Friday, December 18, 2009

End of the Decade Review

Best of 2009

Biggest Hipster Happenings

Shows:

1. Sonic Youth at Live on the Levee

The words SONIC YOUTH, ST. LOUIS and FREE seldom (read: never) appear together in the same sentence, so the local hipsterati shit a collective brick when it was announced near the start of summer that Thurston, Kim & Co. would be gracing our fine city with a show on the riverfront. As it turned out, my having shown up six hours in advance was wholly unnecessary, but it allowed me to stake out the perfect seat in direct eyeline of the stage, a vantage point from which I surveyed the impromptu Vintage Vinyl employee reunion which took place on the street below, enjoyed the spectacle that was the sound check, and even rubbed elbows with Mr. Steve Shelley during the opening act. The impossibly perfect weather provided an exquisite backdrop for the two-hour-plus performance, and even my long-held disdain for encores slunk away sheepishly when confronted by a medley of "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Death Valley '69". The sound tech drew immediate ire from the post-show crowd for having pulled the plug on the band's impromptu accompaniment of the fireworks display (in favor of Finger Eleven, no less), but there really could have been no more punk rock ending than SY's being cut off for making too much noise.

2. Leonard Cohen at the Fox

Those fortunate enough to see L. Cohen wear an old man's mask amidst the glorious trappings of the Fabulous Fox were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime event that secured them bragging rights for years to come. Despite suffering from a curiously hillbilly crowd, the music sounded more vibrant than ever, thanks to a peerless backing band and Leonard's own age-belying sprightliness. Three hours and countless encores later, the die-hards were satisfied, and those who had only come to hear "Hallelujah" had been converted, leaving the quintessential ladies’ man with nothing left but to tip his hat and skip back to his lonely bungalow atop the Tower of Song.

3. The Breeders at Blueberry Hill

Celebrating their recent appearance in the Breeders' "Fate to Fatal" video, the Arch Rival Roller Girls were out in force for this triumphant follow-up to the band's shindig last year at Pop's. Yet even the majority of the team only accounted for a small portion of the crowd, who packed the Duck Room to the rafters and screamed along with what amounted to at least 75% of Last Splash. After too many years of plasticine pop idols, it was a joy to see Kim and Kelley holding it down for beautiful real women everywhere.

4. Morrissey at the Pageant

You will never see a better stage backdrop. Ever.

5. Gogol Bordello at the Pageant

By all accounts, this was not only one of the best shows of the year, but one of the best shows the Pageant has ever seen. Alas, I was unable to partake, having worked that night at Suite 100 next door. Nonetheless, even my limited perspective treated me to one seizure, one broken ankle, and at least two security takedowns. The only show that came close was the backwater bonanza of Tech N9ne, but the difference with Gogol was that they actually rocked.

6. Girl Talk at the Pageant

Even if you didn't find your way onstage (or if you were standing still with your arms crossed, like your plucky reporter), you were nonetheless treated to the dance party of the year. A great gasping grope-a-thon that threatened to explode into an unfettered free-for-all at any moment, Gregg Gillis's adventures in AudioMulchland provided some much-needed heat in the dead of winter. The crowd was essentially what you'd find if Novak's didn't have an age limit, but any bacchanal that attracts more than one person dressed as Greenman from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is worth an elbow in the chest.

7. XX Merge

The finest label this side of 4AD celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a heart-stopping showcase featuring the likes of the Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Lambchop, M. Ward, and enough also-rans to satisfy even the surliest of record store clerks. The lineup was conducted in almost total secrecy, with the unspoken but understood goal that no one could know in advance when and where the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion would take place, lest all the other shows go unattended. Not a bad idea, but pity the poor Mangum-loving souls who had to settle for Superchunk.

8. Big Muddy Records Party at Jefferson Underground

Rooftop show + rockabilly bands + fire pit + BYOB. You do the math.

Everything Else:

1. Where the Wild Things Are

The film adaptation that no one was waiting for became the defining moment of Gen X/Y cinema, a May-September wedding of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Night Kitchen, with Spike Jonze and Karen O packing the whimsy and Dave Eggers and Catherine Keener packing the cred. Somewhere, Michel Gondry is weeping.

2. The Weezer Snuggie

Either a staggeringly cynical promotional gimmick or a brilliantly stoopid gift for the fans -- either way, the most indie accessory since DIY sliced bread.

3. Dark Night of the Soul

Ridiculously overrated though I consider Danger Mouse to be, his collaboration with Sparklehorse and David Lynch was a stroke of genius on par with Jello Biafra's mayoral campaign. That the end result (a highly experimental and crushingly beautiful work that included a jaw-dropping lineup of indie rocker cameos) managed to exceed its own hype was no small miracle; throw in the fillip of the album's contentious release having relegated it to a shadowy online-only distribution, and you've got both the most mysterious record of the decade, and quite possibly the best.

4. I-64/40 Reopening

Contrary to their cheap-beer-swilling, MacBook-jocking reputation, hipsters love to exercise. In particular, they love to exercise with lots of other people; such is the appeal of the Fucking Bike Club, a freewheeling cadre of local fixie fanatics who revel in casual 38-mile treks around the bi-state area and rock their rolled-up pant legs as both a freak flag and a middle finger. It was therefore only natural that the announcement of Highway 40's long-awaited completion was met with tremendous anticipation in cafés and cycling shops, as it was well known that pedestrians and cyclists would be granted the first tread upon its virgin path. Alas, the grand unveiling of the retooled interstate attracted hundreds of like-minded rovers, whose intrepid journey along the concrete expanse gave them a privileged perspective of what their motorist friends would soon see whizzing by at a much higher speed.

5. The Flaming Lips ft. Stardeath and White Dwarfs – Dark Side of the Moon

I think my head just exploded.

6. The Edgar Allan Poe Postage Stamp

Well, it was a big deal for me, anyway. Also, for the record, the Joan Baez show was excellent.

Biggest Bummers of the Year

1. Michael Jackson dies on my birthday

Can you believe that? On my fucking birthday.

2. Jeff Smith indicted for electoral fraud

At which point Joan Bray became the last hope of progressive Missourians.

3. KFUO-FM sold to the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod

When word got out at the beginning of fall that our beloved Classic 99 was under threat of being mutated into an all-religious format, the St. Louis intelligentsia responded in force. Shockingly, the subsequent flurry of idignant, needlessly verbose emails to the church wasn't enough to stop the deal from going through, and cultural watchdogs began counting down the days until Mozart was usurped by Michael McDonald.

4. Adam Yauch contracts cancer

No punchline here. I have friends who cried.

5. Classic literature/Twilight tie-ins

Actually, these were pretty ingenious. The dynamos at HarperCollins, always thinking around corners, saw the Twilight phenomenon as a chance to pander to the tween demographic by lending a hip, youthful edge to material that might otherwise carry the stigma of being assigned reading. Not a bad idea in theory; it worked for Baz Luhrmann. Unfortunately, Harper's folly was to release new trade paperback editions of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Romeo and Juliet with florid Meyer-esque artwork and Twitard-friendly cover blurbs (e.g., "Bella & Edward's Favorite Book", "The Original Forbidden Love"). The end result had all the youth appeal of your hippie uncle wearing a Hootie shirt, and the kids saw through it immediately. But they all had a good laugh, and then they went through with their initial plan to use Mom's credit card to buy a copy of The Host.

6. Lady Gaga

The soundtrack to self-trepanation, with a hatchet haircut to boot.

7. Peanut butter recall

Why don't you just rip my heart right out of my body?

8. Hope and change endure a heavy sack beating

With the sun blocker in place and the town aghast, Obama was on top of the world. So he wanted to kick up his heels and indulge his sweet tooth. The GOP had thwarted his earlier attempt to take candy from a baby, but with them out of the picture, he was free to wallow in his own crapulence. But the old axiom was misleading: taking the candy proved exceedingly difficult. Stricken, he lurched forth in search of aid, but finding only slack-jawed gawkers, he gave up and collapsed on the sundial. Then, with his last ounce of strength, he sucked out his gold fillings and swallowed them. Those paramedics have sticky fingers.

9. Norman Borlaug dies

At the senseless age of 95.

Best Headlines of the Year

1. Ice skating bear kills Russian circus hand (CNN.com)

2. "Gollum-like" monster emerges from lake (Metro.co.uk)

3. Glitch hits Visa users with $23 quadrillion charge (CNN.com)

4. Dentist accused of dropping tools down patient's throat before death (local6.com)

5. Sex-starved Kenyan sues over boycott (CNN.com)

6. Chesterfield Hummer dealerships fights declining
sales with guns (STLtoday.com)

7. 120 degrees + 150 miles - toilet = fun (CNN.com)

8. 'Dr. Death' plans to plastinate King of Pop (thelocal.de)

9. Urinating dog triggered argument resulting in 3 officers' deaths (CNN.com)

10. Two brothers in Pakistan earn millions making bondage products for the West (STLtoday.com)

Best of 2000-2009

Now, you're probably aware that I am exactly the kind of nerd who insists that each decade begins with a 1 and ends with a 0. But two of my top five albums came out in 2000, so...quiet.

