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Archive for November, 2009

It has been difficult not to become overly hyperbolic when discussing the music made by Animal Collective this year.  Their album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, received something approaching universal acclaim and it seemed that they went from being an underappreciated band to an enormous one almost overnight.  Suddenly the band that music snobs (a term that I use lovingly, mind you) had been begging their friends to listen to for years was everywhere.  And what’s more, those people were eating them up.  Perhaps, considering they opened the year with that colossal album (Merriweather was released in the opening days of January), it’s only fitting that they should choose to bookend the year with a very solid EP.

Fall Be Kind feels unusually complete for a set of just five songs, and that’s largely due to the fact that Animal Collective is so good at creating big compositions of music that blend a number of different styles.  I realize that’s something of an obtuse description, so I’ll try to use an example.  The opening track, “Graze,” opens with a layered synths and an almost epic cry; “Let’s not worry, it’s our morning!”  Then the song deconstructs into a more vocal-centric piece, before winding down around the three minute mark with the soft murmuring of, “Let me begin…”  However, instead of ending there, the song hits a third act and the listener is broadsided with a barrage of almost tropical sounding flutes and playful vocals.  All said, it feels not like one single track, but some amalgamation of a few different ones combined into one big medley, yet somehow the lines of transition between the parts are smooth.  The puppeteer’s strings are hidden.

These particularly dense tracks have become something of the band’s trademark, and they put that technique to full effect on this EP.  Three of the five tracks on the album are well over five-minutes in length (with one being over seven minutes long), and there’s not a second of wasted space on any of the songs.  Another especially striking example of this is “What Would I Want? Sky,” which also holds the distinction of being the first track to feature a licensed Grateful Dead sample.  Like “Graze,” the song goes through a number of facelifts before it plays itself out.  It starts with chanting vocals and pounding cymbals before morphing into a more gentle and soothing exercise with a pleasing and familiar vocal-loop.  What’s most impressive is not that the band can make use of shifting styles over the course of a single track, anybody who has listened to them before knows that they’re capable of this very musical blending, but that two so drastically different tempos and moods can be combined to make one seemingly cohesive overall composition.

The closing track, “I Think I Can,” spiritually seems as though it holds the closest kinship with anything from Merriweather Post Pavilion.  Clearly I don’t mean to suggest this as any kind of criticism of the song, rather I’m just pointing out that the similarity was striking.  So much so that even not knowing the history behind the recording of Fall Be Kind, I can’t help but wonder if it was the first one that the band wrote of this newest batch.  “On A Highway,” meanwhile, seems to be the track on the EP that most emphasizes its lyrics.  As is often the case, the song features some wonderful imagery, even if the precise subject of the track is a bit veiled.  I did find it interesting that the track referenced Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) explicitly, though, I’m just unsure of exactly how it fit in with the rest of the interstate journey.

Of the entire EP, the only track that left me even a little flat was “Bleed.”  It’s worth noting, though, that from discussing Fall Be Kind with people, I may be in the minority here.  I can understand that the intention was to touch upon raw emotion through bare production and simple lyrics, but the whole thing ended up coming across a bit haiku’ish for my tastes.  However, I can acknowledge that it’s still an enjoyable song, I just found it to be the weakest of the bunch.  I suppose, though, that when this is the closest I can come to a criticism, that’s usually a pretty good sign.

While Fall Be Kind is on one hand nothing more than the cherry on top of a very good year for Animal Collective, it’s also the first release they’ve had since they achieved this new level of broader and more mainstream fame and popularity.  This being the case, it’s good news for the band that they were once again able to exceed expectation and put together a fully-realized collection of new music.  Now the only question is what can they do for an encore in 2010?

SCORE: 4.0 out of 5.0

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I’ve already posted one fabulously unsettling Fever Ray video this year, but “Keep The Streets Empty For Me” was my favorite song on the debut album from the former lead-singer of The Knife.  So here’s a second one. The video is directed by Jens Klevje and Fabian Svensson, and features a ragged girl on her travels across the frigid night of an apocalyptic looking wasteland of a city.  It has some haunting visuals, and manages to find a strange beauty amidst the urban decay, and the song, meanwhile, is just out of this world.  If you enjoy the video, head over to youtube and do a search for Fever Ray, you’ll turn up a whole handful of videos off of her great self-titled album.  For more information about where and how you can hear more of Karin Elisabeth Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray music, head over to the official site or her MySpace page.

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There’s a nice little feature over at Paste about David Simon’s upcoming show for HBO, Treme. The series, which recently started principal production, is centered around the lives of a group of musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Now, Simon can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes, after absolutely knocking his last two series (The Wire and Generation Kill) out of the park, especially when it comes to a feeling of authenticity.  Naturally then, it’s no surprise that when the article spoke a little bit about David Simon’s writing process, I couldn’t help but be especially intrigued.

