Friday, March 28, 2008

South Park: Help Yourself

I never understand when people say that the first two seasons of South Park are the best. This is completely nuts, making obvious that most people didn't stick around through some of the rough times to make it to the glorious present. There's no doubt that since the show regained its swagger with Season Six (and the classic Lord of the Rings episode), it's been pretty much all genius - Season Eight, the show's best, remains one of the greatest television seasons of my lifetime. They've just now begun their 12th season with Cartman giving Kyle AIDS, a headless Britney Spears on the run from the whole world, and this week, a tribute to the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal, crammed with commentary on anti-drug campaigns, Anne Frank, and Elliot Spitzer.

But that's not even the biggest news. That would be the relaunch of their official website, which now features "free, streaming, full-length episodes and clips from the entire 12 seasons of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning animated series". The show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, were their usual selves: "When asked about the launch of the new site, Stone and Parker said, 'We got really sick of having to download our own show illegally all the time so we gave ourselves a legal alternative.'" If you've lost track of the show over the years, now is the time to see what you've been missing.

Enjoy this clip of Ms. Spears in the recording studio...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Headphones: Hot Chip's Made In The Dark

Hot Chip tiptoe along a musical cliff. By choosing what can effectively be seen as an update of 80’s synth-pop as their style, they’ve put themselves in the same circle with New Order, Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys, and early Depeche Mode. This is not a problem in itself, as they are some of the best groups of the New Wave era, but problems can arise if you let the quality of your output dip below these lofty standards, you can fall off the cliff, sounding like the second and third-string New Wavers famous more for their haircuts than their music. Hot Chip’s breakthrough second album, 2006’s The Warning, was a near-masterpiece, a clear picture of their strengths with very little of their weaknesses, and an especially refreshing example of the wonderful juxtaposition of the voices of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard; the album was pleasurable enough to end up as CSR’s #4 album of that year.

Now, two years later, they return with the unfortunate mess of Made In The Dark. The clarity of the last album is mostly lost, with the band having more fragmented song ideas than actual fully-written songs, deciding to simply cram pieces together into awkward wholes. At least half the album falls prey to this, forcing most of the songs to be odd novelties. “Out At The Pictures” is the worst offender, sounding like aural vomit, and the genre exercises “Don’t Dance” (80’s Prince) and “Hold On” (Disco) don’t fair much better. There’s charm and tasty bits to lead single “Ready For The Floor”, “Bendable Poseable” and the cheeky “Wrestlers”, but they never really come to fruition. “One Pure Thought” starts off great, stumbles, falls apart, pulls itself together, and then falls apart again. The only track in this fashion that works is the rumbling “Shake A Fist”, but mostly just because its sonic elements are more exhilarating and interesting; it’s also fun, where most of this album is not.

Even when they pick something and stick to it, they still fall short. Club banger “Touch Too Much” actually focuses and emerges fully-formed, but that form is kind of a bland version of The Warning. After the good looks he got from the last album, Alexis Taylor has taken the feedback as license to go MOR pop for the Indie set. Blue-eyed Soul ballad “We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love” works its tender groove well enough to be the one slow song that really succeeds here, but the title track and “In The Privacy Of Our Love” are terribly maudlin, way too bad in an Elton John way for anyone’s taste. “Whistle For Will” is only a little less grating because it sounds more like John Lennon, but no less precious. It’s a shame really, because the band was able once to graft beautiful pop full of heartache to edgy computer music. Now we have to just hope they can remember how to do it for next time.

"Ready For The Floor" [video]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Raconteurs: "Salute Your Solution"

It's a pretty sweet single, even though it's basically a better version of "Blue Orchid". I have no problem if Jack wants to alternate between this and The White Stripes. But is it just me, or whenever Jack's singing, I know it's him, but when Brendan Benson sings, I can't tell if it's him or Jack. Just sayin'. I'll have an album review early next week. Promise.

...Oh and yes, the video is supposed to look like this. It's still photos.

[006] Endtroducing...

Album: Endtroducing…
Artist: DJ Shadow
Release Date: September 1996 [UK], November 1996 [US]
Label: Mo’ Wax/A&M [UK], Mo’Wax/ffrr [US]
Producer: DJ Shadow

“And I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me, which is...which comes from all the music that I hear, you know, I’d like for that to come out. It’s like, it’s not really me that’s coming, the music’s coming through me.”
- from “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt”

This is one of my favorite movies scenes...
DJ Shadow talks about crate digging at the record store on the cover of his debut album, from Scratch, a documentary on Hip-Hop DJ culture.

Much like DJ Shadow, I was digging. But instead of glorious trips through crates of old vinyl, I was going through boxes of old packrat stuff, the detritus of my life, looking for one article, one piece of paper – an early 1997 (if I remember right) new artist spotlight on Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis from Mojo magazine, in which Davis talks about his two-year daily grind of sweating bullets in Dan The Automator’s tiny studio, crafting his debut masterpiece Endtroducing…. When I worked at Tower Records, I found the magazine when I moved into my office, and was so blown away by the article that I tore it out and tacked it up on the wall, where it stayed the whole time I worked there…

Anyway, I couldn’t find it in the boxes, but I did find The Source’s 150th issue, from March of 2002. This too is a good read. One of the features inside is a list of what the magazine feels are the 150 most important moments in Hip-Hop’s history. I scan the list…no DJ Shadow. Hmmm. Number 150 is “Big Daddy Kane appears in a 1991 issue of Playgirl magazine”. Now, maybe I’m a bit biased, but…wait, no I’m not – Kane is the shit, and anyone that calls themselves a Hip-Hop fan should have at least “Raw” and “Set It Off” on their iPod – but frankly, it’s ridiculous that such an achievement as Endtroducing… is ignored by the Hip-Hop community in favor of Kane hanging his wang out in a nudie mag. It’s even more perplexing considering that in the magazine’s 10th anniversary issue some years earlier, they did recognize Shadow by cherry-picking him as an alumni in the “Unsigned Hype” retrospective, alongside Biggie and other big names. But, the 150th issue, it shoudla-coulda-woulda read something simple like, “DJ Shadow releases sampling classic Endtroducing…”, or even better, “Guinness Book names DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… first album ever created from 100% samples” (which, shhhhh, is untrue, though having to say ‘99% sampled’ is annoying just because he used a couple snippets of friends joking around). As a tribute, I was going to compile this entry using 100% samples of other reviews of the album, but then I realized I had too much to say of my own, like I wonder if the reason that Endtroducing… isn’t readily recognized by the Hip-Hop community is maybe they just don’t understand it. Actually, I think very few people in the entire music industry understand what goes into the music of DJ Shadow.

Think about it – the two turntables have been out of favor in Hip-Hop since around the mid 90’s, so the community wouldn’t have any reason to watch what’s happening with the DJ’s. Everyone just started rapping to DAT tapes, and even before then, the DJ had been marginalized to just playing the track and maybe yelling the chorus. The DJ was no longer in the spotlight. The true believers had to create ‘Turntablism’ as a subgenre or else lose collective focus and interest on the still-evolving art forever. But even still, Shadow doesn’t totally fit into this category either. If you watch Scratch, the movie that the clip above is from, Shadow appears to be from an entire different world in terms of just his mindstate, how he approaches his art. He’s almost spiritual about records, like a monk. But he is a Hip-Hop head, there’s no doubt about it; he’s been immersed in the Hip-Hop world since he was a teenager, releasing his first tracks as early as 1991. He knows his breaks better than pretty much anyone – a break obsessive since high school, he famously impressed Chuck D in 1988 by knowing where quite a few of the unlisted samples for P.E.’s heavily-layered Nation Of Millions came from – and he can scratch with the best of them.

