Neon Tubes

Let's skip the formalities today and just dive right in, shall we?

Someone mentioned yesterday that they were listening to Silverchair's album Neon Ballroom over and over. It struck me, after seeing that,that I had essentially forgotten just how good the album is and I can't help but feel it could use a little more love. It's an interesting point in the band's career, as well, which itself is worth taking a look at.

Silverchair, in case you're unfamiliar, is one of Australia's biggest musical exports, outranked only by Kylie Minogue and AC/DC. Formed when its members were just 14 and 15, the band one a demo contest put on by Circle J Radio with their excellent rock song "Tomorrow" and immediately were launched into stardom, both at home and abroad. Releasing their heavy metal-inspired Frogstomp and the heavier, more aggressive follow up, Freak Show, the band quickly established themselves as young, talented and ambitious. However, they were not without their detractors. Some felt the band was too straight forward and narrow-minded in their approach - all heavy metal riffs with little in the way of melody and ingenuity. It's one thing to take inspiration and direction from your elders, but you have to innovate and push yourself yo break new ground in order to find real success, many argue. Silverchair had shown glimmers of creative endeavors with some of their more esoteric tracks, like the eastern-influenced 'Petrol & Chlorine' or the power-pop on display in 'The Door'. After touring and international success, the band took a hiatus and came back to the studio to begin work on their third album, which would result in the new direction of Neon Ballroom.

It should be noted here that the pressures of fame and public spotlight put excessive stress on front-man Daniel Johns. In what would be a massive influence on the construction and writing for this album, around 1998 he developed both a severe case of anorexia and what would eventually be labeled 'reactive arthritis'. Johns essentially cut himself off from the world for a time, getting progressively frail and weak. Only after family intervention did he seek treatment and began the slow road to recovery. The influence this had on his writing and perspective is apparent through the album. True to form, the titles for the songs will all display the obviously grim and over the top titles of 'tortured souls' making music as therapy. 

The sound on the new album was generally regarded as a significant step in their development. While the underpinnings of their heavy-metal roots were still present, they were both reduced in prominence and incorporated into a new direction of classically influenced structure. This is apparent from the opening track, titled 'Emotion Sickness'. All the signposts of the band's new sound are here - the heavy emotional tone, new sense of dynamics and subtlety, strings and even piano written and performed by none other than the acclaimed David Helfgott, subject of the movie Shine. The skeleton of the sound is definitely the same band but they're expressing themselves with more clarity and sensitivity. It actually is quite an impressive opening salvo, building to an intense climax. The next track, 'Anthem For The Year 2000' was the lead single for the album, most likely due to its similarity to the band's previous material. It's all heavy drums and guitar riffs once again, but in a subtle twist on the same sound. Paul Mac, techno-industrial musician, tweaks the sound, adding clicks, buzzes and whirs to alter the ambience and discord the band had created on their own. In a move that displays their appreciation for their roots and a sense of playfulness, they also brought in a youth choir to sing along with the chorus. The track was a reaction to the Australian government cracking down on the youth at the time, though as a protest song it certainly lacks the punch of relevance or critical importance. The next track and subsequent single, 'Ana's Song', was a huge hit. Dealing with Johns' previously mentioned eating disorder, it's a haunting and striking tune that vacillates between aching, descriptive verses and pounding choruses.

The album continues in this trend - some straight forward rockers sequenced between experimental or unorthodox pieces. Riff-centric songs like 'Dearest Helpless' and 'Feel The Same' both are fairly straight forward affairs, but they still have interesting sounds to them, despite the fairly by-the-numbers approach. I distinctly remember my older brother pointing out the verses on 'Dearest Helpless' sounding like The Foo Fighters. I can't shake that observation now, even after 10+ years. 'Feel The Same' was written specifically because Johns' father noticed he had never released a guitar-solo focused song, if that's any indication of raison d'etre for the song. However, after these two songs comes another great example of how the band's sound had grown - the quirky and morose 'Black Tainted Heart' feels like an entirely different band recorded it. Not different people, mind you, but that with it's mandolins and unusual instrumentation it seems so much more mature and insightful, it's clearly a delineation point in the band's career. 

This is exactly the point I mentioned earlier, about the transitory point in the band's career. I had noticed the distinction in sounds when I first listened to the album at the turn of the century but couldn't put my finger on exactly what the issue was. Doing research on it recently made it more apparent. This album was actually two different sets of songs sculpted and edited to appear as a cohesive album. The more riff-centric, rock songs were mostly written during the band's Freakshow era of writing, while the more diverse and explorative pieces like 'Paint Pastel Princess' and 'Point of View' were written much closer to the recording of the album. When Daniel Johns refers to the album as a style shift and demarkation point for the band, he was dismissing the first two albums the band made as kids in their garage making grunge music, while this album and the two excellent ones after were the work of adults, as in this telling quote:  

"To me, I honestly feel like our first record was Neon Ballroom. I've never felt any different. I don't feel like our first two albums were Silverchair: that's our teenage high school band. I don't like them at all. I listen to them and go, 'That's cute', especially the first one, because Frogstomp we were 14. But the second one we're like 16, I'm like 'You're getting older. You're running out of chances'"

The secret reality of the situation, though, was that half of this album was actually remainders of that same garage band, even if they were a worldwide phenomenon. It's an impressive honing of tone, one that actually makes me appreciate the album even more from knowing this fact. That it marries two distinct periods of someone's writing and song craft so convincingly just shows how high the quality of the songs and production actually are. 

