Jack BauerMore than Gene Simmons, more than Wilt Chamberlain, even more than James Bond… more than any other man I can think of, Jack Bauer was the hero women wanted to sleep with and men wanted to be. In fact, more than a man has had a ‘mancrush’ on Jack Bauer, ever since the first shot fired back in 2001. 24 has been the parallel constant to nearly a third of my life; tonight’s series finale is, for me, a loss in its own right.

The span of 24‘s run started back in November 2001, just a few months after 9/11.   I had recently moved into apartment living in Montreal.   Sharing ‘roommate TV time’ was a new concept, and I therefore started watching 24 by accident.  In the post-9/11 world, the concept of terrorist assassination plots and a gimmicky “realtime” show seemed a bit much to get into.  I watch(ed) enough garbage TV to need another show.

Yet it became obvious nearly 15 minutes into the first episode that 24 was no ordinary show;  Jack Bauer was no ordinary government spy…  The first season kept us winding with twists and end-of-episode jawdroppers/cliffhangers.  Through it all, however, we thought that everything was going to end up okay for our protagonist.  As the season ended and Jack’s wife was shot by the mole (Nina Myers), we realized that Jack’s life would never end up ‘normal,’ nor would it always see its happy ending.  Living in Canada, I became accustomed to not seeing the following week’s spoilers, therefore every week became a mystery.  Everytime a teaser commercial came on, I quickly flipped the channel, as to avoid seeing any indications of what the following week would hold.

Through eight seasons, we’ve followed the life of Jack Bauer — Serbian terrorist plots, domestic nuclear weapons attacks, bioterrorism and Mexican druglords, Middle Eastern plots of nuclear meltdowns, Russian separatist plots on US soil, family issues with private security firms and the Chinese government, African dictators and more biological weaponry, and now, Middle Eastern nuclear plots and Russian involvement undermining the peace process.  Yes, we’ve had to suspend some disbelief for certain TV liberties (infamously, we have yet to find out how Jack always manages to find a cell phone or never goes to the washroom).  But we always knew that Chloe O’Brian would be there for backup, no matter what.  Jack was the Grand Chessmaster and Chloe was his muse.

By the time the fifth or sixth season came around though, the 24 writers’ “tricks” started to become predictable.  We could spot that there would be a mole and we knew that for every torturous situation Jack was in, he would find some MacGuyverish way of getting himself out.  For sure, 24 couldn’t be on the air much longer before it would wear out its welcome.  Even in the first half of the final season, many fans didn’t believe the show could get any worse before the writers pulled out all the stops and set up possibly one of the best series finales among TV history.

Despite being sad about tonight’s finale, I’m glad the show is going out on top.  Do I know what the fate of Jack Bauer is? No.  Do I expect it to be happy?  No.  But although Kiefer Sutherland and the 24 producers claim that a franchise could continue without Jack Bauer, I don’t see any commercial viability in that line of thinking.  The movie script is supposedly done; Jack Bauer simply can’t die.  Nonetheless, I ‘grew up’ with Jack Bauer, on pins and needles, waiting to see what would be coming next week, next season… after tonight, there is no more ‘next.’

Farewell, Mr. Bauer, I’ll see you on the other side…

Vampire Weekend
XL Recordings
Rating: 8.5/10

Sophomore  albums from bands are always highly scrutinized. In anticipation of the new album, listeners are never quite sure if the band will think too much about what it’s going to do next, or if the recording is going be heavy-handed on studio overproduction.  After all, it seems like almost every band wants to have a ‘bigger’ and ‘bolder’ sound on its follow-up to a successful debut; bands want to retain a core essence, while maintaining that their sounds have ‘matured’ and ‘grown.’ Few bands truly get to accomplish this on their next album.

However, Vampire Weekend lives up to the underground-come-mainstream ‘hype’ it brought on its self-titled debut.  Its sophomore attempt, Contra, refines and expands the band’s sound without losing any essence of originality.  Ezra Koenig once again writes cerebral lyrics for intelligent indie-worldpop — the type of lyrics that make listeners want to know exactly what horchata is — yet simultaneously blunt enough to understand the themes of songs like “Giving Up the Gun.”    When Koening sings “In the shadow of your first attack/I was questioning and looking back/You said baby we don’t speak of that/Like a real aristocrat,” on “Big Taxi,” the listener gains a sense that the band struggles with personal issues with the thin line dividing elitism and low-brow.  This is further complicated with the addition of light string orchestration.

Meanwhile, producer Rostam Batmanglij has more heavily integrated the electro-pop of his side project, Discovery. “California English” steals the same autotuned vocals, while allowing the band to not overthink what it’s already accomplished on its debut.  “Run” sounds like “One (Blake’s Got a New Name),” while “Horchata” has a bouncy, marching band cadence, reminiscent of “Glosoli” from Sigur Rós’s Takk.

