Monday, August 10, 2009

See What I've Been Listening To

[I always wanted to do one of these so let's see how it goes] [Update: so the links to stream songs didn't end up working at all -- except for me -- my apologies. So I added some more videos.] Some thoughts on what's been getting heavy re-play at RFC HQ...

As it hovers around the 90 degree mark today, it's not a bad time to reconsider the songs that hit my ears on cooler days. I guess we'll start at the beginning (of the iTunes library). One of my favorite albums from early this year belongs to one of the New Pornographers that isn't Neko Case, A.C. Newman. There isn't a bad song on Get Guilty though the front end is a bit stronger. It may not have an endless repeater like his 2004 tune "Drink to Me Babe", but this album features an a-bomb lead-off track in "There are Maybe Ten or Twelve..."

Then there's the album's catchy-as-hell, propulsive single:



Moving down the alphabet, and over to a different part of the pop universe, there's the more recent The Antlers album Hospice. I feel like these guys do for me what the Animal Collective doesn't, which is make highly listenable, atmospheric, slightly creepy pop songs. While I actually preferred 2007's In the Attic of the Universe, there's a rewarding mystery to these songs and in many ways Hospice is a more cohesive rock opera than Thownsend's ever written. They might not rise you out of any funks but they'll carry you along. Try out the friendly Bear when you get a chance -- in the meantime here's the pretty damn cool video for the song "Two".



Art Brut album is always good for great hooks and laughs and I have to mention a record that sings about the wonders of finding out about The Replacements. Featured line, "I can't believe I've only just discovered The Replacements / Some of them are nearly the same age as my parents" But the real gold in Art Brut vs. Satan has to be the epic Mysterious Bruises ("I can't remember anything I've done / I fought the floor and the floor won). It's hard not to get swept up into Art Brut's world of drinks, comic books and slap dash songs made for no cash.



It's also not hard to figure out why David Lynch digs Au Revoir Simone ("The Last One" from the new album Still Night, Still Night).



Okay, Bill Callahan... I was a big fan of his Smog albums and even enjoyed the (smog) days a little bit. But his last two albums under his given name have been something unexpected and special. His new album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is in the race for best of this year and Eid Ma Clack Shaw, Too Many Birds and Faith/Void are some of the best songs of the year. On any given day I might say that he's never topped Smog's Doctor Came at Dawn, but he's really making some of the best music around right now -- and I don't think I would have said that back in the 90's. His music was sparse and confrontational back in the day, and now it's sparse and beautiful without ever losing the dark voice he's always had.



Callahan's former label-mate Will Oldham also continues to shine though he hasn't gone back to his given name and doesn't look like he'll be dropping Bonnie "Prince" Billy anytime soon. But I wouldn't place any bets that there isn't some sort of name change or another around the corner. His last album of duets was a pretty collection, but his most recent album, Beware, has the most immediate impact, and feels like it has more staying power, than any of his work since Ease on Down the Road.



There's an old Palace song of Oldham's that's called "You Will Miss Me When I Burn". It features the line "When you have no one / No one can hurt you" and there's a great song on Beware that echoes that old tune in a sad yet playful way. It's called I Don't Belong to Anyone.



I'd never have imagined I'd say that an album by Jason Schwartzman would rank near the top of my list for most listened to, and enjoyed, album -- but here we are with Coconut Records' Davy. A Beatlesesque collection of super-catchy material that's obviously personal for Schwartzman yet never gets bogged down in pretentiousness. I'll use that dreaded word again, fun.



Another contender for album of the year is The Comet Gain's Broken Record Prayer. The album is practically a cross section of the past 30 years of music on one CD, in one lo-fi blast. By having the album opener, "Jack Nance Hair", begin with the female of the band speak-singing before launching into an addictive pop song -- it's like a hat tip to the sprawling, equally ambitious end-of-the-80s Sonic Youth epic, Daydream Nation. But the Velvet Underground tinged "Jack Nance Hair" is hardly representative of Broken Record Prayer. Before even half the album is over it's hopped from 2 minute CBGBs flavored punk rockers ("If I Had a Soul") to 5+ minute Feelies inspired jams ("Brothers Off the Block"). It's a helluva record.