Neon Ballroom, while in some places flawed and grim, is actually a great record. It's full of secret, strange things. In my mind I think of listening to the album akin to exploring a haunted house - the ghosts of Johns' personal demons haunt a place full of violins and pianos, occasionally knocking around some heavy furniture and sending cobwebs and dust into the air. There are some really spectacular songs on display here - the new wavy album closer 'Steam Will Rise' is gorgeous, with it's off-kilter drums and plodding bass. 'Paint Pastel Princess' is a vibrant and shimmering example of how amazing the sound can be when Johns is in a good mood. Thankfully these were all signs of things to come, as the band has only gotten better with time. Their follow up albums, Diorama and Young Modern eclipse Neon Ballroom in their song-craft and spectrum, but this album is (for me) a great piece of work with an unusual history. It may be because of the laws that I appreciate it so much. It's like a musical growth spurt, if that makes any sense. I know this album may not be for everyone, but if you're at all intrigued I would recommend seeking it out, it's a fantastic Art Rock album from very young musicians. 


Totally Unrelated

Welcome back!

I figure if you're reading this you probably watched the Oscars. The Venn Diagram was most likely pretty close together on that. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but who knows? Regardless, I'm in a movie mood. Makes sense, right? Either way it bears repeating: Moon is a fantastic movie. It deserved accolades in 2009 and absolutely warrants repeated viewing today. I mentioned it the other day when posting about Max Tannone's awesome soundtrack mash-up based on the idea.

Directed by Duncan Jones (or Zowie Bowie, if that helps) and starring the always-interesting Sam Rockwell, Moon is, as I have previously written, a sad and quiet film, full of poignant and melancholy moments. It's the lonely, heart-rending tale of Sam Bell, the sole Helium-3 miner on the surface of the moon, accompanied only by computer A.I. GERTY, voiced by Kevin SpaceyGERTY, by the way, is a wonderful companion piece to Sam, in a delicious homage to Kubrick's 2001. Sam is responsible for overseeing the operation on his lonely outpost in our near-future, manning the station all alone. 

Mostly alone.  

During a seemingly routine day, Sam ventures out into the lunar landscape to check on potential problems and stumbles across a wrecked vehicle. Like any sane person, Sam brings this mysterious stranger back to the station, where he makes a disturbing and disorienting discovery - it's him. Sam is faced with Sam. No answers, immediately. I was quite perplexed on my initial viewing of the movie - Sam is faced with himself and hardly seems to question the situation. What happens from there, though, is both wonderful and tragic. Working through the context with GERTY's assistance, Sam begins to piece together just what strange business is afoot on the lunar surface. I won't go any farther into the details, to save your own discovery of an amazingly intelligent piece of honest-to-goodness Science Fiction, more Bradbury than Transformers. These days it seems if you hear the term Sci-Fi it inevitably means huge robots fighting each other or some terrible, bottom of the barrel guilty-pleasure schlock. Moon, in contrast, is a breath of fresh air. It's so smart and subtle. You really have to see it in action to appreciate the understated beauty of the film. It received it's share of accolades upon its initial release and currently holds a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, if that's any help.
Moon is fantastic in every sense of the word. It's touching and human, grounded and out of this world. It had a small theatrical release in 2009 with high praise, yet little wide-spread appeal. Since then it's gained steam and reputation from its excellent production and heart. I really do love this movie and feel that if you have any patience for science in your movies you really should give it a fair shake. Netflix, Redbox, Itunes - however you can, dig up this hidden gem and see what can happen on the surface of the moon that can move you. It's wonderful.


Vague Recollections

Hey, cats.

Really, really busy day.

Doing an intense, once in a long time home project and haven't been able to sit down and type all day. I haven't been able to do a proper column so to distract you I'll give a little Saturday night entertainment.

What you need to do if you're reading this is head over to Thatguywiththeglasses.com and check out The Nostalgia Critic. The entire site is a sprawling monument to the movies of the last twenty years, be they good or bad. The Nostalgia Critic is a ridiculously funny guy who basically riffs on these old movies and deconstructs them in a biting and absurd manner. While the site actually has numerous contributers and styles of video critiques, ranging from surly pirates to video game breakdowns of all sorts, it is the original flavor, the Nostalgia Critic, who really makes me howl. His bewildered and beleagured takes on many of the movies from my youth make me both wince and cock my head in the wistful manner utilized on so many TV shows. Just check out a list of the movies of which he alone has done segments:

Blank Check
Last Action Hero
The Good Son
Space Jam
Howard The Duck
Surf Ninjas
3 Ninjas
The Wizard
Cartoon All Stars To The Rescue

Come on, look at that list. I'm sure you winced at one title at the very least. There are some awesomely bad movies in there. The Good Son! McCauly Culkin plays an evil kids! Do you remember that? It was amazingly bad! Blank Check - kid gets a million dollars, no one blinks at the occurance.  Seriously, if you're reading this you've got some time on available to watch him skewer some of these incredibly dated and weird movies. If you need entertainment tonight, or any night for that matter, check it out. Painfully funny.

Until tomorrow, I'll bid you adieu. I promise I will get a decent column up soon, I'm overdue now. See you Sunday!


Diminished Returns

Evening, all.

Once again it's Friday night and I am rushing out the door to see local artists cutting up the scene. I have grand designs of a massive, loving write up on them. In the meantime I'll offer another quick rundown of artists whose work you should take a look at. Hopefully I'll be back early enough to do a proper column but if not, we can cover our bases.

First of is the work of Philippe Ramette, hosted here. Ramette does an amazing job twisting your sense of perspective by playing with orientation and expected positioning. His shots are disorienting and serene, with work that displays common and known things like people and doors put into odd or disorienting spaces. Thoroughly impressive, deceptive stuff. I love the way he can create visual tricks of the eye.

Next up is Jim Kazanjian. His work is astounding and beautiful, almost to the point that it's difficult to put into words. His  prints and visual work is the kind of mind-bending stuff that takes your brain a few moments to properly process. I honestly feel like I lack the proper training to accurately describe what is presented. Fantastic deconstructions of the familiar interspersed with elements of the uncanny. Shoot, maybe that's close? I don't know. All I do know is that it's gorgeous and moving. Take a look.

