5.31.2011

Agent Smith

Back at it, huh? 

Movie Week continues, for just two more days. In the spirit of this site, I thought I'd write today's piece on a movie that I loved long ago which doesn't seem to get the same respect it once did. That movie? Chasing Amy, written and directed by Kevin Smith. Yes, that Kevin Smith. 

While I have written more than a few pieces on this site about being behind the pop-culture curve or not picking up on the zeitgeist, this movie is one instance in which I was fairly in the know, at least from where I was sitting. Like I've previously explained, growing up in the less densely populated parts of the Middle West, you have to make your own fun and find your own niche. This was especially hard before the ubiquity of the interwebs and access to anything faster than dial up. However, being a teenaged male in America, I was well aware of the indie hit Clerks and the mangled-but-eventual cult success Mallrats and the inherent appeal to my sensibilities. Long winded diatribes about the political ramifications of Star Wars. Comic book references galore. Believable everyman characters. Smith may receive some flack for diminishing returns these days but I still love his canon, if solely for the Askewniverse. So when I heard about his followup to Mallrats, the low budget and character driven Chasing Amy, I was curious. I also had heard about the subject of the film's plot, namely that of a straight man pining after his lesbian friend. I never had a chance to see the movie in any of the major chains around me when it was first released, but I did seek it out upon its release to VHS soon after. Yes, VHS. I do remember what that was like. 

No bones about it, I still dig this film, a decade on. There's something so genuine and heartfelt about it. Say what you will about the nature of sexuality and predilections for human behavior, I can't speak from a sociologist or psychologist's perspective. As a straight male in my late 20s I can hardly speak of the broader world of human sexuality. It feels to me, though, that this was Smith's first foray into cinematic maturity and making a movie that, while still riddled with the low-hanging fruit of lowbrow humor, it possesses a humanity that revealed his charm as a writer and director. Clerks had been a DIY, almost guerrilla-style, self funded project. Mallrats had given him a larger budget and Hollywood production values, only to see him (slightly) misfire under the pressure, but that film's (initially) poor reception could almost be chalked up to the public and the industry's misunderstanding his wheelhouse. We didn't know then what we know now about his strengths and weaknesses. I, for one, would find it fascinating for him to make Mallrats as present day Kevin Smith and see what the results would be. More crudity, but maybe more heart, as well. Not to say the version we have doesn't have it, but I haven't seen the recut and expanded version of the movie that he released in recent times. But that's an article for another day. 

I'm rambling. 

The point is, I found (and still find) Chasing Amy to be a film that perfectly encapsulated what Smith's style is all about. He may certainly disagree, especially considering how much time has passed since he made it, but I think it's a very enjoyable mix of levity and sincere emotional events. The script is Smith doing what he does best - riffing on pop culture while giving characters some excellent dialogue to build scenes on. That he has some terrific actors enlisted does no harm, as I've always loved watching Jason Lee and it's funny to see Ben Affleck right before he exploded into stardom. They're fun to watch together on screen, and it shows how actors having chemistry is crucial to making a movie work. The majority of the cast were Smith's friends, including ex-girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams, who does a fantastic job bringing her character to life. Smith has shared some interesting anecdotes in regard to how the studio wanted to recast the film in order to provide a higher budget. I'm glad he stuck to his guns - what would this movie have gained from a quadrupled budget if it had starred David Schwimmer? Sorry Ross. The chemistry among the cast is what sells the film, really. Well, that and the fact that basically one guy being responsible for almost everything you see on screen. 

Having listened to his commentaries and podcasts, one quickly picks up on the fact that Smith simultaneously makes no apologies for his work and is also the first to jump on the critical dogpile. I get that he's not Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen, but I wish he would tone down the self deprecation. Hearing him bag on his own work only brings the flaws to light, most of which I wouldn't really be aware of if he wasn't pointing them out. I specifically recall him pointing out a shot in Mallrats that is very deep and then joking about his lack of depth in his canon. As a layperson who knows little about the process of film making and camera placement I never would have noticed it. Now I am finding myself remembering that every time I see a deep shot. In regard to Chasing Amy, though, he has had little (that I've heard) critical to say. I think he holds this film closer to his heart, due to its personal relevance to his own experiences and relationships. It's easily held by many critics as his best work, even today, and it's plain to see why.
If you've never seen Chasing Amy in the 10+ years its been out, you're way over due. It would be a real shame if you only knew him as the caricature he sometimes plays up. Sure he can be crass or foul, but along with that you get a film maker who creates real characters and witty, insightful dialogue. Do yourself a favor and rewatch it, even, just to see what made him a name in the first place. It's good, you'll like it. 

5.30.2011

Radio Static

Man, these things keep getting later and later.


Hope your weekend was as good as mine, a mix of extreme productivity and quantifiable unwinding. Movie Week continues, but not for long. Tonight, a short look back at an under rated but curious example of the game-to-screen phenomenon. 


I've written a fair deal about my love for Silent Hill, particularly the second installment of the game series. The first post I ever wrote was on how much I love the work of the series' composer, Akira Yamaoka. Imagine, then, my delight when I heard several years ago that there were plans to adapt the games into a film. I was, of course, skeptical about the process, as anyone who has seen video game-based movies like Super Mario Brothers, Double Dragon, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat can attest, the results are never strong. My fears were dissuaded by the professed admiration of Christopher Gans, a French director who swore up and down that the movie was a labor of love and a dream project of his. So, expectations hovering in the middle, I went to see the big screen adaption of Silent Hill when it was released in theaters.


It was...okay.


