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As I slipped the CD into the tray , I expected to be mildly disappointed, only to find myself jumping up and down in exhilaration from the first moments of “Sleeping Lessons” to the dying notes of “A Comet Appears.”
WEAKEND PLANNER MUSIC SNOBS SPECIAL: REUNITED AND IT FEELS RELATIVELY OK
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SCOPPA’S SONGFILE: GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES
The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop) / Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather (Virgin) /
Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (RCA): Every so often, pop hits a particularly good patch—a moment in time in which several artists simultaneously appear with records that raise the bar for everyone else. It last happened two springs ago, when Beck’s Guero, Spoon’s Gimme Fiction and Coldplay’s X&Y brightened the landscape with their comparably delectable juxtapositions of slam-dunk hooks, phat grooves and overall inventiveness. Happily, it’s happening again with the Shins’ latest, which pushes the door wide open for Fountains of Wayne and Kings of Leon—indisputably the two best “of” bands on the planet—whose albums street on the same day, April 3.

Blown away by the folk-rock grandeur of first single “Phantom Limb,” with its incremental buildup to a climax worthy of the Arcade Fire, I read a number of reviews of Wincing the Night Away with great interest, and while each was positive, none was rhapsodic. In his lead review for Rolling Stone, Bob Christgau pronounced that the LP “feels labored,” though “gracefully realized” in an assessment that dwelled on “clumsy bits of overreaching” in James Mercer’s lyrics. Those qualifiers led to a rating of three-and-a-half stars, which has become the Stone equivalent of Christgau’s B+. So, as I slipped the CD into the tray after scoring a copy, I expected to be mildly disappointed, only to find myself jumping up and down in exhilaration from the first moments of “Sleeping Lessons” to the dying notes of “A Comet Appears”—marveling at the gleaming architecture of the arrangements fashioned by Mercer and his bandmates, with every nuance captured by co-producer/engineer/mixer Joe Chicarelli in a career turn for the old hand; the viscerally elegant grooves; Mercer’s captivatingly earnest vocals and essentially musical use of language; and, above all, melodies possessing all the untethered brilliance of the young Brian Wilson.

All of that accessible headiness finds its way into songs rich enough to haunt your dreams and accompany you into wakefulness. Lately, that’s been happening to me with “Sea Legs,” whose skipping-record groove, ornamented with a lilting string synth line redolent of Boz ScaggsSilk Degrees, blossoms into the sort of widescreen climax that Tears for Fears (my wife Peggy gets credit for noting the TFF parallel) were so good at erecting a quarter century ago—totally unexpected and utterly irresistible. You’ll note that this is the track Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay dismissed for “its intrusive synthesized drum beat and lackluster arrangement,” comparing it to Eve 6, yet. To borrow John McEnroe’s ever-useful expression of incredulity: Matt, you cannot be serious! If “Sea Legs” ain’t a smash, there’s something terribly wrong with the music biz… Um, scratch that last part.

It’ll be hard to top Wincing as the album of the year in my neck of the woods, but the Fountains’ Traffic and Weather (produced with Steely Dan-like punchy precision by the band’s Adam Schlesinger) and the Kings’ Because of the Times (breaking new ground for both the band and co-producer Ethan Johns) come kissing close. That said, I’m not anticipating the critics jumping on the soapbox for either if they can’t hear the readily apparent awesomeness of the Shins’ opus. Indeed, Fountains are already taking heat for their mean-spirited character sketches—although I pick up empathy as well as caricature in Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood’s songs, which recall the work of Randy Newman and Fagen & Becker in their observational acuity. No other outfit could come up with songs like “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” (to which anyone who’s been stuck in an airport for a few hours will readily relate), “Strapped for Cash” (speaking of relatability!) or the title song, which picks up heavy breathing in the newsroom at drivetime.

