Pay It Forward, Directed By Mimi Leder (Warner Bros.)

Pay It Forward - Directed By Mimi Leder Pay It Forward
Directed By Mimi Leder
Warner Bros.
By: Eric G.

Haley Joel Osment needs to be a crack dealer in his next movie if he wants to avoid being the most hated kid in Hollywood. I recommend hooking up with Bobcat Goldthwait for Shakes The Clown 2: Clowns get Gonorrhea Too. If he keeps playing the expressive child prodigy he’ll be in a dumpster in three years with a trail of blood leading to the Olsen twins.

Pay It Forward is a dumb idea. It’s the wish fulfillment of that lame bumper sticker “Random Acts Of Kindness Happen”, which is always plastered on the back of a car with a collection of Beanie Babies in the back window. I don’t think Kevin Spacey really believes in crap do-gooder hippie new age bullshit like that, anyway. He probably just wanted to hook up with Helen Hunt now that she and Hank Azaria are on the rocks and what better way than through a sappy, Lifetime Channel script based on a book that would have Oprah’s audience violently shaking away the tears.

The movie isn’t totally awful, though. When the script allows for some believable scenes Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt are semi-watchable, and Jay Mohr is mildly amusing as a typically amoral reporter hunting down the “phenomenon” of Pay It Forward. Haley Joel Osment, on the other hand, is ACTING way too hard. He’s the kid you really wanted to beat the shit out of in middle school with his perfect understanding and execution of pointless assignments in Social Studies class when you were just trying to flick eraser bits without getting caught.

I can barely even bring myself to go into the story. It’s so unbelievably cheesy it embarrasses me to think about it. Spacey and Hunt wade knee-deep through cliches with their burgeoning love affair, but each possesses almost enough acting chops to pull it off without making you wince. Almost. But Angie Dickinson as a hobo? Come on. Heroin addicts behaving altruistically? Please. From the director of Deep Impact you’d expect some sort of natural disaster or at least some semblance of action. Instead, all you get is a string of fairy tale improbabilities as Leder tries to restore man’s faith in his fellow man, using the innocence of a child’s perspective to trick you into her torpid agenda.

The ending is over the top. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say the end is so manipulative it’s tacky. I half-expected to see Elton John perched at a golden piano singing Candle In The Wind dressed as Count Chocula. Speaking of bad ideas, the person in charge of deciding what songs to feature needs to be horsewhipped. I thought the actual score was fairly inventive, though, until I realized it was trying to rip-off of American Beauty’s surrealistic interpretation of suburban ennui (insert scenes of Haley Joel Osment riding his bike for American Beauty’s omniscient camera work in suburbia and you’ll know what I mean).

Pay It Forward is Kevin Spacey’s Forrest Gump, but you can’t have it both ways in Hollywood. It’s either American Beauty or Forrest Gump. Cutting edge or mainstream mush. Once you slip into the mainstream mush cycle it’s hard to turn back. Come on Kevin. Make the right choice.

Melt Banana, Teeny Shiny (A-zap)

Melt Banana - Teeny Shiny Melt Banana
Teeny Shiny
By: Eric G.

Melt Banana has perfected its simultaneous deconstruction and homage to both punk and noise with a gleefully spasmodic onslaught of some of the fastest riffs ever put to tape. You know what bands sound like when you're dubbing a cassette on high speed? Well, Melt Banana can play that fast- maybe even faster. Doesn't sound like your cup of tea? Your loss. Melt Banana mixes cutesy Japanese imagery with an abrasive and joyous ruckus led by spastic vocals, hilariously random lyrics, and mind-blowing guitar squawks, zips, and squeals.

Melt Banana is certainly not a band you could listen to all the time. It is an aural assault on your brain- the sheer speed and complexity of which is overwhelming. Melt Banana is a cathartic release of energy. You can't jump around your room fast enough to keep up with the cartoonish pandemonium. It isn't just random noise either. Each song is tightly structured, using Western verse, chorus, verse composition. The band messes with these boundaries, of course, maniacally injecting bizarre pace changes and irregular time signatures that would leave the average "math rock" band feeling utterly bewildered and limp.

