Clockhammer, S/T (First Warning)

Clockhammer - S/T Clockhammer
First Warning
By: Eric Greenwood

Back in the early 1990's, Nashville, Tennessee was home to an exciting and innovative rock trio that assimilated genres in a way that few bands had the balls, much less the chops, to pull off. Clockhammer's music was rooted in heavy metal and punk, but it veered off into blues, prog-rock tangents, and jazz-fusion seemingly effortlessly. Its songs were extreme in every sense of the word: the hard parts pummeled you with pounding rhythms and fiery distortion, and, likewise, the soft parts were delicate and clear, floating like ephemeral jewels.

Clockhammer released its self-titled debut on the eve of Nirvana's breakthrough in 1991. The album propelled the band to cult status regionally in the south, and the band opened for all the big names that came through town, solidifying its reputation amongst the underground elite. The trio of Byron Bailey, Matt Swanson (who went on to play with My Dad Is Dead), and Ken Coomer (who went on to play with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) was a remarkable concentration of talent. Bailey was no less than a wizard on the guitar; he could rip a blazing solo with all the requisite histrionics and then change direction completely on the drop of a dime. Swanson's bass playing matched Bailey's showy guitar style but with more of a punk edge. And Coomer's drumming was simply monstrous. The band's future seemed limitless.

The strong but moderately-paced opener, "Mother Truth", blends a metal riff with traces of skate thrash in the rhythm section, although much slower. Spoken word samples intermingle with Bailey's guitar. His voice is strong and clear, but his lyrics are practically indecipherable. It's an anomaly that I have yet to figure out. The vocals are loud enough to hear, but Bailey sounds like he's mumbling the words. "Trial By Fire" is a sure-fire rocker that melds a jazzy verse with a mountainous, balls to the wall chorus. Bailey's vocals morph to match the mood of the music. When the parts are soft he sings gently, but when the distortion kicks in he wails like a wounded animal.

At that time there were few bands that were this schizophrenic. Clockhammer would never let you get too comfortable, switching gears just when you started to bob your head. Most bands would sound like a herky-jerky mess if they tried Clockhammer's dynamics on for size, but that was Clockhammer's ace in the hole. It could pull off these changes and make them sound natural, flowing even. On "Boys In Blue" the band unleashes its thrashing rage, but it can't help but throw in a pretty chorus, revealing the subtle power of Bailey's vocal range. "Bridges Burn" is a strange beast. Starting off with a funky, fuzzy riff, the song quickly nose-dives into a flowery ballad, while Bailey emotes over the clean jangle of his guitar. Not many thrash bands would be brave enough to flaunt a six-minute ballad, but with Clockhammer there's little adherence to convention.

The instrumental "Extra Crispy" allows the band to showcase its talents. Bailey's guitar virtuosity is on full display, as he fires off jazzy run after jazzy run. As the song builds to its taut climax, Matt Swanson's bass line attempts to upstage Bailey's guitar playing with a noodly yet effective run. Coomer remains restrained and relaxed behind the drums, punching the parts as necessary. "Lament" is another schizophrenic rocker akin to "Trial By Fire." The verses are built around a gorgeous arpeggio, as Bailey harmonizes with himself, again, with utterly indecipherable lyrics. The chorus is a surging assault, allowing Bailey to purge his demons. Coomer's drumming is dynamic and incessant, particularly on the dazzling outro.

"Whither" is the angriest song on Clockhammer's debut. Bass-heavy thrash underscores Bailey's freakish outbursts. Chugging, evil-sounding build-ups lead into the chorus, where Bailey loses it, emotionally. The song is full of complex rhythmic shifts and busy guitar/bass interplay. The second run through the chorus is the climax, and Bailey sounds truly possessed, as his voice breaks up in the midst of his ranting. "No Show" follows the, by now, familiar formula of extreme dynamics, but it's the lyrical content that sets it apart. Bailey is surprisingly eloquent and articulate in the verses, as he recounts a story familiar to any touring band- that of showing up at an out of town club, hoping to God somebody comes. "Calypso" is a punchy pop song disguised by the sludge of distortion, but Bailey's penchant for sharp hooks resonates.

The darkest, most engrossing song of the album is its official closer, "The Sun Goes Black." Bailey speed strums a clean set of chords that unfurl into the most memorable chorus of the album, wherein Bailey really lets it rip vocally. A strange, paranoid interlude cuts the song in half. It's an obtrusive digression, but after repeated listens it seems to work. It could be that the other two halves are just so good that it gets a pass. Either way, "The Sun Goes Black" is a fantastic song. The band's cover of "Girl From Ipanema" would be tongue in cheek if it weren't so heart-felt. It's featured only on later pressings of this debut- all of which are long out of print, but you can find it in random used record bins across the country. And I suggest that you do so because this far-underrated classic should not be forgotten.

