Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

The Overwhelming Meh-ness of Scrubs

January 7, 2009

Our increasingly bipolar culture has come to loathe the middle ground, seeing it as a noncommittal realm where those who don’t have the courage to suck or excel reside. Of course, in actuality, it’s here where most entertainment lies, much of it either unjustly panned or ridiculously praised in order to make it seem more important or offensive than it really is. Though being a moody bastard precludes me from truly appreciating the middle ground, I still wade there, confused about how Night Court is considered a great sitcom, or Bon Jovi is a tried and true band worthy of copious praise or “they ruined music” venom, or even how Spanglish is a movie that marks a new low in American cinema or a true slice of emotional transcendence. To me, they’re just sort of… there. My life is no different knowing they exist, and I don’t think I’d be lacking any enlightenment were they to remain in oblivion. Apparently we’re here to polarize, even though most of what we encounter truly exemplifies “OK.”

The epitome of this for me right now is Scrubs. I’ve spent almost all the time since its inception trying to figure out what in the fuck I think about this show. Is it a slice of impish comic brilliance or a melodramatic succession of unfunny jokes book ended by shallow emotional framing devices that leave the show somewhere between fatally uneven and unwatchable to anyone not run by their gut? Early in the show’s run, I thought the former, and in the last few years, I came to think the latter. But now, with the show in a completely unnecessary amount of syndication (it currently runs on ABC with reruns on Fox, Comedy Central, and TV Land– the latter being a channel devoted to reruns of all television up to now– while 30 Rock currently runs in my darkened living room with a giggling me as its audience), I’ve had time to reconsider. The show is the apex of completely acceptable comedy. It is not, however, the worst show on TV, nor its most consistent. It’s just OK, which of course confounds me as far as its divisive reaction is concerned.

That last sentence isn’t exactly true; I know the show’s Achilles heel/Christ-like figure of emo-humor is douche extraordinaire Zach Braff. His “OK guys, let’s get serious for a minute” voiceovers virtually ruin every episode to some extent. But watching Scrubs regularly makes this akin to having an adorable, sociable, playful puppy come to your house a few times a week, roll around and be insatiable, then end your time together by taking a shit on your floor. You knew it was possible, you knew there was a distinct probability it would happen, and after spending more time with the animal, it becomes apparent that the puppy will do that every time. But it’s not your puppy, so you can’t do anything about it. It’s not your fault, but the fault of the owner. However, it’s still shit, and I can’t think of that many people that want dog shit on the floor.

The “feelings” portion of each show has been justified to me as both “necessary, because it’s set in a hospital” and as postmodernism. I disagree with them both (comedy doesn’t always need to observe the boundaries of realism and decency and that referencing the “feelings” portions within the episode is postmodern, not the existence of the “feelings” monologues themselves, respectively). And that ruined the show for me at first, magnifying the bucket of cringe-inducing earnestness that was Zach Braff’s tour de self important shit Garden State. But there are elements of the show that are damn funny, even inspired.

Like most mainstream entertainment, especially in the time we’re stuck in, it isn’t half bad once the blatant and dissonant emoting is removed from the equation. Though lacking the ensemble brilliance of 30 Rock or the complete absence of regard for sentimentality of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs has many, many enjoyable moments. Though many of the show’s bits, cutaways, and running gags fall dismally flat, the ones that don’t are the reasons to come back to the show. They range from goofy to shockingly subversive (Scrubs’ more inspired jokes touch upon surprisingly candid jabs at race and filthy, filthy sexual innuendos, among others), and almost always have at least one really exemplary bit in each episode. Not to mention John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox, whose violently anti-emotional counterpart to Braff’s wounded faun makes for the show’s most consistent element, and probably provides the show’s few genuinely likable sentimental moments. Scrubs is like Taco Bell: it’s bad to live on a steady diet of it, but it’s not nearly as bad as they tell you it is.

