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entertainment

07.03 The Jayhawks new release: Rainy Day Music

Rainy Day just always gets you down

Country music. Who even knows what it is anymore. And there are the country radio stations. They play the clichéd stuff that we expect them to play. Lost the dog, lost the woman, lost the pick-up, lost something else. That’s country music. And then there are the big names: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. Names bigger than the men themselves could ever be in real life. But they are not part of the country music cliché. Their music does not require a twang, a slide guitar, or a good ole’ boy lifestyle. Everybody knows and can respect these musicians. In one way, they play for an entire country, and in another way, they are just plain good country musicians.

Let’s look beyond the classics to country music, 21st century. For those who like labels, we’re talking about “alt-country”. A new breed of “country” musicians have taken the stage, drawing on roots country, contemporary country, rock and roll, and the radio friendly alternative music that was normalized on the radio of the 1990s. Contemporary country and rock and roll are both derivative of roots country. And alt-rock draws from rock and roll, right? So, alt-country is just another combination of musical trends in other words? That’s right. There is nothing especially new about alt-country — except the return (or at least the possibility or a return) to a less fragmented audience. Everybody can find something likable about alt-country.

Which brings us to the latest alt-country it-boys: the Jayhawks. The Minneapolis band, who have been together for nearly two decades, shoot down the middle with Rainy Day Music, their latest release. Coming from the American and Lost Highway labels, RDM was destined to be an attention-grabbing country record. The Jayhawks’ label mates include Johnny Cash and the alt-country figurehead, Ryan Adams.

Since the release comes from a music factory you would expect it to have a certain predictability. Almost all of the fourteen songs are about either being lost or about a girl. Sometimes it’s about a girl being lost. You can only wonder when just about every song ever written is about one of these two things.

The opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” regardless of its subject, is melodic enough to tell the listener that these guys are good. The thematic simplicity is matched by the insightful nature of the Jayhawks’ music. Every guitar string is comfortable, and every harmony is smooth to the ear.

But by the second track, the music is already getting a little tiresome. “Tailspin” features the refrain: “You’re in a tailspin, running out of your head,” a traumatizing eight times. This happens elsewhere on the album as well. Head-bobbing simplicity lends to head-splitting redundancy. By the end of some songs on the album, like “Save It For A Rainy Day” and “Come To The River,” you are a ready to get a pen and paper and write your own lyrics to these songs. Anything would be better than the same thing over and over again.

RDM trudges on with the constant refrain of likable, effortless songs that still frustrate with superfluous moments. Songs like “All The Right Reasons” and “Tampa to Tulsa” do shine. But you wonder if their luster is only because they are next to songs that just do not seem to live up to their potential.

The opening track is reprised at the close of the album, reminding you of those good times during Rainy Day Music’s up-and-down, fifty minute running time. The Jayhawks have managed to put together some beautiful songs. But too often, it is the same old song. To be sure, the album is worth keeping around for that rainy day when you want something easy and cozy. Otherwise, it is just a part of an alt-country, mini-genre that never really says anything new.

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entertainment

07.03 Crawling on Park Ave.

From end to end, Worcester’s Park Avenue offers night-time fun

Park Avenue in Worcester is hot for nighttime activities. Chances are you have been to a bar, club, or pub there. It’s a great neighborhood for a bar crawl. Everything is in walking distance, and you can sometimes avoid the inevitable cover charges that hit you on other Worcester streets.

The closeness of just about every single college in the city to Park Avenue is another plus. The average taxi ride to or from Park Ave., regardless of what school you go to, is a mere six dollars. From Assumption, it’s just a straight shot through Newton Square. From WPI it is a quick left from Salisbury Street. Holy Crossers just have to drive off May Street and there they are.

Below is a list to hit — going from the Webster Square end towards the center of the city — for your own Park Avenue crawl.

