Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Let's call the whole thing off..." Peter, Bjorn and John

I am out of control and must be stopped. I have realized two things lately. One is that I have very good taste in music. I don't want to be grand about this, but I do. I was fed up with my iPod, a 4GB Nano that came out a couple of years ago, so I deleted everything on it and reloaded it with music that I have purchased or acquired through legal means, but not had the chance to really sit and listen to. Bands that made the cut: Au Revoir Simone, Hot Bitch Arsenal, Headlights, Jose Gonzalez, Peter Bjorn and John, Great Northern, Aloha, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, The Clientele, Benjy Ferree, Benoit Pioulard, Blonde Redhead, Brown Recluse, Dosh, Ghislain Poirer, Girl In a Coma, The Ike Reilly Assassination, Jukebox the Ghost, Matt Pond PA, Mew, The Ocean Blue (ahh the nineties indie scene), Pizzicato Five, Sigur Ros, and Via Audio. There are many more on there but that is a sample. The result is a great mix of sounds and music and I have to say that I don't understand how radio stations can still be in business when the portable MP3 player is so cheap.

The other thing I realized is that I am so behind on my reading that I am not sure when I will catch up and get anything completed. Here is a list of books started, at least a hundred pages in, and unfinished:

Kenzaburo Oe, "Somersault". This one is quickly becoming a thorn in my side. I started it a couple of years ago, set it down, restarted it, and made some progress then I stalled out during a vivid description of anal penetration. It has been slow going since then.

China Mieville, "Un Lun Dun". It's a young adult story. A girl finds out she is the "chosen" and gets whisked away to a Un-London. A place where trash walks and people wear stories as clothing. It is written a little to preciously for me and I have a bit of a hard time getting into it. I think it is very similar in its feel to "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman and since I just read that a year ago I am having trouble with getting into the PG-13 version of it.

Umberto Eco, "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana". A man loses his memory about his life, doesn't know his name, or his wife or how long he has been alive, but he can remember everything he has ever read. I got bogged down when he spent 100 pages in the attic of the Italian Villa he grew up in on a long piece of exposition about WWII Literature in Italy.

Josh Emmons, "The Loss of Leon Mead". Emmons is a friend of my friend Josh. I like the book but in fairness to it, I haven't been diligent in trying to finish it.

John Dos Passos, "The 42nd Parallel". This is just my ego at its worst. I don't know how but I got interested in reading the Lost Generation and picked this up. It is absolutely amazing and I made more progress on this last night than I did on four months of Somersault. This is my most likely prospect for a strong finish.

Rebecca McClanahan, "Word Painting". This is for a writing workshop I am taking through the Writers' Digest Online Workshops. I like the book, have about 40 pages left and if it was leisure reading I would count this as my best prospect to finish, but it isn't leisure reading and I don't know if I would read it all by myself.

Philip Pullman, "The Subtle Knife". Book two of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. The first book, "Golden Compass" was turned into a movie that came out last winter. The movie was okay. Not wonderful, just okay. The second book is just taking a little time to get into and I keep setting it stupid places that I can't find right away. So again, nothing wrong with the story I just haven't given it a fair shake.

So you see the problem... here is the worst part. I keep getting books, because I see them on the street or at a used book store for a buck and half and I can't say no. So soon I will be starting "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott, and "The Stranger" by Albert Camus.

I am ridiculous. I need to be stopped. I have a lunch date with a friend from work today at noon, and then a get together with some friends this evening. Every other waking minute is going to be spent finishing the three books I am the furthest along in: namely, Oe, Eco and McClanahan.

Wish me luck.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"One thing I could never confess..." -Los Campesinos

Ten years ago I was certain that music was dead in the United States. It was my 4th year in college and I remember driving from West Palm Beach, Florida to Greenwich, Connecticut. The radio in my car didn't work and I had an old school Boom box that I would feverishly tune as I drove in and out of the various signals that dot I-95. I remember three songs: "MMMM Bop" by Hanson, "Quit Playing Games with My Heart" by The Backstreet Boys, and "All for You" by Sister Hazel. By the time I hit Washington D.C. I was content to sit in the sweet mournful silence knowing that Top 40 music sucked (still does) and that music was doomed.

