January 28: Big Boi

The Ogden played host to Big Boi last night. This marked my second hip-hop show in just under a week. Last week was an all-woman cover group experience of Wu Tang Clan, in the notably smaller, cozier Walnut Room. This time, the show was bigger, and maybe a little too big for this just-more-than-casual hip-hop fan. I was psyched for Big Boi. I was attending the show with a great group of friends. I was a static ball of energy and excitement. And then, throughout the show, which was pleasingly crowded; a contrast to my usual Indie Rock show experience, I was once punched in the head (or elbowed, I'm not sure, but it was surely unintentional) and had beer/booze poured or spilled on me 4 times. Now, I'm complaining, I know, and sounding old, I know. This was a different crowd that I am used to. I stuck it out. And really, the crowd was the only aspect to detract from the show. And that's cool.

We missed the initial opener, but I caught all of the Eligh and Scarub set (both from Living Legends). They were solid and Eligh's style, a sort of high-speed, Eminem-esque ramble rap, was mostly enjoyable. But I preferred Scarab's more metered, bouncing and poetic style. In any case, they played a long set and riled up the crowd. Hip-hop shows are about a lot of bonding with the artist/following instructions. It's an interesting phenomenon to be implore consistently to put one's hands in the air or to dance a certain way, when a large portion of the actual lyrics in these songs have a deeper, personal historical or social commentary meaning. And, if it's a party and everyone already knows, and everyone is already feeling the beat and moving, is all the suggestion of additional action like a touch of a protesting too much? That's a rhetorical thought. I enjoy the genre and the music, and its active, energized party-centric ethos.

When Big Boi finally took the stage, the show picked up. The energy grew and value of being there became hugely apparent. For one, Big Boi, live, is incredible. The awe-inspiring thing about rap and hip-hop is the energy and ability to actually rattle vocally so well, filled with strength and guts, and still artistic. So, seeing Big Boi control the stage and lead the audience was nothing short of exceptional. His actual set was a decent mix of old and new. He performed at least 4 Outkast songs, but my count could be short. And then numerous tracks from Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. The Outkast stuff was what went straight to my heart, into my wheelhouse; "Ms. Jackson" and "The Way You Move" being the highlights. And for "The Way You Move" Big Boi brought a gaggle of ladies from the crowd up on stage to dance. Including a couple of my friends, and their red oven mitt (but, really, that's another story). All-in-all, this was a spectacular show. And even though I went to bed hearing only the ocean echoing in my head (that lil post-concert deafness), there's some unforgettably great live hip-hop burned in there too. Big Boi is a show to see. Check him out next time he's in your neck of the woods.
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Words On Film: Black Swan

*Note: This edition of Words On Film will delve into the nuances, design and plot of the film Black Swan. If you have not yet seen the film, this is your first and last official spoiler warning. Do not read this if unless you have already seen the film or have no intention to see it. (And if you have no intention to see it, reorder your intentions, because the film is both a great narrative work and a visceral experience that no one should deny themselves.)

With that out of the way, I should note that part of me wishes I would have written this last night. I saw Black Swan yesterday afternoon at Denver's Mayan Theater and the first note I have is that I exited that show with a combined feeling of dread, exhilaration and agitation. The movie left me in a strange place. Black Swan left me feeling drained, emotionally and mentally. The world looked like a different place after I saw it. It is a film that I will discuss and summarize and dig into below, but one that can only properly be experienced by viewing it. And I think that's the best compliment I can give the cast and director. Natalie Portman is insanely exceptional in her role as Nina. Mila Kunis is dangerous, seductive and sweet as Lily. And Vincent Cassel is ideal as ballet director and sex symbol Thomas. To say nothing of Darren Aronofsky's perfect shot composition and direction.

Black Swan is 108 minutes of pure, body-shaking tension. It is a movie about perfection, dichotomy, reflection, obsession and the thin line between reality and fiction. It's also a film about passion, what it means to live life fully, and how important it is to strike a balance between reservation and pleasure. And there are issues of sexuality, identity, self-esteem, class and society that permeate the film too. And as brisk and enjoyable as the film is, it manages to cram an insane amount of subtext into its plot, which seems to be simply about a girl wanting the lead role in a ballet, but which turns out to be a story that both parallels and transcends the Swan Lake ballet in question. Nina Sayers has to transform herself completely just to find a single moment of achievement and happiness. And the transformation ends her.