By the same token, no other lineup aside from the three Followill brothers and their cousin would dare to open their crucial third album with a seven-minute-plus track lacking a conventional verse/chorus structure, but the move proves to be a revelation—I’ve never heard anyone do more with eight bars than the Kings do with “Knocked Up,” starting with the galloping grooves of drummer Nathan and his bass playing demon kid brother Jared, who make a compelling case for themselves as the best rhythm section in rock & roll. You’ll have to hear it to get the idea, but "Knocked Up" is a stone stunner, enabling this rapidly maturing young band to hit the ground running as it sets off into uncharted territory, at one point, on “My Party,” delivering the analog equivalent of Nine Inch Nails’ fang-baring intensity.

The spirit of adventure is alive and well in the hearts, minds and booties of these three bands…and I haven’t even heard the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible yet. Here’s hoping that this time, good things come in fours.

TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS: NON-LEAP YEAR EDITION
1. Ian McEwan, Saturday (Anchor Books): Booker Prize-winning U.K. author McEwan’s novel about a day in the life of a prosperous middle-aged London neurosurgeon and his family is the literary version of The Beatles classic of the same name—“A Day in the Life,” that is: “Woke up/Got out of bed/Saw a plane in flames burn red.” It’s a meditation on a number of post-9/11-inspired issues that takes place on Feb. 15, 2003, the day a million protestors marched on Hyde Park to oppose the pending invasion of Iraq by the U.S. Saturday juxtaposes the relative certainty of science and medicine with the unpredictability of human nature, the satisfaction of a job well-done with the comforts of family, balanced by the fact we’re all just a mortal gaggle of DNA winding our way toward an inevitable demise. The compressed time period deals with the macro as well as the micro, mirroring the lifetime each of us goes through in a single day, the way we process information and react to it, as Henry Perowne’s chance, Crash-like fender-bender with a trio of thugs almost brings down his carefully constructed, self-contained universe. “There is a grandeur in this view of life,” he muses, quoting from a biography of Charles Darwin, a belief that all things work out for the best in the end, including a number of internal thoughts on how the physical matter of the brain translates into consciousness and ideas, with a side journey into the wonder of the way our children can have completely different skills than we do while sharing our genetic code. Perowne waxes eloquently about his son, a guitar blues prodigy who studied with Jack Bruce, and his Oxford-educated daughter, a published poet who returns to the family carrying a child from an Italian boy dad's never met. The story is framed with what amounts to the most precious thing of all, making love to one’s spouse, but in between it reflects what it means to be a human today, living in a universe under a cloud of nuclear destruction. “There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts,” contemplates Perowne, falling asleep just before dawn at the end of a hectic day as he huddles up against his wife. “And then: there’s only this.” McEwan’s book suggests there is no better way of coping with the current zeitgeist, or our ultimate fate, than that contact.

2. The Klezmatics, Wonder Wheel - Lyrics by Woody Guthrie (Jewish Music Group): Winner of the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album, this posthumous collaboration between veteran Lower East Side Jewish music group The Klezmatics and Woody Guthrie is a polyglot, multi-culti melting-pot stew, reflecting the legendary American folk singer’s time spent on Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue with his Jewish wife and four children in the ’40s, “Where the lox and bagels meet/Where the halvah meets the pickle/Where the sour meets the sweet.” Set to lyrics from the same batch of never-recorded compositions supplied by Woody’s daughter Nora that inspired the pair of late-'90s/early-2000 Mermaid Avenue collections by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Wonder Wheel locates klezmer's links to culturally disparate music of diaspora like ska (the brassy Caribbean horns of “Mermaid’s Avenue” and the South American-tinged “Condorbird”) and Irish folk (guest vocalist Susan McKeon’s pure soprano lilt on “Gonna Get Through This World” and “From Here On In”). “Goin’ Away to Sea” is an accordion-pumping chanty crossed with a klezmer-flavored vow to “put them Fascists in their place.” Guthrie’s Semitic bent also comes out in “Come When I Call You,” a “Chad Gadyo”-style nursery rhyme that begins with “one’s for the pretty little baby,” adding and counting down a list that grows exponentially. In the lullabye “Headdy Down,” which begins with a Byrds by-way-of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” twang, he uses the Yiddish word for head (“kepula”) as well as adding the diminutive affection Joad-elah to his daughter’s name. “Wheel of Life” marks the common ground between Eastern European davening and Middle Eastern snake-charming, while the closing “Heaven” is a “Turn Turn Turn”-style epic recalling the connection between Woody and Dylan as it neatly summarizes the album’s achievement in its prescient final verse: “I do not expect you to sing it as I do, nor to sing such a curious song/I wrote down this song for my own self, and sing it now to my own soul/But if you’ll sing of your dreamings, then you will reap treasures untold.” Look no further than this remarkable album for proof of that.

