Thursday, April 24, 2014

The National At ACL Live

Finishing a three-night stint at ACL Live, last night The National delivered a nearly two-hour set, backed by a screen that projected pulsing recorded images layered with an oscillating live video feed.  For a band whose sound is often sullen and whose lyrics are often double-edged, a pulsating screen and rotating light show could be seen as an encumbered distraction – but it could also serve as evidence of further evolution.  The band is okay with heightening its production value.

After all, the true focus could not be kept from Matt Berninger, who prowled the stage relentlessly between songs and in pockets of instrumental interludes.

The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band drew much of their set from their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, and previous, High Violet, with Berninger frequently hitting his microphone against his side or his head or throwing it in a burst against the stage.  Throughout the set he exploded with a sort of bottled rage buried beneath that steadily sonorous and melancholy voice.  The peak came just past three-quarters of the way into the show, with Berninger giving such a high-powered performance on “Graceless” that he’d pushed himself off stage and all the way into the back of the audience on the first floor, causing the techs to scurry to retrieve the microphone cord.

Other audience-interaction attempts were less successful – try as he might, Berninger didn’t quite crowdsurf as much as he did just lay on people.  If you’re a 40-something man in a nice suit with an unmistakable baritone, there’s really no need to crowdsurf.  Give us “Afraid Of Everyone” and “I Should Live In Salt” and let us sing along unplugged to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and we’ll be happy.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Best Songs and Albums of 2013

If 2013 boasted some fine albums and some excellent songs, compiling a “best of” list proved to be a challenge.  For every standout and pleasant surprise (Haim’s Days Are Gone, Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time) there were a few releases that one would have had higher hopes for (Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories).  By far the album I found myself routinely returning to was one I’d failed to discover in 2012, Lord Huron’s outstanding Lonesome Dreams.  It’s beautifully orchestrated and full of wistful tender lyrics. 

Best Album picks:

Days Are Gone – Haim
If these SoCal sisters have quickly taken the world by storm, it’s for good reason – their debut is a solid collection of accessibly catchy songs, punctuated by easy harmonizing and powerful choruses.  The album at once feels both familiar and fresh; nostalgic and hopeful for the future.  Do they live up to the hype?  They do.

IV (EP) – The 1975
Sure, this isn’t technically an album, but the five songs on this EP, released four months before their full-length album, hang together well and showcase the spunky simplicity of The 1975.  Much the EP’s charm stems from the jangly guitars and Matthew Healy’s alluring British voice.

The Bones Of What You Believe – Chvrches
The debut disc from this Scottish trio does much to hone a synth-y ‘80s vibe, but the songs really pop thanks to Lauren Mayberry’s hauntingly delicate vocals. 

Night Time, My Time – Sky Ferreira
It’s easy to shy away from this album with its creepily sordid cover art and vague pop promises, but don’t let that deter you.  Songs like “You’re Not The One,” “Boys” and “Heavy Metal Heart” should be more than enough to win you over. 

Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend
As tempting as it is to want to dismiss Vampire Weekend, their third album doesn’t disappoint.  Here there’s a sense of evolution, and, if not maturity, certainly themes of getting older.  It suits them, and grooms some great standout tracks, including “Unbelievers” and “Step.”

Trouble Will Find Me – The National
Matt Berninger’s commanding, unmistakable voice can be as comforting as it is unsettling.  The music here stays out of too dark territory; even songs like “Demons” feel like they have an uplifting core.  High Violet may remain a superior album, but Trouble is a nice move.

Muchacho – Phosphorescent
There’s something about the sprawling, “Ring Of Fire”-referencing “Song For Zula” that instantly draws you in to Muchacho.  The song’s swelling melody is accentuated by Matthew Houck’s sometimes creaking voice, which adds a sort of rough texture to the entire alt-country-tinged album.

Heartthrob – Tegan & Sara
Stepping away from the “folk/indie” label, Tegan and Sara may have produced the best pop album of the year.  The oddball Canadian twin sisters pack this album with tight, polished three and a half minute songs about love and relationships.  You know, pop songs.   

AM – Arctic Monkeys
It’s the fifth album from these rollicking Brits and they haven’t lost any of the flamboyant ego from their early  “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” days, but they have chilled out a bit.  It’s a good thing.  There’s a dramatic risky/cool tone to the album, escalated by Alex Turner’s vocals.

Settle – Disclosure
The debut from a pair of English brothers, Settle is an unrelenting electro-dance album with a bit of a bit of a ‘90s throwback feel.  Here the synths feel modern and the lyrical styles feel retro.

Best Songs - Playlist

Do I Wanna Know?” – Arctic Monkeys
“Closer” – Tegan and Sara
“The Mother We Share” – Chvrches
Miracle Mile” – Cold War Kids
“Don’t Save Me” – Haim
“Unbelievers” – Vampire Weekend
Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent
Wings” – Haerts
Here Comes The Night Time” – Arcade Fire
“Graceless” – The National
“Sex” – The 1975
“You’re Not The One” – Sky Ferreira
Take My Hand” – Charli XCX
Happy” – Robert DeLong
“Wanderlust” – The Weeknd
Play By Play” – Autre Ne Veut
“Latch” – Disclosure
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk
“Blurred Honky Tonk Women” (“Blurred Lines” mash-up) – MadMixMustang

High School Lover” – Cayucas
“Two Fingers” – Jake Bugg
Do What U Want” – Lady Gaga (feat. R. Kelly)
Team” – Lorde
Open” – Rhye

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Weeknd's Kiss Land

A version of this article appears on

Since sidling onto the music scene at the end of 2010, The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) has steadily garnered praise and critical acclaim for his mixtapes. After attracting the attention of fellow Canadian, rapper Drake, The Weeknd spent 2011 releasing House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence; three mixtapes that would ultimately be compiled into the 2012 album Trilogy. Now getting his first proper full-length studio release with Kiss Land, the Ontario native’s “debut” doesn't feel much like a freshman album.

While the notions of the sexy, boozy dreamland of House Of Balloons are still alive on Kiss Land, they don’t quite feel as novel or dangerous as they once did. That early mixtape felt mysterious and slightly acidic, but the risks feel more calculated here. This may be treated as The Weeknd’s “first studio album,” but it certainly feels like a second (if not a third) album; like a continuation rather than an announcement or breakthrough. A large part of that stems from the written material. Much of the subject matter of Kiss Land deals with being on the road, and the temptations and disappointments that accompany Tesfaye’s new-found notoriety.

On the album’s title track, Tesfaye sings about his encounters with girls on the road, while a light scream occasionally echoes in the background. It’s a scream of fright rather than one of ecstasy; almost subliminally suggesting that these events might be proving more perilous than pleasurable.  Halfway through, the track dissolves and regenerates as the singer longs to come home, and Tesfaye ends his phrases with a pronounced breathlessness. Before it’s over, the song moves into a final hook (“This ain’t nothing to relate to”) and explores the drunk and drugged haze of getting sucked into the life on the road.

Similarly, “Adaptation” and “The Town” are songs about romantic splits and the pursuit of other options. “Adaptation” pushes a darker, brooding sound, with fuzzy choruses backing refrains like “she might have been the one / I let it go for a little fun.” The tone is one of reflection more than one of remorse.

While critics have lamented that there’s no real “single” on Kiss Land, and certainly nothing as powerful as “High For This” or “Wicked Games,” the album’s strongest song may be the Eighties drenched “Wanderlust.” After a Foreigner-worthy intro, Tesfaye’s vocals occasionally sound like Michael Jackson on “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” with the refrain “precious little diamond” repeating in the background. In general, the songs on Kiss Land don’t follow a conventional song structure, which is made clear from the outset with the six-minute long “Professional,” moving from a synth-y elongated opening to a smoother R&B sound.

What The Weeknd does exceedingly well on Kiss Land is marry R&B and trendy synth-tinged indie pop into what has rather tongue-in-cheek-ily been dubbed PBR&B (Pabst Blue Ribbon R&B). The songs work best when a strong hook accompanies the created mood. When that fails to happen, like on the flatly repetitive “Live For,” featuring Drake, it’s disappointing; in this case especially because the Tesfaye/Drake relationship seems ripe with the potential to produce something as strong as Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or “Take Care,” but doesn't quite get there. It's unfortunate but, to paraphrase Tesfaye and Drake, this is what they live for; so it certainly won’t be the last we hear of them.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Review: Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine" commences with a simple device – Jasmine (Cate Blanchette) is relaying her backstory aloud, seemingly to the woman seated next to her on the airplane – though likelier, just to herself.  Jasmine, having recently suffered a breakdown, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.  It’s a clever way to serve the character and allow for efficiency of exposition.  We get a handle on Jasmine – a one-time anthropology student who chose to get involved with a professor rather than finish her degree – and her situation – financially swindled by her professor-turned-husband – before she reaches her destination.

When Jasmine does finally arrive, with multiple pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage in tow, it’s to the eclectic San Francisco apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Both adopted, Jasmine and Ginger are presented as a sort of odd couple.  If Jasmine’s style is Louis Vuitton, Ginger’s is Gucci knock-off, at best.  But Ginger is sweet, and seemingly forgiving, even if her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is not.

Through flashbacks we learn of the financial, and personal, crimes committed by Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), including the fraudulent investments he made with Augie and Ginger’s money.  And we learn about the Upper East Side lifestyle which Jasmine continually longs for.  Stuck in Ginger’s noisy apartment with her two kids and greasy boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) Jasmine teeters constantly on the brink of another breakdown – until she fibs her way into the life of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy Marin county widower.

As far as themes go, it doesn’t get much more classic than the longing for class and status – and that’s definitely near the heart of "Blue Jasmine," much as it was in "Match Point."  While in that previous film writer/director Woody Allen built a sexy thriller, here his story is a drama.  Jasmine may do all the longing she wants, but don’t expect any happy endings.   

It might be the final act that really disguises "Blue Jasmine" from being an Allen film.  There is an off-handed mention of “chance” by Dwight, but ultimately the characters are all held responsible for their own actions.  Serendipity, luck, and other recurring Allen themes are absent here.  If it weren’t for the iconic Windsor font at the film’s opening, it might be hard to recognize it as belonging to Woody Allen.  Not that that’s a bad thing – there’s a narrative voice here, but it seems to belong more to Blanchette.

Playing the title role, Jasmine is really a tour de force for Blanchette, who captures the ability to remain icy while fighting back hot tears.  Clad in chic fitted Chanel dresses, she constantly brings Jasmine to the edge of being too unlikable, and then pulls back, letting charm take over.  Does Jasmine have any sincerity to her?  Is she simply a lost soul?  Is she any better a person than her husband was?  Those are all questions we might not necessarily get the answers to.  For all of Jasmine’s public monologuing, she might not really know herself at all. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Songs I can’t get out of my head: Vol. 17

Lord Huron – “Time To Run”
L.A. band Lord Huron’s 2012 release, Lonesome Dreams is, appropriately, a terrifically dreamy album.  This second track on the band’s debut opens with the sound of wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, and then works up to quickening the pace, while still maintaining its indie-folk feel.

Chvrches – “Recover”
Though their first studio album isn’t due until September, Glasgow’s Chvrches has been receiving buzz all year – they were a hard-to-catch hot ticket at SXSW.  And for good reason – their brand of synthpop is accentuated by the fragile, gorgeous voice of Lauren Mayberry, who bears some vocal resemblance to Ellie Goulding.

Ra Ra Riot – “Dance With Me”
Since their first release in 2007, Ra Ra Riot has produced consistently good, complex indie-pop.  Utilizing cello and violin, the group gives variety to the breadth of their songs – producing the lulling “Can You Tell” as easily as they do the more raucous “Dance With Me.”

Cayucas – “Cayucos”
An indie pop quintet from Santa Monica, Cayucas released this track as a single, ahead of their full album “Bigfoot” release, which came out this spring.  It’s a simple fun-fueled track that summons the “shake”s from the classic “Jump In The Line.”

**Bonus Track** If you've been looking for a good "Blurred Lines" mash-up, THIS might just be it.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Review: I’m So Excited

In “I’m So Excited,” writer and director Pedro Almodovar delivers a farcical, sometimes uncomfortable, character-focused romp.  The plot is fairly simple – a flight on its way to Mexico City must continue to stay in the air when its landing gear gets stuck – which places the majority of the movie’s focus on its characters – their sordid personal lives and polarizing personalities.

After the first class cabin’s three flight attendants – the effeminate and newly religious Fajas (Carlos Areces, “Talk To Her”), the free-spirited Ulloa (Raul Arevalo), and the honest-to-a-fault Joserra (Javier Camara) – have lightly drugged the passengers and attendants in coach, they are free to do as they wish. 

More often than not what they wish to do is disrupt the plane’s captains, entering into the cockpit for some bits of business that result in curious revelations about the seemingly hetero and married captains.  Almodovar’s script is heavy on wordplay, but it doesn’t solely rely on innuendo; he wants to show you as well as tell you.

