Sunday, June 30, 2013
I remember five years ago when Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut hit the internet and the main concern from its detractors was how this upstart Ivy-league band was just a set of poseurs. There was easy charm to the record but quite a few critics played hardball, berating the band’s clean-cut preppy Afro-pop sound. Mark you, a band can do a lot worse than being the new Paul Simon but the debut succeeded because the juxtaposition of influence and lyrical affluence was a great fit. It’s become a template even, one that has come to define Vampire Weekend’s sound and shaped their young discography. Flash-forward to now and its stunning how these very same critics have become the band’s biggest fans, bombarding blogs with headlines that proclaim Modern Vampires of the City (MVOTC)as some sort of revolution in popular culture, let alone indie rock and pop.
I disagree but it’s not hard to find common ground in liking the band. Even if you have just a cursory interest in contemporary rock music, they’ve always been a hip, cool band to dig. Their two previous albums still hold up as mostly fresh material even if it’s clear that, sonically, the guys have expanded their territory with MVOTC. This is as it should be and not the other way around. This has been the band’s biggest drawing-card: the willingness to grow into diverse sounds and run with the mood.
At nearly forty-three minutes, Modern Vampires of the City is the band’s longest album and the reason is the lush arrangements involved. They’ve proved themselves masterful at production before but this time we witness them luxuriating in it. What’s been tricky for them is presenting a singular point of view and that’s where the songs work hard to fall in line. At times it sacrifices lyrical clarity just to compensate but make no mistake; the band is arming itself for the long haul.
I’m not sure if the LP’s title is a stab at reinventing themselves but out goes the Afro-pop for the most part and in comes something closer to Americana. Outside of the dyslexic opener (Obvious Bicycle), we get slick, bigger sounds than we’ve never been privy to. Unbelievers works up some jangly fun, especially when the piano comes crashing in even though its crispness feels a bit stiff. Step goes even further with lead singer, Ezra Koenig cooing that he’s “stronger now” and in the process manages to sound dated yet brand new. It’s a clever trick-- a new stylish one we haven’t heard from them before. Diane Young apes Elvis Prestley’s youthfulness without blushes, a surprising risk that pays off. These are the two instances where the band’s wit seeps through its immaculate conception. It’s a marvel to hear Koenig lose himself in the track and the band responds with thunderous guitar riffs.
Things go downhill from there, or, rather, get predictable. Hannah Hunt slows the tempo of the album but gives us the most endearing moment of Vampire Weekend’s career: as it reaches the three minute mark, Koenig give us a sudden emotional shout (‘though we live on the US dollar/ you and me/ we got our own sense of time’) and it’ll send shivers through you. It’s one of those moments where music connects to the listener in an inexplicably vital way.
It ends abruptly but as I go through repeated listens, I can finally put my finger on why the band hasn’t grown on me as it has to others. Even when compared to other lead singers, Koenig hasn’t yet perfected the art of defining himself as a solo voice that commands awe. That’s what is missing on MVOTC…why it’s a good little record but not a great one. It’s why Ya Hey apes nu-reggae instead of redefining it. It’s why the ender Young Lion is blah instead of a sonic blast of awesomeness. There’s too much obedience in the band’s sound, as if they only have one uniformed and polished way of doing things.
Therefore, if anything, MVOTC reminds us that no matter the new suits or riffs involved, Vampire Weekend remains a band and not a lead singer tagging a few friends along for a joyride. Whether one views this as a blessing or limitation is totally up for interpretation but Ezra Koenig hasn’t broken any seismic new ground here. He’s trying clearly but if the last decade has proved anything with indie rock bands, it’s that the restless energy of the lead singer always splits away eventually and the band is either stronger for it or dissolves. I’ve been listening to Wolf Parade’s exceptional debut of late (2003’s Apologies to the Queen Mary) and can’t think of a better example as to what can fix this hold Koenig is in. He should listen to how that group’s lead singer, Spencer Krug utterly loses himself in tracks like I’ll Believe In Anything and Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts and recognize the transcendence. Koenig doesn’t have the same level of genius Krug has…no other male in rock does currently but the point is that it is time for him to try to be more like Krug or hand the reins over to someone else in the band at times so we can hear what new ideas they may have.