3. Shut Up & Sing (The Weinstein Company): Ironically, the Dixie Chicks’ saga, which became the subject of this documentary from Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck and just culminated in the trio winning five Grammy Awards, began just a month after the same Hyde Park march described in Saturday at London venue Shepherd’s Bush, where Natalie Maines made her infamous comment about being ashamed the President of the United States was from Texas. Kopple and Peck joined up to document the reaction after the shit proverbially hit the fan, and they captured Maines and her partners, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, trying to make sense of the firestorm that followed. The film bounces back and forth from 2003 to 2005, when they began to turn the experience into the Taking the Long Way album, as they walked the dangerous tightrope between alienating their country audience and attracting a more politically aware rock crowd. Aside from Maines, a firebrand whose resolve in the midst of the attack on her individually is impressive, the other star-making role goes to English manager Simon Renshaw, simultaneously cajoling, encouraging, plotting, spinning and ultimately trying to do the strong-willed threesome’s bidding, which can be tricky. There are cameo appearances from the likes of ex-Columbia Records PR boss Larry Jenkins, introducing the gals before a Lipton-sponsored press conference at the 2003 Super Bowl in San Diego, CAA’s Rob Light, convincing the girls to cancel the Red State dates on their sluggishly selling tour to concentrate on playing “every hockey rink from Saskatoon to Moose Jaw,” and producer Rick Rubin, exhibiting a Zen-like, avuncular presence sitting crosslegged on a couch alongside his famed stuffed bear, rubbing his belly, stroking his beard and suggesting the gals write all-new lyrics for one song they’re unhappy with. The entire film is built around the “freedom of speech” issue, which makes you wonder what the movie would have been like without that narrative thread, but there’s a neat full circle achieved when the Chicks return to the scene of the crime three years later at the same Shepherd’s Bush and Natalie repeats the statement, this time with the President’s approval rating plummeting by the day. The recent Grammy night vindication would’ve made a perfect ending, but this documentary does what it sets out to do—showing three headstrong women who prove that their sisterhood is powerful enough to turn a politically inspired crisis into an artistic, and commercial, triumph.

4. The Lives of Others (Sony Classics): This riveting German-made film from first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmack, the country’s nominee for Best Foreign Film, is a Kafkaesque tale that takes place in East Germany in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the dreaded Stasi secret police cast its shadow on all dissident types, especially those in the arts and theatre. It’s hard to believe the era it depicts occurred only a little more than 20 years ago, but the sense of a pervading paranoia and meticulous electronic surveillance recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in its intensity. The staunch Ulrich Muhe plays a loyal civil servant, an expert in the grueling 24-hour interrogations and a professor at the university, whose gradual realization he’s working for an evil government forms the core of the story, as he spies on Sebastian Koch’s favored son playwright and his girlfriend, a noted actress with a drug problem played by Martina Gedeck. The Germans’ penchant for documenting and filing information is so absurd as to become almost humorous, but the consequences of subversion are not, as banally evil bureaucrats jockey for position and favor within the hierarchy. The notion that art can be controlled by the state also recalls the Dixie Chicks documentary, and the chilling denouement stresses that, as ridiculous as it appears, the consequences can be literally life-shattering. It’s a real spy vs. spy story with all the taut intrigue and narrative twists that The Good Shepherd failed to provide, the harsh, guttural native language giving it an air of Alice in Wonderland surrealism among the dimly lit streets and gray, joyless warrens of East Germany.

