Thursday, December 24, 2009

The List

Oh, yes, my children. It's come to this. The List. My admittedly haphazard collection of albums which best suited my tastes. These are the albums I will be listening to in one, five, and even ten years. These are not in an exact order, though I have arranged them so the general gradient is one of ever-increasing quality.

And it's important to remember that these are not necessarily the albums I would refer to as "The best" of the year; these are my favourites. Most of them happen to be the best, is the thing.

The List

(500) Days of Summer
Various Artists
This is hear because Dena insisted the list have fifteen entries; don't get me wrong, I would have included it at the outset, but for the fact that I don't include live albums, nor do I include soundtracks. And, yes, it's a bit twee, this ramshackle collection of stellar indie tracks, but it suits the movie so perfectly, and the songs work together so well, that you'd be willing to believe they were meant to be as they are here. Great, great movie, too.

The Fall
Norah Jones
I appreciate an artist who is willing to change their sound after as much success as Miss Jones has experienced. On The Fall, she ditches the piano that served her so well on her previous two efforts, and picks up the guitar. She's still mellow; this isn't an abrupt about-face. But it's enough of a change that it represents a serious risk. And it's all the better for it. Myself, I'm partial to the closer, "Man of the Hour," which simulates "Makin' Whoopee" for the modern era. Oh, and she's still got that voice.

Atlantic Ocean
Richard Swift
For starters, literally, this album opens with the perfect sound. The timbre of the noise in the first seconds of the title track is such that you can feel it going through you. You don't hear it, you experience it. The rest of the album is wonderful; on Dressed Up for the Letdown, Swift's previous album, he practiced Tin Pan Alley song-craft. Here, he's following in the hyper-melodic footsteps of Macca and Nilsson, and nothing bad can come from that when you've a talent as intriguing as Swift. He'll never be the brightest star of his generation, but I'll bet you money that, in ten years, he'll have a better discography than just about anyone still in the game. Certainly one of the most individual. And, no, this isn't one of the best albums of the year in the strict sense of the word, but I'll also bet I'll have forgotten about half the albums here before I forget this one.

Tarot Sport
Fuck Buttons
Yes, this was in my last post as something I need more time with, but I've spent time with it. And I can only imagine this album will continue to rise up the incline. It's proper place could quite possibly be down there with the top three or four. But, for now, here will do. A mighty fifty minutes of music, Tarot Sport is feedback and static-ridden, undoubtedly difficult to get into if you aren't used to this sort of thing. But once you get a few minutes into opener "Surf Solar," you're entranced, and the rest of it passes swiftly, hypnotically, and, most important, gloriously. Underneath the layers of static and noise, the melodies here are worthy of Olympic coverage on NBC, or the most epic movie scores. Without ever resorting to schmaltz, without ever getting easy, this will stir you into a frenzy, and you'll have no idea what to do with the feelings it leaves you with. Other than, quite possibly, listening to the album again.

Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors
I didn't give this the best review. I didn't "get" it. I still don't, really. But there's something about the idiosyncratic guitar, erm, "pop" here that I find compelling, and there's something about the impossibly tight female vocals that I find intriguing, and there's something about the overall sound that I find inviting, and there's something about the album itself that will keep me coming back, again and again, trying desperately to "get" what I know can't be far out of grasp.

Art Brut vs. Satan
Art Brut
Is it as good as their first album? Of course not. But little is, you know, so we can't hold that against them. There's nothing here to match the brilliance of, say, "I've seen her naked! Twice!! I've seen her naked!!! Twice!!!!," but, to suffice, we get lyrics like, "I knew where you lived, so when I used to walk home from school, I would go especially slow past your house, in case your bus would stop and you would get off and we could start chatting or something, but the one time that did happen I got scared and hid behind a tree." If that doesn't ring true with you, you don't deserve for it to. And you probably don't deserve Art Brut. They hate people like you.

Grizzly Bear
This album is admittedly here primarily because of two songs. For one, each time I sit down to listen, I rarely make it past the second track. Grizzly Bear can't be blamed for the perfection of "Two Weeks." With its Beach Boy choruses and perfect keyboard part (a bit ahead of the beat in the left headphone, on the beat in the right? Brilliant), it's easily the song of the year, but it detracts from the rest of the album. The other ringer, "Foreground," is gorgeous, and in the first fifteen seconds makes me want to cry. It's overwhelming. The whole album is intricate, beautiful, haunting, consuming, detailed, and rewards listening. These are the things modern music isn't supposed to do, but Grizzly Bear don't care; These boys are "real" musicians. My only concern? They seem to know it, and I can't tell you how many bands that realisation has ruined.

The xx
A sound based around two mediocre voices, one male and one female, a bass, and electronic drum loops should not be this good, and, yet, there it is. Granted, they have a guitar player, and he knows what he's doing. He doesn't play unless he should which is a rare quality. The question I must ask is, where the fuck did this come from? No, but really, I'd like to know. It's too good for a first album, yet all the evidence suggests (proves, even) that it is. The sound is sparse, something young bands are not meant to understand as an asset; young bands are supposed to get overwhelmed by the freedoms of the studio and pile on every possible sound they can fathom. These kids seem to have done that, and then stripped away everything they could spare; what you're listening to here is the frame of a first album, which is what most first albums should be in the first place. God willing, they'll be back, and better. Tough odds.

St. Vincent
Actor was about the point I decided 2009 was going to be a great year. By the time of its release in May, four of the five albums to follow had already been released, and the quality of these top six was such that the year didn't really need to offer much else to make it a personal favourite. St. Vincent creates intricate modern pop, following in the vein of those who believe that pop is the best avenue for musical exploration (it is, when it's done right). Her songs are airtight, and they go in unexpected directions as a normal course of business. But nothing here is unsettling past the first listen; once you've taken it all in once, it's just wonderful to listen to. There is so much going on musically here, I imagine I could listen to this album for years, and I would still be finding new sounds buried in the mix. And I like that. And, I'll note, the lyrics are just astonishing. "I'm a wife in watercolours, I can wash away. Seventeen cold showers couldn't wash you away." Awesome.

Crack the Skye
This is here because I normally find heavy metal intolerable. This is here because I certainly never enjoy listening to sludge metal. This is here because driving drums with absolutely terrifying fills are something that simply doesn't appeal to me. This is here because no one would expect me to enjoy an album that opens with the lyric "I flew beyond the sun before it was time." This is here because stories about wheel-chair-bound teenagers changing bodies with Russian sorcerers named Rasputin never make sense, and couldn't. This is here because, when you put your mind to it, metal, even the really heavy shit, can be smart, reward listening, and be more than just noise. This is here because sometimes, for fuck's sake, you just have to rock out. Possibly with your cock out.

It's Not Me, It's You
Lily Allen
Well, it's got the year's best title, that's for certain. And what we have here is something that isn't seen often enough; this is intelligent, clever, cute, witty, catchy pop. Yes. Pop, in the truest sense. It has hooks (and, oh, does it have hooks). It has choruses, choruses that are instantly memorable, choruses that are repeated three or four times per song. It sounds, as my roommate put it, like listening to Cotton Candy. But not the kind that'll make you sick. The kind that, secretly, has all your vitamins in it. But you'll never once be able to tell, unless you want to. If it weren't for that pesky last song, it'd be perfect. But there's always an off button, right? "I'm lying in the wet-patch in the middle of the bed. I'm feeling pretty damn hard done by, I spent ages giving head," is poetry for the ages. Or, at least, this one.

American Saturday Night
Brad Paisley
It has all been said before. It's true. There's nothing here that's going to rock the boat. There's no new sound. There's no new topic. There's the easy love ballad, "Then." There's the God Song, "No," an obligatory Paisley construct which comes once an album, I'm convinced it's to keep his audience happy. But there's also that Paisley mindset, where the same things are written about in new, enjoyable ways. It's all entertaining, it's all funny, it's all flawless from a technical standpoint. If you don't like country (or Country), you won't like it, as Paisley's values and focuses are exactly the same as everyone else. But he remembers to bring the hooks. He remembers to bring good memories. He remembers to bring his sense of humour, which never condescends, and never insults. He brings a wonderful sense of joy.Crucially, he brings that guitar sound. He's a better guitar player than you are, he's a better guitar player than I am, and I really hope it stays that way forever. But what's most important to the success of this album, is that Paisley, much like Dave Grohl (there's a comparison I imagine you didn't see coming), brings to it all a sense of complete sincerity. While you can feel the posture when you listen to Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney, Paisley clearly means everything he says, and it's refreshing, is what it is, to listen to.

