2011 Holiday Gift Guide Part 2

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Okay, so, with installment One of Ground Control's gift guide coverage on the books, readers may have picked up a few ideas. We tried to get a bit in for everyone, but of course there are going to be a couple of people still wandering the malls and the internets trying to find some music which fits that special somebody just right. With that knowledge in hand, we bring you Part Two; a few more sparks to start a fire of ideas. Don't worry – if this doesn't do it, we've got one more part coming – but this may indeed do the trick.

Ozzy Osbourne
God Bless Ozzy Osbourne
(Eagle Rock/Eagle Vision)
Over the years, lots of jokes have been made at Ozzy Osbourne's expense, but it's sort of understandable because so many things the singer has done are unbelievable. This is a man who has gone no fewer than forty–two rounds with professional rock n' roll – often bare–knuckled – and while he's been knocked down and has the scars to prove it, he just keeps getting up; nothing – not booze, not drugs, not excess, not success, not shifting of popular tastes – keeps him down for long. That kind of stature and resilience commands respect. It's also a story which begs telling and that's where God Bless Ozzy Osbourne comes in; for 135 minutes, this film tells the story of the beginning, the rise, the success, the excess, the triumph and the establishment of the institution that has become Ozzy Osbourne.

Of course, because Ozzy's story has been told so often over the years, parts of the film (like the first half hour, which deals with the evolution of Sabbath and how Ozzy came to be the singer of the band) become a bit static due to repetitive recounting – one can only hear the same story before it's possible to recite it by rote – but at around the twenty–five minute mark (when Ozzy's children from his first marriage are introduced) when things begin to get interesting; at the twenty–five minute mark, drugs and alcohol and their presence in Ozzy's life begin to come into better focus too.

It does seem important to concede that, in the Sixties, drugs and rock n' roll were the twin taboos and they are addressed a bit prior to this point in the run-time, but the impression they leave starts to change at this point; Black Sabbath fell prey to cocaine and alcohol – nothing was more responsible for the demise of the band than that pair of influences. Certainly at least some fans have been aware of this for decades, but the way it's presented in this documentary feels like a revelation; suddenly, everything becomes clear after that.

That sort of revelatory feeling quickly becomes the reoccurring form in God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, and it never gets old at any point in this run-time. Here, viewers are regularly offered bits of information that they could recite by rote because they've heard them so often, but then there are fantastic little things appended which seem phenomenal; like how quickly Ozzy actually bounced back after the demise of Sabbath and how prolific he became with Randy Rhodes. With Rhodes at his side, Osbourne released two classic albums in less than a year after the end Black Sabbath; people looking at any timeline could know that, but spelled out as it is here feels incredible. Seeing that is unbelievable, as is the brief discussion Ozzy enters into regarding the death of Randy Rhodes – but the depths to which the rough times descended were nothing short of superhuman – as were his substance intake levels.

Eventually (after superhuman tales of excess), Sharon Osbourne is the one who puts forth the theory that the excesses which Ozzy Osbourne has indulged through the lion's share of his career may have much to do with both the singer's sense of loss. Through the late Seventies and early Eighties, Ozzy Osbourne lost Black Sabbath, lost his first wife, lost his first kids and lost Randy Rhoads; Sharon's theory is that he'd already seen that everything had an end, so he wanted to be feeling good when his came.

That's a heavy statement to make but it is understandable. What isn't understandable (and this always seems to happen with "The Story Of Ozzy Osbourne") is the sudden jump in time of about six years which sees viewers arrive at the beginning of the Zakk Wilde era of Ozzy's band in 1988. That would be a great place to pick up the chronology, but the story doesn't exactly resume; in fact, it gets even more disjoint on God Bless…. It's at this point that viewers are treated to footage of Ozzy returning to the scheme where he grew up in Birmingham with no particular explanation or direction other than to seemingly bring the proceedings full circle and begin trying to sew up a few loose ends, eventually arriving at some semblance of a conclusion. It's a rocky conclusion which sort of stumbles its way through Osbourne finally choosing to sober up after his son Jack, and ending at present day with the singer sober now for five years. In that end comes the obligatory feelgood sentiment from Kelly Osbourne, saying that her father walks a different, prouder line these days and it's evident in everything he does. That sounds contrived and like a soft option ending after the story having gone through the way it did, but it's not the easiest story to end because it isn't over. Conventional endings can't work because Ozzy Osbourne isn't dead. Because it can't end mortally, God Bless Ozzy Osbourne ends the only way it can: openly, with no real end at all – other than Ozzy Osbourne making the token gesture of finally getting his driver's license. It seems like a small, inconsequential thing but, after seeing the craziness encapsulated in this footage, seeing something simple and universal like that is gratifying, somehow. That doesn't mean God Bless Ozzy Osbourne is the single greatest film and it doesn't mean that there aren't obvious flaws in it, but it is certainly entertaining, and imminently watchable.
Set Your Goals
Burning At Both Ends
About sixteen years ago, it was impossible to not notice the multitude of pop-punk, skate-punk, gutterpunk and melodic hardcore bands which glutted modern rock radio airwaves; they were everywhere. Some of them were really good too (some of those old guards are still great), but most of the new bands being introduced to listeners are just too over-the-top for their own good; now, bands end up adding too many extra sounds to set themselves apart from the pack and just end up making a mess of themselves as they try to come up with a peanut-butter-and-cucumber combination of sounds that will catch with audiences and set them apart at the same time.

