Sunday, January 28, 2007

Go Ahead and Smile

Here's the much blogged-about video from one of
my favorite imports of
2006. Alright, Still is
released in the US by
Capitol on 1/30/07.

At first when I see you cry,
yeah it makes me smile, yeah it makes my smile.
At worst I feel bad for a while,
but then I just smile I go ahead and smile.

-- Lily Allen, "Smile"

Lily Allen - "Smile"

Endnote: Please click here for my review of Alright, Still.
Image from Lily Allen, lyrics from A-Z Lyrics, video from YouTube. Allen is the musical guest on this week's SNL.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

While Ye May

The Rosebuds, Night of the
Furies, Merge Records [4/10/07]

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

-- "To the Virgins, to make much of Time" by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)

Like Matador or post-grunge Sub Pop, North Carolina's Merge Records doesn't have a signature sound. Acts include Destroyer, Robert Pollard, Spoon, M. Ward, and the Clean's David Kilgour. Raleigh's Rosebuds represent the lighter end of the sonic spectrum. In other words, the two are more Camera Obscura than Arcade Fire. Other non-Merge bands they bring to mind include the Human League, the Postal Service, and the Magic Numbers.

The third long-player from Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, after The Rosebuds Make Out (2003) and Birds Make Good Neighbors (2005), features boy-girl vocals over a bed of dreamy dance-pop. There's something vaguely 1980s about Night of the Furies--hence the comparison to the Human League--but I wouldn't call it post-punk or new wave. Their music is neither angular nor bouncy enough to fit those descriptions.

Of course, I also described the Bird and the Bee as dance-pop, but the two sound nothing alike. B&B take a more direct approach. The Rosebuds are duskier and more atmospheric. While they don't quite remind me of Echo and the Bunnymen, I would imagine they've spent some quality time with the Liverpudlian quartet, along with their contemporaries, like the Teardrop Explodes.

I've listened to this CD a few times now, and I can't find anything objectionable about it, but nor does it move me in any way. That doesn't mean the duo is incompetent or lacking in substance. It just means I'd rather listen to Camera Obscura or the Bird and the Bee. The Rosebuds could play on a bill with either outfit, and it would make perfect sense, but they aren't ready to headline yet.

Endnote: Please click here to sample tracks from earlier recordings. Upon reflection, it's possible that "married people pop" isn't for me, although I do have a soft spot for the Mamas and the Papas (RIP, Denny Doherty), Mates of State, and the Submarines, so I can't say I'm completely opposed to it. Images from Merge Records, poem from The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

¡Viva Mexico!

Upon hearing that he had received six Oscar nominations for Pan's Labyrinth, tying with The Queen,
Guillermo del Toro issued the following statement.

This is an unimaginable experience for me. I am both humbled and honored that Pan's Labyrinth is receiving so much recognition from so many fields. To receive six nominations for a film that is a true labor of love exceeds any expectation I could have ever had in my overweight life. It is specially beautiful to share this moment with my dear friends Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. This is an unprecedented representation of Spanish-language filmmakers and actors.
To have my film included among this list of remarkable
nominees is a true honor that I will never forget.

Pan's Labyrinth was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Makeup, and Best Art Direction. In a perfect world, Sergi López and Maribel Verdú would've received nominations for their indelible performances, but this isn't a perfect world--that would be rather boring, actually--and six nominations is still impressive for a film that could've easily been overlooked as "too niche" or "too arty," but somehow managed to transcend such categorizations.

Part of Del Toro's enthusiasm likely stems from the fact that Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) co-produced both Pan's Labyrinth and Babel, while picking up a couple of nominations for his own work. (Another Spanish-language talent, Penélope Cruz, was nominated for Volver.) But my favorite section of Del Toro's statement is this bit, "...ever had in my overweight life" (along with the word "specially"). Mr. Del Toro has just given me yet another reason to love the guy: his humility. And humility combined with humor--and genuine talent--is a very appealing combination.