The intro of the album, “Best Foot Forward”, is Shadow’s conscious nod to his heritage, ten tracks – from the likes of Kool G Rap, Beastie Boys, Jeru, and others – cut up and scratched across 48 seconds, 48 seconds that let you know this man is definitely the real deal, lightening fast scratching and all. But it’s also almost like Shadow conceding, “Here you go, have some of what you’re expecting, before my music forces you to abandon all preconceived notions”; it works as a palette cleaner. The only other track on the album that has a vaguely Hip-Hop aesthetic is “The Number Song”, which scratches up old school cuts by Theodore, Flash, T La Rock, and Kurtis Blow, but is built on the back of Cliff Burton’s “Orion” from Metallica’s Ride The Lightening, about as far from Hip-Hop as you can get. He knows where his heart is at – he has infamously made a habit of moving copies of the CD in record stores from the “Dance” section to the “Hip-Hop” section, because Shadow is, in many ways, tied to Hip-Hop in the same ways an artist like Public Enemy is “Punk”, which is to say they’re truer to the spirit of the music than its accepted sound. This album was once even named the “best Dance album of all time” despite the fact that you could never really dance to it. Most of Endtroducing… sounds nothing like concurrent Hip-Hop of 1996 – Biggie, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Busta, etc. – but Shadow is no doubt getting his water from the same well, so to speak.

But as good as he is with a turntable and a mixer, it’s with the Akai digital sampler that Shadow is a master. There have been way more than a few moments when I’ve made the claim that DJ Shadow is the Jimi Hendrix of my generation, and just as many times, people have called me fucking nuts. But to me, A) that’s unnecessary hero worship for the Baby Boomers, B) resistance towards Hip-Hop as the predominant new cultural development and music form of the last 30 years, and C) ignorance towards what it is that DJ Shadow actually does, and how a digital sampler works. The sampler – in this case, the MPC60 model – is very much the iconic tool of Hip-Hop in the 1990’s, in the same way that the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul have become synonymous with Rock & Roll. I’m sure I could load some sounds into an Akai and mess around a little, but it wouldn’t come out like Endtroducing… Shit, maybe Kanye West uses an Akai sampler too, and maybe very well, but not like Shadow. It’s the results that he gets from the Akai sampler that allow me to compare him to Hendrix – he uses an instrument (the literal, general definition, not necessarily the musical definition) that is utilized by thousands of people, but somehow, like Jimi, what he creates seems not only timeless, but peerless. To say that 50 years from now Endtroducing… will be held in the same high esteem as Are You Experienced or Electric Ladyland doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch to me. But I’m a little ahead of myself – for a basic crash course in what this machine is, watch this video; it features Shadow (in the black t-shirt), DJ Nu-Mark (in the center), and Cut Chemist (without a cap, who you might recognize from his cameo as the science teacher in Juno), the latter two from Jurassic 5, all three playing the Akai sampler…

"Pushing Buttons"

OK, so now let’s talk about how you get to the point where you can do something like that. When he’s working, Shadow will pour over hundreds of records a week – he’s been called both an anthropologist and an archeologist more than a few times. To give you an idea of how many pieces of vinyl he owns, Shadow has a second house just for his record collection; the only other person I know of with a collection like that is legendary Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa. After Shadow finds breaks or sounds or riffs he wants to sample, he’ll play the record on the turntable, hooked up to the digital sampler. Then once he has the samples in the sampler, he can manipulate them and layer them however he sees fit. Each sound is assigned a button; for example, as you see in the video, one button might be the kick drum, one might be the snare drum, and so on. Shadow can then bang out whatever beat he wants. He can then loop whole sequences, and then go back and bang out more sounds, etc. While the album is a masterwork of sequencing – with Shadow admitting that it simply couldn’t have been ordered any other way, that the songs dictated the running order – if you’re still not sure and need a starting point, look to the enduring landmark single “Midnight In A Perfect World”, the encapsulation of Shadow’s genius in five minutes. The loops are laid down in a clear way – it’s in many ways the calmest track on the album, and the reason why the album was often mistakenly grouped in with the Trip-Hop movement – and you can take your time dissecting each loop, focusing on each sample, trying to figure out where they began and ended, and what kind of songs Shadow could have possibly found them in.

The album opens proper with “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt”, a slow-building epic constructed on a hopscotching piano loop coupled with a crumbling-skyscraper boom-bap-beat, providing the base for the layering of the track – the stolen dialogue, the soaring choir, the funk bass and chicken-scratch guitar, the cascading bells – all swirling together as Shadow uses the sampler to juggle the beat like four people at the same time. The playful “Organ Donor” is the most obvious, simple example of the capabilities of this incredible machine; built almost entirely from one short passage of music, and cut and pasted in a hundred different ways to create a new one, it stands as another clear illustration of what is actually going on here. As you listen to the album, you start to realize that every single one of these sounds came from somewhere. None of them were created, save for the bits of dialogue on the untitled and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks” interludes. And the songs are whole, even full, not skeletal in any way. The swinging beats of “Changeling” and “Mutual Slump” clang and scatter, splashing all over the blank canvas. In the former, the cracks and crashes reverberate across the enveloping hum of the bassline and layer after layer of sighing strings, synthesizer washes, guitar fuzz, and who knows what else. In the latter, the racket forms most of the track, with its floor-tom-on-steroids acting as the low end; Shadow fills the leftover space with the melody from Björk’s “Possibly Maybe” (the most recognizable sample on the album), squealing free jazz horns and flutes, and frantic breakdowns.

Now, it’s not like no one had worked magic with a digital sampler before – De La Soul had pioneered the use of the Akai on 3 Feet High & Rising - but Shadow was making an album entirely out of samples, from scratch (no pun intended), and 100% from the original vinyl (no CDs!). As his base, the drums on Endtroducing… are so amazing and ridiculous and sick, that when I first heard the album, I remarked to my brother that this guy was the best drummer I’d ever heard; all his beats are like the best of John Bonham collected. I felt kind of stupid when Ian told me that he didn’t actually play the drums, that all the beats were cut and pasted from existing albums. The album is so seamless, I was understandably floored. When Shadow made the album, it was just barely at the beginning of home recording involving the desktop computer. Being at Automator’s studio, he got to see the future Dr. Octagon and Gorillaz producer testing out the earliest versions of Pro Tools. But Shadow stuck to his MPC60, which at the time worked with 3.5 floppy disks. So, no computers, no 2” reels of tape and mega-studio equipment – just a couple turntables, a sampler, hundreds of records, and dozens of floppies strewn about, each one full of Frankenstein parts for this puzzle-like masterpiece.

This is not the first time I’ve tackled Endtroducing… in this type of forum (though I’ve never gone to these lengths). Like a handful of the albums on this list - Loveless, 3 Feet High & Rising, Rated R - I previously wrote a review of this album for the original Cut Shallow website back in 2002. My original write-up hinged on what was my initial opinion of the album, which is that it seemed to me to be more a piece of art to be appreciated than a collection of music that presents a pleasurable listening experience. I, like more than a few writers before me, used the world ‘collage’ a lot to describe Shadow’s compositional skills. I have to dispute all of this now though, as over the years, this album has enriched my life to such a huge degree specifically through the music that it contains.

Endtroducing… is indeed a wonderful musical display, one that is not just a piece of craft, but a work full of passion and devotion to music itself, and especially the underappreciated corners that the sun never hits. The spacey funk of “Naplam Brain” is pulled out of the netherworlds of forgotten early 70’s swampy Southern Rock, crusty acid-damaged R&B, and pretentious Art Rock; and just as it thinks it’s going to get its point across, Shadow flips the schizophrenia switch, mutating it into the drum solo of “Scatter Brain”. It’s amazing to think in these terms – a drum solo on a digital sampler – but that is why this album represents so much about the promise of modern computer music. There is no shame, nor a lack of artistic skill or excitement, in creating what is basically an update of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” mixed with something along the line of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, all by “pushing buttons”.

An epic piece like the 9-minute “Stem/Long Stem” does not get written let alone recorded if the artist doesn’t have a passion about their music. It’s a symphonic, cinematic monster of a track, worked into a panic repeatedly by swollen string figures and some of the most brutal percussion you’ve ever heard (not actually played on drums); it’s so aggressive that it needs a breather. Shadow breaks by sewing in a piece of “Organ Donor” (before you’ve even gotten to that song, so you don’t even realize that it will visit you again) to shake things up, only to swell up again, this time with less of a percussive assault, but with no less drama brought by these stranger-orchestras fronted by homeless classical guitarists. Without even intending to do so, Shadow understood the sense of exhilaration and spectacle filmmakers look for in a score, because the song remains his most requested for use in film and TV.

