Friday, February 29, 2008


Today I got my hot little hands on the latest issue of Wired, and I have to say I can't wait to sink my teeth into Chris Anderson's cover story on the "cult of free." For those who don't know Anderson, he's Wired's Editor in Chief and author of the book The Long Tail, one of the most influential business books of the past decade. Normally I hate business books because so few of them actually have a point, but The Long Tail was different. Anderson argued in the book that mass culture is over, that the democratization of production and distribution has made it possible for companies (and individuals) to cater to increasingly niche markets. Consumers will arrange themselves into what he calls the long tail, increasingly smaller groups of people bound together by common interests. The great companies of the future will be the ones who can effectively identify and speak authentically to these micro-markets.
I haven't read the new article yet, but what I think Anderson is going to argue is that those same declining production and distribution costs that created the long tail are not eliminating mass culture so much as they are forcing those who want to cater to enormous audiences to offer their products and services for free (or nearly free). What they lose in traditional revenue they can make up for in advertising revenue and increased brand exposure/equity. We see this playing out in nearly every industry right now, particularly the various entertainment industries. I've gone on at length about my anger at the music industry for not realizing the potential of emerging technologies, so I won't belabor that point. But I'm very interested to hear what Anderson has to say on the subject.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More Oscar Week

Don't bother! American Gangster is a mess, a bloated film barely held together by subpar performances from amazing actors. I love Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, I think they're both among the best actors around. But not even they can save this film from Ridley Scott's heavy-handed direction and Steve Zaillian's predictable script.
The film follows the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug dealer who makes a fortune for himself importing heroin from Vietnam. Right from the start the story loses its way, stuttering along aimlessly. Montage after montage show Lucas rising at the expense of junkies everywhere. I can't help but be reminded of Team America's jokes about montages in action films substituting for an actual story. Denzel Washington does the best he can with the one-dimensional portrayal of Lucas in the script, but I don't think any actor alive could have presented Lucas as anything but a stereotype. When the film finally did get around to making a point, I couldn't help but think, "Really? That's it?"
Ruby Dee has about five minutes of screen time. She has one good scene, and she does it well. Unfortunately I haven't seen any of the other films in this category, but I've heard wonderful things about all of the other performances except Saoirse Ronan's. I simply can't justify pulling for Ms. Dee as a substitute for a "Lifetime Achievement" award. It's an unfortunate practice of the Academy that I hope doesn't happen this year as well. However, as Tara argues, she is an "adorable little 83-year-old lady," and it's hard to root against her! I guess I'm going to have to pull for Tilda Swindon here, she always impresses me and I've heard she's amazing in Michael Clayton.

Friday, February 22, 2008

More Oscar Week

A few nights ago Becca and I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a movie almost as long as its title. Not to say that it wasn't good. It's an absolutely beautiful film. I once again assert that Roger Deakins is the greatest cinematographer ever, living or dead. He's up for two Oscars this year, for this film and for No Country for Old Men. I actually think his work here is stronger. The tale lends itself to more visual sumptuousness, and it really plays to his strengths as a Director of Photography.
The supporting cast is incredible, not just Casey Affleck but also Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider and Garret Dillahunt (who also played Wendell in No Country, in case you're keeping score.) It was like a who's who of my favorite character actors! Affleck really does stand out in the film though, and it's clear why the Academy singled him out. His portrayal of Robert Ford is both creepy and heartbreaking, and sometimes you just want to cry for his awkwardness. It's a great leap forward for him, and it leads me to believe he might just show us some great things in the future.
There are a couple of weak spots in the film. First, the story meanders towards the end. There is too much time devoted to Ford's story after he kills James. This should have been gone through at a good clip, and although it develops Ford's character a bit more, it's not worth the significant increase to the running time. Second, Mary-Louise Parker, an extremely gifted actress, is absolutely squandered in the film. She plays James's wife, and aside from one or two lines of dialogue she has absolutely no role in the film. I have to believe that there was a whole side story involving her that got cut because of time, because it's just distracting having someone like her in a role made for a block of wood.
The film's main failing is Brad Pitt's, though. For the first half of the film he's superb, all menace and charisma done in a very subtle way. The second half, however, he falls into his 12 Monkeys comfort zone. He chews the scenery and laughs maniacally until you have to pick fragments of his performance out of your skull because he's hit you over the head with it so many times. He hasn't been able to move past this tendency when he's taken on roles like this, and I'm beginning to think he never will. He's gonna have to play a mentally challenged civil rights attorney who's running a marathon in order to ever get an Oscar for himself.
The film's long running time may turn some off, but it's worth watching. There's some great stuff, and the first half in particular weaves a pretty powerful spell.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Oscar Week

