Monday, June 21, 2010

Aaaand SCENE

Hello, my darlings.

You've noticed; I've noticed; we've all noticed. My heart's just not in this anymore.

I'm enormously proud of the writing I've done here and feel nothing but gratitude for the opportunities and connections this blog has afforded me over the past six years. But the energy has been on the wane for a while now, and I think it's best to take a final bow and draw the curtain on Wrestling Entropy at this point, formally, rather than just letting it linger untended into an indefinite future. There are few things worse than lack of closure.

While I take some time away to rest and rejuvenate my writing muscles and attend to other projects, the archives will stay up until our robot overlords cut Blogger off at the knees, and if and when I have something exciting to share, I may throw a new posting up here, just in case you keep this RSS feed active in your various online readers. Until such point as I do, though, you're welcome to visit me in my slightly less serious guises on Tumblr and Twitter; I also expect to keep posting on a highly erratic schedule over at my Divine Comedy oeuvreblog, Songs of Love, as I poke my way through Neil Hannon's gorgeous back catalog, and my Flickr photostream usually stays pretty fresh, too. IRL Allison can be found, among other times and places, on the third Thursday of every month at Lizard's Liquid Lounge with my band, Tiny Magnets. (For future reference, most of these same links are available in one bundle over at for one-stop shopping.)

Exuberant and heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been part of the extended family of commenters and lurkers here at Wrestling Entropy. Special thanks goes to giant-among-bloggers Matthew Perpetua for linking me in his esteemed FluxBlogroll; his seal of approval brought me much more attention among a much larger readership than I would have been capable of generating on my own.

Take care of yourselves, and each other, kittens. I'll be around.

Friday, April 02, 2010

King Sparrow, Live at the Empty Bottle

Whoa, somebody let the big dogs out of the gate. Wow. I hadn't seen King Sparrow live for longer than I'd realized, and watching them grow as a band in real time has been thrilling. Where, as a young band, their show started out tight and precise then relaxed into a sense of casual mastery, now they've turned yet another corner into an explosive, physical ferocity. I don't know if it's just that they've been cooped up in the studio for the past little while and were ready to reconnect with the energy of a club crowd again or what, but last night at the Empty Bottle they seemed hungrier, and thus more energetic, than I've maybe ever seen them. Old faves from the Derailer EP were present and accounted for ("Forest" just keeps opening up with secret byways and melodic turns every time I hear it), but goosed by the addition of the new tunes they've been working up for their debut long-player, even these familiar songs seemed to vibrate with new intensity.

Eric is steadily pushing his own boundaries as a vocalist, much to the songs' benefit. A few perfectly calibrated, well-placed howls here and there provided a nice little pinch of danger to offset their immaculate chops as musicians. He and Sean (the band's secret weapon) also seemed to be interacting more on stage than I've ever seen them. Watching the way musicians watch each other while they're playing is always one of my favorite things about seeing a band in concert. Then, of course, John's drumming always seems somewhere on the verge of full-scale detonation, in the best way possible. Even though he's one of my favorite local drummers, I always forget how ferocious he can be, the way I forget what the exciting warm springtime feels like after a winter full of ice and snow.

I know I'm not going to convince anyone that already hasn't been convinced at this point that they need to pay attention to these guys. It just makes me stupidly happy to live in a city where I can take the bus a few miles south on a random Thursday night and hear some soul-explodingly good music for less than I would pay for a sushi dinner. Go find 'em on MySpace or Twitter or Facebook (or in my frustratingly blurry pics), and revel in the joy of good, local, live music.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

W. E. Street Team Update

Kittens! Spring is springing here in Chicago and there's so much fun to be had in the next few weeks. Get out yr calendars:

King Sparrow will be playing this Thursday, April 1, at the Empty Bottle. Eric tells me there will be new songs + old faves, so basically, what more could you ask for? I'm forgoing the Spoon show at the Aragon that night to support my hometown boys, so you know that means it's gonna be epic. (No pressure, guys.) Also, if you haven't watched the video tour of the studio where they've been recording their new album yet, check it out here and get ready for LOLs.

JT and the Clouds will be celebrating the release of their new album Caledonia on Friday, April 16, also at the Bottle. I'm so excited for this I could just burst. I've basically been looking forward to this show since early December. They've been touring the East Coast and Canada the past few weeks and will soon be heading out for a lengthy jaunt through Europe, so it'll be nice to remind them how much they're loved here at home while we have the chance.

Tiny Magnets will be back at Lizard's Liquid Lounge later this month, on Thursday, April 22. Seriously, if you haven't been out to the bar yet, you must. It's the perfect combination of cozy and cool. In other Tiny Magnets news, we've been busily recording and have some nicer sounding tracks up on our MySpace page. We also have a new presence on Facebook; we'd invite you to become a fan of ours there if you're so inclined!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fat February

Don't let anybody tell you otherwise, kittens: this is the best time of year. Oh sure, the weather is bullshit and the winter weight gain is in full effect, but: the early darkness! the implicit permission to avoid social engagements in favor of reading books on your couch and going out to movies alone! It's easy to bitch about the craptacular nature of February--and I do, often--but really, I'm having a blast. A quiet, sleepy, fat blast.


Again, it'd be all too easy to complain about how many shitty movies I've seen recently (my brain tends to hold on to the details and negative emotions elicited by the bad ones in far greater proportion than the good ones, skewing my internal control group), but, as I've often said, the simple act of watching a movie is just inherently pleasurable to me, so even a bad movie is preferable to no movie at all. A quick rundown of what I've caught recently.

Pineapple Express. It's obviously Franco's movie, of course, but when David Gordon Green recontextualizes the whole thing as a metaphor for Vietnam, I was like, ohhhh, well played, sir, well played. Kevin Corrigan was also extremely well used here.

In the Valley of Elah. Given Paul Haggis's involvement, I was a little dubious about the film, but it's way more artfully done than I thought it would be. We recently published a nonfiction book, Murder in Baker Company, about the true story that inspired the movie, and I had the opportunity to talk to Lanny Davis, the inspiration for the Tommy Lee Jones character, on the phone last year not long before he died. Unfailingly polite and eager to see us do his son's story justice, he called me ma'am once or twice during our short conversation. There's a scene in the movie when Jones's character does the same for a waitress in a bar, and I nearly crumpled. This isn't a feel-good movie by any stretch, but I'm surprised by how heartily I'd recommend it.

The Dreamers. Wait, wha--? I thought this movie was supposed to be sexy. Gawd, it was just pretentious and confusing and the worst example of a self-conscious, self-serious art film. Clearly a metaphor for American/European politics in the late '60s moreso than any kind of interesting or coherent story, this totally failed for me both as erotica and as the proverbial love letter to cinema.

The White Ribbon. Haneke, that magnificent bastard, nails it yet again. Tonally, it reminded me, in a weird way, of Cronenberg's Spider, in the way that Haneke, as a director, knows by now what his audiences are expecting out of a Haneke movie, so he deliberately rides that tension for all it's worth, until the audience is squirming for release, forcing us to acknowledge that seeing something really fucked up happen onscreen would actually make us more comfortable than being patient with all the ambiguity. Sure, there are some zingers that get revealed, but mostly what has stuck with me is the velvety black and white cinematography, the scene where the farmer sits with his wife's recently bathed corpse just out of frame for that nice long take, and the way that the voice-over provides a meta-commentary on the act of discussing the narrative slipperiness of a Haneke plotline when it describes the way the townsfolk attempted to impose some kind of logic on the disappearance of two of the main characters.

The Young Victoria. Total candy. Excellent scenery chewing from Mark Strong as Sir John Conroy (he's also the baddie in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes). I always forget, too, how much I like Paul Bettany.

Crazy Heart. There is no way that Jeff Bridges, talented and likable as he demonstrably is, gives anything other than a competent performance here. Also, I'm so mad at Maggie Gyllenhaal for perpetuating the older man/younger woman thing here, especially given that her performance is also fairly by-the-numbers. You know the movie is really all over the place when Colin Farrell gives the most interesting and memorable performance. (Jesus fuck, can we talk about that hair?)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In many ways, I sincerely hope somebody takes this movie to their bosom and reclaims its bat-shit-craziness, turning it into a so-bad-it's-good cult classic because there's something weirdly appealing about it. Tom Tykwer's direction maybe? Maybe something in the source material? Anyway, I basically rented it because of Ben Whishaw, and, while he's clearly throwing everything he's got as an actor at the wall, it was the wrong kind of effort and didn't really do anything to help the film. An exceedingly miscast Dustin Hoffman mercifully dies early on, and Alan Rickman does his Alan Rickman thing somewhere in the back half of the movie (not complaining about this in the least).

