Category Archives: Review
Around ten years ago at a bar in the Village a few hours before we rang in 2010, I had a spirited debate about what were the best albums of the decade that had passed. I still maintain on some (Discovery, Demon Days, Stankonia) while have forgotten others. As I’m reaching that point once again, I’m taking stock of the albums that have captured me in the last ten years.
I typically put them out in no particular order, but it felt right to put them in the order where they meant the most.
2018 – Mitski – Be the Cowboy
There’s more to Mitski’s latest album than fitting it into critics’ tired description of the sad girl breaking down over an electric guitar. On this one, the songs come from a blend of anecdotes and allegory. She pulls away from the curtain of these lives, constructed from songs like “Washing Machine Heart” and “Me and My Husband,” and allows you to look into for a fleeting moment. Is there still that tinge of melancholy that is part of her style? Of course, her lyrics very much keep that part in check. But the range of sound makes it deeper.
Favorite Song: The best way to describe the juxtaposition of despair and musicality in Be the Cowboy is in “Nobody”. Mitski cleverly mixes her desperation from solitude with a catchy indie-pop hook and it works.
2017 – Arca – Arca
This is what happens when you make an abstract Venezuelan beatmaker become BFFs with Bjork- you end up with something defenseless and cacophonous, brave yet jarring. Ghersi’s voice is arguably the most important part of this album, as it reveals her Latinx identity, using the folk song “Caballo Viejo” on “Reverie”, releasing a blossoming hurt in her voice mixed within the sweeping distortion. The distinctive marks of Ghersi’s industrial brooding remain locked in a melody of her own design, and somehow this strange monstrosity works.
Favorite Song: “Desafio” is the odd mutant out in the album. While the rest of the album is this sinewy beast, this starts with an air raid horn and Europop sensibilities. It’s her most accessible song to date, despite having lyrics that literally translate to throat slitting and euphemisms of orgasms.
2013 – Disclosure – Settle
Electronic music is in a weird place now that it’s in a more recognized place. That’s why it’s refreshing to find two brothers from Surrey take a modern spin on house music. Settle’s influences, ranging from deep house, synthpop, and UK garage, create a high-energy trip that harkens back to the 90s house beats I grew up on with flourishes and features that make the songs sound like they are a uniquely 2010s creation.
Favorite Song: “When A Fire Starts To Burn” chops up a preacher testifying and blends it with the thumps of deep house into a highly danceable banger. As the intro song for an album, it definitely let’s you know what you’re getting into really fast.
2012 – Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Years before Killer Mike became a Bernie Sanders stan or released a Netflix show, he was an underground virtuoso on his mixtapes. It was this album that served as a prequel of sorts, a prototype of what would become of his career in the 2010s. El-P’s synth-heavy beats served as the bedrock of Mike’s fiercely political lyrics. He
Favorite Song: “Untitled” comes in like Southern freestyle and becomes this dark meditation into Mike’s worry on his legacy, but it ends with a defiant punch at authority. That, with El-P’s production and tribal drumming in the back, bring out this almost-sinister track.
2015 – Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I have a serious issue with “woke” rap, which is really difficult to come to terms with living in a Black Lives Matter era. What saves Kendrick from the incredibly tired cliches of many 2010 conscious rappers is that TPAB weaves a clever mosaic of what it means to be a black American. Each song serves as a piece of the musical and racial history they have struggled, and Lamar (with the help of an amazing cast of features) pulls it all together into this pseudo-concept album that is not overbearing. Even when it veers towards protest rap, you still remember that it has the DNA of West Coast hip-hop. The tinges of jazz give TPAB a sound that seals its “instant classic” label.
Favorite Song: The parable in “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a powerful Kendrick narrative. It’s haunting, and you know that the person, refusing to be charitable to the divine, will end in heavenly ruin, but it’s still strong words nonetheless. The Ronald Isley outro is killer, too.
2016 – David Bowie – Blackstar
Can anyone listen to this album without the feeling that Bowie is telling you goodbye? It’s almost impossible on this one, and once again he reimagined himself for this album. This time it was of the artist in reflection, staring at what he’s created before it ends. Songs like “Tis A Pity She’s A Whore” and “Dollar Days” both recall his history while cryptically signal his end. The album isn’t dark, but one that rekindles your admiration for Bowie.
Favorite Song: The final song of his career, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a swan song, but the reason it’s good is that he’s cleverly telling us that he’s walking away, taking some of his secrets with him. Like any good rock star, they have to take the mystique with them.
2011 -Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
There are countless instances of indie-pop that came after this album but Florence Welch served as a standard-bearer with this one. Her distinctive vulnerability in lyrics is amplified in the baroque and bombastic (“Shake It Out”, “What The Water Gave Me”). On Ceremonials, Welch is a hopeless romantic with a booming voice that never stops howling for that lost feeling of love. And there’s no shame in diving deep into that spiral along with her.
