A dream Asleep
We Are The Juggernauts
To not know of A dream Asleep means that you are either not completely tapped into Houston's music scene or you've been living in a sulphur glacier on one of Jupiter's farthest moons eating vegan Taco Bell. They've been tearing up the underground circuit and crushing venue after venue with their insane live shows and their brand of progressive hardcore.
Their new EP, We Are The Juggernauts, is a crushing seven-song assault of sex, violence, and introspection. For a hardcore band, their versatily and scope is daring, but this is a band that once brought down the house at Röcbar with a Pat Benatar cover. What's most impressive about We Are The Juggernauts, though, is that it reveals the band's progressive nature, exploring musical territorities with a daring and fuck-all attitude as to how anyone may judge what they're creating. Yet while the EP branches into various musical waters, it still maintains the band's raw, unabashed energy and aggression, coupled with Mike Seal's searing vocals and the band's chest-caving percussive chops.
What also strikes me about We Are The Juggernauts is that even though the vocals are often tortured, aggressive, and confrontational, Mike often sings about redemption, sex, love, and even introspection. The two standout tracks are "Horus -vs- The Juggernauts," which was written after the death of their beloved bong Horus when it fell to the ground due to the vibrations from a band in the next practice room, and "March Of The Bears," which deals with releasing baggage and personal demons and not leaving things up to fate.
Without a doubt -- and brace yourself for what I'm about to say next -- A dream Asleep is one band not to "sleep" on. Yes, I did. I did go there.
[A dream Asleep is playing their EP release party 11/28/09 at Fitzgerald's, along with American Fangs, Peekaboo Theory, the last place you look, & Cavernous.]
Baby Gut's Kissing Disease is a fresh new outlook on the standard garage-punk band of today, seriously. While most people might disagree with their approach -- meaning that yeah, some of the songs are kiddish and yes, lacking substanial deep meaning, etc. What a lot of people don't realize, however, is that this is so ridiculous and so outstanding that there's a lot of fun in listening to it, a lot of variety, pops, and melodies in this record. Very danceable and exciting, these folks should come to Houston ready to rock. Without exception one of the coolest bands around today, for fans of any genre; a good buy.
The big problem with all adaptations into film is "why do them at all?" Oh, it makes perfect sense from a business standpoint -- it's a known quantity that can ameliorate some of the gigantic risk that is studio feature filmmaking. But just in and of itself, it's a finished piece that's already been authored. What can film do but simply visualize it, taking it out of the realm of the imagination and cementing it into place?
That's actually not entirely fair, though. It's not as if plenty of the some of the best plays or novels didn't begin using some other story for inspiration. Ultimately, it comes down to the story-teller; will he or she merely repeat the original verbatim with no creativity or bring their own sensibilities to create something new?
On its face, Richard Matheson's old short story "Button, Button" sounds like it would make a decent Twilight Zone episode (and it did). A strange man (Frank Langella) shows up on a couple's (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) doorstep and offers them a box with literally nothing in it but a button. If they push the button they receive a suitcase full of money and someone, somewhere will die. Or they can not push it and go on with their lives.
And left to its own devices, the story could just rest right there, a big-screen, decently-acted Twilight Zone episode. But writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) has decided not to take that path, and that really does make all the difference.
Expanding greatly on the source material, both in character and theme, Kelly has indelibly stamped his adaptation with his own personality, bringing all of the skill and mood and tone that has made his previous work cult favorites, while also showing a great increase in experience, particularly in how to focus his narrative.
Set in 1976, in the immediate aftermath of the Viking landing on Mars, the box has been delivered to one of the NASA scientists (Marsden) who was part of it by a man who, the opening narration tells us, is himself somehow connected to the project.
Except that it's not delivered to him, it's delivered to his wife, Norma, who is forced into the role of Eve, given the choice between temptation or not (it's always Eve, isn't it?), and it's everyone around her who must pay the price.
There is a great deal of religious mythology mixed into Kelly's iteration: Norma is introduced lecturing to her students about Sartre's existentialist vision of hell -- a place where everyone truly knows you -- and that ultimately is the world they fall down to because of the test of the button.
It's mixed in quite skillfully with mind-controlled civilians and secret NSA projects, and even some other age-old sci-fi mainstays like testing by intelligences from beyond and technology so advanced it seems as magic. It's a testament to Kelly's skill as director, particularly his ability to subvert the ordinary into something menacing, that even the familiar elements are intriguing and engrossing.
The more it goes on, the more Kelly's personality comes out from it, and the further it moves from its origins, but never fully leaving them behind. And without ever feeling the need to sit down and explain the plot with a whiteboard and PowerPoint presentation the way so many films feel the need to.
