Sunday, December 14, 2008

2008: The Year’s Best Music: ALBUMS






It is testament to the diverse year popular music has enjoyed that even up to the time of writing this I wasn’t exactly sure who would land the top spot. I know that sounds weird but I had to use a near-mathematical structure just to show the degrees between the picks. Thematically, there was no one artist trending who overshadowed everyone else. Twelve months ago M.I.A’s landmark Kala topped my album list and threatened to let loose a funky, global infection of beats and matching attitude. Note that word—attitude—because maybe, just maybe, that was the signpost of the year. By the way, if you’re still fooling yourself that she isn’t the biggest music star globally then check her out on SPIN’s December cover and even the ultra-boring Grammy’s couldn’t ignore her anymore (her Paper Planes snagged a Record of the Year nomination). It is interesting though that the state of popular music has repositioned itself to a more critical bent, one I think that even conservative record labels are being forced to accept. I caught an interview on YouTube recently with the year’s best ‘find’, Janelle Monae, where she talked about her creative process and how artists now are more concerned with quality, not sales. This is a stunning about face from the music industry. Need proof: Monae is signed to Bad Boy records, a label notorious for milking every dime it can.

It is all dicey for now but this is, to borrow from a political slogan, ‘change we can believe in’. This is especially heartening because hip/hop soul is the genre headlining this change. No one played a bigger part than Erykah Badu, who returned with an album that put her contemporaries to shame. Badu is her generation’s conscience, an artist whose entire personality embodies the cyclical nature of a movement. If she resurrected soul eleven years ago with Baduism, then she filters it in stages with part one of her New Amerykah series. The aforementioned Monae—who is, in truth, part Badu, part Joi, part Lauryn Hill—is the result of such an evolutionary process. She is an assortment of influences flooding creativity. Ruling music is what Santi White is all about too. Billed as heir-apparent to M.I.A, White—who is the main entity in Santogold—spun newness over the 80’s vibe that she’s comfortable pandering to. Some were divided but that’s only because such mastery over an era we’d all like to forget is a stunning thing. So, thanks to those women American hip/hop is finding itself again. After years of obvious degradation, things are changing. Other genres are playing catch up but rock looked inward and found much tenderness. Dance music dominated early on but acts like Hot Chip still flounder for full length album consistency.

My list features, for the first time, no one album that is an immediate masterpiece. The top pick received 8.75 out of ten on my scale. There is a reason for this but for all the consistency this supports my view that it is a care-taker year. I hope next year will see an all out attack on our pop sensibilities.

Here are the 20 best albums of 2008:

1 Metropolis Suite I: The Chase EP (Janelle Monae):I’m an alien from out of space/ sent to destroy you’, croons Monae on her lead single Violet Stars Happy Hunting and given her penchant for all things robotic, pardon me if I believe her. Monae is the mixed propulsion of many innovators like Outkast, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and even the cool weirdness of Bjork. She’s grown up listening to them and filtered them through her own dedicated lens. The aforementioned Violet Stars... is gloriously carefree with its energy. But funk aside, soul music is given the freshest spin since Aaliyah on Many Moons and Sincerely Jane. Along with the title track, the EP is stunning it the scope it explores. She’s got people believing in soul music again. Look out for her debut proper because that’s domination time. 8.75



2. New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War (Erykah Badu): Badu, at thirty-seven, has come full circle with New Amerykah, a disc that gleefully erases the frustration one feels hearing lesser artists attempt such depth. What separates her from peers is her ability to take chances while taking stock. All this while showing humour and resilience: her focus on The Healer stunningly puts hip/hop in check with the stark reality that the genre is currently, ‘bigger than religion’. No matter her politics—whether personal or controversial—Badu has finally complimented her 90’s masterpiece Baduism with an equal worthy of all the admiration my mere pen can ink on it. 8.68


3. For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver): the story of Justin Vernon going off to mourn the end of his band is famous now but the question that will continue to taunt him is why hadn’t he done so earlier? If this becomes the normal result of embattled musicians then I’m all for it. For Emma, Forever Ago is a gorgeous album, best listened to early in the morning or during rainfall. There’s peacefulness, a type of resolve to tracks like Flume and Lump Sum. He could have padded the album with safe, structured songs but credit him for clenched-teeth grit of The Wolves (Act I & II), the brilliant endgame of Creature Fear and the title track swirls endlessly into the stuff of greatness. 8.66


4. Santogold (Santogold): Philly native Santi White is the residual force of this entity (John Hill runs the tweaks in the background). The album effortlessly mirrors the 80’s pop vibe she clearly fell in love with growing up, without overdoing it. Subtle tracks like Lights Out and Anne reveal a Pixies fixation that is mingled with a contemporary funk intuition. Even better, the punk-tinged You’ll Find a Way runs its heavenly chorus with remarkable skill. Not content there, she rolls out ska by numbers on Say Aha and infuses it with dub and new wave. If that hasn’t hooked you then L.E.S Artistes tags along merely for bragging rights and, as brawta, Shove It downright kicks ass. She could have comfortably fit right into ‘American M.I.A’ space critics were desperately trying to pin her down in but White’s brilliance is as stubborn as it is unique. One hell of an authoritative body of work too. 8.59



5. Dear Emily, Best Wishes, Molly (Prussia): for the most part, punk was pretty low-laying this year but no one told Prussia. These kids actually impress upon the genre their own intent: Oil wreaks itself with a type of narcissism, slick its space with lyrics that actually fits its title. Supreme Being glides over its start-stop-start terrain. There’s a wide-eyed pragmatism that Prussia blends on the album that keeps the focus steady. Even more stunning is the funkiness of their beats (Lady, Lady). It’s not all sledge here; there’s some real heart and realism in it too. Besides how does one not love a Rolling Stones-esque track like Closed Lips? 8.44

6. All Hour Cymbals (Yeasayer): released in the USA around the same time Radiohead dropped In Rainbows, Yeasayer’s debut got almost no attention. Indeed, I hadn’t even heard of them until its release in the UK this year. Good thing too because it is one hell of a debut: Sunrise opens things up with a lovely vibe but even it pales to the next track, Wait for the Summer, arguably the year’s best track. It’s a revival and big Western tent concept that swells with each couplet and it never let’s up. 2080, another epic track, features some children voices towards the end in a classy touch. These are, incidentally, the first three tracks. The rest of the album is just as fascinating with its variations of tension of emotion that the band can muster. 8.40




7. Music Hole (Camille): it’d be a pity if Music Hole is allowed to fall through the cracks this year because though it has received scant blog attention, its best tricks rivals that of any other disc released. Katie’s Tea is one of many stunning numbers that feature the chanteuse outmanoeuvring her American counterparts. These divine moments (Home is Where it Hurts/ Waves/ Kfir) uncover the true indicator of her growth: a broadened palate of influences. If that isn’t enough then check out the seven minute wonder that is Money Note, one of the great tracks this year. 8.40



8. In Ear Park (Department of Eagles): part Grizzly Bear (Daniel Rossen) and part New York air, this band builds their tracks from within a smouldering motion and recycles them through winsome experimentation. No One Does it Like You is atypical of their sound but even within such set standards they find ways to eke out brilliance: Teenagers is a daring riff and the masterpiece Waves of Rye rotates itself blissfully. Not often can folk and electronic acts find the nexus between both genres and manage such gorgeous results but DOE get away because their aspirations are always to take and never to seek permission. 8.30

9. Exit (Shugo Tokumaru): Not because every year-end list must have some vaguely-known foreign act is Tokumaru here but this is just some damn fine music by way of Japan. Parachute is a gorgeous pop number, replete with a sing-song chorus. Green Rain twitches with a fiddle a-la’ Animal Collective while Button may be the cross-over hit that could make him known in America’s pop market. The track features actual singing juxtaposed with steep instrumentals. While blogs praise American experimentalists like Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance, they bore me because I know they can push beyond the confines they work with. Tokumaru is the best line of reasoning this year to support my view. 8.29




10. Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend): there will be endless comparisons to Paul Simon but unlike him VW are unrelenting in their ability to just have fun. The one-two punch of Mansard Roof to Oxford Comma is among the strongest this year. Several critics have tried to negate the feel-good aspect of the band, as if their Ivy League achievements exclude them from musical greatness. What they fail to mention is beyond the surface of all this hippy vibe, there is complexity in volumes. A-Punk throws riffs around like prized boxer. The Peter Gabriel name-check in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa is more than a ploy, it’s an allegiance call. Lyrically, there’s some breathy stuff too: M79 and Campus are both backed up by furious twiddling and backing choruses. Conventional wisdom would have us expecting a letdown at some point but VW clearly do not pander to the idea of their music have greater significance than to themselves and, quite frankly, that will do for now. 8.27



The best of the rest:

11. Dig, Lazarus, Dig! (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds): this year’s Nick Cave apotheosis has the towering title track setting the mood for wiseacres that carry right through this blistering opus. 8.25

12 At Mount Zoomer (Wolf Parade): it’s not easy trying to follow up an immaculate debut but somehow I never doubted Wolf Parade would do it. At Mount Zoomer is a complex sophomore effort, replete with great craftsmanship. 8.24

13. Sun Giant EP (Fleet Foxes): if the ultimate aim of an EP is to whet one’s appetite for a new band then consider Sun Giant an overachiever. 8.22

14. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson): depressing as hell, especially the masterpiece Buriedfed, but seldom has a musician been able to sum up the hopeless state people can get in at times. 8.20

15. Chunk of Change EP (Passion Pit): like Of Montreal, this band has a whale of a time grinding emotional love axes. 8.13

16. Furr (Blitzen Trapper): quietly moving across its intent, Furr proves how skilful Blitzen Trapper peddles their brand of blues/pop-rock and taking risks while doing so. 8.00

17. Skeletal Lamping (Of Montreal): a thinking man’s idea, Barnes presents a portfolio that incorporates his usual eccentricities and queer vagueness. Prince is the role model here so this embodiment is sexier than before, edgier and pushing more buttons. 8.00

18. Red Letter Year (Ani DiFranco): DiFranco, an iconoclast in the middle of a career arc, proves that there’s still much left in the tank despite her hectic pace. 8.00

19. That Lucky Old Sun (Brian Wilson): or, Smile part two, Wilson continues to document his love affair with Southern California via a musical travelogue. 8.00

20. Please Mr. Boombox (The Lady Tigra): think of a sound that is reminiscent of M.I.A but without the divisive politics but with just as strong a personality. 8.00

Thursday, December 11, 2008

THE 50 BEST SONGS of 2008: PART ONE






While we wait for the publication of my top 10 songs of the year (in the Bookends section of this coming Sunday Observer) here is the listing from 11-50. Last year I did a top 100 and that was the intention this time around but due to an unexpected change of my computer set up, I lost all those songs I had amassed. I'm bummed by the loss but my PC has never moved quicker so...

Many of these songs will appear on other lists and I'm not surprised because the quality of them all is unimpeachable. Quite frankly, the order at times could have been switched up and i would not have minded. Ok, here we go:


50.
Run (Gnarls Barkley): the one really great rump-shaker from the sophomore album that wasn't quite a slump but not exactly mind-blowing either. This is the type of jittery blast of cool magic that Cee-Lo can accomplish in his sleep and here he does it like the ringmaster we've come to love and accept.


49. Kids (MGMT): fun stuff yes but as much as a call to arms as a return to innocence dance retreat. MGMT prove here that they are not just about airy, flimsy pretensions but skimming that surface to give a glimmer of a future....er, growing up.


48. Beat (Health, Life and Fire) (Thao and The Get Down Stay Down): a breathy, manipulative feat under the three minute mark. Thao frames her feminism mystique slowly, sweetly but ultimately to the detriment of her doomed lover.


47. What New York Used to Be (The Kills): no matter that the 'used' could drop its last letter to describe that lovely modern continuum, lead singer Alison Mosshart nails the decadence we're all hustling towards.

46. Sax Rohmer #1 (Mountain Goats): I tried hard not to like this track, I tried to classify it as too earnest, too insistent but for all its flawless traits the song hints at a type of moralistic right of way that is oddly affecting.


45. Galaxy of the Lost (Lightspeed Champion): an interesting pop/rock/country mix from this dude who most critics would have forgotten already but Lightspeed deftly proves that mashing genre boundaries can be fun yet vital.
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44. Apocalyptic Friend (Eef Barzelay): a fuzzy, one-tone social commentary aimed at getting you ready for the afterlife? Hmm...maybe Barzelay is the pop soothsayer we've been dreading all this time but it's hard to hate this pretty awesome message.


43. Skeleton Man (The Evangelicals): wispy, fragile like breath blowing in the wind, Skeleton Man treads nicely but the scary bit towards the end fantastically puts it over the top.


42. Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Helio Sequence): somehow I just knew this would end up close to the previous pick and why they remind me of each other is unclear but this yin yang effect remains vivid. It's the best track from their solid latest album because it best resonates their simplicity bordering on greatness.


41. Many Shades of Black (The Raconteurs): while I was not a fan of the last White Stripes project it wasn't because Jack White was slacking off but rather because he wasn't peeling away layers fast enough. This slow burner stops you dead in your tracks every time you think a rocker can't be tender or find tender things to say.


40. Keys to the House (Mono in VCF): a real tear-jerker of love lost, labored over and finally put away with cool professionalism.


39. Mummy Beach (Hot Lava): a luscious throw-away to a lusty past, full of recollections that seem more than just a passing fixation of the older woman.


38. Royal Flush (Big Boi featuring Andre3000 & Raekwon): hopefully this is just a tasty treat to sate us from the impatient wait for the next album from Outkast---hell who am I fooling, from either of the principals. It's another major sample project but really no one does this pastiche better.


37. Poison Dart (The Bug featuring Warrior Queen): though only non-Jamaicans will fall ape shit over the entire album, this track stands out because it doesn't try too hard to be hardcore...it just is. Warrior Queen nails the bad chick prototype and could actually teach her local counterparts a thing or too.
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36. Transitional Joint (Elzhi): hip/hop at its old school finest.


35. Santa Claus (Lee 'Scratch' Perry'): though Repentance is largely laughable fun (I mean that in a good way of course) it's good to know that the original stepper can unsheathe himself into a powder keg of power from time to time, just so you know who the boss is.


34. Snake in the Grass (Thomas Function): a joyous throw-down of punk attitude encrouching upon guitars.


33. Mercy (Duffy): if Amy Winehouse was the drunk, beaten-down Brit hope last year then here comes Duffy, shining white Chanel suit-light upon a pop landscape that was/is willing to accept her gorgeous 60s-loving ditty.


32. Down the Line (Jose Gonzales): a perfect, seamless ode to those hoping against despair and somehow managing against the odds.


31. Flowers Forever (Black Rosary): psychedelic, lush wonder.


30. I've Got Your Number (Passion Pit): a Valentine gift for a girlfriend, Michael Angelakos lays a wickedly insistent falsetto down to prove how the retro feel of electronic music can have heart and a good head for what just sounds right. You can dance to this mutha too.


29. Paper Planes (M.I.A): it had seemed too unreal for Miss Arulpragasam to land a Grammy nomination for this her American hit but lo and behold even stuffy suits are taking note. By now you've all heard about the Clash sample hijacked with cash registers and her whiny vocals so no need to beat it to death here but note the perfection of the pastiche method and creed: steal, beg, borrow, use. That is the trademark being celebrated here.
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28. Creature Fear (Bon Iver): even though the rainy season is behind us, this song--hell, the entire brilliant album--still makes me feel like a downpour of raw emotion. The breathy, desperate end is rushed but you sense of longing has never ever been better etched within a pop song.

27. He's My Man (Jean Grae): 'each morning/my man/goes downtown' croons Grae bordering on a double meaning that is as stunning as it is subversive but if Grae excels in positing a feminine level of intelligence on other songs, here she incorporates another element, something shouldering relationships and it is poignant, desperately self-involving.


