Thursday, May 27, 2010

Peter, Bjorn and John - "Young Folks"

The best use of bongos in a pop song since The Beatles' "You're Going To Lose That Girl"? Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright"? Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion"? The best use of bongos in a long time, I can tell you that.

From top to bottom, everything about this song screams out "insignificance," which is why I like it. Victoria Bergsman sounds like she just woke up on the floor, rolled over a pile of heroin needles, and then promptly recorded her vocal track. Really that's just a result of her first language probably not being English. The non-native speaking issue could also explain grammatically incorrect turns of phrase such as "Usually when things has gone this far" and "Hours seems to disappear." But the "strung-out junkie" effect remains.

The animated video is perfectly in line with the song's whole G-rated aesthetic. Peter's thought bubble says "It's easy...just put your lips together!" Are they going to kiss? Victoria's thought bubble says "I'm not sure..." Peter's thought bubble says "Look - just watch what I do." He starts...whistling! How pre-teen. I love it when the video turns kaleidescopic at about the three minute mark. And who can forget the thought bubbles of the partygoers: "This is good!" "I like the drums..." "I like the bassline..." This is one serious party.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ladytron - "Playgirl"

"Playgirl" seems to be one of those songs that everybody knows about, and yet, as far as I can tell, was never actually a hit anywhere. Personally I have to admit that I tried my best to turn it into one. As a college radio DJ in the summer of 2000, I was flipping through the "currents" section when I came across an EP by a band named Ladytron. Want to know how to get into Little Earl's good graces? Name your band after an early Roxy Music song (also, name your EP Commodore Rock; I have a fond place in my heart for my childhood Commodore 64 computer). Roxy Music are guitar-heavy band, however, and Ladytron are not in particular. Yet when I gave the song a listen, the homage seemed fitting, for like Roxy Music's best, "Playgirl" struck me as sleek, ironic, futuristic, deadpan, and almost suffocatingly, shamelessly catchy. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!" I proclaimed to myself, and proceeded to play the song on my show every chance I saw fit.

And yet, I still couldn't tell if Ladytron were morons or geniuses. Years (and many albums) later, I'm definitely inclined to think the latter, although the band's intentions still remain rather opaque. I don't honestly know that much about the members of Ladytron - and I think I like it that way! I've been led to believe that there are two guys and two girls; the girls sing and the guys write the lyrics (like ABBA?). On "Playgirl," the lead vocalist, Helen Marnie, sounds like she might not be able to go another five seconds without completely losing interest in the track. The lyrics border on joke territory without quite working their way up to that all-too-frequently-used "we don't really mean it" cop-out:
Playgirl, why are you sleeping in tomorrow's world, hey playgirl
Playgirl, why are you dancing when you could be alone, hey playgirl
Playgirl, why are you sleeping in tomorrow's world, hey playgirl
Playgirl, choking on cigarettes to get you along, hey playgirl

Hey playgirl, hey playgirl
Northern lights catch you coming down
Sleep your way out of your hometown
Ladytron's lyrics manage to be vaguely sexual without being explicit. The "playgirl" in question here seems more disappointed than fulfilled. I can relate. The song conjures up images in my head of European airport lounges and dingy metro cars and some sort of all-encompassing urban art school ennui. Some might find the whole presentation too campy, too tongue-in-cheek, too insincere. Personally, I don't know if a pop song could ever be "too campy" for my taste. I'm laying down a challenge, folks.

Now, I listened to "Playgirl" for years (and I mean years) without ever seeing the video. I didn't even think the band had enough budget for a video, let alone a video worth watching. Oh Ladytron, how I underestimated you. It turns out the video is everything I might have hoped for and more. Helen Marnie actually looks quite photogenic in this clip. She should try this haircut more often.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Avalanches - "Since I Left You"