But “A-Punk” from the self-titled debut, Contra‘s first single, “Cousins” is frenetic, edgy and disjointed from rest of the album.  Sadly, the album also ends on a rather weak, undeveloped note — despite its abundance of instrumentation.  “I Think Ur a Contra” is arranged like another Sigur Rós song from () — even sounding like Stars at points — but doesn’t quite hit the goals of the rest of the album.

Comparisons to Animal Collective are apt and all over the place for Contra, what with the Afro-beat on “Holiday” or the jangly “White Sky,” for example.  But where Contra continues to allow Vampire Weekend to shine is its in delightful sprinklings of electro-synth-marimbas over running string compositions (“Run”).  Is it perfect? Not really, but it’s an largely whimsical sophomore attempt.

Third Eye Blind
Ursa Major
Sony RED Distribution
Rating: 6/10

The last time Third Eye Blind released an album (2003’s Out of the Vein), mp3s hadn’t yet reached the ubiquity brought about by Apple’s iPod success.  Six years later, frontman Stephen Jenkins sings that his “mp3 is out of juice” on “Sharp Knife,” from the band’s fourth album, Ursa Major.  Much like the rest of the album though, this is just another one of Jenkins’s pseudo-profound observations on life.

As a matter of musical taste, I have always liked 3EB, however the music coming out of Ursa Major is a little more questionable, particularly in comparison to the band’s earlier efforts.  Part of this may be reflected in Jenkins’s unusual fascination with L.A.’s kitsch-profundity; part of this may be reflected in the band’s endlessly re-shifting lineup.  (n.b.–On Ursa Major, the band has dismissed bassist Arion Salazar.)  Thus it stands to highlight some of the reasons Ursa Major doesn’t stack up to the band’s prior ventures.

The album appears to pick off where Vein left off, with most of the ‘heavier’ songs mimicking older songs.  Ursa Major opens on a strong note, with the chorus on “Can You Take Me” equating to Vein‘s “Blinded.”  But “One in Ten” and “About to Break” have this eerie Counting Crows-like backing track (and is there really a point to any of the lesbian-obsession going on?).  They’re both too slow to be able to match even the infamous 90’s rock ballad “How’s it Gonna Be” of 1997’s Third Eye Blind and are almost more like “Wake For Young Souls” and “Self-Righteous” off Vein — both weaker songs.

“Dao of St. Paul” opens with a riff similar to “Thanks A Lot” from the band’s self-titled debut, but the rest of the song fails to hit with the same pungency as the original, heading to a soft choir at the end.  Sure, the lyrical content on Ursa Major weaves between the political (“Don’t Believe a Word”) and the amouronarcissistic (“Bonfire”), but maybe that’s part of the problem.

3EB has made some of its most memorable songs when it’s focused on one lyrical dimension (“Semi-Charmed Life” from self-titled or “Never Let You Go” from 1999’s Blue) or on the musical talents of its members (“Darwin” from Blue or “Forget Myself” from Vein).  Sadly, Brad Hargreaves and Tony Fredianelli have become background players to Jenkins’s obsession with lyrics.  “Summer Town” and “Why Can’t You Be” are typical 3EB-sounding songs only because they mildly echo of 3EB in a way that goes beyond Jenkins’s vocals.

Stephen Jenkins should have grown and matured “his band,” rather than abruptly try to have his cake and eat it too.  It’s now become quite evident that whether we like it or not, 3EB albums are going to be both kitschy 90’s pop-rock and 90’s politballads, completely throwing direction to the wind.

folder Doves
Kingdom of Rust
Astralwerks Records/EMI
Rating: 8.5/10

It’s been four years since Manchester, UK-based band Doves released their last album, Some Cities.  Cities was a delightful romp around the Mancunian landscape — the manufacturing, working-class town where Jimi Goodwin and Jez and Andy Williams hail from.  (Notice, the romp is deemed “delightful,” though not necessarily “whimsical.”) Despite this, Doves failed to break forth with the commercial successes of Coldplay and Oasis and the artistic successes of fellow Mancunians Elbow (2008 Mercury Prize winners for their The Seldom-Seen Kid).

By their fourth album, Kingdom of Rust, however, Doves are entitled to breakthrough with deserved success.  As a whole, the album is only mildly more innovative than Cities and sophomore album The Last Broadcast.  Where Rust shines, however, is in Doves’s continual ability to meld the Britpop sound with the darkness of Manchester and all the electronica history that Manchester evokes. In this respect, Doves surpass Elbow by leaps and bounds, making Rust at least a lock-in for a Mercury Prize nomination.