Luna, Romantica (Jetset)

Luna - Romantica Luna
By: Eric Greenwood

Add a hot bass player to your line-up and suddenly your tunes get happy and you name your album Romantica. Coincidence? Hmm. After the dark departure of the stellar Days Of Our Nights, Luna returns three years later with a new bass player (Britta Phillips), yes, but also a much brighter outlook on life. Is Dean Wareham happy? Well, he sure sounds like it. Typically, when an artist finds happiness, his art suffers considerably. My old stand-by example is Sebadoh. Lou Barlow finally got the girl that he pined for, wrote albums worth of songs for, but do you remember Sebadoh's final album? Neither do I. Coincidence?

Luna's brand of minimal indie pop has always seemed fluffy and somewhat self-referential to me. I've taken to the odd album here and there, but Wareham's smarty-pants lyrics invariably strike me as patronizing. The irony just seems a little too thick. But on Days Of Our Nights Wareham provided some much needed depth to Luna's lyrical oeuvre. Wareham's odd phrasing still stood out amidst the darker melodies, but at least he had something substantive to say. Romantica moves in a completely different direction, but it works. The smarmy lyrics are back in full force, but the music is so crisp, clean, and catchy that it hardly matters at all.

I must admit I almost gave up on this album. The first few listens didn't stick, and I had Romantica pegged as a wash. Staying away from it for a week helped because suddenly, tonight, it finally clicked for me. The sprightly guitars literally jumped out of the speakers, and the melodies just felt exactly right. The riffs would certainly have to be good to allow for lines like this: "when candles light themselves/and the air turns creamy/why not take a photograph/you look so dreamy" ("Lovedust"). I can't think of too many lyricists who could get away unscathed with rhymes that trite, but Wareham has his whole tongue-in-cheek shtick to fall back on. He went to Harvard, after all. So, since he knows better that means he did it on purpose, right? Regardless, the song is undeniably catchy.

In addition to giving Luna's fans something pretty to look at on stage, new bassist Britta Phillips also adds spectacular backing vocals to the mix. She has a clean, cloyingly girlish voice- much like The Cardigans' Nina Persson, and it compliments Wareham's strange, nasally croon perfectly. "Weird And Woozy" is another infectious pop song, to which Phillips contributes a sexy counterpart to Wareham's bored detachment. Her bass lines hug the rhythms with an unexpected confidence and seductiveness too. She can play, sing, and looks good. What more can you ask for in a bassist?

The laid back dreamy anthem "Black Postcards" recalls the effortlessly lighthearted pop of the band's classic album, Bewitched. Wareham's voice has a strange allure the way he half-whispers his vocals. "Black Champagne" has a similarly breezy quality. It sounds immediately familiar, as the words flow out of Wareham's mouth. The newly added keyboards are subtle but provide depth and density to Luna's previously fragile sound. "Renee Is Crying" shuffles by like the band's early single "Slash Your Tires", except the production is much warmer and vibrant thanks to engineer David Fridmann (Weezer, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips).

"Mermaid Eyes" is a sultry duet between Wareham and Phillips. It's a nod to 1950's rock and roll ballads- string climax an all, and Phillips sings like an angel on it. "1995" is a surprise rocker with fuzzy guitars and propulsive drumming. Wareham sounds like a wimp even when he's angry, but his guitar gets his point across just fine. The sweeping melodies of "Rememories" have the same dramatic effect as anything by Low or Opal. It's quite possibly Wareham's finest song. He pins his brittle voice against a flowing, minor-keyed chorus, and it's gorgeous. The title track unfurls slowly as well but without the same dramatic effect. It's a woozy, engrossing song, though, that caps the album perfectly. Loose chords, laid back drumming, and Wareham's quirky delivery: "How can I know what I think 'til I see what I say?"

With Romantica as the evidence, Dean Wareham might be the exception to the rule that happiness begets bad art. Luna's had a rough ride over the years: bad record deals, line-up changes, corporate red tape, delayed releases, but Romantica reveals not a trace of bitterness or hardened heart. In fact, it champions just the opposite with a collection of vibrant, well-crafted, and sensitive songs. Dean Wareham has never sounded so energetic. Luna's second wind may prove to be stronger than its first.

Trans Am, Ta (Thrill Jockey)

Trans Am - Ta Trans Am
Thrill Jockey
By: Eric Greenwood

After the giant step backwards that was its fifth album, Red Line, Trans Am tossed aside any pretense of seriousness in favor of a full-on, retro-mock-rock schtick. The band's collective tongue is planted so firmly in its cheek nowadays that the gratuitous bulge is almost as obnoxious as the music itself. Trans Am has aped its way into the hearts of nerdy post-rock aficionados the world over, and that's no easy task. It takes great skill to rip off musicians as skillfully as Trans Am has done and continues to do. TA is Trans Am's stab at the 1980's. The irony is as thick as the fog in the "Don't You Want Me (Baby)" video, but the homage is so precise and meticulously honed that there has to be some sincerity deep down there somewhere.