Most everyone likes music, a lot of people love music. Others are obsessed. And yet, still more are consumed by it. DJ Shadow is consumed by music. I know this feeling; my friends might laugh at me for writing this, but what they don’t understand is I’ll never find a way to verbalize to them what it feels like to me. Most of my friends fit into the two former categories; a few of them would likely be in the third. I only know a couple people that I’d put into the last group along with myself (my brother would probably be one). To me, music is a transcendent encounter; it produces bodily reactions that I cannot explain, reflexes of emotion. Furthermore, for me personally, I am a creature of rhythm. My favorite part of almost every kind of music is the percussion. This is why I probably hate that most of Hip-Hop today – twelve years on from when Shadow asserted that it “sucked” – has abandoned the drums, instead content to get by with digitized kicks, handclaps and snaps. Where are the fuckin’ snares??? The Shadow knows – they’re on every dusty piece of vinyl in every second-hand store, musty basement, and garage sale across the world. And it’s that dust and damp smell that informs this album. Shadow’s obsessions led him to only the choicest bits for his massive project. This is where I tell you to call this album a collage is so misguided. A collage implies a sense of randomness that is nowhere to be found on Endtroducing… To listen to the two parts of “What Does Your Soul Look Like” presented here, you just know that they were composed with great care. Shadow has called the entire 4-part work (found on Pre-Emptive Strike) his “depression masterpiece”, and the pieces he chose to weld and splice together echo his emotional state. Parts 4 and 1 are both overcast jazz, beats rolling and swinging lazily, their bass fat and round and warm, giving room for the horns to…not cry full-stream, but more sob in their drinks. Stray vocals from far and wide float in like patrons to Shadow’s pub, each with their own sad story of life or love or the road or all three. What Shadow has done on these songs, and indeed on this record, what he has dreamt and then orchestrated, is closer to a musical quilt. You can picture him in tiny, dark, hot studio, huddled over the Akai sampler, piecing hundreds of errant sounds and beats and melody lines and whatever together, stitching each one to the larger whole of that particular song. It’s a truly awe-inspiring work, masterful execution, but not just craft. Endtroducing... is run through with heavy emotion, soul and sweat from hundreds of forgotten artifacts frankensteined into a true love letter to music itself, one that will one day be hard to find in those second-hand stacks, because I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to give up their copy.

01. “Best Foot Forward” [interlude]
02. “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt”
03. “The Number Song”
04. “Changeling”
“** Transmission 1” [interlude]
05. “What Does Your Soul Look Like Part 4”
06. [untitled interlude]
07. “Stem/Long Stem”
“**Transmission 2” [interlude]
08. “Mutual Slump”
09. “Organ Donor”
10. “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘96” [interlude]
11. “Midnight In A Perfect World”
12. “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain”
13. “What Does Your Soul Look Like Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit”
“**Transmission 3” [interlude]

"Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" [live at Coachella 2007]

"The Number Song" [live in London, 2002]
from the Live! In Tune & On Time DVD

"Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)" [live in London, 2002]
from the Live! In Tune & On Time DVD

"Midnight In A Perfect World" [video]

- BONUS: "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" [audio]
- BONUS: "Changeling" [excerpt; live at the 2006 O2 Wireless Festival]
- BONUS: "Changeling" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Stem" [single edit - fan video]
- BONUS: "Mutual Slump" [fan video]
- BONUS: "What Does Your Soul Look Like part 1 - blue sky revisit" [audio]
- BONUS: DJ Shadow talks about his MPC60 sampler that he made Endtroducing on

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Heads Up: New Portishead...finally

If you're internet savvy and fiending enough, you probably already have the new album. I downloaded it, but I haven't listened to it yet... And well, this single doesn't really make me want to. To me, Portishead music always meant the best in dust-n-crackle, a certain organic, antique quality to their new sounds. So, OK, we all have to grow up, and I can understand wanting to try something different after a decade in the making, and I can even dig some icy synthetics. But regardless of the tones in which it's cast, this single doesn't DO anything. I understand that, ultimately, PH is about the voice of Beth Gibbons, but this track is boring as fuck. The first two-thirds are just the same bad drums over and over, and then when the drums get a bit more interesting, the synths turn it into the score from Terminator 2. I waited ten years for THIS???

"Machine Gun" [video]

Portishead's Third is out 4/29 in the US.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Heads Up: New Raconteurs NEXT WEEK!!!

Way to leave it to the last minute, Jack! What are you, Radiohead??
And the neo-classic-rockers say...Moooooooooo:

"The Raconteurs are happy to announce that in one week's time their second album, entitled Consolers of the Lonely, will be available EVERYWHERE Tuesday, March 25th.

"'Album' meaning: full length vinyl, CD and digital formats; and 'everywhere' meaning: local mom and pop Indie retailers, corporate superstores, supermarkets, iTunes, Amazon, the band's own website and any other location that could get the record up and going this quickly (some places couldn't move this fast, so they will join in as soon as they can).

"It contains 14 new recordings and is being released globally on Third Man Records in conjunction with our marketing/distribution partners, XL Recordings and Warner Brothers Records.

"The album was mastered and completed in the first week of March. It was then taken immediately to a vinyl pressing plant. Then to a CD pressing plant. Then preparations to sell it digitally began. March 25th became the soonest date to have it available in EVERY FORMAT AT ONCE. The band have done no interviews or advertisements for this record before this announcement.

"The purpose: to get the album to the fans as soon as possible and as we promised. We wanted to get this record to fans, the press, radio, etc., all at the EXACT SAME TIME so that no one has an upper hand on anyone else regarding its availability, reception or perception.

"With this release, The Raconteurs are forgoing the usual months of lead time for press and radio set up, as well as forgoing the all important 'first week sales'. We wanted to explore the idea of releasing an album everywhere at once and THEN marketing and promoting it thereafter. The Raconteurs would rather this release not be defined by its first weeks sales, pre-release promotion, or by someone defining it FOR YOU before you get to hear it.

"Another purpose was to also allow people to have their own choice as to exactly which format they would like to hear the album in IMMEDIATELY, rather than having to wait for their favorite format to become available. The band are also not releasing any version of this record that contains bonus tracks. Musically this album will be the same as the band created it no matter what format it is purchased in. (The sound quality of each format however, is a different story. The Raconteurs recommend hearing it on vinyl, but the choice is of course up to the listener).

"The band also prefer that fans buy the album as a whole instead of breaking up the tracks, but until iTunes and other digital services allows bands to release their albums with the option of NOT breaking it up, it will be sold in that fashion on those particular sites. On the band's website however, the album will be sold in its entirety as an mp3 at 320kb bit rate. Also in Japan, fans will be able to download the record via their mobile phones, as that is how a majority of recorded music is consumed there.

"The reason we are announcing this release one week ahead of time is because of retail pre-ordering and stocking, information about this album's imminent release was bound to come to light and could be confusing to fans. Also in the event that the record leaks, we didn't want this method of release to be seen as a REACTION to such a leak. It's not. The actual worst thing about a leak is the usual poor sound quality, akin to watching a movie on a wristwatch instead of in a theater. Which for the album's creators is a bit of a letdown, but again, it is completely up to the listener.

"There will be a video up on the internet for the first single, 'Salute Your Solution', on the 25th as well, provided it gets edited in time. We just filmed it the other day!

"We hope not to confuse anyone with too many options, or deny them the formats that they like best. The Raconteurs feel very strongly that music has worth and should be treated as such. Thank you to all those who respect music in this fashion, and thank you to our label partners for working with us to get this album to fans in as many formats as possible all at once.

"Thank you, and we hope that you enjoy Consolers of the Lonely.

The Raconteurs"

[via Pitchfork]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Overpriced Popcorn: Cloverfield

[NOTE] "Overpriced Popcorn" is simply me giving my theatrical movie reviews a categorical title, like my album reviews are under the heading "Headphones". I'm doing this to set them apart from the "Netflix Diary", though the format will be basically the same.

I guess I should’ve reviewed this earlier seeing as my one overwhelming point is now kind of moot: if you ever want to see this film, you should probably see it on the big screen. On DVD, this film will most likely not work at all, unless you have the biggest HD flatscreen and the best in surround sound. My friend Tom has a TV like that, but his apartment is over his landlord's elementary-age kid's bedroom, so no dice on cranking up the volume. Being immersed in Cloverfield's alternate reality is essential to giving it its fair shake. The monsters are cool and pleasantly different than all the internet speculation; the smaller creatures in the subway reminded me of the "bugs" in Starship Troopers. The acting is...well tolerable at best - at the very least, it’s up to Lonelygirl15 standards. As a bonus, the soundtrack at the party is pretty good. Oh yeah, and it’s better than Blair Witch too, cuz at least you see the monster(s).

