28 January 2008

the post-music post

Well, the title's not entirely true. I have one more thing to say before I can leave the subject of the music of 2007 back where it belongs (in the back portion of the blog): my favorite song of 2007.

Not a whole lot of rules apply, because as long as it was a song that appeared on an album released in 2007, it's fair game.

As usual, I think my though process deserves some consideration. As a person who's been "playing" "guitar" for something approaching eight years now, and who took a introduction to music theory for non-music majors class (pass/fail!) his last semester in college, I can at least pretend to have some idea for what makes a good song good, or in rare cases, great. Some years this would've been a ridiculously simple task; I couldn't stop listening to "March Into The Sea" from the day the EP showed up at my house, and I was ridiculously infatuated with (still am, by the way) "Inside Job" on Pearl Jam.

2007, though, featured a ridiculous abundance of not just good albums, but good songs. That's a difference worth noting because it allows me to illustrate it by making a television parallel, which, the way I see it, is always worth making. The difference between a good song and a good album is like the difference between a good episode and a good season (bet you couldn't see that coming, could you?). To wit, the key word here (which I didn't use) is time. The fifth season of Angel had 22 episodes to build up to the fantastic, wonderful end of "Not Fade Away." 22 episodes, which winds up being something over 800 minutes of TV (though, in all honesty, the show had 4 seasons leading up to that, plus the time Angel spent on Buffy, so there was more than even those 800ish minutes, so maybe this isn't a fair comparison. Maybe we should use the first season of Lost, since we all came to that without any baggage related to the characters or the storyline. The first season of Lost was pretty darn good, and everything built up towards that final episode where they finally got into the hatch). Storylines can begin and end, characters can come and go, things can be telegraphed in the first few episodes that don't bear fruit until the very last episode (God, I love mixed metaphors). On the other side of the coin, a single episode of television - let's stick with the Angel parallel and use "Smile Time" from Season 5, the episode where Angel gets turned into a Muppet-like creature.

As an episode, "Smile Time" has to more or less stand on its own. It has to begin, middle and end logically, and well. It has to work for someone who's been watching Angel religiously from day 1, and for someone who got the DVDs loaned to them with the promise that they would love this specific episode. Okay, that might be stretching the situation a bit, but one episode has somewhere around 40 minutes to work its magic, as opposed to a whole season. It takes more work to love a season than an episode, but in a lot of ways, it's probably more difficult to make a good single episode (that's probably unfair, especially these days, but in the years where seasons didn't really build towards anything, but were just a collection of episodes...).

In a lot of ways, the same rules apply to comparisons between songs and albums. I won't reiterate everything I've just written, but let's say that the second track on The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, "The Only Moment We Were Alone," doesn't stand like the cheese (alone) nearly as well as it does in its place as the second track on Explosions' album, while "Fiona," on Lyle Lovett's album The Road to Ensenada doesn't lose anything taken out of its place on the album and experienced on its own merit.

Now, the real question is, should that quality be taken into account when considering the merits of my favorite song of 2007? Can I list it (publicly) as such if it's really not the best pure standalone choice I could've made? Can I even apply qualifiers like these when selecting my "favorite," a word chosen specifically because of its more personal and less quantifiable qualities (it's easy to argue a choice for "best;" it's significantly more difficult to argue against someone's "favorite")? Am I just putting too much effort into a declaration that will, in all likelihood, never be seen by human eyes?

I suppose I could describe a selection process that I didn't really have, but the truth of the matter is, all of that buildup just leads to the reveal of a big, familiar cop-out: I can't decide between two songs. And - here's the shocker, now - one song is from All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone, and the other, yep, is on Threes.

"Birth and Death of the Day" vs "False Start."

"Birth and Death," the first track on All of a Sudden, is amazing, engaging, epic and beautifully cathartic; for my money, it's the ultimate Explosions song. "False Start" speaks to me in a more immediate, explicitly relevant way, with regards to the path I'd prefer to make my life take (after all, I can't just sit around and expect someone to recognize my abilities and ambition. I kind of have to, you know, fucking do something). It feels somewhat moronic to try and make a decision between the two songs, since they're radically different (like comparing an episode of 30 Rock to an episode of The West Wing - they're both good, so why make a ridiculous fuss deciding which one is "better," or in this case, "favorite-er?"), so, right now, it makes more sense for me to just declare an overall tie between Sparta and Explosions in 2007. Both bands added to my year's quality to an incredible degree, and were I ever in a position to explain this to them, I'd relish the opportunity. Whether or not they'd feel the same way is another thing entirely.

"Birth and Death" does everything an Explosions song is supposed to do (that is to say, suck you in and blast you back out expertly well in turn), particularly when it comes to the opening track on the album, and "False Start," well, is a good song. A great song, and a song that, for me, extraneous to the album itself, calls up a lot of specific thoughts and feelings.

It's like trying to say whether I like a Sports Night episode more than a Freaks & Geeks episode.

25 January 2008

2007 in retrospective: Part IV (the end of the music opinions!)

Well, this is it. I'm nearly at the end of my overly-thorough dissection of the music I bought and liked in 2007. Today we're tackling the last album on my top 5 list: Zeitgeist, by the Smashing Pumpkins, my all-time favorite band (with Pearl Jam a close second).

We're not addressing it just yet. Before we get into the meat of the post, I'd like to hand out a few other awards for the albums that were plenty good, but just didn't make the paring down to the manageable list of five, or the ones I didn't feel particularly drawn towards, but still wanted to recognize, or the ones I flat-out didn't enjoy. The following awards come with no actual reward attached to them, are listed in no particular order, and are less than likely to ever appear ever again.

