Double Your Pleasure
Ambition Rides with Ryan Adams, System and the Eels

You know, Weezer notwithstanding, this is turning into a great year for new music.

Here’s what I mean. My favorite band in the world, the Choir, released their best album in 15 years last month. You would think it would be all I’d want to listen to, but I haven’t spun it in two weeks. I’ve had so much other great stuff occupying my player, all of which deserves consideration and praise in this column, that I haven’t found the time for re-listening to anything I’ve already reviewed.

To that end, this is my second column of this week. The other one goes on and on about Star Wars, and you can access it through the archive if you want to read it. I just can’t get any further behind the new stuff, especially considering the next few weeks will bring Audioslave, Girlyman, Coldplay, Dream Theater, the Levellers, the Foo Fighters and, as if all that weren’t enough, Eric Johnson’s first album in seven years. And, oh yeah, Billy Corgan, Michael Penn, Dredg, Fountains of Wayne, and on and on. So I can’t skip a week.

It’s especially important to me to pound this column out this week, since all three of the albums I’m reviewing are strong candidates for the top 10 list. I’ve seriously heard more great music in the past three weeks than I have in the previous four months. Here’s what I’m talking about:

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I dig double albums.

They make me wish I’d grown up in the age of vinyl. I love the idea of a record in chapters, two sides to each platter, requiring one to physically get up and flip it over. I love the idea of an artist planning his or her record with that in mind – a space between the first and second sides, a different tone, a final song on side one that hangs in the air and makes you want to hear side two. And double albums? Man, four sides. What could be better than that? Musical ideas so huge and rich that they need two whole records to hold them.

Of course, I know that a double album doesn’t mean an abundance of good ideas. If you suck, making a double record only means that you suck for twice as long. Still, I get a charge out of any artist deciding that the single-disc format is too small, that he/she has a story to tell that just needs the extra space. With the advent of compact discs, many of the double albums of old now fit onto a single CD, and in the case of something like Tommy or Zen Arcade or Tusk, I think that’s kind of a shame.

Naturally, the CD has given even more ambitious artists the ability to stretch out even farther. What would have taken three vinyl records back in the day now fits comfortably on two CDs, and what most people call double albums now are really triples. This only raises the stakes – does your concept really need two hours? Really? – and, of course, only excites me more when someone takes advantage of it. It takes a certain amount of hubris to say, “Here are my 30 tracks, take them or leave them, but I needed to release them all.” I love that kind of ambition and arrogance.

The format changes have certainly called into question the definition of a double album. Take, for instance, Ryan Adams, who is marketing his latest, Cold Roses, as a double. In the days of vinyl, he’d have been right – Roses is 76 minutes long, and would take up four sides. It would easily fit onto one CD, however, so his decision to release it on two has to be considered an aesthetic one. The choice becomes clear when you check out the packaging – he’s designed Roses as a miniature vinyl mockup, with cardboard sleeves and raised front and back cover artwork. Even the CD labels look like records.

If you’re expecting something that sounds like the ‘70s, well, you’d be right. Roses is credited to Adams and his band, the Cardinals, and it sounds like an old-time session, like a great rock band recorded live. It’s a nostalgia trip in more ways than one, since it represents Adams’ return to his Whiskeytown sound, all pedal steels and sweet melodies. After the crushing thud of Rock N Roll and the moody drift of Love is Hell, hearing Adams get back to the business of writing great country-rock songs again is invigorating.

And these are great songs, all 18 of them. Cold Roses is Adams’ first top-to-bottom excellent album since Gold, his most consistent solo effort, and rather than sounding like a retreat, it plays like a joyous homecoming. For the first time in years, his prodigious gift for melody never fails him. Just the opener, “Magnolia Mountain,” has more ideas in its five minutes than Rock N Roll and Demolition put together. The band is tight and emotional throughout, especially guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, who also harmonizes with Adams on most of the tracks. She’s not quite Caitlin Cary, but she adds an element that’s been missing since Whiskeytown broke up.