Top 40 Albums / EPs

1. Arcade Fire - Funeral (Merge, 2004)
2. Doves - Lost Souls (Astralwerks, 2000)
3. The White Stripes - De Stijl (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000)
4. Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004)
5. DeVotchKa - How It Ends (Anti-, 2004)
6. Radiohead - Amnesiac (Parlophone, 2001)
7. Circulatory System - S/T (Cloud, 2001)
8. Air - The Virgin Suicides (Astralwerks, 2000)
9. OutKast - The Love Below (Arista, 2003)
10. Apollo Sunshine - Shall Noise Upon (Headless Heroes, 2008)
11. Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Vagrant, 2005)
12. Brazilian Girls - S/T (Verve Forecast, 2005)
13. David Holmes - Come Get It I Got It (13 Amp, 2002)
14. Sigur Rós - Agaetis Byrjun (FatCat, 2000)
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - S/T (Touch and Go, 2001)
16. DJ Shadow - The Private Press (MCA, 2002)
17. Benoît Charest - Belleville rendez-vous (Delabel, 2003)
18.The White Stripes - White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001)
19. Jeffrey Lewis - It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through (Rough Trade, 2003)
20. Radiohead - Kid A (Capitol, 2000)
21. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals (Illegal Art, 2008)
22. D'Angelo - Voodoo (Virgin, 2000)
23. M.I.A. – Kala (Interscope, 2007)
24. Cody Chestnutt – The Headphone Masterpiece (One Little Indian, 2002)
25. Yoko Ono - Yes, I'm a Witch (Astralwerks, 2007)
26. Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump (V2, 2000)
27. Kono Michi - 9 Death Haiku (Shark Batter, 2009)
28. Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R (Interscope, 2000)
29. Tenacious D - S/T (Epic, 2001)
30. Peter Bjorn and John - Writer's Block (Wichita, 2006)
31. Fannypack - So Stylistic (Tommy Boy, 2003)
32. The Shins - Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop, 2001)
33. Brian Eno & David Byrne – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todomundo, 2008)
34. Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! (Kranky, 2000)
35. The New Heaven and the New Earth - All Saints' Day (self-released, 2009)
36. Gorillaz - S/T (Virgin, 2001)
37. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (Temporary Residence Limited, 2003)
38. Daft Punk - Discovery (Virgin, 2001)
39. Madvillain - Madvillainy (Stones Throw, 2004)
40. Rich Aucoin - Personal Publication (self-released, 2007)


Top 40 Songs

1. Arcade Fire - "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
2. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - "Home"
3. Radiohead - "The Amazing Sounds of Orgy"
4. The White Stripes - "Hotel Yorba"
5. Sigur Rós - "Viðrar vel tl loftárása"
6. Gary Jules - "Mad World"
7. DJ Shadow - "Blood on the Motorway"
8. Joanna Newsom - "This Side of the Blue"
9. M.I.A. - "Bird Flu"
10. Those Darlins - "Wild One"
11. Eels - "Souljacker part I"
12. Muse - "Take a Bow"
13. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse feat. David Lynch - "Dark Night of the Soul"
13. Deltron 3030 - "3030"
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Mystery Girl"
16. Tiger Army - "Wander Alone"
17. Radiohead - "Pyramid Song"
18. Apollo Sunshine - "Happiness"
19. Gorillaz - "Clint Eastwood"
20. OutKast - "Prototype"
21. Peter Bjorn and John - "Young Folks"
22. Doves - "Break Me Gently"
23. Shareef Ali - "Broken Record"
24. The Brian Jonestown Massacre - "Nevertheless"
25. DeVotchKa - "The Enemy Guns"
26. The White Stripes - "We're Going to Be Friends"
27. The Weepies - "World Spins Madly On"
28. The Pipettes - "Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me"
29. Elvis vs JXL - "A Little Less Conversation"
30. Radiohead - "15 Step"
31. Wyclef Jean - "If I Was President"
32. Dead Man's Bones - "Pa Pa Power"
33. Tenacious D - "Wonderboy"
34. OutKast - "B.O.B."
35. The Shins - "Caring Is Creepy"
36. Puscifer - "The Mission"
37. Jay-Z - "My 1st Song"
38. Bright Eyes - "First Day of My Life"
39. Portishead - "Deep Water"
40. The Strokes - "Last Nite"


Addendum: I recognize and regret my limited appreciation of hip-hop from the last decade, as I am presently stuck in an obsession with the New School. I promise to try harder to stay current in the future.

Top 100 Films

1. City of God (Miramax Films, 2002)
2. The Pianist (Studio Canal, 2003)
3. You Can Count on Me (Paramount Classics, 2000)
4. Adaptation (Columbia Pictures, 2002)
5. Lilo & Stitch (Walt Disney Pictures, 2002)
6. Sideways (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004)
7. Transamerica (The Weinstein Company, 2005)
8. The Savages (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007)
9. Bad Santa (Dimension Films, 2003)
10. Deliver Us From Evil (Lions Gate Films, 2006)
11. A History of Violence (New Line Cinema, 2005)
12. Rejected (Bitter Films, 2000)
13. Brick (Focus Features, 2005)
14. Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli, 2001)
15. Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006)
16. Zodiac (Paramount Pictures, 2007)
17. Love Actually (Universal Pictures, 2003)
18. The Corporation (Zeitgeist Films, 2003)
19. The Prestige (Touchstone Pictures, 2006)
20. Tarnation (Wellspring Media, 2003)
21. The Eye (Palm Pictures, 2002)
22. The Host (Magnolia Magnet, 2006)
23. Rivers and Tides (Roxie Releasing, 2001)
24. When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2006)
25. Kill Bill (Miramax Films, 2003)
26. Bug (Curb Entertainment, 2002)
27. Good Night and Good Luck (Warner Independent Pictures, 2005)
28. Big Fish (Columbia Pictures, 2003)
29. Mystic River (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003)
30. Maxed Out (Red Envelope Entertainment, 2006)
31. The Magdalene Sisters (Miramax Films, 2002)
32. Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features, 2005)
33. Wall-E (Pixar Animated Features, 2008)
34. Donnie Darko (Newmarket Films, 2001)
35. The Triplets of Belleville (Sony Pictures Classics, 2003)
36. Planet Earth (BBC, 2006)
37. Requiem for a Dream (Artisan Entertainment, 2000)
38. Jesus Camp (Magnolia Pictures, 2006)
39. A Mighty Wind (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003)
40. Up (Walt Disney Pictures, 2009)
41. Sin City (Dimension Films, 2005)
42. DiG! (Palm Pictures, 2004)
43. Team America: World Police (Paramount Pictures, 2004)
44. Napoleon Dynamite (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004)
45. High Fidelity (Buena Vista Pictures, 2000)
46. Almost Famous (Columbia Pictures, 2000)
47. Ghost World (United Artists, 2001)
48. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (THINKFilm, 2002)
49. Inglourious Basterds (Universal Pictures, 2009)
50. King Corn (Balcony Releasing, 2007)
51. 28 Days Later (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2003)
52. L.I.E. (New Yorker Films, 2001)
53. Fear(s) of the Dark (IFC Films, 2008)
54. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)
55. The Orphanage (Picturehouse Entertainment, 2008)
56. The Woodsman (Newmarket Films, 2004)
57. District 9 (TriStar Pictures, 2009)
58. Barbershop (MGM, 2002)
59. (500) Days of Summer (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009)
60. Waking Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2001)
61. Freestyle (Palm Pictures, 2000)
62. With a Friend Like Harry... (Miramax Zoë, 2000)
63. Red Dragon (Universal Pictures, 2002)
64. Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (Cowboy Pictures, 2002)
65. Shaun of the Dead (Focus Features, 2004)
66. The Incredibles (Buena Vista Pictures, 2004)
67. Hotel Rwanda (United Artists, 2004)
68. Hustle & Flow (Paramount Classics, 2005)
69. Bowling for Columbine (United Artists, 2002)
70. Hell House (Seventh Art Releasing, 2001)
71. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal Pictures, 2008)
72. Let the Right One In (Magnet Releasing, 2008)
73. The Butterfly Effect (New Line Cinema, 2004)
74. The Fearless Freaks (Shout Factory, 2005)
75. No Country for Old Men (Miramax Films, 2007)
76. The Aristocrats (THINKFilm, 2005)
77. Blue Car (Miramax Films, 2002)
78. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Universal Pictures, 2002)
79. There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage, 2007)
80. The Departed (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006)
81. Precious (Lionsgate, 2009)
82. Superbad (Columbia Pictures, 2007)
83. Kinsey (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004)
84. Bodysong (Channel, 2003)
85. Coffee and Cigarettes (United Artists, 2004)
86. End of the Century (Magnolia Pictures, 2003)
87. Trapped in the Closet (Jive Records, 2005)
88. Thirteen (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2003)
89. Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001)
90. The Machinist (Paramount Classics, 2004)
91. Thumbsucker (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005)
92. Copy Shop (Sixpack Film, 2001)
93. Y Tu Mamá También (IFC Films, 2001)
94. Coraline (Focus Features, 2009)
95. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008)
96. Kurt Cobain About a Son (Balcony Releasing, 2006)
97. Amélie (Miramax Films, 2001)
98. Far from Heaven (Focus Features, 2002)
99. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2008)
100. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features, 2004)

Honorable Mentions (i.e., Films that I Didn't See but Which I Heard Were Extraordinary, in Chronological Order)

Amores Perros (Lions Gate Films, 2000)
Snatch (Columbia Pictures, 2000)
Timecode (Columbia Tristar, 2000)
The Believer (Fireworks Pictures, 2001)
Monsoon Wedding (IFC Productions, 2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Buena Vista Pictures, 2001)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Miramax Films, 2002)
Lost in La Mancha (IFC Films, 2002)
Spider (Sony Pictures Classics, 2002)
Finding Nemo (Walt Disney Pictures, 2003)
The Squid and the Whale (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2005)
Syriana (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)
The Lives of Others (Sony Pictures Classics, 2006)
Pan's Labyrinth (New Line Cinema, 2006)
Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage, 2007)
Gran Torino (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008)
Man on Wire (Discovery Films, 2008)
The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2008)


That's it for this decade. Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

PlaybackSTL: Best of 2008

Craziest Things I've Seen All Year

1. Kid next to me in the Toadies mosh pit getting a concussion from a stage diver

Since the demise of Mississippi Nights and the Creepy Crawl, it's gotten slightly harder lately to get caught in a mosh. The last place I expected to find one was at the Pageant, but damned if the Toadies didn't make it happen. During their sold out show in late July, the room reached a delicious fever pitch that threatened to erupt at any moment. I was perched against the gate at the front of the pit, screaming Todd Lewis's lyrics back into his face while being violated from behind by a surging mass of humanity, when some random goon launched himself from the stage and landed smack into the face of the kid on my right. There was a crack as the kid's head met the floor, and then he was pulled to his feet by his friends and shuffled away by security. Rumor has it that there was an ambulance idling out front during the show; I'd like to think that it wasn't even for him.