For discs released in 2007 and purchased by Phil Wrede (you could release an EP and get an award, you just couldn't make the list):

The Andy Roddick Memorial Award (for albums that were good, but just weren't quite good enough): 3's The End is Begun, Between the Buried and Me's Colors, Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack, The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Blonde Redhead's 23

The Schizophrenic Death Metal Even Though It's Really Not Award [for the band that obviously listened to Opeth's Ghost Reveries too much (just like me!)]: Between the Buried and Me's Colors

The Salvador Dali Memorial Award (for the album that, while I think it's good, I'm still not sure I understand): Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Burial's Untrue

The Stretch Armstrong Tribute Award (for artistic growth): Thrice's Alchemy Index EPs, Sparta's Threes

The inaugural Spirit of Planet of Ice Award (which goes to any band that I previously thought subpar that finally managed to muster its collective talent together and release something worthwhile): Minus The Bear's Planet of Ice

The Bourne Identity Soundtrack Award (for my yearly reminder of how awesome electronic music can be): LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver

The Phantom Award (named in loathing memory of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - a ridiculous letdown): Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet, Queens of the Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

The "It's Totally Unfair to Release an Amazing EP" Award: Sigur Ros' Hvarf/Heim EPs

The Die Hard With A Vengeance Tribute Award (for a new release that, while still serviceable, still can't quite capture the magic of the ones that preceded it): Pelican's City of Echoes

The "Holy Shit! I Care About You Again!" Award: NIN's Year Zero, Radiohead's In Rainbows

The Samuel Beckett Memorial Award (for the album/s that just say "fuck you, I'm doing this my way and you have to deal with it," but in, you know, a good way): Tusk's The Resisting Dreamer

The Live Free Or Die Hard/Lethal Weapon 4 Award (for an album that, while not necessary, doesn't really damage the legacy of that which came before): The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist

And that, I suppose, brings us to #5 on my Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2007 list.

Admittedly, I might have forced Zeitgeist onto my list in kind of a "We'll give you an Oscar for this movie because we fucked you when you made your actual best movie" way, but I don't think that gives the reborn Pumpkins enough credit. While Zeitgeist is certainly not Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie, anybody that says it's a bad album can't properly let go of the past (and it's likely I'll get lumped into that category here in a moment myself).

First, some prefacing. Despite the fact that I looked down my nose at all the fucking high school kids that somehow think they're cool because they listen to the Pumpkins as they streamed into Red Rocks for my absolute favorite show of last year, I also came to Billy's band somewhat later in life than I would care to admit (sophomore year of high school). I claimed the Pumpkins as my own very quickly, drawn as I have always been to depressed, angry music with a flair for the oddball and somewhat ridiculous (he can make me laugh as often as he can make me depressed - the beauty of Billy Corgan).

"Cherub Rock" is my favorite song of all time; Siamese Dream, I'm convinced, is one of the best records anyone has ever released, and if I ever had to limit my musical collection to one album, it would be nearly impossible to fashion a convincing argument against keeping Siamese Dream, and only Siamese Dream.

I am a Pumpkins fan, but a Pumpkins fan that hates, absolutely loathes Adore. The only good that came out of that album was the realization that every single member of the band depended on Jimmy Chamberlain's drums more than they cared to admit (one of the reasons that Zwan was a far greater success than it had any right to be - Billy + Jimmy = musical gold). D'Arcy, James... infinitely more expendable than Jimmy. That's why, for all its glaring flaws, Machina was more of a Pumpkins album (and a decent one) than anyone was willing to admit at the time.

I bring all of this up to explain where I'm coming from when I talk about Zeitgeist, which I firmly believe is a good record because of the existence of a bad one: TheFutureEmbrace, Billy's solo album (not like the Pumpkins records weren't glorified solo albums anyway), which found our beloved depressed shaven-headed man dabbling in the same sort of electronic music that made Adore so mediocre.

I don't know why he needed to get it out of his system, but he did, and while in the short-term we weren't so well off for it, the long-term has proven his action correct. I'm assuming most people know about the full-page ad he took out on the day of TFE's release, declaring his intention to reunite (sort of) the Pumpkins and conqueror the world once again (and if you don't know the story, well, you're on the Internet); while I was convinced that this was yet another case of rock star posturing, a small part of me that had long since resigned itself to never getting to see Billy perform his songs live reawoke, and was ridiculously excited. That pronouncement, it turns out, was more than simple shit slinging, and well, here we are.

Anyway, finally, to the album. What I connect to so well in Zeitgeist is the enthusiasm; even when Billy's singing, "It's too late for everyone/I can't help what I destroy in you," in "For God and Country," he can't quite sublimate this ridiculous excitement in his voice. I actually don't think he was joking when he emphatically wrote about what the Pumpkins mean to him, what "his band" is to him.

It doesn't hurt that the enthusiasm comes wrapped up in some pretty darn good songs; when I heard the 30-second snippet of "Tarantula" on iTunes, I was less than inspired, but as it turns out, some songs take more than 30 seconds to make themselves, well, work. "Doomsday Clock" is pretty much a vintage Pumpkins song (minus the somewhat disturbing harmonizing Billies doing backup vocal work - that's what I mean when I talk about oddball), and "7 Shades of Black" adds a bit of a gothic wrinkle to the more straightforward Pumpkins sound. "Bleeding the Orchid" sounds like what I think Adore could've been if it had been, you know, good. There's an attitude to it (supplied in ample amount by Jimmy's drums) that the programmed percussion just couldn't supply. "That's the Way (My Love Is)" sounds, to me, a lot like a lost Zwan song (and is one of my primary arguments against the people that contend the album doesn't have a slow speed and is only concerned with straight-ahead rocking - "BtO" is another good example), and "Tarantula" I've come around on.

The key here, much as it was for Mary Star of the Sea (the Zwan album, in case I need to point that out), is the long song, the epic; "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" for the Zwan record, "United States" for Zeitgeist. I wasn't totally sold on it until they performed it at the show, but I've brought myself around. The thing about "United States" is that it doesn't exist as solely Billy's post-9/11 song; if it was only a discarded icon's call to battle against an oppressive American government, it wouldn't be half as powerful, but as always, I get a strong sensation that there's more going on beneath the surface.

The cry, to me, feels like it's for individuality, for the dispirited listener to rise up and recapture, or at least recognize, that which makes them important to them self. He's always been something of a self-absorbed artist, and I think "United States" is him reaching out to articulate the value of the self. He's leading the charge because, well, he's Billy fucking Corgan. Who better?