Nina's life, we discover early on, is driven by an obsession to attain perfection. She wants ONLY to obtain the lead role of the Swan Queen, but she cannot effortlessly dance the passionate role of the Black Swan as well as she does the innocent role of the White Swan. She practices endlessly with no regard for her body and seems unable to enjoy much of anything. Portman's expressions throughout the film are ones of worry, sadness and embarrassment, but there's never a moment where seems at ease. Nina wants perfection, hell she wants Perfection, but she doesn't ever really know what it is. She assumes that it means joyless effort and reservation, but that's exactly the thing that prevents her from reaching what she wants. Her mother is a key source, a woman who gave up her ballet career to have Nina, and who hovers around Nina at every turn. Each scene in the Sayers' apartment is horrifyingly tense, as Nina repeatedly tries to find greater privacy and is thwarted by her mother at every turn. Nina is unable to gain privacy anywhere in her life. Throughout the film she never escapes observation. If her mother is not calling for her, watching her sleep or gazing at her bitterly, Nina is in front of her ballet company, or standing in front of a large crowd, or looking at herself in the mirror. She lives a life of constant, unrelenting judgment.

That judgment spurs Nina's psychosis. It's an insane amount of pressure to begin with. And thematically, mirrors are everywhere all the time. It's not just the studio, or the dressing room, or her bedroom, or the bathroom, it's every pane of glass that is lit in front and not in back. And then there's Lily, who Nina sees at first in a reflection on a subway train, and then in the mirror. Aronofsky presents them as opposites instantly. They are opposites in complexion and hair color. Nina wears white while Lily wears black. And Nina notices this, even if she doesn't know she does. We are instantly led to believe that Lily is sinister. And we have no reason not to believe it.

Aronofsky enhances Nina's dread further by employing a world that exists almost entirely in black and white. The sets are dark, spare and unrelenting. And everywhere Nina is confronted with confrontation. It is a world without happiness and thick with dichotomy. This world is oppressive to watch. And only the pink of Nina's bedroom shows a patch of brightness. So when Nina receives the opportunity to play the Swan Queen, she is primed for the only push she needs to allow her world of judgment to overtake her. The simple advice, given by Thomas, the ballet's director to lose herself, Nina starts to, but not in the way the advice intended. Because for a person who has predicated her life on perfection and one who feels infinitely judged, losing control is a curse. Even if it's only to gain and understand passion.

So, if Black Swan is a study of perfection, losing control and obsession, what do we make of the parts of the film walk that fine and unintelligible line between reality and fiction? Nina's progressing psychotic breaks, of which there are many, all tie into her desire to become something she doesn't believe she can be, the sexual, free person that her mother won't allow her to be and that she refuses to embrace. Her habit of scratching herself, and the visceral mutilation of her body through various projections (through Lily and through Winona Rider's Beth) seems to boil down to her own fear that she will never be that which she admires. She sees every facet of imperfection within herself as a curse. And even when the curse represents the full dark side-loving part of her personality, she wants to strip it all away. She wants to dig into the core of herself, even though that very action injures her and ultimately destroys her.

The scene in the club, when Lily's urging finally allows her to let go of her staid schedule leads to a complete pendulum swing in Nina's personality. She cannot be both good and bad (in the colloquial sense) so she breaks free of truth and reality completely. And in the dancing scene, where Aronofsky employs red lights with hints of green and Nina and Lily blend together, crossing faces and dancing as each others mirrors enhances Nina's need to be one thing or another, but not both. That hits a head (pun entirely intended) when Nina and Lily share a sexual moment. And it becomes even more important when we learn that Lily's freeing of Nina leads Nina to what is her first auto-erotic event.