5. Marie Antoinette: Neither the masterpiece its admirers claim, nor the complete disaster the film’s detractors insist, Sofia Coppola’s tribute to 18th century Versailles, where it was actually filmed, and ’80s New Romantic music is fizzy eye and ear candy, all robin eggshell blues and baby doll pinks, with a soundtrack that veers from classical and opera to Gang of Four, Bow Wow Wow, Adam Ant and The Cure. Kirsten Dunst reprises Norma Shearer’s role in the 1938 version as the doomed teenage queen, forced into a loveless marriage to Jason Schwartzman’s feckless Louis XVI by her Austrian family, only to turn into one of history’s most misunderstood victims. The movie has a bright, shiny feel as if it were a masquerade party happening today, that anachronism enforced by such offbeat modern casting as an almost unrecognizable Marianne Faithfull playing Marie's mother Maria Teresa, Stephen Coogan’s Ambassador Mercy, Rip Torn’s bawdy King Louis XV, Molly Shannon’s gossipy Aunt Victoire and Asia Argento as the King’s unabashedly vulgar mistress, Comtesse du Barry. The plot, as it were, is merely an excuse for an extended fashion video, but it’s all in good fun, sort of Barry Lyndon meets Spandau Ballet. One can’t help but compare the spoiled Queen with such modern-day pop starlets as Britney, Lindsay and Paris, which makes the satire all the more timely, while Kristin’s wide-open features and girlish innocence give the final outcome a tragic dimension. Referred to derogatorily as “a piece of cake” by a catty member of the court, Dunst’s Antoinette proved to last a lot longer in spirit than body. If her death signaled the end of the old order, her untimely demise still resonates with relevance today.

6. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Not being a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s previous TV efforts, Sports Night or The West Wing, I didn’t take to this right away, turned off by the brittle, stilted dialogue and smug condescension of the writing and characters. By the time I began to get into the artificiality and fell in love with the leads—Matthew Perry’s neurotic head writer, Bradley Whitford’s neurotic producer, Amanda Peet’s neurotic network programming head, Steven Weber’s neurotic network chief… you get the idea—the blogs were overrun with real-life critics putting the show down amid rumors of its imminent cancellation. And now, with six episodes yet to be aired, the show has been pulled indefinitely by NBC for Paul HaggisThe Black Donnellys, which looks like Brotherhood lite. It’s a shame, too, because the show was just starting to veer off into a more relationship-oriented direction and away from the backstage spoof of a SNL-style comedy show whose unfunny sketches were a constant source of criticism, but come to think of it, just reflected the original, which is usually more miss than hit anyway. I especially enjoyed Sarah Paulson as Anita Pallenberg in a faux movie about the onetime muse to various Rolling Stones, as well as the screwball comedy level banter between Whitford and a visibly pregnant Peet. One thing I spotted at the beginning still holds true: This show was way too smart for the room and knew it—a fatal combination in today’s lowest-common-denominator world of network television. But I'm still gonna miss it. Now let's hope they don't do the same to Friday Night Lights.