This whole post-9/11 vibe ("For God and Country"), the attacking of the celebrity obsessed modern culture (the album art), the anti-Bush stuff ("United States" again), I don't think it works as that exclusively. That's kind of his hook, the way he pulls you in (who doesn't hate George Bush at this point, honestly?), but once he's got you, he's got you the way Billy gets you. The album's far more personal than that, and I think simultaneously greater and smaller in scope. This obsession with terror, with controlling it and utilizing it for its own benefit that our government's developed (sorry - it would've been just as difficult to keep a political analysis out of a review of the Foo Fighters' In Your Honor; I don't know how anyone couldn't look at that disc and see politics oozing out of it), will eventually pass - everything does - but self-discovery, realization of self-worth, empowerment, all these sorts of things are timeless and will outlast petty political power grabs.

That's what makes Zeitgeist, for me. Billy's still concerned with the same things that have always fascinated him; he's not doing this just as a cash grab (though I doubt that idea never entered his mind). He's trying to add something, artistically, to the landscape. I can't fault him for that, and I certainly can't begrudge him the release of a good album. I wanted the Pumpkins chapter to be closed, so that no one could damage it any further, but Billy showed me. This had best be the start of a brand new chapter for me and my... Billy's, band.

And, just so we're clear, I know this is no Siamese Dream. He'll never make anything better than that, just like Dave'll never release a better album than The Colour & The Shape, or Eddie & Co.'ll never make a better disc than Vs. (though there are more than a few days that I'm certain the self-titled album is better. I need more time to think on that - a few more years might do it). Just because it's not Siamese Dream doesn't mean it's bad.

22 January 2008

Death in the family

It's ridiculous how messed up I am. I remember when my grandfather (on my mom's side) was clearly at the end of his rope, and she was going to visit him for what turned out to be the last time. She asked me if I wanted to go with her, and I almost instantly said I didn't want to (while it's worth pointing out that I'd seen him going downhill for years before he finally passed, and that the absolute last thing I wanted was another memory of my witty, wacky grandfather staring at the ceiling with tubes leading into him, unable to speak... I still think I took the easy way out). I wasn't in the same room with him until the funeral. My dad's dad, well, he went on the decline during my sophomore year of college. He made it clear to my grandmother and my parents that he didn't want me taking any time off school for any reason, so I didn't even go out there for the funeral. My dad was out there for a while before he went, and one night when I was talking to him on the phone (my dad), he (my dad) asked me if I wanted him to put the phone up to my grandfather's ear so that I could say something to him before... you know. I couldn't, I didn't want to, and I had no idea what to say, so I bailed on my last chance to say anything to him. With my mom's mom, it just happened so fast that I could barely even process it before it was over.

That leads me into the weird news item of the day: at 3:55 p.m., just as I'm preparing to leave work, I get a text message. "Dude heath ledger just died." Thanks, Tim. Good work fucking with me.

Wikipedia. Heathcliff Andrew Ledger (April 4, 1979 - January 22, 2008).

The Internet is fucked up. In less than the time it took me to process the fact that the Joker is dead, it had been updated by some morbid motherfucker to reflect reality. Admittedly, I really shouldn't expect any less, and far be it from me to accuse someone else of being fucked up, but at the same time... it feels disrespectful. Antiseptic, in the worst possible way. In sort of an, "Oh. Heath Ledger died. Let's update Wikipedia with this new information," way.

Not to say that I necessarily think Ledger's passing is deserving of a moment of silence worldwide or anything. But (and this is where we get to the part about me being fucked up), the death of a man whose life had virtually no impact on mine (with the notable exception of Brokeback Mountain, and the trailer for The Dark Knight) has affected me more in the short term than the deaths of both my grandfathers, and my maternal grandmother.

I've actually been in a daze for the past 5 hours. I've watched the trailer on my iPod six or seven times at this point. I've honestly considered renting Brokeback as a download, so that I can remember what it was like to see Heath flex, really flex his acting muscles for the first time onscreen. I remember how totally devastated I felt at the end of the movie; for a brief moment, I actually think I knew what it felt like to lose someone you completely loved forever (this is a separate thing from the grandparent deaths... much as I loved them, it wasn't in the way Ennis and Jack loved each other). From a guy whose biggest contribution to society thus far was A Knight's Tale, this revelation was unexpected, to be frank.

Then, to get to the meat of it, the Joker. I wanted them to at least screen test Mark Hamil for the part, and put the test on the DVD for the movie, mostly because I still won't be able to die happy until I can see him doing the Joker voice from Batman: TAS, which is still, to me, the definitive onscreen interpretation of the character (though, Heath's was looking like it might run a close second, particularly because it looked like he was playing the Joker the way he was supposed to be played, as a fucking sadistic homicidal maniac), or at least cast someone with a physicality approaching that of the animated Joker, but it was not to be.

Heath Ledger? From Brokeback Mountain? Who the fuck saw that coming? At least he'd proven he could act, but it's a long way from Ennis Del Mar to, well, one of the greatest adversarial characters created in modern fiction. But, Chris Nolan had earned my begrudging delay of disapproval, if nothing else, so I decided to hold back saying anything until after I saw the product for myself.

The teaser trailer, with dialogue running over an animation of the logo, was nothing short of astonishing. The voice sounded right, and the laugh (oh, the laugh) was spot on. That, in my humble opinion, is what Hamil nails that I could never imagine another actor ever approaching. The Joker is mad, chaos incarnate, and the laugh has to sum all that up in as long as it takes to, well, laugh. In the same way that I grinned like an idiot when I saw the first hint of a trailer for Begins, I grinned like an idiot when I heard the laugh.

Then, it all started to leak out. Photographs (God did he look like a madman), interviews, and fairly recently, the true trailer, where the Joker appears to have gone from dapper psychotic Jack Napier to lunatic on the street, prophet of doom... who knows who Ledger's Joker was originally? It looked like it was all finally lining up the way it should: one movie, done expertly well. Something that I could maniacally latch on to, and not just because I'm a film nut, or a comic nut, or a general fanboy.

I still can't process this, not really. I know he has a child with Michelle Williams; one of my celebrity-relationship-guilty-pleasure-thoughts was hoping that they'd get back together someday soon (I first learned about their relationship when I was reading a review of Brokeback - my reaction to their scenes together quickly became eerily reminiscent of the way I felt watching Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut). I'm sure his parents, and his friends, and the rest of his family, are all at their wits end. God only knows how Mary-Kate Olsen feels (if that part of the story is even accurate).