2. Heath Ledger performing a magic trick

Technically, his first screen appearance came during the opening bank robbery, but to those of us assembled at the Moolah for the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, the Joker didn't really make an entrance until he came strolling into a mob meeting a few minutes later. After months of feverish anticipation of Heath Ledger's already legendary performance, the crowd was amped to respond to even the most simple onscreen affectation, but nothing could have prepared us for his dispatchment of a grunt who happened onto the wrong end of a pencil. To say that the place exploded would be an understatement -- it was the equivalent of Clark Gable's revealing the bare chest beneath his shirt while dropping the bomb on Nagasaki. In that one moment, Heath exceeded all of his own hype, and in the process set a new standard for cinematic malevolence that has kept us little fanboys in thrall ever since.

3. Fatal hit-and-run bike accident in Colorado Springs

The single greatest night of my southwest road trip this summer took place in the least likely place imaginable: Colorado Springs, an epicenter of evangelism located an hour south of Denver. After reuniting with a friend of mine who moved out there two years ago, my companion and I were treated to the spectacle of the New Life Church, the famed congregation from which Ted Haggard was deposed in 2006 for being a meth-smoking hypocrite. I was familiar with the Rocky Mountain megachurch from the documentary-cum-horror flick Jesus Camp, but I still found myself in awe of the sheer magnitude of the place. After nosing through its various auditoriums and atria, we decided to scoot after witnessing the end of a Christian rock concert, and thus headed up to the mountains to find an overlook of the city.

The path to the overlook was almost absurdly labyrinthine, winding through dimly lit off-roads and indistinguishable clumps of suburbia. As we traversed the narrow side streets leading up the hill, we began to notice road blocks and flashing lights. It was mere seconds before we happened across an intersection that was cordoned off by police, where through the red and blue we could make out the figure of a body on the ground covered by a sheet, with a mangled bicycle lying nearby. The scene was obviously fresh: We could still see the remnants of the accident all around. I had never seen a recent death in such close proximity, and the image seared itself into my memory. We quickly turned and found an alternate route, remarking upon the odd circumstances that had brought us to such a scene. The overlook proved well worth the trouble, providing a beautiful view of a small burg nestled under looming mountains and a starry sky, but its majesty was tainted by the bizarre events that had preceded it. I found out later that the accident had actually involved two cyclists, both of whom were killed by an elderly woman driving under the influence of barbituates and morphine. The destruction she had wrought had provided me with one of the strangest and most ineffable sights of my entire year.

4. Sidewalk party in front of Macro Sun, complete with llama and burro

Working in the Loop provides one with the opportunity to witness all manner of unusual things. During my brief stint at the Tivoli in 2002, I learned that there was no better place to people-watch than from inside the box office, where on Saturday nights one could be treated to the sights and sounds of the Hare Krishna hootenanny outside the Foot Locker. Similarly, my six-month tenure at Subterranean Books exposed me to all sorts of situations to which I might not have been privy otherwise. The greatest took place during the transition from spring to summer, when the street was filled with people and the energy was palpable. Our friends at Macro Sun decided to throw a sidewalk party to drum up business, and in doing so they pulled out all the stops. Just when I had started to tune out the sound of the belly dancer's finger cymbals, I heard the low bleating of what sounded like a goat. I poked my head outside and discovered a llama prancing about on a leash, followed closely by a burro. The confusion on my face was mirrored by the confusion on theirs, and I was left with a host of unanswered questions and a husky odor that permeated the store. The animals were tied to the tree on the sidewalk so that onlookers might be encouraged to come forth and gawk, and there they stayed for an hour or so -- never once fitting in with their environment, and yet somehow assimilating perfectly.

5. Black man being elected President

I wish I had stuck around Meshuggah for the party. Supposedly, Delmar exploded when the election was called. Instead, I spent the evening at my mom's house in Dogtown, where my pithy noisemakers were the only sound on the whole street.

Best Comebacks

1. Idealism

I have long lamented the complacency that defines my generation. Having grown up in the sunlight of the Clinton administration, when the economy reached unprecedented highs and pop culture was defined by irony and apathy, kids my age never seemed to have a defining issue around which to convene, let alone any impetus to rebel. During the long slog that was the Bush regime, there were some brief flashes of discontent, but even these settled down once it became clear that the war wasn't going to end just because a few protestors camped out in Crawford. It took an unapologetically liberal, half-African senator from Illinois to finally galvanize the youth base, and in doing so, he rejuvenated the electorate as a whole. The presidential election of 2008 often resembled a bad sitcom, with every week providing more absurd late night material, but Barack Obama's relentless adherence to his message of hope remained a stalwart rallying point for millions of disillusioned Americans. His epic sweep into the history books proved definitively that times had changed, and that the morning in America which Reagan had promised might finally come to pass.

2. Portishead

After eleven long years, Geoff Barrow and company finally released their third excursion into the depths of trip-hop. Bearing influences as diverse as Edith Piaf and Silver Apples, the album (simply titled Third) did its best to make sense of an electronic landscape that had been transformed by the likes of DJ Shadow and Radiohead. Its crackling industrial moments bore little similarity to the lethargic Portishead of old, but the band's trademark gloomy romanticism (courtesy of lyricist/siren Beth Gibbons) remained prominent. Portishead's return to the fray may have met some expectations while dashing others, but after such a long absence, a completely satisfactory product might well have been impossible. When all was said and done, it was nice just to have them back.

3. Robert Downey, Jr.

In 2008, having spent the better part of the decade making up for his five-year lost weekend, Robert Downey, Jr. finally reclaimed his rightful place at the top tier of the Hollywood gentry with a trio of hit movies. When he ushered in the summer blockbuster season with the spectacular Iron Man, it seemed only fitting that the fallen wunderkind should portray a boy genius forced to fight his way back to his former glory. His subsequent roles in Charlie Bartlett and Tropic Thunder were met with less acclaim, but the die had already been cast: Chaplin was back, and he was all out of bubblegum.

4. Futurama

In the pantheon of great shows cancelled before their time, only a select few garner exhibition in the main hall: My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development...and Futurama. Matt Groening's paean to the grand clichés of science fiction elicited instant adoration from a minute but devoted audience, but its brilliance and significance were lost on studio execs expecting another out-of-the-box smash like The Simpsons. 20th Century Fox pulled the plug after four exceptional seasons, but the success of the rejuvenated Family Guy and the tireless appeals of the Futurama fanbase resulted in a trio of straight-to-DVD feature films released sequentially. The show's writers took advantage of the lack of constraints imposed by the 22-minute episodic format, crafting epic stories that dealt with everything from Fry's millennium-long love for Leela to a rip in the very fabric of the universe, but the show's diehard fans still bayed at the door for its return to TV. Who knows? Maybe they'll win. It worked for Stewie.

5. Thermoreactive clothing

During the convergence of glitz and grunge that occurred as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, there was a special brand of cool that could only be attained by having someone leave their handprint on your shirt. Hypercolor tees were the textile equivalent of the Swatch: An oddball confluence of high concept and mass appeal, with enough of an edge to play just as well on MTV as in Peoria. Alas, like their eye-gouging cousin the snap bracelet, Hypercolor clothes were doomed to obsolescence. Following a class-action lawsuit filed by Japanese consumers who were left with irreparable changes to their skin tone on account of thermochromatic underwear, Hypercolor manufacturer Generra was forced out of business in 1993, leaving behind a legacy of miscolored clothing that never quite looked right but was nonetheless cooler than tie-dye.

Fifteen years later, with the ‘90s revival beginning to bloom, thermoreactive wear is making its way back into public consciousness. In classic ironic fashion, however, it's now being touted as haute couture, with designers such as Henry Holland charging hundreds of dollars for the privilege of dressing up like a mood ring. American Apparel has released a more economy-aware variant of the classic Hypercolor shirt, which in all likelihood will never attain the iconic status of its predecessor; nevertheless, the mere fact that you can once again ruin your clothes forever by simply ironing them should be cause for celebration.

Most Overrated Pop Culture Phenomena

1. Twilight

As if the 'tween market weren't grating enough, Gen X alumnus Stephanie Meyer saw fit to unleash a florid melodrama that wed the gothic window dressing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the vacuous intrigue of The O.C. Released just as the core Harry Potter acolytes began to deal with hormones and acne, the Twilight series took middle academia by storm, selling millions of copies worldwide and providing a new unattainable ideal for lovelorn teen girls everywhere. In a definitive usurpation of Hollywood's reliable 14- to-19-year-old male demographic, the Twilight movie dominated box office receipts upon its release in November; suddenly, vampire kids were everywhere, "stupid lamb" had entered the national lexicon, and Robert Pattison had become an overnight sex god. And everyone who wasn't in love with Edward Cullen found themselves wishing they could drive a stake right through his heart.