Unlike most double albums, which peter out by the fourth side, Cold Roses stays enthralling throughout. In fact, some of the loveliest songs, like “Blossom,” are at the record’s end, and its closer, “Friends,” is gorgeous. Adams cranks up the amps here and there, most notably on “Beautiful Sorta,” but for most of this album he spins one beautiful ballad after another, and his voice drips with feeling. This is absolutely the album his fans have been waiting for, whether they’ve been waiting since Gold, or Heartbreaker, or even Strangers Almanac.

Ever the prolific little bee, Adams plans two more albums this year, with the tentative titles of Jacksonville City Nights and 29. It’s entirely possible that his lack of quality control has shoved the awful stuff onto the latter two discs, and we can only wait and see. It’s a little scary, though, because Cold Roses has not one spotty moment. It’s his best work in a long time, and even if he louses it up with substandard work before Christmas, this album will still be among the best things you’ll hear this year.

But is it a double album? I’m not sure it qualifies in the digital age, but at least Adams didn’t split the discs over two separate releases. No, that’s the unfortunate tactic System of a Down has taken with their new records, Mezmerize and Hypnotize. Each is projected to run about 35 minutes, and both would fit onto one CD nicely, but they’ve split the tunes into two releases, one now and one in October, the better to get your money twice. If there’s an artistic reason for this, I won’t complain as much, but it feels kind of greedy, and considering the fierce political bent of this band, that’s surprising.

What’s not surprising, though, is that Mezmerize is terrific. (A quick aside: surely such a smart band knows that they misspelled “mesmerize,” right?) System is a heavy prog band, like the Mars Volta, but they never waste your time with 10-minute guitar solos or noise sculptures. Every System album starts with a bang, does the watusi all over your ass, and leaves without bothering to clean up. In a way, the brevity of Mezmerize works in its favor – it’s the fastest, most explosive, most head-spinning record this band has done. It hits like a bullet, and half an hour later, you’re on the floor, trying to catch your breath.

No disrespect to the rest of the band, but this is guitarist Daron Malakian’s album. He wrote pretty much all the music here, and it takes from such disparate sources as Frank Zappa, Slayer, Faith No More, the Clash and, in some of the vocal sections, even Brian Wilson, but it always sounds like System. Very few bands can be this heavy and still switch styles on a dime like System can, mixing in reggae on “Radio/Video” and new wave on “Lost in Hollywood,” and still hitting the old-school thrash on “Cigaro.” Musically, they have very few peers.

Still, the most potent weapon in their arsenal may be vocalist Serj Tankian. He has such complete control over so many different voices that if this rock thing doesn’t pan out, he could have a successful career voicing cartoons. Well, maybe evil cartoons. On Mezmerize he pulls out all the stops, ranting and barking and all-out screaming like a banshee on fire, but he also waxes melodic and subtle here and there. This album, unlike most metal records, is full of powerful, memorable melodies. If not for the last track, “Lost in Hollywood,” on which Malakian gets a case of Noel Gallagher Disease and takes the lead vocal, it would be the perfect System album.

The band’s liberal politics are in full force here, too. Lead single “B.Y.O.B.” (which stands for “Bring Your Own Bombs”) wonders why presidents don’t fight wars themselves instead of sending the poor, while “Cigaro” muses on the, ahem, masculine reasons for wars in the first place. “Violent Pornography” takes on the brainwashing of television, smacking down both the violent programming and the advertisements that support it. And “Sad Statue” imagines the statue of liberty wiping away tears, thinking about the current administration. “What is in us that turns a deaf ear to the cries of human suffering,” Tankian asks, and he has no answer.