In case you haven't seen my list, Pan's Labyrinth was one of my favorite films of the year (it came in at #9). At Sean Axmaker's annual top 10 party,
a yearly gathering of local critics, it emerged as our number one pick.
Granted, Flags of Our Fathers and
Letters From Iwo Jima inspired more discussion, but Pan's Labyrinth was the one film upon which we could all agree.

This year's participants included Sean Axmaker, Dave McCoy, Andy Wright, Kathleen Murphy, Richard Jameson, Robert Horton, Tom Tangney, Jeff Shannon, Jim Emerson, and myself.

The Axman's Annual Top 10 Party - Official Results

1) Pan's Labyrinth (60 points, 9 lists, 1 "Best Film" pick)
2) Flags of Our Fathers (44 ½ points, 6 lists, 3 "Best Film" picks ties)
3) Letters From Iwo Jima (40 ½ points, 6 lists, 3 "Best Film" picks ties)
4) A Prairie Home Companion (38 points, 5 lists, 1 "Best Film" pick)
5) United 93 (35 points, 6 lists)
6) The Queen (26 points, 4 lists)
7) The Departed (25 points, 5 lists)
8) Half Nelson (23 ½ points, 6 lists)
9) Perfume (22 points, 3 lists)
10) Brick (20 1/3 points, 3 lists, 2 "Best Film" picks)
11) Old Joy (17 ½ points, 3 lists)

As the AP notes, "Together Babel and Pan's Labyrinth, by Mexican directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, won 13 Oscar nominations--giving the Mexican film industry its biggest boost to date on the other side of the border." As much as
I dislike Babel (sorry fans), I'm still happy to see Mexico make such a substantial showing. I'm specially pleased for Guillermo
Del Toro. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Endnote: Please click here for my review of Pan's Labyrinth. Images from Sight and Sound and Film Stew. For Mark Kermode's S&S interview with Del Toro, please click here. I was particularly intrigued by this excerpt: "As for the faun, he proved more difficult. The idea was to make him very masculine, not aggressively so, just sinuous. I remember talking to Doug Jones [who plays both the faun and the pale man] when he first started working on the role, and saying: 'More Mick Jagger, less David Bowie!' I wanted the faun to have a rock-star quality."

1/30: This comes from Noel Murray's interview with Del Toro in The Nashville Star. The subject is The Spirit of the Beehive, which I kept thinking about while watching Pan's Labyrinth. "The thing is that the film by [Victor] Erice is all about the most tenuous, almost intangible lines between fantasy and reality, that are only laid out by the mind of a child. In my movies, I tend to make the fantasy world manifest. Completely manifest and material."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Partly Cloudy (Chance of Rain)

AIDS Wolf vs. Athletic Automaton, Clash of the Life-Force Warriors,
Skin Graft [1/23/07]

I slipped this disc in my player with no foreknowledge about either group. Seripop's B&W Savage Pencil-inspired artwork is both scary and intriguing [they're also responsible for the image at right] and the band names are definitely...interesting. I thought that might apply to the music, as well. It does. This is swirling, pounding punkadelica, for lack of a better word.

Athletic Automaton are from Providence and AIDS Wolf are from Montreal. Both have released one record apiece. Some of the tracks on their first collaboration are instrumentals, some have vocals. In the latter, a woman's voice rises up through the morass like an unruly ghost. Credited with "yelping," Special Deluxe sounds like a banshee trapped in a well, howling for someone to let her out--so she can suck the life out of them.
Other participants include Hiroshima Thunder on drums and Barbarian Destroyer and HIM, The Magi, both on guitar.

Also available as a gatefold LP, Clash of the Life-Force Warriors is demented stuff with a downright vicious vibe. It's not quite my scene, but I admire the crazed intensity, except when Deluxe's howling devolves into babbling. That's when they lose me.

BARR, Summary, 5 Rue Christine [2/10/07]

In the midst of tripping out about everything, I realized I don't know
what I'm doing. Try to hit--I mean, hit the town like a ton of bricks.
Hit a few spots a little too hard. Made moves too much. A little bit uncomfortable, a little bit sad, I mean I was a little bit confused,
even sort of mad but still kind of amped on the drama and ambiguity.
-- BARR, "Was I? Are You?"