Netflix Diary 3

Stardust [2007]
A good, fun bit of family filmmaking by, of all people, Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn; although I had gotten myself psyched up that it was gonna be a kind of next-gen Princess Bride, which I guess is too much to hope for, it was still mildly worth seeing, like on cable. It has a pretty good cast, highlighted by a radiant Claire Danes and an unforgettably ridiculous Robert DeNiro.

The Lives Of Others [2006]
Winner of the 2006 Best Foreign Language Oscar, but only hitting the US around when it won the award (early ’07), this instant classic from Germany would be a brilliant piece of filmmaking in any language. It not only deals with the place and power of art in a society, but how people’s attitude’s change towards art when the government tightens its grasp. Set against the police state of East Berlin in the 1980’s, the story of a Stasi Police investigator who has to struggle with the relationship between his politically sensitive profession and his silent opinions on the follies of his government’s policies produces deep, tangible characters with performances to match. This is a tense, genius drama as good as any from Hollywood in the last 5 years.

Friday, March 7, 2008

[007] Sign 'O' The Times

Album: Sign ‘O’ The Times
Artist: Prince
Release Date: March 1987
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: Prince

“Baby I just can't stand 2 see U happy
More than that I hate 2 see U sad
Honey, if U left me I just might do something rash
What's this strange relationship?"
- from "Strange Relationship"

“Hot thing, maybe U should give your folks a call
Tell them you’re going 2 The Crystal Ball
Tell them you’re coming home late, if you’re coming home at all
Hot thing, tell them U found a brand new baby doll”
- from “Hot Thing”

Let’s talk about the nature of the double album. I think it’s safe to say most music listeners would associate the double album with an artist trying to make a BIG Artistic Statement, capital A, capital S. Sometimes it’s to prove how eclectic they are, or that they’re such geniuses that the music just flows through them, and they have 100 songs that they’ll whittle down to 25, and drop 90+ minutes of music on you (Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness = a whopping 2 hours, not to mention the box set of supplemental b-sides, sold separately of course). It’s kind of funny then that even when offered more songs for the consumer dollar, we as the public turn around and say ‘give us less’ – there’s no doubt that 99% of double albums in Pop/Rock/Rap history would still be better as single albums. Despite its snapshot of a great band breaking apart, there is surely an even better 45-minute album somewhere in The Beatles’ “White Album”, and don’t even get me started on the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life or the mess of Wu-Tang Forever. Then there’s the bands that want you to pay twice by releasing two separate albums, when one would have been fine – GNR and Metallica, I’m looking in your direction. Hey, I love Radiohead, but think how much more satisfying Kid A would have been if it was filled out with the better half of Amnesiac. For my money, the double albums that work the best are the ones that now, in the age of the 80-minute CD, fit onto one disc: The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., by far the most solid double album, and The Clash’s London Calling are the most notable, along with the 1984 works of Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. But what does it say that Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, a great double album of the 1%, was meant to be a triple album? Shit, it could’ve been a quadruple with all the songs he had! The answer, sort of, is what gets lost in the discussion – that the record label has a say in what they release, artistic genius be damned. For example, just this past fall, Robert Smith was bickering with his label over whether The Cure’s new album was going to be a single or a double, and all the uncertainty forced him to push it back to this coming spring. As stories of legendary double albums go, the genesis of Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times is far more grand and interesting. His Purple Badness had already found success with a double release – the electro funk touchstone 1999, which, considering new-millennium music trends, appears to now be his most influential album, and after the success of Purple Rain, the label was generally OK with Prince doing pretty much whatever he felt.

What he felt like doing was making two albums of psychedelic Pop and skeletal R&B; both the barely mediocre Around The World In A Day and the underrated, elegant Parade bombed commercially, as did Parade’s terrible companion film, Under The Cherry Moon. Prince, the most brilliant Pop Star since The Beatles was in danger of losing everything – the support of his label, his fans, and of radio programmers that had taken a chance on him. So he did what he’s been doing, for better or worse, ever since: recording like a muthafucker. In the last days of 1985, before Parade was even out, Prince began his most productive period, gathering The Revolution to start work on the album Dream Factory, which was to feature increased songwriting input from the band (especially Wendy & Lisa), Prince’s growing interest in Jazz – his parents were Jazz musicians, and at the time, he had been hanging out with Miles Davis – and his first attempts at incorporating horns in his songs. In the ten months from that winter start through October of 1986, Prince assembled three different versions of the album, at first a single album, and then twice a sprawling double. The last version of the album included half of the songs that would eventually make it to Sign: the post-Live Aid, front-page-headline electro-blues of “Sign ‘O’ The Times”, the warped future-pop of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”, the weird, moody seduction funk of “It”, the grade school confection of “Starfish & Coffee”, the jazzy come-on of “Slow Love”, the passive-aggressive “Strange Relationship”, the arena-ready anthem “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, and the stark gospel of “The Cross”. The only problem was Prince was going to have to rerecord them all, because he was about to fire The Revolution.

In the wake of the mass firing (only keyboardist Dr. Fink remained), Prince, feeling that he needed to marginalize whatever The Revolution’s contributions had been, but also inspired by his fresh canvas, went on an even greater tear, producing the best work of his career in a mere three months, mostly by himself. The day after he fired the band, he began anew by recording “Housequake”, yet another in a long line of party joints extraordinaire, mashing up a James Brown stomp, call-and-response vocals, and golden horns with a growing interest in Hip-Hop’s sonics, as well as hiding an absolutely vicious metal guitar riff in the mix. The hilarious vocals – “Does anybody know about the ‘quake? Bullshit!!” – were sung in a pinched pitch that made him sound like a crazy woman (or a sexed-up drag queen or at least like he was sucking helium). Prince then decided to instead make an entire album in this new voice, under the name Camille. The Camille project would have been a sexually fascinating collection, more lascivious funk-pop, remaining explicit, but approaching the subject in new ways. The unlikely song that ended up meaning the most to the project was “Strange Relationship”, a track Prince had been messing with since 1982, and the only song that made it through every stage of this period to make it on Sign. Listening to it now, the palette in which Prince rendered it in illustrates why it’s one of those forgotten tracks in his oeuvre; the synthetic tones are dated, unfortunately framing one of his smartest, most mature examinations of a self-destructive relationship. On the other hand, the Camille highlight is definitely “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, still one of Prince’s best songs; over a muted R&B slow jam pulse, Prince ponders the relationship insecurities of his lover, and the eternal struggle between trust and sex, made even more strange by the fact that the song is supposed to be coming from Camille (Was Camille meant to be a lesbian?? If so – that much more genius!!). And as the song’s coda twists itself into place, like dark storm clouds rolling in, Camille begins to plead, seemingly set to unravel, but the result is a cathartic soliloquy:

“Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you want to undress? We don’t have to make children to make love. And we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm. Your body is what I’m all about. Can I see it? I’ll show you. Why not? You could do it because I’m your friend. I’d do it for you. Of course I’d undress in front of you. And when I’m naked, what shall I do? How can I make you see that it’s cool? Can’t you just trust me? If I was your girlfriend you could. Oh yeah, I think so. Listen, for you, naked I would dance a ballet. Would that get you off? Tell me what will. If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me? Would you let me see you naked then? Would you let me give you a bath? Would you let me tickle you so hard you’d laugh and laugh, and would you, would you let me kiss you there, you know, down there where it counts? I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce, and then I’d hold you tight and hold you long and together we’ll stare at the silence… And then we’ll try and imagine what it looks like. Yeah, we’ll try and imagine what…what silence looks like. Yeah, we’ll try and imagine what silence looks like.”

It amounts to a rant of all the relationship frustrations Prince must have felt, being a bachelor Rock Star, comfortable to explore his sexuality, but unable to find a lover to match his philosophies on the joys and freedom of sex and love. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is Prince as the man who says what you’re afraid to, whispering that what society tells you is kinky is completely normal sexual interaction if your partner is at ease with you. It’s such an honest statement on the realities of day-to-day love, sounding weird and yet identifiable to men (and women) everywhere, setting the tone for the exploratory nature of some of the songs that Prince would write for what would become Sign ‘O’ The Times.