The words "New Order" might as well flash in bright neon lights behind Trans Am as it plays "Cold War", as Peter Hook's oft-imitated bass style is in full effect here. The sequencers are blaring and the drums are as bombastic as the ones in "The Wild Boys" by Duran Duran. Vocals are Trans Am's newly acquired weakness. The band successfully avoided confronting the microphone for no less than three albums, two of which are essential listening (Surrender To The Night and The Surveillance, respectively). That can of worms was cracked open on its triumphant fourth album, Futureworld, although, the voice was cleverly disguised by a vocoder (thank you, Kraftwerk). Truth be told, the vocals on "Cold War" are the best on TA, but with each successive song, the vocal shortcomings become more and more apparent.

"Molecules" is so B-grade 1980's that it's frightening. Is this The Fixx? Textured yet sparing guitars play background roles to programmed sequencers and aggressive mechanical beats. The vocals are breathy and exasperated, as they squeeze out every ounce of panache the group can possibly muster. The joke continues on "Run With Me", but the group manages to keep its poker face intact. The bass/drum interaction is the first clue that this is indeed Trans Am. Pummeling yet melodic, the bass line drives this post-punk dance number with the band's patented rhythmic precision. "Basta" sounds like something Ween left off The Pod with its Spanish chorus and primitive, repetitive drum pattern. As a song, it's little more than a distraction; however, it briefly pulls off the 1980's mask.

"Different Kind Of Love" is the highlight of this frustratingly fetishistic and narrow-minded album. It's a playful duet with a guest female vocalist, replete with warm retro synths, bouncy funk rhythms, and the requisite effects-laden saxophone solo. The syncopated beats sound like dirty sex, if that makes any sense. And the cold, monotone vocal delivery recalls early 1980's synth-pop like The Human League and Missing Persons. Trans Am does have an air of pop sophistication, but it too often sacrifices songwriting for technical accuracy. "You Will Be There" borrows heavily from Gary Numan's robotic playbook, but, again, Trans Am doesn't have the vocal personality to pay proper tribute. The production sounds authentic, but the songwriting can't support the sub-par vocals.

"Party Station" drops the 1980's schtick in favor Futureworld-style dynamics, and it saves the album from sinking into utter parody by simply holding your attention. There's substance to the groove in "Positive People", and the burst of energy couldn't have come any sooner. Despite the vocals, this is the Trans Am you know and used to love. "Afternight" is a brooding guitar instrumental that wouldn't have been out of place on the band's debut. It slowly builds into a taut, explosive cacophony. Just like the old days, eh? "C Sick" is another dark instrumental. Layers of synths float amidst cold, power-driven beats. The sparse vocals are unobtrusive here, serving more as a moody complement than a primary instrument. "Infinite Wavelength" closes TA on an aggressive note with vocoder, robotic rhythms, and hypnotic repetition in full effect, but it's too little too late.

Trans Am crumbles under the weight of its own ambitiousness. If it would spend as much energy writing good songs as it does making the songs that it does write sound like someone else's, then it might be able to build some momentum. As it is now, TA hardly represents quality output. It's a deliberate joke. And it's a joke that gets old fast. The band couldn't even sustain the 1980's schtick for the entire course of an album. Only half of it winks at you. The remainder rests on it laurels. Granted, those laurels are more productive that the retro ironic pose, but that's nothing to hang an album on. Trans Am has six albums under its belt. Three of them are indispensable. This is not one of them.

Capitol K, Island Row (Xl)

Capitol K - Island Row Capitol K
Island Row
By: Eric Greenwood

Island Row is a spastic yet glorious fusion of organic instrumentation and computerized experimentalism and, therefore, an essential addition to your collection. Kristian Craig Robinson A/K/A Capitol K is a human blender of musical ethnicities, ambient soundscapes, glitches, bleeps, and unadulterated pop genius. His songs veer away from anything traditional yet they all possess the essential ingredients for what makes music memorable. Melodies, splintered and lush, permeate Robinson's stuttered, almost frantic arrangements. His attention span seems limited, but his instincts are dead on. There are hundreds of burgeoning underground DJ's chopping up beats and scorching them with computers but few that can parlay such technological skill into unique pop compositions like these.

This version of Island Row is actually a revision, of sorts. Robinson was displeased with the way the original British edition turned out, so he removed a campy Prince cover ("Dance On") and the track "Is It U?", remixed two other tracks, and spliced up the remainder. The result, though much delayed by such petulant perfectionism, is a kaleidoscopic trip through this twenty-six-year-old Brit's dysfunctional brain. The dichotomy of frenetic tension and spiritual calm inherent to the compositions is balanced by the equally dichotomous organic/electronic instrumentation. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, feedback, samplers, digital processing, keys, and myriad beats loosely tie these tracks together, but the star of the album is Robinson's Dictaphone. He records sounds constantly, chops them up, and then weaves them into the melodies.