Skillful, in fact, is the best way to describe The Box. From cinematographer Steve Poster and production designer Alec Hammond's exacting recreation of the 1970s to the performances, it's brought together quite well. Despite some puzzling Southern accents that make residents of Richmond sound like they're from West Virginia, the performances are excellent throughout. Langella has been doing reserved menace for some time and continues to do so quite well, while Diaz keeps a performance that could be unfortunately weepy centered.
But for the most part the film really belongs to Marsden, as Arthur gradually passes from puzzled amusement at their situation to curiosity, wonderment, and ultimately, despair. It's a real journey and grounds the film in even its most fantastic moments. You're completely with him every step of the way, even when those steps lead to him being suspended in a floating cube of water above an unconscious Norma.
The Box is, however, quite slow, and those looking for the visceral thrills of an out-and-out horror film will be sadly disappointed. It's much more intellectualized than it is emotional, and that can be tough sell to a lot of audiences. If Kelly can ever really get a handle on how to balance those two aspects, he'll be poised for a breakthrough to major director status. He's still not there yet, but he keeps improving.
If The Box doesn't have the originality of his Donnie Darko or Southland Tales, it certainly has as much imagination thrown at it, along with Kelly's usual wonderings about the end of the world and what comes next.
Richard Matheson reportedly didn't care for the last version of this story because it changed his original intent so much. He probably wouldn't care for Richard Kelly's adaptation too much, either, because it certainly goes its own way. But that's a good thing. It's not perfect; it's a little slow and plodding and has a few characters that don't add much to the overall affect. It's still quite good and well worth your time.
Starring Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis, James Marsden as Arthur Lewis, Frank Langella as Arlington Steward, Gillian Jacobs as Dana Steward, Sam Oz Stone as Walter Lewis, Ryan Woodle as Lucas Carnes, James Rebhorn as Norm Cahil, Holmes Osborne as Dick Burns, Andrew Levitas as Carson, Bill Thorpe as NASA Administrator, and Allyssa Maurice as Suzanne Weller. Directed by Richard Kelly.
Death Sentence: PANDA!
It's kinda odd describing the San Franciscan band Death Sentence: PANDA! I remember when I was living in L.A. we used to drive past Panda Express and scream, "Stop eating Pandas!" I guess it's sort of like that, or maybe post-punk, free-jazz, noise-folk.
Their latest album, Insects Awaken, is also odd to describe. Most of their songs are some combination in part of flute, xylophone, pitch-shifted clarinet (hell, that just sounds cool in a Gothic, band-geekazoid sort of way), and Kim West's chaotic vocal barking. They credit the direction of their latest tome to Chinese and Korean folk music, ragtime, and New Orleans second line, with a healthy dose of hardcore punk sprinkled in. Kim West's "singing? with a question mark" reminded me mildly of Austin's own Kimberly Freeman from One-Eyed Doll, and then on "No Enemies," she completely throws me for a loop by actually "singing with no question mark." There was melody. It was pretty.
Probably the best way to describe this band is fun. They are fun, infectious, and don't seem to take themselves too seriously. I would definitely check them out live, although I will warn that the noise experimentation straddles that fine line of human tolerance. There is a point where shrill, high-pitched, warbly reed instruments will drive you insane and actually make your ears bleed. So my advise? Take Death Sentence: PANDA! in small doses.
Foreign Born 7"
All those who labeled L.A.'s fresh, ambient pop group Foreign Born a toss-off anthem band (think: U2, Arcade Fire) are surely biting their presumptive tongues right now. Released as a 7" add-on to the band's latest LP, Person to Person, this Black Iris release shows how much emotional and musical depth can be pressed into two songs.
The band's songs are still full of the isolated, reticent mantra that bubbles to the surface of said anthem bands, but they've reduced their breadth. Not really trying to tackle the problems of a vast and misunderstood existence, lead singer Matt Popieluch delves into the laconic headspace of a quiet observer and addresses the intimate world of the psyche. But while the vocals remain a tool of personal revelation, the band creates vast emotional space for Popieluch to croon in sedated melody.
"I lie down in the evening / where I can hear our lungs breathing," sings Popieluch over modest-yet-shimmering instrumentation on side A track, "Things We'll Never Be." The scope is tuned down to nothing more than a momentary observation; taken alone, it could seem banal, but placed within the music's fragile, ambient shell, it becomes insightful.
But for all the emoting going on in "Things We'll Never Be" Ñ- all the hoping and praying -Ñ there remains a constant, visceral groove wrung from the song's coattails. Even more so on the rhythmic and more notorious B-side, "Vacationing People," Foreign Born opts for a more punctual sound that sticks to the front of the aural stage, using a fuzzed-out, drone ruckus to punctuate a surprisingly excited Popieluch. Here, they sound more rock than pop, more joyous than somber, and still distinct.
