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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Film Flashback: Design For Living

When longtime friends Tom and George (Frederic March and Gary Cooper) meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a young fireball of an advertising artist, on a train to Paris, there’s a barbed chemistry between the three.  Gilda quickly falls in with both men, seeing them without the other’s knowledge.  Of course, when this is revealed, the three do the only logical thing – take up residence together platonically.  Tom is a yet-unproduced playwright, struggling to finish “Good Night, Bassington,” and George is a fledgling painter.  Gilda decides its her task to bring out the best in them both, declaring herself a “mother of the arts” and opting to nurture their creative pursuits – by continually telling them their work is terrible until they’ve made it wonderful.

Based on the play by Noel Coward, “Design For Living” is filled with sharp dialogue, provided by screenwriter Ben Hecht, and some great bits of physical comedy that still manage to feel subtle within the film.  Rather risqué for its time (the film was released in 1933), “Design For Living” certainly paved the way for the likes of “Jules and Jim” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”  With its focus on just a few characters and snappy punchlines, the film feels as sleek as its well-heeled protagonists.

“Design For Living” plays at the Paramount Theatre Wednesday, July 24 at 7PM.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

How To Prepare A Possum at the Austin History Center

Austin, Texas is home to many food enthusiasts – from renowned multi-venture chefs to casual Instagramming brunchers.  But long before Paul Qui and posted photos of cream pies, food in Austin was much simpler.  Austin’s cuisine in the 1800s gets served up in the Austin History Center’s “How To Prepare A Possum.”  

The exhibition’s opening reception, held on Saturday, June 1, featured a menu drawing from 19th Century recipes.  Student chefs from the Escoffier school prepared ham and sweet potato croquettes, fried Gulf oysters, black pepper and cheddar cornbread and venison chili, and wildberry spongecake trifle with a Texas praline cookie.

While recipes from the early 19th Century were rare, there were many recorded for sponge cake.  At the time, recipes weren’t largely kept, except for special occasion dishes.

Some of the artifacts on display include early maps of the downtown Austin area (the city’s first meat market was located at 6th and Congress, perhaps no surprise), and a book by Frederick Law Olmstead, who’s journals about visiting Austin note the prices of dry goods for the time.

On July 31, the Austin History Center will host another event, recreating the 19th Century drinking experience at Scholz Garten, the state’s oldest continually operating food business, from 6-9PM.

“How To Prepare A Possum” runs through January 5, 2014 at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires

This article also appears on

"Want a little grace, but who’s gonna say a little grace for me?” Ezra Koenig sings on “Unbelievers,” the second track on Vampire Weekend’s new Modern Vampires of the City. Since landing on the cover of Spin in March 2008, lauded as “the year’s best new band” with a debut album that was just weeks old, it’s easy to argue that Vampire Weekend has received quite a bit of grace. The success of their self-titled debut quickly propelled the Columbia grads to prominence, but didn’t shield them from all the hype and expectations that come with it. Now, with the release of their third album, it’s more apparent that the grace Vampire Weekend has been afforded has been well earned.

Steering away from the single-minded approach that so many other bands employ after they've broken through as big as Vampire Weekend has, Modern Vampires of the City sets itself apart quickly in that it doesn’t have one mode in which it operates. There’s room here for the melancholy (“Obvious Bicycle,” “Hannah Hunt”) and the hopefully upbeat (“Finger Back”). The album’s first single, “Diane Young,” feels like a retro throwback with it’s near dance-ready pace and vocal cues seemingly taken from Jerry Lee Lewis on “Great Balls Of Fire.” It’s probably no coincidence that the song title could easily sound like “dying young.” While the album doesn’t offer one clear tone, it does serve some hints that Koenig and his bandmates are thinking about getting older.

