The Killers: Sawdust

As much as Brandon Flowers & co. would like to be remembered for their full-length efforts, their radio hits will ultimately define their legacy. Sawdust is an interesting look at other aspects of the Killers' sound, but as a standalone disc, it's largely hit-or-miss.

The Killers


Label: Island
US Release Date: 2007-11-13
UK Release Date: 2007-11-12

Get out your blacks, 'cos there's a funeral going on.

In this bleak digital age, one of rock's grandest traditions is, sadly, going the way of the cassingle: the B-side is on its death bed. As the modern day music market continues to gradually become more singles-oriented, the CD single is gradually dying, and, with it, the infinite possibilities that a band could explore with its B-sides. Back in the '90s hey-day of rock, artists would often try and entice buyers with new songs that were only available as B-sides, and more often than not they were top-notch cuts that were just too wild or experimental to fit on a major label's idea of what a "commercial album" should sound like. B-sides fared well in the U.S., but in Britain, it was a craze. Groups like Suede and Oasis would continually release B-sides that were as good, if not better, than their radio single brethren. In fact, one of Oasis' best all-time albums remains 1998's The Masterplan, which was nothing more than a collection of their best flipside material. Of course, 1998 and 2007 are two very different times, and in the age of iTunes bonus EPs, it should only be natural that one of the last major-label B-sides/rarities compilations that we'll see for a while comes from a band whose very image borders on gratuitous excess: Las Vegas' own synth-rock troubadours, The Killers.

Of course, when a critic is mentioning the Killers, they are actually referring to domineering frontman Brandon Flowers, who draws the most praise/ire for the band. Despite the fact that the band does genuinely write all of their songs together, Flowers always snags the spotlight for both his showboating antics and his monstrous ego (as best evidenced by his infamous quote in regards to their sophomore album being "one of the best albums in the past 20 years"). Yet, for being the critical whipping boys that they are, it's often easy to overlook the fact that the Killers' can write some amazing pop songs. Tracks like "Mr. Brightside" and "When You Were Young" were hits for good reason: they were structured and executed like they were timeless rock numbers (which, arguably, they were). Of course, when thrown into a track sequencing that featured remarkably inferior songs like "Bones", "Midnight Show", and the terribly-titled "Bling (Confession of a King)", many noted how Flowers' bark was worse than his bite. This was a band that relies heavily on the drama that their frontman brings to their songs, and when it works (as on "When You Were Young"), it's extraordinary. When it fails, it's almost laughably bad.

Unlike The Masterplan, the Killers' Sawdust genuinely feels like a slapped-together collection of odds-and-ends. It rambles haphazardly from track to track without much of a sense of flow. Yet, in many ways, it was designed as such. After all, if there are any fans who went out and bought the 2005 Limited Edition version of Hot Fuss, then you already have three of these "rarities": "Under the Gun", "The Ballad of Michael Valentine", and "Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll" (the latter of which substituted "Midnight Show" on the British release of Hot Fuss). Even though we may lament the death of the B-side, the digital music revolution is at least letting us cherry-pick our favorite songs off of certain albums, allowing us to avoid the pitfall of buying the same thing twice (which, invariably, is a hazard with Sawdust). Furthermore, this album doesn't even contain all of the Killers' B-sides, as notable tracks such as "Get Trashed" (the excellent B-side to "Smile Like You Mean It") and "Change Your Mind" (the flip-song to the "Mr. Brightside" Part One single) somehow get lost in the shuffle .

Yet perhaps the largest fault with Sawdust is simply how the music contained within is remarkably average. Songs like "Daddy's Eyes" (from the Bones EP) and "Who Let You Go?" (B-side to "Mr. Brightside") are remarkably half-baked, despite being painted in a fresh coat of studio polish. "Sweet Talk" (a reject from the Sam's Town sessions) is certainly serviceable, but it doesn't hold a candle to the lush FM balladry of tracks like "Read My Mind". Even the "Abbey Road" version of "Sam's Town" (which replaces that song's heavy synths with a good ol' fashioned acoustic piano) succumbs to Flower's total disregard for subtlety, still holding his voice like he's the star of your high school's production of Les Miserables. The two new tracks featured here -- a cover of Joy Division's "Shadowplay" for the Control soundtrack and a Lou Reed duet called "Tranquilize" -- are largely forgettable.

But as to be expected with discs of this nature, there are some genuine highlights to be found amidst the sea of unintentional mediocrity. "All the Pretty Faces", the B-side to "When You Were Young", is easily the group's most successful attempt at full-on hard-rock, coming off like a dark rewrite of "Somebody Told Me". The Spider-Man 3 soundtrack contribution "Move Away" masterfully (and appropriately) captures Flowers' flare for the theatrical, based off one of guitarist Dave Keuning's fiercest and most propulsive riffs. Yet, the big surprise is how well the band succeeds when they tone things down, particularly with their other cover songs. "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the First Edition song of the same name, and their take on Dire Straits' classic "Romeo & Juliet" works simply because the band keeps it amazingly low-key (though why Flowers' decides to pull a Lou Reed impression here is somewhat inexplicable). "Leave the Bourbon On the Shelf" and "Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll" remain grade-A album rejects, and Jacques Lu Cont's better-than-it-should-be remix of "Mr. Brightside" serves as nice if unremarkable closer to this somewhat even-handed compilation.

When all is said and done, the Killers are modern-day singles band. As much as Brandon Flowers & co. would like to be remembered for their full-length efforts, their radio hits will ultimately define their legacy. Sawdust is an interesting look at other aspects of the Killers' sound, but as a standalone disc, it's largely hit-or-miss. If anything, the death of the B-side may lead to the Killers' to rethink their recording approach, saving their more adventurous and interesting ideas for their LPs instead of being sold off as Circuit City Exclusive bonus tracks. Perhaps they'll stop living in a world of gratuitous excess and instead begin focusing their energies towards focused, solid tracks... though judging by the fact that a new non-album CD single called "Santa Don't Shoot Me" came out the same week that this review was published, it feels like that day will come later than sooner.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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