Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

gen-iiIt’s hard to argue that Pokémon Go wasn’t the killer app of 2016, and has probably brought augmented reality technology into the mainstream.  I’ve been a fairly devoted player of the game since about the third or fourth day after its release, and just a few weeks ago, Pokémon from the second generation of the original games were added.  While the game has waned in popularity from its ridiculous July/August peak, that change, among others, is starting to bring some players back.  The Generation II update also came with some other changes that altered the feel of the game.  After test-driving the new-look Pokémon Go, I thought I’d round up all the ways the game has improved since I did my first impressions post at the peak of its popularity.

Of course, there’s the most exciting change… new Pokémon!  Niantic added several of the “baby” pre-evolutions of Generation I Pokémon at the end of 2016 to whet players’ appetite for the massive surge of new Pokémon from Generation II that were added in mid-February.  According to multiple sources, there were around 80 new Pokémon added in the February update, which means that most of the Gold/Silver/Crystal Pokémon are now in the game.    This change is probably most responsible for bringing lapsed players back, although honestly, I appreciated some of the other changes they made more, so let’s read on for the rest.

The game has made resource accumulation a bit easier in several ways.  This is probably where the most changes have been made.  In my original post, I criticized the way the candy system worked to power-up and evolve Pokémon.  Because candy was unique to a Pokémon’s evolutionary line, that meant you had to catch the same Pokémon on that line over and over again in order to have enough candy to evolve.  At 3-4 candy per catch, it can take a lot of work to get the 50-100 required to evolve certain types of uncommon Pokémon.  And forget powering up the rarer and stronger ones.

Niantic, the game’s developer, realized this and made several updates to the candy system to give hard-working players a boost.  First off, the buddy system was introduced, in which a player could designate one of their Pokémon as their “buddy,” to walk alongside them.  After walking a certain distance (depending on the rarity of the Pokémon), the player would receive one of that Pokémon’s candy.  That becomes a reliable (if still painfully slow) way to generate candy on your own, as long as you’d caught at least one of a certain Pokémon.

buddy-system

Niantic also helped with resource collection through certain events, like the Halloween and Valentine’s ones.  These events generally give trainers double candy or Stardust (used with candy to power up Pokémon) for catching Pokémon for about a week, so dedicated trainers can speed along the evolutionary or power-up processes.  Also, the spawn rates for certain Pokémon will sometimes increase during these events (for instance, the Valentine’s event increased the spawn rate of pink Pokémon such as Jigglypuff and Exeggcute), which can allow the player to catch more of the same species of Pokémon and thus, accumulate candy or fill up their Pokédex faster (I’m still waiting for that Chansey the Valentine’s event promised us, Niantic… :P).

Finally, there’s the streak system.  Taking a page out of the playbooks of other apps that reward a player for playing them consistently, Pokémon Go now gives the player bonus experience points, Stardust, and items the first time they catch a Pokémon and the first time they hit a Pokéstop every day.  If the player manages to do so seven days in a row, they get an even bigger bonus.  One of the subtler updates that got lost in the shuffle of the Generation II bonanza was that there is now a 50 experience point bonus for catching a Pokémon on the first throw of a Poké Ball.  While experience points (that increase one’s trainer level and thus allow one to train stronger Pokémon) are easier to come by than any other resource thanks to techniques like Pidgey Spamming, the boost in Stardust is much more welcome.

streakThe game brought tracking back in a different form.  I mentioned in my original post that the game had a tracking system that showed which Pokémon were nearby, but it was largely scrapped in a controversial update once Niantic realized players were using it in unintended ways.  However, an update brought it back.  The Pokémon show up on the tracker with a picture of the Pokéstop they are closest to.  If there aren’t as many Pokéstops around your location, then the old Sightings feature, that shows Pokémon near you without any other real indicators, appears.  This helps players in rural areas who don’t have as many Pokéstops around.  I actually like this feature a lot, because it actually gives you an idea of where you need to go to catch certain Pokémon.  I didn’t like the old tracker because it didn’t really tell you where Pokémon were (except that they were nearby), and was thus not all that useful.  There’s at least a few instances where I’ve caught new Pokémon using the tracker to go to the Pokéstop that they are near.  Niantic is still cracking down on tracking websites and apps, but new ones keep springing up.  Some of them require you to use them in conjunction with your account, so try them at your own risk.

trackerThere are some new items.  The second-biggest part of the massive Gen II update was the introduction of a few new items.  Trainers have been able to use Razz Berries for awhile to increase their chances of catching wild Pokémon.  Now there are two other varieties.  Nanab Berries calm wild Pokémon down, keeping them from moving around and blocking trainers’ Poké Balls.  Pinap Berries are far more valuable, though, as they make Pokémon drop more candy if they are caught on the next attempt after the berry is used.  That ties back to the game making resource accumulation a little less annoying.  If you find a Pokémon you know you need lots of candy to evolve, or you’re just on the cusp of evolving/powering up, the Pinap Berry really comes in handy.  There’s also some new items that you can use to make your Pokémon evolve into new and different forms, and they’re taken directly from the Gold/Silver/Crystal games.  Rather than list them here, you can just refer to the chart below.  There aren’t too many Pokémon that are affected by these items, and thus they don’t show up that often at Pokéstops.  Though those infinitely helpful nerds who sift through the source code for us have found evidence of more items that will be added, which could be quite interesting indeed.

evolution-itemsFinally, there’s some new music and sound effects.  My readers may roll their eyes, but I actually like the new music and sound effects that now play when trainers play at night.  The overworld (“walking around”) music and the music for Pokémon encounters.  It actually added to my excitement over the Gen II update, since the first time I played it after the update was at night, and it made me feel like I was stepping into a brave new world of the game.  The new themes a little more calm and peaceful, and it’s just good to have a change of pace every once in awhile.  Trainers may also have noticed a new “power up/power down” type sound effect that now plays when Pokémon are evolved.

So what’s next?  There have been rumors that the next big update will include an overhaul of the gym system, which I think is what’s most badly needed right now.  I’d love to see a more intuitive and strategy-based fighting system.   I’d also love to see player vs. player fights, because that’s a relic of the original game and could get people gathering to play the game again.  Many players are still waiting for the legendary Pokémon to be added, which could be done with some sort of worldwide event like the ones I talked about above (at least, I think this is the best way to do it, rather than some sort of exclusive sweepstakes or something else that would unfairly limit access to them).  I think that there are still some Gen II Pokémon that need to be added as well.  After reading a few articles, I’m less enamored of the idea of Niantic bringing trading into the game (even though it was in the original games), only because I’m not sure it could be executed well and safely without creating major imbalance and inequality in the game (there’s already a little of that with PokéCoin microtransactions).  New items would be interesting, and could mix up the game a bit, especially if they introduced items that could be used in battle.  I’d also really love to see another special event (besides the party-hat Pikachu that are in the game now to celebrate the Pokémon franchise’s 21st birthday).  Maybe they’ll do something big for the game’s anniversary in July?  Who knows, but I’ll be catching plenty of Pokémon in the interim and powering them up for more battles to come.

