Archive for May, 2005


All Your Pretty Faces Are Smiling At Me

Kevin Blechdom “Invisible ROCK” – Kevin Blechdom’s new album Eat My Heart Out sounds like an off-off-off broadway one woman show marrying cheesy, homemade electropop showtunes with a startling personal narrative dealing with clinical depression and crippling self-awareness. Though the music is often awash in a sea of extreme irony, the lyrics are grounded and highly relatable, most of them detailing Blechdom’s struggle to overcome her issues. Though most music on the topic of depression wallows in sorrow and self-pity, Blechdom has written an admirable set of self-help anthems. (Click here to buy it from Boomkat.)

Richard Reagh & wwnb2 “Friends” – Richard Reagh’s music is like a peculiar cross between Built To Spill at their most mellow and the fractured, amorphous laptop compositions of Joan Of Arc and The Dirty Projectors. As Reagh attempts to repair a rift in a relationship that appears to be on the verge of total collapse in the lyrics, the arrangement seems to reflect his emotional state by feeling hollow, passive, and vaguely tense. (Click here to visit the official Richard Reagh site.)


Deeper Down to the Sleepy Glow

Gorillaz “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” – On the first Gorillaz album, it was easy to see how the music could have been the work of a cartoon band. Though the record mostly sounded like a collection of Blur outtakes, the general tone corresponded well Jamie Hewlett’s design/animation aesthetic, enough so that it convinced a hell of a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about Damon Albarn’s regular band to buy the album and make it an unexpected hit. Demon Days is a strange follow-up to that record, mostly because it seems to be more of a continuation of the gloomy, groovy sound of Blur’s last record Think Tank than a proper sequel to a generally peppy party album. That is, unless they had intended for this to be like their version of The Empire Strikes Back, and intentionally went for a darker, bleaker tone. That may be their explanation in hindsight, but I would think that it is obvious that Albarn is just writing music for himself and getting it out on records however he can. This could just as well be a Blur record or a solo album that would be quickly dismissed by both critics and the public, but he’s clever enough to smuggle his most self-indulgent material on to a record that isn’t fully tied in with his identity, letting him off the hook in more ways than one. All that, and he gets to bring in Ike Turner for a keyboard solo on this song. Pretty sneaky, sis. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Sensational “Money Maker” – Sensational makes stoned lo-fi hip hop that straddles the line between oblivious amateurism and inspired artiness. His beats are generally canned and simplistic, but he’s fond of eerie keyboard textures that drone like cheap horror film soundtracks, mixing his vocals so loud that they seem like he’s broadcasting them into your skull telepathically, and distorting his vocal tracks to the point of rendering his lyrics incomprehensible. On this track, he runs two raps together simultaneously, derailing his flow and resulting in a disorienting abstraction. (Click here to buy it from Forced Exposure.)


Gifted, All Natural, and Splitting the Seams

Robyn “Konichiwa Bitches” – One does not reasonably expect much from token hip hop tracks on the albums of Scandinavian pop stars, but with this song, Robyn defies the odds and makes me wonder if she ought to be doing this sort of thing on a full-time basis. The beats and keyboards are minimal and perfectly composed, flowing smoothly and changing up consistently throughout the song without distracting attention from her vocals, which sound like an adorable anime version of Missy Elliott. There’s a very delicate balance being maintained here, keeping it from tipping too far into tweeness, and I suspect that it is kept mainly because it’s so clear that Robyn isn’t totally kidding around. The lyrics are certainly meant to be humorous, but the love for hip hop is very earnest, and it’s clear that she has a musical understanding of the genre that many cutesy hip hop dilettantes lack. (Click here to buy it from CDON.)