But, with lust, Nina finds jealousy (as represented in the hints of green light during the club dancing sequence) that guides her toward her final downfall. The jealousy makes her believe that Lily is her rival, the Black Swan to her White Swan, in which the ballet (and to some extent Thomas) is the prince. Nina has her final climactic sequence of violent hallucinations, believing she sees Thomas and Lily having sex (which may well have happened, it's nearly impossible to tell) and in Nina's hallucination of the black feathers emerging from the goose bumps on the scratches on her shoulder. There, in that moment, when her legs buckle back and she falls and hits her head, she has lost herself. She is her part. But not in the way we are accustom because there is no HER left. And my theory is, that really, metaphorically, she was dead right then.

And then it's the night of the performance. Nina prepares for the first appearance of the White Swan, and dances, but she is imprecise and falls (the circumstance of the fall is veiled in her unreliable point of view). And Nina in that moment is so shattered by her imperfection that she hallucinates Lily's appearance to cuckold her role, to take what she loves from her, as well as to cup the balls of her ballet-prince. In that fit, she kills Lily, really killing the separate (emphasis on separate) dark side of herself. And in so doing, she finally absorbs that dark side. But to become whole she has also killed herself, embraced her frailty, her beauty and her imperfection (She is human, prick her and she bleeds). And whether the rush of adrenaline fuels her final performance and her ultimate embracing of the Black Swan or if it is merely that she believes herself to have dealt the final death blow to her fears and insecurities doesn't matter. She earns her moment of perfection by embracing the imperfect.

The final moment is something I wasn't sure about at first. I thought it was left ambiguous when I left the theater. I had hope that there was some chance Nina could get help. But I knew, too, that the parallels planted within the script with the real Swan Lake would not be complete if she lived. It was in conversation with my friend Jon that he pointed out that she had definitely died, and it dawned on me that he was right. Aronofsky makes the conscious choice to fade the screen to white for the credits. White is the White Swan, who dies. White is the delicate, fearful, doting side of Nina, that had already died. And white is the eyes overwhelmed with light, a final firing of synapses that make darkness into glow. There's a lot to be said for dream states and what of the story is real. What Nina really experienced, what she really did, remains somewhat mysterious. But her final belief that she attained perfection is key. Death is her perfection. It's a perfect state of completion. An end to chaos in rest.
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Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People EP & The Age of Adz

The catch-up tour continues as I discuss a few more albums that came out near the end of 2010. You may already have these, but if you don't, then you should. And by these I mean each of the "last year's albums" I have reviewed this year. Specifically, Sufjan Stevens' massive 2010 effort that summed up in one extended play, All Delighted People, and one full-length album, The Age of Adz. In traditional Stevens form, the EP is still solid, coming in at just under 60 minutes. Most albums aren't that long, but hey, Sufjan is a prolific composer, perhaps one of the greatest in our time, so even when he does a "short" project, it ends up being as long as three combined Weezer albums (etc.). The trick is that since 2005's Illinois, Stevens hasn't found the same lusty audience for his other work, an assemblage of thematic projects including Songs For Christmas and The BQE, and his work with other groups. So, last year we received two solid projects, both of which demonstrate a musical pseudo-transformation for Stevens. With All Delighted People and The Age of Adz, Stevens composes music with more electronic influence, but remains entirely recognizable. These two albums are essentially the Mechagodzilla to Stevens' usual Godzilla. You know who it is, and it feels right, but it's also not quite the same.

With All Delight People, Stevens brings two versions of the title track, one "original" and one "classic rock". It is a solid and complex song in each iteration. And the tracks that fill in around it vary from melancholy to upbeat melancholy. Songs like "From The Mouth Of Gabriel" and "The Owl And The Tanager" uphold beauty over all else, the latter of the two relying on a healthy dose of synthetic sounds and clunky beats to motivate it. The real gem of the disc lies in "Enchanting Ghost," a song that combines everything we've come to love of Stevens, the earnest lyrics, the calm guitar and banjo, and just a touch of electric guitar that really pops. It's a tragic breakup ballad, driven by that sense I think we all get that when we lose someone, in any capacity, but with love specifically, that they continue to exist in some theoretical way. The life you dream them living that you will never see. Or at least, we would never have seen without the proliferation of social networking, but that's another issue altogether. There's also a piece of magic success in the final track "Djohariah," named for Stevens' sister (according to the internet). It's a sprawling classic rock masterpiece, clocking just over 17 minutes. Parts of it feel like the extended outro of "Hey Jude," but with greater self-awareness and FAR better instrumentation. The trick of All Delighted People is that it serves both as an appetizer for The Age of Adz and as a clear statement by Stevens that he's still writing, still exceptional and still full of love that translates into music beautifully.

