"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, December 04, 2004

U2 back in bombastic form

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Universal, 2,548 yen

U2 returns to big, bombastic form with its first studio album in four years, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The Irish quartet seem to have abandoned any pretense of trying to experiment or move in new directions and settled down to the formula that has always served them best: soaring anthems belted out over intense, echoing, layered guitar grooves backed by a whipcrack rhythm section.

The opening cut and first single "Vertigo" grabs the listener with a muscular hook and harrowing pace as Bono belts out some cliches about "swinging to the music." Despite the inane lyrics, the song serves notice that U2 is back and ready to rock in a way they haven't since Rattle and Hum.

The 24 years that have passed since their debut album have done little to diminish Bono's ability to go from a whisper to a scream, nor has his ego receded. As usual, the album winds up with the man who has the biggest collection of ugly eyeglasses this side of Elton John talking directly to God on "Yahweh." After that, the closing track, the Indian raga-tinged "Fast Cars" seems like a bit of an afterthought.

The death of the singer-lyricist's father in 2001 has obviously sparked a bit of reflection as parental love pops up as a theme on several cuts, especially the best of the album's ballads, "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own."

Bono's high-profile political activism colors much of the material here as well. Bumper sticker-worthy lines such as "Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die" in the song "Crumbs from Your Table" are hardly ambiguous. That is not to say that the message interferes with the music--far from it. The call to arms "Love and Peace or Else" rides the top of a dangerous John Lee Hooker riff that makes it one of the strongest songs on the album.

The Edge has plenty of echoboxes and digital delays and isn't afraid to use them. He and longtime producer have layered rhythm guitar tracks that propel even the more pedestrian tunes like "City of Blinding Lights" forward.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is everything a U2 album should be: Grandiose, pompous, loud, dynamic and driving. It is about as subtle as a sledgehammer between the eyes, and nearly as effective.

Joni Mitchell
Warner, 2,520 yen

Dreamland supposedly marks Joni Mitchell's final retirement from what she has referred to as the "cesspool"--the modern music industry. The 17-track compilation showcases some of the best and worst of her eclectic four-decade career "stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song."

The best is very good indeed with jazzy gems like "Help Me," hits like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" and more recent orchestra-backed performances of her early folk classic "Both Side Now" and "For the Roses."

The worst comes in the form of the sweet-voiced songstress' ill-advised '80s duet with Billy Idol, "Dancin' Clown," though it is not wholly without merit, at least as a curiosity. Curiouser still are the sins of omission--no "River" or "Court and Spark" and nothing from the creatively brilliant commercial flop Mingus.

A good introduction to a complex and challenging body of work by a unique talent, but not much different in the choice of material from her Hits and Misses compilation of a few years ago

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The family that steals together, stays together
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Hot Plastic
By Peter Craig
Hyperion, 341 pp, 13.00 dollars

Fraudster, confidence artist, sharpie, flimflam man, grifter, hustler--call him what you want, but the clever guy who makes his living by pulling the wool over the eyes of his victims instead of pulling a gun on them has always been a popular cultural icon.
Never mind for a moment that the heroic thief of popular fiction, who robs exclusively from the rich and corrupt, bears little resemblance to the real crooks who line their pockets with the life savings of gullible seniors and struggling families. The guy who is able to cheat, lie, trick and fast-talk the hapless mark into handing over his cash is admired for getting something for nothing, using only his wits and a snappy line of patter.
Peter Craig's Hot Plastic shows us the evolution of fraud and credit card technology in the 1980s by following the growth of top-notch grifter from teenage tagalong to international pro, and also introduces a family of thieves whose sum is both greater and less than its parts.
Hot Plastic opens cinematically, with a man bleeding from a gunshot wound into a stolen coat in a stolen car being smuggled by his partner past the watchful eyes of the police, and proceeds in flashbacks tells us how he got there.
Kevin Swift starts out on the road with his father at age 12. His mother has just died and his dad is fresh out of prison. An obsessive kid with few social skills, Kevin has a number of personality tics, including a pathological need for rigid order in the matter of packing and unpacking suitcases and an insistence on eating nothing but pancakes and sliced oranges, that seem to be a reaction to the otherwise complete disorder of his life.
Kevin's father, Jerry, is a small-time crook traveling the United States pedaling fake credit cards with real numbers, running up huge charges on stolen card numbers and generally living off the land, stealing whatever he needs one way or another. At first, Jerry tries to keep his work a secret from Kevin, but by the time Kevin turns 15, the two are working partners. With Kevin laid low by the flu the day a major deal is to be made, Jerry is forced to hire a hooker to babysit. Colette isn't much older than Kevin and the boy develops a lasting crush on her even as she is falling for Jerry. The three start working together, with Colette teaching Kevin how to shoplift, a craft in which he eventually surpasses her--to the extent where he regularly steals the family groceries a cartload at a time.
After a few years, Colette falls out with Jerry over her ambition to move into more elaborate, lucrative and longer-term cons and he and Kevin settle down in Los Angeles with Jerry's new wife. Kevin, in school for the first time in half a dozen years, finds it a struggle, and eventually one of Jerry's scams blows up in his face, landing him in prison and leaving Kevin on his own.
A few years later, after his own brush with jail, Kevin flees to Europe with Colette. Eventually, the three are reunited for a final scam they hope will allow them to retire.
Each of the three main characters are drawn in detail with their unique voices and very real identities and motivations hidden beneath all their deceptions. The odd love triangle breeds divided loyalties and wholly believable conflicts that shape the fabric of the characters and story. Craig never cheats on plot details by pulling story elements out of thin air, but instead gradually, and with an enviable subtlety, develops his complex plot to its de rigueur, yet still surprising, shock ending.
Hot Plastic has all the Hollywood playfulness of The Sting compellingly combined with the dark grittiness of Jim Thompson's The Grifters.