You won't be hearing these songs on your local Clear Channel radio station. However, Robinson imbues enough pop finesse into his advancing songwriting skill to separate Island Row from the anonymity of uber-hip DIY RPM bins. The moody, resonant harmonics that open "City" may fool you into thinking you've just popped in a Mogwai album, but the electronic water droplets that flitter into the mix quickly end that fantasy. A concurrent piano line underscores the central melody, played by an heavily treated guitar. Once the syncopated beats kick in, you're hooked. "Pillow" reveals Robinson's pop craftsmanship and unorthodox vocal talents. The beat sounds borderline bossa nova behind an infectious vocal hook. Robinson's voice is high and clean- an honeyed falsetto. Despite the abrupt stops and starts and noisy sound effects, this is pure pop.

"Anon" is not as obvious in its pop sensibility, but it maintains the generally subdued atmosphere through lengthy meanderings and unpredictable interludes. Though more intricate and splintered, "Soundwaves" is still accessible. Robinson's vocals recall Daniel Ash's work with Tones On Tail- breathy and distant. The post-punk bass line reveals Robinson's art punk roots, but the overwhelming abundance of electronics hold the percolating rock at bay. "Capitol Beat Sticky" is both hyper and serene, flipping back and forth between catchy digressions and noisy, skittering runs. The guitar arpeggio that floats in midway sounds otherworldly amidst all the sonic splicing. The prog-ish "Darussalam" wouldn't be out of place in Radiohead's recent setlist, even though it's much denser than anything on either Kid A or Amnesiac. "God Ohm" is the most straightforward of the dance-oriented tracks.

The wet beauty of "Breakers" encapsulates Robinson's penchant for paradoxically lucid paranoia. The saturated beats make the transitions so smooth. "Heat" is another pop confection. The beats literally rain on the lightly strummed guitars, and Robinson's vocal melody is so strangely formed, as to serve as merely another instrument. He picks the oddest notes to sing, and his inflection is truly bizarre. Such oddities are very telling of Robinson's style and make Island Row sound supremely distinctive. This is not the most groundbreaking electronic fusion record ever recorded, but it’s up there. The sounds are all vaguely familiar on some level, but you can sense that Robinson is just getting started. To have produced a sophomore album this diverse and accomplished is nothing to scoff at. So, when you see Capitol K on the spine of the disc in the record shop, the odds are in your favor that it's an essential purchase.

The Get Up Kids, On A Wire (Vagrant)

The Get Up Kids - On A Wire The Get Up Kids
On A Wire
By: Eric Greenwood

Let's put it this way: if you had graciously overlooked The Get Up Kids' sappy word vomit for its pogo in place pop hooks on its first two albums, then you will be sorely disappointed with its third, On A Wire. Gone is any trace of energy. Any trace of aggression. The Get Up Kids is the now, predictably – yawn – The Grown Up Kids. Lightly strummed acoustic guitars, twinkling pianos, and passive harmonies flitter in the distance of this Scott Litt-produced rubbish. The nasally vocals weren't half as annoying back when the guitars were actually distorted, but now that all you can hear is some kid in his mid-twenties with carefully cropped 90210 hair whining about the same old high school relationship crap, you will notice your face twitching and your ears instinctively trying to close.

At least the like-minded Jimmy Eat World tries to rock. Granted, the poor guys couldn't rock their way out of a wet sack of boiled peanuts, but they do indeed try. Can't say the same for The Get Up Kids anymore. Sadly, but all-too-expectedly, the band has adopted The Promise Ring's career-in-the-noose rhythmic shift, which amounts to about the speed of a leaf falling from a tree. You either look away or fall asleep before it ever hits the ground. I've tried to pay attention all the way through this album, but I can't. My brain refuses to ingest the monotony, the whining, and the boredom. The songs all have choruses, yes. A chorus is not a difficult thing to compose, though. Melody is not an almighty, untamable beast. Even the most tuneless hack can make up a melody every now and again, either through luck or mimicry. So, yes, these songs have melodies and choruses, but they are so trite and played-out that even the fifteen-year-olds that this is written for will smell something fishy in their neatly packaged emotional escapism.

