Thursday, August 25, 2016

U2 - iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris [Blu-ray review]

Released on June 10th on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital media

U2’s November 14th Paris show last year at the Accorhotels Arena was to have been broadcast on HBO later the same day. The Paris terrorist attacks on the 13th lead to a postponement of the event, which was rescheduled for December 7th. iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris documents that makeup show, which marked the closing date of the band’s tour in support of their Songs Of Innocence album.

With their 40th anniversary approaching next month, U2 continue to push the envelope and shake off complacency. Their previous 360° Tour stands as the highest-grossing tour of all time, filling stadiums and delivering an impressive production featuring a mammoth claw-like stage and no shortage of technological might. This time around, the group downsized to arenas, while delivering an even more impressive technological spectacle by using a 100 foot long double-sided LED screen that hung from the arena ceiling and could be lowered and raised. Suspended above a 118 foot long walkway joining the main stage and a smaller stage on the other end of the arena floor, U2’s staging on this outing seeks to make their concert experience an even more inclusive event for fans. At various points, they play on both stages, the walkway, and even inside the video screen. Accompanying all of this was a new state-of-the-art PA system that strived to dramatically improve the sound of the shows for their audience.

The Paris attacks are employed as a secondary theme for the concert by U2 frontman Bono, as one would expect from the outspoken singer. Several references to it are made throughout the show in an effort to provide a small dose of healing and musical distraction to the sold-out crowd, which was undoubtedly still deeply shaken from the horrible events a few weeks prior. Not that I can compare my numbness following the events of 9/11 with what Parisians were feeling, but I can attest to the benefits of a powerful and emotional rock show in difficult times, having seen U2 in Hamilton, Ontario a few weeks after 9/11. It still ranks as the best concert I’ve seen. The main theme used for this tour (and the heavily autobiographical Songs Of Innocence) finds U2 uncharacteristically looking back to their formative years. This is a band, after all, that typically has an aversion to nostalgia.

The strong material on Songs Of Innocence was unfortunately overshadowed by the overblown outrage that accompanied the album’s unconventional free release strategy via Apple. Along with one-off 2014 single “Invisible”, six tracks are pulled from it here, with all of them fitting in nicely amongst the band’s classic material. While “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is decent enough, it’s probably one of Songs Of Innocence’s relatively weaker tracks and a risky choice as a show opener, but the audience participation aspect of it makes it work. A five song segment early in the show returns the band to its Dublin roots to great effect, as their centrepiece video screen earns its (undoubtedly pricey) keep. Bono sings “Iris (Hold Me Close)” (about his mother, who died when he was 14) as home movies of her fill the video screen, while “Song For Someone” makes great use of animations acted out by Bono’s teenage son portraying his father in his childhood home. During “Cedarwood Road”, Bono enters the screen and amazingly inserts himself into animations depicting the street he grew up on. “Raised By Wolves” and the older “Sunday Bloody Sunday” address the Northern Ireland conflict. I must admit that while the staging of the latter song was effective (all four band members perform it on the walkway), the stripped down arrangement of it was probably the weakest live version I’ve heard of one of their classic songs.

The always-rousing “Until The End Of The World” cleverly features a giant-sized Bono (in terms of how he’s used on the video screen, not his actual weight) interacting with guitarist the Edge, who’s playing inside the screen. That leads into a brief intermission, where all four band members (including bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.) ares shown going through wardrobe changes inside the screen behind an arena-length recreation of the Berlin Wall as a pre-recorded remix version of “The Fly” plays behind Bono’s live vocals. This behind-the-scenes segment (fly on the wall moment?) is one of the coolest parts of the show and wasn’t seen on the HBO broadcast. I particularly loved the part where Clayton gives a little wink to the camera before taking his place for the next song, “Invisible” (one of the better performances of the show).

There are so many other great moments during the two-and-a-half hour show worthy of mentioning. These include “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and an unbelievable five song stretch of music that begins with subdued piano and vocal performances of “Every Breaking Wave” and “October”, followed by one of the best live versions of “Bullet The Blue Sky” I’ve ever heard, followed by “Zooropa”, which then beautifully dissolves into “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Rounding out the setlist are faithful and well-performed versions of U2 concerts staples like “Beautiful Day”, “Vertigo”, “One”, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”, “Bad”, “With Or Without You”, and “I Will Follow”.

The show ends with an appearance by Eagles of Death Metal, making their first return to a stage since their Paris show was cut short by one of the terrorist attacks that left 89 audience members dead and many more injured. While it’s a noble gesture on U2’s part and nice to see the American act retake the stage after such a horrific experience, I can’t stand the Eagles of Death Metal’s music or their lead singer Jesse Hughes and his extreme right-wing views. Their appearance here certainly hasn’t swayed my thinking. Following an overlong version of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” with the members of U2, Eagles of Death Metal close the show by themselves with their terrible “I Love You All The Time”, featuring some truly awful dance moves from Hughes. Basically, their appearance at the show left me feeling rather off-balanced. The euphoria of watching such a great show clashed with my dislike for the band, which in turn clashed with the heartwarming nature and importance of them returning to a concert stage.      

iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris reinforces U2’s status as a live rock act that’s second to none. Once again, they combine memorable visuals, technological might, and a stellar collection of classic and new material to produce what I’ll simply call the best live music home video release I’ve ever watched. Even if fans have seen the version aired on HBO, the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris Blu-ray is well worth picking up. Along with some worthwhile extras, the cut of the show on it is an improvement, albeit a little too “cleaned up” in some spots. On the original HBO airing, there’s a funny moment during “Bad” where Bono struggles a bit to both affix a French flag from the crowd to the bass drum and get it displayed with the colours on the correct side. This causes the perpetually stone-faced Mullen Jr. to crack a smile, making for a nice, genuine moment. Almost none of that shows up in the Blu-ray cut. One additional observation I made is that while they could have overused the video screen, its frequency of use and the ways that the band and show designer Willie Williams choose to use it during the well-paced concert felt just right. 