While I do wish Mezmerize/Hypnotize had been released all at once, whether on one disc or two, this first installment has all but guaranteed that I will pony up the cash for part two. Yeah, they hooked me, but they did it by being a relentlessly original and fascinating band. They are the future of metal. If the members of Metallica can listen to Mezmerize and still think of themselves as in any way relevant, then they’re deluded.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to call either Mezmerize or Cold Roses a double album, since by the modern definition, they would fit on single discs. No, when I think double album these days, I’m thinking of a wildly ambitious work that can’t be contained to one CD. The trick, the challenge, is to maintain the quality over more than an hour and a half. If you can do that, then you’ve earned my respect. Precious few double album attempts these days manage a consistency of vision and craft. That’s what I’m looking for – the ability to match one’s ambition with skill and artisty.

And honestly, I never thought I’d find something like that from the Eels. There was always something about this band that I liked, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I bought Beautiful Freak on the strength of “Novocaine for the Soul,” but found the rest of the record lacking. I bought Eels mastermind Mark Everett’s solo records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop, and while they were pleasant, they didn’t do too much for me. But I did stick around for the next Eels record, and damn, am I glad I did.

Rarely has an artist come into his own as quickly and fully as E did on Electro-Shock Blues. A searing, quirky, heartfelt portrait of living with death, the album was recorded in the aftermath of Everett’s sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from cancer. The record was even more bizarre than its predecessor, and the whole thing had the feel of an autobiographical indie comic, sketchy and deeply moving. E hasn’t topped it since, although he’s made some corkers, especially Souljacker. The focus has been lacking, though, and some of the latter Everett records have felt a little tossed off.

Well, it turns out that E has been working behind the scenes for four years (!) on an album called Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, so in a way, everything since Daisies of the Galaxy has been a side project. That (ahem) revelation certainly raises expectation for the real deal, and it delivers. This is the ultimate Eels album, a return to the Electro-Shock Blues template, and a true double album – 33 heartbreaking songs in 93 minutes. It’s a beautiful homemade epic, just as rickety and grandiose as E’s best stuff always is, with no filler and a superb sense of flow.

Blinking Lights is a loosely arranged story of one man’s life, from birth through painful adolescence, through love and bitterness, and finally to hopeful old age, regrets and all. It is an album that only E could have made, so personal is the writing and so unorthodox is the sound. Everett crafts his magical lullabies with gently strummed acoustics, vintage keyboards, toned percussion and toy pianos, and yet somehow these simple little structures attain a grandeur that’s inexplicable. Blinking Lights is small and personal, yet sounds important and vast.

These are some of E’s best songs, too, especially the ballads, held together by his gruff, weary voice. They work on their own, but when placed in context, they achieve much more. Only E could write an affecting ballad called “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb,” and use the metaphor to comment on the ephemeral nature of life and time. That’s the kind of album this is – silly, yet deep and powerful. Like the best works, it takes you on a journey, and by the time E is contentedly sighing the sweet melody to “The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight,” you feel he’s earned this grace.

There are too many highlights here to mention, most of them simple little ditties that add to the overall picture. E has composed a theme for the album that appears throughout, further unifying the proceedings, and he makes room for cameos by Peter Buck and Tom Waits. But this is his show, and it’s his best since Electro-Shock. It’s not quite as surprising as that record was, and doesn’t pack the same punch, but Blinking Lights is a delightfully sad masterpiece. And like the best double albums, it wraps you up in its storytelling spell, and it’s over before you know it.

I’m not sure what Everett can do to top this. Blinking Lights is the culmination of his singular style, an emotionally naked pop utopia made of broken parts. For such an ambitious project, this album often feels like it would fall apart on contact, and it’s that dichotomy, that otherworldly sensibility, that gives E his charm and his magic. This is not just one of the best double albums of the past few years, but one of the best albums, period.

And with that, I’m off to see Star Wars again.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Sith Hits the Fans
And Star Wars is Complete

So. Star Wars is over.