Favorite Song: Florence Welch has made her share of hangover songs, with “Shake It Out” being one of them. But this one is somewhere between a celebration and a call for help on those 3 AM nights after way too many drinks. She’s reminding you about those dives into drunken abandon, but just maybe there’s a way out.
2014 – Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Fast-forward two years after Mike and El dropped not one, but two gritty, grimy collaborations that attracted a sizable amount of buzz, and they released a follow-up to RTJ1 that was unrelenting, grimy, and witty as hell. The bars Killer Mike and El-P trade-off on songs like “Close Your Eyes(And Count To Fuck)” and “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” take no prisoners and slap the everliving crap out of you over tried-and-true El Producto dystopia-scratch beats. The duo produced a brick to your face that has you asking for more, and miles from Def Jux and Pledge Allegiance To The Grind.
Favorite Song: “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is an introduction, to the normies as well as the hip-hop heads, to the assault they cleverly hide behind wordplay and fuzzed-out aggression of El-P’s beats and synths. It punches you in the gut, and you smile before you want more.
2010 – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
To take a bit of a phrase from comics writer Kieron Gillen and fuss with it, we all live in the shadow of MBDTF. Regardless of whether you are a Kanye stan or if you vilify him for the myriad faults he’s accumulated over the years, this album is epic, as badly as the word’s been overused. West takes the grandiosity of production and stretches it to what could be the closest thing to a hip-hop prog album readily available for the mainstream. His beats and words spill out the excess of his life to the maximum, and artists have been pouring it into their musical DNA throughout the decade (and perhaps more).
Favorite Song: It’s hard to choose a favorite from this album. His enormity and vulnerability seemed to have hit me at all points, and it eventually became a three-way tie between “POWER”, “Runaway”, and ‘All Of The Lights”. For personal reasons “Runaway” edged out, but from an objective POV, the song bangs due to how that simple piano intro can become an anthem for break-ups, arrogance, and insecurity all balled-up into genius.
The Tenth Spot
Now the last one should be reserved for the best album of 2019, which I’ve kind of decided at this point but you’ll see in another post. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had more of a soft spot for Gorillaz, so Plastic Beach takes the spot.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
There was no way beat the alt-pop perfection of Demon Days from last decade. This time around, they stayed on the wave with some added guests that really popped. We got De La Soul once again, but also Snoop Dogg and the pre-Yasiin Bey Mos Def. Newcomer Little Dragon was an outstanding standout while legends Bobby Womack and Lou Reed provided the foundation for an ambitious concept album only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett could devise.
Favorite Song: The intro to “Empire Ants” lulls you into a summer beach, Albarn singing you out of your comfort zone right as Yukmi Nagano pulls you into a vulnerable melody of broken machines.
A moment of full disclosure – I’m friends with Emma Larkins so my opinions on her debut sci-fi novel Mechalarum are slightly biased. That is why I decided a full review of Mechalarum would not be the best route as far as ruminating on it for my blog. It would be a damn-near Herculean effort in staying objective and telling you whether it’s a good book or greatest book. So, what I decided was doing what I do best and look at in a certain academic tone. There’s two in particular: the feminist undertones inherent in the novel.
What is really interesting in contemporary literature is in how YA books have pushed the female protagonist. YA fiction is female-heavy, which is an interesting turn on fiction in general given their popularity and how that shows the cultural shift in feminism in general. the interesting part of how that plays in Mechalarum is that a significant portion the time Kiellen the protagonist is badgered by others about a supposed romantic link between Gage, her friend and science-mechanic sidekick. The roughnecks of the lands outside the comfortable citadel assume that connection exists, just as many would in many real-life partnerships, but it is denied.
Kiellen tilted her head to glare up at Jey. “I’m not his ‘girlie.’ You keep saying that. I’m no one’s, save my own.”
The way it is written denotes a hangup all too familiar in real-world creative ventures, whether it be technology, music, or other fields. This is reminiscent of the type of rumors that are very common between a female musician and the male producer working on her songs, or how some men put down women in STEM by saying their worth is undervalued because of personal relationships with men. Larkins’ characterization of Gage does not infer that connection immediately but what is important is this question is this: is that truly important in the scope of the book? Sure, he takes many risks for Kiellen’s safety, but it comes from the standpoint of friendship for most of the story. When an intimacy – albeit a small one – forms between the two, it comes from the necessary position of Kiellen taking charge of the moment. That is pretty important for readers looking at a female character, seeing her take the first step instead of waiting for the guy to make the move. Overall it is interesting in seeing Larkins’ change of a male character like Gage to a dutiful, almost subservient role that is so routinely delegated to a female.
In the future I’ll think some more about the actual Mechalarum suit. There are things to it reminiscent of other suits in media, but for that post I think I’ll have to let it marinate in my head a bit more.