“Unbelievers” plays like a more subdued “Walcott,” where that song’s frenetic pace has matured. Here, the bridge has a regal quality - sounding like something along the lines of “Scotland The Brave” - and Koenig is no longer just feeling stuck in Cape Cod, but stuck in the larger world. The singer uses these feelings as fuel, doing some of his loveliest singing on “Everlasting Arms,” a song which begins with an Eighties vibe, and ends with oddly haunting instrumentation courtesy of Rostam Batmanglij. “Don’t Lie” too marries a bit of a retro feeling with worries about growing older, as Koenig sings, “old flames / they can’t warm you tonight / so keep it cool, my baby.”

If Contra felt like it leaned more heavily on the band’s interest in African pop and differentiated rhythms, Modern Vampires feels more influenced by the likes of The Shins, The National, and Bon Iver. Even if “Step” borrows from Oakland hip hop group Souls Of Mischief, its chorus could have just as easily been sung by James Mercer as Koenig, backed by a Victorian-sounding harpsichord playing a “Pachebel’s Cannon”-inspired line.

Where Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut was instantly arresting for its jangly, catchy songs packed with odd imagery and repetitive choruses, Modern Vampires of the City asks politely for deeper listening. The somber “Obvious Bicycle” feels like more of a closer than an album opener, but it’s a song that trades in gentle commands, making a chorus out of the words “listen” and “don’t wait.” Which is precisely what Vampire Weekend would have you do.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

SXSW 2013 – Saturday: The Limousines, Paws, The Little Ones

If you wake up on the Saturday morning of South By Southwest and don’t feel like you might die, you might be doing it wrong.  The multi-day music frenzy can certainly take its toll, but the promises of day parties and warm sunny weather are too tough to pass up. 

On the patio of the Mohawk, Scottish rockers Paws slammed on their guitars.  Wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and with the ends of his dark hair bleached, lead vocalist Phillip Taylor looked like ‘90s skater – an image perhaps propped up by Taylor’s admittance that he’d spent the previous evening screaming at the Less Than Jake show like he was 15 again.  Paws was followed by the Canadian punk trio Metz.  How these dudes are able to channel so much energy into every song is completely remarkable.  They’re bombastically noisy – just as punk should be.

The Limousines at Dirty Dog
If there was to be an award for the venue having the stickiest floors in Austin, that award would probably go to the Dirty Dog bar.  On one hand, you have to appreciate a bar that’s not trying to pull one over on anyone – “dirty” is in the venue’s name (for heaven’s sake, their logo is a dog humping a woman’s leg) – but on the other hand, it’s nice to be able to freely move your feet.  Especially if you wanted to dance a little to the sounds of San Francisco’s The Limousines.  Their early electro-driven sound, most notably captured in “Very Busy People,” bore some resemblance to MGMT, but hearing the band now, it’s hard not to want to put them in the more raucous 3OH!3-type camp.  The band played a number of new songs, which will hopefully turn up on their long-anticipated second album, expected this summer. 

Los Angeles band The Little Ones played an enjoyably breezy set, unfurling their Ra Ra Riot-ish brand of indie rock best with songs like “Ordinary Song.”  Watching the band’s upbeat vibe on stage, for a moment it seemed possible to forget there was a festival going on at all.  At least, until you tried to move your feet.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

SXSW 2013 – Friday: Willy Moon, Shout Out Louds, Haerts

Converted into Rolling Stone‘s “Rock Room,” the front corridor of La Zona Rosa was quietly buzzing when Chicago’s JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound took the stage.  Dressed in tight dark blue striped pants and a not-quite-matching dark blue blazer, Brooks danced along to his songs, backed by a keyboardist, two guitarists, drums and bongos.  His vibe might be a little bit faux neo-James Brown, but his songs are definitely more offbeat – with chorus lyrics like “before you die, girl, give me that number,” and “Baltimore is the new Brooklyn.”  The band closed out the set with a soul-ified version of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” – which apparently has won them props from Jeff Tweedy himself.

If the Shout Out Louds seemed a little tired, it was likely because they’d played a 1AM show the night before, and had a full day ahead of them.  Touring behind their newly released Optica, sxsw is a stop off before a month of dates in Europe.  While Optica may prove to be a stronger album than their previous, Work, the band chose to end their set with “Walls” – a set that included the new “Blue Ice.”