Now here is a perfect example of a band not trying very hard to make music of any particular significance and yet creating something I quite enjoy. The Avalanches are an Australian electronica duo consisting of Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann. You might describe them as a more whimsical DJ Shadow. Around the fin de siecle, Chater and Seltmann essentially decided to goof around with samples, on their own, apparently just for the hell of it. According to Wikipedia:
To create the songs on the album, members Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater spent countless hours sampling the chords from many records. Chater estimates the numbers of samples on the album to be over 3,500. After sampling and arranging, the pair would swap their tapes, listen to each other's ideas and expand on whatever struck their ear. Despite working separately, both Chater and Seltmann had nearly duplicate studio set-ups. Seltmann and Chater didn't keep track of what tracks were being sampled when creating the album, with Chater stating that they "were really unorganized and were just sampling on the fly as tracks progressed. We had no idea the record would get such a wide-scale release so we saw no need to keep track of what we were using — we were definitely guilty of harboring a 'No-one's going to listen to it anyway' sort of attitude."
Little did they know! Let this be a lessen to you, kids. Just fart around on your own, and you may make something I'd actually want to listen to someday.

While the entire Since I Left You album is very enjoyable, I think there are a couple of standout tracks that make me wonder whether or not the rest of the album could have been even better than it is. Despite this inconsistency, the album would probably make a Ten Best Albums of the '00s list. However, that is not a list I intend to make.

Now on to the title song itself. AMG's Andy Kellman writes, somewhat pretentiously:
Endless summers for many youths don't consist of beaches and surfboards. Instead, they're spent on blacktops and jungle gyms. More gritty and halfway between the curb and the hoop than anything celestial, the Avalanches remind you of a point in your life when you could blissfully hang upside down from monkey bars and just dangle. Like recklessly riding your BMX or skipping rope after downing a sugar-laced pitcher of lemonade, the un-mawkish Since I Left You thrives on making you feel youthful and mighty ... Some origins can be immediately placed, and those that can't trigger an impulse that you've heard it somewhere before. You're at least familiar with the tone as it relates to a long-lost feeling of childhood bliss -- whether it's staring at a clear blue sky from a fresh-cut lawn or the first time you heard "Rock the Bells."
The first time I heard "Rock The Bells," I thought, "How did LL Cool J ever become so popular?" But never mind. Kellman is on to something. I love the track's opening seconds (buried substantially in the video mix). The distant chatter of the unwashed masses. An acoustic guitar. A vaguely Brazilian voice shouting in the right channel. Enter flute, strings, vocals, the beat. "Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise-paradise-paradise-paradise." Paradise indeed. The song reminds me of an outdoor barbeque where all the various sounds would be competing simultaneously for your attention, if only you were bothering to pay attention. Somehow the Avalanches managed to mix the "doo-doo-doo" sample so that it sounds like it's being played from a stereo on the patio, only you're actually hearing it from underwater in the pool.

Ultimately, "Since I Left You" is not a proper song at all. And yet it seems to have verses, a chorus, and a bridge, and all the usual amenities, and then you stop and realize that ... it's just a bunch of samples! These guys are good.

Equally hypnotic is the video. Now, you and I (and the Avalanches) know that the song's main vocal hook ("Since I left you, I found a world so new") is probably just a random sample that they thought sounded interesting when they were playing around and that's it. Ah, but The Avalanches excel at giving new life to meaningless phrases taken out of context. The video treats the phrase as if if were full of great emotional import. They've taken a sentence that essentially means nothing, and have turned it into something silly, magical, and a little bit moving.

So think about what's going on here. Not only have The Avalanches created a genuine song out of bits of songs that were never ever intended to coexist together, they've also created a complex narrative story out of a song that was never actually intended to be released.

Musicians of today: think small.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Songs From The '00s That I Like

A couple of months back I was thinking of compiling a "Ten Best Albums of the '00s" list, but I couldn't actually name ten albums I'd feel like putting on a list. Yes, my enthusiasm for recent popular music runs that low. These days I consider myself lucky if I find one song per album I'd want to hear more than once. And usually I don't even find that. "But enough of your whining," you say. Over the course of ten years, some winners are bound to pop up here and there. I mean, a terrific song from the '00s is just as terrific as a terrific song from the '60s or '70s. There just aren't very many of them. The bottom line is that I refuse to grade on a curve. We may simply be past the era of "Great Albums." So allow me to inaugurate a new series: Songs From The '00s That I Like.

This will not be a "Ten Best" list. I find "Best Song" lists rather arbitrary, and I don't feel like stopping at ten either.