This year I've been really bad about keeping up with the Oscar contenders. I'm going to try to make up for it this week by seeing as many of the nominees as I can. I began this afternoon with No Country for Old Men, and I hope at the very least to see a few more of the best picture nominees before the week is out. No Country for Old Men is the frontrunner thus far in the Best Picture race, and with good reason. It really is a masterpiece for the Coens, who have long been ignored by the Academy. Coming up strong behind is Juno, the sole feel-good movie in the category. I get the feeling that Juno is going to annoy me, but I don't want to pass judgment before I see it. There Will Be Blood has also been getting a lot of attention lately, but seeing as Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be the surest bet of the night, I don't think Best Picture is in the cards. Plus, I'm sure that Paul Anderson will have many more shots at the big one.
My personal favorites of the acting nominees are Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (for the sheer balls it took to play do that shower scene, har har), Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (an amazing transformation), and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (literally gave me chills). I haven't seen any of the Supporting Actress nominees yet, but I have Gone Baby Gone at home right now from Netflix.
Any thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Cool Cat

I'm really digging the new Cat Power record, Jukebox. It's not a gigantic step forward from The Greatest, which in the eyes of most critics who have written about the album means that it's not as worthy of praise. I, however, beg to differ. As much as I liked The Greatest, some of her songs don't lend themselves to the hushed style of that album. It's the same problem people have with Bright Eyes' newer stuff. It's hard to change the way you write songs. Whereas The Greatest was deliberately slick at times, Jukebox feels comfortable and natural, like she's been playing with these songs since she was a girl. And that's just what she's doing, playing with the songs. She turns "New York" from a Sinatra standard into what I'm sure will become one of her signature tunes. And she turns George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One For Me" an album high point. She moves fluidly from country to soul to jazz, and the songs she's picked to cover are really inspired choices. And her version of Dylan's "I Believe in You" absolutely kills. Having heard a number of shitty Dylan covers in my day, I understand how hard it can be to cover his tunes well. Makes me wish I hadn't ditched her set at Bonnaroo two years ago.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

All Hail The Whigs!

It's rare to find a band with a rhythm section like The Whigs any more. It's not that nobody pays attention any more, or that there's a lack of talent out there. It's that it takes a subtle interplay of instruments to create a great rhythm section. Bands that have done it amazingly (Nirvana, The Who and, much as I hate to admit it, Dave Matthews Band) involve the entire band in crafting propulsive, innovative rhythms. The Whigs are one such band.
I hadn't heard them before Mission Control came out, and from what I've heard of their debut, Give 'Em All A Big Fat Lip, I didn't miss much. There are some cool songs, but the Whigs' sound is not well presented in such a lo-fi way. They craft a solid wave of rock goodness that's meant to surround you. Rob Schnapf gives them a lot of room to breathe on Mission Control, and it's only on Mission Control that the true power of Julian Dorio, their amazing drummer, comes across. I can't wait to see these guys live, because I bet this guy is an absolute monster to watch. And the songs are incredibly catchy as well. Among the standouts are "Like a Vibration," the monster opener, "Sleep Sunshine," a lilting lullaby of a tune, and "Right Hand on my Heart," my candidate for Song of the Year so far. Check out the video, it's pretty infectious:

So check the album out. It's on EMusic, iTunes, Amazon, or whatever you're into. You won't be sorry you did.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Top 20 Of 2007: 5 - 1

5. Tegan and Sara - The Con
I’ve always admired artists who can make the teenage experience sound like it really is. Most portray it one-dimensionally, either a celebration of epic proportions or an angst-filled mess. Both are true, and it takes a rare talent to mix those two things together and make it palatable to both adults and kids. Tegan and Sara have crafted an album that recreates the experience of being a teenager not just through content but also through form. About half of The Con’s songs are true pop songs, gems that burst through your speakers and have you humming all the day long. The other half are little song-ettes, snatches of melody and stuttering rhythm that give the album a sense of frenetic mayhem. Sometimes they’re lilting little pieces, like “I Was Married” and “Soil, Soil” (both of which are a mere minute and a half long), and sometimes they’re bursts of pure emotion, like “Knife Going In” and “Relief Next To Me.” It’s not always the shortest songs that fall into this category, either. The songs marry together to form a picture of a teenage psyche roiling with opinions and possibilities, a true glimpse into the way the young mind works, flitting from place to place, giving equal emotional weight to romantic flings and the idea of death. They are two incredibly gifted songwriters.