The Age of Adz takes my whole Mechagodzilla analogy up a notch, simply by dialing up the electronics and drawing back the elaborate instrumentation. Even though the opener, "Futile Devices," feels like a pretty standard track in the Stevens canon, it works mostly as a quiet usher for what's to come. Even the refrain "Words are futile devices" seems to proclaim that where Sufjan has been a poetic, acoustic operator before, he will be changing things... IMMEDIATELY. And that's what happens with the excellent "Too Much," a song with beautiful vocal harmonies (as is expected) and repeating looped samples that crunch and bounce, throwing you into space, or the future. Really, The Age of Adz fights for elegance and traditional musical styles amidst the din of mechanization. It's a beautiful allegory in itself, combining the orchestral touches that were part of Stevens' initial popularity, with scratchy laser noise (pew-pew, etc.). Fantastically, the album just keeps getting bigger. "Age of Adz" brings quiet moments and perfect, wailing, earnest lyrics in tandem with huge electronic beats, walls of sound, and brass, with sleigh bells. Every flavor starts to appear, and remarkably, Stevens excels with EVERY try. It's a unique and amazing thing when an artist reaches out to a new fan base so ardently, and it's incredible when he succeeds.

"I Walked" holds the sweet narrative structure that was so typical of Illinois and Michigan, combining sad with hope to great effect, and hell, great affect. I think that's why I love Sufjan Stevens' work so ardently. Listening to it hurts sometimes, it wells tears in my eyes, and other times it invigorates, but I always feel something. This music throws me into a memory and a dream and makes me wish and love and hope. Even when it is tragic, the value lies in that passion. And that's clear in "Now That I'm Older," a sweeping, wailing, track about love and growing up/old. But with The Age of Adz you also get (imagine an infomercial voice for this sentence, if you please) a taste of Sufjan pseudo-hip-hop. Aside from all those hyphens, "Get Real Get Right" gets electronics, funky lyrics, marches, powerful drums, and speedy near-rapping. This song may be the best thing to happen to an album in a long time. It's so full, so lush. The entire album supplies this kind of ornate, complex music, so true fans will love it no matter what, and fans of the "hits" on Illinois will need a little time with it, but, well, wow. The closer "Impossible Soul" runs an amazing 25 and a half minutes, touching electronics, horns, strings and so much more. It's all love. Enjoy it. And pick both of these up. Forever.
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Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

It's possible, only remotely that someone hasn't heard Cee Lo's newest album The Lady Killer yet. I say remotely not because the album is nearing two months old, but because Green appeared on last week's episode of Saturday Night Live. (And this link too!) That is usually the yard-stick by which pop-culture ubiquity is measured. So, since Green was on SNL it sure seems like any and all interested parties would have taken the time to give him a listen. But, then, I wonder if I'm overvaluing the idea of musical popularity in 2011. Maybe what really happens with Cee Lo, et al., now is that EVERYONE listens to "Fuck/Forget You" (Don't get me started on the editing issue...) and then once they are tired of that song, only a tiny percentage wants to know what else he can do. Music in 2011 is like a series of hand-picked one-night stands. Lasting relationships are dead. (That last one was meant to be a Nietzsche thing.) But Cee Lo must be used to and content with this, made peace with his demons so to speak, since his break out hit, the Gnarls Barkley track "Crazy" was also railroaded until society bled from the ears. Hits are great, yeah, woo! Love me some hits! But there's usually some good shit hanging around the rest of the album too.

