There's just something strangely cool about seeing the new Behemoth CD/DVD, Evangelion, advertised in the Sunday ad for Best Buy. Right next to upcoming indie-rockers and pop-start wannabes is this trio of corpsepaint-wearing Polish Satanists. Fucking awesome.
For the uninformed, Evangelion is the 9th release from Behemoth, and they've been working their way up the metal hierarchy with each release. They get tagged as "black metal" for their lyrical content and makeup, but they have a better sense of song than many of their comrades. Think of the scenes in 28 Days Later where the infected are rampaging through the streets, and you'll have some idea of the general feel -- it's frenzied, maddening, a little scary, and oh so enjoyable.
Singer/guitarist Nergal -- I know, but all black metal guys have silly names, I guess I've just gotten used to it -- has a great style, in that his playing borders on the flashy virtuoso edge but doesn't get to the level of "masturbatory." One person that must be praised is drummer Inferno (ease up, we already talked about the names), whose legs go at a pace that's the equivalent of Usain Bolt running after doing meth for a week. What he really excels at, though, is the cymbal work. The extra little touches that he adds can take an average track to the next level. One other step the band took was in hiring Daniel Bergstrand just to record the drums. His unconventional techniques give Inferno's sound the extra boost that only luminaries like Dave Lombardo and Chris Adler have reached.
Since Best Buy has this in their "Find 'em First" section, it's only $7.99, and that also includes a DVD of the making of the album. So, if you have an extra $8 and want the musical equivalent of a stampede of the undead, Behemoth's Evangelion is what you need to get.
Dillinger è morto (Dillinger is Dead)
Dillinger is Dead
is called writer/director Marco Ferreri's masterpiece. It recently screened at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston as part of their Revival Series (http://www.mfah.org/films
), a restored 35mm print that looks and sounds brilliant. This Saturday the theater was more than half full, but there was free parking, no lines, and no noisy crowds. In short, it's a much more comfortable cinema experience than the multiplexes and with reliably more interesting films.
The film opens with it's smartest scene, as Glauco (Michel Piccoli) and a coworker discuss their work as industrial designers of gas masks and how it relates to modern man's connection to nature. Glauco intimates that he wants to abandon his career and spends the afternoon working on a screenplay in a friend's office. Glauco arrives home to find that his wife (Anita Pallenburg) is asleep, and his maid (Annie Giradot) is drunk, so he continues pursuing art as a distraction from his real life. The film is largely silent, with only short aborted conversations between Glauco and his wife, and then later his maid, so the opening conversation about his intention to leave behind an obviously successful career is illustrated throughout.
Glauco is rapidly infantilized throughout the night. His afternoon of writing is followed by an admirable attempt at gourmet cooking, but as the night progresses, he loses focus and begins dancing senselessly, making shadow puppets against a film projector's images on his living room wall. He manically paces his house searching for a creative outlet to bind him to his life as it is currently structured. He frequently turns on radios, which play American music, perhaps suggesting his desire to start fresh in his life.
His early creative pursuits of scriptwriting and cuisine degenerate into child's play. He coos at the 8mm films he watches, he experiments with a rubber snake and his sleeping wife's genitals. He finds a pistol, paints it in red and white polka dots, and pretends to shoot it in infantile glee. His regression is complete when he shoots his wife to death, drives to a beachfront site with ancient ruins, and, naked but for a loincloth, enters the ocean. In a film heavy-handed with symbols, this can mean little else besides rebirth.
So, reborn in morning's light, he swims out to a very large wooden sailboat. The crew of the boat is performing a burial at sea. As Glauco dog-paddles in front of the wrapped dead body, he asks for a job replacing the dead crewman.
While the man may have achieved his goal, we are left unfulfilled, as we never felt sympathetic to his quest and certainly did not connect with his motivations. Ferreri impressed 1960s European audiences with his statement on modern man and his dependence on conveniences like refrigerators, gas stovetops, a Super 8 projector, and a home with a TV or radio in every room(!), but today's cinema audience turned off the ringers on their Blackberries when the film started and merely saw a common narcissist driven criminally insane by his desires. The film depicts a sight as overwrought and uninteresting as O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson and offers a lesson as unfresh as either.
The real treat tonight was escaping to MFAH's immaculate Brown Auditorium Theater, which is Houston's longest-running repertory theater and celebrates its 70th year showing films not available anywhere else in Houston. This is the cleanest, most comfortable cinema in town, with the most interesting offerings. The Revival Series continues next month with Bigger Than Life
, directed by Nicholas Ray, but there are movies every Thursday through Sunday year round. See the schedule here: http://www.mfah.org/films
Laser Laser Laser Beams
I've been dancing around it a while in my head, and I just can't think of a friendly, nice way to talk around it, so I'm just going to say it: I don't like the guitars on Electric Attitude's latest EP, Laser Laser Laser Beams. At least, I don't like 'em as much as I feel like I should.
And that sucks, because I do like a lot of the rest of it -- the songs themselves are nicely funky/sleazy, the bass is down-low and up-front, and the lyrics work better than they really should, considering frontman Blake Shepard is a skinny white guy talking about sex (and, tangentially, sci-fi and gettin' down on the dancefloor). Shepard himself, in fact, is a surprise just by the fact that he can actually pull this off, with a down-and-dirty howl/mutter that's equal parts Mick Jagger, Chris Robinson, and '80s glam-metal, all rolled up into an unassuming, t-shirt-wearing package.
That guitar, though... Guitarist Jordan Bell does just fine when he's throwing in funky whacka-chicka rhythms, definitely, but on every single track on here, right when the song gets rolling, he throws in an unnecessary, melody-line solo that doesn't really do much except to kill time and suck the momentum out of the song. I'm probably going to get punched in the face for it the next time I run into these guys, but that's just how it hits me. The rhythm parts are pretty good, but the soloing feels unnecessary and pointless.