While I can attest that both of these artists have long and successful careers, I give these simple and meager props only in the hopes that one more person can be exposed to their unreal and astonishing creations. I obviously lack the proper tools and training to do a decent breakdown on their talents, so I can only let the work speak for itself. Like I wrote above, this post will only serve as a place holder, a stop gap if you will, for a better, more loving post. Let's see where the night goes. 


Circuitous Cuts

To offset yesterday's enthusiastic diatribe on how you should be familiar with Gayngs and their excellent album 'Relayted', today's post will be the converse. The subject for today's breakdown is an artist whose work I will fully cop to being asleep on. Max Tannone, formerly known as Minty Fresh Beats, is a mash-up artist of the finest degree, having crafted some amazingly slick projects in recent years.

Having worked the DJ scene in NY and abroad, Tannone set about creating conceptual mash-ups in a way that is both more inviting, yet trickier in execution. His work involves not just a mixtape in the sense of something to put on for a party, but creating a conceptual album, like he did in his sublime mixes of Jaydiohead. Taking two incredibly talented and revered artists and putting them together is no small feat, especially when they are so intrinsically different. The art-house, obtuse and deeply neurotic Radiohead couldn't be farther from the swagger and driving beats of one of hip hop's greatest, Jay Z. Using plenty of planning and foresight, though, Tannone has fused these artists into an amazingly cohesive unit. Not only do they blend well, but Tannone's creative choices are superb as well. The track 'Dirt Off Your Android' (mixing Dirt Off Your Shoulder and Paranoid Android) snaps with the drums just behind the acoustic riff, but its the way the main, rawk-out riff of Paranoid Android blasts excellently beneath Jay Z's rhymes. It was always a piece of the song I wanted to hear more of and Tannone recognized it for its power, wielding it deftly along the rest of the mix.

Having created these crazy good Jay Z and Radiohead mixes, Tannone set about deconstructing and reassembling one of my favorite albums, Check Your Head by The Beastie Boys. Granted, reworking what is already a phenomenally good album lends itself towards a certain level of success, but it is not a guarantee. I love the original for it's living, vibrant energy and samples, having the Beasties playing their own instruments alongside catchy, heady samples. The vocals are also fantastic here, with the group really showing what they are capable of, having 'found' their definitive styles around the period 'Check Your Head' was recorded. What Tannone has done, in an inspired move, is take the vocals from choice cuts and interpolate them over some of the instrumental cuts on the album, calling it 'Doublecheck Your Head'. The loose rapping of 'So What'cha Want' played over 'In 3s' gives birth to a whole different swing than either track held on their own. The rhythm and syncopation for each has been matched and synched perfectly, to the point that if one had never heard the original album it would be easily believable that these were the straight tracks and not "recontextualized" as he put it. 
That notion is really at the heart of what Max does - where as Girl Talk can make a crazy party mix or The Hood Internet does mixtapes of radio fare over indie, here we have the elusive organic chemistry. Tannone attempts to breakdown the illusion of the mash-up entirely in the hopes your brain interpreters the new creation as the original. When it works (as it quite often does) it works amazingly well. So many of his tracks feel seamless in the best way possible. Just being able to put to diametrically opposed artists like Radiohead and Jay Z together, let alone make them work, is an accomplishment. How many bands could essentially fold an album over itself like The Beastie Boys, like making a calzone by folding a pizza in half? 
To reiterate, I slept on this. I was not even aware of Max Tannone and his FREE releases. I'm making up for it now, though. I only found out about these mixes, and Tannone's mixing of Mos Def and Talib Kweli with Dub and Reggae music, after reading about the Selene project. Based around the movie Moon, it is a fantastic, morose and poignant sci-fi movie about loss and devotion. Tannone took samples and themes from the film and mixed them with Richard Rich's raps to create the EP. Even Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, has given his praise for the project. It's all amazing work. The EPs and mash-ups are simply fantastic. Hopefully you already knew about all this. If not, head over to his site and see what lies in store. 


Gaynging Up

Feeling the malaise here folks.

Feeling gray and mish-mashed.

Could be daily life. Could be the fact that here in Minneapolis we had a just a tease, a taste, a smidgen of spring, only to have it cruelly snatched away and replaced by that blizzard I mentioned. Such is life, can't fight it. You can only play the hand you're dealt and other comforting platitudes. But life is not so grim. It could certainly be worse, just take a look at the world around us and there is inevitable some form of struggle and heartbreak within arms reach. No matter what I do today,though, I can't seem to shake the 'meh'. To take my mind off the matter I'll break down one of the best releases the Midwest has put out in the last year, and what has been called by some the album of the year for 2010. It's an album I put on when I'm in a funk, to chase away the bad vibes. At this point you either know 'em or don't.


Look at that party. Who wouldn't want to get down with this group?

These cats are hip. They're hep. The roster for the group is a who's who of indie music darlings. The brainchild of Ryan Olson (of Digitata), the album was essentially a joke or one off project of novelty and giddy goofiness from too much lite-rock and free time in the studio. It's a love letter to the easy listening tones of Air Supply, 10cc and other smooth acts of the late 70s. No joke, the sprawling supergroup (and ensuing album 'Relayted') is composed of whoever could be drafted in, from Doomtree rap crew members P.O.S. and Dessa (master word-smiths that they are), members of hipsters beloved Bon Iver (whose label Jagjaguwar released the album), the Cook brothers from Megafaun and local loves Solid Gold and Lookbook

While those who created the album can swear up and down that its a tongue-in-cheek homage to these easy listening tunes (the entire album written intentionally juvenile and laid back 69 beats/minute) it's actually a phenomenal slow jam record, a groove album you can put on whether you're getting down or feeling down. That kind of a record. You put it on and whatever you're doing just got that much better - its an intensifier despite the molasses tempo to the entire project. 