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. OK, unlike Perfume, this movie isn't even charmingly bad enough to be campy. Actually, I think it would love to consider itself campy, but it fails painfully, on just about every level. I really always try to find something redeeming about a movie, but this one made me so actively angry with its crappiness, I really can't think of a damn thing. (The scene when they go to the dominatrix's apartment, maybe? Robert Downey Jr.'s shoulders?) It's just a complete train wreck from the first frame--which explains, via painfully literal intertitle, what it means when it calls itself "an imaginary portrait"--to the last.

Fish Tank. Bleak as all hell, but really, really great. The creepy interplay of absent-daddy issues and a young girl's burgeoning sexuality is handled really nicely, helped of course by Michael Fassbender's exceedingly charming and manipulative (in a good way) performance.

The Piano Teacher. Obviously, The White Ribbon got me on a Haneke kick. This is basically a perfect encapsulation of everything I want out of a film: French and German subtitles, gorgeous music, a steely, inscrutable female protagonist, and horribly twisted sex. The Walter Klemmer character is a bit too unrealistically convenient/contrived to be believable, but I didn't mind too much because of where he allows the story to go and for what he allows Isabelle Huppert to reveal about her own character. Uncomfortable and mesmerizing.


I've basically had Spoon's Transference on constant repeat since its release in January. "The Mystery Zone" is instantly one of Britt Daniel's best-ever songs, but I find new things to love on the album every time I listen to it. This week I've got major love for "Trouble Comes Running."

When I feel the need to give Transference a break for a while, I've been having my mind unexpectedly blown by Chris Whitley's Dirt Floor. I'd never even heard of this dude before one of my Tiny Magnets bandmates mentioned that I'd probably like his stuff, and now I'm obsessed. Though a lot of his other songs get loud and rocked-out, Dirt Floor is firmly in the realm of one-man-with-an-acoustic-guitar gorgeousness, reminiscent of Pink Moon on one end of the spectrum and For Emma, Forever Ago on the other, though he's way more blues-influenced than either of those guys. Highly, highly recommended.

I anticipate that Jason Falkner's I'm OK, You're OK--now finally released in the US after several years of only being available as an import from Japan--will probably be giving both those albums a run for their money in coming weeks, though. It's vintage Falknery goodness--his voice is as strong as ever, and the hooks will insinuate themselves into your very soul. "Anondah" is utterly gorgeous, and "This Time" is basically a perfect album opener.


Tiny Magnets (oh, hey, look: a MySpace page!) have a show coming up this Friday, 2-26, at the Horseshoe on Lincoln. (Guys, this is not to be confused with the Lucky Horseshoe on Halsted.) We're set to go on around 9:30. Bring yr friends!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Originally uploaded by wrestlingentropy.

Tiny Magnets will go on around 9:20. See you there, Chicago!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tiny Magnets

Tiny Magnets
Originally uploaded by wrestlingentropy.

Friends: it's my rock 'n' roll debut tonight. Come check us out! Featuring me on vocals, Brian Cremins (singer/songwriter/guitar player extraordinaire and impresario of Short Punks in Love), Kevin Henretta (of Plastics Hi-Fi and Ten Hundred on lead guitar filtered through enough pedals to rock your face directly off), and Michael Main (of St. Aviator on drums and bass).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds and the Year in Film

It probably goes without saying that Inglourious Basterds was one of my favorite movies this year. I'm not sure that it beats out Kill Bill for my fave Tarantino of the '00s (I was just bowled over by what he accomplished with that film, esp. after revisiting it this summer), but it was unquestionably a highlight in the rather dull year that '09 was, for me, for movies.

It should also go without saying that this isn't QT's WWII movie--it's his WWII-movie movie. Huge difference. For all the intertextual trainspotting that the most obnoxious filmies were falling all over themselves to point out (Aldo Raine is a wink to Aldo Ray! etc.), I don't think this point was given enough attention. Dono very rightly and thoughtfully pointed out over on his blog that, among other things, reimagining Hitler's demise doesn't actually change the historical record, doesn't actually change the fact that all those people died in concentration camps, doesn't actually erase any of the atrocities that occurred and linger in our memories. Of course it doesn't. But after decades' worth of WWII movies that have more subtly attempted to redraw the shape of history in ways that are often way more odious in their piousness and self-righteousness (as Eddie Argos put it, Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now), QT's genius here is to be as fucking in-your-face about his historical revisionism as possible. If we're going to necessarily fictionalize WWII by making a movie about it, why not, at this point, just use every ounce of juice available in the medium and get our rocks off? As Mike Barthel put it, "No one, at this point, needs to be educated about the Nazis or the Holocaust; anyone who wouldn’t have sympathy for the Jews or antipathy for National Socialism is pretty much a lost cause, and it’s hard to imagine any piece of torture-porn or rigorous factual evidence convincing someone who’s not already in that camp. So why not, you know, have some fun with it?" To reiterate: this isn't a movie about WWII--it's a movie about WWII movies. Nobody is desecrating anything here, at least nothing that doesn't deserve to be desecrated a little bit. Don't all the Saving Private Ryans and Life Is Beautifuls need to have the piss taken out of them a little bit with pure punk rock cinema?

Because, as Sean T. Collins so brilliantly pointed out, that's exactly what this is: punk rock cinema. It's snotty and sneering and unapologetically going to leave anyone in the dust who doesn't get the joke. How the fuck else did you think QT would deal with the subject matter? As Archie Hicox, the English film critic-turned-solider-turned-spy, says right before the massacre in the basement tavern, "I hope you don't mind if I go down speaking the King's." In other words: when shit looks grim, you use the language available to you, and then you enjoy your Scotch.

And the language available to QT is movies, the intoxicatingly beautiful and ridiculous grammar of which underpins stuff like the Hugo Stiglitz intertitle and its accompanying power metal guitar riff before Aldo Raine busts into prison to tell him "we're big fans of your work"; Shosanna's face, enjoying the literal last laugh, projected onto the smoke rising from the movie theater-turned-gas-chamber that has been set ablaze using actual film stock; Frederick Zoller turning from a soldier into an actor; Goering fancying himself the Third Reich's David O. Selznick; Bridget von Hammersmark conflating spying with acting; Donny Donowitz and Private Ulmer's breathless action-movie-cliche exchange before busting into Hitler's opera box ("After I kill that guy, you have 30 feet to get to that guy. Can you do it?" "I have to!"); and, of course, the final, cheekily self-referential shot of Aldo Raine drawling "I think this just may be my masterpiece." Even the WWII-movie convention of everyone going around speaking accented English gets a nod during the impeccable opening sequence when Hans Landa shifts from French to English and back again.

Which reminds me--holy shit, this movie was subtitled in at least three different languages and one of the major plot points turns on being able to discern inconsistencies in another character's accent and use of idiomatic gestures. This, rather than the male-dominated cast of soldiers and its attendant tough-guy posturing, is the true hearkening back to the era of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: language, my people, language. All the sitting around and talking to kill time, all the ways that secrets are traded as precious commodities. Language divides just as sure as it brings pleasure; it's a weapon every bit as dangerous, in its own way, as Aldo Raine's knife. Nicknames and rumor (the trash genres of verbal communication, as it were) serve, elegantly, a kind of double function here, as destabilizing tactics among the governments and their martial emissaries (eg, Hitler's futile insistence that no one ever refer to Donowitz as "the Bear Jew" again) and as sly commentary on the world of film fandom (eg, the repeated question "have you heard of me?", Landa's pointed insult to Utivich about his height).

All of which, of course, would be bullshit if the movie wasn't so much fun and also so lovely. Much has been made of the final showdown at the premier of Nation's Pride, and for good reason. It has to be one of the most taut, thrilling sequences since...well, maybe since the House of Blue Leaves vignette in Kill Bill. The use of Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" was a brilliant, achronological touch that just catapults you into the excitement and anticipation of the moment. Sublime.

There's much, much more to be said about the film, and I'll probably get around to saying more eventually. I just felt like I needed to get some of my most salient impressions up here (four months after the fact, ahem; thanks for your patience, friends) before the end of the year. Viva QT!


The few things I've seen since our last movie update right after Thanksgiving have been mostly lackluster. I fell asleep during the final climactic battle sequence of Avatar, and A Single Man is as dumb, shallow, and pretty a film as you'd expect a douchebag like Tom Ford to make. Up in the Air didn't do much for me other than prove, more than ten years after the release of Out of Sight, that America clings tightly to its favorite enduring fantasy of having nearly anonymous sex with George Clooney after getting picked up by him in a hotel bar. (JR Jones made me cackle when he referred to Clooney in his review in the Reader as "the most adored man in America after Barack Obama.") Also, Vera Farmiga is super pretty (though I still always momentarily think she's Claire Forlani). Sherlock Holmes is fluffy and fun, almost distractingly so--Robert Downey Jr., talented as he demonstrably is, pretty much doesn't even act anymore as much as he personifies a series of exclamation points bouncing around at 24 frames a second. In the plus column, I liked Broken Embraces quite a bit more than any Almodovar film in the past few years, especially when you realize it's not actually about the Penelope Cruz-centered love story, but actually about the improvised family structure created by and around Judit and her son. And though I missed it during the approximately five minutes it was out in theaters this summer, I finally just caught Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience on DVD and really loved it. I love that he's one of the few filmmakers willing to engage in any sort of conversation (reductionist as it necessarily must be) about the ways that people make and use money. The personal trainer character made me want to gag on my own tongue a couple times for the ways that he reminded me exactly of the trainer I was working with for six weeks this fall.

Otherwise...yeah. It's been a pretty boring year for movies. Whither the explosion of creativity and innovation we saw ten years ago in '99? Was it just a fin de siecle thing? Not much has really stuck with me this year. It's all the single word movies: Up, Moon, Taken, Humpday, Adventureland. More importantly, there was also Bright Star, Bad Lieutenant, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and, as elaborated upon above, Inglourious Basterds. And, in their own weird ways, also The Soloist and Two Lovers. That's not even a movie per month! Hopefully you've had a luckier year than me, my darlings. Let's keep our fingers crossed for the new year and the new decade, shall we?

Bonus track: in chronological order, here are my top 20 favorite films of the '00s.

Almost Famous--2000 (I'm pretty sure I saw this movie the same day I had Ethiopean food for the first time--CTLA, be a good Boswell and correct my memory if I'm wrong about this)
The Anniversary Party--2001 (this is really of a piece with Rachel Getting Married, as far as their being real-time depictions of talented friends gifting each other with the extravagance of their talent; I have a real soft spot for that sort of thing)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch--2001
Moulin Rouge!--2001
The Royal Tenenbaums--2001 (although I seriously did debate citing The Life Aquatic; I've really come around on that film since I originally saw it in the theater, now that I think I better understand what it's doing)
Insomnia--2002 (Christopher Nolan's most underrated film)
The Pianist--2002 (Polanski, you fucker, I wish I knew how to quit you)
Signs--2002 (shut up, I don't even care--this is my favorite film about the experience of the day of 9/11)
All the Real Girls--2003
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead--2003 (it's Clive Owen in a neo-noir; why didn't more people see this?)
Lost in Translation--2003
Kill Bill, Vol. 1--2003--and Vol. 2--2004 (it's really unfair to think of them as separate movies)
Before Sunset--2004
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--2004
Cache--2005 (along with seeing Eyes Wide Shut for the first time, this is one of my favorite filmgoing experiences ever)
A History of Violence--2005
There Will Be Blood--2007
Man on Wire--2008
Rachel Getting Married--2008
Bright Star--2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best Music of 2009

Previously: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.


Though I'm going to go on and on in the following paragraphs about the minutiae of what I loved most in these individual songs and how they colored specific moments in my life this year, I'm struck oddly mute now that it's time to make a statement about the whole enchilada. At the root of it all, to be honest, after the overwhelming angst of '08, I basically just wanted to make you guys a kickass mix this time around. What else could I possibly say to top the simple truth of that aspiration?

Well, of course, in my attempt to eschew narrative as I was assembling this comp, I've only ended up more emphatically tracing the outline of the journey I've been on in the past 12 months: sugar-rush highs crash down into contemplative lows, everything swirling together into a general impression of '09 that I hope holds up beat by beat but will also end up being greater than the sum of its parts.

But, now that I've been doing this for a while, I feel like I"m finally getting the hang of how to make it work most effectively. Am I talking about the mix or the year? Take your pick. The whole point of these things has always been to blur that line a little bit, hopefully for the benefit of us both. Truthfully, there's almost nothing I look forward to more than the chance to design this little musical and emotional excursion for you at the end of each year.

But, enough with the boo-hooing! Screw the self-conscious navel gazing! Let's party like it's 1999, a decade after the fact.


1. Quiet Dog--Mos Def
Mighty Mos returns! This simple, stunning track reminds us, in the era of auto-tune and overcooked soul samples, of hip-hop's barest essentials: voice and beat. It, of course, helps that both of the elements here are killer: handclaps that crunch like celery, drums that rumble like they're perched on a polar ice cap so that they can use the length of the planet to resonate, and Mos's endlessly appealing mischievous playfulness. Dude whispers his way out of this track--what a testament to his bottomless well of charisma!

2. Dull to Pause--Junior Boys
Any album that sets itself up to be an exploration of the place where the act of cinematic creation and the act of seduction share language and become momentarily synonymous was bound to interest me at least in passing, but I never expected to fall quite as hard as I did for Begone Dull Care. It's immaculately wrought from front to back, its cool cynicism coming on like our era's answer to Steely Dan in their heyday. The amoral licentiousness of Jeremy Greenspan's whispery croon is mottled with just enough pillowy charm that it fools me into believing that the creepy, Hitchcockian possessiveness of the lyric "I don't want to share you / so don't say good night" is actually kinda sexy.

3. Which Song--Max Tundra
I missed Parallax Error Beheads You upon its official release at the end of '08, which was probably for the best since it afforded me plenty of time in the usually musically barren beginning of the year to really drown myself in its pleasures. Even though it's arguably of a piece with the rest of the spazzypants stuff I got heavily addicted to this spring (which you'll read more about soon in re: Micachu), I hesitate to diminish the brilliance of what Max Tundra's done here by reducing its appeal to "hey, that shit's crazy!" I mean, it is crazy, but it's also funny and cutting and thoughtful and positively overflowing with hooks and deeply satisfying melodic invention. The always casually brilliant Mike Barthel compared this album to a Magic Eye image, noting that you have to wait for your brain to relax into it and assemble the different sonic chunks before you can hear the shape behind all the squiggles. But unlike a Magic Eye picture whose scribbles can be ignored or cast off as mere obfuscation of the thing you're really looking at, there's no there here--the scribbles turn out to be the essence of everything that's enjoyable about this music in the first place.

4. Not a Robot, but a Ghost--Andrew Bird
For as much as I love Andrew Bird, he's kind of like the musical equivalent of Michel Gondry--so intimidatingly brilliant and creative that his output can get a bit samey if he's not challenged by an equally brilliant collaborator. For my money, any time he lets Martin Dosh really pull out all the stops, the results always soar. (I'm sure this is why I prefer Armchair Apocrypha, which Dosh's fingerprints are all over, to Bird's other solo albums thus far.) The keening in his voice here is all the more potent with the beats bolstering the angst in such an sharply visceral way.

5. Temecula Sunrise--Dirty Projectors
My computer died for about a month right in the middle of this summer, and one of the last new releases I'd synched onto my iPod before it happened was Bitte Orca. Much like the experience of being isolated with DCFC's Narrow Stairs in the deserts of New Mexico last year, being forced to focus my attention on this album for an extended period of time was, in a sense, an amazing relief. Without the option of swapping in and out a bunch of other music, I enjoyed the luxury of really getting to know this one deeply. Sure didn't hurt that it's eminently deserving of sustained attention, full of all the intense drama and philosophy and catharsis I'm always looking for in an album. The angular and inventive guitar solo here floors me every time. Unlike most guitar solos plopped into your average indie rock song, it's not just a bracketed section of sound called [guitar solo]; it's something curious and rich and inviting and every bit as compelling as the vocals surrounding it. (Also, music theory nerds, please e-mail me if you can figure out the time signature this song is written in. It's had me stumped for months.)

6. Eat Your Heart--Micachu & the Shapes
For at least the first half of the year, I just surrendered to the fact that something in me wanted to listen to the spazziest music possible all the time. Call it the yang to last year's Bon Iver-dominated yin or whatever, but I wanted to feel assaulted by noise so abrasive it constantly courted pure annoyance. Dan Deacon's Bromst did a respectable job, but no album sugared me up as immediately or intensely as Micachu's Jewellry. The herky-jerky time signatures, broken toy instruments (and vacuum cleaners!), and her guttural drawl all hit this weird pleasure center somewhere in my occipital lobe and just blissed me out with totally overwhelming insanity.

7. Rudie Fails--White Rabbits
Considering how wholly uninterested I am in White Rabbits as a band, they sure have a way of writing songs that capture my imagination to the point of obsession. (I'll spare you the Alice in Wonderland free association here.) Of course, getting Britt Daniel to produce this recent batch of songs was a pretty surefire way of grabbing my attention and guaranteeing at least a modicum of affection. "Percussion Gun" was an early favorite from It's Frightening (o ye of the awesome front cover), but something about the balance of looseness and ferocity here gave "Rudie Fails" legs I wouldn't have necessarily expected. But dude--That piano! All that empty space! The vocal howl! Even if it's just Spoon Jr., I'm OK with that.

8. Middle Cyclone--Neko Case
Guys, this is the song she named her entire album after. Who else would have the balls to write something this emotionally naked and then so confidently direct everyone's attention to it? This song made me sad before I even got sad again this year. Neko sings truth.