Strictly speaking, BARR's fourth full-length, Summary, isn't a spoken word recording, but LA-based Brendan Fowler (New England Roses) is more of a talker than a singer. (Vice describes him as a "motivational rapper.") There's a slight King Missile ("Jesus Was Way Cool") thing going on here, except his vocals are even more prominent and the music is even more spare, just a little piano and drums (Fowler) and bass (Corey Dieckman).

There are musicians who monologue much of their way through life, like Bob Dylan ("Subterranean Homesick Blues") and Lou Reed ("Take a Walk on the Wild Side"). I like that kind of stuff. I don't like this. It's akin to sitting next to a crazy person on the bus who rambles on and on and on. Plus, he doesn't have the pipes for it. Tom Lehrer and Ken Nordine did, Gil Scott-Heron and Mose Allison did. So did the Last Poets. Maybe those comparisons aren't fair, but Fowler has this sort of droning/adenoidal tone. He lacks the forcefulness of those other cats. And his lyrics read like diary entries. This would've worked better as a graphic novel.

Bird & Batteries, Selections From...
Nature vs. Nature, Self-released

Not to be confused with the Bird and the Bee, whom I've raved about elsewhere, Bird & Batteries is one-man San Francisco band Michael Sempert. He's got six other players helping him out on guitar, bass, brass, drums, and backing vocals, but this is primarily a solo effort. Because the original Nature vs. Nature had 18 tracks, this edited version, which slims things down to 12 (including Neil Young's "Albuquerque"), is titled Selections From...

I'm not thrilled by Sempert's voice, but it never rises too far above the music. Wise move. He's not a terrible singer, but there's something a little flat about his style. It's like a cross between Steely Dan's Walter Fagen and Brian Eno.

Of Montreal is the closet analogy I can find for Nature vs. Nature, except this is rootsier stuff (must be that steel guitar). I like it more than BARR, but that's as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Sempert has an original style--he dubs it "electro-country-indie-pop"--and I respect that, but I found this record rather dull.


Endnote: Bird & Batteries play Seattle's Comet Tavern on 2/9 and BARR plays Gallery 1412 on 3/9. Fun fact about AIDS Wolf, they were voted 10th Most Pretentious Band by the Montreal Mirror's Readers' Poll. Nice! Image of their first CD, The Lovvers [sic], from Amazon, Nature vs. Nature cover image from CDBaby.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Still Singing, Still Buzzing

The Bird and the Bee,
The Bird and the Bee,
Metro Blue/Blue Note

As a general rule, I review every record that comes my way as soon as I can. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. I received the Bird and the Bee's debut in October and posted a review a day or two afterwards. Over three months have passed since then, yet the
CD isn't released until 1/23/07. To read the original post,
please click here. And here's what I wrote for Seattle Sound:

Aptly named LA duo the Bird and the Bee consists of Inara George and Greg Kurstin. An actress-turned-singer, Inara claims Little Feat's Lowell George as father. Kurstin established his rep as a keyboard player with credits ranging from Beck to the similarly hook-laden Lily Allen. Now erase these facts from your mind as they have little bearing on B&B's irresistible 1960s-style dance-pop. With her delicate phrasing, Inara sounds nothing like her drawling dad, while the inventive Kurstin plays nothing like a generic session dude. Except for the horns on "I'm a Broken Heart" and Inara's fuzz bass on "Again & Again," he handles every instrument. All told: 10 tracks of slinky, sexy, airy effervescence. Imagine a Brazilian Stereolab or Suzanne Vega as Gainsbourg muse. The Bird + the Bee = pure aural enchantment.

