Thursday, December 27, 2007

An Indie Music Junkie's Year-End Best Of List

What would December be without crass commercialism, rampant orgy-like spending, and random year-end lists?

It Was the Best of Concerts, It Was the Worst of Concerts

Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, October 22, 2007 - In October the two music icons appeared at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Costello, armed with an array of guitars, delivered a memorable solo performance full of the spite, anger, humor, and occasional tenderness that mark his best songs. There was crowd participation, furious guitar playing, and a perfect “The Scarlet Tide” to close the set. Then Dylan ambled out, played a couple songs on guitar, and retreated behind his keyboard for a set that sounded like the end days. The mix was horrible, and Dylan could barely wheeze three words at a time as he growled his way through the murk.

Reunion Album That Reconfirmed It All

Beyond - Dinosaur Jr. - Sure, J Mascis looks like the guy you always see in Best Buy monopolizing Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock while children wait impatiently for their crack at it, but Beyond was a tremendous reunion album. With its mix of guitar squall and buried melodies, it stands right alongside You’re Living All Over Me as a classic Dinosaur Jr. album.

Reunion Album That Ruined It All

The Weirdness - The Stooges - Forget that “Lust for Life” is now the theme song for a cruise ship commercial (with the lines about liquor and drugs carefully removed). This underwhelming album by the Stooges killed whatever mystique they had left. Even Steve Albini as “recorder” couldn’t save it.

Best Artist to Have a Song Featured in a Car Commercial

It was an interesting year for Band of Horses. After a spat with fans in San Diego over videotaping of the band’s July 6 performance, the Sub Poppers took some heat for licensing songs to Wal-Mart for use in an online campaign. In recent weeks, the band’s song “Funeral” has been in heavy rotation for a Ford television commercial, marking the strangest use of a song for commercial purposes since Volkswagen used Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in 2000.

Best Artist to Not Have a Song Featured in a Car Commercial

That Tom Waits is a bad mofo. In January, Waits won a decision against Adam Opel AG, an offshoot of General Motors, for using a Waits soundalike to sell cars…in Scandinavia. It was the second time in less than two years that Waits won such a lawsuit. Rumors that BMW wants to use Waits’ “Misery is the River of the World” for their 2008 marketing campaign are not yet confirmed.

Favorite Concert

When The National played the Duck Room in St. Louis on June 11, Boxer was freshly released and beginning to garner plaudits that ranged from reserved praise to over-the-top awe. What could have been a sparsely attended show was instead a packed house with an eager, energetic crowd. Relying on the new material but also playing songs from Alligator and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the band delivered an intense, cathartic performance, surpassing the increasing hype. Now, if someone has a recording of it, I’m not hard to reach.

Reissues Are More Than Just Cash Grabs

Bronze – Calenture, The Triffids - The underappreciated 1980s Australian band finally got their due with a nice reissue of their 1987 album Calenture, the follow up to the essential Born Sandy Devotional. The original album, demos, and outtakes were spread out over two discs, plus the album’s packaging was snazzy and liner notes were actually informative.

Silver – Stand in the Fire, Warren Zevon - Long out of print on disc, Warren Zevon’s Stand in the Fire received the digital treatment this year. A recording of a wild, frenzied 1981 performance, the album showed Zevon at his manic best. Four cuts excluded from the original album were included to top it off. Play it loud.

Gold – Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth - Sonic Youth’s much-worshiped Daydream Nation was given a fat dose of bonus tracks this year. The original album is, of course, great, but the real treat here was the second disc, which was jammed full of Sonic Youth goodness, including a live version of each album track, as well as covers of songs by The Beatles, Neil Young, and Captain Beefheart. A nice essay and cool period photos made this reissue an essential purchase.

You Fool, Reissues Just Rob You of Money

Pointless reissues or compilations were certainly not in short supply in 2007. While many major labels could be taken to task for uninspired reissues/compilations, Columbia’s bland, boring, and utterly useless Dylan release represented everything wrong with such releases. With zero unreleased recordings (unless you paid on iTunes), this abomination rehashed most of the same damn songs as Dylan’s many other compilations. With an artist whose vault must be packed with unreleased goodies, lazy stuff like this shouldn’t even exist.

Favorite Albums

Bronze – Neon Bible, Arcade Fire - Even if many music fans and critics blew their loads over 2004’s Funeral, the Arcade Fire’s self-produced sophomore album gave everyone a chance to get fired up again. Even though the images of apocalypse and bombs could grow a little heavy-handed at times, Win Butler’s voice, ranging from howls to everything in between, and the band’s damn loud playing made this album more than just another rant about the sorry state of our world.