9. The Sleeping Beauty--American Music Club
Consider this the equivalent of me waving my arms in the air, jumping up and down, and shooting off air horns to draw everyone's attention to the wonderful and unjustly slept-on American Music Club album The Golden Age. Though it was released early in '08, it came to my attention this summer and sank its hooks into me immediately with its West Coast-gothic vibe. There were long stretches of time when it was really the only album I could stand to listen to. I could extol the virtues of pretty much any of its songs--though my special faves would include "All My Love," "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco," and "The Dance"--but the autumnal regret and muted fatalism of "The Sleeping Beauty" just fit like a glass slipper (to mix my fairy tale metaphors) here. If there's any album cited on this mix that I would go out of my way to advise you to check out in full, it's this one.

10. While You Wait for the Others--Grizzly Bear, feat. Michael McDonald
Did you not believe me last year? Do you remain unconvinced of the stratospheric excellence of this song? I believe Mr. Michael McDonald might have a thing or two to say about the matter. Guys, I'm sorry, I know it's kind of obnoxious to run the same song two years in a row, but when Grizzly Bear released this B-side, it was like they were daring me to do it. I couldn't not take the bait. This song's still fresher than fresh a year and a half after I first heard the live recording of it. I would wear the essence of those cymbal crashes as a perfume if I could find a way to bottle it.

11. Hard to Find a Friend--Baby Teeth
There are plenty of great bands working in Chicago right now, but Abraham Levitan is in an altogether more rarified group--dude is a straight-up great songwriter. He's got a seemingly effortless way with with melodies that are easy-on-the-ears yet deceptively complex and with vivid lyrics that trip pleasantly off the tongue while telling poignantly humorous (and humorously poignant) Everyman stories. Add to that potent mix the band's utterly winning on-stage charisma and stealth chops (Peter Andreadis--subtlest drummer I've heard in ages and the band's secret weapon), and they're like a time bomb of rock just waiting to explode out of the Midwest. Don't say you weren't warned.

12. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)--The Decemberists
It's Tuesday, so that must mean it's time to hate on the Decemberists. Or, wait--is it backlash-to-the-backlash day? I can't keep that shit straight anymore. Lucky for everyone who's turned a blind eye to the hype cycle, Colin Meloy just keeps on writing impeccable songs like this one. Though I initially dismissed it as a mere pretender to "Wicked Little Town"'s throne, I eventually opened my ears enough to hear the actual song I was listening to, instead of just my perception of it. And when I finally heard it, it became one of those tracks I almost couldn't listen to on the train for fear of bursting into tears any time it so much as came up on shuffle. The romantic complexity laced with foreboding in the lyrics coupled with the featherweight bombast of the arrangement makes this one of the roundest songs I've heard all year.

13. Save Me from What I Want--St. Vincent
Though I ultimately found Actor too wearying an album to garner much repeat play, this track immediately jumped out at me. It keeps Annie Clark's more outre instrumental affectations in check while letting her extremely nuanced vocals shine with subtle shades of humor, exasperation, and ennui. Plus, the transition from the Decemberists to this is secretly my favorite segue on the comp, both sonically and thematically.

14. Crazy/Forever--Japandroids
Japandroids' Post-Nothing was definitely, surprisingly, one of my favorite albums this year, thanks to its perfect combination of heart-on-sleeviness and go-for-broke sonic force. I love any band that can make me feel like I'm 16 again (except with actual good taste in cool music this time). They get extra bonus points for being stereotypically dorkily polite Canadians live in concert.

15. 1901--Phoenix
Though I loved Alphabetical when it came out in '04, I kind of lost track of Phoenix for a while there. In my brain, I tend to file them in the same drawer as Sloan: un-show-offy professionals who have a way with a killer hook, whose recorded output is so consistent that their albums sometimes, weirdly, seem redundant. Put it another way--they're like a well-made TV show like House or 30 Rock that you can just pop into and out of, episode by episode, without getting lost in the season's major narrative arc. A piece of easily accessible art that didn't make me work to crack it open, "1901" goes down smooth every time, like a bourbon vanilla milkshake.

16. Brother Sport--Animal Collective
Perhaps the apotheosis of this year's obsession with all things annoying-but-catchy. There were a few weeks during that hideous late February/early March time of year when I would blast this song straight into my ears first thing in the morning as I let my light therapy box sear my retinas from its perch next to the bed. (What, do you have a better suggestion for not turning homicidal at the end of a grueling Chicago winter?) The counterpoint between the Saturday morning cartoon sonics and Panda Bear's harmonies stacked as wide as the Lake Michigan shoreline is somehow so stupid, so fucking funny, that it's perfect--transcendent even. Likewise his spur to "OH-pen up your, OH-pen up your, OH-pen up your throat a luttul" shifts from being phonemic soup at first to then resonating as a spiritually valid mantra for creative self-agency. I loved "My Girls" and "Summertime Clothes" as much as anyone, but the pinata-like explosion of Muppetty affability and wisdom here at the end of the album will always mark "Brother Sport" as the defining track of Merriweather Post Pavilion for me.


Honorable mentions this year go to Short Punks in Love's "Olivia," Metric's "Help I'm Alive," A.C. Newman's "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer," the xx's "Basic Space," the Clientele's "Harvest Time," Das Racist's "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," Franz Ferdinand's "No You Girls," Anni Rossi's "Machine," Passion Pit's "The Reeling," Arctic Monkeys' "Cornerstone," and the Duckworth Lewis Method's "Jiggery Pokery."

Thanks as always to anyone who recommended anything to me this year, indulged my enthusiasms, came out to a concert or festival with me, or made any kind of joyful noise that touched my life. Special thanks to JH for working with me again on the beautiful packaging that will come with the actual burned copies of the CDs.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

November Update

Hello, my kittens. Are you ready for your now-regular monthly dispatch from the land of Wrestling Entropy? In all honesty, I'm not even sure I am. I started an insane workout regimen about six weeks ago, and just about the only thing I've gotten out of it is a deeper understanding of the fact that meatheads and gym rats aren't necessarily dumb as a matter of course--they're just fucking exhausted all the time. All the blood that would normally be helping their brains compose lovely and thoughtful sentiments has been rerouted to their muscles, leaving them dim and ineloquent masses of crabbiness and fatigue. OK, well, maybe that really is just me, but man--this shit's been brutal. Anyway. To the extent that I've been able to scrape myself together enough to do anything remotely of interest this month, here's what I've been up to:

Max Tundra, Live at Schubas. I was just talking to Eric and Annie about how it's become impossible to tell what shows are going to sell out immediately and what shows you're going to be able to waltz right into at the last minute. I found out about the November 5th Max Tundra show a day or two ahead of time and utterly panicked. I figured there'd be no way I would be able to get a ticket. Well, not only was I able to buy one, I could have brought along about 50 of my closest friends. I was soooo bummed at what a small turnout there was for the show. Granted, he didn't go on until about 11 pm on a Thursday night, the Mountain Goats/Final Fantasy (bandonyms ahoy!) double-header was scheduled the same night just up the street at the Metro, and Schubas is a terrible venue for dancypants genres--but still. It's Max Tundra! I missed Parallax Error Beheads You upon its official release in late '08, but after finally grabbing it earlier this year, it's absolutely been my personal #1 album of '09. I tried to tell him as much while folks were congregating around the merch table at the end of the night, and it was a supremely, comically awkward interaction. I just kept gushing and he just kept running out of ways to say "thanks, I appreciate it," and the whole thing escalated with an embarrassing-for-us-both high five. (Initiated by him--allow me to spare myself a little dignity by making that fact perfectly clear.) Anyway, the album is still unimpeachable and you should check it out if you haven't had the pleasure yet.

After nearly a year of fits and starts, I finally finished reading American Prometheus a few weeks ago. It was astonishingly good. I have no idea how a book of this scope gets researched and written (not to mention edited), but it's seriously gorgeous. I lived with the book for so many months, and it contained so much heartwrenching emotion, I was literally in tears as I finished the last page. Highly, but not lightly, recommended.

As something of a palate cleanser (ahem), I also read Toni Bentley's butt sex book The Surrender pretty much immediately thereafter. It was really quite great. It's less prurient than it could have been and she's a surprisingly lovely writer. It was also interesting to see how structurally similar it was to Eat, Pray, Love. Is there some sort of "contemporary woman's memoir" script that necessitates a tripartite structure, a post-divorce journey of soul-searching, feats of physical endurance invented to mirror and in many ways overcome emotional blockages, culminating in greater self-awareness and inner peace? Will someone who's not been working out six days a week please write this essay for me? KTHX.

