Sunday, March 22, 2009

25 Cents of Music: 2009's First Quarter

As an incurable music junkie, it pains me somewhat that this self-described "geeky media blog" has gone for such a long time without any direct musical discussion. Not that there's anything wrong whatsoever with movies (in fact, I'm going to go watch one after I post this), but sometimes it's good to be diplomatic and give some face time to other interested parties. It makes me feel more well-rounded in my rabid obsessions. (Just wait until summer when I have actual free time; I'll even be writing about books. I swear. I have an epic summer reading list. But I digress.)

So I decided to do something of an overview of 2009 so far. It's a quarter gone, believe it or not, and this saddens me because it's already aptly proven itself a hell of a lot better than 2008. In terms of everything. I don't want to jinx myself and have the next nine months be terrible, of course, but so far it's been quite good. The music scene in particular seems to have awoken from its yearlong siesta (after the party that was 2007, I'd be exhausted too; so it's understandable why it had to take a year off, but it's also nice that it's showing some initiative again). There's been great stuff from old favorites, great stuff from newbies and heretofore undiscovered bands, and the ever-lingering promise of more great stuff in the not-too-distant future from both aforementioned parties. It's been good.

Let's break this down.

I Find These Songs Especially Awesome:
These are the standouts among standouts thus far. As the year goes on, the list will undoubtedly grow. As it stands, it's a formidable start. My absolute favorite, which can always change at a moment's notice, is italicized.

Animal Collective, "My Girls"
Apoptygma Berzerk, "Asleep or Awake?"
Franz Ferdinand, "No You Girls"
Harlem Shakes, "Strictly Game"
The Juan MacLean, "The Simple Life"
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "Young Adult Friction"
Pure Reason Revolution, "Deus Ex Machina"
Silversun Pickups, "Panic Switch"
Telefon Tel Aviv, "The Birds"
White Lies, "Death"

Specific Comments About Stuff:
Now with more specificity.

  • That's it. Hell has frozen over. The most irritating, overrated band in all of indie-rock has made an album I legitimately enjoy. But seriously, it's good stuff. I mean, is anyone really going to argue that "My Girls" is far and away the best track Animal Collective has ever produced? It's a hard song to dislike, and the good news is that if you like it the rest of the album basically sounds the same. It's sort of an amalgamation of the what-the-fuck nature-noisemaking of their early albums and the what-the-fuck "pop" songcraft of Strawberry Jam. The result mysteriously manages to factor out most of the "what the fuck" and leave us fortunate souls with a dreamy, unique, and mostly enjoyable electronic "mood" album. Which isn't to say I'm apeshit about it. It's still irritating and overrated (with all due disrespect to Pitchfork, that 9.6 is beyond fucking insane), but it's also pretty okay. To be honest, it's still not the kind of thing I can see myself listening to that often, but I do like it. And for these guys, that's a hell of a step forward.

  • I don't have anything interesting to say about Antony and the Johnsons, and neither does anyone else.

  • Apoptygma Berzerk is no longer the pulsing EBM/industrial/future-pop band I fell in love with back in high school. 2005's still very good You and Me Against the World openly suggested that they were headed in a more electro-rock direction, and now Rocket Science -- which comes across largely as an undercooked medley of You and Me leftovers -- confirms it. I guess I have a huge reserve of goodwill for these guys, though, because I'd still rather listen to this than a lot of other stuff. And Groth is still a talented songwriter: occasionally, something awesome like "Asleep or Awake?" slips in and really rocks out. Nothing matches the heights of, say, "In This Together" (one of their best songs, regardless of genre) or "Love to Blame," but it's not terrible or anything.

  • Burning Hearts do cutesy, female-voiced Scandinavian twee pop. It either works for you or it doesn't. It works for me.

  • I am convinced The Decemberists can do no wrong. Of course, I've been convinced of this since 2005, but their continuance of not doing any wrong really strengthens my argument. Their latest, the ultra-geeky The Hazards of Love, is immensely satisfying because (A) it's not like anything they've done before; (B) it's one the most ambitious and even slightly risky albums by anyone in some time (they are on a major label, remember, and this is uncommercial to the extent that it's nearly impossible to even separate the individual tracks from one another); and (C) it rocks really hard. Emphasis on (C). Even in a very musically generous year, this will be a highlight. Not that I ever expected anything else.