FooBar, 433 Park Ave., (508) 797-5622: The FooBar is a great dual personality bar. On crowded nights (Thursday-Saturday), the Foo is a sea of people. One room features a Cheers-style bar that occupies 85% of the area. The second room is spacious for the dancers of the night who enjoy R&B and Top 40 tunes and can take advantage of a small bar set in the back. In short, the journey to these bars is an adventure on a packed night. Quieter nights at the FooBar have an entirely different vibe. Once you’re able to see the walls, you notice Rothko prints and take advantage of comfortable spaces where you can pull up a chair and watch your favorite sporting event on a wide-screen TV. The FooBar also offers private party and function services.

Mahoney’s Pub, 413 Park Ave., (508) 755-8876: The door at Mahoney’s has a picture of a horse drinking a beer above it. This is the kind of bar that offers the kind of relaxed joviality that said horse must have been feeling soon after his drink. Casual and with plenty of places to sit, Mahoney’s is great for an after work beverage or post-softball-volleyball-any ball revelry. Mondays and Tuesdays feature free tasty buffalo wings.

Cactus Pete’s Steak House, 400 Park Ave., (508) 752-3038: Park Ave’s resident steakhouse restaurant is also a good nightspot. The ten-cent wings on Monday nights are a bonus. Being adjacent to the restaurant dining area, the bar is more on the tame side than your classic idea of a saloon, but often offers an interesting crowd none the less. It’s not an Irish Pub and it’s not a dance club, so it gives you a bit of relaxation in the often high-energy world of a night out. Things do close down a little earlier at Cactus Pete’s than at other bars (sometime around midnight), so showing up fashionably late is not the best idea. Better to show up early and chow down on Cactus Pete’s ribs or wings before heading out for the rest of your Park Ave. crawl.

Club 371, 371 Park Ave.: This is the spot where Worcester’s original discoteque was born. Club 371 offers a large dance floor, a light show, five pool tables and more. Top DJ’s are spinning here most nights for the 21-plus crowd.

Ho Toy Luau Restaurant, 401 Park Ave., (508) 754-4929: People love the bars in Chinese food restaurants because of the ever-popular Scorpion Bowls. The Ho Toy on Park is no exception. The kitchen is open late: 1 a.m., Sunday through Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. The Ho Toy is also good for its pre-game possibilities, where you can fortify yourself with a Scorpion Bowl and some soul-satisfying Chinese food to start the night and head either way down the street to continue your festivities.

Doherty’s Pub: The newest of Park Ave’s pubs, Doherty’s has been able to expand upon its blatant sports bar feel and attract a more diverse crowd. In other words, although the pub is ideal for watching the game on its beautiful televisions, there are more than drunk Red Sox fans crying in their beers there. Extremely casual, Doherty’s is another one of those places perfect for a night out, but not out of control.

Leitrim’s Pub, 265 Park Ave., (508) 752-0502: The atmosphere and prices at Leitrim’s, which has been voted Worcester’s “best college bar” lots of times in Worcester Magazine’s annual “Best of Worcester” Readers Poll, make it a place where you can’t go wrong. You can dance if you want to dance. Hang around if you want to hang around. Just about anything goes her. Leitrim’s is a bar for a long night out, or just a single drink to chill out. You are sure to see somebody you know. With cheap beers on tap, Thursday college nights, live entertainment on Fridays and Saturday nights, this pub style is one of Worcester’s best – and most popular.

On The Rocks, 258 Park Ave., (508) 754-2523: This is a classy joint that you might miss if you drive down the street too fast. Cruise into On The Rocks, though. It has a bit more of a lounge atmosphere than most of Park Ave.’s other establishments. The ambiance is a little dark and mysterious, where you can toss your most sophisticated look across the bar at the object of your affection. OTR is a good place for those who like comfortable, more upscale clubs, as opposed to loud pub-style bars.

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entertainment

05.03 Radiohead “Hail to the thief!”

Oh hail to the thief!
Oh hail to the thief! / But I’m not!
But I’m not!”

Well that about sums it up. Thieves, all of them: Coldplay, Travis, Idlewild, Interpol.

