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Archive for February, 2011

Wes Anderson’s 1998 film “Rushmore” is an examination of the process of relationships, and the many ways one can achieve, destroy, and rebuild them. Complete with obstacles and character growth, the film is wholeheartedly coming-of-age. Its sparkling set design and sophisticated camera work is a joy to watch and at times helps to move the story along when the occasionally thin screenplay can’t.

The film chronicles an absurdly eventful year in the life of an eccentric teenager named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). He is an ambitious poor kid on scholarship at the prestigious prep school Rushmore. Max writes plays, oversees the school’s bee keeping society, and seems to have his hand in every other extracurricular activity going on around campus. Early in the film, his ambition impresses a millionaire named Herman Blume (Bill Murray), as well as Rushmore’s newest faculty member, the beautiful Miss Cross (Olivia Williams).

Max is drawn to Blume’s bluntness in a commencement speech in the school’s chapel in which he advises the few less-fortunate in the crowd to “Take dead aim at the rich kids.” Blume also mentions that this approach is what brought him his millions. Max is satisfied by Blume’s words and approaches him after the speech. After a few meetings, the two form a bond of mutual adoration: Max admires Blume’s rags-to-riches success and Blume seems to see a younger version of himself in Max.

The friendship with Miss Cross comes easy too, Max is attracted to her beauty and warmth, and she likens Max’s eccentricities to that of her recently deceased husband. Max quickly develops an infatuation with her, and on the debut night of his new play “Serpico,”(which also happens to be the first time Blume and Miss Cross meet) Max drunkenly confesses his love for her. This romantic attempt is an obvious product of Blume’s aforementioned advice, and although it certainly compromises things, Miss Cross’ school teacher-tolerance keeps her friendship with Max somewhat intact. From then on, Max, Miss Cross, and Blume form a friendly trio that is initially good-natured, but delves into aspects of jealousy, revenge, ultimately forgiveness—a rather uncommon route for relationships.

The peculiarities of these friendships at times border on implausible, but the pristine visual experience of this film almost always assists the storytelling process. When Max rides his broken bike in the middle of a thunderstorm to Miss Cross’ house, and climbs an un-introduced ladder up to her bedroom window, the beautiful detail of her room and the patient long-shots of the scene makes one forget to question why Miss Cross isn’t surprised at all by Max’s unannounced arrival. Seemingly deliberate diegetic holes like this flaw the story, but their visual components add a mystique to film that is both subtle and intimate.

When these flaws aren’t present, the film absolutely shines. In one heated scene, where Max is being scolded by Miss Cross for his immature romantic intentions, the shaking hand-held camera creates a tense, awkward experience. The bright yellows and blues of the classroom in which the argument takes place remind one so much so of an elementary school reprimand, where the discomfort was almost always unbearable.

Visceral scenes like this are abundant in “Rushmore,” and although it’s not perfect, this film is a beauty, and will no doubt affect anyone who believes they have an understanding of the way friendships are built.

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Television, “Marquee Moon”

What was so exciting about “Layla” is that it had an almost tangible emotion about it: you could feel Eric Clapton’s pine for Pattie Boyd (the album’s subject, as well as his best friend’s girl). This bold-faced adoration was clear in the lyrics, and championed in the guitar work. Duane Allman and Clapton fashioned a coherent bond between their licks and the album’s message. They synthesized desperation, shamelessness, and love in a framework of punchy riffs and tasty phrases. And above all else, their complimenting styles were so well matched, that this double-guitar onslaught has been unmatched by anything rock or pop or music since, until now.

After four years of CBGB boot camp, New York quartet Television have finally released their debut LP. “Marquee Moon” is sensational, and features some of the decade’s most invigorating duel-guitar work. The snake-like, almost timid squirm of Tom Verlaine’s phrasing is wildly lyrical and a stark, but fitting contrast to Richard Lloyd’s; whose more traditional, riff-oriented lines create a sturdy backbone of rhythmic—and occasional lead—texture. Together, the two climb scales and tear through hooks that remain lodged like a bullet in your musical subconscious.