2. The Olympics

From the moment Chinese officials decreed a change in the toilet facilities throughout the Olympic village to accommodate Westerners who didn't want to stoop over the can, it was clear that the 2008 Summer Olympics would be an entirely different animal. The games provided China with a chance to air out the stink of their deplorable human rights record by hosting emissaries from all over the world in the name of unity, and they made it clear during the opening ceremonies that they weren't messing around. But their nationalistic spotlight was hogged by an amphibious Baltimorean named Michael Phelps, who dominated the swimming events, broke every Olympic record in existence, and managed to cure cancer in between laps. For the better part of the summer, the national dialogue consisted almost solely of Phelps' flawless physique and superhuman caloric intake, and he quickly found his way onto Wheaties boxes and SNL. But to those who couldn't care less about athletics, the Olympics were just another minor diversion from China's ongoing dismissal of international law.

3. "Pay What You Want"

Downloading media content for free has been the national pastime since the advent of Napster in 2000. The rise in peer-to-peer programs opened a Pandora's Box of illegal delights which the RIAA, MPAA and FBI have tried desperately ever since to extinguish, but as the trend grew more ubiquitous and media conglomerates more out of touch with the times, the artistic community learned to utilize the online network for their own ends. The underground success and mainstream assimilation of such flagrantly illegal musicians as Danger Mouse and Girl Talk proved that the market had changed since the litigation-happy days of John Oswald and Negativland, when the record industry still had the clout to squelch even the slightest affront to its Draconian system of copyright law. With a perfect storm brewing, it was only a matter of time before the major players took part.

Radiohead found themselves in a unique position in mid-2007. They had just completed their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, but their contract with Capitol had been allowed to expire. Thus, they were offered the option of signing to another label for the album's distribution, or doing it the old-fashioned way and putting it out themselves. When Wilco was faced with this decision in 2004, they chose the former. Radiohead chose the latter. Their official website became a portal for their new music, allowing fans the chance to download it directly from the band; the gimmick, however, was that they offered a business model in which those who partook of the music could pay whatever they wanted for it. To an outraged record industry, still reeling from Prince's free distribution of his most recent album, Planet Earth, it was tantamount to treason. But for Radiohead fans, long familiar with the band's interactive online experiments, it was a natural progression. The band also offered a box set with bonus goodies for those willing to cough up real cash, but the main event took place online. The album was only available for a short while before being removed from the servers in preparation for an official release, but the damage had already been done. Subsequent releases by Nine Inch Nails and others further impacted the potato Radiohead had stuck up the RIAA's tailpipe, but it was In Rainbows that made the press. Alas, everyone who had benefited from the peer-to-peer revolution knew that this day had been a long time coming.

4. Sarah Palin

Not since Dan Quayle had a vice-presidential candidate provided such sublime late night fodder. With her Marge Gunderson drawl and supreme telegenicity, Sarah Palin sashayed her way into the annals of political serendipity with unprecedented hubris and panache. The press went wild for Caribou Barbie, but the truth was that there was nothing of substance beneath the bouffant. Her disastrous interview with Katie Couric and subsequent embarrassment at the VP debate validated suspicions that she was nothing more than a cynical ploy by the Republican party to snap up the female voters they supposed had been disenfranchised by Hillary Clinton's defeat to Barack Obama, and her utter annihilation at the hands of Tina Fey destroyed any chance of her being taken seriously as a politician.

There were a few scary weeks in which the spectacle of her evangelical convictions governing world policy seemed all too possible, but the election results made it clear that the majority was no longer going to be swayed by the Republicans' usual tactics. If she doesn't succeed in furthering her political career, then hopefully Palin will retreat to her outpost in Wasilla, where she can keep an eye out for Russian bombers while teaching little Tripp Easton how to shoot them down.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mark Oliver Everett - Things the Grandchildren Should Know

Mark Everett is one of those fortunate individuals who is capable of transforming personal tragedy into a grand universal statement. Equal parts Beck Hansen, Wayne Coyne, and Elliott Smith, Everett was one of the key musicians who offered a refuge from the pop miasma of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The very essence of art as therapy, Everett’s music is unflinching in its honesty and unapologetic in its ambition, the perfect antidote to the counterfeit emotion and anemic production that typify much of mainstream music.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know, Everett’s first foray into print, relates the story of his fractured upbringing and his hard-earned success in the music industry. In the vein of such recent memoirs as Running With Scissors and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Everett spins a tale of severe familial dysfunction with the gallows wit of one who has spent a lifetime in the trenches. The son of an emotionally impenetrable quantum mechanic father and an extremely unstable mother, Everett spent his childhood in search of a solid foundation upon which to ground himself, finding instead only the laissez-faire attitude of his parents and his beloved but equally damaged older sister, Liz. His teen years were thus spent in turmoil, as he struggled to define himself against the machinations of the school system and the redneck quagmire of northern Virginia, finding solace only in writing off-kilter pop songs about his experiences. He finally escaped to California in his mid-twenties, but his arrival in Hollywood during the height of hair metal proved to be ill-timed, precipitating years of recording alone in a series of dingy apartments, volleying between menial jobs and the occasional glimpse of label interest, until he finally broke big with his band the Eels in 1996.

It is here that the story hits its stride, and Everett’s life became a relentless barrage of extremes. Just as he was enjoying his long-awaited success with the Eels’ debut album Beautiful Freak, his sister finally succeeded in ending her life, mere months before their mother succumbed to a prolonged and dehumanizing bout with cancer. Almost overnight, Everett found himself the sole surviving member of his family, and was forced to decide between continuing down his chosen path or ending everything. His solution was to channel his personal holocaust into his music, resulting in the Eels’ 1998 masterpiece Electro-shock Blues, one of the most glorious and life-affirming testimonials ever recorded. Having cemented his mission to stay alive in order to create, Everett spent the next ten years learning to appreciate both the highs and the lows, finding solace in the fleeting moments and producing some excellent tunes along the way.

In the same manner as his lyrics, Everett’s prose unloads his emotional baggage in direct but clever language. (A typical single-sentence paragraph: “One day the man with the big Charles Manson beard punched Liz in the face and she moved back in with us.”) He makes it clear from the outset that he has no interest in “flowery shit”, sparing the reader from having to slog through a tale that needs no overselling. This makes for a quick and entertaining read, interspersed with tributes to his crazy ex-girlfriends and an abundance of choice one-liners. Like the music of the Eels, Things the Grandchildren Should Know is highly inspirational without ever being maudlin. Everett closes the book with a glance toward the future he once never allowed himself to contemplate, coming to terms with the knowledge that he has no idea what lies ahead.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Motion Picture Soundtrack

The hipster intelligentsia who make up Tarantino’s core audience have always risen to the challenge that his wildly eclectic soundtracks have posed. These releases are treated as an event in themselves, often as illuminating as the films they are meant to promote, and have served as a crash course in esoterica for both his loyal fan base and pop culture at large (the enormous cultural capital and subsequent career revival afforded to Dick Dale being the most prominent example). In a sense, he has achieved the greatest ambition of every mix tape aficionado: to have his tastes celebrated by and disseminated among a mass audience.

His most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, marks a sharp departure from his previous work, and its accompanying compilation follows suit. The sequencing of the album reflects the chronology of the film, its fourteen tracks serving as a mirror of the storyline. Thankfully, like a hip-hop producer excising skits for the sake of concision, Tarantino refrains from including the sound bite bumpers that have bogged down his previous releases. Rather than providing context for the music, these ham-handed segues seemed instead to indulge a poorly hidden infatuation with his own dialogue (the primary exception being Steven Wright’s droning radio banter in Reservoir Dogs). However, the pacing of Inglourious Basterds benefits only marginally from this cohesion; the music exhibits a more languid and less diverse side of Tarantino than usual, a consequence of its accompanying his most mature and understated film to date. Those who thrilled to the super sounds of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill might well be disappointed by such restraint.

Inglourious Basterds sees Tarantino finally giving free rein to his adoration of Morricone, at which he had previously only hinted; here, four epic tracks receive glowing treatment within the film, each used to bolster a defining sequence. The rest of the instrumental pieces harken back to the Spaghetti Westerns and grindhouse features that have informed all of his films to date, anachronism be damned. Of the five tracks to feature vocals, three of them are period-appropriate pieces sung in French or German. The two exceptions are Billy Preston’s “Slaughter”, used as a sly instrumental cue for the character of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, and David Bowie’s high camp “Putting Out the Fire”, used to accompany Shoshanna’s preparation for the inferno at the Nazi premiere. Tarantino’s exhumation of the latter two tracks--the themes to Jack Starrett’s blaxpoitation revenge flick of the same name and Paul Schrader’s regrettable remake of Cat People, respectively--provides a jarring counterpoint to the bucolic feel of the rest of the score, as if to assure the audience that the director of Death Proof hasn’t strayed too far from his base.

