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There’s a great little article by Christopher Orr over at The New Republic that pretty much nails my own feelings about the “Avatar phenomenon” and how it will almost certainly translate into Oscar gold for the film.  The argument is that while Avatar is almost certainly not deserving best picture, there is an overwhelming possibility that it will be the last movie standing on Oscar Sunday for two reasons; Academy politics and money.  Orr writes the following:

Again, the issue is not merely, nor even primarily, that Avatar made so much money; it’s that The Hurt Locker made so little. The all-time lowest-grossing Best Picture winner to date (adjusted for inflation) is Crash, which made $55 million in 2005—more than five times Hurt Locker’s adjusted box office. About half as many people saw Bigelow’s picture in its entire theatrical run as saw Cameron’s on its opening day. For the Academy to elevate so small a picture over one so big would be wildly out of keeping both with its recent, much-discussed desire to keep the Oscars “relevant” to a mass audience, and with its lifelong prejudice in favor of films that succeed commercially.

I find his points to be pretty compelling.  Orr also aptly points out that while Sean Penn was probably not the most deserving nominated best actor last year (a suggestion that I happen to also agree with), he took the home the award for his performance in Milk.  He cites a possible explanation for this was the Academy looking to rebuke claims that they were out of touch with the gay community after Brokeback Mountain lost its own best picture race to the less celebrated Crash a couple of years prior.  The mere fact that this argument holds water and is in anyway credible in itself highlights what’s wrong with the Academy Awards.  They are so very much about politics and campaigning and so little about actually rewarding quality.

Now, I don’t have the same venom for Avatar that Orr does.  While he hated the film, I merely found it to be so-so and highly overrated.  I do think that the idea of that movie being celebrated as the best of the year, though, would be nothing short of ludicrous.  Like Orr, I’m of the belief that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was by far and away the best film of the year, regardless of how many people saw it.  However, at the same time I’m aware of the fact that regardless of how the Oscar race shakes out, the film is already something of a big winner.  The mere fact that it has been nominated and crowned as the front-runner has probably sent millions more viewers rushing to the television to watch it than would have experienced it otherwise.  As a (relatively) low-budget Iraq-war movie, it was never going to attract the viewers that a big, dumb, action movie like Avatar was.  But while even a best picture win will likely do little to expand upon Avatar‘s essentially maxed-out fanbase, even just a nomination has done exactly that for The Hurt Locker.

Cinema fans will have to take their victories where they can get them, I suppose.

Here’s the thing.  I unabashedly love Johnny Cash.  If somebody were to ask me who my favorite musical artist of all time was, I would answer with his name without a single moment of hesitation. That being said, I would like to think that I’m still able to keep some perspective when it comes to his later body of work, even when there is some real sentimentalism involved in listening to it, and make no mistake about it, when it comes to American VI, sentiment is the name of the game.  I would like to think myself detached enough from even my most favorite of artists that I can judge any posthumous releases on their actual merits, and not on how good I wan them to be.  I mean, it’s not as though I run around bumping to barrel-scraping Notorious B.I.G. or bizarre Ray Charles duet mashups, regardless of the very high esteem that I hold both artists in.  I would like to think that I approach Cash’s music in this same manner.

Subtlety is not the name of Rick Rubin’s game, and this fact is hammered home by the album’s title and the fact that “Ain’t No Grave” is the song that he chooses to lead the album off with.  The saving grace in all this is that the song is kind of dark and thudding in presentation, more in the manner of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” than “Hurt,” when compared to counterparts in the American recording lexicon.  Sadly, the same can not be said about a song like “Redemption Day,” which features the overly pandering chorus of “There’s a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate, to heaven’s gate, to heaven’s gate / And on the way, child and man and woman, wait and wait and wait, for redemption day.”  Are you starting to notice a theme here?  If not, then a listen to “Corinthians 15:55” will finish hammering it home for you.  I can understand why Rubin chose to release this particular collection of songs, but at the same time it seems a vaguely manipulative when all of these tracks were released together.