Willy Moon at the W Hotel

On a balcony at the W Hotel at the Nylon Magazine party, singer Willy Moon arrived in a dapper suit (a move that proved dangerous, given how hot it was).  Backed by a female drummer in a black and white bra and a tall female guitarist in a low-cut black dress, Moon used his whole body to sing “Yeah Yeah” and “Railroad Track” – the latter which sounds like a layered version of “Hit The Road Jack” backed by Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”

In the early evening Auditorium Shores was absolutely packed with people who’d turned out for a free show from Divine Fits, Jim James, and The Flaming Lips. 

Auditorium Shores

Walking across Sixth Street, at least one band had made the decision to cover "Call Me Maybe."  Over at Empire Automotive, Los Angeles band Sir Sly cranked out a number of energetic songs, including “Gold” and “Ghost,” sometimes employing an organ-sounding keyboard.  (If the band is drawing comparisons to both Coldplay and Maroon 5, those seem unwarranted, but perhaps point more to the fact that the band's sound seems hard to categorize.)  They were followed by the New York band Haerts, who played a too-short set to a pumped-up crowd.  If it would be possible to have an indie band fronted by a young, alternative Bonnie Raitt, that might give some idea of what Haerts sounds like.


Friday, March 15, 2013

SXSW 2013 – Thursday: Iron & Wine, Delorean, Third Eye Blind

If there’s something that’s appealing about South By Southwest, it may be the ability to reach a lot of people very quickly.  For the faded San Francisco band Third Eye Blind, that may be part of the attraction to sxsw – reminding fans that they’re still around and trying to produce new music.  As they played on the rooftop of Hangar Bar, singer Stephan Jenkins explained they were working out new material.  Their last album, Ursa Major, was released in 2009, after the band had headlined a South By Southwest show at Stubb’s.  3EB played through some new songs, which often found Jenkins venturing into falsetto territory, and promised they’d play some older songs – which included “Crystal Baller,” “Never Let You Go,” and the audience-requested “Motorcycle Drive-By” (a deep-cut from the band’s 1997 self-titled album).  While 3EB’s musical style may not have changed much through the years, it does seem that the band, and Jenkins’s voice in particular, are indelibly linked to a certain time period.  If the current musical landscape finds bands feeling the influence of the 1980s, perhaps all 3EB needs to do is wait a few more years until late ‘90s rock comes back into fashion, and they’ll be golden.

Inside a very packed Mellow Johnny’s, Iron & Wine set up for a KEXP show.  Having performed the previous night at ACL Live, it’s likely that Sam Beam was feeling rather tired, as he admitted he hadn’t actually prepared a set list.  Instead, he let the crowd call out what they’d like to hear, and set about spinning beautiful songs from just his voice and guitar.

While huge crowds gathered around The Belmont for an incredibly stacked show that included Surfer Blood, Atlas Genius, Alt-J, and The Flaming Lips, Rainey Street seemed like the manageable alternative.  At Clive, Brooklyn’s Sinkane played a set of funky grooves – originally from Sudan, Ahmed Gallab formed Sinkane after playing with Yeasayer, Caribou, and Born Ruffians – bands whose influences you can hear in his music.

A while later, Spain’s Delorean appeared, and set the crowd to dancing.  While the sound system nearly obscured singer Ekhi Lopetegi’s voice entirely, the crowd still moved to the music, and the keyboardist certainly didn’t shy away from rocking out.  Outside of the recognizable synth pattern of “Real Love,” it was a bit hard to distinguish the songs.  But maybe this music just needed to be felt.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SXSW 2013 – Wednesday: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Youngblood Hawke