I’ve just returned from the midnight showing of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. I’m going to refrain from making pompous pronouncements like “The circle is now complete,” or anything like that, even though that’s kind of how I’m feeling. My childhood is officially over – Star Wars was the last of the things I loved when I was six to finish up, and it’s fitting that George Lucas has ended this huge, grand experiment with the saga’s most adult installment. This time, shattered innocence was the point, and while I have issues with the film (like I have with all Star Wars movies), both my inner six-year-old and my outer 30-year-old are satisfied.

I find that I’m not interested in being a Lucas apologist this time out – if you need me to tell you that Star Wars is important, then nothing will convince you. This is a saga that reverberates in the hearts of its fans, to a degree that non-fans (and even casual fans) sometimes find bizarre. If you’re in on it, it’s huge, mythical even. If you’re not, it’s just another loud, flashy summer movie with bad dialogue and wooden acting. I can’t tell you why Star Wars means as much to me as it does.

And it must mean as much to a lot of people, because you can read gripe after gripe about how Lucas has raped the series with the last two films, and yet I guarantee you Revenge of the Sith will be the top movie in the country for the next couple of weeks. The theater I went to this morning showed Sith on five screens, and sold ‘em all out. People care about these movies, and many people (myself included) care enough to go see them again and again.

But just because I care and love these movies, doesn’t mean I think they’re great works of art. Star Wars is based on old adventure serials, like Flash Gordon, and is crafted in a very specific, iconic style. Inherent in that style is some cornball dialogue, some stiff acting, and some simplistic plotlines. Contrary to quite a lot of popular belief, the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI) doesn’t transcend that style, either. They’re all pretty consistent – straightforward, flashy, stilted, kind of silly, and kind of clunky. Even the most successful of the six, The Empire Strikes Back, knocks on the door of greatness and then runs away, more often than not.

But if you buy into them, and let yourself get carried away by them, they breathe magic in a way that no effects-laden blockbusters that have come in their wake do. I think buying into them requires seeing them when you’re young, when your wide-eyed imagination is still able to be influenced. These films have a mythical grandeur, a beautifully romantic sweep, and now that all six are in place, the full scope of Lucas’ hopeful vision is clear. Star Wars is an epic about a very small thing – a son redeeming his father. The massive scale is all metaphor.

Lucas has always been writing for the trade, as the comic book fans say. Many derided Episode I – The Phantom Menace for its innocence and cartoony humor, and they dissed Episode VI – Return of the Jedi for the same reason. But the innocence was the whole point. Of course the good stuff comes in between, when hope disappears, death is imminent and heroes are lost. Both the Gungans and the Ewoks are childhood triumphant, and the cross-galactic celebration that ends Jedi drives that home. It’s simple, yes, but it’s also effective myth-making.

The original trilogy was all about coming out of the dark, and so naturally the prequel trilogy has been all about going into that same darkness. Revenge of the Sith is the final link, the descent into hell that sets the stage for Episode IV – A New Hope. This is the deepest, darkest, most affecting chapter of the saga, or at least, it is if you want it to be. But more than any other Star Wars film, this one is for the fans, the ones who have been following all along and are invested in the fates of Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala and their offspring. For the fans, this one is deeply felt and moving, the fulfillment of the legacy.

For everyone else, though, here is the secret to enjoying Revenge of the Sith:

Don’t giggle.

Not even a little. This is such an earnest, corny, irony-free movie that you have to be swept up in it for it to work. There’s a lot of great stuff in Sith, but this time, the movie revolves around George Lucas’ dialogue the way none of the others (except maybe parts of Return of the Jedi) have. These characters say things like “You’re breaking my heart” and “You underestimate my power” and “Now we will finish this” seriously, and they mean them, and it means something when they say them, but if you’re not invested in this saga, Sith may be the most unintentionally funny flick you’ve ever seen.