It's Blitz!
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Nevermind that Yeah Yeah Yeahs put away the guitars for most of this album, resorting instead primarily to synths. Nevermind that, on an album full of synths, "Dull Life" features the best guitar line of the year. Nevermind that Karen O is a fascinating, absolutely singular talent with two band mates about whom the same can be said. Nevermind that the cover is fuckin' cool. Nevermind that the It's Blitz! E.P. made me cry (The aforementioned "Foreground" makes me want to cry, but the acoustic "Soft Shock" got the job done, and on melody alone). Nevermind that the YYYs have successfully managed to change their sound with every album without losing the qualities that make them unique, the hallmark of a great band. Nevermind that they've released three albums of A+ material. Nevermind that the YYYs are my favourite band of the last decade, and on course to become my favourite band period. Nevermind all that. It's Blitz! is still fucking amazing.

Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective
There aren't enough good things to say about this album. It embodies all the qualities I want an album to possess: it's musically adventurous; it's well-sequenced; it's a grower, despite being instantly lovable the first time through; it's catchy; it sounds completely unlike any other band; it's fun. I can't emphasise the "fun" factor enough. Here we have an album full of electronic noodling attached to rock-solid songs. There's a new definition of what's possible within the realm of western music. Seriously, outside of Animal Collective's work, there's not a lot of precedent for this. And the year's most uplifting, liberating moment comes in the form of "My Girls," when the boys let loose a primal "WHOOOOOO!" I can't adequately convey this album to you, and so there is little point in trying. Just know the first Tuesday of 2009 saw the release of its best album. You have to imagine the rest of the artists, both on this list and in the greater world, listening to the album, thinking to themselves, "Ain't that a bitch?"

2009: Part 1

There is one week left in 2009, ladies and gentlemen. Over the course of the last 51, I have listened to 87 albums worth of music; that's well over four days worth of music. I can say it was a great year; you can tell, because even the mediocrities were at least entertaining. What I will offer, in the post to follow this one, will not necessarily name the albums I would describe as the best of the year, though for most of them that is the case. No, what we will have is a look at the things which most held my attention, the albums which I will still be listening to in one, five, or even ten years.

But before I write that entry, I would like to highlight a few albums I believe have the potential to make this list, but still require more of my time before I can feel comfortable with bestowing judgment, etc. Don't think of these as the Also-rans, though. Fuck Buttons in particular has a great chance of being a favourite for some time.

Tarot Sport
Fuck Buttons
I'm listening to it right now. And it's entrancing. But I'm listening to it now for the first time. That's not a great lead with which to form an accurate opinion.

Speech Therapy
Speach Debelle
I only listened to it once, and it was whilst cleaning my room. It was a lovely, refreshing album. Everyone should listen to it. I should listen to it again.

Tongue N Cheek
Dizzee Rascal
It would appear that I simply didn't spend enough time with UK rap this year. Then again, in the past, UK rap hasn't exactly given me reason to.

No Line On the Horizon
I know, I know; I gave this a withering review when I first listened to it back at the beginning of the year, and it's on my Worst Of the Year list. But it's been placed at the top of the pile by too many critics for me not to have another go.

Some day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

...and fuck Frank Sinatra.

Rolling Stone is officially dead to me. I know they started losing credibility back in the late eighties, but it's over now. I struggled for a while to maintain a healthy relationship. I read the reviews when I was in the bathroom and needed something to do. I paid attention to the anniversary lists back in high school. Times were good.

This year, they've named U2's No Line on the Horizon as the best album of the year. Their number 2 album is Bruce Springsteen's capable-but-uninspired Working on a Dream. Their song of the year is a bloated seven-minute song that would have been nothing more than boring had it been three minutes long, U2's "Moment of Surrender." Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective, one of the most original, exciting, listenable albums of the decade, wasn't in the top 10. But Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 was. So I can sleep easy knowing that. *sigh*

We're no longer on speaking terms.

Deep Breath. Go.

I'm starting to feel the pressure.

The new issues of all the music magazines are coming out now, with their best-of lists, and this December/January is the big game; we're talking Best of the Decade lists, folks. Not just Best of the Year, but the last ten. That's a tall order for one multimedia critic to handle, and I'm not sure how to handle it. Certainly a numbered list will not suffice. I will spend hours debating whether Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid warrants a place at #38 or #37 (arbitrary numbers; I imagine it might even place a bit higher), and that's not productive for any of us.

I may use a stratified approach. And, no, Kid A will not be my number 1 album of the decade. Those of you who follow the music press probably just giggled appreciatively.

But this is not why we're here right now. I'll get to that once the semester has ended and I can put real time into those lists. I want to do right by them. Why we're here today, is I have a lot of catching up to do. And in the name of (relative) brevity, I'm going to do it all right now.

In music, we've had a bit of a resurgence, as far as releases of interest are concerned. For one thing, I purchased a copy of the new Bee Gees collection, Ultimate Bee Gees, and was reminded that they were a truly formidable, impressive band. I can listen to "Nights on Broadway" for days, I suspect. And I'm damn near making it happen. The new Rihanna album, Rated R, sounds fantastic. It's not as airtight as she tends to be, but this is her "I wanted to be an artist" album, and that's typically how it goes; you trade commercially undeniable stuff for the more expressive business. Again, though, the sounds alone are worth the price of admission.

There's an unexpected, late entry into the Best of the Year arena, XX by The xx. (That's them to the right, there. Don't you just want to hug 'em?) It's all a bit minimalist, like Joy Division stripped themselves down and cleaned up their act. It's also exceptional. I read a review of it which said it feels as though several other, noisier, less-accomplished albums should have come before this one, and I think that about says it all; this is the sound of a band arriving fully-formed, and it's thrilling. Yes, it's their debut. And, yes, it gets better every time you listen to it. Check this one out.

I've started digesting Monsters of Folk, and they're better than anything Bright Eyes has ever put out. I don't care for M. Ward, and I don't care for Bright Eyes, but the two of them together, diluted (perhaps?) by Drive-By Truckers' Jim James is really delicious. That other super-group for this year, Them Crooked Vultures, is also superb. What happens when you put Josh Holme from Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl from Nirvana (he's drumming, so saying "from Foo Fighters" gives you the wrong idea), and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin in the same studio? I don't know, but it sounds fuckin' amazing.

The new Weezer album is something to sneeze at. "(If You're Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To" is awesome, in that plastic-sort of way, but other than that, it's really drivel. Still on my to-do list are Fuck Buttons, Biffy Clyro, Norah Jones (good so far... very good), Kid Cudi, and Shakira. Why not?

I've also recently finished several books, but I want to direct your attention rather specifically to Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann. It's new from this year, and you would be hard-pressed to improve on it. The story is one of those multi-faceted, Magnolia-type narratives, where a number of characters are inter-connected in ways simultaneously inconsequential and incredibly important. The story-telling device McCann uses, having a different character narrate every chapter, has been done before, but he does it so brilliantly that it ceases to be a hook, a novelty, and becomes an incredible part of the story. Before I started the last chapter, I was excited just to find out who the narrator was. And I wasn't let down. A brilliant book with wonderful sentence structure and word choice. As forensic as that sounds, those things matter to me. It's why I never finished The Lovely Bones.

Movie-wise, I saw The Princess and the Frog and Up in the Air this past weekend, and both were wonderful. The Princess and the Frog was a very, very enjoyable movie, and it's a great way for Disney to reinvigorate the hand-drawn animation productions they never should have abandoned in the first place.