7. Flags of Our Fathers: Like Dreamgirls, the first installment of Clint Eastwood’s World War II saga was supposed to dominate the Oscar race, but it took a back seat to his more contemplative, Japanese language sequel, Letters From Iwo Jima. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to like about Flags. Its opening invasion of the island rivals Spielberg’s Normandy beach arrival in Saving Private Ryan for gruesome authenticity—at one point a severed head rolls past a soldier—and its major narrative line about the cynical nature of heroism and patriotism, illustrated by the disenchantment of three of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima being paraded around to sell war bonds, is more timely than ever. The main performances, by Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach as the haunted Native American Ira Hayes, are all solid, and the various recreations of their appearances at Soldier Field and before a throng of admirers in the Chicago streets, ring true. What’s interesting about Eastwood’s approach here is how he never shows the Japanese enemy, only their guns sticking out of their dug-in mountain turrets, which he obviously rectifies in showing the opposite point-of-view in Iwo Jima. And while the latter movie at first seemed like an afterthought, its unique approach had the effect of counteracting the conventionality of Flags. Not having seen Letters From Iwo Jima yet, Flags of Our Fathers feels a bit attenuated, like it’s only half the story, an epic yin in search of its yang, which, in fact, it is.

8. Pepper and Mad Caddies at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills. CA: A coupla punk-ska bands update a venerable tradition for SoCal coast towns from Santa Barbara to San Diego, which also includes U.K. TwoTone groups like Madness and The Specials and N.Y.’s seminal Bad Brains to ’80s SoCal variants like Sublime and No Doubt, capturing a whole new audience with a mean age of around 17. I got hipped to Hawaii three-piece Pepper by my daughter Tara through her friend Lyndsey, who found out about 'em on My Space, and they were the main draw for a packed enthusiastic house that looked as if they were discovering the moshpit and stage diving for the first time, which they probably were. Pepper have released an album through EastWest/Atlantic, and received some airplay on KROQ, but nothing prepared me for this kind of throng. The group has elements of both Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in its naked-to-the-waist, muscular skanking, and more than a little bit of—no surprise, The Police—in its dub-wise spaces, and has to be the only band in memory from Hawaii to actually break through to a mainland audience. Meanwhile, openers Mad Caddies, from Santa Barbara, were a more traditional ska band, featuring a two-man horn section that bled over into a raucous klezmer sound, quite typical of the beachfront love of speeded-up reggae crossed with punk. It’s rather disconcerting to realize that bands like these can come out of nowhere, with little mainstream media attention or radio play, and amass a following large enough to fill an all-ages show at the cavernous Canyon Club, but such is life in the currently balkanized world of popular music.

9. Leap Year: As a kid, you look forward to your birthday all year long, though for me, there was a slight caveat. Born on Feb. 29, 1952, at the tail end of Harry Truman’s last year in office, right in the middle of the bulging Boomer demo, I was one of those kids whose birthday fell on a day that came only once every four years, prompting questions like “How old are you really?” (Answer: 13 ¾) and “When do you celebrate?” (Answer: Feb. 28, because by March 1 it’s all over). Actually, it was kinda neat because it was special, and once every four years—when there’s a Presidential election and an Olympic Games, I always add—there was reason for a real bash. Without a specific date to mark the occasion, though, I was always encouraged to party for a solid week, from Feb. 24-March 1, making sure I wouldn’t miss out, and, as I get older and prefer ignoring my birthdays, that’s much more convenient. But feel free to send a gift next week…just so long as it arrives sometime between 11:59 p.m. Feb. 28 and 12:00 March 1.

10. Gripe of the Week: This year’s Academy Awards on Sunday night are primed to be one of the dullest and least buzzworthy in memory, mostly thanks to the predictability in almost all of the major categories…except for Best Picture, that is. It would be a major upset if anyone other than Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy or Martin Scorsese won, though I do think the most vulnerable of that group is Murphy, whom everyone says is not very well-liked in Hollywood. In that case, a victory by either comebacking Jackie Earle Hailey or veteran Alan Arkin would certainly be a pleasant, heartwarming surprise. Which leaves Best Picture, where I’m still smarting over the absence of Dreamgirls, whose snub in this category is the single most intriguing thing about this year’s noms. What it does do, though, is turn a wide-open field into one even more impossible to predict. The bloggers seem to think it’s down to The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, though it’s hard to make a case for either. The Academy hasn’t awarded its highest honor to a film as dark as the former since Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, and has failed to award a satire/comedy since American Beauty and, before that, Annie Hall. My personal choice is Babel, which would be this year’s Crash except for the fact the DVD came out too late in the game, and it’s just the kind of movie that comes across better on a big screen anyway. That said, I’m betting that its multicultural message will give it the nod in a mild upset.

