Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pimpin' to keep this blog alive

We're into the dregs of winter here and all I'm concerned with is staying warm and alive until Liars' next album gets released.

Until my inspiration comes out of hibernation, please direct your eyes to Modesta Magazine, where I interview a bunch of cool people for the lovely Aurinko Sunshine. Perfect for anybody who enjoys bright colors and brushing up on their Spanish, but is longing for a place where both pleasures co-exist. And, like everything each of the contributors touch, it is well classy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Minor Disappointment's First Annual Minorly Disappointing Releases of the Year

Here we are, on the verge of 2010, up to our eyebrows in year end lists. By this point, we—or, myself, at least—are all looking for anything, no matter how irrelevant, that will put a slightly different spin on the year end list. Being a firm believer that the characters presented in that 15-minute Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds epic “Babe, I’m on Fire” can be used to classify anything, here’s my contribution: ten 2009 releases that didn’t disappoint me in some way, with the accompanying “Babe” character each album reminds me of. Sound ridiculous? On the contrary, I think you’ll find the pairings are most uncanny:

10) Artist: The Horrors

Album: Primary Colours

Applicable “Babe” character: The sweet little goth with the ears of cloth.

Their lyrics aren’t as profound as these former Goths may think and, on this, likely chronicle a romance with woman of class Peaches Geldof. The synth-drenched melodies, however, are irresistible and over half the tracks are as tight as The Horrors’ trousers. I’m neither a hater nor a lover, but please; wait until the third album to let the panty-bunching commence. Honorable mention goes to Primary Colours producer Geoff Barrow’s side project Beak>. But, you know, fabulous looks mean a lot to a shallow sadface like me, so Horrors get the numbered ranking.

9) Artist: Jarvis Cocker

Album: Further Complications

Applicable “Babe” character: The swinger and the flinger.

Not nearly as strong as his self-titled solo debut, but it was nice to see Jarvis taking a risk by getting a little grimy with Steve Albini. The clever lyrics strewn amid the filler rank just as highly as Cocker’s most stinging Pulp barbs. “I can't dance you to the end of the night ‘cos I’m afraid of the dark” (from “I Never Said I Was Deep”) still brings a chuckle seven months on.

8) Artist: Mount Eerie

Album: Wind’s Poem

Applicable “Babe” character: The man going hiking.

Like an even creepier, more obscure version of Liars’ masterpiece Drum’s Not Dead. Black metal onslaughts are evened out by moments of serenity, but the more unnerving method is a matter of contention. True nightmare material, and if you don’t believe me, go see the live show.

7) Artist: Florence + The Machine

Album: Lungs

Applicable “Babe” character: The mad basket weaver.

She tries too hard to be wacky and appears to be a bit on the overrated side in the UK, but as far as sock knocking goes, “Dog Days Are Over” may have been the album opener of the year. Succeeding tracks “Rabbit Heart,” “I’m Not Calling You A Liar,” and “Howl” further prove there is more than a bit of talent under the kook.

6) Artist: Atlas Sound

Album: Logos

Applicable “Babe” character: The Chinese Contortionist (I know he’s not Chinese, but no one on this list is more angular than Bradford Cox.)

A big step in the right direction following the excellent if patchy debut, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel. Even if Logos had been a cop-out, “Shelia” alone packs enough candy-pop weirdness to last a whole season.

5) Artist: PJ Harvey and John Parish

Album: A Woman, A Man, Walked By

Applicable “Babe” character: The demented young lady who is roasting her baby on the fire.

White Chalk, Harvey’s last outing, was interesting if a little snooze-inducing. While more erratic, Queen Peej’s latest venture—her second collaboration with guitarist Parish—is a return to form. See the sublime “Black-Hearted Love” for proof. Also, feral PJ is always welcome, and she turns her fierceness up a decibel on the title track and “Pig Will Not.”

4) Artist: Rowland S Howard

Album: Pop Crimes

Applicable “Babe” character: The koala, the echidna, and the platypus too.

While in The Boys Next Door—the band that would become The Birthday Party—Howard wrote “Shivers,” one of my all-time favorite songs. I never thought I would hear another ballad that reached its lusty teenage heights, but Pop Crimes opener “(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny” comes really damn close. Throw in a bitchin’ Talk Talk cover (“Life’s What You Make It”) and Howard’s signature Aussie swamp guitar trickery, and you’re left feeling like you’ve left the prom barefoot and caked in blood.

