Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Hilarious Pump Up Video for Northwestern

Northwestern has their first Big Ten game of the season on Saturday at Iowa. We're 4-0 against some middle of the road non-conference teams, and Iowa is coming off its first loss of the season to Pittsburgh. I'm nervous about the game, especially after CJ Bacher's 4 INTs last week. Hopefully Tyrell Sutton is healthy like the coaches say he is and we'll have a more balanced and successful offensive attack this week. The defense played pretty damn well, but they've yet to face a truly equal opponent, so we'll see how that goes.

In recent weeks there's been a video circulating through the campus of a fantastic video created by an NU alum. does a lot of college news videos, and I know a few people that now work for the site, but one creation in particular stands head and shoulders above the rest. Mo Greene's "Go U" is a very funny piece of work as well as a pretty good pump up for football fans. A ton of my friends are in the beginning of the video, and the shout outs to key players make the song nice for this season.

A few questions though: Did we need the last minute of this video where Mo Greene basically shouts idiotically and speaks in a gravelly tone about the players? Why is he rapping in an empty stadium, we couldn't try and get some extras in there to be fans? I know there are people devoted enough to NU football to appear in a video, even one as cheesy and ridiculous as this one is. Take a look:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue

This review appears in edited form on North By Northwestern.

As far as solo albums go, Jenny Lewis' eventual separation from her band Rilo Kiley was fairly obvious. Over the course of their career, Lewis had taken more and more of a lead role, overshadowing her band mates in public fascination, if not always in talent (I still have a giant soft spot for Blake Sennett). When Lewis came out with her debut solo effort Rabbit Fur Coat with the help of the Watson Twins in 2005, the surprise wasn't that she had done solo work on a Rilo Kiley break, but that she'd switched genres. That first album dabbled in gospel and country, leaving us all wondering if she'd gone all Nashville on us for good.

Lewis' follow-up solo effort Acid Tongue takes us in a completely new direction for her. She isn't so much concerned with playing a different genre, but changing a perception. Her first album created a good-girl image; here she's at work deconstructing that image, dirtying it up and doing her best to go bad. Much like Under the Blacklight created a seedy, unfamiliar atmosphere for Rilo Kiley, this album is forward-thinking, if not as strong as her debut.

I'm not sure what it is about this year, but a good amount of records are starting off with lackluster tracks, and Acid Tongue unfortunately falls into that category. The worst offender is probably "The Next Messiah", which is an eight-minute-plus medly that sounds like the black sheep child of The Who and one of Green Day's punk operetta's from American Idiot. It's got too many undercooked ideas packed into one track, and for the first four songs on the record, Lewis sounds too constrained, too caught up in trying to force a change in her perception.

Thankfully the title track comes in at just the right time to shift gears completely. "Acid Tongue" is exactly the kind of catharsis the album needs to shake off the frills and heavy production clogging the music so far. Lewis has been performing a lot of these songs live for years, including the title track, and they sound so well-travelled. Backed by a country-tinged chorus of helping voices, Lewis strips everything down to a very real image of herself. The line "To be lonely is a habit / like smoking or taking drugs / and I've quit them both / but man was it rough" does more for her than anything in the behemoth "The Next Messiah."

From the title track on Acid Tongue plays like a completely different record. It sound freer, more in tune with going for broke and having fun while maintaining an edge. "Carpetbaggers" is an easy standout that maintains some country twangs of Fur Coat but rocks more than any track on that album, and the macabre storytelling of "Jack Killed Mom" keeps with the darker progression both Lewis and her band have been taking through their career. Where gospel invaded her debut, there are bits of soul sprinkled liberally through the later tracks on Lewis' sophomore effort, and she isn't afraid to let her voice explore that style.

After two records, it's still hard to gauge whether Lewis is better off without her band. There certainly aren't full arrangements on the album that could've done with a little guitar meddling from Blake Sennett, but with a guest list that contains Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel, and Lewis' boyfriend Jonathan Rice, there's no shortage of star power. Lewis has the chops to create a cohesive and compelling tune on her own, but Acid Tongue stumbles out of the gate with a few weak songs. That isn't to say there aren't very strong tracks later in the record, but one wonders if she had the whole band together if those kinks could've been worked out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Jack White & Alicia Keys Do 007

There was some juicy gossip news months ago when Amy Winehouse whined about producers of the upcoming James Bond film Quantum of Solace nixing her theme song attempt. What followed was a denial from producer Mark Ronson, and the announcement that none other than Jack White and Alicia Keys would be performing a duet on the actual theme song.

Well, now the day has arrived. The track has been played on European radio and already ripped onto the internet. The track is called "Another Way To Die" and features some odd production for a Jack White track.

It's interesting, I'll give it that, and hearing Keys and White singing opposite each other is surely a trip, but I'm not sure if this really belongs in a Bond movie yet. Maybe another couple listens will help me make up my mind. I am digging the piano, strings, and drums combo underneath the combined wailing of Jack and Alicia.

Take a listen, tell me what you think, and ignore the radio interruptions in the track from time to time.

Jack White & Alicia Keys - "Another Way to Die"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Take Two: Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley is probably the most high-profile band to have ever signed to Saddle Creek, after Conor Oberst of course. They rode a wave of indie praise through their early albums, but as of late have not garnered as much critical acclaim, and I don't really know why. Indie critics hypocritically hate two things: bands that deviate from their sound too much, and bands that always sound the same. They want bands that don't deviate to experiment with new sounds, and want bands that go down the rabbit hole to just do what they loved in the first place. It's a lose-lose situation. I don't know why, but for some reason I've liked everything I ever heard from Rilo Kiley. They do different things on different albums, but every time it works for me.

Take Offs and Landings

"Science Vs. Romance" - I love how low-key the first couple songs on their debut record sound. It's very sparse, with Jenny Lewis' voice taking up most of the space, and it's a beautiful one. I know a lot of girls who would go gay for Jenny Lewis after seeing her in concert. This song has such a mellow tone to it, but the lyrics lambast the idea that love can be thought out scientifically, thus the title. Romance is a fluid and ever-changing idea that doesn't have plans that always work, and this song gets that point across nicely. The end of the song drives into a great guitar solo and breakdown, moving away from the completely toned-down sound of the record so far.

"August" - I really dig Blake Sennett, but across Rilo Kiley's albums they've started decreasing his songwriting input, which is a shame. This song, like a lot of Rilo Kiley songs, succeeds on its simplicity. It's a simple message, a simple riff, a simple sound, not much vocal stretching, but I like the sound a lot. There are times where all you want is something stripped down to its bare elements, and Rilo Kiley does a good job of crafting songs in that vein, albeit with a few little production touches here and there.

The Execution of All Things

"The Execution of All Things" - I love the high-pitched guitar line that comes in right before the end of the first verse, as well as the stream-of-consciousness lyrics from Jenny Lewis. They got more atmospheric on their second album, with more little digital blurbs going in different places, but they still kept a great guitar boom between the verses.

"With Arms Outstretched" - A great build from acoustic guitar and Jenny Lewis to a more chorus-like vocal track with many voices, even building to group clapping as the song closes. I like the stripped-down feel and softness of the track, and it slips very nicely into the end of the record.

More Adventurous

"Does He Love You?" - Around this album was when Jenny Lewis pretty much took over all songwriting duties, and she got really amazing at storytelling in her songs for this record. This tells the story of a mistress in heartbreaking fashion, and the emotional highs and lows that Lewis hits in her vocals are amazing.

"Accidental Death" - Perhaps the greatest verse in all of Rilo Kiley's songs is the second verse, about a story of a father hunting deer. The instrumentation is wonderfully layered, the drums echo greatly, the guitars hit the right intensity, and those lyrics are the kind that make me wish I could write a song like they do. It's one of the best songs of the decade for me, and my favorite song on the album.

Under the Blacklight

"Breakin' Up" - A lot of people don't like this album, but I still really dig it as a distinctly LA breakup record. Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett had recently broken up, and just like No Doubt ten years earlier they got a great breakup track out of it. I love the little guitar riff that floats through the song, and for a former child actor and LA resident for a long time, Jenny Lewis does a damn good job of sounding a little bit country in her singing.

"Smoke Detector" - The best lyric on the entire album to me is the second verse when Lewis sings "I took a man back to my room/I was smoking him in bed" then for the rest of the song she only sings "I was smoking in bed." It's like a wink to the audience, only in lyric form. The song is very 60s-simple pop as well, but there are still sleazy LA dark bits around the edges. I love the way that they made a light sounding album full of so much dark little bits sprinkled throughout the songs. Most people say its their worst record, but I really think Under the Blacklight was a great step in a new direction for the band. Unfortunately, with Jenny Lewis rising as a solo artist and the strain of a breakup and increased success, it could be their last.

Non-Album Tracks
"The Frug" - Some of the best Rilo Kiley songs are beautiful for their simplicity. This is one of the best for that reason alone, but the utter catchiness of the melody does a lot to help.

"Teenage Love Song" - Most of the time its annoying when non-teens sing about teenage life, but the attitude Jenny Lewis has as she sings forlornly on this track makes me believe she can fit back into a teen mindset. The song is simple, heartbreaking, humorous, and somehow very calm.

Friday, September 12, 2008

NU vs. Duke Redux: Escape of the Wildcats

Northwestern went 2-0 for the second straight year, barely scraping out a 24-20 win over Duke in Durham, North Carolina. Last season Duke broke their 22-game losing streak by defeating NU in Evanston 20-14, and this year's affair was no less of a nail biter.

In short, they played like crap for a lot of the game, as if they were trying to lose the game to Duke for the 2nd straight year. CJ Bacher is a pretty good quarterback, but he's very streaky. It's why he threw just as many touchdowns as he did interceptions last year. If he's on, he'll throw great passes all over the field; if he's not, like against Duke, he can't really do anything to help the team beat even a mediocre opponent.

Not that the blame should rest only on him, the NU defense let Duke move down the field almost at will, and without a lot of their best players no less.

Tomorrow, we play Southern Illinois in another non-conference game we must win. With Ohio actually challenging Ohio State, I'm concerned about our game next week against Ohio, but we can't afford to look that far ahead.

Hopefully we get another win. We need to go 4-0 before the Big Ten season begins, and then we'll have a shot at a bowl game.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Review: Matt Black - Pitch Black

Back in the summer before my senior year of high school, I did a summer film program at Northwestern. I stayed there for five weeks learning some film theory, writing an original short film, and watching at least two movies a day. A lot of the kids from that program went on to film school, at USC, NYU, Northwestern, or a number of other places. The funniest thing that happened in the dorm were rap tracks that got made by different sections of my hall (East Side, West Side...yeah it was kind of lame). A couple of the kids were actually talented producers or MCs, and its one of those kids that I’m talking about today.

Matt Black (or Matt McFerrin if we’re going by birth names) made a sick film, and was an even better freestyle rapper, especially at 3am after ordering Papa John’s. He had music posted up on a MySpace
for a long time, but I assumed that like most amateur musicians he’d go do something else and those tracks would end up being the last real rapping he ever did. How surprised was I to find that he put out his own indie rap album just a few weeks ago?

Pitch Black is a crazy cacophony of instrumentation, beats, and samples. Matt doesn’t exactly have a heart-wrenching tale to tell with his rhymes, but he does pull out all the stops to make everything he does really fun to hear. It only takes a few plays for songs like “Track 9 From OutaSpace” and “Back From the Jungle” to be a very silly kind of entertainment due to the production values.. Matt careens through rhymes that seem nonsensical, but then I consider that it sounds pretty much like I do when I bounce from pop culture reference to reference in conversation.

I used to have this personal stigma against any rap that didn’t tell a story or have a social purpose like N.W.A., but the more I delve into the genre the more I can separate talented musicianship from the crap that is just shitty party music (Nelly, most if not all Crunk music). Pitch Black walks a fine line in my rap tastes, never being too senseless in its random pop culture and Mary Jane references and containing enough fantastic production to keep me listening if only for the beats. Matt’s flow isn’t deep or imposing, but it sounds like he loves what he does and is having a shitload of fun on every track.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for music that’s created by people I know, and if I was going into journalism that lack of differentiation would be a problem, but I’m not. I really like the album, I have a good time listening to it, and it helps that the production is pretty damn top notch. You may not like his voice, his flow, or his rhymes, but I do, and the beats are universally likeable enough to give it a shot.

Matt Black – “Chemically Enhanced”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Box Office Mystery of Tyler Perry

There aren’t too many filmmakers that I outright do not care for at all. I don’t like the films of Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, or Uwe Boll, but I don’t harbor ill will against the people themselves, just the poor-quality films they turn out. I can’t say the same thing about writer/director/douchebag Tyler Perry.

A playwright by the age of 18, Perry has made his own fortune touring his sentimental yet “edgy” family dramedies around the country, featuring his own “original” character Madea (how original is a heavyset, opinionated, wise-cracking black woman, even if its a guy in drag?). When he made the transition from stage to screen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, I wasn’t surprised to see critics collectively pan the film. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t even mediocre. The film was poorly made, poorly written, poorly acted, and was far too cliché, borrowing liberally from other stories and situations that had been done better before Perry chose to drop Madea into them.

What was surprising was how the box office figures turned out. Now we’ve seen people turn out for bad movies before, and my favorite moment of the Hollywood elite not understanding audiences may be Chris Rock’s video at the 2005 Academy Awards where moviegoers tell him their favorite movies of the year were White Chicks and The Chronicles of Riddick, but Tyler Perry becoming a franchise (mainly in the Bible Belt, but there are sizeable audiences elsewhere) just seems wrong to me.

The man doesn’t seem to have any original ideas, and brings back Madea far too often to be the stereotypical loud, angry, black woman who just cracks jokes. I love Kevin Smith, and the knock that he always relies on Jay and Silent Bob is a little bit of a different case to me. The two have very minor roles in Clerks and Chasing Amy, and got their own specialty film in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but they actually provide insight and a moral compass to Smith’s films.

Perry’s films are vaguely religious in their tone, and to that end he’s right when he says Hollywood doesn’t understand the audience of his films. Most big art – and by that I mean television, film, and music - is not made by devoutly religious people anymore; artists don’t require the patronage of wealthy devout people or the church to create works of art.

Where I don’t like Perry on a filmmaker level is that he is bulletproof to bad ratings and devoted audiences drink his stuff up like Kool-Aid. Films like the Movie have seen declining grosses over the years as the terrible ratings rack up, but the devoted audience Perry has cultivated seems content with buying tickets to see his plays, DVDs of his plays being performed, tickets to the movies based on his plays, DVDs of those movies, and continuing to see everything he produces. Perry is a figure that works outside the system, mocks it, and survives the way artists never used to be able to: making money in spite of the lack of quality of their art.

His new movie The Family That Preys comes out on Friday, and in light of the critical beating he’s taken over the years I’m anxious to see if he’s finally made a respectable film, or he’s just recycled another plot that we’ve seen a million times before and packaged it so that his core audience will deliver him another typically-sized profit. It’s as though he doesn’t strive to bring in a bigger audience, to convert nonbelievers if you will. He is uncompromising, difficult, and shuns those that don’t “understand” what he does. If it’s critically substandard, and the ratings all over the internet reflect that, I think people understand fine.

Review: Kings of Leon - Only By The Night

There are few bands with as deep a mystique as Kings of Leon. Three sons of a preacher and their cousin playing the devil’s music, that’s how they get summed up. They’ve gone through a critically acclaimed debut, an acclaimed deepening of style on a follow-up, and an epic, daunting third record. Amid all the alleged drug use, promiscuous sex, and rehab the group has gone through, I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that their newest foray, Only By The Night, is a record properly absorbed in a candlelit room with a partner.