26. My Manic & I (Laura Marling): the Grammy website claims that it recognizes excellence in music irrespective of album sales but if that's the case then why did Duffy and Adele land nominations and the amazing Marling did not? That's a side issue but as proved by this track, Marling's depth as a singer-songwriter runs circles around the other two.


25. Highly Suspicious (My Morning Jacket): yes, it's an excuse to imitate Prince but I'm not complaining.


24. Knots (Pete and the Pirates): not bad for a rock song trying to plug into emo a bit too much.


23. Crimewave (Crystal Castles): electro-clash deluxe...you see, this is possible with vocals.


22. Wicked Wisdom (Of Montreal): Kevin Barnes aka Georgie Fruit aka black she-male unleashes his, er...um, manifesto?


21. I'm Good, I'm Gone (Lykke Li): toe-tapping pop nugget.


20. You Cheated Me (Martha Wainwright): sister of Rufus but with this track she has supplanted him as head diva of that family. The track is the ultimate trap of male-female relationships...evolving to a type of Fatal Attraction level of letting go and all the difficulties that get entangled along the way.

19. Blind (Hercules & Love Affair): their debut is a tad overrated but with Antony Hegarty old-mail vocals soaring, this track literally sizzles, whether in the gay clubs or at your week-end treadmill work-out.

18. Gamma Ray (Beck): still locked out of his funk mansion but Beck is at least on the road searching hard and this pop jam is the perfect clue.


17. Cold Shoulder (Adele): I'm not sure what spell Chasing Pavements has worked on you but this soaring, jazzy number made me believe that this brash Scot could have something going for her after all.


16. Williams Blood (Grace Jones): sixty you say, sixty...for real?!
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15. Mr. Carter (Lil Wayne featuring Jay-Z): ho-hum, the two male power-houses of rap not named Outkast team up to assess each other as well as to flow their crank. Weezy twists his lines crisply---note the subversive use of 'parapalegic' twice---and that pussy rant will crack you up. Brilliant.


14. Divine (Sebastien Tellier): the other French pop act on the list, Tellier's Sexuality opus didn't contain enough frothy tracks like this one but who knew you could dive head first into pop and find super pop?


13. Block of Ice (The Oh Sees): screaming 'leave me alone yet play with me' at the same time, just add a touch of weirdness and, presto, here's the end result. I'm surprised I love it this much too.


12. Waves of Rye (Department of Eagles): spins so gorgeously that its beauty makes me giddy.


11. Mykonos (Fleet Foxes): if I read one more year-end list praising their debut--easily the most over-hyped album of '08---I'll literally puke but their EP contains sunny moments of raw joy and this was the most haunting track on it.








Tuesday, December 2, 2008

GRAMMY PREDICTIONS

I do not normally weigh in on the Grammys but seeing that I mentioned it yesterday then I might as well put in my two cents worth for the nominations (to be announced tomorrow). Now, going through the prevoius years in this decade, one realises that the nomination process is one of circuitry but every now and then a surprise sneaks in. my main grouse with the Grammys is the process. It allows music execs to push rather forcibly the mainstream acts they want to be highlighted in major categories while shutting out/restricting everyone else in minor categories (if they land a nomination). It is not for anything that some of the great innovators of modern music have not won in deserved categories.

That said, once you have been annointed with Grammy gold --think U2, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones---it is equally difficult for you not to be nominated. This is called playing it safe and all award shows are notorious for it but it just seems like the Grammys, per capita, suffer from this nepotism to its own detriment.

This year marks a low in terms of album sales in North America and it's very ironic that in a year when the collective creativity bug hit, the financial rewards have been thinly rewarded. What accounts for this? Beats me but I think a new, dynamic way to market all viable artists could help. Music can encompass us all, not segregate into skewered categories aimed merely to forever divide.

I won't wade too deep here...just the four main categories and a smattering of others.

Record of the Year

This is the popularity contest that best shows Grammy voters trying to be hip with what sold well as well as to compromise with sentimentality. With music lovers choosing to buy/download singles instead of albums, this is tricky. Nonetheless, Coldplay's Viva la Vida has been enormously popular (not on my year-end song list, so I'm not heavily for it) and Grammy loves them to an extent so don't be surprised to hear it announced. Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl had shock value and in this post-Prop 8 vote could be seen as a controversial choice, one that would play out nicely for the cameras. Rihanna will be hard to ignore as her chart domination continued with Disturbia or even Take a Bow. Then there is Duffy's infectious Mercy, a sunny throw away to a Motown past that seems destined for a nomination. Leona Lewis has a lot behind her too so Bleeding Heart could force someone else out. I wouldn't be surprised if the sentiment is will a B.B King track ends up here or sap like I Apologize by OneRepublic.

Song of the Year

Snag one and you're almost guaranteed to land the other so all the above information applies but as that would be too predictable, the Grammys also tends to give singer-songwriters great consideration here. So, Jack Johnson could get a track here. Jon Mayer, your nomination is here. Maybe Adele, Snow Patrol, Alicia Keys and all the usual suspects.


Album of the Year

The biggest question here is if the nominating body (NARAS) feels it can avoid Tha Carter III. It's among the best selling albums of the year, as ambitious as albums come and critically loved. If Weezie doesn't get nominated then a lot of potential viewers will not tune in so I think his may be a lock. There may be room, gulp, for clunkers like E=Mc2 or Hard Candy because they sold fairly well but it seems unlikely this time around. I'm not sure if Key's As I Am is eligible or if U2 put out anything but Grammy loves them so expect anything. B.B. King could be in the runnings as well as Jack Johnson. There is Kanye West on a album-nomination roll...there is Ne-Yo consistently improving and looking to get nominated. Coldplay surely will land a nomination but which of the women will?


Best New Artist

Fairly straight-forward: Duffy seems the favourite but while Estelle, Adele and Leona Lewis could complete a quadruple sweep for British talend, word is rife whether former AR rep Santi White will have enough clout to land a nod for her outfit, Santogold. If she gets it then surely we can have hope for the year's most blogged band Vampire Weekend. Or it could be Katy Perry edging out some country act like Taylor Swift.

Now, you may read this and say gee, Neil isn't being very specific and I'm not. I have my reasons but chief among them is that I don't really care for the nomins. Now, a big 'x' factor is Radiohead's brilliant In Rainbows album as, technically, it was released this year. Given the overwhelming praise the album garnered (no.8 on my year end list for '07) it will be the perfect weather vane for Grammy change this year. Here is the biggest rock band in the world releasing arguably the best album of the year and freely distributing it online. This challenges the comfy pace NARAS treads on but here here comes a stubborn test. Last year great albums by M.I.A and Animal Collective among others were ignored for comfy artists but I suspect the time is ripe for a change. We will see in less than 24 hours.

Monday, December 1, 2008

2008 ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

"...and the winner is?"

Last year was a pickle for my choice of 'artist of the year'; sure, M.I.A had redefined world music/ hip-hop with Kala but there was Panda Bear, who was a part of two innovative records, two feats of electronic ingenuity that I couldn't ignore. That said, M.I.A won because her ideas were bound to wreak more havoc on the music scene as well as the fact that she stands alone now--by way of usurping Bjork--as the artist critics, fans and fellow musicians now think leads the way to which we all respond. That's a heavy-enough mantle for any one person and rightfully so, no one could carry the wave around without broadside help this year.

Still, it was curious who was the defining artist of the year...many names came up, names that blogs have been clamouring to put on their year-end lists. But even if you go by that count, no one person stood out definitively. But something did.....just not any one person.

Perhaps Janelle Monae said it best in a youtube interview I watched a few days ago...now, it's ok if you are asking yourself Janelle who (her music was recycled by Bad Boy records from last year) but the point is her words. Monae reiterates that the concept album is not only en vogue but here and now. And we've seen this especially in the last couple of months...Beyonce, Kanye West and Coldplay---three of music biggest names---all tried their hands at concepts that they could have eschewed in order to cash in even bigger than they are currently. This idea of a return to art is not exactly novel but it is refreshing especially for commrecial acts as those I mentioned. It is so easy for commercial success to be met only by commercial success and not exploration of art. It's not easy: too often we as listeners and critics think artists are solely in charge of their careers but there is a direct link between commercialism and the musical effort. That is a fact and it's the rare artist that can escape that with each recorded album.

