one of the strongest ballads of Britney's career. With the proper music video, this could be a huge hit. If the video shows how the lyrics of this song could represent Britney's personal life and her struggles, then I really think people would respond well to it. "I don't wanna feel the pain/What good would it do me now?/I'll get it all figured out/when I'm out from under." However, Brit is only batting 50% with her ballads on this album. My Baby is a dreary piece that is meant to be an ode to her children. It evokes the feeling of Everytime (rightfully so, because both songs have the same producer), but lacks the lyrical power of that song. Instead, My Baby contains such moving quotes as "my baby boo" and "I smell your breathe/it makes me cry." Gross. The latter quote sounds like it would be more effective as an insult. The only positive aspect about this song is that Britney actually appears to be giving a genuine vocal performance. It barely convinces me that she cares about her kids. Barely. However, that doesn't mean I want to listen to it. If Britney would take this vocal and apply it to a song that doesn't sound like Dear Diary 2.0, then she could have a hit (Note: I actually like the song Dear Diary, despite it's cheesiness. However, I think the fact that she was a teenager when she recorded that made it seem more legitimate).

The rest of the album is a bit of a mixed bag. Blur and Unusual You take Britney's sound in a new direction, which could have made for an interesting album concept. Unusual You is particularly good, but probably doesn't have the hook to make it as a single. Mmm Papi and Mannequin seem very average. Mmm Papi actually has a pretty catchy beat, but the second you pay attention to the lyrics, things get weird. Is the song about a lover? Her actual father? Either way, I'm uncomfortable. Also, who says "lovey"? Lace and Leather is enjoyable for its bass line, but that novelty wears out after about a minute of the song. Shattered Glass is another potential single, but with the obvious choice of Kill the Lights and my personal hope that Out From Under makes the cut, I'm not completely optimistic that Shattered Glass will get the attention it deserves. None of these songs are complete disasters, but nothing jumps off the page.

Here is the bottom line. Circus is a return to the classic Britney formula: An album with very clear singles, a few above average tracks, filler, and the obligatory cheese factory ballad. However, if Britney really wants to bounce back, she'll have to try harder than this. Nevertheless, this isn't a weak Britney album by any means. The songs are great for dancing and the hooks are well crafted. By itself, Circus is on par with the Britney albums of years past. However, I wouldn't call it a comeback just yet.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Savage Songs: Womanizer, If U Seek Amy, Out From Under.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Review: Jennifer's Body

With all that could have gone right, where did Jennifer’s Body go so wrong? I mean, the movie had so much going for it: A script by Diablo Cody, a role that Megan Fox was born to play, and rising star Amanda Seyfried. When the red band trailer came out, the movie looked incredibly promising. It seemed to be a dark comedy of epic proportions, ripe with catty dialogue and biting social commentary. Then the theatrical trailer was released and I began to worry. You see, the new trailer played the movie off like a horror film. Unfortunately, my instincts proved to be accurate. Jennifer’s Body should not be a fright flick and its biggest downfall is the way it amateurishly adheres to some of the conventions of horror movies. Granted, the desired dialogue and commentary is there on a basic level, but the movie tries too hard to be too many things all at one and falls short on every front.

Let’s start with the good. Overall, the movie has some funny moments. Many of Megan Fox’s lines are priceless. Her character, the titular Jennifer, is crass and offensive without any regard to those around her. Many of the moments with her and Needy (Seyfried’s character) at school showcase Cody’s penchant for dialogue. Additionally, I do think the movie manages to strike some chords/universal truths with its messages…youths are desensitized to violence, some people will pay any price for fame, female empowerment, etc. Blah blah blah. I just can’t help rolling my eyes because these themes are presented without any subtlety and yet manage to have very little impact. I think the reason for that comes from the biggest flaw with the film. Without further ado, see the next paragraph!

Wow! Diablo Cody may be able to write dialogue, but homegirl really needs to work on her storytelling abilities. There is absolutely no suspense in the movie because you immediately realize who’s behind all of the killings. One would think that revealing the killer so early on would make the movie about, oh I don’t know, the comedy and commentary. Yet, the film still tries for suspense and unsurprisingly fails. Hell, the first scene of the movie gives away the ending. Yep, most of the movie is a flashback. NO SUSPENSE!!! There’s no terror! This movie could have easily ramped up the tension and fright if it so desired. Also, Ms. Cody, if you’re reaching for social commentary, try further explaining Jennifer. It’s never clear whether or not her actions are motivated by her or the demon within. Is she trying to expressing her teenage desires with the strength and brutality of a monster, or is the monster controlling her? That would have been nice to know. Also, Needy’s transformation seemed a bit abrupt and underdeveloped. Just saying.