Next to a church and a bodega in Williamsburg there is a small hospital, Kingsland Ward, whose sigil is that of an old-style syringe with a pair of wings. Its doors opened punctually at 7:15 and a member of the medical staff led fifteen audience members to the primary office of the hospital. It also served as the starting point of Then She Fell, a play made by Third Rail Projects that tells the story of Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s fascination with the actual Alice Liddell in a manner befitting the madness of Carroll’s tale with a medical aesthetic. To prove this, the nurses served an “elixir” to the audience that was spiced liqueur served in a small wine glass covered with a sugar on its brim.
One of the doctors on staff proceeded to sit down in front of an old silver microphone and made a speech about the hospital. It was around this time that a nurse escorted two of the audience members from the office – I and a friend. The nurse led us up to the second floor, where the doctor’s speech echoed from speakers, until she left us in a small white room. It was divided into a small corridor surrounding a walled patient with windows where one could peer into the scene. And that first scene was a startling one. The Red Queen barreled through another door, in full regalia, tossing and turning across the floor. She reached for a pill bottle on the ledge closest to me and pulled at it until it opened violently. The pills flew all over the room, and she fell to ground. She then picked them up from the ground, one by one, straightened out her dress, and left the same way she came in.
The show was filled with many events such as that one, but there was a particular rule the doctor gave us at the beginning – only speak when someone from the cast speaks to you – that created this particular connection between the madness and each member of the audience. One person would be asked by the doctor how they would like their tea while another audience member prepared it from vials of tea leaves and spices. Audience members sat along with the Mad Hatter, White Queen, and White Rabbit – who instead of ears had a cane with a rabbit head that he would hand over to me when it was my turn at the party – and become a part of the continuous seat chances while the cast performed this synchronized ritual of teacup-tossing and plate-flipping.
The show became a personal one for many. Some audience members had probing questions asked by one of the two Alices as she changed her clothes, such as if they were in a relationship, etc. I sat in a tiny room covered wall-to-wall with roses as the Red Queen put a knife to the White Rabbit’s throat. In different moments I took dictation from both the Hatter and Lewis Carroll, scratching the former’s rambles with a fountain pen and the latter’s melancholic message to Alice with a silver pen. Carroll’s melancholy was warranted – he was in a constant struggle between two actresses with the role of Alice.
The two Alices were different in appearance and demeanor. One was demure and had tender moments with Carroll that were stopped by the advances of the other, more aggressive, Alice. That Alice was acrobatic, which was very apparent to me when she pulled me off to a small schoolroom with student desks stacked haphazardly up to the ceiling. She climbed to the top, and then slid down slowly using the strength of her arms as she held desk legs. Even from up high, her blue-eyed gaze was at times both hypnotic and innocent. When she reached the floor, she pulled out two vials containing a yellow liquid from one of the desk drawers. She gave me one—we both shook ours and drank them. It was a mix of honey-sweet liqueur and perhaps champagne, and although I knew I was not actually getting drugged the entire sequence was so mesmerizing I would not be surprised if I had been the case.
It will not surprise anyone that many compare Then She Fell that other avant-garde play, Sleep No More. What made Then She Fell came on as something other than a facsimile, mainly from the close interaction between the audience and the cast. There was not as much exploration but there was a journey – a great one with insane tea parties, haunting songs that echoed the halls and nurses that led one to even more wonders.
Many fans have seen a particular type of Trent Reznor live show in the past when Nine Inch Nails, specifically when you consider ones such as the Lights In The Sky tour. That show had an impressive visual aesthetic, with Reznor and the band in a LED cage producing a variety of visual insanity. The lights and media experience of the How To Destroy Angels show from last night at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ was a different beast altogether.
The silhouettes of the four members of the collective (with longtime NIN collaborator Alessandro Cortini on backup sound duties) appeared behind a fiber-optic installation that served as the foreground to the visuals controlled in real-time by Rob Sheridan, shifting from art director duties behind the scenes for NIN to performing onstage as part of the group. In a sense, Sheridan was the primal source of power of the whole show. Through his computer equipment he produced spinning isometric shapes and streams of color that came down the fiber-optic wires in ways that were very reminiscent at time of The Matrix. The band’s very attire served as an easel to the electronic spectacle – they all wore a very uncharacteristic white that made all the fans in the crowd wearing black band t-shirts look out-of-place.
Reznor played a more subdued role in comparison to singer/wife Mariqueen Maandig Reznor. She commanded the stage, swaying in her white gown in a way that gave her the appearance of a specter hidden behind the strings. At times the fiber veil retracted and she came out, re-materializing into the scene. One moment in particular was during her performance of “Ice Age” that was so emotion-wrenching she made a few pauses to hold back her tears. On the other side, when the veil moved back in its original position she pushed through its fibers violently as she screamed during “Welcome Oblivion”. Her range of soft melody to industrial shouts showed the difference in the band’s sound in comparison to that of Nine Inch Nails – the unrelenting sound of the latter replaced by an ethereal harshness of the former.