I really wanted to love the movie. There were parts of it that absolutely nailed the tone and mood of the surreal-yet-disturbing game series. Other elements were less cohesive or just not that strong. It was, in short, an uneven affair that shone brightly at times but faltered when it came to sticking the ending. Part of the problem, obviously, comes in the translation from game to cinema - games are solitary, intensely personal experiences, whereas a major motion picture is seen in a theater full of people without your hands guiding the experience. Where I had played these games alone in the dark, tensely feeling my way through the dread and abandoned corridors, here was a movie played in a theater in which seemingly disparate elements were forced into an unconfused whole.
There are definitely parts of the film that work, in particular the first half of the movie. In it, we see a great deal of imagery and themes central to the games, without just copying them wholesale. The pervasive fog, the flickering radios, the uncanny movement of things in the mist - some of it plays out as ideally as a film version of Silent Hill could do. In particular, the music and score for these establishing scenes are fantastic, basically amounting to a pseudo-greatest hits of the game's music. Yamaoka's influence on the series is felt strongly here and it works to great effect. The script is not a stand-out element, but the cast does a solid job in handling insane material, making the impossible somewhat believable. It's only as the movie progresses that we lose sight of where we started. While the games excelled at atmosphere and ambient dread there was also a fair degree (okay a hell of a lot of) graphic violence and disturbing images. The film, unfortunately, forgets or confuses the emphasis, switching out effective scene-settings for gore and viscera. By the end of the movie we've strayed straight into a torture film, watching characters suffer seemingly out of obligation rather than plot necessity.
Silent Hill is far from a perfect movie, but it still holds its own, if just for that opening 35 or forty minutes. If I ever wanted to explain the series to someone and have them experience it without them playing it I would have them watch the begging of this movie. Just not the last leg - too brutal, even for me at times. Still, glad to have as strong an adaptation as this. We'll see what happens with the sequel, due next year. As long as they use Akira Yamaoka's music, I'm in.

5.29.2011

Changing Times

Kids!


The kids these days, what with their rocknroll music and their societal progressions!


I was out to dinner tonight with my better half and my younger brother, talking about movies in honor of Movie Week, and while we established several good ideas for later posts, we struggled to find something appropriate for tonight. Then my younger brother made a joke about black and white TVs and it hit us all at once.


Pleasantville!


You guys remember Pleasantville? You totally should, it actually holds up as a pretty cool movie, especially considering the star power it now possesses, retroactively. Released in 1998, the movie starred Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as a couple of jaded, disaffected kids from the millennial era (picture Roy from the Simpsons) who end up trapped in the fictional world of the TV series Pleasantville. All seems well until some incidental changes are made to the established social norms. Suddenly up is down, wrong is right and what was black and white is now Technicolor.
What was kind of a gimmicky premise turns out to be a cool, dynamic choice for film making, even today. The movie's stark color palette and distinctive tone are really fascinating presentations for what amounts to be a fairly rote morality play about civil rights and the progression of society. 
While not a groundbreaking film in any major sense of the word, Pleasantville still stands as an intersting, if overlooked, film from right around the millennium. If you're looking for something to pop in to help unwind over the long weekend, give this movie a shot, if for no other reason than to see some major players of the modern Hollywood scene in their younger days. I'll see you tomorrow for another Movie Week post.

5.28.2011

Product Placement

Word.


Saturday.


Memorial Day Weekend.


Forgive the brevity of the post, there's been life and wedding planning intervening in my writing schedule. That's not an excuse of any kind, just insight into my world.


You might know that last week I spent the better part of 1000 words extolling the virtues of Galaxy Farm and the music they make. Additionally I made it perfectly clear that I have a relative in the band, which should not (but probably does) affect my objectivity. Today, for Movie Week, I thought "The hell with objectivity" and decided to spread the good word about something I took part in two summers ago. That something?


Wasted On The Young.


Set in the Twin Cities, the movie was written and produced by some of my closest friends, including (but not limited to): Evan Drolet Cook, Riley Lang and Joseph Voelbel. Starring lots of local fresh faces and veterans of the industry, the movie is essentially about a group of young 20-somethings over the course of a summer and the effect that one of the friends learning to drive has on the entire group. It also features a small role played by me, in my limited capacity as an actor. Having seen snippets of the film, I can tell you that I expect great things from it, as it proves to be damn funny and even, dare I say, touching at times. Yes, I do dare say it. But it's the good kind of touching, not the bad kind your parents warned you about.
Here's the best part - not only can you see the trailer for Wasted On The Young here, you can buy some of the few remaining tickets to the premier at Trylon Microcinema June 1st and 2nd here. Unfortunately both 7pm shows are completely sold out, but there are a few left for the 9pm showings. Even better, if you can't make it to one of the theatrical showings, the movie will be available on the website for downloading DIRECTLY TO YOUR COMPUTER FOR HOME-VIEWING for a mere 99 cents! How bananas is that? I think that's a hell of a deal for a locally made movie.
Do yourself a favor and get on board the Wasted On The Young bandwagon before buzz catches on and you're the last to see it. I guarantee you'll find something to laugh at, even if it's something so simple as a movie being shot entirely on VHS. You heard me right.


See it. Live it. Love it.


BYOB.

5.27.2011

Ticking Clock

Oh, kids. 

Here we go. 

Chances are, unless you're a bit of a film buff, you haven't heard of the 2003 South Korean flick Oldboy. That's really a shame, considering how good it is. Despite the quality of the movie though, I will start today's write up with the warning that this movie is most certainly not for everyone. There are some visceral, graphically v scenes, as well as some uncomfortable themes that are gonna put some people off the movie. That being said - if you're still with me, you have to see this movie. 