Silver – Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird - With the guitar pushed to the forefront, Armchair Apocrypha marked a stylistic shift for Andrew Bird. The songs were highly textured and far more layered than his previous albums; violin loops, drums, whistling, guitars and glockenspiels were thrown together to create a symphonic sound that amazingly didn’t result in garbled mush. The songs could sometimes be decidedly heavy; absurd superstitions, old age, the futility of war and the fall of empires, childhood confusion, and a general helplessness against a vast, impersonal world all unfolded in Bird’s lyrics. There aren’t many albums that sound like this one, and that’s a good thing.

Gold – Boxer, The National - Never has an album whose characters suffer under a veil of fuck-it-all resignation sounded so good. The songs on Boxer invoked themes of broken relationships, people aging quickly beyond their years, and passing, superficial comforts like drugs and booze; even the implied threats of “Start a War” sounded powerless and empty. Evocative lyrics, Matt Berninger’s weary baritone, and the band’s sometimes minimalist, sometimes layered instrumentation combined beautifully to create one of the best albums of the decade.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Movie Review: Enchanted

A Man Card violation is a serious offense. Holding your special lady friend’s purse while she shops, watching figure skating on ESPN2 when it’s an NFL Sunday, and drinking beverages that combine the name of a fruit with “tini” are three such violations. Enchanted is similarly a dicey proposition. With at least one extravagant, over-the-top song-and-dance routine about true love, an all-women shopping spree while bubblegum poppy music plays in the background, and a slow dance between the two main characters with a weepy love song that sounds like the evil spawn of Michael Bolton and James Blunt, a man could be forgiven for his trepidation about this movie.

Despite these potential crotch-killing features, Enchanted is actually a pretty funny movie, with enough humor so that the men out there won’t need to feel guilty about watching it.Enchanted stars Amy Adams as Giselle, a simple girl from Andalasia who sings to the animals, dreams of her one true love, and is so happy that it’s likely she’s been living on a Percocet drip feed since birth. Meanwhile, Price Edward (James Marsden) is busy wearing purple costumes with puffy sleeves, keeping his teeth freakishly white, and trying to convince the world that he’s not homosexual. Their paths eventually cross when Edward rescues Giselle from the vile clutches of a troll. They fall in love and, in true Hollywood fashion, plan to get married the very next day. A call is made to Us Magazine to generate interest from the paparazzi.

But, alas, there are complications. Edward’s mother, the evil queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), has a serious Freudian complex and is opposed to her little Eddie getting married. On the two lovebirds’ wedding day, she tricks the bride-to-be and pushes her into a wishing well. Giselle is sent hurtling to a place so vile, so evil, so horrific, so dastardly that it can only be described in two words: New York. In a hilarious series of scenes, she emerges from a sewer and is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a land entirely different from Andalasia. This new land is one of honking car horns, gridlocked traffic, and strategic product placement. She wanders the cold, lonely, unforgiving streets of New York aimlessly, and is briefly forced into a life of prostitution as she finds the job market for super-sweet singing Andalasians isn’t very good (wait, wrong movie).

Eventually Giselle scales a billboard that advertises the Palace Casino, thinking it’s actually a castle where she can find food, water, and a refill for her Percocet drip. As fate would have it, Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) just happens to be taking a taxi home from his law office, when his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) spots the red-haired woman stuck on the billboard. Giselle is coaxed down by the lawyer, though it’s not a storybook landing as she lands on him and he complains about an injury to his elbow.Giselle is taken back to Robert’s place, where, after several glasses of Pinot, he convinces her to pose naked while he throws salami at her (wait, still the wrong movie). Actually, she sleeps on the couch, and the next morning calls various rodents, birds, and vermin to clean the apartment. Things get a little hairy when Robert’s soon-to-be fiancée Nancy (Idina Menzel) stumbles into his place to find a bubbly redhead wearing only his towel. Since this is a Disney movie, he later explains that nothing happened, minus the salami tossing, and she’s eventually convinced.

Meanwhile, Edward has vowed to find Giselle. Emerging from the same sewer lid, he immediately accosts several Verizon employees at swordpoint. He’s eventually followed by Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), who’s been dispatched by the queen to ensure that Edward fails in his attempt to rescue his brdige, and that Edward also avoids getting shanked on the subway because of his purple, puffy-sleeved ensemble. After some hilarious misadventures (including one where Edward slays the “steel beast,” i.e. bus), the prince manages to find Giselle in the apartment. But she’s no longer the simple Andalasian girl he fell in love with about eight hours earlier. A non-date at a pizza parlor with Robert and a shopping spree with Morgan have shown her there’s more to love than flowers, chirping birds, and apologetic, drunken 3 am phone calls. She’s become a thoroughly modern New York woman and wants Edward to take her on a date.