Endnote: Image from the Bird and the Bee MySpace Page. The band has swung through town once since I first wrote about them, but I didn't get the chance to check them out. Since Kurstin is involved with both acts, I'd love to see B&B tour with Lily Allen.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Soft Collective (Animal Machine)

The Nein, Luxury, Sonic
Unyon Recording Co. [2/20/07 release date]

I wasn't sure what to expect from this album as I'd never heard the Nein before. And I hate the muddled cover [see the bottom of this post for graphic]. Once an art major, always an art major. If you're gonna combine drawing with photography and two different typefaces, you've got to find a way to tie it all together.

All I knew was that Dale Flattum (Steel Pole Bathtub), who's since left, was a member at the time of this recording. For all the effects (tapes, samples) he contributes, Luxury is still rock. And I'll always be a traditionalist at heart. I wouldn't say the North Carolina quartet sounds like the Beta Band (RIP), but they do remind me of the great Scots in that their songs are conventional in nature. Of course, Beta tunes may have been complete studio creations. It's just that they always sounded as if they'd been mapped out before being run through the Beta processor.

That said, I was expecting something noisier and more aggressive from a band with a German name like the Nein (the "No"). I wasn't expecting the stentorian tones of a Rammstein from these four regular-looking blokes, but simply something harder. I'm not disappointed. On the contrary, while never "soft" or "pretty," Luxury is the ideal Sunday morning listen. (Other perennial weekend favorites include Air's Moon Safari and Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister.) Instant good mood.

Aside from the Betas, I was reminded of Soft Machine (1966-1976). That's right: there's something rather British going on here, but I haven't put my finger on what it is yet. Luxury isn't psych, jazz, or even prog-rock,
but there's a similar sort of push-pull between noise and pop.

Like Robert Wyatt, Finn Cohen also has a gentle singing style. A little more forceful, but only just. I wasn't reminded of any other contemporary acts until closing track "A Landscape," which parallels Animal Collective at their most melodic (Tung Songs, Feels). Then again, the distance between the Soft Machine and Animal Collective--40-year gap aside--isn't really that far. I'd never noticed until I listened to the Nein. Recommended to fans of any of the artists I've mentioned. I realize I've been a little vague, as I'm still processing this recording. Suffice to say: I like it.

Endnote: Images from Sonic Unyon Recordings (2004's self-titled EP, Luxury, and band snap). The official label site includes two MP3's (2004's "War is on the Stereo" and 2005's "Faint Sounds") and a Quicktime video ("War is on the Stereo").

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I'm Shipping Up to Boston: The Departed Soundtrack

Various Artists,
The Departed,
Warner Brothers
[original soundtrack]

When punk group Dropkick Murphys composed music for Woody's lyric "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" for their 2005 al-
bum The Warrior's Code, they had no idea it would end up be-
ing featured in Martin Scorsese's...The Departed, featuring
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg.
-- From the
official Woody Guthrie website

I picked up this collection because I like the music, which works well with Scorsese's expressionistic visuals (though Lennon's "Well, Well, Well" is conspicuous by its absence). I don't buy ev-

ery soundtrack I like, though, so there's more to it that. Most of these songs are by artists I wouldn't want to listen to over the course of an album, so instead I get to enjoy them in small doses.

I'm referring to latter-period Beach Boys ("Sail On, Sailor"), Roy Buchanan ("Sweet Dreams"), the Allman Brothers ("One Way Out"), the Human Beinz ("Nobody But Me"), LaVern Baker ("Tweedle Dee"), and Dropkick Murphys ("I'm Shipping Up to Boston").

That said, I do own long-players by Van Morrison ("Comfortab-

ly Numb" with Roger Waters and the Band), the Rolling Stones ("Let It Loose"), and Badfinger ("Baby Blue"). I don't own any by Patsy Cline ("Sweet Dreams of You"), although I probably should (she's one of my mom's favorites). That leaves two pleasant, but innocuous instrumentals from composer Howard Shore, "Beacon Hill" and "The Departed Tango," featuring Marc Ribot on dobro.

