Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
One wonders what Morrissey made of Blur's performance in London's Hyde Park to coincide with that city's hosting of the Olympics this past summer. The former Smiths singer and revered solo artist is, after all, the spiritual father of the very British alternative music movement that was the precursor to the '90s Brit-pop explosion that gave us Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Blur. "Moz" made no secret of his disdain for what he saw as the blatant jingoism and "football hooligan"-style nationalism that surrounded the London Olympics.
Albarn and Blur, by contrast, performed a massive outdoor show in conjunction with the closing ceremonies for the summer games. "Parklive," a new boxed set that reproduces the entire concert in both audio and visual formats you can purchase them separately too, should you so desire feels and sounds like more of a countrywide celebration than a mere Blur concert. Which probably wouldn't sit too well with Morrissey, who dressed his band members in T-shirts reading "We Hate William & Kate" at his own concerts during this same period.
So did Blur "sell out" by hopping on the Olympics train? Not really. There is certainly grandiosity, a bit of flag-waving and even a hint of "Isn't it so wonderful to be British today?" posturing at play throughout "Parklive." But mostly, it's just a killer Blur show, with all that such an event entails a bit of arena-anthemic interplay, decidedly (exaggeratedly?) British pronunciation from Albarn, and the sort of riffs and melodies that made Brit-pop so appealing in the first place. But, regardless of the nation's temperature and mood at the time of this recording, a Blur show is always a bit dark and menacing, too. These are not all anthems designed to provide a soundtrack for, say, a national bid for the World Cup. There's darkness lurking beneath the surface veneer.
Opening with "Girls & Boys," and then slamming directly into "London Loves," Albarn and Co. get the histrionics out of the way early on. By the time we get to "Tracy Jacks," things have gotten good and weird, and they stay that way right through the show-concluding "The Universal," perhaps the most emotionally invested performance of the entire evening.
If it seems at times here that Albarn is simply waving the flag and riding the moment, it should be remembered that Blur's music tends to point out the fact that we're all being had. This is a British notion, based on the crumbling of Empire, economic hopelessness, and all of that, but it's also a universal theme.
Consumer culture in Blur's world divides, conquers, alienates, and then points and laughs. Which makes "Parklive" both a profoundly great live concert document and a delicious bit of high-profile irony. That, one suspects, is something Morrissey could appreciate.
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Review: 3 stars
In the 10 years since ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead released its greatest work, "Source Tags and Codes," the band has been trying to recapture that album's grandeur on every release, with diminishing results. After last year's bloated "Tao of the Dead," it seemed like the musicians were about to exhaust themselves.
But on "Lost Songs," the band's eighth album, these Texas rockers are refocused and reignited. Here, they obliterate the prog pretensions that weighed down their last few albums in favor of raw, rambunctious punk. It's the band's shortest, tightest and feistiest album, and it's also an ironic achievement: By going back to basics, the Trail of Dead has pulled off one of its greatest epics. With the exception of the majestic ballad "Awestruck" and the anticlimactic closer "Time and Again," each track on "Lost Songs" is a combustible containment of the band's usual pandemonium.
Highlights like "Pinhole Camera," "Opera Obscura" and the scathing hipster satire "Bright Young Things" cycle through the Trail of Dead's signature peaks and valleys, at twice the normal speed and volume. Drummer Jason Reece is once again sharing frontman duties with Conrad Keely, but it makes little difference: Both of their wails are buried deep in the chaos, and by the end of almost every track, the entire band is shouting together anyway.
The lyrics mostly rage against international wars and American apathy, and the rage suits the Trail of Dead well. Fans might find themselves exhausted after this album, but as for the band, it sounds more thrilling than it has in a decade.
Greatest Video Game Music 2
Performed by the London ?Philharmonic conducted by Andrew Skeet
Review: 2 1/2 stars
Among the new things in this world that take some adjusting to are these highly elaborate symphonic scores composed for video games but played all together on soundtrack discs.
If you have any affection, then, for the point where novelty and former absurdity meet (which is where a lot of the 21st century thus far has conducted so much of its business), you've got to marvel at the very idea of this disc.
The games involved include "Assassin's Creed," "Elder Scrolls," "Legend of Zelda," "Final Fantasy VII," "Halo," "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Chrono Trigger," "Batman: Arkham City" and "Deus Ex-Human Revolution."
Vocalises are commonplace, solo and choral. So are electronic pulsations. The composers include the likes of Lorne Balfe, Jeremy Soule, Michael McCann, Jonathan Coulton, Yasunori Mutsuda, Kazumi Totaka, Russell Brower (not exactly household names, in other words, in either classical or soundtrack circles). Nor is any of the music memorable as being anything other than atmospherics to make players feel that what they're doing is somehow richly cinematic. (In other words, it's classical music twice removed, not just once removed, as in most film soundtrack music.)
"Still alive" from "Portal" sounds, from the London Symphonic Orchestra and friends, like something from a wickedly sarcastic folk-rock musical with a 50-50 chance of making it a teasing way to reward game winners with a final musical wisecrack.
A choice eccentric "say, what?" gift for the holidays.
Frank Sinatra, ?Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Christmas With? the Rat Pack
Review: 3 stars
When you think of Christmas, who else could you possibly think of but Frank, Dean and Sammy? Are they not the perfect voices for staying home, baking cookies and luxuriating in the glories of domesticity?
"Oh by gosh by golly" sings Frank Sinatra on "Mistletoe and Holly" instead of "ring a ding ding" and then extols the glories of fancy ties and "granny's pies." (OK, he makes up for it with a version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with the proper proportion of bourbon and implied rue, despite the ghastliness of the chorus.)
Dean Martin's all-purpose cynicism was appropriate for any insincerity that the record business could ever come up with. (Never for the life of you, forget Martin's all-time classic TV special "Dean Martin's Christmas in Sea World.")
But Sammy Davis Jr. could give you a version of "Jingle Bells" that almost swings and has "dash." ("Jing, jing, jingle in the evening,/ and may I say/ Oh what fun it is to ride in a one- horse open sleigh.")
Sometimes, kitsch becomes classic. Voilà this disc, a perennial of its own.J.S.