Minor Leagues
The Good, the Bad, and the Worse

I do have three albums to discuss this week, but first I’d like to ramble a bit about The Fountain, which is perhaps the most original and beautiful movie I’ve seen this year. The problem is, I can’t really talk about it without spoiling elements of the plot and theme, so if you haven’t seen this movie yet, please, please skip down to the first set of asterisks below. This is not a movie you want me to ruin for you.

All aboard who’s coming aboard? Okay then.

The Fountain is Darren Aronofsky’s third movie. That would have been enough right there to make me want to see it – his first two, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, are a pair of the most stylistically innovative lower-budget flicks this side of Eraserhead. (And they both make a hell of a lot more sense than David Lynch’s first opus does.) He is, no two ways about it, a great visual filmmaker.

Here’s what he cooked up for his third film. Hugh Jackman plays three guys named Tom, each separated by 500 years. Tomas is a conquistador in 16th Century Spain, Tommy is a research scientist in the present day, and Tom is a celestial traveler floating through space in a clear bubble half a hundred years from now. Each Tom is haunted by his devotion to a woman named Isabelle, played each time by Rachel Weisz. And of course, all three stories interconnect to tell a tale of love and death and rebirth.

But it’s the ways in which they interconnect, and the symbolic bridges between them, that make The Fountain a work of magic. I will try to summarize, but the web is tricky – I’ve seen the movie twice, and have plans to see it a third time, and I still feel like I have only the most tenuous grasp on it. But here goes: The modern-day Thomas is a geneticist trying to find a cure for brain cancer. He’s working around the clock, sacrificing all his spare time, because of his wife Izzi – she’s dying of a brain tumor, and Thomas is convinced he can cure her. And he finds a cure, but not in time.

Izzi, meanwhile, is writing a book called The Fountain, that’s about the 16th Century Tomas. In the book, Tomas is sent by Queen Isabella to look for the Tree of Life, so that she (and by extension, Spain) may live forever. The book is obviously a metaphor for how Izzi sees Thomas, crusading for her life, and yet Aronofsky never gives short shrift to this third of the story. Intercut with these stories are scenes of Tom, in his glass bubble, bringing a withered tree to a dying star in the hopes of reviving it. (The tree, not the star.)

And as the modern-day Thomas discovers a cure for aging (it has something to do with another tree in Guatemala), it becomes increasingly clear that the future Tom is the present-day Thomas, driven mad by Izzi’s death. He’s marked himself with tattooed rings for each year, like the inside of a tree, and when we see present-day Thomas making the first of those rings, the moment is astonishing. It is then that the juxtaposition becomes heartbreaking – he is unable to accept Izzi’s passing, even as she herself embraces it, and he spends the next 500 years trying to outdo, to “cure” death.

There’s a lot more – I haven’t even mentioned Izzi’s final request to Thomas, one which resonates through the years with multiple meanings. The Fountain is a head-scratcher, a deftly edited and sharply written puzzle, and if that were all it accomplished, it would still be worth seeing. But it goes far beyond that. This is a deeply felt film, an outpouring of grief and pain that reaches for transcendence, and actually gets there. If you’ve ever lost someone and tried with all your might to hold on to them, this film will speak to you, and move you.

Many, many people hate this movie. It’s the risk filmmakers like Aronofsky run when they put themselves out there like this. The Fountain doesn’t hide its big ideas, but more importantly, it doesn’t disguise its emotional core with irony or clever wordplay. The film is unfailingly earnest, which makes it easy to ridicule. It’s an audacious, risky movie with a big, wide heart and a depth you won’t find too often at the local multiplex. I would rather watch a daring, thoughtful filmmaker like Aronofsky fall on his face, which he most certainly has not here, than sit through a hundred cookie-cutter, big-budget action orgies.

Speaking of the budget, one of the amazing things about The Fountain is the saga of its creation. The movie itself had its own death and rebirth – its original incarnation as a big-money star vehicle for Brad Pitt was canned when Pitt pulled out, and Aronofsky transformed his film into a leaner, more direct work for Jackman. The visual effects are incredible, given that they were made with water and a microscope, and cost a grand total of $140,000. I would take these effects shots over the digital, soulless wonders Aronofsky likely would have wound up with had the original plan not fallen through.