Up in the Air may be the best film I've seen all year. It's a wonderful, touching, funny, deep, and, most of all, entertaining film. And George Clooney is reliably great. Michael Clayton and Up in the Air have served to remind me that he is oddly underrated as an actor. Expect a lot of Oscar nominations for this one. Anna Kendrick is tightly-wound to the point of perfection, and deserves a nomination of her own. I'd say it should win Best Picture, but I haven't seen The Hurt Locker yet, and I have my suspicions.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ah, Life #1

I'm learning now as I dig deeper that this may not be true, but I really hope it is;

In early 1979, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" was the number one single until it was knocked off by Bee Gee's "Tragedy," for two weeks. "I Will Survive" reclaimed the top spot for another week.

I find this oddly appropriate.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Adendum

It has been pointed out to me that the reference in The Adams Family to Medea may well have been a reference, and, in fact, now that it's been pointed out, I believe it is quite likely that it was a reference, to the Medea of Greek literature, who killed her children. This makes the joke significantly funnier in that respect. Having said that, the rest of the dissection still stands.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Anatomy of a Failed Joke

This article may be a bit esoteric. But it's my blog. So deal.

Last night, my parents and I attended a showing of "The Adams Family," a new musical adaptation of the New Yorker strips/television shows/movies, currently in its Pre-Broadway run here in Chicago. The cast, featuring Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Krysta Rodriguez, and a spectacularly under-utilized Terence Mann, was the obvious highlight, and the show was enjoyable enough. It was by no means spectacular, but I was rarely less than entertained. It's still early in the run, so as the show continues to tighten up, it can only get better; I like to give faith to such things. But I'm not here to write a review of the show. I'll leave that to the pros.

I'm here to give you a spectacular example of how a joke can fail, on every possible level, and yet still draw a massive laugh from the audience.

Over the course of the show, I counted three jokes which relied on current events as a reference. Two were easy, and none felt like they belonged in the show. Yet all three drew massive laughs from the audience. In fact, they were probably the biggest laughs of the night.

1. Gomez is told that a boy Wednesday has a crush on will be taken back to Ohio by his parents, and Gomez replies, "Ohio! A swing state! Monstrous!" I, admittedly, giggled here.

2. A character comments that love is something "we all need, and that there isn't enough of." Morticia replies, "Like healthcare." This drew a huge laugh from, seemingly, everyone but me.

3. The grandmother is telling Pugsly about a potion which "takes the lid off the Id." She says that "One sip of this stuff'll turn Mary Poppins into Madea." Pugsley, and I do give the writers credit here, replies, "I don't understand your references." The grandmother replies, "Well, if you kids'd stop all the damn texting and pick up a book..." The rest of the line was lost in the uproar of laughter and, I'll add, a stunning amount of applause.

This third one is the one I'd like to focus on. It is the best example I've ever seen of a joke failing on every level, as far as a writer's concerned, and I'd like to take the opportunity to analyze it. Also, what afflicts the first two jokes is evident here, and so it would be redundant to review all three.

First and foremost, and here is where all three jokes err, the joke shows complete disregard for the characters involved. This is a play about The Adams Family. Their biggest, basest factor is that, as far as the world goes, they are completely aloof. Gomez wouldn't know what a swing state is. Morticia would not know about healthcare. Grandma Adams certainly wouldn't know who Mary Poppins is, let alone Madea. Pugsly doesn't have any friends except his sister, so he wouldn't be texting anyone. We never once see any of the Adams using anything electronic. It fails on truth to the characters, the most important factor in comedy.

Second, the joke relies on Grandma Adams admonishing Pugsly for not knowing who Mary Poppins and Madea are, which is fine, except none of the audience knew who Madea was either. So... right. If the joke had stopped at "I don't understand your references," this actually would have been a decent joke, as there is a running gag in the play that suggests Grandma Adams isn't a part of the family at all, which would explain how she knows who Mary Poppins and Madea are, and it would have been true to the family, with Pugsly's admitting that he doesn't know what she's talking about. It also would have been a sly wink to the audience that the authors figured most of them wouldn't know who Madea is. But it didn't stop there, so never mind.

Finally, Grandma Adams references two movies, only to admonish Pugsly for texting too much and not reading enough. Yes, I know Mary Poppins is also a book, but we all know it from the movie, and don't pretend you don't. So she references a classic Disney film and a certifiably non-classic, modern comedy film, and then chastises Pugsly for not reading enough... the connection does not exist between the two points, and the comedy shouldn't work. It doesn't, actually. If you're paying attention. Clearly I was the only one who was.

Yet, this drew the single largest laugh of the night. It drew the longest howls of approval. It drew rampant applause and cat calls. It was the worst joke in the play. It was out of character and out of situation. It was as broad as comedy gets. Somehow, our attention spans have gotten to the point where no one heard anything prior to "Well, if you kids'd stop..," and decided they approved.

This is why soundbites work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Saturday Night

Fact of the matter is, most of us write off country. This is not entirely our fault, collectively; There are two kinds of country, and one of them really, really sucks. The kind that sucks, "country," is the sort that tends to dominate the airwaves today. It's bland pop with a twang and lyrics that not only aim, but pander directly to, as much as I hate to bring politics into this, "Real America." The music is boring, and the lyrics are "folksy" in that patronizing sort of way. But I've been told I just don't understand the concept of easy entertainment, so maybe this is my shortfall.

At any rate, the good kind of Country, "Country" (with a capital "C," as opposed to the lower-case), is Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, and Hank Williams. I refer to this, with the wonderful sense of superiority you can only get from a condescending maxim, as "Real Country." What separates Country from country? Well, there are a lot of things. There's a genuine element in Country which is sorely missing in country. And country sounds like someone took a belt sander to Country, removing all the interesting bits that gave it a feeling all its own. They, and by "They" I suppose I mean "The Country Man" or some equally ambiguous, omnipotent bastard, made it really boring.

The future of "Country" is looking pretty bleak, really. Which brings me to an exception to the rule.

My parents listen to country. They don't enjoy Country, though both will lie to you and say they do. The point is I spent a lot of time in the car with them during high school, and most of the music was less than enjoyable. I started grabbing onto certain songs I could find a thrill in. This was during my musical awakening, of course, and anything I could grasp, to make the ride less torturous, was appreciated. There was "Friends in Low Places," which is just a great song, no matter your tastes. There was a nice cover of "Here Comes My Baby" by, uh... that band... yeah. But there was also "I'm Gonna Miss Her." It started simply enough, and, being fair, it started with a roll of my eyes. It opens slow, a man discussing his proclivity for fishing, and his wife's disapproval of said fishing. She meets him at the door, and gives him an ultimatum; you go fishing today, and I'm leaving. I listened to all of this with the withdrawn disdain only high schoolers seem capable of mustering (the rest of us have learned it's really not worth all the effort). But then the song did something unexpected.

The tempo picked up, and Brad Paisley, as that was his name, declared, "Well... I'm gonna miss her." It's such an inspired moment, so well-realised, so without artifice, that you smile. I smiled. Yes, I broke my condescension, my ever-important sense of superiority, and smiled. I even enjoyed it. So "I'm Gonna Miss Her" joined my list of exceptions to the rule, those country songs which I could enjoy. (For the record, I consider "Friends in Low Places" to be Country)

I started keeping an ear out for more Brad Paisley. Over the ensuing months, I started noticing not just that his songs were funny and had a personality, but that his guitar was on fire, seemingly as a regular condition. This is a man I would rank in the Top 100 guitar players going today, with a strong, strong eye on my Top 20 faves, all time. He's that good. And that subtle, too. These are country songs, after all. So there are solos, but they are short. It's his lead work during the verses that really impresses. Limber without being showy.

This year, Brad Paisley released his seventh album, American Saturday Night. The reviews for it were splendid, and so I decided to venture forth and acquire a copy of a country album. This is new territory for all of us, I'm sure. Before I continue, I should note, that this album is brilliant, and you should buy it. Now.

