Sunday, October 25, 2009

Music Decade List #23: BrightBlack - Ala.cali.tucky (2004)

Before Brightblack Morning Light became the group they are thought of now, they tossed out Ala.cali.tucky in 2004 to not nearly the recognition their last two albums have gotten. It's seem odd to me because the sound of Ala.cali.tucky is much more preferable to me than the more electro-funk/soul type sound they have now, which is still pretty good. This is still slow. languid, hazy music but there is more of a roots music base for the music here, with pedal steel, slide guitar and hammond organ in place of the Fender Rhodes and saxes that have graced Brightblack's other albums. It's a record that comes from the same place as their debut or Motion to Rejoin but by using different instruments and influences, it creates a record that has a more "Southern" feel to it, whether that's correct or not. Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes's harmonies are sublime, especially on tracks like 'True Bright Blossom' or 'Old Letters'. The languid pedal steel on 'Own Time Woodland Song' fits BrightBlack's slowpoke pace so much it's astounding to me the group didn't stay on this course. Every song is steeped in the same pace but it's that dedication to not speeding up the music, to let the songs linger, that is the most appealing aspect of the album. It feels as if the album could double as a soundtrack for a film like Paris, Texas or Old Joy. Listening to Ala.cali.tucky, I get the picture of a cinematic western America, the deserts, vistas, and canyons that exists but certainly not in the context of the cinema of people like Malick or Wenders. I haven't encountered much music that I feel has the right timbre to recall a certain place or idea. Perhaps that is why this album made this list.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film Decade List #25: Whale Rider

Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2003, New Zealand)

Whale Rider was really a film that I had no expectations for going in and like most people who have seen it, got swept into it. It's a deceptively simple coming of age story, of a girl named Pai (remarkably played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), dealing with pleasing her grandfather in patriarchal Maori society. The film revolves around Pai attempting to get her grandfather's approval not just in general but also with the possibility of becoming chief of the tribe, something that no woman has been allowed to do. The film really hinges on the performance of Castle-Hughes and she succeeds magnificently, giving Pai the right amount of maturity but with moments of youthful insolence. Caro has a keen eye for extracting the right emotions out of scenes and while nothing in Whale Rider is visually or that thematically daring, it never has to be. The film rides so much on its characters and their performances that it takes a fairly cold-hearted person not to be affected by the film. That Caro takes material fairly unfamiliar to most outside of Maori culture or New Zealand and that relates it to a young girl's struggle growing up is a testament to how universal some film themes are and when they're done well, how enjoyable they are to watch.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hannah Takes the Stairs/Nights and Weekends

Hannah Takes the Stairs (Joe Swanberg, 2007) [3]/Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg, 2008) [5]

Whether you want to call it mumblecore or not, there's a lot of elements that bug me about these films. I also happen to see some useful aspects of them, nor do I think they are a boil on the ass of cinema, as some cineastes have essentially said. I recommended the only Swanberg feature I had seen up to this point, Kissing On the Mouth, and after seeing these two film back to back, I may have to take that back. First, there are numerous reasons in regards to aesthetics that I find these films almost unbearable. Secondly, the films end up being so wound up in their own characters' inner workings, that every element surrounding them is non-existent in representation to the film. Both these films play so much as personal stories, not for the audience but more for Swanberg and the crew surrounding them, that can't but come off as self-indulgent. But as someone who has a bit of a soft spot for pretension and as of the relatively same age as the filmmakers, I can see in moments of what mumblecore can accomplish.

Hannah Takes the Stairs simply isn't that good. Shot on DV, which I absolutely hate, the film has no aesthetic sense. Swanberg's style has been focused much on his complete lack of style, as the camera jolts and wanders with no real focus other to be a fly on the wall. The problem for me is that it comes off as so completely amateurish but also with idea that the film is intentionally trying to be that way. I'll take a hermetically closed-off stylist like Wes Anderson or Kubrick to this any day of the week. The story isn't much better, as it focuses on Hannah (Greta Gerwig) and he mutters and stammers her way through a love triangles with two of her co-workers, played by Andrew Bujalski and Kent Osborne. Hannah is so wrapped up in Hannah that what she does at work, or what her relationship is with Matt or Paul, that it manages to offer no insight into her while allowing her to babble about anything is fairly amazing. Couple that with the lack of a visual eye and you get a meandering, banal film.