While Sonic Youth came out with The Eternal this year, and it's got some good tunes (I'm a fan of "The Antennae" in particular), it's their old pals Dinosaur Jr. that continue to release rocket-powered face melters -- keeping one of the most unexpectedly successful reunions going strong. Like Portishead did a couple years ago -- it amazes me that a band can get back together after such a long break and not only pick right up where they left off but improve upon it. Dino J's second life it practically unheard of.



Dirty Projectors is one of the bands that pulled a fast one on me this year. I didn't much care for 2005's The Getty Address which lacked just about anything resembling a melody or a toe-tapping tune. But then Bitte Orca comes along and I couldn't get away from the fawning responses so with some skeptisicm I checked it out and then I found I couldn't stop listening to the thing. That's partly due to the great beats the album has and therefore being my go-to album to listen to while doing my bad back exercises. Llama!



If you like your rock n' roll recorded in a barn while a storm knocks on the door and the musicians are working on a case of beer and keeping the first take, then you will enjoy Woodstock, New York's Felice Brothers. They've released some great music prior to 2009, especially Tonight at the Arizona, but their recent is called Yonder is the Clock and it's got some new classics on it. I turn your attention to "Cooperstown". (But since there's no good video for anything off their new album... here's a highlight from Arizona.)



But let's get back to the face melting. Future of the Left is the band that rose from the ashes of Mclusky -- the only band that I would pay to see a good tribute version of. Mclusky made three of the best manic, hole-in-the-wall rock records of the decade and Future of the Left's second album, Travels With Myself and Another, improves upon the first post-Mclusky album and touches greatness at times. Angry, questioning, funny and above all, rocking. Who can't like an album with a song called "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You"?



Jarvis Cocker's been around a lot longer than you'd think by looking at the guy. The Dick Clark gene seemingly having kicked in about 20 years ago, Jarvis has been on the scene making quality mod rockers that keep the croon alive since the late 70s with Pulp. Recently, he's gone solo and grown a salt and pepper beard that allows him to show his age a little bit, but he's also stepped up his game. On Further Complications, he's gotten some assistance form Steve Albini and he's created a stellar album that from front to back is my favorite thing he's ever done. The hilarious song "I Never Said I Was Deep" features my favorite chorus of the year: "I never said I saw deep / But I am profoundly shallow / My lack of knowledge is vast / And my horizons are narrow"



When I saw Mastodon live a couple years ago in the middle of a bright, hot, sunshiny day in the middle of a Chicago park, it was euphoric. For the rest of my life I'll carry that amazing collision of sun, dirt, pot smoke and metal with me and I'll probably always look forward to their next mind fuck of a record. This year's Crack the Skye is a bit more prog-y than their others, but it's no less filled with jaw dropping moments that make me smile. And I absolutely admire the storytelling that goes into these albums -- this one being about an astronaut that does some inadvertent time-traveling and... well, see for yourself.



Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is going to be my one cheat for this list. Technically his self titled album came out over a year ago, but it's remained my favorite stumbled-upon album of the year. He's very much in the singer-songwriter mode but used dynamics and slow-builds to great effect. Love his voice, love his lyrics and it doesn't get much better than this tune, the first of the album and a perfect gateway to the rest of the fantastic album.



Two albums going by oddly similar names, Dark Was the Night & Dark Night of the Soul will finish out this behemoth of a post. Dark Was the Night performs some rehab on a format that usually gets nothing but leftovers and cast-offs. Three years in the making, the brothers Dessner from the great band The National called in some favors and ended up with a sort of state of the union of the indie rock scene -- Yo La Tengo, My Morning Jacket, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear... There are 2 CDs of songs far better than you'd think you would find on a Red Hot compilation.



Dark Night of the Soul is another beast altogether. A bizzaro colaboraiton between Sparklehorse, Danger Mouse and David Lynch, there was a distinct possibility this project would result in a mess, but in fact it is a perfectly crafted and executed album that feels complete and fully realized. I'm not sure if the Dark Night of the Soul is the future or the first and last of its kind. Actually, it isn't even really the first since EMI blocked the music from even being properly released. The limited edition book featuring a gorgeous collection of Lynch's inspired by the music photographs came with a blank CD, to be used as you see fit. Before EMI pulled the plug on the music, you could find it streaming on different websites and in the usual places you might yet to be officially released music. To me, this is like letting the fans finish the project and it just adds to it its beauty -- and it really is a beautiful project to absorb and it'll be a tough one to top this year.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Humpday

Dir. Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton's follow-up to my pick for 2008's best, My Effortless Brilliance, never quite matches that film's heights but that may be due to a lack of trying. Humpday is a funny movie, funnier than Brilliance, so I can't knock it too much if the stakes never feel quite as high. This is partly due to the film having a familiar set-up: the reuniting of two old friends who have gone down different paths and the emotional turmoil that results.