I left the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Avenue at around ten PM after three hours of walking up and down five floors of the building. I walked to the nearest PATH station wearing a white Venetian-styled mask sitting on top of my hat. My hand still felt mentally sticky despite washing them of the chocolate that covered a naked man about forty-five minutes ago. My right foot had a sharp jabbing pain. It was another pretty fun and bizarre Saturday night in the city, although this one more bizarre than usual.
On October 23rd, I saw Sleep No More, a play created by the UK-based avant-garde troupe Punchdrunk. The play devoured the insides of a building and replaced it with a 1920s hotel, mixing it with Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock – and just a little Stanley Kubrick – to create a non-linear retelling of Macbeth. After constant haranguing from my good friend Jeff, I decided to make a trip down from southern Massachusetts to the Chelsea district in Manhattan to see if it really deserved the hype.
There is no sign for the show, and the looks on the people waiting on line to a large midnight brown door showed doubt if this was the right venue at all. From the attire of the people waiting at the front, with women in flowing velvet skirts and men in retro three-piece suits, it was clear I was at the right spot. Despite buying a ticket for a later showing, which cut the length of the performance considerably, I tried my luck by showing up early. Luckily, my plan worked and I found myself holding my ticket – an ace of clubs playing card—underneath the red lights of a bar. One of the ushers, a slender woman in a tight black dressing, handed out the mask I’d be wearing the rest of the night. I asked a bartender from southwest England what the special was — to no surprise, it was absinthe punch. I pounded mine down after hearing the semi-aristocratic and spooky voice of one of the ushers calling for us to the elevator. He said “Welcome to Manderley” to me as I passed by. “Sure thing, Olivier,” I replied.
Another usher wearing a tuxedo spoke out the rules to all the watchers before he pressed the button on the elevator: Wear our mask at all times, don’t speak, and follow the instructions on the ushers wearing black masks. As a joke, he’d let out a few of the audience in groups, closing the doors behind them as he continued. There is a secret sixth floor open to random chosen audience members, but no one got lucky in my group.
He let the remaining watchers on the third floor – a long lobby with a concierge desk in front of a wall filled with hooks for room keys. Bookcases lined the walls and taxidermy animals and other foreboding early 20th century knickknacks sat on the top of bureaus and tables. I looked around until the first actor walked into the room. She played the role of Mrs. Danvers, the antagonist from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in the style taken from Hitchcock’s adaptation of the novel. She slowly moved around holding a tray full of glasses with a pitcher. Oddly enough, that actor was the most attractive of the night, at least to me, despite her white hair and the conservative servant’s dress she wore. I followed her, but she disappeared into a hidden door. The usher blocked me, so as I looked for another room, I took one of the room keys as a consolation prize and pressed on.
I found myself in the balcony overlooking a stage where a pair danced under blue lights. The female dancer – I assumed she was one of the three witches – was very androgynous, and the line blurred even more when she threw off her wig to show her shaven head. She like, many other performers I saw that night, was towering and lithe. Later that night I saw her in a chapel, performing a dance-attack mix attack on an actor kneeling in prayer. The room was so small that I almost took a kick in the chest when penitent actor flipped over the altar table. In another moment of assault, another actor charged through the crowd and jumped between metal walls, propping himself up in quick bursts and then sliding down. Later on the stage turned into a ballroom under lights of a warmer color, and seeing all the dancers move in unison even while performing in very difficult maneuvers was impressive.
It was during one of those dancing scenes that I picked up another keepsake. One of the witches and a male dancer passed a king of clubs to each other sensually from their mouths while performing on a pool t table. They left the card there and I snatched it the moment the crowd left.
I moved on floor by floor, moving away from most of the directions the crowd headed to save for a few times the characters ran to other places for a new scene. When forced into the crowd, I tried my best to fight my habit of pushing through older women, which was hard to do in the middle of a charge up flights of stairs. I was on my own most of the time. I ran through a thicket maze that led to a hospital room where an actor filled a bathtub with water. I touched it after the scene ended – it was cold and had a slight orange hue. Foreboding, that scene definitely was. I saw Banquo’s death and Mrs. Danvers hounding of poor Mrs. de Winter from afar.
Performers randomly interacted with members of the audience. The first one I saw involved a speakeasy bartender motioning a woman from her husband and to the bar. He played a card game – he put down three cards and one on his forehead. She guessed correctly and as a prize, he pulled out a bottle from a locked box and brought her over to an upturned box. He poured two glasses and drank one. He raised his foot on the box and moved closer to her, lifted her mask, and helped her drink the other glass. Later on that night, one of the witches grabbed another audience member and pulled her behind a hidden door.