Are Melt Banana albums interchangeable, then? Good question. No. The band keeps getting tighter and more experimental with every release (if that's possible). Melt Banana makes no pretense about having songs that are going to be sung around the campfire. It's all rhythmically driven. Sure, it takes dozens of listens even to master what's happening, but it is possible to get a Melt Banana song stuck in your head. Yasuko's herky-jerky yelps are the perfect antagonist to Agata's slippery guitar architecture and do repeat often enough to be memorized (if you have the time).

"Teeny Shiny", unsurprisingly, charges by in less than thirty minutes. The dynamic is far from subtle. Agata can make his guitar sound like a buzzsaw, a video game sound effects, a wet hand streaking across glass, or an animal being electrocuted- all with minimal effects. It is redundant to point out how mind boggling-ly tight the rhythm section is. Rika's hands can barely wrap around the bass they're so small, but she could lay most bass players to waste in a matter of seconds.

It is almost impossible to pin a label on this band. Take the Boredoms, The Ruins, God Is My Co-Pilot, the Ramones, some new wave, some chaotic hardcore punk, and some electronic experimentalism, shred it up, and serve it on fire, and you almost can imagine the energy and inventiveness of one Melt Banana song. Does the formula get old? Sure, but what sound doesn't if you listen to it too much? Melt Banana may tire you out faster, but you'll keep coming back for more.

Death Cab For Cutie, Forbidden Love EP (Barsuk)

Death Cab For Cutie - Forbidden Love EP Death Cab For Cutie
Forbidden Love EP
By: Eric G.

If it weren't for Benjamin Gibbard's melancholic lilt Death Cab For Cutie might seem like your average indie pop band, but Gibbard's voice lifts the weepy guitar pluckings out of mediocrity and makes them seem grand and eloquent. Even on a maudlin song like "Technicolor Girls", Gibbard manages to transcend the mid-tempo sludge in order to save the song from slow core obliviousness. His passive aggressive choirboy cadence comes across intelligently through a curiously self-aware lyrical style.

This EP arrives hot on the heals of the band's much-heralded second album, We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes. The three new songs are merely extensions of the same formula of introspective lyrics and oscillating melodies that We Have The Facts… so expertly showcased. There's an ever-present sense of both sadness and urgency in Death Cab For Cutie's indie pop world. "Song For Kelly Huckaby" threatens to rock out but quickly withdraws back into its fragile core, where a faux-cello keyboard line underscores a minor-keyed guitar arpeggio.

Tacked on to the end are two stripped down versions of two of the best songs off We Have The Facts… The change of setting suits both songs. Gibbard's intimacy on "405 (acoustic)" is more effective than the album take. His vocals wrap around the acoustic guitars like a natural extension of their range. "Company Calls Epilogue" sounds distant and dreamlike, utilizing the effect from the beginning "Title Track" off We Have The Facts… but never letting up.

This EP is just a small dose of what you garner from a full Death Cab For Cutie album. While it doesn't break any new ground, it does represent the band well.

Elf Power, The Winter Is Coming (Sugar Free / Elephant 6)

Elf Power - The Winter Is Coming Elf Power
The Winter Is Coming
Sugar Free / Elephant 6
By: Eric G.

Despite whatever you may think of that whole Elephant 6 scene in Athens, Georgia, Elf Power deserves a closer look. I'm not a big fan of hippies, and the image surrounding Elephant 6 and its brethren is that of one big happy group of stoners trading licks and Dr. Seuss hats while grooving out to each other’s incestuous records. Granted, that’s probably a bit much, but having label-mates like Olivia Tremor Control, who parade around in a single file line before taking the stage with hand-cymbals and pied-piper flutes doesn’t help image control very much.

Thankfully, Elf Power tends to avoid the jam rock tendencies of its peers, instead honing in on a clever blend of psychedelic pop and heavy rock riffs with a strict lo-fi aesthetic. The focus is more on spaced-out pop than anything else, though, and Elf Power incorporates a slew of off-kilter melodies that bury themselves deep in your subconscious thanks to Andrew Rieger's thin but dreamy vocals. Some songs do outstay their welcome while fewer are unlistenable altogether, but when you shake it all out the good far outweighs the bad.