They all put out a sound that Radiohead gave us with The Bends and OK Computer. Now, with Radiohead’s sixth studio release, Hail to the Thief , all of those listenable, robber bands look like a bunch of chumps.

The Oxford quintet’s last two albums — Kid A and Amnesiac — were on the “quirky” side of things. Kid A was such an effort out of the unknown that it even spawned the phrase, “They’re pulling a Kid A,” to describe any band that decides to dabble on the experimental side of music. With HTTT, we see Radiohead somewhat return to form.

The opening track, “2 + 2 = 5,” throws the listener the arpeggio guitars and maxed-out climax that Radiohead made a norm for most music to come out of England for the subsequent five years. You should think of it as a taking back. It’s immediately reminiscent of the band’s greatest moments, yet hauntingly better and groundbreaking in some indefinable way.

The X-factor, like always, is lead singer Thom Yorke’s voice. It’s arguably the best voice in popular music today, because of its ability move from the spoken rant to the Herculean falsetto without effort. And it’s gotten better.

Just on that first track when Yorke starts high and ends low with the quote that started this review, you know that Radiohead is back — back from over indulgence in creative quirkiness; back from hating that commercial machine that they have to depend on to get their music out. Ironically, Parlaphone and Capitol Records probably can’t wipe their watering mouths fast enough with the release of this album.

The first single off the album “There, There,” follows a down-the-middle song formula that demands radio play. It opens with an infectious drumbeat and even includes a distinguishable guitar solo. This is not to say that Radiohead has made concessions in its creative wanderings. Rather, they have been able to stay focused on making a set of pop songs that they could live with — all in the relative sense of course — we’re not talking Justin Timberlake pop here (although rumor is, he’s a big fan).

Yorke continues his lyrical eccentricity, taking familiar phrases and singing life into them. “We’d be a walking disaster,” and “We are accidents waiting to happen,” are moved around in “There, There.” The title of the thirteenth track, “Scatterbrain,” is itself an eaffair with colloquial slang.

We also see hints of influence from Radiohead’s contemporaries. “Scatterbrain,” itself is connected to Thomas Pynchon’s novel V. “Go to Sleep,” is an R. E. M.-esque tune with the most prominent acoustic guitar on the album. It harks back to the tour that the two bands did together, circa 1996, and conjures up the Georgia trio’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up. “Sail to the Moon,” shows signs from Yorke’s collaboration with songstress P. J. Harvey. There is also the obligatory Beatles White Album influence on songs like “A Wolf at the Door,” and “I Will.”

I know what you’re thinking. How come bands influenced by Radiohead are labeled thieves, and Radiohead themselves are simply a group that is “influenced”? The reason is, Hail to the Thief is still distinctly Radiohead. This mix of guitar effects with computer effects, drum kit beats with drum machine beats, and lyrical vagueness with overt anxiety are a dynasty that the band has laid out and finally can exploit. Hail to them. Not to the thieves.

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entertainment

05.03 John Cusick: Local boy makes good

And his CD tells a story, don’t it!

There are dozens of books that claim how to write a pop song. Most of them offer the same tip for aspiring songwriters: make sure you give the listener a clear idea of what every song is about, using familiar ideas and images.

John Cusick says he couldn’t agree less. “That’s terrible advice. In telling a story in a song or poem you want to leave parts out, have people guess the references, so the story is more satisfying when you figure out what is going on,” he says.

“The song can mean different things to different people at different times, and that is important. A lot of my favorite lyricists-Sting, Steely Dan-have tunes with very ambiguous meanings or endings.”

The seven songs on Cusick’s debut First Time Around tell a lot of different stories. There’s the seedy, back alley tales of the Combat Zone on “Cayenne”, and a reunion of former lovers with very different expectations on “Lower Broadway”.

It seems like the collection of tales shared by a rambler at a tavern. The words are written with wit, sung with authority and passion, and put to catchy melodies and arrangements that echo the 70s heyday of intelligent mainstream pop.