3) Artist: Camera Obscura

Album: My Maudlin Career

Applicable “Babe” character: The enthused and the despondent.

Sad songs veiled as happy pop ditties—when done right—can be better than sad songs unadorned. This album is a good argument for that statement if there ever was one. If beguiling hooks weren’t enough, singer Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals make you feel every blue emotion that she sings. “Your pain’s gigantic but it’s not as big as your ego” (from the brilliant title track) may be the lyric of the year.

2) Artist: Richard Hawley

Album: Truelove’s Gutter

Applicable “Babe” character: The lonely old Eskimo (again, ethnicity don’t matter; Hawley is a lonely old badger and we love him for it).

There is no doubt that Richard Hawley is a master at crafting the beautifully sad and sadly beautiful tunes. Until now, it was uncertain as to whether Hawley could create a whole album that could wholly immerse you in its sadness. Such a creation may not sound like easy listening, and although Hawley has one of the most soothing voices on the scene, it’s not. But as far as transformative, challenging albums go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Truelover’s Gutter one day finds its place among the classics. And if it doesn’t, I will petition it to my death.

1) Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Album: Journal For Plague Lovers

Applicable “Babe” character:
Either The college professor or The loon in the straight jacket. Or maybe a little of both.

Let’s chart my Manics devotion through the year—January to February: greeted the news they were recording a new album with “whatever, I’m over them”; March: greeted the news they were using missing member Richey Edwards’ lyrics on said album with, “Jesus, this is going to be terrible!”; read the tracklisting, held my beliefs; gave “Peeled Apples” a listen; indifference; April: read a review in Uncut stating, “hold the presses, this album’s so good that it makes (bassist) Nicky Wire’s singing palatable”;
intrigue; finally bunker down and listen to it; am blown away, come running back to Manics fandom like a little CoR bitch; October: see Manic Street Preachers three times, pogo to “Faster” in its entirety three nights in a row, find justification for every particle of my existence up to that point.

In short, this album is really, really, really good. Go read the lyrics to “All is Vanity”; it raises the most interesting argument of any song this year. Welcome back to my heart Manics. The space is meager, but there will always be room enough for you.


Single of the Year:

The Mae Shi, “R U Professional”—A great song commemorating my favorite celebrity freak-out of the year.

Music Video of the Year:

Yeah Yeah Yeah, “Heads Will Roll”---A werewolf that dances like Michael Jackson, synths, and an abundance of blood and glitter. In short, all the things that remind me of 2009 in one video. Also, it’s about time someone cut Nick Zinner in two.

Disappointment of the Year:

Girls—Album: I decided to see whether my dismissal of indie buzz was unfounded and gave this a listen; turns out it’s still good to tread lightly where hype reigns. I know a lot of indie guys are whiny, but really now, there’s no need to be replicating the sound a cat makes when it’s getting its balls cut off while simultaneously being dipped in acid. Did I mention this is the vocal styling of choice for nearly twelve songs straight. And the band’s name? Wait, what? You’re telling me there are no actual girls in the band? Oh, you indie guys just slay me!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Shirley Bassey: The Performance--Ending a Year of Great Music on a Spunky Medium

Big, expressive voices, cinematic pop gems, unexpected collaborations. These are a few things that I am an utter sucker for. Although Shirley Bassey excels at lures one and two, it took temptation #3 to lure me in. Adding to her new album's (The Performance) charms is the fact that two of Bassey's collaborators---Manic Street Preachers and Richard Hawley---were responsible for my two favorite albums of the year.

So, The Performance should be an instant classic by default. But alas, there are more than a few instances where the album can't elevate itself above background fodder (Kaiser Chief that's not Ricky Wilson, my eyes are glaring in your direction). The standout tracks, however, make the lulls worth busying one's self through.

Even if I weren't horribly sentimental and biased, I would still cite "The Girl From Tiger Bay" and "After the Rain" as The Performance's most outstanding tracks. The former, well, it's basically a Manics song sung by Shirley Bassey. It's four minutes and seventeen seconds of triumph with a baby guitar solo thrown in for good measure. The latter is of a caliber of sadness that reduces one to staring out the window and sighing a lot. In other words, it's signature Richard Hawley. Having been immersed in Hawley's fantastic variations on sad songs for some time now, it's so nice to hear one of his subtle heartbreakers from a female's perspective.

