Saturday, May 29, 2010

Standing out from the Crowd

Monáe, The ArchAndroid, Bad Boy/Wondaland

"Critics are loath to admit it, but every once in a while
we come across an album of such thuddingly obvious
quality that writing a straight-up review seems boring."
-- Seth Colter Walls,

There's so much to say about this voraciously talented St. Louis-
to-Atlanta transplant that it's hard to know where to start. Like
Patti Smith, she recalls more male musicians than female, but
never sounds like a man in drag (and nor does Smith).

Granted, her power suit and pompadour suggest androgyny, so
this shouldn't come as a completely surprise, but I'm still amaz-
ed she can take on so many different styles, from funk to fusion,
with so much grace. The ArchAndroid isn't retro or even ret-
ro-futurist—Metropolis-inspired cover art aside—but she does
cover similar territory to Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire,
and P-Funk (see Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome).

Monáe brings more contemporary artists to mind, too, but with-
out imitating or offering homages to anyone in particular. I'm
thinking specifically of genre-benders like Prince, PM Dawn,
Gnarls Barkley, and Outkast, whose Big Boi duets on "Tight-
rope" (I've also come across references to James Brown, but
this seems to have more to do with her nimble dancing).

Before I'd even heard a lick of her music, I was struck by her style,
but skeptical of her art, because I'd heard she was working on a
concept album
it revolves around a droid doppelgänger in 27-
a risky proposition for any artist, especially for a debut disc.

Then I heard the swaggering "Tightrope" (via the video in which
she and Big Boi "tip" all over a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-
style facility) and caught her at this year's Pop Conference, where
she participated in a round table with Nile Rodgers and Joe Hen-
ry (Vogue also profiled the petite musician in their "body" issue).

My admiration for her eloquence, upbeat attitude, flexible voice,
and gravity-defying moves grew. As did my curiosity. Finally her
record hit the streets in May, and for once only the dreaded pas-
sive tense will do: the wait was worth it. The hype was justified.

The ArchAndroid is one of those rare records I can listen to
anytime, and it always sounds just right. And so I have. Weeks
of listening only confirm what I thought the first time around:
it's the best album of the year: rich and full in the headphones
with beats made for dancing and lyrics made for dreaming,
like "Take me back to Wondaland." It's
an instant classic.

Falling Still, May All Magic Guide
and Change You
, Peace, Man

"Most times, we all just look at each other,
and no one really says anything at all."

-- Brett Hamilton (bass, vocals)

This LA-by-way-of-Akron trio recognizes a number of inspira-
tions inside the cover of their CD, including Big Sur, Ziggy Star-
dust, Newcastle Brown Ale, Stella Artois, Trader Joe's, and Las
Vegas. For my money, the list offers more interest than their
debut, which rocks with nods to grunge and alt-country, but
needs that something extra to stand out from the crowd.

Joey Maltese, Night of the Muse, Diamond Sutra Records [7/20/10]

As a singer, former Toyz front man Joey Maltese strains to
keep up with the Mick Ronson-inspired playing that powers his
third solo effort. Consequently, guitar trumps voice, which does-
n't mean that Night of the Muse would work better as an in-
strumental recording, just that the New York musician's
wavery, yet determined pipes won't be to all tastes.

Sparkydog & Friends, People of the World, self-released

As a taster for their upcoming album, singer/songwriters R.
Azriel and Graham conjure up '80s modern rock through two
tracks that bathe jangly guitar in layers of atmospheric key-
boards, suggesting a cross between the Chills and R.E.M.

Click here for "Radiowaves."

Endnote: For more information about Falling Still, please click here; for Joey Maltese, here; for Janelle Monáe
, here; and for Sparkydog & Friends, here or here. Image from Buzznet.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Movie of the Month: Part 18 

I recently reviewed the follow- ing film for Video Librarian, and thought the results were worth sharing. 

BEESWAX [***1/2] 
(Andrew Bujalski, US, 100 mins.) 

Andrew Bujalski continues his winning streak of insightful independent features with Beeswax. Sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher play twins Jeannie and Lauren, who live in Austin, site of Bujalski's first film, Funny Ha Ha. Jeannie, who uses a wheelchair, runs a vintage clothing shop and fears that her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), may cost her the store. 

Amanda, whose father drafted their contract, is often out of town, spends little time in Storyville, and even hires employees without consulting her. Jeannie's fear permeates every scene, even when more mundane things, a Bujalski specialty, seem to be happening.


By contrast, Lauren isn't irresponsible or aimless, but she lacks Jeannie's focus and ambition. Between jobs and newly single (Goliath director David Zellner plays her ex-boyfriend), she considers taking a teaching position in Kenya. Bujalski presents their relationship with sensitivity, but steers clear of sentimentality. 

Similarly, he doesn’t play Jeannie's disability for laughter or tears; it's just a part of her life. She doesn't feel sorry for herself and nor do her companions treat her like anything less than an equal, from her mother to her on-and-off-again law student boyfriend Merrill (Woodpecker director Alex Karpovsky), but the way they all try to help out with her career conundrum could end up doing more harm than good (hence the title allusion to "mind your own beeswax"). In a quiet and understated way, Bujalski's matter-of-fact detailing of her everyday life feels almost feels revolutionary. 

Supplements include a "tribute to extras" featurette with directorial commentary, actor Kevin Corrigan's affectionate liner notes (he doesn't appear in the film), and D.J. Taitelbaum's alternate score, a minimalist electronic affair (the filmmaker otherwise eschews a conventional soundtrack). Highly recommended. 

Click here for a review of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation and here for Movie of the Month, Part 17: The Missing Person


Endnote: Slightly revised from the original text. Image from

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Room to Move

Scout Niblett,
The Calcination
of Scout Niblett
Drag City

I once described the
spare sounds of Notting-
ham's Scout Niblett
(born Emma Louise) as
bare-boned blues. Five
years have passed since
then, but the sound re-
mains the same. It's her
biggest strength and...
her biggest weakness.

So many artists who emerge as architects of stark add more and
more details as the years go by, but The Calcination of Scout
trades embellishment for volume and control. There's
no collision between notes and words, but rather a lot of space,
a lot of air, a lot of room for the individual elements to move.

But there's isn't much movement going on, which means that if you
don't like the voice, the songs, or the instrumentation, this Steve
Albini-engineered album isn't for you. No multi-tracking or back-
ing vocals smooth the way, such that if you haven't heard Niblett
before, you might expect folk-rock, but her latest skews more
towards avant garde/experimental, upfront vocals aside.

I find the results more frustrating than satisfying. Comparisons
to Cat Power and P.J. Harvey still apply, but Niblett works few-
er pop elements into her playbook, and I wish she would. Pre-
vious efforts prove she can write a hook, but there aren't any
here. It's surely intentional, and helps to creates a cohesive
experience, but I'm a sucker for discreet songs"singles,"
if you willand this LP defies the bite-size approach.

So, I wanted to love her fifth full-length, and I do admire it,
but the melodies are too elusive, the vocals too drawn out for
me to embrace completely. Calcination isn't a failure by any
means, but nor is it the smashing success I was anticipating.

Click here for my review of Kidnapped by Neptune.

The Reserves, Life, self-released

"Likeable songs from likeable guys."
-- from the band bio

I put this disc on and promptly forgot all about it, since it inspir-
es neither irritation nor excitement. Like the Avett Brothers
a comparison they'd probably appreciatethe Reserves craft
mid-tempo background music that would work just as well in a
casual office environment as a corporate coffee shop. If you heard
their second full-length playing in a Starbucks, it's unlikely you'd
run away in horror. You might even tap your toes, but I expect
more than inoffensive professionalism from alternative rock.

Serial Thrillers, F5, iMedia

With a name like Serial Thrillers, my expectations were
low at best, but this EP from Bostonians Paul Ortolano (vo-
cals, guitar, bass) and Stephen Clements (drums) with assis-
tance from producer Anthony J. Resta (programming, per-
cussion) is surprisingly listenable. Recommended to fans of
post-wave power-pop acts like Matthew Sweet and Atlantic-
era Redd Kross. Bright and tight with just a hint of menace.

Click here for "Ordinary Days."

Endnote: I'm tempted to ding the Reserves for giving
their album such a bland title, except the recent BBC/Dis-
covery Channel series
shares the same name, and I enjoy-
ed that, so they get a free pass. For more information about
the band, please click here or here; and for Serial Thril-
, here or here. Scout Niblett image from

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Fall Heads Roll (Again)

I first discovered the
when I was in col-
lege. They'd already been
around for seven years,
but I'd never heard of
them. That said, I took
a seminar on Albert Cam-
us around the same time,
and that's when I also
discovered The Fall.

I enjoyed The Stranger
and The Plague, but The
was where the Fren-
ch-Algerian absurdist
really kicked in for me. I ended up reading it twice, because I found the narrator so persuasive that I missed the fact that he was completely unreliable. I'd imagine that was also one of the attrac-
tions for Mark E. Smith, who took the band's name from the book.

I'm pretty sure goth-garage extravaganza "Lay of the Land,"
which kicks off 1984's The Wonderful and Frightening World
, was the first Fall song I heard. I remember thinking,
"Well, that's weird," but not in a way I found off-putting.

In fact, I was intrigued by all those strange voices whispering
and shouting, "What's the lay of the land! My song!" The more
I listened, the more captivated I became. The track contains
multitudes, and remains one of the most exciting entries in a
crazy-quilt career filled with epithets, fisticuffs, romantic
strife, stylistic zigs and zags, an endless array of players,
and enough drama to fuel a BBC series for years on end.

Naturally, quality control has gotten away from the mumbly
Mancunian on more than one occasion, but he's never really sold
out, however you choose to define that term. A television ad em-
erged five years ago that borrowed an instrumental intro from
Fall Heads Roll
, but I wouldn't call it a sell-out move (the All Mu-
sic Guide also mentions the use of 1999's "Touch Sensitive" in an
automobile advert). Heads Roll is the last Fall album I bought.

Here's what I wrote, for KEXP, about 2007's lackluster follow-
Reformation Post T.L.C. , "The line-up continues to change,
but the sound remains much the same. Possibly more driving
than before, but also a little less distinctive. For an offbeat cov-
er, try their version of Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever."
Not a complete waste of time, but they've done better.

Which brings us to their 28th long-player, Your Future Our
, said to be one of their best (crap cover aside). I haven't
heard the whole thing, so I'm in no position to say, but the video
for "Bury Pts. 2 + 4," has me convinced I need to pick up a copy.

I've been describing it as "a buncha youngsters and one ol' geezer,"
and director ThirtyTwo's style really emphasizes Smith's increas-
ingly decrepit age in contrast with the youth and vigor of his rela-
tively new band mates (and also reminds me of Jonathan Glazer's
stately freeze-frame clip for Radiohead's "Karma Police"). And yet,
it doesn't seem exploitative; the eternally Hip Priest appears to
revel in his image as a cranky old man. Long may he kvetch.

Endnote: I'm also rather fond of Peter Whitehead's quasi-doc-
umentary The Fall, but haven't yet seen Tarsem's narrative fea-
ture of the same name. Thanks to Jason Gross for alerting me to
this video, which I've been posting everywhere I can (Facebook,
Twitter, etc.). The Fall poster image from unklerupert's knee.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

May Reviews

These are the reviews and other pieces I'm working on this month.

Amazon DVDs:
Malice in Wonderland (with Lost's Maggie Grace), The Red Baron (with Joseph Fiennes and Lena Headey), You Don't Know Jack (with Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon), and Don McKay (with Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue).

Amazon Theatricals: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Alex Gibney takes on Jack Abramoff), Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood takes on John Lennon), The Concert (with Mélanie Laurent), and Countdown to Zero (from Lucy Walker).

PopMatters: Contributed to Jason Gross's
upcoming piece on advice for young writers:

I spend more time writing reviews than anything else. Since I can't always
predict which CDs and DVDs editors will send my way, it helps to have an
open mind. Every genre has its merits; blanket dismissals serve no real
purpose. If you can't find anything nice to say about a metal record, you
probably shouldn't review metal. Try to find the good in everything that
comes your way, but by all means be honest. Be respectful. More than
anything else: be empathetic. What you think is important, but it's just
as important to figure out what the artist was trying to do and why.
Did they succeed? If so, you may still dislike it, but does that make
it a failure? Snark tends to attract attention, but the world could
always use more writers who seek to understand the world
better and to engage readers with their discoveries.

SIFF: 3Some, From Beginning to End, The Loners, The
Penitent Man
, Violet Tendencies, and Visionaries - Jonas
Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema

Siffblog: Nowhere Boy and The Concert
and Roger Corman's Cult Classics: Suburbia.

Video Librarian: 35 Shots of Rum, The Girl on the Train,
Youssou N'Dour - I Bring What I Love
, The Lost Coast, The
, Sex Galaxy, The Whale Warrior - Pirate for the
(reviewed for SIFF '09), 45365, The Asperger's Differ-
, Curb Your Enthusiasm - The Complete Seventh
[two-disc set], From Silence to Sound, How
Weed Won the West, My Blood My Compromise,
The Quantum Tamers - Revealing Our Weird
and Wired Future
, Reel Injun, The Science
of Sex Appeal
, Taqwacore, Alice - A
Look into Alice's Adventures in
, The End of
and Life.

Nowhere Boy still (Aaron Johnson as
John Lennon) from The Sydney Morning Herald.