See It/Flee It: Monsters and Monstrosities

See It: Nightbreed

Some of the most effective fantasy/horror films involve a reshuffling of the heroes and villains deck – an awkward way of saying that the monsters become the good guys. And lately, a prevalent source for stories like these has been Guillermo del Toro, the visionary director of The Devil’s Backbone, in which the ghost of a murdered boy is a misunderstood hero, and Hellboy, where a top-secret government bureau of monsters and freakazoids protects an unassuming public from paranormal danger. Del Toro’s affinity for stories like these, and obsession with elegantly freaky creatures, means he must have watched Nightbreed on a loop back in the day. Clive Barker wrote and directed this 1990 adaptation of his novel Cabal, and the resulting tale of a forgotten society of shapeshifters, undead sages and imaginatively deformed beings – and the police witch hunt bent on destroying it – is an inspired allegory for any kind of uprising of the downtrodden. That might be high-falootin’ talk about a movie that depicts an obese housewife getting murdered in her kitchen, or a guy in makeup that’s a cross between Jar-Jar Binks and Darth Maul hissing “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” But Nightbreed is well made – Barker isn’t a master storyteller like Del Toro, but his creatures are beautifully bizarre, with the exception of the one I just referenced and another that looks like Jay Leno with a condom hat and douche bag goatee. And it’s decently acted – Craig Sheffer’s turn as main character Aaron Boone is strong, effectively toeing the line between humanity and monstrosity, and David Cronenberg is unforgettable as the mad psychologist/serial killer Philip K. Decker. Regardless, Barker must have been doing something right, because by the explosion-heavy climax, when the residents of Midian decide to fight back against their oppressors, the desire to see them triumph comes from a real place.

Flee It: The Bride

The characters of Count Dracula, The Wolfman, Mummy, and the Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll have been the subjects of so many bad movies. And 1985’s The Bride has gotta rank as one of the lamest. A reimagining of James Whale’s iconic The Bride of Frankenstein, the film stars Sting as the tortured outcast Baron Charles Frankenstein, and Jennifer Beals as Eva, the creation he cobbled together from various corpses to be a mate for his original monster (tenderly portrayed by Clancy Brown). But for a reanimated, coat-of-many-colors abomination, Eva has no visible scars or abnormalities. She just looks like that girl from Flashdance in period garb, with pouffy ’80s hair intact. And this is the least of The Bride’s problems. The Frankenstein character is vicious and tormented; in his perverse love for his creation lie the seeds of his own destruction. But Sting’s attempts at brooding are so wooden, he comes off better suited to a Twilight installment. More importantly, director Franc Roddam’s movie doesn’t add anything to the legend of either monster, save a subplot of monster #1 befriending a circus performer and Eva growling at a house cat because Frankenstein hadn’t taught her they exist – “I thought it was a little lion,” she explains afterwards. (Sting’s lesson plans must be comprehensive, because we’re supposed to believe his pupil had learned about everything on earth, except for cats.) Of course, the twisted Count gets his, the two monsters reunite and run off together. But we’ve already learned these lessons before – you can’t live healthily without accepting death as a reality, don’t judge a book by its cover or it’ll kill you with its superstrength, etc. Beyond establishing the facts that Sting has great bone structure and Beals is awful, all The Bride teaches us is that lovers of classic horror stories will sit through some horrible stuff, just to get the faintest taste of the original.

Paisley Park: A country megastar hits Darien Lake

Over the course of my concert reviewin’ tenure, I’ve been assigned several country shows that I wouldn’t have considered buying a ticket for. For each of these, I held an outside hope going in – that what I was about to experience would erase my prejudices about contemporary country music, that I would finally get why so many people love the junk. Each time, the stereotypes proved true. The music was uninspired, super-glossy pop with a fiddle thrown in. The lyrics were about beer, sex, small towns, America and beer-soaked sex in small American towns.

So when I took in Brad Paisley’s smart, inspired set last weekend at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, the feeling was of excitement long-delayed. With the exception of the poppy twang of his tunes, and his cowboy hat n’ blue jeans, Paisley’s performance was a completely unexpected joy. First, the guy’s an incredible guitarist, shifting from muscular Southern rock licks to lyrical pop passages with ease, and soloing like a madman without ever seeming masturbatory. And when he reached his guitar down to the outstretched arms of the crowd, letting them strum the final chord of a song with a beaming grin on his face, you could see that he was having as good a time as everyone else.

Then there are the songs themselves, which embody that sense of unpretentiousness and self-abasement that other country artists always talk about having. Tunes like “Online” and “Celebrity” may sound dated in a decade, but for now, they effectively lampoon our plasticine culture in endearingly silly ways. Paisley’s love songs, on the other hand, are undoubtedly timeless. The ballad “She’s My Everything” makes good on its title, with lyrics tender and true, and not trying to double as poetry. Paisley injected some soul into the cut, injecting a handful of inspired solos in between the verses.

And “Waitin’ On A Woman,” with its accompanying video depicting Andy Griffith waiting for his wife in the afterlife, floored me. After writing my review, I ran to the car to avoid the traffic, and sped home to be with the woman I love.