Tracks written by those who I spend little time being agog about have their merits as well. "This Time" written by Take That's Gary Barlow, is a fanciful pop treasure, containing all the elements of an old standard yet still sounding fresh. Another lush tune, "Our Time is Now," written by James Bond composer John Barry, fares far better than "As God As My Witness," written in part by David Arnold--another Bond scorer; Bassey's mighty voice can't even rescue from cliche.

Now that the initial thrill of the inspired collaborations has worn off, The Performance hasn't left me feeling abandoned. "Next track please" pops into my head during more than a few songs, but one can't be too harsh on a dame. Until James Dean Bradfield invents a guitar solo for Judi Dench, this is as good as it gets.

Level of Disappointment: 5; provided your family has some taste, this is a perfect home for the holidays soundtrack.

Watch: "The Girl From Tiger Bay" on The Graham Norton Show (she seems so pleased to be singing this! So very, very pleased.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movie Shorts: The Road and Fantastic Mr. Fox--Get Depressed or Get Animated

The Road:

One sentence synopsis:
A father and son wander around post-apocalypse USA, stave off the odd attack from redneck cannibals, look filthy and hungry, and eventually reach a destination which doesn't offer a whole lot apart from ambiguity.

Best bits:
Despite the bleakness of the terrain, the film is visually stunning. The concentration of filth that shrouds stars Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee is impressive. And, being a native Pennsylvanian, I can verify that the redneck cannibals were true to life.

Worst bits: Let's be blunt and say this movie does not have much of a chance as far as grossing more than its budget. Thus, the studio had to do what it could to ensure it would make some money back. That doesn't make blatant Vitamin Water product places any easier to swallow. Some might say it's just as sour going down as a gulp of Power-C.

What was the score like?:
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis took the depressive grandeur of their The Assassination of Jesse James... score and blended it with the intermittent cacophony of their score for The Proposition, The Road director John Hillcoat's previous outing. Not surprisingly, the result is a sometimes intense, sometimes heartrending accompaniment.

Level of Disappointment: 5; one of my favorite directors and two of my favorite musicians collaborating on a book by one of my favorite authors (Cormac McCarthy) to produce...a so-so movie. Whereas the book continously jabbed at my heart with its filthy fingers, the film only did it twice (although I really felt like I was being stabbed both times). Still, the source material isn't exactly a cinch to adapt, so I feel a valiant effort was done by all.

Fantastic Mr. Fox:

One Sentence Synopsis:
A fox adept at chicken-nabbing plans one last stake-out and puts his family and the wildlife community in jeopardy in the process in this Roald Dahl adaptation.

Best Bits: It's so refreshing to see a film that is a throwback to the stop-motion animation of yesteryear. Although a lot of Rankin/Bass (the company behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) are being thrown around (and within reason), I felt the movements and mannerisms of the characters had more in common with Jan Svankmajer's creepy vision (see his version of Alice in Wonderland. Please). And, any movie featuring a stop motion Jarvis Cocker cannot be entirely bad.

Worst Bits: Fantastic director Wes Anderson was one of many who signed that "free Roman Polanski" petition. That puts a damper on a lot of the works of Polanski's supporters; due to this being a children's film, things feel particularly soggy.

What was the score like?: Sly and heavy on the Burl Ives; what you would expect from a stop motion children's film helmed by Wes Anderson.

Level of Disappointment: 2; put an anthropomorphic animal on-screen and I'm sold. Put said anthropomorphic animal in a corduroy suit, and I'm signing off my soul to you. Visuals aside, this was a smart, funny, somewhat touching, and vastly entertaining film for adults and--I suppose--kids too. Plus, I fell in love with Roald Dahl before I fell in love with Cormac McCarthy, so I'd have to say Fantastic Mr. Fox is the victor.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Live Review: Camera Obscura, with support from Papercuts--Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 22, 2009

Being stubborn and behind on the times, I managed to miss Camera Obscura on their two jillion and one spins through the city previously, but pined for that two jillion and second visit all the same; as soon as a ticket had been purchased, I started wishing the gig were the very next day. My Maudlin Career is easily my third favorite album of the year, and hearing my favorite tracks off it live almost seemed too heavenly.