So, since I'm pretentiously taking on the role of "guy who cares about albums," let's talk about the greatness that happens on The Lady Killer in the spaces... well, songs! around "Fuck You." Cee Lo is definitely a soul genius, and his vocals are alive and vibrant through out. It's that comforting blend of choral and lusty R&B that makes him so great. That and the range. He can sing. Fact. So, as an album, The Lady Killer opens with a beautiful piece of heady-art-irony. Green says he's born to "kill" and a din of dramatic sounds clatter. It's that tongue-in-cheek touch that sets the tone of the album. This will be about sex, love, and loss. And it is. So after "Fuck You" when you get a great anthem song like "Wildflower," a sort of perfect blend of beauty and self-confidence, distilled into musical form, you start to realize that the album, yay! is greater than the sum of its parts. "Bodies" is the same way. Green penchant for drama comes alive with this noir track that is simultaneously dangerous and sexy, and even features some low-level moaning/heavy-breathing reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.

And guess what? The whole album is phenomenal! Songs like "Love Gun" and "Bright Lights Bigger City" are drama and reference set to music. The horn flourishes on "Cry Baby" are excellent, too. But maybe I'm just a sucker for brass. Green moves across genres seamlessly, utilizing surf rock, hip hop, big band, jazz, blues and rock to create unique moods for each of his songs, and sometimes they swivel about inside a single song, too. The Lady Killer is hugely diverse, thoughtful, especially lyrically, and ultimately fun from top to bottom. And the insanely delicious treat comes at the end of the album. Green covers "No One's Gonna Love You," originally by Band of Horses, and he puts a whole new veneer on the song. I don't know if it qualifies as the definitive version, since the BoH original is one of my favorites, but Green's mournful, soulful vocals add an extra dimension. The song feels more like a "let's make love song" than a "please don't break my heart song" so that from that what you will. So, The Lady Killer, acquire it! It's worth your time, and it offers so much more than just "Fuck You," if you'll just turn your one-night stand into a weekend, or maybe more...
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The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

For any ardent fan holding out hope that the Decemberists would return to some more conventional, recognizable form with The King Is Dead, I have some interesting news. While the Victorian mythological trappings and rock-opera styling of The Hazards of Love are no more, this is not a band revisiting the pop-radio friendly hits of The Crane Wife. In fact, this isn't even a band dialing back to the jaunty, shanty songs of Picaresque or the sad laments of Castaways and Cutouts. The Decemberists who come before us for 2011 (and technically 2010, given the recording dates) are a new, different breed than we have seen before. Yes, Colin Meloy's voice remain strong and hinted with syrupy exasperation, and the majority of the instrumentation, acoustic guitars, keys and high-energy drums are here too, but the Decemberists are a new kind of animal. They've gone a little bit country.

More than any other band I have followed, the Decemberists have mastered the concept of musical hybridization. They have succeeded through constantly changing, and at each stop along their maturation, the song writing and musicianship reaches a new height of proficiency. In The King Is Dead, they succeed in bringing in banjos, harmonicas and infusing traditional American folk, country and some blues-driven songs. What's even more beautiful is that Colin Meloy manages to write the lyrics he had always been adept at, matching them to this new musical style (something that walks around Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, R.E.M. and Joni Mitchell). The R.E.M. likeness is especially important because guitarist Peter Buck is featured on three tracks ("Don't Carry It All," "Calamity Song," and the mindblowingly exceptional "Down By The Water.")

The album feels like a grower to me. I have twice listened to it through the amazing power of NPR and the internet, and I recommend you do the same. So far, the big stand-outs on this album are the aforementioned "Down By The Water," which is a phenomenal rock-country infusion that is instantly catchy without relying on a grating riff, and the second to last song on the album "This Is Why We Fight." In "Fight" you get some of Meloy's war-protesting-but-still-fighting lyrical and vocal power, the kind we've seen before on "When The War Came" and "Sixteen Military Wives." Really, take a moment to watch the second video. It's worth more than a chuckle. It's both a sweet and a powerful song, and it's the perfect lift before the calm album ending love-letter "Dear Avery." And beyond even these initial attachments, the album works well through its 40-plus minutes, treating us to a powerful opener that's heavy on harmonica and drums ("Don't Carry It All") and the delicate "January Hymn."

