Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pander Dragoon

Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman made an important statement about violence. Allow me to summarize their position, as of December 6th of this year.

Direct American involvement in the deplorable violence decimating what was once the nation of Iraq is necessary in order to secure a lasting peace. Violence in video games must be closely and carefully monitored at great public expense, as it poisons our youth.

Do I have that correctly?

In a press conference scheduled for 3:00 P.M., Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) will appear with ESA president Doug Lowenstein and ESRB president Patricia Vance to announce the launch of a nationwide television campaign to promote awareness of video game ratings.

Here's Arianna Huffington's response to the story:

The violence in Iraq is becoming more savage by the minute -- among the dead yesterday were 45 bullet-riddled corpses found in Baghdad, many of whom had been tortured before being executed -- and Hillary is worried about video game violence? Are you kidding me?

Could she be any more politically tone deaf?

Now that Arianna brings it up, I would be curious to see the polling that has led Lieberman and Clinton to conclude that propping up pointless video game ratings systems is a politically advantageous course of action.

My generation was the first to grow up with home video game systems, and now that people my age have families of their own, I'm not sure you can count on overwhelming support from parents for restrictive video game legislation. And you risk offending voters in their 20's and 30's, largely males, who play a lot of video games. This can include a lot of independant, libertarian types - engineers, scientists, the sort of free-thinking problem-solvers that don't vote out of fidelity to a party but ideologically. These are exactly the sort of people who wouldn't vote for a candidate if they found out he or she had taken a strong ideological stand against one of their favorite hobbies.

(Of course, it is only an ideological stand. This legislation, indeed the whole notion of video game rankings, is completely meaningless. This is theater, designed to make Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton look concerned about the morality of violent video games, and to give cover to an industry that wants to keep producing said games. That doesn't mean it won't have the potential to piss off video game fans who just wish politicians would shut up about the way they spend their free time.)

So there's the downside of standing for a Nanny State as it concerns gaming. Is it outweighed by a strong benefit? Is Joe Lieberman genuinely winning over voters with this sanctimonious stance, arguing that we should spend money to advertise the fact that a panel of video game industry experts has scrawled a letter on the box that lets you know how vicious the animated bloodshed gets?

Why spend any time on this issue? There are so many important things to do. It's like Intelligent Design. It's eventually defeated because it's so dumb, but all that time wasted on killing off that argument could have gone to figuring out one of the five hundred thousand Bush Administration fuckups that are going to get us all burned alive.

Douchetardity: A Field Manual

Of all the things I love about reality television, it's the insight into average quotidian stupidity that really resonates above all others.

Now I don't tout myself as a genius or anything. Often, when people around me are discussing philosophers, I fall back on the two-sentence summaries of their works lodged successfully in my brain by a variety of half-remembered UCLA lecturers. ("Oh, yes, Hegel...Well, he discussed synthesizing things. Fascinating stuff, really...")

But I possess at least, let's say, somewhat-above-average intelligence. I did well on my SAT, I occasionally read long books for no compelling reason other than personal pleasure, and I made it to the second round out of three on "Win Ben Stein's Money." So as a person of somewhat-above-average intelligence, it's physically impossible for me to involve myself in a conversation between stupid idiots. I can't do it. If I'm there, at least one person of somewhat-above-average intelligence is participating. So I don't know how idiots really interact with one another when no one else is around, and that's what a show like "House of Carters" provides in spades.

Anyway, tonight I had a rare opportunity to get some anthropological research in at the supermarket. I was waiting in a rather extraordinarily long line to pay for my groceries and a drunk couple got in line right behind me.

The dude was a fairly standard-issue ex-fratboy douchetard, wearing a collared shirt and sport coat with all the sleeves rolled up. Like he was just coming from the trading floor or something. I noticed right away that he was using the word "whatever" far too frequently, and that he was referring to his date on more than one occasion as "bro." His date was a moderately attractive blonde wearing far too much eyeshadow and one of those tiny nose studs, where you can't tell for a second if the girl is wearing jewelry in her nose or if a shard of glass has somehow become painlessly lodged in there, undiscovered, for the past several days. Both were around, I'd estimate, their early mid-30's.

Okay, so, here's their conversation as accurately, and without embellishment, as I can reconstruct it. First, the girl picks up a magazine featuring Christina Aguilera and starts talking about how she's a whore and totally ugly and how this girl can't understand why anyone likes her. More vicious circa-2003 anti-celebrity tirades followed suit, against every woman featured on the newsstand. Did you guys know that Jessica Simpson is a bimbo? Or had you, perhaps, heard that Lindsay Lohan is a crazy party girl?

(I was a bit taken aback when this girl said that she hated Kate Winslet, because every time the actress appears on TV, "it looks like she hasnt' showered." Kate Winslet's always lookeds spic-and-span to me. There's that whole scene in Heavenly Creatures in which she's in the tub!)

After the Joan Rivers impression, these two worked their way into an equally fascinating and celebrity-themed topic - which famous people they feel that they resemble. The girl said she looks like the blonde girl from "Scrubs," formerly the replacement Becky on TV's "Roseanne." (How lame is it that I know the girl's name to be Sarah Chalke without looking it up?)

