Monday, January 29, 2007

Modest Expectations

Class canceled! Jubilation reigns among the youth!

I tend to be disappointed when I get this excited about anything, but I have to say that I'm pretty excited about this. Modest Mouse album in two months, their first as Big Rock Stars, and there's a new guy in the band. Some English dude, maybe you've heard of him. Johnny Marr?

I mean, Johnny Marr, for feck's sake. It's like getting Hendrix to come back, or having Jesus as your shortstop. Never mind that you can't really remember anything he's played on in twenty years (Marr, not Jesus.) It just doesn't matter! "This Charming Man!" "What Difference Does It Make!" Gaaah!

(Also, that guy from the Shins apparently sings on it, so it's sure to change your life.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baby, We'll Be Fine

In the dystopian future Britain of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, illegal immigrants are rounded up and herded into refugee camps by something called the Department of Homeland Security. It’s no Ministry of Love, but it’s a nice touch, a good solid Orwellian name—exactly the sort of thing you need for your science-fiction script. The joke, of course, is that we already have one of those Departments. That’s one of the many things this movie gets exactly right—if you want to make a good, bleak movie future, you have to stitch it together out of bits of Right Now. I don’t mean satire, either—it’s real easy to come up with fake future TV shows and have it be funny, but the trick is to play it absolutely straight. You know the premise of Children of Men, right? It’s the future, everybody’s infertile, humanity is doomed, etc. Pretty extreme stuff, but all the details are, well, not surprising at all. When the Youngest Person on Earth dies at the start of the film (in some kind of sordid bar fight, apparently) everything just kind of grinds to a halt; people call in sick to work, weep in public, and pile up flowers and stuffed animals against fences in exactly the way that they do when this kind of Media Death Frenzy actually happens. (Although you can argue that poor “Baby Diego” has a better claim to fame in the world of the film than Diana Spencer, say, had in ours.) The refugee camp looks like, well, a refugee camp, complete with the obligatory Angry Islamist Funeral. (It’s probably more shocking for British people, who might be familiar with this “Bexhill” place in the present day, before everything goes to hell.)

Plot-wise, the movie’s got a pretty standard chase/quest structure. (If, in this awful world, somebody could have babies, that’d be a pretty big deal, right? People would be interested?) It’s got a pretty standard Reluctant Hero (Clive Owen), who used to Have Ideals, but now drinks whiskey from his flask whenever he’s alone onscreen. He’s got a Wisecracking Old Mentor who must make a Noble Sacrifice (Michael Caine.) And yes, there is a scene in an abandoned elementary school—get it? And outside the school, there is a concrete statue of a triceratops—GET IT? Hard to avoid this sort of thing, I guess.

But if you get beyond all that, it’s pretty impressive. To begin with, Clive Owen kicks ass, as usual—there’s no comparable American actor right now who can just show up and be himself like that, without being funny or showing off, and still command attention. He doesn’t get a lot of room to maneuver in this movie, but he pulls it off. The action, when it comes, is convincing, something hardly any serious movie—and surprisingly few unserious ones—can pull off. (Hey, why did everybody like Little Miss Sunshine so much? Children of Men makes you understand what it means to really have to jump-start that car.) The violence, when it comes—and a lot of it comes—is hard and fast and unsentimental. Everybody who’s written about this movie has been awestruck by the final-act set piece, an endless street-battle in the aforementioned refugee camp, and I’m not gonna dissent. My girlfriend will get mad if I call it a tour de force, so I won’t—but by the end of one endless handheld shot, there’s fake blood and mud spattered all over the camera lens.