That tireless drive to be different is admirable, but totally useless as Set Your Goals proves with Burning At Both Ends. On their Epitaph debut, Set Your Goals doesn't try to do anything jaw-dropping at all; they just make fine, well-written pop punk that's loud and bratty as hell and they don't make any excuses for it. Songs like “Cure For Apathy,” “The Last American Virgin,” “Product Of The 80's” and “Not As Bad” don't try to reinvent the wheel or add fins to it, the band just lets each song spin for listeners to take or leave on their own. In doing that – in not trying to fix what was never broken – Set Your Goals ends up making a fantastic album which stands out because it isn't trying too hard to stand out. Readers should buy this album for any fan of punk rock on their gift-giving list; they will thank you, guaranteed.

The Mountain Goats
All Eternals Deck
(Merge Records)
Even in the first few seconds of “Damn These Vampires,” the change in musical approach in The Mountain Goats exemplified by All Eternals Deck is noticeable and complete; the underlying sense of introspective self-reflection that characterized 2008's Heretic Pride and the blue plate “existential questioning with a side of biblical citation” special that was The Life Of The World To Come has been abandoned this time for lighter moods that even get cute the more singer/guitarist/Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle lightens up. The playful vibes that run through songs like “Birth Of Serpents” (where the singer nearly cracks up and breaks character when he asks “Is this somebody's idea of a joke?”), “Estate Sale Sign” where Darnielle observes “some guy in an Impala shakes his head as he rides by/but I remember when we shared a vision, you and I”), the slightly absurdist instrumentation of “Outer Scorpion Squadron” and the positively (but pleasantly) absurd vocal chorus which dominates “High Hawk Season” might seem like exciting and foreign thematic territory for listeners who have only found the band over the last couple of years, but those who have been with the band a while who what's happening here: All Elements Deck represents a return to old powers for The Mountain Goats – and some would say it's not a minute too soon.

It is important to point out that, just because the album marks a return to old faculties for the band, All Eternals Deck doesn't rehash anything. The returning element is the energy level and excitement that Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster put into the songs; in effect, while the band pushes in new directions musically (check out “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” “Prowl Great Cain” and “High Hawk Season”), the return of the band to being the slightly manic, slightly hysterical, slightly romantic and slightly comical group that listeners could easily imagine accosting passersby while busking for change on some street corner is the really great thing about the album that is not to be missed.

As the record spins its' way to a close with “Liza Forever Minnelli,” Darnielle and the band have once again (re-)staked their romantic center and image (pictures of the California coastline and the joys of driving up it get called to mind quickly and vividly) and listeners will be only too happy to join the band there after the rambunctious play time they've had already through All Eternals Deck. This record is truly a masterful work by The Mountain Goats; it runs a gauntlet of sensations and emotions with all the imagery to match but, amazingly, never loses listeners along the way. That's exactly the kind of record fans always hope for from The Mountain Goats, and the band has nailed that mark again with All Eternals Deck.
Marketa Irglova
It might seem strange for Marketa Irglova to break stride with The Swell Season after the celebrated release of Strict Joy in 2009 to focus on releasing a solo album, but that's exactly what the singer has done. With absolutely beautiful vocal melodies supported but tastefully spare and jazzy drums and lush, flowing piano, Irglova introduces a more classically-inspired side to her musical persona but, as interesting as that might sound in print, it sounds very familiar in practice. As songs like “Your Company,” “Wings Of Desire, “ “For Old Times Sake” and “Now You Know” spill out of Anar, some listeners will be instantly reminded of Nana Mouskouri's delicate and angelic voice. That will be all the selling point the record needs in some circles; it's the perfect record to purchase for background play on Christmas Day as children open gifts.
The Decemberists
The King Is Dead
It took a surprisingly long time for The Decemberists to get comfortable enough on a major label to be themselves, but the band has returned to its' finest form on The King Is Dead. To be fair, it's not like The Crane Wife and The Hazards Of Love were bad records per se, they were just too large and epic for their own good. The Decemberists have always shone brightest when they're nestled in the modest confines with smaller production budgets; they're at their best doing community theater, not Broadway. That smaller scale is what fans have always found accessible and endearing about albums like Picaresque, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists, and that's the level to which The Decemberists have returned on The King Is Dead. Listeners will be able to mark the band's reversion to simpler working practices from the moment “I Can't Carry It All” draws the curtains open on the record – and they won't be able to stop themselves from smiling, gratified, through the album's entire run-time.

