Wednesday, November 19, 2008

David Cook Rocks My World (Again!)

David Cook, DAVID COOK
RCA/Sony BMG/19 Entertainment

I don’t normally review music on this blog, for two main reasons. First, I simply don’t possess the depth or breadth of knowledge to give a meaningful evaluation of any genre of music, even popular music. Second and more importantly, music is the one form of art that I have little, if any, desire to dissect and analyze. I've always listened to it and played it from the gut. I leave the appreciation of the form and structure to others.

However, since I’ve invested a rather absurd amount of interest in the career of this year’s American Idol, David Cook (see all blog entries for the months of April and May), I feel compelled to offer my two cents on his first post-Idol album. If you’re rolling your eyes already, rest assured that this is not going to be a puff piece or a squeefest about how dreamy David Cook is. Attractive as I find him, I’m not thinking about that when I’m listening to his record. I'm thinking about the record.

And you know what? I like what I’m hearing—nothing groundbreaking here, but this is solid stuff, well crafted and easy on the ears, with some standout songs. It’s a particularly impressive accomplishment considering the compressed time frame within which Cook had to complete recording while juggling a 50-city summer Idol concert tour and all the required post-Idol P.R. Even though the first impression David Cook leaves is that it’s clearly crafted for maximum commercial appeal, a second, more careful listen highlights both Cook’s emotive abilities and the versatility that served him so well on Idol. It also shows the expert hand of producer Rob Cavallo, who also produced Green Day’s American Idiot and My Chemical Romance’s Black Parade, and who introduces here some arresting sonic textures and layers without overprocessing Cook’s vocals.

As a songwriter, Cook’s own natural inclinations tend towards a ’90s alt-rock sensibility, which not surprisingly comes through most strongly on the songs he co-wrote with Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida and the Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik. (This is far from a bad thing, especially if you, like me, are prone to late Gen X longings for the days when boys wore flannel and girls flocked to worship the great ladies of Lilith Fair.) Some tracks, however, have a more retro, almost ‘80s feel—such as the current radio single, “Light On”—while still others have a more contemporary, if somewhat generic, pop-rock sound. The latter was most likely a necessary concession to the record label, which would no doubt like to see Cook become the next Daughtry.

The first half of the album features more uptempo numbers, among which the gritty yet catchy “Bar-ba-sol” stands out as the closest an Idol alum has probably ever gotten to being edgy. The second half slows down quite a bit—some would say it drags, and it does run to one too many power ballads with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and soaring choruses. Yet this is the part of the album that really showcases the beauty and expressiveness of Cook’s voice, which in my opinion was always underrated by “Idol” viewers who tended to see him as more as a clever performer and arranger and less as a pure singer. Nowhere is his musicality on more effective display than the poignant “Lie” or the meltingly tender “Avalanche.”

However, the two tracks that come the closest to capturing the essence of Cook—i.e, that bear the most resemblance to his pre-Idol, independently released work—are “Mr. Sensitive” (one of the Raine Maida collaborations) and “A Daily AntheM,” which Cook wrote before he tried out for American Idol. Not coincidentally, they're also two of the most interesting songs on the record, both melodically and lyrically, as well as two of the most personal. (The idiosyncratic capitalization of “A Daily AntheM” is a nod to David’s older brother, who has brain cancer, and it isn’t the only such tribute – “Permanent,” easily the most nakedly emotional song on the album, is another.) As such, they can't help but make me yearn for future albums that are bound to be more David Cook than, well, David Cook. Still, as an introduction of his talents to the general public, this post-Idol debut gets the job done and offers a promising glimpse of things to come.



If you like melodic post-grunge rock along the lines of Lifehouse and/or Goo Goo Dolls: “Lie,” “Avalanche” (the latter should also appeal to country music listeners - it has something of that vibe)

If you like harder, crunchier rock: “Bar-ba-sol,” "Mr. Sensitive"

If you like the ’80s: “Light On,” “Come Back to Me”; also “Permanent,” on which Cook seems to be channeling Journey’s Steve Perry

If you want a less filtered taste of Cook’s pre-Idol writing style: “A Daily AntheM” (psst: it has a 15-minute length because there’s a hidden track at the end that shows a peek of Cook’s pre-Idol bad boy-rocker side. More, please!)

My current favorite: "A Daily AntheM" (+ hidden track), though "Lie" is very seductive and, I think, a potentially big radio hit

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stirred, Not Shaken: Bond Seeks "Quantum" of Revenge


directed by Marc Forster
starring Daniel Craig, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini

I’ve never been a huge fan of the James Bond series, mainly because its basic formula always seemed a little too silly for me to buy into the fantasy it was selling. (Put it this way: I’d take “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” any day over all the Bond movies put together.) Yet seeing the latest installment, “Quantum of Solace,” got me wondering: if you take away the silliness and the superficial gloss—from the cartoonish supervillains to the expensive, intricate gadgets that are made to be broken, to the martinis and the terrible, terrible puns, what do you have left?