Even with better studios and slightly bigger budgets Elf Power remains true to its four track roots, retaining a sense of the personal, claustrophobic nature of its early work. "Embrace The Crimson Tide" is the distant indie rock cousin to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"- it even employs a drum ensemble for the rollicking finale. "Skeleton" is a familiar Elf Power sound, mixing sparse, new-wave-y minimalism with quasi-glam-metal riffs. "The Great Society" is deliberately eccentric. The same three chords repeat ad naseum while Reiger leads a child-like chorus in some of his more obscure lyrics.

Sometimes Elf power can sound like your average indie rock band as on the title track, but it's never for long. The rhythm of the song is clumsy, almost amateurish, but it's also instantly memorable. The horn breakdown is an unexpected detour that works thanks to charismatic playing. Elf Power often sounds like it's just barely able to hold it together musically, but that's just a red herring. The band is fully aware of its manipulative charm. Most of the credit should go to Reiger's strained lilt and his odd lyrics, which add just the right amount of mystery and absurdity to Elf Power's whimsical appeal.

The Winter Is Coming grows on you slowly. Sometimes, Reiger's non-singing monotone can be grating, but the melodies still stick. Take "People Underneath", for example. At first the music sounds slightly out of tune and Reiger's unmatched, double-tracked vocals only make it seem worse, but after a few listens the song starts to sound exactly right. "The Naughty Villian" works the same way but boasts a much catchier hook. Elf power, in fact, boasts a big bag of hooks- not the obvious sugarcoated kind- but the kind that catches your ear and digs in deeper as you listen. That's actually the theme of The Winter Is Coming- it's not your typical ear candy-type, instant gratification record; it slowly gets under your skin and satiates your need for weird indie pop.

Blur, Music Is My Radar- Single (cd1 Cd2) (Food / EMI)

Blur - Music Is My Radar- Single (cd1   Cd2) Blur
Music Is My Radar- Single (cd1 Cd2)
Food / EMI
By: Eric G.

So the anti-pop stance wasn’t a fad after all. Music Is My Radar continues Blur’s experimental explorations, making songs like “The Universal” and “End Of A Century” seem very long ago indeed. Many critics lambasted Blur’s 13 for being dilettante-ish and insincere, but Blur deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to treading new ground. They clearly are spoiled art-school wankers, but they write damn fine tunes even when they don’t fit the traditional mass conception of what “pop music” is. How many more Great Escapes did we really need, anyway?

Since its self-titled album in 1997 Blur has fought accusations of lazily relying on noise and reference points its fans wouldn't understand as a pose for a new direction, which is all just a load of bollocks. Blur's just been trying to keep things from getting boring. The self-titled Blur and 13 were the sounds of a band trying to find its footing in unknown terrain. Of the British bands in the market back when Blur ruled the charts in the mid-1990's how many remain relevant today? Exactly two. Blur and Radiohead. And do you think it’s because they shoveled the same shit over and over? Of course not. It would be far too easy for Blur to churn out mindless, formulaic pop songs and go through the motions of being pop stars. They’ve seen the top and how hollow and boring it is, so now they’re scrambling to find a better place.

Blur is rich enough not to care about charts and singles, but deep down Damon Albarn can’t help but be competitive. He’s not deliberately going to undermine what he’s built up for the band. Blur’s seemingly anti-commercial path of late isn’t a trick or a smokescreen just to take the piss out of its fans- it’s truly what the band has to do to stay in the game and not become the equivalent of a bloated Elvis or a laughing stock (Oasis anyone?). Sure, they’re still working out the kinks of abandoning a tried and true formula, but Blur is far too talented to remain pigeonholed as merely a pop band.

“Music Is My Radar” is by far the weirdest Blur single to date. The band’s label probably burst into tears when it heard it for the first time, but what a coup it would be if this song were to chart well. Upon first listen, it seems far less accessible than anything off 13 with its laid back, haphazard groove, but it’s very loose and strangely catchy. The melody gets locked in your head after several listens. The UK charts need a kick in the balls anyway, and this song is primed for the cause. Blur sounds like it’s been smoking a lot of dope since 13. "Music Is My Radar" has a jammed-out/improvisational feel, which is usually indicative of much drug-taking. Albarn’s vocals are slurred and difficult to decipher, but there’s just enough melody to pull off another hit. Alex James and Dave Rowntree lay down a dancey, scuttling rhythm for Graham Coxon to squall all over with his guitar, and he rips it up just right.

CD's 1 and 2 of the single have unique b-sides. Alex James calls “Black Book” "the best thing the band’s ever done sonically"- whatever that means. Blur intended it to be the single for the forthcoming 'Best Of…' compilation, but running over eight minutes that probably wouldn’t have been the wisest decision. It’s a meandering ballad that builds into a fierce refrain with Albarn pleading in a slightly whining falsetto: “give you my soul.” Coxon deserves much of the credit for this song's success as his guitar playing is just as emotive and versatile as Albarn's vocal take is.

Both “Headist” and “7 Days” are unreleased tracks from the Modern Life Is Rubbish era that the band performed for Radio 1 in 1992, and both mix Blur’s former penchant for Who-style harmonies with early 90's Manchester psychedelia. They’re vintage Blur- sing-songy choruses and all. The live version of “She’s So High” is ten years old, and it’s quite odd hearing it in the same context as “Music Is My Radar.” It’s hard to believe both are by the same band even, but play "Eight Days A Week" next to "I Am The Walrus" and note the polarity. Blur, thankfully, will never rest on its laurels, as no great band would ever do.

Joy Division, The Complete BBC Recordings (Strange Fruit)

Joy Division - The Complete BBC Recordings Joy Division
The Complete BBC Recordings
Strange Fruit
By: Eric G.

What's left to say? By turning the mirror onto itself, Joy Division led punk out of its socio-political rut and into the realm of personal disaster and the art of falling apart. It all happened so fast. Joy Division hadn't even released its second album by its first and final casualty- the suicide by hanging of vocalist Ian Curtis. Joy Division's music was simple and restrained in a very polite and English way, but it housed some of the deepest emotions ever caught on tape. Ian Curtis' lyrics set Joy Division apart from its peers. Curtis calumniated himself to the point where he had no choice but to live out his words lest he should look disingenuous.

These BBC sessions capture Joy Division in all its glory- dark, deliberate, naïve, and disturbingly beautiful. From Peter Hook's rudimentary bass lines to Bernard Sumner's haunting and shrill guitar arpeggios to Stephen Morris' robotic drumming, Joy Division mixed a strangely danceable version of punk with Ian Curtis' uniquely open and contrite lyrics. The lyrics mattered for the first time in a punk context. They made you really feel what was being conveyed without the trappings of typical singer-songwriter pretensions. Curtis' angst-ridden baritone cut through all the noise and grabbed you by the heart and dragged you through his personal hell. His voice was an ugly beauty- the paradox of which is the essence of Joy Division.

Listening to Joy Division is a release that few other bands can match. "Exercise One" opens with unrepentant feedback and builds into a staccato, repetitive death knell. The guitar pierces through the descent, opening space for Curtis to preach his doom. "Insight" unfurls like a bad dream that you can barely remember the next morning. The swaying bass line leads the melody into an alarming climax where what sounds like a kettle whistle blows its top. Curtis was far too young to have such a command of his lyrical ability: "Guess your dreams always end/they don't rise up just descend/but I don't care anymore/I've lost the will to want more/I'm not afraid not at all/I've watched them all as they fall/but I remember when we were young."

How much Curtis' epilepsy and depression influenced his writing is irrelevant. What does matter is how he expressed what he wrote. Curtis flailed like a maniac on stage. The audience never knew whether he was having a seizure or not (neither did the band). This was part of the band's eerie appeal. Curtis resented the fact that his performances were blurred with his illness, and it pushed him even deeper into his depression. You can feel the intensity of his desperation in "Transmission": "well I could call out when the going gets tough/the things that we've learnt are no longer enough/no language, just sound, that's all we need to know/to synchronize love to the beat of the show…and we could dance." Sumner's unforgettable guitar melody acts as Curtis' duet partner in the verses, culminating with him in the explosive chorus.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" is simply one of the finest pop songs ever written. Hook's bass melody is the quintessential example of how he turned the bass guitar into a lead instrument. Sumner aborted his guitars in favor of distant, melodic keyboards while Curtis strummed that one unforgettable chord. It was also Curtis' finest set of lyrics: "when routine bites hard/and ambitions are low/and resentment rides high/but emotions won't grow/and, we're changing our ways, taking different doors/and love will tear us apart." The version here is raw, and, while it lacks the studio version's ghostly sheen, it does sound more immediate and urgent. It is hopelessness and resignation brilliantly packaged as pop (and it charted top ten weeks after Curtis' death).