Only half-related side note: Here I would just like to pause and say that if you get the chance to hear the Camille album as intended, do so, as it is a quite a remarkable collection in its own right, much like The Black Album should have been (see below for where to find some of these songs):
Camille tracklist: “Rebirth Of The Flesh” / “Housequake” / “Strange Relationship” / “Feel U Up” / “Shockadelica” / “Good Love” / “If I Was Your Girlfriend” / “Rock Hard In A Funky Place”
These songs within the frame of Sign ‘O’ The Times have always reminded me of another double album: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Half of Zeppelin’s 1975 double offering, 7 of its 15 tracks, had been written previously for other albums dating all the way back to 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. The eight remaining songs, which were actually written in 1974/75 for Physical Graffiti, have a different, mostly darker tone, and taken on their own would have, in my opinion, formed Led Zep’s greatest album. While you’re burning yourself a copy of Camille, burn this too and enjoy:
Imaginary tracklist: “In The Light” / “The Wanton Song” / “Trampled Underfoot” / “Kashmir” / “Custard Pie” / “Sick Again” / “In My Time Of Dying” / “Ten Years Gone”

On the song that would become the eventual title track, Prince addressed social ills like drugs and gang violence more candidly than he ever had before, somewhat following the 80’s trend of charity in Pop music (he had infamously dropped out of “We Are The World”); I say somewhat because the song is half nonsense, undercutting the message a bit in the face of the ghetto snapshots that were coming out of the early salvos of hardcore Hip-Hop (B.D.P., P.E., N.W.A., etc.), but that doesn’t change the fact that the groove is tight, and it was sparse enough to leave him room for guitar wankage in concert. Likewise, the thick-yet-spacious guitar architecture of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” was simply something to rock out to while Prince stretched his narrative of a conflicted one night stand with a single mother over the framework, cast in vivid hues to brighten up a gray story. The spiritual exploration of “The Cross” has been compared to The Velvet Underground doing gospel, but I always hear Neil Young with the ragged edges cut off and cleaned up; either way, it’s Prince most naked, emotional vocal performance, pushing his voice to the breaking point. There is a split-second moment when it even sounds like U2 (who Prince has had an adverse relationship with ever since The Joshua Tree beat out Sign for the 1987 Album of the Year Grammy), and it occurs to me that maybe U2 are The Stones to Prince’s Beatles – think on it for a while. Similar to “The Cross” in its bare bones approach, “Forever In My Life” is a stripped and straight-forward ballad on settling down, with a superb arrangement of multiple Princes singing around each other; its feature that everyone always seems to hang on is the way the backing vocals guide the lead vocal instead of following, and it was an inspired turn, as is the delicious acoustic guitar outro.

Like “Strange Relationship” and “I Could Never”, Prince’s Pop for Sign was very eclectic, and yet patently Purple. “Play In The Sunshine” is the type of song that The Revolution would’ve torn up in concert, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink song with all the rainbow colors and the needles in the red; it’s such an over the top piece of pop that it made Madonna and Michael Jackson sound depressed. “Starfish & Coffee” is basically a children’s song, but it’s wonderful melody and bouncy nursery rhyme structure are fun for all ages. Then there’s “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”, the best song on the album, and one of Prince’s greatest accomplishments. It is a Pop song like no other, one of those tracks you hear, and you’re not quite sure what you’re listening to. His drum programming feels askew, off kilter, like there’s something wrong with the drum machine, not unlike the beat juggling DJ Shadow would do a decade later (the song could easily find a home on UNKLE’s Shadow-helmed Psyence Fiction). Everything in the song is muffled, the bass warped like plastic left on a dashboard in the summer. The synths sound inebriated, like a drunk cartoon that burps and bubbles float out, and they moan their troubles in weird jazz chord progressions. The lyric, about a surreal flirtation between Prince and the titular waitress and how the encounter clears his head of past troubles, is a great example of Pop gibberish, full of non-sequiturs that bounce Prince’s narrator all over the place; there’s no chorus, just verses full of wonderfully odd ideas like Prince taking a bath with Dorothy while wearing pants cuz he’s “kind of going with someone”, leading to equally bizarre exchanges along the lines of, “My pants were wet, they came off / But she didn’t see the movie / Cuz she hadn’t read the book first / Instead she pretended she was blind / An affliction brought on by a witch’s curse / Dorothy made me laugh / Ha ha, ha ha.” This is Prince at his best, so far ahead of the field that he could release this now and it would still sound next-level.

The naughty overtones and space-age funk of “It” (melodic chimes over a stiff, industrial racket) and “Hot Thing” (come-ons so humid you can see steam rising off skin, and sweat on the walls) worked for getting bodies moving, but it was “U Got The Look”, a pop-nirvana duet between Sheena Easton and Prince-as-Camille, and easily one of his greatest creations, that was guaranteed to steam up clubs for years. Its genius mix of disco hooks and serrated new wave guitars and distorted synths showed similar hybrid classics like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and anything by Robert Palmer as inferior, proving Prince was the new King, and to not even try and fuck with him; plus, only Prince could get away with putting “Let’s get to rammin’” in the chorus of a single during the PMRC era. The Swedes especially must have loved it, because it’s been cribbed by Roxette (“The Look”) and The Knife (the spectacular “Heartbeats”). The album ends with a one-two punch: the nine-minute live funk epic “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”, the last of The Revolution’s appearances, and the gorgeous “Adore”. The former plays like a summary of the Funk of yesteryear and a dry run for the rest of the styles Prince would explore before he left Warner. The latter is Prince as tender lover, the diminutive, sorta-effeminate funk elf that could steal your girl in less than a second; the song is a true love classic, working in every which way, from sincere to smirking. Play this for your significant other, and you’re sure to either get a ‘yes’ to that wedding proposal, or receive that booty right quick.

In 1989, Time Magazine called Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times the best album of the 1980’s. That’s a remarkable claim today, in the face of a slew of classic albums by Michael Jackson, U2, Sonic Youth, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Beastie Boys, R.E.M., Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul, Minutemen, Tom Waits, Metallica, and the Purple One himself, to name just a few. All these years later, I look at this album as almost a forgotten classic. I think one of the questions that needs to be asked is what has happened in popular music in the past twenty years to lessen the positive attributes of this album that led Time to such a assertion? Or maybe the question should be, conversely, what’s the rest of the world’s problem for not treating this as an archetype of modern Pop music? It’s confusing – I find myself staring at the tracklist for the album, and I wonder why so many of these incredible songs never get mentioned among Prince’s great compositions, when at least a third deserve the honor. Prince is undoubtedly viewed as a master of the single, packing his thirty year career with classic hit after hit, but he made, at least, three undeniable classic albums in addition to Sign, and yet the only album tracks you ever hear people talking about come from Purple Rain. Sign, as well as 1980’s Dirty Mind, and 1982’s 1999 all contain songs just as good as “Darling Nikki” and “Baby I’m A Star”, but you never hear mention of “Sister” or “D.M.S.R.” or (especially) “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” (not to mention that some Purple Rain-era b-sides, like “Erotic City” and “17 Days” blow half that album’s tracks away). And so, consider that Sign ‘O’ The Times in the public consciousness has diminished because this is the album where Prince decided to grow up. His early R&B supporters (read: Black) were jumping ship at an alarming rate, migrating to the thin sounds of Whitney Houston and New Edition (though Bobby Brown’s great Don’t Be Cruel owes a ton to Prince); Prince was becoming too challenging for his audience, and they weren’t ready yet to acclimate themselves to the new sounds of Hip-Hop, and that’s why something like New Jack Swing succeeded. Prince was aiming for maturation of the soul, examining the gray areas of relationships in addition to looking for sex, and in so doing his commercial focus gave way to collecting a group of songs that spoke to the world as one whole piece of art. And sometimes, a big Artistic Statement, double-sized, triple-sized or otherwise, just doesn’t sell as well.

01/01. “Sign ‘O’ The Times”
01/02. “Play In The Sunshine”
01/03. “Housequake”
01/04. “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”
01/05. “It”
01/06. “Starfish And Coffee”
01/07. “Slow Love”
01/08. “Hot Thing”
01/09. “Forever In My Life”
02/01. “U Got The Look” [feat. Sheena Easton]
02/02. “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
02/03. “Strange Relationship”
02/04. “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”
02/05. “The Cross”
02/06. “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” [live; feat. The Revolution]
02/07. “Adore”

So, yes, you have a double album in your hands, but what about the whole double album’s worth of songs that got shelved? Well, here’s a guide to where, and where not, to find them:
The Black Album: Shelved at the end of 1987 and heavily bootlegged in 1988, it was finally released in 1994 to help Prince get out of his Warners contract. It closes with Camille leftover “Rock Hard In A Funky Place”.
Graffiti Bridge: “Joy In Repetition” was set for Crystal Ball, but ended up on this soundtrack for the forgettable Purple Rain sequel.
The B-Sides [Disc 3 of The Hits]: Here you’ll find slightly altered versions of “Feel U Up” and “Shockadelica”, both of which were slated for the Camille project, as well as “Power Fantastic” from Dream Factory.
Crystal Ball [NPG collection]: Not to be confused with the aborted album, this is a 3 CD compilation of outtakes from 1998, with a bonus fourth disc of the album The Truth. It was a limited edition, so you’ll have a hard time finding it now. It contained alternate or overdubbed versions of “Dream Factory”, the ten-minute “Crystal Ball”, “Sexual Suicide”, “Last Heart”, “Movie Star” (obviously and hilariously written for Morris Day), “Crucial” – all from the Dream Factory/Crystal Ball period – and “Good Love” from Camille.
Good fuckin’ luck – this is what the internet is for: These are the unreleased tracks. Some have been found on bootlegs for years, but because Prince is such a g-man for his music, his purple people keep this stuff from spreading too far. The prize is “Rebirth Of The Flesh”, the Camille and Crystal Ball opener, and the only Camille song not to be officially released (Which I had once, before my old computer crashed & burned! No!!!). Beyond that, it’s a Dream Factory/Crystal Ball treasure hunt: “Visions”, “It’s A Wonderful Day”, “Big Tall Wall”, “And That Says What?”, “Teacher, Teacher”, “A Place In Heaven” & “Neveah Ni A Ecalp A”, “Interlude”, “In A Large Room With No Light”, “Witness 4 The Prosecution”, “All My Dreams”, “Train”, and “The Ball”. Good luck.

NOTE: The Purple One is notorious for ruling the internet with an iron fist, so finding anything of his online that he doesn't make you pay for is a blessing. There's about zippo on YouTube. So enjoy what's here while you can, cuz it might be taken down by tomorrow.

"Sign 'O' The Times/Play In The Sunshine" [live in LA, 09.87]
from the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards

"Erotic City/Housequake/Slow Love/Adore"
from the Lovesexy 88 concert film

"U Got The Look" ['Long Look' version - video]

"It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" [live in Rotterdam, 06.87]
from the Sign 'O' The Times concert film

from the Sign 'O' The Times concert film [live in Rotterdam, 06.87]
- BONUS: "Slow Love"
- BONUS: "Forever In My Life"
- BONUS: "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man"

- BONUS: "Sign 'O' The Times" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Housequake" [live in LA, 1988]

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Heads Up: new Futureheads part 2

The Futureheads are a great young band with a small, devoted following; they are not Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails. So the fact that they're going it alone for their third album, without a label, is that much more admirable - and difficult. So they've taken to the, uh, airwaves. This is Barry & Ross asking their UK fans to support their new single. The album, This Is Not The World, should be out in early summer.

Video for said single, "The Beginning Of The Twist"

- BONUS: "Beginning Of The Twist" while walking down Carnaby Street, London

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Headphones: Vampire Weekend's debut

I'm going to Boston this weekend, or as my Yankee super-fan girlfriend would call it, "enemy territory". It has given the world good things - Mission Of Burma and the Pixies - but Aerosmith has created a lot for the city to answer for (though Rocks is pretty fuckin' sweet). Anyway, Vampire Weekend spends a lot of time singing about New England, Cape Cod this, Cambridge that, all while dressed like the rich-kid villains from any one of the teen flicks in the 80's. I try not to judge, but it's hard. Some critics have made the distinction that the band is definitely a pop band as opposed to a rock band, and I'd say not only is that true, but it's a necessary point. Rock & Roll was, is, and should be partially about your parents disapproval. And here's Vampire Weekend looking like the L.L. Bean catalog. Hmmm...not so much.

That sensibility informs their music. They get compared to the Talking Heads and Strokes a lot, but these are terrible comparisons. First of all, The Strokes are a better band, and their debut is better. If you ask me what I want to hear about in lyrics, rooms on fire or professors & campus, I'm gonna exclaim "Rooms on muthafuckin' fire!!" No one likes school, you square. Speaking of, David Byrne went to college in Rhode Island - behind enemy lines - and he made it out fine because he was special (or batshit crazy). He managed to stay insane for a few years, and when he started mellowing and getting arty, that time people like the most, like Remain In Light, I tuned out. You want a good comparison, check this real-life exchange between my girlfriend & I from earlier this evening, and the reason I'm busting this review out right now:

[cheesy 80's music playing over restaurant speakers]
Me: "Have you heard Vampire Weekend yet?"
Veronica: "I saw the video. I didn't like it."
Me: "The one with the stop-motion?" [referring to "A-Punk"]
Veronica: "Yeah. The video and the song were stupid."
Me: "Really? I thought it was OK..." [playing devil's advocate]
Veronica: "It just seemed like something Sting would've done."

There you have it folks. She said Sting. Not The Police. Sting. And no one wants to be like Sting. I know, because when I was young and dumb, I was a Sting fan. Then I bought the first Clash record. Sting collected dust from then on. Furthermore, I'm also reminded of that "classic" Feelies album, Crazy Rhythms from '82 (the one Rivers Cuomo stole the cover idea for the "Blue Album" from), which is another album that I bought because of its revered status, before being underwhelmed, only to be exiled to sit in a box somewhere. Don't get me wrong. It's not a bad album. It's just...OK, and only OK. "Mansard Roof" has that interesting beat, and "I Stand Corrected" is pretty good (mostly cuz it doesn't sound like the rest of the album). But the rest is pretty much all the same. And seriously, if you want an album that's like this, but you know, GOOD, pick up The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta, from back when Sting didn't totally suck. Oh yeah, and by the way, if you're going to pose with Fear Of A Black Planet in a picture, why not try making some music that sounds like you know Public Enemy exists. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to The Stooges' Fun House before bed.

"A-Punk" [video]

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Netflix Diary 2

Bonnie & Clyde [1967]
1967 was the year that movies changed, and this was one of the great few that changed it (along with The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, and In The Heat Of The Night, among others). I would say it’s not a hands-down masterpiece, mostly because it hasn’t aged as well as some of the other films of the time – Estelle Parsons’s Oscar-winning supporting actress turn comes off as a bit grating now – but its classic status is still evident when watching. The violence was definitely revolutionary as far as what you could show and how you could treat it emotionally, and Clyde’s sexual hang-ups were definitely an interesting development of how a male lead could be portrayed. Throw in Gene Hackman’s breakthrough, a bit part by a super-young Gene Wilder, and Faye Dunaway in one of the sexiest performances of the 60’s, and you have a cool flick to go back and discover.

The Host [2006]
I’ve wanted to see this for about a year, and so when I got Netflix, I put it right at the top of the list. I think it’s always interesting to see what big budget blockbusters look like when made in other countries. As a monster movie, this is way more fun than, say, the Matthew Broderick-led Godzilla, wisely choosing to have the creature be smaller than most movie monsters – this thing is about 20 feet tall – so that during the action, whichever human is there engaging it can be fit in the same shot, instead of separate giant monster shots and tiny ant-of-a-person shots. Add in some good acting and classic slapstick humor from the Korean cast, and a little social commentary in the script, and you have one satisfying viewing experience, destined to be a cult classic.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Netflix Diary 1

Disturbia [2007]
Ever since I saw The Battle of Shaker Heights, I try and check out Shia LaBeouf’s flicks; I think he picks good projects for his acting personality. This teen angst reimagining of Hitchcock’s Rear Window was a fun little slice of popcorn fare; as both teenage fare and as a thriller, it’s slightly above average. I don’t think it was worth a $10 ticket, but I enjoyed it. Good to see David Morse continuing to raise his profile too.