Drawing from the diverse-yet-interconnected social scene that is the Midwest music scene, the album was slowly drafted over a year by Olson and friends as he slowly brought individuals together to craft individual tracks. Working on songs was mostly a labor of love, all the artists having their own careers and livelihoods to focus on. Musicians would unite to lay down tracks almost against their will at times, having to be cajoled to break out of their comfort zones or established wheelhouses. At this point in his career we've heard rapper P.O.S. sing his share of hooks to his songs (at least you should have, if you haven't you're seriously missing out on some of the best talent in the American rap industry) but who could have guessed he could straight up croon the way he does on 'No Sweat', his voice simultaneously smooth like caramel but rough around the edges. Others expand on known strengths, like Justin Vernon flexing his R&B chops, or Dessa on the pulsing 'Faded High'. It's curious to note that despite all the songs having identical tempos, Relayted feels like a broad album. 'Faded High' bounces and skips out of the speakers, sounding not unlike recent Gorillaz, while 'Crystal Ropes' slowly trudges along with its thumping, staccato synths.
If you haven't been up to speed with this massive and massively talented collective, hopefully you are by now. Riding the wave of critical success from last year, they're slated for even bigger and better things in 2011. Showcases at home (their Affiliayted showcase at First Ave), SXSW, Austin City Limits and Coachella. A new EP of remixes, Affiliyated, is dropping soon. The whole crew is going on a crazy tour, do yourself a favor and pick up some tickets and check them out when they come through your town, all the swagger and romanticism included. The buzz is only gonna build. Snag a copy of their debut and look for them all over the place in the future. 

Their first show was called "The Last Prom On Earth". How can you not want to see where they go from there?


Good Enough

Greetings, again. 

I've been distracted all day and just want to write a bit to get the cobwebs out and flex the mental muscle. No easy way around this, I need to write just for writing's sake today. An appropriately self indulgent and shameful endeavor for the subject. What could be so strange and unusual a concept as to warrant such honest self abuse? 

Cyndi Lauper, of course. 

The Goonies R' Good Enough, of course. 

I love The Goonies, the quintessential 80s adventure movie all about a group of misfit kids who, in a last ditch attempt to save their neighborhood, explore the caves under Astoria, OR and go looking for buried treasure. It's one of those films that benefits from the nostalgic tinge of rose colored lenses, but I still adore it despite, or perhaps even because of, its flaws. Today's article, though, is not so much about the movie itself but a bit of incidental/soundtrack music derived from it. 

In a scene early on in the movie, the kids are all moping around Mikey's house, lamenting the dreaded loss of homesteads, when they finally devise a plan to sneak out from under the watchful gaze of older brother Brandon, played by the awesome Josh Brolin. Really, it's worth rewatching this movie just to see Brolin as a youngster, all attitude and shorts-over-sweats machismo, it's really amusing. Anyway, the kids tie up Brand with his exercise equipment and make a break for it, hopping on bikes and careening down the Oregonian hillside. Playing on the TV in the background is Cyndi Lauper's amazing, cheesy tie-in single 'The Goonies R' Good Enough'. The song has been a black sheep hit of hers - according to interviews she hated the song and simply refused to do it, going so far as to not release it in any official capacity other than the soundtrack for over 10 years. Not until the mid 90s did it see a re-release on a compiled retrospective. 
I don't care if she hated it or how cheesy and weird it is, I absolutely adore the song. It may be just as much about the appearance of it, in media res, as it is for the songs qualities itself. Where it's spliced into the movie is a particularly satisfying chord change, right as it goes to the pre-chorus. The song has such build and tensions just from the chord progression, and when it quickly reaches the leaping and exuberant chorus its a moment of sublime 80s pop ensconced in a childhood favorite of mine. The titular Goonies are making their big break, running from home and heading off to adventure, bubbling pop music blaring along their escape. There is such a strong link in my mind between those sugary chords and the scenes in question that they are linked to the point of inseparability in my memories. Whenever I fire up the song on my headphones I still get that feeling of nostalgia or saudade in my mind, that almost tangible sense of longing and loss I wrote about in my article on (of all things) Norwegian Wood. It's honestly one of my earliest musical memories, only further embedded in my psyche by the fact that in the NES adaptation of the game there is a synthesized version of it that also got into my head.
This song is the definition of childhood guilty pleasure for me. It's such an early and ingrained memory, but even as I've grown up I still put it on every now and then. Okay, full confessional - it definitely makes appearances in some of my regular playlists, even if I do skip over it at times. While I may feel the self conscious pangs of sekrit joy at the sheer cheese on display I still go for it. At least once a year I'll watch the movie on DVD, or bust out the game on Nintendo just to remember, if only for a short time, what it felt like to be a kid. It's not so much about the song itself as it is recalling the feeling of being young and knowing there was music or a movie or a game that made you feel that special feeling in your chest of excitement and wanting to see/hear/play more. I guess part of it is that feeling contrasted with getting older - I try to recapture it like lightening in a bottle, even if I know it's impossible it's still a tantalizing and hard to resist temptation.

So what. 

Here's to guilty pleasures.



Afternoon, kids.

The snow continues to fall here in Minneapolis, seemingly with no end in sight. So it goes.

Rather than pound flesh against the keys for simple yardage in a misguided effort towards productive writing, I'll save us all the trouble and offer a shorter, more digestible article today. If nothing else it will remind me that volume is not always the requisite for quality.

One of my favorite things about the world we live in now is the wealth of absolutely free entertainment. While this could be something so simple as watching the sunset or having a friend over for dinner, I'm speaking more in the vein of free media content. I've already extolled the virtues of some of my favorite webcomics and albums that are available at no cost. Hulu is another excellent service that's totally free and even more rewarding if you sign up for membership - doing so allows you to set up queues and subscribe to shows, essentially becoming a remote version of DVR if the conditions are lining up with your viewing habits. While I could certainly drone on and on about how wonderful Hulu is, it's the idea of quality, free stuff out there on the web that I love. I'm not towing the typical line about information wanting to be free (artists should be able to eat, after all) some kind souls impart their work simply to put it out there and hope that allowing direct access will benefit their work. I adore that optimistic endeavor. Like I said, I've certainly written about the idea before and intend to do so at future points as well. Today, of course, is another such example. 