If you consider yourself a fan of Colin Meloy's writing, a fan of the Decemberists, then this album will once more challenge your perception of the band, but ultimately you will love it. One thing this band always seems to teach us is that new directions are more interesting, even if they seem initially to be failures, than sticking with old ones. Listen to The King Is Dead, and you will find something to love in it.
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7 Covers that Are Better than the Originals

Creating a cover of a popular, or an obscure song really, that transcends the original and redefines the sound is no easy feat. The internet is flush is covers, too, with the YouTube trend of guy/gal with a guitar, etc., running through their favorite tracks. But more often than not, the covers, no matter how well-done and professional, are not built to beat out the original. Instead, they tend to be a delicate, thoughtful homage to the great work of a band said e-musician considers dear. The pros, and I call them that not because they are essentially better than some of the YouTubers out there, but because they are recognized superheroes of musicality, don't often take a song for their own, but below I break down seven instances in which the cover is better than the original. And no, I won't go anywhere near the question of whether the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" is a lesser version than the Iron & Wine cover. Prepare yourself for some A-B test listening and put on that music scholar hat.

1. "Round and Round" Originally by Ratt - Covered by Lou Barlow
Founding member of Dinosaur Jr., and Sebadoh, Lou Barlow does a cover of the Ratt "classic" on his solo album Emoh. Where the Ratt version is a steaming, hair and leather pants fueled party song with a gratingly simple barking chorus, Barlow takes everything down a notch, and accentuates the sweet, hopefully connotations of the lyrics. His use of acoustic guitar and subtle piano touches make the song a bright, hopeful, if still somewhat raunchy ballad, and ultimately "Round and Round" becomes a song you want to listen to, instead of being a song that you really only hear by accident.

2. "Private Eyes" Originally by Hall and Oates - Covered by The Bird and the Bee
I completely, utterly, and insanely respect Hall and Oates original version of "Private Eyes," and aside of the Bird and the Bee's additional electro-pop flourishes, these are exactly the same song. But the key for me that makes this cover better is Inara George's vulnerable, sweet vocals. The song's tone changes from the stalker version presented with male vocals, into something that seems like a love note defined by a slight undercurrent of a threat to go tough-girl and destroy the philandering man-goon subject of interest. Also, come on, the contemporary technology and dance beat add a lot too.

3. "Secret Heart" Originally by Ron Sexsmith - Covered by Feist
Ron Sexsmith is an incredible songwriter. I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Pearl Street Mall Starbucks in Boulder, too, on the day of his show at the Boulder Theater. In "Secret Heart" he creates one of the sweetest "why don't you love me?" tracks I can think of, but his version, which is slow and plodding and relies on his syrupy, if depressing vocals, just doesn't have the oomph provided by Leslie Feist's cover from Let It Die. Feist makes the song faster without losing the "heart" (yeah, it's a pun) making her version not only caring, but also a song in which courtship and gender roles are shifted. Also, she gets an A-plus for the subtle light drum work that accents the track.

4. "Funny Little Frog" Originally by Belle & Sebastian - Covered by God Help The Girl
I know this one doesn't count in the strictest sense, God Help The Girl is Stuart Murdoch's project, one that is to spawn a film which I have yet to see. Since Murdoch wrote the original, and performs it on The Life Pursuit, there shouldn't be that much difference, right? But there is. On God Help The Girl, Brittany Stallings adds the perfect vulnerability and beauty to the song, while making it a more soulful, orchestral song. She takes away the rock trappings of Murdoch's original, and injects the track with a new kind of hope of and doubt.

5. "Got My Mind Set On You" Originally by James Ray - Covered by George Harrison
This one is easy for me. A large chunk of my childhood is defined by this song, which was probably my first favorite song ever. Of course, the attachment is to the Harrison version, with its '80s hollow drums, horns, chorus harmonies and goofy-ass video of talking taxidermy. The James Ray version is a soul classic, but it remains so spare and lacks the vocal action that Harrison brings, so I'm afraid I can't back it up. George Harrison made the song. And I can't help but remember trips to the mountains when I think of it, so nostalgia-five!

