Comedown Machine – The Strokes

In 2001, The Strokes received critical acclaim for their debut Is This It and maintained the potential to become one of 2000s greatest rock bands. Today, the New York-based outfit released their fifth album, Comedown Machine, but lost most of the recognition they earned 12 years ago. After coming out of a 5 year hiatus, with frontman Julian Casablancas releasing his own solo debut intermittently, The Strokes had lost a lot of mainstream appeal, considering their rise and fall in pop culture and the music scene. Their sophomore album, Room on Fire, was their last album that actually gained both acclaim and appeal among critics and fans. But after the release of 2006’s moody First Impressions of Earth and their disappointing 2011 comeback record Angles, the Strokes seemed like they were done. But despite the rumors and reports that surfaced about the band’s breakup, they yet again released another album, Comedown Machine, which is so far their most appealing work in a while.

Although derivative and sluggish in some instances, Comedown Machine keeps the band’s garage lo-fi sound intact and Casablancas’ grungy tenor steady. The new record contains a few nostalgic albeit imitative Is This It throwbacks (“All the Time,” “50/50”), new intriguing and catchy tracks (“Tap Out,” “Welcome to Japan”), and generic melodies (“One Way Trigger,” “Slow Animals”). The Strokes are somewhat in touch with their roots, but they can do better. However, compared to their previous unsuccessful predecessors, Comedown Machine is an easy 38-minute listen.

The great thing about The Strokes’ new record is that it sounds like they’re actually trying. Casablancas has developed more emotional depth in his lyrics than his lazy and hasty works in former albums. Despite Casablancas’ considerable amount of lyrical effort, Comedown Machine doesn’t necessarily explore any themes of any specific topic. Looking at Comedown Machine through an artistic perspective, the album artwork suggests that The Strokes are going for an old-fashioned 90s punk rock look, with the styling of what looks like a mixtape.

It’s hard to tell if The Strokes will ever come out of their endless genius-deprived sleep, but it’s good to know for now that they are in a stable state. With a smooth composition, Comedown Machine is much more appealing and put into effort than the last two Strokes albums. Even on their last album, Angles, Casablancas deliberately removed himself from most of the recording process, only going so far as recording his vocals. Luckily, there is no indication that Casablancas nor any other Strokes member lack effort in Comedown Machine

Grade: B
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Tap Out,” “Welcome to Japan”

    

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Afraid of Heights – Wavves

Nathan Williams, the young vocalist of San Diego surf rock group Wavves, is one busy guy. After being featured on Big Boi’s sophomore record and creating three consecutive Wavves albums in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively, Williams has found the time to formulate this year’s anticipated Afraid of Heights. Since their previously acclaimed record King of the Beach, Williams has made some bold decisions with enhancing his band’s sound and label (they switched record labels, from Fat Possum to Mom + Pop). Although Afraid of Heights isn’t as vibrant as its predecessor or as psychedelic as Wavves’ first two self-titled albums, it still provides a plethora of diverse and engaging music. Wavves mixes early 90s punk rock with modern surf/indie/prog rock and some garage and psychedelic lo-fi. Their sound then translates into the endless depths of Afraid of Heights to intensify and stimulate the album’s themes of depression, death, paranoia, self-destruction, sociopathy, loneliness, and psychological fears (hence the title Afraid of Heights).

Despite these negative and disheartening subjects, the album actually emanates a vivid and lively atmosphere. Some songs are easy to listen to, such as the twinkly-turned-head-banging opener “Sail to the Sun,” the Weezer-esque tune “Demon to Lean On,” and the woozy lo-fi title track. However, other   tracks are much more complicated, both thematically and audibly: “Mystic” is a snippet of rumbly grunge rock, with Williams’ bellowing voice being buried by noise; “Gimme a Knife” is loud and brash, but its lyrics, such as “I loved you, Jesus/ You raped the world/ I feel defeated/ Guess I’ll go surf,” are even more bizarre. 