The guy then, quite hilariously, pulled out a totally lame, canned routine that he obviously has stored up for just such an occasion. See, he drops "off-handedly" that people have told him he looks like Johnny Knoxville. But the trick is, he pretends to find this insulting. "People think I look like a jackass!," was his line. The genius of this scheme is that a dim-witted but sensitive female, trying only to comfort a guy who feels slighted, will find herself in the odd position of complimenting him on looking like a really attractive guy.

This dude knows chicks dig Johnny Knoxville. But by pretending to not know this, he gets girls to say, "No, Johnny Knoxville's hot," having already made the connection between himself and Mr. Knoxville. It might actually be clever if it weren't so totally hacky. I think this guy just has really terrible delivery and can't sell the routine. In the right hands, it could be golden.

Anyway, after stroking their egos a bit in a humiliating display of vanity, the duo turned their attention (naturally) to their favorite TV shows. "Roseanne" was an early favorite, but I swear the girl actually said the following:

"That show was alright, but my favorite was always 'Home Improvement.' You wouldn't think so, but Tim Allen is hilarious."

Gentle reader, I began looking around for the camera, certain that I was being filmed for Jamie Kennedy's next miserable disgusting failure of a prank show.

So, okay...Typical mindless, shallow LA posers...Buying booze for the second half of their date...Comparing the relative comic abilities of Tim Allen, Christopher Hewitt and John Stamos...Obsessively rattling on about their favorite brands for everything (including gum!)...

What do you think these two people were purchasing? Think hard now...

If you guessed vodka and Red Bull, congratulations! You are familiar with douchetardism in its rarest and most beautiful form.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Best Music of 2006

Okay, it says "The Best" up there, but that's obviously not what I mean. I can only really give a fair listen to 1 or 2 CD's a week, to be honest. I'm typically listening to music while engaged in other activities, so I don't ever give new albums my full attention until I'm certain that I really like them. And it takes me about 4 or 5 listens to get into anything enough to have a considered opinion.

So this is my favorite music of the year, considering what a small fraction of the total music released in my favored genres I had the opportunity to really hear. In light of this caveat, I'm going to start with a list of great music that came out last year that I didn't get to listen to until 2006.


The National, Alligator

I chose Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine as my favorite album of 2005, and I still think it's really good. But I listen to Alligator songs about 4 times as often, judging by my mp3 player's statistics. Just an incredibly dense, epic collection of hard rock songs. I first heard the record in Jaunary of this year (it was on a ton of music blogger's Top Ten list) and I still discover new little flourishes in the songs that I never noticed before. I also really dig the cryptic lyrics. Many of the songs are addressed to a woman named Karen, which leads you to believe that there's some narrative going on, but if so, I haven't been able to piece anything together. Just a lot of strange imagery and fragmented memories. But man, this thing is extremely listenable, moody and compelling.

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy

Listening to this record is like having a strange, overnight conversation with someone you just met recently about their horrific, scarring childhood and recent efforts at emotional recovery. It's inspiring and beautiful, but also wrenching. Sometimes, honestly, Will Sheff and Tim Hardin's raw honestly and confessional tone gets overbearing. Perhaps I just identify and sympathize with the notion of unrequited love, a theme to which the album returns again and again, but the urgently half-screamed vocals sometimes get int he way of the lean, bouncy songs themselves. But they are terrific songs, particularly the standout (and the album's lone single), "Black."

Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary

How could I have missed this album last year? Everyone was talking about it, I remember hearing the name over and over again, and they first got noticed opening for fellow Canucks Arcade Fire. I think I had it confused with Wolf Eyes, maybe. I don't know why that would cause me to avoid hearing them, because I haven't heard Wolf Eyes either, but there you go. Anyway, this album's awesomely weird, full of spazzy energy and even kind of funny at times. The song "Modern World" still gets stuck in my head all the time, but in that good way.

John Vanderslice, Pixel Revolt

I'm only now getting around to listening to John Vanderslice's albums, which are incredibly subtle, atmospheric, lilting affairs full of ambiguous little sung stories. For some reason, this album reminds me of one of Bowie and Brian Eno's collaborations, even though it sounds nothing like those. Maybe it's the willingness to drift within the songs, the use of tape loops and keyboards. Hell, I don't know. I just heard "Trance Manual" once on the satellite radio and became hooked.

Okay, so bear all that in mind. Plenty of great music does not appear on this list because of my own blind ignorance.

Moving on...


20. Mew, And the Glass-Handed Kites

A bunch of Danes who play '80s metal ballads unironically. It's peculiar that I like this music, because I'm not really that into the music it's directly inspired by, but there you have it.

(Watch the video for "Zookeeper's Boy" off the album on YouTube.)

19. Cadence Weapon, Breaking Kayfabe

This Canadian rapper was the big hip-hop find for me this year. Really unusual beats teamed with convoluted, insightful rhymes that mix contemporary and old-school pop culture references (MySpace gets mentioned more than once) with sometimes baffling absurdity. The overall effect kind of reminds me of Aesop Rock, but Cadence's album is more smooth and stands up better to repeat listens.