Yellowcard Through the Years

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We’re nearing closer to the official end of Yellowcard, as their last world tour concludes in one short month.  I’ve wanted to do this piece for awhile, but I figured doing it right after I reviewed their final album might be a bit of overkill, so I think now is as good a time as any to give them the Through the Years treatment.

Yellowcard went through some lineup instability in its early years after forming at the Douglas Anderson School for the Arts in 1997 in Jacksonville.  Their first two albums, Midget Tossing (1997) and Where We Stand (1999) were recorded with Ben Dobson as the lead singer and were somewhat different musically than what would come after.  I’m not overly familiar with these albums, so I’m not going to delve into them here.  Once Dobson left and Ryan Key took over as lead singer, Yellowcard forged their unique brand of punk rock that would become their signature.  The band’s lineup that would later go on to stardom consisted of Key, Sean Mackin (violin), Ben Harper (guitar), Longineu Parsons III (drums), and Pete Mosley (bass).

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Yellowcard’s first album with Key as the full-time lead singer was One for the Kids (2001).  They had done an EP the year before with Key at the helm, and two of those songs were re-recorded for the full-length.  Most bands need an album or two to really gel as performers and figure out their identity.  This is definitely true on One for the Kids.  One can tell that Yellowcard hasn’t quite figured out the right balance between a more metal-ish punk style (complete with rapid-fire “headache drums”) and the more melodic and earnest sound that would come to define them when they cracked the mainstream.  Sean Mackin’s violin isn’t as prominent here either.  His prominence in the music would ebb and flow during their career.

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The band wasted no time, releasing The Underdog EP the very next year. Here, the band’s musical style is much clearer, and they’ve more clearly focused on their lyrics and songwriting.  Key’s vocals are also much cleaner and his delivery is better.  “Rocket” is probably the song that best foreshadows their future success.  Many of Yellowcard’s hallmarks- solid melodies, great vocal delivery, lyrics that are emotional but still sincere- are all over this track.  Others such as “Avondale” show that they’ve found a good way to seamlessly integrate Mackin’s violin into their songs to set themselves apart from other bands on the punk rock scene.  Interestingly, two of the songs, “Avondale,” and “Finish Line” are about the band’s relationship with other bands that were coming up around the same time they were.  “Avondale” is about a feud that Ryan Key had with Inspection 12 singer Dan McLintock, who had gone after Key in one of his songs as well.  “Finish Line” talks about the band’s friendship with fellow punk rockers The Starting Line.

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The Underdog EP rightfully caught the attention of major label Capitol Records, who threw their full weight behind Ocean Avenue in 2003.  Yellowcard is at the peak of their powers in this album, with their fast-paced, yet melodic style reaching full maturity.  The title track is their biggest commercial hit as a band, and it’s easy to see why.  The guitar part’s crunchy sound is just unconventional enough to draw the listener in, but doesn’t distract from the rest of the song. Key’s honest vocal delivery benefits from having the machinery of a major label behind them.  Longineu Parsons’s drums and Sean Mackin’s violin are great supporting players too.  But Ocean Avenue is so much more than its titular song.  “Life of a Salesman,” with that neat little Arthur Miller reference thrown in there, incorporates the violin as part of the main riff along with the guitar, giving their sound even more uniqueness.  “View From Heaven” features what is probably one of Mackin’s best violin solos (and even has a sort of country-like sound).  “Back Home” shows a reflective side to the band that would come to define later records.

yellowcardlightsandsoundsYellowcard took a bit of a risk with its next album Lights and Sounds two years later. Critics and fans were divided on what was perceived as a fairly big shift from the band’s previous work.  I tend not to agree with that; there’s less emphasis on catchy hooks, but I think there are a lot of songs in here that would fit right in with much of their earlier work (“Holly Wood Died,” the title track, “Rough Landing, Holly”).  Where the band diverges the most is in their lyrical content.  I doubt many punk bands have tried to pull off a concept album, but Yellowcard did here.  The entire album deals with the struggles and pressures that their sudden fame had brought them, which is most clear in the title track.  The band relocated to Los Angeles in the inter-album period, and developed a love/hate relationship with the city. This was personified in the character of Holly Wood, who appears throughout the record.  One can easily see how the band grew and matured during their sudden brush with fame when digging into the lyrics.

paperwalls

Yellowcard continued to release albums at a rapid pace, following up Lights and Sounds with Paper Walls in 2007, meaning they had released four albums and an EP in seven years.  I divert again with conventional wisdom that considers this Yellowcard’s best album.  Lights and Sounds kind of meandered in a lot of directions, as opposed to the tighter and more defined sound of Ocean AvenuePaper Walls kind of does the same thing as Lights and Sounds, only more so.  That said, it does return more clearly to the pop-punk sound of Ocean Avenue, and isn’t nearly as dark as Lights and Sounds, so it has that going for it.  “Shrink the World” is probably my favorite song on the album, because it resonated with me when I was in a long-distance relationship.  “Keeper” is another highlight, returning to the slower, reflective style that I talked about with “Back Home.”  “Five Becomes Four” is thought to be about guitarist Ben Harper, who left the band while they were promoting Lights and Sounds and was replaced by Ryan Mendez.  Further contributing to this idea is the fact that it hearkens back to the sound of their earlier indie records.  “Shadows and Regrets” is the first of two songs about Scott Shad, the Inspection 12 drummer and lifelong friend of Ryan Key’s that died when he went into diabetic shock while driving.

when-youre-through-thinking-say-yes

Perhaps feeling the pressure from the constant album release and touring cycle, Yellowcard departed their label and went on an extended hiatus, with Ryan Key pursuing a side project with Sean O’Donnell, the bassist for the band Reeve Oliver.  O’Donnell would later be recruited to replace Pete Mosley, who left the band permanently during the hiatus.  The albums released during the second half of the band’s career are criminally overlooked, in my opinion.  Their songwriting is at its best, while still maintaining their characteristic sound. While When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes (2011) may not be their best album musically, it’s always been the one that’s stuck with me the most, mainly because three of the first four tracks on the album have intensely personal meanings to me.  “For You, and Your Denial,” describes a struggle I was going through with a friend to an astonishingly accurate degree.  “Hang You Up” reminds me a lot of another friend where I had to maintain the friendship while dealing with unrequited romantic feelings.  “With You Around” was “our song” between me and an ex-girlfriend.  “See Me Smiling” is the second song Key wrote about Scott Shad.  “Sing for Me” also deals with death, as it was written from the perspective of Key’s aunt on her deathbed, speaking to her son.  Once again, he is able to convey sincere emotion without wallowing in it, as many punk & emo bands do.southern_air_cover_by_yellowcard

In case anyone was wondering if the band would slow down a bit in the second half of their career, they pretty quickly dispelled that notion, releasing Southern Air one year after When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes.  The band finally relocated back to the South from Los Angeles, which probably had something to do with the fact that this is arguably their most uplifting album.  “Always Summer,” along with the title track, are the kind of songs you can run a marathon to.  “Here I Am Alive,” conveys the importance of never giving up and following one’s dreams.  Even “Awakening,” a breakup song, has a sort of determined energy that makes it feel much more inspirational than sad.  To be sure, there are still some wistful moments on this record, such as “Ten,” which describes regret that followed years later when a young couple decided to terminate a pregnancy.  “Telescope” deals with death again, and “Sleep in the Snow” describes a feeling of being left behind.  Josh Portman became the bassist for the rest of their run during the making of this record.

