Friday, March 28, 2008

Album Review: Volume One

This review appears on North By Northwestern

It’s an indie-kid’s wet dream: Doe-eyed actress Zooey Deschanel showing off the pipes she gave the world a preview of in Elf on an entire album in collaboration with guitarist M. Ward with a grammatically incorrect group dubbed She & Him. That has to be the album pitch equivalent of the now infamous six word movie pitch for Will Ferrell’s Taladega Nights: “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.” As with all heavily anticipated and internet-hyped indie albums, the duo’s debut Volume One is not pop perfection, but it delivers a confidant, filled out album of solid pop music.

Deschanel’s lyrics and delivery are simple and serene, and that fits her just fine. She’s not trying to cross over into the big time like Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, or Paris Hilton. She ‘s just an actress trying her turn at singing, and she makes the most of it.

Most of her movie roles have been as witty, romantic sidekicks, and the few leading turns she’s had in films like Winter Passing have all had a decidedly melancholy aspect to them. Her songs sound as though they could be on the soundtrack to a few of her films, and I mean that in the nicest way. They are short, simple, self-contained nuggets of pop melancholic romance. Tracks like “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” and “I Should Have Known Better” represent the album’s repetition of lovers who just can’t get past that one guy. You can almost see Deschanel staring at old pictures as she sings, conjuring up her memories of love as she laments loss. Even the brighter emotional moments like the 60s girl group doo-wopping of “I Was Made For You” are songs of trying to attain love, not being in it. The album’s three covers are all slowed down takes on the originals, keeping with the demure tone of the whole record.

Ward does a great job fleshing out the tracks as he always does as a producer/guitarist. Deschanel is front and center for the album, but Ward moves subtly into different moods, hitting a little country in some places, while getting a tinge of Hawaiian sound on others. His background vocals fill in at just the right places, and he really knows when to flesh out a track or just leave it as sparse as can be. The empty production of “You Really Got A Hold On Me” give the impression of the two of them on an empty stage, with one spotlight bathing the two of them in brightness, crooning away. The album almost seems effortless, with a deliberately slow tempo to it, as though the music simply flows out of Deschanel and Ward naturally.

That the album is named Volume One certainly gives off the idea that the two of them would like to continue their experiment of the actress and the troubadour, and with this accomplished first effort, that may not be such a bad idea. Deschanel proves herself to be not only competent, but entertaining and mysterious at the same time. Listening to her sing makes me want to hear her do more, wonder what else the two of them can accomplish. I’d be willing to listen to as many volumes as this newly minted duo want to send out into the world.

Is Death Cab Great Again?

I'm totally fine admitting that I completely underestimated Death Cab For Cutie, and how weird I am for actually liking them. I despised the band for its incorporation into The OC and staunchly refused to even try listening to the band for years, until the first time I listened to "Death of an Interior Decorator" of off my little brother's copy of Transatlaticism and begrudgingly gave the band another shot, only to find that I love We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and The Photo Album. I don't like the two most recent albums as much, but "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" has been my favorite song to play on a guitar for two years now.

DCFC's new album Narrow Stairs comes out in May, but the lead single "I Will Possess Your Heart" is out in two formats: the 8-plus minute album version, and the far inferior 4-minute single mix that's available on iTunes. It's an epic track in its own right, and the first real evidence that the band is done with its stagnation over the past two albums and is finally moving forward again. The way the instruments just fade out to reveal Ben Gibbard's voice and then re-enter the soundscape to fill out the track is just incredible. It's the best song I've heard from them in a long while.

Don't get me wrong, Transatlaticism and Plans are good albums with some great songs, but they were really very similar and narrow in scope. "I Will Posses Your Heart" sounds like the band is finally looking into the future, finally trying to grow as a band again, and that kind of development is always good news to me. Take a listen to the full-length version of the track, which features no vocals for the first haunting and expansive four minutes.

Death Cab For Cutie - I Will Possess Your Heart

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Finally a Festival for me...

I hate summer festival shows for the specific reason that I can never attend any of them. I used to go to BFD, a festival in Mountain View, CA. I went from 7th grade until my junior year of high school, and missed out on the tradition my senior year. I remember going specifically to see New Found Glory, one of my favorite bands in 7th grade, and I just kept going to the festival as an end-of-year habit. I did get introduced to Interpol, Death Cab For Cutie, and others at various festivals, and I got to see great sets by A.F.I., Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others over the years.

All the other festivals have been too far away or at unfortunate times. Coachella is too far south in CA, and now I live in Evanston, IL when it happens. Bonaroo and Lollapalooza are both when I'm back in CA for the summer, and Bamboozle and Bamboozle Left are too far away at at weird times. Last year San Francisco got its own festival with some of my favorite indie bands, the Treasure Island Music Fesitval, which was the weekend I left for college so I couldn't go.

Finally it has just been announced that the Bay Area is getting another summer festival: Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival. This is just a Bay Area Festival, so we're probably going to get some lame, Bridge School Concert reject acts, right? WRONG, they landed just about the biggest band I've been waiting to see: Radiohead.

They've also got Tom Petty, Beck, Wilco, Ben Harper, Regina Spektor, and tiny little band Rupa & the April Fishes, who I saw back in September at a charity show for about thirty people. I'm about 90% sure that I'm going, because I desperately do not want to miss this chance to see Radiohead. I've been listening to a lot of their music lately, and I think I'm going to start trying to do retrospectives on bands, maybe starting with those boys from Oxfordshire.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Album Review: The Odd Couple

This review was originally published on North By Northwestern

Every summer belongs to a song. In 2006 that song was Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Their debut album St. Elsewhere was a monument of originality, with rapper Cee-Lo delivering the most introspective lyrics of his career backed by DJ Danger Mouse's ever-psychedelic production. The mystique surrounding the duo increased as they always performed live or did photo shoots in costume, choosing never to appear as themselves but as caricatures. As with any hot, critically-acclaimed debut, expectations were unnaturally high for Gnarls' second album. Their sophomore effort The Odd Couple isn't a great leap forward for the duo, but it never really had to be as it delivers solid, far above average hip-hop.

Ever since Danger Mouse shook up the music world with The Grey Album, he's been providing amazing beats for anyone and everyone who wanted his help. His production on the second Gorillaz album Demon Days elevated the fake animated band out of being a kitschy retread, and he's never laid down a bad beat for Gnarls Barkley. He continues his amazing production on The Odd Couple with tracks like "No Time Soon" and lead single "Run." The latter has production value not unlike old songs on American Bandstand, and fittingly the video (featuring a cameo from a wigged Justin Timberlake) is a modern take on an American Bandstand live performance. His ability as a producer has always been an almost unthinkable number of sounds over each other, and not simply using them superfluously. Every little sprinkle in the background fills its place for a purpose; Danger Mouse paints tracks like a painting on canvas, filling every spot with paint to create a full landscape.

Cee-Lo's voice mixes well with the beats, except for his nasally whine on the album's one indisputable clunker "Whatever." Where Danger Mouse upped his game and kept the punchy beats coming, Cee-Lo delivers pretty much in the same way he did on Gnarl's debut, and there's no standout track here like "Crazy" was back in 2006. He's always been a better singer than a rapper, and the gospel-like quality of his wailing voice give the duos songs a nice tinge of James Brown to them. The sound here is much more muted than it was on their debut, with Cee-Lo crooning more instead of hitting swooping highs. The Odd Couple is an album to cruise to, not an album for a dance party.

The album title isn't really an accurate description of the duo or their music. Fat man/thin man duos have been around since black and white television, and have even made the transition into space with C-3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, and Danger Mouse has coupled his beats with numerous different sources and proven they match up together well. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse have always sought to distance themselves from normality. They claim their name has nothing to do with Charles Barkley, never appear as themselves, and presume to be an odd couple. That they are unsatisfied with being normal is an admirable desire as musicians continually looking to better themselves and perfect their art, but at some point trying to say you're so much different from everyone else gets a little tired.

Gnarls Barkley are unlike any other hip-hop group, rapper, or producer making music today, but even they can't make a classic twice. The Odd Couple a great second record, it just isn't odd, groundbreaking, or eye-opening the way St. Elsewhere was for the industry. That isn't to say that The Odd Couple isn't solid, but somewhere down the line being original in the same way for too long could lead to a little too much monotony. Nobody wants to see that happen, so here's hoping the duo have a few more tricks up their sleeves for the next go-round.

Censoring Violence in Music?

Be Your Own Pet was one of my favorite new discoveries back in 2006, and I've been waiting for their follow-up Get Awkward for over a year. The album just came out on iTunes, but inexplicably three tracks from the UK version have been deleted from the US release. The offending songs, "Black Hole" "Becky" and "Blow Yr Mind" were deemed to be "too violent for US release" by Universal records.

