Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 2

Previously on the SDP, I shared my thoughts on songs that didn't quite make my top-ten and bottom-ten lists of 2014.  That list continues now.

by Pharell Williams
from G.I.R.L.
Year-end position: #1

Once again, America's number-one song of the year is one I'd consider a good song.  Actually, "Happy" is not just a song, it's a state of mind, because everything in this song comes together to create the titular mood.  However, there's a reason why this song didn't make my top-ten list.  The entire final minute of this 4-minute track is repeated parts from the rest of the song.  And it's bad enough that that the song tries to get too much mileage out of its hook even after repeating it once.  That's what Weird Al Yankovic's parody version, "Tacky" has over the original.  Not only did he end the song at the 3-minute mark, but he also changed the lyrics for each repetition of the chorus.  If "Happy" had ended at the same point, it would have been much stronger for it.  Heck, it could even have contended for #1 on this list, were that the case!  But as it is, "Happy" is still a fun song, just a little too long and repetitive for its own good.

"Hey Brother"
by Avicii
from True
Year-end position: #60

One of the songs I considered for 2013's top-ten list was Avicii's Aloe Blacc's "Wake Me Up".  Another year gone, and another of Avicii's singles has gone through the charts (in addition to "Wake Me Up" again).  Pretty much, everything I had to say about that song, good and bad, I could apply to "Hey Brother".  With two exceptions: I like this song better for its darker melody; it sounds like the sight of storm clouds gathering on the horizon, if that makes any sense.  But two: why pray tell doesn't the actual singer, a mister Dan Tyminski, get a featuring credit?

"La La La"
by Naughty Boy & Sam Smith
from Hotel Cabana
Year-end position: #82

See: "Latch".

by Disclosure & Sam Smith
from Settle
Year-end position: #28

Believe it or not, I wanted to put this on both my top-ten and bottom-ten lists, because this song is so, once again, "Janusian".  What's good about it?  Well, the beat, first of all.  The musical production provided by Disclosure sounds like music of the future, which I surprisingly don't get from a lot of EDM these days.  So where does it go wrong?  The chorus, that's where.  First of all, Sam Smith abruptly shifts his voice up an octave, into screechy territory.  But more than anything, the lyrics go from him simply expressing a crush in the verses, to being a possessive stalker in these parts.  If any other song from the Settle album had been a hit, it would've secured a spot on my top-ten list with no questions asked, but "Latch" was a tougher sell.

"My [noun] / My Hitta"
by YG, Jeezy, and Rich Homie Quan
from My Krazy Life
Year-end position: #58

I probably should have put this song on my bottom-ten, and indeed I almost did. But what is there to say about a song with a DJ Mustard beat, and whose hook (in the explicit version) is almost just a repeated profanity?  Sorry, I've got nothing.

"She Looks So Perfect"
by 5 Seconds of Summer
from 5 Seconds of Summer
Year-end position: #93

I wanted to put this on my list simply for the following line from the chorus: "She looks so perfect standing there / In my American Apparel underwear". The most glaring issue with that couplet is the use of a brand name like American Apparel. Now, I don’t know if that was paid product placement or not, but either way, stunts like that just take you out of the moment, you know? Also, from what I can gather, "she" is currently wearing mens’ underwear. Does this, by any chance include an undershirt? If not... I guess I understand why she looks so perfect to you… Still awkward. But in the face of other teen idols, I can’t stay mad at 5SOS for long. For one, they’ve got more of a rock edge to their music, compared to not only other teen idols but other pop acts in general. Case in point: one of their more recent songs is a cover of "What I Like About You", which actually improves upon its source version in a number of ways. So I suppose I’d be happy to let them into my life, just as long as they keep "She Looks So Perfect" as far away from me as possible.

by Jason Derulo
from Tattoos [EP] / Talk Dirty
Year-end position: #61

I put two Jason Derulo songs pretty "high" on my bottom-ten list, and suffice it to say they were both freaking terrible. But absent from that tied spot was his latest single, "Trumpets". Quite frankly, I find it weird more than anything else. This ode to synesthesia is loaded with all kinds of awkward moments, from the cheesy synth trumpets, to the references to Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Coldplay. And of course, Derulo’s voice is unbearable as always. But in the face of "Talk Dirty", which was offensive in its snobbery, and "Wiggle", which operated on a more so-bad-it’s-good level, "Trumpets"'s version of bad just wasn’t as potent.

