Monday, June 30, 2008

The Halftime Report: 2008

We are seriously halfway through 2008. That's terrifying. Wow.

Anyway, this one's pretty self-explanatory. I'm a compulsive list maker, and I like to make 'em twice a year. The ones in December are cumulative, smoothed-out, serious, and composed. My Halftime Report lists are, I'd say, more rough approximations than anything else. Between now and December, many of the items on these lists will disappear, reappear, rearrange themselves, and bounce all over the place. Nonetheless, I'd say these are a pretty good representation of my favorite stuff so far this year.

The 5 Best Movies So Far:
5. Get Smart
I've tried to be objective about it, but I honestly do not see the critics' gripe with this movie. For my money, Get Smart is exactly what the words "big-budget action comedy" should refer to. I mean, it's funny, right? And it's got explosions and lots of exhilarating action scenes, right? And it has Steve Carell, who -- of all the actors in Hollywood today -- has got to be the perfect choice to play Maxwell Smart. Right? Check, check, check. Also: Bill Murray inside a tree. So, uh, what exactly is there to dislike about this, again?

4. In Bruges
A boundlessly clever gangster film well written, acted, and executed enough to make me forgive what could have been a deal-breaking tonal inconsistency. Its problem is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. It's a gangster film, for sure, but it can't decide between comedy and drama. Certainly, there's nothing stopping it from being both (why hello, Pulp Fiction), but first-time writer-director Martin McDonagh isn't Quentin Tarantino, and he has a bit of trouble juggling the two. Nonetheless, it's an endlessly entertaining flick. Colin Farrell is probably the best I've ever seen him, while the inventive script is actually audacious enough to spell out the ending for us way in advance, then sit back and watch us hit ourselves for not catching onto the clues. So, problems aside, I enjoyed it quite a bit. A film doesn't have to be perfect to be surprising and satisfying, and In Bruges is an appealing example of a film that's both.

3. Control
Yeah, it's definitely as dreary as you would expect it to be. It's also extremely selective, audience-wise: a biopic about Ian Curtis, epileptic lead singer of legendary post-punk band Joy Division who committed suicide in 1980, isn't exactly at the top of most people's viewing lists. And while it's certainly a film that can be appreciated by those not of Joy Division fandom, it really helps if you are. Speaking as someone who lists them as one of his all-time favorite bands, I found this to be a moving and engaging film. Yes, it's dreary, but it's grandly and artistically dreary. Its black and white cinematography adds to the atmosphere immensely (to an extent that the film would not have worked half as well in color), the acting -- especially by Sam Riley in the lead -- is phenomenal, and of course the soundtrack is unparalleled. Maybe it is somewhat of a buzzkill, but it's my kind of buzzkill: the kind potent and powerful enough to haunt you and stay with you long after the images have faded away.

With the likes of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, Pixar has spent the last few years setting the bar almost inhumanly high for themselves. It's a testament to their paramount abilities that this doesn't seem to phase them. They just continue to make the absolute finest in animated cinema. Wall-E is everything you'd expect and even a few things you wouldn't, all of them adding up to just about as delightful and pleasant a moviegoing experience as one could want. (Also, "Presto," which preceds the movie, is probably the best short these guys have yet come up with. That's pretty significant, too.)

1. Funny Games
On this one, I proudly stand alone. Or at least mostly alone. I won't argue that this is an ugly, nihilistic movie. That's undeniable. The way that nihilism is internalized, however, hinges on the individual's outlook. Depending on who you are, you'll either see it as a shallow, exploitative academic treatise that commits the very crimes it preaches against, or -- like me -- you'll see it as a cold, refreshing slap to the face of a society that seems fascinated with violence and torture porn. No matter what your outlook, there's little question it's just about the most polarizing and debatable film of the year (I feel I could write entire essays defending it, personally). In my mind, that quality -- together with its unforgettable, relentless gut-punch -- only enhances its brilliance.