I think I first became aware of it a couple years ago, from the same hip friend who turned me on to Andrew Bird and Doomtree. Talk about a jumping off point. Anyway, I had seen the case for the DVD kicking around his apartment and asked, casually, what it was. His response? "Oh, dude - it's this crazy movie about a guy who's locked up for 15 years with no idea why and then he's just let out into the world and he starts to find out why. It's crazy, really messed up but good." That sums up not only the most basic gist of the movie but how my friend could also sell me on it without spoiling too much of the plot, hooking me in at the same time. On a certain level, he hit the nail on the head. If we were to go deeper we would find there is much more going on in one of the greatest movies to ever emerge from South Korea. 
The story is much more complicated than Rizzo's succinct, encapsulation-take. The overall plot concerns a man by the name of Oh Dae-Su who is mysteriously abducted after being released from police custody, having been picked up on d and d charges. He awakens to find himself in a sealed apartment with only a TV for information, finding out his wife has been m and that he is the primary suspect. His meals consist of nothing but dumplings on a tray, slid through the door. Any attempt at escape or s find him being gassed unconscious by unknown forces. Passing the time shadowboxing and exercising, he remains imprisoned for 15 years, only to be released, unceremoniously back into the world with no explanation. Starting out from square one, he begins the process of piecing together the hows and whys of his imprisonment in a quest for vengeance against the parties responsible. Before we reach the end of the film he is a broken and shattered man, having confronted his past and questioned his own life to arrive in a place of (potential) resolution. I won't go any farther into detail to save you the pleasure and horror of the journey Dae-Su endures, but it was a harrowing experience simply watching the movie, to say the least. 
I watched this movie, alone, for the first time over a Christmas break when my better half was visiting family. Maybe it was being alone for the holidays or maybe it was the emotional turmoil in the movie, but Oldboy really affected me. There's visceral, realistic violence, disturbing emotional content and staggering plot developments. It is unlike any film I had seen up until then. By the time I finished watching it, midnight had come and gone, along with a bottle of wine, and I felt I had to wash the taste of the harrowing plot out of my mouth with something light hearted. Just a little cartoon to lighten the mood before bed. That being said, it is a beautiful, artfully shot movie with a distinctive style that is refreshingly un-Hollywood and completely novel for American audiences. Plus, a a dude eats a live octopus on camera. Ferreals.


If you're looking for an adventure for your Friday night, or like me, your weather is going to suck this long weekend, watch Oldboy. It's a trip, but not for the faint of heart. Tread lightly and be prepared. It's unreal.

5.26.2011

Spotty Weather

Alright, gang - it's movie week. I'm calling it.

Instead of spending my posts positing about unheard or under-appreciated albums of yesteryear I'm going to delve into movies for the next week, writing about some forgotten or overlooked gems that deserve just as much love as the musicians. Think of it as an experiment or a broadening of horizons. IF you love it, gravy. If you hate it, it's only a week, so no worries. Strap in, then, as we draw back from science fiction ever-so-slightly and look at a more recent, more family friendly flick, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.

I know what you're thinking. "Really? A movie based on that children's book? Why not just make a movie about Candyland, while you're at it?" Well, the powers that be in Hollywood are already working on that, and in my defense - Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is good. Like, really, really good. I honestly wouldn't have given it the time of day were it not for a write-up on sci-fi emporium io9, which basically sold me on the movie. I, like many others, had dismissed it as just another schlocky, CGI'd kid's movie that was probably done on the cheap for a quick buck. What reason would I have to suspect otherwise? It was when I read the io9 article explaining how it was the stealth sekritbest science fiction movie of the summer that I thought about giving it a second look, and I was really glad I did.
 We all loved the book, growing up, right? But there's not a lot to it, so I assumed there would be some fleshing out of details to create a decent plot. Turns out the script writers created a believable and charmingly funny world out of the bare-bones plot established by the children's book. To condense the entire plot without spoiling all the fun, an optimistic but terribly unlucky young inventor named Flint has been struggling with failure and not achieving recognition for some of his more...unusual creations. Creations like spray-on, permanent shoes, rat-birds and a thought-translator for his pet monkey, Steve. Eeking out an existence with his gruff but loving father in the island/town of Swallow Falls, Flint has grown tired of the sardine-based lifestyle everyone living there depends on, from tourism to horrible meals. So he sets out to fix it with a water based food generator, "Flint Lockwood's Diatomic Super Mutating-Dynamic Food Replicator" (or the FLDSMDFR) . Something gets supercharged, the experiment goes wrong and soon food is raining from the sky. A plucky young weather girl comes to report on the bizarre occurrences and a romance of sorts begins. Soon, though, larger and larger portions begin to rain down and something must be done to save the tiny town of Swallow Falls. I know it sounds like I may have had a stroke while writing this last bit here, but trust me, it's an absolutely wonderful movie that is surprisingly funny and incredibly well done, especially in the overstuffed market of family affair, computer generated comedies. 
The voice acting is a major part of what makes this movie so great. SNL alum and ubiquitous modern comedy star Bill Hader delivers a genuine performance as the endearing but constantly-failing Flint. Anna Faris and her distinctive comedy timing compliment the romantic subplot as well as the main drive of the film. Neil Patrick Harris provides the voice of Steve the monkey, in an amusing cameo. Andy Samberg channels his energy into the local child celebrity-turned-washed-up adult Brent, showing his schtick through his vocal chords instead of his flailing body language, for a nice change. There's a cop whose small but significant role made me look him up to verify it is indeed Mr. T providing the voice. Also - Bruce Campbell as The Mayor! The acting is all very energetic without being manic, the characters possessing some genuine motivation despite the outlandish settings and scenes. 
Visually, the film is astounding. There are times, when watching, that you'll see food and think "I wanna eat that" before you realize it's not real. So often you'll see CGI movies that have clearly phoned it in, getting by on the barest production values. Not so much here - the settings are down-to-earth towns and buildings, the people just a tad cartoony (deftly avoiding the uncanny valley) and the action set pieces are executed insanely well. This movie is filled with little moments that make me go agog, staring at something like the fluid waves of a Jello castle or a garbage can in an alley, thinking "this looks way too good for this movie." It's even better in Blu Ray, to boot. There are tons of blink-and-you-miss-it gags to be found that make repeat viewings fun, as well as some incredibly funny call back jokes that made me howl. Some favorite moments, without divulging too much: the jello castle, young Flint and his permanent shoe disaster, the runaway TV, and anything involving Steve and his obsession - gummy bears. 

I know I started movie week off yesterday with some hard sci-fi. Hopefully this recommendation is a little more middle of the pack, but it still shows its nerd-loving, brainy roots at its heart. It's smart, funny, well made and well acted. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs slipped under the radar a bit when it came out in theaters, but it's totally worth watching, trust me. It is available on Netflix Instant, but do yourself a favor and watch it in HD to really get a sense of what I'm talking about. You won't be disappointed. 

5.25.2011

End All Be All

Hey there.

I'm gonna switch gears completely today. Instead of proselytizing about music, I thought I'd share a bit of a cinematic experience. A man can only write so much on one subject, after all. So strap in, kids - we're gonna look back at the nature of origins and rediscovering the forgotten.