The film’s pseudo-historical air permeates every aspect of the soundtrack, from the “Vitaphonic High Fidelity” label on the sleeve to the faux water damage throughout the liner notes. Most notably, several of the album’s tracks were lifted straight from vinyl, and retain their original cracks and pops; such a self-conscious device serves the dual function of contributing to the film’s historical context while showing off Tarantino’s considerable record collection. Alas, not even this elbow nudge can be taken at face value: “The Man With the Big Sombrero”, despite carrying all the earmarks of a classic 78, is in fact a cover of a June Havoc tune by American composer Michael Andrew and vocalist Samantha Shelton, the former best known for his reworking of Tears For Fears’s “Mad World” for Donnie Darko. It is this aural sleight of hand which best encapsulates the Tarantino aesthetic: an affectionate tribute executed so faithfully as to be indistinguishable from the real thing to all but the most attentive. Tarantino has built his entire career upon the conceit that great artists steal, and Inglourious Basterds is his definitive salute to the best of the best. B

RIYL:
Ennio Morricone, Hugo Montenegro

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Come Get Bonked!

(Note: The following three entries were composed for the Subterranean Books blog while I was still on their payroll.)

I’ve been a big fan of Mary Roach ever since having read Stiff, her brilliant and hilarious study of the business of human preservation. Roach is that rare talent whose impeccable journalistic techniques are bolstered by a conversational style and an unparalleled sense of humor, making each revolting factoid that much easier to swallow. After breaking big with her debut, Roach tackled the afterlife with Spook, which put ghost hunters and professional psychics under the microscope. Now, having wrestled with the dead, Mary Roach is ready to go to work on the living.

Bonk (Norton, $24.95) delves into the long and sordid history of sexual physiology, covering ground cleared by everyone from Leonardo da Vinci (an alleged cold fish who regarded human coitus as “awkward and disgusting”) to Alfred Kinsey (whose illuminating experiments were often carried out in the attic of his home). The phrase “too much information” has no bearing on these exposés of everything from animal insemination to penile implantation: Does clitoral placement dictate the propensity for female orgasm? Will paralysis spell the end for one’s sex life? Could masturbation serve as a cure for the hiccups? Roach delves into each avenue with characteristic fervor, occasionally transforming herself and her long-suffering husband into guinea pigs for the researchers she investigates. (Her tale of kinky sex inside an MRI machine is likely to resonate the next time you go in for a CAT scan.)

This book is sure to appeal to anyone with a healthy curiosity about sex, and serve as a guilty diversion for everyone else. Equally awe-inspiring and side-splitting, it marks another high point in Ms. Roach’s already stellar career. Best of all, you won’t look creepy reading it on the bus.

Let's Talk About Criticism (The Good Kind)

As stated previously, we recently received an enormous shipment of 33 1/3, the Continuum imprint that caters to the cut of listener who yearns to dig beyond the liner notes. Now, I have always been of the mind that music critics, like their filmic counterparts, occupy a completely superfluous role in society; nonetheless, I have been addicted to these books since their inception, thanks both to their almost invariably insightful commentary and to their brilliant design scheme, and I’m not ashamed to say that I felt downright giddy poring through the myriad titles that now grace our shelves. In the hopes of transmitting that excitement to others, I’ve made a list of some of my favorite entries in the series thus far. Hopefully they’ll still be here when you come around.

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# 52 Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

Without a doubt, this is the best entry I’ve read, and one which I imagine will be hard to top. The beauty of it lies in its seeming absurdity: Who would write a serious critical analysis of Céline Dion, the chest-pounding scourge of the hipster elite? It is under this guise that Carl Wilson delivers a devastating dissertation about the hollow and arbitrary nature of taste, and its function as a propagator of the stereotypes proliferated by the upper echelon of society. He reaches the ultimate conclusion that taste is wholly subjective and completely ungoverned by objective standards, which—whaddaya know!—has long been my opinion, too. I only hope that he follows this masterpiece with a rundown of Now That’s What I Call Music!

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# 17 zeprunes2.jpg by Erik Davis

Serving as the crystallization of Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult, Led Zeppelin’s unpronounceable fourth album has attained a well-deserved status as the most mysterious platter in the entire rock canon. Erik Davis, clearly up to the challenge, attacks said behemoth with a vigor worthy of its crushing heft and epic scope: The genesis of each legendary track is dissected in full detail, from the fireside epiphany of “Stairway To Heaven” to the actual stairway that gave birth to “When The Levee Breaks”, and the mystical runes and rampant symbolism which run through the album’s lyrics and artwork are scrutinized with a passion that borders on obsession. Davis does an excellent job in unraveling the secrets of one of the most popular albums ever made, a tract which—despite the disadvantages of time and ever-growing familiarity—continues to deny a full disclosure of its mystical nature.

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#30 Paul’s Boutique by Dan Le Roy

This, this monumental smorgasbord of funk, soul, psychedelia, bluegrass, and classic rock, was the album that changed my direction, that made me a hopeless lifelong devotee of hip-hop, that transformed me from an art-rock-lovin’ antisocialite into what the editors of The Source refer to as a “head”. My mind was completely and irrevocably blown upon my first listen, Mike D and Adams Yauch and Horovitz dropping science from the beloved old boombox in the kitchen of our house, the windows open and a summer breeze painting the air around me, poetry in motion around my head, cultural touchstones whizzing by in a parade of flawless diction, the perfect timing making up for the imperfect grammar. Hearing familiar sound bites ripped free of their mooring and thrown into alien surroundings, my brain scrambled to keep up, and the result was a giddy euphoria unlike anything I’d experienced outside of local anaethesia.

Dan Le Roy apparently had much the same reaction, and this loving tribute to what remains one of my favorite hip-hop albums ever covers all the bases an adoring fan could desire: illuminating commentary by the practitioners involved, salacious recountals of artistic risks and career near-disasters, and a track-by-track breakdown that accomplishes the rare feat of initiating the newly converted and offering genuine food for thought to the long-faithful. A fresh perspective is guaranteed to even the most obsessive B-Boy fan, including the one writing this review.

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#11 The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard

The Velvet Underground is so thoroughly steeped in the lore of alternative culture that it’s hard to imagine the music world bereft of their towering influence. Their debut album remains, four decades after its release, the touchstone by which all other alt rock releases must pass mettle; alas, their achievement was so resoundingly original and the circumstances of the album’s creation so unique that most attempts at emulating their formula prove futile. One of the few people to have pulled it off successfully is Jonathan Richman, the ex-Modern Lover whose coming of age on the Lower East Side coincided with the VU’s rise to infamy. His anecdotal remembrances of Lou Reed and company make up the bulk of this text, accentuated by technical details laid out by co-producer Norman Dolph. The result is a humanizing snapshot of a time and place which have been romanticized to epic proportions.

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#44 Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier

Beefheart’s magnum opus deserves its status as the watershed album of antimusic; as a primer for the endurance required of voyagers into the realm of ugly sounds, it remains unparalleled. Composed under truly psychotic conditions by a hair-trigger Svengali and his band of merry pranksters, Trout Mask dispensed completely with the rigmarole of pop music, ignoring the zeitgeist of late ’60s psychedelia in favor of scorched-earth Delta blues and extraterrestrial skronk. The result was an artifact from another reality, a reality which Kevin Courrier goes to great lengths to bring into clarity. Interviews with Magic Band members who jumped ship to avoid being ground under the wheels of the uncompromising Don Van Vliet help to shed light on the genetics of this mutant creation, and a detailed postscript examines the way that Beefheart’s baby has sunk its phalanges into the underbelly of pop culture in the decades since it escaped from its cage. One hopes that the Good Captain is aware of the reverence that his legacy elicits today, in spite of a mainstream culture which glorifies conformity just as unabashedly as it did in 1969.

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#24 Endtroducing… by Eliot Wilder

1996 was a transitional year for hip-hop, wavering between the high of the Fugees’ The Score and Outkast’s ATLiens and the low of Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core. In Josh Davis’s eyes, though, hip-hop had been perverted by an all-consuming quest to get paid and a deification of the MC to the detriment of the DJ. In short, ‘96 just plain sucked. Thus he took it upon himself to reeducate the masses, to summon the spirits of Bambaataa and Steinski and continue the lessons they had begun over a decade before. From his perch above Dan the Automator’s bedroom, he cobbled together the God moments he’d found hidden in the labyrinthine stacks beneath Records in his hometown of Davis, CA, and gave birth to a doctrine of vinyl so transcendent in its goal to unite all factions of the listening public that genre classifications were not only redundant but inapplicable.

Eliot Wilder’s evaluation of Shadow’s career is based on several lengthy interviews he conducted by phone with the DJ savior himself. Covering everything from his middle class upbringing in Davis to his first encounter with Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle to the critical adoration that greeted Endtroducing… practically from the moment of its release, this comprehensive recollection does a good job of filling in the blanks posed by that most mysterious of trip-hop virtuosos (Geoff Barrow notwithstanding).

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#29 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

Where would collegiate music aficionados be without Jeff Mangum? Would the smothering aesthetic of irony that infiltrated every aspect of pop culture in the late ’90s still be in full effect had it not been for the reprieve of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Best not to ponder such things. Better simply to thank one’s higher power of choice for delivering such a colossally life-affirming forty minutes of grace upon our pointed little heads, for having shown us that world was in fact a beautiful place, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. The very definition of a word-of-mouth record, Aeroplane remains commercially insignificant, but its influence is immeasurable: practically every musician these days who eschews pretense in favor of naked emotion owes a debt to Mangum and his crew. Going straight to the source, Kim Cooper delves into the sleepy southern gothic roots of the Elephant 6 collective which birthed Neutral Milk Hotel and learns that the myth of Mangum isn’t too far removed from the truth. Yes, he really did compose his songs without a written record; yes, he really did drop out of the spotlight due to disinterest in being a rock star. But when faced with the fates of Messrs. Cobain and Smith, perhaps the latter wasn’t such a bad idea. Having been denied the resolution of a followup record, Aeroplane stands as the definitive testament of Mangum’s singular vision and voice, the heart-adorned sleeve of a dusty vintage jacket worn by a troubadour who felt everything so strongly that he had no choice but to lay himself bare in the hopes that he could redeem us all.