Now, Rubin is at something of a disadvantage, and I can acknowledge that.  The fact of the matter is that Cash music was always largely religious and concerned with topics of death and salvation, so no matter what Rubin did, he was going to be left with a bunch of recordings that were heavy on this subject matter.  But that doesn’t change the fact that a song like “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” is far less effective when it is surrounding by the fistful of similar tracks that I have already mentioned.  Not only that, but there’s also the unavoidable fact that man of those songs are, well, not all that great.  It’s a common theme in posthumous releases that what we’re really getting are songs that were unreleased for a reason, and that is occasionally the case on Ain’t No Grave.

That’s not to say that they’re all bad tracks.  Cash’s work with Rubin was extremely stripped down, so it’s very hard to accuse any of the music of being only partially-realized.  I mean, how could you tell the difference?  Besides, even with the heaps of melancholy that is inherent in most every track due to no other reason than Johnny Cash’s absence from this earth, that simple rustic presentation is still pretty endearing on a number of the songs.  There’s a gentle folk simplicity to songs like “Satisfied Mind,” “Cold Water,” “Aloha Oe” that makes them very endearing.  They’re all also aided by the fact that they’re unencumbered by Rubin’s bright, flashing, neon sign basically demanding that you get misty eyed because Johnny is gone and the song is loosely about death and salvation.  It’s Johnny Cash, so the undertones are obviously there, but at least they are a little more subtle than on some of the lessor tracks on the album.

I’m aware that I’m injecting myself into this review a little more than usual, that I am making my own personal concerns about potential future choices Rubin may make about releasing any stored away recordings always very present in my discussion of this release.  I’m also aware that I may be judging the material a bit too harshly because of the fact that I cherish Johnny Cash’s music as much as I do.  In doing so, every so-so posthumous song becomes not just a slightly lackluster track, but almost an affront to his entire previously recorded catalogue in my eyes.  No matter how I shake it, that’s not fair to the music.  However, on the flipside of that equation, I went into Ain’t No Grave basically aching to like every second that I heard, I was rooting for it to be great.  I would hope that leads to some level of balance in my judgements.  But maybe not.

Ultimately, the album proves to be neither entirely great nor entirely awful on the whole.  It instead really kind exists on some level that bounces between mediocre and acceptable.  If American VI: Ain’t No Grave not bearing the name of one of music’s all-time great artists the reaction to it wouldn’t be such a knee-jerk one from the music community.  If this is how Johnny Cash’s last group of unheard recordings is going to sound, it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened.  But in that same breathe, I would also say that I certainly hope that it Rubin doesn’t ultimately make us suffer through anything worse.

SCORE: 2.7 out of 5.0

Really at this point, the idea of New York Governor David Patterson suspending his campaign should be anything but news.  I mean, for the last few weeks the New York Times has been beating on him like he owed them money, with the news that he helped to suppress a sexual assault beef with one of his top aides just being the most egregious of the revelations.  However, somehow this is news because, well, it’s David Patterson, and he doesn’t seem to live in a world that is ruled by the same laws of reality that the rest of us are.

While there never was the one big bombshell that the times had promised (I was expecting nothing short of drugs, dead hookers, embezzled campaign funds, and maybe a male mistress), the cumulative damage ultimately proved to be more than enough to finally bring the Governor’s reelection campaign screeching to a halt.   Although, it is worth noting that there are those in political world and the media who are calling for a little more drastic action than just that and actually resigning before his term expires.  However, all indicators would point to the Governor serving out the remainder of his term and not seeking reelection.

The following comes from today’s New York Times article on the matter;

Mr. Paterson is expected to make the announcement Friday afternoon. It would end his campaign less than a week after it officially began, with an angry speech at Hofstra University on Long Island.

As he prepared for the announcement, some newspaper editorial writers were demanding something more than an end to his campaign: they were calling for his resignation. That only added to the increasing sense that it would be nearly impossible for him to run the state and the campaign with the abuse case in the background.