But the problem is... I still want to know what they're going to do about the movie. It's still coming out, right? What are they going to do about the sequel? I remember hearing that the sequel was going to deal with the trial of the Joker; are they going to recast? Who takes over for a dead man? This isn't like casting Tommy Lee Jones in place of Billy Dee Williams in Batman Forever when Two-Face finally steps out from the shadows. How do you handle this as a director, as an editor, as a producer, as a co-star? Or what about the Terry Gilliam movie that had begun shooting, what do you do when your star dies and the movie isn't close to being finished?

These are the first questions that came to mind. Not, "Jesus, he has a little girl," or "How could you handle it, as parents, to see your son, finally as successful and renowned as you knew he deserved to be from the time he was a little boy, snuffed out in an instant, like all his hard work and love didn't even matter," but, "What's going to happen to Batman?" I've been trying to come to terms with that since I left work, and I don't think I'm any closer to an answer.

It's ridiculously morbid to turn a man's death into an examination of my own behavior, but that's what this has become. Why do I find myself more obsessed with the passing of a man I never knew than with the death of my parents' parents? Why do I have to subject myself to images of him, and not images of them? Is it just because it was so unexpected, and the other deaths had been, frankly, imminent for some time before they actually occurred?

I imagine my sympathy means little to the Ledger family, but I'll freely offer it. I fear the world will be a darker place for his absence, not just for his friends, family and co-workers, but for those of us who were eager to see where his career would take him next, which worlds he'd open up for us.

I swore to myself I wouldn't crib this line, but I feel leaving it unsaid wouldn't be right. From Shakespeare in Love's Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck): "A great light has gone out."

20 January 2008

2007 in retrospective: Part III (special bonus Cloverfield content!)

I didn't really experience a lot of the Cloverfield hype; part of the problem with the whole viral internet marketing thing is that it demands a lot of participation on the part of the advertised-to. I have better things to do than research a movie that may or may not exist. Well, that's not necessarily true, but there are plenty of other things I can do on the tubes instead of following a trail of digital breadcrumbs to learn snippets of information about J.J. Abrams' latest project (Star Trek would be another story entirely, but that's because it's, well, Star Trek).

Nevertheless, it looked interesting, and I'm in favor of anything that might be well-done and reasonably nerdy, so the roommates and I made a trip to the cinematorium to take it in yesterday.

Let's begin with a little prefacing: I like shakycam. I like The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, Children of Men, The Bourne Ultimatum... I like the immediacy of shakycam, and how it demands the viewer's attention. I also really like how technically complicated it can be (see Children of Men, especially), with a particularly long take demanding the perfect timing of everyone involved in the shot for minutes on end (entrances/exits, effects, focusing, the whole ball of wax).

I don't, however, much like overuse of shakycam. There's a point at which it stops being refreshing and starts being, well, motion sickness-inducing.

And that's where we run into the problem with Cloverfield, shot as it was with the conceit that everything we're seeing was recorded by people who were actually present at the "event," as it's referred to in the opening credits. 80 minutes of shakycam is, for me, about 40 minutes too many.

That's not to say I'm reacting negatively to the movie; it was an interesting idea, and clearly a pretty big production to pull off. Ambition, particularly in art, is not often something to shout down. It did, however, need to end about 5 minutes earlier (like so many movies I've seen recently - I Am Legend, to name another). I liked how it utilized the camerawork of both the POV camera from which we're seeing the events unfold, and that of the news reporters, to mask a clear view of the creature. We can always create something more terrifying in our minds than the filmmakers can put onscreen (a point illustrated all too well by the end of the movie - when we're face to face with the creature, it's not all that frightening). And while I don't really buy into the whole "we're dealing with 9/11 by giving the attack on NYC the physical form of a creature from the deep" concept that's been floated by people involved with the production, I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand.

I don't know if I found myself genuinely caring about the characters all that much. Kind of like with
Alejandro Iñárritu's movies, I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to care about the characters by virtue of their extraordinarily unfortunate situation, rather than on the merits of them being, you know, characters I actually liked and/or was drawn to. The movie's pace was frantic enough that I never really found myself considering that fact during the film itself; that problem only reared its head after the credits started to roll.

Upon further consideration of the above paragraph, I may be the only person in the world that's drawn comparisons between Cloverfield and Amores Perros.

I wouldn't caution anyone away from seeing it because it's not a good movie, but more due to the fact that the style in which it was shot is more than difficult to handle. And I don't believe I'll ever be watching it again; much like Peter Jackson's King Kong, I can't imagine ever watching Cloverfield on a screen that is not gigantic.

That being said, it's time to return to the topic at hand and deal with album number four on my list: Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather.

One of the more noteworthy advantages of not listening to the radio is that you don't get sick of hearing the same songs over and over and over and over again (now, if you listen to the same couple of songs on repeat and get sick of them, well, then you have no one to blame but yourself). The reason I bring this point up is because unlike much of the English-speaking world, I didn't get ridiculously irritated/angry at/tired of "Stacy's Mom," which may well have been most everyone's introduction to the boys from Massachusetts (it certainly was mine).

I have nothing against catchy. Good art of any kind, be it music, photography, filmmaking, writing, oratory, cooking - whatever you want to define "Art" as - is all about making a connection. Catchy songs make an almost instantaneous connection with the listener; they burrow their way into the brain and don't let go until they complete their mission. That mission, in most cases, is to get you to buy the band's album.

"Stacy's Mom" succeeded quite handily in getting me to pick up Welcome Interstate Managers, but not only was it far from the most catchy song on the album, it was far from the best song on the album (for my money, those awards go to "Hey Julie" and "All Kinds of Time," respectively).