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#34 In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar

Nirvana took a major gamble with their final album, on which Kurt Cobain decided that the audience he’d acquired by writing flawless, scabrous pop songs was ready for the true measure of abrasion which festered inside his head. He solicited the production acumen of Big Black alum Steve Albini, the absolute last choice of the suits at DGC, and proceeded to churn out the rawest music of his career, the sound he’d been searching for from the moment he first picked up a guitar. When it was decided that the resulting tapes were too forbidding for mass consumption, R.E.M. stalwart Scott Litt was brought in to salvage what little radio-friendliness could be had, and the final product was a compromise for everyone involved. Here, Gillian Gaar exposes the intralabel strife that almost aborted In Utero before it could hit the market, from the fights over artistic control and songwriting credit to the compromising position in which Cobain found himself after siring one of the most lucrative rock releases of the early ’90s. In spite of (or because of) the antagonism of which it was borne, In Utero may well be Nirvana’s greatest legacy, a punishing treatise on the true cost of success.

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#31 Doolittle by Ben Sisario

Somewhere in the West Hills surrounding Portland, OR lives a balding, cherub-faced imp with the unassuming moniker of Charles Thompson. The utter innocuity of his homestead belies his former identity as a screaming firebrand named Black Francis, the main creative force of the Pixies, arguably the most celebrated indie band of the late ’80s. Ben Sisario pays a friendly visit to Mr. Thompson’s neighborhood, and the two men reminisce upon past glories while tootling around the surrounding burgs. When they go to a local music retailer to purchase a copy of Doolittle, the Pixies’ magnum opus, Thompson seems unsurprised when the clerk doesn’t recognize him as one of the authors of the very CD she’s holding; despite a successful solo career as the rechristened Frank Black, he has maintained a fairly low profile, both in the local community and in the pop world at large. Thompson’s candor regarding his turbulent relationship with Pixies bassist Kim Deal and the circumstances surrounding the band’s dissolution and eventual rebirth does well to sweep up the debris that his massive persona has left in its wake. Without him, there’s no telling whether the alternative movement of the ’90s would have gone underway, but Thompson is past letting it go to his head. For now, he seems content to just relax in the woods.

Prices range from $9.95 to $10.95.

Stuff White People Like: Criticism

In the early summer of 2008, Stuff White People Like hosted a contest to see who knew the most about white people, and who, by extension, was most deserving of a signed copy of their new book, released July 1st. The contest closed on June 20th, with winners being announced on June 23rd. (I didn't place.) Entries had to be fewer than 350 words. I submitted the following.


Criticism

As a way to preserve their status among the cultural elite, white people are fiercely defensive of their tastes in music, film, and literature. As such, they love to read and debate criticism of said media in order to validate their own opinions. However, it is considered gauche to simply parrot the opinions of others, so white people are forced to pick and choose which critics with whom to align themselves so as to appear neither pretentious nor uninformed. Chuck Klosterman is a popular choice among the demographic of hip, collegiate whites aged 16 to 35, as his everyman persona, conversational style, and ironically journalistic devotion to pop culture ephemera have made him a hero to the generation weaned on Saved by the Bell. Movie buffs of a populist bent favor the musings of Peter Travers, chief film critic for Rolling Stone, while whites (generally male) who would consider professional criticism as a career idolize Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, the leading propagators of a style which posits subjective estimation as objective fact. It is important to white people that their opinions are both seen as unique and appreciated for their insight, and they take great pride in the time and effort required to formulate their individual points of view. As a result, they often take personal offense at viewpoints which conflict with their own, and will go to great lengths to ensure that their opinions are seen as correct.

When white people come together to discuss the relative merits of a piece of pop art, the conversation can get heated in a hurry. Many white people harbor a secret desire to be paid for their opinions - the ultimate validation of their taste - and they will take any opportunity to enact that fantasy. The Internet provides the perfect platform for this endeavor, and message boards and chat rooms devoted to pop culture discussions abound. However, the fundamental truth that taste is wholly subjective and ungoverned by objective standards often goes ignored by those who engage in debate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Having betrayed the reliable commercial viability of their conventional animated features with such runaway hits as The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it seemed in 2002 that Walt Disney Pictures was poised to cede their financial future to Pixar, whose staggering success with Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. had revealed the vast box office potential of computer-generated animation. In a last-ditch effort to reverse the trend, Disney decided to completely discard their previously winning formula and concoct an entirely different sort of animated feature. The result was Lilo & Stitch, a totally unique entry in the Disney canon and a film which seems just as bizarre and original today as it did in the summer of '02.

The story concerns an orphaned Hawaiian girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase, previously seen in Donnie Darko), whose behavioral problems at school and at home provide a constant headache for her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere). Their difficult circumstances are compounded by a social worker named Cobra Bubbles (played to the hilt by Ving Rhames), whose suspicions of neglect are increased by Lilo's penchant for sabotaging Nani's attempts at discipline. Enter into this happy picture an extraterrestrial biological experiment (number 626, to be exact), who escapes captivity aboard a spaceship several solar systems away and crash-lands in Hawaii. Though featuring classically cute cartoon features, 626 is nothing less than a perfect killing machine, a genetically designed genius whose sole function is to wreak havoc and not be destroyed. Run over (but hardly injured) by a truck on the highway, he is mistaken for a dog and taken to the pound, where he falls into the loving arms of Lilo the very next day.

On the trail of 626 (coincidentally renamed Stitch by Lilo) are Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), his creator, and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), the galactic agent assigned to make sure his recovery goes smoothly. The odd-couple dynamic of the pair, along with their complete ineptitude at fitting in on Earth, provides the film with much of its humor. Despite their repeated attempts to capture Stitch and return him to the Galactic Council, Jumba and Pleakley prove to be no match for his tactical cunning. Thus, Lilo is free to train her new companion to speak, play guitar, and appreciate Elvis Presley, blissfully unaware of his true nature. Only after Jumba and Pleakley are fired for their incompetence do they drop any pretense of wanting to keep Stitch alive, propelling the film toward its clever and action-packed conclusion.

In spite of what could be construed as a calculated attempt to make the strangest kids' movie possible, Lilo & Stitch succeeds not only as a lustrous popcorn flick, but also as a genuinely touching fable about the importance of individuality and the fluid nature of family. Just as Lilo and Nani struggle to overcome the loss of their parents, Stitch struggles both to define himself and also to acclimate to his alien environment. As he becomes more self-aware, he realizes that he is a total outsider in his adopted home, an epiphany that leaves him all but despondent. His only solace is found in the unwavering love of Lilo, Nani, and their friend David (Jason Scott Lee). Together, these four face off the invasive presence of the Galactic Council and Social Services and assert their right to define themselves as a family unit. When Stitch rejects his title of "Experiment 626" at the end of the film and embraces the name he was given by Lilo, he validates his own right to belong. It is an important lesson for both the children and the adults in the audience who struggle to find their place in the world.

The fact that a children's movie about space aliens, surfing, and Elvis was not only greenlit but also budgeted at $80 million makes its ultimate success all the more satisfying. Disney obviously knew that they had an oddball on their hands: the teaser trailers for the film featured characters from such past hits as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast being interrupted by Stitch's rambunctious behavior, and the posters showed Stitch surrounded by a cadre of glowering Disney characters, as if to suggest that he was an unwelcome addition. The tagline: "There's one in every family." But the gamble paid off: in the best underdog tradition, Lilo & Stitch defied expectation and became a hit, grossing over $145 million domestically during its June-to-November run. The good showing may have been aided by the fact that the film's Elvis fixation was perfectly timed, the summer of 2002 having been saturated with Presleymania in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the King.

Perhaps in an effort to play up its unorthodox nature, Lilo & Stitch was also augmented with several innovative animation techniques. It was the first animated Disney feature since Dumbo to have utilized watercolor backgrounds, and one of the few to have integrated live-action footage. By nature of its galactic and Hawaiian locales, it also marked one of the only times since 1942 that Disney had produced a feature-length animated film without having recycled footage from Bambi. Four years after Lilo's release, Disney closed their last remaining hand-drawn animation studio to focus solely on computer-aided animation. Stitch's adventures on Earth heralded the beginning of the end of an era.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kono Michi - 9 Death Haiku

From the liner notes: "9 Death Haiku is a series of songs, each set to a different haiku poem by Japanese Buddhist monks who died in the 18th or 19th centuries, their respective haiku being a final presentation to humankind before making their journey out of this world."

If that isn't the greatest album concept ever...my god. Roger Waters would weep.

A home-recorded paean to Eastern philosophy and Western musical mélange, 9 Death Haiku is everything one could hope for from such a unique and ambitious project. Combining chamber strings, toy instruments, and electronic flourishes with siren song vocals, Kono Michi's debut achieves an intensely psychedelic effect while remaining wholly organic. The result is even more grand than its component influences: classical, raga, gagaku, and downtempo electronica all get fair play in Michi's living room studio. Everything sounds equally epic, from the labyrinthian string arrangements to the explosive percussion to the tinkling piano, while Michi's voice floats above the tempest, delivering insight from her elders in a cadence that is both playful and tightly controlled. The album carries the push-pull dynamic of the ocean, its warm undercurrents giving way to the crash of the surf upon the shore. Much like riding the waves, the experience is all too brief, but endlessly desirable. A

RIYL:
Cowboy Junkies, Björk, Philip Glass

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Virgin Suicides

What can one say about The Virgin Suicides that hasn't already been said? Jeffrey Eugenides's brilliant debut has already attained classic status since its first publication in 1993, an estimation accelerated by Sophia Coppola's exquisite 1999 film adaptation. It is that rare novel which enjoys equal adoration from the critical elite and the public at large, a contemporary heir to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. A parsing of its reviews is likely to turn up such descriptives as "bittersweet", "lyrical", "timeless"; few other works of modern literature evoke such a unique confluence of wistfulness and doom.