"Turn Down For What"
by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon
non-album single
Year-end position: #

I said a few words about this song in my blurb for "Animals", which made my bottom-ten list.  To summarise: Yes, "Turn Down For What" can sound abrasive upon first listen.  But by being exposed to worse EDM, like the aformentioned "Animals" or "Summer", one can appreciate what this song gets right.  Each "verse" brings with it a new musical movement, and each of those is brken up every few measures with a minor variation, such as a change in pitch or an added drum track.  Perhaps most importantly, the beat never feels tooty or repetitive.  But let's not kid ourselves, Lil' Jon is what holds this song together.  It takes a strong presence to truly sell the rebellious ideals of getting "turnt up".  Rock and roll might be dying, but its ideals live on with the King of Crunk.

"Wild Wild Love"
by Pitbull & GRL
from Globalization
Year-end position: #N/A

I may have buried the hatchet with Pitbull over the past year or so, but I am still not willing to stick my proverbial neck out in his defence, either. Songs like "Wild Wild Love" are reasons why "The Artist Formerly Known As Mr. 305" isn’t ready for prime time in my book. "Wild Wild Love" is one of those songs wherein the chorus and the verses have nothing in common with each other, almost as if they were planned for two different songs entirely. The former, performed by the girl-group GRL, seem to tell the tale of a relationship fraught with both risk and reward; one that is both a blessing and a curse, in their words. So what, specifically, does this entail? Well, [verb] me if I know, because in lieu of elaborating on this intriguing development, Pitbull chose to focus on his fame and fortune -- you know, like in every other one of his songs. Even the musical stylings of their two parts are detached from each other -- acoustic pop-rock for GRL’s parts and electro hip-hop for Pit’s -- which in itself serves as a metaphor for how broken this song turned out.

"White Walls"
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Schoolboy Q and Hollis
from The Heist
Year-end position: #92

I'll keep this brief, because I plan to do a full review of The Heist.  2013 VIP Macklemore wrote a song about a custom car, apparently.  Any boob with a mic could pull that off, right?  Not the way he does it.  In "White Walls", he doesn't just rap about owning the car, he spits off lines (and impressively fast lines, too) about all the work he put into getting the money for it.  You just don't hear about that kind of dedication from most rappers these days.  Including the guest on this very song, a mister Schoolboy Q.  It's not a bad verse; there are some halfway clever lyrics to be had within.  But once again, his part's more about the destination than the journey.  I think life should be the other way around, although I have read more than my share of motivational posters in my day.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 1

For the past few years now, I've supplemented my top-ten and bottom-ten hit song lists with separate articles for the runner-up songs.  And while I am carrying on that tradition for 2014, I thought I'd do things a little differently this time.  I was going to do an article for the honourable mentions that missed the top ten, and the (dis)honourable mentions of the bottom ten, but as I put these lists together, I realised that some of these songs blurred the lines of being good and bad.  If you'll remember from one of my past reviews, I've started calling these kinds of things "Janusian", meaning they posess both good and bad qualities.  So, for this year I'm lumping both sets of honourable mentions together in alphabetical order.  Let's begin.