In my disjointed path through the floors, Lady Macbeth had the most interaction with the audience. She slow danced with a male audience member, and handed her necklace to another person. My personal moment happened right after she let go of the necklace and fell to the floor. She put her hand out in the hopes that someone would pull her up. I stood dead center from her, so I reached out and grabbed her hand. She had stringy blond hair and wore a sequined black dress. I looked right into her pale hazel eyes as she moved in closer. She whispered to me and caressed my mask before kissing it on the right side. Later on, I saw her naked and crying, sitting in the bathtub as she rubbed the orange-tinged water on her body to clean the imaginary bloodstains off her body. Despite that scene, It was the moment when her face was inches away from mine that is embedded into my memory.
The one thing I wanted to make sure to see was an intense verse version of Macbeth’s visit to the witches, which my friend named the “techno orgy scene.” It became my only priority when I reached my last hour of the performance. The sound of throbbing bass coming from the fourth floor above me increased my desperation as I ran through the third, and I got lost in the maze and the hallways on the fifth– I don’t know how I skipped a floor, I wasn’t thinking straight at that point. As soon as I entered the fourth floor, I saw a small group of the audience walk through a slightly opened mirrored door leading into a room with flashing lights pouring out. I walked in and joined them as we surrounded the three witches and Macbeth. The bass wasn’t as loud as in a club, but it had this primal thump. The dancers slithered on top of each other, their clothes disappearing between flashes of light. One of the witches placed a black goat mask on Macbeth, transforming him into a clubbing Baphomet. The music turned brutal and the lights flicked rapidly. One witch held a bloodied baby doll in her arms, while another held up a small miniature tree as a priest would hold up a Catholic host. I turned to see the third witch pouring a black liquid on Macbeth’s chest. It trailed all the way down. It was around this time I did a conservative Jersey fist pump to the beat for a few seconds before anyone noticed it. The lights cut out and the music stopped. When the lights came on again, the only thing left was the baby and the tree. Seeing as it would be impossible – and insane – to steal the baby, I took the tree as a consolation prize. At least, I tried to. It fell out of my pocket on my way to the grand finale.
The entire audience returned to the stage to see Macbeth in the gallows. I saw the scene from the balcony next to Mrs. de Winter, rubbing her now pregnant belly, and the austerely posed Mrs. Danvers. The lights were deep blue, and when I peered down I finally realized just how many of us had walked through the five floors. The floor, packed with the white masked voyeurs, watched as our tragic hero stood upon the table – originally made for the banquet seen where the ghost of Banquo drives Macbeth mad—used as a makeshift gallows. After he made his last shout before the pulling of the lever, there was no sound save for clapping – no whistles or hoots or shouts. Even after the usher showed people the way back to the lounge, they made no sound. It was a quick shuffling of mutes.
The thing stuck to my mind, even as I write this, is that a persistent feeling of walking into a house of ghosts. Don’t confuse it with the feeling you get walking through a haunted house. Walking alongside them, hearing them whisper and at times making physical contact that serves as a reminder of the barrier of the scene that is unfolding. I hope I get to see something as mind-bending a feeling like sometime in the near future. For the time being, I’m going to go watch Hitchcock. I wonder what they would do with Vertigo.
Atari Teenage Riot – Is this Hyperreal?
Most reviewers criticized this album for having a dated political screed and a lack of change in their sound but honestly it doesn’t matter. A great comparison of this album is The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die. The band always kept true to their sound, with a couple of stumbles with Always Outnumber Never Outgunned aside. They came back out guns blazing, which wont to do for groups like The Prodigy and ATR. “Activate” opens the album with an upgrade to their electropunk sound, but only slightly. Adding CX Kidtronik to the band brought anew kick into the system, and as far as his opening statement on racism and Barack Obama on “Re-Arrange Your Synapes”. Other songs of note are “Black Flags” and “Digital Decay”.
Das Racist – Relax
I don’t even…just get on this. Heems and Kool A.D. are insane on the wordplay ( and that’s not to say anything of El-P’s bars on Shut Up, Man) and their references make Childish Gambino sound like a punk (sorry Donald, stick to funny). Oh, and “Punjabji Song’ is reminiscent of Punjabi MC on Jay-Z’s “Beware the Boys” but this song puts a flag on that then drops 16 weed-filled deuces on it.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know
OK, I have to finally admit one of my greatest sins: Up until recently, I’ve never had a good pair of headphones. I’ve always rocked the cheap Sony wrap-around blue sports one – it was the only one that’d survive my clumsiness – and now that I have these massive Skullcandy ones with the ultra bass, I’ve heard songs in completely new ways. I’m still not a snooty audiophile (I’m too lazy to convert to lossless formats) but…oh, the drums..the drums on a Shadow song on them.