“Simon intends to train his sniper-like eye for detail and authenticity on New Orleans, just as he did with Baltimore. But he readily admits that—while he sees similarities between the two cities—New Orleans is as bewildering to newcomers as any in America. Although he’s been visiting for 20 years, Simon isn’t kidding himself—he’s still an outsider. If he was to get New Orleans right for Treme, he needed to assemble a team of local writers, actors and consultants. Simon cold-called musicians and chefs, met with cops and politicians, and approached bandleaders like Kermit Ruffins before gigs. He tracked down eccentric New Orleans DJ/musician Davis Rogan while Rogan was an artist-in-residence in the Loire Valley in France.”

There’s something to be said for a writer knowing when he needs to bring in the hook, so to speak.  That’s something that has always impressed me about Simon, his willingness to go outside the traditional boundaries of show-business to achieve the feel he’s looking for.  The Wire was populated by a litany of former reporters and policemen, both behind and and in front of the camera.  Meanwhile, Generation Kill was littered with soldiers who had been Marines on the ground during the invasion of Iraq.  It’s encouraging to see that he is following a similar path on his newest piece of work.

Viewers watching Treme will notice some familiar faces as Wire veterans like Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce have roles in the show, but there are some new faces as well.  On of those mugs will belong to Steve Zahn, who seems an atypically famous actor to appear in a David Simon show.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I think his presence is a bad thing, just an usual one.  However, perhaps this is just Simon trying something new, for as the Paste piece points out, we shouldn’t just expect more of the same; “Simon cautions that Treme will not be The Wire: New Orleans. Its seasons will not be loosely divided by subject, and the show will provide a smaller, more intimate focus on people picking up the pieces without much help.”

Whatever the finished product is going to look like, my anticipation is already meeting almost unreachable levels without me having seen a single frame. Normally I would think that I was setting myself up for disappointment, but somehow David Simon always seems to exceed my expectations. Sometime in 2010 I’ll find out if he can do it yet again.  I can’t wait.

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Wild Yaks are what could accurately be described as being a “buzz-band.”   The band hails from Brooklyn and has built a following based on their spirited and booze-stained shows.  What makes this description a bit problematic is that it not only describes the Wild Yaks, but an entire host of other bands that have appeared on the horizon over the last couple years.  A steady stream of small indie-acts have come marching out of Williamsberg of late, and the river shows no signs of flowing to a trickle anytime soon. This over-saturation of the market can make it a bit tough for even the most deserving of acts to distinguish themselves from the pack, but thankfully for the Wild Yaks, making music that stands out is not one of their problems.

I first heard the lead song (I guess you could call it a single, were you so inclined), entitled “River May Come,” off of 10 Ships a good six or so months ago.  I wasn’t familiar with the band, but was immediately taken by the loud, boisterous, and almost folksy crooning.  With the tide like smashing of the chorus and the rattle of drums and cymbals, the song was clearly a barroom anthem for the beards and flip-flops crowd.  With a little digging, I discovered that the band was Wild Yaks, and that there was an EP in existence.  Problem was, the band was based out of Brooklyn, and the only way to get your hands on the CD was to be at one of their shows.  Being based out of Hollywood, California, this would prove to be a little problematic for me.  So instead I had to wait six long months for the EP to be released digitally. Smash cut to present day, and after a small letdown based on insanely elevated expectations (too much waiting will do that to you), I have found Ten Ships to be an enjoyable little mix of influences, styles, and tempos.

As I said at the top of the last paragraph, the first song on the EP is “River May Come,” and even six months later, it’s a doozy. It’s the kind of track that makes me want to smash a barstool or something, which is saying something for a tune that pretty much fits in the americana genre.  The next track, “Tomahawk,” is one part wordplay, and about ten parts wild and frenetic energy, and the repetition of the chorus (“How do I get my tomahawk back, my tomahawk back, my tomahawk back?”) makes up the body of the song.  This being the case, and even with the trim runtime of one minute and nine seconds, the track is kind of a snoozer.  Though, it does feature some nice Pogues’ like vocals and downright ska-influenced guitars, and I suppose that the task of finding a tune to follow a song like “River May Come” is kind of a thankless job for a  young band.

In my humble opinion, the Wild Yaks seem to be at their most enjoyable when their tracks are a little more free-flowing and woozy.  This being the case, the songs that I got more enjoyment out of were tracks like “River” and “Blood Red Field” than I did “Crazy But Not Afraid” and “Tomahawk.”  That’s not to say that my less favorite tracks were bad, all six songs on the EP are solid, but I just wasn’t as taken with them as I was the former.  I mean, how many bands can blend a bluesy saxophone with the slamming of drums, folksy strumming of guitars, and almost hollered vocals?  The answer to that rhetorical question is not many.  So when Rob Byrn tells us “there’s a blood red field, way up in the sky, it’s where we go, when we die,” I can’t help but get a stupid grin on my face.  It all just works.