Breaking Radio Silence

I've been kinda quiet in the Oh Ate, so I thought I'd do a brief catch-you-up...
- Be on the lookout for a new section: my Netflix diary. I realized that I see tons of movies (maybe 150-200 a year) and never write reviews for them, SO I will now be writing reviews for every movie I see no matter how short they are. The ones I see in the theater will be seperate from the Netflix diary - now that I've joined Netflix, I'm getting to catch up on some classics as well as see some crap that I'd never pay 10 bucks for. These reviews will start immediately.

- As I noted last year, I don't like to do my Best of the Year lists at Xmas/New Year's like everyone else. I like to get some distance on my opinions, as well as check out a few notable things that I might have missed. You will probably see the Best Films before the Best Music, but they both will come eventually.

- NOTE: There will NOT be a Best Television in '07 list, because TV mostly sucked my ass, illustrated by the sagging quality of good shows and the depressing Writers' Strike. Basically, you should be watching Lost and The Wire, as they are among the greatest shows of all time. If you've missed anything, go get the DVDs and watch them. Anything else worth watching is up to you. I personally watch The Shield, South Park, The Office, and Entourage when they're on, though it seems that they're all past their prime; let's hope I'm wrong. I also enjoy Heroes, though it's not an easy show to recommend to anyone passing on the street, as is the fun & informative daily Attack of The Show on the G4 channel. I despise pretty much any reality TV and mostly hate sitcoms. I've heard Dexter and Weeds are good, but I haven't gotten around to them on DVD yet.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

[008] Loveless

Album: Loveless
Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Release Date: November 1991
Label: Creation [UK], Sire/Warner Bros. [US]
Producers: Kevin Shields, with Colm O’Closoig
Engineered and assisted by: Kevin Shields, Alan Moulder, and Anjali Dutt, with Nick Addison, Darren Allison, Harold Burgon, Adrian Bushby, Tony Falter, Guy Fixsen, Pascale Giovetto, Dick Meaney, Colm O’Closoig, Hugh Price, Nick Robbins, Nick Savage, Charles Steel, Ingo Vauk, and Andy Wilkinson

"I just stopped making records myself, and I suppose that must just seem weird to people. 'Why'd you do that?' The answer is, it wasn't as good [as Loveless]. And I always promised myself I'd never do that, put out a worse record.”
- Kevin Shields, on why he hasn’t made an album since 1991

"[My Bloody Valentine] was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us, and their album Loveless is certainly one of my all-time three favourite records. It's the sound of someone [Shields] who is so driven that they're demented.”
- Robert Smith of The Cure

Not that I would position myself as a seasoned veteran or expert in the field quite yet, but the beginner’s tactics of writing about music usually involve stringing flowery adjectives together to describe the properties of a plastic disc. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is the kind of album that has demanded only the best in vocabulary over the last sixteen years. To give you an idea of the greatness that lies within this masterpiece, the following words have been cherry-picked from various reviews and retrospectives on the album: ambitious, avant-garde, balanced, beautiful, bent, breathy, calm, catchy, cavernous, challenging, classic, commanding, complex, creative, decadent, defiant, disorienting, distorted, diverse, dominating, dreamy, droning, druggy, dysfunctional, emotional, ethereal, excellent, experimental, extreme, fantastic, fiery, foggy, forward-looking, fractured, fragile, frantic, fuzzy, gentle, harmonic, harsh, immediate, influential, inimitable, innovative, inspiring, intense, intimate, inventive, jagged, layered, loud, lush, magical, masterful, melodic, memorable, mighty, mind-altering, modern, moody, noisy, obscure, peerless, pioneering, pretty, promising, psychedelic, pulverizing, real, remarkable, rewarding, roaring, self-assured, sensual, sexual, soft, spirited, strange, strong, stylish, surging, sweet, swirling, symphonic, tangible, textured, thick, trippy, undulating, unique, uplifting, vast, venerable, voluptuous, warped, weightless, and wonderful. Though every one is applicable, despite some being contradictory, I’d probably just go with ‘perfect’.

Granted, I said that those words were to give you an idea. With an album like Loveless, it’s hard to describe why it’s so great. I can tell you about it, but that doesn’t really communicate how it feels, how it forces your mind and body to react. But I’m going to try and touch on both. The background is fairly simple and well-known to those that care to know it, and yet still reads like a legend. My Bloody Valentine started as an Indie Rock band in the UK in the mid 80’s, working out the kinks of their sound, somewhere in the soup between 60’s garage psychedelia and the dissonance of Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and, more so, The Jesus & Mary Chain. In 1988, they released the great Isn’t Anything, which over the years has become a pretty respected minor classic in its own right. But that album, well, it was tangible, and I mean that there were other bands that could be referred to as MBV’s peers and contemporaries; it wouldn’t stay that way for long though. Between 1988 and the release of Loveless at the end of 1991, so much in music happened to change the environment for audience-challenging music that didn’t conform to the Pop charts. Besides the ascension of the Alternative bands in America, and the emerging rave scene, a heady blur of Rock bands were taking hold in the UK, dubbed “Shoegazing” by the music press. The term has been explained quite logically – when these bands played live, they just stood there staring at their shoes; of course, the press wanted to make the assumption that they had some sort of anti-fame stance, but really it was because either it was too dark or they were too high to see the large arsenal of guitar effects pedals, which made their music possible, on the ground in front of them. My Bloody Valentine and Isn’t Anything had become early signposts for this new sound, and during MBV’s stay in the studio, the mini-movement was lead primarily by the band Ride, and other acts like Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, Curve, and later Slowdive.

Loveless shattered the genre’s constraints, leapfrogging pretty much every British guitar band at the time, and laying down the gauntlet to the whole Rock world; the hot new things in Seattle may have put the underground on MTV, but they weren’t pushing music like this. At least that’s what the press and the fans said. But I doubt that My Bloody Valentine had that sort of impact in mind at the onset. In order to fully understand the album, you’d have to be Kevin Shields. The sound of Loveless, one of the most singular sounds in all of music history, is the sound inside the MBV leader’s head. With the exception of the instrumental interlude “Touched”, which was created in full by drummer Colm O’Closoig, and the lead vocals sung by Bilinda Butcher, pretty much every noise on the album was courtesy of Rock alchemist Shields. Butcher’s guitars collected dust. Bassist Debbie Googe stayed home because it was easier for Shields to play the parts himself than to explain what he heard in his dreams. O’Closoig played live drums on only his interlude and one other song, the untouchable opening track “Only Shallow”, purportedly because of health problems; all other rhythm tracks were created by Shields, who had the drummer bang out simple patterns that he could handle playing while ill, and then Shields sampled and looped the parts he wanted. Shields angered studio owners, and got his equipment locked up. Shields drove the assistant head of his label, Creation, to a nervous breakdown and a head of gray hair at the age of 29. Shields spent two years in nineteen different studios with as many engineers (most of them didn’t do much), making an album that took thirteen days to master (most albums take one or two days), nearly bankrupting the small Creation and basically making an enemy of his label boss, Alan McGee, who dropped the band because he couldn’t see himself enduring work with Shields ever again. More important than any of these legendary twists and turns though is that Kevin Shields played the guitar.