Even though I don’t doubt that the thread on the Governor’s abuses of power will continue to be pulled in coming months, it looks like a bizarre chapter in New York’s political history is going to soon be drawing to a close.

UPDATE: According to the New York Times, everything that we thought Patterson was going to say has been said.  As expected, he vowed to finish his term.

If you’ve read this blog, it’s probably not news to you that I really enjoyed Tegan & Sara’s last album Sainthood (though I recently was with a lady friend who accused me of being girly for liking it). All of the songs were such tightly spun pop-masterpieces that any one of them easily could have been released as a single.  Well, the sisters Quin haven’t exactly been testing that theory with a whole flood of videos, but at least the ones that we have gotten have been of a high quality.  The video is a fun, if somewhat sparce, semi-arctic affair that really fits the tone of the song.  Give it a watch and then, as always, head over to the band’s MySpace page or their official website for more music and information on where you can see them live.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Before I get started, I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this review is certainly going to have to come with a “better late than never” heading.  But, well…  better late than never!   Now, on with the show.

Surfer Blood first splashed (pun oh-so intended) onto the scene last year with power-pop meets indie-rock tunes like “Swim,” that couldn’t help but draw notice from the musical community.  The fact that the band was the one good thing to come out of West Palm Beach in the last twenty years didn’t hurt either (I kid the Floridians).  The expectations surrounding the group, comprised of four  young musicians fronted by lead singer John Paul Pitts, came from the intriguing mix of fuzzy-as-fuck distortion and humming guitars and the crisp and powerful hooks that Pitts enthusiastically belted out on that lead single.  The result was a track that the music geeks could feel like belonged to them but that listeners could still pump their firsts to on the radio.  A pretty deadly mix to be sure, but the question on many minds was; what would the album sound like?

Well, turns out that the album would sound just as promising and well-executed as that very first track.  There some pretty damned impressive displays of musical knowhow on nearly every single track, but what’s most impressive to me is the way in which the young band is able to create subtle variations in what it is that’s enthralling from song to song.  The opening track aptly-titled “Floating Vibes,” for example, reminds me of some of my favorite 1990’s alt-rock with it’s powerful guitars and dark but breezy lyrics like; “When you wake up in the morning, and you hear that awful applause, put in your fuckin’ napkin, and watch it dissolve.”  Let’s just say that I’m a sucker for any sizzling diss that I can’t help but chuckle at.  Meanwhile, though, an instrumental track like “Neighbour Riffs,” with it’s thick and groovy bass guitar, reminds of some of my favorite Pavement or Dinosaur Jr tunes all without a single word being uttered.  Like I said, there are subtle differences between the two, but they achieve similarly positive returns in each instance.  To me that’s nothing if not impressive.

Something else that is on display on Astro Coast that I can’t help but find endearing is an impish sense of humor. Song titles like “Fast Jabroni” and “Slow Jabroni,” the name of the band and the album’s cover art, as well as lyric-upon-lyric buried into the tracks are all examples of this, and it almost plays like a series of easter eggs sprinkled across the LP waiting to be discovered by listeners who care to pay attention to detail.  In the great tradition of this hazy alt-rock, these guys aren’t taking themselves too seriously, they’re just writing some big hooks, some kick-ass riffs, and having a blast while they’re doing that.  That light-hearted approach seems to spill over into the music and it only enhances it further.

While the competition is tight, my favorite track on Astro Coast is probably the beachy “Take It Easy,” which I feel as though would have been equally comfortable on a shitty 1960’s surf-movie soundtrack as it is here in 2010.  It’s also probably the perfect literal example of the laid-back nature that I enjoy so much in the music as Pitts sings in the chorus; “I wish I could do whatever it takes to get along” adding “then we should just take it easy, or we will both be sorry.”  The lyrics, like the album as a whole, on the surf just seem to be so light and relaxed, but if you look for just a second longer you see that there’s an almost disgruntled sense discomfort simmering right there beneath that glossy surface.  And after all, isn’t it that ability to convey some deeper emotional state and all the while tricking the listener into singing and dancing along that’s the staple of great music?  More often than not on this debut, Surfer Blood is able to climb to that plateau with what seems like relative ease.