(Download single "Black Hand" here.)

18. Peter Bjorn and John, Writer's Block

As the name suggests, these are three guys from Stockholm who write perfect, cozy little folk rock songs. I usually hate songs with whistling, but these guys pull it off. Now that Belle and Sebastian have imploded into cutsieness on a Care Bearsian level, Peter Bjorn and John have seemingly come along to carry the mantle of listenable, restrained twee Northern European pop.

Here's the video for "Young Folks," one of the very best songs I've heard all year.

17. Lily Allen, Alright Still

My friend Nathan confessed to me the other day that he's been digging on Lily Allen's girl-power raps secretly for a while now. I assured him that he wasn't alone; I too was won over by the sheer poptastic joy of lead single "LDN," in which Lily walks around London and notes how everyone is gross and full of shit. All the tracks share this flip, surprisingly hostile attitude, married to unbelievably bouncy, summery melodies and catchy hooks.

Here's "Smile," Lily's first music video:

16. Joanna Newsom, Ys

It's not possible to pick up everything that's going on lyrically in one of the five epic-lengthed songs on Ms. Newsom's record just by listening. You get wrapped up in the music and then forget to pay close attention to everything she's singing, and before you know it, the complex tangle of metaphors and allusions have slipped through your fingers. It's like trying to read abstract poetry with music turned up really loud. I'm not always in the mood for complicated, subtle singer-songwriter material like this, particularly when sung in Newsom's Kate Bushian (and occasionally Joni Mitchell-esque) wail, but there's no denying the power and emotional weight of some of these songs.

(Download "Monkey and Bear" here from My Old Kentucky Blog)

15. Swan Lake, Beast Moans

2/3 of Swan Lake will appear later on in this list in different bands. You'd expect that a supergroup like this would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, but it didn't really happen that way. Rather than playing like a collaborative effort between Dan Bejar, Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer, it feels like a shared B-Side collection. Now, as shared B-Side collections go, this one is pretty kickass. But still, nothing else on the album lives up to the potential of advance single "All Fires," another one of my favorite songs this year.

(Check out Swan Lake on MySpace here)

14. Tapes n' Tapes, The Loon

These guys sound a lot like Pavement. Now, the way I see it, that's a good thing. There isn't a Pavement any more, and though Stephen Malkmus is still making some interesting music, I don't like it as much as I like classic Pavement. So I'm alright with a new band coming along that sounds a lot like Pavement and writes old-school-sounding Pavement songs. I'm not sure if they're going to be able to keep this up forever, but it's good enough for #14 in 2006.

Here's the video for one of the best tracks on the album, "Cowbell":

13. Bob Dylan, Modern Times

Let's face it - even a bad Bob Dylan album is better than anything most bands will ever produce. Fortunately, this is a pretty solid Dylan album, a mix between some original compositions and reworkings of some standards, all of them infused with a old-fashioned blues and rockabilly sound and Bob's iconic snark. As the title implies, he makes a conscious effort to update his language and throw in some contemporary references, and it comes off pretty well for the most part, considering the guy's age. (For all you haters who dislike Old Fart Rock, I swear this album is really good...Pitchfork gave it an 8.3!)

12. Neil Young, Living With War

Had to give Neil the leg-up in this particular fogey-off, because his record was so vital and timely. Likewise, along with the more mellow Prairie Wind last year, Living With War represents such a comeback after years of merely adequate, mediocre releases. (Does anyone really still listen to Greendale? And let's just forget Are You Passionate?, if possible.) The album was sold on the back of "Let's Impeach the President," but that's probably the weakest track. Fiery anthems like "The Restless Consumer" and "Flags of Freedom" represent not only welcome anti-Bush political statements, but the best straight-up guitar rock Young's recorded since the '70s.

Here's Neil hilariously facing a CNN reporter from April of this year who attacked him as unpatriotic:

11. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale

There's not much I can say about this album that other writers who speak more eloquently about hip-hop have not already said. Tony Stark dares to say what the rest of us are only thinking. Namely, that a kilo represents 1,000 grams and that this is easy to remember. The vivid storytelling that just seems to tumble, free-form, out of the guy makes for the best solo Wu-Tang effort since GZA's Liquid Swords. (At least, of the one's I've heard. I'm sure several have slipped by me unnoticed.)

10. Voxtrot/Cold War Kids/Professor Murder, EPs

Totally, totally cheating. Three different EP's from three different bands congeal into a single slot on a 10 Best Albums of the Year list? It makes no sense at all. You might as well disregard the whole post. But the thing is, I burned these three EP's on a single CD together, and so I got used to listening to them together, and it seemed unfair to leave them off since I listened the fuck out of them all year. Voxtrot's "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters and Wives" is definitely one of the catchiest indie pop songs of 2006, a fuzz-rock throwback that recalls Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, or Dinosaur Jr. if they were fronted by Steve Perry. Cold War Kids' best songs are little mini-narratives built into gloomy, atmospheric piano ballads. And Professor Murder, in addition to being named after a hilarious "Mr. Show" reference, have released a tightly-coiled, spastic little EP that reminds me of early Liars. Back when they released music I could actually listen to.

(Download Voxtrot's "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives" here)

09. Starlight Mints, Drowaton

The first song I heard from this album was "Seventeen Devils," which is a near-exact replica of a Hunky Dory-era Bowie song. I expected the whole album to sound like that, but instead it's more traditional Brit Rock. The band's not British. They come from Oklahoma City. But the album nevertheless reminds me of The Kinks and The Beatles, particularly the sugary pop confection "Inside of Me."

(Download "Inside of Me" here.)

08. Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther

Quite possibly my favorite song of the year, "Roscoe," kicks off Midlake's ode to '70s country rock. It's a bit uneven, and occasionally descends into an almost-unforgivable Fleetwood Mac-ism, but Midlake successfully resurrects the spirit of CSNY on most of the genial Southern rock songs. I actually prefer the slower tracks to the more jammy rockers, particularly the title track, a graceful, quiet ballad that's the album's centerpiece.

Here's the video for "Young Bride," which is the first single from the album even though it's one of the weaker tracks:

07. Hot Chip, The Warning

I saw these guys play earlier this year at the Troubadour, and almost caught myself moving in time with the music. That would be a major develop for me, as I don't so much dance as arhythmically sway when at concerns. But what else are you going to do when presented with a juggernaut of groove like "Over and Over"? Nothing? I suppose that's what Los Angeles decorum subscribes for such a situation, now that I think about it. After all, genuine celebrities were rumored to be present!

See for yourself! Here's the video for "Over and Over":

06. Man Man, Six Demon Bag

Man Man take the experimental, gravelly noise-rock sound of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits and transform it, using flying and magic, into something I can actually listen to. Now, that's not a knock on Mssrs Waits and Van Vliet. It's a knock on my stupid brain for not being able to get them. (Also, Frank Zappa.) But I can dig the hell out of Man Man's whacked-out meta-soul. A word of warning: These songs get stuck in your head, but you should be careful walking around singing them to yourself, because it starts to sound like demonic chanting. The other day, I caught myself humming "You should always run/With a loaded gun in your mouth." Weird...

(Check out a song and video from the album at Hate Something Beautiful)

05. Thom Yorke, Eraser

Not a huge surprise for anyone familiar with my tastes, I suppose. As of this moment, I actually prefer Thom's solo effort to the last Radiohead album, though this is subject to change at any time. The spare electronic sound carried over from Kid A and Amnesiac just suits his new songs better than the more thunderous, guitar-heavy sound of Hail to the Thief. "Harrowdown Hill," "The Clock" and "Black Swan," the last of which is featured in the film A Scanner Darkly, are the standout tracks.

Here's the music video for "Harrowdown Hill":

04. Silversun Pickups, Carnavas

This album from local heroes The Silversun Pickups takes me right back to high school. It recalls the golden era of The Breeders and Smashing Pumpkins (namely, the Siamese Dream era). For some reason, the music you listen to at age 15 becomes the template for all other music. This kind of rock sounds right to me, immediately accessible. I knew all the words by the third listen. Back in my day, we'd have called it alternative, and then immediately declared that this categorization was stupid, because what is it alternative to?

Here's the video for he bestest song on the whole album, "Well Thought Out Twinkles":

03. Sunset Rubdown, Shut Up I Am Dreaming

So, yeah, I missed the boat on Wolf Parade last year, but this aggressive, spacey headtrip from WP keyboardist Spencer Krug is even better, more soulful and sophisticated. The stomping alien march of "They Took a Vote and Said No" will probably always remind me of 2006 from here on out, and "Stadiums and Shrines II" builds to a frenzied, hyperactive finish that's practically exhausting. There's something eerie about these songs that stuck with me after a few listens. In "The Empty Threats of Little Lord," Krug warns "If I ever hurt you/It will be in self-defense" before practically whimpering "If you ever come at me/I'll hurt you." It's wounded and direct, sort of like Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire. (High praise indeed).

The band performs "They Took a Vote and Said No" live in Chicago:

02. Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies

Dan Bejar, whom I knew previously only from his contributions to New Pornographers albums, really blew me away this year with his collection of hallucinatory Dylan-esque story-songs. It's hard to pick a favorite out of so many creative, unpredictable ballads, each with its own unique voice and personality, but you really can't fade the cynical, sardonic treatise "Looter's Follies," that concludes "and win/or lose/what's the difference?." It takes a little while to get used to Bejar's plaintive wail, but like Dylan's nasally whine and Neil Young's signature croak, the flaws are what make his vocals distinctive. This came out early in the year and I still listen to it all the time. Maybe I'll feel silly a year from now, but this feels like a perennial favorite in the making.

(Download "Painter in Your Pocket" here, with props to Largehearted Boy)

01. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

TV on the Radio make music that's so bold and idiosyncratic, I imagine it being transmitted to our time from 20, 30 years in the future. No one else is making a sound anywhere close to this. From Tunde Adebimpe's Peter Gabriel-by-way-of-Mickey Mouse vocals to the droning tape loops, listening to this album is an involving, disorienting experience unto itself. I've been a fan since their first EP, the majestic Young Liars, but this album represents a great leap forward for TV on the Radio as a band (not to mention a brand!). The aggressive "Wolf Like Me" and the mournful "I Was a Lover" (whose mournful horns make it the most cathartic, melancholy song in the band's catalog) start the record off on an incredible high point, and it still manages to build in intensity. The band's getting some deserved commercial attention from this record, which is impressive enough for material this difficult and non-traditional, but it's above all else a great creative achievement, easily one of the best rock albums of the decade thus far.

Behold! The suitably cinematic music video for "Wolf Like Me":


"Police Sweater Blood Vow," The Fiery Furnaces (from Bitter Tea)
"Master of None," Beach House (download here from the band's website)
"You Know My Name," Chris Cornell (from the Casino Royale soundtrack)
"When I Am Gone," Sparrow House (download here courtesy of Gorilla vs. Bear)
"Down to Rest," O'death (download here through the beauty of MySpace)
"More is Enough," Epic Man feat. Plan B (download here courtesy of Good Weather for Airstrikes)
"Complete or Completing," The Annuals (from Be He Me)
"Drunk by Noon," Birdie Busch (from The Ways We Try)
"Smiling Faces," Gnarls Barkley (one of only two listenable songs from St. Elsewhere)
"Calling Thermatico," Centro-Matic (from Fort Recovery)
"I Spread the Disease," Black Fiction (download here)
"Frozen Feet," Tacks the Boy Disaster (download here on music blog 5Acts)
"Deathhands," White Flight (download here courtesy of Said the Gramophone)
"Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me," The Pipettes (from We Are the Pipettes)
"Funeral," Band of Horses (download here)
"Louisiana," The Walkmen (from One Hundred Miles Off)
"Wrong Choice," The Lovely Feathers (from Hind Hind Legs)
"Postcards from Italy," Beirut (download here)
"Springtime Can Kill You," Jolie Holland (download here)


There was a lot of great music this year, but there were also a surprising amount of disappointments. Several of my favorite artists released highly disappointing new material. I assumed, before the year began, that most of these records would be on my Best of the Year list. Instead, newer artists pretty much took the place of veterans who weren't getting the job done.

Beck, The Information

This was okay for a few listens, but I got tired of it very fast. I think most people probably felt this way about Guero last year, but it's just hitting me now...I'm starting to get tired of Beck's Odelay-era sound, which he has come to rely on with increasing frequency. I never thought it would happen, but there you have it.

Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics

The Lips slip into self-parody when they try to recapture the magic of The Soft Bulletin, clearly their best-ever release. Seriously, listen to "The No No No Song," the first track on this album, and tell me it doesn't sound like a send-up of a loopy, pseudo-metaphysical Wayne Coyne song. The songs are flat and uninteresting, the lyrics increasingly silly and juvenile and there's an unplesant insincerity I started to detect as the album went on. Every Lips album has had its share of childish, pedestrian sub-philosophy, granted, but it was always heartfelt - more about the tactile experience of encountering the Great Unknowns than a serious discussion of their ramifications. Songs like "Vein of Stars," "It Overtakes Me" and "W.A.N.D." feel like hollow imitations in comparison, the band going through the motions because they've finally found a formula that connects with mainstream audiences.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

I feel reprehensibly indie turning on Colin Meloy & Co. just as they begin releasing albums on a major label, but what can I say? I really don't like this bloated, rambling concept album. Great Decemberist songs compress storybook historical narratives into catchy little 4 minute packages. The Crane Wife songs tend towards 6-8 minute repetitive slogs. There are a few exceptions - "Yankee Bayonet" and "O Valencia" are great songs in the classic D'rists tradition - but this represents a significant step down from Picaresque, the band's previous and arguably best album to date. I can't even listen to the Hall & Oates-esque whiteboy soul number "The Perfect Crime" because it makes me personally embarrassed for the band.

Built to Spill, You in Reverse

This sucks. Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret is probably one of my favorite rock albums. I love these guys. I started liking them after seeing them play a free show on the UCLA Campus when I was a wee little freshman there. Their previous album was disappointing, but nothing could prepare me for the soulless shell of the band on display on You in Reverse. They just sound bored. I hate to say it, but as Phish learned a few years back, if a wan, half-assed effort is all you can put together after several years on hiatus, it may be time to hang it up for good.

The Islands, Return to the Sea

The Unicorns broke up after one ingenious album, the strange and unwieldy Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone. Then, two of the three members of that band got back together and started releasing similar-sounding singles as The Islands. (Well, okay, first they formed a hip-hop/rock combo called Th' Corn Gangg, but that turned out to be short-lived.) These early singles, which included my favorite album track, "Rough Gem," were great, and I was eagerly anticipating the album, but it just doesn't come together. The Unicorns album had around 3 terrific hooks per song, but this new one kind of ambles around for a while, occasionally picking up tempo for a minute before backing off and returning to grim, death-obsessed meandering. It doesn't hold my attention for more than a song or two.

Grandaddy, Just Like the Fambly Cat

2006 was kind of a victory lap for Grandaddy, who announced they were breaking up at the beginning of the year. So it's pretty mean-spirited of me to put them on this list now that they don't even exist any more. But fuck it, this album's no good at all and I used to really like this guys. It's almost as if songwriter Jason Lytle intentionally released a dull, dreary album full of songs about how he doesn't like writing songs any more, so fans wouldn't mind seeing his band exit as much. If so, well played.

As large music conglomerates fade further and further into total insignificance, the industry-fueled hype machine became an increasingly less reliable indicator of exciting new talent. In past years, you could at least count on extremely "buzzy" new acts to stand out in some way. Instead, a lot of music received months upon months of feverishly excited prose only to land with a total thud in the marketplace. Which was the more hotly-anticipated disappointment: Gnarls Barkley's limp St. Elsewhere or The Raconteur's ridiculously inane Broken Boy Soldiers? Whose major label debut ignited less fervent enthusiasm: Morningwood or We Are Scientists? Can we ever trust the British again after The Arctic Monkeys? Aren't The Killers, in fact, far worse than Paris Hilton as recording artists, because while she understands that "Stars Are Blind" is retarded disposable pop entertainment designed with only marketing and profit in mind, those idiots think they're speaking for their generation?

And there's one album I'd like to single out, if I may. For the first three months of this year, I read endless (endless!) online raves about Danielson and his new album, Ships, which was to be a soaring epic and blah blah blah. This was the guy behind Danielson Famile, a Christian rock collective that previously gave us Sufjan Stevens. So, okay, yes, it's faith-based rock, but I tried not to hold that against them. (I like Page France, and a lot of their songs are about how much Jesus likes the little children. "A whole lot," in case you're interested.)

So I gave Ships a chance...and it's one of the most excruciating things I've ever heard. Not because of any Christianity. It's just obnoxious and random. There are a few reasonably catchy, okay songs right at the front - particularly "Did I Step on Your Trumpet" - but then it quickly descends into intermittedly quiet and then noisy blather. This is sound, not music. A typical song will have a few notes played on a piano followed by a lot of silence, then Daniel Smith singing one or two words, then more silence, then another note, then one more word. The effect is a lot like being partially deaf and underwater in an inflatable pool on the floor of your high school gymnasium while the glee club does their vocal exercizes. The whole album fills me with an inexplicable urge to beat the fuck out of a Seventh Day Adventist.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Queen

I saw The Queen, along with a grimy, faded, near-unwatchable print of Dangerous Liasons, last week at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica with the director of both films, Stephen Frears, in attendance. (I don't know how Mr. Frears felt about seeing perhaps his most celebrated work projected in such a lamentable state. One can only hope that he made his gracious post-Q&A exit during the opening credit sequence, before the filth became too overbearing.)

It's a deft and surprising film, much more humorous than I expected, and I enjoyed it very much. So I'm not quite sure why it has taken me four days to actually write up a review...Laziness, I guess.

Frears had made a docu-drama for the BBC about the early political career of Tony Blair starring a man named Michael Sheen, who in addition to possessing a great deal of charisma and a natural presence on screen also happens to look very much like the real Prime Minister. The original project having been such a success, it was decided that Sheen would reprise his role as Blair in another film, one chronicling the week following the Parisian car crash that killed Lady Diana, ex-wife to the Prince of Wales.

So though it is titled The Queen and features an assured, sharp and rightly celebrated performance by Helen Mirren as Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, Frears' film isn't character study about one of the world's most famous monarchs. Rather, Frears and writer Peter Morgan mine human comedy from the relationship between an anxious upstart politician and the outdated relic to whom he's regrettably saddled.

In the Q&A session that followed the film last Saturday, Frears postulated that the monarchy itself may fade out after the death of Queen Elizabeth. The Queen is beloved of her subjects, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the institution she represents. It's an untenable situation, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone thinks that the monarchy has no real power, and there's no Constitution giving the monarchy any official power, then the monarchy has no power. It's almost as if Brits have decided to just let these people continue to act like royalty in order to be polite, which is a very British thing to do. After all, it would be rude to ask them to move off of their 40,000 acres now. They're old!

Frears' film cuts right to the heart of this barely-concealed tension. Blair seems to know the Queen's opinion matters as he practices the various handshakes and salutory rituals one needs to make her acquaintance, but he also knows all this pomp has no deep significance. The Queen stands for tradition, but most of her subjects seem to desire change. The Queen hates celebrities, yet stripped of powers of state, she's little more than a celebrity herself. It would be tragic if it wasn't so amusing.

Frears' insightful, craftily satirical film pivots on one central concept: the notion of an old-fashioned European monarchy co-existing with a modern representational government is stupid and ridiculous. The film opens with Tony Blair's government ascending to power in a crucial election. In accordance with tradition, the first duty of an incoming Prime Minister is to visit The Queen and ask (or, more accurately, beg) for permission to form a new government.

Blair's a modern, casual kind of guy who asks everyone he works with to call him "Tony," but he's patriotic and enthusiastic enough to accept this rather awkward, humiliating ordeal with a smile. His wife Cherie (Helen McCrory), whom the Queen's advisor (Roger Allam) calls a "staunch anti-monarchist," finds the whole affair offensive, and makes it known with her fits of giggly schoolgirl laughter and her "shallow courtsy."

Frears and Morgan eventually come down on Cherie's side of this argument, taking umbrage at the idea of nobles, elevated by nothing other than birthright, lording over civil society with their antiquated rules and petty family squabbles. Accordingly, they depict all the royals as ludicrous characters in many ways.

As the petty, strangely hostile Prince Philip, James Cromwell gets the film's biggest laughs and even works in some physical comedy. I've rarely enjoyed him more on screen. A guy I've never seen in a movie before, Alex Jennings, gives a truly brilliant performance as Prince Charles, turning him into a mawkish, weepy caricature that's somehow more human than the real Prince Charles. Sylvia Syms plays Her Majesty the Queen Mother like a boozy old broad on a sitcom, gingerly tossing out rotten advice and backhanded compliments in between healthy slugs of bourbon. They're a fun group.

Still, despite Frears' sarcastic contempt for the Royal Family and the history of oppression and elitist disdain they represent, he can't quite give himself fully over to the idea of hating them. Using mostly archival footage from the immediate aftermath of Diana's death, Frears depicts the very real and very emotional grief of the English people over the loss of an ex-royal they saw as one of their own. Surely the royals still mean something to the British people if they are capable of eliciting this kind of sadness and anger.

In fact, the negative public response to Queen Elizabeth that provides most of the conflict in The Queen comes not out of resentment or hatred for the Royal Family, but bitter disappointment. Diana, whom Tony Blair called "The People's Princess" in a press conference following her death, had clearly won the PR battle following her divorce from Prince Charles. The Royals were seen as cruel and exclusionary. Diana was not one of them, she was too "common," so they kicked her out.

When the news arrived of her death in a car crash, along with new boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed, it seemed the entire world looked to Queen Elizabeth for some sort of public statement of grief. The problem is that such a thing is simply not done. HRH takes her position very seriously. She determines her public behavior based on strict guidelines, adhering always to decorum and tradition. Kings and Queens do not make emotional public statements of grief. Loss is personal and should be handled discreetly, out of the public eye. Therefore, Diana would be mourned in a private ceremony hosted by the Spencer family, and not honored officially by her former in-laws in any way.

Unfortunately, to the British public, the total lack of response from Buckingham Palace didn't feel like traditional British stoicism ("stiff upper lip and all that..."). It felt like venom. It felt like the response of a bunch of stuck-up old crones who always hated Diana and were happy now that she was dead. (Of course, it's entirely possible that Queen Elizabeth's response is rooted in her intense personal distaste for Diana. The film makes it clear that there was no love lost between the two, even as it keeps The Queen's ultimate motivations intentionally vague.) Regardless, it appeared to the public like hatred towards Diana, which they then interpreted as hatred towards all of them. And this caused significant popularity problems for the Royal Family.

Much of the film finds Sheen's Blair making the case to Mirren's monarch for breaking tradition by allowing Diana's many fans to grieve along with the royal family in a public funeral. Fortunately, the two actors have a natural chemistry and give the various machinations and power struggles realism while still making them exaggerated for comic effect.

In their first scene, with Blair taking a knee in order to formally ask for his sovereign's blessing in forming a government, the Queen intimidates him by noting the many other Prime Ministers whom she has overseen. (She lets slip that her first PM was Winston Churchill.) Later, during a phone conversation, Blair turns the tables on HRH, strongarming her over a decision not to fly the flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace despite a public outcry. Sheen exudes certainty with his voice, assuring the Queen that this is a compromise that must be made for the sake of the monarchy, while indicating his intense anxiety only with his eyebrows.

The central metaphor of the film comes soon after, as Philip decides to distract his newly-motherless grandsons by stalking a deer that has wandered on to their property. The buck, an aging but nonetheless majestic creature, wanders near where the Queen's Land Rover has broken down on the property. They share a knowing, quiet moment before she shoos it away to save its life, and immediately you kind of get where the whole movie's going. The Queen is that deer, still running along but growing tired. But moreso, the notion of having a Queen is the deer. It had a good run, and managed some impressive feats, and certainly had a lot of fascinating tradition and pageanty and history. But the concept of royalty's time is over, like the buck, and it no longer makes a lot of sense.

Frears kind of lays this all on a bit thick, particularly towards the end of the subplot (which I won't spoil here.) It's a bit obvious and self-important, while the rest of the film is a pithy delight. Fortunately, he really doesn't make too many more missteps.

Though retelling a story from less than a decade ago, concerning people who are mostly still alive and in the public eye, Frears uses admirable restraint in connecting the events of the movie to the present day. It's a bit uncanny and odd to see a fictional movie about events of the recent past like this, but once the shock of the new wears off, the iconic and famous individuals being interpreted start to come alive in their own right, as movie characters.

I suppose the case could be made that merely by representing Blair as something of a sycophant and proxy, as someone easily dazzled and willing to be pressed into service by those in a higher station, Frears is making a contemporary political commentary. There are shadows of Blair's later PR assist to our President in his advisory role to the Queen in this film.
Frears only confronts this notion head-on once, towards the end, allowing the Queen to get in a quick dig at Tony Blair's hypothetical political fortunes in the year 2006. I think it's telling that the one time the movie sort of steps outside itself and addresses the present, it's a line of dialogue given to the Queen. She may head an organization that's no longer exactly relevant, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have any cards left to play.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gore on the Floor

Of all the potential candidates for President in '08, there's really no one I'd rather vote for than Al Gore. (I had to throw that "potential candidates" line in there, because there's quite a few people I'd prefer to vote for in a general Presidential election than Al Gore. I just don't think Hugo Chavez or Stephen Colbert have any chance of winning.)

To get an inkling of why I feel like Gore's the ideal Democratic candidate, aside from the fact that he once appeared on a "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which he exchanged pot jokes with the guys from Phish, look no further than this interview from GQ. (Surely a first for Crushed by Inertia linkage!) It's brought to you courtesy of The Carpetbagger Report.

First off, let's get the obligatory denial out of the way.

So if you decide to run, do you think we would see the Al Gore from the movie? Or the Al Gore from 2000?

Well, I don’t plan to run. I don’t plan to run. And I don’t expect to run.

Yeah, right. He's just doing this interview to sell a few extra DVD's. Al Gore frequently goes on publicity tours to hawk merch. Remember the epic 30-state summer tour promoting Sane Planning, Sensible Future?

How many times a day does somebody ask you this?

Well, I’m doing a lot of interviews and it’s on the list of questions. For every one of them. And I appreciate that. I appreciate that people think enough of me still in that world to ask that question. It’s true that I haven’t, uh, gotten to the point where I am willing to completely rule it out for all time. But, that is really more a matter of the internal shifting of gears. I’m not making plans to run again.

But you’re not ruling it out?

Uh… no. [smiles]

If you truly don't expect to run for president and some journalist asks you if you're going to run for president, you say "What? Oh hell no." You don't say, "Well, at this present time, I'm tempted to say that I can't see myself potentially expecting to run any time in the immediate future."

Do you know if President Bush has seen the movie yet?

Well, he claimed that would not see it. That’s why I wrote the book. He’s a reader.


What page do you think he’s on?

I would encourage him to see the movie and read the book. I wish that he would.

Don’t you find it appalling that he won’t?

Well, you know, he’s probably no more objective about me than I am about him.

Is that...Was that just a double-face? Did Al Gore just doubly-face the President?

Do you feel that we would be safer today if you had been president on that day?

Well, no one can say that the 9-11 attack wouldn’t have occurred whoever was president.

Okay, so he's still thinking politically and says the diplomatic thing here, but check out what happens when the reporter presses him just a little bit.

Really? How about all the warnings?

That’s a separate question. And it’s almost too easy to say, “I would have heeded the warnings.” In fact, I think I would have, I know I would have. We had several instances when the CIA’s alarm bells went off, and what we did when that happened was, we had emergency meetings and called everybody together and made sure that all systems were go and every agency was hitting on all cylinders, and we made them bring more information, and go into the second and third and fourth level of detail. And made suggestions on how we could respond in a more coordinated, more effective way. It is inconceivable to me that Bush would read a warning as stark and as clear [voice angry now] as the one he received on August 6th of 2001, and, according to some of the new histories, he turned to the briefer and said, “Well, you’ve covered your ass.” And never called a follow up meeting. Never made an inquiry. Never asked a single question. To this day, I don’t understand it. And, I think it’s fair to say that he personally does in fact bear a measure of blame for not doing his job at a time when we really needed him to do his job. And now the Woodward book has this episode that has been confirmed by the record that George Tenet, who was much abused by this administration, went over to the White House for the purpose of calling an emergency meeting and warning as clearly as possible about the extremely dangerous situation with Osama bin Laden, and was brushed off! And I don’t know why—honestly—I mean, I understand how horrible this Congressman Foley situation with the instant messaging is, okay? I understand that. But, why didn’t these kinds of things produce a similar outrage? And you know, I’m even reluctant to talk about it in these terms because it’s so easy for people to hear this or read this as sort of cheap political game-playing. I understand how it could sound that way. [Practically screaming now] But dammit, whatever happened to the concept of accountability for catastrophic failure? This administration has been by far the most incompetent, inept, and with more moral cowardice, and obsequiousness to their wealthy contributors, and obliviousness to the public interest of any administration in modern history, and probably in the entire history of the country!

Um, yeah. Exactly. Can we just elect this guy right now, in some sort of elaborate Schwarzeneggerean recall election? Get me Scalia on the phone. He's not busy worrying about the environment, he has time to talk to me for a few minutes...

(The best part of California electing this goony movie star doofus to public office, by the way, is that it birthed the neologism 'Scwarzeneggerean'. I suppose it could have already existed: "a manner of behavior composed of or indicating a childish bratty chauvanism; of or relating to something large and obnoxious." But now that he's genuinely a politician, the word has clear and definitive meaning.)

Back to Al Gore:

But how do you really feel?

(cracks up)

What’s the nicest thing you can say about George Bush?

He made a terrific appointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Ok, Is there a second best thing?

I can’t think of another one, actually.

There you have it...The elusive triple-face.