The smiles on every listener's face are deserved too – because the returns on The King Is Dead are great and many. Instantly noticeable initially is that the band's favorite playthings – images of sea voyage adventure and frontier-building ambition and the romance of it all – are back, and presented with vibrant enthusiasm and infectious excitement. The King Is Dead is a glorious return.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Some listeners may balk and say that The Decemberists revisiting old strengths as they are on their sixth studio album implies that the band has run out of ideas. That is not the case at all though; each track on The King Is Dead comes through fresh and new because they also present elements of growth. Here, the band includes the solid, more self-assured writing style that was featured on The Hazards Of Love, thereby making not it exactly like anything the band has done before, but an improved version of the band's original focus. That change is great, but even more engaging is the improved mood reflected in the album; unlike the dark and even dour shadows that The Hazards Of Love often cast, there is a more upbeat and brighter coloring streaked through songs like “Rise To Me,” “Calamity Song,” “January Hymn” and “All Arise” that is absolutely beguiling when it's coupled as it is here with an evocative, Georgia Country-touched backdrop. That said, while The Decemberists have always implied adventure and sights which would be exciting to witness in their songs, The King Is Dead is the most exciting and adventurous release in the group's catalogue to date and it seems to achieve that stature effortlessly. More than The Crane Wife or The Hazards Of Love, it could be said that The King Is Dead is the next big step in The Decemberists' career; here, they prove that they can take the experience they've accrued over their career and apply it to music that is unmistakably in line with sounds immediately associated with themselves and themselves alone. That means the album is a very unique landmark in the band's catalogue.
Jimi Hendrix
In The West
(Experience Hendrix/Legacy/Sony Music)
At this point – decades after his death – the image of Jimi Hendrix has become as thick and consistent as concrete – but the problem is that it has also somehow become humorless too. Many fans have never heard a recording of Jimi Hendrix cracking a joke or making the fact that he's just having fun plain; now, everything seems like it was all business, all the time. That isn't how it was though, and that's the first thing that Hendrix In The West proves right off the top; here, Jimi Hendrix – god of guitar and mysticism – shares a few jokes with a British audience before sort of halfway breaking into “God Save The Queen” and “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It is worth pointing out that neither of these takes is perfect (in fact, the second half of “Sgt. Pepper” is missing), but they are essential because they offer a lighter air to the Hendrix mythos than has ever been dared before; here, the Jimi Hendrix Experience proves it wasn't stuffy or mind-expanding on purpose all the time (those moments do exist here too – the takes of “Voodoo Child,” “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Red House” are fantastic performances, certainly), sometimes they just had fun as one would expect a band to do, and would show their audience a good time too. Of course, because In The West is a little looser and isn't being touted as a “definitive” anything, fans may overlook it on their own – but giving this record as a gift at Christmas time would (I suspect) be a true act of giving diamonds or riches in the rough

Frank Turner
England Keep My Bones
(Xtra Mile/Epitaph)

When Frank Turner released Poetry Of The Deed in 2009, he set the bar pretty high for expectations of him when he'd return with his next album. The singer had yelled and crooned his brand of parking lot sage wisdom and dropped bars of gold into songs like “Try This At Home,” “Live Fast, Die Old,” “Poetry Of The Deed” and “Fastest Way Back Home” almost carelessly and watched happily as listeners scrambled to pick up every last one, take them home and keep them dearly. It was a fantastic act of generosity – but how does one follow it? Two years later, fans finally get their answer in the form of England Keep My Bones – an album that is as personal as it is public insofar as it intertwines some pretty personal ruminations on life and where the singer's own might be headed with some of the hands-down biggest, most anthemic musical turns in his songbook.