And how this movie would have worked with Pitt is beyond me. Jackman is perfect in all of his roles here – it is, bar none, the best performance I have seen him give. The movie is him, he’s in virtually every scene, and he delivers Thomas’ grief-stricken determination and Tom’s pain and release beautifully. In a movie that easily could have been confusing and cold, Jackman brings the soul, and connects you instantly and completely to his character(s).

In short, everything seemed to work out perfectly – The Fountain plays like it was always meant to be like this, and unquestionably heralds the return of a gifted and fearless writer/director. It’s a movie that’s easy to stand back and laugh at, because it stands naked and defenseless and invites you to shed your own ironic armor and go deeper with it. If you’re willing to do that, it’s a powerful film, but if you’re not, it’s a load of pretentious hooey. There is no middle of the road here.

I was willing, twice now, and I’m very glad I was. The Fountain touched me like no other movie this year, and it is an example of my favorite kind of art – the kind that exists because its creators simply had no choice but to make it reality. It is a passionate, powerfully imagined and deeply personal movie, and I hope the day never comes when I stop seeking out and loving films like this one.

Thanks, Darren. Welcome back. Now get to work on the next one!

* * * * *

The Good.

When you think about it, Spock’s Beard is a really silly name for a band.

I wonder if the band members ever considered changing it. They had the perfect opportunity three years ago, when founding member, lead singer and chief songwriter Neal Morse left for a solo career. But drummer Nick D’Virgilio (still one of the finest multi-instrumentalists I’ve ever seen live) took over on lead vocals, and the Beard pressed on. And if any questions remained about keeping the name, they seem to have disappeared – their just-released ninth album is self-titled, which seems to signify the cementing of the new lineup.

Despite the goofy name, which they took from an episode of the classic Star Trek series, Spock’s Beard plays intricate, crunchy, melodic progressive rock with a brain. Neal Morse’s songs and lyrics were little masters’ classes on how to write prog without slipping into bombast or self-indulgence – even his 25-minute epics had choruses and soaring melodies. Without him, the Beard has struggled to maintain the same level of quality – 2003’s Feel Euphoria wasn’t much to write home about, and 2005’s Octane was better, but still chock full of average rock songs.

What a surprise, then, to hear “On a Perfect Day,” the opening shot from this new album. It’s nearly perfect – it starts with a classic prog riff on guitar and organ, moves into a memorable chorus, makes room for keyboard and guitar solos, and even contains an acoustic guitar duet in the middle, the kind Yes used to do. D’Virgilio’s voice is clear and captivating throughout, his drum work is awesome as usual, and the rest of the band really locks into a groove. It is the best song they have done since Morse left.

And the album it kicks off is self-titled for a reason – this is the definitive disc from Spock’s Beard 2.0. Gone is the tentative nature of the previous two releases, and here at last is a comfortable, energized record from these guys, one that doesn’t sound as if they lost a limb when Morse quit. At right around 77 minutes, it’s a monster of a record, but none of these tracks sound like filler to me. The Beard tries out a multitude of styles, from classic ‘70s prog to straight-ahead rock to jazz fusion to orchestral grandeur, and each one fits.

“On a Perfect Day” leads into “Skeletons at the Feast,” a furious instrumental that shows off just how good these guys are. But lest you think it’s all chops and wankery, check out “All That’s Left,” a deceptively smooth 6/8 ballad with a great chorus. Just from the title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “With Your Kiss” is a romantic number, instead of the nearly 12-minute psychodrama it is. (The title phrase is used thusly: “Seal my fate with your kiss.”) The band nimbly shifts from blues (“Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go”) to stately prog (“The Slow Crash Landing Man”) to lovely piano pop (“Hereafter”).

But the biggest surprise is the album’s “epic,” “As Far as the Mind Can See.” Neal Morse wrote one of these massive multi-part suites per album when he led the band, and D’Virgilio, I think, has felt obligated to follow suit. His first couple, though, were weak affairs, stitched together because the fans expected a 20-minute song, when he is most comfortable writing five-minute tunes. He was out of his element, and it was obvious.