Which lead us back inexorably to the outcome of this blog entry...but by now you know where I'm going with all this. This year, I choose a concept and not an artist per se as my 'artist of the year'. The concept is, simply put, the return to art. This I feel was carried over from last year and will be brought forward to the new year. Hopefully award shows like the hopeless Grammys will FINALLY recognize the trend and go with that in mind when the nominations are announced in a few days time. I'm not terribly optimistic but we will see, won't we?

Hurricane (Grace Jones) (2008)

“Yes, I Am a Witch”

I’ll admit first up that my caption for this review is lifted from a Yoko Ono remix collection released last year but given the eccentricity involved I think it fits most appropriately. If Ono is singularly the most enigmatic woman ever in pop music then Jones is the woman mostly pigeon-holed right behind her (Bjork fans don’t despair: your favorite Icelander is no doubt third).

Hurricane, her first album of new material in nineteen years, continues the interesting juxtaposition Jones presents to pop music and art. Of course, Jones hasn’t been totally gone the past two decades: twice her return was stalled for reasons unknown but also she has done odds and ends contributions. This has only whet my appetite for her however because as interestingly poised she is globally as a pop star, not many kids are growing up knowing of her actual music even in this youtube era. Let’s face it, if Patra (remember her?) hadn’t remade Pull Up to The Bumper eons ago then Jones would be only a talking point. Hurricane is only nine tracks but these are well mapped-out funk concepts. Williams’ Blood, the stand out, breaks out in hives with each couplet. All the well-tested stylistic tricks are presented by Jones in it, like a ringmaster carefully controlling our rapt attention. One could get lost in the artistry of it but it is the seemingly biographical lyrics that are stunning. Jones isn’t the first artist to hail from our shores to have revealed so much personally on record but given her oddity status it is intriguing. I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) pays homage to maternity but it is suffused with enough multiple vocal work to pull itself off without sounding too contrite. Sunset Sunrise follows in this vein but its effect is dependent on the strength of her pastiche and its usage.

This brings me to the main kink in the album: its production, or more precisely, its deluxe production. Lead single, Corporate Cannibal is more art than song. In fact, its deftness is in its spoken word matching pace with the minimalistic beats. The video is visually arresting and it will enhance her reputation for always being ahead of the curve but her producers are treating her with the same type of gloves that she was sparring with two decades ago. At the height of her prowess, Jones’ visual oddity was backed up with aggressive vocal work and songs like My Jamaican Guy that totally simmered within its own conviction. As good as Corporate Cannibal is, it lacks the guttural juice needed to wow listeners like her earlier stuff did. Nineteen years ago, perhaps it’d be held as exotic but times have changed. The definition of cutting-edge music is perpetually changing and it’s always a bit odd to see an artist like Jones not in total command of modernistic gimmicks. Ivor Guest and Sly & Robbie are among the main handlers of her sound here so that means a technical excellence that is as consistent as it is unimpeachable. This doesn’t take into account, however, the current state of pop music. Britney Spears’ robotic utterances on Womanizer are horrific punishment on my ears, for example, but the beat is modern and oddly challenging. My point: the beat shouldn’t just thud, it should ‘sell off’, as we say locally. Hurricane is an elegant thing but it could have thawed out more or subvert itself to a more threatening existence. The last three songs are the weakest because the fit with her vocals and the beats are not as tight. They feel slightly like filler.

Artists are expected to evolve always…their sound should be tinkered with until the right combination is found. When they pause too long then that leads to trouble or, ultimately, stagnation. This is partly why Bjork has been usurped by M.I.A in the eyes of music critics as the leading exponent of pop music. Circuitry and insulation have led Tori Amos and, of all persons, PJ Harvey away from the brilliant originality that attracted audiences to them in the first place. This is why Buju just doesn’t seem quite as vital now in spite of the occasional hit. The very reason why I no longer care what Pink has to say.

When Jones’ producers throw caution away then the result is the gorgeous This Is Life, a hybrid of different Jamaican rhythms and syntax that mutates midway into shards of feedback. When Jones yells, ‘this is me/ flying the gate…’ the entire thing collapses lusciously upon itself. I don’t need a lyric sheet to tell me that the production contribution of Tricky (himself enjoying a great comeback year) manifests itself on the title track--which has been mixed around for quite some time now and is an utter delight to hear. It builds slowly and takes off when he trickles in, giving it a nice trippy vibe.
2008 has been big on legends returning with music but in almost all those cases they’ve brought nothing new to their repertoire: Madonna’s Hard Candy sticks in one’s throat rather uneasily. Q-Tip has put out something decent but it’s a sideway thrust not a forward one and even the greatest of them all, our own Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry leaves the listener baffled more than once with his art-meet-pap/pop Repentance. Grace Jones has already earned the right to be considered one of the greatest exponents of popular music and Hurricane is a reminder of that. She succeeds where those aforementioned artists fail because the control panel of her style has never been too residual within her. That’s why team Jones rises to challenges and smoothes over the blimps that limit Hurricane but simultaneously such a PR effort reveals little if anything at all of what is to come. They have however-- to use a weird culinary term—managed to take her out of the freezer but not totally sizzling in the frying pan just yet.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

2008:THE YEAR IN MUSIC

Well, well, well...it's almost here: starting December 1st I will start to be publishing what I consider the best trends of the musical year. It has been an interesting year but, hey this is only the teaser for you to come back....

see you soon...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

‘Hostel’ (2006)/ ‘Hostel II’ (2007)


‘When the Vacation Goes Awry’

The horror genre has been rampant of late with over the top slash-killings, enough gore to frighten even the hardest heart and impossibly corny endings that make viewers laugh rather than cringe with suspense. An hour into Hostel and I was ready to add one more film to the pile of disappointments and then the most remarkable thing happened: the killings stopped. Not totally, but, suddenly, hidden cul-de-sacs were opening up as the film careened towards what turned out to be a pulsating end.

The set up for the film is pretty standard enough. A couple of bratty, horny American college guys (Josh and Pax) and a very sexually-charged French pal (Ollie) are back-packing through Europe in search for girls. Of course, they start with the Amsterdam red-light district scene. The night is a great success but they are chased away from their hotel and have to overnight with the shady-looking Alexei whose room is more akin to a sex-shop. He tells them of the incredibly compliant girls in Bratislava and they chart a course for that location. A stranger on the train (a bit too pertinent so that was the viewer’s clue to trouble) reinforces what they were told and all minds are made up. They check into a hostel and hook up with two hot looking girls, who, as only women can, subtlety grill them for information then decide to show them around.

Sex in any film normally leads to bad tidings and in horror films it’s a sure ticket to death. Hostel picks up this well-tread motif and runs with it. A series of predictably suspicious disappearances, starting with Ollie, occur after a night of clubbing. His disappearance brings opposite reactions from both Americans. Pax decides to keep his rising terror in check by sticking to the game-plan of getting laid while Josh can’t help but think it signals some further abandonment (his girlfriend recently left him for another man). Pax’s attitude only changes once Josh goes missing. His instinct starts to kick in, even to the extent that he ignores the girls he once found irresistible.

The hedonist in him doesn’t disappear totally though but Hostel—maybe because it is set in a foreign country---veers off the cliché track once it’s down to Pax and his intuition to figure out what is wrong in Bratislava.
His suspicions never give way to paranoia nor does he take the next train in an effort to flee. Yet, unlike most films, he doesn’t see the nightmarish end even in hints. Such naïveté from an American in a foreign country gives the film a kind of reality that most Wes Craven films lack. Finally, Pax comes face to face with the horrible truth—truth that American naïveté thinking derives eventually, that the persons who at first seemed so excited and helpful to see them are actually decidedly against them. In this case, they’re players in a dangerous human-hunting game that will bring around the downfall of foreigners. After accosting the girls (high on drugs) he is taken to a museum where his friends are said to be part of the exhibition.