But of course, this is where my problem lies: to the hipster crowd, defending Scrubs is like drop kicking a child in the middle of a mall. To the legions of its devoted fans, pointing out any of the show’s obvious flaws is akin to murdering their house pets. I have friends who think less of me for liking the show, and  have a friend who’s becoming an EMT due to her fondness of the program. I just don’t get it. I’ve never gone out of my way to watch the show, but if nothing else is on and I want to shut my mind off for an hour or two, there are certainly worse ways to go about doing so. And even in that, Scrubs is fine entertainment, with the upside of its constant seesawing consistently enjoyable, sometimes so much so that it drowns out the “serious” portions. But I refuse to call it a great show, or even one of the best shows on TV. It’s OK, I guess. I don’t think that’s enough, but I also don’t think that’s grounds for calling for the heads of all involved. Really, when television is home to The Hills and Rock of Love: Charm School, there are bigger fish to fry. Or incinerate.

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A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity?

December 19, 2008

Though “deathcore” has gotten itself a bad name in the last year or two, I’ve always thought of Misery Index as the pinnacle of it. Their first few releases– Retaliate and Dissent, especially– have a loose, hardcore swagger to them, but are still plenty rooted in grind and death metal. Though not as admirable as Dying Fetus (of which members of Misery Index were once a part), I find those two albums are some of the metal records I listen to the most (when determined, I’m a runner, and I defy you to find a better collection of songs to move your blood than Retaliate). Whereas hardcore has come to mean “breakdowns” to anythingcore bands, Misery Index are both aged and well-versed enough to grasp the full spectrum of the genre and slyly combine it with other “extreme metal” elements to remind us that, well, if the guys in Slayer didn’t like hardcore, metal would have never gotten fast. Though hardcore and metal exist, usually confidently, on two different sides, the line between the two is thin, and they do a lot more overlapping than we think. Early Misery Index is one of the bands that overlap the best.

With that in mind, I was hesitant to check out Traitors, their latest. I was anxious at first, only due to the album’s cover art (which is saying a lot, in that I haven’t been impressed by a band’s cover art in years. The last decade has been awful in terms of album artwork). Upon hearing a few tracks in advance, I was unimpressed: the music sounded rigid and slick, with a lot more death metal riffing than I’m used to from them. But on a more visceral level, nothing popped out at me. I was disappointed, then moved on to the seeming plethora of other great death metal that came out this year (Hate Eternal? Dead Covenant? Arsis? Origin? Neuraxis? Yes please! And Jesus Christ, there was more!) Not to say that Misery Index sold out– an album like Traitors, no matter what your feeling on it are, was certainly not made with financial gain in mind– but it felt like the band was past its prime, downshifting from impressive to adequate.

Though with the end of the year at hand, I couldn’t help but notice how many year end lists (well, in the metal-sphere, anyway) had Traitors on it. The album was fairly well received, but I didn’t think it was considered “great.” I eschewed Discordia— their last album– as seemingly everyone else had, and thought of this as just an extension of that aforementioned adequacy-not-greatness. But the praise for it seemed strangely unanimous. So, having not yet checked it out, I decided to give it a chance.

And the results are– wait for it– mixed! Though better than I had originally thought, my initial impressions were correct: the album is too clean-sounding and stiff to recapture my interest in full. That being said, Traitors is no work of half-assery; it’s a brass knuckled punch to the jaw. It suffers mostly from what I call Chinese Democracy Syndrome: were it released by a band I’d never heard of, I’d think more of the album. But because it’s Misery Index, I expect more. Is that fair? Absolutely not. But is it how we collectively think? Absolutely. To start as a band of great quality means the pressure of great expectations. And if you are a truly great band, those expectations should be met. Of course, the middling nature of Discordia and the not-as-good-as-it-should-be status of Traitors doesn’t necessarily reflect on the band overall; after all, Bob Dylan wasn’t so hot in the 80s and most of the 90s, but has had a late-career renaissance most bands and artists don’t experience. Or more toward Misery Index’s sound: Celtic Frost.