Sin Titulo is a fantastic, online and totally free comic written by Eisener Award winning author/artist Cameron Stewart. Stewart, who has done titles for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse Comics among others, has worked with heavy hitters like Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison on their respective Catwoman and Batman & Robin, as well as critically acclaimed titles like Hellblazer and B.P.R.D. Hailing from Canada, Stewart has been a longstanding member of the comic industry. Housed online by the amazing comic site Transmission X, Sin Titulo is an ongoing comic about a man whose dreams and visions start to break into his daily life as the world he knows crumbles around him. It's a bizarre and eerie tale of uncertain realities and questioned humanity that twists and turns with every installment. Alex Mackay's grandfather passes away mysteriously and without any notice. As he sets about putting the pieces of his grandfather's passing in order things get stranger, with shadowy figures observing him and peculiar buildings that may or may not be facilitating unusual...things. To go into the details much further would either scare potential readers off or spoil perfectly good and disturbing surprises. 
What Stewart is doing here is absolutely awesome. He's an established and well respected comic artist who feels compelled to offer excellent free content despite already making a living as a professional artist. I can't tell you just how much I've enjoyed following this comic unfold, knowing that I just have to check back on the site every few days to see the latest update, like a surreal and morose soap opera via web comic. The fact that this awesome saga is entirely free to see is just an added bonus.
If you take any enjoyment at all from comics (or graphic novels, if you wanna class it up) please head on over to Transmission X and see what the have to offer, there's some amazing work on display. If you don't really read comics just give it a try or check out any of the other amazing comics they have going at the moment. It's some amazing stuff, all for free. Indulge! Enjoy! But most of all don't pass up great, free opportunities like this!


Mr. Pilkington, I Presume...

Evening, all.

I write this over the counter in my kitchen, having cleaned my apartment from top to bottom. Why the obsessive-compulsive fit of action, you ask? Partly genetics, but honestly it's the damn blizzard again. I know I shouldn't have mentioned it in that post about storms and Warm Fuzzy Viewings, see what happens when you get over confidant? Regardless, here I am, having gone stir crazy and Lysol-intensive, meticulously scrubbing away at phantom spots on my counter while the snow piles up outside. I can barely see across the street, it's that intense. My cabin fever (and a decent bottle of cab) has driven me slightly mad while I clean, so while I don't have a proper column to speak of I can at least impart what has been the saving grace of the day - An Idiot Abroad, with Karl Pilkington!
Karl, one of the regular participants on Ricky Gervais' podcasts and the ensuing Ricky Gervais Show, Karl is the kind of person whose mind you absolutely marvel at while it operates. Gervais' podcast (and the show created from it) rely primarily on Gervais and Stephen Merchant picking his brain and seeing what is happening in his orange shaped head. While it absolutely comes across as cruel or teasing, it is done, as all involved attest, in nothing but good humor and comraderie. Pilkington is either absolutely insane and sheltered or bizarrely insightful - asking questions that will stop the conversation in its tracks or make you question whether you were even speaking on the same subject.

Having tormented Karl for several years and determined he had no interest in leaving England at all, Gervais and Merchant realized a fantastic travel show could be created through sending Pilkington to the Seven Wonders of the World and simply filming his thoughts and experiences. The primary conceit for the show is that Karl is unhappy in his surroundings and often muses on his experiences through his own bizarrely centric view. On seeing the Taj Mahal - "Well, I figure you'd rather live in a hole and see a palace, then live in a palace and have to see a hole." It does make sense in a certain light, but seeing him in action, having crossed all of India and having that be his only remark? Brilliant, as Gervias would summarize. 

A friend of mine had extolled the virtues of this show after I had asked if he had seen the Ricky Gervais show. One good thing leads to another, apparently. Having set the DVR the night before, my better half and I awoke today to a massive snowstorm and no plans to speak of. So, the day ahead of us, we made breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch, cleaning the entire condo top to bottom in the meanwhile, all with An Idiot Abroad playing in the background. Both painfully hysterical and oddly engaging as a travel show, it was a wonderfully distracting thing to have on while going about a home-bound day. Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, take in the wonder that is Mr. Pilkington - be it through the podcasts, the phenomenal and painfully funny show or the Idiot Abroad. They're all too good to be missed.

I'll give a more proper column when we've shoveled our way out of Hoth.

Till then, stay warm.


This Bird Is Fly


Still sick, throat's raw as I write this so I take great satisfaction in being able to communicate without wincing. But enough complaining from me, let's get on to it.

Having written for several days about movies and music, I want to switch it up. However, as I have tried to explain before, books are hard for me to write about beyond a surface level. I think part of the problem is the personal nature of the mental process involved in interpreting the material and constructing a world in your head as you go. At times I find myself asking "Am I reading into this incorrectly, or missing the point?" while just moving ahead in doubt. This is not always the case, though. In particular today's subject is an author and book that I felt an instant and easy connection with as I read it. I speak of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.
Murakami is an author whose work I was introduced to by a friend, who basically tossed me one of his books, saying "Try it, I think you'll like it." He was absolutely right. That book, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, is a post for another day, as it is such a dense and unusual text I would need greater preparation to do a proper column on it. Regardless, I loved Murakami's style and choices, despite some of the cultural disconnect or what might literally be lost in translation.