Macklemore at Antone's

On Austin’s East Side, well before 7PM, hundreds of people were lined up to get into the Spotify outpost at 1100 Warehouse.  Inside, a sea of Spotify-branded graphics spun around the metal walls, and two stages (the second being a catwalk) were set.
On the non-catwalk stage, the six-piece LA band Youngblood Hawke played.  While two of the band’s members formerly belonged to the oddball indie outfit Iglu & Hartly, Youngblood Hawke seems to have none of that band’s goofy weirdness.  If it’s possible to design yourself to be a band that eventually becomes loved by adult contemporary pop radio, Youngblood Hawke may be poised to do just that. 
Most of the crowd was there to see Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, who’d created a stir last year with good kid. m.A.A.d. city.  Lamar worked the crowd and the stage – his crew took advantage of the long catwalk, jokingly striking mock fashion poses as they walked to the end.  With his DJ punctuating most of his songs with the classic radio DJ air horn sound, Lamar hit his high notes, including “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).”
Later, across downtown at Antone’s, hip hop duo Dead Prez rapped against traditional schooling, and Stic brought out his 11-year-old son (dubbed “Small X”) to show off his guitar skills.  The crowd all sang along to the guitar line of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  The duo closed with a new song, “Time Travel,” but they also enthusiastically delivered “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop” and “Mind Sex” (whose lyrics are pretty great).

But the night really belonged to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, whose star has been burning incredibly brightly since the explosion of “Thrift Shop.”  In a set that seemed like part “VH1 Storytellers” (in a good way), Macklemore brought out numerous collaborators from The Heist, including the terrific Seattle soul singer Allen Stone, on “Neon Cathedral,” and the distinctively smooth-voiced Ray Dalton, on “Can’t Hold Us.”  Part of Macklemore’s magnetism is his aggressive positivity and sense of humor.  At the beginning of the set, he explained that earlier in the day he’d energetically performed at Waterloo Records for about a minute and a half before Ryan Lewis informed him that there was no sound and the crowd couldn’t hear him.  “Find it on youtube,” Macklemore said, “there’s some comedy.”  In his mind, he was out there being the “honky Michael Jackson” (his phrase), but to the crowd it just looked like he was miming hip hop motions.  Of course, inside Antone’s he definitely rocked it out, performing “Same Love” with Mary Lambert and “Thrift Shop,” and telling the crowd that it didn’t even feel like a South-by show, but rather a weird basement party.  What more could you ask for?  Cue the air horn sound.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

SXSW 2013 - Tuesday: The 1975, Blondfire, Robert Delong

While the South By Southwest festival officially opened March 8 for Interactive and Film-goers, Tuesday night marked the start of the Music portion.

Robert Delong kicked things off at Pandora’s Discovery Den at Antone’s.  Working with a drum kit, synthisizers, and a looping machine, Delong functioned as a one-man band – creating the ‘80s-ish background music and singing over it.  It’s like he’s a mash-up DJ instantly mashing up his own music.  He brought out what looked like a Wii game controller and used it to control the backing music with whole body jolts, and mixed in a little Talking Heads sample of “Once In A Lifetime,” for good measure.  If you combined ‘80s synth with the sonic dystopia of Skrillex and added a good dose of Caribou, you might get something like Robert Delong.  And he’s a man in demand – he’s playing at least 12 times during the festival.

Things at the Belmont were running late, so before Blondfire hit the stage, Charli XCX performed.  While she’s had some success working with Icona Pop on “I Love It,” none of her songs are quite as catchy as that one – even when she’s sampling Gold Panda.

Unfortunately, because the stage at the Belmont is on a strange decline, it was fairly impossible to actually see the Los Angeles band Blondfire.  It’s possible the lead singer, Erica Driscoll looks a bit like Jennifer Morrison, but who could really tell?  They played a brand of indie pop in line with San Francisco’s Minipop, but seemed to save most of their energy for their closer, “Where The Kids Are.”

Inside the BBC 1 showcase at Latitude 30, Tall Ships was wrapping up to make way for the Manchester, UK band The 1975.  They’ve rather rightly been compared to ‘80s bands like New Order, but employ more jazzy guitars and longingly expressive looks from lead singer Matthew Healy.  Healy pithily introduced the songs, saying things like, “This is a song about sex,” and then playing the song “Sex.”  Gotta keep it simple.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Hubble (Used To) Got You

A model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Ever wonder just how large a space telescope is?  This weekend a full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope was on display outside the Long Center.  The telescope reaches four-stories tall, with a sunshield that’s roughly the size of a tennis court.