"Ain't It Fun"
by Paramore
from Paramore
Year-end position: #47

America, you don't know what you're missing when you keep shunning true rock music.  Maybe that was a bad way to start this paragraph, because Paramore and their single "Ain't It Fun" actually did pretty well this year.  But Paramore are one of the few mainstream acts who can pull off a song like this.  It's a sarcastic statement to anyone leaving the lap of luxury and expecting more than they actually get.  And while Hayley Williams can make sarcasm sound appealing, I was a little put off by the lyrical dissonance, however.  The music, which reminds me of a major-key version of Banarama's "Cruel Summer", comes across as a bit too happy for what the song is really about.  For that reason, I just know some advert or trailer's gonna take the title phrase ("Ain't it fun / living in the real world") at face value.

by Nicki Minaj
from The Pinkprint
Year-end position: #36

Songs like this are why I chose not to break up my honourable mentions list by whether they were cut from my top-ten or my bottom-ten lists, because its good and bad qualities balance each other out.  I actually reviewed "Anaconda" late last year, and I have to say I've warmed up to it since then.  The lyrics it samples from "Baby Got Back" are wasted in their brevity and repetition, but the musical aspects of that song are enhanced.  Nicki's performance is over-the-top stupid in certain parts and rapid-fire fun in others.  And while there's something to be said about a woman using her sex appeal to do stuff, Nicki in this song does so just in the name of getting some luxury posessions out of it.  But when you consider that most hip-hop over the past couple of years has gone down the dreary route of espousing their lifes' luxuries with zero enthusiasm whatsoever for them, I say we should give songs like "Anaconda" a bit more credit.

"Bang Bang"
by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
from Sweet Talker
Year-end position: #27

Some songs you respect because they do something smart or original, and some songs you like just because they're fun.  "Bang Bang" is the latter, but it does have some good concepts as well.  I enjoyed hearing Jessie J and Ariana Grande's playful competition of trying to hook up with the man du jour, sort of like a gender-swapped (and better) version of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl Is Mine".  The Nicki Minaj verse isn't about anything really, but it's fast, furious, and fun, and somehow is arguably the best thing she's done all year.  And with lazy minimalism apparently being the norm for 2014, it's refreshing to hear a beat with so much going on.  Background harmony vocals are used effectively to build a faux-Motown style of production.  That's all I ask, really, for producers to put a little more work into their pop songs.

"Boom Clap"
by Charli XCX
from Sucker
Year-end position: #34

I relished every time I heard "Boom Clap", for the same general reason I liked that other onomatopeia-based song, "Bang Bang" from the last paragraph.  And to think it should come from Charli XCX, of all people.  I'm one of the few people who hated her on Icona Pop's "I Love It" from last year, on account of her sounding so shrill and in-your-face.  But weirdly, I thought she was one of the best parts of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy", for much the same reason.  And when "Boom Clap" came around, she finally managed to tone herself down just enough to not turn me off, but still keep enough presence to make a memorable performance.  Among the silly love songs of 2014, "Rather Be" had that little bit extra musically to give it the edge, but "Boom Clap" is nonetheless catchy and, like the heartbeat it imitates, feels like being in love.

by Sia
from 1000 Forms of Fear
Year-end position: #25

Maybe it’s just my hair-trigger cynicism talking, but I gather, the universe hates me right now. I thought we had finally ridden ourselves of Rihanna, the mistress of mediocrity in music, only for the Rihanna knockoffs to crawl out of the woodwork in 2014. Specifically I am referring to former indie darling Sia, of all people, for her work on the single "Chandelier". (Indeed, Sia did write the song for Rihanna or Beyonce before deciding to record it hserself.) She -- pretty much literally -- mumbles her way through most of the song, except for the choruses. At least those parts are belted out well, but the morose music -- which I can best describe as a sort of hip-hop version of "Adagio for Strings" -- is at an unfortunate loggerhead against the lyrics about tearin’ the place up and having a good time as if you wouldn’t have tomorrow to do so. I appreciate these wannabe party anthems having an emotion of some kind, but that emotion should not be sadness or desolation.  Heck, "Fancy" was more of a feel-good party song than this -- and its beat was a second-rate DJ Mustard knockoff!