I was listening to the latest installment of the Nerdist podcast yesterday, featuring the incredibly intelligent and funny Patton Oswalt. Over the course of the podcast, Hardwick and Oswalt's conversation turned to the incessant obsession with reboots and remakes in Hollywood and how frustrating it is now that the duration between iterations seems to be decreasing. For example - Spiderman 3 was barely out of the theaters before there was talk of rebooting the franchise and now Christopher Nolan has yet to film The Dark Knight Rises and the studios are setting up the rubric of a reboot. It's exasperating. What I took away from their discussion was the simple notion that I should appreciate the source material while I can, before it's mined for originality and thrown on the scrap heap due to obsolescence. One such example of the never-ending molestation by the Hollywood machine would be the Terminator franchise

To cut to the chase - I love this series, flaws and all, but when you get down to the heart of it the first two films were never that flawed. It wasn't until further iterations of the franchise came to pass that the quality began to dip. Even then, I had the pleasure of watching the Sarah Conner Chronicles on Netflix and by the end of the second season the show had really gotten to be quite good. Shame it was cancelled right as it grew the beard. After chewing my way through the show I thought to myself "I only watched those movies years ago, I ought to go back and see what the fuss was about now that I'm a little older". I was pretty young when the blockbuster Terminator 2 came out and I remember my parents hemming and hawing about me seeing it at a friend's house. Being the young science-fiction nerds we were, we watched the movie with rapt attention, then immediately went and rented the original Terminator, which had essentially made James Cameron into the name he is today. It was a fast and furious affair, a tense and terse movie that never strays too far from the premise, much to its merit. But I had no idea at the time, not even into my teens, the impact that medium and quality would have on a viewer's experience and interpretation. So much like my post on Akira and second viewings, I went back to the beginning and started working my way through the Terminator series Blu Rays to see if they had held up to the passage of time.

Man, do they.

I don't recall, exactly, the quality of the VHS on which I watched Terminator. I just know that A) it was probably at least five years old B) it was on a tiny TV and C) I hadn't actually set out to watch the movie in its entirety since then, so it had been, what, 15+ years? Watching it again, then, on the crisp, new transfer to Blu Ray after such a long time was revelatory. It was honestly like seeing the movie for the first time. The audio was crystal clear, the scope of the shots were impressive, even for a young director like Cameron was at the time. It was apparent, even now, decades later, that this was a fantastic concept for a movie and there wasn't an ounce of fat on it. The movie is a fast paced, relentless piece of work, taking place over the course of a scant 36 hours. Arnold Schwarzenegger is intimidating and believably robotic, Michael Beihn is passionate and desperate, a great fit for the role, and Linda Hamilton serves as a credible audience proxy. I was stunned, frankly, to see how great the movie looked in the present day despite what must have been a shoe-string budget. No surprise, then, that the movie spawned not only a long-running franchise but countless knock-offs as well. This was a smart, heavily science-fiction based action movie that made evil robots somehow believable to the movie-going public, something the imitators had trouble accomplishing.

Cameron ramped up the effects and scope of the movie for a sequel six years later, making Terminator 2 (at least at the time) one of the most expensive and impressive movies put to film. Unlike the first, however, I had seen this move countless times in the intervening years, including more than once in my college apartment on a rinky-dink little TV/VHS combo I had in my kitchen. I liked to watch a movie while I did the dishes - so sue me. Anyway, as I have stated before - a larger TV and clearer format make for a substantially different experience. I never got to see these movies in the theater. At home on a widescreen was as close as I was going to get, and it was still an eye opening experience. While I would have loved to experience the novel twist of playing off of the audience's expectations of the little guy being good and Arnold being bad, I still got a fresh perspective from the new format.  Once again, the movie had a renewed sense of weight and impact, the gun violence seeming more real and the details standing out just that much more. One of my favorite scenes in any movie is towards the back of this film, in which our protagonists break in to Cyberdine Research to change the future, bringing the entirety of the Los Angeles police force to the scene. The cold, desperate drama of the situation gives a heavy finality to the scenes as a young Edward Furlong replies to an insanely fit Linda Hamilton about how many cops are waiting outside. A beat, then his shaky reply: "Uh...all of 'em, I think." The sequel isn't quite as tight or novel, meandering away from the premise to examine what sentience is and how identity and self impact our actions. Predestination was more a theme of the first film but it still plays nicely in the sequel, albeit in more subtle manner.
I have to confess - I'm totally sold on this franchise. You can say what you want about diminishing returns and the less than stellar results of T3 and Terminator Salvation, but the Cameron continuity, namely the first two films and the TV series, are actually surprisingly intelligent and well done. The first two films are absolutely phenomenal, especially in the context of a fresh viewing with the latest technology. They're tight, intelligent movies that changed peoples perceptions of what science fiction could be. If you're at all curious what they're like and haven't seen them before, or just haven't seen them on Blu Ray, do yourself a favor and see what all the fuss was about - dude, it's killer robots. It's tops.

5.24.2011

With A Bullet

Welcome, welcome.

Today's post is one of simple math. In short, I've written about Garbage a fair deal. I've also written a bit about the once-popular soundtrack to the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet. So what we've got, then, is a look at Garage's excellent contribution to that same said album, '#1 Crush'. In fairness, after yesterday's lengthy ode to the superb Galaxy Farm, today's post will be a bit more abbreviated. But let's press on, shall we? 