One of the things Nashville albums are known for, to the extent that it has to be accounted for when reviewing a country album, is filler. A typical Nashville record has four or five singles, and the rest is detritus, used to fill the space. This album doesn't have any of that. Every track here, and I never say this, could be a single in the right context. A few are too slow, too subtle for that to happen, but they could be.

The songs here manage to be clever and heartfelt. They're original while staying familiar, which is a high compliment for country. Remember, this is meant to be enjoyed. It's not Animal Collective; you aren't supposed to work at it. It is simply meant to be. And it is. The melodies will stick in your head, and so will the lyrics. Is it schmaltzy? Of course, but in just the right dosing. "Anything Like Me" is about Paisley's first son, saying "It's safe to say that,/ I'll get my payback,/ if he's anything like me." At the moment, it's my favourite song on the album. Paisley's greatest strength is his honesty; "The years are gonna fly by./ I already dread the day,/ he's gonna hug his momma, he's gonna shake my hand, he's gonna act like he can't wait to leave./ But as he drives out,/ he'll cry his eyes out,/ if he's anything like me." Say what you want, but not only is it enjoyable, it's affecting; it made me feel fuzzy inside. The only other album to do that this year? Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective. I just blew your mind.

So here we have an album that's hits, and only hits; this could have been released as a best-of, and I'd have believed it. And here we have a formidable songwriter operating at what I can only assume is the peaks of his powers. And here we have a backing band in peak shape, sounding like their having fun! Weird!

Brad Paisley makes country. He does. I can't pretend he doesn't. Yet, yet, his music, it's clever, it's original, it's genuine, it's touching, it's fun, for fuck's sake! And it has a bit of a honky tonk, swingin' personality to it, which makes it musically interesting. So maybe it's Country after all, and maybe the future isn't looking so bad as far as that goes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This American Life

"This American Life" is a program hosted by Ira Glass. Some of you will be familiar with it. Most will know it from National Public Radio, where it has been broadcasting for the last (almost) fifteen years now. I've listened to the program once or twice, though I can't claim to be a regular contributor to the ratings.

For two seasons, one in 2007 and one in 2008, This American Life was a television program on Showtime. Each season consists of six episodes, all but one of which are just shy of thirty minutes long. Each consists of anywhere from one to four stories, all revolving around a loosely observed theme for the evening. I'll not that these themes were very, very loosely observed.

It is, I should warn you, a quiet program. There's no flash to any of the stories, as they are all, get this, real. They are all true-to-life things which could happen to any of us at any time. The narrators are subdued, and the stories are refreshingly bereft of an angle. It's all honest reporting, or very natural story telling. This is not to say This American Life doesn't have a sense of humor; the second episode of the first season closes with five minutes of a woman reading her (real) eighth grade diary to a crowded room, and it is hilarious from start to finish.

Whether laughs are had or not, the real magic in This American Life is its honesty. The people under the watchful eyes of the cameras don't hide anything. They don't attempt to, either, which is just as important. The stories are varied, taking in retirement home residents who decide to make a movie, a pair of boxers fighting for their low-level careers, a thirteen-year-old who has vowed never to be in love... the most stunning episodes are also the most unexpected. There is an episode which started as a film about the filmmaker's favorite people, but ended up capturing the implosion of a marriage. Another, possibly the most touching episode, was started as an attempt by the filmmaker to illustrate how terrible a person his stepfather was, only to end up restoring some of the balance and honesty to his entire family. It was incredible.

This is a show that revels in the small, the seemingly insignificant things. The last episode is masterful, a story following the lives of seven separate John Smiths, each at a different age between 11 weeks and eighty. It serves as a wonderful epitaph for the program, and, because of the amount of footage taken of each individual, features some of the most honest moments. There is a beauty in a seventy-year-old John Smith watching footage of his children, taken in the 1960's, commenting on his daughter, and then noting his son. I want to bring your attention to how he describes his son's story: "He, well, he fell into a lifestyle I don't understand, and... he got sick from it." To watch this line spoken is to have your heart broken. He isn't judgmental of his son, he isn't upset that his son was gay; he is simply honest about it. He doesn't understand the lifestyle, but the boy was still his son, and he loved him. John and his wife visit the grave frequently, and when the son asked if he could come die at home, his parents didn't even give it a second though. Of course he could, he was their son.

The diary reading I mentioned is one of the funniest things I've seen in some time, and the final episode is one of the truest. In between, you'll find every aspect of American life shown in unexpected and delightful ways. It's a shame the production schedule was such that Ira Glass asked it to be removed from Showtime for the future, but rest assured I will be contributing to those ratings soon enough.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Up and Coming

So, listen, I'm not reliable. I know. And as my schedule gets busier, it gets worse. But, here's the deal; I just finished reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and I'm going to give it one hell of a review. It may take me a month or two to write it, though. So bear with me. Because it should be worth it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I've seen Men In Black maybe five times in my life. The first time I saw it, when it was in theaters, I thought it was great. The second time I saw it, I didn't like it that much. The third time, I thought it was great. The fourth time... etc. You may see a pattern developing.

Ignore the Ignorant is like Men In Black, but with extra Johnny Marr for flavor. Yes, The Cribs have been joined this time around by the former Smith, Pretender, Modest Mouser, Electronic(er?), none other than Johnny Marr. It's almost easier to list the people he hasn't worked with, to be honest. Come to think of it, he's been on every Pet Shop Boy since the mid-nineties, as well. But I'm getting off the point.

Ignore the Ignorant is, I suppose, good. The first time, I loved it. The second time, I thought it was thoroughly uninspired. The third? Well, it seems to be leveling out at "good." "Decent," maybe. The point is, if you like a punk attitude with slightly less-punk wrappings, this is the album for you. It's a step up from where they've been, certainly. But I probably won't remember it within the next six months.

I will most certainly remember the newest from The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. You don't really have a choice, honestly. From the moment Wayne Coyne starts talking about the difference between us on "Convinced of the Hex," this is clearly not the same Flaming Lips we've been exposed to for the last decade; they've cleaned up their act by getting really, really messy, and it's brilliant. It's haphazard, certainly, and overwhelming the first time, but once you sort it out, it's a great trip. Getting in a room and jamming it out suits these boys quite well. Not, by any means, for everyone, but if it were, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pure Pop for Now People

NOTE: The grading system has been eradicated. I began to feel it was too arbitrary, and when I was spending five minutes sitting at my keyboard deciding between a B- and a B, I knew it was a silly pursuit. Just read the reviews. They should give you the idea.

Thank you, patient readers, for waiting for me for so long. I apologize, it's been three weeks since my last post, but I have a pair of Power-Pop reviews, and this will be followed up in the coming days by reviews of the latest from The Flaming Lips, The Cribs, and Raekwon. Yes, that Raekwon.

My Old, Familiar Friend
Brendan Benson

Brendan Benson, for those in the know (and who isn't?), is the other leader of Jack White's Raconteurs project. He used to be, at any rate, before White did that thing he inevitably does where he takes control. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's a habit worth noting. At any rate, Benson is responsible for "Steady As She Goes," the best moment in the Raconteurs' collected output, and he was behind much of the first album. His is a very pure pop style; this is a man who listens to a lot of Big Star. The early Big Star, that is. Or, if he does listen to Third/Sister Lovers, he doesn't let it show.

At any rate, this is perky, perky, perky stuff. Emphasis on that last "perky." Opener "A Whole Lot Better" is a barnstormer of a single. It has the instant familiarity of a great single, sounding like it came out sometime around, oh, 1976. Yeah, that sounds about right. It also, as a perk, features a legitimately wonderful, simple lyric; "I change my mind every time that the wind blows," he sings with such enthusiasm that you can't help but think that may not be such a bad thing. It's on the radio from time to time, and you, yes, you, should check it out.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the album goes downhill from there. Not because it fails in its mission; far from it. I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of pop; the same influences that propel Benson forward are also responsible for Spoon, but Spoon had the sense to listen to some Pixies records once in a while, which keeps things, erm, grimy. It's too Pure, this pop is, which isn't really the problem; Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army" is a Pop record, no bones about it, but Costello included weird harmonies, and wasn't afraid to use "nigger" in a sentence. Benson would probably shrivel into a ball, which is to say his lyrics don't make up for the sugar. This is a problem I will undoubtedly be alone in having, as is often the case. A very good Pop record, then, but not something I'll listen to much. Well, "A Whole Lot Better" may prove an exception...