That being said, the core of Misery Index is, for the most part, still intact. The guitars are  meaty as hell, but fast and unrelenting. Vocalist/bassist Jason Netherton still has the sandpaper bark that’s graced every MI full length, EP, and split. The band’s uncanny knack of knowing when to shift gears between genres is still unmatched, while paying attention to cohesion and not slipping into the choppy depths of the kitchen sink-core craze (Heavy Heavy Low Low, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, etc. bloody etc.) of the early part of this decade. The less-then-exceptional parts (the outro riff on “Ghosts of Catatonia” wasting its brilliant build up, the too-straight up hardcore of “The Arbiter”, the fact that “Thrown into the Sun” is by a wide margin the worst song Misery Index have ever put to tape) are overshadowed by the record’s best moments (the top notch intro “We Never Come in Peace”; the album closer “Black Sites” dipping into melodic death metal only enough to stick to your ribs as opposed to playing to your sweet tooth; plus many, many other opportune points of plain ol’ solid extreme metal). Expecting too much from Traitors is a shame, in that despite its imperfections, the band still seems to be on top of their game.

Of course, the band are missing the grime and groove that made them so likable to begin with. The blame rests solely with two culprits: producer Kurt Ballou and drummer Adam Jarvis. Ballou’s had a fucking STRONG string of production credits in the last few years: Animosity’s Animal, Torche’s Meanderthal, Disfear’s Live the Storm… hell, he even made the last Elysia record bearable. But Traitors is too antiseptic. The guitars, while having Kurt’s signature crunch, are rigidly married to the beat as opposed to just swinging along with it. Jarvis is an able death metal drummer, but Misery Index aren’t really a death metal band. The brilliance of original Misery Index drummers Kevin Talley and Matt Byers (and in defense of Jarvis, they’re tough acts to follow) was that their styles were noncommittal, bobbing and weaving between grindcore blasts, mid-paced death metal, and deep hardcore grooves. By sticking to just one style of drumming (plus not having the same sense of groove as the aforementioned former sticksmen), Jarvis takes some of the excitement from the band. There really aren’t any sloppy segues, but there aren’t any enlightening shifts, either.

But there’s something delightfully angry about Traitors that seems to hit the spot after the last ridiculous year in our country’s history. With Rage Against the Machine and Fugazi missing in action, and other important or notable bands not attacking Bush and America’s obese consumption addiction with the lobster-faced anger of Misery Index (possibly because, with Bush’s unequivocal political sadism and the nation’s laziness slow rotting away our physical land at home and our standing abroad , the target was too easy and slow moving, which isn’t necessarily a bad decision), it’s nice to hear a band this ANGRY about the bullshit to which we’ve grown accustomed. By no means is Traitors perfect, and it won’t age as well as their early work. But in the climate in which it came out (in the shadow of America’s most politically toxic era and deathcore looking to do for death metal to what Dick Cheney did for executive privilege), it’s a sobering slap to the face. Like a sneeze or a shot of espresso, it’ll jerk you back into consciousness, despite its blemishes. Wake up.

The End of an Era

December 19, 2008

My first memory of Guns ’n’ Roses coincides with the last time they were truly culturally significant: it was around 1992 or ’93, and I was in 5th grade. My gym teacher, Mr. Tenero, would occasionally let us bring in music to do whatever the hell it is you do in fifth grade gym class. Two of the more edgy dudes brought in a cassette– cassettes being the primary and most affordable method of obtaining music at the time– of Use Your Illusion II, and after my gym teacher skimmed over the lyrics, he thanked them for wanting to contribute to the class, but he thought that the tape was too inappropriate for its intended purpose. One of those guys would grow up to be a junkie that would go to jail for beating up his mother. I graduated from high school, went to college, graduated from college, got a Master’s Degree, and have had a series of jobs since then. I went from liking Nirvana to Nine Inch Nails to Fear Factory to Slayer to Emperor to Dying Fetus to Anaal Nathrakh to Suffocation to probably hundreds of other bands, both metal and decidedly not so. In that time, we’ve gone from consuming music via magnetic tape to the digital ambitions of CDs to the once futuristic concept of having all music be completely digital and held in a device the size of a palm, weighing only a few ounces. Through all this, the last original work by Guns ’n’ Roses remained the Use Your Illusion duo.