  • The chilling debut from Fever Ray amply proves which half of The Knife was primarily responsible for Silent Shout's indelible creepiness. In other words, yeah, it's good stuff.

  • Despite what the world at large might think, Franz Ferdinand haven't lost it. Just listen to "Ulysses" and tell me you don't get even a slight adrenaline rush when that synth storms on at about 0:40. Really?

  • Grizzly Bear, on their most recent "how the hell did this leak already?" Veckatimest, continue their trend of being mind-alteringly beautiful without actually being all that interesting.

  • The second half of Handsome Furs' Face Control is much better than the first. Either half of Plague Park is better than the second half of Face Control. Let's just hurry up and get another Wolf Parade album out, shall we?

  • By all accounts, it seems like Harlem Shakes are poised to inherit Tokyo Police Club's underappreciated-indie-punk torch from last year. Despite an even more irritating vocalist, I still like 'em.

  • I have a horrible feeling that The Juan MacLean's sophomore album The Future Will Come is going to be ignored simply because it's not LCD Soundsystem. Truth is, it's a very strong (and very fun) album that's probably the best example of pure "indie dance" in some time. The lengthy opening and closing tracks ("The Simple Life" and "Happy House") are well worth the price of admission alone, but some of the shorter tracks like "The Station" and "A New Bot" are also great.

  • I still find Junior Boys boring as hell. Someone needs to tell these guys to lay off the quaaludes or something, I swear, 'cause their approach to synth-pop/dance music (a necessarily upbeat style) has all the zealousness of a coma patient. 2006's "In the Morning" remains their only genuinely interesting song because, oh my god, it actually has a pulse.

  • Barracuda by Mexican synth-pop band Kinky is by a Mexican synth-pop band called Kinky and is entitled Barracuda. This is all you really need to know.

  • Apparently Late of the Pier's fun, highly enjoyable debut Fantasy Black Channel didn't actually get released in the U.S. until 2009, which just gives me another chance to go on about what a spiffy, clitoris-stimulating song "Broken" is.

  • Matt & Kim's Grand is pretty grand. My history with it goes something like this: I listened to it a couple times and found I liked it all right. Then I saw them live. Then I listened to it a couple more times and found I liked it quite a bit more than all right. Something about holding a musician's shoe can do that to you.

  • Metric's Fantasies is so much better than I thought it would be that I actually feel like I need to go back and listen to it some more before I can pass proper judgment. It's the least I can do for Emily Haines, who actually probably would've earned it based on that really awesome lake picture alone.

  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self-titled has one of the best songs of 2009 thus far in "Young Adult Friction," and is largely devoid of interest for its remainder. A shame, 'cause that song is really good.

  • The Prodigy shouldn't have quit their day job (smacking their bitches up), because this new stuff isn't all that great. It's decent, I suppose, but The Fat of the Land was so much more than decent that it's hard not to feel a bit let down.

  • Pure Reason Revolution's Amor Vincit Omnia is an elegant 45-minute amalgamation of, like, every musical style I have ever been into. For this reason, it's going to be very hard to keep this one off my favorites for '09. The way they mesh prog-metal and industrial on song-of-the-year candidate "Deus Ex Machina" is incredible, and the last two minutes of "AVO" are so perfect that they make me feel like all the best parts of my life are just beginning.

  • Neither shoegaze nor Smashing Pumpkins is really "my thing" at all, so I find it intriguing that Silversun Pickups are fast becoming one of my big favorite bands. I discovered only last September that their debut Carnavas is really one hell of an album, and that "Future Foe Scenarios" is one of the best damn songs ever written (though, contrary to popular opinion, I find "Lazy Eye" to be one of their weaker songs). Their new single "Panic Switch" is so good that I expect their follow-up Swoon to be nothing less than one of the best albums of the year.

  • I am as head over heels in love with Spencer Krug as any man healthily ought to be, but Swan Lake just doesn't do it for me. Sorry. It's a two-album condition now, so I'm starting to doubt the "it's a fluke" assumption I've been leaning on since 2006.