Now I will state the obvious and say I had a lot of hope riding on this gig. I couldn't wait to dance and sing to all those songs I had filled slow summer workweeks with. For the most part it was worth all the waiting, although--again due to being behind on things--I didn't realize until the band took the stage and launched into "My Maudlin Career" that Camera Obscura's songs are lovely yet also really sort of sad and boppable but not all-out danceable. That and being in a tight spot meant I could only do really awkward, limp dancing through the set.

The set was slightly rough (Tracyanne Campbell's mic didn't appear to be loud enough on the first two songs, guitarist Kenny McKeeve kept losing his whammy bar, and suffered some slight technical difficulties during the encore), but the band prevailed. They even managed a polished rendition of the latest single, a cover of Jim Reeves' "The Blizzard", in spite of only performing it twice previously (and one of those times was during the actual recording).

Even if the polish had lost a little gleam, the fact that the band were so classily dressed redeemed things greatly. Falling into the cutesy fashion cliches of twee is so easy, but Camera Obscura looked mature. This may be my shallowness speaking, but their professional appearance meant I would've given them props even if I hadn't spent my work hours playing the fuck out of some of their gorgeous pop tunes.

But class wasn't what ultimately made the show for me; the openers, Papercuts, did. A whole five seconds of research on has taught me that Papercuts is basically one person who crafts excellently gauzy pop tunes and whose touring musicians have been plucked from only the finest crop of endearingly awkward males. The keyboardist in particular was perhaps the most socially awkward person I've ever seen on stage--it was like he was frightened to even raise his pinkie finger a hair above one of his keys, for fear of making a sound and drawing attention to himself. My wildly delusional mind kind of pictured him as a twee and super cute version of Sparks' Ron Mael, in that he was stiff, made bizarre facial expressions now and then, and was in the process of growing a crazy moustache. I loved this guy. Hands down, he gets the Mr. Twee 2009 ribbon, which is a lovely pastel blue and decorated with soothing caricatures of sad woodland creatures.

Stage presence or lack thereof aside, Papercuts' music is truly worthy of investigating. Their entire set held my interest, but it was a sinister '60's/Zombies-esque song that really wooed me. When I find out the title of said song, expect to read more superlative-laced Papercuts posts in the future.

All in all, a nice-albeit awkward-night. Although, it was an indie-pop show, so I should've guessed as much...

Level of Disappointment: 4; I wanted to dance more, but "If Looks Could Kill" live was three and a half minutes of poppy brilliance, so I really can't complain.

Watch: Camera Obscura--The Sweetest Thing (official video)

Listen: Papercuts on Myspace

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Live Review: The Cribs, with support from The Von Bondies--Bowery Ballroom, November 13, 2009

I love subversion. In fact, subversion in art—music specifically—may be my favorite thing ever. After kicking off Friday night’s sold out Bowery Ballroom show with the anti-lad stomper “We Were Aborted”, The Cribs launched into “Hey Scenesters.” To see a largely hipster crowd shout along to every word of a song essentially mocking them was a subversive feast for the eyes. Whether it was intentional of the band or not is debatable, but given Manhattan's large population of trend junkies and the insincere, and The Cribs predilection for talking smack on, well, everybody, my theory has a pretty firm backing.

Due to such audience-abasing thrills, I can’t give The Cribs live show a bad review. However, having Johnny Marr on board and antagonizing the very scene which bore you does not singularly redeem a sub-par live band. Not one of The Jarman three has been blessed with what could be considered winning stage banter. The first time I saw The Cribs, it was at The North Star Bar in Philadelphia. Twenty-eight people were there; about fifteen were interested in the show that was unfolding and thirteen were just there for something to do. The Cribs came on, shouted and sweated a lot, blurted some indecipherable nouns or verbs in between songs, and that was it. On Friday night, they responded to audience shouts of “Leeds!” (which is north of The Cribs hometown, Wakefield) with stone-faced, “Yes, I can see where you would confuse Leeds with New York” and other half-intelligible but extraneous remarks. Not all bands need banter nor a figurehead. If you can believe it, some bands are just adept at playing tunes, simple as. If you are in such a band, play those tunes, sweat a bunch, and get out. If you've got a Johnny Marr-like master on stage right, take his cue and let your talent speak for itself.