Nevertheless, Afraid of Heights is Wavves at their most enhanced sound and their most elaborate thematically. The album continues to give more open background, with songs such as “Cop,” an honest albeit odd love song about a gay protagonist killing a policeman; “Hippies is Punks,” a noise-pop headbanger about misery and lovesickness; “I Can’t Dream,” the catchy and hauntingly dramatic album closer; “Paranoid,” an upbeat jam with the words “I don’t know” repeated several times to emphasize and match the song’s title; and “Dog,” another catchy rock ballad.  

If you think Wavves or frontman Nathan Williams intend to influence sociopathy or nihilism in Afraid of Heights, that’s not what they are trying to do. With their aesthetic abilities and lyrical idiosyncrasy,  Wavves have created an infectious headphones album to relate to, to feel sympathy and empathy for the band members, or just to feel free as an individual.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Sail to the Sun,” “Demon to Lean On,” “Dog, “Paranoid,” “I Can’t Dream,” “Hippies is Punks”

Admission

I’ve got to admit, I’m a huge Tina Fey/30 Rock fan. When I heard about her upcoming rom-com Admission with Paul Rudd, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to continue her acting career post-30 Rock era. However, after watching Admission, it didn’t seem like it was the smooth transition for Fey that I was hoping for. In fact, Admission was an overlong, flat, clumsily scripted, and choppily edited film that subverts its witty potential and instead settles with occasional melodrama and weak humor. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are likable and have strong chemistry, but they are both brought down by a script that was severely deprived of Fey’s clever humor.

However, the premise did seem to deem the prospective of being a somewhat satisfying rom-com: a Princeton admissions officer (Fey) taking the risk of accepting a college-bound alternative school kid, who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption. She also falls in love with the dean of her possible son’s school (Rudd). 

I appreciate the fact that Admission had its moments of pure genuineness and authenticity, whether funny or sad, but, as a whole, the film felt emotionally messy, uncomfortably awkward, and its ending was unsatisfying. Admission didn’t grasp the balance between romantic comedy and exaggerated drama as you might expect. Some of the fim’s material felt tacky at times and lowest-common denominator in other instances. The film also felt dull and drab and its condescending tone on colleges and college-bound students didn’t blend well with the film’s humor. Think of all the actual college-bound students in real life who will have to watch this! 

Whether you look at this as an uproarious Tina Fey film or not, Admission did not exceed my expectations, unfortunately. Hopefully, both Tina and Paul Rudd can bounce back from this, as they both continue to show wit and likability even in their undeveloped characters. Watch the trailer here.      

Grade: C
Recommended: Only if you’re a die-hard Tina Fey fan
  

The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake

Flashback to 2006: Justin Timberlake had just released his sophomore record FutureSex/LoveSounds, a Prince-influenced album filled with disco-pop, smooth hip hop, and buzzy R&B. His stardom as a solo musician had begun to grow, especially since his 2002 debut Justified. Winning Grammys, touring around the world, and producing three #1 singles, including the memorable “Sexyback,” you could say that Justin was on top of the world. Then all of the sudden, he disappeared off the face of the music world and entered the industry of film and television to focus on acting. This wasn’t exactly the detour people expected, but the results were still satisfying: He has hosted Saturday Night Live 5 times, starred in “Bad Teacher,” “Shrek the Third,” “Friends with Benefits,” and gave an impressive performance in the acclaimed The Social Network. Judging from his experience as both an actor and singer-songwriter, Justin seems to be one of the most multi-talented and culturally adapted celebrities of the modern era. However, his music career seemed tentative. When journalists asked him if he was going to continue to make music, the answer was always ambiguous.

Flash forward to last January: Justin released a mysterious video about a pending record, stating that he’s “ready” to come back to music. Three days later, he released “Suit & Tie,” a surprisingly mature  R&B-funk jam. Produced by longtime collaborator Timbaland, “Suit & Tie” had finally signified Justin’s return to reclaim the throne as a chart-topping musician. The song itself attains a luxurious and classy feel while keeping a vibrant and energetic mood, as Justin sings the slick lyrics and guest feature Jay-Z raps as if he had just crashed a wedding.

After Timberlake fans and the media grew with anticipation about Justin’s return and his first new single, the tracklist and album artwork soon came out for his upcoming third record The 20/20 Experience. Although Justin had taken a 7 year hiatus from producing music, he still retains the same engaging sound that won critics and fans over with his first two albums. The 20/20 Experience takes on a whole new standard of pop by fusing together decades worth of groove funk, blues, calypso, electronic, and R&B. Despite the somewhat old-fashioned vibe, The 20/20 Experience contains 10 songs that sound both nostalgic and contemporary. The atmosphere is both heart-achy and lavish.