But “As Far as the Mind Can See” is terrific, a 17-minute, four-part opus that feels organically grown. The Beard stretches its sound here, with the jazzy feel of the second movement (“Here’s a Man”) and the brass sections and choirs of the third (“They Know We Know”). The shifts between movements are natural, the theme is clearly thought through, and the reprise at the end is perfectly executed. It’s the first time that the D’Virgilio Spock’s Beard has shown, without a doubt, that they can carry on with Neal Morse’s traditions while expressing their own new identity.

And in a way, that brings us back to the name. Like it or not, the Spock’s Beard name carries with it a history and a standard for a passionate group of fans, and this is the first time that the new lineup has proven worthy of it, so to speak. After a pair of half-steps, this is the one that deserves to be self-titled, the one that proclaims loudly and proudly, “We are Spock’s Beard.” Hopefully it’s the start of good things to come from the band – for the first time since Morse left, I’m looking forward to many years of new Beard music.

* * * * *

The Bad.

I am late to the Copeland party. I first heard them last year, picking up their second album In Motion on the strength of “Pin Your Wings.” But I was sold when I heard their awesome cover of Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again,” on their Know Nothing Stays the Same EP. Aaron Marsh possesses a voice of remarkable clarity and agility, and his band plays sweet piano-fueled melancholy rock. Their work is nothing extraordinary, but it’s well-made and worth hearing.

Even so, I was excited to hear their new album, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, because the more I listened to In Motion, the more it seemed just a few nudges in the right direction shy of being great. Too bad, then, that Repeat actually stumbles backwards, smoothing off all the bite of the band’s past work and settling for bland and boring songwriting. Sonically, it is the band’s most accomplished effort, but all the polish can’t disguise the fact that Marsh fell down on the job this time, turning out very few memorable songs and saddling the ones he did dream up with cripplingly bad lyrics.

Now, I admit it – I may be feeling some residual anger over the botched packaging. Eat, Sleep, Repeat comes in one of the most annoying cardboard sleeves I’ve ever seen. It has this die-cut foldover flap that, when you buy it in the store, is affixed to the rest by a semi-adhesive rubber cement-like substance. Remove that, and the flap never stays down. It’s like a perpetual pop-up book. The liner notes are affixed to absolutely nothing, and flop out of the package constantly. The artwork by James Douglas Adams is beautiful, and frankly deserves a better package than this.

So some of that resentment may be bleeding over into my thoughts about the music, but the record itself deserves its own criticism. There are only three songs that rise above the mediocrity to deliver memorable melodies, and they’re all in a row. To get to them, you have to listen to Copeland take on a newfound Radiohead influence – the guitars on the title track are so Jonny Greenwood, and so 1997. The band strikes gold with “Control Freak,” but Marsh turns what could have been a delightful song into a silly one with his repeated refrain of “you’re freaking me out.”

“Careful Now” is almost a complete success, and so is “Love Affair,” with its gentle piano chorus and its Burt Bacharach finale. But after that, the album completely loses its way. “I’m Safer in an Airplane” sounds like a winner from the title, but the electric piano and beat box ditty just lays there. “Cover What You Can” is a formless interlude that floats by without making much impression, and “The Last Time He Saw Dorie” is barely audible, so restrained is every element of it. As much as I like string sections, the arrangement here just makes it worse.

“I’m a Sucker for a Kind Word” sounds like it’s getting back on track, with its sky-high chorus, but then the finale, “When You Thought You’d Never Stand Out,” retreats back into the murk. It’s obviously supposed to be some kind of epic, but it floats away and out of my memory seconds after it’s done. I know I’m being harsh – Eat, Sleep, Repeat is not horrible, just boring, which is almost worse coming from a band that had such spark just last year. There’s still no way to dislike Aaron Marsh’s voice, but the songs he lends it to here are wispy, forgettable things, and I know he can do better.

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The Worse.

No, for something that moves beyond boring into the truly godawful, you need to hear the new Damien Rice.

Actually, scratch that. It sounds too much like a recommendation, like it’s the bit Rice’s website will excerpt in its quotes section: “‘You need to hear the new Damien Rice!’ says Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.” And the truth is that no one needs to hear the new Damien Rice. Absolutely no one.