However, as I said at the outset, the track that is mostly likely going to be the gem for most listeners is “Swim,” and it’s certainly not tough to see what people enjoy about the tune.  Pitts’ voice echoes powerfully throughout the track, and sometimes you may even lose track of what it is that he’s saying, but the people who aren’t pumping their fists along with him when he powerfully booms “swim to reach the end” will probably be few and far between.  Additionally, there are some elements of this song to be found here and there in other tracks.  Portions of “Twin Peaks” play with a similar ear-bleeding veracity, though on the whole the song is mostly a more mellow experience.  But even the tracks that are content to be build upon a more laid-back groove, such as “Anchorage” and “Slow Jabroni,” display that same knack for crafting a tight and enjoyable song.  That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment when you take into account that both of those tracks stretch on for well over six minutes apiece.

All of the young bands out there should be pretty pissed at Surfer Blood right now, because they have set the bar pretty damn high for debut albums in 2010.  I’m half-kidding 0f course, but it’s nonetheless pretty impressive the way that Surfer Blood was able to take some of the best of pop music, 90’s alternative rock, surf rock, and the current afro-pop craze and blend it all into a debut album that was so well-executed and self-assured. Expectations were pretty high for Astro Coast, and somehow the band was able to deliver.  All that remains to be seen now is how broad an audience this exciting new band will be able to reach before the year is out.

SCORE: 4.3 out of 5.0

Oh, the rambunctious Vampire Weekend kids, just always getting into shenanigans (I feel like I may have misused shenanigans there).  Here is the latest video (courtesy of Spinner) to come from their awesome album Contra, and you may notice that it features some unconventional personalities like the RZA (aka Bobby Digital) and Jake Gyllenhaal.  The song is “Giving Up the Gun,” and is one of the stronger tracks on a very strong album (check the HItV review, which I am too lazy to link to, for more details on that), and the video is suitably weird. After checking out the fun videos for songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Cousins,” I guess that’s something I should come to except from the band.  Weird and fun.  A wonderful combo.  Check out the band’s MySpace page or their official site for more details about where and when you can see the super-popular ivy-leaguers live.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Okay, so speaking of trade paperbacks that are coming out…  If you went to some place that happens to sell comic books today, you probably saw the hardcover for Mark Millar’s much-ballyhooed Kick-Ass prominently displayed on the shelves.  The book, which in full disclosure I have never read a single frame of, has become something of a phenomenon.  Millar’s work has always been on the flashier side.  His work in Marvel’s Civil War, Wanted, Ultimate X-Men, and Old Man Logan were all pretty much “event” series that demanded the attention of even casual fans, so perhaps it was only a natural that this latest series practically left fans foaming at the mouth.  In fact, the book even spawned a film adaptation before the first volume was even finished from underrated director Matthew Vaughn (who you might have noticed previously adapted Neil Gaiman’s Stardust).

The series, which features art from John Romita Jr, is supposedly a Millar book through-and-through, as it combines hyper-violent action pieces with more everyday characters and some wickedly profane humor.  If you somehow, like me, haven’t read it yet… well, it’s basically almost mandatory that you go out and do so.  The book is now available in hardcover volume one form everywhere.  If you would like to find out a little more beyond what I’ve told you, the best places for such investigation are Mark Millar’s official website, or the official website for the book’s publisher Icon, which is a division of Marvel.  Oh yeah, and in case you haven’t seen it yet (and don’t mind some minor spoilers), below is the trailer for the upcoming Kick-Ass film.  Enjoy both.

UPDATE: Perhaps after I’ve read the trade I bought today, I’ll post some thoughts in the comments section.