The King and Queen ball just happens to be approaching, and from the beginning it’s obvious it won’t be a party to forget. The dancing is wild, various white powders are readily available, and the drinks are flowing. Narissa shows up in an attempt to ensure the marriage doesn’t happen. She somehow manages to trick Giselle again (this girl should know better by now); Giselle bites from the queen’s poison apple and immediately falls asleep like a narcoleptic at a bowling alley. With the clock approaching midnight and Giselle on her way to that great Disney Channel in the sky, Nathaniel reveals that the queen has poisoned her and that only the nectar of an Amazonian tree can save her. But all the Walgreens that have this nectar are closed, so they have to settle for True Love’s Kiss to revive her. Edward plants one on her, but nothing happens; he realizes that Robert is Giselle’s true love. Robert wakes her up with a kiss.

This enrages Narissa, who’s jealous of Giselle’s beauty, upbeat attitude, and easy access to Robert’s credit card. She turns into a fire-breathing dragon, destroys the ballroom, takes one last swig from the open bar, and snatches Robert as she scales the building. Giselle pursues the queen and rescues Robert; she even manages to send Narissa tumbling about 500 stories, where the queen splats into the pavement and has her jewelry stolen and pockets turned inside-out by street thugs. Giselle and Robert live happily ever after. Edward even pairs up with Nancy and takes her with him to Andalasia, where she’s clearly in for many unfulfilled nights. So everyone’s happy. Except for the evil queen, who’s being scraped off the sidewalk by the New York Sanitation Department.

Enchanted is a clever and funny movie, with enough humor to offset some of its more wimpy aspects. Disney manages to intelligently poke fun at its own dream world of eternal sunshine by contrasting it with the real world of people with relationship troubles. Giselle and Edward’s brand of optimism/lunacy is completely out of place in modern-day New York, and the movie’s “fish out of water” element is one of its biggest strengths. The actors are cast perfectly; Adams is great as Giselle and also can belt out a tune with gusto. For you guys out there, watch it with an open mind, and you won’t be disappointed.

After further review, Enchanted isn’t a total Man Card violation. It’s entertaining, humorous, and there’s enough sex and violence to keep men watching (okay, not really). There are many more things a man can do to lose his Man Card than enjoy this film. Like watching a Lifetime movie starring Kelly Martin during Super Bowl Sunday.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Book Review: The Replacements - All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History by Jim Walsh

Jim Walsh’s The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting marks the first full-length book covering the musical misadventures of the Minneapolis band. If there ever was a band perfect for such a study, it’s the ‘Mats. Alternative before the term had yet to be co-opted and applied to everyone from Nirvana to, ugh, Better Than Ezra, the band’s reputation for inebriated concert performances that could be either transcendent or the equivalent of drunken karaoke, erratic off-stage behavior, and occasional flashes of studio brilliance is every music journalist’s wet dream. With the ‘Mats, there’s enough internal band dysfunction and tall tales to fill a Minneapolis dive bar. The trick is separating the fact from the fiction to arrive at an understanding of the band that is more than just VH-1 Behind the Music caricature. Although Walsh’s book is always engaging and often interesting, with plenty of “the fish was this big” stories, it doesn’t really add any new understanding to either the band or its place in music history.

The book does have some strong qualities to make it a worthwhile read. First, Walsh has managed to get contributions from many participants and unwitting bystanders in the ‘Mats madness, including Twin/Tone co-founder Peter Jesperson, R.E.M. guitarist and bane to flight attendants Peter Buck, and Husker Du-er Grant Hart. Hold Steady singer/indie darling Craig Finn, and purveyor of everything that is soulless and wrong with third-generation punk, Green Day singer Bill Joe Armstrong, are called in to show how the ‘Mats influenced later generations of musicians. For whatever reason, Kurt Cobain was unavailable for comment (what’s that… he did what?)

The contributors’ comments and recollections help the reader understand what the Minneapolis music scene was like in the ‘Mats heyday, and how the band was both influenced by, and helped shape, this scene. As expected, there are enough stories of the ‘Mats in-fighting, on-stage and backstage antics, and drunken exploits to satisfy those who like their musical anecdotes with a twist of self-induced implosion. Some of the stories show that the ‘Mats’ drunken hijinks have been exaggerated over time, and were, in some cases, carefully orchestrated to maintain an image.