I’m interested to see whether on not the Wild Yaks will be able to reach an audience outside their Brooklyn confines.  Though I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them live myself, they strike me as the kind of band whose music will win over a lot of folks at their live shows (and the four live tracks on the EP would seem to support this hypothesis), so perhaps they will be able to start converting that New York City buzz into some festival buzz in the new year.  One thing that I can say confidently, is that they’re the kind of band that deserves to have a bigger audience.  The music is accessible and passionate, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a ton of a fun.

SCORE: 3.2 out of 5.0

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Over at New York Magazine, they have unveiled a feature that I have to say is just incredibly cool.  The piece is their Political Fictions Project where they invited seven different writers to pen short stories based on seven prominent political figures.  From President Obama to Mitt Romney, nobody is safe from the imaginations of their group of merry scribes.

There’s something that I always have enjoyed about novels and films centered around the private and clandestine lives of powerful politicians.  The sexiness of the power and intrigue, and the humanity of the men and woman when all of the status is stripped away, is just very alluring to the eye.  This being the case, I often can’t help but get a perverse pleasure when that fictional lens is turned onto the lives of actual, living, politicians.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the stuff unconditionally, when it’s bad, it often plays like crappy fan-fiction.  However, when it is good, it’s some of the most fun guilty-pleasure reading that you can find (I think this might be why I love James Ellroy’s “underworld trilogy” as much as I do) — and the NYM stuff is pretty damn good.

The flagship piece, of course, is centered around Barack Obama.  The story, written by Adam Haslett, is accompanied by a cool little “fictional photograph” of the President, sitting on a bench outside the white house, exhaling smoke from the cigarette dangling between his fingers.  The noir’ish photo is a small touch, but it really helps to set the tone of the story.  The story takes place as the President has a surprise encounter while grappling with a difficult decision.  Yet what impressed me about it was Haslett’s ability to mine material from the little details, without losing his sense of mystery or mysticism.  Here is one of my favorite bits, focused on the cigarette that is in the picture:

“A cigarette suspended all that. And for a moment, even here amid the splendor and consequence, it joined him back to the counterlives: the kid who didn’t care about his grades; the freshman listening to the young leftists quote Nietzsche and Foucault; the short-story writer alone in his room after a day miming faith in progress (kneel and you shall pray), believing for a few evening hours that a well-wrought sentence might set people free. Before the organizing principle of Michelle. Before the sorting power of a more concrete ambition. Taking him briefly back to the comforts of the slacker and the cynic. That dark, scattered home promising its own kind of safety.”

The link also features a contest that the magazine is holding, enter your own political fiction and you can win some cool prizes.  Worth a shot.  Even if you don’t win, though, spending some time with some of the most powerful men and women on the planet is reward enough all on its own.

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IN REVIEW (Film): The Road

“The book was better.”  This is an extremely popular (and often justified) phrase when assessing the quality of a film.  However, it’s also a phrase that can just as often mean very different things.  To say that the film version of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” was inferior to Cormac McCarthy’s amazing book is far less damning than, say, complaining that the recent smash hit “New Moon” was inferior to its written counterpart.  You see, one is arguably a classic piece of modern literature, while the other arguably a diverting piece of adolescent entertainment.  What’s my point?  That not all books are created equal.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will admit that “The Road” is not as good as the book.  There, I said it.  However, that does not mean that the film is unable to succeed on its own merits.  John Hillcoat remains (for the most part) remarkably true to the source material as he tells the tale of a man and his boy traveling on a road across America at the end of the world.  I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read McCarthy’s fabulous story yet, but things aren’t particularly cheery.  In this sense, Hillcoat pretty much sticks to the script.  “The Road” is a bit of a downer, things start bleak and only seem to get bleaker as Hillcoat explores what the end of the world would be like if humans lost their humanity.  Aside from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the man and his boy, there is seldom another likable character to grace the screen (and sometimes you have to worry about Mortensen).  It really is just a steady diet of depressing.