If it seems that the plane’s captains have their secrets, so too, do the first class passengers.  There’s the potentially-psychic Bruna (Lola Duenas), hoping to lose her virginity; the notorious madam, Norma Boss (Cecilia Roth), whose fame might not be as great as her ego; and the white collar criminal Sr. Mas (Jose Luis Torrijo), who might not only be guilty of financial crimes.  While the fate of the plane literally hangs in the air, we see what these characters are really made of.

It’s this concept – placing characters in situations where they are being held captive by something or someone (often Antonio Banderas) to see what they’re really about – that seems to have fascinated Almodovar through multiple films.  It’s a main component in Almodovar’s previous effort, “The Skin I Live In,” but it can be felt too in “Talk To Her,” where a nurse (again, Carlos Areces) acts as a sort of captor to a woman in a coma, and in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” where a madman takes an actress hostage.  It’s as if Almodovar sees himself as a scientist, placing characters in a constrained petri dish, only lightly applying agitation, and waiting to see how the characters will react and change with time.

“I’m So Excited” manages to feel lightweight despite the heaviness that probably ultimately lies at the heart of these characters’ stories.  Almodovar seems to be commenting on the fronts that people put up, the facades that mask their true natures – but he does so with his own brand of camp and peculiar sexual preoccupations.  “I’m So Excited” is not nearly as arresting as “Broken Embraces” or “Volver,” but it’s lighter and campier.

The most disappointing moment in “I’m So Excited” may come at the very beginning of the movie, as we’re introduced to characters played by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.  Almodovar lures us in with these famous faces, and begins to build a compelling story around them, and just when we’re most curious he moves us on to the main story and forgets them.  He arouses us and then doesn’t let us see things through to the finish.  It might be a playful tease, but alas, it’s only a tease.  Perhaps it’s an experiment he’s saving for later. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Review: The To Do List

It’s the summer of 1993 in Boise, Idaho and Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) has just graduated, valedictorian, mind you, from high school.  Brandy is an intense achiever, and when she spots heartthrob Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) – voted “best body” in the yearbook – she puts her mind to the next thing she wants to achieve.

After an embarrassing encounter with Rusty at a party, Brandy, with the help of her more experienced friends, makes a check-list of all the sex-related things she wants to do by the end of summer, before she sets off for college.

As far as raunchy sex comedies go, “The To Do List” follows in the path of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Superbad.”  It certainly doesn’t skimp on the jokes – it’s filled to the brim with them – and it doesn’t shy from the scatological.  There’s gross-out humor aplenty.  But where “Superbad” (a film with a similar setting and many of the same cast members) had a story of friendship nestled in its soft underbelly, “The To Do List” remains flinty, only hinting at deeper themes.

That’s largely because the comedy of “The To Do List” can be a double-edged sword, with jokes and actions perhaps undercutting real character emotions.  Brandy is decidedly set on achieving her list, but ultimately, it seems only so that she can say she did.  For her, sexual encounters are never about loving, caring for, or even actually liking the other person, they’re always about achieving a goal.

Packed with a robust supporting cast, “The To Do List” does a good job of building scenes around genuinely unique characters.  Unlike this summer’s “The Heat,” whose characters felt so ridiculous and unimaginably incompetent, the supporting players here feel like they could really exist within this comedic world.  Even Rachel Bilson, as Brandy’s older sister Amber, who might be the most over-the-top, still seems rooted in this reality, and a scene of her physically fighting with Brandy is well-played against a scene of Cameron (Johnny Simmons) excitedly hugging Duffy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) after a phone call.

Screenwriter and director Maggie Carey wrote the script with Aubrey Plaza in mind, instructing her to do her version of Tracy Flick from Alexander Payne’s “Election,” and Plaza summons a prickly, defiant persona – one which supervisor Willy (Bill Hader) suggests has kept people at a distance.  And though there are opportunities for Brandy to change and lighten up, especially with Cameron, her lab partner with a bad case of puppy love, we never see that she’s changed in a big way.

There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with playing sex for laughs – here, 90s-era fashion and technologies are certainly played that way – but we never get the sense that Brandy is getting any sort of authentic enjoyment out of her physical encounters.  Because she’s never had any romantic experiences before, her flings seem less like acts of feminist liberation than of naïveté.  Brandy might look to the smiling photo of Hillary Clinton on her desk for feminist inspiration, but certainly Hillary would have a few things to say about casual sexual escapades.  Or at least she will in 1998.