Eugenides's bittersweet fable is essentially a Southern Gothic tragedy transplanted into a nondescript American suburb circa the 1970s. The five Lisbon sisters, aged evenly from thirteen to seventeen, inhabit a world of repression and angst whose parameters are defined by their religiously domineering mother and their nebbishy father. Their tale is recounted by a group of neighborhood boys, now adults, whose lifelong love for the girls transforms into an obsession. The sisters' ultimate fate is referenced from the outset, lending an air of dire inevitability to the account of their last days.

After Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon, utilizes the girls' first party ever as an opportunity to commit suicide in front of her family and friends, the neighborhood and school district rush to find an explanation and to offer help to her surviving sisters. Each response seems equally ineffectual, particularly that of Mrs. Lisbon, who uses the tragedy as an excuse to tighten her grip on the remaining girls. Following a particularly scandalous rendezvous between Lux Lisbon and her then-beau, the impossibly named Trip Fontaine, the sisters are placed under house arrest indefinitely. Thus begins the final pathetic spiral downward into the abyss from which none of the girls escape.

In spite of its brooding subject matter, the novel maintains a lyrical air throughout, with prose that often borders on poetry. Eugenides never falters in his delicate touch, purging histrionics from a parable which in lesser hands could easily devolve into melodrama. One of his greatest strengths is his eye for detail, which infuses every scene with a pastoral ambience; the narrative pauses frequently to take into account the numerous changes taking place within the neighborhood, particularly those regarding the Lisbon house. As the girls' quaint Middle American home is transformed into a prison, its exterior begins to reflect the dilapidation within—by the time the house is vacated following the girls' mass suicide, it is little more than an empty shell of painful memories and unfathomable loss. In this aspect, the novel serves as a kind of haunted house tale, with human wreckage in place of lingering spirits. The horrific trappings are indeed present throughout the novel, but remain submerged until the catastrophic dénouement, exerting their emotional toll on the Lisbon girls until they reach their breaking point.

Picador’s new paperback edition of The Virgin Suicides bears a modest white sleeve with an evocative cover image of lackadaisical teenagers lounging in a field of grass. The understatement of the binding is complemented by the the rest of the package: Short of breadth, with larger than average type, it resembles nothing so much as what children refer to as a "chapter book". This sparsity of presentation is entirely appropriate, reflecting the marred innocence of the Lisbon girls themselves. The Virgin Suicides is a precious item, a timeless document of the eternal pangs of youth, a work which deserves to be savored and treasured and shared. A+

RIYL:
Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Todd Solondz, Daniel Clowes

Andy Shauf - Darker Days

Andy Shauf is one of those enviably talented individuals whose aptitude for songwriting and singing is matched by his dexterity with a wide variety of instruments. The homespun folk of his P is for Panda/Hopeless Records debut Darker Days features flourishes both traditional and non-, from the harmonica, xylophone, and banjo of “You Remind Me” and “Let’s Be” to the pseudo-industrial interludes of “Gone”. The album’s understated, handcrafted feel is genuine, having been self-produced over a period of several years in Shauf’s own bedroom, its creator painstakingly recording each instrument separately by himself. However, Darker Days’s lo-fi roots are belied by its pristine sound quality, which presents each element with total clarity, in particular Shauf’s exquisite harmonized vocals. The effect is subdued and elegant, a pitch-perfect blend of folk rock, country, and bluegrass which is effortlessly balanced in its dynamics and achieves an almost psychedelic feel in its more colorful moments. In this, Shauf fits in well with his Canadian brethren Basia Bulat and Rich Aucoin, both of whom excel in charting the outer reaches of upbeat folk pop. This is perfect music for the languid summer days ahead, an ideal accompaniment for a porch swing and a good book. A

RIYL: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne

Enter the Vaselines

In a perfect world, the Vaselines would have been as big as the Carpenters. Borne of a friendship with Glasgow heavyweights the Pastels, the musical ventures of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee (backed by James Seenan and Charlie Kelly) were the next logical step in Calvin Johnson's crusade for the International Pop Underground. Infusing K Records' childlike abandon with an undercurrent of raw sexuality, the cutest couple this side of Timbuk 3 represented the maturation of twee, providing in their three-year career the template for nearly every indie pop band since.

The two-disc Enter the Vaselines is the second Sub Pop compilation of Edinburgh's finest, expanding upon 1992's sublime The Way of the Vaselines: The Complete History. Disc one consists of that superlative collection, tracing the band's recorded output from 1987's Son of a Gun and Dying for It EPs to their only album, 1989's Dum-Dum. Students of classic alt rock will recognize at least a few of these tunes: "Son of a Gun", "Molly's Lips", and "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" were frequently covered by Kurt Cobain, who openly touted the Vaselines as his favorite band.

The deeper cuts on this disc prove just as exceptional as the better-knowns, from the raucous glam of "Teenage Superstars" and "Sex Sux (Amen)" to the heartwarming jangle of "Rory Rides Me Raw" and "Slushy". The Vaselines flew their unique brand of freak flag at every opportunity, penning an ode to H.P. Lovecraft and offering an electroclash send-up of Divine's gutter disco classic "You Think You're a Man". Their punk credentials were verified by "Let's Get Ugly" and "No Hope", while their ingenuous collision of innocence and innuendo was perfected with "Monsterpussy", easily the best tribute to a pet cat since the Shaggs' "My Pal Foot-Foot". The repertoire on this disc is nothing short of indispensable, establishing the Vaselines as major contenders in the alt rock pantheon while keeping the listener longing for more. Luckily, disc two provides on the latter count.

The second half of Enter the Vaselines is comprised of demos and live cuts from throughout the band's career, including several previously unreleased tracks. "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy" rank among the Vaselines' more precious outings, leaving one to wonder why they weren't included on any official releases until now, while the live performances from Bristol and London provide an electrifying glimpse into the band's reckless cohesion, corroborating the suspicion that their disdain for standard chops wasn't an affectation. These rare live documents may not remain the only way to hear the Vaselines onstage, however: Their current U.S. tour—the first of their career—has stirred rumors of a full-fledged comeback. As Eugene sings on "Slushy", "You'll never miss what you've never had." Here's a chance to see what you've been missing. A+

RIYL: Beat Happening, Tiger Trap, Nirvana, Belle and Sebastian, The Velvet Underground, The Magnetic Fields, The Shaggs

Psychostick - Sandwich

Half a block down from the twin flat shared by Tenacious D and the Bloodhound Gang lies the derelict frat house that Psychostick calls home. Festooned with jester hats and bad goatees, the members of "the greatest band in the world" took up residence in August of 2000 and embarked upon a campaign of terror against their neighbors. Early morning drag races and all-night keggers resulted in anonymous threats and visits from the cops, at which point the band hunkered down and started to record. Their first attempt at writing music resulted in a miscarriage, but they went ahead and sold it anyway, under the title of We Couldn't Think of a Title. A portion of the afterbirth, nicknamed "Beer", somehow made its way onto the XM station Squizz, where it quickly found an audience of like-minded knuckle-draggers. The self-produced video for "Beer" was subsequently adopted by such bastions of culture as ebaumsworld.com and Collegehumor.com, emboldening the band to take a sabbatical from the car wash and enter the studio again. The result of this misguided foray was Sandwich, an album so surpassingly idiotic that it fails even to succeed in spite of itself.

Sandwich could have been good, but Psychostick didn't know the rules. In order for novelty music to work, it must satisfy two criteria: It must never exceed a nominal level of self-consciousness, and it must maintain at least a modicum of listenability. Psychostick falls short on both counts. Their primary fault is that they attempt to operate under an umbrella of ironic detachment, despite the fact that their frat boy mentality is clearly all too real. It's a thin line between clever and stupid, to paraphrase David St. Hubbins, and Sandwich falls off the balance beam right from the start. Riddled with subliterate puns so excruciating that even the fourteen-year-old in me is offended, the album is an exhausting parade of thrice-baked Tenacious D skits, odes to food, and other painfully contrived juvenilia.

The question arises: Why does such pedestrian subject matter yield decent material for such purveyors of the highbrow lowbrow as "Weird Al" Yankovic and the Bloodhound Gang, but not for Psychostick? After all, the Bloodhound Gang's target audience is presumably the same as Psychostick's, and the former's disappearance from the scene has left the latter with a commercial hole to fill. Alas, the Bloodhound Gang's tongue-in-cheek co-option of hip-hop and trog metal always carried an effortless charm, whereas Psychostick's brain-dead aping of System of a Down reads as nothing more than a two-second joke spread out over a 75-minute CD. This kind of thing has been done much better in the past, from the debased sexuality of the Meatmen and Fear to the cartoonish violence of Anal Cunt and Macabre; the only thing missing here is intelligence. Psychostick wants you to believe that they're in on the joke, but the joke's actually on them: Bereft of a sturdy foundation against which to ply their lame attempts at humor, they're just one more stupid metal band. F-

RIYL:
Manually lowering your IQ with the aid of blunt instruments

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

This is the first of four columns in which I will examine the two films which I consider to have been ripped off the most frequently during the last twenty-five years: Koyaanisqatsi and Return of the Jedi. These pictures couldn't be more dissimilar, but their residual effects have had equal influence in a wide array of media.