He had not always been a writer. Having been a student and working at a record store, he opened a coffee house/bar establishment with his wife, which they ran for several years. Despite no major career or experience of which to speak, Murakami simply started writing one day, one word in front of the other. Turns out he was incredibly talented. Who knew? Almost immediately he was met with critical success and decent sales. Through the years he kept writing, penning more than his share of fantastic and engaging novels. Eventually he created what has been descried as the Japanese equivalent of Catcher In The Rye, his book Norwegian Wood. Based loosely on his own experiences at university in Japan, the story is of a young man named Toru Watanabe and the love and loss he experiences in the 60s, during his time as a student.
It would feel too divulging or expository to simply tell you the plot of the book in any great detail. To do so would be an act of pointlessly revealing developments I feel would benefit the story by unfolding naturally and organically, which they absolutely do throughout the course of the book. Instead I would like to impart some of the feeling I connected with while reading it. It's a sad and nostalgic book, one where Murakami goes to great length to not only construct the scene through time and space but through the feel of the moment - that indescribable, intangible sense of longing and loss that you feel when you know something is important. Those moments in life where you can feel it in your chest, a feeling that something you want to hold on to is happening. Norwegian Wood is basically filled with that quality. I recall reading just the first few passages of the book and thinking "Okay, I get this." I had read other books of his and considered whether or not I was comprehending the intent or meaning of the material, but this I got. This book I understood. Absolutely I can see why this book made Murakami a legend overnight. To further explain this idea, take a look at this page about the concept saudade, which has no English equivalent. I think it hits the nail on the head.

Of course, what would a successful and popular book be without the requisite movie adaptation? According to press releases the book has been translated into film and completed and screened, to the horror of purists everywhere. Not having had a chance to see it, I don't think it would be the worst thing. Par example, take a look at a poster for the adaptation:
I would wager that it represents some of the feeling of the book. It certainly looks wistful and emotional, full of heavy emotion. Good lord, I write that and wonder about my own tastes. But I digress.

This book is wonderful, a real piece of literary gold that moved me. Through the growth of the characters and the reality of the scenery and setting I really got attached to the plot and all that unfolded. I would highly recommend you take a look. Kindle, Nook, whatever, pick up some version of this awesome novel and give it a chance. You will not be disappointed.


Still Sick

Alright friends and neighbors, I'm still fighting the bug. Cold medicine can only do so much for a man and I'm feeling tapped.

So what do I do whenever I'm feeling empty and rundown?

Same thing every time - I highlight some art that I love and let it speak for itself, thereby letting me rest my head and giving props to a deserving artist. Today is no exception and I want to put the spotlight on a local artist who I stumbled across this summer in Uptown.

Lolamade Monsters are the work of Laura Holewa, who had a stall at the awesome yet all-too-short Uptown Farmer's Market, located at 29th and Colfax. Quick side note if you live in Minneapolis - support this Farmer's Market next summer! It was a fantastic place to get fresh veggies and meats at great prices, locally grown, without having to head all the way downtown. Okay, back on track. Her stall was simple and straight-forward, letting her work put it's twisted and most endearing foot forward. Laura's creations are bright and vibrant little monsters made of clay, absolutely bursting with personality. Here she is on Twitter and Facebook, as well as her space site on Etsy. Check out her awesome clay monsters.

Look at these things! How can you not love them? It was fortunate for my own sake that I had no cash with me when I first found her spot at the Uptown Farmer's market or I would have spent way more than I could afford on her devious little creations. I would love to fill a whole shelf with these monsters. 

Like I said, still under the weather, so today's post is shortened. Tomorrow should be back to form. Also, I wanted to give a quick thanks to the massive influx of traffic for the write up on Analog Heart, I appreciate all the feedback on that underrated piece of music. Nice to know so many people already had the drop on it!

See you tomorrow, friends and neighbors.


Childish Antics

Continuing in the theme of TV/music duality, I present another post on something that deserves bigger press.

Behold, Mr. Donald Glover

Mr. Glover is the actor who plays Troy on the absolutely fantastic Community. He also does stand up, was a writer for the unparalleled 30 Rock and starred in the indie hit Mystery Team, produced by his comedic troupe Derrick Comedy. All of this is only secondary to today's column, though, as the thing I want you to know about (aside from the awesomely funny things he acts in) is his musical endeavors under the moniker Childish Gambino.

 I had seen Donald on Community and found him to be incredibly funny. So when I saw he was on the Nerdist podcast last spring I was surprised to hear him talk about his music career in addition to his comedy and acting. Conveniently they played one of his songs, the grandstanding 'Hero', at the end of the episode. I was really surprised by what I heard and sought out his blog (I Am Donald, where he posts his music, things he loves and videos of his material, NSFW) and downloaded his songs. Apparently professional acting, stand up and writing for one the funniest shows on TV wasn't enough to scratch the creative itch for Donald, since he has been rapping and making music since his teens. Having released an album titled 'Sick Boi' (after his rap crew), a pair of surprisingly good self-produced mixtapes (I Am Just A Rapper 1&2), and another album, 'Poindexter', he established a style and voice for himself that stands out from the crowd. After the excellent but brief mixtapes he released one after the other, last year he put out an entire album, 'Culdesac', for free. It's available here, check it out

One of the most charming and fun things about his work as a rapper is his use of so many indie samples to construct his beats and songs. Hearing him rap over Grizzly Bear changes the whole tone of the original song, 'Two Weeks', for me. I actually prefer it with the Childish Gambino vocals on top. It's a positive and energetic take on the oddball song. Sleigh Bells have been used to super-rad effect, as well. I have to wonder what the New York duo think when Childish Gambino starts rapping over the massive opening drums of 'New Prince'. For an interesting effect, he leaves the original vocal track on the entirety of 'Infinity Guitars', so the Sleigh Bells singing sounds like it's always been in the background. For me it takes a bad ass song and makes it more bad ass.