Things that don’t quite work: Well, there’s the dialogue, particularly any scene in which Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala have to act like they’re hopelessly in love. There’s Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of the Emperor – he’s all slippery subtlety for the film’s first half, but when he takes on the familiar visage from Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling parody of evil. And then there’s Darth Vader’s first appearance, a moment so head-slappingly awful that even the diehards will laugh.

But the things that work, and there are many, bring this series to a close better than I could have hoped. The descent of Anakin, long theorized and imagined, is chillingly plausible, and the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi packs a surprising emotional punch. Ewan McGregor is terrific as Obi-Wan, and though even he cannot make some of these lines sing, his sense of loss and betrayal is the heart of this movie. Hayden Christensen throws himself into the role of Anakin, and many of his scenes are affecting.

The film is relentlessly dark, as it should be, but I was knocked out by the places Lucas allowed these characters to go. This is the first Star Wars film that really hurts, and even if you’re expecting it, there are moments that will sucker-punch you. Even Yoda, completely computer-generated here, conveys a deep sadness, and you can completely understand his exile to Dagobah and his reluctance to train Luke in Episode V.

Yes, this film is political, showing how freedom can disintegrate when safety is threatened. Yes, this movie is also probably the most beautiful, stunning, heart-stopping CGI display ever seen – nothing I have ever witnessed looks like this film, and in that sense it is Lucas’ crowning achievement. But all that would mean nothing if Sith did not bring closure to the six-movie Star Wars saga in a satisfying way, if Lucas failed to make this film with all his heart.

I think he pulled it off. I was worried after Episode I, and I found that after Episode II I was most concerned with whether Lucas would be able to transform Anakin into Vader. I was so concerned, in fact, that I completely missed the altogether more difficult trick he performed – with Sith, he transformed Vader into Anakin. He redefined the original trilogy – you’ll never watch it the same way again. The stark black and white, good and bad of the original films is now muddied and infinitely more complex.

No sequence in the original is as altered by the prequels as the ending of Return of the Jedi, in which Luke redeems his father. There’s a scene in Sith that mirrors this one exactly, and knowing Anakin’s journey adds layers upon layers to Vader’s blank stare. What is he thinking of? Well, now I think we know, and it wraps the whole saga together in ways I did not expect. Star Wars has never hit me emotionally the way it does now. Vader was pure evil without his backstory. Anakin Skywalker, however, is misguided, lost, and somehow still redeemable, and that makes him a much more interesting, albeit tragic, figure.

For the first time in his scrappy little adventure series, Lucas has engaged my brain as much as my heart. I’m amazed that I’m saying this, but Revenge of the Sith makes Return of the Jedi a better movie. It adds focus and clarity to the story – it’s not about a band of rebels bringing down an empire, it’s about a father and his son. In the end, Anakin does bring balance to the Force, and even if you’ve seen the original trilogy a hundred times, that moment will never hit you the way it will after Sith. It’s all different, it’s all complete.

As I said, I can’t explain what this saga means to me, or why. But I’m grateful to George Lucas for sticking by it, for doing it the way he wanted to do it, and for giving it heart. Star Wars has consumed Lucas for longer than I have been alive, and now that it’s done (barring the inevitable re-releases and endless tinkering), I can see why he dedicated so much to it. If you’re able to accept its faults and its shortcomings, Star Wars is a remarkably beautiful and human story. And if you’re not, well, don’t worry. Revenge of the Sith is a film for the faithful, for the ones who have been on this ride all along, and if the other movies haven’t done it for you, then this one won’t either.

As for me, my friends and I have had this geeky little plan for a long time now. When all six films are available on DVD, we’re going to rent a large-screen television and watch the whole thing, back to front. I was worried about it before, but now I can’t wait. The finished Star Wars is better than I ever imagined it would be, and experiencing it with my best friends in the world seems like a terrific way to cap off my childhood. It’s all over, but just as I’ve grown up with Star Wars, so Star Wars has grown up with me, and with this final piece in place, I know it is a story I will continue to treasure.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and may the Force be with you.