That duo already showed GnR fraying at the edges: they’re both fatally imperfect records, usually drowning in their own mega-excess and threatening to collapse under the weight of their spectacular ambitions. But there were also a bunch of great songs on those records that would rightfully join Guns ’n’ Roses’ canon. From there, GnR went from being the world’s biggest band– both in overindulgence and popularity– to the holders of a “long awaited” record, to a nostalgia act. Before hearing a note of Chinese Democracy, most had already written it off and were pining for the GnR lineup of lore, because in between the Use Your Illusion stadium tours and the cold November Sunday when the new Guns ‘n’ Roses album was officially and finally released, bands long thought dead returning to the road and studio became big business. While Chinese Democracy began as a fight for W. Axl Rose to stay relevant and push the GnR’s dirty roots to the limits of their very definition, it’s been in waiting for long enough to be viewed as another in a long line of bands past their prime trying to prove themselves as still artistically significant.

And in Axl’s defense, this isn’t fair; he’s been working on this since The Spaghetti Incident, so it was probably made with at least some– if not truly the best, for him– artistic intentions in mind. In Axl’s condemnation, it would may have been in his best interest to have put this out in 1999, when it would have knocked the world on its collective ass. But either way now, it’s legally out in the world, no longer just a mess of bootlegs and rumors. And the strange thing about Chinese Democracy is that it doesn’t sound like anything around right now while avoiding sounding like it was frozen in the amber of the mid-nineties. Our shared attitudes toward this record– waning from excitement to denunciation– have shifted so dramatically that it became impossible to have any accurate expectations for this record. Its mythic stature has made it transcend a worth-the-wait affair or an epic disappointment. It simply is, now.

But what is it, exactly? It’s too much. It’s bloated, with every note on the record produced within an inch of sounding robotic. Nothing on this record is simple, but instead a collection of ideas rethought and rethought then covered with a gloss of new perspective. Axl’s love of rock pomposity and excess dates back to the multi-million dollar videos for “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged”; Chinese Democracy is that love fully blossomed. It makes the Use Your Illusion records, both toeing the line of Spinal Tap-worthy glut themselves, seem like gravelly, lo-fi demos. It could possibly be the most enormous album ever released, which is both its greatest failure and its greatest triumph. Chinese Democracy is so overstated that you can’t peg it as either good or bad; it’s a mess, but what a glorious mess it is.

When taken for exactly what it is– and let’s just be reasonable here and eschew any hope that it will recapture any of the sound or spirit of Appetite for Destruction— it’s in many ways one of the great rock records. Though perhaps only half of the songs on the record are good songs, the not-so-good ones are so spectacularly executed that they’re at least worth an approving nod, even if they’re usually songs you’ll come to skip over when returning to Chinese Democracy in the future. And that return will come about: Axl, for all his ridiculousness and dunderheadedness, has an impeccable ear for pop rock songwriting. From the title track to the sad radio rock of “Better” to the Queen-esque overreaching of Chinese Democracy’s first leak– via the band itself at the 2002 VMAs– “Madagascar”, there isn’t necessarily a shortage of good songs, even if the record isn’t made up entirely of good songs. Perhaps it’s the low expectations due to our “where’s Slash and Duff?!” dismissal of anything GnR past 1993, but many of the album’s songs are particularly affecting, and stick to the soul like flies to flypaper.