While both tunes retain the aural vibe of Foreign Born, they exist in completely different sound-scapes -- a testament to producer Lewis Pesacov (who also plays guitar) and to the band's ability to distinguish themselves from the thick, reverb-laden instrumentation.
What Foreign Born shows, above all else, is their panache for writing and producing astounding music. They don't shy away from emotion or employ useless rock wanking to compensate for a collective lack in writing abilities. They write well-thought-out, intuitive, and introspective songs. This 7" is a promising taste of music from a very promising band.
Grief of War
When you hear that a band is from Japan, you usually think of an indie-pop girl act getting way too much press. What you don't expect is Grief of War and their full-on metal assault. While they may be another in a growing list of neo-thrash acts, don't dismiss these guys, as they're legit; one listen to their new album Worship, and you'll agree.
Leading off is "Crack of Doom," with its incredibly catchy, heavy riffs and vocals from Manabu Hirose that harken back to Kurt Brecht of D.R.I. Grief of War also emanate that band's groundbreaking crossover sound on "New Kind of Wicked." Guitarists Ken Sato and Hiroyuki Inoue's playing on "Revolt" echoes classic Slayer, going from incredibly fast riffs to each guy trading solos. They really shine on "Midnight Sun," a song that changes moods and tempos several times over its six minutes.
Several years ago, a music magazine coined the term "'87 Hetfield." Its reference to the Metallica frontman's coolness at that particular point in time applies perfectly to Worship. All ten tracks are winners, and if Grief of War keeps producing material like this, maybe one day someone will be referred as "'09 Sato."
The Life and Times
The Life and Times continues in a similar direction as Shiner, frontman Allen Epley's previous band, combining the tautness of Slint with strangely Beatlesesque anthems. For Tragic Boogie, though, The Life and Times' second album, the band decided to expand its palette. Epley said, "We wanted to make the kind of record that a big-name band with a lot of money might make, except we don't have any money. But we said what the hell and decided to do it anyway..." So they built a studio and were able to use it to really shape the songs over a longer period of time. Instead of paying the engineers money to tweak the recordings after the fact, they thought about how the songs would sound post-production, and then just recorded them that way.
The work they put into the songs shows. The results have a massive, epic, grandiose quality, more like the Flaming Lips or Interpol than the more stripped-down sound of their previous records. There are Epley's usual multitide of anthemic songs, from "Confetti," a powerful, slower rock song with seesawing guitar riffs and massive chorus, to "The Lucid Dream," a beautiful swaying ballad reminiscent of a woozy Pink Floyd, with snare drums and guitars that swirl in and out like a thick haze, to "Tragic Boogie," a slow rock song with driving punishing drums and a nice doubletracked vocal part in the bridge. There are also a multitude of cool sonic details in the songs, including delaying everything from the guitars to the vocals in "Que Sera Sera," the verse guitar riff that almost sounds piano-like and the epic, Floyd/My Bloody Valentine-ish stacked harmonies on "Fall Of The Angry Clowns," and lots of almost vocoderized-sounding vocals on "Let It Eat."
Allen Epley still has the same head for epic melodies that he's ever had, so if you like his melodies, you'll really enjoy this album, too. It's an interesting idea for a independent band that isn't on a major label to put out an album that sounds that way anyway. And the production does add interesting layers to the sound that you don't hear often with this kind of band.
The Literary Greats
Ocean, Meet The Valley
As soon as the first rough-edged, blues-rock guitar lick of "That Mountain Yonder" comes in, after a sneakily low-key verse, it's pretty clear that for their second album, Ocean, Meet The Valley, The Literary Greats weren't content to keep meandering along the same path they were on back on their self-titled debut. Not that the band's changed things up that much from the last outing -- no crazy time signatures or growly vocals, don't worry -- but they've amped up their previously fairly laid-back, somehow unmistakably Texan-sounding country-pop, turning up the guitars, making things heavier and meatier-sounding, and pulling in a lot more of both the rock and country side of things.
The result is a smart, beautifully well-written bunch of songs with the same intricate lyricism as songwriter Brandon Elam's earlier stuff that are much more in-your-face and raw and energetic than they probably would've been a year or so ago. Where the last album was a lazy afternoon/quiet night spent spinning out songs in somebody's comfy living room, Ocean, Meet The Valley is a boozy, loose-limbed, cares-to-the-wind roll through the bars. It's the sound of a band that's gotten comfortable enough with itself to cut loose and show their teeth, and that's definitely a good thing.