The Get Up Kids may have missed the commercial boat that it seemed poised to hop aboard three years ago. Jimmy Eat World already blew the beefy-riffed, crybaby-pop wad. And now Dashboard Confessional is, inexplicably, cashing in on the tuneless ballad tip (50's Fonzie hairdo and all) on MTV2. On A Wire may be two months of TRL too late. Vagrant will have a hard time promoting the "cute" factor, as I see some guts forming in the press picture. So, it will be up to this blah acoustic pap to rev up a new generation of bleeding hearts. I just don't see it happening. The whole appeal of The Get Up Kids, as far as I could tell, was its youthful energy mixed with heart-on-its-sleeve honesty. Now that the energy is gone, the gimmick is too. If The Get Up Kids want to push a bunch of lame ballads down the throats of the masses, it will have to get in line behind the Goo Goo Dolls and that ilk.

Of course, The Get Up Kids never proclaimed itself a punk rock band, so it can't be held to that standard. I never considered it one anyway. But even by pop standards this is run of the mill. "Stay Gone" sounds disturbingly like latter day Superchunk, which is not a good thing. "Let The Reigns Go Loose" masquerades as a moody pop ballad with lines like "misfits under mistletoe" and the requisite organ line (to show how the band has grown, man), bubbling underneath intricate guitar interplay. It just sounds so contrived. There's no emotional punch behind this. It's too formulaic- too calculated. "Fall From Grace" trots along at a light gallop with an ever-so delicately distorted electric guitar riff. Careful guys, you may offend someone with all that racket. Wait a minute, "Grunge Pig" is even louder. Oh, but the vocals are mixed so loud you can barely hear the guitar after the introduction so never mind.

I can only imagine that the band repeatedly had to save Scott Litt from drowning in a pool of his own drool when it found him face down on the soundboard after a few sessions of this stuff. Well, he has produced his share of stinkers, so, maybe, he's built up a tolerance by now. (Let me get a show of hands- how many of you still have a copy of Matthew Sweet's Inside? Juliana Hatfield's Become What You Are? That's what I thought). "All That I Know" is a lame stab at miming The Beatles. There's a mellotron and an embarrassing attempt at falsetto harmony. Woof. If it weren't for the booming drums "Walking On A Wire" would be an adult contemporary ballad. Heart-rending emoting to the max. There's actually a song called "Wish You Were Here." Is that an Incubus cover? May as well be. Somebody please push the button that stops this.

Moby, 18 (V2)

Moby - 18 Moby
By: Japanese Corespondent- Patrick Doherty

Moby's history of alienating his splintered fan-base is notorious. His 1995 release, Everything Is Wrong, with its orchestral and moody overtones, turned off legions of glow-stick waving fans of "Moby the DJ." Everything Is Wrong fans didn't have to wait long to be brushed off, either. Animal Rights introduced us to "Moby the Punker" in 1996, who, in turn, became "Moby the Electro-Pop-Soul-Sampler" with the release of Play in 1999. Of the few Moby fans that remain from the 1991 release, Go, only a fraction of them can actually claim to have embraced all of Moby's musical masks over the past decade.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Moby's latest release, 18, doesn't sound like Play, or for that matter anything else he has ever released. Some of the tracks do have similar beats and chord progressions, tying 18 to Play on a level that only an audiophile would appreciate, but fans who caught "Southside" on the radio and then hopped on the Moby bandwagon are going to be confused. But that's par for the course because Moby continues to do on 18 what he's always done best, and that is to fuse disparate musical styles with a pop sensibility, while maintaining a moody, almost gothic theme. This is a tough trick and pony show, which is what makes Moby such a polarizing artist, despite the fact that his music, at its heart, is simplistic and rather indulgent. This also probably explains why Moby keeps switching genres. What would have happened if Moby had released Play, Part Deaux? The same thing that would have happened had someone else released a Play-like album: they'd both be dismissed as dull and repetitive hacks. Give Moby credit for knowing when he's worn out a genre's welcome, I guess. This time his welcome mat is decorated with the musical theme du jour, minimal electronic pop and glitch.

It should be obvious after reading that sentence that the first commercial radio single off 18, "We Are All Made Of Stars", is an anomaly because nothing else on the album sounds even remotely like it. The distant and somewhat flaccid mood of that single is replicated throughout 18, but guitarwork, for the most part, is noticeably absent from this Moby release, perhaps, for the first time since Moby first started to focus on his DJ-ing skills. This advance single is as close as you will get to rock music on 18, and, maybe, that's for the better because after listening to this song's desperately simple lyrics, melody, and harmony, it could have gotten ugly really fast. It's as if Mute begged Moby for just one song that would make even yuppies feel like they were hip- the rest of the album be damned.

On 18 Moby stays committed to plundering old soul and gospel records, sampling to his heart's content- sometimes to the point that the samples seem to be running the show, leaving his beats hanging in the balance. In particular, tracks like "One Of These Mornings," "Another Woman," "I'm Not Worried At All," "The Rafters" and "At Least We Tried" all feature the sampled artists more than Moby's own musical musings. The beats, chords and progressions on several of these songs match up almost perfectly, suggesting that Moby either knows when he's hit on a good idea or is simply willing to let the samples do the talking. Lazy or genius? Some may rightly suggest this detracts from Moby's status as a "musician," and there's nothing wrong with that argument. But that doesn't take away from the power of the music itself, sampled or not, and Moby can take all the credit he wants for exposing gospel to his celebrity friends as well as millions of other lowly earthlings with worthless musical taste. Let's just hope he's shelling out the royalties.