6. "With A Little Help From My Friends" Originally by The Beatles - Covered by Joe Cocker
Another easy one. As much as I love Ringo's rough vocals and what they do for the opening lines of the original song, Joe Cocker (with help from The Wonder Years) permanently altered what the song feels like. I'd bet that if you asked 10 people to begin singing the song, they would all jump to the slow, but accelerating opening line that Cocker's version is known for, rather than the up-and-down gentle pace of the The Beatles. It's just a song that makes you smile, and feels alive, especially with the addition of Cocker's back up singers. Also done better by Cocker than the Beatles: "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window."

7. "I Hung My Head" Originally by Sting - Covered by Johnny Cash
I had no idea that "I Hung My Head was a Sting original from 1996's Mercury Falling. The Johnny Cash version from American IV is the definitive version. Sting's version operates too quickly with too much production (and frankly too much Sting-y-ness), and it ultimately takes away from the underlying sadness of the story. Cash, though, sounding weak and weary, nearing death himself, makes the song into a terrible anecdote of broken dreams and mistakes that cannot be righted. It's a tragic track, and for Johnny Cash, it seems to sum up every moment in his life that went wrong.
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Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I'm catching up, after a busy holiday, and trying to get back to some of 2010's highly-regarded now that I've had the time to snag them and listen to them at length. Kanye's newest, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hereafter known as Fantasy, is something of an incredible music moment and not just because Pitchfork, the A.V. Club and others gave it album of the year honors (and Pitchfork also gave it the elusive 10). Instead, Fantasy actually is an epic, sprawling, incredible, nearly impossibly great album. And it only took me two trips through to realize it. For fans of Kanye West, this album will combine everything we've learned so far. Topics include love, race, socioeconomics, politics, lust, frustration and hope, all of which are Kanye staples. You also get the samples, beautiful rock/classical piano touches, and vast, catchy, wondrous instrumentation. There's even a hefty helping of humor instilled in both the lyrics and in some guest asides. And you get Kanye, but not as much as you may expect.

Following, the more Kanye-centric work of his previous albums, Fantasy features a litany of guest performers, many of whom take center stage for the bulk of the album. Some 32+/- other artists (Bon Iver!) appear on the album, so often Kanye, himself, is buried inside a track, tearing up a bridge or lifting a chorus. Initially, I found this aspect to be distracting, but ultimately, this is an album that ultimately brings an industry together, tells Kanye's story, and shows his maturity as a producer and a performer. Instead of attempting the vocal acrobatics he hands off, West is capable of getting the most of each song without relying heavily on studio magic to get the sound he needs. It's a big album. Maybe not even an album at all, and instead a sort of social experience. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it is epic. And it's not a traditional hip-hop or rap album. Fantasy becomes more of a cross-genre traveling show. Each song ties to the ones around it, but each has a special distinction, where one might be personal doubt and responsibility, the other may be a fiery barrage of dick and pussy jokes and references, but the bottom line seems to be cracking the puzzle of life.

There is no waste, no extraneous material. And the song selections perfectly bookend the album by opening with hope and closing with cautious optimism (peppered with doubt). Fantasy is an emotional journey. But, as I noted before, it's a bit of a carnival too. "All of the Lights" brings out dozens of additional players to build a vocal pyramid that is dynamic and undeniable. "Monster" is a rousing, growling, energetic tongue-in-cheek masterpiece, featuring the immortal lines, "Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/ I put the pussy in a a sarcophagus." And then there's John Legend's work on "Blame Game" followed by an extended Chris-Rock-honors-Kanye dialogue that involves the aforementioned pussy and its reupholstering. And yes, these examples may turn some listeners away, but the bottom line is that with maturity comes these bursts of  absurdity. There's a Cirque du Soleil quality here, because it's beautiful, well performed, elaborate, and from time to time willing to degrade itself for a laugh. And for an album with a title like this one has, that makes perfect sense.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is at very least in the top 5 best albums of 2010. It largely depends on what you want out of an album. This won't satisfy a craving for Mumford and Sons, or even traditional hip hop, but Kanye really pulled out all the stops, tricked a standard album out with all the trappings of success and sadness, and hands this over to us as a gift that really, truly, keeps on giving. This is a must own album, and an album that feels great to listen to.
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Words On Film: True Grit

If you haven't already seen True Grit, the Coen Brothers remake of the 1969 John Wayne western classic, go see it immediately. Before I start discussing anything that may spoil plot points, I will say that this is a must-theater-see type of film. Whether you like westerns or not, or the Coen Brothers, True Grit is a beautifully shot cinematic experience, and a vividly constructed world that feels alive in its own right on screen. This is the Wild West, but it feels real here, rather than like a nostalgic, pseudo-re-hashing of historic events. Even for waiting to see this film until it comes to "video," it's a must see, but really, just see it.