The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Let's be clear, "Grace Kelly," Mika's debut single from, what, 2007?, is brilliant. If you're its audience, it fills you with energy, enthusiasm, glee, vim and vigor, and if you're not its audience, it must just annoy the piss out of you. These are the things Great Pop is supposed to. Well, Great Pop which is aware of its existence as Great Pop is supposed to, anyway. This is why Coldplay are brilliant at what they do; Mika, Coldplay, U2, and Queen are all of a similar vein. Keep in mind, Mika is definitively the least deserving of that company, I'm not putting these people in tiers. I'm simply referring to the particular race they run; music written for the masses, not for the writer. There's nothing wrong with this, in principle. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is God coming through your speakers.

I bring up Queen because Mika and Freddy Mercury were cut from the same overtly melodramatic clothe, and Mika doesn't hide it. This is mostly because he finds the thought comforting, and a sort of Manifest Destiny. At any rate, his songs are Pop to the point where even I cringe. Listening to Mika is a lot like listening to an entire ELO album; when you're done, your brain kinda hurts, even though you're pretty sure you had a good time, and you think you want to do it again, but you don't know why. Each Mika album contains one ringer, though, and if his first had "Grace Kelly," The Boy Who Knew Too Much has "Rain," which is just Euro-Disco Pop, but better. It's all minor-tones, with whirling synths and a pulsing back beat which will get your feet moving whether you want it to or not.

Much like Mr. Benson, the album is immaculate in its construction, and every track is a technical ringer. Whereas Benson aims for guitar hooks which could land a whale, Mika uses everything, and there isn't an aspect of his songs which couldn't qualify as a hook; it depends on how you feel about hooks. I, for one, am cynical that way. Pure Pop is the hardest to pull off; you have to make it tricky while allowing everyone to think they could do it themselves. Both boys succeed wildly at that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

There is a stack of CDs sitting on my desk. I am falling behind. Thanks to work and academia, my rate of musical, literary, and cinematic consumption has dive-bombed into the basement. It is not a coincidence that my posts for this blog have dropped off as well, but beyond that, most of what I've listened to lately has failed to inspire. Here are two higher-profile albums I've listened to that didn't seem inclined towards a full-length review, and a book I know none of you will read, but I'm inclined to recommend anyway.

The new album by The Dead Weather, better known as Jack White's most recent project, goes by the ominous moniker of Horehound. Great name, but I'm not so sure about the album. It's more unusual than it is good or bad, which for some is a great thing. For me, that means it's alright. I don't typically appreciate weird for the sake of weird. It's a throwback to lo-fi sixties garage groups, combined with elements of straight-forward rock for which White is known, and while it succeeds spectacularly in that capacity, that's not a sound I necessarily needed back. So it could go either way for you, really. (Grade: B-)

The latest from Muse, The Resistance, is quite the disappointment. I enjoy not just the music of Muse, but their attitude in pulling it off. They take Over-the-Top to a whole new level, and firmly have their tongue-in-cheek while doing so. I love Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations, their last two, both of which served to provide the audience with a sense of the absurd mixed in with killer singles. Muse seem to have taken a step sideways with this one, and possibly a few steps back. Is it more grandiose than before? Unquestionably. The music is filled with the flourishing accompaniments of a real orchestra, and songs like "United States of Eurasia" are inherently ridiculous, as one expects from these space cases. But the lyrics are urbane where they used to be negligible, and the music is bland in places where it used to surprise. Not their best, then. (Grade: C-)

In books, I've finally finished volume 1 of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It may have been written just short of 200 years ago, but this in-depth look at the American system of government as it came into adulthood is fascinating, and well worth the time. A balanced critic and admirer, Tocqueville never comes across as one-sided, always giving air time to all pertinent perspectives. None of you will read it, I know, but it's really rather brilliant. (Grade: A)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Paul Simon, the eponymous solo debut by Simon & Garfunkel mastermind Paul Simon (I say all this like you don't know who he is... *shakes head*), is the only album I can credit with having saved my life. In December and January of this past winter, Paul Simon preserved my sanity. I'll spare you the details and simply note that I was in a bad place. I was in a very, very bad relationship, and I was alone in Chicago for five weeks. There were three-or-four day stretches when I would not see even the hall outside my apartment door. These were not high times. I wrote an unprecedented amount of material in those five weeks; between the solitude and the ever-shifting emotional space I occupied, it was a prolific period, certainly. I threw myself as fully into my work as I ever have, and that was very rewarding, but the writing I did in that period was intensely personal, and required me to stare straight in the face of the very things which were tearing me apart inside. The only thing that brought me back at the end of each day, and every day ended with me frustrated, exhausted, and unable to stop thinking, was listening to Paul Simon as I fell asleep, night after night.

I often listened to it during the day, as well. I listened to it three or four times a day, on occasion, though I usually did my best to restrict the habit to once a night, when it was a balm, a salve to my sanity. During the day, it simply kept me from falling apart entirely. Any time I felt myself losing what composure I had, I put it on, and it would stop the bleeding, if only for a few hours. But, at night, laying in bed, with nothing to focus on but breathing and the music, it took on a healing power I've never found in any other music. Everything was alright, everything would work out, and I was going to survive this.

To be fair, I'd never been in as intense a situation as I was at that time, and, if Paul Simon hadn't been there, I'm sure I would have found something else. But it was there, and it was all I needed. I didn't have much else in the way of input during that time; television, movies, and all other music allowed my mind to wander, and I found it hard to focus. Books weren't even close to an option. I couldn't focus for a sentence. When I wasn't writing, I was probably listening to Paul Simon.

Not surprisingly, once that period was over, I didn't listen to it much. It wasn't a conscious choice, but there's no sense in arguing that I wouldn't have found the emotions attached to it overwhelming and unpleasant. It became a sort of talisman, a box in which I poured everything negative from that time, and I left it on the shelf, afraid to touch it, to disturb what was inside. I remembered the important role it played, but the music was lost in the shuffle. So to speak.

A little over a week ago, due to circumstances in my life which have brought the tail end of that chapter to a close, I listened to Paul Simon for the first time in eight months. Every note of it was still familiar to me, I could sing every word; it was almost as if the album had never left, but, this time, it wasn't serving a function. It was there to be enjoyed, not to be relied on. And I discovered, rediscovered, how truly amazing a piece of work it really is.

On a technical level, I'm only now really appreciating all there is to appreciate about it. It was a blanket before. Now it's a tapestry. There is a remarkable, subtle variety to the songs here; it was meant to be appreciated as a whole, and that shows, as the songs are all dissimilar yet still familiar with one another. Paul Simon's voice is calming, weary, withdrawn even; he wrote the album in the aftermath of a divorce, and the sadness, hurt, resolve, and real, true pain are all found throughout these songs, without ever being reduced to a cliche. He manages to dissect the pains of dissolved love with a combination of empathy and intelligence which many strive for, but almost none achieve.

I bought the LP today, as I've only ever heard it as mp3s. The fullness of the sound, and the details I could hear, as this thing which was so familiar and important to me took on a whole new beauty and quality, a whole new existence, almost brought me to tears. I can't recommend it enough.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Eeyah oh-whoah, ah, oh, eeyah oh-whoah, ah, oh

Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors

Bitte Orca came out in early June. My review has been delivered in a manner we should not quite consider timely, but it was necessary; it took me three months of repeated listening to really digest this album, to understand what I thought about it. Of course, as will happen sometimes, what I think of it is still frustratingly ambiguous.