With the exception of “Sex on Fire”, which plays like a very good, if significantly less metaphoric or subtle, companion piece to “Molly’s Chambers”, the entire record plays like different variations of rock slow jams. It’s like southern-fried rock mixed with R&B. They still maintain that air of classic southern rock, and they’re not breaking new sonic ground with this stuff, but nobody’s ever accused Kings of Leon of being forward-thinking. They’re not revolutionaries, they’re just really good at what they do.

Their sound occupies more space this time around, with voices echoing off into the air and guitars lingering in reverb. His voice is much less of a growl or a drawl and more of a croon, especially in songs like the verses of “Use Somebody.” You keep waiting for the band to kick the tempo up a notch, but it never comes, and you never seem to mind. They’ve slowed their songs down and made them very night-friendly.

They’ve always been overtly sexual, even when including religious imagery. Just take a look at the song titles (“I Want You”, “Sex on Fire”, “Use Somebody”). “17” is dripping with Lolita-esque eroticism as it ponders an underage sexpot (eerily similar to “15” by Rilo Kiley, albeit from a first person perspective instead of third). There aren’t may loud come-ons, just slow burning croons that seduce over time, it’s a delayed release of lust over the course of forty-five minutes.

The album is calm, contemplative, but still contains a layer of erotic tension. His voice, no matter how quavering, always has an air of desire. I can see a ton of these songs being used over sex scenes in indie movies for years. It’s a really solid record from beginning to end, even if there aren’t really any popping singles besides “Sex on Fire”. Only By The Night works as an album, played all the way through during the night, and as a very atmospheric work it succeeds greatly.

A lot of odd things were said about Kings of Leon through their early years. They got unfairly and inexplicably compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd for being a good rock band from the south, and were allegedly virgins on their first tour; but four albums in, they’ve established themselves as a very strong force in rock. This album saw the exploration of a completely new kind of sound within their parameters, and it begs excitement for whatever direction the band chooses to go in next.

Kings of Leon – “Sex On Fire”

Sunday, September 7, 2008

My Records of the Summer

Tomorrow I leave for my second year of college. I'm taking a two-day train across the country to Chicago, and most likely will be without internet access. In my final hours at home for the summer, I'm going to write a bit about the albums I spun the most this summer. As with most of the lists I do, they don't represent what I think are the "best" albums, just the ones I personally favored the most.

Ratatat - LP3

Ever since their first album (which I loved immediately), it's taken a while for their newest material to grow on me. There have been a lot of times where I just wanted some instrumental to fill in the silence, and that's given me a lot of time to absorb this album, and I've come to find a place for this album just as I have for their other two. "Mirando" always packs a twittering punch, and "Dura" got a lot of spins as well. From the sound of the album and the song titles, this somehow has tinges of Spanish and Eastern influences, which is experimentation enough on the great electronic formula Ratatat have for me. I remember a lot of critics wondering if the "gimmick" of their first album could spawn others, and I really admire their ability to keep finding new ways to make electronic instrumentals interesting.

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

I was really not impressed when I saw Girl Talk perform at Northwestern in the winter, so this album really came out of left field for me. I didn't pay anything for it, as Gregg Gillis offered it up for free (you can kind of see why, considering all the songs he samples freely and with complete reckless abandon). For some reason this album rang differently to me. Where on other albums I'd feel frustrated by how fast the samples were burned up to move through a song, I felt that they lingered just long enough to capture our attention, and then moved onto something else at the right time. I danced many times to this entire record at parties and in the car over the course of the summer, and I was really taken aback at how much I like what he did on this record. I love being able to laugh at what he's sampling (the moment "Steal My Sunshine" comes on for 10 seconds is the best shout out on the entire CD to me, though "In A Big Country" is a close second). I had so much fun listening to this album in the past couple months; it'll always be linked to anything I remember from this summer, and that's the best praise I can give it.