As I said, the soundtrack to the film, while possesing more than its share of singles, was once quite popular. Unfortunately we've obviously moved on from the murky pop culture of the 90s into a distilled mess of reality TV and even more calculated pop music. Time was, once, when you could have a hit movie with a couple of teen hearthrob actors and a contemproary soundtrack of which seemingly everyone had a copy. That time is dead now. BUT! Way back then, when Friends was in its peak popularity and 'Lovefool' by The Cardigans was all over the radio, this was still happening. And yes, while 'Lovefool' was the ubiquitous single from the soundtrack, all Swedish ear-worms and pixie-singer charm, the stealth hit from that album was the ominous and dangerous Garbage single which also made (shamefully less significant) waves on modern radio. 
Titled '#1 Crush', the song is both sexy and disturbing, showing Shirley and the gang at their thumping and churning best. Starting with an almost embarrasingly sincere moan, the song is Garbage working soundly in their wheelhouse. It's all looping bass lines and a drum beat that would pass for radio-friendly disco if it weren't for the ominous music layered over it.  The verses feature Manson cooing "I would die for you, I would die for you, I've been dieing just to feel you by my side" as the bass swirls in a concentric circle. Manson's moaning here is almost without care, like she's simultaneously singing with abandon and no concern for the listener. The effect is both engaging, even if a bit jarring.
This whole song is a low affair, from the intonation to the actual notes and progressions. The notes are low on the scale, the tone is dark and eerie, the subject matter is bleak and disturbing, all of it in the best possible work of this band, whose members know a thing or two about making dark, moody music. For reals, give a listen to this song on a lonely nighttime drive and you've got some fantastic mood music; listen to it on a sunny, afternoon lunch break and you'll wonder who has Manson so enraptured. It's a fantastic slice of dangerous, sexy music that thumps and slides in all the right spots, to the point you'll wonder if the band is watching you through the windows. Just don't turn around...

5.23.2011

Juggernauts

So here we are, again.

I've held of writing about today's subject for a few reasons. One is that the band is so near and dear to me that I wanted to be able to do the music justice when I finally set about doing it. The other is that I wanted to make sure I had some decent traffic in order to give the band whatever boost I could. Being at a point now where I feel those goals have both been achieved, I am ready to write about the best band you've yet to hear - Galaxy Farm.

Based out of Portland, Oregon, the band consists of Neff, Ben and Jon, playing drums, strings and keys, respectively. Full disclosure here - I am indeed related to a member of the band, which served as my introduction to them. However, this was not a case of a relative saying "You should listen to us" but rather my older brother (whose excellent influence I've written previously hailed) giving the thumbs up and recommending them on a legitimate basis. Not knowing what to expect, I pulled up their self titled EP online and previewed some tracks.

I was blown away.

It would be one thing to say I was impressed with what a relative would be capable of, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn't make any difference that I have a familial connection to the band - they are absolutely fantastic to the point that I would listen to them even if they were my mortal enemies. I recall, vividly, the feeling of overwhelming surprise and elation at hearing the sounds they were making and the choices the made, structurally. It's one thing to have an indie band put out a self financed EP, its another to have them put out an EP that sounds this polished and holds up so well. I've listened to it incessantly for the last year and have yet to grow tired of the songs, evangelizing their dynamic and powerful sound to anyone who will listen. There's never been any gain in it for me, other than the fact that I think these guys are so talented that they deserve to get as much love as possible. 

Citing a variety of influences, from Muse to Sufjan Stevens, the band creates a sound that is not quite like anything else I've been hearing lately. On top of this, they display an intelligence and clever knack for song writing that few bands these days seem to wield. The opening notes to the first track on their EP, 'Prelude', sets up the ensuing soundscape nicely, with a delicately descending piano intro popping open their sound into a repeating octave-based riff that allows vocalist Jon to sing a haunting, peculiar melody that displays how talented and vocally flexible his range can be. When the band switches gears to sing the warped-line "Soon enough, when it comes we'll all find a way..." the effect is moving, the kind of feeling I wrote of in posts about feeling a chord change in your chest and not just your ears. It's a fantastic song that builds in leaps and bounds and when they begin to repeat the introductory vocal phrases towards the end, one gathers a sense that these guys are playing with a huge sound and limitless potential.

The hurtling, dramatic 'Hold On' makes it apparent how little we hear actual pianos in modern rock, which in this case is a shame, as the Galaxy Farm create a sound here that is somehow simultaneously a throw back and a look towards the future. The syncopated but rocksteady drumming of Neff here locks the band in place and they're free to pound just behind the beat a bit, adding weight to their dramatic sound. Guitarist Ben Weyerhauser takes lead vocal duties on the heavy-as-bricks-dropping-from-a-skyscraper 'Lady In The Midnight Sun', his voice a nice contrast to Jon's vocals. Weyerhasuer's voice is more of a traditional, squared-off sound compared to Jon's rounder sound, if that makes any sense. Regardless, the change is to great effect on this track and the two sound great when harmonizing together. The band switches gears again on the next track, the dream-pop of 'Take What's Yours' transforming as it comes churning out of the band's hands. The penultimate song, the synth-driven, frantic 'Let It Burn' is another urgent number, full of dramatic energy. The chorus, which sees both vocalists belting out "Today's the day you always wanted", is phenomenal, powerful stuff that sounds like a score to an epic movie, some climatic chase-scene stuff, for sure. The little, end of the measure break they take before the final refrain is a choice song writing trick that shows them to be savvy artists. 

The standout track here, though, from my opinion and just about anyone for whom I've played the EP, is the closer. Opening with a flourish of old-timey piano playing, the staggering and heartbreaking 'Mixer' closes this brief but rich release. The song, a moving and brilliantly written plea for reconnecting, closes the EP with fuzzy synths and absolutely gorgeous harmonies, both vocalists singing contrapuntal but complimentary harmonies. It's a fantastic song, really - words don't do it justice. Have a listen for yourself, here, at their website. 
I can't say enough positive about this band. I'm well aware of how sycophantic this may be, but do yourself a favor and get on board now before the train takes off and everyone else is in love with them before you. Word on the street is they have a full length album in the can and ready to go, but they're putting some finishing touches on it before unleashing it on the public. My only quibble is that they're all the way out on the west coast and I'm stuck here in the midwest so I have yet to see them play live. If you're anywhere near them, however, do yourself a favor and see what they're capable of in person. I would put money on you being blown away. Go. Do it now. 

5.22.2011

Beach Combing

Welcome back.

Last time I wrote about the Gorillaz I barely had started doing this. Here I am, 5 months later with a bit of content under my belt. I had written, then, about their latest release, the experimental and conceptual project 'The Fall'. Really, though, all their work is experimental - it just depends how much so and in what context. I certainly did enjoy The Fall, although now with a bit of hindsight it feels spare, a bit thin in some spots. I realize this because conversely I have recently been listening to their last proper album before this, the sprawling and highly produced 'Plastic Beach'. Obviously tastes change with time, and in the months since the release of The Fall I've fallen out of love with it and back into the arms of Plastic Beach. Let's look at why that is, shall we?