ocean-avenue-acousticwyttsy-acoustic

Another characteristic of the band’s later years is a love of the acoustic format.  They remade entire albums in acoustic, starting with When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes in 2011, the same year the original album came out.  Ocean Avenue received the same treatment in 2013, the tenth anniversary of its original release.  Both albums offer another interesting perspective on the songs.  For instance, it’s interesting how much more peaceful and placid the song “Ocean Avenue” is when the crunchy electric guitar riff is absent.  The band also recruited Cassadee Pope before she became famous as a country singer on The Voice to lend her vocals to the acoustic version of “Hang You Up.”

lift-a-sail

Just when it seemed like it would be smooth sailing (no pun intended) for the band, tragedy struck again in between albums.  Violinist Sean Mackin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, longtime drummer Longineu Parsons III left the band, and Ryan Key’s fiancé was in a snowboarding accident that was so bad they were forced to have their wedding vows in the hospital.  The trauma of these events can be heard on Lift a Sail (2014), which probably is their biggest stylistic shift from anything that came before. There aren’t really any fast songs on this record, which is quite unusual.  Many of the songs also have a sort of “distant” sound to them, as if the band is playing from afar.  “Transmission Home” and “Crash the Gates” are probably the biggest examples of that.  While Mackin’s violin isn’t as prominent on this record, he has a prominent role in the instrumental opener “Convocation.”  The band had done a similar opening to a record before in Lights and Sounds, but this one is absolutely beautiful, and sets the tone of working their way through difficult times that pervade the album.  “Make Me So” is probably the closest they come to a classic Yellowcard song.

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I am generally of the opinion that the personal drama the band went through during the Lift a Sail sessions contributed to their desire to bring the band to a close.  I don’t think that there were any hard feelings between the members, but sometimes events like that can put a strain on a band, and can prevent them from continuing.  As stated above, I already reviewed Yellowcard (2016) a few months ago, and my general thoughts on this album remain the same.  It takes a hard right turn back to their classic sound, perhaps more so than any album since Ocean Avenue.  Everything that’s good about the band is shown off one last time on this record, and it serves as the perfect goodbye letter to the fans after fifteen years.  I dare any true Yellowcard fan to listen to “Fields and Fences” without tearing up.  “Got Yours” is another one that took on a personal meaning to me.

So there’s the story.  The cool thing about this band is that most of the members have many good music-making years ahead of them.  Ryan Key, Sean Mackin, and Josh Portman are only 37, so I’d be interested to see what they do post-Yellowcard.  I’m afraid that now that he’s built his own recording studio, Key may fade into the background of producing and such, and not make as much himself.  For the good of all music, I hope all the members keep making it for as long as they can.

The Liberals Who Cried Wolf

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Like many Democrats and liberals, I’ve been doing a fair amount of soul-searching since Hillary Clinton’s how-could-we-blow-this loss to now-President Donald Trump, who I’ve previously described as a clear and present danger to the country.  Since the election, he has largely carried out his platform, dismaying those who were looking for him to mellow out a little.  At their lowest ebb of national power in decades, Democrats have been able to do little but watch the horrors pile up.  There are many reasons why we suffered these losses, but there’s one that we can easily fix and should do so right away: Democrats have become the party of self-righteous indignation.

We’re like that annoying friend you have that points out why nearly every word or expression you say is racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced.  Want examples?  Here’s the biggest one, in my mind: When Carrie Fisher died – RIP Leia 😦 – fellow actor Steve Martin sent out the following Tweet:

steve-martin-carrie-fisherWhat a moving tribute to an amazing actress, right?  Wrong.  Twitter lit up with so many irate responses that Steve Martin was forced to take the Tweet down.  Take it down?  Over what?!  Some were annoyed that he had noted her appearance first, even though in literally the next sentence he noted her witty and bright personality.  That, to these “activists,” was objectification, the same as if he had never noted her personality at all.  Never mind that it shows that as men mature and age, we come to appreciate women for more than just their appearance.  Never mind that it was sincere and heartfelt.  Because he hadn’t used exactly the right language, he got slammed.

Okay, but that’s just one example, right?  Let’s go to the videotape again.  Avril Lavigne made a video for her song “Hello Kitty,” in 2014 that was heavily influenced by Japanese pop music and EDM.  Here’s the video:

Setting aside how good or bad the song is (not her best, if you ask me…), Lavigne earned the ire of the Internet world for her supposed “appropriation” of Japanese culture and racist depiction of it.  But here’s the thing… the video was filmed in Japan, with a Japanese record label, Japanese choreographers, and a Japanese director.  The video was well-received in Japan and most of the people who said the video was racist were not actually Japanese themselves.

This cuts to the core of why this sort of phenomenon is annoying.  Many times, liberals feel the need to be offended in the name of someone who themselves aren’t offended.  The idea of “cultural appropriation,” the notion that people of a certain culture can’t adopt or appreciate anything of other cultures, is a particularly insidious form of this.  This idea has pervaded liberal discourse so much that it results in the devotion of time and energy to creating sets of long, complex rules for simply enjoying a dumpling, or articles like this that probably wouldn’t have been written even 5 years ago.  The problem with this is that it’s frequently used to divide people, which is contrary to the American spirit, if you ask me.  We’ve always been all about mixing and matching from cultures to produce something new.  If you don’t believe me, go listen to a jazz fusion record, or eat at a creative, off-the-wall restaurant like Takorea.  To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be sensitive to other cultures and call people out when they really do portray them in an insensitive way (I’ve written in this space before about how I think the Cleveland Indians should retire their Indian-head logo, for instance).  But liberals are going way overboard with it, and we need to cool it.

One may think that this isn’t such a bad problem.  Sure, it can get a little annoying, but does it have any real consequences?  It most certainly does.  When liberals look for racism and sexism in almost everything, and turn these instances into gigantic fake controversies, people eventually stop listening.  We become The Boy Who Cried Wolf, writ large.  Then, when someone is actually saying and doing prejudiced things, our outrage doesn’t carry the same weight or make the same impact.  Don’t believe me?  We have a President now who during the campaign bragged about sexual assault, mocked a disabled reporter, advocated a religious test for people entering the country, and refused to disavow the support of a white supremacist.  Any one of these things, and many others, should have disqualified him, but they didn’t.  Enough voters rolled their eyes and tuned out those who tried to call him out on his sexist/racist/every other -ist rhetoric.  And liberals are partially to blame for that.

How do we fix it?  We need to deemphasize identity politics.  Democrats have become so obsessed with having a big tent that we got away from the bread and butter of campaigns: issues.  Bernie Sanders tried to run a campaign like this on the Democratic side.  He talked a lot about income inequality, equal access to health care and education, and other core issues, and fired up a lot of Democrats and independents.  While Sanders’s vision was rather fantastical, we should take some lessons from his playbook, and have more substantive discussions.  Maybe instead of constantly policing people’s language, we should more forcefully advocate for policies that would actually help minorities, such as the mandatory use of body cameras by police officers.  And here’s a dirty little secret: most Democratic positions poll well.  On everything from the minimum wage to environmental protections to most every provision of the Affordable Care Act, people generally agree with the Democrats on a lot of issues.  Which is why they should be the focus of every campaign from here on out.  And we should shout down our fringe elements that insist on tactics such as primarying every Democrat who doesn’t toe the party line on absolutely everything.  Such tactics are just as divisive as anything Republicans do, and could cost us elections, just as the Tea Party did for Republicans.  We can’t afford to make the same mistake.