Often times when you get a comedian or actor making music it comes off as contrived or diluted, more like a vanity project (I'm looking at you, Billy Bob, Keanu and Russell). Not so with Glover. Here was a young guy sounding passionate and displaying an intelligence and wit that you rarely see in mainstream hip hop, let alone someone who isn't grinding away at it as their only career. This was just one of many gigs for Donald and he was handling it better than a lot of his contemporaries. The energy and intensity he brings to his music feels much more natural and easy than some of the forced bravado you come across in modern hip hop - it's strange to find yourself surprised to hear someone enjoy what they're doing for a change. That's the great thing about Glover doing this - he does it for the love he has for music, not to become successful, instead of the other way around. 

Take just a short trip through Google and you'll soon see more than a few comparisons to Lil Wayne's delivery and Kanye's swagger. While these comparisons aren't far off the mark in some cases, I still feel like Glover has his own voice, so long as he doesn't spend his time boasting about all he's accomplished in life. Then again, what is hip hip with out the occasional bragging, right? Any kind of success, especially in the public forum, takes a confidence and self-assured nature on even the smallest level. When you are given free range to write about your life, especially in a field where boasting is so common (some would say integral), it's going to come up. Hopefully your ability as a wordsmith can overcome the crutch that is bragging for bragging's sake, which inevitably comes across as empty talk. Regardless, the tone with which Glover raps is great - listen to Culdesac and the mixtapes enough and you really get a larger sense of not only who he is but how he sees himself in the world. Happy to have found success, he continues to grind away solely for the joy of it and sounds phenomenal doing it.

Using both live instruments and a great array of samples to record Culdesac, Glover created an album whose tones and feels change from song to song, allowing for a variety of styles to shine. However this musical schizophrenia prevents any one of these styles from really having an enduring opportunity to shine. It's an album that's both amazing and beguiling for this very reason - you hear this great song, like 'I Be On That' and then the next song can be such an abrupt shift in style that you get frustrated everything is so different. An amazingly well crafted opener, Different, starts with just a sparse, repeating piano and military drums, Glover rapping about feeling different or isolated. It's a fantastic way to start the album, if only the rest of the tone followed suit in such an intensely introspective manner. But the style changes, as the next track (the previously mentioned 'Hero') starts with blaring, bombastic horns and Glover starts to rap about his success and accomplishments. Down the line, the smooth and sultry 'So Fly' follows the light and indie-ish 'Got This Money', furthering the strange combinations of tone. 

I write all this and it sounds harsh, but I really do think what he's doing is fantastic, if for no other reason than his passion for it. Here's someone who is doing just fine (he's actually terribely funny) but makes all this awesome hip hip just because he loves it. On top of that - it's totally free. He puts it all online, on his blog, along with remixes and material his fans submit using his beats or accapellas. There's also a new mixtape coming up and from the track he's previewed it sounds like he's only getting better. Hopefully he won't get sidetracked with one of his other 30 careers first. Check him out. 



Definitely sick. To take my mind off it, here's a post about another underground album, but one with a strange history. Full on pop culture confessional, readers.

David Cook was my favorite contestant (and winner) of the divisive phenomenon that is American Idol. While initially drawn in by my better half, I remember seeing the dude do an amazing reworking of Lionel Richie's Hello and thinking "Okay, this guy's special, he's not like anyone else I've ever seen on this show." I know what you're thinking - a cheese ball 80's ballad, how could it be any good on a singing competition? Check it out for yourself. He wasn't some precocious show-tune belting teenager with a heartbreaking story (as is often the case on that show) but an actual musician taking full advantage of the rule change that allowed contestants to play instruments. Over the course of the season he continued to show amazing talent for reworking well known songs and making them his own, from the insipid (making Mariah Carey's 'Always Be My Baby' into a phenomenal ballad that works even better from a male perspective) to the impossible (covering the legendary 'Eleanor Rigby' and making it into a fresh, heavy rock version) to the transcendent (turning 'Billie Jean' into a moody and haunting tale of betrayal). He finished the season with a moving rendition of the excellent 'World I Know' by Collective Soul. No joke, this guy was a breath of fresh air on the show, made all the better by upsetting the shoe-in David Archuleta, whose youthful exuberance was all but guaranteeing him the crown. Dude barely even looks like your typical Idol contestant:
So, Cook wins and releases a good, but rushed, album, as is typical of the Idol machine. You give the winner a mobile studio (for endless tour and press obligations) and a stable of collaborators (presuming the contestant either has no songs or natural writing ability) and churn out a record to capitalize on their name as quick as possible. Of course I say all this with admirable derision, as Cook's self titled release does feature some great songs, among them the single 'Declaration' and the lurching and massive 'Bar-Ba-Sol' to name a few. Here's the trick with David Cook, though - he already had a fantastic solo record out and couldn't sell it. Midway through his run on the show it had come to light that Cook, like many of the contestants that year, had a long musical career already. Having formed the band Axium (releasing four albums) and splitting off to form the successful Midwest Kings (putting out six records), Cook eventually wanted full creative control of the music he was making and wrote a whole album and released it under his own name, calling it Analog Heart
The album was received incredibly well in his home state of Oklahoma (gaining several awards for album of the year in Tulsa and online sites) and showed him to be a strong, creative writer with a distinct voice and style of playing. It really does deserve all the praise it received. Recorded, produced and released in Tulsa, Cook relied on former band mates, friends and trusted engineers to craft his sound and the results paid off. Released in musical wasteland that was 2006 (the death of the album and the rise of the hipster), it was a hidden gem of an album that the Idol execs pulled from Amazon & other online stores because of supposed fairness issues. Interestingly other contestants were allowed to have their albums available during the competition but Cook was not. In the press he remains very genial about the whole affair, but you have to wonder what the impact would have been if they just let it go. Only a minimal amount of searching online lead me to a genuine copy of Analog Heart and I was genuinely impressed with how great it sounded.
All this cloak and dagger business aside, the album is fantastic. It's the rare guitar-driven album that still feels passionate and relevant, a modern singer-songwriter who doesn't come across as incredibly niche or purposefully obtuse. Cook has a skill for heavy yet melodic tunes like the album opener 'Straight Ahead', whose title almost acts as a signpost for the lack of gimmicks the listener will be subjected to. The songs are left to speak for themselves. The track 'Searchlights' would feel completely at home on Alt Nation or terrestrial radio - it's a building, living song with a chorus that build every time it repeats. By the finale it's a wall-to-wall anthem. Lighter affair like the genuine and melodic 'The Truth' still have their weight and crunch to them, but allow for a sense of intimacy to them. Hands down, though, the stand out track is 'Don't Say A Word'. The guitar immediately hooks you with it's staccato riffing over distorted chords, leading into heavy and riffing verses. The chorus is irresistibly catchy and crawls into your head like any professionally crafted song could. It stands out among the album as an early indicator of what Cook was capable of. 
Seriously, this album is a hidden gem of pop-culture side-stories. Here's this talented musician, hard at work on his own great album. He accompanies his brother to American Idol and not only is corralled into auditioning but somehow works his way to the top, almost through happenstance and sheer talent rather than executive meddling (weird, right?). He then gets said album barred from sale, releases another album, and then never really mentions the initial one again. I love the secretive nature to it, this undiscovered thing that was kept from the public, tracking it down was a great way to hear what an artist could do when left to his own devices. Cook is currently putting the finishing touches on his second post-Idol album and I'm really hoping its as good as his previous efforts. Fingers crossed, let's see what he can do.