When leaving the world of sampled gospel, Moby turns inward on 18, and you are more likely than not to be left in a morass of music that can best be described as "ambient", and, at worst, as "new age schlock." As a point of reference, the second half of Play exposes Moby's electronic soul-searching side. There are no overarching beats; instead Moby conjures up more of a gray mood with an occasional dalliance with traditional pop progressions. 18 is neither as daring nor as bold as Bjork's Vespertine; nor is it even remotely as good. But like Bjork, Moby is flirting with the idea of a modern world of pop minimalism, and he gets some good traction in a few spots, most notably on "Look Back In" and "Fireworks", where the tension actually starts to meet the dark matter absence of sound.

Not being much of a crooner himself, Moby has wisely passed the microphone to some of his friends on a few tracks, the most successful of which is "Harbour", featuring Sinead O'Connor. "Harbour" is the ultimate showcase for O'Connor's relentlessly powerful voice. Minor keys combine with an upbeat tempo while O'Connor sings of loss and regret, instantly recalling her seminal early work on The Lion And The Cobra from 1987. She sounds so much better on 18 than she has in years, prompting the notion that she should immediately stop writing her own music, fire her studio band, and hire Moby to do it all for her because, Lord knows, she hasn't released a decent album in well over a decade. The few other guest spots don't quite fare as well. "Jam For The Ladies," featuring the legendary (?) MC Lyte, had the potential to be an ironic track poking fun at misogynistic rap, but the reality is that it's too over-the-top to be parody. Instead, it insults hip-hop in a way that really is quite sad. This track is utterly regrettable. Azure Ray on "The Great Escape" sounds good, but the song is short and uninteresting and formulaic.

A couple moody instrumentals are thrown in for good measure, and Moby does try his hand at singing in a couple spots, although, it only really works on "Sleep Alone," which also happens to be the only time Moby's lyrics climb out of the realm of the emotionally distant. Here, at least, Moby appears as his old, self-conscious self, which was one of the few endearing qualities of Play. His distance on 18 may be the greatest threat to its appeal, because without the vulnerability of tracks like "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad," Moby is left as a rather shallow emotional charicature.

18 showcases everything that is good and bad about Moby. As a musician with masterful control of instrumentation and a sequencer for a brain, he is the prototype 21st century pop musician. He draws out the best of the music that surrounds him at the moment, regardless of the fact that it makes him look like a vampire or a whore, pillaging and exploiting music that isn't his. His music is, of course, uncomplicated and corny, if not altogether self-indulgent. However, now that he's a mainstream crossover, it's easiest just to lump him into the frivolous pop camp. That way his crimes are less magnified because nobody takes pop musicians seriously anymore. Simplistic you say? Derivative? Stealing music from black artists? Well, that's what started rock and roll, is it not? Nobody is comparing Moby to the Beatles, but his contribution (good or bad) to the lexicon of pop cannot be denied after Play. Whether he can maintain that level of exposure and influence remains to be seen, but 18 certainly doesn't seal the deal.

Star Wars Episode II – Attack Of The Clones, Directed By George Lucas (Twentieth Century Fox)

Star Wars Episode II - Attack Of The Clones - Directed By George Lucas Star Wars Episode II – Attack Of The Clones
Directed By George Lucas
Twentieth Century Fox
By: Charles Michael Jones- Special Star Wars Correspondent

I just watched a bootleg copy of Episode II – Attack of the Clones. My first instinct is to convey this fact in a playground-taunt tone of voice, but I cannot do this. Partly because I’m sure these tapes are spreading like a Huttese venereal disease, but mainly because it’s just not very good. I don’t know why I’m still shocked by this: I’ve had three years to prepare for it. The Phantom Menace was simply unwatchable, and it is not surprising that this story suffers directly as a result of its predecessor’s myriad shortcomings. Lucas has disappointed a loyal fan, and somewhere that loyal fan’s eight-year-old self is violently disemboweling his Darth Vader action figure.

Ah, Darth Vader. The Dark Lord of the Sith. A heavy-breathin’, black-cloaked, choking-motherfuckers-with-his-mind badass. Fuck playing Luke or Han at recess; the coveted role in my backyard was Vader (that is, until 1980 when Boba Fett was introduced). Every kid, regardless of his moral coding, had to give due respect to Vader. And, as Vader’s history began to emerge, fans were left with one of the biggest nailbiters in movie history: “Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?” Well, we all know the answer to that one. Lucas chose to grant Vader redemption at the end of Return Of The Jedi, setting the stage for the prequel trilogy, which promised to tell exactly how Anakin Skywalker became the twisted man in the black helmet. The real success of the first three films was that we cared enough to want to know.