At least, that's what I thought before I discovered what the song was about.  Apparently it's about being high.  An admirable choice of topic, honestly; that would explain the somber tone of the music, creating dissonance with the party-party-party lyrics in order to encompass the entire spectrum of moods associated with substance use.  But it's not good enough to get on my top-ten list for the following reasons.  One, as I mentioned before, Sia's voice on this track is so slurred as to render these concepts unintelligible until I read the lyrics separately.  And two, we already have a song about this sort of thing.  But whereas "Chandelier" focuses more on the moment of the high, "Habits (Stay High)" takes a wider view on the subject, and for that reason I personally gravitate towards the latter song.

"Dark Horse"
by Katy Perry & Juicy J
from PRISM
Year-end position: #2

"Dark Horse" is like one of those "beware the femme fatale"-type songs of old, except from the point of view of the lady herself. An admirable concept, I must admit, but even that long-range pass gets fumbled at the hands of clumsy lyrics. For example, of the many metaphors one could use to describe a woman capable of both great loving and great wrath, "dark horse" should not be one of them. I get that you’re trying to conjure an image of power with those words, but last I checked, "dark horse" is supposed to mean an ignored entity capable of a come-from-behind victory. Also, there’s a guest rap verse by a mister Juicy J, whose only defining feature is that he is a former member of Three 6 Mafia. I’ll give him this: his part at least tries to tie into the central theme of the song, which is more than I expect from most rappers of his ilk. But Juicy J is so generic as a rapper that you could replace his part with, for example, the first verse from Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" and no one would notice.

"Do What U Want"
by Lady Gaga & R. Kelly
from Artpop
Year-end position: #84

These days is seems every artist, independent and mainstream alike, with a drop of electro blood in their body is turning to '80s aesthetics for their grooves, and Lady Gaga's "Do What U Want" has one of the grooviest of them all, if I may say so myself.  And it even has a well-deserved point: one of defiance.  The title phrase is a middle finger to the paparazzi who, try as they might, will never control who she is on the inside.  So, why didn't this get on the list?  Because R. Kelly's verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song.  Worse, he flipped the title to sing about doing what he wants to her body.  And we all know what happened when he did what he wanted to some other girl's body!  (If you need a hint, listen to the first verse of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" again.)  I still love this song, and if I could find it in myself to put a Pitbull song on my top ten, maybe I should've made room for this as well.  Still, it's a bit too "Janusian" to give it full honours.

"Don’t Tell 'Em"
by Jeremih & YG
from Late Nights
Year-end position: #42

"Don’t Tell 'Em" was on my bottom-ten list for a while because it was the biggest hit out of all of this year’s DJ Mustard productions, but I in the end I had more important things to deal with. But oh boy, did this song get on my nerves by popularity alone. Sung by perennial R&B also-ran Jeremih, this song is supposed to be about keeping one’s romantic activities with a girl on the down-low, but as usual, you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to listen to the verses alone. And there’s a tepid rap verse by a mister YG which does nothing of note, except for the opening line "I got a missed call from your [noun]". If nothing else, I have drawn some amusement from the thought that said two-timing girlfriend is calling about something other than sexy time. But such extraneous ideas do not save the song by any means. It might be too drastic (and racist) to call DJ Mustard’s stylings the musical counterpart to ebola, but it certainly is spreading, and it’s caused me great (mental) pain.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Film Review: End of Evangelion

End of Evangelion
  • Publisher: Toei (JPN), Manga Entertainment (NA) 
  • Production Companies: Kadokawa Shoten, TV Tokyo, Sega Corporation, Production I.G, Movic, Starchild, Gainax 
  • Genre: Science-fiction 
  • Release: 19 July 1997 (JPN) 
  • Directors: Katsuya Tsurumaki (Episode 25'), Hideaki Anno (Episode 26') 
  • Producer: Matsuhisa Ishikawa 
  • Writer: Hideaki Anno 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Neon Genesis Evangelion. And at the risk of spoiling that review, I thought it was quite good -- up until the final two episodes, that is, which left all its twisted plot threads hanging in favour of a whole mess of amateur philosophising. Apparently things got so bad in that regard, that the powers concerned had to make not one, but two feature films to follow it up with. The first, Death and Rebirth, is essentially a recap of the series. But the second one, 1997's End of Evangelion... hoo boy, let's just say it's the one everybody talks about.