As stated previously, the two albums are as far apart as can be, despite initial appearances. One stands more as an manifestation of curiosity and potential, as though Damon Albarn was asking himself "Can I do this?" while the other is a grand concept, so large and plotted out that it becomes something else, entirely, and example of creating art out of music. Along these lines, look at how the respective results play to our ears - The Fall, being entirely produced on an iPad, is fairly thin, almost deficient album by Gorillaz' standards. Plastic Beach, with its countless hours of recording, production and multiple cut tracks, is the most ambitious and grand thing they've done aside from a live tour. Albarn has even acknowledged how what was originally a small scale concept/art band has slowly grown and progressed into an entire collective of artists and musicians who all contribute in a unique but integral way. Fall is minimal, Beach is grandiose.
Regarding Plastic Beach's theme, I am absolutely enthralled with it. I can easily see how the realization of how plastic is becoming intertwined with the environment would be an affecting, long-scale concept. Albarn remarked that he had seen the way different cultures interpreted finding plastic in their beaches and landfills and who disposed of it and who reconstituted it, and the idea really impressed upon him. Honestly the idea is both fascinating and appalling, especially if you've seen any images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive, growing wad of trash in the ocean that is a horrible accumulation of our un-recycled detritus. The images, let alone the concept, make my mind reel with the implications of our impact on the world. Albarn, however, had a more...skewed perspective. His take on it was that the plastic came from the earth and will therefore, one day, return to it or become integrated into the ecosystem. In a way he's right, but the fact that its disturbing the system so significantly shouldn't be ignored.
But I digress. I'm not going to lecture, but rather encourage - look into what the Garbage Patch is, and then listen to this album. Like I said, 'The Fall' is a sleek, stripped down affair, while 'Plastic Beach' is complex and dynamic. It's a grand, sprawling affair. Check out the intro/trailer for the album here. There was a series of short clips someone stitched together to make a longer form of the conceptual meta-narrative here and here. Combining the viral clips and official videos for singles, it makes a more cohesive story to the album, illustrating just how dense this project has become. The sound of the album is a bit colder and even more stylish than they normally do, but it works with the theme. The electric funk of 'Stylo', the 80s pop of 'On Melancholy Hill' or the cold bounce of 'Rhinestone Eyes' - they all sound great and are just enough of a growth of style that the album feels like a new push. Hell, just look at the list of guest musicians on this huge concept album - Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul and Mick Jones of The Clash, just to name a few.
It's funny how the passing of time can shape tastes. When it first came out I wasn't really sold on Plastic Beach. When The Fall came out I was enamored with the robotic persona of it, which I now know is really the sole voice of Damon Albarn working without his armada of colleagues. The complex and intricately designed Plastic Beach really has grown on me as I've had time to unpack the listening experience. Give it a whirl if you haven't already, I think you'll be as intrigued as I was.

5.21.2011

Unwind/Rewind

Hey there.


Had a bachelor party last night. Had a bit too much fun. Spent the day nursing just a bit of a hangover. As such, there was little time for productivity. I promise there will be a better post tomorrow, but for tonight it'll be short and sweet.


Not everyone is into Netflix, be it whatever reason. I don't know why, its fantastic. But if its not cost stopping you and you still wanna see some great documentaries for free, head on over to FreeDocumentaries.org. They're a legit, free and excellent quality. The great site is an awesome resource for watching interesting docs when you don't want to shell out for a subscription to the big red behemoth. Don't get me wrong - I love Netflix but not everyone can be contractually bound to their services. We're in a recession, people! They host tons of docs on a variety of subjects with some big names making appearances, like the works of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore. If you're in the mood for a movie and want to learn a bit without spending a bunch, do yourself a favor and head over to their site. If you really dig what they do, make a donation and help keep the cause going.
Like I said, just a short bit as I recuperate today. Tomorrow - back at it with a post that goes all the way back to the beginning of this blog! Stay tuned to find out!

5.20.2011

Getting Clearer

Evening, all. 

I wrote a post about P.O.S. in the midst of my weeklong Doomtree Diatribe back in March. While I was advocating for people to give some of his earliest work a listen, now that he's built up a catalog and some national press, there is a secret, even earlier album that predates anything he did with Doomtree. I only found out about it because someone else tipped me off to it, but it's kind of a cool thing to hear. Not unlike my love letter to a one-shot band the other day, today's post is on the sole release from long-gone rap group Cenospecies, of which P.O.S. was a core member. 

The album, titled In Definition, was released in 2002. It was hailed by the Citypages as the best album from a band that broke up that year. While it's a bit uneven and raw, its still a fun hip hop record that showed hints of what lay in store for the future indie-rap dynamo. Composed of rappers P.O.S. and Syst, along with producer DJ Anomaly (real name Jason Heinrichs), the group created a sound that was loose and free-flowing, almost to a fault. The beats, at times, feel undefined or somehow vague, like the creative process was kind of slap-dash. Even so, the album has a unique sound that isn't in line with much P.O.S. has done since, which is understandable considering how early in his career it was. The whole thing feels more like a love letter to hip hop than a debut album from a rap crew. Establishing this sense of affection for the art form, the opening lines to the first track see P.O.S. rapping "All right, hip hop, its that music from downtown, that nitty-gritty sewer shit, making people move like epileptic fits to hip hop, rhythms that make the shows stop and mouths drop, make you throw a brick at a cop, I can't explain the way I feel about it, I can't explain the way the love and hate can't complicate the elements, can't deal without it." 