There are certain songs, such as the opener, "Cannibal Resource," which I fully enjoy. I even catch myself, from time to time, humming its hook, an oddly-timed set of, well, noises, really. This is not an accessible album, yet it is unquestionably Dirty Projector's most pleasant listen. I use the term loosely, of course. I listen to this entire album waiting for the songs to break into something I love. My coworker, Garret, overheard this album and noted, "It sounds like something I'd almost like," and I think he hit the nail on the head. I admire its pep, I see what it was going for, but I don't get it.

Grade: B-

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

The genre of Romantic Comedy, or "Romcom" as all the time-pressed youngsters call it these days, is something best compared to a well-worn pair of dress shoes; over time, they've worn in to a comfortable shape, you know what to expect when you put them on, and you rarely regret having put them on. This is not necessarily a complement. We're talking about leaving a movie simply not minding that you've just lost ninety minutes, as opposed to having found great value in them.

It is a great, great pleasure to see a movie that manages to do something new with those shoes. (500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy, but it is a smart one, it is fresh, it is idiosyncratic without being fey. It is testament to director Marc Webb's abilities that this movie came across perfectly; the jokes rely on perfect timing to not seem twee.

Zooey Deschanel is pitch-perfect as the titular Summer; you will have a hard time not falling in love with her early on. Much has been made of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's evolution into one of the finest actors of his generation, and his performance here justifies everything you've heard; he's an actor who knows how to inhabit the emotion of the moment, without making a show of it. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene on a train where he manages to imbue more genuine emotion into a pause then most actors could get out of a monologue. Stunning.

The story manages to go places you don't quite expect, and, assisted by its non-chronological sequence of presentation, it keeps you engaged and interested, without ever managing to be cheap. I would be remiss if I did not mention the music selection, all of which is perfect; the soundtrack consists of Regina Spektor, The Smiths, Doves, Hall & Oates, and Feist, to name a few; all the song choices fit the story and the mood exquisitely. The music supervisor for this film, Andrea von Foerster, did a superb job; she earned her paycheck during an absolutely hilarious segment involving "You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oates. I haven't laughed that hard in a movie theater in years.

In short, there's nothing about this movie I didn't like, and there are very few things about it I didn't love. You should do yourself a favour and see it; life will just plain feel better.

Grade: A

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Me and Them Lonesome Blues

Joni Mitchell

This is not, you may have noticed, a review of a new album. I have decided to eliminate a regular Classics-themed article, and instead will simply write up Classics when I am driven to do so. This should, I believe, ensure that the write-ups are impassioned, and I am writing them simply out of a deeply felt want to spread the wealth, as it were.

My roommates and I recently visited Reckless Records, a well-known record store here in Chicago. I tend to stay away from record stores most of the time; no matter how cautious I am upon entry, I am bound to leave no less than fifty dollars lighter. These are purchases I enjoy making, of course, but it's not something I want to make a habit of. I've been trying to keep my vinyl-related impulses in check since I went a bit eBay-happy two years ago. At any rate, it has been quite a while since I bought a record, and I felt it time for a hit.

I walked away with some Elvis Costello LPs, a pair of Elvis Costello singles, the single for "Flashdance... What a Feeling" from Flashdance (what a chorus, huh?), and two Joni Mitchell albums. Joni Mitchell is someone I resisted for a long time. When her most recent album, Shine, came out in 2007, the multitude of articles I read about her left me with a bad taste in my mouth; her persona seemed very self-righteous, to a degree that I felt made it unlikely it wouldn't leak its way into her music. Not self-righteous like, say, Elvis Costello is self-righteous; that's more an issue of too much confidence. I'm talking about the kind of self-righteous that found its way into folk music in the sixties. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there's a song on the Elektra Records compilation, Forever Changing, that is EXACTLY what I reference. I can't remember what it's called, but the entire compilation's only eight or nine hours long, so you should just listen to the whole thing and you'll come across it.

Last June, I was compelled to listen to Mitchell for the first time. I started with the one you hear the most about, provided you run in circles where you hear about Joni Mitchell; Blue. I was surprised, immediately, by the energy present. Here is an album whose cover does not exactly scream up-beat, yet the opener, "All I Want," overflows with enthusiasm, with a certain amount of humour. It sounds like Joni Mitchell had a good time recording that song, which is probably the best kind of energy any record could ever hope to get across. If the band sound like they're having fun, then the audience probably will, too.

The songs contained here are remarkable on a number of levels; for one, the lyrics reward inspection. Joni Mitchell is held up as a peer of Leonard Cohen, as apparently there is something about Canada that fosters introspective, poetic rambling, but I find her lyrics to be more involving. Laughin' Lenny slips into trite metaphors a bit too often for my comfort. Mitchell's lyrics here are never less than exemplary.

Another great feature is the recording itself; this album was done by experts, and everything sounds so lush. It's an album that functions both as active, involved listening, and would be great to throw on in the background of, say, a dinner, if you're one of those types of people (I'm not, but I'd be willing to try). In my experience, only Randy Newman's Sail Away has more clearly illustrated the difference between an mp3 and a vinyl record.

Mitchell's voice is the third draw; it can, and does, do everything. Her range is spectacular, and her power of expression belies all explanation. You can feel the catharsis, but, and this is key, unlike so many albums since, you're never overwhelmed by it. While it is often personal, and never shies away from expressing an emotion, at no point does Blue come across as an album Mitchell wrote for herself. That is unquestionably one of its greatest strengths.

The guitars give way to piano as the album moves on, and the results are even more engaging. My favourite cut is "River;" Joni Mitchell incorporates part of "Jingle Bells" into the piano interludes, giving it a spectacularly sparse, wintry feel. It's the most immediately atmospheric, the song most capable of dominating a space with its mood. It's also achingly beautiful, and a perfect example of what this album holds in store. Absolutely essential.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ba! Humbug!

Arctic Monkeys

It is a strange relationship I have with this band, it really is. They never blow me away on record for more than a song or two; listening to all of 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare leaves me feeling somehow underwhelmed, and the same goes for Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. For a song or two, they get the job done, and they get it done well. But not, for my money, over the course of an album, and every now and then I find their song structures to be terribly twee. For every time I find "Fluorescent Adolescent" to be an enjoyable, summer-tinged romp, there is a time I find it to be just shy of the mark, erring to the side of grating. Ah, well.

Having said that, they blew me away when I saw them at the Riviera here in Chicago two years ago. I mean, really, they were staggeringly brilliant. Not much in the way of banter or charismatic stage presence, but they were as tight a live band as you'll ever hear. The point is, heading into this latest offering, their third, I'm still not wholly convinced I believe in these Arctic Monkeys as the next saviours of pop music.

The only song I've ever loved, unconditionally, to come from the pen of Alex Turner and company is "If You Found This It's Probably Too Late," a barnstormer that served as the intro to their Brianstorm EP. It promised dark, heavy things, a sound which I think suits this increasingly-less-than-merry band. There aren't many modern bands making heavy music you can sink your teeth into, and I'm not talking about music that pummels you, so much as music that simply feels heavy. Like Queens of the Stone Age. Which is appropriate enough, since QOtSA singer, guitarist and all-around mastermind Josh Homme serves as the producer here. I like his effect on the band. It bodes well. This set's a bit lacking in parts, but the direction they're aiming is one I like very much. And Matt Helder is an amazing drummer. Listen to it, it may ultimately prove essential. What's so promising here, though, that neither previous album has managed, is that, in listening to it from the beginning to the end, I find I am more fond of what I am hearing as it ends than I am of what I hear when it begins. That is a good sign.

Grade: B+

Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
Written by Brock Clarke

I read the reviews included in this book, and I can't help but feel that I missed something. The included reviews are absolutely glowing. They all seem to have loved this book. I, uh, I don't understand. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recommends the book "to anyone, and especially anyone who wants to read the best, newest manifestation of great American writing." ...right. Listen, people, I've read Mark Twain, which I think we can all agree was one of the first manifestations of great American writing, and, let me tell you, Brock Clarke is no Mark Twain.