Your final opinion may depend on how you feel about the climactic scene, which is indeed a little hard to swallow. I’m not going to ruin the movie, but the entire plot hinges on one of those pseudo-religious scenes where Everyone Stands In Awestruck Silence Looking At Something Amazing. It’s not what I would have done, but I was willing to let it go—I felt the filmmakers had earned it by that point. Reasonable people may differ on this—one of the people I saw the movie with kept saying “you know, it’s just a baby.” She wasn’t wrong, but I still felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

More: in an aside, Owen’s character visits his brother (brother in law? something like that.) who is in charge of something called the Ark of the Arts—they’re trying to preserve humanity’s legacy in the face of extinction, so that aliens, presumably, can appreciate Shakespeare and Michelangelo’s David. But during the whole introduction of this sequence, the soundtrack is blaring “In the Court of the Crimson King,” by King Crimson. And when Owen and his brother, or brother-in-law, look out of the window of the Ark, for some reason we see the giant inflatable pig from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Apparently, according to the filmmakers, an important part of humanity’s artistic legacy—the stuff we want the aliens listening to—is 1970’s prog rock. Curious.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Same As the Old Slang

Back to the schooling this week--hopefully that doesn't mean I'll stop posting entirely. It's not as if I was wildly prolific even when I had a lot of time to kill. Now I'm going to have to spend more of my days reading really really long poems about shepherds, so I don't know what's going to happen. But here I am!

Anyway, this made me laugh, from the AV Club's wacky piece on defunct college football bowl games.

6. The Garden State Bowl

Mid-December in New Jersey? Not fun unless you're a Rutgers fan, and unfortunately, Rutgers only played in the inaugural edition of this game, in 1978. The remaining three years were far drearier, except for the time when the PA announcer played The Shins, and totally changed everyone's life.

Apparently that Garden State moment--when Princess Amidala makes JD put on the headphones--has achieved a lame kind of pop-culture transcendence. They're makin' jokes about it on the AV Club, and everybody writing a profile of the Shins feels like they have to at least mention it, if only to be incredulous. Really, Natalie? The Shins? But they seemed so polite!

But I was listening to "Phantom Limb," the new Shins song, on the way to class, and I really did have to, you know, stop and take stock of things. Because this song is basically "New Slang II!" (Or III, if you think that "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow already took that spot.) The quirky little melody, the "oooooo" chorus, all of that. It'll change your life again! It'll change it back to whatever it was before, maybe! Try it!

Good tune, though. I keep wanting to put it on and play it again, like Ms Portman in the waiting room. This is usually the sure sign of a song I'll be sick of quickly, but we'll see.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Best Music 2006!

Well, I guess we did all we could. Not a bad year. Good election, bad World Series, that's the way it goes. But I'm going to take this last possible moment to give you my Big Final List.

Yeah, yeah, these things are a terrible cliché. But we need them, at least I know that I do. I’ve always been a sucker for a year-end list, if only because they’re so fun to sneer at. How could they leave off Donnie Darko / The Killers / Big Momma’s House II / [your favorite neglected masterpiece] we ask ourselves, and we feel like we’ve made some small stand. You can begin sneering at me in five minutes, as soon as you’ve read this. Sorry there aren't any pictures.

Camera Obscura Let’s Get Out of This Country
This list is going to have some obvious choices on it, the stuff that’s on everybody’s list, so I’ll start it off with a quirky one that’s maybe not particularly known. Though for me, this is a no-brainer. It’s quaint? And pretty? And Scottish? Belle & Sebastian protegés? Sign me up! Honestly, though, there weren’t many releases last year that gave me more simple pleasure, or made me sing quite so much like a lovelorn sixteen-year-old girl while washing the dishes. I will also take this opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian.” [A special nod to Matt C, who didn’t just recommend this album, he actually mailed it to my house.]

Belle & Sebastian The Life Pursuit
…and while we’re on the subject, here you go: not their best, but how could it be? This is hardly the same group that made If You’re Feeling Sinister at all, but they’re still a justly beloved institution, and they seem to only now be reaching the peak of their powers. The Life Pursuit is graceful and funny and soulful, and on songs like “Dress Up In You,” you can still hear the old bitter wistful charm.

Pernice Brothers Live A Little
Again, not their best, but so much better than other people. See my review elsewhere.

