Sunday, July 26, 2015

Jason Isbell Comes To New Haven

Jason Isbell - photo by John V
Jason Isbell has been making impressive music since his days with Drive By Truckers. Since going solo in 2007, he’s released several records, including 2012’s excellent Southeastern. He’s now on tour supporting his latest release, Something More Than Free. On Wednesday, July 22, he made a stop at New Haven’s College Street Music Hall. Showcasing selections from several of his albums, as well as some Drive By Truckers tunes, Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, treated us to a magnificent evening of music. Songs ranged from the driving opener "Palmetto Rose," and the tongue in cheek “Codiene,” to the powerful, moving “Elephant,” & “Cover Me Up.” Isbell & the band were tight. focused, and completely in sync during the well-paced show.

Isbell’s incisive & evocative lyrics combine elements of rock, folk & country. You can hear echoes of Bruce Springsteen & Jackson Browne, among others, in songs like “Speed Trap Town,” and “The Life You Chose.” Isbell is a unique & talented artist, and I think he’s truly come into his own on this latest album. He's also a strong live performer and sounded superb vocally during the show. There were no false notes from Isbell, who had a solid rapport with the audience, and played some killer guitar. The 400 Unit were awesome as well, including the fantastic Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards, Sadler Vadlen on guitar & Chad Gamble on drums. From “Stockholm” to “24 Frames” and “Alabama Pines” it was a compelling, soulful & thrilling concert. Jason & his brothers in song know how to put on a stunning concert.

The show climaxed with a three-song encore, ending with the audience singing along to the playful “Super 8.” If you get a chance to see Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit on tour this summer, head out & do so. And I urge you pick up one of his excellent albums as well; I'd start with Here We Rest, Southeastern or Something More Than Free, but they're all phenomenal. I’d also like to note that singer-songwriter Blake Mills did an amazing opening set. He absolutely shredded on guitar, playing cuts from his 2014 release Heigh Ho and doing a wonderful version of Joe Tex’s “I’ll Never Do You Wrong." Mills also produced the latest album by Alabama Shakes, and counts no less an authority than Eric Clapton among his fans. Mills is definitely worth checking out live. Here’s a link to Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit performing “Codiene,” and “Cover Me Up.”

Set List:
Palmetto Rose
24 Frames
Dress Blues
Decoration Day
Different Days
Traveling Alone
If It Takes A Lifetime
The Life You Chose
How To Forget
Speed Trap Town
Cover Me Up
Children of Children
Alabama Pines
Something More Than Free
Never Gonna Change
Goddamn Lonely Love
Super 8

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The "Genisys" of The Terminator Saga

I really, really wanted to like Terminator: Genisys. I’m a big fan of the first two chapters in the saga, The Terminator & Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which were written & directed by James Cameron. The next two films, Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines, Terminator: Salvation and the TV spinoff, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, all had interesting moments, but could not live up to the amazing initial entries in the series. In this latest film, we get a story that wants to have it both ways. It pays homage to, and also reinvents, the original concept. It works on some levels, but it’s not quite as successful as it could have been. This time out, we revisit the now familiar war ravaged future Earth. The artificial intelligence Skynet has taken over after the apocalyptic Judgment Day. The human rebellion against the machines is still led by John Connor. Just like in the original film, Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor, who will become John’s mother. John plans to send back his friend Kyle Reese to protect Sarah, and ensure the future of the human race. What he doesn’t know at the time is that Kyle not only protects Sarah, but also falls in love with her, and becomes John’s father. But something happens just before Kyle’s journey back in time, and there are ripple effects.

Suddenly, there are multiple Terminators, and multiple timelines. When Kyle arrives in 1984, Sarah Connor is already aware of Earth’s dark future, and her role as John Connor’s mother. Surprisingly, she’s being assisted by a Terminator who arrived when she was nine years old (portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger; who else?), and they’ve already neutralized the original T-800. They have an idea about how they can stop Judgment Day, and have built a time machine to travel to 1997. However, Kyle has new memories of a different future (and something called Genisys) after his time trip, and thinks the date & year when Skynet becomes self-aware has changed. Which means a new plan has to be forged to stop the dark future that Kyle & John live in from occurring. Meanwhile, our heroes must evade the Terminators that have been sent to stop them.

The script by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier tries to be a new riff on the mythology, and wants to salute the original movies as well. While it essentially ignores the latter two sequels and the TV series, one or two elements from those films crop up. The story is a bit overcomplicated, and leaves a couple of threads dangling. There’s also a significant twist, which I won’t reveal, that actually attempts takes the story in new directions. But did we really need another entry in this series? Unlike the recent reboot of the Planet of the Apes films, this doesn’t feel like a relaunch that tells a classic story in a different way, but is still recognizable to fans, and also accessible to newcomers. You’ll really need to know your Terminator history to appreciate this movie, or study up before viewing it. The film also spends too much time trying to play off of Arnold’s classic lines & scenes from other entries in the series. Everyone loves those moments, but there are too many of them here.