On top of that, it just sounds too, well, clean for most of the disc. The best tracks on here, "Shot on the Dance Floor," "Robot Girl," and "Pistolwhip" are dirty and raw, and they work brilliantly because of it. Funk that's clean and slick is a seriously difficult thing to pull off, in my book, and it works a whole heck of a lot better when you dirty it up some, dragging the sound through the mud.
Which explains somewhat why I was more knocked over by Electric Attitude's live show than this EP; live they can play things loose and fuzzy and halfway messy, and I honestly think that's when they're at their best. They're a party band, a band that can grab hold of an apathetic crowd and get 'em dancing their asses off, and I was hoping more of that would translate to the tape.
I should note, though, that there is some truly promising, cool stuff here, stuff that points to hope for the future. "Shot on the Dance Floor," in particular, comes off like the Black Keys gone disco or the Black Crowes gone Eurotrash, with Kwesi Sackey's thundering bass and Adam Gilleland's stomping drums shoving the whole thing forward like an out-of-control tour bus while Bell's guitars roar and rumble and Shepard yelps and croons. It's distorted and bluesy, less overtly funky than some of the the rest of the tracks here, and it's got me stepping backwards for repeated listens. Hell, I even like the electronic "gunshot" drums they throw in at one point.
So, if I haven't already alienated the band, I've got one request/bit of advice for the Electric Attitude crew: skip the solos, let things sound a bit rawer and looser, and aim for more like "Dance Floor." Because an album's worth of that would be freaking great, I swear.
[Electric Attitude is playing 9/12/09 at The Festival at Mink, along with a bunch of other cool bands.]
Ain't Too Bright
Electric Owls' Ain't Too Bright is an album that I'd recommend to a dope-smoking pre-pubescent. If nothing else, you can expand your street drug vocab. From the song "Kamiakin": "Summertime won't be so bad / We can all get high over at my uncle's trailer / He's a real cool guy / except for all of those sex toys that he never tries to hide"...damn, that's not nauseating or anything. The music and melodies here aren't that bad -- it's just the songwriting that too often gets in the way (but probably not if you're going through puberty while smoking massive quantities of dubbage...it's totally subjective, of course).
In the same song, Electric Owls songwriter/frontman Andy Herod (formerly of The Comas) continues, "Come on over to Gee's house / She knows how to fly / Y'know, I think she's got a baby / I have heard it cry" -- okay, that's a little revealing and a whole lotta scary. Nuff said. At least they properly titled the album... Herod explains in his mini-bio that he had to get away from the pressures of living in NY, and that touring with his former band was ruining his life. I'll throw him a bone for taking a reprieve and moving from the slime light of NYC to Asheville, NC, to eventually form Electric Owls. The band consists of eight members and an array of interesting instrumentation, including dulcimer, piano, glockenspiel, and Moog. Jason Caperton, guitarist from The Comas, has also joined Herod, and he was able to round up an additional four vocalists to assist on the album.
Herod writes, "the songs on the Electric Owls record came about in a 3-4 week period," and this is no surprise. "Cannibal Superstar" contains some listenable music, although I could live without the words therein, like "She came home and I shot her dead / put her favorite pillow case over her head ... I am not an evil man" -- okay, I guess homeboy don't know what "evil" is. His voice, unadulterated by the words, does have potential, though, and this song demonstrates that he can do some good crooning. Further on, "Us Weakly" is a personal look into girl troubles and a penchant for piles of cocaine: "Standing on the corner waiting for the cocaine man / I guess I didn't want those shoes or gas inside my van." I don't think he meant that to be funny.
"Put, The Candle, Back!" is the most poppy song and one that I could imagine hearing on Houston radio -- a three-minute exploration into a lusty love affair that most likely lasted just as long (in his head, that is) and includes the line, "All my friends be say'n that you're only a tease / but something more than that has got me weak in the knees / and I would do most anything to make you mine / even if it's only one time." Hmm...I wonder what's making him weak in his knees? In the wise words of the Church Lady, "could it be...Satan?" Not something that will be recorded in my memory for much longer than, say, one or three minutes.
Talk Speak EP
While there's nothing strictly wrong with the first two tracks of Fake Believe's five-song EP, Talk Speak, I'll admit they had me a little worried. The too-slick, hipster-ish dance-funk grooves on the verses of both "Pornography" and "Another Dead Romantic" didn't get more than a shrug out of me -- when there's enough of a Rapture-like edge to the danciness, this sort of thing can work, definitely, but here it just seems like it's killing time between the choruses, which are nicely fierce and rock-ish.
With "Card Homes," though, things really start to look up. It's a delicious, lush-yet-dark blast of synth-y pop-rock that gets manages to be ferocious and emo-boy raw while still holding onto that smooth, metallic sheen that covers the whole of Talk Speak; when the chorus comes, I want to drive fast and far away, howling along with guitarist/vocalist David Elbert's increasingly tortured voice, and surprisingly, it hits me the same damn way each and every time I skip back to the start of the track. There's just something about Elbert's voice that fits perfectly here, and it's hooked me hard.
"Warm Enough" continues in that vein, thankfully, ditching the proto-funk for more serious-sounding electro-rock as on "Card Homes," with those Anniversary-esque, sci-fi-sounding synths and the little electronicized production touches throughout giving everything a near-future, right-around-the-corner feel. The track starts quiet and almost Portishead-like, but soon enough the melancholy gives way to bitter, just-distorted guitars, only to collapse eventually into pianos and drifting clouds, finally coming back in sky-high and coolly majestic, soaring way the hell over everything below.
Things come back down to earth for "Temporary," which overstays its welcome just a bit, but even then I'm liking the layer-upon-layer way the band's crafted their sound. In the hands of a different band, sure, I'll grant that it might come off a bit self-indulgent, all the studio bits and the ultra-clean production and whatnot. On this EP, though, with these guys -- hell, it just sounds like it was meant to be this way. And then, I feel the need to hear "Card Homes" again.
[Fake Believe is playing 9/12/09 at Cactus Music and again at The Festival at Mink, along with a bunch of other cool bands.]
The Ruminant Band
It hit me in the car, on my way back to the house yesterday, and suddenly, it all seemed plain as day: it's Paul McCartney. That's who Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson reminds me of, more than anyone else, at least on the band's latest, The Ruminant Band. It was a bit of a surprisingly realization to come to, really, considering that the last time I heard anything the Bats had done, it was the awesomely eerie/beautiful "Silent Life," off 2005's Spelled In Bones, which was like a pastoralized Postal Service or electronicized Band of Horses.
On The Ruminant Band, though, if it weren't for Johnson's voice, I'd have a hard time guessing that this was the same band. They've ditched all the synths in favor of Elton John-esque piano, chipper-sounding '70s AOR guitars, and warm, friendly pop-rock feel, albeit holding tight to Johnson's always-erudite, thoughtful lyricism (which, obviously, is a very good thing). The guitars jangle and buzz nicely, at times edging towards funk and prog-rock (see the title track) or bouncing straight on down the road and dragging everyone else along with 'em (see "My Unusual Friend").
And yeah, it really, truly does sound -- with the exception of more overtly countrified tracks like the meandering hoedown of "The Hobo Girl" and the sweet acoustic gem of a story-song that is "Singing Joy to the World" -- like '70s pop reincarnated. Listening to The Ruminant Band, everybody from Harry Nilsson to the aforementioned Sir John and even Barry Manilow pop into my head unbidden, all smiles and fuzzy edges and primary-colored melodies.
Sure, The Ruminant Band is also well-informed by folks a little closer on the timeline; these days, anything vaguely earth-toned or '70s-sounding would have a hard time not pointing a finger straight on over to, say, The Push Kings, Fleet Foxes (especially on lead-in track "Primitive Man"), Band of Horses, the gospel-psych of The Moondoggies, or even The New Pornographers. Part of the charm of bright-spot track "Tegucigalpa" lies in its rambling, literate historicism, telling the story of the protagonist's (Johnson's) life in verse for whoever cares to listen, and for that it comes off like a cheerier, less-bleak Okkervil River or a less-baroque Decemberists.
But again, it's McCartney that hits me the hardest. Closing track "Flamingo" sounds for the life of me like it's a conscious rip of "Maybe I'm Amazed" in terms of melody, and through the entirety of the disc, I keep expecting Johnson to turn a corner and start belting out "Hey Jude." Johnson's voice just sounds like McCartney -- his phrasing, his sense of melody, the whole mess. I mean this as no slight, by the by; the man's a hell of a songwriter, and Johnson shows similar promise, stepping upwards towards that Master Songsmith plateau alongside folks like Okkervil River's Will Sheff.
There's the overall feel of The Ruminant Band, as well, that pulls me back to the McCartney comparison. I can't pinpoint why, but I've always had this image in my head of Paul McCartney as The Happy Beatle, the one who just can't help but smile even when there's pain and loss all 'round, and Fruit Bats seem to be the same way. The songs themselves aren't uniformly bright and happy (they'd be far, far too saccharine, if they were), but Johnson and company sing and play as if they are, pushing on through the dark gloom to find the warm, hazy place on the other side.
[Fruit Bats are playing 9/3/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Death Vessel & News On The March.]
So you say your band's releasing its new album only on cassette? That's so, er, early 2009, y'all. Want to really take a totally noncommercial, ultra-indie stab in the dark with your band's next release? Follow the example of strange, candy-like electro-hip-hopsters Ghost Mountain and release your new album strictly on VHS tape, each copy hand-made using a circuit-bent VCR. Anything less is utterly pedestrian, right?
Okay, so ultra-hipster kidding aside, it does take a set of cohones to put out something like this, no doubt about that. Ghost Mountain -- which is mostly duo Daniel Berkowitz and Stephen Farris -- put out Summer Tapes as a VHS-only release (with a CD-R included when you buy it, naturally), taking bizarre-yet-mesmerizing collages of old/awful cartoons and shows culled from thrift-store videotapes and setting a baker's dozen tracks to it. A handful of the songs I've heard before (I think the band's given earlier versions of a few tracks away for free in the past), but the music itself's still just as mesmerizing as the visuals.
There are two real "sides" to the band throughout Summer Tapes: there're the more heavily electronicized songs, where synth/electronics mangler Farris warbles in a vocoder-enhanced voice over bubbling, burbling layers of goopy, syrupy sound; then there's the more straightforward (relatively) tracks, which are more beat-heavy and feature geeky rapper Berkowitz meandering in a smart-kid haze through the halls of any dysfunctional high school you might've attended. Taken all together, Tapes plays like some late-night dream concert where Laurie Anderson and MC Paul Barman are up on a stage jamming out with The Beta Band and The Chemical Brothers, all at the same damn time.
And honestly, I can't say I dig one "side" more than the other, which is a very cool thing. Take the one-two hit of "Nap In The Woods" and "The Tree Wall," for example -- on the former track, Berkowitz flows self-consciously along about Harold & Maude, Why? songs, haircuts, and, um, Sesame Street, over Rentals-esque synths and bumping, stumbling beats; on the latter, on the other hand, Farris seemingly takes the lead, mashing Terminator X-ish samples together with spacey, robotic vocals and rapid-fire rhythms and coming off like a trippy, skittering Leftfield.
On both (and through the rest of the tape), the duo slather everything down with purplish psych haziness, heavy-lidded and somnolent as a waking dream you can't really find your way out of but are curious to follow further down into your subconscious mind. Best of all, these two kids sound like they could honestly give a fuck if what they're doing appeals to anybody but themselves; they're an awesomely innocent, teenage honesty here, evidence that Ghost Mountain are doing this not out of artifice but because, well, it's what they do. Keep it going, y'all.
[Ghost Mountain is playing 9/19/09 at Warehouse Live, along with Devin The Dude, Coughee Broz, Fat Tony, Guerilla Foco Clan, & DJ Meshak.]
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
They don't make them like this anymore.
One of the most surprising things I found about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was that I hadn't seen it yet.
A friend of mine (who knows I've see everything) just naturally assumed I had, in the lead-up to its screening at the MFAH on Monday, September 21, because it's one of those movies everyone has seen, like Casablanca. Or Star Wars. Except more important, obviously, because Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a Message Movie. And in 2009, they only make one kind of Message Movie: the long, boring, artistic affair which you are told you need to see, because it's so important, but at the same time are so incredibly bored by even while consciously aware you're receiving a message. Maria Full of Grace. Babel. The Reader. Milk. Important films all, with a capital I, and all exceptionally well-made...but not exactly a jolly time out at the movies.
So rare is the entertaining Message Movie, in fact, that last year when somebody finally made an entertaining one, it was awarded a Best Picture Academy Award. And at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, is a romance. But while Slumdog dealt consciously and almost exclusively with matters of gender and economic standing, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner deals with absolutely everything, making it now, 42 years later, still, the gold standard of not just the Message Movie, but of anything examining the state of race relations in America.
Despite what we've seen lately, a film with a message, or at least a firm political point of view, need not be stoic and self-important. A movie in general, in fact, need not be so easily pigeonholed, and yet in the early 21st century, that's where we've ended up. Video stores and Websites divide movies casually into comedy, drama, action, horror, and foreign, and if you get a really progressive one, they'll throw in animation and alternative lifestyles.
In 1967, your white daughter marrying a non-white man wasn't just an alternative lifestyle, but was -- to use the most diplomatic word possible -- atypical. Just as unusual today as, say, if your white daughter announced she was going to marry someone else's white daughter. Whether it's your first viewing of the film, or your 10th, the parallels ring out so clearly that the movie doesn't seem dated at all. It doesn't need to be remade. It just needs to be re-released. Or watched again every few years, like all good social commentary.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an important film, but it is also a genuinely funny movie, and not just because people really did dance like that in the late 1960s. It's a genuinely dramatic movie, and not just because a young, well-off white woman brings her black fiancé (a doctor) home to meet her parents. It is a genuinely foreign movie, because it takes place in San Francisco in 1967, a place as alien to us now as it was to the rest of America when the film was new.
Most important, however, is that it's a staggeringly well-made movie. Made in a time when directors came from live theater and not music videos or commercials, every shot is as carefully thought-out as the paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Art where the film is being screened. In fact, some of the shots may even resemble paintings you've seen pass through its hallowed halls (notice an early visual reference to "American Gothic").
Director Stanley Kramer gives attention to every last millimeter of film, with even characters who have less than sixty seconds of screentime giving memorable performances. Pay close attention to the waitress at the drive-in -- in 2009, this is a throwaway part, but in Kramer's film, her every expression is as telling as anyone else appearing in the movie. Like it would be on the stage.
The film is genuinely entertaining in only the most positive meaning of the phrase, from a time when "important movie" and "good movie" were not necessarily mutually exclusive. And while being entertaining (the first reason any film should be made), it has important things to say about not just any racial hierachy, but economical, social, political, generational, and even sexual (it must not be coincidence, surely, that the mother and daughter at the heart of the movie are nicknamed Chris and Joey).
In spite of all this, the film never feels like it's trying to preach, as each character is so well-realized that even the climactic speech (though grandly shot) is as natural as anything else appearing in the film. It never talks to the audience, only with them. Or perhaps it's designed with the hope that they will talk, and listen, with each other.
At the risk of putting a pun forth, the discourse between cultures has always been more than just a black and white issue, but rather about all the shades of grey in between. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is not an important film made to preach or showcase the talents of the filmmakers in hopes of winning Oscars (though Katherine Hepburn did)...it's merely a film which became important, designed to discuss over dinner afterwards, with whomever you happen to wish to invite.
And, of course, whomever they choose to bring with them.
Starring Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton, Isabell Sanford, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in his final film role.
[Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is showing Monday, September 21 at the MFAH at 7PM, as part of their Films Houstonians Love Series.]
The Guns of Detroit
The Guns of Detroit. The name alone got me. I hadn't heard one lick of their music, and yet I already knew that I wanted to review their album, Monsterattake's. It was a gamble I knew I had to take. The Guns of Detroit, I thought, could've been death metal from the dark corners of Sweden or anarchist punk from the underbelly of America (not that there's anything wrong with them, I respect them; it's just not my type of flavor), but no, Monsterattacke's was neither one of those things. They would be, at worst, background music at some college frat party where kegs are involved. It's music that plays the soundtrack of the life that the party has created -- it's not to be heard loud, just resonant.
From the beginning of the album, it starts. Track "Apocalypse Later" hits the ground running, like a marriage between steadily aggressive rock and Brit New Wave. The lo-fi grunge sound they produce could be described as early '90s Seattle grunge, mashed with the sounds of any '80s band being played over the loudspeaker at Numbers on Friday nights. Vocalist and bassist Randall McKay uses his vocals not so much to whine as demand, singing on the chorus, "You got the / thing I need / Give me something," and putting his foot down with authority.
The song keeps your heart beating and your foot stomping to the beat of drummer Jessica Kempen, who plays the song with enough brilliance to the let the song breathe but doesn't overpower it with excessive drum fills. She waits for her moment in the spotlight -- a bridge with a pause -- which she brings back with a smart and simple yet artistic drum fill that comes and goes before you know it.
The good times keep on rolling with the second track, "Caligula's Sister," which starts with a high pop attack on the guitar by McKay clan member #2, Daniel McKay. He strums the guitar gently, each note meant to be heard clearly. At first listen, it had led me to believe that this track might be garnered more towards the dance-infused fans of the Guns of Detroit, with the drums playing a solid dance beat that'll have people's asses on the dance floor.
Randall McKay matches the music playing behind him, his vocals committed to the music and making the verses sound like the lost memoirs of any number of New Wave bands from the '80s. He sings it to perfection; his voice delivers a high-pitched sound with just enough sulk in his voice to mesh with the vibe and tone of the guitar. McKay switches gears for the chorus, where he sounds more enthused, more alive to the punch of the music. He belts out a rocking hook: "Away from the light / It's wrong and it's right / We are born to take you there." The Guns of Detroit's first two tracks might be their best; their format and song structure in these songs plays to the strength of them.
They fall short of that goal, though, on tracks like "Quick Hands," where the song structure was thrown out the window. The song plays out like an unnecessary accessory, containing a note-screeching guitar solo that stand on its own merits but, when played against the back drop of the rest of the band, sounds overplayed. "Animals Out Killing" comes out swinging, like a track that was left off the Top Gun soundtrack. The song fails to follow any rhythmic pattern and halfway through changes tempo and mood, neither fitting what the song started out to be, but the band noticeably tries to make up for it by taking the song back to the beginning -- by the time that happens, though, I was thinking about the next track.
The Guns of Detroit attempt to reach into new territory with "Flew Fly," where an acoustic guitar jangles as Randall pours his heart out, his voice matching the pensive, heartfelt lyrics. The track does have a fault, where drummer Jessica plays a simple instrument (tambourine) at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places, not harmonizing with the tone of the guitar or the vocals. With every hit on the tambourine, it takes you away from focusing on Randall's voice and the trouble-free guitar playing. A possible fix would be playing to a metronome or no tambourine at all.
The Guns of Detroit manage to get back to what makes them unique in their sound on "Rabbit Holes," which starts with an airy, wavy synthesizer sound. The guitar follows in and drops a riff that merges with Jessica drumming; slowly, the song churns along with cinematic anticipation. And as the song started, I got the feeling I was getting ready to hear Robert Smith of the Cure, but those feelings were put to rest. As the song grows and matures, it's evident this is no Cure song. The Guns of Detroit delve into the realms of rock and roll at its purest form.
Simply put, the Guns of Detroit are a band on a growth spurt. They have leaps and bounds still left to pursue, but what Monsterattacke's gives, with its fusion of '80s New Wave and early '90s hard-driving grunge, is a glimpse of what's to come. To any naysayers who may talk down on this band, I leave with the words of a man who is not to be crossed: "The Guns of Detroit turn me on. You got a problem with that?" -- Charles Bronson
The Informant! is the story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a scientist, VP, and whistleblower at the giant agri-business food additive company Archer Daniels Midland, which specializes in using corn to take over the world. This is the funniest suspense movie I've ever seen. It's also the most suspenseful comedy I've ever seen, and I realize how off-putting that sounds. But this is a very serious movie spanning ten-plus years and several continents. Remember how in Fletch and Beverly Hills Cop, the drama was played straight, but the comedy worked at an even higher level? Well, The Informant! achieves both and is more ambitious than either. Scott Burns both adapted The Informant! and The Bourne Identity scripts from novels, but liberties are taken here with the source material.
Mark Whitacre specializes in creating lysine. Lysine is a derivative of corn that can be added to most farmed foods from shrimp and chicken to breakfast cereals and sodas to make them larger, sweeter, or cheaper to produce. Because of his specific skill set, he is brought from the laboratory into the boardroom, and his ambition's grabbed hold of him when the story begins. A corn-borne virus has taken hold of the lysine crop, costing his company millions of dollars per day. Whitacre's job is on the line, so he invents a story involving a Japanese competitor and an industrial spy who has infiltrated the company, installed the corn-borne virus, and clandestinely offered to sell an antidote, thus ensuring the lysine crop, for ten million dollars.
Whitacre is shocked when the head of corporate security and the FBI become involved and is soon forced to admit to the agents that he invented the corporate spy story to cover his own mistakes. In apology for his lie, he offers the FBI agents proof of his company's continuing involvement in a very real global conspiracy to control the price of food by controlling the price of corn. Whitacre believes that uncovering this plot will make him a hero and leave him in position to take over the company. It's from his oblivious nature that the comedy is derived, and the story unfolds in a series of reveals that is both hilarious and procedural.
Warner Brothers' marketing campaign has done the film a minor disservice, though, by playing up the comedy so much. The facts contained in this film are very serious and very real. The film suggests what many of us have believed for a very long time: that the industrial farming of corn and the corn lobby in Washington D.C. has conspired to ruin the health of Americans. If you've ever tasted the difference in an American Coke made with high-fructose corn syrup, and a Mexican (or even a Kosher) Coke made with cane sugar, then you're on the right track.
Now, in case you have seen the promos for The Informant! and you think that I'm reading too much into this goofy movie, believe me, I'm not. I dare you to go to Amazon or Wikipedia and look into the book on which this film is based, or even read up on the news story as it appeared in newspapers nationwide. (The movie is based on a true story.) Director Steven Soderbergh explores the Corn Conspiracy as fervently as Oliver Stone did the JFK assassination, and even amidst the constant and successful humor, it's chilling. The thought actually crossed my mind that the filmmakers were taking risks with their safety.
Critics have compared The Informant! to The Usual Suspects, and that's fair because of its intricate plot and the piece-by-piece revelations offered throughout the film, adding up to an incredible conclusion. And if you've ever been even slightly suspicious of all of the high-fructose corn syrup in your diet, then don't miss The Informant!. (!)
Running Time 108 minutes; Rated R. Starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, Scott Bakula as Special Agent Brian Shepard, Bob Herndon as Special Agent Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey as Ginger Whitacre, with a special appearance by The Smothers Brothers. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by Gregory Jacobs, Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein, and Kurt Eichenwald. Written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the novel by Kurt Eichenwald. Score by Marvin Hamlisch. Cinematography by Steven Soderbergh.
[The Informant! opens wide on Friday, September 18.]
Man at Arms
A Waste Of Time And Space
Man at Arms is a crazy-cool two-man band that will have you turning your head to see if there are any more band members. It's insane how these two guys can simply blow you out your mind with their short but punchy EP, A Waste Of Time And Space. The music has huge repetition in both sound and lyrics but is very catchy. Overall this band may be pushing their visionary creativity a little bit too far, but they're a catchy band that is definitely worth the listening to.
The Nuclear Children
Paint It Red
Experimenting with different genres yet staying true to their overall sound, The Nuclear Children have come up with an EP that would knock aside some of today's big acts. While throwing in a few references to The Rolling Stones, The Nuclear Children have a sound that mixes The Vines, The Clash, and bit of Sublime into the pot to cook up a good record that'll keep you moving for hours.
While playing a few head-bobbers like "The Vacuum Sucks Us In," "Broken Teeth Are Bittersweet," and "Death to the Queen," they speed up the sound with "Paint it Red," a song that will have you moving around chanting along with the band as if you were watching them live. "Hey Wendy" is a song that will have you in a mood for a good circle pit, opening with a tight bass line and an eerie guitar that'll mesmerize you.
Oh No Not Stereo
Plenty has been said of Oh No Not Stereo and their brand of emo-laden pop rock. Of their latest release, 003, some say their pop sensibilities are too formulaic and forgettable. Others say that Oh No Not Stereo has arisen to fill the musical void left when New Found Glory and Good Charlotte changed their sound. I listened to this album eight times. Yes, eight times, man. On first listen, I found the album unremarkable -- I'm not the greatest fan of most commercial or pop music, and there were no less than three songs with "whoas" in them -- yet I felt an odd compulsion to listen to the album again and again.
With each subsequent listen, I started to see the unique identity of this Midwest-turned-Hollywood band. It's not like Sky Neilsen and Mykul Lee, the duo that comprises Oh No Not Stereo, only know four chords. Not only can they play their instruments, they can play a lot of them, from piano to accordion to xylophone to -- dare I say it -- triangle. They've also accomplished some pretty cool things, from having their music licensed on a slew of MTV shows, including Paris Hilton's My New BFF and Meet The Barkers, to having Airin Older of Sugarcult add guest instrumentation to their latest album.
What I appreciate most and yet what frustrates me most about Oh No Not Stereo is this fearless approach they apply to their songwriting. They are not afraid to be pop. They are not afraid to ride a refrain, exalt a catchy hook, or sing those sweet melodic "whoas." Yet they're also not afraid to distort their sweet melodies with Foo Fighter-like screams or incorporate all these other instruments that they explore into their composition, which I find commendable.
Nowhere is my frustration/appreciation more evident than on "Shot Down by the Man," where Sky exhorts, "Middle finger in the air / Scream it loud and clear." I hate that line; it feels forced to me, almost like it's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek when they didn't mean it that way, yet it's like Sky could care less. It's like he's daring you with his music, saying "this is who we are, this is how we want to express ourselves, deal with it." And damnit, man, I really like that song. It's a really cool chorale against generational disenfranchisement.
In the end, the album grew on me. My favorite track would probably be "Hurricanes (Right Behind You)," because I went through Katrina and can relate to not heeding a dire warning until it's too late. My only warning about this album would be that if you're not a fan of pop-rock, you might not want to listen to this album more than once, because it'll grow on you, and you might end up having to do some serious soul-searching.
Battle for the Sun
Battle for the Sun is a much-anticipated CD for those die-hard Placebo fans who were disappointed by the band's last album, Meds. This CD, number six, reverts back to band's old style, with somewhat squealing guitars over Brian Molko's nasal but forever reassuring voice. The familiar touch of their instrumentation is there: hollow piano parts and crunching guitar with distortion. It's recognizable but fresh, partly due to the break from Virgin Records, and therefore it's achieved the highest debut of any of their past efforts in the United States.
Placebo started their career in London in the mid-'90s under the label of Caroline Records, then switched to Virgin Records in the late-'90s, but singer Brian Molko and bassist Stefan Olsdal knew that with their expired contract, they should go back to their old way of intimate writing and thus self-funded Battle for the Sun. This freedom allowed them to expand on their musical intentions and show their true selves on the new album, equipped with a young new drummer, Steve Forrest, and in the process adding an American to the band.
The best part about this CD is that it seems to get better as it goes along. I don't know if it was on purpose, but the weaker songs appear to be in the middle, so the tracks start strong, fade, then build back up to the more memorable, epic numbers. The lyrics of the album, several of which were written by Molko on a trip to Paris, reveal an insightful thinker's deepest thoughts and come off as refreshing after their releases of the past few years.
The songs aren't quite as melancholy, but it's mainly the lyrics and not the music which give them an uplifting feel, like "You're beautiful and so blasé / So please don't let them have their way," from "Speak in Tongues," and the repeated chant, "A heart that hurts is a heart that works," from "Bright Light," which encourages the pain involved in letting your guard down to be with someone and enlightens the listener with the unbiased truth of the idea. "Happy You're Gone" has the least lyrics of all, but the beauty of them, combined with the subtle music which expands and contracts in bursts, still makes it one of the stronger efforts on the album.
The starter, "Kitty Litter," holds some of Molko's golden lyrical choices and impressive vocabulary, as he describes longing for someone's "surreptitious glances" and insists "I need a change of skin." "Ashtray Heart" also shows their literary side with the merging of place and time with the phrase "you took a jump into forever." "For What it's Worth", short as it is, gets the job done as the first single from the new CD, expressing the band's usual cynicism. The video is pretty easy to come across, so look for it, and more importantly, buy this CD, because Placebo canceled their tour dates in Texas.
Searching for Signal
It's So Bright
More than anything else, Searching for Signal's new EP, It's So Bright, feels, well, deliberate. Each note feels carefully selected and placed right where guitarists Matthew Salois and Michael Aziari want them to be, anchored from floating off on its own by Benny Edaburn's drums and John Wilhelm's bass. The three tracks on It's So Bright feel less like songs and more like compositions.
Not that that's a bad thing, of course. The music flows beautifully, gently winding its way in and out, soaring when it needs to and swooping down low when it needs to do that, too. Where there's usually at least a bit of chaos, a bit of just-in-check fury behind most atmospheric post-rock bands like this one -- and make no mistake, "post-rock" is what these guys are now, the candy-coated indie-pop of their self-titled debut.
Here, though, there's no storm brewing behind the echoey notes, no clenched fists against the sky, but rather a gentleness that runs throughout, this sort of vibe like the guys in the band have to play quietly, delicately, even when the guitars are roaring and Marshall-stacks loud (as they are on the first two tracks, to varying degrees), or the whole thing will crumble into broken shards of glass scattered across the floor.
Opener "Like a Feather" is probably the best example, drifting along smoothly like a finely-calibrated machine riding a track only it knows. The guitars simmer and shift, diving sideways into great little jazz-y melodies like the little "verse" melody that's tucked away in there, or the cascading "waterfall" bit further in. Bright invites repeated listenings to dig out all the little nuances, even after you think you've finally caught 'em all.
Salois's vocals remind me pleasantly of Chris Higdon from Elliott (although not quite as operatic), with an odd twinge of the Riff Tiffs' Chris Rehm thrown in there for good measure. I couldn't tell you what he's singing, though, despite multiple runs through the three-song EP, because honestly, that's not really the focus of the music. It's that gentle swoon that's the heart of things, and the band's intricate movements -- they seem to scarcely repeat a motif for long, not even within the same song -- point inexorably back at that.
Where a band like Golden Cities, Explosions in the Sky, or Co-Pilot threatens, just over the horizon, ominous and heavy and not entirely predictable, Searching for Signal is the sound of the morning after the storm, that crystalline moment when the sun comes up and reveals that yes, the world's still there, just like you left it.
[Searching for Signal is playing 9/26/09 at Bohemeo's.]
I'm honestly not sure what I was expecting, but I know this wasn't it. I think I could be forgiven, though, for being blindsided by Sleepy Sun's Embrace, especially considering the way the band shifts gears partway in. The album starts off with the thumping, dark, nearly funky murk-croon of "New Age," with its nice, almost tribal percussion, woozy acoustic/electric guitars, creepy organ, and distant, singing-in-an-empty-room vocals coming off like some bizarre crossbreed between the Sneaker Pimps and Clinic, and then segues smoothly into the similarly slow-paced, gorgeous "Lord," which is gentle and pastoral while remaining electrified and dark, like a funhouse-mirror version of The Verve. "Red/Black" signals a bit of what's to come, with a crunching/plodding pace, carnival-ride rhythms, and fuzzed-out guitars.
Embrace doesn't fully hit its stride, though, 'til halfway through, with "Sleepy Son." It's a bona-fide monster of a song, a constantly-shifting behemoth that starts quiet and distant and metamorphosizes into thundering, thick-ass sludgy rawk with alternately tough and whispery female vocals; it's like the soundtrack to a night spent stumbling in a daze from one badly-lit, questionable dive to another, and right when you think it's due to end, the song staggers onward, getting more chaotic and belligerent as it goes.
"White Dove," a bit further in, takes a similar tack, with heavy-as-lead, distorted, almost metallic guitars (including some real-live rock-dude soloing) and a White Stripes-esque stomp providing the engine to drive home a blast of thundering, fist-pumping rock. It dissolves into a weird bit of muttered vocals and off-beat drum hits at the halfway mark, only to come back blazing even hotter/louder before collapsing again into bare-bones acoustic guitars and shaker. In between, "Golden Artifact" heads off in a slightly different direction, incorporating some folk elements for a gentle ramble across a mysterious country with some Beta Band-esque vocals along for the ride.
The whole damn thing's an exercise in slow-build dynamics, rising and crashing so organically, so methodically, that you barely notice the climax 'til it's right on top of you. There's a nightmarish, late-night feel to everything here, all dark hues and uncertainty; it's not scary, in the horror-flick sense, but it's definitely murky as hell, and more than a little mysterious and foreboding. Listening, I feel like there's something bad lurking right around the corner, just out of view.
After "White Dove," I truthfully figured the album could end -- my jaw was already on the floor, and I felt shaken and beaten-down by the pummeling guitars and that fuzzy-round-the-edges, syrupy bass that rolls on throughout the album (seriously, I haven't heard bass this thick and solid and, well, demanding since Superfuzz Bigmuff, or at least since the last Federation X disc). Sleepy Sun keeps on, though, mining the intro to "Come Together" for the start of "Snow Goddess" before drifting along in a pot-smoke haze until the vocals rise to a crescendo and the whole thing explodes.
Embrace closes out, thankfully, with a bit of a come-down track; "Duet With The Northern Sky" turns the volume down and ditches the distortion in favor of delicate, countrified guitars and slightly backwoodsy duet (obviously) vocals. Where the rest of the album is a drunken, sleepy, paranoiac stagger through darkened streets and past blurry neon lights, "Duet" is the sound of the next day's sunrise, coming up calm, safe, and clear over the trees and buildings to signal that everything's done and you can breathe easy again.
[Sleepy Sun is playing 9/2/09 at The Orange Show, along with My Education.]
Trees And Shade Are Our Only Fences
For the past few years, Canada's indie-rock scene has been dominated by one label that encompasses one genre and even one city. It's the kind of warm and calm folk-infused indie-rock that's completely unobjectionable and well-received by all, like maple syrup or the concept of universal health care. Our neighbors to the north are far more complicated, however. From their kind and friendly hearts spewed forth a sport that combines the grace of figure skating and the brutality of a drunken street fight. It's a country that brought us the best band with the worst vocals in Rush and the worst music with the best vocals in Celine Dion. It's a land of contradictions, and Saskatchewan's Sylvie embraces their country's identity crisis with their third album, Trees and Shade Are Our Only Fences.
Trees and Shade Are Our Only Fences hits the ground punching with "Please Make it Home," a song that starts so abruptly that you'll wonder if you've missed the first 15 seconds of the track. Sylvie's setup is familiar: a mild tenor male lead singer, followed by feathery female background vocals. You'd be forgiven if you think I'm describing Stars. Driving drums and sweeping instrumental parts, however, deliver a sense of urgency not heard from those Toronto favorites. It clearly shows Sylvie's intentions; Tree and Shade Are Our Only Fences is more punk-rock than baroque-rock, more chaos than calm, and more aggression than compromise.
The everyman vocals of lead singer Joel Passmore feels so much like DC icon Travis Morrison I almost expected him to burst into a spoken-word chorus. The chaotic, noisy guitars of "Instruments of War" and "Listen Up" are even more reminiscent of The Dismemberment Plan. If Toronto is Canada's NYC, then perhaps Regina is Canada's DC. The DC/Regina comparison is clearest during "Mallets," a deceptively simple song that cleverly centers on Jeff Romanyk's polyrythmic drumming. That's not to say that Trees and Shade Are Our Only Fences is without faults.
There are some vocal miscues, specifically "Dark Ages" and "When We Were Young." In bands with female and male lead vocals, the female vocals are actually stronger than the male vocals, but here, they're just not up to par. They fall flat and really seem better suited for singing harmony or background. These are minor complaints at worst and fail to detract from a very good album, which is one of more enthusiastic and refreshing albums I've heard all year.
Vacilando Territory Blues
It feels like an eternity ago that Joshua Tillman found me, on that infamous, international, online "social" (yet not so social) networking site. I suppose if there's any redeeming quality to Myspace beside the huge impact it's had on the music world, it's because that's where I was introduced to Tillman. This chance meeting has made my little world more majestic, magical, and holy.
We artists react to each other, and I can't help but react to his artwork, whether musically, visually, or spiritually. And so it goes; I write this passage. Upon listening to his more spirit-filled melodies, as on "All You See," "Master's House," and "Firstborn," you awaken to new and hidden riches long after the music has stopped. The music often finds me breaking into unexpected tears, as though I've been holding back, unable to express my emotions.
I clearly recognize the spiritual progression becoming deeper and stronger as I listen to each album that he's released along the way. He's correct in his musing about the depressing fact that so many bands are here today and gone tomorrow, but much to the contrary, J. has built quite a portfolio of well-designed, meaningful music. For the sake of this review, I'll focus on Vacilando Territory Blues, which was released at the start of the year under the native Texan Western Vinyl label.
The album's rich with hallowed, sacred symbolism, as well as the occasional upbeat psychedelic tune, like "New Imperial Grand Blues," which conjures up 1960s Haight-Ashbury and incorporates a wonderful experimental dissonance, nicely placed within the more structured song. "Steel on Steel" is another catchy tune. Tillman's album artwork, also drenched with allusion, features a photo with antique rocker, piano, porcelain dolls, old bones, and an iron kettle. The objects and plants that he chooses to place amidst the geometric shapes include a fern to represent humility, lilies, which represents the holy spirit, purity, majesty, wealth, pride, and innocence. The monkeywrench is a reminder to keep a circle of very tight family and friends.
There's the goblet or chalice, used for Holy Communion, hence Christ's message, "Do this in Remembrance of Me," which Tillman manages to eloquently pull into his song. The crown you see represents righteousness, power, honor, immortality, victory, resurrection, triumph, and glory of life after death. The circle that encloses the design looks to be hand-drawn and somewhat Native American (like what looks to be a winged creature at the bottom) but also includes trees, hands, and other plant-looking patterns. Trees could very well represent the Garden of Eden, or the line "All that you see you have dominion / All you don't know you are forbidden," taken from the opening song, "All That You See."
Of course, the Bible may be seen at the top of the pentagon. Most importantly, though, are the words around the decagon, which clearly state "We have seen His Star in the East and are come to worship Him." Tillman may not call himself a missionary, but he's a fisher of men: as one writer reports, "if you listen too closely, your soul just might get crushed." His next release, Year in the Kingdom, is out this month.
[Joshua Tillman plays 11/26/09 at Walter's.]
Just when you think that the album's going to be an intimate experience between just you and Chad VanGaalen, slowly he starts cranking up the volume, changing your opinion of the path the album will take little by little. Then track five, "Bare Feet On Wet Griptape," comes on, and you think, "Okay -- this guy knows how to rock."
Soft Airplane is Chad VanGaalen's third full-length album released on Sub Pop, and the Canadian singer/songwriter's come a long way since the days when he would record hundreds of hours of songs on a 4-track in his bedroom. The songs on this album were all written around the same time period, as opposed to being collected together from the many songs VanGaalen has recorded. Soft Airplane was recorded in his basement, which gives it the feel of his older work but also adds a new sophistication.
VanGaalen often gets compared to the likes of Neil Young and The Flaming Lips; he's got a unique voice and hits some really high notes. In my mind, I was kind of reminded of Bright Eyes, albeit a louder, more rock/pop version. I think the album is a work of genius, one that I can listen to over and over again and always notice new things I hadn't heard before. Also, I can listen to it again and again and not get tired of it. I love that VanGaalen draws and designs all of his cover art, to boot -- the cover of Soft Airplane is sure to catch your eye in any record store.
I love the diversity of the songs on this album, and they all blend together so well and seem strategically placed. The album starts out with the acoustic ballad "Willow Tree," a beautiful song that makes you feel like you're in the same room as VanGaalen and are feeling the exact same emotions that he is feeling. As the album progresses, it slowly gets more electronics-based, adding different elements into each song. It brings out some pop elements, goes back to the acoustic, and then ends with a heavy electronic song, "Frozen Energon," with no lyrics. Believe me, though, the album doesn't even need lyrics to end it. The music says it all.
Soft Airplane is an experience. Guitar, drum beats, synthesizers, xylophones, accordions, distortion, and much more are all used on the album. One song will be heavy with synths, another will be acoustic, while on others you can really hear the xylophone. It's a unique, entertaining experience.
I honestly have no complaints about this album. I think it's amazing; one of my new favorite albums. It's pretty music. Some tracks make you want to sit and just listen, while others provide good background music and other tracks make you want to get up and dance.