Monday, September 22, 2008

Juliana Hatfield- How To Walk Away

Juliana Hatfield was one of my biggest musical crushes back in the '90s. I remember seeing the video for "My Sister" and then watching an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete where Hatfield plays "Emma the lunch-line worker" and falling in love. Shortly after I bought The Juliana Hatfield Three's Become What You Are and recall the feeling of a justified love through music. Fast forward to present day where Juliana's 10th solo album, How To Walk Away, showcases a more mature artist that still knows how to keep her fans pleased. But is it as good as past efforts? Well…almost.

The album starts off in the right direction. We get the more melodic and darker tone of Hatfield, one that almost evokes a "Rhianna" tone from Fleetwood Mac mixed with the darker pop moments of bands like Teenage Fanclub or XTC (in regards to the melodic nature). There's a dark allure that fits the lyrics' dismal tone of love gone sour. Just when you think it'll get sweet, melancholy brings it back down, but it's enjoyable when it takes that turn.

I was ready to embrace this album with open arms once the second track, "Shining On", finished but then at track four, "My Baby", it detours slightly by being more straightforward and radio friendly, almost skirting on being Sheryl Crow-ish, but thankfully not enough to actually be that. Also, it seems the not-so-subtle lyrics cripple the song. The album returns to form with "Just Lust," which captures a harsh reality of an attraction in a nice catchy yet down tempo beat. "Now I'm Gone" veers back into the more straightforward territory that "My Baby" does but thankfully without compromising the tone that hooked me in at the first part of the album. But then we get to "Remember November" which is only ho-hum. Maybe its slightly more optimistic and sappy lyrics weigh it down or maybe it's the fact the song doesn't do much to keep my attention. Either way, it feels like one of the weaker tracks on the album. As the album progresses it becomes more background noise than something that keeps you invested and seems to just wash over you.

This may seem very nit picky, but the biggest flaw on this album is with the song "So Alone." The song itself isn't bad, but a small production decision really destroys what could be a good song. There's a distracting percussion noise that really takes you out of the song and seems very out of place. I hate to think that it was a conscious decision on Hatfield's part. I refuse to believe it! It just really bothers me because I really enjoy the song and want to listen to it but can't even get through it now because of that damn noise.

There are a few guests on the album, including The Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws. "This Lonely Love" featuring Butler is the standout track and reminds me more of Hatfield's earlier material while maintaining the more mature sound we hear throughout this album. Though the track feels a bit jarring compared to the more somber tone the first few songs set up, it's a welcome shift since the song works so well. I wish I could say the same for "Such a Beautiful Girl," which features Matthew Caws from the extremely underrated Nada Surf. The song has some beautiful vocals, especially from Mr.Caws, but it just seems like it's missing that extra something. A problem I actually heard on a few songs from Nada Surf's latest release strangely enough.

How To Walk Away is a good effort and better than a few of her more recent releases, but I can't help miss the sound I fell in love with when I heard Juliana Hatfield all those years ago. That's why I loved the album Juliana's Pony-Total System Failure. The fuzzed-out guitars, the catchy hooks, and the fun of rockin' out just made for a better listening experience. As a fan, I know it's unfair to expect an artist to repeat a certain sound, and Juliana Hatfield has not been shy about changing it up from time to time, but I feel Hatfield is at her best in that Become What You Are/Total System Failure element. Still, if you're a fan of Hatfield's work, I recommend you pick this up. It's definitely worth the listen and shows some promise for future releases.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Promotion

The Promotion is a strange little film — not in content but rather the potential of what it could have been. You have some great talent within this film that could have easily pulled this movie off, but it seems to miss the mark. It's likely to divide audiences and have some claiming that others "just don't get the humor." But I get it, and it ain't what it should be.

Doug (played by Sean William Scott) is an assistant manager at Donaldson's Grocery who is hoping for a promotion at a new store that is opening in the area. He is certain he will get the position until Richard (played by John C. Reilly) transfers from a Canadian sister store and decides to go for the same position. Both men find themselves in difficult personal situations that lead them to lows they normally wouldn't resort to just to get the coveted position.

This film strives to emulate the tone of such deadpan and "uncomfortable" comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. You can see it trying, and it has moments where it almost succeeds, but ultimately it just doesn't hit the mark like those shows do. It really is a tricky thing to pull off. If not done right, you can even lose those who understand and enjoy that type of humor. When I watch Larry David or Ricky Gervais in uncomfortable situations, I do cringe, but I hang on and enjoy every moment of it. But there were a few times I almost wanted to shut this film off because I didn't want to see the consequence of some of the characters' actions. It's that very fine line that you either nail or miss.

Some of the problem might come from Sean William Scott's performance. He's not bad and he's proven himself in the past to be more than Stiffler from the American Pie films, but this film maybe could have been better with someone else in the role, someone a little more adept at comedy. That's not to say Scott doesn't have comedy chops, because he does, I just don't think he was quite right for this role and it adds to the overall feeling of the whole of the film falling a bit short. Another thing that hurts the film is the voiceover Scott gives throughout. It sounds too "read" and seems unnecessary. The movie probably would have been better without it.

Jenna Fischer plays the role of Doug's wife and seems almost wasted in the role. There's not much for her character to do, but it seems like she could have done more. Then there's Lili Taylor who plays Richard's wife. She is a great actress, but she's terribly underused and has a bad Scottish accent in this film. However, Fred Armisen does a great job and is funny as the Donaldson's manager and Gil Bellows as the board executive is pretty dead on (I used to work at a supermarket and have dealt with his type). There's also a decent cameo from Jason Bateman as the retreat host (the retreat is actually one of the funniest parts of the film).

Despite its flaws, there is a line in the movie that is well written and sums up the motivation of the characters in the film: "We're all out here, just looking for food. And sometimes we bump into each other is all." This seems genuine and really speaks to the things we do sometimes despite our better judgment in a competitive world. It's in that line that I finally found some connection to the film and actually cared about the characters. Too bad it was too little too late.

I would have listened to the commentary, but for some reason it didn't seem to work. I tried multiple times but got nothing. It's something I really wanted to listen to in order to get a better feel for what they were trying to achieve and to see what they thought of certain performances, but alas, no go. Outtakes on the Special Features only has one scene and it gets tiresome after the first minute or so. You would think with people like Fred Armisen or John C. Reilly involved they'd have some really good stuff to put on there.

The Promotion is a film you really want to enjoy because it has all the elements a fan of this type of comedy would enjoy with a good cast to back it up, but in the end it just feels a bit disappointing.