There are constant references on the album to not just rapping but graffiti and turntables and mics, as though the whole point of the album was a meta-concept, rapping about rapping. At least it wasn't misogynistic or about crime sprees, but with P.O.S. at the mic that was never even a consideration. He's clearly the stronger of the pair on record, here, as Syst comes across as feeling unnatural or not at ease with his delivery. P.O.S.'s style is in its early stages, still, but feels like he's a natural even at this point in his career. Sure, his rapping on some tracks like 'Complex Decline' can feel rushed and unfocused, but then on a tune like 'Local Anesthetic' it feels like he locks right into the pocket. Like any rap album, there are guest spots here and there, and like this album's reputation for being a harbinger, so are the guests. There's nigh-unrecognizable acappella track courtesy of fellow Doomtree Crew member Mike Mictlan, sounding (of course) younger and less polished, but its clear he already was a force to be reckoned with. Another sporadic Doomtree collaborator, Crescent Moon of Kill The Vultures and Roma Di Luna, makes an appearance with an incredibly funny and clever verse on 'Aristotle Waddle'.
   Like I wrote above, the only reason I even found out about this album was because someone else tipped me off to its existence. The people who turned me on to Doomtree, who in some cases were on friendly terms with them, never even mentioned this album. It's a footnote, really. Just a long-forgotten predecessor to what would become the best rap crew in modern hip hop, a forerunner that bore many of the stylistic markings and a few of the same voices. It really is only fun to hear if you're well familiar with the current state of Doomtree and where they've come from, otherwise this sole album by Cenospecies is a fairly unremarkable affair. It really only comes to life on about half the tracks, but when it does you can see the spark of talent just starting to glow. 

5.19.2011

Ovarian Aviary

Hello, again, dear friends.

Andrew Bird is simply fantastic, isn't he?

I came late to the party in 2008, when I was visiting a friend on a cold spring night. We were just kind of bumming around and had been talking about music when I moaned "I'm so tired of everything I have, I feel like I haven't heard anything good in a while." A ridiculous blanket statement to make when one considers that at the time my itunes library was somewhere around the 11k mark, but still, who doesn't feel that way about their music collection at some point? Anyway, Rizzo is the kind of friend who immediately offered to throw some files my way, eagerly sifting through his own hard drive to see what he could recommend. Among other things were a couple of albums by Bird, Armchair Apocrypha and Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs. While I do enjoy Armchair, Eggs is far and away my favorite work of his. Being the second album into his solo career, it's generally acknowledged as the record where Bird found his voice and hit his stride. 

That this album still has such a great reputation makes me very happy. It's a lush work of art, full of rich tones and sweeping, natural sounds that feel both nervous and relaxed at times, a sign of Bird creating music from different sources of inspiration but coming from the same perspective. I absolutely adore the way the album begins, with a growing set of violin notes repeating and rising, like an animal waking for the day. The way the short intro track segues into the first proper track, 'Sovay', is so easy and soothing that they could easily be one track. 'Sovay' is a serene, soothing song that floats the listener along on gentle waves, with vibes chiming along like little waves lapping at the side of a row boat. Bird's voice is so warm and full, a wonderful compliment to his playing and writing style. Bird's quirkier side starts to make appearances slowly, first popping up in the low-key but just-slightly-edgy 'A Nervous Tic Motion of The Head To The Left'. The song is a meandering bit of breezy melody and plucked violins working in conjunction to make a snappy but relaxed take on the absurdities of life. The manner in which Bird is able to switch gears is effortless and almost unconscious, rarely missing a beat to change pace. 
Similar in mood to this is the off-kilter 'Skin Is, My', in which Bird makes an unusual rhythm and central theme wrap quite well around the lyrical ideas of numbness and its equation to the corporate world. Another example of parallel songs is that of 'Measuring Cups' which feels like a bleaker extension of 'Sovay'. It sails along on a similarly relaxed wave of melody and breezy, sing-songy relaxed approach, but the subject matter is quite different. Instead of dreamy and ethereal, 'Measuring Cups' is an eerie and sad, but above all, beautiful look at the way the school system can negatively impact the lives and happiness of children. The themes in this moving song are not unlike those in Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick In The Wall' only delivered in Bird's quirky and charming voice. 
One of the best tracks on the album, and certainly one of the best songs I have heard in a while, has to be 'Fake Palindromes', a song with a poppy, mainstream approach to compliment Bird's unique delivery. The central theme, played by the violins here, is simply gorgeous. An instantly memorable yet familiar theme that plays with our perception of novelty, the song sounds both new and old, as if we'd heard it before but only briefly. This effect gives an emotional weight to the track that simply tugs at your heart when it revs up. The verses are great examples of song-writing at its best, starting tight and quiet, growing with each line and circling back effortlessly to the central violin theme. It's made all sorts of best-of lists, and just one listen will make it abundantly clear why. As my better half summed it up - "It sounds like it should be the soundtrack to an indie-movie montage." Pretty much.

Even at its most neurotic or verbose, I still find Andre Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs to be a wonderfully relaxing and breathtakingly lush album. The way Bird layers his tunes with different but complementary stringed instruments and little bells and chimes creates such a an amazing atmosphere. I have found, in the ensuing years since being given it, that this album has an astounding tranquillizing capacity. Maybe it's his voice or his creative choices, but there is just something about it, that when I listen to it, I forget my troubles and just focus on listening. I need to find more music like this. 

5.18.2011

Pro Devotion

Evening, kids.

Today's post is another one about music from a now-defunct band, only in this particular case we're not talking mid-90s but mid-aughts. I've struggled with how to convey this as simply and clearly as possible, so instead of agonize over the logistics I'll just throw it our there - I loved the band Amateur Love. As far as I can tell they only had a single release, an EP titled It's All Aquatic in 2004. They broke up soon after and members went on to different endeavors. That brief, shining release of a scant 8 songs is something I still find myself coming back to time and again, despite the intervening years and subsequent musical iterations.

Hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the band was composed of Brian Moen, Josh Scott and brothers Brad & Phil Cook. Together they created a fine mix of arty, folksy tunes with an electronic current running through them. Interestingly the band shared half of its members with the predecessor to Bon Iver, Deyarmond Edison, which existed roughly around the same time as Amateur Love. This convoluted history may be a bit difficult to parse, but the basic tenants of all the bands mentioned so far include some very indie/folk music that is heavy on acoustic instruments. To continue the confusion, members of all of these disparate acts have contributed to hipster darlings Gayngs, which further illustrates the size and scope of that ever-evolving, ever-expanding project.

But enough about musical genealogy.