The real bottom line is that I was entertained. However, I couldn’t decide if I was laughing at the movie or laughing with it. In some instances, the dialogue is so over-the-top it seems unintentionally hilarious. I think the movie would have been best served to reject all horror movie conventions and play all of the scenes in a comedic manner. Perhaps Cody set out to create a camp classic. Perhaps she succeeded. However, the muddling mess of a story makes me think that Juno was a fluke and we might have a one-hit wonder on our hands. Did screenwriting kill the Megan Fox star?

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Monday, September 21, 2009

TV Tidbits

Hello, criticism fans! It’s been a little while since I’ve written something, but I’d like to think I’m back with a vengeance. The creative juices are finally flowing, and it’s not just because I had Olive Garden for dinner last night. I have several things I want to say, but I’d like to start with some TV reviews. Instead of busting my balls to write a full review of new TV shows, I think I’m just going to write one long entry that addresses several TV treasures (or trash heaps). Without further ado, here are my snap judgments of fall TV ’09.

Glee

Read my review for more thoughts. Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

90210

Ditto. 3.5/5 stars.

Melrose Place

Ah, another CW remake is taking shape. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be pulling in the ratings that 90210 is managing. Fortunately, it’s off to a much more promising first season than its comrade. With murder, prostitution, theft, and bitchy dialogue, Melrose Place is definitely somewhere I’d want to move in. 3.5/5 stars.

Project Runway

Of course, Heidi and Tim always seem to make it work. Even with Michael and Nina constantly MIA and a generally blah cast of designers (both personality and talent-wise), somehow our German bombshell and gay Oprah manage to still create consistently entertaining TV. Even on Lifetime. Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Top Chef

Now that Projway has said auf Wiedersehen to Bravo, Top Chef is the new alpha male. As a new Top Chef fan, I have to say that I’m really enjoying this season. The challenges are interesting and the chefs are compelling. My personal favorite is Jen, the bitch who knows it and works it. Sadly, it seems like the top five chefs are extremely obvious at this point, so some of the dramatic tension is lacking. However, it’s still mouth-watering television. Rating: 4/5 stars.

Parks and Recreation

I don’t think there’s a show that I’m rooting for more adamantly than Parks & Rec. I’m rooting for Amy Poehler’s sitcom to truly hit its stride and become as hilarious and compelling as its ancestor, The Office. It is definitely making baby steps towards becoming a surefire hit, but it’s still pretty tentative at this point. The laughs are hit-or-miss, and some of the tertiary characters need to be fleshed out more. That being said, the show is still very new so I’m optimistic. Rating: 3/5 stars

The Office

The Office came back in fine form this year. The premiere was touching, outrageous, and involved many of the side characters who had been benched in recent seasons. To me, I’ve always thought showing more Kevin, Angela, Meredith, Kelly, etc. is the show’s ticket to comic gold and I think this season seems to be on that path. Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Community

So far, Community is runner up for the award for most promising season premiere (I’m technically counting Glee’s premiere as a part of the tail end of last season, so there's another first place prize). The characters seem quite varied and the writing is extremely snappy. It also seems to be a show that has slightly more sophisticated humor, so the audience might actually have to think in order to get some of the jokes. That’s what makes 30 Rock and Arrested Development so great. Perhaps Community is on that path? Rating: 4/5 stars.

Modern Family

Modern Family just inched out Community for my favorite premiere. This show is ripe with laughs and relatable characters. I think I about peed myself with the Circle of Life came on. If you watch the premiere, you’ll know what I mean. Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

The Vampire Diaries

Sadly, I might not be able to watch this show as consistently as I’d like. It conflicts with too many other programs and I might lose touch with it as the year goes on. However, I will do my best to keep up with it based on the first episode. Granted, the originality factor is missing because this show is Twilight minus the bad acting plus great dialogue. Yet, any show that references “tranny mess” deserves bonus points. Kevin Williamson might have another hit on his hands. Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Gossip Girl

Well Upper East Siders, our favorite chic debutantes are back at it again. This time, at college. Although Serena, Blair, and company don’t get to school until next week, there was a bit of good drama this week. However, it seems like the storylines are running in circles and the show could use a good dose of originality. Perhaps college is the ticket? Rating: 3/5 stars.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

TV Review: 90210

At this time last year, I thought the CW’s remake of 90210 was one of the worst shows on television. The characters were flat. The storylines were clich├ęd. The acting was atrocious. Look at how far we’ve come. 90210 has gone from one of TV’s biggest disappointments to a must-watch show. If the show’s season premiere is any indication, TV audiences are in for a wild ride this year. Without giving away the plot, the first forty two minutes of 90210 featured sex, alcohol, infidelity, teenage motherhood, lying, stealing, inappropriate texting, and sexting (sex texting). Talk about drama, no?