I remember somebody comparing FoW to Weezer, in that they both make big, power-pop music (well, whether or not the music Weezer makes lately is "big" is probably debatable, but let's let that one go), but I'm going to take this opportunity to disagree. I think Weezer is just an elaborate psychological coping mechanism that Rivers' developed to allow him to get through his life without having to be committed to some sort of mental institution, while Chris Collingwood and Co. are some of the most underappreciated chroniclers of late-20th, early-21st century American experience. It may not be limited to the "American" experience, but seeing as how it's that with which I have the most familiarity, I'm going to go with that description.

Traffic and Weather is, quite simply, awesome. Not just because of its tightly structured songs (the best pop music doesn't waste time - "Someone to Love," "Traffic and Weather," "Fire in the Canyon," "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," "I-95"), or its sardonic wit (the main character in "'92 Subaru" is one of the best deluded characters I've met recently), but because of the lyrics.

It'd be overkill to quote, in their entirety, the lyrics to my favorite songs on the album. This is not solely due to the fact that I adore so many of the album's tracks, but because it would take up a ridiculous amount of space in this already long-winded post. In lieu of this, some of the more noteworthy snippets follow:

When it's late, and it's hot/And a date with the Late Show's all that you've got/Don't give out, don't give up/One of these nights you might find someone to love" - "Someone to Love"

And I'm checking out the road signs/Highway hotels/And they're air-conditioned cable-ready cold padded cells" - "Fire in the Canyon"

Michael and Heather on the shuttle bus/Standing alongside the rest of us/Michael says, Heather, have you had enough?/Heather says, Michael, you know that it's you I love" - "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim"

Admittedly, the first and third quotes probably require the emotional investment in the rest of the song to truly appreciate them, but I can't help but admire the construction. There's something deceptively simple about the best pop music; it takes a lot of work to make something difficult look easy (ducks on ponds, just like Gene Hackman said in The Replacements).

There's also something universally applicable about the cream of pop; even though the two lonely modern professionals in "Someone to Love" are almost certainly aspects of the songwriters' imaginations, their search for amour in the big city, in any city (or town, or village, etc.) is something to which most people can find a connection, or could have found a connection at some point in their lives. Likely the same is true for the voyeuristic (until he takes action at the end - take that, Jimmy Stewart!) speaker of "Yolanda Hayes," who watches the female clerk at the DMV while he stands in line, and with the old men that absently banter about making changes in their lives in "New Routine" (and the characters in the background that actually take the bull by the horns). Even the speaker in the album's stinker song, "This Better Be Good" (there seems to be one per album), sells his discontent, his unhappiness.

Okay, you could say the same exact things about any number of middling, shitty albums released in the last [time period of your choosing]. What makes Traffic and Weather special?

Sincerity. Even if we don't believe in these characters (we can't take them seriously, they depress us, they remind us too much of ourselves, whatever), Fountains of Wayne believe in them, and that comes through in every power chord, every harmonized vocal, every ridiculous rhyme that ends a chorus. I think that this album, chock-full of pop songs, matters to them, in a deep and fairly vital way. If it was a bad record that they believed in, that would be one thing. But this is a great record. The fact that they believe in it pushes it up the scale to something just this side of fantastic.

18 January 2008

2007 in retrospective: Part II

So with some time off to think, I'm still comfortable with my music choices for 2007. No more revision of lists. Onto #3, Ire Works.

Here's the deal (and by deal, I mean relevant background information): I've never really been into The Dillinger Escape Plan. They're frighteningly good musicians (even when members leave and other ones join in - they're kind of like the New England Patriots of music, an analogy to which I'll return later, in that they plug holes. One guy gets injured, they find someone else, put him in, and what do you know? He's just about as good as the guy he replaced!), clearly extraordinarily smart, and are blessed with one of the best names any band could ever hope for (seriously, Copeland? Lovedrug? The Receiving End of Sirens? Please), but for me the problem always was that they never really felt like a band as much as they felt like a group of guys playing music and singing/screaming/yelping at the same time.

Admittedly, I've only listened to Calculating Infinity the one time, and I know I didn't get it. One of my roommates introduced me to Miss Machine and Converge's You Fail Me at about the same time, and I absolutely took to the boys from Massachusetts more than the Jersey fellows. That was the genesis of my Converge = band, while DEP doesn't theory.

However, I hadn't reckoned with the awesome power of one man: Mike fucking Patton. Faith No More's Mike Patton. Mr. Bungle's Mike Patton. Tomahawk's Mike Patton. Fantomas' Mike Patton.

Dillinger Escape Plan's Mike Patton?

Irony Is A Dead Scene. Funny name for an EP featuring a performer who, I'd say, trades on irony as heavily as anybody in the business. The Dillinger Escape Plan featuring Mike Patton. Irony Is A Dead Scene. Featuring a cover of Aphex Twin's "Come To Daddy." The perfect opportunity for me to give Dillinger the one last shot that, it turns out, they so dearly deserved.

It's worth pointing out that one of the things that I simultaneously love and find frightening about "hardcore" or "metalcore" or "mathcore" (digression alert: I really do hate genre names. When Matt and I can discuss the various qualities of early Helmet music and finally wind up defining their genre as "metal grungecore," I think the ability to label things has far surpassed the usefulness of said label. end digression) is how easily even the best bands can lapse into ridiculous self-parody. Grunting and screeching over fast, caustic music can only get you so far, and the more hardcore you get, the further away you get from what you're trying to accomplish. Even Mudvayne figured that out; unfortunately, once they did, they started to suck.

A sense of humor can be good; part of the reason Godsmack and Creed and all of those "serious" bands suck so much is that they don't have a sense of humor about, well, anything. You can't say Mike Patton doesn't have a sense of humor (and if he is, in fact, dead fucking serious about everything he's ever done... then he's just insane. Anyone who can take the "Rosemary's Baby" track on Fantomas' Director's Cut album seriously is also insane). That sense of humor meshes well with Dillinger's no-holds-barred approach to their music; sometimes the best thing a song can do is dip a toe into the goofy end, and sometimes it's best served by jumping in headfirst.

That, in a roundabout leads me into why I love (and I mean love - in kind of an unhealthy way, really) Ire Works. I think they're looser now; there's a nice and caustic groove to most of the music, something I think Tomahawk would be proud of. There's a freedom to it, a Pats-esque (told you!) fuck-you quality to the music; that is to say that they're making the music they want to make (the freedom of most of these "-core" genres is that as long as you're not perceived as mellowing/selling out, your audience seems to grant you a decent amount of freedom). "Black Bubblegum" is a brilliantly ridiculous song that only a band that loves Mike Patton far too much could write, and its brilliance is only accentuated by the fact that "Fix Your Face" and "Lurch" are among the best true hard, abrasive songs put to disc all year. "Sick On Sunday" transitions the album fantastically well between the openers and the under two-minute burst tracks that comprise the next four cuts.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention "Milk Lizard" and its horn section. Truly, something that has to be heard to be believed.

Not to short shrift the other tracks at the expense of "Mouth of Ghosts," but this is truly where the album sold me on Dillinger, and maybe even on the future of this sort of music. All the pieces (including the piano!) combine to make one brilliantly unsettling whole, accentuated by the fact that it takes Ire Works' full running time to build up to it. It uses every single second of its 6:50 running time; like I suspected when I heard "Unretrofied" on Miss Machine, harcore with an attention span might not actually be dead.

I know I haven't actually said all that much about Ire Works here, or why I love it so dearly, but maybe I can't. The best it seems I can do is explain everything that led up to my pulling it off a torrent (and subsequently - 24 hours and three listens later, in fact) grabbing it off the shelf at Target (Target!). It's satisfying, it's schizophrenic; it's deathly serious, it's funny as hell. It's good; it's music. It's Dillinger, and maybe a harbinger of what Dillinger's going to become.

11 January 2008

2007 in retrospect: Part I

Well, 2007 is officially 11 days dead (give or take a few hours); a week and a half is about right to try and pull a set of opinions together and attempt to animate them with nifty wordplay and strange references to even stranger things, right?

I did a thing on my old blog where I'd spotlight noteworthy purchases over the course of the year (CDs, DVDs, games, books, sometimes even a new release movie if I really felt impassioned about it), but the slight problem was that, no matter how much work I put into enlivening my opinion, how hard I worked to try to say something that was a legitimate response to something that someone else was trying to say, I kept running into that roadblock that circles around back to that first post (the one where I was talking about how I'm not qualified, or at least as qualified as other people on the Internet, to offer up my opinions and thoughts for public consumption): there's not a lot of weight behind what I have to say. I'm not, shall we say, David Fricke, Manohla Dargis, or even Peter Hammond.

Instead of pushing myself to fashion opinions that are of passing interest (at best, but we're hoping that'll change - again, not the royal "we") to few if any people constantly over the course of the year, I'm just going to attempt to give it a good go around the start of the new year, and see how far I can get. My primary issue with that strategy is that my critical muscle (it's on the face, around the eyebrows) might lose some of its abilities if it's not stretched out frequently over, say, the course of the year (in addition to that whole consistency issue - why should I inject any consumer/artistic criticism at the start of the year but never at any other time? Be consistent, dammit). But, we'll give this a try. Besides, when I have an opinion that needs to be shared right now, I imagine this'll be the place it's shared.

I suppose even the best of us (hell, even that fake reviewer that Sony Pictures created to provide them with choice quotes for movies) had to start somewhere. So, I suppose I'm [re]starting here. I think I've been working hardest on pulling together a list of my 5 favorite albums that I purchased last year, that were released last year (if I didn't buy your CD, but I probably didn't hear it, with the notable exception of Year Zero, which, while good, I plan to hold off buying. Sorry, Trent, but I paid full price for With Teeth, so I think you owe me a cheap copy of your new album - I'll get it off half.com in the next few months. I have Sonic Youth CDs to buy first). So, since I've been spending time considering this somewhat arbitrary-seeming ranking (more on that in the next paragraph) for a while now, this is probably as good a thing as any to kick off the retrospective.

Before we get to the list, though, I should lay down my ground rules, explain myself some so that this is a less arbitrary-seeming ranking of music. First and foremost, and this should go without saying, but what the hell, I'll say it anyway, only stuff that was a new release in 2007 qualified. Even though, according to Amazon, the 2-disc version of Daydream Nation was released in 2007, and despite the fact that no matter when it was released it would be amazing, particularly with an entire extra disc of B-sides and live performances, it's really a 20-year-old (jesus) CD, and doesn't qualify. Also, I'm looking exclusively at full-length albums, so unfortunately, that means Hvarf/Heim, the B-sides/live EP from everybody's favorite band from Iceland (assuming Bjork isn't a band, but rather an artist - I'm assuming her status as most popular Icelandic... musician person still hasn't changed), Sigur Ros, also doesn't qualify. However, a movie soundtrack (preferably by a single artist) that can work on its own as an album and isn't just a hodgepodge of songs that may or may not have even been in the movie, could work, which led to the serious consideration of Eddie Vedder's music for Into the Wild, and might well have led to considering the Sweeney Todd sountrack, had I purchased it and listened to it at length. Beyond that, most anything's fair game, as long as it came out [new] in 2007 and was a full album.

I hate it when I distill a seriously long paragraph of overly complex sentences into one sentence at the close. Negates the value of the whole paragraph.

Now, I've attempted to keep this in something resembling an order of preference (as in, if I could only have one of these CDs, it would be the one at #1, if I could only have two of them, it would be #1 and #2, etc), but that gets thrown out the window right off the bat. You'll see in a second.

Drumroll, please (preferably Grohl's part from "In Bloom," I love that song so).

Phil Wrede's Five Favorite Albums from 2007:

#1 - (tie) Explosions in the Sky's All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone and Sparta's Threes
#2 - The Dillinger Escape Plan's Ire Works
#3 - Fountains of Wayne's Traffic & Weather
#4 - 3's The End Is Begun
#5 - The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist

Has any list ever lost its legitimacy this quickly? I'd be shocked if it had (unless it was included in Maxim or Blender). I spend all this time spelling out my criteria, setting up my rules and everything, and then my Top 5 list has six albums on it. Fuck me, right?

Let me attempt to explain myself. I was introduced to Explosions' music a couple of years ago, and fell in love with The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place almost immediately. As many bad things as I've said about Texas, and people from Texas (and I've said a lot), this is music that could only be made by Americans, by Texans. Epic, brawny, awesome, cinematic, cathartic... Basically every sort of positive adjective that you could apply to the music (minus any involving vocals, since it's all instrumental and all), could be applied to them. I still contend they're the real reason that Friday Night Lights really raised itself above the high school football movie genre.

But, anyway. 2007 saw the release of what I have to say is my favorite of their albums, the aforementioned All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone. It feels to me like the peak, the pure, concentrated spearhead of everything they've been growing towards from the release of their first CD. I don't know if there was a better song released on a disc in 2007 than "The Birth and Death of the Day." If there was, I didn't hear it, and I won't believe you if you tell me otherwise. The whole album really is like one big melancholy song; "Welcome, Ghosts" fits so perfectly into "B&D" that I could've sworn it was the same song the first time I listened to it, and "It's Natural to be Afraid," well, it's really the prototypical Explosions song (or it would be, if it weren't for this album's first track). It doesn't overwhelm right off the bat like "B&D;" it's a slow burn-type build to the payoff, but what a payoff it is...

It's next to impossible to follow up those songs, and the last 3 tracks of the album try admirably. I particularly like the inclusion of piano parts in "What Do You Go Home To?" and "So Long, Lonesome," and the returns to form that make up "Catastrophe and the Cure." I hope they play with brevity a little more in their next release; limiting themselves to a sub-4 minute song ("So Long") did wonders for the album's close. There's a lot to be said for restraint, and although these guys are the masters of that in the context of the 7+ minute song, hearing them try to apply that technique to a significantly smaller-scale piece excited me for what future albums might hold.

That's not to say I want them to start writing songs for radio play, just that I'd like it if they kept pushing themselves. In this case, pushing might be more like pulling back.

That being said, we'll move on to Sparta's Threes. I'll happily be the first person to admit that I was, shall we say, underwhelmed by Porcelain, their second album. It had its moments, for sure, and the songs they play from it live stand up well to most of the music in their catalogue, but I might do well to compare it to Pearl Jam's Riot Act, insofar as the songs were there, but the energy just wasn't. And to sound so... bored on your second album doesn't bode well for the future (I forgave Eddie & Co. because, well, the depressed tone fit the subject matter and the time; Jim Ward and his band don't get a free pass like that), particularly after Wiretap Scars wore its heart so prominently on its sleeve and fueled the music with dollop upon dollop of raw emotion.

Threes, however, was not just a return to form, but had the potential to become one of those seminal albums, a powerful shared experience for those lucky enough to have it (it probably won't, given that Sparta's market penetration is significantly less than even that of the infinitely less accessible Mars Volta - and, to digress for a moment, if the point of art is to communicate ideas, why the hell should we praise artists who deliberately go out of their way to make what they're trying to say incoherent?). The inclusion of former Engine Down guitarist Keeley Davis seemed to, for whatever reason, push the music leaps and bounds ahead of what it'd been before. Ward and Davis' vocals mesh well, and in a ridiculously different, and yet similar, way from the way Jim's vocal parts worked with former guitarist/vocalist Paul Hinojos. Listen to Threes' main single, "Taking Back Control." Rather like the guitar parts themselves, the vocals are similar, yet impressively different.

Were I to take a stab at Threes' underlying themes, I would have to go with choice and self-motivation. So many of the songs ("Unstitch Your Mouth," "Crawl," "Taking Back Control," "False Start") deal directly with choice and decision that I actually have no choice but to focus on that very topic. It's impossible to ignore Sparta's participation, and Jim's specifically, in the efforts by musicians, movie stars, and entertainers of all sorts to get out the vote during the 2004 election when listening to "Taking Back Control." Clearly Ward, much like Eddie Vedder, is still angry, but much like in Pearl Jam's transition from Riot Act to their recent self-titled album, much more is at hand than impotent name-calling. For Vedder, it was drawing attention to the people hit hardest by the tyrants afflicted with what Riot Act called the "Green Disease;" for Ward, it boils down to choice, and making the point again and again that change is within reach, that the result is, quite often, determined by one's effort.

I apologize for the long-winded Pearl Jam comparisons; when you have a good tool with which to make a point, I think you should use it.

So, after all that, we're left with Sparta's timely (and quite possible timeless) masterwork of a record, and Explosions in the Sky at the pinnacle of their craft. It's virtually impossible to compare the two, so I choose both. Just like Towelie.

Let's take this opportunity to amend the list:

#1 - Sparta's Threes and Explosions in the Sky's All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone (tie)
#3 - The Dillinger Escape Plan's Ire Works
#4 - Fountains of Wayne's Traffic & Weather
#5 - The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist

There, now it's pared down to 5 albums. Sorry, 3. You put on an awesome show at the Fox when you opened for Porcupine Tree, and more people should listen to your album, but what'm I supposed to do? Rules are rules.

More on the rest of the list at a later date. This post needs to be done.

08 January 2008

act of contrition

The 160 gig video iPod is pretty badass, and I imagine that in a few weeks, I not only will be unable to imagine how I lived without it, but I won't even want to.

A fairly dramatic change of tone from someone who spent several miserable years decrying the white Apple monolith to anyone within earshot, not to mention spent several thousand dollars of his own money to make a short film that no one will ever see (stupid music rights) lambasting iCulture [it was called iPlot, and I will forever be in Chantel's debt for that name (a good sight better than iConspiracy, for sure)], I know. But hear me out on this.

I still hate this thing that's infiltrated society, where everyone's now more than ever wrapped up in their ridiculous personal bubble that no one can penetrate for more than a second. Scads of people walking around with all manner of speakers strapped to their ears, many going deaf by virtue of the fact that they're too stupid to either a) purchase good headphones that don't necessitate jacking up the volume to the maximum level or b) even briefly consider the fact that you don't want your ears ringing all the time after you take your headphones off. Nobody talks to each other, nobody even makes fucking eye contact, and the most infuriating part of the whole messy business is the fact that fewer and fewer people take the pair of moments it requires to remove their headphones during a conversation.

Speaking as a person who's still convinced that the Creative Zen Xtra is the best MP3 player ever devised, I'm going to restate my point that the 160 gig iPod Classic is pretty badass. I was still on the "I hate Apple, I hate Apple" kick (which I'm still on, by the way. I may buy a iPod, but I will never buy a Mac. I have too many years invested in the PC to ever be interested in switching) when I bought the first generation 30 gig Zune (my introduction to the awesomeness of portable video), I didn't entirely know what I was getting myself into.

The Zune wasn't bad; sure, the software was pretty crummy, and encoding video to put on it was a total bitch, but the screen was great, the material it was constructed out of was sturdy, and it allowed me to do something that I'd only dreamed about up until that point: have every episode of "The Office" with me at all times. Plus most of my good music.

The Achilles' heel of the device was definitely its storage capacity. 30 gigabytes for video and music? Come on. Despite the inherent awesomeness of the Zune, the potential just wasn't realized. I place a good deal of the blame on Microsoft's shoulders for not advertising it correctly and for failing to really target the audience it needs to steal, which is not the iLifers so much as it is the Creative-philes, who prefer serious tweakability over Apple's much vaunted accessibility and ease of use.

And that, I suppose, brings us to the movie, iPlot, which, if nothing else, enabled me to get most of my Apple rage out in the open and allow me to finally get over it (a tack I'm attempting to apply to a new script that's still in the divining stages, seeing as how it worked so well the first time). I realized it was not so much the technology I despised as the way in which culture had mutated to include it. I'm as guilty as anyone else for walking around with headphones strapped on and ignoring everyone that crosses my way. The iPod was still the device of choice for the mind-controlled slaves that threatened to take over the world, mostly because of its ubiquity, and the fact that those white earbud headphones showed up nicely on film.

I bit the bullet several days ago. 160 gigabytes. More storage space than I could reasonably need, which is perfect. "The Office." Serenity. "30 Rock." Dick Tracy. "Firefly." "Arrested Development." The 40-Year-Old Virgin. "Angel." All available at the spin of a finger; rip- and encodable in the span of minutes, rather than hours. A ridiculous amount of music, searchable by the ambitiously flawed (and therefore lovable) Cover Flow feature. The WALL-E trailer, whenever I want to watch it. A calendar. Importable, viewable notes. Tetris, a game that should be playable on every screen-based electronic device made from the original Game Boy until the end of time (or whenever society totally collapses, whichever comes first). Another portable hard drive. Less shitty headphones (decent, in fact). And what for me is the biggest selling point: simulated dial-based volume control.

That's been my biggest complaint with every MP3 player I've ever owned: the volume controls were never quite right. I always wanted to set the Zune at a volume somewhere between 4 and 5, or the Nomad somewhere between 6 and 7. The iPod lets me set the volume at precisely (or nearly enough) at what I want. I'm also a big proponent of the volume lock.

In short, despite its notable flaws (Cover Flow can take for-fucking-ever to start up, it's still an Apple cult product), I've never been more ecstatic with an electronics purchase. Were I stranded on a desert island, I'd only ask for a USB port into which to plug my iPod, so that I could let it recharge.

I figure I could learn to hunt, if I had to.

07 January 2008

A real topic

Even though I'm beginning my preparations for graduate school application, well, not now, but in a few weeks (once the production and post-production phases of the moviemaking are over), and I've only been out of school for something like seven months, I've been experiencing this weird desire to write a paper. Preferably a film paper (mostly because I haven't read a book demanding a fully fleshed out, critical response for a long time, but also because my brain thinks a lot better in film terms these days. Maybe that'lll shift back someday soon), but I'm open to other topics.

I doubt I'd be able to write a good poetry paper, but that's a challenge I should step up to one of these days. Force myself to think in a different way.

I've long been joking about writing a paper called "The Importance of Being Kurt Russell," about the man's importance to what you might call modern film (seeing as how he's grown and aged onscreen - according to IMDb, his first onscreen credit was on a show called "Sam Benedict" in 1963, and Bonnie & Clyde, which I believe is one of, if not the first truly post-Production Code film, came out in 1967). As American film has been able to tackle grittier, more "adult" - if we can remove some of the stigma that word has gained in the past few years - subjects more directly, so, really, has Kurt Russell. He moved from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) to a couple of episodes of "Gunsmoke" (1964, and later 1974) to The Thing (1982) to Death Proof (2007), and the theaters saw the release of Sky High and Dreamer two years before.

Okay, so I may have shot myself in the foot by mentioning those last two movies, but I kind of think it helps to prove my point. American cinema encompasses a lot of stuff these days; there aren't just the "six reels of vice, one reel of virtue" gangster movies and heavily marginalized, Sirkian "women's pictures" (I doubt there was ever a time where those were the only motion pictures available - I hyperbolize to illustrate a horribly obvious point). Kurt Russell, by the same token, can do movies like Dark Blue (2002) and Miracle (2004) - he's not a single-genre, single-style performer, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Despite the fact that I said I've been joking about it, it's horribly obvious at this point that I've been thinking about this for far too long. I just worry that I might not be able to back up my ridiculously worded thesis properly. That, I suppose, is why one does capital R Research.

I've also been perusing the pages of some decent horror film criticism books, and I get the feeling that I could add something interesting to that area of scholarship (The Descent, or The Devil's Backbone - something relatively contemporary that hasn't been analyzed to death, because the last thing I'm interested in thinking about is one more person writing a thesis about a Shakespeare play). A good, sincere paper on Sean of the Dead wouldn't hurt anybody, either (like that hasn't been done already - has it?).

The one other thing I've been kicking around is about the changing use of the camera in television comedy ("Dick Van Dyke" to "Arrested Development" - something like that), and what the transition from three- or four-camera, fairly static setups to a single or dual mobile, active camera setup indicates about the way TV has evolved, how the audience, perhaps, has evolved, and a third topic that I'm not thinking of at the moment.

Admittedly, that last idea is ripped pretty thoroughly from Everything Bad Is Good For You, but I think I'd have some important points to make (and my scope would be much, much narrower than Mr. Johnson's).

Those are the three most inspiring ideas I've had thus far; it's clear that the one on Kurt Russell is the most fully-formed, but that doesn't mean the others aren't worthy of consideration.

More on this story as it develops.