We open on Shinji Ikari (EN: Spike Spencer, JP: Megumi Obata) standing at the hospital bedside of Asuka Langley Soryu (EN: Tiffany Grant, JP: Yuko Miyamura). She's been comatose since the end of the original series, having... had a little run-in with the plot. He shakes her in a vain effort to wake her, when he accidentally slips off her gown and... Well, this franchise's reputation being what it is, you probably know what happens next. And if you don't know, well, I shan't say it because I take my self-inforced PG rating very seriously, but suffice it to say, Shinji is dead right when he says, "I'm so [verb]ed up."

"Oh my gosh... Asuka has... boobs!  WHY DID NO ONE WARN ME!?"
Meanwhile, the secret organisation SEELE, from whom spawned the less-secret organisation NERV, is having a little discussion. You see, they've got this grand master plan to trigger something called the Human Instrumentality project. You'd be forgiven for not knowing what it is at this point, even if you've watched the original series, which was less than explanatory on that front. But anyway, SEELE has decided that this whole NERV thing isn't working out, so they decided to cut their losses -- the hard way. First they try to hack NERV's computer network in an abridged, yet otherwise shot-for-shot, remake of one of the episodes. And when that doesn't work, they send an army in to invade the place.

All the while, we get a running commentary from the officers of NERV's command centre. You may have noticed that their voice-actors have changed in the English dub, and not for the better. This does not extend to the entire cast, thankfully; the main characters (Shinji, Misato, Rei, Asuka, etc.) share the same actors for both the original series and EoE, and their performances are just as strong as before, if not better. But everyone else is just phoning it in. There may be a reason for this: ADV Films, who licenced and dubbed the original series for North America, balked at the prospect of taking on the films in addition, so instead Manga Entertainment picked them up. That they were able to bring back as many of ADV's actors as they did is a blessing, don't get me wrong, but on all other accounts, the dub kinda sucks.

During the ordeal, Misato Katsuragi (EN: Allison Keith, JP: Kotono Mitsuishi) has her moment of glory when she rescues Shinji from some SEELE troops who have him at gunpoint. I didn't have the time to bring it up in my review of the original series, but Misato-chan is one of my favourite characters from the Evangelion franchise. During the series, she pulls double-duty as a ranking officer at NERV, and as Shinji and Asuka's legal guardian. In the early episodes, before the show's infamous depression has a chance to set in, she drives some comedic scenes with her hard-drinking, lazy, and lusty personality -- in a cute way, of course. But that's just at the home. On the clock, she's the one who concocts all the plans to take down all the Angels who show up to tear humanity a new one. And considering how close the Angels get to doing so, Misato deserves heaps of credit.

Back to EoE, Asuka has somehow awaken and is dispatched with her Eva unit to distract the enemy forces. Which she does. And how is she rewarded? By SEELE unleashing their newest weapon: a series of mass-produced Eva units. She does great against them too, in an intense fight scene which unfortunately they have to keep cutting back and forth from. But then, a wild Lance of Longinus appears and impales Asuka's Eva, giving the others the chance to tear it up like vultures on some carrion. And thus, Asuka Langley Soryu is killed off. And there was much rejoicing... not. Shinji, meanwhile, is in his own Eva unit as he watches the carnage unfold. To put it lightly, he is not amused.

The end.

+ Performances of the returning cast members are as strong as ever.
+ Better, and more consistent, animation quality.
+ Say what you want about the ending, at least it's artistically daring.

- The replacement actors are pretty dang bad.
- The incomprehensible ending.