I saw more movies this month than I realized I did, mostly thanks to the time afforded me over four-day holiday weekend. In brief:

The Men Who Stare at Goats. Completely ridiculous and demonstrably not very well written, but somehow amusing in spite of itself. I'm sure this is mostly thanks to the effortless charisma of most of its cast. I just wish they weren't working so hard to save a movie that didn't necessarily deserve to be saved.

Tropic Thunder. Obvy, I'm way behind the times here, and, even after seeing the whole thing, I felt like I didn't really need to thanks to the best jokes being given away in last year's omnipresent trailer. But it was still pretty enjoyable anyway. The fake gay priest movie preview at the beginning probably got the biggest laugh out of me, but Jay Baruchel's film nerd monologue about Renny Harlin was a pretty close second. That kid prob should also have been in The Men Who Stare at Goats in re: effortless charisma.

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yes, I am 100% the target demographic here, but there's no sense in tip-toeing around the fact that I loved every fucking minute of it. Seriously, it's just delight upon delight, while also remaining deeply, deeply weird. The bit with the wolf near the end? No exaggeration: I was weeping with laughter. I saw it on Thanksgiving night and the audience fucking applauded when the credits began to roll. I always love the extravagance of the gesture when that happens at the end of a movie. No one involved with its creation or performance is going to hear it; it's just a pure, spontaneous expression of happiness and fellow-feeling and aesthetic satisfaction.

Coco Before Chanel. This was a bit more of a snooze than I was hoping/expecting, but it was ultimately redeemed for me by how much of an unconventional hero Coco is presented as here. She's not particularly charming or likable, but she's still this gutsy dame who gets shit done and befriends all kinds of powerful and influential people and builds her own empire from scratch. I was glad to see a small group of young-looking girls in the theater on the afternoon I caught this; what an awesomely feminist message for them to be exposed to: it's OK to be bitchy and difficult! The world won't fall apart and you'll have more self-respect and you'll probably get a lot more things of genuine value accomplished that way!

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Holy shit. So awesome. Ridiculous and dark and hilarious and foul. I know this is a totally obnoxious thing to say, but it strikes me as the kind of thing I would have absolutely gone apeshit-level bonkers for when I was about 19. Not that I enjoyed it any less at 30, but I could just imagine adopting this as a kind of secret-handshake movie back then, my love for it becoming a place that would feel like an exclusive club inside my own brain, a place to meet up with other like-minded friends to discuss its many hideous pleasures. There's no way to overstate how fucking fantastic Nicolas Cage is here--because he's already gone ahead and embedded the overstatement in his own performance. There's also, of course, the subtextual level where the character's story becomes the story of the post-Katrina plight of the city, which realization had me racing to my bookshelf to start reading my gratis copy of Ned Sublette's The Year Before the Flood immediately after the movie to help understand contemporary New Orleans a bit better. Do not sleep on this one, fellow lovers of neo-noir and all things bat-shit insane.

I'm sure you've probably seen it already, but if you haven't, be sure to pop over to Pitchfork News and check out Elvis Costello playing "High Fidelity" with the Roots. I just...there are no words. Does shit get any cooler than this? It's inspired me to rock out to Get Happy!! the past few days. Every time I let my love for Elvis slip a little bit from my immediate consciousness, something like this comes along to remind me why dude will forever be one of my faves.

Also, hey, Animal Collective, where do you find the time/energy/creativity to fart out another superlative set of songs in the same calendar year as Merriweather Post Pavilion? The new Fall Be Kind EP is a stunner, totally worth it for the first two tracks alone, though the entire moody journey is incredibly rewarding. Embarrassing admission: when I first heard Avey Tare sing that line in "On a Highway" about "Noah's dreaming," I was totally trying to figure out the Biblical allusion until I read the Pitchfork review, which reminded me that that's Panda Bear's real name. Oh. Right. Duh.

Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving weekend, my darlings!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, my kittens! What kind of treats do I have to share with you today?

Bright Star. It's probably already come and gone from your local theater, so a fat lot of good this recommendation will do you until the DVD comes out, but I have to go on record as saying this film was wonderful. I was absolutely rapt the entire running time. When the lights came up, the first thing I said to Benji (who gave it a lovely review here in his awesomely fun new weekly column over at The New Gay) was: "all those little Twilight girls should be forced to watch this as a corrective." This is how to deal elegantly and passionately with young love and unrequited physical longing. Campion and her lead actress Abbie Cornish did an extraordinary job of respecting the intensity of the emotions while still allowing them to be completely youthful and wild. Cornish's breakdown when Fanny finds out Keats has died is totally earned and totally heartbreaking. It's not just the love story that's compelling here, though--the quiet way that her family embroiders the edges of the scenes gave the whole thing a warmth and intimacy that occasionally bordered on claustrophobia (as real families often do), and Paul Schneider (yes, that Paul Schneider) continues to be one of those MVP, will-watch-in-anything-he-does kind of actors. Also inspired: hearing Ben Whishaw as Keats reading one of his poems over the closing credits instead of going straight to music.

An Education. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I think Nick Hornby's one-dimensional script just kind of hamstrung it before the movie even had a chance. It reminded me of the problems I had with State of Play--all these awesome actors borderline wasting their talents working extra hard to redeem the shitty dialogue and flat character types. Rosamund Pike especially (known to the romantics among us as Jane Bennet from the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice) did a heroic job overcoming the on-page limitations of her "I'm dumb and pretty" broken record, giving her some real sadness and charm where none were naturally occurring. Dominic Cooper, too, as her boyfriend Danny showed enough spark and charm and glamor to make his scenes memorable, and I nearly cheered when Sally Hawkins showed up for a brief, heartbreaking moment near the end. The usually unimpeachable Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard weren't served nearly as well, unfortunately--though Molina's monologue to his daughter, apologizing to her through her closed bedroom door, was tragically tender and regretful in all the right ways. But, to the film's credit, as with Bright Star, there was an enormous amount of sensitivity in portraying the lead character Jenny as quite bright while also allowing her to also be petty and vain and rash, which kept her well outside the bounds of annoying movie precociousness. You can check out the meat of Lynn Barber's true story and a little bit about the making of the film here at The Guardian.

I don't know who Daisy Chapman is, but her cover of "Our Mutual Friend" was linked recently at the Divine Comedy's Twitter page. I wanted to love it, both because that's one of the best songs Neil has written in the '00s and because DC songs should always be covered more often than they currently are, but unfortunately she sucks all the life and nuance out of it by singing the surface of the song instead of the subtext. The original version that appears on Absent Friends (and, ahem, my best of 2004 mix) is nearly inexhaustible, thanks to the way that Neil's interp reveals, in a paradoxically complex way, the essential shallowness of these characters--all the vapid conversation about how it's hard to hear your own voice at the nightclub or how the old 45s "are like the soundtrack to our lives." He also leaves enough ambiguity in the storyline to doubt whether the girl was intentionally leading the narrator on or if he just drunkenly misconstrued her level of interest in him. No such nuance in Daisy's version! Though, yes, she has a lovely voice and comes up with an inventive solo piano arrangement to reconfigure the chamber music affectations of the DC original, she goes straight for the jugular in the most uninteresting way possible. She oversings and oversells the first person narrator's heartbreak, leaving no possible interpretation aside from her conviction that she's been betrayed. Which also, of course, opens up an ugly sort of girl-on-girl catfighty misogyny now that the genders are reversed--blame the other girl for "stealing" the guy, rather than holding the dude accountable for being fickle and sneaky. Sigh. I hate to be overly critical because, like I say, I think the DC's back catalog is ripe for people to reinvent, but singers have to be able to match all the intelligence that Neil has built into these songs for the covers to actually be worth a damn.

Patton Oswalt's My Weakness Is Strong. I have nothing critically interesting to say about this, only that I LOVE IT. It's not as 100% solid from front to back as Werewolves and Lollipops, but it doesn't have to be. Some of the pro-Obama stuff will probably make you wistfully sad/nostalgic for early '09, the way it captures the time before things got all kinds of ugly with health care and whatnot, but even with that--hell, especially with that--there is so much pure joy and silliness throughout. Dude is very clearly operating at the top of his game here. Hopefully you've also read Pitchfork's very sharp review of the album and Patton's AV Club interview.

Japandrooooooooooooids! Caught these guys at a freaking 3 pm show, of all things, at Schubas earlier this month, and it just reminded me why Post-Nothing has been one of my surprise favorite albums of '09. The songs are loud and fun and dumb in the right ways, and I just wish I had a car and a stretch of open road so I could blast this stuff into the warm night air. I also totally didn't realize that they're Canadian, so there's an extra layer of delight when, after you've been pummeled with all that meaty guitar and electrifying drum work, Brian King starts gushing uber-politely about how grateful they are that we've showed up to support them. Adorable. I snapped a few pictures that you can check out here.

Be safe out there, tonight, my darlings, if you are getting dressed up and partying.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September Omnibus

Hello, my darlings. It's been a busy month, mostly for personal reasons (all good, don't you worry!), but I suppose it's time to do another quick roundup here to keep you abreast of the pop cultural goings-on in my world.