4. Radiohead - In Rainbows
You’ll have to forgive me if this review is a bit more soapbox than substantive analysis. First of all, the album is fantastic. It’s friggin’ Radiohead, of course it’s fantastic. It’s dark, stuttering and utterly captivating. No surprise there, and I tried to place it on the list according to its artistic merits rather than its method of delivery. But in a time in music where there are so many possibilities that are being squandered by revolting greed, it’s pretty awesome that the lads took it upon themselves to push the envelope. What really pissed me off about the industry reaction to it was the sheer number of people, people who make their living thinking and writing about music, who called it a gimmick and dismissed it as a marketing ploy. Really? That’s the best you can do? It’s not a sustainable model for all bands, they said. Of course it isn’t, fools! It’s not even a sustainable model for Radiohead! That’s not the point at all. The point is that they were able to say, “You know what, we’re gonna do this ourselves, and we’re going to do something more interesting than Capitol Records could dream.” What the process revealed was the ugly truth about record companies: they completely lack the imagination necessary to adapt to what music is doing. Not every band is going to be able to follow this model. Maybe none will. But it’s part of a series of death knells for the major labels. Madonna sounded another one this year by signing with LiveNation. It’s glorious music to my ears because it’s their own doing, and I have no sympathy for their whiny lawsuits or flimsy arguments. Next stop: movie studios. The writers’ strike is the least of your worries.

3. Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Ritter’s gotta be the most underappreciated dude working in music today. This is his third stone cold classic album (excluding Hello Starling, which was merely great), and he’s still not getting he recognition he deserves. I think there are several reasons for this. First, he is a very literary storyteller. His writes the way Marcel Proust writes, weaving a million ideas together in a minute. Even his slow songs leave you breathless with their pace. In “The Temptation of Adam” he weaves a tale of war and romance with the skill of a master poet, and it never feels slow or elegiac. Second, he inhabits the subjects of his songs so completely that he disappears. You never get the feeling that you’re hearing him sing about his own life or emotions, which makes him pretty unique among the sensitive singer-songwriters with whom he is most often compared. As a matter of fact I can’t think of anyone working today who writes quite like Josh Ritter. Finally, he just won’t stay put. The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter doesn’t sound all that different from his other albums, but at the same time it’s worlds away. He’s got a fantastic band around him this time around, and the result is an album that jukes and sprints around like a hummingbird, rewarding listen after listen with new delights.

2. M.I.A. - Kala
Talk about music to start a revolution! And to shake your ass a little bit as well. Kala is the most energetic, acrobatic, frenetic piece of music I’ve heard in a long while. I actually had a really hard time deciding whether it should be #1 on this list. I certainly predict that it’s going to end up being the most influential album of 2007. A woman from Sri Lanka making better hip-hop than anyone in the world is kind of big. The thing that makes this album such a quantum leap forward from Arular is the sheer variety of faces that Ms. Arulpragasam wears. Where Arular was consistent and steady, Kala careens all over the place. Recorded piecemeal in various countries with various producers, the album refuses to stay put or adhere to a steady flow. It’s crazy, frenetic and infectious. And while I love Diplo, who produced all of Arular, it gives me great pleasure to see Maya working with more producers this time. If for no other reason than to silence the idiots who said Arular belonged more to Diplo than to her. Kala proves once and for all that M.I.A. is the only game in hip-hop worth paying attention to.

1. Panda Bear - Person Pitch
I’m never going to forget where I was the first time I heard Person Pitch. I had just gotten back from a summit in New York the night before, and I was walking back into a ton of work. I had to give a creative briefing the next day for Under Armour, and my preparations for the summit had taken precedence over doing very much work yet on the briefing. And, to kick it all off, I was giving the briefing in front of one of the most self-absorbed, pretentious men I’ve ever had the displeasure of calling “Professor.” After staying up all night putting the briefing together, I put on “Comfy in Nautica” at 5am to try to keep myself awake. It made everything else melt away: all my anxiety and nervousness over the briefing, all my disdain and anger towards my professor, everything. Most of the albums I really like tend to be hard for a lot of people to swallow, but no one that I have played Person Pitch for has done anything but marvel at it and ask for a copy. It takes you by the hand and brings you outside to play and remember how much fun it is just to be you. I find it hard to describe the way it makes me feel without falling into cliché or just sounding like a hippie, so I’ll leave it at this: Person Pitch is aural ecstasy. Get it, own it, love it.