There are a lot of things wrong with this book. For one thing, I found the main character, Sam, to be absolutely infuriating. He gets himself into a tough spot by lying, which, we can admit, happens at one point or another to everybody. I, for example, have a single customer at work who thinks I have a very thick Australian accent, and he shows up once every week or two. When I see him, I panic, and go back into the accent, rather than explaining to him that I had an Australian friend over that week, and had picked it up from her. Anyway, Sam, the protagonist, gets himself into a complicated situation by lying, and, when confronted with an opportunity for an out, he lies some more. I almost stopped reading there, on page 25, but I have a bit of a quota to maintain, so I persisted in going on.

I have to compliment Clarke on his ambition; he attempts in the course of these undercooked 300 pages to tackle just about every major emotional truth in existence. And some of them are very well conceived; to quote my own lyrics, may I be so bold, the concept is good, but the execution is off. A number of these moments happen, and are then followed by Sam, in first-person narrative, saying, "It was then that I realized...," and explaining the moral of that little story. It's somewhat akin to the way Stan and Kyle used to end each episode of South Park, only without the knowing wink and smattering of self-awareness. He either didn't trust the audience to think for themselves, or he's a lazy writer... the former makes him pretentious, and the latter makes him, well, lazy, and I'm not sure which is worse. With a little more showing, as opposed to telling, this book could have been twenty-to-thirty pages shorter, and a lot stronger.

It is meant to be an absurd book, with characters that are outlandish, but even outlandish characters have to hit the right mark, and Clarke fails on that level. It is, ultimately, an entertaining read, if you can get past the fact that you don't really care about what's happening, that the characters could never exist in real life (in the bad way), and that what you're reading could have been written by a high school student. I know, I'm a snob, but it only has 2.5 stars on Amazon, so I can't be the only one.

Kudos, though, for the idea: "I went to jail for accidentally burning down Emily Dickenson's house, and two people died in the fire because they sneaked in to have sex in her bed" is one of the best concepts for a crime I've ever heard. A shame it was wasted here.

Grade: C-

Friday, August 21, 2009


Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

I'll start by telling you, at point-blank, that the visuals alone are worth the cost of admission to see Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. The backgrounds are often rendered in an almost child-like manner, with crayons and loose shapes; it's stunning to see. The animation itself is perhaps the best of Miyazaki's career; if it's second to anything, it's second only to the visual splendour of Princess Mononoke, and that, without exaggeration, is one of the most beautiful movies in all of cinema, animated or otherwise. So, then, it looks damn purdy.

What of the story? As with every Miyazaki film, it requires from the audience a certain amount of patience; the world doesn't explain itself to you, so much as you come to terms with the idea that this film's reality works in such and such a way, and you might as well accept that. Each of Miyazaki's movies has required such an effort, if you can call it that, from the audience, and each has required it more than the last, but Howel's Moving Castle, Miyazaki's last picture and arguably one of his weakest, seems to have represented his more esoteric tendencies at their peaks. In short, less diffused wording, Ponyo is simply easier to follow, and easier to enjoy.

The story is sort of about a boy who finds a mermaid, and then they have an adventure together. That's an awful, awful misrepresentation, and it doesn't relate to you the charm, the humour, and the beauty at the core of it, but I don't do summaries, really, so I won't try. What you need to know going in is that this is as magical a story as Miyazaki has written, and it's the spiritual heir to his masterful My Neighbor Totoro, which is to say it is his second "children's" film. That is a comment meant not in a belittling sense; a young child is unlikely to find Nausicäa all that entertaining, and Spirited Away could even frighten them, but Ponyo is adorable enough, and colourful enough (Oh, sweet merciful Jesus, the colours), and relatable enough, with both main characters being five, that younger members of the studio audience will enjoy it just as much as the bigger ones. I should know; there were a number of young'ns at the show I went to, and, if the sounds they made were any indication, they loved it. One girl, in fact, very helpfully pointed out rather loudly that "Ponyo is tired." It, uh, it was funnier if you were there.

Miyazaki is a brilliant man, no question. He can bring out the magic in anything, and he knows well enough to let it flourish. After the relative misstep of Howel's Moving Castle, and the participatory requirements of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Ponyo is as purely enjoyable a film as Miyazaki has ever made, and it takes all the best qualities of his canon- the magic, the humour, the beauty- and presents them in their simplest form. One of his best films, and that's no small accomplishment.

Grade: A+

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Haf Ta? Of Course You Don't Fuckin' HAF Ta!"

Indulge me, if you will, in a discourse on the language. I want you to read the following sentences, quietly, to yourself, only in your head, then read them again, out loud:

"I have two."
"I have to."

Having read them out loud, once you knew the intent of each sentence, did you notice something? Did you feel the way your pronunciation of "have" in the second sentence became more of a "haf," more of an eff than a vee? This is not a bad thing. From what I can tell, this distinction between uses exists in every native English speaker, regardless of where they come from, how they were raised, and it seemingly happens regardless of the propriety of their diction (trust me on that one).

So I have a proposal, a modest one that involves little more than changing the English language, to distinguish between "have," and "haf," to recognize them as two independent words, with different meanings. These meanings, of course, would be linked, as they have the same root, or, rather, "haf" is a progeny of "have."

It could be seen as nitpicking, and, indeed, it is, but here's my argument: in addition to having developed entirely independent pronunciations, both words managed to form their own meanings. "Haf" is a more specific brand of "Have." For the dictionary crowd, here's how it would look on paper:

Have (verb): To possess; I have two.

Haf (verb): To possess the need; I haf to.

Tell me this doesn't make sense. Do it. I know, you probably haven't thought about it before, and that's why I'm here, to think about these things for you. If God has a sense of humour, and I think he's proven on more than one occasion that he does, you'll start to be bothered by this distinction. You'll be having pleasant conversation with friends or families, when one of those present will use "have" and "haf" in relatively rapid succession, and your attention will be drawn to it, and you will be bothered. I haf to hope so, at any rate.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wilco (The Blog Post)

Wilco (The Album)

It's rewarding, to keep pushing at something until you "get it." I didn't get past "Wilco (The Song)" the first five or six times I attempted to listen to this album. There was something about it that didn't sit right. I couldn't tell you what it is, and now that it's gone, I thoroughly enjoy it, but something wasn't hitting me in the right spot. Having said that, this morning, I cracked it open again, and I was delighted.

I cannot claim to be, nor have I ever posited, that I am an expert on Wilco. Theirs is a brand of music which has always eluded me. I own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born, and Sky Blue Sky, but I've never really enjoyed any of them beyond the superficial. Having said that, I am one of the only people I know of who enjoy- enjoy- the buzzing, clicking soundscape at the end of "Less Than You Think," so I don't find their work completely alien. One of the strong points of Wilco has always been that, for all their sonic experimentation, Jeff Tweedy has always kept the melodies very plain, in a good way. The frames of these songs are simple; it's the clothes that are damn fancy.

Wilco (The Album), opening with "Wilco (The Song)," and put out by the presumably recently-rechristened Wilco (The Band), is assured. That's probably the best way to describe it. They know what they're doing, and they do it. This is not to say they have reached the point of Knowing How to Make a Good Record. No, no, nothing like that. Wilco have always kept that part of the process interesting. But here, with this album, we get the sense that things have leveled off, and now Tweedy might actually be having fun. The opening song is meant as a lark, and it's a good one. Just remember, "Wilco, Wilco, Wilco's gonna love you baby."

It's a bit of a return to the alt-country from which all post-Foxtrot works have deviated. "I'll Fight" is almost an entirely "normal" alt-country ditty, which, again, isn't a bad thing. This is the Wilco album I'm most likely to pop back on again in a year or two. "You Never Know" is one of the best George Harrison songs George Harrison never wrote. That sliding guitar part screams out All Things Must Pass, something you don't get that much of anymore. It's a nice touchstone. Having said that, this doesn't reach the artistically daring heights of their earlier albums, and, it turns out, beneath the flashy exterior, Tweedy's much more normal than some would like to think.

Grade: B

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Glenn Beck: Why Can't I Hate You?

To the left, you see Glenn Beck. Take a moment. Take it in. Those who may wish to may praise him, or, you know, vomit.