Feeling funky today, kids. One of the joys of working in an office is the sharing of germs. Hopefully the sickness and ensuing medicine won't make me too groggy but I'll try to get this written as quickly as I can, regardless, so forgive any cold/flu induced delirium.

I spent yesterday's post writing about a guilty pleasure, so I figure why not keep a good thing going? Today's post is about a piece of music's forgotten lore, Garbage's self titled debut album. I only use the term guilty pleasure here, though, because of the fact that it seems to be largely forgotten by the quickly shifting focus of our collective media-memory. I suppose there was also the stigma of being in a small town where it was considered unusual to like music that wasn't country or any kind of oldies, but that's really beside the point. Rather than bore you with my own tales of growing up in the middle of nowhere I'll settle for telling you about this awesome and neglected album that deserves more attention and respect. 

A sekrit favorite band of mine over the years, Garbage has origins that belie the typical 'friends jamming in a garage' story we've all heard so many times. Formed by a collection of veteran producers in the early 90s, the band was essentially a passion project for all involved, creating demos of their material in the spaces between regular production work. Butch Vig, whose work and reputation I've written about before, started the group with fellow Smart Studios producer Steve Marker and longtime mutual collaborator Duke Erickson, of the groups Spooner and Firetown. Rather than rob their own coffers for remixing other people's work, the three kept the material they were recording for themselves, all while keeping an eye out for a unique voice to compliment the sound they were creating. They found it in Scottish singer Shirley Manson, who left her own floundering career in the UK (mildly successful acts Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and Angelfish) to audition for the group. Having made a good impression, she was welcomed to the fold and the group set to work on what would be their first album, written and recorded largely in Wisconsin. 
The self titled album was an unexpected success. Riding in on the post-grunge alternative wave, Garbage had a refreshingly pop sound that brought the group widespread acclaim with massive radio hits like "Stupid Girl" "Vow" and "Only Happy When It Rains". By the mid 90s the country was tired of the dreary, angry tunes that had swept the 80s away. Grunge was on its way out, strange things were coming in. Pop punk was making huge waves with the likes of Rancid and The Offspring, Oasis released their career-defining What's The Story Morning Glory, and (good god) Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrisette came out that year, if that's no indication of the change. See what happened? Kurt Cobain died and took a lot of the self-loathing attitude with him, apparently. I wince at typing that, but the fundamental shift in popular music just a year after his death is remarkable. Radiohead released The Bends, No Doubt put out Tragic Kingdom, The Foo Fighters' excellent (and also under appreciated) first album debuted. Man, crazy year. In the midst of it, Garbage came out swinging with music that feels like it wasn't just written but designed from the ground up to catch you off guard. Almost lost in the sea of amazing music released in 1995, their debut album instantly clicked with my musical tastes, both fitting into them and expanding them. 
The whole record is a fantastic piece of buzzy, edgy pop music that I still thoroughly enjoy today, 16 years later. Having veteran musicians backing the sultry Manson, it's no surprise the album has such a polished and fully realized sound, all buzzing guitars and thumping percussion. The bass bubbles just under the surface on every track. From the agressive and pushy album opener "Supervixen", to the throbbing "Heaven Is Wide", the songs breathe with their own lives. "Queer" was my bumping and humming intro to trip hop. The power-pop of "Not My Idea" punches you right in the ear. I remember hearing it at 13 and being amazed at the strange sound - a total shift from the angry grunge I loved but not the insipid pop on the local radio stations, it was a bizarre hybrid of the two. "Vow" has an disorienting intro of guitars flying from one headphone to the other, leading into a crunching chorus of crazy catchy chords. The single "Stupid Girl" is heavy disco drums and a leaping bass line, covered by a light and hooky, jangly guitar line over the top. Through all this Manson coos and growls, hisses and snaps. Never sticking to a single style, she gives every song her all, the passion of a band's make-or-break opportunity going to full throttle. The album ended up selling over 4 million copies and starting the band down their twisting path of group tensions followed by uneven, if at times amazing, follow-ups. 
This album, while a mega seller, gets little to no love today. Sure, you hear one of their early singles on the radio once in a blue moon but it seems to be one of those albums that came, made a big impact then faded into the woodwork all too soon. It really deserves another listen, I'm sure it's in your itunes or kicking around your cd collection - put it on and see what sold in 1995. It's phenomenal.