The answer is: a perfectly serviceable spy thriller that just happens to feature an agent whose name is Bond rather than Bourne. The franchise reboot, “Casino Royale,” stood out because it was essentially a love story—with terrific chemistry between its leads—as well as an origins story of sorts. “Quantum,” which picks up directly where “CR” left off, maps a fairly standard-issue revenge narrative over a murky plot revolving around the shadowy global organization responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd, the woman who broke Bond's heart. The film is pretty well executed as far as it goes—with enough hand-to-hand fighting, hard knocks, and high-octane chases by car, foot, and plane in various exotic locales to satisfy the sharpest pangs for an action fix. But it doesn’t go much farther than that, despite Daniel Craig’s best efforts to convey the tautly coiled intensity of a man who’s turned his grief inward and his rage towards a single-minded purpose.

That said, Craig’s the best thing in the movie, even if it’s hard to connect his killing-machine version of .007 to the humorous, urbane detachment of the Bonds of yore. Indeed, the general direction the character is taking, while interesting in itself, doesn’t always jibe tonally with the franchise elements that still linger—such as the obligatory two babes, one disposable, the other less so. The disposable babe (Gemma Arterton) seems to be there more as a homage to the Bond tradition than for any real function in the storyline, while the less disposable one (Olga Kurylenko) starts out making bedroom eyes at Bond only to become, in the next minute (and for the rest of the movie), as dour and stonyfaced as he is. Maybe it’s contagious; maybe it’s because her backstory and agenda are designed, not very subtly, to mirror his. Kurylenko gamely tries to earn our sympathies as well as Bond’s, and mostly succeeds—but let’s face it, she’s no Eva Green.

The rest of the cast plays it down rather than up. French actor Mathieu Almaric (so excellent in last year’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) makes an adequate if unremarkable villain, exuding a quality of menace that’s reptilian rather than flashy. Dame Dench brings her usual reliably flinty presence as .007’s boss, M; never mind that it’s a role she could do in her sleep. And it’s always a pleasure to see Jeffrey Wright (as Bond’s CIA counterpart) in any role, though he deserves more screen time than he gets here. Ditto Giancarlo Giannini as an old foe-turned-ally who tries to help Bond in his quest. The overall restraint in the acting fits the tenor of the movie as a whole: it’s as if we’re supposed to believe that all of this could actually happen, quietly and furtively and at the margins of our consciousness. One could argue that this is the right kind of Bond for these grey, uncertain times, where a pregnant silence speaks volumes more than the most elaborate threats or explanations. Still—what is a Bond movie without a little grandstanding?


Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Watershed Moment

I first learned what a "watershed event" was, I believe, in my 8th grade social studies class. As I recall, my teacher, Mrs. Beebe, actually drew a little picture of a shed on the chalkboard. I didn't think the illustration helped her point all that much, but I did get the point - though I don't remember what historical event she was giving as a example.

There's been arguably more than one watershed event in my own lifetime. The fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11. Others whose impact has been more subtle. But none filled me with such hope as the one that occurred last night: the election of Barack Obama as our next President.

Those who know me - indeed, those who read this blog earlier in the year - know that I haven't always fully backed Obama. I got behind him late, being first an Edwards supporter and then a Hillary supporter. While I always admired Obama's charisma and his abilities, I was largely unmoved by his campaign rhetoric and disenchanted with the media coverage of the primaries, which (perhaps unfairly) colored my view of him as a candidate. Still, I always knew that if he were nominated I would vote for him, and in the homestretch of his campaign I developed a much deeper respect for him. In particular for his temperament - steady, cool, unruffled, just what we all need in a time of crisis. I volunteered for him. And when he gave his acceptance speech last night, I wept for joy. For the first time, I thrilled to his promise that change would come to America - because it was no longer a merely rhetorical promise; it was a promise fulfilled. Not just by him, but by America itself, despite all its suspicions, misgivings, and pockets of seemingly intransigent resistance.

Will he be a great President? Honestly, I don't know. The challenges facing him are almost unimaginable. Even now, I'm not one of those willing to take on faith that as President Obama will change the face of politics or the way things are done in Washington. Nor do I envy him the herculean task of cleaning up the truly gross Augean stables that 8 years of Republican (mis)rule are leaving behind. I do, however, believe he has the smarts, the patience, and above all, the resolution to set about repairing the damage and see the job through - if we give him the chance. And so I hope those who still see him with stars in their eyes aren't expecting him to move heaven and earth immediately. He has extraordinary qualities but, as his own wife once said, he's still just a man. He will have to compromise. He will have to prioritize. And he will make mistakes. We need to recognize and brace for that.

And we need to be mindful that even as we collectively overcame any lingering prejudices to elect our first President of color, too many of us simultaneously clung to other prejudices in denying another minority the right to marry. As a society, we still have a long way to go.

But today, we should rejoice in the moment. This watershed moment.

Somewhere, Mrs. Beebe has got to be smiling.