Remember, fellow liberals.  Hillary Clinton got more votes than Trump did.  We can, and will, win again if we take an honest look in the mirror.

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Make Gaga Great Again

rs_600x600-160920145729-600-joanne-cm-92016One of the wonderful things about having your own blog, as opposed to writing for a publication, is that you get to pick what you write about.  Not being a fan of listening to terrible albums, I generally try to pick ones from artists that I like, so the chances of my enjoying the album (and thus giving a good review) are increased.  On occasion, I’m disappointed, thinking that the artists could do better.  But in The Jam’s four (!) years of existence, there’s only one album that I’ve ripped apart, and that’s Lady Gaga’s Artpop.  So disappointed was I in that effort that I didn’t even bother to listen to her collaboration with Tony Bennett.  Adding to that was the fact that, like many “Great American Songbook” type albums, it consists of selections from the same catalog of about 30 songs or so, that have been covered so many times that it almost makes me instantly fall asleep when I hear another one.  But when Gaga came out with her latest proper album, I figured I owed it at least a listen.  After all, she had two good albums, one great one, and one bad one, so the odds were at least in her favor.

Right from the first note of Joanne, it was like Gaga read my review and adjusted her recording because of it.  Artpop’s biggest Achilles heel was that it was overproduced, and the weird sounds and beats crowded out Gaga’s vocals and made the songs incoherent.  “Diamond Heart” opens with a restrained synth and a basic beat, with Gaga’s singing once again taking center stage.  The thing people miss in between all her cool sounds, political statements, and relatable lyrics is that Gaga is actually a really good singer.  While she doesn’t have a titanic, Mariah Carey-style vocal range, she can belt and emote with the absolute best of them.  Many of the songs on Joanne enable her to show this off, such as the title track, “Million Reasons,” “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Angel Down.”

The album alternates between these sorts of tracks and more upbeat, dance-style tracks like “A-Yo,” “Dancin’ In Circles,” and the first single, “Perfect Illusion.”  The latter track is probably the best on the album, because it brings these two distinct styles into a nice fusion.  It’s upbeat and danceable, sure, but it also has the raw and authentic vocal style as well.  So authentic, in fact, that Gaga didn’t use Autotune on her voice at all in the track.  The other songs in this category have interesting sounds in them like before, but the producers and Gaga are particularly careful not to go overboard with it.

Gaga also continues her tradition of interesting and relevant lyrics in her songs, that she sort of lost her way with in Artpop.  The song “Joanne” shows once again that she’s able to deal with death in a dignified way in her songs.  The song is about her aunt’s death, and rather than being overemotional and melodramatic, she sings about how she isn’t ready for her to die in what comes off as a sweet and sincere sentiment.  For “Hey Girl” she recruits Florence + the Machine’s Florence Welch as a second vocalist, and their voices complement each other well.  The song is about encouraging women to lift each other up rather than tear each other down.  Such a concept has been explored before, but having the second vocalist reinforces the message and makes it more relatable, I think.  Finally, “Angel Down” is a song that Gaga said is her response to Trayvon Martin’s 2012 shooting death.  Though I think the song’s theme can be extended to apply to the recent rash of police shootings of African-American suspects.  Musically, my only gripe with it is the weirdly abrupt ending, which wouldn’t be as bad if it weren’t also the ending of the album.

For once, it's nice to hear Florence Welch not sing like she's in a tunnel.

For once, it’s nice to hear Florence Welch not sing like she’s in a tunnel.

All of this adds up to an album that is light years better than Artpop, and stands among her earlier work.  At times, I think, the album goes too far the other way, and isn’t adventurous enough.  There were times when I was listening to it that I missed the magical mystery tour that songs like “Judas” or “Alejandro” would take me on.  Maybe for her next effort, she can land somewhere in between the restrained dignity of Joanne and the ghastly excess of Artpop.  Such an album would probably be even better than this one, though I’m still going to give this one a buy it rating.  Here are my track picks:

“Perfect Illusion”

“Angel Down”

“Sinner’s Prayer”

Goodbye…?

Girl Meets World brought the whole gang back for the final (we think...) episode

Girl Meets World brought the whole gang back for the final (we think…) episode

Girl Meets World’s third season ended yesterday.  I’ll get to the sad part later, but let’s not think about that for a minute.  The season opened with a 9-episode arc that, while not without its issues, showed off the potential of what the show could be.  The series’ titular girls, Riley Matthews and Maya Hart (Rowan Blanchard & Sabrina Carpenter), entered high school along with the rest of their friends: Farkle Minkus (Corey Fogelmanis), Lucas Friar (Peyton Meyer), Zay Babineaux (Amir Mitchell-Townes), and Isadora Smackle (Cece Balagot), Farkle’s onetime rival who received an expanded role in the show after audiences responded well to her character in previous appearances.  The arc showed them going through the usual growing pains of high school, and then finally resolved the “love triangle” between Maya, Riley, and Lucas.  The show’s creators had always insisted that the triangle wasn’t really a triangle, which didn’t seem to make sense, as it clearly seemed that way.  The explanation that slowly unfolded was essentially that Maya had taken on Riley’s personality, which involved developing feelings for Lucas, to make sure Riley would be safe with him.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking… I thought it was a little weird too.  But the episode still ended up being special, and while the girls fostered relationships with others (Maya explores her feelings for Riley’s uncle Josh during the arc as well), the show kept the central focus on the two girls’ friendship at all times.

After that arc concluded, though, the show kind of drifted.  We never got to see Riley and Lucas really act like a couple at all (forget kissing, they barely even held hands).  This was especially odd given that they did kiss way back in season 1.  Most of the rest of the seasons’ episodes were unremarkable, and while they did address some relevant topics (cultural diversity, growing up, parental relationships, etc.), there weren’t that many standout episodes like in past seasons.  Some of the other plotlines, such as when Riley “meets the real world” and suddenly understands there’s evil in the world (which she somehow didn’t realize before she was 14) were weird and badly executed.  Sure, there were some highlights.  “Girl Meets I Do,” featured the marriage of Shawn Hunter to Maya’s mother Katy, which I liked but that probably pissed off plenty of fans who wanted to see him reunite with college girlfriend Angela Moore, who appeared in an episode last season.  In “Girl Meets Her Monster,” Topanga and Riley got a rare a-plot together.  “Girl Meets a Christmas Maya” featured a touching moment between the series’ central friend group.  But I’d be hard pressed to find an episode that really impacted me the way some in previous seasons did.