Nights and Weekends is a little more tolerable because Swanberg has found at least a little cinematic style here. The DV looks a little better and the inclusion of shadows and light make it more striking when the moments arises, the last scene of the film coming to mind. Focusing on the long distance relationship of James (Swanberg) and Mattie (Gerwig) as they try to make it work, drift apart and come together one last time, Nights and Weekends suffers from many of the same problems as the film above. The characters are so wrapped up in their own neurotic dialogue that we get no picture of anything deeper in their personalities. On one level, it can be considered extremely pretentious but there's something in me that finds it appealing in theory. It's just that the execution never lives up to how I picture it to be. There's something about Nights and Weekends that I find more appealing than Hannah, mostly because it's focus is on one relationship. And when Swanberg and Gerwig get some ideas right, like the awkward sexuality of James and Mattie's relationship, I think mumblecore might have something important to say...if it could get it's head out its ass for a full ninety minutes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music Decade List #24: Howlin' Rain - S/T (2006)

In my best of, '06 edition, I described Howlin' Rain as a more menacing Grateful Dead. Full of psychedelic intensity one minute, and churning country rock the next, there's a lot of early Dead weaving itself through this album. Howlin' Rain was a side project for Comets on Fire front man Ethan Miller, but Howlin' Rain is preferable to me than anything in the Comets catalogue, mostly because Miller reigns in the fury of the Comets sound and focuses her more on a more laid-back vibe. There's certainly plenty of weirdness here however, as the breakdown in the middle of 'Calling Lightning with a Scythe' can attest to. It's that dual nature of the album, that it has some great guitar and vocal pyrotechnics by Miller but never looses the notion that there are some well-crafted songs here. 'Roll on the Rusted Days' has a Stonsey shuffle, sax outro and all. 'The Hanging Heart' and 'The Firing of the Midnight Rain' get closest to Live/Dead era Dead with their odd flourishes. It's 'Calling Lightning with a Scythe' that sums up almost everything about the album: good melody, psychedelic guitars, banjos, and Miller's vocal howl. It's a song definitely encompassing a lot of Classic Rock tropes and still coming out as something exciting and new sounding. Howlin' Rain clearly shows its Classic Rock influence throughout, and why should that be a bad thing? In an age where music blogs trying to find the next innovative new band, it's sure re-assuring to hear some freewheeling rock & roll back.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) [6]

While I agree with a lot of what Moore is saying, he never gets all these ideas together to make a fine-tuned film. The film is too scattershot, with no real firm philosophy other than showing the ills of capitalism. It jumps to so many circumstances and ideas, from stories of specific people to Wall Street, that it suffers from a lack of focus of just what Moore is trying to say. On one level, the film is saying that true democracy is the cure for capitalism but isn't that the same system that has allowed capitalism to corrupt it? Moore calls for action but other than a call to action, he never gets specific. The most interesting parts of Moore's work, his attention-grabbing antics, fall flat for the most. Obviously, Moore wants to explain a corrupt system but he's ended up with a film preaching to the choir.