Truth be told, The Outsider sucked. Only Phonte on “Backstage Girl” and “Artifact” saved that album for me. But from track one on The Less You Know… Shadow established that his scratching is back. The follow-up song”Border Crossing” sound like a poorly made 90s action movie version of “Artifact” (actually, check out “HYPERPOWER” from NIN’s Year Zero if you want a better version of this song). The “Stay the Course” team-up of Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is pretty solid; Kweli especially got to me seeing as he’s been off my audio radar for a minute. It’s amusing that Shadow dropped an emphasis on the lull in the next three songs by putting up a song titled “Tedium”. The slowed down vocals and acoustic guitar on “Enemy Lines” gives the album an Entroducing pick-me-up before the break beats of “Going Nowhere” rolls in. that, along with “Run for Your Life” should get any Shadow fan at attention. Sadly, on “Scale It Back” Yukimi Nagano does her first lackluster performance on a song she’s featured on.
Now, let’s get to the singles. “Def Surrounds Us” renewed my faith in Shadow with his effective use of vocal samples, pounding drum beats, a sprinkle of hyphy and dubstep, and pianos and apocalyptic choir singing. “I’ve Been Trying” was in the first lull I mentioned, so I didn’t realize it was a single. Oh, back the topic of new headphones: listen to the other single “I Gotta Rokk” on them. Trust me on this.
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
It’ s a little late to review this album without looking like a punk against ones like the fake Ghostface’s review. Instead, I’m just concentrating on the singers. First off, Frank Ocean dominates on his two songs; even if “Made in America” was one of the lesser cuts on WtH, he still delivers on it (and don’t get me started on his hook on my new banger “No Church in the Wild”). Truth be told, the only other ones of note is Elly Jackson of La Roux on “That’s My Bitch” and The-Dream on “No Church…”; I didn’t know that the unintelligible bridge on the “That’s My Bitch” was Bon Iver, nor did I really care. As for Beyonce on “Lift Off’, the song was pretty bad on its own, and she didn’t really help to bring it back. Mr. Hudson’s voice on “Why I Love You” reminds me of how the last time he brought something good to an album is still 808s & Heartbreaks. Oh, and Swizz Beatz needs to stop putting his “talking while straining through a bowel movement” voice all over a track.
Kasabian – Velociraptor!
Halfway through, I stopped listening it and went back to West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer
It’s interesting to see the career trajectory of these electro-Liverpudlians, not just in their sound but in their whole look. The aesthetic in their music videos and photos from each album mirrors the songs of the album attached to them. In this album’s case, there is this a baroque, upper-class sound far different from the utilitarian beats in 604 or the cold grinding pulses from Witching Hour. There are some glimpses of Velocifero in “Melting Ice”. Songs like “Altitude Blues” and “White Gold” reinforce an 80s sci-fi soundtrack vibe (even the album art is reminiscent of the opening scene from Blade Runner). One of the biggest issues with the album is that there are too many songs that sound alike; “Ace of Hz”, “Mirage”, and “Aces High (which is just a boring instrumental of “Ace of Hz”) are the culprits of this. Overall, this is not as good as album as the previous one.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
It took one song from her Actor album to really make me into a stan for Ms. Annie Clark (go listen to “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood. The title is deceiving.). “Cruel” lets her gets it starting with her great vocals (it kind of reminded me of Feist) on the end of her verses. Then she reminds you “Oh yeah, I still got the grind” on “Cheerleader”. The eponymous track has an 80s synth thing going on until it hits you with her guitar/vocal one-two punch. The album fades out a bit until “Hysterical Strength” which reclaimed my attention with its driving drums and piano.
Watch the Throne is already in my library – hearing Kanye beat out Jay-Z on this (I think that’s intentional, but on the other hand, Jay’s skills are waning) is good enough to make it a keeper. DJ Shadow and St. Vincent stay as well. I can’t say no to Shadow’s masterful sampling/mixing and Annie Clark’s singing/rocking.
Ladytron might grow on me like Velocifero did. We’ll see.
ATR and Kasabian
Willie Osterweil declares the Hollywood system dead. Long live the Hollywood system.
Film editor Willie Osterweil proposes a new type of criticism on The New Inquiry, one that is more egalitarian and eschews the director/marketing complex of an industry that sells movies like Juno the same way it sells movies like Transformers. Except, the concepts hes puts forth aren’t new, or that his jabs at sacred cows undermine his delivery of the message he’s making, along with the message itself.
He starts with a classic film student break play. It starts with a Cahiers du Cinema pass, a couple of dribbles from Herzog to Kar Wai Wong before setting up for his kill shot, his “film current” idea. This is his description of the concept:
“A manufactured zeitgeist, a false urgency sustained by the barrage of advertisement, conversation, and criticism about a movie that creates a sense that films reflect their cultural moment.”