I think it’s telling that possibly the most poignant moment in the season happened when the girls were out of character.  In the episode “World Meets Girl,” the cast did a sort of behind the scenes/audience participation special.  One of the segments they did was called “Bay Window Confessions,” where they selected groups of friends to sit in front of GMW’s iconic bay window and tell the stories of their friendships.  At the very end of the show, Rowan & Sabrina did their own version, and it was the most emotional.  Sabrina was already in tears before either of them had said a word, and you could tell that the actors love each other in real life just as much as their characters do.  This was especially significant given that some online trolls had been questioning their friendship for whatever reason.  Watching that scene knowing that the show was about to be canceled just wrecked me.

Rowan Blanchard and Sabrina Carpenter's real-life friendship created great chemistry when they played their characters on Girl Meets World.

It’s been a joy watching these two grow up on Girl Meets World.

The season finale was a fairly standard “Is my friend gonna move away?” plotline (following a weird one that involved the girls wanting to throw a Sweet Sixteen party before they turned sixteen).  The highlight of that show was that the creators, maybe sensing that the show was about to be canceled, brought in a slew of Boy Meets World characters to make one last guest appearance.  Cory’s parents Alan and Amy, his brothers Eric and Josh, his sister Morgan (featuring both actresses that played her, in a funny fourth wall joke), Mr. Feeny, and bully-turned-janitor Harley Keiner all came back.  At first, I thought the Matthews family was going to move away, and I was really really hoping that I wasn’t going to be left with a sad ending in the final episode.  Fortunately, I wasn’t, but man I got worried there for a moment.

In my season 2 recap, I talked about how I thought Peyton Meyer’s acting ability had come a long way since the previous season.  This season, the actors I thought made the biggest strides were August Maturo and Ava Kolker, in the roles of Auggie Matthews and Ava Morgenstern.  Most of that was probably simply due to their gaining three years’ worth of maturity, but I enjoyed their chemistry and friendship a lot more this season than any other (and I didn’t even like Ava that much at first…).  They even have a sweet moment of their own when Auggie helps support Ava in the season premiere following her parents’ breakup.  Kolker in particular showed a lot of versatility, and I hope she keeps acting, because I think she could be a comedic tour de force by the time she’s an adult.

August Maturo (Auggie Matthews) and Ava Kolker (Ava Morgenstern) have grown a lot as actors this season.  Their characters' romantic-ish friendship has gone from cute sideshow to just as strong and valuable as the main characters' friendship.

August Maturo (Auggie Matthews) and Ava Kolker (Ava Morgenstern) have grown a lot as actors this season. Their characters’ romantic-ish friendship has gone from cute sideshow to just as strong and valuable as the main characters’ friendship.

But, sadly, as I alluded to above, this looks like it this will be the last season of Girl Meets World.  As is typical for Disney Channel shows, it was canceled after three seasons.  However, overwhelming fan response to the cancellation (which involved fans mailing paper airplanes to networks), has led executive producer Michael Jacobs to say that he is “making an attempt to find a home for the evolution of the franchise,” whatever that means.  So there is a small glimmer of hope that we may get more of the show.  While Netflix has said they’re not picking it up, other streaming services such as Hulu always could.  If they’re lucky, they could even get on another network.  I hope they do, because I think these characters and stories have a lot of potential, and I would be excited to see how they chose to approach different topics.  I do feel that part of the reason we got some watered-down stories was because of Disney Channel’s insistence on keeping the show aimed at a younger demographic (which was something I feared from the start) .  On a streaming service, the show would hopefully be able to appeal to a wider audience, just as Boy Meets World did.  But even if this is the end, I enjoyed getting to relive my childhood and watch another generation of kids grow up with these characters :).

Posted in TV

Shades of 2011

gb-atlThe Green Bay Packers have already exceeded many fans’ expectations by beating the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys (in a game I genuinely thought they would lose) in the playoffs.  Rather than my preferred matchup against my least favorite team in the NFL, the Packers drew the Atlanta Falcons, in the NFC Championship game.  I think the media and Vegas (who have the Falcons as 4-point favorites) are underestimating Green Bay, who just beat arguably a better team.  Yes, Atlanta won in the teams’ regular season matchup, but Green Bay was without its top three running backs (Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Ty Montgomery), its top three cornerbacks (Quinten Rollins, Sam Shields, Damarious Randall), its #3 receiver (Randall Cobb), the tight end who bailed them out of the Dallas game (Jared Cook), and its best defensive player (Clay Matthews).  After all that, Atlanta still only managed to beat the Packers by a point.  Most of those players (except Lacy, Starks, and Shields) will be back, though #1 wideout Jordy Nelson is still inactive.  Now, Atlanta’s much-maligned defense has gotten better since then, but it is still only 25th in total defense, 28th against the pass, 17th against the run, and 27th in points allowed per game.  Considering what Green Bay’s offense just did to the 2nd and 5th-ranked scoring defenses, that would worry the living shit out of me if I was a Falcons fan.

Rather than do a straight-up, offense-versus-defense-versus special teams preview of this game, I thought I’d take a slightly different tack.  The more I analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this Packers team, I find a startling amount of similarities between it and the 2011 squad, which was the last to win a Super Bowl.  In fact, the last time these two teams faced each other in the playoffs was that year, with the Packers claiming a 48-21 win that had me screaming and jumping up and down by halftime.  I still vividly remember Tramon Williams’s pick-six of Matt Ryan to close the first half.

Aaron Rodgers is making his receivers better.  Duh, you say.  But that hasn’t really been true the past few years, with Nelson out last year and receivers struggling to get open in other years.  On the 2010-11 team, every receiver seemed like a weapon.  Greg Jennings was the big name, but it seemed like whoever Rodgers threw the ball to -Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley- they always seemed like a threat to make the catch.  While this receiving corps is not as deep as that one, Nelson played the Greg Jennings role down the stretch for Green Bay.  Davante Adams and Randall Cobb have been much more consistent as pass catchers lately, and especially in the playoffs.  Cook has been playing above his normal standard since coming back from injury as well.  These improvements have coincided with Rodgers rediscovering his vintage form.

Randall Cobb had a huge game against the Giants in the wild-card game.

Randall Cobb had a huge game against the Giants in the wild-card game.

Green Bay’s running game is suspect, but capable of catching teams off guard.  In 2011, it was James Starks that was sneaky good.  Having inherited the starting RB job from Brandon Jackson, Starks came out of nowhere to rush for 123 yards and a 5.3 per-carry average in the wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles.  Defenses keyed in on him after that, but he was still effective in the Super Bowl, rushing for 52 yards on 11 carries (4.7 avg).  This year, while injuries have taken away proven talents like Lacy that have carried the team in recent years, Ty Montgomery has stepped up and defenses may not want to ignore him.  He averaged 5.9 yards per carry in an admittedly small sample size that was largely buoyed by his stupid-good stat line against the Chicago Bears (16 carries, 162 yards, 10.1 avg and 2 TDs).  But he has shown that he can do more with less carries, averaging more than 5 yards per carry in 5 games this season.  While he is hardly a workhorse back, if he is used sparingly as a change-of-pace option that allows Rodgers to use play-action effectively, he could make life that much harder for the Falcons’ D.