Well, the most noticeable difference is the dialogue and the acting. The characters on the show seem to pop off the screen more because their lines are filled with wit and life and the performers are much more seasoned. AnnaLynn McCord is particularly devilish as Naomi, the bad girl you hate and love at the same time. She’s manipulative, conniving, horny, and takes particular joy in telling one lady that women over fifty shouldn’t show off their arms. However, she’s emotionally vulnerable and is very human. Glee, take note. Ms. McCord, please come to the podium to accept your award for most improved performance.

It also seems like the show has repositioned Naomi, Silver (Jessica Stroup), and Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes) as the alpha females. Given that Adrianna was the most interesting character last season, Naomi has developed—character wise, not boobie wise—a great deal, and Silver is no longer crazy, I think this is a wise move…especially since Shenae Grimes is the most insufferable actress on the show and her character, Annie, is currently miserable. The dynamic between those three ladies is really great and their banter is particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately, this is 90210. In the pilot, Adrianna claims that she doesn’t want any more drama in her life. In this zip code, drama in unavoidable. We’ll see how this happy trio holds up because it looks like the seeds of future strife were deftly sown in the pilot. I’m oddly proud of that last sentence.

As always, the show’s biggest downfall is its tendency towards the same plot lines. Naomi and Annie are friends. Then they’re fighting. Back and forth. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they’re buddies again. To pontificate upon that, the show does seem on the predictable side. Newcomer Teddy is Adrianna’s ex-boyfriend but Naomi likes him. Drama. I’m going to predict now that he’s more interested in the third member of their trifecta. Mark my words now. Although thematically there’s a sense of familiarity, the other improvements make the show exciting and somewhat fresh.

So, if you wrote off 90210 after last year, I don’t blame you. It was craptastic. However, I think that zip code is worth one more trip.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

TV Review: Glee

Fox is brilliant. By teasing millions of people with the pilot of Glee, the network’s most promising new show, Fox managed to mount a maelstrom of enthusiasm for last night’s season premiere. Twitter was abuzz with posts about Glee, Facebook was abuzz with posts about Glee, and my pants were abuzz because I think Matthew Morrison (who plays teacher Will Schuester) is super hot. All in all, people were excited.

However, did the show live up to its expectations? Overall, I would say yes. The show delivered some great musical numbers, particularly Lea Michele’s interpretation of Rihanna’s Take a Bow. Indeed, Michele is blessed with the best voice on the show so it should come as no surprise that her song stood out. The group’s version of Push It was hilariously raunchy and their take on Golddigger was very funky, despite Morrison’s tendency to over-enunciate the rap lines. A valid concern that a friend pointed out was that the musical numbers are very obviously recorded. It does tend to be a bit distracting and seems only to serve as an advertisement for the tracks on iTunes. Perhaps in later episodes they’ll give the music more of a “live” feel. Half of this last paragraph is the intellectual property of ALR, but I fully agree.

The show seems to be setting itself up for some promising storylines. The tension between Quinn, Rachel (Michele’s character), and Finn will no doubt provide some great moments. Additionally, the burgeoning relationship between Jayma Mays’ Emma and Will has to eventually cause marriage problems for Will. It’ll be exciting to see where that goes. I would like to see the other Glee members more fully developed, but a few other reviews have indicated that the show will explore the other characters more fully. The students are the heart and soul of Glee, because they're the ones we're rooting for and they're the ones who are struggling through high school.

I have two small criticisms that I hope the show addresses. First of all, I feel like a few of the adults are becoming caricatures. Jane Lynch, who is delicious wicked as the Cheerios coach, may become a bit one-note if her character’s motivations aren’t explained. She’s evil, and Lynch has some of the best lines on the show, but I think her character could use a bit more depth. The same could be said for Jessalyn Gilsig, who plays Terri Schuester. To be blunt, she doesn’t resemble any real human beings I’ve ever met. I think she could, quite easily, if we get to learn more about her backstory and what makes her tick.