There are some soundtracks that are essential, i.e. they're so

good that the movie becomes superfluous. Examples include
[the first] Casino Royale (Burt Bacharach with Dusty Springfield) and The Harder They Come (Jimmy Cliff, et al). I like those pictures, yet I bet plenty of people who own The Harder They Come have never seen the film. No matter. If you're looking for one of the best reggae compilations ever made, look no further.

The Departed doesn't fall into that category. You may like the music anyway, but I bet you'll like it even better after seeing the film—assuming you like it. Scorsese's inventive Irish-American take on 2002's great Tony Leung-Andy Lau original [right] is one of my favorites of the year,

and I've always liked the way he uses music in his movies. I also own Taxi Driver (for Bernard Herrmann's final haunting score)
and Goodfellas (for the combination of rock, blues, and soul).

Arguably, the Celtic hardcore of Dropkick Murphys makes
for an awkward fit with the album-oriented rock that predominates, but their boisterous track, a repeated motif in the film, is the highlight. The song is also expertly deployed in the trailer (as is "Comfortably Numb"). It's partly why I had to have this disc—although a little Murphys goes a long way. As with Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, listening to The Departed is like tuning in-
to the director's conception of the ideal Irish radio station.

Dropkick Murphys - "I'm Shipping Up to Boston"

“We've heard our songs in movies before, so I didn't think I'd

be that excited. But, I got to tell ya, sitting in the audience at
the Boston premiere, when you hear your song in that movie...
it's pretty cool.” -- Ken Casey, Dropkick Murphys

Endnote: The Departed's companion release consists of
the original score. Casey interview from INsite Atlanta, which notes, "As a result of increased exposure for 'I'm Shipping Up To Boston,' sales for The Warrior's Code and the band's entire Hellcat Rec-
ords back catalog tripled when the movie came out in October."

Video from YouTube, Infernal Affairs and The Departed

stills from OutNow. As much as I love the latter, note that
Leung and Lau cut more iconic figures than DiCaprio and Dam-
on, i.e the dark hair, dark outfits, and more "artistic" framing.

Monday, January 01, 2007

All Is Quiet on New Year's Day 

All is quiet on New Year's Day A world in white gets underway I want to be with you Be with you night and day Nothing changes on New Year's Day On New Year's Day. --U2, "New Year's Day" (1983)

These are the reviews and other as- signments I'm working on this month. 

Amazon: Happily N'Ever After (Shrek wannabe), New Year's Day (David Duchovny's first film), Shottas (Scarface-inspired "rastaploitation" flick), Seven Swords (Tsui Hark's over-long, if stunning actioner), KT Tunstall - KT Tunstall's Acoustic Extra- vaganza, The Animation Show - Vol. 1 & 2 (theatrical series from Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt) [two-disc set], Two-a-Days - Hoover High: The Complete First Season (MTV documentary series on high school football), [three-disc set], The Golden Girls - The Complete Seventh and Final Season [three-disc set], Border Radio - Criterion Collection (first film from Allison Anders!), and The O.C. - The Complete Third Season [seven-disc set].

(I am the queen of the teen soap! See also Beverly Hills 90210, Grosse Pointe, One Tree Hill, etc.)

Resonance: Re-wrote my profile of the Brothers Quay and interviewed David Lynch.

Seattle Film Blog: The Treasures of Long Gone John, SherryBaby (Maggie Gyllenhaal's first starring role since Secretary), 51 Birch Street (best documentary of the new year), and Le Petit Lieutenant (ace policier with Nathalie Baye, above left).

Steadycam: I contributed my top 10 to their year-end poll.


 Endnote: I realize it isn't cool to like U2. Well, it may not be 1983 anymore, but they meant a lot to me at the time. And Paul Greengrass's decision to use a live version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" over the credits to Bloody Sunday, his docudrama about the Derry massacre, was a masterstroke. Obvious perhaps, but perfect, nonetheless. (According to Wikipedia, "New Year's Day" concerns the 1981 suppression of Solidarity in Poland. Hey, who knew?) I like few of the "anthemic" bands U2 has influenced--or to which they've been compared--the Alarm, Big Country, Coldplay, etc., but War will always hold a special place in my heart.