About 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble, the James Webb is expected to launch in 2018.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Now Playing: Flight Of The Butterflies

For all those nature doc lovers out there, the Bob Bullock History Museum is currently showing the short, and incredibly immersive, "Flight Of The Butterflies."

The film combines the true story of Canadian researchers who tracked the migratory patterns of Monarchs with a basic biological look at how Monarch butterflies live, breed, and survive.

While the film is only 44-minutes long, the 3-D IMAX experience remains powerful throughout -- popping with bright colors, vibrant scenery, and Monarchs so close you feel like surely you could reach out and touch them.  It's an order of magnitude better than watching something on your iPhone -- and you just might learn something.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Exxopolis At The Long Center

Architects of Air: Exxopolis Luminarium opened this morning on the lawn of the Long Center.  The five domed exhibition runs through January 27.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

A Few Small Joys Of 2012

While this doesn’t proclaim to be a “best of” list in any regard, it does serve to highlight a few gems that made 2012 worth smiling about.

My Heart Is An Idiot:  Essays by Davy Rothbart
As the editor of Found magazine, Rothbart spends a lot of time combing through the secrets and stories of other people’s lives.  In this set of essays (ala David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell), the ever-affable and big-hearted Rothbart opens up about his own life.  Rothbart’s a charming troublemaker bent on fully living his own experience and writing compelling prose about it.

“Cabin In The Woods”
Somehow both subverting and embodying the ideas behind what makes a horror film (and yes, what makes a good horror film), “Cabin In The Woods” presents its horrific scenarios in service to its story, rather than out of pure gratuity.  The Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard-penned script doesn’t overlook character development, and its workaday “B” storyline, featuring Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, emerges as the surprising engine of the movie.

“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
It may not be possible to watch this film without crying or falling in love with Quvenzhane Wallis, the movie’s six-year-old star.  Based on the stage play “Juicy And Delicious,” “Beasts” can feel more like a lucid dream than a film.  It has a mystical quality that helps keep the crushing realities of loss of home and family at bay.

On the surface, it seems like there are 100 ways this movie could be terrible, but with its inventive well-developed story, forceful characters, and irreverent flourishes, it’s surprisingly funny.  The humor is often dirty, but Seth MacFarlane’s story of a teddy bear come to life, who continues to live with his best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) in a prolonged state of adolescence may be the funniest movie I saw this year.

Jeff Mangum at ACL Live
No one can make you want to both cry and make-out in public like Jeff Mangum.  The Neutral Milk Hotel singer’s acoustic set at ACL Live leaned heavily on songs from In An Aeroplane Over The Sea and it was beautiful to watch.

“The Colbert Report”
It’s hard to believe that Stephen Colbert has been delivering his hard-headed satire for seven years.  Whether highlighting “Difference Maker” (nee high art proprietor, nee exotic dance club owner) Stephen Dick Jr. or spoofing the sad Sarah McLachlan pet-adoption ads, the show is better than ever.

“Shut Up And Play The Hits”
If there was one music documentary to be impressed by this year, this was it.  From directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, who’d previously made the documentary “No Distance Left To Run” about the band Blur, “Shut Up…” has a purposefully narrow scope.  The film takes place in the week leading up to, and the day after, LCD Soundsystem’s final concert, at Madison Square Garden.  Showcasing footage from that show, along with an interview by Chuck Klosterman (whose nasal voice adds an excellent texture), the film follows James Murphy as he pointedly chooses to shut down his band while he’s still on top.

“Shut Up…” doesn’t lean on typical documentary conventions – it’s very rare that anyone looks into the camera directly, or even pays it particular attention.  The view is much more fly-on-the-wall, allowing the film to pull off the feat of feeling both intimate and removed, like watching characters in a play.  We’re right there with Murphy, watching intently as he exercises the want to maintain ultimate control, even if that means organizing his own funeral.