Starting off with the eloquent, dizzyingly bluesy “Pusher Love Girl,” Justin proceeds to sing and croon over a course of 8 minutes about love, drugs, and how loving a girl is like doing drugs. The themes in Timberlake’s new record are predominantly about love, sometimes subliminally about wife Jessica Biel, but he grows more in depth with his soul, as he sings about classiness, sex, romance, reminiscence, and introspection. The 20/20 Experience also expands on the length of Timberlake’s songs, ranging from 4 to 8 minutes. Justin still contains the ability to emotionalize and sensualize each song, such as the safari-styled 7-minute groove, “Don’t Hold the Wall,” the vivacious Latino-pop-influenced “Let the Groove Get In,” and the snappy, electro-pop jam “Strawberry Bubblegum.” Justin also is able to maintain his eclectic use of hip hop with the catchy “Tunnel Vision.” He continues to mature over the album with jazzy ballads, such as “Spaceship Coupe” and “That Girl,” but he also attains a newer use of 80s chantey rock with the effervescent “Mirrors.” Justin closes the show with the simple but mesmerizing “Blue Ocean Floor.”

Achieving to grab the audience and the critics once again, Justin Timberlake has effectively improved on his sound but without washing away music influences that have helped him make his previous two albums. All I can say is: wow. Luckily, we’ll be hearing more from Justin later this year with the release of a second volume of The 20/20 Experience.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Pusher Love Girl,” “Suit & Tie,” “Mirrors,” “Let the Groove Get In”

Oz the Great and Powerful

This prequel to the 1939 American classic The Wizard of Oz may not be as bad as you think. Sam Raimi, director of other cinematic masterpieces, such as the Spider-Man trilogy and The Evil Dead trilogy, transformed the world of Oz into a breathtaking visual spectacle. Although Oz the Great and Powerful is visually dazzling and wondrous, it lacks the magic that made the original 1939 film one of the most celebrated movies in history. Let’s just say, this movie is much more style over substance and the script isn’t as dazzling as its visuals. However, this prequel did attain some fine performances from James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.

Despite how incomparable this movie is to The Wizard of Oz, there were some cleverly put-together themes and backstories that both resonate and expand on the characters of Oz. Unlike the backstories of Broadway’s acclaimed Wicked, this Oz film follows the journey of Oscar Diggs, a womanizing con man/circus magician, searching for meaning in his life a chance to reach the peak of his potential. When a tornado strikes Kansas (deja vú, anyone?), Oscar travels in a hot-air balloon into the color-saturated world of Oz, filled with mystical creatures, witches, munchkins, and quirky townspeople. All three of the witches play sisters, two of them (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) bent on destruction and the other (Michelle Williams) fighting for justice. As the new leader of Oz and with the use of his “magic,” Oscar must save the people of Oz from the Evil Witches in order to restore peace and balance throughout the land.

Somehow, these backstories surprisingly work well and skillfully interlock the stories behind the witches and the wizard of the original Oz. Although the movie is rated PG, there were indeed a few realistically frightening scenes, especially with the enhancement of technology. Just watch out for the flying baboons and when the witches in their true form, you’ll know what I mean. Another great witty addition to Oz the Great and Powerful were the Wizard’s cute sidekicks, China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and Finely the winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff). Although there’s no Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, or Tin Man, these cute and hilarious supporting characters uplift the film with comic relief.

But occasionally, Oz the Great and Powerful would suffer from clichéd melodrama and corny moments, such as the Munchkins’ brief musical number, which is indeed as cringeworthy as you can imagine. Also despite the fantastic visual effects, one could tell that some scenes felt visually inauthentic and cheesy, especially during the fight scenes.

Even so, Oz the Great and Powerful is not only an impressive Disney financial feat (it earned $79.1 million in the opening weekend), but it neither upstages the original Wizard of Oz, nor does it fail to provide its own clever twist. Watch the trailer here.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Rated: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language