Acting (English): 3 MP Evas out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 5 MP Evas out of 5
Writing: 3 MP Evas out of 5
Animation: 4 MP Evas out of 5
Visual Design: 5 MP Evas out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Not really. See, this film is divided into two acts, essentially replacing the final two episodes of the series. They have their own episode numbers and titles ("25': Love is Destructive" and "26': One More Final: I Need You"), and the credits start at the end of the first act, as if ending the movie half-way (and on quite a tragic note, at that). Of the two acts, only the second was directed by Hideaki Anno. And... well, it shows. To start off, Shinji's father Gendo (EN: Tristan MacAvery, JP: Fumihiko Tachiki) is holding a little ritual to initiate Third Impact -- you know, that thing they've been trying to avoid this whole series -- and with it, Instrumentality. Which he does by pushing his arm into the body of his naked clone daughter, Rei Ayanami (EN: Amanda Winn-Lee, JP: Megumi Hayashibara). But when that doesn't work, she instead fuses with Lilith, an Angel captured by NERV before the series started. In doing so, she grows to gigantic proportions (still nude), Shinji's Eva gets trapped and sorta-crucified by the MP Evas, and then... well... stuff happens.

You may have noticed that this movie, and Neon Genesis Evangelion on the whole,
uses lots of random religious imagery, like the cross and the Tree of Life above.
Whether or not this means anything is your choice, 'cause it's beyond me. OTL
If you're familiar with the original series, then chances are you know about its many scenes wherein Shinji and company contemplate the meaning of their existence, and existence in general to various degrees, all set to barely-animated images. Well, guess what -- just when you thought you were out of the woods, they did it again. Anno-sama has totally relapsed in that regard. I'm not saying these scenes don't have merit. Like many shots from the original series, they are creatively arranged, and unlike many shots from the original series, they have some actual resources put into them. But I don't know, the moment Shinji starts whining about how the world would be been better off without him, I just tune out. And that does a true disservice to the story they were trying to tell, or at least the story we expected from them.

In the interest of constructive criticism, here's a tip I picked up from an episode of Zero Punctuation, of all places: "Is this the most exciting part of the character's life? If not, why aren't we witnessing it?" I guess the viewer of EoE is left disappointed because what's going on outside of Shinji's head is far more interesting than inside. The time spent with his internal monologue could have been better spent setting up what happens outside of Shinji's head. Like, there's this one scene where a bunch of Rei clones show up and hug everyone left alive in NERV's base until they explode into an orange liquid (which by the way, is what Instrumentality entails). It would've been nice to see how the Rei clones got there instead of being dropped into that scene in medias res. But hey, that never stopped Call of Duty from pulling that on us!

But there is a point to all this. ...Sort of. With the human race assimilated into pools of Tang, it's up to Shinji to decide whether he likes it this way, or if humanity should be put back the way it was. He starts out the second act inclined towards the former, but throughout these moments of contemplation, shifts his stance towards the latter. Shinji's will be done, Instrumentality is undone and humanity is restored back to its former state, more or less. Yeah, the oceans are red now, there's a giant half of a head laying around, and the only humans we see about are Shinji and Asuka, but you know, close enough. And that's it. Not even a credits sequence to go out on, because we already got that out of the way. You are now free to turn off your TV.

You maniacs!  You blew it up!
I do hope I was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping you understand this movie. But having written all these past words, I think it was otherwise pointless reviewing End of Evangelion. Whatever praises and criticisms I wheeled out for it are mostly the same as what I did for the original series. I liked it most when it was an over-the-top giant-robot show, and I liked it least when it retreated into bouts of navelgazing at the expense of the outside plot. And it's not like those scenes don't have a right to be there, after all, I applaud the daring more often than not. But if you're going to pull that junk on us, could you at least have a point to it all? At the end of it all, my verdict is this: Better to have watched this film and gone, "what the [verb]", than to have not watched it all.