Despite this, the book is ultimately disappointing; there are far too many gaps, holes, and missing plotlines in the ‘Mats history to ignore. Of course this is the potential drawback of any oral history; the author is ultimately dependent on his interviewees to provide good and complete details. In this case, the result is an incomplete ‘Mats history; Michael Azerrad’s chapter on the band in Our Band Could Be Your Life gives a better overview of the band in fewer pages.The book’s shortcomings include:

There are little-to-no discussions about the (potential) inspirations or origins of the ‘Mats songs, with only a few exceptions. Plenty of contributors spend pages wetting themselves over how good “Unsatisfied” is, but most other songs are ignored.

There are few actual dates given in the book; album releases and concert performances blend from one to the next as the years roll by. If you don’t know your ‘Mats history, this book isn’t a good starting point.

With the exception of one new quote from Chris Mars, all the quotes from the original band members are taken from previous interviews and news features. These quotes don’t add much to the book, especially since it’s mostly accepted that the ‘Mats tended to portray specific personas in interviews. In Walsh’s defense, it is difficult to create a complete oral history when the main players decline to comment.

With the exception of Bob Stinson, whose chemically-addled life is addressed in brutal detail, the reader gets very little sense of what the ‘Mats were like as people. Instead, the band members remain little more than musical stereotypes: Tommy Stinson comes across as nothing more than a naïve and inexperienced boy, Chris Mars is the silent member, and Paul Westerberg remains the truculent/troubled/occasionally cruel/sometimes caring singer-poet.

Overall I expected more from this book, especially given the number of people interviewed and Walsh’s extensive personal experience with the band. Like a drunkenly sloppy ‘Mats live performance or Pleased To Meet Me, the book has some high points, a few drunken low points, and a few broken bottles scattered along the way. At the end of the day the reader is left a little underwhelmed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Addicted to Survivorman

I’m not a survivalist, outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, shelter builder, or fire starter. Once as a child I tried to camp out in my backward; after several hours of having an exposed oak tree’s root jammed into my back as I tried to sleep, I got bored and frustrated and retreated into the cozy environs of my parent’s house.

This means I should have no interest in Les Stroud’s Survivorman. However, this show has quickly become one of the few television programs on my required viewing list that doesn’t involve footballs, absurd storylines of escapes from Panamanian prisons, or rerun episodes of George Costanza’s various neuroses.

The brainchild of Stroud, a Canadian survival enthusiast (an understatement of terms: the man spent his honeymoon living a paleolithic existence in the Canadian wilderness with his wife) who also plays a mean blues harmonica, Survivorman features Stroud stranded alone with only his camera gear and a few random odds and ends in some of the most godforsaken locations on earth (Passaic, New Jersey is not one of the locations…yet). Stroud’s challenge is to then survive in this location for seven days, film the proceedings, and avoid catching a pathogen or parasite and/or being mauled by an animal with giant claws, sharp teeth, and a penchant for dehydrated and starving Canadian survivalists.

A few things make Survivorman truly unique and separate it from the standard boorish and humorless macho survival show. First and foremost is Stroud’s personality; he has an “everyman” quality and doesn’t come across as the stereotypical Neanderthal survivalist hell bent on proving his manhood by slaying a grizzly bear with his bare hands. Stroud possesses a sort of Canadian Zen humor that is endearing to the viewer; whether he’s stranded on a life raft off the coast of Belize, stuck in a swamp in Georgia being drained by mosquitoes, or rejoicing at being able to drink a few drops of swill-quality water from a puddle, Stroud’s enthusiasm, honesty, and calmness (on camera, at least) in situations where most of us would panic, curse cruel fate, and weep uncontrollably is impressive. Of course, off camera Stroud could be having his own little Serenity Now outbursts.

He also allows the viewer to see both his successes and failures. Even though he could probably start a fire with nothing more than a Gordon Lightfoot LP and a VHS copy of Canadian Bacon, Stroud doesn’t put on any hardass survivalist façade. When he cannot find food or is even forced to cut a trip short due to lack of food and dehydration, it’s captured on film; when being stranded alone for days in locations that lack the comforts of even primitive living (not to mention the Internet!) begins to take a toll on his mental state, the cameras still roll. And unlike many of the more flamboyant nature show personalities, Stroud clearly respects the beauty, power, and sheer indifference of the harsh environments he’s trying to survive in. He’s more interested in sharing his experience with the viewer than in trying to play grab-ass with alligators, mountain lions, or polar bears.