Now the spoiler parts. (If'n you're not making haste to know, complete your readin' and turn 'round now.) In a sort of traditional Coen Brothers way, True Grit is a film about the experiential impact of the journey, rather than the goal or prize. That's part one, but that wasn't the surprising part. As Mattie Ross (played fantastically well by Hailee Steinfeld) goes from revenge seeker to happy adventurer/daughter figure, the transition all hinging on (Jeff Bridges') Rooster's admission that their trail on Tom Chaney had gone cold, we discover that the movie isn't about what it says it is. Starting with the opening voice-over, which was unnecessary but adequately set a scene (the emphasis being on that a), we are consumed by Mattie's quest to find and kill Tom Chaney. The girl's goal fills the first half of the film. But, when she and Rooster, and occasionally Texas Ranger La Beouf (a phenomenal Matt Damon) set out, the film becomes less about revenge and more about a young girl taking notes on life from a man who has probably nearly lost as many lives as he has lived. The revenge story, in short, turns into a father-daughter story.

While, yes, Rooster maintains a certain distance, he also speaks frankly and openly about his history to Mattie. The notable scene where they ride through the snowy forest, and Rooster tells tales of his wives and children, is a big key here. He's not just a drinker and a gunslinger, and a sharp-tongued lawman. He's also a complex, lonely sonovabitch. That's where Mattie starts to admire him. She sees the layers that he has hidden, and it is a commentary on the world of men (one that the West stands as a proxy for in the genre) that is supposed to be emotionless, and tough. And the conflict, originally finding Tom Chaney, turns on its head to "can Rooster hold it together?". Rooster's cornbread shooting spree is that moment. He's old, he knows it, but he's got pride. And that's the emotion that drinking can let him show with La Beouf around.

It's all pride really. Mattie packages it as revenge, but True Grit is about pride. Mattie's is hurt by Chaney's killing her father and she seeks to right it. Rooster's is hurt by his growing older, and the fact that he's not close to anyone, not really. La Beouf has pride in his station (as a Ranger) and in his Sharps rifle. And Chaney, well, Josh Brolin is great, but Chaney isn't really important. He's the bad guy, but for these characters, the real bad guy isn't a person, it's ethereal. And that's never more apparent than with how easily Chaney is dispatched. Mattie's rifle shot, that propels Chaney off the bluff, is the last climax, all of which are individual. (Rooster charges "Lucky" Ned Pepper is one, La Beouf's shot from 400 yards is two.) And then, there's no savoring the accomplishment, because life isn't that kind. Instead, Mattie is snake bit, and Rooster's fatherly instinct, his love, the pride that he holds that is now attached to Mattie, that takes over. And he saves her at great expense to his strength.

Look at the definition of grit as a personality trait. This is the title of the movie, but also the WHOLE point of the movie. All of these characters persevere, and all of these characters need achievement. And that need is largely and almost completely detached from the revenge plot line. Because it's a barren, untamed world and the three protagonists are lone wolves who also need a pack. Really, even the bad guys, Pepper's gang, and Chaney, et al., are relatively kind people. They're rough and they need pals, but they'd just as soon not kill a little girl, or get into a fight. They'd rather run. They're human. It's flaws and a pride and the battle between the two. And in the end, we get another voice over, this one even more stark and questionable, that wraps things up. While I didn't care for it, it serves a function I didn't notice initially. Grit doesn't mean the power to persevere over death. That's the first one. (But, since the film is bookended by losses in Mattie's life, and she's always marching on, she has the titular true grit, perhaps.) And Mattie truly loves Rooster. That's two. The pride they earned together, the pride they share never dies, but they will.
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