The 5 Best Albums So Far:
5. Shearwater, Rook
Where did this come from? I like Okkervil River, but I had no idea ex-guitarist Jonathan Meiburg -- or anyone from the band, to be honest -- was capable of making something this beautiful. And not in any understated way: this fairly short 37 minutes seems epic compared to most albums its length, making for a sweeping listen that fully satisfies on the first listen and then just keeps delivering unexpected little gifts for each additional spin.
(Stream: "Rooks")

4. The Gutter Twins, Saturnalia
In which Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan -- two middle-aged holdovers from the grunge era -- unexpectedly make the best alt-rock album of the year. It's a thing of fierce, dark, brooding apocalyptic glory. The world may be coming to an end, but at least it's meeting its maker in the most dramatic, alluring, and frankly beautiful way.
(Stream: "God's Children")

3. Foals, Antidotes
Bloc Party and Battles. Remember those guys? Well, Foals' impressive debut is probably the closest amalgamation of those two you're ever likely to get (provided that's what you really wanted from life; I didn't, really, but life has its little surprises). Though occasionally atmospheric and melancholy, it's really just a fun album. The songwriting is strong, the boys' super-rhythmic playing occasionally borders on the pleasantly hypnotic, and the production is just about right for this kind of deal. Sure, it does get a bit samey-sounding, but if you enjoy the style as much as I do, that should hardly be a problem. Just avoid that godawful album cover. Yyyyuck.
(Stream: "Olympic Airways")

2. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer
Speaking of bad album covers, I bet you were wondering when Wolf Parade's sophomore album would show up. I was much too hasty when I dismissed this one as a disappointment. I can never tell when an album is going to click for me. Usually, as in this case, if it hasn't happened by the third or fourth listen, it's not going to. At Mount Zoomer hit me HARD on listen five. Sure, it's miles away from their wonderful (and much poppier) debut Apologies to the Queen Mary, but a darker and more aggressive brilliance is still brilliance, regardless. I imagine most will find this much more easily digestible than I did; I just had to outrun the shadow of their previous album. Now that I'm in the clear ... damn, is this a good album.
(Stream: "Kissing the Beehive". DO IT.)

1. Cut/Copy, In Ghost Colours
Simply put, Cut/Copy's second album is an 80s synth-pop pastiche that somehow manages to be better by leaps and bounds than just about anything it borrows from. Their secret is that they don't just try to emulate these ye-olde acts, but come armed with songs are both reverent and phenomenally well-written. Discounting the numerous instrumental links (which, for once, actually help hold the album together instead of merely filling empty space), there isn't a single bad song here. More to the point, there's not a single one I don't like a lot. No other album released this year can boast such an impressive array, nor can the vast majority of albums released in the past few years. If this isn't still sitting at the top of this list in another six months, I'll be very surprised. Pleasantly surprised, mind you, but surprised nonetheless.
(Stream: "Feel the Love")

The 10 11 Best Songs So Far:
11. Death Cab for Cutie, "Bixby Canyon Bridge"
I can just imagine the unfortunate kid who has never heard Death Cab and downloads this song: "Dude, have you heard that band Death Cab for Cutie? They freakin' ROCK. Nasty buzzing guitars, pounding drums, distorted vocals, waves of hypnotic white noise -- I NEED MORE OF THIS!!" He'll be in for about as much of a surprise as the rest of us were when we heard this refreshing song, which may have more urgency packed into its five minutes than their entire Plans album put together.

10. Fleet Foxes, "He Doesn't Know Why"
Maybe he doesn't, but I do: check out that vocal melody during the first half. Man.

9. The Dodos, "Red and Purple"
Anyone still looking for the ultimate indie summer track needs look no further: "Red and Purple" is so bouncy, so sunny, so upbeat that it's virtually impossible to deny it. It still amazes me that they managed to make such a thing using just an acoustic guitar and percussion.

8. Coldplay, "Viva la Vida"
It's just a damn fine pop song. That's all there is to it.

7. British Sea Power, "Lights Out for Darker Skies"
This is definitely a candidate for Indie Anthem of '08: exactly the type of huge, booming two-part track it seems like these guys have wanted to create their whole career. In addition to being phenomenal, it's also one of the few saving graces of their comparatively disappointing third album.

6. Cut/Copy, "Lights and Music"
The thing that seems to separate Cut/Copy from the bazillions of other 80s revival bands is that they actually sound like various bands from the 80s. It depends on the song. Here, they're tackling Violator-era Depeche Mode (yes, 1990, I know) and, if I may be so bold, actually creating a song that is even better than most -- if not all -- of that seminal album.