Pax’s face only registers the sheer horror of what he sees after the familiar countenance of the stranger in the train comes into view, carving up what is left of Josh’s body. He is then placed in a room and ‘tortured’ somewhat in a sick display of cat and mouse game. It proves to be a game that loses its edge when he renounces his patriotism to his captor. Needless to say, he escapes and rescues the girl and makes it out of the nightmare in the end but the manner in which he does so runs smoothly and with much suspense. Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino, the film’s producer, and Eli Roth (the director) decide to spare us the noise-filled gore that decked the first hour and channel Kubrick-esque camera shots, replete with appropriate silences towards the end.

What saves Pax however doesn’t translate into Hostel II. Immediately Eli Roth sets course for a map of suspenseful explanation but gets lost in the maelstrom of gore before anything can seriously unravel. Paxton may briefly appear in this installation but his death is a mere cliff-note and doesn’t serve as interlink to anything substantial other than the thought of an ever expanding human hunting network. Paxton’s thinking level is terribly mixed; after defying odds to escape, he then returns to America only to clamp up and not expose the horrors he faced. Unlike Tarantino’s 2007 smorgasbord epic Grindhouse, Roth however doesn’t spend too much time with logics in Hostel II, instead he laboriously shows us the behind the scenes excitement to collecting the human prey. I can’t recall any other horror flick making its aim and outcome so evident and not expecting to suffer for this foresight of our knowledge.

That drains what little suspense one can imagine and it makes the gore nothing but self-gratifying…which is really a shame. Hostel II does explore the wantonness of the hunters even if Roth encases them with only their depravity. Even in such shallowness, the poetry of this gore is fascinating. In one scene a female hunter sits under her hoisted prey- Heather Matarazzo (the annoying wimp, Lorna), naked and with an extended scythe. She tears at the girl’s body and immerses herself with the blood as it trickles onto her and the candles below. The camera then hones in on her hand reaching for a shorter scythe and slitting her victim’s throat. It’s devastating yet its disturbing silence is the film’s single notable achievement.

And yet, despite the hardness of that female hunter, the two main male hunters we see are poles apart in their ambition towards the killing. Todd (Richard Burgi) is the atypical alpha male and Stuart (Roger Bart) is pathetically lacking cojones. When Todd finally gets to torturing a victim, his sadistic joy is stalled by an unplugged instrument. His victim—Beth (Lauren German)—cowers in fear while he bellows at her; ‘you should see you f--king face.’ When the instrument gets unplugged a second time however, he accidentally disfigures her face. In the few seconds that follow, Hostel II swerves completely further off track and descends into a corny finale. Roth does not clarify the reason for Todd’s sudden change of heart. We are not sure if he is angry that electrical limitation is robbing him of his pleasure or the implications of his actions have caught up with him finally. Instead of probing this, Roth has the character mauled to death by dogs for reneging on his contract as a means of clouding the issue.

Roth thus misses his most valuable tool for true suspense. Hostel II salaciously proves that in such a postulation women are just as vicious as men. Indeed, the human hunting is co-coordinated by a woman. We realize also that the human hunters are not a tight-knit brotherhood, per se, but lovers of the highest price. Whitney (Bijou Phillips) escapes elimination by bargaining a price to partake in the game. She tells her captors that with a PDA she can have the money wired within minutes. It’s admittedly a clever twist amid the clichés… showing the strength of technology in the film but immediately it lets itself down with her only aim being to seek revenge not on the hunters themselves but the female that lured her to Slovakia in the first place. Ah, kids, they never learn.

RATING: "Hostel 1" 6/10 "Hostel 11" 2.5/10

‘It is Time for a Love Revolution’ (Lenny Kravitz) (2008)

‘Lost in Emotion’

Like most artists who grew up with a wide appreciation of various music forms, it is difficult to place Lenny Kravitz into exactly which specific genre he belongs. Case in point: he got shifted into alternative soul because of a constant guitar presence and that only helped him to win four consecutive Grammys for male rock vocal solo. There is another reason too; like this year’s so happening group, Vampire Weekend, he is an artist clearly with an affluent background. There ends the similarities though because while VW can push off from their upbringing and relish it on record, Kravitz always sounds too keenly aware of his privilege and the struggle to escape it is a constant hurdle of his new album, It is Time for a Love Revolution.

It’s a lot of hurdles but his music production isn’t a hindrance, thankfully. It’s to his credit that all his albums indicate a classically trained background and a track like Bring It On features some extended guitar licks that rock the house but, unlike his best songs like Fly Away, there is a disconnect along its way. Like many non-geniuses who attempt an alternative, urban sound (there are too many to start name-dropping) Kravitz overuses his acoustic tools to compensate for the innate vocal and dynamic tools he just doesn’t have. In short, he’s no genius and thus a part of his appeal is being able to camouflage or dress up that fact. Kravitz succeeds in this by mostly doing covers like American Woman or maintaining a hip, rocker look that appeal to both women and men. I’m also sure it’s imminent for him to take a slot of a judge on American Idol or a Miss World beauty pageant. However, if you’re like me, then you’re more interested in the music. Production value aside however there is little here to keep one interested. Lyrics have always been his Achilles heel and coupled with a desire to go beyond a facile level, the album is downright bland in that regard. The ridiculous I’ll Be Waiting is a fitting title because it sure sounds like he’s waiting for something to happen on the track but, unlike you the listener who can discern what it lacks; Kravitz seems unsure what he is waiting for. One wonders how it made it through so many demo takes and still came out as a fully-armed thing daring to pass itself off as anything but the dud it is. He fares better on A New Door but the middle section may put you to sleep.

Even with his reliable guitar-wielding base though, Kravitz settles in rather than attack. I Love the Rain is a mixture of Hendrix-esque (or in his case, Aerosmith) shards of feedback and the trip/hop vibe a-la Portishead but even as it fades out his lack of urgency costs him. Greater artistes like Prince and Terence Trent D’arby would’ve ripped it up. Kravitz though isn’t concerned about exploring beyond what has become comfortable for him. He thinks that by merely still encasing everything in guitars that it’s experimental enough, thus disregarding the entire alternative soul movement that he got caught up in by default in the first place. Like Mary J. Blige, he’s become too comfortable with what works for him and his patented sound to really want to shake things up or apply any real depth vocally anymore. There’s no fight or challenge left in him and, at forty-four, only a mid-life crisis could possibly rouse him into something new and it shows on this comfy yet too familiar record, which is odd given the harshness this decade has treated him (being racially-profiled by the police and all).
Albums like It is Time for a Love Revolution though will always be better received by soul yuppies desperate to be seen as hip on a visceral level. They’ll respond to this bummer than say a true alternative masterpiece like Trent D’arby’s Symphony or Damn or Miss Badu’s latest. I could spend the entire article writing on reasons for this but, hey; you continue to watch the Grammys struggle to remain relevant while ignoring the most exceptional talent. You lament over the nominating of the same boring line up yearly as much as I do. Kravitz does the very same thing and while it doesn’t make his stuff awful by a long shot, this is his eight album of pushing the same shtick on us and that clearly doesn’t make this a work of progress. All it does is keeps him bogged down by way too much recession and there’s no bail-out in sight.

RATING: 5.5/10

Baby Mama (2008)

’Outsourcing 101’

In one of Baby Mama’s earliest scenes Kate (Tina Fey) commits the cardinal rule of dating: never come on too desperate. After confessing how badly she wants a baby, Kate calmly watches as her date bolts into an awaiting taxi then tells the waiter that she’ll have her food ‘to go’. Kate is a late-thirties success story that is incomplete in her own view by the fact that she hasn’t yet mothered a child. It reaches a point where in a boardroom meeting all the men look like babies in diapers. While director Michael McCullers (co-writer of the Austin Powers films) hits a smart point with that image, the extent of his innovation unfortunately ends there.

The film’s opening sets up nicely a mélange of issues dealing with single women trying to get pregnant. Its difficulty though is that it tries too hard to find duality in a role that is heavily monochromatic. Kate recognizes the futility of her task and even accepts that others do not feel as zealous as she does…indeed the calmness she has when her date leaves is indicative of a reality the film only hints at. In the bubble world she lives in, people offset reality at every chance because it’s equated as losing some essential part of their lifestyle. With that in mind, the fact that she hadn’t considered surrogacy is surprising. That she’d settle for Angie (Amy Poehler) just seems ridiculous especially with the clear baggage it’d involve. That she hasn’t seriously considered what a baby realistically means is also worrisome. But, even worse, that Baby Mama provides few laughs proves how the best intensions sometimes go awry as well as bore along the away.

While Fey’s balancing act of humor and seriousness is the weakest thing here, her Saturday Nite Live predecessors—Steve Martin and Sigourney Weaver—manage theirs with consummate ease. Martin (Barry) is the guru/boss whose eccentricities are regulated to limited perfection. Weaver (Chaffee Bicknell) runs the surrogacy clinic Kate ends up going to with an assured display of bluntness. It’s interesting to watch Kate maneuver around these two because both are oddly part of the ideal she aims for in spite of the conflicting rigidity within her. The film never seriously attempts to explore the juxtaposition of her inherent tension and their carefree mentalities however. Nor does it minimally even look at the issue of alternative parenting types, which is legally changing yet again globally.

It does try to bridge the gap somewhat between her and Angie but McCullers clogs endless clichés and outright boring scenarios in the way. Both women start out predictably enough superficially assessing the other. Kate however refuses to see the change of lifestyle that a baby will bring even as Angie initially acts like one. Here the film goes overboard in trying to convince us of Angie’s instability when its clear from her first line that she’s not playing with a full set of marbles. Neither is Kate who is so wrapped up in her own personal space that she doesn’t even suspect the (spoiler alert) scam going on around her. All she sees, with her well coiffed hair and power broker glasses, is another step towards her happiness.

Watching Fey, I’m struck at the parallels she runs to Charlotte Brady, Kristen Davis’ character in the series Sex & the City. Charlotte’s eternal quest for maternal happiness however is part of a bigger, more serious picture that Kate could never fit into. Kate’s delusions are deep enough that she doesn’t even have friends who keep her grounded. All she has is a mother who plays dicey race jokes and a sister who she would switch roles with in a heartbeat. Neither adds to her as an aspiring mother nor does she inject anything to them. The love interest, Rob (Greg Kinnear) is a side-bar to say the least. More deploring is Kate’s life itself, the utter emptiness of her success and the awkwardness she has with real situations. Kate is a heavy amalgamation of not just Charlotte but of other feminist types and the ditzy appeal of Diane Keaton too. With so many iconic types guiding her, Fey fails to cull just the right amount of their essences to build one whole, empowering character even with her own talents. Nor is Poehler, stuck viciously into stereotype, allowed much room to lighten things up.

It's unfortunate but for all the intuitive genius that is clearly within Fey and Poehler, the film stops dead-stock before it can gather even a smidgen of the chemistry both exude so easily on Saturday Nite Live. Both are riotous when bouncing lines off each other in that comedic outlet but here the ambitious plot weighs down and restricts them. Baby Mama, alas, to quote a line from a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song… does not cut deep but cuts most absurdly.

RATING: 5/10

Monday, March 31, 2008

OUR POP CULTURE: PIRACY

This piece was done the day after the Oscars and I neglected to post it before but here it is because apparently my prediction came through; Carib is planning on showing 'No Country...' again even though its now on DVD!

It’s been quite a week for the cinema industry, both local and abroad. It should have culminated Sunday with the brilliant ‘No Country for Old Men’ winning the Oscar for best picture. Arguably, this marks the first time in a decade that the outright best film of the year actually won the award. Locally, the popular Viewer Choice film rental chain has decided to close its last store and the implication is that DVD piracy is to take the major blame. It has been on the radio especially Nationwide with its morning hosts splitting opinions (Naomi Campbell admitting she watches them and Emily Crooks vehemently against). This reminds me of the argument Palace Cineplex carries against persons who sell DVDs on the streets.

A discussion I had with two friends ended up with them siding with Palace Cineplex. One has repeatedly sent letters to that organization to find out about certain films being shown or not being shown. He outlined a detailed and irreverent reply he got back, therefore he was satisfied that Carib, for instance, was doing all it can. My other friend outlined customer loyalty schemes that he’s been able to benefit from, and so forth. However, both were clearly stumped when I posed one question: how does this affect the quality of films shown, especially come Oscar time, because it is my unwavering view that Carib has no justification for showing ‘No Country…’ only after its Oscar success. It has been guaranteed a mere two days but given how ideal this film is to our viewing choice I’m sure by the time this article comes out, it will still be at theatres. I have made no contact with any organizations for this article but if such a film isn’t available for one to watch locally (even though it was released internationally in November, 2007) and DVD rentals get it a bit later, how does a curious movie fan get to see it then?

The answer is of course through piracy. While we’re now pondering if FLOW is monopolizing the cable industry, no one is looking at Palace Cineplex trying to dictate how, when and if we watch certain films (and raising prices isn’t helping either). The price of admission for one to watch a film is as horribly high as a Whopper at Burger King now and if you add snacks then you’re bound to spend over $1,000 for yourself alone. A DVD on the street goes anywhere from $200-$300 and in a lot of cases, the quality is good and you can watch the film any amount of times you desire without extra charge.

Now, if you’re Palace Cineplex, of course this isn’t benefiting you. I’m not sure how Viewers Choice and other DVD rental stores can blame piracy as the films people mostly buy off the streets are those currently in theaters or on the way, not—and I can’t stress this enough—films released months ago. DVD rentals and going to the cinema aren’t a vital necessity for people so trying to blame an entity for doing something you do more promptly and cheaper isn’t the issue. A good marketing strategy and customer involvement is. My DVD rental store continues to have my support mainly for the great customer service I get there. I go to Carib even if I buy a pirate DVD for reasons having less to do with the actual film but for a social one. The man in the street who sells pirate DVDs will never encroach on this so, once our laws are changed to accommodate them, then they can all enjoy a slice of consumer spending. That ensures that the neglect of a film like ‘No Country…’ by Carib can go unnoticed by us movie-goers and at expense of that entity’s conscience alone. I haven’t even touched on the myriad of online sites that allow an avid watcher like myself to, for example, watch ‘Penelope’—a charming romance starring Christina Ricci—a full week before it was re-released in North America (it was viewed at a film festival in 2006) and may not even be shown locally. I believe in this system of having a choice and that is exactly what these alternatives provide.

It’s now up to Palace Cineplex to analyze why it takes them so long to get certain films locally especially when Carib has five different screens. I believe better marketing and more discounts and external customer feedback will greatly assist them in this venture.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

‘Tricksy’

‘the mousy girl screams violence, violence’ (Of Montreal)

Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) appearance screams a type of violence that will skillfully elude anyone who he comes in contact with. The only problem for them (except for a feisty receptionist, who is saved unknowingly by a flushing toilet) is that they do not survive his flipped coins or incisive cattle-gun bullets once his monstrosity manifests. What’s more, they do not see their death coming because they presume Chigurh follows the same set of conventional rules they live by. Brilliantly directed by the Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan), ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a thrilling expose on the changing value of violence and the slow realization of such.

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, the film settles into its 1980 West Texas landscape poetically and, in the form of the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (the ever solid Tommy Lee Jones) philosophically. Bell is an ‘old school’ lawmaker, the type of man who recognizes that his title must elevate his crime-solving techniques above that of the ordinary citizen or even his deputies. It is among these groups that his remarks come off as crisp and all-knowing. Bell though is getting older and sees the signs of a change that will leave him behind so when a series of ghastly murders take place in his town, the sheriff is understandably agitated.

He has good reason to be. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a stash of cash ($2 million), heroin and a ton of dead Mexicans after an obvious deal gone awry and decides to take the money. This being a moral issue within itself isn’t a concern of the film and that all parties involved play along these lines mirrors the nature of change we all deal with and weigh in on a daily basis. Sheriff Bell can make the seismic shift of values in order to pursue Moss because he realizes immediately that there’s deeper trouble brewing. Petty crime is thus put on the backseat by the law but in the shape of Chigurh (a fantastic Bardem, who has crafted the best serial killer since Hannibal Lecter) it spurs on his more virulent action. Chigurh moves with the swiftness of a man assured already of victory but he is aided with a tracking device that never fails to do its job.

The two go hand in hand and even spills over towards those trapped in the path of his objection. Chigurh takes no prisoners and only a fateful flip of a coin save some. He gives the illusion of choice to those destined for execution but those who weren’t really in his path do get a real choice. Given the frugal, moralistic writing style of Cormac McCarthy (I admit freely to not liking his hyped-to-death ‘The Road’) the transformation by the Coen brothers of thought and idea to the screen is nothing short of spectacular with their writing and directing credits. The attention to detail is sheer poetic and, like the film itself, volatile: Chigurh shoots Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) while the telephone rings and then speaks to Moss mindful to lift his legs as Wells’ blood spreads thickly on the floor.

Of course, it is the hunt and anticipated showdown of the two that make the film so gripping. The more Moss runs the quicker Chigurh tracks him down. Unlike Sheriff Bell who must piece their actions after the fact, Chigurh has the luxury of Moss knowing the extent of his violence and what he will do to get back the stolen cash. Their telephone conversation is chilling and the affect it has on Moss and his family is long-lasting. He, like Bell, underestimates the opponent initially only to regret it forever. His wife however recognizes her doom immediately. Played with great affectation by Kelly MacDonald, Carla Jean personifies innocence caught up in strife by way of association. When Chigurh finally reaches to her, she is resigned but still tells him that he has a choice in the matter. It’s a poignant moment, one that Bardem brilliantly retorts that he has promised Moss to ‘deal’ with his wife. He walks out of the house and what happens next really spins our perception of societal justice out of context.

The beauty of the film though lies in its conviction that one cannot simply repudiate violence at one’s own peril but that we have to acknowledge its presence as a way of life. Sheriff Bell realizes the enormity that faces him and has no option but to admit openly that the level of crime is beyond his handling. Chigurh is the killer of a new time, one that can walk away unscathed to fight new battles or at least pay his way out of complicity. He, not the law, is the one with his hand on the pulse of this new world. That makes ‘No Country for Old Men’ frighteningly real and a modernistic take on the evolutionary process of crime that will likely smudge our paranoid lives, one way or the other.

RATING: 10/10

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'The Bourne Ultimatum'

'Past The Mission'

'Ah, but you can't kill me, Louis' Lestat ('Interview with a Vampire')

The C.I.A. and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) find themselves expressing a similar sentiment to each other immediately after 'The Bourne Ultimatum' begins. Bourne is of course on the run, still trying to piece his past identity together without having to kill as much. Meanwhile, the C.I.A. pursues its aim to eliminate any trace of the program that created Bourne and once they accidentally sight him through a London surveillance camera, this intensity grows. The moment is a jolt to deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, at his icy best). Bourne's constant elusiveness shows up the department as ineffectual to take out their own and he wants to put an end to it once and for all. For him, one thing matters only and that's winning, no matter the cost.

If you have followed the previous two films in the series then the plot is pretty much familiar. Bourne runs, kills, pieces a little together only to have to run again. 'Ultimatum' treads this routine early on but director Paul Greengrass takes a suspenseful turn for the better after Bourne is revealed to the C.I.A. and stumbles across Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in a Tangiers safe-house. There is some brilliantly played out tension in the ensuing phone call which functions solely as a call to arms for both factions to clearly define their chosen sides. By now Pam Landy (Joan Allen) and Parsons have tacitly aligned themselves to Bourne in order to defy C.I.A regulation. Covert operations begin to take a fascinating structural shape that will ultimately cost several traditional regulations. As they divide between themselves the unquestioned loyalty that had kept Bourne a united target to start with, both factions put their poker faces on.

The film successfully executes its divisiveness partially because of its writing. Credit then goes to Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns and George Nolfi for holding nothing back by way of faceless deception: Vosen desperately tries to trap and outwit Bourne with technological sophistry only to be one-upped by a standard telescopic devise. This nicely shows contrast of method. Landy and Parsons help Bourne fully well knowing that their lives will be jeopardized. After Bourne escapes with Parsons from the safe-house and she is turned into a target as well, the angle is thrillingly explored through a long chase sequence with her instincts finally being put to action. The assassin chases her into a dwelling (agents often think alike so it's merely kinetic) but Bourne prevents harm to her with some snappy action. He battles the assassin in full view of Parsons and she watches grimly aware that this is real; she is no longer safely viewing the action from an office. They silently clean up afterwards: words aren't needed. This is the job for which they are trained. Bourne however, amid a flash-back sequence, determines that before the C.I.A can shut both down he will take decisive action first.

That means going back to the place where it all started three years ago: the C.I.A training facility in New York. The two factions roll out to meet him but Vosen miscalculates Landy's sense of duty. She finally realizes that there is a cover-up that can only be contained with Bourne's elimination and strings Vosen along just as he has been stringing her along all the time. Her defection hits the deputy director late: he does eventually decode her plans to meet Bourne but arrives too late to prevent her from faxing unclassified and damning documents that will expose his part of the cover-up. Vosen however is not alone in getting a rude awakening. Bourne finally retraces his steps and his memory on that first day he first volunteered to be a part of the C.I.A. operation. It’s a devastating truth: he is one of a line of experimental super-agents that get eliminated once past their missions. To ensure no dual interest or conflict, the C.I.A. enforces the succession by a type of patricide.

It's uncanny but Greengrass has, for the second film running, managed to succinctly pose inherent and uncomfortable questions about the state of American intelligence and information-gathering mechanism. Though he directed the last 'Bourne' film, this new one more resembles his brilliant post-9/11 docudrama 'United 93' (in my view, the best film of 2006). That film also held a high office and its individuals under subtle scrutiny for a series of events that capitulate out of control.

'Bourne Ultimatum' offers shades of the 'Matrix' trilogy as well. The characters here too also know how and when to take precipitous action. Though the true aim of their action is to effect change, they all know nothing will change because one course of action is wholly dependent on another. Remove that conflict and the other falls away as well. This challenging attachment is what keeps the film's anticipation going as well as unresolved (no doubt keeping the door open for a possible sequel) so Greengrass merely teases then with a flurry of 'Matrix-esque' activity towards the end. Vosen may eventually come up on the wrong end of his gamble like the Architect but he does get his shot at Bourne--literally. Landy may have gotten her hands on the damning documents but, like Morpheus, it sinks her implicitly deeper into a situation which she is not in control of. Parsons receives the news of Bourne getting shot with a Trinity-like unreadable expression but this lifts to a wry smile when it's reported that his body is yet to be found. Bourne of course is the Neo figure. He pirouettes into the air and crashes into the sea, pretty much how the series began. In the last shot we see his seemingly indestructible body thrusting upward as if by instinct. The only question now is--aimed with the issue of his past fully resolved, and without an Oracle figure to guide him, will Bourne swim knowingly to shore or resolutely towards the horizon.

RATING: 9/10

Sunday, January 20, 2008

THE BEST SONGS OF 2007 (#1-#20)

The final installation nearly swings totally to M.I.A. She has the best album of 2007 and for good reason (as will be outlined on my album list). For giving us an alternative to hip/hop alone and as well as clearly defining the sharpest sound currently on the planet. That said, here are the final 20 songs...


20. ‘Brianstorm’ (Artic Monkeys): finally delivering the punk good that they’ve been promising, when they rip into the line ‘see you later, innovator’ it’s like a kiss off to fallen idols like Oasis.

19. ‘Boyz’ (M.I.A): picking up from where ‘Arular’ left off, MIA has harmonized her tight sound into something more insidiously attractive yet harder to figure out. It’s a sign of maturity, as ‘Boyz’ succinctly proves—her stock sure is hardy and fruitful on all fronts. And with our own Sample 6 dancers enmeshed on it I wonder for how much longer local radio stations can continue to ignore her.

18. ‘Like A Boy’ (Ciara): what a difference the years make as they go by. Ciara would’ve sunk under the weight of such a challenge couple years ago but now—coming off the equally challenging ‘Promise’ she touches on tender gender-bender and comes out swinging in the major leagues.

17. ‘LES Artistes’ (Santogold): the future is here now; Santi White is the American version of M.I.A (you heard it here first) and is the direct result of the Diplo split. The album drops in ’08 but this advanced track will more than whet appetites with its thumping beats and raw attitude she dishes in spades. If Maya ever hoped to do an ‘Umbrella’ then too late, Santi has beaten her to it.

16. ‘Everything’s just Wonderful’ (Lilly Allen): Allen has finally unearthed a better take on sweet sarcasm of ‘Smile’ and this time the bitter-sweet lyrics really bite deep.

15. ‘For the Pier (and Dead Shimmering)’ (Sunset Rubdown): a swirling, Wolf Parade-esque masterpiece that cries out of its void for help.

14. ‘We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling’ (Of Montreal): draped over a lush, crunching sound, Barnes lets loose feelings of despair and its effect is simple yet stunning.

13. ‘Stop Me’ (Mark Ronson feat. Daniel Merriweather): the best blue-eyed pop ballad in quite a long time, Ronson grabs Merriweather along for a smart, street-tough look at love.

12 ‘Blue Honey’ (Pop Levi): proves that not only MIA is digging Eastern culture, disco Levi, replete with some brilliant faux vocals. The way the song builds slowly then Levi blows it breathlessly apart with the chorus.

11. ‘Cuckoo, Cuckoo’ (Animal Collective): the uber experiment of Avery Tare with its harsh drumming skimming the ends of raw vocals. It’s an impressive last stand, slightly off putting baptism of sound and that makes it one hell of a punk model.

10.‘Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air Burning’ (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah): though abandoned by critics for burrowing themselves deeper into a stoned vibe that seemed obscure at best, it takes songs like this one—the type of unabashed beauty that grows more towards end—that prove CYHSY will win out eventually.

9. ‘Peacebone’ (Animal Collective): the first blast of cool magic from ‘Strawberry Jam’—imagines itself as interlink between reality and fantastic lyrical longings. Thank goodness for overt ambition from these rock geeks.

8. ‘Umbrella’ (Rihanna): without doubt one of the best ideas all year. It’s a bit stalled by repetition yet remains quite fantastic with its flourish of attitude.

7. ‘Jimmy’ (M.I.A): no one twirls so many trends into one solid hip/hop outfit so fantastically like Maya. ‘Jimmy’ incorporates Bollywood, Cyndi Lauper and biting social commentary into one sweet delivery. Quite a knock out punch this rambling commentary rolled into a wrapping that eludes a riot grrrl tag.


6. ‘$20” (M.I.A): stunning use of raw fissures subduing each other, all under her conscious lyrics flowing just as impressively, Maya borrows a famous Pixies line and runs viciously with it.

5. ‘Bros’ (Panda Bear): The ghost of Brian Wilson rummages through this sunny song’s disposition and it’s absolute acceptance of things lost while one sheds innocence, sheds skin. 'Bros' starts with an owl hooting and by the end a collage of folk influences take deep root. The spaces between them are populated with the type of ingenuity that prove how much other mix and matchers just aren't thinking enough.

4. ‘The Sloganeer: Paradise’ (Meshell NdegeOcello): Fantastic jazz imprint. NdegeOcello continues to merge her expanded sense of melody with her forceful lyrical input and such a result is gorgeous as well as groovy.


3. ‘Back to Black’ (Amy Winehouse): This warbled vocal style reveals the devastation of Winehouse’s emotion as she reveals everything. Whereas other songs from the opus felt just short of epic, the title track is, to paraphrase another artirst, 'big time sensuality'.

2. Bamboo Banga’ (M.I.A): when Maya yells, ‘MIA coming back with power, power’ overdubbing on a sample of ‘Roadrunner’, then we know she’s a serious badass. The technical aspect of the song is as immaculately crafted as anything Prince was able to conjure over two decades ago.


1. ‘Sugar Assault Me Now’ (Pop Levi): astonishing homage to the past funk grooves, Levi contorted the heck out of himself with this funk track that constantly pushes itself. It's a trick not many funkmasters can maintain nor can they level out a plain line like 'right now' without sounding forced. Hats off Levi, you've given us the best song of the year!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

THE TOP 100 SONGS OF 2007: #21--40 (PART 4)

Without doubt, this penultimate section of my song list is the most varied. The styles featured here swing from extreme to extreme but all belie a cohesion that was only topped by the twenty songs ahead of them. One group comes to mind; Of Montreal. Releasing the most Prince-aping disc of the year, Kevin Barnes' glam determination underlines the doggedness with which these other artists stuck into the raison d'etre of these songs.
Here they are...

40. ‘I Need You’ (Alicia Keys): I could wax lyrical about the many, many faults of Alicia Keys but 'I Need You' is the result of what she does right in spite of her earnest self. When she coos her lyrics and allows the music to shape the direction of the song and not her vocal affirmations, its rthe most sensual thing she's done.


39. ‘Indestructible Life’ (Old Time Religion): a collage of bad dialogue, chaotic music rushing wildly around…what the hell is happening here never becomes clear or resolves itself and while it’s scary, it’s also monumentally engrossing.


38. ’Yankee Go Home’ (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah): every list should make room for a little indulgence so we arrive now to CYHSY. When Ounsworth tears into the chorus it’s the most infectious thing ever and the socio-political context is pleasing yet unmistakably sad at the same time. It wasn't supposed to work but somehow it does.


37. ‘I’d like To’ (Corrine Bailey Rae): pitch perfect range finally found.


36. ‘Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)’ (Jay Z): Jigga is back doing what he does best and though only white critics have been praising what is essentially just a plain good disc, everyone can agree on this track's greatness.


35.‘The Fragile Army’ (Polyphonic Spree): showing My Chemical Romance how it’s really done.


34. ‘Gronlandic Edit’ (Of Montreal): swiftly proving to be band of the year, Of Montreal treats us to some suave faux vocals and stunning textures. A real smooth triumph.


33. ‘Violet Stars Happy Hunting’ (Janelle Monae): Outkast’s best kept secret steps out with a totally rocking single that recalls the ephemeral danger of Grace Jones.


32. ‘Wild Mountain Nation’ (Blitzen Trapper): sweet retro rock tune.


31.Map of the Problematique’ (Muse): treads a constant and sublime line.


30.‘Hot Wuk’ (Mr. Vegas & Opal): wicked rhythm coalescing with devious intent as only Jamaican music can.


29. ‘Delirium’ (Rahsaan Patterson): bridges both funk and blues camps with its high-voltage of funk, making Patterson the most exciting R&B find this year.


28. ‘Art Bitch’ (Cansei de ser sexy): though CSS meander always somewhere between slight and swift variations of fun, ‘Art Bitch’ mixes enough MIA and Bjork-esque aesthetics to concoct an impressive hybrid of abstraction and attitude. Besides how do you top a line like, ‘I sell my crap/ and people ask for more’!


27. ‘Cobra style’ (Robyn): the stuff of which Pink can only dream to produce.


26.‘Faberge Falls for Shuggie’ (Of Montreal): the best Prince rave up since Beck’s ‘Sex Laws’.


25.‘Relax, Take It Easy’ (Mika): a smooth, retro romp that updates George Michael’s ‘Fast Love’ stoned vibe.


24. ‘Skip Ghetto’ (Pop Levi): even when softening his stance and delivery, Levi is still miles ahead of the pop batch.


23. ‘A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger’ (Of Montreal): astonishing sampling technique used in this track that teaches others how it’s done and so heartbreakingly too.


22. ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ (Justice): the strongest song with vocals on their debut, the Paris duo show their North American funk rivals how it’s done.


21. ‘Kidz Are So Small’ (Deerhoof): a blissful collage of Bjork-like childish admissions that work in an off-beat, simplistic manner. Witness how Satomi’s vocals concede ground to the bare essentials driving the tune and one realizes how nuanced her work has become.