In the original trilogy, Vader began to soften with each film. Remorselessly murdering entire planets in Star Wars, ruthlessly carbon-freezing Han and chopping off Luke’s hand in The Empire Strikes Back, and finally beginning to show his human side in Return Of The Jedi, Vader was always played with the right amount of tension and poise. Considering that three actors played the role, each performance melds into a perfect whole. David Prowse, the actor in the black armor, had to give Vader an ominous presence without using any facial expressions, as well as articulating the intensely physical sequences without making Vader look clumsy. James Earl Jones was cast as the voice of Vader, and he masterfully defined it without altering his own (so much so that any character he plays now has a hint of Vader’s malevolent voice…). And finally, once Vader was unmasked, actor Sebastian Shaw perfectly embodied the broken old man who finally had the chance to correct the horrible mistakes of his past while looking at his son’s face for the last time.

Those are some big boots to fill, eh? All eyes were focused on potential actors to play young Anakin. Inexplicably, Lucas chose to go with Jake Lloyd for Episode I. Lloyd failed, miserably. Sure, he was a cute kid, I guess, but his lines could have been delivered better by an eight-year-old (oh, wait, he was an eight-year-old). Well, he sucked and was the main reason that Episode I failed (apart from Jar Jar, of course). See you in rehab, Jake. Here’s hoping you never work again. With Episode II set ten years in the future on the timeline, another actor had to be chosen for the teenage Anakin. Enter Hayden Christensen, a Canadian actor who received decent reviews as what looked like a goth male prostitute in Kevin Kline’s, Life As A House. I guess Lucas sees Anakin’s character as having goth prostitute leanings, so he cast him in the most important role of the series. Does he succeed? I'll give you a hint…have you seen the previews?

Hayden Christensen is one of the worst actors I have ever seen on celluloid. I mean, I know it is a Star Wars movie, and even the best actors could (and do) choke to death on Lucas’ dialogue, but every cast member in the original trilogy infused the lines with some semblance of humor, so it is not unrealistic to expect the same courtesy from Christensen. I know that Lucas intended for the character to be suffering from the perils of adolescence, as well as coping with the burdens of his increasing powers, but when the actor cannot even make kissing Natalie Portman look like fun, then his acting skills are up for some serious questioning. I would cite some specific examples where Christensen’s performance hinders the film, but there are too many. Suffice it to say if he is featured in the shot, then it is a bad scene. The credibility of the entire prequel trilogy had to rest on the shoulders of the actors who played young Anakin, and, with these roles loosely cemented by two obvious hacks, that credibility simply cannot be salvaged.

So could this movie, and the future of the series, have been saved if Anakin’s role had gone to a more capable actor? Sadly, no. Lucas promised that Episode II would be a love story (for whatever that's worth). But it is important that the future parents of Luke and Leia have an epic romance that binds them. With the whole of Episode III devoted to Anakin’s fall from grace, Lucas had the length of this film to forge a believable union between Amidala and Anakin. Already crippled by his leading man, Lucas should have had the beautiful and talented Portman to fall back on, but his scripting of the love scenes is so bad that even she cannot save them. He even sticks the couple in every cliched romantic setting fathomable to no avail whatsoever. Anakin states that he's been living with his love for Amidala since they first met, and this premise could have been a strong foundation in the hands of any other scriptwriter. What you get, however, is a love story, Lucas-style. It’s no wonder that Lucas is a God to millions of dateless geeks: he has no idea how to begin writing a love story. (The only reason that the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia was so believable is because of the skills and personality of Harrison Ford and, to a lesser degree, Carrie Fisher).

Each scene that features Christensen and Portman together is laughable. Anakin is uninhibited by the Jedi Order’s rule of romantic abstinence, and Amidala is devoted to her role in the Galactic Senate (as well as still viewing him, rather condescendingly, as “Annie,” the eight-year-old boy she knew a decade earlier). With her allegiance to her politics, and his apparent disinterest in his own, you have yet another interesting plot twist that Lucas should have made into a more effective device. Again, he fails.

It is during the opening scenes that Lucas lays the foundation of Anakin’s character. He is arrogant, impetuous, and, to put it more succinctly, an asshole. Obi-Wan Kenobi is constantly yelling at him, and Anakin answers with a series of curt “yes, masters.” Twenty minutes into the film and Christensen has already blown it. I understand that Lucas wanted to give Anakin a happy childhood, but I have always been of the opinion that his slave life should have been much harsher. It would have provided a logical foundation for his eventual turn to the dark side, and would have made his inherent goodness come into sharp relief. McGregor, for his part, does the best he can with the role of Kenobi. Some say that he borrows too liberally from Alec Guiness' legendary performance, but I think he goes a long way toward drawing a distinction between his younger incarnation, and that of Guiness’ wizened old man. McGregor infuses humor, a sage-like wisdom, confidence, and, unlike Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, compassion into his role. It's a small victory in an otherwise poorly acted film.