This, of course, presents the most damning aspect of Chinese Democracy: what does any of this have to do with Guns ‘n’ Roses? The band established itself as a breath of fresh air from the glossy and weak metal-du-jour: glam and what has now become known as Hair Metal. Appetite— and it was a conscious decision not to mention the seminal album more than once before now– was a dirty butterfly knife to the gut of Poison and Whitesnake, reminding the general public of the scrappy roots of rock and roll via equal parts classic rock swagger and punk rock piss and vinegar. As we all collectively predicted, Chinese Democracy has nothing in common with Appetite for Destruction. The band name is seemingly just a formality. But with that, not a moment of the new record is spent missing Slash, Duff, or Izzy; listen to Chinese Democracy and try and find a moment where they would have fit. You won’t come across such a moment.

The massive irony of Chinese Democracy is that it’s released under the name of a band that reminded the public the refreshing power of a band writing simply great, ballsy rock songs. That irony also encompasses the fact that, in an age where any jerk off with a guitar, a Pro Tools rig, and some expensive microphones can make a glossy rock record, it’s an album that actually benefits from intemperance. When Nickelback and Hinder write shamelessly simple music and manage to sell a simply retarded amount of albums doing so, Axl Rose dropping a neutron bomb of complexity into the mainstream feels like a relief. The rock world into which the original incarnation of the band plunged a syringe of adrenaline has come full circle; the downside to the near-Communist pop culture atmosphere where anyone is capable of making a record is that not everyone can do it well. In that sense, the title of the new Guns ’n’ Roses record is strangely prophetic. The tens of millions of dollars put into Chinese Democracy are terrifically apparent. This album could not have been made by anyone but the mythic figure of W. Axl Rose. The seventeen years it spent in gestation all feel necessary. Whether or not it’s good or bad seem like semantics; this record is purely an event. And whether its ambition signals the resurgence of or conclusive demise of rock and roll as we once knew it, Chinese Democracy lives up to, in every conceivable way, all its good and bad hype. And in that, more than any other record I’ve ever heard, you’d be stupid to miss it. Axl Rose’s two decades worth of artistic excess has yielded results. Whether they’re worthwhile or hollowly pretentious, by no means is Chinese Democracy a failure.

“I’ve never had a piggy bank, but one time I had some bacon that tasted an awful lot like change…”

December 19, 2008

Mitch Hedberg’s “last” album, Do You Believe in Gosh?, was released back in September. Even with the hint of its release, his still-loyal fans (including this dude) were filled with the sort of glee reserved for Christmas or graduations, itchy to hear the last bits of new material left in his canon. Any complaints from his fans about the album are purely rooted in either too-high-to-fulfill expectations or douchebag hipster snobbery; Do You Believe in Gosh?‘s saddest point is that it shows that Mitch on top of his game at the time of his passing, with his new material eschewing risky new ground and staying with what made him so likable to begin with. Though it arguably pigeonholed him as the stoner’s Stephen Wright, it also made Mitch a reliable source of humor: no amount of parking tickets, shitty coworkers, messy breakups, deadbeat landlords, or Sarah Palins could dull the blow of a Mitch Hedberg act, at once charming and funny in an endearing way. Despite the lack of “himself” in his material (and thus dodging the psycho-traumatic bellyaching of his late 90’s/new millennium contemporaries), he still came across as very much approachable. The moment Mitch’s untimely death sinks in is after the last joke of the CD, when it’s apparent that there is no more new Mitch Hedberg. But the energy and razor-sharp cleverness of his puckish-yet-affecting jokes briefly suspend reality, leaving you in the audience on the evening the CD was recorded, drink in hand, watching him avoid eye contact with the audience even though all he’d encounter would be a sea of approving gazes.