My other worry is that the show might have a hard time sustaining itself. The concept seems to lend itself much more easily to a movie than to a TV show. Hopefully the songs and storylines will stay fresh. Nevertheless, the show right now is a clever, heartfelt, and musical delight. It definitely keeps me full of glee.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Monday, September 7, 2009

Single Review: Bad Boys

A wise man once said, "Flo Rida. Why does everything you touch turn to gold?" Well, I'm not quite sure how long Mr. Rida's Midas Touch will last, but it's in full effect on Bad Boys, the debut single from Alexandra Burke. Alexandra is the most recent winner of the X Factor and is being pimped as the next Leona Lewis. In other words, Simon Cowell and company are pushing her like the rent's due tomorrow. Luckily for them, I think she'll deliver.

Alexandra has an incredible voice. On the show, she tackled epic ballads ranging from You Are So Beautiful to Hallelujah, her winning single. On Bad Boys, she's basically flipped the bird to her trademark and just wants to make people dance. I would take issue with that if this track weren't so damn catchy. The chorus is incredibly infectious, the beat is irresistible, and in spite of (or perhaps due to)the lack of showboating, Alexandra does sounds great.

There isn't much to say lyrically. Alexandra is attracted to bad boys and isn't afraid of danger. Although the subject matter doesn't seem unique, it is exciting to see the X Factor songstress recast herself as a dangerous dancehall diva. I have extremely high hopes for her debut CD and this single is a large part of that. Will she adhere to this dangerous image? Will she return to her ballad roots? Will Flo Rida ever stop making hits? Only time will tell.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Single Review: Happy

Requester: JLE

Well, this is quite the time to be a diva fan. Whitney Houston has just released a studio album, Mariah is dropping one in a couple of weeks, and VH1 is finally resurrecting its once beloved Divas Live special. This year, the program features Leona Lewis, one of the newest pop sensations from the UK. Although I don't think she's quite earned her "diva" moniker, her latest release suggests she is well on her way to that title. Happy is a goliath of a power ballad, written and produced by Ryan Tedder. Anyone surprised by this fact hasn't been listening to the radio, because he's all over the place.

Enough about Tedder, though. Let's focus on this track. Happy is perhaps the most poorly named song I've ever heard, because the track is anything but. It's a desperate cry for satisfaction, no matter the cost, from a woman who seems to have been recently wronged. Or maybe she's unhappy with her safe lifestyle. Either way, the core message seems to be, "love is a risk and sometimes it hurts." Maybe Nazareth should be getting royalties. Anyway, given our current pop landscape, Happy does take a unique lyrical approach to a cliched subject.

Leona sounds fantastic on the track. Diva fans may be dismayed at the fact that some legendary voices are falling into disrepair. Not the case with Leona. Her pristine tone is as pure and angelic as ever, making her one of the most talented singers in the game. No complaints here. My only worry is that this song is nowhere near as fresh as Bleeding Love, which is one of the best pop songs of the decade (that list is on the docket). That being said, I do have high hopes for Happy. Nevertheless, the cynic in me thinks that it's not unique enough to be the hit that Perez Hilton claims it will be. After all, Leona isn't a diva just quite yet.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Single Review: We Are Golden

Requester: ALR

Thank God for ALR, because he keeps me in business. Here we have the latest from Mika, the half-Lebanese pop sensation. We Are Golden is the lead single from his upcoming release, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, and it seems to be a promising indication of the quality of Mika's sophomore disc. Incredibly catchy, We Are Golden employs electric guitar, smashing drums, a children's chorus, liberal falsetto, and his best chorus since Grace Kelly.

However, the same problem that plagued Mika's debut also permeates this track. Mika has always been one to favor style over substance. Perhaps We Are Golden is a metaphor that escapes me, but I've listened to this song several times and I still don't have a good sense of what it's about aside from, "people are better than they might appear." On his debut, the two tracks that came closest to striking an emotional chord (Billy Brown and Happy Ending) both undercut themselves in their final moments. Especially Happy Ending, which I found to be the most melodic and well-written song on his debut, hurt itself by underlining its sad message with a jaunty "little bit of love" finale. Sometimes I feel like Mika cannot resist being catchy at the cost of finding some real emotion.

In all fairness, I do think that there's more to this track that first appears. It seems like it's about a young Mika overcoming ridicule. I've always suspected Mika of being gay (fingers crossed) and this track could be a veiled allusion to his upbringing. If that's the case, then this song comes the closest he's ever been to connection style and lyrics. But, I feel like projecting my desired theme gives the track more credit that it deserves. Based on what I hear, it's typical Mika. All style. Little substance.

Rating 3/5

Friday, September 4, 2009

Update

Hi all,

More reviews are coming. I've been pretty sick these past few days and haven't been up on my work. Expect additional reveiws in the very near future (hopefully this weekend).

-Riha