I’ve seen six different U2 tours totalling nine shows and I’d rate the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour as their best yet – and I missed seeing the tour. The Blu-ray makes the show appear to be that good. Between the Blu-ray and the original HBO airing, I’ve watched the show about 10 times already. Every time I view it, there’s another off-balanced, mixed-feelings experience of complete enjoyment at how good the show is and feeling absolutely gutted that my general admission ticket for their July 2015 Toronto show was never used due to a last minute illness that prevented me from attending.

Blu-ray extras: a mostly worthwhile collection of extras totalling 90 minutes adds to the Blu-ray’s must-have status for U2 fans. Excellent performances of “Out Of Control”, “Bad”, and “People Have The Power” (with Patti Smith) from the December 6th Paris show and “The Electric Co.” from their November 11th Paris show make up the live outtakes. “Cedarwood Road” finds Bono’s childhood friend Gavin Friday delivering narration over the same type of animation used during the live performance of the song. A couple of short films (with one starring Woody Harrelson) based on a couple of tracks from Songs Of Innocence really aren’t very interesting. A video of the Zooropa album’s “The Wanderer” is, however, as a creepy computer-generated Johnny Cash accompanies his vocals on the song. A bunch of standard promo music videos for the Oscar-nominated “Ordinary Love”, “Invisible”, and Songs Of Innocence’s singles are included, with “Song For Someone” and “The Troubles” (featuring co-vocals from Swedish singer Lykke Li) standing out as the best. There’s only a very short behind-the-scenes look at the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour staging, which is a real missed opportunity to give some meaningful insight into such an impressive production.  

Rating: A+

Related posts: my September 2009 two part review (part 1/part 2) of U2’s September 16, 2009 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, June 2010 review of the U2 360° At The Rose Bowl Blu-ray, July 2011 review of U2’s July 11, 2014 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, October 2011 review of U2’s From The Sky Down documentary, and February 2014 review of U2’s “Invisible” single 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Garbage – Strange Little Birds [album review]

Released on June 10th

The normally reliable Garbage turn in their most disappointing effort yet on Strange Little Birds, their newest release. Studio album number six contains all the Garbage hallmarks that fans have come to expect over the band’s 20+ year career. There’s dense production, pop melodies, industrial and electronic textures, crisp guitars, and lead singer Shirley Manson’s vocal swagger that clashes with her depressing lyrical themes that time and time again return to her struggles with self-confidence.

As a longtime Garbage fan, I hate to admit that it’s started to get downright uncomfortable to continually endure Manson’s autobiographical lyrical pain. Take this snippet from “Magnetized” for example: “You bring your light, I’ll bring the pain/You bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame”. On the surface, how someone with her amazing talent, success, and looks still can’t seem to get past her perceived deficiencies seems like a mystery. Fans would be well-served to watch this fascinating recent interview she did on the CBC’s Q radio program for some illuminating insight. Manson’s angst is complemented by Strange Little Birds’ predominantly dark musical tone (the band is rounded out by producer/drummer Butch Vig and multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker). It’s easily their most brooding album yet, which is saying something for a band who don’t exactly go light on the gloomy material.

The moody opening track “Sometimes” sets the appropriate tone for such a cheerless album, but it feels meandering and undercooked. The airy “If I Lost You”, the slow-building “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”, and “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” left the same impressions. The excellent “So We Can Stay Alive” and “Amends” (another slow-builder) resonated much deeper. Their fuzzed-out basslines and buzzsaw guitars really make the tracks stand out with their aggressive sound and laser focus. They may be in shorter supply on this outing, but there are a couple of tracks slathered in a highly melodic pop sheen, a style which Garbage has done so well in the past. “Magnetized” and “We Never Tell” are solid, but aren’t exactly in the same league as previous Garbage songs cut from the same cloth, such as “When I Grow Up” or “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)”. Resting somewhere between the light and dark (in terms of musical tone) are first single “Empty” and “Blackout”, where Manson shares her opinion of today’s pop music (“Try not to think, be cool, be calm, be fake/Dumb yourself down, numb yourself out/Fake it till you make it”). Once again, the songs are nothing more than average and rather unmemorable.

Five out of six great studio albums is a batting average most bands would kill for, so there’s no shame in the alt-rock veterans finally releasing a generally weak collection of songs. Garbage’s stellar track record is precisely what kept me repeatedly listening to Strange Little Birds at least a dozen times, hoping for that spark of engagement I’ve come to expect while listening to one of their new albums. Not this time.

Rating: C

Related posts: my June 2012 review of Garbage’s May 28, 2012 Toronto concert and my August 2012 review of their Not Your Kind Of People album