CALENDAR
Friday, Feb 23rd
5:00pm
Taste of Chaos Featuring 30 Seconds to Mars, The Used, Bayside, Senses Fail, Saosin and more @ Arco Arena, Sacramento

7:00pm
Flogging Molly @ The Music Box/Fonda Theatre, Hollywood.
 
8:00pm
Judge Jackson & Stoney Curtis Band @ B.B. Kings Blues Club @ Universal Citywalk

Saturday, Feb 24th
12:30pm
Warriors vs. Clippers @ Staples Center (Channel 5): Afternoon games are always fun for the whole family; too bad the Clippers aren’t very much fun these days.

7:00pm
Cartel w/Cobra Starship, Boys Like Girls and Quietdrive @ House of Blues Anaheim

Snocore Tour featuring Army of Anyone @ New Oasis, Sparks, NV

Hurt @ Slim’s in San Francisco

Sunday, Feb 25th
5:00pm
The 79th Annual Academy Awards on ABC.

7:00pm
Styx @ House of Blues Anaheim.
Saliva @
Eastwood Expo Center, Niles, OH.

JE-C’S NEW-MOVIE RUNDOWN
The Number 23
S
tarring:
Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen
Synopsis:
Carrey plays a man who becomes fixated on the number 23, and begins to notice that it appears everywhere around him.
Thoughts: I am a huge Carrey fan, which is why I am very interested in this movie; I just hope he can pull off this kind of role.

Also opening this week:
The Astronaut Farmer: It stars Billy Bob Thornton, but the advance word has been negative.

Reno 911

JE-C’S OSCAR PREDICTIONS
The Oscars are this weekend, and here are some of my predictions.

Best Film of the Year
: It was The Departed up until I saw Letters From Iwo Jima a couple of days ago. This movie is such a strong piece and such an amazing accomplishment that it deserves to win for Best Picture. The most incredible part about Letters is that it was shot in 14 days.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese for The Departed. I think he’ll finally get his Oscar!

Best Actor
: Forest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland; this year’s no-brainer.

Best Actress: I am assuming Helen Mirren, but I have yet to see The Queen.

Best Animated Film: Happy Feet, which was one of my favorite movies of the year.

Best Supporting Actor: I’m torn between Alan Arkin and Jackie Earle Haley. Haley’s performance as a sexual pervert in Little Children was both brilliant and disturbing. Arkin, on the other hand, was the best thing about Little Miss Sunshine.

Best Supporting Actress: Well, it’s most likely going to be Jennifer Hudson, but I really was blown away by the performance of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel.

Documentary Feature Film: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which was the most important movie of the year.

SURF’S UP
FOR HITS LIST
Good vibrations (3/5a)
NEAR TRUTHS: UNCORKED
Jay-Z's blingy mountain of cash keeps gaining altitude. (3/5a)
UMG PULLS IN NEARLY
$9B IN 2020
Value keeps rising ahead of IPO. (3/5a)
MILEY JOINS COLUMBIA
Like moving to the apartment next door. (3/4a)
GRAMMY CHEW: THE
PRE-GRAMMY BOUNCE
Let's hear it for ironic guitar-smashing. (3/5a)
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
A jazz chronicle of fighting the power.
GRAMMYS: WHERE TO FROM HERE?
After the snubs, the show.
ACQUITTED
In a phenomenal display of cowardice.
MOVING THE NEEDLE
When vaccination schedules and touring schedules meet.
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