All of Lucas' computer generated characters just look cartoonish. They don’t sit comfortably in the frame, and Lucas really should go back to puppets. Puppets occupy space. They reflect light. They have proper shadows. They exist in the same world as his live actors, and it would improve the look of some of these alien beings and might improve the performances of his humans. But then again, R2-D2 and C3-PO are puppets to some degree, but they fail to rescue their ostensibly comedic scenes. In Lucas' clumsy hands, they actually turn out to be the most annoying aspect of the film. There is simply no reason that these characters should even be in this set of films. R2-D2 can literally fly- a trait that he could have used to get out of a few scrapes in the original trilogy. C3-PO gets beheaded, and his body and head somehow find their way into the machine responsible for assembling the battle droids. His head gets a battle droid body, and his body gets a battle droid head. He makes his way to the final battle scene and ends up frivolously wasting screen time.

When Anakin and Amidala are captured, she admits her love for him, and they kiss. It happens that fast. They are then led to the center of a giant arena and tied to posts to be devoured by some very clumsy monsters. Ray Harryhausen has been dead for years, but these creatures look as if the master himself designed them. They do not fit in with the rest of the CGI effects, and end up ruining the entire scene. Luckily, Obi-Wan carves them up quite nicely with his lightsaber.

Enter the Jedi. You’d think this is where it gets good. You’d be wrong. I cannot fault Lucas for what is my mistake, but I had always envisioned the clones as replicas of the Jedi. And if they weren’t, I at least pictured battles between giant groups of Jedi. What we actually get is a battle in which the Jedi face off against the battle droids- the very same droids that lamely graced the screen in Episode I. The Jedi get some good licks in, but it is unsatisfying when a lightsaber meets lifeless metal. The only decent scene here is when Mace Windu, played by the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson, decapitates Jengo Fett. My mouth fell open. Lucas had the testicular fortitude to let that make the final cut? We see the silhouette of young Boba Fett picking up his father’s helmet. I kept hoping that the lifeless head of the elder Fett would fall out of the helmet with a satisfying splat (a la Bobby Perue in Wild at Heart) and into the lap of his offspring, but I guess Lucas’ balls have yet to drop.

As our Jedi heroes are being backed into a corner, they all look up to find that the calvary has arrived in the form of the clone army. Yoda stands as tall as he can, commanding the clone army in his broken language. Somehow, during the battle, Count Dooku mounts his little speederbike and zips away. The entire clone army chases him in their massive ships, but cannot seem to catch up to him. The entire scene is hysterical. Christopher Lee is shown against a really fake-looking background with his cape flying in the breeze. Lucas unintentionally manages to give a shout-out to all the Saturday afternoon serials that inspired the original Star Wars with this scene. He can create (or delegate the creation of, rather) entire cities on a computer, but he can't make this simple shot look realistic? Paging Dr. Who…

The final scene, which shows the clone army marching in formation before Chancellor Palpatine, sets the stage for Episode III, and illustrates one of the few positive elements of the film: the political intrigue. In Phantom Menace, Palpatine is shown as a compassionate senator from Naboo, who is thrust into the role of Supreme Chancellor so that he may fight corruption from the inside. Lucas only gave us a few clues in that film, but Palpatine’s plan becomes clear in Episode II. While he waited for his clone army to be completed, he was busy manipulating the Trade Federation and their armies of battle droids. As more systems threatened to leave the Republic, and the possibility of war increased, Palpatine was given emergency powers by the Senate (seemingly as simple as having, um, “Senator” Jar Jar nominate him, followed by, not a vote, but rather, a solid round of applause from the Senate), allowing him to build a massive army to protect the Republic. This final scene is intended to show the roots of the future Empire, and it is chilling to see the duplicitous future Emperor watching his plan come together so flawlessly. Ian McDiarmid was perfect as the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi, and he again handles the role effortlessly. Since it is clear that the actor hired to play Anakin will not be able to succumb to evil very convincingly in Episode III, we can at least be assured that McDiarmid will save some face.

Lucas offers settings, situations, and characters that we have seen before, and even plagiarizes his own dialogue. The end result is a universe that, while massive and diverse, ends up using the same elements to tell essentially the same story. This is not a prequel; this is a rewrite. Coupled with his over-reliance on special effects, at the cost of his performances and storyline, you have a clueless old man that is desperately out of touch with a story that he created. Star Wars fans have had almost two decades to plot the history of Darth Vader in their own minds. Perhaps, that is where Lucas should have left it.