Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Album of the Week Vol. 2 - The Bedlam in Goliath

Most times bands come up with album titles, they just sound good. Not in a long time has an album title described so accurately what is actually recorded. The Mars Volta’s latest release The Bedlam in Goliath is exactly what it says it is. It’s grandiose chaos in epically large proportions. This isn’t anything new for the Volta, but it’s even more apparent on Bedlam than it has been in the past. Twelve tracks of frenzied prog-jazz that only lulls a few times is very hard to listen to sometimes and the Volta has released one of the most daunting listens in a long time.

The album was written during a time of much chaos in the band’s life. Guitarist Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez and lyricist/vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala were messing around with a Ouija board that they got in Jerusalem during their recording sessions. Several overwhelming events almost tore the band apart during production of the album. Producers having nervous breakdowns, tracks disappearing that were already recorded, floods and a whole series of unfortunate events that somehow were overcome by the time the album was finished. This is fairly evident throughout the chaos that is The Bedlam in Goliath.

In fact, from the first second of “Aberinkula”, you are thrown directly into this conflict. A surge of sound, including new drummer Thomas Pridgen’s insanely accurate and avalanche speed, will immediately catch you off guard. The song truly blossoms once the chaos becomes a little more coherent toward the last two minutes when this funky, menacing breakdown comes together. “Metatron” follows easy suit and is such a seamless transition that you don’t realize track two has begun.

The albums first single, “Wax Simulacra” follows in the tradition of tracks like “The Widow” and “Vermicide” as being the most single friendly, yet still an overwhelming surge of sound that you shouldn’t expect to hear on the radio anytime soon. “Goliath” the most solidified yet still stilted track is easily the albums most gratifying performance. The funky mood to the song is a refreshing turn from the overwhelming tidal wave of sound that will come flying from your headphones, stereo speakers of whatever you play this on.

Songs like “Ilyena” and “Tourniquet Man” are easily forgettable and disposable. “Ilyena” tries to hard to sound different with its strange vocal effects and “Tourniquet Man” is a strange attempt at a ballad. By the time you get through the next few tracks before the finale of “Conjugal Burns”, you are tired, restless and not really interested anymore. Although the album follows suit in grand The Mars Volta

Unlike Amputechture or Frances the Mute, which both had long winded 16-minute tracks that could have been easily broken into multiple songs, The Bedlam in Goliath has shorter songs that flow together and swell with passion and power. That being said, it seems that no one song fully develops to its fullest potential and therefore each song just seems like an unfinished jam. Like most releases from The Mars Volta, there are refreshing moments of prog glory that end up shining through the rest of the muck and the mire that the album seems to be flooded with.

The Bedlam in Goliath may have been recorded during a time in which the band was either cursed or visited be otherworldly spirits that plagued the production, but I doubt that is what brings forth the weaknesses of the album. The band has a specific sound with it’s rather furious paced guitar work or falsetto lyrical content, but on this album, they really can’t figure it out to it’s fullest potential. Maybe a little less tinkering with the occult and more tinkering with song structures would have made The Bedlam in Goliath a more cohesive and intriguing album.

My Problem with Juno

Post Oscar buzz is slinging mud all over screenwriter new comer Diablo Cody and her Oscar winning screenplay for the highly overrated Juno. I'm no lover of the film Juno. It's a decent movie, yes, and quite enjoyable at times, but does it make it worthy of one of the highest honors in film making? The answer is hell no. Here are my problems with Juno.

If they made a movie of Dawnson's Creek, this is what it would feel like, minus the incredibly nuanced performance by Michael Cera. It would be fast talking Smart Alick kids who get mixed up in their pubescent emotions and speak like no one ever speaks. And this makes the movie a lot less realistic. Also, the parents reaction to their daughters teen pregnancy is so far fetched that it's borderline absurd. I guess their might be parents out there who actually don't really give a shit that their daughter is pregnant. The adoption scenario is nice and all, as it does show a very pro-life point of view, but it's mind numbingly insane that the character has such an easy time finding someone willing to adopt her kid. These are the problems with the film.