Yes, I have seen Inglourious Basterds. No, I'm not ready to write about it yet. For both your sake and mine, I want to get this one right, so you're going to have to continue to have patience with me. KTHX.

I did go on a bit of a documentary binge, though (perhaps in response to all the intellectual heavy lifting required by the Tarantino project--just needed to cleanse my palate a bit from all the intertextual references and whatnot). Over the course of three days, I saw It Might Get Loud, Paper Heart, and The September Issue. Contrary to what even I would have expected, I think The September Issue was my favorite of the bunch.

It Might Get Loud was fun but flimsy. Jimmy Page looks like this wonderful old lion, and I actually didn't realize how long he'd been a professional guitar player before the Zeppelin juggernaut, so that was super interesting to learn about. The Edge was totally the odd man out in the threesome, and he kept getting lost in his own logical contradictions as he was describing his philosophy of guitar playing--he'd start to espouse all the beauties of simplicity (modifying chords to ring more purely and openly with fewer notes), but then you'd see him hooked up this his huge rig of computerized effects pedals or standing onstage at one of U2's bloated stadium shows, both of which couldn't be more complex and elaborate. His heart is in the right place, though, I guess. His musical reference points were also fairly divergent from the blues idiom that continues to inform the playing style of both Page and Jack White, which left his contributions a bit in the cold as well. Jack White was an interesting addition to the mix, not least of which was due to the fact that there are no other comparable guitar players of his age and level of fame/success/stature who could have fit the bill (srsly, who else would you have put in there? Josh Homme? Doug Martsch? Stephen Malkmus? I love those guys, but there's not a chance in hell). He also came in with enough hunger and ego blazing to keep those elder statesmen on their toes. There's no way I'd ever want to be friends with that guy, because he just seems like such an impossible dick, but I really respect the hell out of him as a musician and pop cultural figure. I also kind of wish that the movie had gotten even wankier, though. I wanted to hear more about specific chord tunings, songwriting techniques, recording tricks, all that trainspotting nerdery. There's something always slightly hypnotic and wonderful about listening to incredibly skilled people talking about things that I have utterly no frame of reference for. For some strange reason, my dad used to subscribe to Guitar Player magazine when I was still living at home, and I grew curiously addicted to flipping through it--though all the talk about pedals and amps and whatnot could get a bit tedious, there was something incredibly fascinating about that level of detail that goes into your garden variety rock song. I suppose I'm in the minority here, and the director probably didn't want to alienate the already small target demographic for this movie, but I could have used fewer rhapsodic monologues on the theme of "when I was a young boy, the guitar just called to me..." and more hardcore information about what they're actually doing when they're playing guitar. By the end of the movie, though, I kind of started to hate white men and longed for somebody to do a ladies' rock version of the same--Joni Mitchell, Carrie Brownstein, and Annie Clark, maybe? Can somebody make that happen?

My girl crush on Charlyne Yi continues unabated. The nice thing that Paper Heart does is that it sucks you in with the idea that you get to watch her fall in love (or playact a simulacrum of what happened when she once upon a time purportedly fell in love) with Michael Cera, but it actually turns out to be a love story about friendship. The most interesting relationship in the whole movie was between her and the "director" (Nicholas Jasenovec, played onscreen by the totes adorbs Jake M. Johnson). It felt like they had the most screen time together, and it's beautiful to watch their relationship unfold as they tease each other, give each other nicknames (he endearingly calls her Chuck throughout), confess to each other their fears and ambitions in everything from life and love to their careers in Hollywood, and bicker and make up as their realize the true importance of their friendship. How can a garden variety romance with the indie-heartthrob-of-the-moment possibly stand up to something genuinely sweet like that? Luckily, the movie doesn't try too hard to force it and pretty much lets both of these "love stories" do their own thing, on their own time, with their own weight. Sure, much of it is cutesy and if stuff of this nature is inclined to bug you, there's no way anything I'm going to say will change your mind. But, there's a sweetness and a gentleness to it that I found plenty appealing.

Even though I'm not a remotely fashionable girl, I've always secretly kind of been fascinated by clothes and models and the fashion industry, almost in a scientific way, so Benji didn't have to do much convincing to get me to see The September Issue with him. And I loved it, loved it, loved it, largely due to the amazing onscreen presence of Grace Coddington. I can't even begin to summarize her list of achievements and accomplishments here, but she's the perfect complement to Anna Wintour at Vogue. The two women balance each others' strengths and idiosyncrasies so well, neither of them would probably be able to do her job as effectively without the other. It's a beautiful partnership, and of course it's hugely inspiring to see two women of such power and influence rocking their professions at the absolute top of their game. Even if you don't dig fashion, per se, it's a fascinating entry into the broadly defined "putting on a show" genre, as a bunch of creative people come together to make something beautiful out of thin air before the clock runs out. Highly recommended.

I also had the delightful opportunity to see Sondre Lerche play a solo set at Schubas last weekend. I hadn't seen him live in concert since April '07 at the Double Door, but it's always a treat to see him when he rolls through town. I haven't picked up his new album yet, but I plan on doing so soon. As I observed the first time I saw him play a solo show way back in November '04, hearing his songs with nothing but his own guitar accompaniment only emphasizes how cunningly wrought and durable they are. The jazz chord voicings and sweetly twisty melodies can reveal themselves more fully when you're not distracted by the noise and excitement of a full rock band set up. I suppose it's only natural that he'd keep getting better as a singer, songwriter, and guitar player as he matures, but it's almost shocking to watch someone already so laden with so much pure talent continue to grow as a musician, basically in real time. (And the fucker's still only in his mid-20s!!) After opening with a song I'm assuming came from Heartbeat Radio, he ripped into an insanely rocked out and amped up version of "Faces Down" that, in all honesty, the rest of the set almost didn't recover from--it was that good. It was really almost too much too soon in its utter brilliance. He was unfortunately beset by some technical difficulties with his guitar mic, but that just gave him a chance to unplug and give us a totally acoustic version of "Say It All." It was one of those totally unplanned moments that takes a show up a level from enjoyable to special; the room was nearly glowing with warmth. His talent really brings out the best in his audiences, too. Maybe it's just because it was the 7 pm show and, as such, was filled with folks too old (and/or too young) to want to stay up for the 10:30 pm set, but everyone stayed respectfully quiet while he was playing--until he invited us to sing along, at which point everyone busted out not only perfect recall on the lyrics, but also on the harmonies, too. Like with the Juana Molina show back in February, I left the club wanting to be a better, more creative person. It's some next level shit when a show is inspiring like that. The photoset from the evening is posted to my Flickr page here.

In other music news, I already Twittered about it here, but, man, is that American Music Club album The Golden Age good. It's been on nearly constant repeat on my iPod for the past few weeks. It's not flashy or show-offy in the slightest; it just does everything right. There are so many turns of phrase that leave me utterly breathless ("I'll be the match that holds your fire / I'll be the note that sings from your wire / if I can give you all my love" in "All My Love" and "Years ago my soul went missin' / lookin' for a life no one would mourn" from "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" come immediately to mind but there are dozens of others scattered throughout), and "The Dance" has to be one of the most devastating songs (outside John Darnielle's oeuvre) that I've heard in ages. I suspect the album's only going to continue to grow on me.

As far as reading material, I've been absolutely devouring And Here's the Kicker. You can find out more about the interviewees at the book's nice and simple website here; take a look at the list there and maybe you'll understand why I've been forcing myself not to rush through it in an attempt to prolong its pleasures. I probably could have dog-eared every other page, it's so full of interesting insights, but George Meyer's interview is sticking in my brain most at the moment. For instance, in talking about cultivating the state of flow in comedy writing (specifically referencing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work!), I thought this was brilliant:

The work you do in this state has grace and ease and resonance. It's the opposite of what Michael O'Donoghue used to call "sweaty" comedy, when you've laboriously squeezed out something tedious, and the effort shows. When you're "in the zone," a joke will just land on you like a butterfly, and only if you scrutinize it later do you see how it came together from disparate elements. . . .

[In other to cultivate this elusive state] You have to be prepared. You need basic writing skills, of course, but you also want to have lots of raw ingredients rattling around in your skull: vivid words, strange song lyrics, irritating euphemisms, disastrous experiences that have been bothering you for years. To feed this stockpile, you need to expose yourself to the real world and all its hailstones.

The other essential is humility. You have to be willing to look stupid, to stumble down unproductive paths, and to endure bad afternoons when all your ideas are flat and stale and derivative. If you don't take yourself too seriously, you'll bounce back from these lulls and be ready for the muse's next visit. . . .

I used to berate myself if I couldn't think of a killer joke for every spot, but I gradually eased up on that. You can't keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it'll run away and find a new pimp.

