Monday, January 24, 2011

Tennis- Cape Dory

Ever since discovering The Walkmen and picking up on the surf rock influences in their music, it's as if I'm waking up to an entire sub-set of the current indie scene who also draw from this seemingly dated sub-genre. Bands as diverse as Beach Fossils, Surfer Blood, and now Tennis are proving that surf rock doesn't need to be a kitschy footnote in music history. Still, Cape Dory as a piece of music threatens to be overcome by the story of its creation as well as its style.

The husband and wife creative core of Tennis sailed around for seven months after they graduated college, giving them a wealth of experiences and stories that proved hard to relate properly to their friends yet also perfect music fodder. After all, 20 somethings like your's truly can't really relate to docking in South Carolina or being stuck somewhere on the ocean for awhile due to the changing of the tides. But when set to music, these stories become enchanting, the sense of journey and discovery somehow more easy to relate to your own life. Yet the ease and lightness of Tennis's sound--a sort of easy listening, 70s AM radio, breezy surf rock blend of keyboards, guitar, and drums--could be a whimsical, affected distraction for many listeners. The album cover
is terrible, going a few steps too far into irony or kitsch, while the title track is an idyllic daydream that most listeners only wish they had the money and opportunity to experience: sailing around on the Atlantic and Pacific with your husband, constantly experiencing the beauty of nature? Must be nice! Considering that the band are originally from Colorado, their story and music seem even less authentic, as if they went on that sailing trip just so they could have a quirky story to tell and a justification for their adopted musical style, two things that would set them apart from the bunch.

It pleases me, then, to say that none of this really had any bearing whatsoever on the album and my enjoyment of it. My enthusiasm for
Cape Dory has cooled a bit since first stumbling upon it, but it is still an excellent, if modest, record of summery pop. Less than a half hour long, the songs rarely stray from the same nautical/traveling subject matter or the sure-to-be-dubbed-by-many-critics-and-fans "sail rock" sound. The tom toms and up-and-down rhythm guitar of 'Bimini Bay' give it a pleasant drift, and you can practically feel the ship rolling in the gentle mid-afternoon waves beneath you. Meanwhile, the sublime 'Pigeon' could easily pass for a mid-60s girl group ballad with a surf rock twist, not unlike if Brian Wilson had formed the Beach Girls instead of Boys. Due partially to its brevity, Cape Dory is the kind of record that you can leave on in your car for a few days, one that goes down with such smooth ease it's hard to take it seriously even though you can't stop listening to it.

As with Vampire Weekend, it's easy to charge Tennis with being privileged white people who co-opted a sound for their own devices. But the proof is always in the music, and playing the authenticity game is a fool's errand with the way the music world operates now. So, then: Vampire Weekend's albums are amazing, and
Cape Dory is pretty good. Again, as with Vampire Weekend's albums, I don't know why something so obviously summery and light was released in January, but that's not relevant to its quality. I am left wishing there were a couple more songs, or for more variety, but those issues will be more important for their sophomore album. For now, provided you're into 70s soft-rock mixed with surf rock, this is a good little record, one that instantly wins you over but leaves you feeling a little hungry for something more.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stereolab- Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements

One of the great questions that I obsess over is this: why do so many bands mellow as they age? Think about it. They usually start off with innovative, experimental, or otherwise more 'difficult' music, but sooner or later they begin to smooth over the rough edges or eliminate the off-putting elements of their sound. Understand that I'm not making a value judgment here. Accessibility and mellow-ness aren't bad things in and of themselves. It's just that I often feel that the most interesting and enjoyable music by bands inevitably comes from their earlier eras.