The Chap “Baby I’m Hurt’n'” – Ah ha, an energetic song about being tired! The Chap chug along for a few minutes on a simple groove, building up to a clangy climax before almost entirely dropping out the percussion and transposing the central guitar riff to a scratchy, out of tune cello for the outro. The vocals and lyrics are playful and silly, though not quite as clever and witty as other songs on their new record. It’s a bit hard for this to compete with lyrics like “I met you at the post-glitch laptop show / I was impressed, I was impressed / your take on the post-Parka look stood out / I told you about my studio setup.” (Click here to visit the official Chap site.)


Everybody Waits So Long

M83 “Teen Angst (Luciano Remix)” – This is nearly twelve minutes of delicate beauty, cutting in two lines of vocals from the M83 original with an expressive but minimal track that develops gradually, but is never at any point dull or unimaginative. If this sounds like anything, it’s almost as though Luciano has fused the sound of Arthur Russell’s ambient pop and disco tracks into one perfect song. (Click here to visit the official M83 site.)

The Concretes “Miss You” – Though they have changed the arrangement significantly, I wouldn’t quite say that The Concretes have made this Rolling Stones song their own so much as they have claimed it to the spirit of the Velvet Underground. In full-on Velvet Underground With Nico/Loaded drag, the essential NYC-in-the-late 60s/70s vibe of the song is intensified. The music fills my head with images from books, magazines, and films from that era of the city, and it somehow manages to make a place where I’ve spent a significant portion of my life seem like some exotic fictional locale. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)


Is Darth Vader Gonna Have To Choke A Bitch?

Fellini “Rock Europeu” – The liner notes to the new Soul Jazz compilation The Sexual Life of the Savages tells me that this song is an “ironic comment on European music,” but since I don’t understand a word of Portuguese, I’ll just have to take their word for it. The Sexual Life of the Savages is the second collection of Brazillian post-punk to be released this year, following the excellent Nao Wave compilation released by Man Recordings last month. Fellini’s music is a highlight of both records. Their bass and guitar sound is obviously heavily influenced by post-Joy Division/New Order Euro rock, but their integration of Latin rhythms and horns keep their music from sounding like a rote impression and more like a regional adaptation. (Click here to buy it from Soul Jazz.)

Teen Anthems “I Hate Oasis (And I Hate The Beatles)” – Teen Anthems is the most common alias of John Williams Davies, a DIY songwriter from Wales who specializes in bouncey pop tunes that critique the insular pop culture of the UK. His songs are packed full of references to obscure British television personalities, tabloid celebrities, and music that barely exists outside the context of the UK, but this song about the stifling influence of Beatles worship is lyrically accessable to most anyone on either side of the Atlantic. (For what it’s worth, I love The Beatles and I like a bunch of Oasis songs.) (Click here to buy it from the Teen Anthems website.)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – The Star Wars prequel trilogy did not have to be bad. On a basic level, the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent has the potential to be a compelling cautionary tale, even if the drama is diminished somewhat by the fact that the audience is already aware of his ultimate fate. The problem with the prequels lies entirely in George Lucas’ extremely misguided execution. I place a lot of the blame for this on the fact that Lucas spent more than a decade after the release of Return of the Jedi on the merchandizing end of his enterprise, immersed in the iconography of his saga but entirely cut off from the mythic themes and recognizably human characters at the core of the Star Wars phenomenon. It’s easy to understand how he may have come to think that the audience responded more to the signifiers of his movies rather than the characterization or the allegory. To a certain extent, he may not be entirely wrong. Even if the new trilogy is unsatisfying in terms of content, most people can at least have some superficial fun with the lightsaber duels, droid armies, crazy aliens, and action setpieces.