"Happens Every Time" is probably the furthest from the band's folk-y leanings, a slow, deliberate stomp that reminds me of a mellowed-down Black Crowes, murky and bitter and raging all at once, with bassist Darin Lee providing a low-slung, rubbery groove seemingly ripped straight from the Fat Albert theme song. When that guitar comes slashing in, you'd be forgiven for thinking somebody else must've slipped a different band's disc in the CD player.
My personal favorite on here, though, has to be "Show Me the Coast," which sails along cheerfully with a drifting, sweet-hearted vibe until it hits the break and crashes upon the rocks with an overdriven, chiming drone of a guitar riff. It's the best track on Ocean, for my money, not least of all because it showcases how the Literary Greats are able to effortlessly incorporate indie-rock-sounding bits into what are, at their core, countrified pop songs. "Oh Abilene," for its part, wins points not only for its burly, thick-sounding country-blues crunch, but also for Kris Becker's downright funky, Stevie Wonder-esque keys (listen close; I swear they're lurking in the background, and they freaking rule) and that nice minor-key shift that derails things just a teeny, tiny bit from where you think the song's headed.
There are echoes of the first album on a few songs, particularly "Dreadnought," which I can't help but compare to "Thundercloud to Peru" -- possibly for the airplane imagery, I'll admit. The track meanders gently 'til the chorus, where the band bumps along with a jaunty sort of joy, the song itself seemingly lodged in their (and mine, to boot) collective heart. A high point on the quieter side of things is "The Black Bee," with its delicate, soft, Cat Stevens-like unfolding; it sounds like a classic song you've heard a million times but can't necessarily place, even though it cuts you deep. Elam's created a new benchmark for himself with this one, I swear.
Unfortunately, Ocean crumbles a bit past the halfway mark. Bury-the-hatchet missive "Emily's Enemies" and the slinky, dance-y "Ruby Sapphire" are good but not mind-blowing (for the latter, I never thought somebody'd talk about their "Kenny Rogers" and make it sound like a euphemism for something dirty, but there it is), although the band salvages things with the beautiful, tropicalia-inflected breeze of "Ocean Waves" and the harmonica-heavy country-folk jubilation of "Hill Country Queen." Still, it's hard to top the preceding six tracks -- I have a feeling they're going to be on infinite repeat in my CD player for a good long while. At least, until the band comes back with their next release and blows me away yet again.
[The Literary Greats are playing their CD release party 11/14/09 at The Continental Club, along with Elkhart.]
Natural Forces is Lyle Lovett's great western road record, the theme of which might be "The Grand Ole Opry on Texas Swing Night." The song progression suggests a concept album about the life of a traveling musician. Lovett's songs are sung by strong, if sad, cowboy characters who love their families and their homes but make their living on the road -- the only way they know how.
The album is sequenced like a brilliantly structured live show. After the striking drama of the slow-burning title track comes eight minutes of up-tempo swing ("Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel," "Pantry") that's fluent and wholesome enough to bring fans to the dance floor no matter their age. In pursuit of the concept, the rest of the album will have people saying that Lyle Lovett has covered much of this space before. Like a painter perfecting his particular corner of innovation, Lyle Lovett is competing against history now, and history is often best pursued in increments. It's that approach that has taken Lyle Lovett from mere perennial Grammy winner to being the Mount Rushmore of Texas Music.
The peak achievement of Natural Forces is that it could be played from start to finish on the stage of The Opry or the dance halls of Austin in any era. He examines the rural roots of his Houston home from the worldly viewpoint of 30 years on the highways of America with equal humility and profound insight. The result is as populist as it is personal. It's as hopeful as it is melancholy. Lyle Lovett inhabits these spaces with the gravity of the greats of country music's golden age. The cultural inheritor of Bob Wills has us dancing through the Great Recession.
No More Stories / Are Told Today / I'm Sorry / They Washed Away / No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I'm Tired / Let's Wash Away
To get it out of the way first, the long title to all-male Danish trio Mew's fifth album comes from their song "Hawaii Dream." The CD contains two short "intermission" songs between several electronic, optimistic-sounding wonders. They utilize swelling effects with synthesizers, quick yet echoing piano, and drawn-out guitars. The sound is atmospheric, with a touch of shoegaze and a clearly foreign feel, much like Sigur Rós. The trio sings extremely high, and at times the songs become a bit frantic, but overall the album provides a relaxing half-hour for your ears, with sweet combinations of soothing vocals and whimsical music that swells and falls in a structured fashion.