The Flaming Lips At War With the Mystics
Secure now in their transformation from vaguely punk-ish weirdos to inspirational postmodern hipster performance artists, the Flaming Lips release another solid collection of tunes. Not a great leap forward, maybe—the only twist seems to be a newfound sense of political irritation. (“Free Radicals,” “Haven’t Got a Clue,” and “The W.A.N.D,” can be read as some sort of anti-Bush trilogy.) But it’s all satisfying: “Pompeii A.M. Götterdämmerung,” is every bit as huge as the title requires; my only complaint is that it isn’t twelve minutes long. And “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” joins “Do You Realize???” and “Waitin’ For a Superman,” in their collection of what I have to call Uplifiting Death-Hymns, songs that dare to bluntly and cheerfully say that Everything is Not Going to Be Okay, but that somehow That’s Okay.

Granddaddy Just Like the Fambly Cat
Stupid title. And go ahead and skip the intro with the child asking about the cat over and over. I do. This is still a wonderful, sad, last collection from this dear departed California group. The basic formula never changed: thick sludgy guitar, silly childlike keyboards, and Jason Lytle’s tired Wayne Coyne-ish croon, singing about robots and trees. This might actually be their best album taken as a whole. “This is How It Always Starts,” shows everything they did right: the sweet washes of electronics, the swooning background vocals, and the bitter little lyric that soars off the ground without seeming to move a muscle. This is how it always ends, though. Too many good bands don’t make any money.

The Decemberists The Crane Wife
The Decemberists, on the other hand, seem to have had no trouble at all managing their career. They were nowhere five years ago, now they’re a world-bestriding colossus sporting a monocle and a cardigan. Luckily, they have the work to back up their every-magazine-cover ubiquity. I reviewed the record already. It’s good.

Sufjan Stevens The Avalanche
I’ve already used the word “ubiquity,” but here’s Sufjan again, everybody. He’s wormed his adorable banjo-plucking way into our hearts, and he’s here to stay. I gave his Christmas album to my mom. Yes, The Avalanche is supposed to be an outtakes album, like it says on the cover; it’s supposed to be leftovers from the Illinois record. But it’s still seventy minutes long, and it still made my top ten. There’s filler, sure—you can probably skip most of the instrumental stuff and two of the three additional versions of “Chicago.” Enough great songs are left to make you shake your head—Illinois was freakin’ long to begin with. This guy must drink a lot of coffee. Anyway, banjos, flutes, pianos, you know the drill by now. Listen to “The Mistress Witch From McClure,” and “No Man’s Land,” definitely. Then ask yourself: how many albums will California take?

Thom Yorke The Eraser
He’s a reasonable man; get off his case! I think everybody who might read this probably has The Eraser already. Radiohead has occupied their frosty, unapproachable place in our canon for so long that there was no way we could ignore this record. But that didn’t mean it had to be good. It is. We can mock Yorke all we want for being prickly and paranoid, not to mention hideous to behold, but he’s really honestly the real deal both as a singer and a writer. Even when he was singing alt-rock ballads in 1993, there was a unique, unstable tinge to how he sang “I want you to notice when I’m not around,” or “Can’t afford to breathe in this town.” Now that he’s surrounded himself with computers and keyboards, his face looking sickly in the pale light of his PowerBook, he sounds more in his element than ever. This is emphatically not an album of self-indulgent electronic noodling, any more than Kid A was back when people were complaining about it. These are actual songs, despite or even because of all the whirring and bleeping and clicking, songs with real, painful emotion in them. Listen to “Atoms For Peace”—I hear “no more going to the dark side with your flying-saucer eyes” and I remember 1995’s “Black Star,” and its same sense of helplessness in the face of someone else’s collapse. (“I get home from work and you’re still standing in your dressing gown…”) “Skip Divided,” isn’t catchy, but it hisses with menace, with Yorke’s threatening murmur “when you walk in the room I follow you around like a dog.” “Harrowdown Hill,” it turns out, is about the death of UK Defence Ministry official David Kelly, and it seems to endorse the conspiracy theory that he was killed by the Blair government for blowing the whistle on the exaggeration of the threat posed by Iraq. Is that important? Probably not, and it’s probably not true, anyway. Before I knew all that, I knew that song had an arresting sort of grief to it—it was clear enough that it was about somebody dying. Nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Before this year, I mainly knew Neko Case from her singing with polite Canadians the New Pornographers, on whose records she stood out like a flashing red light. The songs were fairly consistent—wordy, ultra-clever, and polished to a high gloss. But singing these songs, you had two white guys—two Canadian guys—with standard inoffensive indie-rock voices, but then occasionally you had this woman, with her voice like a megaphone. She was their secret weapon! I knew she was actually American, and that she had a career of her own, but I didn’t really care until this record got so much praise. Turns out it was deserved. Besides the singing, the songs are solid almost all the way through, with some remarkably intricate, literate lyrics. Just listen to the first song, “Margaret Vs Pauline,” with its “girl with the parking lot eyes,” whose “jaw aches from wanting.” And then the black sting in the tail of it; it was a tiny little breathtaking moment for me. It’s all like that.