There is something about this group that I just love, the feel of the ambience, the light touches everyone in the band wielded when making their music. It's a bit wistful and nostalgic, the kind of music you listen to on a quiet morning, or on a cool Fall evening. Really, it's whatever you want it to be, but to me there's something almost tangible in it, a quality that pervades the music that always makes me calm down and think about poignant things. Part of it must be the separate but joined elements  - the plucked acoustic guitars, the speeding but light and fleeting drum parts, the choices made with the keyboards. It all adds up to gorgeous, introspective music that seemed to be just a tad ahead of its time. Bon Iver would basically make hipster's brains explode just a few years later in a similar vein, and I always thought Amateur Love could have seen similar results in a parallel dimension. Maybe it's for the best, though. After all, the Cook brothers have gone on to form the excellent Megafaun and quickly made a name for themselves in the indie-folk field. 

The songs as individual tracks, and as a whole, are fantastic. The EP starts with a funny bit of broken noises that made me think the CD player I had at the time was defective, but it was a good joke on Amateur Love's part as the sounds segue seamlessly into the first track, 'Con A Sewer'. I love the way the drums hurtle the song forward but don't just pound away relentlessly, a sign of a deft touch. The keys here are fantastic, too, creating a persistently warm and pleasing hum that sets a great mood for the EP. 'Sell Me Your Army' is a wonderful bit of finger-plucked acoustic guitar over some hi-hat, which gets the odd little flourish here and there. Josh Scott's vocals are great, as well, presenting just a bit of grain to his unique tenor. The way the song breaks down at the end, becoming a sampled whistle over a bit of folksy drumming is a great example of how the band was capable of switching gears. 'Gradfadhadya' is one of the harder, more intense tracks Amateur Love put on the EP. Bopping along with solid drum beat and some palm-muted chords, it sounds the most straight-forward but also most poppy of their short canon.  

I got to see Amateur Love play a show! How lucky is that? There's this band that only existed for a fleeting moment between other bands, having broken up shortly after I found out about them, and I got to see them play in the short time they were making music together! My younger brother, who had turned me on to the group, mentioned they were playing at a small venue in my hometown when I was home over break during college. So the two of us went out to a show for the first time together, and they were just as great live as they were on the EP. 

It still makes me smile to know that there is this secret gem of an EP that so few people know about, and it was such a pivotal but unknown step in the development of some incredibly popular music. I like to play it for people, some times, and explain the hows and whys of my love for this EP, but at the same time I like to keep it my secret, awesome thing that no one else appreciated. Glad I heard them, glad the musicians are still doing what they love, regardless of the name. 

5.17.2011

Hindsight Being 20/20

Hello again, fair readers. 

I remember very clearly where I was when I heard Michael Jackson died. It was almost three years ago, if that seems at all possible. I was locking the doors for the day at my office when my boss told me with no preamble or warning - just a very matter-of-fact "Michael Jackson died", a hint of gossipy glee barely masked in his voice. Of course, being at work I had no access to the proper channels and was most likely one of the last to know. I had been a fan of his work like anyone in the world, but I had fallen out of touch with his music. When I was young, absolutely no question about it, he was the alpha and omega of music, the King of Pop. Then things went down in the 90s and he became the living embodiment of tired jokes and I completely forgot about how great his music was. I was all into angsty, guitar driven alternative and electronica and Michael Jackson was some outdated, weirdo stuff. Sad how wrong I was.

 In college my better half and I had a series of long, long road trips to get her moved into her apartment at her university. With the advent of iPods we were able to play name that tune and play music that was, in my opinion, much better than whatever was on the radio. So while we were laughing about the snippets of soundtrack from The Simpsons that would occasionally pop up or grooving along to Brother Ali's still-amazing Shadows On The Sun, there was an unexpected moment when the shuffle feature brought us to an unexpectedly jarring sound. It was the opening crashes of Jackson's better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be smash 'The Way You Make Me Feel'. I instantly went from jokey exuberance to sitting back in my seat, staring into the distance and listening intently. 

"Oh my god" I mused. 

"What?" she asked, concerned. 

I shook my head. "This is good," I said. "Like, really, really good" 

She shrugged and kept driving, acknowledging "Yeah. It's Michael Jackson," as if saying "and you're just realizing this now?" 

I had completely forgotten how mind-blowingly good he was. I made her endure working through everything of his she had on her ipod after that. The whole time we were singing along, jamming in the car and snapping our fingers. I copied all her music of his, as I hadn't downloaded any of his up to that point and I didn't have any CDs either. From then on, I listened to him more often but it was still this sheepish, guilty pleasure. My friends would often give me guff for it, like it wasn't normal for a guy to listen to it, but I would just let it play and if I'd ask them later they would cop to loving it as well. Jokes about his legal history or not, dude was awesome, plain and simple. 

When Jackson passed away in 2009 the world lost its mind for just a bit. My better half happened to be passing through Times Square that night and she still talks about the surreal spectacle or people out in the streets paying tribute to him. I had listened to his established hits, the number one singles, plenty of times. So when I kept hearing about the later work he did and how some of it was actually quite good, my curiosity got the best of me and I bought a couple tracks, including the dark and disturbing song 'Morphine'. 

If enough people had heard this track when it was first released, one would almost think he would still be alive, today. 

Almost. 

The song is angry and grinding, some of the most visceral stuff he ever released. Composed of broken drum samples and pounding synths, the song serves as a backdrop for Jackson to work out some pent-up aggression over his increasingly demanding drug addiction. It's honestly a bit scary to hear Jackson scream the refrain, wailing "You're doing morphine!" over and over. When the song switches modes halfway through to that of a piano-driven ballad, he starts to sing about the very Demerol that killed him, even scarier in hindsight. It's quite haunting and disturbing, but worst of all its incredibly catchy and well written, a sign of a truly talented artist in the clutches of narcotics. Maybe I'm wrong about all of this, but you have to ask whether his dwindling audiences heard the cries of a man in need of serious help. Unfortunately Jackson was too isolated and cutoff from reality to get the help he needed. Hey, trying to quit these very drugs could have killed him as well, so what do I know? 

It's a terrible shame that we lost such a talented artist to such a preventable thing, but then again we tend to get the world we deserve and not the one we want. Still, I'm glad I took the chance on digging into some of his lesser known work, just to get some insight into the demons that plagued him.