Good Fences That Make Good Neighbors
Last December, barely a month after being re-elected, Barack Obama unexpectedly found himself in Newton, Connecticut facing the American press teary-eyed. It wasn’t a belated rush of emotion after pulling through a rigorous campaign but from the chilling aftermath of a violent incident. A young man, Adam Lanza had killed twenty-six people including his own mother before committing suicide at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the President wept for the victims and declared that such an incident must never occur again, the debate about gun control intensified. Four months later a proposed bill that would restrict gun control in America failed to pass in the Senate by a mere six votes. The message to Obama was clear: don’t mess with our guns.
To be fair to the President though, it is a message that all his predecessors have had to heed as well. Americans guard their right to bear arms almost as fiercely as their right to vote. Whatever compromises either side of the gun control debate will come to remains largely obscured by the unwillingness of citizens to be unarmed if or when attacked.
Fast-forward to 2022 and James DeMonaco’s film The Purge gives us one such compromising outcome. The film posits the idea of the American government (dubbed the Founding Fathers of America) controlling crime and unemployment by having a national purge—a twelve hour period once a year where citizens can “release the beast”. That essentially means they can do any crime without consequence, including murder while emergency services go offline.
The film begins on purge day with a busy James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) communicating with clients of his pricy home security systems. He’s made a fortune from them, never missing an opportunity to remind clients that it’ll keep them safe during the annual event. As he heads home, he engages in banter with a neighbor and can’t help but boast about his own new system. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is busy in the kitchen with dinner while their daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is sneaking her boyfriend out through her window. Both of them interact with other neighbours in a way James does not: Zoey silently watches a man sharpening a huge machete while Mary tries to brush off a nosy Grace (Arija Bareikis) who offers her cookies and gossip about the Sandins’ home. The two women exchange fake pleasantries then move away from each other and it’s easy to see derision between them.
That disinterest is within the family itself as they eat dinner and exchange fake dialogue. As sirens indicate the commencement of the purge, James surveys the outward cameras of the property and is mildly surprised to see two neighbours outside about to take part of the ritual. It doesn’t alarm him that there would be people in his neighbourhood who would do so but he is taken aback that the two were even friendly. His own derision towards Grace shows up clearly when he sees that she is keeping her annual party and thanks God that the family was not invited this year. As the emergency broadcasting system kicks in, the family separates in the house to get away from each other. Again, James doesn’t seem concerned that he isn’t able to control the happening in his home but as he surfs the Internet for a yacht to buy, he hears the security system being disbanded. His son Charlie (Max Burkholder) has let a stranger into the house. While he’s reeling from this new situation, Zoey’s boyfriend appears on the stairs and points a gun at him. He fires at the young man, fatally wounding him but seems more concerned about the stranger.
At this point The Purge has already touched upon enough motifs to turn out to be a decent thriller but just as masked strangers appear at the front door demanding they turn the stranger over to them, the Sandin clan-- through some clunky writing by DeMonaco, begin to unravel. So too does the structure of the film as well as common sense. Gaps in the plot begin to get worrisome and no one seems in control of their actions. For example, when the strangers issue their threat, the power inexplicably goes. It’s a stretch to think James wouldn’t have back-up power so the last thirty minutes are played out in virtual darkness. Even the clever twist at the end gets betrayed by a sense of randomness, which undermines the attempted suspense.
James never gets to see that his sense of security literally wasn’t in his shabby product but those around him, the human element he’s so comfortable in swindling for profit. He’s allowed greed to cloud his judgment and family’s own security with Mary only at times feeling remorseful herself. Though he’s framed as a bit off-kilter, it’s up to Charlie to bring his parents around to realizing that doing the right thing is the only thing that matters. He knows that it doesn’t hurt to be nice to your neighbours even if it’s only on purge night. You’ll definitely want them on your side then.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
The Godfather (1972)
Based on Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather has simply become the standard by which all other mob films are judged against. The film takes a look at the Corleone family, in its most turbulent decade of existence. At its heart though lays Italian traditionalism and the deep bond of family. Its main protagonist Michael (Al Pacino) literally becomes leader of the underground after his father falls victim to an assassination attempt and heart attack. Director Francis Ford Coppola paces his action with wondrous clarity: from the opening wedding scene to the closing spell of dread Michael sets in motion. In between, we see a family struggling to keep itself together as greed and ambition seeps in.
The importance of the film is widely knows: three Oscar wins, selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry in 1990 and permanently in the top five list of greatest Americans films irrespective of the decade compiled. Marlon Brando won an Oscar as Vito, the patriarch and influenced a generation of method acting.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
Monster (R.E.M) (1994)
R.E.M’s ninth and most controversial release inches towards its twentieth year of existence with no apparent ease in sight. The band had been at the heights of its powers and, like Dylan before them, changed direction and plugged into a harsher rock sound and fans were stopped cold in tracks. Maybe lead singer Michael Stipe felt out of place amidst the grunge love-fest that was permeating the air but history will prove eventually that this is the band’s best album.
It sure is the loudest: the twelve songs that make up Monster are all jarring, disorienting yet shockingly human. Stipe and company had reached a frustrated point with their celebrity and it had started to affect their personal interaction. One can hear it in the hiss that singles out Stipe on the brilliant King Of Comedy to the point where he lashes out towards the end, “I’m not commodity” repeatedly. The album also touches on sexual frustration quirkily on I Don’t Sleep, I Dream, where he ponders if he gives good head and mother envy on Crush With Eyeliner. And no R.E.M LP could be complete without Stipe stretching his gorgeous vocals over some geeky, intense emotion and one listen to Strange Currencies reinforces the fact that no band has done emo-rock half as well since. No introspection could ignore the album’s centerpiece though, the touching Cobain tribute, Let Me In. It’s a mere three minutes of guitar shards and a solemn Stipe berating that other superstar for not letting us into his life. After all these years it remains one of rock’s most harrowing moments.
Apologies To The Queen Mary (Wolf Parade) (2005)
The debut of Wolf Parade still stands as the most exciting release of frantic rock music in the last decade. For starters, it introduced the world properly to the genius of Spencer Krug and for that alone the album is significant. Wrapped within the sardonic title though is some stunning emo rock: Krug’s vocal work reaches the same brilliant heights achieved by Bowie on such classics like I’ll Believe In Anything and Dear Sons & Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts---which features the immortal line, ‘God doesn’t always have the best goddamn plan, does he?’ The beauty of the Krug/Dan Boeckner combination though remains the juxtaposition of lyrics to production. With a voice like Krug’s virtually anything touched will mine gold but the album began the contemporary trend of dissecting the male perspective in rock music, in relation to family, past experiences and bonding. Who can forget the first time the opening blast of I Am My Father’s Son… hit you and every body part sat up to that groovy beat? Or the hollowed sadness experienced when Krug slows it down to fall behind the guitar beat of Dinner Bells?
Of course this is a group effort but it’s the aformentioned Boeckner’s production that plays the best foil for Krug pretty damage. The group’s done some decent stuff since but they’ve never been able to capture this essence again, which would have been expected. Even upon release, critics fell heavily in love with the album; all the major online publications fell over themselves to lavish praise. Give it a spin and fall in love with it again.
Friday, June 7, 2013
12 Angry Men (1957)
The directorial debut of the late Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men remains—even after fifty years---a stripped-down, thrilling landmark look at the American justice system. Shot in black & white, it traces a murder and the reaction of the jurors deciding the fate of a young poor teenager. Lumet creates unbearable tension despite the film taking place essentially in one setting: a jury room. We get no names, just the number in which the men sat in on the trial. They argue, agree, and insult each other and even bond in a weird way. The jury room becomes a hot-bed for cultural stereotyping…we see rank discrimination and attitudes shifting with moral values. In the end, juror number 8 (a brilliant Henry Fonda) manages to convince the hard-hearted men to see things from a different perspective and open up their minds to the possibility of the youth’s innocence. Within the period, each juror undergoes his own metamorphosis and this reveals Lumet’s real skill: that of exploring ideas that keep us riveted in our seats.
In 2007, the library of Congress selected it as culturally important. A honor well deserved and overdue. Though it didn’t make much impact at the box office or snare any of the three Oscars it was nominated for, today the film is considered a classic. It has even shaped a lot of legal minds in their pursuit of justice, most notably Sonia Sotamayor, a current US Supreme Court judge.