But there’s a surprise. Cusick turns out to be an eighteen year old who lives in Auburn and is a senior at St. John’s in Shrewsbury. That didn’t stop the disc from getting a lot of notice in local press. Cusick has also appeared on WORC’s “Worcester Rocks” program, during which not a single listener was able to guess his age during a call-in contest.

It comes as little surprise to hear that Cusick writes a lot of short story fiction. After he learned the basics of piano playing — which on the CD ranges from stride jazz piano to touches of classical — Cusick found that penning songs “was a nice, therapeutic way to write strange stories and get stuff off my chest.”

Even the one tune that seems to draw on Cusick’s life-the prep school story “St. Mary’s”-is a double story told by a jailbird visiting a Catholic school girl. “I’ve never broken out of jail,” laughs Cusick, “but I love reading writers like Hunter S. Thompson who describe characters living on the fringes of society.”

Not content to rest on his debut’s laurels, Cusick is already planning a follow-up with a dozen new tunes. He’s also putting together a live band to extend out the material and play around the area when he starts college at Wesleyan next year. Given the well deserved success of another one of Wormtown’s piano-based pop groups, Mossberg, Cusick should have no trouble finding a local audience.

An 18 year old student at Shrewsbury’s St. John’s Academy, John Cusick of Auburn has produced a CD that’s getting a lot of buzz in local press.

The live band will include one of coolest elements of the CD, female backing vocals. They give the music a throw-back sound akin to soul inspired songsmiths like Van Morrison and Paul Simon. “When we did the CD we had to cut back on a few things, but I really wanted to keep the back-up vocals,” says Cusick. “Those rich harmonies can really open up a song.”

When handing out CDs, Cusick is happily surprised to find that both kids his age and their parents like the music.

“A lot of people out there are a little frustrated with the mainstream pop radio scene, so they like something a little more, I hate to say it, intellectual,” he muses. “And the music is really in sync to what a lot of baby boomers listen to and grew up with. So I kind of lucked out with both audiences.”

For future news and tour dates, visit John Cusick’s website at www.jcusick.com

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entertainment

03.03 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’

New York’s 50 Cent, the unequivocal “baddest” man in hip-hop today, has delivered rap reality in his freshman major label album, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” With bootlegs and anticipation abounding, the 16-track effort was released close to three weeks earlier than its scheduled date — and broke into the pop charts.

Most mainstream fans were already aware of 50 Cent after constant radio play of his “Wanksta” from the soundtrack from the movie 8 Mile. Soon to follow, “In Da Club” became the first single off of “Get Rich”…and 50 Cent was worth more than any other rapper in the country.

Armed with Dr. Dre and Eminem as executive producers, 50 Cent uses a candid approach that easily rivals the edgy lyrics of his newfound mentors. “I’m innocent in my head/ like a baby born dead/ destination heaven,” raps 50 in “Patiently Waiting,” the first of two songs where he shares vocal duties with Eminem.

The frightening honesty is matched with humor, though, on “21 Questions,” a courting monologue: “I love you like a fat kid loves cake/ You know my style I say anything to make you smile.”

Indeed what anybody listening can hear is personality coming through. 50 Cent is a tough man with no reason to sugar coat his words. He has been shot 9 times and claims to have been on the other end of the gun as well. That why when he raps the song “Many Men (Wish Death)” — a song about his enemies wanting him dead — you believe him. 50 Cent comes with real street credibility.

Put on the backburner by the late Run-D. M. C. member Jam Master J, 50 Cent released tracks basically on his own to independent DJs and bootleggers on the sidewalks of New York. That’s where 50 Cent was befriended by Eminem and Dre, but that’s also where he made his enemies.

“I’m back in the game Shorty to rule and conquer/ you sing for [explicative] and sound like the cookie monster,” raps 50 Cent on back down, glibly attacking Ja Rule and his more pop-friendly rap style. Bad boy 50 Cent attacks Ja Rule as a comedic lightweight.