In the urgent opener “See No Evil,” Verlaine and Lloyd initiate a structural basis for the album’s flickering interplay: swift, scraping rhythm paired with spiraling leads. Together, these counterpoints create sinuous trances that direct the raw, floating bottom that is Billy Fricca on drums and Fred Smith on bass. In the raunchy detective’s tale “Prove It,” the quartet opts for a staggered entrance approach (scrape, bottom, spiral), that eventually culminates in a screeching and tense clamor that is all-the-more rewarding when you remember where it started.

What makes these guitars so infectious is their minimalism: where “Layla” relied on sheer proficiency on the part of licks and improvisation, “Marquee Moon” fosters a need for composition, favoring tightly knit repetitions over dazzling solo efforts. That’s not to discount the solos on this album though, they are tasteful and unique, but come off more so as appendages than focal points. The one exception is the title track, in which Verlaine slips and slides through a five-minute barrage of modal expression and trembling vibrato that is as confusing to a “Layla” lover’s ear as the song’s lyrics are to pretty much anyone: “I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall lightning struck itself.”

In the equally surreal “Venus De Milo,” Verlaine nervously warbles around the dreamy philosophy of an alternate existence. “Broadway seemed so medieval/it seemed to flap, like little pages” is about as urban-psychedelic as you can get, and give Verlaine credit for combining these opposing mindsets, not even in his druggier Creem years did Clapton ever make such a daring juxtaposition. Thoughtful abstractions like this are frequent throughout “Marquee Moon,” but remain second to the album’s exceptionally sophisticated guitar attack.

When emerging from a punk rock scene that nurtures the compression of song-form as wholeheartedly as say, The Ramones, Television’s complexities are especially unique. They are by no means a punk rock band; in fact, their Stooges-like ruggedness and Steve Reich-like intricacies blur the distinction of what kind of rock Television actually is. But, judging from the intense positive pleasure that each of the eight songs of off “Marquee Moon” provide, it’s safe to say this sound won’t stay unique for very long.

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Bright Eyes, “The People’s Key”

It’s been almost four years since the last Bright Eyes record, 2007’s dense and orchestral  “Cassadaga.” In that time, the band’s leader Conor Oberst has recorded two folk/rock solo albums and a super group debut with the Traveling Wilburys-themed Monsters of Folk. All three of these albums carried a sonic similarity to one another and are recommended to listeners of the traditional Americana fancy—a fancy which Oberst has made clear he has since his seminal country-folk effort: 2005’s “I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning.” That album’s contrasting companion piece, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” however, nurtured a much more experimental and electronic sound, using an array of twitchy programming and unnerving synthesizers to underpin Oberst’s typically contemplative lyrics. Bright Eyes’ newest release “The People’s Key” recalls this digital style, but also retains elements of the group’s back catalogue, making the case that a self-referential mindset can still yield surprising material.

Musically, this album is complex. It’s clear that in his time off from Bright Eyes, Oberst has garnered an affinity—and talent—for studio tampering, adding layers of cosmic synthesizers and patchwork polyrhythms to his generally simple and traditional songwriting approach. This technique is apparent in the swirling pulse of “Shell Games” and the eerie drone of “Approximated Sunlight” where undulating backbeats ripple their way through a natural seeming, yet clearly manipulated, verse-chorus environment. On the grainy piano ballad “Ladder Song,” Oberst sheds the textural approach altogether, opting for a bare bones, reverb-heavy vocal-piano duet. This musical juxtaposition is apparent throughout “The People’s Key,” and this variety speaks to the immediacy and intrigue of the album’s 11 songs.

This “instant contact” ideal is not so apparent in the album’s lyrics—the themes are about as dense as “Cassadaga’”s, and slightly more esoteric. The off-hand—at times obscure—references to cultural symbols (“Triple Spiral”) and cosmology (“Jejune Stars”) will no doubt send you to Google.  In “A Machine Spiritual (The People’s Key),” these cryptic references are applied in a more political fashion, leaving the listener to discern how a “backwards, black-faced minstrel show” has anything to do with Eva Braun (Adolf Hitler’s wife, thanks Google) dying her hair. That’s not to discredit the search though; curveball references like this have always made their way into Bright Eyes songs—often with rewarding results. And, when Oberst mentions “the Fuhrer” and his “child wife” in the all-encompassing redemption song “One for You, One for me,” you know he’s not just being bombastic.

The message in the album’s clearest song, the adversarial “Beginner’s Mind,” however, is exceptionally easy to grasp. While adopting a famously emotive chord progression that was first heard in the Phil Phillips standard “Sea of Love,” Oberst croons vehemently while guiding (“Do the opposite/of all those tangled hypocrites/who say that the experiment failed”) and praising (“stay a while/my inner child/I’d like to learn your tricks”) the clean-slate beginner in all of us. The song’s quick, almost frantic pace reflects the urgency of its message and its thumping crescendos help applaud this idyllic standard of human experience.

From the tampering of song tradition to the increased need for lyrical decoding, “The People’s Key” is a natural extension of the imagination of Conor Oberst—Bright Eyes fans will certainly like it. Aside from “Beginner’s Mind,” however, the album’s universality is questionable and it’s unclear how many of those traditional Americana fans will enjoy this record.

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Nathan Rabin’s comments on Kris Vire’s Critical Condition roundtable discussion are relevant and varied. Judging from the fact that all of his input comes in the second half of the discussion, it’s reasonable to assume that Rabin joined the discussion late. However, his light input carries enough weight and insight to ensure that his critical perspective is one of the most substantial within the roundtable.

Rabin’s critical duties as head writer at The Onion’s A.V. Club lie mostly within music and film, but a contextual critique of pop culture is almost always present in his work. Often assuming the role of an informed listener/viewer, Rabin gives his readers a hefty amount of exposition, as well as a sound and reliable perspective. His knowledgeable viewpoint is rooted in passion: “I’ve always seen criticism as an extension of fandom. If you’re not passionate about something you probably shouldn’t be writing about it.”

Although his interests in music and film motivate his critical passion, Rabin’s faith in his readers is far less substantial. One of his first comments in the discussion cites the “anonymity of the blogosphere” as what brings out the worst in readers. This perspective is essentially rooted in the fear that the ability to read an article and immediately post a comment that chastises or praises its viewpoint can ultimately bring about a false sense of critical entitlement within the reader. The idea that no one really knows who you are as a reader—and to an extent, a writer—somehow makes your opinion valid; or just makes you more confident in letting the world know that you have one. This completely undermines the informed listener/viewer aesthetic that Rabin himself has worked so hard to champion, and as a result, seems to frighten him.

Later in the discussion, Rabin defines the “anti-intellectual bias” and its longstanding relationship with pop criticism. The idea that “snooty eggheads don’t know anything ’bout movies that Joe Six-Pack doesn’t,” serves almost as a mocking defense against Rabin’s aforementioned anonymity complex. However, this time it seems as if the reader’s anonymous Joe Six-Pack doesn’t need the input of Rabin’s informed snooty egghead. Rather, Joe Six-Pack is content in forming his own ideas about a certain art form. So, in this scenario, where both entities have their own opinions, what is it that separates the two archetypes?

Everyone has an opinion, and Rabin is aware of this. However, he is also aware that it takes a certain amount of courage and intellect to be able to voice your opinion to an entire world of readers. It is intellect that draws your readers in, and courage that keeps you from being (or becoming) anonymous. This combination of bravery and insight is the separating factor. And in good criticism, you can’t have one without the other.

Rabin’s ideas are keen and thought provoking, and judging from his sparse but tasteful input within the roundtable discussion, it’s safe to assume that these ideas are a product of his own courage and intellect, and as an extension, his own valid criticism.

Link: http://chicago.timeout.com/articles/features/25801/chicagoas-top-taste-makers-discuss-why-they-critique-culture

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