You may wonder how something this consistently dreary can be any kind of emotionally affecting over the course of an entire feature film, the answer is that it’s due to some shrewd direction and wonderful acting. Mortensen is his usual reliable self in the movie’s lead role.  He plays the main character with a heavy sense of dread, regret, and misery, without compromising any of the love that the character is supposed to project onto his son.  When everything has been stripped away from him, and he is at his most primitive, Mortensen comes off like a predator instinctually protecting his young, there’s a slight glint of insanity that peaks out from the edges of his performance that suggest a man who has lost all but one very important thing to live for.  Due to the lukewarm reception of the film, Mortensen will most likely be ignored when it comes Oscar time, and that is a true shame, because it’s a very good performance.  Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, does a surprisingly good job despite his lack of years and experience.  I may not have been as impressed with the performance as I was with the young Max Records in another recent autumn release, but he rarely even borders on cringe-worthy.  As a matter of fact, when Smit-McPhee is really able to hit his characters’ notes of sadness and terror, it is probably when the film manages to be at its most heartbreaking.  Additionally, the bit appearances from Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, and Garret Dillahunt, were none-too-shabby themselves.

Now, I mentioned Hillcoat’s direction earlier, and that’s because it too is worthy of some praise.  I won’t be quite so hyperbolic as to say that the tone is pitch-perfect, but I will say that any director that’s able to leave you as depressed as Hillcoat does is doing something right.  The biggest strike that I can pose against him is that he’s a bit inconsistent.  When the he’s at his best, he’s able to really make you squirm in your seat (I’m not exaggerating when I say that a couple of the scenes are some of the most genuinely disturbing that I’ve seen in quite some time, and that they’ve stayed with me for a while afterwards), but there are also long periods of time where things kind of drag a bit.  Part of that is because this is literally two hours of a man and his son wandering down a deserted road in a ruined wasteland, they’re quiet, and most of the time they’re alone , and Hillcoat doesn’t have the benefit of Cormac McCarthy’s lean but heart-wrenching prose to take you inside their minds.  In this sense, adapting “The Road” must have been a truly thankless task, because no matter how good a job one did in realizing McCarthy’s vision, the source material just wasn’t the most film-friendly work out there, and it never would be.  I have heard some complaints that Hillcoat pulled his punches a bit when making the film (the most notable being the absence of a certain half-cooked fetus), but I found such complaints to largely be unwarranted.  I think that the imagination is always to conjure images far more horrific than anything on celluloid, but what was most important is that the director made the viewer feel something, feel the disappointment and deep sadness of the film’s characters, and judging from the sobbing girls in the row next to me as the credits rolled, I would say that he largely succeeded.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the softball ending which, despite not diverging all too dramatically from McCarthy’s work, nonetheless softened the blow just a bit too much for my liking.

Perhaps the single greatest attribute of “The Road,” though, is the cinematography.  It absolutely amazed me how Hillcoat and his cinematographer, Javier Aquirresarobe, were able to create such beautiful images amongst the all of the ashy grey skies and barren, leafless, forests.  It was fitting that the film should be released at the height of economic recession in America as it portrayed the country at its most desolate.  The washed ashore tankers and flooded cities recalled Katrina and New Orleans, the broken cityscapes and demolished sky scrapers reminded of post 9/11 New York, the dying forests alluded to the worst of natural disasters, and the bombed-out highways resembled a war-zone.  The end of the world was ambiguous, but the settings were truly the worst of all things.  Yet even in the face of ultimate doom and disaster, the two men were able to find a simple and almost zen-like beauty to even the most punishing of environments.  There was not a single frame that wasn’t full of stories and a sadness of its very own.

At the end of the day, “The Road” is an uneven but extremely affecting film.  When the movie is really clicking, it’s downright excellent, and when it’s misfiring, it’s still pretty good (I mean, anything scored by Nick Cave is okay by me).  The only real disappointment is that you can sense that John Hillcoat was just this close to pulling of a classic piece of cinema.  Most of the elements were there, but in the end the material proved to be a little too sparse to quite pull all the pieces together into one complete package.  The finished product is still one very good, albeit emotionally draining, piece of filmmaking.

SCORE: 3.7 out of 5.0

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Ok, so not really.  But still, this is pretty cool, or at least novel.  As a warning before I get to the point of this post, if you are here because you thought that I was being sincere in my title, I can confidently assure you that this blog is not the kind of place that you’ll enjoy spending time.  Unless, of course, you like to get upset.  Then welcome.   Annnyyway…

Over at Slate they’re having their first official (okay, probably their only) “Can you write like Sarah Palin?” contest.  I knew that I probably was going to enjoy what Slate was suggesting when the blurb started with a couple suggestions at what might be the worst line in Sarah’s new book, Going Rogue.  (Even though the choices both came from other publications, I have to say that the selections are every bit as overwritten and self-conscious as the title is obnoxious)  The contest, which everybody should undoubtedly enter, is limited to 150 words, and ends on Wednesday.  Your prize?  A lifetime of shame and self-loathing as well as seeing your words printed in Slate.  You have about 36 hours, time to get cracking!

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