He bemoans the way the current’s whitewater crushes any ounce of true criticism due to marketing tricks blinding critics and moviegoers. It’s a bloated idea that is best dissected using the word zeitgeist. By saying that there exists a constructed “spirit of the age”, he assumes that the ones before it were completely organic structures or that the entirety of moviegoers then were any less easily captivated by mediocre or bad films as they are now.
His attempt in convincing us to destroy the use of film critics shows how much farther down he is in the currents of reality, let alone a film one. His choice of letting the people choose and comment on a movie instead of the experts is a foolish one. People are easily swayed in the age we live in now. He should read up on how companies in other industries use Search Engine Optimization and social media to go past the critics and drive their marketing at the doorstep of the consumer. Criticism is, in many respects, a dead thought killed by the crowd-sourcing reviewers Osterweil is hoping will come (Hint: they’re already here, and they give us homogenized crap). He needs to read up on Christopher R. Weingarten’s attacks on the new democratic system in music criticism today.
On to the manufactured part of his idea – Crash is a mediocre movie at best. Whether by marketing ploys or by undeserved accolades, he thinks it’s a no-brainer to see its flaws. His complaint is a nicer way of saying, “Here, here! This is bad!, Why are you watching it?”
That is a complete waste of time. To think that Crash made every single review on the movie, and by effect on race relations, have merit or effect is asinine. You can go through forums throughout the internet and see comments on the movie that boil down to “This movie portrays white guilt!” or “This movie shows how racist you are!” It sounds eerily similar to the way sports fans or political junkies talk. That is how human nature works, Mr Osterweil, through mob mentalities that aren’t going away anytime soon.
As far as his beloved “sheeple”, at this point of Crash’s legacy, it is already showing signs of general disdain and is easily forgotten. This is not only from critics, but the masses as well. Go ahead, Google “most overrated Oscar winners”; I’ll wait. As for Slumdog Millionaire, we’ll see how well it fares in a few years. With critics like Salman Rushdie at the top of an already large number of Indians slamming it for its depiction of poverty tourism, that will wash away like anything else in his current, with almost no trace of it left behind. The bears will always catch and eat the weakest salmon, no matter what part of the current they are at.
He then takes a stand in rooting for the entire production crew of a movie instead of the director, a form of Marxist theory with a spotlight on the real Hollywood proletariat instead of the cinematic one in, say, Battleship Potemptkin. Another example at an attempt of creating a new form of criticism, the Schreiber theory proposed by David Kipen, barely any meat to it as well.
As for his use of statistics to show the horrible disconnect between the working masses behind the sets and the uber-auteur, let’s go back to music. The BLS has their total at 240,000. Another industry, Authors, writers, and editors have 281,300 . Now, off the top of your head name as many as you know in each profession. I’m sure it will be as comparable to the 200 Osterweil mentions in his manifesto. He’s making exceptions for an “exploitative labor relation” that happens in many industries, which makes his pseudo- “power to the people” idea very stale. Don’t bring numbers to a fact-checking fight.
It is true that many directors develop a cult of personality using the umbrella of the auteur mystique without really deserving them. What he fails to see is that directors themselves eventually lose their power, just like the rest of us. Film-makers like Scorsese keep theirs for longer while others like Shyalaman grind it away outright.
Osterweil concentrates on Nolan as his sacred cow/red herring to slaughter. His mention of Batman Begins as “a historical footnote” makes no sense in that Nolan’s use of an existing intellectual property in a different way led to The Dark Knight, one of the best action movies in a long time. That led to the casting of great actor (in this case Heath Ledger as the Joker) whose performance blew away almost all iterations of the character. To see a skilled actor like Ledger work on The Dark Knight and putting his all into it is a testament to both men, not just the director.
He also blames Nolan in failing to use his clout to push the envelope. Nolan is not as powerful as a producer/director like Steven Spielberg, who can do whatever he wants. His studio might have wanted to cast DiCaprio instead of someone Nolan thought fit the role better and lost that fight. They might have attempted to release the movie in 3D and hastily slap them in the shots and he won that one. No one is completely invulnerable to an industry owned by five major companies that have ruled the industry with an iron grip since day one. That’s why the indie film scene exists, Mr. Osterweil. If you don’t like being put down by the cinema “Man”, there are other ways of appreciating and hyping the movies that you like. Go use some of that newfangled social media idea to go around the big studios.
His comparison to Nolan with Michael Bay is clearly made to make a false polemic. That’s when you can start to notice his internet trolling at work. Read his article on technology enslaving us. He writes fourteen paragraphs to say what my high school chemistry teacher said on my calculator use: The machine is only as good as its user. All the small bites he makes in both his manifesto and that article show a severe lack of perspective on his part and a propensity to develop a florid, grandiose way of presenting incredibly simple ideas. All he wants from the reader is to make an educated response to make his criticism relevant to the discussion. It isn’t, mainly because it’s full of tired gripes and poorly used tactics on people who really know what they’re talking about. Osterweil needs to learn from Armond White: If you’re going to troll, do it right.