The Packers’ defense is not known as a world-beater, but is opportunistic and stiffens at the right times.   The 2011 team was better statistically, but both defenses showed an ability to make crucial plays when needed.  Tramon Williams had two of those key plays, with the aforementioned pick against the Falcons that broke that game open.  He also intercepted a Michael Vick pass in the end zone that sealed the wild-card game win against the Philadelphia Eagles.  The D also got two drive-killing interceptions in the Super Bowl (one of which was a pick-six) that helped them open an early lead from which the Pittsburgh Steelers never recovered.  This year, the defense has returned to that form late in the season.  In the playoffs, they largely bottled up both the Giants (not as big an accomplishment) and Cowboys (much bigger) until a late Cowboys surge made the divisional playoff game closer.  They tightened up at a crucial time in the Cowboys game too, limiting them to a field goal on their final drive to set up Mason Crosby’s game-winner.  While the Falcons’ explosive offense will certainly get their points, I have no reason to believe the D won’t do just enough to win the game.

Linebacker Clay Matthews missed the first game between Green Bay and Atlanta, but will play in this one.

Linebacker Clay Matthews missed the first game between Green Bay and Atlanta, but will play in this one.

The Packers were written off early on.  2016-17 is probably a more extreme case of this than 2011 was, as the Packers were left for dead after falling to 4-6 on the season before ripping off six straight wins to close the regular season.  But 2011 featured some inexplicable losses, such as two straight in overtime to bad Redskins and Dolphins teams (that Packers-Redskins tilt was actually the first NFL game I ever attended).  I don’t think many fans (myself included) thought they looked much like a Super Bowl team at the end of the regular season, finishing 10-6 and earning a six-seed in the playoff, just like this year’s team.  They were also underdogs in their first two playoff games, but fans and the media started to recognize them as a dangerous team once they made it to the conference championship game.  I think a similar turnaround in opinion happened after Green Bay demolished the Giants in the wild-card game this year.  They became the team nobody wants to face.  Even despite that, they continue to be portrayed as underdogs, showing that some haven’t quite caught on yet.

Now, do I think these similarities are some sort of cosmic sign that the team will beat the Falcons and win the Super Bowl?  No.  The team is just following a formula that has worked for them in the past.  No doubt, it’s a risky formula.  An unexpected defensive breakdown could doom them in less time than it takes for Donald Trump to send an undignified tweet.  But it does mean that they should be taken more seriously than they have been, and even if their opponents look like better teams on paper, they are capable of winning it all.  Prediction: Packers 35, Falcons 32

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Mirror Images

15873086_10103229072569496_3491462724220218993_nAfter ripping off an epic six-game winning streak, including a beatdown of perhaps the most insufferable team in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers’ reward is to face an opponent that ranks 26th in points scored per game and whose supposedly elite quarterback has a middling 86.0 rating.  And yet, it still feels like a monumental task.

The New York Giants of recent vintage have a nasty habit of lulling their opponents into a false sense of security before catching fire in the playoffs and winning Super Bowls.  The 2007 Giants were regarded as one of the worst teams in the playoff field, yet they ended the New England Patriots’ dreams of a perfect season.  In 2011, the Giants somehow performed even worse, becoming the first team with a negative point differential to reach a Super Bowl.  And they won again!  In both years, they also ended the Packers’ season, most notably in 2011 when they had just gone 15-1.  In fact, the one time they went into the playoffs in the last ten years as a legitimate contender, in 2008, they bowed out in the divisional round against the Eagles.

So, point is, the stats may not matter in this game.  But I’m going to look at them anyway, because in this matchup, they’re rather interesting.

Green Bay, as usual, is riding its offense to success.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned in yet another spectacular season, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns.  During the team’s four-game losing streak in midseason, many blamed Rodgers’ play on the Packers’ losses.  But in reality, he completed 64% of his passes for 12 TDs and only 3 INTs during the streak.  Wide receiver Jordy Nelson took some time in returning to full strength after last year’s season-ending injury, but has returning to his world-beating self of late.  Green Bay’s receiving corps isn’t as deep as it usually is, but when WR2 Davante Adams is on, he can take over a game, as he did against Chicago, when he had 13 receptions for 132 yards and 2 TDs.  Tight end Jared Cook is also capable of pitching in.  As it was during the team’s last Super Bowl run in 2011, the running game is in a state of flux.  Running back Eddie Lacy was on the verge of a renaissance when he was shut down for the season with a bum ankle.  The struggles of James Starks and waiver pickup Christine Michael forced the Packers to try any number of possible solutions, and erstwhile receiver Ty Montgomery appears to be the answer for now.  Montgomery has averaged 5.9 yards per carry in an admittedly small sample size of carries, but has proven valuable in the team’s recent wins.  In many ways, Montgomery is the opposite of Lacy, with more emphasis on quickness and elusiveness than raw, straight-up power.

Ty Montgomery may just be the next breakout rushing star for the Packers.

Ty Montgomery may just be the next breakout rushing star for the Packers.

Carrying that idea forward, the Giants could also be thought of as a mirror image of the Packers, having ridden their defense to success.  The Giants have allowed the second-fewest points in the league, and their defense is capable both of pressuring the quarterback and defending the pass.  Defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul had 8.5 and 7 sacks, respectively.  Pierre-Paul’s story has been especially inspiring in recent years, given that he returned to form after blowing off most of his right index finger in a horrific fireworks accident.  The Giants’ secondary is loaded too, with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Landon Collins leading the way.  Collins led the team in tackles with 125 and was second to Cromartie with 5 interceptions.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has made many downright acrobatic interceptions in his peripatetic career.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has made many downright acrobatic interceptions in his peripatetic career.

Contrast that with the Giants’ offense, which has struggled to move the ball all year.  Their running game is in similar disarray to the Packers’, the difference being that New York never really found a Montgomery-like figure to kick-start it.  Their leading rusher, Rashad Jennings, only put up 3.3 yards per carry.  Despite the pedestrian stats I referred to earlier, quarterback Eli Manning has been a big reason why the Giants have been able to go on improbable playoff runs over the years.  His reputation has been built on clutch performances when his team needs him most.  He’ll have a great weapon in receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who pulled together 1,367 yards and 10 TDs.  If Manning can get one other receiver to catch fire for just a few games (perhaps Victor Cruz can rediscover his elite form, for instance), the Giants could be difficult to stop.

Again with the mirror image theme, the Packers’ defense is kinda like the Giants’ offense: not great in the statistics department (and largely to blame for the losing streak), but has a few stars and a few other players that could make opponents’ lives a living hell if they get on a hot streak.  One of the reasons the defense was so bad at different times this year was a rash of injuries.  At one point, the Packers were playing with all second stringers at the cornerback and safety positions.  Standout linebacker Clay Matthews also missed significant time.

Even at mostly full strength, the defense will live and die by its front seven.  Linebacker Nick Perry had a breakout season with 11 sacks, and Julius Peppers showed he has plenty left in the tank by chipping in 7.5.  Matthews also showed that his pass-rushing skills have not deteriorated due to injury.  The Packers actually ranked 7th in rushing yards allowed per game this year.  If these players can pressure Manning into mistakes, they’ll give them a real shot at victory.  If not, the 31st ranked pass defense may give away the game.

Nick Perry will need to pressure Eli Manning for Green Bay to have a shot.