I first discovered Rice the way most everyone did, through the movie Closer, which prominently featured his “The Blower’s Daughter.” I bought O, his oddly titled debut, and liked quite a bit of it. It was typical singer-songwriter stuff for most of it, but elegantly played, and accented with sweet strings. I also liked how the songs segued into one another, as if you were listening to one uninterrupted performance, even though by the ridiculous “Eskimo” the record could have used an interruption.

But on 9, his similarly oddly-titled sophomore album, Rice has amplified all the worst aspects of his first record, and diminished all the little things I liked. And I honestly don’t think it’s down to personal taste. The songs on 9 are just worse, ranging from boring to excrementally awful. The strings are louder and gloopier, but the skeletons are so threadbare and amateur that the orchestrations just sound like smokescreens. The focus is on performance, not songwriting, and Rice puts his all into these shitty little songs, but they’re still shitty.

“The Animals Were Gone” is actually one of the better ones, with thunderous strings sticking to the exposed ribs of the song. But since the focus is on Rice’s voice and lyrics, there’s no excuse for this: “At night I dream without you, and hope I don’t wake up, ‘cause waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup…”

That’s nothing next to “Elephant,” a small eternity of a crescendo that doubles as one of the silliest sex songs ever. It starts like “The Blower’s Daughter,” with Rice’s close-miked vocals picking up the guitar strum from what seems like far away. Over an endless six minutes, Rice caterwauls as more and more instruments find their way into the mix.

“You can keep me pinned ‘cause it’s easier to tease, but you can’t paint an elephant quite as good as she,” he wails, everything building up and up to a massive crashing wave of sound. And the song climaxes (no pun intended) with the line “I am lately horny,” sung as if Rice is imparting the secret of life. And it ends with a veiled masturbation reference – “You can’t make me happy quite as good as me,” Rice coos in his wispy falsetto, as if it’s the cleverest line in all of popular music.

Seriously. It’s terrible.

“Rootless Tree” sounds like it will be better, until Rice gets to his “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” chorus. I liked this song a whole lot better when it was called “Untouchable Face,” from Ani DiFranco’s Dilate in 1996. By the end, I swore that if he said “let me out” one more time, I would set him on fire. “Dogs” has the temerity to rhyme “girl that does yoga” with “when we come over,” and sadly nothing else about it is remotely memorable. Similarly, “Coconut Skins” is only notable for its exhortation to “sit on chimneys and put some fire up your ass.”

But if you really want to sit through a small eternity, put on “Me, My Yoke and I,” another great title ruined by a crappy song. It is six minutes of the same riff and half-assed melody, over and over, which Rice obviously thinks is rocking. “I’m mad, I’m mad, I’m mad like a big dog,” Rice screeches, before announcing “my god, my god, my god gave me a rod” in his best metal voice. If he didn’t actually enlist a six-year-old to write this thing for him, then he should have his ASCAP card taken away.

It’s not even worth discussing the rest of the record, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t get any better. When it’s not badly aping Duncan Sheik aping Nick Drake, it’s limping forward on overused chords and childish lyrics. The album’s barely an hour, not counting the useless bonus stuff after “Sleep Don’t Weep” ends, but it feels like six, like watching the crushingly slow Meet Joe Black twice. It’s a mess, and sophomore slump doesn’t even begin to cover it. Sophomore stinkbomb, maybe.

But worse, 9 proves that Damien Rice is a truly overrated and meager talent, and of the worst kind, too – one who thinks he’s producing brilliant, moving work. Some may find something to like and admire amongst the simplistic and interminable dross here, but I’m all done. I’ll stick with the other guy named Rice, the one who earned a spot in my top 10 list this year, despite having no budget and even less fame to work with. Talent comes through, and on Damien Rice’s 9, it’s sadly absent.

* * * * *

Next week, no Zappa, I’ve been told, so I’m going to delve into some records that, just by their very nature, can’t compete for my top 10 list. Then, Christmas music on the 13th, the top 10 list on the 20th, and the return of Fifty Second Week on the 27th. And that will do it for year six.

See you in line Tuesday morning.