For those of you who do not know of Glenn Beck, he is a conservative pundit on television. Glenn Beck is the most recent to hit the popular stride, following in the hallowed path of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Beck isn't quite as hard-lined right in his beliefs as his forefathers, but that's part of what I don't like about him; Much like Anne Coulter, you don't get the impression that Beck actually believes in what he's saying so much as he knows he isn't, and knows he'll get attention by loudly not being, a liberal. Like America during the Cold War, he's not defined by what he is, but by the fact that he's no commie.

Here's my thing about Glenn Beck: I want to hate him. In fact, I think a bit of me does. Most of me, even. What the hell? All of me. I hate Glenn Beck. I also hate Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I despise, on an even deeper level, Anne Coulter. But this is all irrelevant, because I can never tell them that. I can never say to Glenn Beck, "Glenn Beck, sir, I hate you." Even if, when you say it, it is a completely rational, thought out, well-contemplated notion, it does not matter. Because you cannot use words like "Hate" around Glenn Beck.

I should point out now, this is not meant to be a one-sided attack. I just don't know the names of any extremist liberal pundits. But, rest assured, I hate them too. But I still can't tell them.

Because using words of intense passion around men and women like Glenn Beck gives them an excuse. It gives them an excuse to say things like, "I told you so." If you react to their extremism with extremism, if you try to fight fire with fire, they throw their hands up, and they say, "Well, sir, if you're going to be irrational about this, and you're not going to be considerate and civilized, and give me the common courtesy of real conversation, I'm not going to take part in this." You have to remain right in the middle of the road, and uninteresting. If Beck riles you up, you are simply playing right into his hands.

If I say "Glenn, I really hate you," in many ways I am paying him the greatest compliment, and providing him with the greatest service, possible. And so I have to keep it all inside, where it can stew, and boil, and grow, until finally the day comes where I can't hold it in anymore, and I look Glenn Beck square in those beady little eyes of his, and I say, "Glenn Beck, I hate you." And on that day, he'll look at me and say, "See, I knew it, people like you just can't handle being disagreed with, can they?," and he'll have won.

That's why I can't hate Glenn Beck; because I really, really do.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Written by David Sedaris

Inspired by the final, titular essay, in which Sedaris details his week spent at a nudist colony, I am writing this in the buff. It seemed the only proper thing to do, really. Granted, I'm getting some odd looks from my roommates, but I'll soldier on.

Reading a book by David Sedaris can often become a futile effort to seperate the facts from the exaggerated facts. You have to let it go, not worrying about whether or not any of these stories are true. Of course, they all are; some are just significantly more embellished than others. It took me two books to come to terms with the concept of David Sedaris, fictional character, a completely seperate being from David Sedaris, author. Are they similar? I don't doubt it, even a bit. Same with his family, including his famous sister, Amy Sedaris, whom you might know from Strangers With Candy. They are represented here not as they were, or as they are, but as Sedaris, the character, envisions them to be. This is not to say any of them are far off the mark, but you can't take everything at face value, and the effort relaxes, and you start enjoying his writing for the clever absurdity it is.

There is humour everywhere in these pages, though it does not quite reach the heights of MTPOD. There were two moments that made me laugh harder than anything I've ever read, one in the immediate- a black conman comes into a job to work with Sedaris speaking like Sambo-, and one in the long run; I have been laughing at a visual involving Sedaris' attempt to flee Greece, in a manner not entirely unlike that of the Jesus Lizard, for four days now.

Like most humourists, Sedaris is improving with age, but Naked is still an excellent collection. I recommend starting here, and working your way up; he'll just keep getting better that way.

Grade: B

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fancy a Game of Cricket, Then?

The Duckworth Lewis Method
The Duckworth Lewis Method

There has never, apparently, been an entire album dedicated to the sport of Cricket. A handful of songs, sure, but never an album. And this would seem simultaneously surprising and sensible; surprising, as cricket is a popular game around the world, and sensible, because, well, it's cricket. It doesn't exactly scream ROCK N' FUCKIN' ROLL at the top of its lungs.

Fortunately, there are people like Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh, two Irish musicians with a strong affinity for cricket, and who are willing to share that fondness with the world. So, here we have The Duckworth Lewis Method, an album of chamber pop pastiches which pay homage to that most English of sports.

The album is named, for those wondering, after a complicated algorithm which is the accepted method for determining the winner of a match that is rained out. I looked it up, and it's a wonder anyone ever managed to come up with it. In most sports, you could just reschedule the game, but cricket matches go on for days, with breaks for lunch, and rescheduling a game is nearly imposible. Matches can go on for weeks, literally, and so it is no small miracle that this album never wears out its welcome. This is no small credit to Hannon, who was clearly in charge of the proceedings; you could be forgiven for mistaking this as a Divine Comedy album, the band Hannon fronts for his day job.

These tunes are fun. They are definitely pastiches, no question; there isn't anything new here. But it's all done so well, with such a sense of fun, that you can easily give yourself over and enjoy. What's critical to this album's success, outside of the music, is that Hannon and Walsh are fans not just of cricket, but of the lifestyle, that most English of ways, that it represents. The album eulogises a sport and a world that could be falling away for good. It doesn't say, to its credit, whether or not this is a bad thing, and it never tackles the point explicitly, but it is there, floating in the back of your mind, rapping gently on your thoughts.

Grade: B+

Cien Años de Soledad

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Written by Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Gregory Rabassa

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a simple idea for a book. There is a village, an isolated village, located in the forests of South America, possibly on an island in the Caribbean; if the book ever specified where it was, I missed the cue, but maybe I'll pick it up the second time around.

This village, when the book starts out, is relatively young, having been founded within the last ten years before the book picks up. Macondo, it is called. The village was founded by José Arcadio Buendía, husband of Úrsula Iguarán, and within Macondo, while the Buendía family are by no means rulers, they do serve as figureheads, as community leaders. The town operates without government interference, and is fairly detached from the world, save for the annual arrival of the gypsies, who bring with them the wonderments of the modern world.

From there, the book follows one hundred years of the Buendía family, and through them, it tells the story of Macondo, and it tells the story of the world in microcosm. This is an astonishing accomplishment, this book. I will try my best not to give into hyperbole, to use words like "amazing" or "wondrous," without really meaning them, as empty use of those terms would do this book a great disservice. Just know, when I use those words here, I really mean it. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those rare pieces of art which make me pause, and reconsider all other books I've read previously, and finding myself amazed at how few could come close to standing in its company; there aren't any I've read which could equal it, certainly. It has, in effect, caused me to reconsider my standards.

The themes tackled are too large to go into here. I certainly couldn't do them justice, and so I will not attempt to. The story is a grand tapestry, following dozens (somewhere in the neighbourhood of three-dozen at last count) of characters across a hundred years. The strength of narrative style lies in its po-faced nature. Nothing shakes the voice. No detail is any more miraculous than any other, which is the point. There are many moments of magic throughout this novel. My favourite involves two twins, one of whom takes a sip of some lemonade, only for the other to announce, with no communication between the two, that it "needs sugar." Magic is a major theme of this book, and the way it is woven in and out of the daily lives of the Buendía family is touching and delightful.

The translation by Rabassa is tremendous, and it serves as a credit to both García Márquez and Rabassa that the work holds up so well. Many books are not served well by the translation process; One Hundred Years of Solitude has not had, to my knowledge, a new translation in the forty years since it was first published, and it will never need one. Rabassa's work is perfection, the flow of the language and the glories of the descriptions have been preserved. There is a moment where García Márquez writes of looking up at the stars in the day time sky that rust has let through a zinc roof; I read the sentence a few times, taking in how perfect a description of an old zinc-plate roof it is.

There are a lot of things I want to tell you about this book, but I'll stop here. It is a book I am glad I did not read in high school; I would not have read it with the same attention I gave it here, and I would have dismissed it. Having read it now, of my own volition, and giving it my total, willing focus, I cannot wait to read it again in a year or so. It took García Márquez eighteen months of poverty to write One Hundred Years of Solitude; it was unquestionably worth it.

Grade: A+