Also, there is the whole 'Michael Moore is a hypocrite' argument that comes out of this. Because Moore is making a film about how bad capitalism is while it has made him a millionaire, that on the surface makes him seem like a hypocrite. I will defend him to the extent that he's just working in the system that's been established. I do happen to think there is a big difference between someone who has become wealthy as an entertainer than as someone operating a corporation or lawyer or whatnot. Moore has become wealthy because people have chosen to see his films or read his books. He's not exploiting workers, or taking their jobs away, or profiting off of other's peoples' misery, tragedies, etc. So really Moore's film is attacking a form of corporate capitalism that has made him wealthy, almost in despite of itself. At least give Moore some credit for using his high-profile position to address some economic issues that more people should be paying attention to.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Introduction to the Music Decade List and #25: Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days

Without the Internet, there is a almost certain probability that this list would have never materialized, or been much different than the actual product. 2000 was the heyday of Napster and led to the file-sharing revolution of the last decade. The Internet allowed someone like myself access and knowledge to artists that I would have never known of living in a place like Binghamton. There are not too many people in this town who know much about music and if there are some that do, I don't know them. It's really only because of what Napster brought as well as blogs like Stereogum and An Aquarium Drunkard that I've been able to get into so many different artists. At the start of this decade, my tastes ran almost exclusively towards classic rock and Jamband acts. My interest in both has severely diminished over the past decade and I consider myself a much more knowledgeable listener. But that doesn't mean that I'm any more of an authority over someone who has more of a interest in hip-hop or metal, two genres I have never had any interest in. So, this list isn't meant to be some hipness barometer like Pitchfork would put together, nor is it meant to be any definitive documentation of the decade. These are just the 25 records that are my favorite of the last ten years. Ten years from now, this list could completely be different; right now, it's just what I think right now.

#25) Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

The release of Our Endless Numbered Days happened around the same time Sam Beam went from a little-known but respected artist to the top of the indie mountain all because of a song that isn't even on this album. Zach Braff's Garden State may have come out after this album but most people, like myself, only happened to pay more attention to Iron & Wine because of "Such Great Heights." I may have had The Creek Drank the Cradle before this album but I can't remember exactly. What puts Our Endless Numbered Days ahead of that album for me is that is Beam's first professional and cleaner yet just as intimate sounding album. While some may find the lo-fi, home recordings of his debut, the cleaner, fuller sound of Our Endless Numbered Days does so much more to enhance the material. The addition of additional instruments and vocal tracking makes Beam's songs much more full and appealing while never losing the intensity and introspective nature of his debut. The collection of songs on the album from top to bottom is the strongest in Beam's catalog. Most of the songs still have a plaintive quality to them but with the addition of bluesy shuffle on songs like "Free Until They Cut Me Down" and "Teeth in the Grass." But it's still the intimate nature of the more somber songs that are the album's strongest moments, whether it's the simple guitar and vocals of "Sunset Soon Forgotten" or the bit more elaborate but spectacular "Sodom, South Georgia." Our Endless Numbered Days has been the Iron & Wine album that has captured my attention the most over the past decade While Beam has expanded his sound to include ambient and African-influenced sounds, it's still the mostly straightforward folk music of this album that appeals to me the most.

Last Listening Post of 2009

This will be the last listening post before I post my favorite albums of 2009. This aside from the top 25 list of the last decade which I swear I will start soon.

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy
Alberta Cross - Broken Side of Time
The Black Crowes - Before the Frost....Until the Freeze
The Cave Singers - Welcome Joy

Monday, October 05, 2009

The lack of reviews and something new

With myself really bearing down to apply to graduate school, expect about as few new reviews as there have been lately. Since I was just recently thinking about this being the end of the decade, a new idea struck. I will be adding a new feature that will countdown my favorite films and albums of the decade. Since music is such a subjective enterprise and calling some list the best makes it sound like you have some authoritative position on the subject, albums will be categorized as favorites. Since I think that I have a fairly good understanding and education in film, the film category will be the 25 best films of the decade. Each category will have 25 entries and they will be posted as individual posts, whenever I get around to it, hopefully finishing by the end of the year. Here are the criteria for each:

-I've posted a best of list the last three years but the order of those lists will have no bearing on this list
-The number one factor in the list is continued listenability, basically if the album still gets a good number of plays years later
-Albums of original material only; no re-releases or live releases

-Films are included based on their commercial U.S. release date. If that film had no release date, I will take IMDB or Netflix at their word.
-Experimental works won't be included. I just haven't seen enough over the past three years to even make a separate list.