Now that this is said, you do have to admit for someones very first screenplay, it's pretty damn good. The movie is highly enjoyable chock full of one-liners and some sentimental moments (not to mention a Wes Anderson wannabe soundtrack.) Diablo Cody has a way of telling a story. Reading blogs and articles sending backlash her way is what really irritates me. After a long writers strike, we go on to bash someone just because she was a stripper once and now she comes out of nowhere to write an Oscar winning screenplay. This is the kind of shit that really irritates me about Hollywood and the media. Learn to respect someones past. Everyone has their tale of how they got to where they are now and it is not fair to judge someone based on their past. Even if she was a prostitute, that wouldn't matter now that she wrote a decent movie script and somehow won the Oscar.

The real travesty here is that Tony Gilroy's flawless script for Michael Clayton lost out due to the buzz of this movie. Not a dull character, an unbelievable performance or a plot hole can be found in Michael Clayton, yet people side with the one movie that has a psuedo feel good vibe to it. Annoying.

So, to Diablo Cody, wherever you are, congratulations on somehow winning. Don't listen to detractors (including me) and keep at it. You have potential to continue writing really decent movies. Don't get to egotistical and who gives a shit about shoes. Your movie is alright, but my God was it not worth a Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay nomination.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Film of the Week - The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Documentaries these days are borderline drama. Rather than strictly document, the filmmakers want to elicit some sort of emotive response. Unlike filmmakers like Ken Burns or Errol Morris, the filmmakers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters want you to root for the heroes and boo at the villains. It feels more like an underdog tale than like a documentary about competitive video gaming. And is any of this a bad thing? Not at all.

The King of Kong follows the rise and fall of both Billy Mitchell, a fabled gamer who holds records in various games, and the lowly Steve Weibe who is unemployed, possibly autistic (at least his mother thinks that) and is your average Joe American dad. As Weibe rises to the top and beats the all-time high score in the classic Donkey Kong, a series of insane events, from people coming to his house to investigate his machine to Billy refusing to play a live match against him, it seems nothing can go right for the man. The life of Steve Weibe is the foremost interesting part of the film. The second thing that makes this documentary such a fun moviegoing experience is the insider look into the world of Competitive Gaming. The world of gaming goes well beyond every high school thug trying to be better at the latest Madden game. These guys, mostly 30 somethings who grew up with the original games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, compete for free to be the best. The coveted Kill Screen, in which the memory capacity for games ends and you automatically die, is their one true goal. The glory of holding a World Record is more important to most than fame and fortune.

Where the movie kind of lags is in the over-the-top dramatization of the story. Yes these are real people, but a recent A.V. Club interview with Billy Mitchell shows that maybe everything in the documentary isn't exactly documented with fairness. Whether you read this interview and agree with Mitchell or the filmmakers doesn't mean a single thing in the long run. Regardless of anything, The King of Kong is an inventive, fun movie that is one of the best popcorn films of the past few years. It's just a shame that it happens to be a documentary. This may mar the overall legitimacy of it, but by God if you don't watch it and find your self hooting and hollering for Steve Weibe to get that Kill Screen. The King of Kong is out on DVD so definitely check it out.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Album of the Week Vol. 1 - Vampire Weekend

In order to keep things fresh and keep this blog read-worthy, I will do an album of the week every Sunday/Monday as well as a Movie of the week every Wednesday/Thursday. Some will be classics, some will be new listens that are noteworthy. Regardless, here is Vol. 1.

Buzz bands and hype bands aren't quite the thing. Buzz band has a more positive connotation to it meaning you are just hearing about them a lot. A hype band is a band that may get over hyped by the time you get to hear the album and they don't usually live up to what you heard, therefore ruining the experience. Vampire Weekend walks a thin line between hype and buzz. Regardless of any of that, now that the album has dropped and we can give it a listen, we should forget what we may have heard about the group, lower our expectations and listen to it.

That said, after many listens through, Vampire Weekend's self titled album is a delightful pop record. Blending the sounds of afro beat and modern indie pop, the album consists of very enjoyable and modern pop songs. That being said, their isn't much new brought to the table on this record. Many songs sound similar in style to some other buzz/hype bands, especially the band Tapes N Tapes. They are only similar in their stripped down pop sensibilities. This doesn't make it a bad album, it just makes it another in a whole line-up of indie rockers that are blending old styles with stripped down goodness. The album has a dreamy tone, the vocals are quality and the music is great for driving on a summers day (even though I have yet to do this since it's January.)