Nick Perry will need to pressure Eli Manning for Green Bay to have a shot.

Neither team seems to have a huge advantage on special teams.  Robbie Gould has made all of his field goals for the Giants after replacing Josh “Wife Beater” Brown in midseason.  Packers kicker Mason Crosby has largely put his mid-career yips behind him, and is a threat to make a field goal from any distance.  The Giants probably have a slightly better punter, as Brad Wing was an all-time great at the position in college and is solid at the professional level too.

I’ve a feeling this one is going to be a tense, low-scoring battle.  When the game is a coin flip, it’s usually wiser to go with the home team, so I’m going to do that here.  Packers 17, Giants 14.

As far as the rest of the league, the New England Patriots seem to be the most balanced in this Year of No Great Teams.  I generally hate picking a top seed to win it all, because it’s too easy and never seems to come true.  But I like them to win it over the Dallas Cowboys, who have struggled of late but seem like the most balanced team in the NFC.

pats

Rogue Elements

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterOK, now that I’ve finally seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it’s time to do what I always do with Star Wars movies: dissect the living shit out of them. 😉  In case you’re not familiar, this movie is a prequel to the first Star Wars movie ever made, A New Hope.  In that movie, the Rebel Alliance uses technical readouts of the Galactic Empire’s massive battle station, the Death Star, in order to destroy it.  Rogue One tells the story of how they stole the plans in the first place.  It is the first of at least three planned Star Wars Anthology movies, which will take place outside of the traditional “episodes” and depict different events in Star Wars lore.

As such, one could imagine that the filmmakers wanted this movie to stake out its own ground among Star Wars movies, and Rogue One does exactly that.  I mentioned last year that The Force Awakens had a sort of modernistic sheen that didn’t exist in prior movies, but Rogue One breaks much more with tradition.  I’ve heard it described as a “WWII movie in the Star Wars universe,” and I think that’s apt.  It had the feel of a war movie much more than any of the previous entries in the saga.  The movie centered on epic battles in space and on the ground (the space battle is one of the alltime best in my mind).  In addition, it was grittier, darker, and above all, faster.  There are some pacing issues at the beginning of the movie, but once it gears up, it moves at a faster pace than any to come before it.  So fast, in fact, that I feel like I need to see it again not only because I traditionally see Star Wars movies multiple times in theaters, but because I want to see if I missed any key details.  The movie also packs in a tremendous amount of action while moving at its breakneck pace.  This different feel, in my mind, was exactly what the Star Wars franchise needed.  After the giant nostalgia trip that was The Force Awakens, this served as an excellent proper introduction to the new landscape of the Star Wars universe.

In keeping with this theme, there’s also several staples of Star Wars movies that you won’t see in Rogue One.  For instance, there are no Jedi characters, and very little discussion of the Force or Jedi philosophy.  The movie does pay a weird kind of lip service to the concept in the form of Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen.  Îmwe, while not a Jedi himself (or even a Force-user, as it appears), is a blind warrior (already somewhat unbelievable) who reveres the Jedi and subscribes to their philosophy.  So, he isn’t a Force-user, doesn’t wield a lightsaber, and isn’t really as interesting as the Jedi.  Oh, and he walks around constantly chanting to an annoying degree.  I found his character easily the least likable.

Which brings me to another of my issues.  Star Wars has always thrived on its multifaceted and compelling characters, that the audience can bond with on their travels through space.  Rogue One had precious little of that.  Even the main character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), felt rather underdeveloped.  I came perilously close to not caring what happened to her by the end, to say nothing of the band of rebels she assembles around her.  Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) was also a missed opportunity in the character department.  He was portrayed as a Rebel extremist, almost akin to a mirror image of Darth Vader. I think he would’ve been a very interesting way to explore moral gray areas, or could’ve been made into an interesting antihero.  Sadly, neither of these happened.  Now, I can forgive this somewhat, because war movies typically don’t develop deep characters so it’s easier to kill them off at the end, as Rogue One did with most everyone.

That said, the one character that did feel well-conceived was Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who departed somewhat from the “hard and unforgiving Imperial” motif, and provided us with a different point of view of the Empire.  The droid K2-SO provided excellent comic relief too.  Alan Tudyk delivered his lines with the same sort of dry and witty comedic style that made him beloved as the pilot Wash in the Firefly ‘verse.  The filmmakers even digitally recreated Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and did a fantastic job.  I was a little worried about it when I heard that detail before I saw the movie, because I was afraid that it would be so obviously artificial that it would take me out of the action.  The only time that really happened is when the character turned his body, but even that wasn’t too bad.  They also painstakingly recreated his voice using a blend of voice acting and archival audio.  I wonder if they’ll do similar stuff like this in the future.

Other classic characters make appearances, such as Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa.  Genevieve O’Reilly reprises her (ultimately deleted) role as Mon Mothma from Revenge of the Sith.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to reconstruct the world of the original trilogy, and did a great job with that as well.

And that ending.  OH that ending.

While it wasn’t that surprising, the ending was sort of an elbow in the ribs to the audience, a reminder that, although this is a different movie, we are still very much in the Star Wars universe.  Darth Vader (who I wish had been in the movie more) ignites his lightsaber and starts cutting through Rebel soldiers like a hot knife through butter, and they scramble to relay the Death Star data tape to Princess Leia, who is also digitally reconstructed.  Leia speaks the last line of the movie, and the plot leads right up to the last minutes or hours before A New Hope starts.  The final confrontation between Krennic, Erso, and Cassian Andor is also well done.

My only other real beef with the film is the soundtrack.  Michael Giacchino got the unfortunate task of being the composer everyone will compare to the incomparable John Williams (with only about four weeks to write the score, no less).  Williams’s Star Wars soundtracks are so engaging that they almost become another character in their films.  Giacchino’s soundtrack felt much more “boilerplate action movie” -ish, and I hope that isn’t a sign of things to come when the 84-year-old Williams finally sloughs off the mortal coil.

Ultimately, Rogue One didn’t resonate with me quite the same way as The Force Awakens did, probably because we didn’t have as long a layoff between films, and I’m not a big war movie buff.  But it definitely is worthy of the Star Wars name, and whets my appetite for Episode VIII next year.

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Ben Mendelsohn does a good job playing Orson Krennic.

Outside the Box(es)

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I’m sure most of you came to my blog today expecting a Rogue One review.  Don’t worry, it’s in the works… I’m not seeing the movie till tomorrow, so I’ll have it up later this week.  In the meantime, I’m getting to an album review that is long overdue.  The Goo Goo Dolls have had a long, rich career full of ups and downs, and Boxes marks their eleventh full-length album.  It is their first since 1998’s Dizzy Up the Girl not to feature Mike Malinin on drums, as he left the band somewhat acrimoniously in 2013.

The funny thing is, despite the “drummer by committee” approach they took on this record, the drums stand out fairly frequently.  Their strong beats are what most frequently drive the songs forward, with the most prominent examples being on “Souls in the Machine,” “The Pin,” and “Over & Over.”  I suppose that’s always the job of the drummer, but rarely is it as noticeable as it is at times on Boxes.