Then I got wrapped up in the radio station at my college. It was a crappy station. We had a gigantic music library for a radio station that couldn't be heard up at the cafeteria a paltry two hundred yards away. But it was my experience with the guys at WMVL that changed my perspective on music. My buddies at the time Ad-rock, and Tony! Tony! Tony! were instrumental in this as well. Both of them were well versed in the Ska movement (something us landlocked desert boys didn't get much of). But more importantly they got me exposed to independent record labels.

I spent my office hours as the Programming Manager and Station Manager listening to the music that was sent to us by the various music promotors and indie labels. And I was pleased to discovery that music was alive and well: it had just gone off the radio.

Labels likes Art & Crafts, Polyvinyl, Paperbag are working diligently to actually discover music and get it out to those of us that still use music as more than a background distraction and actually prefer to listen to an album in order from start to finish.

The result is Amy Millan, The Most Serene Republic, Architecture in Helsinki and Los Campesinos! The last band's new album is one that I absolutely can't turn off right now.

In "Hold on Now, Youngster..." Los Campesinos have unleashed a fury of sound. This is one of those sum of the parts albums. When I first heard the single, "You! Me! Dancing!" I was intrigued enough to buy the album, but I didn't appreciate the song until I got the whole thing in context. The context of an album, which seems to be a lost art amongst the radio play bands, is something that I grew up listening to. I cut my music teeth on "Oranges and Lemons", "Green", "Dead Letter Office", "Unforgettable Fire", "Nevermind" all albums that strung together the tracks of the album into a full story.

The individual tracks on "Hold on now, Youngsters..." are also individually quite strong. Standouts like "Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats" recall the post-punk scene of the mid-eighties and seem to channel the Pixies but by marrying it to a more aggressive version of the new romantics. "This Is How You Spell "HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics" (winner of the longest song title in my library award) drives in a shoe-gazing ballad about breaking up. And "...And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes In Unison" generates a ton of noise without losing any harmony or rhythm.

This is a pretty shitty recommendation because the long and short is that I can stop listening to it long enough to write down how much I love it.

I can only say that this album is yet further proof that music isn't dead. It is just hiding out.


Friday, April 04, 2008

"There are very many things I would like to say to you..." -Kings of Convenience

Some of you more diligent--or perseverant maybe?--readers will know that I have a love-hate relationship with a band called The Kings of Convenience.

I love their song writing ability; specifically their song I'd Rather Dance With You. But I hate their albums, for I am a child of Pop music. If I am really honest about my music preferences then I admit that the first bands that really captured my attention as a kid were my mom's Beatles, Elton John and Beach Boys vinyls. I have a special fondness reserved for Gordon Lightfoot; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and Simon and Garfunkel but they don't move me. They sit in the background and they occupy space. The other former bands make me dance.

The Kings of Convenience are CLEARLY more motivated by the latter groups. So there is a giant stretch of ground in the middle to cover. For folksy bands I think I like Kings of Convenience, but I listen to my best of Simon and Garfunkel album once a year, maybe once every two and I ALWAYS skip Scarbrough Fair. I don't like it just doesn't do anything for me musically.

Every Kings of Convenience album that I have listened to--in part or in whole--has sounded like an eleven track manifesto of Scarbrough Fair. But now... I am finally starting to think that we can bridge the gap: I present you with Versus.

I want to thank my sister, Lauryn, for prompting me to do this. The other day, while prodding me into posting something, she said, "I wish you would do music reviews." And I told her that I love writing them but they start to feel a bit tired when you read the music reviews where people use phrases like: soulful harmony, smoky jazz vocals, interloping harmony... I mean seriously what the shit does all that mean?

So here is my first foray into an album review; for my sister, who prompted me to do this.

Versus is a fantastic album; and it illustrates what I know: that Kings of Convenience is capable of producing--brilliant, near perfect pop songs. I should probably qualify the word pop. I don't mean top 40, or Clear Channel. I typically think of Rock music being driven by drums and electric guitars; funk by the bass line; Folk by acoustics; Electronica (in all its forms) by the synthesizer; Jazz by the... well Jazz is sort of its own thing; but, Pop to me is all of these things. It is the music that strives to make it all work together. I don't know how to describe it. But Versus does it, in spades.

The album is actually an album of remixes. My understanding on it is that they KoC (I can see Adam giggling now) handed over their masters to a bunch of their friends and essentially said, there you go guys have a ball with it. Then they walked away.