The final aspect that makes Survivorman so engaging is the simple fact that Stroud operates all the cameras himself; his support crew drops him off and then gets the hell out of there. Once the crew is gone, Stroud is entirely alone and is responsible for building a shelter, exploring the environment, searching for food, and trying to avoid freezing to death at night or dying from heat stroke during the day. In order to capture as much footage as possible, Stroud frequently needs to place and re-place the cameras at various points, which in turn means he must often navigate dangerous terrain multiple times for the sake of good camera shots.

I’ve read that Survivorman is quickly gaining popularity and is one of The Discovery Channel’s highest-rated shows. Les Stroud has even appeared on Craig Ferguson’s late night show, and I’m sure the 18 people who watch that show were impressed. Of course, I don’t think families are gathering around the idiot box in droves to watch The Discovery Channel. Regardless, Survivorman is an informative and engaging television show, even if your idea of rough living is missing out on that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Book Review: I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You, by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt

The Big Lebowski is the funniest movie ever. For those of you still reading, you’re either aghast in horror at such a statement, coffee now spat out on your computer screen, or you’re an Achiever (fan of the movie) in total agreement who’s busy sucking down White Russians and reciting lines from the movie like “The Dude abides,” “This is not Nam, this is bowling, there are rules,” or many of the more-obscenity-laced quotes from the movie (“First of all Dude, you don’t have an ex. Secondly, this a f—king show dog, with f—king papers. You can’t board it, it gets upset, its hair falls out. The f—cking dog has f—cking papers”).

For those Achievers for whom the movie offers an ethos, catharsis against the daily grind, or Zen philosophy for how to live, I’m a Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski is the book we’ve been waiting for. Written by four Lebowski fans (and Lebowski Fest founders) with both a fierce dedication to the movie and an apparent abundance of available free time, this humorous book offers enough Lebowski ins and outs to satisfy even the most rabid fan.

The book is logically divided into chapters that each take a specific approach related to the movie, and even includes a forward by Jeff Bridges (the Dude himself…er, the movie version of the Dude, anyway). The various chapters cover everything from ways to “Dude-ify” your life, to playful yet informative interviews with the movie’s actors (major roles like John Goodman and minor roles like Jim Hoosier, who played Jesus Quintana’s bowling partner and didn’t even have a single line of dialogue), to a tidy analysis of how The Big Lebowski became a cult classic, to various Lebowski tidbits, including the number of F-bombs dropped in the movie (281 according to the authors. I still count 279, and yes, I clearly need professional psychiatric help).

The most revealing chapter of the book contains interviews with the real-life people upon whom the movie versions of the Dude, Walter, and Little Larry Sellers were based. To a certain amount of horror, we learn that there really was an incident in which a junior high kid was confronted in his home by two men who claimed the kid had stolen the Dude’s car. One of the men even produced the kid’s homework, extracted from the seat of the stolen car, encased in a plastic baggie as if it was some sort of evidence bomb.

A question that runs throughout the book is why exactly some people like this movie so much. This is a good question, especially since on the surface the movie is little more than the story of a hapless unemployed hippie who only wants to replace a rug in his “home” that was, uh, pissed upon. Many theories are mentioned by people ranging from the actors themselves to celebrity fans of the movie. Some of the more interesting theories include:

The movie is very quotable, and it’s incredibly fun and obnoxious to annoy non-Achievers with these quotes. Personal recommendation: saying “I can get you a toe by three o’clock this afternoon,” as Walter says to the Dude, is the perfect way to end any awkward or unwanted conversation.
Through his unemployment, laziness, and pacifism, The Dude possesses a certain Zen understanding of the world that people in the real world envy.
It’s the perfect buddy movie. Maybe this explains why it seems that men are more inclined to like this movie than women.
The writing is funny, perceptive, and insightful. In addition, each scene in the movie has something memorable.
Plenty of people think the movie is stupid, ridiculous, and a waste of film, which makes its appeal that much greater for people who already like it.
The movie sports a great collection of characters, including a pornographer, several nihilists, a reactionary police chief, a giggling video artist, a female artist whose work “has been commended as being strongly vaginal,” a stonewalling teenage kid, a purple-jumpsuit-wearing-pederast bowler named Jesus, and an Uzi-toting Vietnam veteran who’s largely responsible for most of the Dude’s troubles throughout the movie, among others. For many people, this reminds them of their last family reunion.
Some people smoke the hippy lettuce and this is the perfect movie to accompany such an activity.

The cult of Lebowski doesn’t yet rival that of Star Wars or Star Trek; however, it’s far less nerdy and shouldn’t pose a major hindrance when trying to get laid. Even if we Achievers are walking a tightrope between eclectic taste and total, all-out dweebiness, it’s nice to finally have a book that documents what we’ve known for years.