For the prequel storyline to be entirely effective, it is crucial for the audience to be on Anakin Skywalker’s side. Lucas almost entirely fails to make the character even remotely sympathetic, even though you could make a bullet point list of things that are meant to make his seem that way – he was a slave; his mom died; his marriage must be kept a secret; he gets his hand chopped off; he is basically a superhero. Nevertheless, it’s hard to like Anakin. Though he’s more or less blameless as a little kid in The Phantom Menace, it’s difficult to really care about him in that film other than in a “aww, cute” sort of way. Hayden Christensen plays Anakin as a sullen charisma-free dick even when he ought to seem affectionate or valiant. Ideally, Anakin’s story in the prequels should have followed Luke Skywalker’s arc in the original series, but with Anakin succumbing to the dark side at the end of the second film rather than rejecting it, as Luke did at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Emperor Palpatine is the best thing about Revenge of the Sith, full stop. Ian McDiarmid plays the character with a hammy glee that outdoes his performance in the same role in Return of the Jedi. He seems to be the only actor who had a good time working on the movie, but that could be because he’s the only one asked to cut loose or show any sign of complexity. Palpatine is the one character from the original films who is actually improved by the existence of the prequel trilogy. The character was very effective as a representation of ultimate evil in Return, but in Revenge, we actually get to see what makes him so terrible aside from being a creepy old dude in a black robe. I loved the character as a kid, and at least in terms of how he was represented in this film, I think I got what I had really wanted from the prequels when I was young. I am sure that if I saw this movie before puberty, it might have been my favorite Star Wars episode if just because there is so much Palpatine and the heroes get thoroughly trounced. This is a theme that I really responded to as a kid – half of the reason I loved (and still enjoy) Star Wars and the X-Men so much is because the heroes routinely lost their battles and always faced desperate odds.

Though Palpatine and Anakin’s scenes together are among the best reasons to see Revenge of the Sith, Lucas misses a great opportunity by not including a sequence of scenes in which the Emperor shows Vader the ways of the Sith, mirroring Luke’s Jedi training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. That could have been wonderfully creepy, but it also could have shed more light on the differences between the two sides of the Force. In the new context of the prequel trilogy, the morality of Star Wars is maddeningly vague. Before, we could just assume that the Jedi were these really great people, but in these films they just seem like a bunch of beaurocratic self-righteous douchebags who are only interested in preserving a self-serving status quo. The original films hinted at a noble spirituality, but as it turns out, they are just cops with dogma. The only Jedi who seems at all heroic is Obi-Wan Kenobi, though I suspect that if a lesser actor than Ewan McGregor had been cast in the role, the character’s grace, humility, and selflessness would have never emerged from subtext.

Though I respect Lucas’ clumsy attempts to bring complexity to the morality of his story, it does the series as a whole few favors. Back when the Jedi/Sith conflict was black and white, the integrity of Luke Skywalker and the redemption of Darth Vader was far more powerful and resonant, enough so that I definitely feel that the end of Return of the Jedi had a pivotal influence on the deve

lopment of my own code of ethics as a child. Now it just seems like the moral of Star Wars is that it’s better to be a passive-aggressive smug turdodouche like Yoda than to be an aggressive, domineering asshole like Palpatine. Ech, you know? (For an elaboration on this concept, I refer you to The Face Knife)

In spite of its considerable flaws, I definitely enjoyed Revenge of the Sith more than I disliked it. It’s certainly more like the original trilogy in terms of tone and general aesthetics, and the majority of the mistakes in the first two prequels (poor pacing, Jar Jar Binks, space diners, nebulous political intrigue) are jetisonned in favor of a fairly streamlined storyline that remains focused on the central conflict of Anakin and his two mentors. The plot occasionally seems more like a history lesson than a movie, but the action sequences are mostly quite fun and engaging. My kid brain liked it, and since this is a series aimed at little boys, I can assume that this film at least met its objective goals even if it was held back by the baggage of its immediate predecessors.