Excuse me, but have you been listening to rap lately? Or ever? The idea that Be Your Own Pet created songs too violent for American audiences is like giving a Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award to Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg for Favorite Album in its ridiculousness. Eminem released songs about killing his own wife, and this is what gets removed from an album as too violent? This article on Sterogum goes a little more in-depth, but it's worth noting that both 50 Cent and Marilyn Manson are both artists signed to Universal. Neither of them had songs cut from albums due to violent content, only Jemima Pearl, lead singer for Be Your Own Pet was deemed too violent a lyricist.

Here are the offending songs to listen to and determine for yourself just how insane Universal Records was on this one. "Blow Yr Mind" isn't even a minute long, "Becky" is about an angry girl who's spiteful about the end of a friendship, and "Black Hole" just doesn't have offensive content. The band says that the songs will come out on a special EP during the summer, and that situation just makes me think Universal kept the songs off the record in an attempt to get more money for another release during the summer. Oh well, take a listen and see what you think.

Be Your Own Pet - Black Hole
Be Your Own Pet - Becky
Be Your Own Pet - Blow Yr Mind

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On China, the Dalai Lama, and Beijing 2008

Yesterday the Chinese government lashed out at the Dalai Lama, saying he was trying to ruin the reputation of China ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics. This is basically the same thing they did when Steven Spielberg quit as artistic director of the games, and to be honest their comments are just immature. Basically they've resorted to name-calling and whining whenever someone mentions the horrible atrocities the government has committed.

Maybe I'm being a little sensitive, or a little ignorant of our own atrocities that we don't let anyone talk about, but what the hell is that government doing? This just makes the Chinese government look petty and stupid. First you take a shot at one of the biggest directors in the world b/c he won't plan you're opening ceremony, and then you try to cut down a Nobel Peace Prize winner? All they're doing is making themselves look even worse. Every time China complains that someone or some group is giving them bad publicity for the Olympics, they look like the bad ones and end up giving themselves a ton of bad press by looking like a bunch of ignorant idiots for not recognizing the horrible things they're doing.

The situation in Tibet hasn't been good ever since the Chinese takeover. I still think of a scene from Seven Years in Tibet when Chinese officials stomp into a Buddhist temple and swipe their feet all over a painstakingly beautiful sand design the monks had been drawing on the floor for days to celebrate the arrival of the Chinese whenever these problems arise, and can't believe that it's still going on. Tibet is of little political importance, why the hell does China need it? Are they trying to over-compensate that badly?

Clearly the biggest issue regarding China at the moment is their support for the Sudanese government through oil purchases, and the effect those ties have on the Darfur region. It's a total shame that China has yet to address these issues in any meaningful way, choosing only to publicly ridicule anyone who dares to question the authority of such a well-intentioned and nationally beneficial governing party. All it takes is one search of "Tiananmen Square" on Google, and subsequently to show how much they actually address national problems.

The more I read about the Beijing games, the more I worry about it being Berlin all over again. These games are where China attempts to show the world that Communism (even though it's fake Communism using Capitalist policies and practices to fuel the economy) is viable and going strong for the entire country and should not be questioned by the rest of the world.

First of all, they're kicking out beggars, vagrants, and mentally ill citizens out of the city for the duration of the games. In addition, it is reported that around 1.5 million people are simply being displaced from their homes. This is absolute ludicrous.

On a slightly less serious note, the Chinese are potentially going to win the medal count this year, making the 2008 Beijing games the first Summer games the United States has not won the most medals at since the fall of the Berlin Wall and then end of the US/USSR battles at the Olympics.

The Olympics have always meant more than just international athletic competition to the governments of the participating nations. National pride, global reputation, and world dominance have always been in the shadows. There's a reason the Miracle on Ice meant so much; it was against the Soviets. The global political connotations of the Olympics haven't come into play since the Soviet Union disbanded.

In Greece in 2004, China specifically used inexperienced, younger athletes instead of the competitors that could have won them more medals at the games. That strategy was employed so that in Beijing this year, China would have athletes in their physical prime at the peak of their careers in their respective events...with Olympic experience. Put aside the documented athletic boarding schools that exist in China with the sole purpose of churning out little athletes who's only purpose is to demonstrate the superiority of the Chinese way of life, this is beyond coaching.

Everyone has a coach, except maybe tennis players, but a unified national platform to win the most medals at your Olympic games? Really? This should be about coming together as a global community, about international athletic competition. It should be about the athletes and their pride in competing for their home country, not about an entire nation defeating another, or a political system being better.