So it goes with Stereolab: compare Neon Beanbag to Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. Even the titles alone are telling, one a kind of retro-kitsch throwaway and the other a clarion call from the underground, abstract and verbose. Now, I do like their newer work quite a lot (including Neon Beanbag) but I also think they lost something over the past few years. True, Stereolab always had easy listening, lounge, and 60s pop music going on in their music, but it was juxtaposed or spliced with experimental music, noise-pop, and druggy krautrock trance inducing rhythms. Yes, as bands continue to exist they must change, especially if they add or lose members. Yet Stereolab's recent keyboard focused, groovy electro-pop style doesn't do as much for me. As with Tortoise's It's All Around You, I can't help but miss some grit or something unexpected. Or anyway, something that will make it not go down so smooth and easy. As luck would have it, the Pitchfork Institute For Music Nerds recently conducted a double-blind study and discovered that 9 out of 10 Stereolab fans recommend Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements for this or similar purposes.

I love Transient Random-Noise Bursts..., which is a hard thing to admit since I once wrote that Stereolab never released a 100% great album. Turns out I just needed to go further back than Emperor Tomato Ketchup, an album which similarly to Neon Beanbag smoothed over and downplayed the band's experimental side. Ironic that this album would be the group's major label debut in the U.S., since it's impossible to imagine even the most 'cool' and 'hip' of record label executives would allow an artist to put out an album like this. It's not even the obvious inclusion of 'Jenny Ondioline' in its full 18 minutes of glory that I refer to, though that would be the major sticking point. It's primarily the way the band perversely refuse to separate their accessible pop side from their druggy/noisy side. What I'm getting at is, if you stripped away the distorted organs, upped the fidelity a bit, and removed the last half of 'Tone Burst', you'd have the kind of song a record executive might go for. Similarly, 'Pack Yr Romantic Mind' may be one of this album's prettier affairs, but it occasionally gives way to brutal guitar chording akin to an early era Pavement song.
There is something thrilling about an album like this, where a band makes music as if no one is paying attention. As always, Stereolab will have your love on their own terms. 'Golden Ball' gets downright ferocious at its climax, enough so that it would likely shock anyone unfamiliar with the band's noisier side. Appropriately enough, the following track, 'Pause', serves as a (relatively) tranquil respite, showcasing the always-gorgeous vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, the former of whom almost always sounds to me like what Nico would've sounded like if she had been into weed and French Leftism instead of heroin and austere German nihilism.

Stereolab recently began an indefinite hiatus, meaning I am far more interested in their next album than I otherwise would be if they had stayed together. I hope their time away from each other reinvigorates them to try new things and experiment with their music again. More easy listening grooves wouldn't be a bad thing if done well, I just wish they would bring back their unfettered palette of sounds and styles, allowing songs to drone on for six minutes or collapse into noisy tone bursts. That's the Stereolab I have come to love and would like to hear again. Until then, there's this album to keep sliding into, like a, uh, neon beanbag. While all of Stereolab's albums are worth checking out, few are as thrilling, interesting, and rewarding as Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nick Drake- Pink Moon

I don't want to give you the wrong idea, but Pink Moon is one of the albums I always listen to when I'm depressed. I don't listen to it because it is a depressing album. I listen to it because it is the eloquent expression of what it feels like to be depressed. So many bands have made such awful music with such artless lyrics about depression and sadness for so many years that the whole thing has been robbed of any merit. Yet Pink Moon is as perfect and poetic a mood piece as you could hope to find in any artform.

Pink Moon is the most serenely sparse album I've ever heard. It is an argument for stripping down your music and doing as much as possible with as little as possible. It's interesting that there remains some debate about whether it's only Drake playing acoustic guitar on the songs. Many claim he would have had to overdub to play this surprisingly complicated music. Whether he did or not, I've always thought of Pink Moon as a lesson to all future musicians, and singer/songwriter types especially. Drake went the opposite way that most do now, ending his career with a minimalist album instead of starting from minimalism and gradually becoming more orchestrated and ornate, as, say, Elliott Smith and Iron and Wine did.

It's hard to explain what Drake accomplished here, since those who haven't heard the album yet will assume his acoustic guitar playing is either showy or monotonous. So said non-listeners may think that the sole use of piano on the title track would make that the most distinctive and track here, but Drake's acoustic playing and melancholy lyrics give each song its own character. Think of how many albums you've heard where the band has dozens of instruments at their disposal yet every song sounds the same and the whole thing goes on for 15 minutes too long. With a mere acoustic, Drake turns in a diverse and memorable set of songs: the humming and repetitive, blues-y guitar part of 'Know' make it sound like a Leadbelly cover, while 'Things Behind The Sun' offers seemingly cold advice that blooms on the joyous sounding "take your time and you'll be fine" line. Best of all, Pink Moon is a lean 28 minutes long. Any longer and it would start to become monotonous.

I may have started by saying this album is an eloquent expression of what it feels like to be depressed, but whenever I've listened to it, I always find it to be comforting and hopeful. It's no secret that Drake suffered from depression, yet I don't buy that Pink Moon or any of his releases predicted his death/possible suicide. To me, this album is what it feels like to be depressed, but it's the sort of depression where you know, deep down, you are going to get over it and feel better. You can't close an album with a delicate song like 'From The Morning' and be a hopeless sad bastard. If you listen closely to that warm voice of his, from time to time you can almost hear him smiling as he sings. True, there is great sadness, loneliness, and alienation in Drake's music, but there is also comfort for those feeling such things.

And there is also hope. Nick Drake had hope, because hopeless people don't create anything, let alone albums of such transcendent beautiful sadness.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Alien Resurrection

There's a period lasting from a couple days before Christmas to a week or so after New Year's Day during which I take a break from writing reviews and thinking about things with a critical lens. It's a time for me to “just have fun” and do whatever I want without attempting to prune some of my experiences and transform my reactions into reviews or articles. This year I took a little longer than usual to get back into the swing, but that's neither here nor there. What matters is that some thing—videogame, movie, album, book, etc.eventually tickles my critical nerve and I am compelled to write again.

So here we are.

Alien Resurrection was generally regarded as the absolute nadir of the Alien franchise upon its 1997 release, supplanting Alien 3 as the worst entry in the series. Mind you, we had no idea that the Alien Vs. Predator franchise could make things even worser. Anyway, as more time has gone on, fans and critics alike have warmed up a bit to Alien 3. With the knowledge of its problems during seemingly every stage of its development, it's something of a miracle that the film is even halfway decent. I'd have to go back to it to form a more coherent opinion, but I do recall appreciating it more with the aforementioned knowledge about what they were originally going for, what they ended up going for, and how things were mishandled along the way.

With Resurrection, though, it's hard to say where things went wrong. Objectively speaking, the project looks like some kind of fanboy's wet dream: Joss Whedon wrote it! Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed it! Stars a fantastic cast of great character actors! The result? A confused mess that only intermittently satisfies. The two main reasons Resurrection failed are its the confusing tone and the way it fits into the larger Alien canon. Or shouldn't have fit into it, perhaps.

I saw Resurrection in theaters and while I enjoyed it, even my limited 13 year old critical faculties were enflamed by it. Those flaws and puzzled questions remain 14 years later and after more viewings. Why did the aliens try to hurt/kill Ripley early in the film and then suddenly capture her near the end? If they used a “blood sample” to clone Ripley, they would only have cloned her, since having an alien in you doesn't change your DNA. Also, I don't get why the scientist guy turned on felt contrived, a way to echo Burke from Aliens and artificially provide a villain. Still, even if, at 13, I couldn't explain why I didn't like Resurrection as much as the other three films, I knew there was something bad and “off” about it.