The irony, though, is that 50 may become just as familiar to radio and MTV as Ja Rule. Although he is not the most carefree of rappers, the beats on “Get Rich”…are very accessible. Add to this, songs featuring Nate Dogg and Eminem, two men not foreign to the mainstream rap scene. 50 Cent, a man who lived in and for underground popularity, probably will not be able to avoid a mainstream presence on the radio.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. With good beats from a good production team and rap from a proclaimed “bad man” that is real and entertaining, hearing 50 Cent on the radio or on your CD player for a while is nothing to be disappointed about.

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entertainment

03.03 Your Show of shows

Riotous ‘Mr. Show’ leaves no medium untouched

If, as the cliché goes, “Laughter is the best medicine,” then Mr. Show may just be the cure for the madness of final exams or any stress that ails you. Check your local video emporium, bookstore or library for title availability.

Mr. Show – Seasons 1 & 2 (DVD)

The same Boston comedy scene of the early ’90’s that spawned Worcester’s Denis Leary and bad boy Joe Rogan of “NewsRadio” and “Fear Factor” also produced David Cross, one half of the unconventional duo known as Mr. Show. With former “SNL” writer Bob Odenkirk, with whom Cross had worked on the Emmy-winning but very short-lived “The Ben Stiller Show” in 1992, the pair put together a live act, and by 1995, was ready to hit the airwaves. The show, which ran a respectable four seasons on HBO, featured some of the most innovative and daring sketch pieces since Monty Python (okay, since Kids in the Hall, at least.)

This 2-disc set features every episode from the first two seasons, including “The New KKK”, which features black men in white robes frolicking to a catchy new jingle, and “Jeepers Creepers: Semi-Star”, a brilliantly staged slacker musical featuring Jack Black of Shallow Hal and Tenacious D infamy.

Not releasing all four seasons at once will leave fans both new and old wanting more, though this first batch, which features of some of the smartest writing in decades, is packed with delights that are not always caught the first time out, making it ripe for repeat viewings. (Fans who still lament the untimely passing of “The Ben Stiller Show”, rejoice – Warner Brothers is releasing all 12 episodes, plus the unaired 13th episode, on DVD this spring.)

Mr. Show – What Happened?!

Before Naomi Odenkirk, wife of Mr. Show’s straight-laced half, Bob, set out to produce his directorial debut, Melvin Goes To Dinner, she compiled this incredibly comprehensive account of the renegade duo’s origins and rise to prominence. With the exception of the unreleased Mr. Show movie and bootlegger’s favorite, Run Ronnie Run, she leaves no stone unturned, detailing not only the circumstances that led up to the convergence of Bob and David, but itemizing each sketch of each episode with obsessive relish, meticulous care for which fans will surely be grateful.

While other writers might have just focused on the two stars of the show, Ms. Odenkirk wisely pays tribute to the thankless cadre that made up the supporting cast and writing team, as well, many of whom still work with Bob and David. For more on Mr. Show (and the ongoing Run Ronnie Run debacle), point your browser toward www.bobanddavid.com.

David Cross – Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! (CD)

Part of the reason that ’60’s counterculture icon Lenny Bruce is remembered is because he not only shattered taboos, but also challenged his audience to reexamine why certain subjects were so off-limits in the first place. This double-disc release from Mr. Show’s David Cross illustrates why he, too, may be remembered in much the same way. Cross, who presently narrates Fox’s new “Wonder Years” wannabe, “Oliver Beene”, unleashes his personal brand of sarcastic wit, unapologetically riffing on subjects such as the Catholic Church (suggesting that God molests children by proxy) and 9/11 (noting that George Bush was the same idiot he was on 9/10). The angry yet thoughtful timbre with which Cross delivers his material is more like that of a spoken word performance artist like Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins and less like shtick-dependent stand-up. It may prove too confrontational for some, though Cross himself will be the first one to tell you that while safe and toothless may get you on Leno, it probably won’t get you remembered. This enhanced CD features an extended Quicktime trailer of the upcoming live DVD.