  • If "The Birds" by Telefon Tel Aviv doesn't end up as the most beautiful song of 2009, I have a treat in store for me somewhere down the road. There's always something eerie about a musician dying before an album even gets released, and that eeriness hangs over Immolate Yourself in sheets. It's a sold album, though, and moody as hell, so I suppose it's a good swan song. More than anything, though, I would've liked to hear another one. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: "So it goes."

  • White Lies sounds like Editors sounds like Interpol sounds like Joy Division, etc. etc. And you know what? I still find the style compelling. It's an uneven album, sure, but it's quite listenable.

    Mmkay. That's it for right now. I feel like I've taken up enough of your time already. Wouldn't you agree?

    Yeah. Thought so.
  • Sunday, March 1, 2009

    Movie Roundup: 3/1/09

    I'm back. Sooner than I thought I would be, actually. Getting sick really helps with movie-watching, as it turns out. The weekend I was ailing I quarantined myself at my house, curled up, and -- not feeling much like doing anything else (other than sleeping intermittently) -- watched a bunch of crap. It was quite fulfilling. And then, of course, there's the typical array of Movie Night fare and theatrical viewings and all that good stuff. Not as many ridiculously high ratings this time (this is a more standard distribution, I'd say), but still some really good stuff. Lezzgo.

    Burn After Reading (The Coen Brothers, 2008) 73
    Maybe the funniest thing about the Coen Brothers' uniformly hilarious Burn After Reading is how much of a flip-off it is to the world of "serious cinema." After cleaning the floor at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men (which may very well be their best film; it's been a while since I've watched Fargo, the current holder of that title, so I couldn't say for sure), I'm sure everyone expected them to try to one-up themselves with another serious Statement about the human condition in contemporary America. Instead, they gave us this delightfully irreverent political farce that, while obviously not up to the jaw-dropping standards of their best work, is just about as entertaining as one could hope for. The Coens have a knack for creating immensely memorable characters: from The Dude to Carl Showalter to Anton Chigurh, almost every one of their films seems to possess at least one singularly striking individual. Here, the terminally underrated Brad Pitt steals every scene he's in as uber-doofus Chad Feldheimer. It's the rare performance that, no doubt, is as much fun for the audience to watch as it was for the actor to embody. But to be honest, everyone looks like they're having a good time here. I think they realize that this film was never meant to change the world or even really "say" anything (other than the government is incompetent -- gee, what else is new?). It's just meant to be a fun, lighthearted trifle for the Coens as they gear up for another home run. I have no clue how long it'll be until that film hits us, but until then I'm pretty sure Burn After Reading will suit me just fine.

    Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) 39
    An aggressively unpleasant film. Despite tirelessly searching for its entire runtime, there's just no fun in this thing for me. It's dark, oppressive, and off-putting (especially for a younger audience), but to what end? If you're going to have your main character endure such an ordeal, shouldn't she get something out of it? The film provides no evidence that little Coraline's life is going to be any different after this whole to-do than it was before. Her asshole, "you broke my favorite snowglobe" parents certainly haven't changed. So what could have, and should have, been a film about familial love and redemption and Wizard of Oz-style "there's no place like home"-ness inadvertently becomes a film about a neglected child who learns to appreciate that she's a neglected child. A lovely message, especially for the kiddos. Now in lifelike 3D, so they can almost touch the bitter reality! Despite being a harsh and unrewarding film, though, it's certainly a good-looking one: Selick's trademark stop-motion is as eerily effective as ever, and the aforementioned 3D -- to the extent that I even noticed it (it was much more subtle than a lot of other big-screen 3D fare) -- was well integrated, if inessential. But really, that's not going to win me over. Coraline is a dreary experience. Big-screen escapism is dependent on there being something worthwhile to escape to. If an ugly, dissatisfying story wherein the only compassionate character is a mangy, dead-looking alley cat is your idea of solid entertainment, be my guest. I should have stayed home. There's no place quite like it.

    Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) 81
    It's something of a miracle that this film even exists. The vampire genre is so old, so worn out, and so cliched that I thought I never wanted to see another. But here's a film that effortlessly makes the vampire yarn seem fresh, exciting, and wonderful again. I honestly did not think it could be done. I think its biggest asset is its restraint: by not going for the throat (yes, pun intended) like many other films would, the story is allowed to unfold on its own terms and slowly and methodically engulf its viewers. And it's a story that works impressively well on a variety of levels: it's at once a movie about the pains of adolescence, a fledgling romance, and of course a girl-next-door with a dark and gory secret. How the film winds all of these elements up into a single package is delightful, and the directions it chooses to go in are as unexpected as they are satisfying. This is a dark film, yes, and creepy, but it's also surprisingly touching, sweet, and involving. I cared greatly about Oskar and Eli and hoped constantly that the film would lead them to a resolution both true to its tone and worthy of everything that had come before. It does, and watching them get there is one of the most pleasurable first-time viewings I've had in quite some time. I gather that the DVD will be released on March 10. I'll be there when it comes out.

    Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) 92
    Truly beautiful. I've never seen it so much as a relationship drama as I have a film about the life-affirming power of friendship in the face of loneliness and alienation. Because seriously, who cares if they slept with each other? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't; to dwell on the idea is to miss the true beauty of their relationship. Here are two people who manage against all odds to form a bond more powerful than most people will ever know. The ephemeral nature of their encounter is what makes the film so delightful and, at the same time, so sad: we know as well as they do that their friendship is confined to that hotel. They'll never see each other again. But the time they spend together is so genuine, so real, that it puts the vast majority of bored human interaction to shame. By all accounts, Bill Murray should've won an Oscar for this (damn you, Sean Penn -- Mystic River wasn't very good anyway). It's both his finest work ever and the best film he's ever been associated with. So few movies manage to be as mature, thoughtful, and full of insight as this one. While it does seem to become more wistful with each passing year, it also gets better every time I watch it.

    Repo! The Genetic Opera (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2008) <(^.^<)
    For which I respectfully suspend my own rating system in favor of the Kirby Dance. I feel vaguely unclean for having watched this again, but -- as I mentioned the first time -- I hardly feel guilty about it, and would indeed watch it a third time if given a particularly good (or even a particularly bad) reason to. I hate this film with such a passion that I might very well be in love with it, a difficult phenomenon to describe unless you have, in fact, seen the film for yourself. I don't really have too much to add to my original commentary, except (1) this is not something that should ever be watched without people around; (2) in a perfect world, "Drug Market" would be a Top 40 hit and played on FM radio every five minutes. Aside from that, my original review still stands. ... and have I mentioned that if you haven't seen this you really need to?

    Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997) 65
    Believe it or not, I actually got this for my dad for Christmas, but had never actually watched it myself. Well, the weekend I was sick I figured, "What the hell?" and curled up and gave it a looksie. To my surprise (and perhaps chagrin), I enjoyed it quite a bit. I suppose general classification would call this a "chick flick," but not in the abject, toe-curling way that would apply to a dumb rom-com or some weepy loved-and-lost relationship drama. Instead, Romy and Michele -- unlike its two terminal airhead heroines -- is actually pretty intelligent, and there are plenty of solid laughs to be had along the way. The premise? Romy and Michele, two incurable ditzes, learn that their 10-year high school reunion is in two weeks and decide to "better" themselves in order to look prosperous and successful (including a hilarious, half-baked plan to lie to former classmates about having invented Post-It notes in the intervening years). It's predictable and formulaic, sure, but it's a lot of fun. Although the necessarily-happy conclusion does require you to suspend a somewhat uncomfortable amount of disbelief, the preceding 80 minutes or so are entertaining, well-written, and have some delightfully pointed and accurate things to say both about high school and about the ingenuine, phony nature of these so-called "reunions." And I enjoyed it for that. I know I'm not its target audience, but that just goes to show that some of these for-the-ladies movies really can satisfy just about everyone looking to have a good time, even the male counterparts. I mean, my dad and I both like it. That's gotta say something.