Live Joy Division was always on the brink of falling apart, but it pulled through even the most disastrous circumstances (like Peter Hook having to pin Curtis down to keep him from swallowing his own tongue), and these BBC sessions give us a peek at the energy and crisis at the core of the band before studio agendas had their way. The two "never before heard' tracks are alternate takes of "Transmission" and "She's Lost Control"- essential for their sense of emergency and disorder but ultimately anticlimactic. The rare interview that caps the disc reveals little in the way of Curtis' condition or the inner workings of the band- it's merely a polite exchange with an overly jolly British journalist. It is strange to hear Curtis' Mancunian lilt, though.

The Complete BBC Recordings is probably not the last attempt to flog the corpse of Joy Division, but it is actually a justifiable release as these songs (with the exception of one or two) were omitted from the comprehensive Heart And Soul box set. Whether it's seen as exploitation of Joy Division's legend or not- I'm all for these small reminders of Joy Division's impact and importance coming out every few years.

Photon Band, Oh, The Sweet, Sweet Changes (Darla)

Photon Band - Oh, The Sweet, Sweet Changes Photon Band
Oh, The Sweet, Sweet Changes
By: Eric G.

When bands cover such a small, predetermined niche, particularly one that has been beaten into our subconscious for so long, it’s hard to appreciate the subtleties and nuances without immediately referencing other bands. The Photon Band doesn’t seem to care. Its brand of mod power pop ignores the cynical side of the music industry- the one that took over in the early 1970’s and turned rock and roll into the boring and predictable institution that exists today. Instead, the Photon Band only seems interested in rock and roll’s heyday- pre-Ziggy Stardust, pre-bloated Elvis but post-Beatlemania. Of course, aspects of The Who and The Kinks crop up- perhaps even some Yardbirds, but the Photon Band surges inside its retro-bubble oblivious, for the most part, to every strain of rock since the first British invasion.

Dock all the points you want for lack of originality, but this band delivers music on par with its distinguished influences. The Photon Band captures the innocence that was intrinsic to those early rebellious days of The Who and The Kinks. The songs mix sparse 1950’s rhythm and blues with the harder rocking sounds of mid-60’s psychedelia. It’s a tight package. The Photon band is a formidable trio with driving, melodic bass lines and propulsive, Keith Moon-style drumming. The guitars by turn jangle furiously and explore the darker, more reflective tones that bands like the Kinks and the Beatles executed so perfectly on Something Else by The Kinks and Rubber Soul, respectively.

The Photon Band carefully balances its catchy hooks with hard driving music so as not to appear too lightweight like many 60’s bubblegum acts do in retrospect. “Genius” is a perfect example of the Photon Band’s formula: short bursts of energy interspersed with dynamic build-ups and explosive changes. The vocals are just as immediate and potent as the music. “End Of The Week” proves there’s nothing too deep going on here besides rollicking riffs and sing-along choruses, though. The lo-fi recording techniques adhere to the retro sound the band emulates so well. “Could It Be?” just might be the album’s finest track. Its dark verses and harmonic vocals erupt into a Pete Townshend-style guitar upsurge. The Photon band can’t help but inject a memorable chorus into even its darkest songs.

Of course, there’s a lot of competition in the mod power pop crowd. Several Elephant 6 bands tread similar terrain, for example, but the Photon Band is the most consistent of its peers. “Disillusion” evokes a hint of “I Dig A Pony”-era Beatles, but the Photon Band never quite steps over the line into comical mimicry. It would be foolish to try to imitate the Beatles, and these guys know it. It’s more like a musical nod- very subtle but very effective. The band’s greatest asset is its pop craftsmanship. The songs rarely run out of steam. “Now It’s Over (And Over)” is sugary pop, bordering on bubblegum, but it’s played with such energy that you don’t mind the repetitious chorus being rammed down your throat.

Oh, The Sweet, Sweet Changes probably won’t impact listeners the way a comparable record would have thirty years ago (for obvious reasons), but it’s an undeniably good time.