For over ten years Jonas Bjerre, Bo Madsen, and Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen have been making music together, with Bjerre and Madsen knowing each other since age six and working on music in high school. They added Jorgensen to the band, and since then they've worked on five albums to date, quite an accomplishment for three young men in their early thirties. To prove their seriousness about this album, it was written and recorded in three different places around the world -- Brooklyn, Copenhagen, and France -- with guest singing by a kids choir and an 88-year-old Danish singer, Mari Helgerlikova. They even recorded some parts backwards for a real disorienting feel.
"Repeaterbeater," the first single, has a quick beat backed with bass and vocals in the verses, which turns into a rushed medley of colliding instruments in the choruses to emulate the desperation of the words. "Hawaii" has uplifting lyrics about making mistakes and forgiving yourself for them and "Cartoons and Macramé Wounds" builds up to loud chaos with a marxophone from the 1950s and then ends with melodic humming, while "Vaccine" includes a marimba to flesh out all the voiceless sections. Some songs slip into a sadder, more bleak mood -- which could be expected from the title -- like "Tricks of the Trade," which begs the question, "Why does it have to be / It's always you and me?"
I would recommend the band to fans of Air or any other band with high-pitched male vocals and layered harmonies (excluding maybe The Beegees and Hanson). Mew, however, stands on their own as a band who's worked on this sound for over a decade and still tries to make it innovative and new to the ear without stretching into unpleasant territory. They even feature cartoon drawings behind them on stage when they perform. Definitely give this CD a listen for an engaging experience. I like it more each time.
The Moneen DVD: It All Started with a Red Stripe
The DVD begins with a short film, The Start to This May Be the End to Another, which acts as a documentary of Moneen, showing the band traveling in their tour bus, enduring the typical trials of losing the signal during business calls, excessive gas pumping, and unloading all the heavy gear. Filmmaker Alex Liu filmed it over a period of three years, starting with a considerably unknown pop-punk band from Canada (filmed in black and white) and fast-forwarding to 2007, when they are signed with Vagrant and in the recording studio (in color).
The film jumps back and forth between the past and present, highlighting the differences between the start of a music career and the middle of one. Liu concentrates on the high energy and expectations that encompass everything in the beginning and how this attitude fades into a more relaxed atmosphere as the serious relationships between band members develop into more comical ones. An example for Moneen would be the five-minute sequence with the four bandmates fighting over a child's plastic baseball bat. By the end of the film, the members of Moneen are tackling each other naked in hotel rooms and acting like brothers.
The tour journals follow in the same vein as the film, showing the band performing childish antics like playing handball, swinging at a park, mooning people, or doing impressions of Flavor Flav with a giant clock. They even attend a Magic: The Gathering card tournament while staying at a Sheraton.
Kenny Bridges, the lead singer, steals the show on stage and off. He has a sense of humor that never stops, and his charisma carries over to the live performances as he screams into the mic and jumps around the stage. He acts as the face for the band at all times, but the energy of all the band members adds to their appeal. Their liveliness keeps things interesting.
Their music has the sound of most bands of this genre in the early 2000s: high vocals, verging on whiny, about the wrongs committed against the singer, and guitars that provide familiar power chords. Moneen falls into the same category as Saves the Day, Something Corporate, or The Starting Line (all they really need is an "s" in their name, right?). And just like Panic at the Disco, they also love the long quirky song titles, like "If Tragedy's Appealing, Then Disaster's an Addiction" and "There are a Million Reasons for Why This May Not Work...And Just One Good One for Why it Will."
Their songs consist of those instrumental bridges that were oh-so-popular a few years ago, where the lead guitarist slows down into a two-note melody with no drums and a drawn-out note playing on the rhythm guitar in the background before a sudden break where all the instruments jump back in (usually with the band members jumping, too) and playing their regular parts.
The band's music videos, five of which are featured on the DVD and come from their albums The Red Tree and Are We Really Happy With Who We Are Right Now?, don't usually showcase the band playing but rather invent a story with an outside character to act out the song. "The Song I Swore to Never Sing," however, is a welcome break from the mold, with a pretty piano part and a whimsical synth met with a soft voice and introspective lyrics. Songs like this one can keep them from fitting too perfectly into a stereotype. Even the video differs incredibly from the look and feel of the others, creating a more mature and accomplished piece compared to the teenage woe of the others.
As for their live show, Moneen offers nothing too spectacular, just four guys in T-shirts and jeans thrashing around the stage while they play their instruments with lights of varying color behind them. This particular concert was filmed in Toronto, Canada, close to home, so everyone knows the words and sings along. The band allows this audience participation every once in a while, but this gesture actually reveals that the backup singers, cannot, in fact, sing.
It looks more like they're giving up than simply letting their fans join in every time someone falls back from the microphone. It does look fun, however, for the people who are die-hard fans and know every song by heart. Otherwise, I would think the show would be no different than anything else you might see at Warped Tour.