5. MGMT, "Time to Pretend"
A coworker and I were having a discussion a few months back about what the anthem for the current generation would be. Gen X had "Smells Like Teen Spirit." What do we have? I can now give a genuinely good answer: we have "Time to Pretend," which, all the way from its wistful (and cynical, yeesh) rockstar-dream lyrics to its do-it-yourself indie-electronic atmosphere, seems to perfectly encapsulate what the current wave of teens and twentysomethings seem to stand for.

4. Hercules and Love Affair, "Blind"
You say the words "gay disco" like that's a bad thing!

3. Wolf Parade, "California Dreamer"
I've gotten so used to putting Spencer Krug on my best-of lists (2008 is the fourth year in a row) that I've almost forgotten what it feels like to leave him off. This is yet another home run for him (and no doubt not the last), an "L.A. Woman"-esque proggish epic that just gets more complex and more alluring every time I listen to it.

2. Frightened Rabbit, "The Modern Leper"
Bitter, self-deprecating indie rock must really be my thing (see: last year's "Kid Gloves"), but damned if this isn't the most powerful and emotionally affecting thing I've heard all year. Maximum volume required.

1. Chris Walla, "St. Modesto"
Maybe it's just a primacy thing, I don't know. But over the past five months, Walla's gorgeous ballad about star-crossed meth-makers has wormed so far into the Music = Love center of my brain that I cannot deny it the top spot. I know that even admitting I like Walla, his solo album, or anything on it means I immediately surrender my indie-cred badge, but I don't care. My ability to play this on repeat is infinitely more appealing.

The end! Woo!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Blogcast: March-June Highlights

This blog, which has gone untouched for a solid year now, was originally conceived as an alternate chunk of cyberspace with which I could ramble about music and movies and media stuff without really having to filter myself. I've been considering a revamp for the past couple months, toying with the idea of bringing it back up to speed and possibly incorporating blatherings about life and all of those mundane things, but in the end I decided to keep it much the way it is. I will be updating it much more regularly, but I have decided -- for others' sake as well as my own -- to keep it mostly (if not entirely) media-related. I'm sort of a geek when it comes to music, movies, and literature, so I doubt I'll run out of things to talk about in any case.

This is not a hipster blog. I'm not a hipster. I'm not cool enough (or, more importantly, I am not of a mistaken belief that I'm cool enough). I'm not all about chasing leaks all over the internet, being the first person to hear or see anything, or thinking myself oh-so-awesome for drooling over stuff only three people have ever heard of. I'm just a guy who is interested in obsessively and covetously consuming stuff, old and new, that I am passionate about. This makes me a geek. This is a geek blog. Adjust all expectations accordingly.

Anyway, the resurrection of this blog begins tonight. In keeping with personal tradition, I've decided to begin this resurrection with something I used to do many moons ago but fell out of the habit of doing: a Blogcast.

Basically, the way this Blogcast thing works is analogous to being handed free samples at the grocery store. The songs, complete and usually ripped straight to .mp3 format from my own private CD collection, are designed to give a taste of some of the best stuff I've been listening to. It's both a way for me to show off the best of something I'm really passionate about, and for the rest of you to get some free stuff that you might like. It's win/win all the way. (Acquiring the files is simple. I've uploaded them all to SendSpace, where they will stay for two weeks. Simply follow the links provided and nab 'em from the SendSpace server.)

The Theme: No Blogcast is complete without a theme. This one, as referenced in the title, is a showcase for standout songs that have been released within the last few months. These aren't necessarily the absolute best songs to have come out, but they're all very good ones that I felt like sharing. As always, I've provided some brief commentary to go along with 'em.

Anyone who samples these and is really intrigued by the sound of one or more of them, just get in touch with me and we'll see what we can do about hooking you up with some more. I have the technology.


The Blogcast:
Cut/Copy, "So Haunted" (4:27)
Genres: Dance/electronica, indie-rock
If you are among the underprivileged who have not heard or heard of Cut/Copy and their miraculous new album In Ghost Colours, click that link right now. Download the song. Do not come back and read the rest of this 'til it's done. It is, in the most basic terms, 50 minutes of near-perfect electronic dance-pop. Not only is it my #1 album of 2008, but it also fits snugly up there with the finer albums of the entire decade. "So Haunted" may or may not be the best of the best (I have about five songs vying for that title), but it does do in four and a half minutes what some bands have never been able to: make a perfect marriage between pulsing noise-rock and light-as-a-feather electronic dance. What starts as a noisy, distortion-heavy pounder ends as one of the prettiest synth-pop songs you're likely to hear during this or any other year. It's really quite something.