Seriously, guys, the whole book is chockful of stuff like that. It's been an unremitting delight for me as a comedy nerd. Definitely recommended for those of you with similar interests and obsessions.

On quite the other end of the spectrum, the interview with Philip Zimbardo, the professor behind the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, in this month's issue of The Believer is not to be missed. Apparently it's an excerpt from a lengthier interview that will appear in the forthcoming McSweeney's title A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, but the full text of The Believer's version is available online here. It's horrifying stuff, but really important reading.

So what about you, my darlings? What's been keeping you busy and fascinated this month?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Death Proof

Even though, intellectually, I see and to some extent understand that QT's films aren't for everyone, that they're problematic for some thematically and in their treatment of violence, etc., emotionally it's unfathomable to me. I get such a jolt of pure joy out of these movies--both in the sense that they bring me joy personally and in the sense I get that they bring him joy as well--that when people talk about disliking his oeuvre, it's like when I hear someone say they don't like chocolate. It's just like, what? How can you not love this?

It makes sense that Death Proof would be one of QT's most meta/intertextual films, as it's his installment of a "double feature" made in homage to both a style of cinema as well as the whole experience of consuming these kinds of films, made in concert with his best filmmaking buddy. But revisiting it this past week, I found myself more deeply delighted than I'd remembered by the formal elegance on display here--probably because I was initially distracted by all the trash trappings he was playing with (intentional scratches on the print, sleazy mise-en-scene, sudden shifts from black and white to color, the vintage "feature presentation" and "restricted" animations before the movie actually begins). Not only, obviously, is Grindhouse bifurcated, so is Death Proof, and, it's clear to me now, so too is the second half of Death Proof. The movie seems to be constantly splitting itself in half as it moves farther and farther away from any sort of gesture toward "realism" as it becomes more and more purely about cinematic conventions, so that by the time the girls kill Stuntman Mike, it's not really about whether or not these characters would "actually" behave this way--it's more about the symbolic death of the exploitative male gaze. I mean, obviously, right?

The two casts of women in this film are fairly obvious doubles/recursions of themselves, down to their character "types"/looks, haircuts, hierarchies, conversations, etc. I read this as not just indicative of Stuntman Mike's pathology as a stalker looking to endlessly recreate a pattern in his victims but as a comment on Hollywood's deeply boring tendency to do the same. There's always going to be the naive sweetheart, the sassy New Yorker, the kick-ass black "bitch," and the tough girl somewhere in the movies, right? In a way, it reminded me of those scenes in Inland Empire where all those pretty girls were hanging out in a small room, like veal in a pen, seemingly just waiting to be "killed" by the camera for their youth and beauty. The crucial difference between the two sets of women in Death Proof, though--the difference that the power of the story basically hinges on--is that the second group, the group uniquely capable of defending themselves and exacting revenge, is the group of movie people. I think this is QT's rebuke on the prevailing notion that movie nerdery is strictly a boys' club. It's like he's saying, "women are just as familiar with these tropes as dudes are--and not just familiar with them, but when given the space to do so, uniquely capable of using that familiarity to transform and subvert them."

That's why Rosario Dawson's coup de grace drop kick to the head is absolutely crucial, no matter how uncomfortable it's made some (ahem, male) critics. QT sets it up with the kind of subtlety that his detractors seem pathologically incapable of seeing in his work: in the earlier surveillance scene when Stuntman Mike is taking pictures of the second group of women at the airport, we see Abernathy and Lee vamping around for their own amusement, doing cheerleader-esque high kicks. Filmed through Stuntman Mike's spy-cam, their behavior becomes fetishized, and we're meant to get a voyeuristic thrill out of it--their legs are long and tan, their physical familiarity and affection with each other becoming subtly homoerotic (the key reasons that cheerleader movies ever get made in the first place, right?). But then the same action, the high kick in the air, is transformed into one of power, and, yes, table-turning violence. The message here is that the strength and beauty of her body cuts both ways, and she knows it, and all women should know it.

This is not meant to bag on the characters in the first half of the movie, of course. The sequence in Austin is filled with delights of its own, chief among which comes right before the real violence begins, when Kurt Russell extinguishes his cigarette and then looks directly into the camera. For me, for pure meta-thrill in acknowledging and challenging our gaze, it's got to rival the moment in Y Tu Mama Tambien when in the dive bar, right before the infamous threesome scene, Ana Lopez Mercado similarly breaks the fourth wall as she dances toward the camera. Mike's slight smile and glance back at us makes us 100% complicit in everything that's about to happen, and, just like Rose McGowan locked into the passenger seat (where, as he just explained, the camera would be if the car were being used in the filming of a movie), there's nothing we can do to change or stop it. What a thrown gauntlet.

Speaking of Rose McGowan, I also love her delivery of the line "That pituitary case? Mighta kicked my ass a couple of times--sorry, I'm built like a girl, not a black man--but I'd die before I ever gave Julia Lucai my chocolate milk." I'm generally indifferent to her as an actress, but, shit, she nails that interp so well, with so much humor and musicality, that I want to program it as my phone's ring tone.

I also love the fact that Tarantino casts himself as Warren the bartender in the first half of the movie. Momentarily setting aside the endless debate about his skills as an actor (I will remain respectfully neutral on the point for now), it's such a playful way of heightening the metanarrative here, of reminding us that this movie is unapologetically about movies. The linguistic doubling might be superficially facile, but it's clever: "I love that philosophy: 'Warren says it, we do it!'...Shots first, questions later. Here we go. Post time!" I mean, "shots first, questions later"? Come on. It's cheeky and it's silly, but I love it. He's directing the drunken craziness of the night, like...well, like a director. This bar scene is also where we get those endless shots of frames within frames within frames, the camera constantly set up behind random panes of glass, partitions, doorways, windows, and, of course, windshields. Everything here is mediated; we're always being reminded that we're looking through.

So, there you have it, kittens! My trip through Tarantino's old work is complete, and I'm sooo looking forward to finally checking out Inglourious Basterds. It might take me a while to write something up here, though, since I feel it takes at least three viewings of a well-made movie before I'm able to sufficiently wrap my head around it. Catch you back here soon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kill Bill, Vols. I and II

This film is way too big to be dealt with in a mere blog post. It deserves comprehensive, book-length analysis of the kind that I'm in no way equal to. So, at the risk of tragically oversimplifying its brilliance, I'll just say that it strikes me that Kill Bill is pure opera: it's too big, too much, too wide-ranging, and all intentionally so, to make the point that this is what relationships feel like. Those who dismiss or belittle Tarantino as doing nothing more than playing stylistically clever headgames aren't watching with their hearts open. If there's anything "clever" about the moment when Beatrix rounds the corner and lays eyes on her four-year-old daughter for the first time, I'll eat my shoe. Likewise, have these critics who deride him for formal trickery never been in a situation when a conversation with a former lover takes on the emotional tenor of being armed to the teeth in a zero-sum contest that absolutely has to end in bloodshed? The stakes are almost comically high, sure, but dude--the stakes of life are comically high, no?

Anyway, I'm getting grandiose and defensive and testy, mostly on account of the fact that I just read the first few paragraphs of Entertainment Weekly's review of Inglourious Basterds, where Lisa Schwartzbaum writes, "But Tarantino's gleefully assembled spectacles are inextricable from his frustrating emotional limitations: Everything is a game." Bluh. I mean, I guess if you've only paid attention to his films long enough to parse their intertextual references, maybe they'll read as games. But, one of the biggest sources of pleasure for me in rewatching his films these past few weeks has been feeling the warmth of his heart. Dude loves movies and he loves language and he loves his actors and he loves this act of cinematic creation. It's kind of unfathomable to me that anyone could miss that, if they're truly paying attention.

Which sort of leads me back into the primary question that I have about Kill Bill: I'm having a hard time remembering how it was received upon its initial theatrical release. I have a vague feeling that it's considered one of his lesser efforts, which seems absurd given both its cinematic and emotional scope. I think it's going to be a while before we see its like again, and that's emphatically including Uma Thurman's performance. If the film as a whole reads like a shuffle-version of trash genres, her performance likewise is downright encyclopedic in terms of the range and depth of feeling she conveys about the Experience of Being a Woman. She has certainly never looked better onscreen; as blogger Kasia Xavier so accurately observed [link NSFW], "I think Tarantino knew exactly what he was doing. You take a born-pretty girl and you dress her up in pretty things, curl her pretty hair and she becomes empty. Vacuous. The only thing she can claim as a self identity is her one dimensional beauty. But take a pretty girl and throw some shit on her, and make her fight her way out of it and she'll grow to be other-worldly radiant and a force to be reckoned with."

It also made more sense to me upon this re-viewing than it ever has before why, duh, of course, O-Ren Ishii's childhood backstory had to be told in animation. Sure, it's homage to yet another beloved Asian cinematic genre, and sure, the subject matter was way too disturbing to film with an actual child actor, but it was also a tonal doorway through which we have to pass to transition into the "cartoony" violence of the big House of Blue Leaves fight sequence. It seems so obvious to me now, but realizing this was kind of profound in its formal, functional elegance.

I sat down to watch this the other night, telling myself I only needed to watch Volume I, but as soon as it ended, I thought, "there's no fucking way I'm not going to finish the whole thing tonight." It's just that absorbing and engaging, despite the length (which really isn't that bad, all things considered). I mean, even when you get into those loooong monologues at the end delivered by David Carradine (God rest his soul), they're every bit as thrilling as that first, manic showdown between Thurman and Vivica A. Fox. Not to mention that I was fresh off a two-day silent meditation retreat at the Zen Buddhist Temple I attend here in Chicago, so those scenes of Beatrix using the power of her brain to reanimate her own limbs or persevere through that intense martial arts training or focus intensely enough to dig herself out of her own grave all hit me with a unique resonance.

I mean, I know I'm a crazy, unapologetic Tarantino fangirl and all, but this film is so much more rewarding than I think most people give it credit for being. It honestly contains multitudes. I'm not even scratching the surface.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jackie Brown

OK, I was totally in tears within the first three minutes of rewatching Jackie Brown. That opening sequence at the airport has to be one of my favorite sequences in film ever. It just keeps expanding: it starts off as a clear homage to The Graduate, but then you see that, rather than being super-emo about a twenty-two-year-old white man's sense of spiritual stasis, it's updating the reference to make a comment on an aging black woman's inability to gain much traction against her life. But then the pace evolves, as she starts walking briskly, eventually breaking into a run. At that point I realized that her journey through the airport is also a metaphor for the journey of her life. First it's an unhurried glide when everything seems easy and progress happens without much exertion; then it's a strutting, confident stride on her own steam; then it's a panicked dash to the finish line, trying not to be late for her sense of responsibility to herself, for her outside commitments, and perhaps even for some perceived appointment with her own destiny--that rush to get it all in before it's too late. It's also one of Tarantino's few purely cinematic moments so far in his oeuvre. It's like watching him finally learn to really be a director, to trust his visual instincts without the snappy dialogue to back it up. He's reveling in film history here--again, with the fairly explicit bite from The Graduate, but also with the look and feel of '70s credit sequences via the typography and color palette, but I also even see California-style Altman here in those lengthy tracking shots and the way the sunshine gets all blown out as she runs past the window in silhouette. And, of course he's also reveling in the deliciousness of that fact that he has unfettered access to photograph a woman as stunningly beautiful as Pam Grier for as long as he wants to--a deliciousness that's thoughtfully tempered with clear respect and affection. You can almost hear him thinking, "let me shoot you like this so that I can make everyone feel about you the same way that I feel about you, so that everyone will remember how amazing you can be." As I watched all this unfolding, revisiting this much loved film, I started laughing at its brilliant audacity, its multivalence, its perfection, then crying because it was all kind of too much--then laughing at my crying, then crying some more for good measure. It's beautiful. (Check it out here on YouTube if you haven't seen it for a while yourself.)

Jackie Brown is probably the Tarantino film I've seen the most and am consequently most familiar with (and, depending on the day, it's probably the film I'd call my favorite of his), so there weren't a whole lot of surprises for me on the order of what I experienced in the past few weeks with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Watching it this week brought more a sense of pure joy to be revisiting this old friend. I was struck, though, with how much everyone in this film is aging with varying degrees of discomfort about it. The whole notion of taking these nearly forgotten '70s movie stars like Grier and Robert Forster is right there in front of your face, and it obviously comprised many of the talking points surrounding the movie when it first came out. But I don't think I'd ever really noticed the anguished enormity of the line that Ordell speaks to Louis right before he shoots him: "what the fuck happen to you? You used to be beautiful, man." Wow. It had never occurred to me to read their friendship in light of their past history together, but of course it makes sense. They've seen each other age through time wasted in prison and "career" changes, all leading up to this last proverbial chance to make one big score. Of course, there's also the meta-level commentary on DeNiro's own aging from skinny young punk lighting the world on fire with his Method ferocity into a portly, avuncular character actor taking roles that were more and more beneath him. "You used to be beautiful, man." This is the movie's battle cry. And not in a shitty, judgmental way--just in the way that taking a moment to observe the passage of time can be profoundly philosophically flummoxing.

This is also, of course, the film where Tarantino starts to transition more decisively away from men's stories and into women's, becoming, if not a feminist filmmaker per se, then at least one who keeps a deep and abiding love for all manner of female kick-assery close to his heart. And, pound for pound, give me this soundtrack any day of the week over Reservoir Dogs' or Pulp Fiction's!

In other news, I was delighted to have been asked back as a guest blogger over on eat!drink!snack! this week. I contributed to Shawn's newly launched "the musical fruit" column, where he's pairing songs with fresh produce. You can find my post on the Long Winters' "Blue Diamonds" and a lovely pint of blueberries here.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Spring Awakening

OK, despite the fact that, intellectually, I know that no good can come of being ashamed of one's musical tastes and that the notion of "guilty pleasures" in music is terribly fraught, I still often have a hard time publicly copping to some of the shit that I love. A perfect example is Duncan Sheik. I can't think of anyone more hideously uncool, but, guys, I secretly looooooove Duncan Sheik! I'm not even kidding. It's been really hard for me to get up the nerve to admit it in this forum, but I have to: I own all his albums (except for the one that came out early this year; just haven't gotten around to it yet), and, what's more, I still actively listen to them. It's not like they're moldering in the back of my closet--I tend to take Phantom Moon with me when I travel on airplanes (makes a nice pairing with Elliott Smith's Either/Or--somehow all the acoustic guitar soothes me when I'm in midair) and his self-titled debut remains one of my favorite things to listen to in the dead heat of summer. I downloaded the soundtrack to Spring Awakening when it came out, and, even though I didn't listen to it all that much, I was still pleased as punch that he gained so much recognition for it. So, you best believe that I was super-psyched to have a chance to actually see the show now that the touring production is playing here in Chicago for a few weeks. Coming of age stories? Florid Broadway storytelling and emotions? Duncan Sheik's delicate Nick Drake-esque melodies and arrangements? Sign. Me. Up.

Benji and I went on Wednesday night, and I really enjoyed it. I didn't go apeshit-level bonkers or anything, but I really enjoyed it. Mostly, though, I was delighted by the fact that it, with all its relative perversity intact, has achieved such great success in the current Broadway landscape that seems to be otherwise dominated by jukebox musicals and retreads of marginally successful Hollywood movies. The second act is a bit weak--it gets kinda punitive toward the characters and then tries to make up for it by becoming more stereotypically "Broadway" with bites from Les Miserables (ghosts singing inspiration from beyond the grave!) and Into the Woods (children will liiiiiiiiiisten!). But the first act is amazing. The lights came up for intermission and the first thing I said was, "I can't believe all that just happened in the first act. There's a lot going on there."

The one major drawback to this performance was seeing it at the Oriental Theater, rather than in a more intimate black box. The actors all have youth and beauty on their sides, but they don't quite yet have the chops to fill a room that big with their voices or their presence. Nor should they necessarily need to. Though the emotions and topics in this play are huge, to retain their power, they should still end up feeling like whispered secrets, and there's nothing whispered or secretive about a venue that big. Wouldn't it have been awesome if they could have figured out a way to book a stint for the show at, like, the Empty Bottle or the Vic? But, as Benji pointed out, if you can sell out the Oriental Theater, why wouldn't you sell out the Oriental Theater?

Despite all that, once I figured out how the songs were functioning, rhetorically, in the context of the plot, I fell totally in love with the piece. When I first listened to the soundtrack in isolation, I felt frustrated that I couldn't quite follow the storyline. But seeing it on stage, it all becomes clear: they're updating the notion of a rock musical by using the songs as external expressions of internal teenage sexual frustration, confusion, torment, and longing rather than as ways to advance the plot or for characters to relate to each other. It's so simple and so smart; I don't know why no one's ever really done it before (at least on such a large scale). I mean, much of my own internal monologue really still is flashing lights and dance sequences and bits of songs, so it felt easy and natural to slide into this world where that level of drama needs musical accompaniment to fully embody all that emotion. What was even nicer for me, though, is, since I'm so secretive about my Duncan Sheik fandom anyway, hearing those familiar chord voicings and melodic intervals in the context of a narrative all about unspoken pleasures gave the experience of the play a nice little meta-twist. Like I wrote in my post about false musical memories, there's a sweet warmth in being waved to by your past in this unexpected way.

Don't forget, kittens: King Sparrow (who've been getting all kinds of big love from big places this week) plays TONIGHT at the Subterranean. Come rock out and take refuge from the rain and all the collateral Lolla madness.