The result is an album that is fuller, more complex and infinitely more enjoyable than their other albums, Riot on an Empty Street, or the ironically named Quiet is the New Loud.

Contributers to the album include Royksopp, Ladytron, Four Tet, Riton, Alfie, David Whitaker, Erot each one of them adds a flair to the song. Royksopp flourishes the song "I don't know what I can save your from" with a looping electronic bass line. But the most noticeable treatment is probably Evil Tordevil's treatment of "Leaning against a wall" which is turned into an almost second-wave (two tone) ska homage. It isn't all electronica though. "Toxic Girl" is given a full backing orchestration that adds a depth to the lyrics. Failure is given a new sound that conjures up memory of Burt Bacharach songs. Little Kids is given a discordant background that make it seem imperative (and there I go, what does imperative music sound like?)

I have said to friends in the past that remix albums are to be used sparingly by bands. Lovely Wife, for example, has a remix album made up entirely of U2's song "Lemon". I personally can't stand that many variations of a song and after a while I find myself wondering, what's it all for? But Versus explains it for me. Remixes add a new dimension to your favorite songs, or your favorite artists, it is a way to listen to something with new ears, and in my case, like it for the first time.

Versus is an excellent album. I would categorize it under the heading of Run Don't Walk to get it. But only if you love Pop music.

"Faster we'll divide all the sense into tiny parcels are you hoping it's tense, girl?" -Architecture in Helsinki

I’m a huge, no gigantic, fan of a character driven story. I work in a theater because I feel that by and large playwrights have to give you something to care about in their stories and the set, costumes and tone of the play are out of their control. But I also don’t like sacrificing an entire evening to the theater so I am an equally large fan of fast paced drama. Martin McDonagh is about as good as they come when it comes to fast-paced character driven stories and the movie “In Bruges”, which he penned, is a near hit for a what an art house flick should be. Near hit is the key though.

Martin McDonagh is a genius at making despicable characters that you can’t help like. His drama is gritty and faced paced and when it is done you feel assaulted in the best possible way. Sadly I don’t think it translates to screen in quite the same way, but it is fifty-one percent good movie and forty-nine percent Aw-shucks that was almost awesome.

The story is about two hit men who are sent to Bruges, Belgium after what we are led to believe is a botched job in England. Bruges is beautifully shot and framed in as a character in the story. The other-worldliness of it is really something else. But it is the attention to the character of Bruges that detracts from the performances of Brendan Gleeson as Ken, the elder statesman of the two; and Colin Farrell as the young buck Ray. Which is sad because this is probably Colin Farrell’s best work to date. The days of S.W.A.T., The Recruit and Phone Booth where his short sighted, often one dimensional, characters were pretty but none too deep, seem to be behind him and that is a great thing. Farrell did a wonderful job of capturing the arrogance and remorse of a young man who is in way over his head. The moments of intimacy between him and Gleeson were masterfully written, acted out, and shot. But it was the conclusions of these scenes that I found distracting.

There were some great shots of Bruges that should have been throwaway shots; but were, inexplicably, given equal weight. There was one particular moment of intimacy were Ray and Ken are talking about their reason for being in Bruges, Ken’s role in it and Ray’s attempt at solace and then we end with a view of a swan. Really? A swan?

And that was the problem I had with it. The throwaways had way too much importance in the movie. They broke up some remarkable dialog in an uncomfortable way, that didn’t seem intended McDonagh is renowned for making the audience squirm in the seat as his character play out their frustrations. There are some great exchanges between the character Katorian, Tupalski and Ariel in The Pillowman that left the audience itching for more. But Bruges lacked that, principally because we never got worked up to the fevered pitch that produces the responses.

I just never felt invested in Ken and Ray, and if anything I felt the saddest for Farrell’s love interest. Which is sort of sad because she occupies all of fifteen minutes of film.

Here is the worst part. This movie is still one of the five best movies I have seen in the trailing twelve months. Is it spectacular? Not really. It is solid from start to finish. Were my expectations a little high for the writer’s first screenplay? It would seem so.

Pesky expectations rear their head again.

"Faster we'll divide all the sense into tiny parcels are you hoping it's tense, girl?" -Architecture in Helsinki

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