    The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) 77
    Tons and tons of goodwill and high regard over the past few years have made this into something of a classic, and while I do have to agree that it's an impressively strong film, I also have a few reservations. Certainly, to call it Kubrick's best (as many have done) is to do a horrendous injustice to his 1964-1971 holy trinity, and perhaps some of his lesser-known films as well. Let's face it: as a haunted house/ghost story, the film is almost a complete failure; there are elements of it sprinked throughout, but they're too half-baked and sporadic to seem consequential at all. Aided by Jack Nicholson's iconic but nonetheless over-the-top performance, though, where the film really excels is in its depiction of madness. It's eerie, claustrophobic, and chilling. Almost all of the credit for this, really, goes to Kubrick. The Shining has a weak script. Sorry, but it does. The direction, however, is among the most flawless in history. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist and he'd re-shoot scenes ad nauseum until he got exactly what he wanted. This film was in production for almost a year and a half and, I believe, used more miles of film stock than any other movie ever made. It shows, and it's kind of brilliant. The film is sparkling, pristine, and technically flawless. (Really, don't ever debate the talent of Stanley Kubrick with me. You may not like the films, but it's impossible to deny the man was a genius -- one of the best -- at what he did.) So, despite its weaknesses, The Shining is a compulsively watchable movie. It's just so damn well made that I have to admire it. Sure, Kubrick made better films, but none of them strike me as being as quintessentially a "director showcase" as this one. That, far more than the story itself, makes it a must-see.

    Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989) 45
    I suppose calling this the Japanese Eraserhead wouldn't be too far off the mark. While there is some semblance of a coherent narrative, it really plays second-banana to the fact that the director just wants to fuck you up bad. But David Lynch is an extremely skilled director, and he's capable of making brilliant films from elements that would be insufferable in anyone else's hands. So whereas Eraserhead is fucked up and weird and disturbing, it clicks with me. It works. Tetsuo, on the other hand, never rises above just being a series of surreal, hyperkinetic grotesqueries. Technically, the film is brilliant: the editing is virtuoso, to say the least. But the thing is, you get it rather quickly. I'd say that by the 30-minute mark at the very latest, you've seen what there is to see. Even though the film itself is a very brief 63 minutes, it still feels like it just goes on and on and on. There's no doubt Shinya Tsukamoto made the film he wanted to make (the ultra-stylish final product glistens with a sort of rough-edged, demented perfectionism), and the film does have its avid cult followers, but I can't really count myself among them. I am glad I saw it. It satisfied my curiosities. But it's not the sort of thing I think I'd ever need to return to.

    Time (Kim Ki-Duk, 2006) 76
    A haunting and poignant film from South Korea, which -- at least in terms of what gets international distribution -- seems to be a powerhouse for haunting and poignant films. Upon further consideration and the inevitable second viewing, I may even raise that 76, because there are a lot of intriguing ideas here that are handled very, very well. The general idea runs thusly: a jealous woman, afraid her boyfriend may be getting bored and tired of her, has plastic surgery to completely alter her facial appearance. Then, as the "new" woman, she begins a relationship with the same boyfriend, who of course does not realize that she is the same woman. The film refuses to shy away from the difficult ethical and emotional ramifications of this, and the result is both unsettling and provocative. Ki-Duk (whose, well, haunting and poignant 2004 film 3-Iron is also well worth seeing) is, if anything, a master of subtlety: he plays the whole affair very low-key, develops his two main characters enough to make them utterly believable, and then places them smack-dab in the middle of a moral puzzle that, by nature, has no easy answer. It's not light entertainment, to be sure, but it's the sort of thing that crawls under your skin and refuses to let go. For that alone I admire it, but it also has something even deeper to say about love and human attraction, and the way it says these things makes it something of a triumph. It's definitely worth tracking down; I know I want to see it again very soon.

    Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) 74
    The one thing I don't understand about this film (or more specifically, I suppose, about the Irvine Welsh novel it's based on -- which I do own a copy of and I will read whenever I get a chance, i.e. summer) is what the hell the title means. Is it slang? Is there some implicit, symbolic meaning? Is it just a pleasant alternative to Junkies Gone Wild? If I ever meet Mr. Welsh, I'll have to ask him. Also, I didn't realize until this viewing that Welsh actually has a cameo, playing the dealer who gives Renton the suppositories at the beginning. But these are just details. The big picture remains the same: this is still a good, solid, entertaining movie. It's not a great one (if you want one of those, I urge you look no further than Boyle's recent Oscar winner), but for what it is I say it does quite well. You could definitely find much worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

    Chris Vardeman will return. Not necessarily stirred, but at the very least, constantly shaken.