Overall, I'd say the DVD is a worthwhile buy for Moneen fans who want a keepsake of the band, but not likely to be anything special to anyone else, at least not besides high schoolers who like similar artists. It might be too much for simply an introduction to the band, and it's no Some Kind of Monster.
[Moneen is playing 11/16/09 at Warehouse Live, along with Say Anything, Eisley, & Miniature Tigers.]
The Spanish Armada
The Spanish Armada
The Spanish Armada is a five-piece noise-rock band from Boston. On The Spanish Armada, their debut album, their sound borrows heavily from Sonic Youth, and the singer even sounds a little like Thurston Moore. But they add their own touches, like harmonies and odd time signatures, which they nagivate easily. And some of the more complicated songs are just as catchy as the more straighforward songs, which is also impressive.
One of those songs, "Empty Packs," has a 7/8 verse with a guitar part that tries to subvert the melody, but the melody is strong and catchy despite the complexity of the guitar riffs to really come through. "Marathon Arms," a big menacing rocker, is even more mathy, with a 15/8 verse and 13/4 chorus, but remarkably enough, the chorus is anthemic, more so than anything Sonic Youth would do, with driving response harmonies from the band.
Some of the more straightforward songs take things in different directions, too. "Laying Down my Arms" is a short, catchy song with big, pretty harmonies that SY would never thought to use. "Homesick" even features acoustic guitar, violin, and piano. It doesn't completely work -- it's a bit too straightforward of a song for them to really kill. But it's an interesting idea.
On the whole, The Spanish Armada is very good for a first album -- they have a sound, they're tight, and they can write good songs. Their only problem is sounding a little too much like Sonic Youth. If they could take things in their own direction, these guys could be a great band. And considering what they presented here, they have the potential to take all of this a lot farther.
Beacons of Ancestorship
Tortoise wasn't the first band to receive the "post-rock" tag, but over time they've become its most lauded and recognized practitioner. As the term becomes increasingly associated with the crest-and-valley dynamics and soporific emotional outpourings of guitar-based bands like Explosions In The Sky, though, these 5-to-7 men have continued to enliven the formal trappings of rock music (regularly extended with marimbas and vibraphones) with tropes and tonalities from a variety of not-rock musics.
If any fault could be found with the band's expansive back catalog, it's that no recording has captured the frenetic, funk-informed catharsis of their live performance. This fault is corrected on their most recent Thrill Jockey release, Beacons of Ancestorship, wherein the band plays up the dance-party facet of their muse.
The record starts with "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," previously available as one of the tracks on the Record Store Day treat Record Storeism. Familiar Tortoisian elements dominate -- shuffling drums and a supple dubwise bassline filtered through John McIntire's crisp production. Presently, a SOMA-selected analog synth takes over, promising a comfy eight-odd minutes of Chicago cool.
Just as the listener settles in for the unobtrusive marimba-draped wallpaper of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, however, Tortoise changes the game, switching to unapologetic funk mode. Just as you prepare to start struttin', however, the band moves halfway back to familiar territory with a Can-like motorik overdrive.
Similar impulses break out on "Northern Something," which spices up its second-line dancehall shake with the acid squelch of a 303, and "Monument Six One Thousand," which swaggers along atop a hard-hitting electro beat, chiming guitar melodies notwithstanding. The blink-and-it's-gone "Penumbra," clocking in at barely more than a minute, sounds like the pre-battle warm-up to some lost face-off between Kool Keith and MF Doom.
Lest the reader expect Beacons of Ancestorship to veer too far into DJ territory, Tortoise keeps things discontinuous with their gestures familiar and surprising. "Prepare Your Coffin" bears the emotional heft of The Brave And The Bold, their covers record with Bonnie "Prince" Billy. The uninitiated listener would be hard-pressed to find anything "post-" about the rock tune here.
The most jarring departure of the whole album, however, is the impossibly-titled "Yinxianghechenqi" -- Tortoise's first foray into punk. There's nothing mannered or stately about the blood-and-guts bassline Doug McCombs lays down, nor the circle-pit-inducing drumbeat. There's more than a hint of Devo in the circuit-bending leads of the synths, but the song is a rager.
Perhaps as means of apology for unapologetically throwing down, the last of the song's three-and-a-half minutes pulls back into shallow pools of guitar fuzz, before leading into the well-worn trail of Morricone worship on "The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One."
On balance, Beacons of Ancestorship offers listeners a half-dozen innovating tunes interspersed among five that sit more comfortably in the Tortoise continuum. It is a shame that their recent U.S. tour consisted of only seven dates -- if such songs manage to sound so fierce on record, one can only imagine how dazzling their live interpretation must be.
We've been waiting for the end of the world for a long time. Frequently polls will suggest that a large percentage of people believe we are living at the end times at any given moment. Books and magazine articles will appear explaining why the Apocalypse is nigh. It's not new. There seems to be few things people like better than curl up and dream about how it's all going to go wrong. Even, as director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow) reminds us, as far back as the ancient Mayans, who some believe, predicted that the world would end on the winter solstice in the year 2012.
I know it's not true, but it feels like it's been quite a while since a studio put out a lot of money for a big-budget disaster film. With all the recent enthusiasm for superheroes and fantasy films, it's easy to forget about the heady days when talented effects artists could expect to face no greater challenge than to destroy the Earth, or at least parts of it, in some randomly breathtaking way. And there is probably no better modern practitioner of that art -- on the directorial side, anyway -- than Emmerich.
It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If you've seen a Roland Emmerich disaster film before, than you've already seen 2012.
After subjecting the people of the Earth to the ravages of invading aliens, mutated lizards, and climate change, a several-thousand-year-old prediction of destruction is probably too good for him to pass up. As with his previous tries, it begins with the warnings of a scientist. In this case an idealistic geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who discovers on a hot 2009 day that radiation from the sun is superheating the Earth's core, and the planet can't maintain the pressure for much longer. The human race has less than three years to prepare for the complete destruction of everything on the Earth's surface.
Which is what we've come to see, after all. Yes, there's the usual disaster movie tropes of the large varied cast for us to observe reacting to the crisis. Some will live, some will die, but through their connections to each other at the height of emotion we'll learn something about what it means to be human, blah, blah, blah.
That doesn't sound cookie-cutter because I'm being glib; it sounds cookie-cutter because that's what it is. Emmerich has a well-worn disaster movie playbook and he follows it to the letter. There's the altruistic scientist, of course, the father with the distanced relationship to his child (check), the estranged husband forced back into close proximity with his wife (check), the valiant President and logical but self-serving bureaucrat who works for him (double check).
Through some Altman-esque set of connections, these characters are generally connected together through our scientist, trying desperately to figure out what the right thing to do is amid such a difficult situation, and a failed novelist (John Cusack) working as a chauffeur who slowly begins putting two and two together after luckily stumbling on an Art Bell-like conspiracy-minded radio host (Woody Harrelson), who is fortunately able to explain everything that's going to happen to him.
They say nothing breeds contempt like familiarity, and we know these clichéd archetypes like the back of our hand. They're not particularly bad, just horribly, horribly uninspired. Not every story needs to be, but it's symptomatic of the amount of effort put into anything other than the sequences of devastation.
Which are excellent, actually, and if that's all you want out of 2012, you'll certainly get your money's worth. Cusack's desperate race to get out of L.A. as it literally falls apart around his ears is honest challenger for the best single chase scene this year. It's insane and ridiculous and completely improbable, which is what it's supposed to be. Cracks open up under Cusack's limo's wheels as he zigzags desperately among, and sometimes through, collapsing buildings. Sure, it's impossible to care what happens to the characters, but it's entertaining to watch. Once.
It's not quite as impressive the second time they do it, though. And the third time, you're spending more time looking at your watch more than the screen. 2012 is a one-trick pony, and that one trick isn't good enough to prop up the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Ultimately, 2012 is more interested in the human toll this kind of catastrophe would take and the tough choices it would require. Which is a noble goal, but one that is completely beyond the scope of Emmerich as a writer and a director. He doesn't seem to know how to make it sound genuine instead of maudlin, or how to approach it with balance of tone.
It's not the worst film he's ever made, and better than quite a few of them. But it is very dour, lacking the conflict needed to make the drama work and the joy to make the adventure work, and there's quite a bit less of the Earth falling apart in it than it's leading people to believe.
Over-the-top scenes of destruction aside, 2012 is generally unimaginative in every way, from conception to execution. It's not particularly bad, but never has the end of the world seemed so quaint.
Starring John Cusack as Jackson Curtis, Amanda Peet as Kate Curtis, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Adrian Helmsley, Thandie Newton as Laura Wilson, Oliver Platt as Carl Anheuser, Thomas McCarthy as Gordon Silberman, Woody Harrelson as Charlie Frost, Danny Glover as President Thomas Wilson, Liam James as Noah Curtis, Morgan Lily as Lily Curtis, Zlatko Buric as Yuri Karpov, Beatrice Rosen as Tamara, and Johann Urb as Sasha.
[2012 opens Friday, November 13th.]
Philip Vandermost's Automatic August offers the world another collection of sunny songs from a singer/songwriter. The music is uplifting, for the most part with happy words, but the tunes are always jolly and in a major key. The album is short, ten tracks, the first a one-minute instrumental opener, and the thirty minutes fly by faster than Weezer's Blue Album.