My other issue with the show was The Cribs sound; it's just so damn generic. While The Cribs do tackle various social issues in their songs, I just can’t see them as a life-changing band. Not all music has to be life-changing, so this gripe has more to do with my overlooking an obvious fact. The main reason I listen to The Cribs is because their music makes me feel like I’m thirteen and therefore gives me an excuse to jump around my room as such. Due to being stuck between two statues at the gig, my enthusiasm was marred. Where’s the fun in generic music if it isn’t serving a personal purpose?

Yet, there is an excuse for The Cribs’ punchy US-indie-rock influenced sound; and that brings us back to the subversion. It may be an excuse I too often rely on when defending bands I enjoy or love, but subversion works best with big gleaming hooks and punchy riffage. It’s quite hard to balance lyrics which undermine with sounds that venture outside of the norm. Thus, the same old combo of guitar/bass/drums can be excused. When your newest member is considered by many to be a living legend, you may even be awarded a “get out of your dull scene for free” pass.

Opening on Friday were the Von Bondies, or, Jack White’s punching bag, a cool Asian drummer, and two hot rockin’ chicks. Their stage presence was fine, but the music overlong and hookless. In other words, their set was the opposite of The Cribs, yet The Cribs were far more enjoyable. In reiteration, subversion music always wins.

Level of Disappointment: 7; although this rating reflects my hopes being too high than the gig itself.

Watch: The Cribs--I'm A Realist
(live on Jools Holland).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Atlas Sound--Logos: See? Sometimes Hype Can Be Well-Founded

We all concede to our skepticism every now and then, especially when doing so in the face of unrelenting praise. Last year, TV on the Radio's Dear Science was released on a wave of such extreme esteem that, upon hearing the first six minutes of the album, the inevitable "all that hype for this?" rhetorical spiel unfolded in my brain.

When buzz first began forming around Deerhunter, I didn't even give them a courtesy listen. I simply warmed myself to skepticism's embrace. I was so far gone that even catching Deerhunter for free turned into an opportunity to ignore them publicly.

I write this review today as a huge Deerhunter fan.What finally liberated me from my disbelief? Another free show, this time Deerhunter leader Bradford Cox's side project, Atlas Sound. Sounds presented under this moniker were closer to being straightforward songs than ambient diversions, yet they were still unsettling enough to disturb the curious passersby at the South Street Seaport's Pier 17. I obtained Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, the first Atlas Sound venture, and suddenly the hype became far, far easier to tolerate.

While Let The Blind... contains one of my favorite songs of this decade (the creepy dreamy "River Card"), as a whole Let The Blind... seems little more than a couple of really great songs and a lot of meandering ones. Logos, The latest Atlas Sound release, opens with more of the same."The Light That Failed" starts out promising then goes nowhere. Yet, just when that old trusty skepticism comes coiling back toward my ears, Logos gets really, really good. Tracks begin molding into actual, complete songs with the advent of "Walkabout," a duet with Animal Collective's Noah Lennox. What could have been far too indie for its own good becomes a lovingly crafted pop duet firmly placed on the right side of indie. "My Halo" features the return of Cox's yearning '60's girl group vocals; always welcome, the delivery is even more spellbinding when backed by music that could possibly be described as experimental doo-wop. The album's final song, which shares its title with the album, comes across as a boppier, more memorable version of one of Beck's blippier endeavors. Cox's hooks hold stronger, though; bops prove more victorious than blips.

The obvious album highlight, however, is "Shelia," three and a half minutes of beauty that makes the line "we'll die alone together" sound like the sweetest of pop sentiments. On infectiousness alone, it is rapidly becoming another personal favorite of the '00's.

At its best, the songs on Logos come and go like a dream, luring the listener into a hard to shake trance by the album's conclusion. Is Logos worth this threat of post-album haziness? For once, the answer is a very sound yes.

Level of Disappointment: 3; thank god Cox is so goddamn prolific. If you don't like his latest release, just wait twenty seconds and he'll probably come back with something you'll love.

To Watch: "Quick Canal" video (Not official, per se, but utterly befitting of the song, which features Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier)