SHORTS Previews, reviews and assorted cultural shorthand
5:15 p.m. The Gap, downtown
Who needs a cocktail when you're surrounded by racks of tweed and denim with the thrill of payday in the air? Friday afternoon shopping gives new meaning to happy hour, if you can handle the excitable throngs angling for the same pair of pants in your size. The ample sunlight and whitewashed walls turn the Gap into a three-story temple to business casual, but new wave and Brit-pop offer a secular soundtrack. Teenage Fanclub's subdued "Time Stops" preserves the frenzy like a Life magazine snapshot; a few steps away, Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" raises girlish excitement to fever pitch next to bins of cotton robes and discounted thongs. Stand between them and you can hear both songs making an MOR mash-up among the equally ambiguous sportswear.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and A Frames feel...strangely fine. The Seattle trio's tour of dystopia, Black Forest (Sub Pop), is not without its scenic vistas: dismembered robots, the joy division of steely industrialism and the computer age, vacated roads of a Twilight Zone family vacation. Their music is also catchy as hell. For practitioners of a genre affectionately named "pigfuck," dripping blood in the shadow of Big Black, they have an oddball sense of melody--clomping along like some long-forgotten surf band. Even the paranoid "Death Train," lacerating one or two chords, conjures images of the Reaper riding waves. Erin Sullivan's vocals are clipped like his chords, a burly monotone colored only by a wispy drum.
Chris Anderson, The Long Tail
Tracking down the latest Bloc Party single, a decades-old German documentary, or secondhand copy of Gray's Anatomy is easy if you know where to look. In the past, these things were harder to find: If the song wasn't on the radio, if the doc wasn't showing in the local multiplex, if the book wasn't in the local used bookstore, consumers were out of luck. Thanks to the unlimited shelf space afforded by such online services as Rhapsody, Netflix and Amazon, these things are a mouse-click away. These same companies are partially responsible for a shift in mass culture consumption that sees buyers moving away from the "hit" of top-40 radio and blockbuster movies, to niche items, or the "long tail"—everything else we might be looking for. Wired editor Chris Anderson coined the term in an October 2004 article in the magazine, and he's expanded the theory into a book. As Anderson notes, demand for items stretching to the far reaches of the tail can make up a significant portion of sales. Anderson details the great democratization of the Web, making it possible for the satirical news-video blog Rocketboom to attract 200,000 hits a day—that's the viewership a prime time network TV program might hope for. But Rocketboom hits that number at a much smaller expense than the network does. Anderson's only misstep is becoming so wrapped up in examples that he discovers the long tail of his own theory.
Even the most bodacious, finger-curling shred of a rock’n’roll guitar riff can get a little lonely without a substantial scream to keep it company. Fortunately for rock fans, Arzu D2, formerly of power-punks Selby Tigers and currently fronting So Fox, can split the hairs of her beehive wig just as easily as she can split power chords. And that’s not all. Twice weekly, Arzu parlays her pop knowledge into Staraoke, our pick for best karaoke action in the Twin Cities. This is a woman who knows her Television from T. Rex and Tom Jones from Thomas Dolby. And that is so foxy.
Cripple Crow, the latest album by this psych-folk-mystic, is filled with paternal longing. “Long Haired Child” emulates Donovan’s epistle to dippiness, encouraging parents to let their kids’ hair grow, while “I Feel Just Like a Child,” a simple enough rag to teach kids on tambourine, knowingly revisits kiddy naïveté. Banhart’s love songs are the album’s greatest strength, notably the bedside serenade “I Do Dig a Certain Girl” and “Dragonflies,” a whisper-weight duet with folk artist Matteah Baim. Equal parts Smithsonian Folkways and soft-focus ’70s pop, Banhart’s recordings make be-ins of “Heard Somebody Say” and “When They Come,” no matter the era. With an ode to his youth in Caracas, he adds the warmth of flamenco guitar and Spanish lyricism to an already intimate sound. Despite his penchant for filler, his fondness for tall tales and heavenly creatures suggest that Banhart would tell the best bedtime stories.
Rob Base; DJ E-Z Rock
I'm dating myself here, but 1989 was a very good year. Rappers still wore Kangols, "British Knights, and gold chains," according to Missy Elliot and Jay-Z, who reminisce about hip hop's glory years on "Back in the Day." Back then, this writer was a nine-year-old, pop-locking and lip-synching along with the Rob Base & DJ EZ-Rock pop-rap classic "It Takes Two," the hit of Yo! MTV Raps! Vol. 1 (on cassette, mind you). Tonight, Base "comes to get down" with Club MTV icons C+C Music Factory (minus the late C, David Cole, who passed away in 1995). As their own '89 breakthrough suggests, the New York-based house producers are still gonna make every twentysomething sweat to the nouveau-oldies, feeling guilty for ever feeling old.
It's easy to forget that before the brothers Gibb lit up dance floors they created sprawling, soft-focus psychedelia. Last month, Reprise Records boxed the Bee Gees' first three studio recordings (Bee Gees' 1st, Horizontal, and Idea), and there's no better cause for this celebration. Actually, make that "celebration for a cause," thanks to local promoters-slash-fundraisers Pop for Charity. That early body of work, as well as the group's epic LP Odessa—with its forever-changing template of folk, blues, and symphonic breaks—clearly inspires tonight's assembled devotees: Faux Jean, with their feedback experiments; the Autumn Leaves and their neo-Nuggets; and Hang-Ups offshoot Heavy Sleeper, who certainly have the harmonies intact. There won't be a dry white suit in the house.
Beulah, "Landslide Baby"
This game of he said/she said unfolds via a two-way mirror: She says love's a cop-out. She says he's tearing her down. She says he needs a new heart. He says at least he has the boys to keep banging out a lush three-part harmony and Big Star guitar riffs while she leaves the house and his ghost behind.
Who are you, Mark Holland? Even Woody Allen's Leonard Zelig, whose personage slipped between imitations of Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin, had less of an identity crisis. On My Valkyrie's self-titled debut, the vocalist moves nimbly among the Cars-style pop-punk of "Who Am I," the leaden bass of "Blitz," and the high-hat-heavy metal of "Come Back." Likewise, the Black-Eyed Snakes continue to indulge their varied influences and experiment with each performance. At a recent Varsity show, they obfuscated their version of the classic "Hey Bo Diddley" with muffled mic feedback and a motorik beat, making a juke joint out of Neu!'s rathskeller.
Black Horse / Mommy & Daddy
Black Horse's dual-guitar rock recalls the Kills on a professional hit, with drum-machine clips as ammo. April Goettle and her partner A.P. Schroder don't just pervert the blues on their six-track demo recording but meld the kind of tense, lo-fi pigfuck that Steve Albini loses himself in analog tape trying to re-create. Playing up the campy electro, fellow power-couple Mommy & Daddy (Edmond Hallas and Vivian Sarratt) engage in more than just a staring contest.
Maybe Ray Bradbury was the original punk. Before The Martian Chronicles, he was a Buck Rogers-obsessed adolescent in 1929, adopting the ethos: “Yell. Jump. Play. Outrun those sons of bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it.” On School Distict (Swords Against Music), Seattle-based metallic punks BlöödHag list their favorite writers (a slew of sci-fi authors including Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut) better than Dewey Decimal: accompanied by brief, spazzy guitar lines and shout-speak wails rocking the stacks. And with a predilection for playing shows in libraries, BlöödHag certainly “do it” their way. There will be no shushing tonight.
The Books, "Take Time"
Like Freud Speaks! skipping on the old Victrola, this glitchy and scratchy lesson in time's properties hypnotizes like a game of follow the pendulum. Once you're embedded in the fabric of the Books' fool-the-ear pop, you really don't care what time it is.
Broadcast, "Before We Begin"
While much of Britain caves under the pressure of the Yanks' faulty towers, these Birmingham experimentalists pay homage to the United States of America—the joking, toking, Joseph Byrd kind—with a thoroughly modern electronic revamp of Byrd's American metaphysical trip. Flush and fluid, this is a sonic blanket fit for all those Sunday mornings coming down.
Call and Response, Tiger Teeth
Call and Response vocalist Simone Rubi bears a bit of Wilson sister spark on this EP, though her band manages breezy pop-lite evocative of the Bay Area shores; even the Charlie Girl wah-wahs on “Little Noises” sound remarkably staid. They are a heckle to latent night crawlers everywhere crying “Take Me Out!” Rubi’s icy vocals seem to crave nights in with Netflix and cigarettes. This collection of stray tracks recorded between the precious Call and Response and its sophisticated follow-up Wind Takes No Shape, brings the band closer to leaving the house. (ROCKRGRL)
Get Cool (Made in Mexico), from Seattle's the Catch, is a breeze of top-down, ride-around new-wave pop. But before you turn on the space heater and whistle "Vacation," hear Carly Nicklaus's grrrly howl, indeed coy enough to invoke Belinda Carlisle & Co. but also palpable enough to crunch the keyboards. Caught between rock 'n' roll and a hard place, she sings, "I need you now/What a frightening thing to say," on the start-stop "Between Friends." The Catch's relationship songs bear enough bite to make you want to stomp out the melodies, too. Listening to the backing "ya-ya"s, it's apparent the Catch are a girls'-night-out kind of band with a mix frisky enough to dance to (Nicklaus knows a thing or two about moving a crowd as a member of love-pop dance band U.S.E).
The Catch, "I-Book"
Squelching like Kat Bjelland under a minim of vocal compression, Carly Nicklaus has a love-hate relationship with boys and their toys—call her band Babes in Circuit City. Getting even, the ladies have downloaded software into their strychnine rock and roll, pebbling the amps with sequencer fuzz. "I can break her," Nicklaus mews at her laptopping rival, all the while waiting to strangle the man with his own USB cables.
Think the Strokes signal “garage?” Then park that SUV elsewhere. Sure, Billy Childish might not be heard in your local Gap anytime soon. (Though with the Troggs currently serenading a flock of denim-clad young things in the retailer’s latest television campaign, anything’s possible.) Childish has sustained a loyal underground following for nearly 25 years by perfecting cheeky yet rough-as-stubble three-chord riffs with Thee Headcoats, Milkshakes, and others. Meanwhile he’s a trained hand in the fine arts and literature. A limited run of his Bacon-meets-Léger woodcuts and paintings will be on display for this exclusive engagement along with collectible 7-inches. Childish leaves his native U.K. (where he still does monthly pub gigs) for a pair of live performances. I hear Son House wore khakis, but did he put on his headcoat?
Lights up on the death disco. Adam Miller's minor-key sonic belches serenade John Lydon's wake with a destabilizing dub waver. Chromatics borrow the beat but not the angst to go with it, instead banging it out in a broom closet while the real instruments beg to come in and play.
Cinerama’s David Gedge pens the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus of pop music. His countless come-ons and tales of illicit affairs would surely make those Rules girls blush. Cinerama’s third studio release Torino (Manifesto) is no exception. Sparked by clever his-and-hers vocals, and blanketed by dense guitar and orchestral arrangements, Torino is a great flirtation. And onstage, Gedge’s charisma is nothing less than seductive. Rules? There are no rules.
David Gedge and company pack up the Mars and Venus books and head back to the beach. There's too much sunshine in the band's surf licks to believe Gedge when he says, "People say to have your heart broken is easier than breaking someone's heart." But then he punctuates, "They're wrong." As usual, he's right.
The Cops, "Don't Take It Personal Dave"
Old enough to know better, these blues cop the Kinks' most famous guitar lick and coat it with the cough syrup slurp of late-'70s anachronisms Television Personalities, who spent more than one day home from school writing songs in the basement. Nonsense like "I wanna be your inner void" inspires unlikely sing-alongs. A rallying cry for disgraced schoolboys everywhere.
Eric Bachmann's sad love songs are a collage of napkin and matchbook scribbling. At least that's what he'd have us believe. Crooked Fingers' troubadour-style folk pop begins at the bar and ends in the journal, with a struggle to recall every fragment of conversation and character in between. The spring release Dignity and Shame opens with meditative picking of "Islero" and warms over with heart-on-sleeve ruminations like "Call to Love" and the centerpiece, "You Must Build a Fire." Bachmann's duets with Lara Meyerattken provides some of the best he said-she said this side of Sonny and Cher.
That even Ben Lee, who once sang the Evan Dando-ode "I Wish I Was Him," has embraced the adult-alt market is signage that Alt has finally outgrown its corduroy. Dando, the genre's hunky ex-junkie, made the graceful turnaround every college radio devotee hoped for with 2003's Baby I'm Bored, a beautifully blasé solo collection by the still-consistent ex-Lemonhead songwriter, bettered by a string of live shows with "My Latte Buddy" Juliana Hatfield and a stint fronting the MC5 with Mudhoney's Mark Arm.
Deerhoof, "Panda Panda Panda"
The kids in the garage are playing along with "Foxy Lady" on 45 rpm. They think it sounds better that way, and with made-up lyrics and a homemade diorama of pose-able animals to illustrate the song, it does.
Do Make Say Think, "Auberge du Mouton Noir"
The hookiest, catchiest wordless melody this side of Debussy trying to crack a new demographic—if only opulent, seven-plus-minute ruminations like this one went gold more often. Would surely crack the Top 40 on some XFM broadcast from the dark side of the moon.
Should 2004 be remembered as the year psych-folk broke, let Dungen be the stick of incense in the hippie's back. In a musical landscape where Devendra is king, Dungen master Gustav Ejstes is rook. The crafty Swede played most of the instruments on last year's import Ta Det Lugnt, which made such a splash with Pitchfork Nation that it was recently rereleased with a bonus disc on the Kemado label. The mix is authentic enough to smell like sandalwood: guitar and flute in the front-end, a heavy chorus buried beneath--like Cream with more sugar. "Festival" drops an Arthur-era Kinks boogie while the piano-tinkler "Det du Tänker Idag Är du I Morgon" provides ample opportunity for extended live improv, at which Ejstes and band are quickly building a reputation.
Like fellow Canuck Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards proves you don't have to busk in front of the Opry to perfect a country ballad. The singer-songwriter's third record, Asking for Flowers, offers gravel-road tales of lost love, but with the casual cool of a cracked window and little baggage in the backseat. On-stage there's no question who's behind the wheel: Edwards is known for her feisty stage banter.
Memo to band geeks: the oboe is cool again. Forget what the jocks told you – just one listen to D.C. trio El Guapo’s third release Super/System (Dischord) is all you need to dig out the reeds. Winds aside, El Guapo represent an electronic faction of the venerable East Coast label Dischord, drawing on such varied musical touchstones as Wire’s 154 and accordionist Guy Klucevek (whom they sample). Recorded by Phil Manley of Trans Am, Super/System demonstrates an ear for both minimalist pop melodies and meandering experimental jazz. Consider it punk rock for the corduroy-blazer set.
Exploding Hearts, "Sleeping Aides & Razorblades"
Because when you're in love, every song on the radio is a little offbeat '80s tune, and they all hurt like that busted tape-reel in your chest. May every tune jangle with such co-dependent urgency, like the dug-up mixtape you made for her but never shared. Next to pills, Buzzcocks and Undertones songs are often the best medicine.
The Flaming Lips, "Can't Get You Out of My Head (KEXP Version)"
Coyne's flip of Kylie's new classic is a tale of the paranoid, rather than the paramour. Bedded in a thick bass rumble and flush of keyboard, Coyne's famous falsetto inspires visions of furry animals thwarted by the disco pulse of the mind. In the end, it's the Lips who wash that confetti right out of their hair.
The flight attendants gossip and passengers are realistically annoyed with noisy children in this sleek psycho thriller set aboard a modernist jumbo jet—a W Hotel in the sky. Jodie Foster is a widow and engineer familiar with every crevice of the NYC-bound aircraft. When her six-year-old daughter goes missing, she races anxiously about the plane, to the crew’s mounting indifference. With no record of the girl, crew and passengers soon question Foster’s sanity. An air marshal (deadpanned by Peter Sarsgaard) is assigned to watch her, but is he who he claims to be? (The post-9/11 context leads to thoughts of a possible terrorist scheme.) German director Robert Schwentke offers plenty of slo-mo shots of an anguished Foster, but seems more interested in his pressure-controlled showpiece set than in plausible plotting. Foster and Sarsgaard help stabilize the turbulent material, but there are too many unanswered questions in this whodunit to keep it aloft.
Giddy Motors, "Sassy"
Gaverick de Vis is the Henry Higgins of punk rock. With a glottal delivery that takes the center of this industrial romp, his voice slips between a mewl, a yowl, and a full-scale tantrum. Both gorgeous and antagonistic, the Brit trio takes a series of elementary bass riffs and hollowed-out drum fills, constructing a jungle gym of a punk fiasco.
Women are funny. Very funny—to put a sock in Christopher Hitchens’ recent contrarian bit in Vanity Fair. And Jewish women hold a special table at the Friars’ cigar bar. They can thank genetics, and a large phone bill, for their material. Judy Gold, Emmy-winning writer and stand-up comic, has had great success with her off-Broadway show, 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, based on interviews with more than 50 mamens of various backgrounds. From that anecdotal evidence, Gold might here riff on the famous Four Questions: Where are you? Are you alright? Have you eaten? When are you going to settle down? The plight of a mother is universal, though, and we all should probably take a moment to call our own (back). Gold, who elbowed in on the boys’ club to lascivious effect in The Aristocrats, will celebrate three generations of Jewish comediennes in the documentary Making Trouble, presented by the Seattle Jewish Film Festival following her act.
Holly Golightly’s profile will undoubtedly receive a boost once the White Stripes’ Elephant walks. Golightly duets with Jack White on “It’s True That We Love One Another,” closing the Whites’ highly anticipated fourth record. Already an underground legend in her own right, Golightly earns a star on the King’s Road walk-of-fame as a former Headcoatee and Toe Rag studios regular (where Elephant was put to tape). Her next as-yet-untitled record is forthcoming on the U.K. staple Damaged Goods, this time backed by Cincinnati rockers the Greenhornes. 2001’s Singles Round-Up provides a great survey of her solo work. Here, the bluesy chanteuse slips between Pavement and Ike Turner covers with a smoky, disaffected cadence of a Left Bank philosophy student. Meanwhile her own material settles between Garbo-esque allure and vintage verve.
For bibliophiles, a glimpse into Ernest Hemingway's work space (the corner of a bedroom in a Havana house), which he offered The Paris Review's George Plimpton, is akin to the Virgin Mary opening up her home in Bethlehem to Cribs. Since its inception in 1953 on a Left Bank barge, The Paris Review has remained a handbook to the literati, and its extensive author interviews are as storied as the magazine itself: Q&A's drawn from a sit-down and correspondence, and, in an unprecedented move, returned to the subject for review and expansion—a format much copied today, from The Believer to Playboy. They've finally been collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. I, edited and with a foreword by Gourevitch, the first permanent editor since Plimpton's death in 2003. Here, Hemingway talks horseracing; Dorothy Parker reveals a predilection for choosing character names from the phone book and obituaries; and Saul Bellow can't escape the chaos of modern city life—just a few of many insights gleaned from the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Guitar Wolf, "UFO Romantics"
Tokyo greasers tune in Art Bell with emasculated guitars and instead channel the original teen-beaters with this Who-inspired rave-up. An apocalyptic rocker of Plan 9 From Outer Space proportions.
Hard 'n' Phirm with Chris Hardwick & Mike Phirman, "Rodeohead"
If the Philharmonic can do Radiohead, why can't the Comedy Store? A few banjos, a few fake plastic trees ... pure comedy! Hardwick, veteran of ditzy dating programs Singled Out and Shipmates, draws in the doe-eyed with Jimmy Fallon esque frat-boy charm, and along with buddy Mike Phirman (and hired pickers), they appropriate Thom Yorke's bestial vocals with Queen harmonies on a Ween budget, scoring gold with the Dr. Demento crowd.
It takes a real man to make Enya's dewdrop piano sound listenable beyond the Aveda spa massage room. Local musician Michael Watton, a.k.a. Haunted House, turns the Irish artist's schmaltz to art-schmaltz on his debut--a mouthful of Catalonian Spanish--La Vida Es Difícil Pero Bonita Cuando Hace Sol y el Cielo Es Una Mierda (Adonis). With a little of Andrew WK's muscle, and a vaudevillian's sense of humor, Watton patents New Age skronk that both noise fans and beauticians can frug to. Haunted House kicks off a tour with Chicago's No Doctors. Their latest, Hunting Season (Go Johnny Go), deftly mixes twitchy out-jazz with straight-from-'67 proto-metal. An unlikely accompaniment to Watton's goofball synths, but I imagine the two will make beautiful Muzak together.
The Hidden Chord, The Captain and His Entourage
In the year garage punk broke, the Hidden Chord broke up. And the neo-beat boys' finale is as high in concept as it is in amplification--a hyperactive brainstorm of pop-culture commentary and travelogue, with the sweetest of Lynchian twists. This time around, the quartet hauls some tech-geek toys into the clubhouse, fusing sequencers and samples with a signature 4/4 guitar bounce and acrobatic vocals. Lyrically, the album is harder to decode than a Ouija board: Who the hell is "the captain" anyway? Yet, like the best mysteries, this imaginative release is worth revisiting in search of clues.
Robyn Hitchcock, "Viva! SeaTac"
Hitchcock's everything-but-the- Frasier-Crane tour of Seattle slips your espresso a roofie. His terminally upbeat observations — "The Space Needle's such a nice guy!" "All the Norwegians, man, you should see them!" — taste like lithium for those accustomed to rainfall one-third of the year. Beyond Hitchcock's drowsy Syd Barrett psyche-swing are a few admonitions tipsier than the Central Library, like the claim that Seattle has the best "computers and coffee and smack."
With natty suits and two-minute ditties to match, the Hives could have been a one-stomp-wonder, but their records prove second-spin hits time and again. The Swedes' recent go-round, The Black and White Album, distills 50 years of rock 'n' roll—from John & Paul to Joey & Dee Dee—into barely one side of vinyl. Expect an extended set kicked out on-stage, and plenty of sweat pouring from shouting-head Pelle Almqvist's Memorial Day whites.
The Intelligence, "Bird Call"
The Intelligence research DNA samples, smartening up both no wave's need for deconstruction and punk's penchant for thrill. The result is both covert and callous: Dissonant guitars and Morse code hiccups let it blurt; it's less whistlin' Dixie than coughed-up cacophony, a desperate call to signal the birds backward.
Jack Pine Savage, "Ladysmith"
The banjo meets the sequencer at the back porch for one last goodbye in a whiskey-soaked sunset. For this Minneapolis-cum-Maine duo, Jim O'Rourke and John Fahey room together in the same Yankee hotel. "As long as we're drinking, they'll call us drunks/As long as we're thinking, they'll call us out of touch," croons Tom Elko lazily, as guitarist "Big" Mike Rossetto shrugs off some feedback. The urban bumpkins revel in the can't-win, and take another swig.
Victoria's Secret should name a line after him already. The original pussycat doll started a worldwide panty raid with the release of his signature tune "It's Not Unusual" in 1965. Ever since, he's run everything from Bacharach to Prince and Talking Heads through the AutoTom, mainlining pop, country, and theatrical balladry in that familiar robust baritone. The swinger's physique and wardrobe haven't changed much, either--same curly hair and shirt unbuttoned down to there. Sir Tom (recently knighted by the queen) warms up for a Vegas stand with a run of his standards and new hits. As with the eerily--okay, cosmetically--ageless Cher, Jones has fashioned a piece of pop-house candy in his latest foray. "Stoned in Love," concocted with British electronic producer Chicane, might not be a chart topper, but will surely preserve that famous libido for future kittens.
Beloved and blasted by the British media for their stagy pedigree, the classically-trained Brighton foursome (named after the David Bowie ditty) might even demand choice of photographer for their NME cover, But before dismissing them as a British Strokes, just try to resist the contagious skiffle guitar and schoolboy harmonies on the new Konk, which pays tribute to another legendary British artist: Ray Davies. (It was recorded in the Kink's Konk studio.) With heroes like these it's hard not to take a chance.
The Lake House
Even diehard romantics, a tolerant lot, will have trouble accepting this yarn about Alex, an architect (Keanu Reeves) and Kate, a doctor (Sandra Bullock), who fall in love while exchanging letters at the lakeside house where they both live, two years apart. Reeves and Bullock don't even have metaphysical chemistry. Bullock can pull off self-deprecation with screwball aplomb. Reeves still has trouble registering any tangible emotion, which works for his career as an action hero, but casting him as the romantic lead, like this rumpled traveler, seems merely an excuse to stick him in flannel and jeans. The plot is propped up clumsily with Jane Austen's Persuasion (i.e. true love waits) and Architectural Digest. One windy dialogue between Alex and his estranged architect father (Christopher Plummer) about "Meier" (presumably Richard) confounds an audience before wending its way to the metaphor of "letting light into your life"-indulgent even for David Auburn, who penned Proof.
Laughter of "Water Margins"
A threadbare adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, this 1993 Hong Kong farce pities the fool and then cheers him to victory, along the way exposing prostitution, AIDS, adultery, and alcoholism with a wink and a nudge. Apparently the film's pastoral Sung Dynasty setting--where Visa Gold is the only card accepted at the local monastery gift shop--excuses blatant stereotypes of homosexuality, obesity, and mental illness, occasionally delivered within the form of jazzy song and dance numbers. Donning the clown's kimono is Po Chun, whose unexpected turn of drunken-master heroism leads him to the doorstep of a long-lost brother, Mo, and his cookie-puss, candy-snatching wife Lotus. Although Mo serves as his partner's pimp, peddles "adultery cake," and masquerades as a sympathetic dwarf in trade for small change, he and Lotus still lack the finances to support themselves, so they concoct a scheme to seduce and blackmail local playboy/druggist Mr. Simon (replete with metallic-thread togs--how Hefner!). And did I mention the eccentric local soothsayer who becomes the third side of a truly bizarre love triangle? Yanking the viewer along, Laughter of "Water Margins" suggests the Zucker Brothers zigzagging their way east, but without a proper sense of direction.
Ted Leo/Pharmacists, "I'm a Ghost"
Leo says, "You can't make a sound from six feet underground." But you can still take your ghosts for a walk, even take them out for a Guinness, and sing "Jailbreak" now and then.
Mack the Knife
A far duller blade than its title implies, this Hong Kong tale of a young doctor's plight works to cure one's idleness about as well as a shot of liquid Tylenol. Packed with a Western soundtrack of old sentimental faves (Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, etc.), the film finds the head-turning hotshot Dr. Lau Mack (Tony Leung) returning from the UN Medical Corps in Africa to establish a clinic in HK's seedy skin district. Here, Mack oversees the relative health of numerous prostitutes, including the multilingual, Hemingway-toting Mei (Eileen Tung), who's saving her pennies to study in France. After the good doctor's aiding of a wounded robber reunites him with a former medical-school rival, the two physicians set about remedying their diseased friendship, while Mack's treatment of a cancerous former sister-in-law provides the glacially paced film with an endless series of sidelong glances and lite-jazz solos. Most awkward of all is our hero's unconventional take on love and science, which suggests an edgy sort of comedy that his Dirty Harry impressions and screwball surgeries do little to sharpen.
Frank McCourt's memoirs dust the dark corners with bright humor. Musing on how some literary phenoms create major works in their twenties (McCourt published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, about his miserable Irish upbringing, in 1996, at 66), he writes, "At that age it's a wonder I was able to lift the pen at all." What was he doing in the meantime? Teaching–as he recounts in the new Teacher Man (Scribner), his chronicle of 30 years in New York City's public school system, trying to focus the drifting minds of kids more interested in forging excuse notes (which, he recalls, were more inventive than their term papers). McCourt's unconventional assignments–asking students to write excuses from Adam to God, their own obituaries, even those of their teachers–left an indelible mark. McCourt is a reminder of all those Melvillian minds burning the midnight oil long after the last bell rings.
Achieving Borat-levels of hype–depending on your proximity to a West Side brownstone–The Emperor's Children (Knopf) Claire Messud's satire of aimless and privileged Ivy League grads in New York circa 2001, casts a gilded sheen over intellectual and social strivers like Henry James seen through the pages of New York magazine. Murray Thwaite, a celebrity journalist in Christopher Hitchens' loafers, struggles to complete his life's work in secret, while his daughter Marina, who's moved back home, wants to write something of importance beyond the cultural history of children's clothing for which she's already spent her advance. Her best friend Danielle, a television producer, pursues the new hotshot editor launching a publication under a Murdochian Aussie media baron. Messud's fourth novel (including a book of novellas) is her first set in the United States. She's clearly at home in media-consumed Manhattan, reflecting our own anxieties just as easily as her characters. And while flashbacks are her trademark, Messud keeps this island chillingly in the present. The rest of us are forced to look back.
Nedelle Torrisi's suede-soft acoustic folk is moody enough to recall Nico, tiptoeing through tulips instead of broken glass at a Factory party. The title of Nedelle's latest, From the Lion's Mouth (Kill Rock Stars), commands ferocity but purrs like a kitten harmonizing with the edge of a record. Nedelle has a definite vintage vibe. Summerland, her recent collaboration with vocalist Thom Moore, jives like nouveau Bacharach & David, if they had let Dusty Springfield write the lyrics.
For those who may dismiss twee pop as merely a case of jangly guitars, argyle socks, and Ray Davies lust: consider Athens’ Of Montreal. Like a pack of surly clowns squeezed into a Chevelle, 2001’s Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies snuck a short play, poetry, and several catchy vignettes on love into a roughly 70-minute tiny epic. Call it Of Montreal are the Lilliput Preservation Society. Similarly, last year’s Aldhils Arboretum was conceived as a singles-collection-cum concept album, recalling the Pye 45s of yore. Hiding behind his prepubescent voice, Kevin Barnes has the songwriting talent to pen Tales of the City as seen through the looking glass. (City Pages)
Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (MIT Press)
In the post-Talking Heads era, a new generation of artists upended working-class radicals like Jack Smith and John Vaccaro with art-school degrees and cultivated manners. Subtle as it may seem, the divide is integral to the work of downtown perennial Penny Arcade. In the late sixties, Arcade (born Susana Carmen Ventura to Italian immigrants) crafted a Warhol-star persona from class strife and feminist politics. Bad Reputation collects her performance pieces La Miseria and Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! with photography and essays about the artist. In La Miseria, Arcade exposes "Maria," representing her mother, to the audience and colors the elder several shades embarrassed. Today, divisions in age and class are harder to define, yet Penny is still a force. "Everything I've done is ageless," she tells filmmaker Chris Kraus in an interview, adding that issues of gender-bias and gentrification still hit home. (Venus)
Mixing urban glitz and prison drab, high-stakes poker and penile pyrotechnics (yes, you've read correctly), this Hong Kong comedy from 1993 reaches near-Seinfeld levels of offbeat charm. After being caught cheating, resident card shark Mandy Chin (Andy Lau) is coerced by the loutish Lau (Lung Wei Wang) into discovering the whereabouts of $3 billion worth of bonds hidden by the latter's father-in-law (Hoi-Shan Kwan). Forced to impersonate a rapist, our hero stands trial and gets convicted in order to spend a month behind bars befriending a middle-aged prisoner and influencing fellow inmates through the fine art of "self-domination" (hardly your standard meditative practice). A rubber-faced goofball guard who calls himself "the Hong Kong Richard Gere" (Tony Leung) becomes master of his domain with a little help from the prison computer; another tough guy makes passes at Lau's mistress, the lustful Mona (Anita Lee); and director Wong Jing (My School Mate, the Barbarian) builds to a crescendo of car chases, kung fu, and indiscreet innuendo. Spiked with an odd nostalgia for Miami Vice, Perfect Exchange typifies the glorious giddiness of early Nineties HK action fare.
A latte for anyone who thinks Madeleine Peyroux sounds like Billie Holiday. Lattes for everyone! If you're missing old-fashioned torch-blues, Peyroux is, yes, Billie to Michael Buble's Frank, an upstart crooner with enough authenticity in the MP3 age to have you aching for Victrola static. "Don't Wait Too Long," from her sophomore release Careless Love (Rounder), is a cabaret-to-coffeehouse classic, bearing the signature lipstick traces of new romance. Francophile Peyroux softens Leonard Cohen's stiff "Dance Me to the End of Love" like a row of votive candles lining a parquet, while her takes on Dylan and Elliot Smith cuddle alongside new standard-bearers. Who cares if there's no one to twirl you?
The Ponys' "I'm With You" is a single that doesn't need an album, and the rest of the Chicago band's latest, Celebration Castle (In the Red), struggles to back it up. The Ponys can't decide whether they're C81 or C86 (Anglophile post-punk vs. shambolic jangle) and end up cobbling together a compromise. "I'm With You" is catchy, self-contained pop. Elsewhere, Jered Gummere tosses off "Blank Generation"-style observations about girlfriends and day jobs with the same erratic formula of his band's instrumentation. The Ponys may openly purge trouserpress.com, but it's with a naiveté that makes them even more likable.
Either my mother became a publicist after Thanksgiving or she TiVoed Garden State. I can think of no other reason for her to tell me that Joshua Radin "sounds like Nick Drake and Belle & Sebastian." But she's got a point. Last year's We Were Here—released on Columbia after Radin's buddy Zach Braff strong-armed one of his tunes into a Scrubs episode—is awash in romanticism, with cello arrangements delicate enough to leave intact the chemistry between Radin's bedroom voice and his acoustic guitar. Lyrically, he might cling too closely to freshman comp imagery of clouds and star-gazing ("Closer," "Star Mile") when reaching for the sublime, but he makes up for it on an intimate duet covering Yaz's "Only You" that pares away the synthesizers and evokes another mom-approved duo: Simon & Garfunkel.
Forget love, I'm obsessed with that song: "Here Comes Mary," from the Raveonettes' latest, Pretty in Black (Columbia), sweetly hums the melody to "All I Have to Do (Is Dream)" while sleepwalking its way through an assailant's murder of her lover and eventual silencing of herself--a Mann & Weil commission for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Singer-bassist Sharin Foo's icy-blonde pose keeps the character Mary as cool and vaporous as her cigarette extinguished in the rain. The Danish retro-fetishists, indebted to the Ronettes' girl-group shoop, can thank their lucky stars for Phil Spector's mania. They slyly place "Here Comes Mary" between a naïf cover of "My Boyfriend's Back" and would-be Jan & Dean romp "Red Tan," which plays chicken with vintage jangling guitars and a new-wave pulse for a B-movie climax not showing near you.
Sounding barely old enough to get into his hometown club the Middle East, the Modern Lovers' Jonathan Richman advised the kids to ditch college and live it up before they have to grow up, with "Dignified & Old," from the band's '76 debut. For over 30 years, Richman, now 55, has Peter Panned his way through popular music, from the Modern Lovers' Velvets-inspired dissonant jags to his stripped-down solo work, built on rockabilly and classic AM radio pop—heard most recently on 2004's Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (Sanctuary). Whether courtly on "My Love Is a Flower Just Beginning to Bloom"—"like those things from your garden that spring from gloom"; childish ("Here Come the Martian Martians," "I'm a Little Dinosaur"); or somewhere in between, exhibiting sexual frustration with naïveté (the veiled one-hander "Astral Plane"), Richman is never without sincerity. His goofball charm radiates from a tree in his There's Something About Mary cameo—and onstage, too, where he burns through Springsteen's steam with long dance and clap breaks, backed by longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, who gives the enigmatic songwriter ample time to spiel.
Salman Rushdie is everywhere these days: knighted by the Queen of England; playing Helen Hunt’s OB/GYN in Then She Found Me; even kissing Scarlett Johansson in the video for her Tom Waits cover, “Falling Down.” The writer’s sudden visibility and cultural cross-pollination helps launch his new historical novel, The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, $26), which trades politics for cerebral beach reading. Rushdie has crafted a tale of renaissance Florence and India’s Mughal Empire, a love triangle between an enchantress (the coy princess Qara Köz), the pugilistic Akbar the Great, and the mysterious traveler calling himself by turns “Mogor dell’Amore,” “Uccello de Firenze,” and “Vespucci.” Rushdie’s tableau is as colorful and diaphanous as the silks hanging from his characters. The Enchantress is carefully draped in language to obscure its populist genre; the book is both static but lively. Rushdie keeps the reader guessing for pages just what secret the traveler is carrying. And as for the author’s next move, should we be surprised if he’s pitching this weekend for the Mariners?
Rachel Sherman, The First Hurt
Sherman’s debut story collection hones in on the acne scars, first kisses, and more palpable “hurts” of adolescence. Her protagonists are a sensitive bunch, from a camp counselor wishing to embody her charge’s gawky spirit, to a husband and father daydreaming about the young girl down the street. Governed by curiosity, Sherman’s characters stare at passersby and wonder how their lovers kiss them, or, perhaps, what they ate for breakfast. The author blows up life’s pixels—a couple watching TV on the couch, touching each other’s legs with their toes; a man fired from his job for drunk driving, now raking leaves. And with quirky statements like “They are boys I would not mind in a large, anonymous soup,” her knack for inner dialogue catches up with the imagery.
Six Organs of Admittance
Six Organs has one mainstay, Ben Chasny, who restrains the emotive power of a Branca symphony into mono-channel psychedelia with vocal accents layered like love beads. Chasny is still trailing behind the January Drag City release School of the Flower. Six Organs shares the bill with Sir Richard Bishop, no stranger to the basement-tape out-folk-noise community as a member of long-running agitprop collective Sun City Girls. His solo performances feel like impromptu sketches, featuring glimmering reverb and throwing in the occasional homey classic, like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Just for fun.
Smattering, "Covered in Ivy"
From a band designed for the patient among us comes this Sisyphean struggle, a rhetorical question. Matt Olson's park-bench philosophies are suited to his accompanist's minimal arrangements, which offer him breathing space. "Covered in Ivy," despite its synthetic arrangement (keyboard, drum pads, electric guitar), has the organic climb of its leafy namesake, from its metered strum to its meditative climax. The mantra is the message, serving as verse and chorus. Olson poses uestions to the air. "To look at me, would you know?/That I have let myself go." With each round of questioning, Olson never reaches a conclusion.
Sticks and Stones
Try outsmarting any aficionado of Chicago avant-jazz with a little six degrees of separation. Let’s see, Sticks and Stones features members of Town and Country and the Chicago Underground Collective, whose members play with Brokeback, and…the Bacon Brothers? No, but likely John McEntire. Kidding aside, you have to stand up for a band edgy enough to parlay both John McNeil and Lee Perry into a sound that’s warm and accessible. Sticks and Stones (428 Music) catalogs 20 years of jazz and dub with a modern twist evocative of the trio’s hometown team. And where else to bear witness than Frank Gehry’s suitably modernist steel Rubik’s Cube?
The Stunning Split 7" single with the Means (Nodak)
Looks aren't always that deceiving. I wondered if it was possible to enjoy local noise punks the Stunning without the accompanying visuals, namely, a vocalist who spends enough time on the floor to wipe the Entry clean before last call. Singer Chris Besinger's histrionics are enhanced by a couple of caterwauling guitars so deeply entwined you'd need a crowbar to pry them apart. And then there's the general absurdity of not knowing whether you're observing the band or part of their happening. The Stunning's debut, a split 7-inch with Columbus, Ohio's the Means, is nearly as much fun. Here--in less time than it takes to read the track title, "I held it; for an instant, I knew what it was...and then it was vanished"--those wall-of-sound guitars appear (no bass), along with a marching band's sticks and cymbals, and a spittle of non sequiturs about "giant trash cans" and "something crashing into the ceiling." The other Stunning track, "We Keep It Dark," mistakes U.S. Maple for Motörhead, and with rowdy feedback punctuated by Chris Besinger's throaty yelps, the Stunning turn a headbanger's ball into an instant pop hit.