The song titles deal with nature and time and are included within the lyrics of every song. The lyrics are romantic, which is made extra sweet by the fact that Vandermost's wife, Julie, took his picture for the inside of the CD case. The CD cover has a somewhat ominous-looking tree on the back, which might give a false impression of what music lies inside. A more cheery picture might better represent the smiling, hopeful songs Philip Vandermost compiled for this album.
Vandermost plays all the instruments himself, except the drums, and produced it himself, to boot. He writes the lyrics for tracks three, "So Hi," and five, "Because," while Robert Fulton wrote the rest. "Climb Aboard" has a Ben Kweller vibe to it, with cute piano and vocals. Though Vandermost is not British, his music sounds at times like Coldplay, his voice softly rising to hit his falsetto like Chris Martin's, particularly on "Since Mountains have Risen." This song stands as one of the better ones on the album, with its mellow instrumentation and confession, "I can merely offer / the truth of my name."
Even when it seems like a song might be heading toward a darker place, it lifts back up, such as in "Time After Time" (not to be confused with Cindi Lauper's famous '80s tune), when he sings, "Spread your wings but / please don't fly / Don't fly too high / Without you I can't, can't survive / Time after time / Night after night / You light the way / from wrong to right."
Maybe it's because Vandermost himself only wrote two of the songs out of the nine with words, or maybe it's because of how happy it stays, but something about this effort makes me feel like he should be categorized along with other well-known, predictable pop stars. Every song sits at about three standard minutes, provides a pretty standard guitar part, and includes typical lovey-dovey lyrics. The CD as a whole is not bad, by any means -- it just might bore someone looking for more substance or true feeling behind what's being said.
Whoa. What the hell? I knew quirky/cool singer-songwriter guy Arthur Yoria was mixing things up a bit on his latest release, (281), but honestly, when lead-in track "No Messin' With My Rectum If You Like My Erection" hit the chorus (and yes, that is the song title, not to mention most of the chorus lyrics), I nearly drove into the concrete barricade on the side of the freeway. It's just such a ridiculously, over-the-top, um, explicitly frank come-on/caveat of a song that I still have a little trouble believing that I'm hearing what I'm hearing.
The truly weird part, though, is that in spite of the huge level of uncomfortableness, well...it ain't bad. Throughout (281), in fact, Yoria manages to veer wildly away from a lot of what he's been known for in the past, diving headlong into weirdness and half-assed experimentation, all while keeping things insanely catchy. See "He Can, She Can, We Can," which features a deep, screwed-down vocal that sounds like it stepped off a Gorillaz album (it's a little busy for the Swishahouse crowd, I'm thinking) over a funky, rumbling track; it's utterly bizarre and totally unlike Yoria's past work, but it really, truly works, all on its own.
And that's Yoria's genius, really: he's such a supremely talented songwriter that songs that really, really shouldn't work (and probably wouldn't work, in the hands of somebody else) actually come off as clever and strange. Like, say, the dark, murky, New Romantic-esque electronicism of "You Should See Me," or the weirdly bluesy "The Libyans" (which, as near as I can tell, has zero to do with Libya), where Yoria declares he doesn't care what anybody thinks but just wants to "play [his] golden fiddle." Then there's "Drunk Piss," which is an instrumental that sounds remarkably like, well, a late-night stumble down to a dingy bathroom to take a piss.
Things get a bit more down-to-earth two-thirds of the way through the disc, with the resigned, gorgeously layered "Tell Me I'm Wrong" grounded in more familiar melancholy power-pop territory and the swooning "Blue" more dreampop-y and sweet than anything else. The latter of which incorporates a little snippet of what sounds like a totally separate song in Spanish, tacking it on at the end. "Something In My Stomach" is a little goofier, with its spoken vocals and stop-start rhythm, but it works amazingly effectively at conveying the self-doubt and confusion that sets in when somebody really gets under your skin for the first time.
It's funny, but (281) almost seems like a B-sides collection or something, partly because it's so far removed from his older stuff and partly because of the general slapdash feel of it (the album was originally only available at shows, but now it's available online in MP3 form, too). Of course, it could also be because this time out Yoria attempted to crowdsource his songwriting somewhat, throwing early mixes out to fans for critique and comment.
Or, most likely of all, Yoria's just decided he's tired of being That Suave/Sensitive Pop-Rock Guy and wants to throw the rulebook out the window. Hats off to him for doing it; it doesn't work for everybody, no, but against the odds, it works for him.
[Arthur Yoria is playing 12/4/09 at Mango's, along with Jesse Podunk & Chase Hamblin.]