Mark Duplass plays Ben, a guy who's begun to settle into domestic bliss with his fiancée Anna (Alycia Delmore) and a picket fence. When Joshua Leonard's Andrew comes knocking, he quickly stirs up some dormant feelings and Ben can't help but try to reclaim some of those artistic ideals from his college days. Unfortunately they settle on creating an art project for Humpfest, an arty, homebrew porn festival wherein the average Jane and Joe reclaim pornography by submitting their own intimate, personal portraits. During an under-the-influence night at a bohemian party (co-hosted by Lynn Shelton herself as a bi-sexual frisky new friend of Andrew's), both men decide that the highest form of artistic achievement in pornography would be to feature two straight life-long friends going at it. Amidst the swirling hookah smoke, Ben even books a room for next Sunday.

The majority of the movie is Ben and Andrew, in the few days leading up to Sunday night, coming to terms with the idea and rationalizing why neither one wants to back down. We find out that if Andrew were to back out of this "art project" it would be the latest in a long line of abandoned or unfinished projects. And Ben needs to prove to himself, if not everyone else, that he's more than just a working-stiff with his best years behind him. It could be considered a detriment that the film tips its hand early and often. To a certain extent the movie spells it out rather than allow the audience to figure out the details behind Ben and Andrew's one-upsmanship. But I appreciate that the characters are self-aware -- it makes sense to me that these guys would analyze their situation to death. Maybe it does put too fine a point on it but it feels natural to me, and that is Shelton's cinematic gift.

While two old friends talking about their lack of resolve or losing their individuality doesn't carry the weight of two old friends trying to bury the hatchet, Humpday does find a lot of honesty and no small amount of terrific, cringe-worthy comedic moments in this situation. This film will hit close to home for anyone who's ever lost sight of their artistic side in favor of some security in life, or likes to consider themselves an artist simply because they live the lifestyle. Even if that's not you, chances are you've got some familiarity with these guys. And Duplass and Leonard's work here makes you feel like you've hung out with these guys many times before.

But what of Anna? In an odd bit of irony, Lynn Shelton has proved to be a master of exploring the male ego but has yet to present us with a female character as thoroughly three dimensional. Anna's given a couple nice moments in the film when she tries to get to know Andrew over half a bottle of Scotch and when she reveals a secret of her own to a helpless Ben. But it all feels a little obligatory, like Anna is a character that's only there for story needs and not part of the organic surroundings. Delmore does fine with what she's given, but it would be nice to see what Shelton could do with a strong female character in one of her stories.

In a related note - Shelton's superior My Effortless Brilliance can be viewed through Amazon.com's Video On Demand for $3.99. It's fantastic that Humpday has been able to get the distribution that Brilliance never did, and it deserves it, but it's still a shame that Brilliance remains largely hidden.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Room


Dir. Tommy Wisseau

What is The Room? A quick look at IMDb tells you it is a drama, a romance, a comedy, "a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams" and "an American black comedy about love, passion, betrayal and lies". After seeing the film for the first time last weekend, I'm still working out whether it is really none of those things, or indeed all of those things at once in every second of its 99 minutes. Honestly, there is no doubt that The Room is a bad movie. It's poorly shot, badly acted and confusingly edited. Everything about the movie, down to the costuming, is so distracting that if you tried your hardest to focus on what the hell is going on in the movie, as I mistakenly attempted, you will only encounter despair. But worst of all, the film wants to be important -- it strives for Tennessee Williams like a drunkard finding the key hole to the front door at 4am. It isn't the kind of bad you find in Wolverine or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. This is obviously a very personal film for Tommy Wisseau and the level of heart and soul behind the film balanced against the brazenly incompetent filmmaking put The Room squarely in the ranks of the best/worst of Ed Wood rather than the works of Dr. Uwe Boll.