You Saw Blue Sky When Sky Was Gray

A Frames “Eva Braun” – I have no idea how the A Frames’ Black Forest became my “default” record for 2005. I didn’t even like it the first two times that I heard it, but something about it keeps pulling me back in, compelling me put it on every time I can’t figure out what I want to hear. Every time I listen, I find more to love, and every week the songs burrow deeper into my unconcious mind, playing back in my head on loop at strangely random occasions. At this point, I’ve entirely let go of any of my initial qualms about the record. I thought that I could resist something so dour and nihilistic, but I surrender. I love the way that their harsh riffs sound like razors tearing holes in my speakers. Every time I hear the discordant guitar solo on “Eva Braun,” I feel like it is dissecting my heart with shards of glass. I didn’t realize that I needed something as intensely bleak as this record in my life right now, but obviously I do. Congratulations, A Frames – I am owned by your dark, menacing beauty. (Click here to buy it from Sub Pop.)

Chok Rock “Happy Man” – A day in the life of a happy man: Get up; strut around to a funky but low key groove; launch into a sudden and somewhat incongruous noisy indie-rock style guitar solo; take it to the bedroom for a slow jam; get some sleep. (Click here to buy it from Warp.)


You Can’t Get These Nutrients From A Blow-Pop

Bob Mould “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope” – It’s easy to understand why some artists go off in radical new directions after building up a body of work that practically defines who they are. Most any artist eventually has to come to terms with the question of whether their artistic identity and methods are a true expression of who they are, or simply the result of their technical limitations, habits, and fears. Bob Mould’s previous album Modulate was a very risky endeavor, but I think that this track is proof that his experimentation with electronic music was the right decision even if that record was not among his best work. “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope” splits the difference between the classic Mould alt-rock sound and his immersion in electronic dance music. Experimentation with unfamiliar sounds and styles is usually most successful when a musician plays to their strengths as writers and performers, and that’s exactly what Mould does on this track. Instead of going full-on electronic as he did on Modulate, he’s taken what he’s learned and applied his influences to his signature style so that the song seems less like a formal excercise and more like a compelling pop song that feels both new and familiar. Given that United State of Electronica‘s debut album was one of Mould’s favorite records from 2004 and this record was written and produced last year, it seems very likely that their synthesis of Daft Punk-style vocodered disco pop and live rock band aesthetics was a key inspiration for this song’s arrangement. (Click here to pre-order it from Yep Rock, and here to visit Bob Mould’s blog.)

Ed Shepp “Partydance” – This track starts off as an extremely cheerful and dorky pop tune encouraging good health and dance parties, but as the song progresses, the message becomes increasingly harsh and judgmental before finally devolving into absurd scare tactics. (Click here to visit the official Ed Shepp website.)


Spanish Panthers Gored By Antlers

Doleful Lions “Strange Vibrations” – Now that it’s easy and affordable for DIY and indie musicians to make their own studio quality recordings on mass market equipment, the old lo-fi production style of the late 80s and early 90s has become more of an aesthetic decision than an option predetermined by economic factors. The Doleful Lions are certainly using the lo-fi sound to their advantage, as they bring their odd folk songs about magic, D&D-style fantasy, and satanic rituals to life with evocative bits of noise and carefully manipulated distortions as though it was the musical equivalent of cgi special effects. It’s such a small detail, but the thing that puts this particular song over the top for me is their clever use of distorted breath sounds on the microphone as a percussive element in the arrangement. (Click here to buy it from Darla.)

The Planet The “Please Don’t Kill Myself” – Memo to System of a Down, The Mars Volta, Coheed & Cambria, et al: Now that your nu-prog style has undeniably achieved mainstream success in the United States, it has become increasingly difficult for me to avoid your awful, awful music. Would you please consider following The Planet The’s example so that I can at least tolerate your music when I have to, say, watch you play on tv chat shows or hear you on the stereo when I pick up my comic books at the local Dork Shack? Here are five things you all can learn from them:

1) Just because you are prog, it doesn’t mean you can’t have hooks and catchy bits. The Planet The can do it; it is not impossible that you can too. You don’t have to be this glam and flamboyant, but it wouldn’t hurt.
2) Hey, this song is less than three minutes long! What a great idea!
3) Heavy metal guitars: boring, cliched, the musical equivalent of flogging a dead horse. Heavy metal keyboards: interesting, rare, so much potential.
4) The constant shifts in rhythm in this song create a feeling of nervous tension and drama, as opposed to just sounding overblown or scattered.
5) The Planet The do not have embarassing facial hair or ridiculous haircuts. Seriously, System of a Down. You are not wizards, pirates, or from outer space; please cut your hair!