Koyaanisqatsi is the first entry in the Qatsi trilogy, a collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass. It operates as a unique kind of documentary, a pure cinematic experience whose message is delivered solely through images and music. Through a series of expertly devised thematic sequences, the film examines the effects which we humans have had on our environment—in particular, the technological advances that have disrupted our natural habitat to the point of our dissociation from it. In Reggio's view, humanity is a throbbing mass of neuroses, a species caught between the extremes of frenzy and melancholia. His diagnosis is grim, but his solution is clear: In order for the human race to survive, we need to slow down, cheer up, and quit digging precious things from the land.

Considering that the technophobic themes of Koyaanisqatsi have grown ever more relevant in the years following the film's release, it is somewhat ironic that Ron Fricke's technological innovations have proven to be its greatest legacy. His exceptional eye for the inherent beauty in even the most pedestrian of scenes finds its perfect outlet in this film: The background is brought to the foreground, the set dressing transformed into the star. Fricke's technical prowess makes manifest Reggio's unique perspective of the world, transforming throngs of people into a singular entity and imbuing sentience upon natural phenomena.

Barring an introductory shot of an ancient Fremont pictogram and a super-slow-motion depiction of a shuttle launch, the first fifteen minutes of Koyaanisqatsi consist almost entirely of desert vistas, filmed in astonishing panorama with Fricke's peerless attention to detail. The exquisite beauty of such Southwestern landmarks as Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon is conveyed with nothing short of reverence, and is accompanied by an in-flight adagio for woodwinds and brass courtesy of Glass. Apart from the sheer splendor of the locations, the most visually arresting aspect of this passage derives from the time-lapse photography utilized to capture images of cloud formations brewing into existence and racing across the sky. This footage is complemented by slow-motion studies of oceanic tides, gigantic waves crashing upon each other before returning to the swell. The parallel between the sky and the sea is obvious, their similarities made explicit through cross-cutting.

Following this blissful display of the environment in its unadulterated state, we are introduced to the character of man by way of his violent intrusion—specifically, through a rock face demolition. The music becomes darker and more menacing as various vehicles and implements of destruction are paraded before us, exhibiting their handiwork upon the land. Indeed, man is seen as secondary to his machines; the emphasis is not on the individual, but on the changes he brings to his domain. Power lines and hydroelectric dams give way to freeways and landing strips, and the rise in population is reflected in the increasingly cluttered landscape.

After we are briefed on man's domineering spirit, we are treated to a pair of montages which convey his destructive tendencies in ways both eruptive and corrosive. The first sequence is comprised of archival footage of warfare, a barrage of explosions in the sky and on the ground. This is followed by a tour of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis, a barren expanse of concrete and detritus which was laid to waste in a series of controlled demolitions. The ideological failure represented by the ruination of Pruitt-Igoe embodies numerous themes of the film: the societal decay reflected in urban sprawl; the human misery wrought by poverty and overpopulation; the myopic folly of our faith in technology. The footage of the projects' day of reckoning initiates the second montage in this cycle, during which we are treated to the demise of a variety of structures, including high rise buildings and support bridges. This battery of implosions and explosions achieves a level of bombast which borders on the absurd, undercutting the gravity of the situation even as it hammers the viewer into submission.

The penultimate, and arguably most famous, portion of the film concerns the collision of humanity that is the modern metropolis. Spanning the United States' biggest cities from New York to Los Angeles, this is the most vibrant sequence in Koyaanisqatsi, and has proven divisive over the years for its portrayal of human beings as mindless automatons. Fricke once again employs his time-lapse technique to speed up the action; however, since human beings move at a considerably greater momentum than clouds, the result is a dizzying blur of activity that resembles nothing so much as a colony of ants in distress. There is a tremendous beauty in this sequence, borne of seeing our everyday interactions in an alien fashion: Escalators and revolving doors churning out people like fodder; shopping malls and train stations swarming with commuters; nighttime traffic coalescing into a single shimmering fluorescent strip. A voyage through America's blue-collar substrata yields footage of hot dogs firing out of an automatic linker machine and Twinkies cruising along a conveyer belt to their destiny; postal workers and tailors complete their work by hand, while the integrants of an auto assembly line move as one with their machinery. It is a symphony of organized chaos, a rapturous ode to the mechanics of capitalism, and it builds to a climax of near-subliminal speed as the whole holy mess is viewed from inside a moving vehicle. The music grows in intensity along with the film, all glittering arpeggios and euphoric chorales, until one feels completely overwhelmed—but at the moment everything reaches a fever pitch, the emergency brake is pulled, and we are ejected into the final stage of Koyaanisqatsi.

It is at this point that we see the effects of such a delirious lifestyle. The final scenes of the film move at a lugubrious pace, providing a sobering respite to the preceding hysteria. They depict human beings as individuals in naked isolation, doing whatever we can to find a foothold what is essentially an indifferent universe. Bewildered old men wander alone amidst the crowds, searching for some sort of direction; firefighters sift through the remnants of a residential inferno, while paramedics assist a vagrant off the street and into an ambulance. Inside a hospital, an elderly patient limply beats her withered hand against her bed until a nurse takes heed of her call and clasps the woman's hand in her own. Such simple interactions are imbued with enormous pathos by Fricke's delicate framing and Glass's elegiac choral arrangement, and the film closes with an upward gaze: the footage of an Atlas rocket on an unmanned test flight. As the rocket soars through a perfectly blue sky, it slowly veers off-course, then explodes; the resultant cloud of debris plummets slowly back to the Earth. The self-destructive nature of human society could hardly be more eloquently stated than through the visual analogy of a flaming piece of shrapnel spiraling downward against a flawless backdrop, an image which freezes on the screen before dissolving into the same pictogram which opened the film. This transition from fiery destruction to ultimate renewal segues perfectly into the admonitions posited by the Hopi, the Native American tribe from which Koyaanisqatsi derived its title. The Hopi prophecies which provide the film with its coda prove to be wholly prescient, warning of the dire consequences which await those who allow their own hubris to supersede their reliance upon the Earth. It is a message which remains as urgent today as when Reggio first pleaded his case for a saner world almost three decades ago.

Sonos - S/T

Few recent trends exhibit pop music's ongoing campaign of self-cannibalization more distinctly than the cottage industry of ironic cover bands. The concept is sound: Take a well-worn tract like Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer (pound it, Easy Star All-Stars) and run it through the pedalboard of multiculturalism, so that the end result maintains a level of familiarity while offering enough novelty to appeal to both classic rock fans and jaded hipster intelligentsia. The Vitamin Records label has met with considerable success in recent years by offering string quartet tributes to artists that bridge the gap between mainstream and underground, including Nirvana, Radiohead, Tool, and the Pixies; Rockabye Baby! Records has carved out a similar niche with artist-specific albums of lullaby covers. Elsewhere on the map lie novelty bands of the Hayseed Dixie and Dread Zeppelin variety, with Christopher O'Riley's solo piano explorations taking up residence somewhere in the vicinity of the Gary Jules cover of "Mad World". One of the more unique musicians to have joined the fray is Petra Haden, whose brilliantly arranged solo a cappella renditions of such chestnuts as "God Only Knows" and "Don't Stop Believin'" (along with an extraordinary reimagining of The Who Sell Out) have provided a timeless twist on songs that by all rights should have been clobbered to death by mainstream radio a long time ago.

Enter into this sub-subterranean enclave another a cappella act, this one a sextet of collegiate choral kids who go by the collective handle of Sonos. The gimmick herein is all kinds of clever: Marry the vocal charm of Petra Haden with the sonic innovation of the Vitamin String Quartet, then apply it to the current crop of Pitchfork darlings and package it as the middle ground between Starbucks and Amoeba. It is a concept almost too savvy to work, but it succeeds in every way, by virtue of the sheer talent of the assembled singers and the ingenuity of their arrangements. Throughout its relatively brief running time, Sonos's eponymous debut manages the daunting task of transforming already stellar material into something equally great, while remaining altogether original.

The album begins with a single voice. The first few bars of opener "White Winter Hymnal" actually bear a striking resemblance to those of "Mining For Gold", the ghostly first track of the Cowboy Junkies masterpiece The Trinity Session, but around the 23-second mark, Jessica Freedman's lilting soprano melts into a three-part harmony, and the Fleet Foxes' Celtic-tinged folk pop is transformed into a sunburst of delicately interwoven melodies. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" is given no less stunning a treatment, with each singer being fed through at least one effects filter in an attempt to match the sonic extravagance of the source material. The stylistic leap isn't at all jarring; in fact, the contrast between the two tracks helps to define the scope and ambition of Sonos's debut. From the R&B-tinged interpretation of Björk's boreal epic "Jóga" to the weightless shiver of Sara Bareilles's "Gravity", the album as a whole heralds a new frontier in vocal music, a revitalization of classical techniques by way of studio wizardry. Ben McLain's awe-inspiring beatboxing in particular steals the spotlight on several tracks, swapping spit with what sounds like an MPC sampler and cranking out whirr-click fast enough to make your head spin.

Sonos is already blazing up the indie rock charts in L.A., and their upcoming appearance at SXSW is sure to provide ample momentum for their first tour, which kicks off in April. The album itself drops on March 31st, and I suggest you rush out and buy it before everyone else at the coffee shop gets to it first. It won't be long, mark my words—time has come for revenge of the chorus nerds. B+

RIYL:
Petra Haden, Pitchfork.com, barbershop