Despite the sixty-year history of Rock & Roll, and the couple hundred-or-so “great” guitarists, there are very few moments when the essential tool of the music – the six-string electric guitar – was presented in a format which totally reinvented the way it was played. In fact, you could easily count them on two hands. The first would be jazzman Charlie Christian, and then whichever Bluesman you want to credit, Robert Johnson or whoever, with getting it all started, as well as your pick of the influential moments from the giants of rhythm guitar: Chuck Berry, Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, and James Brown’s funk slinger Jimmy Nolen. Jimi Hendrix’s debut album, Are You Experienced, would be another moment, as would the self-titled debut by Van Halen. And Loveless would also be on that shortlist, along with a couple others. The interesting thing about Kevin Shields’ place in this group, and the reason why Loveless is such a groundbreaking guitar album, is because of its sound, not how he played his instrument. Eddie Van Halen will always be famous for his lightning pull-offs & hammer-ons, but the music his band made wasn’t that different from their peers of the day, the Zeppelins, the Cheap Tricks, the Kisses. Jimi is a better comparison, the way he played with studio sound and pioneered the use of the effects, but at the same time, as far ahead as he was as a guitarist, his band did have contemporaries – Cream is most notable. And yet, he was Jimi, still the gold standard, and similarly, MBV had Ride, but Ride weren't even close. No one ever talks about the way that Kevin Shields plays. They talk about how he sounds. I’ve done it throughout this project; I’ve compared probably a dozen artists on this list to the My Bloody Valentine “sound” (and it could've been more), because it’s simply unavoidable. It’s like saying that any lush, summery pop song with harmonies sounds like the Beach Boys, or any bluesy hard rock with a wailing vocal is ‘Zeppelinesque’; you can’t help it, that’s just the way of the world. And yet through all this, unless you do the research, listening to Loveless will lead you to all the wrong assumptions about Kevin Shields as a guitar architect. The common misconception, which I myself have made countless times, is that Shields’ work on this album is masterpiece of orchestrating his many effects pedals. I’ve found that this is not true, and leads me to wonder whether maybe his playing is what we all should’ve been paying attention to. Shields maintains that he used very little in the way of direct effects, instead preferring to process and tweak things after the fact through studio equipment. He insists that most of the warped feeling of his guitar playing is due his style of “Glide guitar”, his practice of using the tremolo bar when he plays, bending the tone and tuning as he goes. It gives the sound a wavering feel, like the blurry blacktop in the distance on a hot day. Hearing the album, you’d think there are dozens of tracks packed with guitars, but Shields swears that it’s a lot more simple than people think, presumably a result of merely turning up the volume to ear-splitting volumes. In fact, if you’re listening to this album with the volume turned down, then you might as well not listen at all. This is my test when I play it in the car: I press play, start talking to myself, and when I can’t hear myself anymore, I know it’s as loud as the band intended (they had take a break in recording due to tinnitus).

MBV stuck around in the public consciousness during the recording of Loveless by releasing the Glider EP (named after Shields’ playing style), which featured the seven-minute “Soon”, the world’s first taste of what would be their next album. Listening to it now, “Soon” is much cleaner and sparkling than the rest of Loveless, vocals a little more up front, but no less indecipherable, featuring a spry, rave-friendly breakbeat and a little of that ringing guitar found on Ride’s classic slice of Indie Pop, “Vapour Trail”. The guitars initially sound a bit more conventional, until they can’t contain themselves, and burst forth with the bristling fuzz of distortion. Amounting to the next logical step from The Smiths’ epochal “How Soon Is Now”, “Soon” cranked the guitars even further into overdrive, ramming into distant singers like bumper cars, looped, echoed, panned, and cycling over themselves. When the album was released, it was clear that “Soon” was just the beginning, though some songs follow, somewhat conventionally, the evolution of the Loveless sound. To expose “When You Sleep” as the most straight-forward Rock song after “Soon”, you just have to look at how it’s been considered over the years. Superdrag borrowed its rhythm riff for their “Destination: Ursa Major”, and Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers covered it on the tour to support their She Loves You album of covers (though, unfortunately, it wasn’t included on the album). “Come In Alone” begins the second half of the album with molasses thunder, crashing like tumultuous waves on the rock of Rock – or whatever you would call this music – flashing synths and slashing guitars fending off Shields’ sweet, boyish voice.

When “Only Shallow” erupts in your eardrums for the first time, you’re likely to know the answer to the universe. All you get is a count of four. Four snare shots to signal the attack. The guitars sound like the apocalypse, or at least first time you saw Jurassic Park, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex roared through the theater surround sound speaker system, shaking your ribcage to the core, while the drums lumber just like that jeep chase. One of the great album openers of the 90’s, the song remains the best encapsulation of MBV’s greatness, screaming sheets of noise throwing shapes across your brain. Like virtually all of their songs, it doesn’t even matter what the lyrics are – possibly something about sleeping or some double entendre about vaginas, who knows really – it just matters how it moves you. I don’t mean figuratively either; the music of My Bloody Valentine is such an aural assault that you can’t help but be swayed. If it is at all possible to cross the human senses (as they say in the movie Ghostbusters, “Listen…Do you smell something?”), well then, “Only Shallow” sounds like heat exhaustion feels. It smothers the listener in an invisible cloud of stuffy hot air. And that feeling continues right through the album, with the distorted strings of “Loomer” sounding like fire burning – you know in movies when there’s an explosion in slow motion, and after the initial blast, you hear the massive growl of dozens of tongues of flame crackling as they lick the sky? Yeah, like that – rumbling like a never-ending crescendo, all pounding tribal drums with no relief of a snare, alleviated only by Bilinda Butcher’s cotton candy vocals and an undulating melody line. “What You Want” is cut from the same energetic cloth, but has the benefit of a propulsive beat. The guitars are sliced to be lean, the fat of the low end cut off and thrown in the background. An ever-present buzz creeps in from the margins, holding the vocals at bay, recalling MBV’s recent ancestors - JAMC, Sonic Youth, or Hüsker Dü - but mellowing out their punk impulses with Shields’ melodious Britpop vocal, Butcher’s background cooing, and a cascading flute-like synth line that evolves into a dreamy light show of silky tones.

Sounding like whales humping, “Touched” introduces the gorgeous “To Here Knows When”, also the featured track on the second Loveless-era companion, the Tremolo EP; the success of the EP placed its lead song in the UK Top 40, possibly the most unconventional Top 40 hit of the decade. “To Here Knows When” is Bilinda Butcher’s finest moment; again, who knows really what she’s singing about, but her voice guides the music through a dreamlike state, a rush of whirling pastel colors spinning past your mind’s eye, suggesting the most sensual of other dimensions, where all of your wildest fantasies come true. The bulging sonics of the song bleed past the lines, challenging the speakers to contain them; it has to fade out because it gets tired from exerting so much brutal beauty. Likewise, “Blown A Wish” is relentless in its cyclical splendor, flowing like water over you; it’s also the song to which the lyrics are clearest, though it’s not quite apparent if this is significant (Perusing online lyric sources, one can see that no one has figured out the words to entire album even now, though the overwhelming lyrical sentiment that fans have been able to make out is one of a troubled couple, referring to the disintegration of Shields and Butcher's relationship, hence the album title). Shields’ exquisite ballad “Sometimes” burns with the fire of hopeful love, built on a bed of purring noise, a material hum with a texture you wish you could reach out and touch. Acoustic guitars chug along as a whistling keyboard soothes you, washing away the stresses of everyday life. One of the greatest pleasures in my film-watching life is hearing this song in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation; following the ecstatic scenes of Bob & Charlotte’s night out, they sit together in that classic shot – the tight hallways of some Tokyo karaoke parlor, in silence – and then My Bloody Valentine lands on your head, scoring their spent cab ride back to their foreign hotel, as Coppola nominates “Sometimes” for the best lullaby in the land (The film's soundtrack also marked the first time Kevin Shields had recorded new music for many years). At the center of the Loveless storm, “I Only Said” stands tall as a summation of all around it – the roaring guitars of fire, pouring over you like standing in a waterfall as your lover serenades you through the rush, while T.Rex’s circle you growling and whales fuck beautiful below you, and you float on clouds of tangible distortion, looking like steel wool but feeling as soft as a baby’s wisp of hair. Receiving the joy of Loveless is confirmation that your senses are working, that your brain is sending signals and that your third eye is open. You are an antenna, a lightning rod for experiences, immersed in the bliss of new love and crushed by one hundred broken hearts. To love Loveless is to love life.

01. “Only Shallow”
02. “Loomer”
03. “Touched” [interlude]
04. “To Here Knows When”
05. “When You Sleep”
06. “I Only Said”
07. “Come In Alone”
08. “Sometimes”
09. “Blown A Wish”
10. “What You Want”
11. “Soon”

"Only Shallow" [video]

"To Here Knows When" [video]

"Sometimes" [excerpt]
as heard in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation

"Soon" [single edit - video]

- BONUS: "Only Shallow" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "To Here Knows When" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "When You Sleep" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "I Only Said" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "Blown A Wish" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "Soon" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: Kevin Shields walks you through MBV and Loveless in 5 minutes [2000 interview from Irish show @last tv]