It’s another edition of Music OD, and this time instead of waiting a few months, I’m dropping this in just one. Let’s see what I’ve blasting from my headphones this month:
Atmosphere – The Family Sign: I must say, the opening two tracks are suicide-level depressing. The piano and guitar work (the work of Erick Anderson and Nate Collins, respectively) is on point throughout though, especially on “Became” which connects to Slug’s wintry narrative. His flow on that song is on par with “Lovelife” from God Loves Ugly. By the time acoustic guitar on “Who I’ll Never Be” comes up, it becomes apparent that the solo guitar on “Guarantees” from the previous album has stepped up quite a bit. Just keep to those types of songs on this one; the others sound like failed Ant beats or feckless indie rock. Read the rest of this entry
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and with the ridiculous amount of albums I’ve grabbed in the past few months, I think it’s time to OD on some aural goodness. Let’s begin, shall we?
Aloe Blacc – Good Things: Some of you may have heard some of Mr. Blacc’s work as the title for HBO’s How to Live In America, and after hearing his amazing cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”, I grabbed the rest of the album, and it is a damn good one hands down. John Legend fans should def. check this out, it’s soul music done right. Read the rest of this entry
So the time has finally come and 2009 is letting out one final push this weekend with James Cameron’s Avatar. Let me first start this off by saying that I have been waiting for god knows how long for him to submerge from his underwater adventures and finally get back to do the thing we all wanted him to do, which is making movies. Well, I’m glad he’s back, because Avatar was honestly a good return for him and a good movie for the masses. Warning, minor/major spoilers ahead.
In case you don’t know the story, let me break it down in a way that you can picture it: imagine the premise of The Last Samurai mixed with some Fern Gully and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (played decently by Sam Worthington) jumps into an alien/human hybrid in the stead of his dead brother. Then, he gets lost and captured by the Na’vi, the dominant alien race filled with warriors and hunters and alien horses that still look like horses, oddly enough. In the line of Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise before him, he takes to their ways and fights back against the evil military/corporate goons that are trying to destroy them to get to a mineral deposit ( that they literally called unobtainium in this movie. Wow.) Truthfully, this movie’s story and plot is a B-, at best. The only thing going for it in this department is that everyone plays their part competently (in the case with Worthington and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri) or downright good ( Sigourney Weaver as Dr Grace Augustine. and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker the slimly corporate goon).
Honestly, where this movie really shines is, undoubtedly, in the visuals. I watched it in 3D, with some trepidation mind you, as I don’t really see how it adds to the experience for most movies. Cameron went out of his way to make sure that it did, however. Halfway through the movie I stopped noticing it and was just engrossed by how well done it was integrated into the movie. Pandora was stunning, although the wildlife was a bit peculiar at times (you can definitely tell what the director has been doing for the last couple of years). From the Hallelujah Mountains to the Home Tree, the locations created were an incredible sight. The true centerpiece was how well the capture was done on the actors when in their avatar forms. Granted, other movies have also done great work, but it does take something else to make 8 foot tall blue people move and look real. This is definitely true for when Dr. Augustine is in her avatar form; Weaver and Saldana really do pop out from under the CG work.
As far as the Na’vi themselves, the aforementioned capture work made them very watchable, but thematically they weren’t too astounding. The Native American/African vibe they gave off was a bit overdone, and did add to an overall cliché feeling of this being just a space cowboys versus aliens epic. I can understand why going with something that goes off the monoculture that hard would be good for a worldwide audience. Again, I think a more alien approach would have been more interesting, but with a 2 hour 40 minute run time, I don’t think the crowds would have enjoyed a treatise on Na’vi culture.The one interesting aspect of the world in of itself was the neural connectivity bit for the trees, but it gets treated more like an environmentalism trope than it does a cool alien concept.
Speaking of message, others have already been mentioning the whole imperialism/ white guilt fantasy aspect of this movie. I have in the past bemoaned the fact there is s severe lack of ethnic love in the sci-fi genre, but truthfully, I’m not going to go angry brown man on this movie. It would just seem silly to when the movie clearly doesn’t care about cultural divides anywhere past the “he’s a demon, kill him!” and “you are not one of us” lines. I’m not expecting sociopolitical insight from popcorn movies.
Overall, I’d have to say that Avatar was a movie that despite the tired story and plot, was completely saved and uplifted by amazing effects and an well-done world building. I am really interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes of this movie when it comes out, I want to see all the ideas and tricks involved with making this work. Whether this movie will be as revolutionary as they want it to be is anyone’s guess, but it will definitely get other studios thinking about the possibilities.