Rust opens with “Jetstream,” a soaring buildup of Chemical Brothers-like sonic electronica over Jez Williams’s vocals, before lapsing back into Jimi Goodwin’s take on the title track.  “Kingdom of Rust” is a typical sounding Doves track, replete with piano-sounding overtones during the chorus.  The same can be said for “Birds Flew Backwards,” a slow ballad, reminiscient of Cities “Ambition.”  And “Spellbound” is Broadcast, via “N.Y.”

On “The Greatest Denier,” Doves borrow an arpeggiating melody, similar to that used in Coldplay’s X&Y opener, “Square One.”  Not for the first time Doves pulls a Coldplay-style melody on Rust; the instrumental on the waltz-cum-rocker, “10:03” has an eerie feel to the instrumental of Viva la Vida‘s “42.”  The difference here is, while Coldplay tries to rock, they’re eerie; while Doves try to be eerie, they rock.

Even Doves’s accessible, pop songs have a hint of sorrow.  On “Winter Hill,” Goodwin sings “If comes the day/you meet someone new/you will be with him/but I’ll be thinking of you.”  More impressive though is the start-stop-start-stop swells of album closer “Lifelines,” an upbeat, peppy tune that serves as an excellent closer, particularly when contrasted with the album’s opener.

But perhaps one of the most disjoint, artistically beautiful songs on the album is “Compulsion,” another song vocalized by Jez Williams.  This song feels like what would have happened if Coldplay visited the Hacienda in the 1980s.  The beat and pounding bass smacks of New Order and fully synthesizes the britpop side of Doves with its electronic side.

Doves shine best because they not only accept their influences, but they work their surroundings into their music as well.  Jimi Goodwin has an unmistakable voice that presents itself well on both the sweet songs (“10:03”) and the punchy songs (“House of Mirrors”).  Combine that with the fact that Doves sing about reality, rather than abstracts, and Kingdom of Rust is further evidence that Doves are surely on their way to finally getting the credit they deserve.

Setlist:  I. Love at the End of the World, With a Bullet, Lions of the Kalahari, Fixed to Ruin, Up Sister, Sundance, Bridge to Nowhere, Hard Road, Dead End, Words on Fire, Brother Down, Them Kids.

E: Detroit ’67, Mind Flood (~16 min)

Pictures (credit: Marc)

I’ve seen the Sam Roberts Band four times now. The first was a hometown show in Montreal back in September 2003.  Having just launched a tour with American band Guster, Roberts danced around the stage with his Jack Daniels, knowing he was on the cusp of total domination of the anglo-Canadian music scene.  

The second time I saw SRB was a November 2006 show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York with Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene).  All the McGill people came out of the NYC woodwork, creating a larger-than expected crowd for an international show.  Roberts didn’t disappoint.

The third time was a 2007 Canada Day celebration in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, featuring an all-Montreal (and personal faves) lineup of SRB, The Stills, and Malajube.  This was a tougher show to watch because of the audience logistics (and the fact that beer bottles weren’t allowed inside the fence).  But given that the lineup was fantastic as a whole, Roberts didn’t break out the same way.

And once again, I saw them play at the Bowery last night, in celebration of the US release of their latest LP, Love at the End of the World (released a year later than in Canada and six months later than in Spain).  Unlike a lot of rock bands, SRB never disappoints to put on an excellent show; his frenetic energy is as comfortable with an intimate American crowd (though largely ex-pat and McGillies) as it is with his hometown crowd 5 1/2 years ago.

See, for Roberts, it’s all about the music, it’s all about rock and roll, it’s all about having a good time.  Credit is equally due to Roberts’s backing band, who carry his same energy through the rhythms and melodies that make the live show that much more sublime than listening to the studio recordings. Which is why the down-tempo songs have the ability to entrance the crowd into swaying with the rhythms as much as the up-tempo songs catch the crowd bopping and jumping with similar levels of freneticism.  

Roberts himself is the ultimate in showmanship-as-musician; a quality that lacks in most contemporary frontmen.  Want proof?  All you had to do was watch Roberts move the crowd from one extreme to the next during his 16-minute rendition of “Mind Flood.”  Even newer LATEOTW songs such as “Up Sister” and “Them Kids” got the crowd flailing.

The fact that Sam Roberts is on his third LP and has yet to cross into the American mainstream (beyond Buffalo, which gets Canadian radio stations) still boggles my mind.  It also leads me to question exactly how American mainstream music is determined.  After all, Roberts has developed a refreshing blend of Zeppelin, Stones, and Floyd — the type of music that evokes a nostalgic, classic rock feel, without all the pop/production pretensions.

I still maintain that Roberts will find success here in the United States, though it will require him to get a better distribution deal and marketing muscle.  At the point where his mainstream Canadian success has shown that the music alone isn’t sufficient to break into the American market, it will be a shame if he doesn’t continue to breakout here.

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