There are some common features to a Song From The '00s That I Like:

1) It tends to be more dance/electronic-oriented
2) When it is not, it tends to sound a touch "retro"
3) It tends to have a softer, more echo-laden percussion sound as opposed to the more prevalent "hit the cymbals really hard for five minutes" style of drumming that is popular these days (I've concluded that hitting the cymbals really hard and really often is sort of a cheap, lazy way for a band to try to put "energy" into a song; Moe Tucker didn't even seem to have cymbals in her drum kit, and yet do Velvet Underground songs lack energy?)
4) They tend to have a more tossed-off, fun quality, and aren't trying to be any sort of "major statement" or "new thing"

In sum, to make a great song in the '00s, it's almost more about what you don't do than what you actually do. Does your song not sound like a suffocating aardvark? You may be halfway there. Mostly I tend to look for what Bruce Swedien, the engineer for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," called "sonic personality." For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me, it seems that in 1967 a band could record a song and it would sound great without any particular effort on the band's part. In 2010 the only way to make a song sound great is if the band a) puts a lot of effort into the production, or b) happens to get really, really lucky. It's gotten to the point where when I hear a catchy melody in a new song, my first thought is, "Man, that's catchy, I wonder where they took that sample from?" Because there's no way that that really catchy melody was actually written by somebody currently making music, right?

The songs that I've enjoyed are, for the most part, not the songs that have received all the "buzz," or the songs that have ended up topping all those "Best Songs of the Decade" lists. Missy Elliot will not be making an appearance. LCD Soundsystem will be M.I.A. (as will M.I.A.). Which is not to say that hit singles or critically praised tracks will not be among my choices. Just don't expect anything like this.

I will not deny it: there is something about the feeling of hearing great music that is being made now - the sensation of knowing that an artist who you like is out there somewhere, possibly writing another great song for you this very evening. I do think that there are probably many great songs from the '00s out there that I've simply missed. The problem is that, because my tastes seem to differ from contemporary critical tastes, I feel like I would have to listen to every single damn album that came out in the past decade myself. I need to do what I did as a college DJ, which was to grab a random stack of CDs, give each song 15 seconds, and go through three months' worth of music and find the five great songs within the stack of 200 CDs. Because the critics lie. They say an album is good and then I listen to the album and that album is bad. I figure I'm almost better off not trying to search for new music anymore. In some cases that has actually worked. One entry in this series caught my attention while playing over the opening credits of a movie. I discovered another entry while walking around in a mall.

Maybe great songs are now going to have to find me.

Note: The Songs From The '00s That I Like series will occasionally dovetail with my YouTube Videos That Live Up To My Expectations series, although not every Songs From The '00s That I Like selection will feature a video that has actually lived up to my expectations. Some videos of great songs are disappointing, but I will post them nonetheless, simply for reference. And yet, more often than not, a band that is capable of making a memorable song is also capable of making a correspondingly memorable video. When I consider a video to qualify for both categories, I will label the post as such. There are procedures that must be followed!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mark Wahlberg: Acting Role Model (?)

Mr. McKay, the man behind the goofball absurdism of “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” said that Mr. Wahlberg’s character in “The Other Guys,” who has “an anger disorder but is also very vulnerable,” drew on the actor’s ability “to play wounded and betrayed in a really funny way"... Mr. Wahlberg said he was able to stay within his “comfort zone,” which he described as “my commitment to playing it as real and as straight as possible” ... “I know no other way,” Mr. Wahlberg said of his approach. “I’ve seen a lot of people try a lot of tricks, and I don’t feel so comfortable with that. The only way I can do it is to believe it."
And believe it he does. Could it be possible that Marky Mark and I have the same approach toward acting? Granted, one is a little more successful than the other, but at least I haven't starred in any Peter Jackson or M. Night Shyamalan movies. Glad to see that David O. Russell is still working in Hollywood, or at least still working with other people who are still working in Hollywood. He describes Mark Wahlberg's appeal succinctly:
“Mark has a great capacity for comedy,” Mr. Russell said, “but it’s a comedy that comes from being very real and intense” ... “In this world that can be a very painful place, there can be a tendency to guard yourself" ... “You can use irony or cynicism to do that, and so sincerity becomes a great act of courage.”
Mark Wahlberg, symbol of courage. He also seems to walk the line between goofy and dead serious in real life:
Mr. Wahlberg described himself as above all a devout Roman Catholic, a devoted husband and father of four. “The first thing I do every day when I leave my house,” he said, “I go to church, man, get down on my knees” ... Before adjourning to the guest house for the interview, Mr. Wahlberg checked in on the family lunch in the kitchen, where his youngest, 3-month-old Grace, dozed in a baby swing. He interrupted the conversation to help his wife, Rhea Durham, open the electric gate (the power was out) as she prepared to take their two older children to a matinee of “How to Train Your Dragon.” (“No Lady Gaga,” Mr. Wahlberg told his eldest, Ella, 6, as they drove off; she had come home from school singing age-inappropriate lyrics.)
Dear God! Wouldn't want your 6-year-old to be singing age-inappropriate lyrics now, would you? It's hard to tell whether Wahlberg gets his own joke or not. Witness this Saturday Night Live sketch, and Mark's supposedly self-deprecating guest appearance. In sum, I'm not always sure whether I'm laughing at him or with him, but at least I can say I'm laughing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

An Education (Scherfig)

I think An Education suffers from Good Will Hunting Syndrome, i.e. I'm supposed to sympathize with a main character whose problems I would love to have. You're smart, pretty, confident, and outgoing? Ooh, I feel so terrible for you, I really do. And unlike Good Will Hunting, this girl comes from a loving, supportive family. Come on Nick Hornby, give me a real protagonist next time, would you?

I feel like at the end of this movie I'm supposed to say to myself (spoiler warning), "Ah, yes, I remember when I was young and smart and good-looking and I had an underage fling with a really hot, charming guy, and I was so sweet and naive and he totally took advantage of me, but I learned a lot about life and I still got to go to my dream college so it all worked out in the end." Sorry. Don't remember that.

Otherwise the film's not bad. I certainly got a good feel for how crummy and boring early 1960s England must have been. Viewing all that repression and stagnation and an entire nation's pathetic effort to cling to an outdated social structure, I kept wanting to shout out, "Come on, Beatles, just show up already!" Just imagine it: England before The Beatles. What was the point? At least America had Hollywood. The girl in this movie dreams of living in France and watching pretentious French movies and reading philosophy and probably wearing a beret. France? Just wait a couple of years, honey. England will be way more swinging than France.

Film critic rating: ***
Little Earl rating: **

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tattoo You

Well folks, just over a week ago me and my girlfriend decided to drive up to San Francisco and get ourselves some tattoos. For me, it's my first. I've entertained the thought of getting a tattoo for years now. Nothing big or complicated, just something small. So I decided to show my dedication to my favorite band by getting the above pictured VNV Nation logo imprinted on my right shoulder. I'm not going to lie, getting a tattoo does sting, but it wasn't as painful as I thought it was going to be. We were at Mom's Body Shop on Haight Street, a pretty good place to get a first tattoo I must say. The artist, Phil, showed me his first tattoo which was of one of his favorite bands - Devo. I have to say, even though the tattoo is covered by my sleeve 90% of the time I still feel kind of like a badass. Is it time for me to head off to the nearest biker bar?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hello Slate My Old Friend

Time for an old-fashioned Slate article round-up:

Do You Believe In Miracles? - The wild, weird world of Insane Clown Posse - Jonah Weiner

Back around 2000, I accidentally stumbled across an ICP song called "Fuck The World." I was very ready to dismiss ICP entirely, but I thought, "You know, this is more clever than it probably needs to be," so I decided I sort of liked these guys. The song is like the archetype of male adolescent nihilism taken into the realm of absurdity. An excerpt:
Fuck Celine Dion, and fuck Dionne Warwick
You both make me sick, suck my dick
Fuck the Berlin wall, both sides of it
And fuck Lyle Lovett, whoever the fuck that is
Fuck everybody in the hemisphere
Fuck them across the world
And fuck them right here
You know the guy that operates the Rouge River draw bridge
In Del Ray on Jefferson?
Fuck him!
Fuck your idea
Fuck your gonorrhea
Fuck your diarrhea, Rocky Maivia
"Fuck my gonorrhea"? How's that supposed to work? I love the cheerfully energetic lowbrow enthusiasm of their audience:

"The massive family reunion that brings together the most misunderstood people of all time"? "Ninjas juggling fire"? "Wrestling midgets"? "Free camping?" I almost want to go to this! And let's hear it for the Saturday Night Live parody while we're at it.

The Goldman Casino: Do investment banks do anything that helps America anymore? - Eliot Spitzer

Why does it take Eliot Spitzer to ask this question?

In the traditional model, investment banks are thought to serve two critical functions. First, they are financial intermediaries: They are the conduits for transferring savings to those sectors of the economy that need capital. They fulfill the essential function, the economists tell us, of efficient allocation of capital. That is where their initial public offering and other capital-raising functions come into play. They enable productive companies to access the capital markets so they can grow their businesses. Second, they are supposed to be market makers that provide liquidity and stability in the markets to permit the free flow of capital on an ongoing basis.

The question that must now be asked is: Are investment banks doing that? Are they doing the things that merit public support at all? Or are they just running a casino with products that have no great social utility? The regulators, legislators, and investigators have not focused on the fact that the fundamental business of banking has changed from capital allocation to, essentially, gambling.

Oh come on Eliot. All that "capital allocation" stuff is so pre-1980s.

You're awesome, America: Why the U.S. recovery will be bigger, faster, and stronger than economists and politicians expect - Daniel Gross

According to Gross, economic grey skies are going to clear up, so put on a happy face:
But the long-term decline of the U.S. economy has been greatly exaggerated. America is coming back stronger, better, and faster than nearly anyone expected—and faster than most of its international rivals. The Dow Jones industrial average, hovering near 11,000, is up 70 percent in the past year, and auto sales in the first quarter were up 16 percent from 2009. The economy added 162,000 jobs in March, including 17,000 in manufacturing. The dollar has gained strength, and the United States is back to its familiar position of lapping Europe and Japan in growth. Among large economies, only China, India, and Brazil are growing more rapidly than the United States—and they're doing so off a much smaller base.
I guess so. I mean, I'm glad somebody's excited. This is all very well and good, but it kind of seems like small potatoes to me. I still stand by my skeptical conclusion from Crazy Rant #2: what's the end game here?

You've Come A Long Way, Buddha: With a little help from Tiger Woods and PBS, Buddhism may finally shake its counterculture image - Wen Stephenson

As if Tiger Woods didn't stand out enough as it is. Stephenson writes, "That Woods was raised Buddhist is nothing remarkable; what's striking is the down-to-earth, family-guy image of Buddhism projected in his comeback campaign." Wait, what do you mean, "not remarkable"? He's the world's greatest golfer, he's black, and now you're telling me he was raised Buddhist?

The Pope Is Not Above The Law: The crimes within the Catholic Church demand justice - Christopher Hitchens

Finally, Christopher Hitchens continues to write about the pope as if someone in the Catholic Church actually cares what Christopher Hitchens thinks. But I'm amused, particularly by headlines such as "The pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it," and his brief forays into fiction:
Here's a little thought experiment on practical ethics. Suppose that you are having a drink with a new acquaintance and the subject of law-breaking comes up. "Ever been in any trouble with the authorities?" You may perhaps mention your arrest at a demonstration, your smuggling of excess duty-free goods, that brush with the narcotics people, that unwise attempt at insider trading. Your counterpart may show a closer acquaintance with the criminal justice system. He once did a bit of time for forgery, or for robbery with a touch of violence, or for a domestic dispute that got a bit out of hand. You are still perhaps ready to have lunch next Friday. But what if he says: "Well, I once knew a couple who trusted me as their baby sitter. Two little boys they had—one of 12 and one of 10. A good bit of fun I had with those kids when nobody was looking. Told them it was our secret. I was sorry when it all ended." I hope I don't seem too judgmental if I say that at this point the lunch is canceled or indefinitely postponed. And would you feel any less or any more revulsion if the man went on to say, "Of course, I wasn't strictly speaking in any trouble with the law. I'm a Catholic priest, so we don't bother the police or the courts with that stuff. We take care of it ourselves, if you catch my meaning."
Good luck, Hitch.