A little bit country, a little bit ukulele-folk-pop

Until last night, all I knew about Ingrid Michaelson was that she contributed a likable, sweetly romantic tune to an Old Navy commercial a few years back. My wife was a fan of the song, called “The Way I Am,” and given that it depicts a woman loving her man while he gets old and bald, I dared hope that she’d actually stay with me forever (so far, so good). But at last night’s Thursday at the Square show, I realized that Michaelson is a pretty big deal – with the youngsters, at least. Swarms of people crowded the stage and yelled their asses off when the singer/songwriter emerged. Fronting a solid, vocally talented five-piece group, Michaelson’s light, chirpy voice and ukulele strumming went over like gangbusters. Honestly, her style is a little too precious for my taste, but this set was fun, with more than one melody standing out – her performance of “You and I” made me want to hear the recorded version.

On a more introspective, less shiny-happy-people tip, opening act A.A. Bondy dished out a slew of beautiful, country-psychedelic-indie ballads. It didn’t seem to be the crowd’s cup of tea, but standing by the stage with a handful of hardcore Bondy fans beside me was a fairly breathtaking experience. On top of the mysterious elegance of his music, there was the recently salved burn on the singer’s upper arm and his bandaged left hand – Bondy didn’t mention the reasons for either injury, making him seem all the more like a silent, tortured troubadour.

Read my review, if you dare.

Kiss my grits.

Last Saturday night, I reviewed the annual tween screamfest known as “Kiss the Summer Hello.” Like the previous events I’ve endured that were organized by our local “hit music station” – whose DJ “Kev Diddy” is pictured here – it was a parade of slick R&B singers, bland pop-punk bands and rappers. But unlike the KTSHs and “Kissmas Bashes” of yore, there weren’t any surprisingly good performers that made the rest of the night somewhat bearable – The Ting Tings and Sean Kingston having given me those merciful reprieves in the past. Spose, a wise-ass rapper from Maine, and Shontelle, a Beyonce-ish R&B belter, were the high points, if only because neither could be described as obnoxious. Of course, I’m not the target demographic for stuff like this, and the kids in the crowd went nuts for the whole thing, screeching and clamoring with such unending fervency, I couldn’t believe their vocal cords were still functional.

Clearly these youngsters were hearing a frequency in this music that I couldn’t pick up on. Which only supports my theory that kids are like dogs.

And I’m guessing that Kev Diddy enjoyed the show, given that he lists “Chippewa” and “Tony Walker” as two of his favorite things about Buffalo.

Hungry for more Kiss-related crotchetiness? Check out my takes on Kissmas Bash 2009 and Kissmas Bash 2007.

The Album of the Year, so far

Janelle Monaé – The ArchAndroid

After seeing Janelle Monaé last summer – when she was the relatively unheard-of opening act on No Doubt’s reunion tour – and being thoroughly blown away, I scampered over to the merch tent and picked up her Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP. After writing a review in which I compared the R&B singer/songwriter/bandleader to James Brown (which is no hyperbole), my wife and I listened to the EP on the ride home, hoping for an onslaught of funky adrenaline comparable to her live set. And while it’s a very good record, Metropolis’ complicated sci-fi storyline and uneven production values couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations of that moment. Monaé’s debut LP The ArchAndroid, on the other hand, would’ve most certainly extended our post-concert high. A nearly flawless mix of stomping R&B grooves, richly produced pop ballads, twisted Latin rhythms, jazz crooning and orchestral suites, this is a dizzying accomplishment that puts Monaé on a short list of artists who can push the envelope and cross over in the same supercharged breath.

After an over-the-top cinematic intro, complete with booming brass, whispering woodwinds and ominous string passages, Monaé breaks into “Dance or Die,” an Outkast-meets-Gloria Estefan barnburner that’s a great example of what she does best – laying into a simple groove in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts. This segues into “Faster,” an equally propulsive dance floor cut on which Monaé confesses she’s “shaking like a schizo” over sped-up jazz guitar licks.

But The ArchAndroid is an 18-track concept album about cyborg clones, time travel and futuristic psycho wards – it can’t get along solely on the funky stuff. Hence some deftly sequenced moments where Monaé slows things down and shows off her range, doing her best Lauryn Hill impression over the Willy Wonka strings of “Neon Valley Street,” dipping into some English folk melodies on the solemn “57821” and delivering a romantic pop masterpiece in “Oh, Maker.” And when certain songs fall short – which is bound to happen on such a long record – they’re still drenched in the same unflagging creative spirit as everything else. Even though the out-of-place Of Montreal collaboration “Make the Bus” temporarily derails things, you’ve got to respect its boldness.

“So much hurt/On this earth/But you loved me/And I really dared to love you too,” Monaé sings on “Oh, Maker,” over a light-as-air arrangement that sprinkles back-up vocals through the verses like so many raindrops. As the sonic equivalent of raising your eyes to the heavens and enjoying what you see, this track is the centerpiece of The ArchAndroid. Because like one of Monaé’s inspired live sets, this album’ll knock you on your ass like a bolt of lightning hurtled by the gods.