The album kicks off with the first single "Mansard Roof", a jaunty organ ladled jam with minimal guitars and lyrical wordplay. The album follows this formula for the most part. Songs like "A-Punk" amp up the guitars rather than the organ and "Oxford Comma" shows it's disdain for grammar. The most delightful tracks come later in the album. "I Stand Corrected" is the most melancholy track on the album although it's definitely not a slow or mellow song in the least. "Walcott" is by far my personal favorite track with it's very echoey piano line, building passion and escapist attitude towards Cape Cod. "M79" sounds as if it were written to be added to a Wes Anderson soundtrack with it's grandiose harpsichord's and string arrangements.

If anything, Vampire Weekend is definitely worth a listen if you like pallatable indie pop music. Is it going to expand your mind? No. Is it the best new thing you'll ever hear? Probably not. Is it damn good pop music? Hell yes. That in itself makes the album worth the listen, the buy, the borrow, the steal.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Voyeur Pleasure

Sorry for the horrible pun. I couldn't resist.

Recently a friend of mine who has a film history class was assigned to watch the 1974 classic The Conversation. It had come to my knowledge that I had never seen it all the way though, if at all, so I quickly launched it to the top of my Netflix queue. Without really paying attention, I received two films with similar looks into the world of surveillance and it's voyeuristic conflicts. The other film was 2006's Das Leben der Anderen, or better known as the Oscar winning The Lives of Others. I remember seeing previews of that film and when it beat out Pan's Labyrinth for Best Foreign Film I was trying to wrap my head around it, thinking very naively that anything could possibly have been better than Pan's Labyrinth. Much to my surprise, The Lives of Others is easily one of the finest films of the past 10 years that I have seen and am blown away by how amazing it is. But more on that later. The real point of this post is the strange alignment of the planets to drop these two films on my lap at the same time.

There is no better medium to show just how powerful and life-ruining voyeurism can be. 1974's The Conversation and 2006's The Lives of Others may not be the most similar in story-line, but they do have a lot in common that can't be overlooked.

The Conversation follows Harry Caul, a sort-of peeping Tom for hire who is commissioned to record a conversation of a man and a woman which looks seemingly like a simple act of infidelity. Caul is so entranced by their conversation trying to find out what's really going on and slowly reels into a nightmarish paranoia that obviously runs his life and is his tragic flaw. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game that happens between Caul and himself is one of the most intriguing character studies you can see captured on film. In one of Coppola's (if not his finest) moments behind the lens, we take the position of a peeping Tom as viewers of the movie as his camera shots peer in from windows, through doors, around corners and even from eagle eye views like the opening zoom shoot. It's uncomfortable, yet utterly enrapturing to watch. You can't help but want to watch his dilemma that he basically forces upon himself. He can't stand people watching him or asking him questions, yet he can't help but spy on them.

I forgot to mention Harry Caul is brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman in easily one of his best roles along with Jimmy Doyle and Royal Tennenbaum. The subtle performance is so sharp and precise, just like his work has to be, that only a few times does he ever really lash out. Just like a true sociopath of sorts, he really hides his true feelings of the world around him until you really push his buttons. This performance seems to be overshadowed by a lot of his other intense roles, but it's in the simplicity of the role that really makes it so special and intriguing. Without Hackman, I'm not sure if this movie would be just as brilliant as it is.

Next on the queue was The Lives of Others. I had anticipated this movie being good, but was taken aback about how much of a statement it really was. Even more so than it showed the powerful effects that voyeurism really can take on a person. The Lives of Others follows a different protaganist than in The Conversation. His imposed surveillance work is Government oriented and the seeming drive of his ambition. He seems to enjoy listening to people, interrogating them and putting people away for their treasonous rhetoric. So much as just speaking out against the Eastern Block of Germany was seen as treason. If you helped someone escape the GDR, you were locked up. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is the man on the earphones listening in on a German playwright named Georg Dreyman. Dreyman is suspected of Anti-GDR leanings form a higher up official in the Stasi and orders that he be watched. Wiesler is one of the best men in the Stasi and takes on the task. They bug Dreyman and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland's apartment thoroughly and 24-Hour surveillance begins. The film follows Wiesler and Dreyman very closely through these monitored days and weeks and much to the surprise of Wiesler, nothing is coming of it. If anything, Dreyman seems to be a very pro-GDR writer and has the least bit of anything against the establishment. Wiesler almost has a reverse Stockholm Syndrome effect occur to him where he starts to really care about the people he has been listening too. More events unfold and weave as the film goes along, but I will not elaborate further due to spoiler possibilities.