What I couldn't explain is this: the tone of Resurrection is all over the place, leaving the viewer confused and mildly irritated. There were jokes and some light-hearted stuff in the other Alien movies, but the original was clearly a horror movie, the second was clearly an action film, and the third was, err, a combination of a prison film, a horror film, an action film, and an abortion commentary (well, that last one is just my opinion). But Resurrection is, what? Jeunet brings his keen visual eye and whimsical style, but it feels completely inappropriate for the Alien series. This movie is simultaneously the most light hearted of the quadrilogy and also the most dark and violent. We get scenes of Ripley saying funny lines and the wacky hijinks of Johner and Vriess, but we also get a scene where a dude is shot, starts to have a chestburster come out of him, is shot multiple times, beats the shit out of someone, and subsequently holds the other guy so that the chestburster explodes out of not only his chest but the other guy's head. And then they both get shot multiple times for good measure. Other times the movie tries to combine these two tones—the silly General character is saluting some dead soldiers when an alien bites the back of his skull, leading him to comically pick out and see a piece of his own brain. Hilarious!(?) This is the very same reason people hate the dinner/brain eating scene at the end of Hannibal. In both cases, you can't tell if it's played for a laugh or to be creepy. If it's supposed to be both at the same time, than most of the film should be this way instead of vacillating between the two extremes. Think Evil Dead II: it's violent and horror-y yet it's always kind of slapstick and funny, too. Alien Resurrection tries to be violent and horror-y, then it tries to be slapstick and funny, and then it tries to be everything at once.

Still, the thing that ruins Resurrection is that it was even made. It's one of the least essential sequels ever and no one was clamoring for more. For all its faults, Alien 3 wrapped up the series in a satisfying way, killing off both Ripley and the aliens while tying up other loose ends. But here comes Alien Resurrection with all of its plot contrivances in tow! It felt like an excuse to re-use that beloved character and those remarkably designed creatures, and I think it shows. Joss Whedon claimed years after the film's release that it wasn't a matter of not following the script, but that everything was executed poorly. I disagree; I think you could have done everything differently and it still wouldn't be any good. The very premise of the movie is lame and unimaginative, and they should have either done a prequel (which, hey presto, they are doing now) or gone with different characters. Of all the main Alien films, it has the least artistic cred and aspirations, instead coming off as crass and commercial.

Resurrection is indeed so crass that it picks up the subtle theme of motherhood running throughout the series and beats us over the head with it by having us witness the birth of an alien/human hybrid baby. Never mind any of the scientific improbabilities of how this happens or why the “baby” is fully grown when newborn. It's enough to hate this part of the movie forever that the alien/human hybrid baby is so poorly done, stupid looking, and unnecessary to the plot. I have to imagine it was added in to give the movie something “new” when it came to the alien creatures. Aliens introduced the Queen alien, while Alien 3 introduced an alien creature from a non-human host. But having some kind of bizarre sex scene with Ripley that results in the Queen giving birth to a badly designed hybrid? That is not a good addition to the Alien canon! I can't even enjoy its death because this scene is one of the worst in movie history. It's obnoxiously loud and pointlessly gory and we feel nothing for either it or Ripley. Within moments of its implausible-physics death, we get another hilarious scene with Johner and Vriess yelling “shit!” as their ship catches fire entering the Earth's atmosphere. Again, another bizarre tonal shift that doesn't work.

You'd be hard pressed to come up with a larger gulf of quality between this movie and what both Jeunet and Whedon went on to do. Jeunet's next film would be the amazing Amelie, while Whedon would go on to become one of nerdom's most beloved figures thanks to the ongoing Buffy series and Firefly. As for what I went on to do, I've spent the past 14 years wondering where the blame for the failure of Resurrection should go. Yet it occurs to me now that the project was doomed from the start. Sigourney Weaver and series producers David Giler and Walter Hill had no interest in it; Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, and Bryan Singer all passed on directing it; Jeunet seems to have only done it for the money.

Resurrection feels like a product of the Hollywood system and its inertia. Someone did a calculation about how much money another Alien film would cost to make versus how much it would make, regardless of quality. Since this calculation came out in the positive, it was made. To put it another way, this is one of those cases of a studio caring too much, in all the wrong ways, about a film. While you can feel elements of the distinctive styles of Jeunet and Whedon in it, there isn't enough of either for the movie to be a success. More importantly, it all feels compromised and confused because they aren't good fits for the franchise.

To make a decent sequel to Alien 3, you would have to have scrapped everything about Resurrection—the script, the director, the main character, the tone. It may not be an awful movie, but it is an awful Alien movie.