Those familiar with Mitch’s work– and it’s somewhat easy to be, considering his relative ubiquity on Comedy Central and the like even before his death– will find both familiarity and a subtly different approach on Gosh?. His lifelong battle with stage fright, whereas his specials and previous two CDs showed a man who still managed to pull off his carefree brand of one-liners despite his crippling awareness of the judgments of his audience, seems only an afterthought on this album. The CD is nothing but new material, though the jokes on the CD all follow the same path as his other jokes did– charming observational humor with an absurdist slant, only about half to three quarters of the jokes being effective while the others were brushed off in an almost post-modern awareness of how bad they were. Some of the bits on Do You Believe in Gosh? fall awkwardly flat, and would render another comedian’s CD as a mixed bag. But Mitch– even though it’s very clear that he’s the joke’s creator– seems to be refreshingly more in on the joke than you. His act can seem dumb. In fact, it is dumb. But the first person that would call him on it is Mitch himself. It was a brilliant way to strip away pretense, thus enabling the simple charm of his work to burrow into his fans. Some may not have warmed up to him, but those who did hung onto each goofy word that left his mouth.

Do You Believe in Gosh? is not a documenting of his last show. In fact, it wasn’t even intended to be released as a CD. Mitch was rehearsing to record a new CD before he died, and spent time on the road polishing up his act. So there’s a sense of ease and spontaneity on the album that was missing on his prior two albums. And though this could come off, in theory, as hearing a bootleg of a show Miles Davis played around the time Kind of Blue was released as opposed to listening to Kind of Blue itself, it actually strengthens the argument of Mitch Hedberg being a great and versatile comedian. Missing from his first two albums are almost any interaction with the audience aside from the occasional jab at himself after a joke bombed. Gosh? includes conversations with the crowd that kill as much as his best material, a refreshing discovery considering Mitch’s act was so meticulously rehearsed. And that quality of meticulous preparation is all but gone here, perhaps due to the fact that he didn’t think the show would ever be heard by anyone not in the audience or because he’d grown as a performer, playing as much off the room as well as his tried and true material. Mitch had been around for a while, and of course to add to the Universe’s unending sense of irony, and was probably about to ascend to a elevated status in the entertainment world. Do You Believe in Gosh? is a great case for his theoretical ascension.

The saddest parts of the CD– aside from the aforementioned ending– is how Mitch died. On his first two CDs, Mitch was clearly on something: Strategic Grill Locations features the man either stoned out of his mind or on a near-drooling dose of painkillers while Mitch All Together (named a joke only on the previous CD) features an occasionally abrasive energy that nods to an excess of coke. But Do You Believe in Gosh? hints at an at least metaphorical sobriety, having Mitch sound completely in control and confident. He never came off as a basket case or a mess during his life, and though he freely admitted to drug use in his act (ranging from the classic “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.” to some of his banter with “Phil” on his latest), it’s not apparent anywhere on the album that he was out of control or the sense that we’re catching him in the midst of a downward spiral. It’s not that his first 2 CDs are sloppy; in fact, I personally find them funnier overall. But they’re missing the coherent, focused, loose approach that Gosh? has in spades, and it leaves the listener feeling good about the place Mitch was in when he died.

His last show– circulated online via a very rudimentary bootleg– utilizes the same material as Do You Believe in Gosh? along with more audience banter. He sounds carefree in his delivery of new material, and the audience responds favorably. Then he closes out his show with a smattering of his old, beloved material, with the audience delivering the punchlines as he does. Though I don’t know much about his personal life, I’ve always viewed his overdose and subsequent death as accidental; though hiding behind a pleasant facade is nothing new in entertainment, Mitch didn’t seem to be tortured enough to take his own life. The end of his last show, though, adds a sad coda to Do You Believe in Gosh?: he seems perfectly in tune with his audience, and like a band, he gives them the material they came to hear at the end, everyone laughing just as hard as they did the first time they heard it. It’s a melancholy end to a set of jokes that relied as much on the charm of the man telling them as the material itself. And as on his other CDs, neither charm nor good material is lacking on Do You Believe in Gosh?.