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

I remembering reading about The Hold Steady for the first time the summer before my senior year of high school when a RollingStone writer called them the best band of the decade. Since I'd never heard of them I picked up their debut and have been hooked ever since. Boys and Girls in America is a really hard album to top, but Stay Positive is another in a line of very consistent, very strong records for the band. They deserve all the critical praise they get, and while there's no song here to match my favorite from the last "Hot Soft Light" there are some great barn burners. "Constructive Summer" was an early song of the summer favorite for me, and "Sequestered in Memphis" was played many a time as I drove the highways with my windows down. I really dig the earthy feel of the album art and how it fits the Americana storytelling of the record. I just really like seeing a good band put out something deserving of their name.

Black Kids - Partie Traumatic

I never did get around to commenting on the ridiculousness surrounding the debut album of the much-buzzed about Jacksonville, FL band, so I guess now comes my compressed and delayed reaction. Pitchfork gave their debut EP an 8.4, and then inexplicably gave their full-length debut a non-review of 3.3 just nine short months later. I've seen a lot of internet reviewers trying to build and break down hype with their writing alone, but this case got out of hand quickly. The review smelled terribly of Pitchfork drumming up an audience for itself rather than making good on its intended purpose of reviewing and reacting to music in a helpful and informative fashion. It was more in tune with this Onion article than any well-written review they've ever posted.

Buzz and backlash aside, they did release four tracks from their debut EP re-recorded along with only six other tracks, but I still really like the album. I think the best four tracks close out the record, beginning with their awesome single "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You" and continuing through "Love Me Already", "I Want To Be Your Limosine", and "Look At Me (When I Rock Wichoo)." It's some nice dance-rock, and if people could focus on the music instead of the cloud of internet whining trying to grab at people's attention, everyone could see the strong record underneath it all.

Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst

A song that overstays its welcome and lasts too long for its own good is painfully bad. Conversely, a fantastic song that ends too soon is a masterful achievement. Clocking in at just 1:12, "NYC - Gone,Gone" was my favorite song of the summer, and ever since first hearing songs from the record I've been absolutely hooked on it. Aside from the fifty second interlude that is "Valley Mistico (Ruben's Song)", there is not a single weak song on this record. Somehow Oberst found himself using his own name and freeing himself of his longtime producer down in Mexico. From the opening notes of "Cape Canaveral" to the closing of "Milk Thistle" I was stunned. I've liked a lot from his past three records, but this album rang out a "return to form" vibe, and never gave it up. "Eagle On a Pole" is a standout, as are "Danny Callahan" and "Moab." Like I said, it's hard to pick a bad song from the bunch, and it's one of those rare albums that I can listen straight through without skipping a single track.

Bloc Party - Intimacy

It's taken a couple weeks, but just like I thought, the new Bloc Party album is already growing on me. I spin "Halo" a couple times a day, and "Trojan Horse", first single "Mercury" and "Biko" get frequent plays as well. I didn't like the places Bloc Party was growing towards, but now I've accepted the direction and enjoy the sounds. There's less angular, typical guitar work here and much more of Okereke's ideas at play here, but the other members do fill in the bits in fantastic ways. The bells in "Signs" shimmer nicely, and there are still a few walls to be broken down in "One Month Off." They do sound a bit like they didn't their ideas air out to a public reaction before settling on a final draft, but it's still a really enjoyable record, especially for a rabid Bloc Party fan like myself.

There you have it, my records of the summer. Hopefully some of the big profile fall releases will prove to be worth their salt, and maybe this year I'll actually get around to posting a list of my favorite records of the entire year.

"Fun" With A Former Format Leader

I was really sad when The Format broke up. It was the first in a string of bands I really liked breaking up, and that was the first time since Rage Against the Machine fizzled out that I had to deal with bands I was a fan of not making music together anymore.

Well, now I get to enjoy some "new" music by at least one of those bands. Nate Ruess, former lead singer of The Format, now has a new band: fun. Yeah, all promo material points to the name being lower case.

He's teamed up with Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost to form the new trio, and they're recording during September for a first release. They're on tour with Jack's Mannequin later in the fall, with a single planned for November and an album due in February 2009. Take a listen to the demo for "Benson Hedges" at the link below. It definitely sounds like The Format, which is good if you're a fan, but I wonder what new direction, if any, they'll take as a new outfit.

fun - "Benson Hedges (Demo)"