I've been very glad that I never had to see an Olympic boycott or a match of epic political proportions played out on a tiny scale the way lacrosse used to be played to the death in lieu of war, but the buildup to the Beijing Olympics is getting to be too much for me. I'll end up watching, but the Chinese government is using these games to sweep all of their dust under the rug and puff their chest out to the world with a smug grin on their face, and that's just wrong. It's against the spirit of the games; it makes what should be intense athletic competition between the greatest athletes in the world into a petty political tool.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

There Will Be Bud

The Academy Awards went off pretty well despite being the lowest rated year ever. Despite that, last year was a great one for films. The Best Picture category was full of fantastic films, and barring nominations for Norbit and Transformers didn't recognize terrible filmmaking for the most part.

My one problem is that the awards are turning into a ceremony that rewards its great filmmakers retroactively. The last two Best Picture and Director awards have gone to filmmakers that made better films in the past and seemed to be getting rewarded for their career achievements instead of their current films. Sure, Scorcese and the Coens are fantastic, but I would've rather seen them in the category of great directors never to win (like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Altman, etc.) than given a makeup Oscar.

The Oscars should reward original filmmaking that attempts to progress the art of cinema, instead of looking back into a rear view mirror. Yes, some films are able to take what has been made and perfect it (like No Country or Unforgiven, I would argue) but this year the most original and forward-thinking film was clearly There Will Be Blood. That film just has never been made before, and the emotion of Daniel Day-Lewis inhabiting Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful script was just incredible. In the future, I'd like to see this kind of filmmaking rewarded, instead of simply nominated and passed over for career recognition. It is possible for a director to amass a body of work that is staggering without making the standout film of any one year.

I'll end on a comedic note, sticking with There Will Be Blood. I enjoy film parodies, a lot, and this video I saw a few days ago has to be one of the best little trailers I've ever seen. It goes all-out to parody TWBB, check it out. My favorite is how they deal with the bowling alley during the milkshake/bong rip.

I've got finals this week, but then I'll return to posting a ton of new music...I've been busy getting some of this year's potential best albums.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Indie Rock A Cappella?

Okay, I've already had my issues with collegiate a cappella groups, especially in regards to their covers of hipster songs simply to be ironic. Now comes a group out of Carleton College in Northfield, MN called the Carleton Singing Knights covering Vampire Weekend's "Oxford Comma":

I like the song, but I still hold firm on my ideas that the song just doesn't work as well with only voices. Plus, doing this cover seems to be just going for indie cred, and with other songs in their arsenal straight from indie rock, I just don't think I like it. I'm uneasy with normal a cappella, but indie rock a cappella seems to invade a little too much on what I like.

I got sent an email a while ago about a group that records all original a cappella songs. One of the members gave me a free link to download their album, but I've never gotten around to listening to it. Maybe in the next couple days/weeks I'll give it a spin and see how I handle a cappella when it isn't just covers.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Flight of the Conchords Visit NU

This quarter has been a great one for speakers/concerts/comedians brought to Northwestern by student groups. First there was Girl Talk, then BJ Novak from The Office, and last night Flight of the Conchords graced Evanston in a performance that sold out in 45 minutes a few weeks ago.

I got in line for tickets at 8 am, two and a half hours before the box office opened...and I barely got tickets. That is how popular this show was on campus. I had great seats, and the openers were pretty funny.

Mee-Ow was the first opener, an improv/sketch comedy group at NU. They've had some pretty famous alums, like SNL head writer Seth Myers, but they apparently they denied Stephen Colbert a spot in the group when he was a student. Payback is a bitch I guess.

Next was NU alum and "Flight of the Conchords" co-star Kristen Schaal. She had great jokes about her time at Northwestern, but a lot of her jokes using specific people and places can be adjusted to different audiences, like this video of her performing in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival. Just imagine Evanston and George Washington instead of Edinburgh and Winston Churchill.

After an hour of openers, Bret and Jemaine took the stage to thunderous applause. They broke into a 90 minute set of songs from their show and their EP The Distant Future. Even better than their songs was their banter with each other and the crowd. They really are great comics, and better at improvisation than any group I've ever seen. Here are a couple videos of songs they performed, but there is really no way to describe how entertaining, energetic, and ingenious they are as performers.

This is possibly my favorite moment from the first season:

Hopefully I'll start getting some more stuff up soon. Finals are in a week, and then I have spring break to get back my writing focus heading into spring quarter. Until then posts will be sporadic, but I'll try, there's some good music coming out really soon.

photo credit Jared Miller