Released the summer of 2003 in Los Angeles, The Room almost came and went without notice like any number of other micro-released films that play the obligatory one or two theaters in a city before hitting DVD and cable. But thanks in large part to a notorious billboard of the droopy-eyed Wisseau photo and some good old-fashioned word of mouth, by 2007 it was a full-blown midnight movie phenomenon of Rocky Horror Picture Show proportions. It quickly became all about audience participation, plastic spoons and reveling in the The Room's many, hrm, mysteries?



Back in high school I'd make it to the Rocky Horror Picture Show as often as I could. In San Bernardino, California, that wasn't very easy for a 15 year old without a car. Getting to Montclair took no small amount of effort and coordination, but it was always worth it. I don't think the stars will ever align to bring about a movie more suited to audience participation than the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's got catchy song and dance, eye popping production design, sci-fi elements, Susan Sarandon in her underwear, a story that appeals to all sexual orientations, Meatloaf... On its own it's not exactly a well made movie but it has some genuinely entertaining qualities and the audience participation raises it to heights the filmmakers could never have anticipated but certainly appreciate. The Room is the flip side to this and in some ways this makes it less enjoyable than a bad genre movie like RHPS or Troll 2. The story is the definition of mundane, all the actors are people you'd rather not see in their underwear thankyouverymuch, even the songs in The Room are unbearable and, when it's in focus, the photography is flat and unappealing. To an extent it is the same problem I have with those certain episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that are so piss poor and boring that it's a chore to make it to the next zinger.

So what is the story of The Room? Well, why the movie is called "The Room" is certainly one of the more obvious and unanswered questions of the film. It's a fairly typical love triangle involving Tom- er Johnny, his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and his best friend Mark (Sestero! Greg Sestero actually, but I think a wise career move for the man would be to go the one name route a la Fabio. I can easily picture those seven letters in all-caps above the title of the next made-for-SyFy movie). What little life there is to this set-up comes from Wisseau's bizarre, perverse world-view. Especially regarding Lisa The Succubus. Usually the irresistible object of desire has some sort of charm or redeeming, attractive qualities. The only reason we're given for Johnny's intense devotion to Lisa is that she'll jump into the sack with him when he buys her a dress because otherwise she's hateful and self-centered to the core.



But Johnny, if there's a fault to the man it's that he's too caring, too thoughtful, trusting and wise. That Johnny is such a nice guy he's even paying for a neighborhood kid's tuition. That the neighborhood kid, Denny, seems to be a little touched in the head is besides the point. (And "besides the point" could be the film's motto.) Even the store proprietors adore Johnny. As does Lisa's mother, who tries to talk sense into her -- but she's got the cancer, so... So what, right? That seems to be the movie's interest in that little detail. Anyway, Lisa simply finds Johnny-the-do-gooder too dull for her lustful ways. Sestero, on the other had, now there's a real man. Yawn.

So is it even noteworthy that every single moment of the film is a train wreck? By mounting an HD camera directly next to a 35mm camera, Wisseau ensured that not one second of the film would be well framed. Using a revolving door policy for the hiring and firing of his crew during the filming process also helped give the look of the film some nice inconsistencies. One of the more genuinely strange aspects of the movie is the amount of characters that appear with no explanation to give advice or act concerned and in turn disappear back into the ethers. It all begs the question, is utter incompetency something to celebrate? While Wisseau certainly has passion for this project -- is his message of how cruel women can be really worth the attention, even if it is placed on a pedestal to be mocked?

There's no denying there's a fun time to be had with The Room on a Saturday night with an eager audience when the plastic spoons are flying high through the air. There is an excitement to be part of this community as they work on extracting the most fun from the film. If you go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show this weekend you'll be hearing the best ad-libs and routines distilled the past 30 years. If you go to The Room this weekend some of the excitement is being part of the process. Right now, there's some filtering to be done to pick up on the best zingers since every moment is an opportunity and you have a theater full of people waiting to let one loose. 20 years from now, the other script, the audience script for The Room, is sure to be amazing and there's a lot of fun to even just observe this process if not take part in it.

I can't imagine myself regularly watching The Room, even under ideal circumstances. The movie is just so damn bad that there's a visceral reaction within me to stay away from it. But I had a great time and recommend that everyone should experience this phenomenon at least once. Rumor is that there will be another midnight screening at the Coolidge at some point this month. Keep your eye out. I really can't imagine there being an alternative movie-going experience out there that would be more fun.