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls In America
Here it is, the worst Hold Steady album ever. I’m only about one-quarter joking. If you’ve heard Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday (and here the nod goes to this guy, who gave me illicit copies of them,) then you know what I mean. Otherwise…well, just imagine a whole lot of 1970’s-era classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy—but with some guy growling an enormous quantity of very carefully thought-out words over it, words about teenagers, and drugs, and Billy Joel, and Jesus. This sounds like a terrible idea, but you have to hear it. And no, this album isn’t as viscerally satisfying as the other two, but that’s only because they were trying some things. The tunes got bigger, occassionally reaching near-Meatloaf levels. (One reviewer came right out and said “Sal Paradise by the dashboard light,” and I wanted to smack myself in the head. Why didn’t I think of that?) The production got bigger—they’ve been saddled with the label of the World’s Greatest Bar Band, and this album seems to be blasting out of the World’s Greatest Bar P.A. And the subject matter got a tiny bit lighter—the characters in “Chillout Tent,” just want to hook up at a concert, and they probably won’t even end up dead or in rehab. (Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum sings! Yikes!) One girl (in “Chips Ahoy,”) has a supernatural ability to pick the winner of horse races—but her boyfriend is irritated because he “can’t tell if she’s having a good time.” That's a shame.

But it gets plenty heavy, too—the Minnesota poet John Berryman kills himself in the opening song. (“He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.”) The snarling “Same Kooks,” is another missing piece of the Separation Sunday song cycle, with its stupid wasted Catholic kids moaning that “it’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean.” And “First Night” feels like the final end of that story, an epilogue or valediction. It leaves Charlemagne and Holly (from the first two albums) shaking in the streets and crying in the hospital, respectively, and leaves the singer trying to remember what they all used to look like when they first met. This sounds horribly sentimental if you haven’t heard all these songs; if you have, then you’re already sort of choked up thinking about it. It’s going to be okay. Just remember what somebody (Holly?) said to Berryman—“you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.”

Honorable Mentions—Band of Horses is good. (One reviewer called it “the Shins deep fried in My Morning Jacket.” The metaphor police have been notified and are proceeding on foot.) The Long Winters is good. Mogwai is good. Morrissey, bless his heart, had some good songs. The Raconteurs, sure, sure, fine, whatever.

Best Design: The Eraser (Fancy woodcuts!) Worst: Boys and Girls in America, ironically. What’s up with that cover?

Second Best Title On an Album I Didn’t Listen To: Return to Cookie Mountain, by TV On the Radio.

And the Best: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass by Yo La Tengo. What, twenty years into their career and they’re still filled with rage? They’re talkin’ to you, Sonic Youth!