Talk about my bloody valentine. Love, however you punctuate it, is a heartbreaking and hard-drinking proposition. Shoplifting don't beg, borrow, or steal from the romantics. Instead, they fashion love letters from broken records, detuned licks, and shape-shifting voice clips, all stapled to the chest like a badge of wounded honor.
Sicbay, Overreaction Time (54° 40' or Fight!)
Sicbay's Nick Sakes pens the kind of post-mortem lullabies that'll keep you shivering under the covers until day breaks. Shifting subtly between the manic and the just plain morose, this power-punk trio's second LP is a volatile response to 20 years of discordant noise. "Herculaneum" and "Jack Pine" are as startling as an alarm that blasts Fugazi at 5:00 a.m., while "Outside Help" reflects the tender side of Sakes's gruff baritone with subtle harmony--he sounds like a good friend assuring you that there aren't any monsters hiding under the bed. And that if there are, you should hide your record collection.
Minneapolis power punks find fool's gold in this Elastik Band Nugget. The lesson learned? You can dance if you want to, even if people on the street think you're a spazz. Vocalist Nick Sakes' buzzed-out "That's right/Uh-huh" spittle chorus is enough of a lure, but it's the blues-guitar skronk that really gives this tune its jimmy legs.
The Strokes, "Automatic Stop"
Just when you thought Julian might soften up with the quiet, nearly mechanized drum break, he goes all Spicoli on us: "So many fish there in the sea/I wanted you, you wanted me." The rest is a languid, detention-hall lullaby.
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, "Coma Girl"
Despite the poetry in the line "Mona Lisa on a motorcycle gang," it's Strummer's strangled vibrato straddling a ragga-fied bass and filched doo-wop "Du-lang du-lang" chorus that prove she's a rebel and he'll always be tougher than leather.
How do you meet the love of your life? Wrote humorist Calvin Trillin: "wander into the right party," which is where he met Alice Stewart in 1963. Their nearly 40-year marriage, chronicled regularly in the humorist's New Yorker columns and books like Alice, Let's Eat, took the form of a Burns and Allen routine with gender-roles reversed—he the bumbling husband, she the voice of wisdom, a "dietician in sensible shoes." About Alice (Random House, $12.95) expands on a New Yorker essay from early last year, in which Trillin presented his wife, who died in 2001, as the accomplished woman she was— writer, educator, television producer— multidimensional beyond a literary Alice Kramden and the "sensible" image. The essay became a testament to, and made Trillin a reluctant spokesperson for, a thriving marriage. He admits to one secret: He never stopped trying to impress his wife. "'You have never again been as funny as you were that night,' Alice would say, 20 or 30 years later. 'You mean I peaked in December in 1963?' 'I'm afraid so.'" Trillin is sentimental while providing an ample arm's length of humor. "They may not have known her," he writes of his readers, "but they knew how I felt about her." And with that, we've all wandered into the right party.
Two for the Money
All wrongs can be made right in sports, and a few choice words also prove healing in this quick-fire psychodrama, which runs its mouth like an Elmore Leonard novel and softens at the finish line like Chariots of Fire. Ex-jock Matthew McConaughey prodigiously picks winners for a Vegas sports-betting line before he’s lured away by rival Al Pacino. Neither is playing against type: McConaughey is the quintessential sweet-talking Southerner who receives a Pygmalion-style makeover, soon becoming the kind of guy who walks into a room to Isaac Hayes’ “Pusherman.” Pacino can “sell certainty in an uncertain world,” convincing anyone to fork over their 401k in promise of a Cowboys win. The film’s psychological underpinning of addiction adds gravitas, especially in a clear-eyed performance by Rene Russo as Pacino’s ex-junkie wife. But its moralizing kills its pacing; it becomes less The Color of Money and more the cautionary Wall Street fable.
Between the dive-bar disco of !!! and Wham!'s falsetto "Everything She Wants," you'll find plenty of wiggle room for Velella Velella's subtle (but no less exclamatory) funk-pop. The Seattle band—whose name is a species of jellyfish—come to town in support of Bay of Biscay, a self-released record full of compositions built on non-sequitur shout-outs ("You're your hands!" "Move your feet!") and a swathe of dreamy flute, vibraphone, and guitar. When synthesized, it all qualifies for a Dust Brothers remix. It's a sound that's as iridescent as a jellyfish, with just as much sting.
Vells, "Hey Hey La La"
File under: magical realism for urban cynics. Vells' unicorn pop is catchier than any disease indigenous to the land of make-believe. A few nonsense syllables are always the best medicine, like a lavender eye mask for a hangover. Tristan Marcum's dream-weaving tones are haltingly beautiful whether you've heard those hey heys and la las three times or 300. Their trademark one-two-three keyboard shuffle sways like Mr. Sandman on codeine.
During a long winter, you can't blame this Brooklyn sextet for dreaming of Aruba and Jamaica—but don't worry, "Kokomo" it ain't. The light calypso piano mixed in with their jangly rock on last year's debut, Fort Nightly, yearns for warmer climes while Greg Roberts' bluesy vocal, along with sticky guitar riffs and heavy hi-hat are closer to tourmates Spoon and the Walkmen—all three groups close to the Atlantic coast, yet so far from paradise. Even if the only isle these boys know is Manhattan, their energetic show can set the tone for an endless summer.