Listeners will be knocked ass-over-tea-kettle as “Eulogy” takes a minute to warm up with some reflective-sounding and warm horns and confessions (“Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut/ Not everyone grows up to be a king/ Not everyone can be Freddy Mercury/ But everyone can raise a glass and sing”) and totally disarms them right away with his candor. The way they're delivered, the lyrics feel as though they're pointed specifically at a particular person/people (parents maybe?) and, in spite of the weakness in their knees, listeners will be able to side with the singer as they recall the hopes and dreams that someone may have had for them, but abandoned when it became clear that they were a hopeless cause. It's the sweetest calling together anyone could hope for; solid ground where everyone comes together and shares in the sensation, because everyone knows it well.

…And then the song explodes with enormous, heavy-handed and bombastic guitars, and Turner petulantly knocks listeners flat with this brutal response: “Well I haven't always been a perfect person/ I haven't done what Mum and Daddy dreamed/ But on the day I die, I'll say at least I fucking tried/ That's the only eulogy I need.”

It might sound petulant – it might sound cold or contrary – but those who hear it will be believers after they pick themselves up off the ground. Father Frank is at the pulpit and he's speaking directly to those of the right mind who are in turn absorbing and being empowered by the radiant energy that flies off of every word.

The singer doesn't let his congregation down either. On England Keep My Bones, Turner drops more sage wisdom on listeners through songs including “Peggy Sang The Blues” (where “It doesn't matter where you come from, it matters where you go”), “I Still Believe” (where Turner calls punks, skins and journeymen to the dingy, grimy clubs where rock n' roll shows happen to find a bit of salvation and absolution), “I Am Disappeared” (featuring dreams of pioneers and pirate ships and Bob Dylan,” and other such people “wrapped tight in the things that will kill them”) and “One Foot Before The Other” (which imagines being cremated and thrown into local drinking reservoirs in hopes of affecting change from the inside out) which don't exploit the mark that Poetry made – they stand steadier, firmer and more confidently on the same base without leaning on the past success of it. In effect, while Poetry spent a lot of time bravely asking “Why don't we?” or “Can't we?” England Keep My Bones plays with the knowledge that anything and everything is possible, and both singer and band invite listeners to view the world with the same mindset. Many of the characters in these songs need that kind of reassurance (not unlike the people listening) and Turner provides it but, if that doesn't catch, the band (which is a bit thicker and beefier in sound now) swaggers out to offer some assistance.

As the record progresses, Turner gives one last scream of affirmation that, yes, he'll always be true (in “If Ever I Stray”) before beginning to balance out and calm his temper until, by “Glory Hallelujah,” the singer has returned to center with a state of grace that is just lovely.

Through this run-time, one gets the impression that Frank Turner wasn't sure who he needed to be and if he should have changed after Poetry Of The Deed, so he pushed himself pretty hard and gave listeners the biggest thank-you he could but, in the end, he's just himself again because that's all he could ever really be. That arc and the honesty of it is what listeners will treasure – if in a different way than they did with Poetry Of The Deed. If still rewarding though; on England Keep My Bones, Frank Turner simultaneously reveals his appreciation for the attention he's received and tried to answer it, but also tries to do himself one better. It works – in listening, anyone who hears England Keep My Bones will feel as though they owe the singer a debt of thanks.
Megalithic Symphony
(Red Bull/Sony)
The funny thing about any band who chooses to work within the “post-modernist” music idiom is that there are always questions which surround the legitimacy of it. Part of that has to do with the fact that some of the music and working practices to make it is very opportunistic; some bands simply come along, take myriad pieces from established sounds from established sounds that could at least theoretically fit together and try to make them work with little regard for how sloppy the results may be. On first listen, Awolnation may come off as exactly that kind of band; it's easy enough to pick out bits of melody  and compositional ideas that bands like Muse, USS and The Killers have struck Gold and Platinum numbers with before on the band's debut, but the beauty of this record is that, rather than just polishing some secondhand, used up pieces, this band actually turns something 'familiar' into something new and positively raucous. With a hand that is as heavy as it is careful, Awolnation balances the darkness of alt- and gothic club staples from back in the day (like Marilyn Manson, Korn and Tool) with the instantly gratifying and plastic vibes of modern electro- clubs from the twenty-first century and plays to both camps without exactly pledging allegiance to either. The results are fantastic – songs like “Soul Wars,” “Burn It Down,” “Guilty Filthy Soul” and “Kill Your Heroes” are all sure hits and play to both possible clubs adeptly – and make the possibility of crossover hits between “roughneck punks” and “flaky Top 40 hippies” seem surprisingly real.

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