Boxes also shows the band experimenting with different rhythms and sounds much more than they ever have.  Sometimes it works, like the stop-start feel of the chorus of “The Pin,” and sometimes it doesn’t, such as when the same sort of technique is used to create a staccato feel in “Flood,” that feels out of place.  Despite that, Echosmith singer Sydney Sierota’s vocal stylings complement lead singer John Rzeznik’s quite well.

Some interesting sounds can be found on “Reverse,” which features an electronica beat that could fit comfortably in a Lady Gaga song if sped up.  This builds on the electronica hints in the previous song, “Free of Me.”  There are lots of little common threads like that that tie certain songs to each other.  I wouldn’t call Boxes a concept album by any stretch, but little hints like that help make the album more unified.  “Reverse” and “Lucky One” can be seen as inverses of each other, and “So Alive,” and “Long Way Home” discuss a lot of the same subjects.

John Rzeznik and Robby Takac are the last two "official" members of the Goo Goo Dolls left.

John Rzeznik (left) and Robby Takac are the last two “official” members of the Goo Goo Dolls left.

But let’s face it, instrumentation was never this band’s calling card.  It was the lyrics and vocal delivery of Rzeznik.  The Goo Goo Dolls’ recent albums have never really captured the songwriting brilliance of songs like “Iris,” “Name,” or “Here Is Gone,” but they get closer than they have in awhile on Boxes with the second single “Over & Over,” which in my opinion is the best song on the album, and possibly their best single since 2006, when Let Love In became probably their best overall album.  It has a decent amount of energy, and the lyrics are relevant and interesting, talking about how to pick up the pieces after repeated failures or rejections.  The guitar parts are simplistic, but not in a bad way, like many of their previous hits.  It also flows well without feeling like the band tried to shoehorn it into the single box, so to speak.  The first single off the record, “So Alive,” feels more deliberately radio-friendly.  The start of “The Pin” screams 90s, like they’re trying to recapture something, with the acoustic opening that recalled the song “Run,” which Collective Soul lit up the airwaves with back then.  Rzeznik’s lyrics throughout the album are interesting, but don’t quite resonate in the same way as before.

Robby Takac also gets his usual turn at lead singer duties, and does a good job on “Free of Me,” and “Prayer in My Pocket.”  His role as a singer has diminished in recent albums, and I think it has to do with deterioration of his voice.  He struggled a lot in the last live show of theirs I attended in 2013.

Overall, Boxes doesn’t mark a return to the Dolls’ glory days of 1995-2006, but they’re closer to that standard on this record than they have been recently.  I’d give it a borrow it rating.  The track picks below are the biggest reasons to give this album a go, and the experimental sounds will sustain listeners’ interest, even if there are fewer standout songs on this album than fans remember from the past.

“Over & Over”

“The Pin”

“Prayer in My Pocket”

We Need a Hero

alter_bridge_-_the_last_hero_album_coverSo I’m a little late to this party, but the Orange Man’s election and my emotional goodbye to Yellowcard put me a little behind schedule.   Sorry, Alter Bridge.  Forgive me.

Alter Bridge sought to rebrand themselves a bit with their fifth album The Last Hero.  In the run-up to the album, they told fans that the songs on it would be more topical than in the past, addressing current events.  Lead singer Myles Kennedy said that the 2016 election inspired at least some of the songs.  In addition, when the album art came out, fans noticed that the design was much different than before.  Rather than the arty, rough edges that defined previous albums, this one was much more sleek and modern, as smooth as a razor blade and with an entirely different script for the band name.

On their previous two albums, AB III and Fortress, Alter Bridge placed a lot of emphasis on musical experimentation.  One of the reasons I liked Fortress as much as I did was that the constantly shifting sonic layers kept listeners’ interest all the way through.  This time, though, there’s little of that, with some songs even sliding towards the dreaded “generic” label.  There’s no real standout moments for drummer Scott Phillips or bassist Brian Marshall like before, and even some of guitarist Mark Tremonti’s solos are cut shorter than normal.  That’s not to say they’re bad, per se, but there’s no epic, “Blackbird”- style epic of flying fingers.  Some of his best solos on this record are the ones that are more nuanced, such as on “Cradle to the Grave,” and “Twilight.”

Where this album stands out musically is not so much how it finishes songs as how it starts them.  “The Other Side,” has a cool intro that almost sounds like a chant.  “This Side of Fate” features Kennedy’s and Tremonti’s guitar parts layering over each other, with a faster part full of sixteenth notes blending with a more legato layer.  The start of “Cradle to the Grave” could almost be its own instrumental song.

But the band was right when it said that the lyrics would be the most interesting part of the album.  Their lyrics are typically pretty abstract, and aside from a few songs, it’s not readily apparent where the band got their inspiration.  But with songs like “Show Me a Leader,” the band makes it clear what message they’re trying to get across.  They lament political polarization (“…we’re too numb and divided…”) and call for the world to “show me a leader who knows what is right.”  The only lyric that bugs me on that song is “Show me a leader that won’t compromise,” because I think leaders who won’t compromise are what got us into the current mess of polarization that we’re in.  Though later on in the album, they talk about how dangerous being uncompromising is, so maybe they meant something like “a leader who won’t compromise on what is right” or something.  Kennedy’s vocals on the “Noooooooo” part are one of many standout moments he has on the album.  He really shows off his range and ability to hold notes on this album more than any recent ones.

Myles Kennedy's vocal performances are extra good on this album.

Myles Kennedy’s vocal performances are extra good on this album.

Other interesting lyrical moments include on “The Writing on the Wall,” which Kennedy has said is about those who deny the reality of man-made climate change, and it’s easy to see, with words like “Refusing every warning/deny the rate of change,” and “And the writing’s on the wall/that the end will begin/Still you do nothing at all/Throwing lies to the wind.”  The band also explores the nature of heroism in “Crows on a Wire,” which conjures an image of someone who has attained power and influence but is beholden to others who will tear them down if they don’t do what they want.  I’m sure he had a few Congressmen in mind when he wrote that.  Finally, “You Will Be Remembered” honors those who have made sacrifices, and I interpreted it as being a thank-you to veterans.  “The Last Hero” serves as a summary of sorts, a way of tying together all the themes the band discusses on earlier songs.  My friend Aaron suggested that it could be in part about President Obama, and there’s evidence for that, such as with the lyrics, “Words and accusations/History revised/But time is gonna tell that you were right.”

The album’s weakness lyrically is that it can sometimes get a bit repetitive.  “My Champion” and “Poison in Your Veins” are back-to-back tracks that are rather similar.  “Twilight” talks about some of the same subjects as “Show Me a Leader.”  “This Side of Fate” and “Island of Fools” are fairly similar too.  Longtime Alter Bridge fans will hear some themes from previous albums repeated as well.  I feel like one or two tracks could have been deleted from this album without really having much effect on its impact.

Despite this, though, The Last Hero is essential listening for modern rock fans, so I’m giving it a buy it rating.  It may not be quite as polished as Fortress or Blackbird, but the lyrical themes alone make it worthy of multiple listens.  Here are my track picks:

“Show Me a Leader”

I couldn’t find video links for “You Will Be Remembered” and “The Writing’s on the Wall,” my other picks, so you’ll need to take my word for it :).