(Click here to buy it from Buy Olympia.)


Special Guest Post By M.E. Russell!

Yoko Kanno / Seatbelts “Tank (TV Edit)”

Yoko Kanno / Seatbelts “What Planet Is This?!?”


Endnotes and Digressions:

1.The comparison of “The Imperial March” to “Spoonful of Sugar” was totally
stolen from The DVD Journal’s review of the “Star Wars Trilogy” DVD set.

2. Writer/cartoonist M.E. Russell has website, and so does colorist/poker geek Chris Hanel.

(Click here to buy it from Amazon.)


A Little Charm Can Only Get So Far

Funny Ha Ha – If you’ve ever listened to a recording of yourself having a conversation, you’ve more than likely noticed with some degree of horror all of the verbal tics and filler that stuff up the cracks in your speech. Funny Ha Ha is a character study about an underemployed postcollegiate young woman named Marnie, but there isn’t much in the way of plot or arc. Instead, writer/director Andrew Bujalski and his cast of amateur actors give us a window into the inner lives of Marnie and her constellation of similarly directionless friends and acquaintances via the subtext of their fragmented language and subtly passive-aggressive behavior.

Marnie is a person who is entirely at the mercy of her kindness and generosity, allowing people to walk all over her as she clumsily attempts to mask her emotions for the sake of others and mutters a perpetual stream of apologies. Her fear of confrontation and rejection runs so deep that she’s practically straitjacketed her id lest anything ever “get weird.” Meanwhile, her submerged desires are so transparent that everyone around her knows exactly what she’s thinking, but since they share most of the same social dysfunctions, they never say exactly what they mean either. Since she is beautiful, witty, cool and endlessly accomodating, she is surrounded by people who like her, and more than a few men who nurse futile crushes on her. Sometimes she seems to be in denial about this but more often she seems overwhelmed by possibility and retreats into self-sabotaging behavior such as pining for the most unavailable man that she knows and keeping her friendships superficial and emotionally distant.

Funny Ha Ha is particularly interesting to me in contrast with Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller’s shortlived television series Wonderfalls, which I recently viewed in its entirety on dvd. Wonderfalls is also about an underemployed recent college graduate who isn’t quite sure what to make of her life and just so happens to be a funny, pretty, willowy brunette. The similarities mostly end there, though. Whereas Marnie is only occasionally articulate, Wonderfalls‘ Jaye Tyler seems overly impressed by her own cleverness and talent for sarcasm to the degree that it often alienates those around her. (See also: Lorelai Gilmore.) She’s built up her own misanthropic self-mythology to the point that she’s come to view her most aggravating flaws – a tendency for condescension, rudeness, selfabsorbtion, laziness, and a dismissive attitude towards anyone who can function and thrive in the “real world” – as being strengths worthy of celebration. She’s from an upper middle class family and graduated from an Ivy League school, but she’s strangely content living in a trailer park and working in a tourist-trap gift shop. She’s smart and talented, but lacks ambition and fears effort. She’s rejecting her privilege, but not for any moral or intellectual reason. She’s just scared and immature and slumming it out until something comes along and happens to her.

Wonderfalls‘ central gimmick is that Jaye interacts with mass-produced representations of animals who offer her practical and challenging advice that forces her to step outside of herself and discover her potential for change and capacity for helping others. The nature of the talking animals is wisely kept vague, but I choose to interpret it as simply being a manifestation of the disassociated rational part of herself that she barely acknowledges as being within her. Each episode is built around a different animal trinket and set up so that the episodes can more or less write themselves around this conceit, but the story actually would have been a lot better if it had been a executed as selfcontained movie. After the first three episodes, the program becomes repetitive and increasingly contrived. If the series was allowed to continue, I’m not confident that it would have held up, mainly because as Jaye becomes less selfabsorbed and more generous, the basic tension in the narrative would dissipate. The beginning of Jaye’s transformation is very engaging, but I suspect that the closer the character could get to the end result, the show would become increasingly dull and selfrighteous.

Funny Ha Ha would actually make more sense as an ongoing story, since it is already a series of vingnettes that begin and end abruptly. Though the film says everything that it needed to, the lead and supporting characters have plenty of room for growth and the situations are kept open-ended enough for indefinite continuation. If I was in charge of original programming at HBO, I would be throwing bags of cash at Bujalski and his cast to convince them to turn the movie into a series that could take the place of the departing Six Feet Under.

Though I recognize more from my own lived experience in Funny Ha Ha, Wonderfalls is a far more devasting narrative for me, primarily because I see so much of the worst in myself in Jaye Tyler. The arrogance, the sense of entitlement, the selfdefeating laziness – I couldn’t help but cringe constantly from identification. In spite of the fact that show is light, goofy, and highly stylized in a post-Joss Whedon sort of way, making my way through the episodes was actually a very difficult task since I would get bummed out after viewing every episode and put off watching the next installment for a few days. Funny Ha Ha is technically more downbeat (though it never quite comes off as melancholy, thankfully), but since I’m mostly recognizing my friends and acquaintances in its story rather than myself (Marnie is like a composite of at least six female friends that I’ve had over the years), it brings out my affection and sympathy for those types of people rather than touch on any of my own insecurities.

Charlotte Hatherley “Rescue Plan” – In one of the most amusing and endearing scenes in Funny Ha Ha, Marnie writes out of list of things to do – go a month without drinking, make friends with a co-worker, spend more time outdoors, learn how to play chess, some loosely defined “fitness initiative!!” That is nicely echoed in the lyrics of this song, as Charlotte Hatherley (yet another clever, pretty, willowy brunette!) sings about her own list of list of resolutions, which she calls a “rescue plan” to “guarantee” a change in herself. To Marnie’s credit, she actually goes out and makes a solid attempt to do everything on her list. It seems like a more healthy and realistic ap

proach to life than the more dramatic gestures of Jaye Tyler. It’s possible that more longterm change can result from a confluence of minor alterations of lifestyle and daily routine than from more radical steps that require a lot more energy and commitment, thus allowing for a greater opportunity for frustration and failure.

“Rescue Plan” is taken from Hatherley’s debut album, which remains one of my favorite records of the past five months. (It was released in the UK sometime in 2004, but I never heard it until January.) It’s not one of the most immediate songs on the record – in terms of instant likeability, it is difficult to compete with the singles “Kim Wilde” and “Bastardo,” and the epic “Stop” sounds like all the best indie rock of the 90s melted into a puddle – but it has a casual, easygoing charm that suits its lyrics rather well. I hadn’t fully paid attention to the words until just recently, but I had already associated the track with a mixture of doubt and cautious optimism. The arrangement and guitar playing on this song is absolutely lovely, but easily overlooked and underrated since it isn’t particularly flashy or fashionable. This is true for most everything on Hatherley’s record, which often seems like a love letter to the indie and alt rock of the 90s from a person who clearly loved Veruca Salt without any “guilty pleasure” baggage and seems to be one of the rare musicians who is more influenced by the songs on The Bends that weren’t gentle power ballads. (Click here to buy Charlotte Hatherley’s album from Double Dragon. Click here to buy the Wonderfalls dvd set from Amazon. Funny Ha Ha is currently playing at the Cinema Village in NYC, and will be airing on the Sundance Channel on 5/20 at 2 PM, 5/25 at 6:30 PM, and 5/28 at 7:30 PM.)

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