Again, the real treat in this film is the relationship between the viewer and the voyeur. Wiesler is at first an uncompromising, loyal follower of the GDR who enjoys interrogation. Unlike Hackman's Caul, the late Ulrich Mühe's character starts to feel for the people he is listening in on and wants to help them. He forges documents and tries to save Dreyman as if he was falling in love with the man and wanted to save him from the fate of ruining his artistic integrity. The very subtle performance of Mühe is brilliant on pa with Hackman. It's only rarely we see the soft side of Wiesler. In a brilliant scene between Wiesler and the Sieland, we see the utter humanity shining through what seemed like a GDR robot of the nation. Unbelievably convincing and uncomprimising, Mühe made his performance look easy.

Both films are perfect in their own right and deserve multiple viewings to totally see the pure brilliance, but even just a one time viewing of these films brings sheer movie going joy beyond their deep meanings. Although The Lives of Others is more of a political statement than The Conversation lets on to be, we still get a brilliant look into the world of surveillance and voyeurism. Each movie has a breathtaking and mind boggling third act and each film has it's share of understated supporting roles. Both films use the medium of filmmaking so well to portray the world of voyeurism, even though The Conversation nails it to a tee. More or less, I was thankful that Netflix randomly plopped these two similar works of genius on my lap one after the other.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

All Points West Fantasy List

It's kind of absurd to try and even take this and make sense of it, but the All Points West Festival is making my year. With paid vacation and the want and need to see a huge-ass festival in my lifetime, this is the perfect remedy to me having a crap car and not enough money to go to Coachallea and not enough drugs to go to Boneroo (misspelling on purpose.) And although these festivals have, like, 80 bands play at them, I am doing my three day, 10 band each day fantasy draft for what I'd love to attempt to see at this coming festival. We'll check back soon to see what happens.

Night One - Kick It Off Dancing

There is no better way to start a weekend of kick ass jams then to get some sweet ass danceable bands together. I know that they won't seperate the acts by style, but I'm doing this to make it easier to check back and see whats up. Some Techno, some straight up indie pop, some out of left field, but all danceable and kick ass nonetheless.

The day would start off with the indie pop bands that get your juices going, but don't exactly get you full on dancing. I mean, it would be harsh to get started with a punch to the face, so let's loosen you up. Falling into these early sets would be the jaunty yet groovy Tapes N Tapes. With a new album expected out sometime in '08, what better way to showcase your new songs to a huge crowd. More classic, yet also with forthcoming material, Matt Sharp and The Rentals would moog it up to no end in one of what I heard was the best live acts of 2007. Dancing and bouncing around doesn't have to be all light all the time and The Faint could bring their dreary techno pop to the stage to shake up the mood. In the same vein, yet still dynamic enough to change the soundscape of the day could be brought from LCD Soundsystem. Songs like "Get Innocuous!" and "North American Scum" can get your feet ripping it up. Somewhere in this muddled mess would be disco punk kings Electric Six. Only miles away from two venues they frequent often (Maxwell's in Hoboken and The Bowery Ballroom in NYC), there would be no excuse for these guys to play outside. Last in the set of somewhat smaller acts would be all the way from Britain bringing her brand of Marc Bolan techno dream pop would be the sweet sounds of Goldfrapp. A small stage group for such a huge venue, yet fitting the vein of great dance music. The final four acts would be a sonic frenzy. Although with more subdued tracks than the other three here, the french duo Air could cool us off in between sets and with a large catalog of tracks, it would be refreshing to have them play. That being said, two more french duos should join forces on stage and that would be none other than Daft Punk and Justice. They could have a dance-off on stage or just both play sometime during the festival, but it would be kick ass if they dueled. Finally, with all these acts playing, there could be room for callabo onstage. My personal choice for a headliner this year for a dance frenzy would be none other than Beck. He has callaborated with Air in the past and to bring some of those tracks back to life would be kick ass. And if Beck stuck to his guns and played all his more dancy, groove tracks, it would be a psychedelic explosion.

Night Two - Cool It Down, Just A Smidge

Here's the more indie mellow acts I'd love to see and one day of full on acoustic/jammy/whathaveyou stuff would help your legs recover from all the dancing you did night 1.

An act I hear is great live and whose Philly show sold out would be Band of Horses. Just recently I picked up their latest album and it's filled with amazing pop songs. Badly Drawn Boy would be the first overseas import on day two. His live act is quite special and his great folk-pop songs would be a great addition to the day. Hopefully coming to the USA sometime, but what a better way to do it than this would be The Earlies. Their album from last year would bring a large mass of people on stage, but I know that a big show like this would launch them among the indie scene here in the states. Another strange, but intriguing live act would be Panda Bear. Although the album might be next to impossible to carry over live, I'd love to hear it done with a huge mass of people, a throng if you will, singing behind the dreamy vocals. They would be a great segue into Sigur Ros. A great relaxing way to continue the beauty and haze of the same euphoric sound Panda Bear would emit. Yet another band I'd love to see would be Explosions in the Sky. Their grandiose melodic instrumentals would be yet another great addition to the night. The last four acts will kick it up just a notch or two but four acts (with one possible state-side reunion) to play. If Yo La Tengo doesn't make the 25 minute or less drive over from Hoboken to this event, I'd be really really surprised. Lord knows they have been touring a lot lately, but for them not to be there for this would be a travesty. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks would also be nice to see, especially with the new album coming out this early summer. They are touring around here in March sometime, but a little is never enough when it comes to Malkmus. The hard part here is to choose who headlines and who doesn't, but it's clear that Radiohead would be the obvious openers for this kind of show (and they are rumored to already be on board.) However, the most exciting possibility would be the American Reunion show of My Bloody Valentine. Just like other luminaries who have gotten back together in the past and soon to happen (Rage Against the Machine and Portishead respectively) would be the event of the year. Either way, both acts are definitely cream of the crop headlining gold.

Closing Night - Out With a Bang

Ending with an all out Rock assault would be kick-ass, but even in that, this is more of a list of live acts that I have seen in the past and hope to see in the future that I know would be amazing in a festival setting.

Black Mountain is easily the best new rock band out there. The live show would be transcendent at a live festival with lots of people to share in the sonic fury that is their show. They are as close as we can get to new Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin style songs without those two acts reforming and growing 30 years younger. Autolux is another exciting live act that has new material to showcase. They sound great in small clubs, but I know they would have a decent on stage performance in an outside venue. Earl Greyhound should also be on tap thanks to their Brooklyn residence so good rocking can be spread over the large scale crowd. Even though they lost a guitarist, Secret Machines are still going to have new material and a new guitarist to show off and what better way to do so than here. The Raconteurs were announced for Bonaroo, so they could come to Jersey too and show of some Jack White mayhem. New album again to show off means good chance we will see them. My Morning Jacket is so good live that it's kind of scary so no way would we not want them on the bill. Wilco could slow it down and rock out sometimes before the rest of the evening kicks you in the teeth. One of the most exciting tidbits of news is the fact that Stone Temple Pilots will be touring in 2008. Yet another kick ass reunion could grace this stage in Jersey. Keeping it grunge for the last two acts, I need to see a longer Primus set without a sick Les Claypool. Easily one of the best live shows you can see and their festival friendly attitude would be a kick ass late night foray. Their wouldn't be any better closer than for Pearl Jam to kick it hard on the main stage for the finale. Yet another mammoth live show, this is probably the most kick ass band that could end it. They would do it right, too.

Basically, the headliners should and could be as follows: Beck, Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Primus. If even one of these gets into the headliner position, I will be stoked and it looks like Radiohead is a good chance. Jack Johnson is playing a lot of these fests and although I don't know his stuff that well, I can't imagine him being bad live. This is just what I fantasize. A lot of these groups are definite possibilities, but heres hoping even 1/3rd of these guys sign up for it.