The Dodos, "Red and Purple" (4:40)
Genres: Indie-rock, experimental
The Dodos have done it. I don't know how, but they've somehow managed to make an entire album of interesting and original music using little more than acoustic guitars and drums. Though there are many highlights, my personal favorite track is the jovial "Red and Purple," which bounces along on unconventional rhythms and unabashed catchiness for four and a half minutes before finding just about the perfect note to end on. Despite being released in March, it's a summer song if I've ever heard one: sunny, energetic, and utterly satisfying.

Frightened Rabbit, "The Modern Leper" (3:48)
Genres: Indie-rock, emo that doesn't suck
It's like I said when I put the song on my MySpace profile: if this doesn't end up being in my ten favorite songs of 2008, there are some fucking amazing songs left for me to hear. This song (and this band) literally blew at me out of nowhere, blindsiding me with unexpected brilliance. The intensity of this song is a force to be reckoned with. It begins as a fairly subdued acoustic piece and ends with violent crashing and passionate howling less than four minutes later (so, yeah, maximum volume required). Together with its breathtaking lyrics (which are all too relatable) and soaring chorus, "The Modern Leper" is at once a statement that demands attention, and a powerful, powerful piece of music.

The Gutter Twins, "God's Children" (4:57)
Genre: Alternative rock
It's no coincidence that a lot of the songs on the Gutter Twins' debut (well, it's the first album Dulli and Lanegan have made together) reference God and the Rapture, because they've made what sounds like it could be a soundtrack to Judgment Day. It's all dark, heavy, midtempo mood music, but with just the right amount of melody and pathos to make it into something truly grand. Lanegan and Dulli were both at their most successful during the early 90s as the frontmen for Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs, respectively, and their style as the Gutter Twins is ripe with early 90s alt-rock influence. It's hypnotic and mesmerizing, but it also kicks serious ass. If Judgment Day does sound like this, I'll be the one standing off to the side, mouth gaping, trying impossibly to take in all the apocalyptic beauty.

M83, "Couleurs" (8:34)
Genres: Electronica, synth-pop
Summer. Nighttime. City. Tall buildings. Bright lights in the darkness. Driving. Windows down. Hair blown. A light smell of rain. These are just a few things that occur to me while listening to M83's synth-drenched "Couleurs," an awesome slice of atmospheric electronica from French artist M83. The track just feels inherently urban and nocturnal, like a night owl doing the drugs and hitting the clubs before burning out at sunrise. It's a standout on an album of mostly lighter, poppier 80s-style fare (all of which is very good, however); it's also one of 2008's great electronic cuts.

Neon Neon, "I Told Her on Alderaan" (3:43)
Genres: Synth-pop, 80s New-Wave revival
It's to Gruff Rhys' credit that "I Told Her on Alderaan," right down to its Star Wars reference, could easily be mistaken for a long-lost early 80s gem. All the pieces seem to fall into place: the guitar-synth interplay, the drum machines, the production, and especially the attitude. It does that guilty-pleasure genre proud, too. It's one of the catchiest pieces of pure pop the indie world has seen this year, addictively replayable and good enough to make you wish that even more people would cruise their De Loreans back to the 80s and try resurrecting, as the band itself refers to it, this stainless style.

Wolf Parade, "California Dreamer" (6:03)
Genres: Indie-rock, experimental
Far and away the standout track from Wolf Parade's (somewhat disappointing) sophomore album At Mount Zoomer. "California Dreamer" -- an exhilarating track that owes more than its title to The Doors' classic "L.A. Woman" -- finds Spencer Krug still in Sunset Rubdown mode, with results more atmospheric and experimental than the majority of his other Wolf Parade contributions (I'd say this is more "Dinner Bells" or "Fancy Claps" than anything else). His lyrics are as evocative as ever, the melody is haunting and irresistible, and the whole thing goes a long way to reaffirming why Krug is one of the finest songwriters working today.

The end. Until next time, which will be much, much sooner than last time. Guaranteed. Even if I'm the only person who ends up giving a shit about this blog, I will keep it up because it satisfies me.

See what I mean? Geek.