The cast tries its best; Schwarzenegger could play this role in his sleep by now, and does a nice job; Jason Clarke is effective as John Connor; Jai Courtney is ok as Kyle Reese, and Emilia (Game Of Thrones) Clarke is quite good as the younger Sarah Connor. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons & Matt (Dr. Who) Smith also show up in small but significant roles. Director Alan Taylor and his crew stage some cool action sequences & keep things moving. The design of the movie & the effects stay true to the look of previous films, but there's also an attempt to update things for this new take on the story. The movie is mildly enjoyable, but it doesn't stick in your mind after it's over. The film just never reaches the level of the first two entries in the saga. Terminator: Genisys is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: There is a brief mid-credits scene, so if you go, hang out in the theater for a bit as the credits roll.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ken Sharp's Power Pop Heroes Return!

The 2nd part of Ken Sharp’s exhaustive history of the power pop genre, PLAY ON! Power Pop Heroes, Volume 2 has now been released. The massive book covers the 70s & early 80s and features excellent interviews with bands such as Cheap Trick, The Ramones, Utopia & Squeeze. In addition to the exhaustive coverage of those groups, Sharp also profiles such lesser known (to the casual fan) but still influential bands such as Shoes, Blue Ash, The Toms, The Records & XTC. Like Volume 1, which I reviewed here;, the book is an amazing achievement. If you’re a fan of this music, you’ll love it. It’s 754 pages of pure power pop nirvana. As always, the prolific & talented Mr. Sharp (who's written extensively about rock music & is a talented musician) deserves kudos for a job well done.

You’ll encounter great stories & recollections from artists & band members, including John Waite of The Babys, Billy Squier of Piper and the one & only Rick Springfield. There’s in depth analysis & discussion of key albums & songs by the bands following their profiles. What’s especially cool about this edition is that it features the second generation of power pop rockers. These bands were influenced by the progenitors of the genre, including The Beatles, The Kinks & The Who. Want to know more about Dwight Twilley, Sweet, The Rubinoos or Pezband? Maybe you're intrigued after hearing a couple of songs by these bands, but want to know more before digging deeper into their catalog? You’ve come to the right place. Sharp treats these groups with the same love & affection as the big names. He has a knack (no pun intended) for making his interview subjects feel at ease, which is why the content here is more detailed (and insightful) than what's usually found in books of this type. 

This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that will appeal to true power pop fanatics, and music devotees who want to know more about this sometimes under-appreciated genre. Sadly, PLAY ON! Power Pop Heroes, Volume 2 is currently out of print. It sold out of its limited print run very quickly, just like Volume 1. There was eventually a small reprint run of the first book, so it’s possible this will be done with Volume 2 as well. Keep an eye out at: The site has a lot of info on power pop artists and has a lot of great items for sale. The final book in the series will be published later this year and will feature artists like Jellyfish, Matthew Sweet and Marshall Crenshaw. I’m very excited about that one, and can’t wait to see what cool information the brilliant Mr. Sharp gives us about the third generation of power pop rockers.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Haunter: Groundhog Day....of Terror!

Lisa Johnson has a problem. She wakes up every day and relives the same routine over and over.  Her parents & younger brother do & say the same things. She can’t seem to leave her house, which is surrounded by a mysterious fog. And her family doesn't realize that they're stuck in a continuous loop. Time goes on, and Lisa realizes she & her family are ghosts and that there is another family living in their former home. That’s only the beginning of the story in director Vincenzo Natali’s clever thriller, Haunter (2013). As Lisa tries to solve the mystery of her family’s deaths, she realizes there is also an evil force in the house, and that it wants to destroy the family that’s currently living there. And Lisa’s family may not have been the first victims of this evil force; can she warn the current occupants of the house and stop the cycle of violence & death?

The film offers a fun twist on the usual haunted house tale, as it’s told from the ghost’s perspective. Abigail (Little Miss Sunshine) Breslin gives a good performance as Lisa, and veteran character actor Stephen McHattie is creepily effective as the murderous spirit haunting the house. It’s an atmospheric, suspenseful and relatively gore-free terror tale. The film takes time to build its premise and tell the story, and should appeal to old school genre fans. If you're sick of the current cycle of slasher flicks and the overabundance of "found footage" horror films, Haunter offers a refreshing alternative. Director Natali also helmed Cube (1997) and the 2009 horror film Splice. The movie was written by Brian King, and has an eerie look courtesy of cinematographer Jon Joffin. Haunter is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for online streaming. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: