Thursday, January 31, 2013

Send All Those Villains After Me

Let's be frank up-front: Tegan and Sara wanted to make a Robyn album. They weren't fucking around, either - they didn't just throw a couple electro-pop numbers onto a standard issue T+S album, no. They recorded an entire album of Robyn-esque pop. There are stompers and synth ballads, even a tiny hint of dubstep poking in around the edges, and all delivered with complete sincerity. If it seems strange or uncharacteristic or even alienating on first listen for long-time fans, well, it's at the very least definitely not a lark.

For anyone paying attention, however, it's not exactly a surprise. They've been dipping their toes into dance music and pop for a while now - they've done collaborations with Tiësto, Morgan Page, and David Guetta - hardly the most ground-breaking panel of producers, but definitely the right places to go if you're interested in making accessible electronic pop music. I would not be surprised if they really did make a dubstep record at some point in the near future, or at least got some remixes by whichever available dubstep folks are signed to another Warner affiliate.

And lest you think I'm being too hard on them - yeah, well, Tiësto is cheesy as fuck and Morgan Page isn't likely to be releasing his DJ Kicks anytime soon, but they also released a pretty eclectic remix album for "Alligator" that was almost twice as long as the album that "Alligator" came from. That one had remixes by Four Tet and Toro Y Moi, so, you know, hipster cred intact.

The point being: if they wanted to make some kind of cheesy crossover move, one song with Tiësto would have been enough. Two songs is a trend. Three is a commitment. The only way a whole album of new wave synthpop would be a surprise is if you hadn't been paying attention. They released an acoustic live album a year and change ago, Get Along, that almost seems in hindsight like a kind of peace offering for the fans they knew might be somewhat baffled by their electro turn. There are enough who would be completely satisfied if the duo simply remade The Con every two years until the sun burns out, no doubt about it. That album represents the apex of a certain type of hermetically-sealed hyper-emotive guitar-based songwriting experience, an album that feels less like a collection of songs and more like an immersion. In hindsight it wasn't an experience that could be easily replicated: there just aren't that many artists who have proven successful at maintaining that level of intimacy for very long without it seeming either hackneyed or desperate - it's worth pointing out that Fiona Apple averages a new album about every five years and even that seems pushing it in regards to her mental well-being.

Sainthood is still my favorite even though I recognize that, coming on the heels of The Con, it wasn't universally adored. It's a bigger album in almost every respect - bigger rock sound, fiercer guitar, sleeker production. It doesn't have the craggy edges that The Con or So Jealous do. What it does have is, I think, the strongest songwriting of their career to date, paired with some genuinely ambitious arrangements. It might not be as completely naked in places as The Con, but I'd still put "The Ocean" and "Someday" up against "Dark Come Soon" any day of the week. It's a resolutely old-fashioned rock album, in that it contains a very of different sounds and moods spread across the length of thirteen tracks, with great care expended in the placement of each mood in relation to the others. I've read some reviews that criticized Sainthood for being schizoid in execution, but I don't see a problem in the fact that Sara's songs sound different than Tegan's, anymore than I had a problem with Andre and Big Boi's clashing aesthetics coming together to form something greater than the sum of their individual parts. It works. It's part of the package.

It works partly because even though they write different songs they still sound like they're singing to each other. They're twins, so on the most basic level their voices sound very similar, and that creates a baseline for their sound that never wavers even when their individual contributions sound very disparate. If you listen for a little while you get a feel for their differences - Sara is the nasal one, Tegan is the bratty one, which is kind of a stupid way of describing them but it's as good a way I can think of to explain it. But one of the reasons why it's so easy to fall so deeply in love with the duo is that they have a way of singing that makes it sound like they're talking directly to you, confessing and cajoling the listener directly. The fact that they're already singing to each other makes it that much easier to imagine they're singing to you, too.

Heartthrob is in many respects a complete break. For one thing, despite the fact that Tegan & Sara have always been a guitar group, there's barely any guitar on this album. You can hear a few chords here and there in the background, and one song ("Love They Say") actually does have some strummed acoustic guitar in the front of the mix, but really, that's about it. For another, if previous albums have ably defined the two sisters' individual songwriting voices, Heartthrob does a good job effacing these differences. Historically, a Tegan song sounded like a Tegan song and a Sara song sounded like a Sara song, and once you figured this out it wasn't hard to tell them apart. This album doesn't work like that. All the songs sound like Tegan & Sara, but not very many of them sound like Tegan or Sara, if that makes sense.

What this means, in practice, is that the twins have largely abandoned what has historically been one of their greatest strengths - the variety that comes from putting two very different kinds of songwriters in close proximity and forcing them to share space. This is a dance-pop album, and all the songs are dance pop songs - the fast songs are club hits, the slow songs are synth ballads, but the overall effect is very much of a piece. Even though none of the songs really miss individually (OK, maybe "How Come You Don't Want Me" is a bit of a dud), as a whole the album seems samey. I'm going to qualify that statement with the caveat that I've only had the album for two days and even though I've already listened to it a dozen times I've still got a few dozen more spins before I can feel completely at home - but just in terms of first impressions, the album doesn't seem anywhere near as diverse as any of their previous long players.

Part of the problem (if we can even call it a problem) might have to do with the fact that they're playing somewhat against type. As much as they might want to make synthpop music, they don't yet have the chops to pull off anything near as ambitious in this genre as they were able to do with guitar-based rock on their previous albums. There's nothing that comes close to the challenging arrangements on The Con or the second half of Sainthood. A lot of the songs sound very much of a piece, so there aren't many moments where the music is able to sneak up behind and fully catch your attention, like on (for instance) "Like O, Like H" or "Sentimental Tune."

One of the reasons the album sounds the way it does is that they made a conscious decision to sublimate some of their own songwriting tendencies under the guiding hand of producer Greg Kurstin, credited as producer on eight out of ten of the album's songs. Kurstin usually works with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, P!nk and Ke$ha, so it's obvious Tegan & Sara wanted something very specific from working with him. I think they got what they were looking for - and that's not a dig. The album works best when they manage to figure out how to make Tegan & Sara work in the context of the pop genre. If it works better in some places than others, it still works pretty well throughout. What they've lost on this album is that sense of intimacy with the listener: they've scrubbed some of their idiosyncrasies in the pursuit of making as broad a statement as possible.

But I would like to stress, in case that sounds overly harsh, that the album does succeed as often as not. If they wanted their own "Dancing On My Own," they succeeded with "Closer." It would be impossible to oversell this song: making pop songs that work this effortlessly is fucking hard, or everyone would be doing it all the time. It's the best song on the album by a country mile, which isn't necessarily a knock on the other good songs because it's just that good. "Goodbye, Goodbye" is pretty good, too, built off a bit of the DNA from Madonna's "Lucky Star" - likewise with "I Was A Fool" which borrows a melody line from (of all things) Heart's "How Do I Get You Alone." "Drove Me Wild" and "I Could Be Your Friend" work pretty well, too - nowhere near as aggressive as "Closer" but fairly catchy nonetheless. Of all the album's ballads I think "Love They Say" would be the strongest, except for some uncharacteristically banal lyrics ("Love they say that it is blind / They say it all the time"). It's hardly a deal-breaker, but all the same it is slightly disconcerting, considering that clever, resolutely un-cliched lyrics have always been the duo's specific métier. There aren't many of Sara's trademark tongue-twisters, I'll say that.

All of which points to the bottom line: Tegan & Sara stepped out of their comfort zone for the express purpose of recording a big-hearted, accessible electro-pop album that sounds only a little like anything they've ever recorded under their own names. Where the album succeeds it succeeds because it manages to maintain a delicate balance between the demands of being a Tegan & Sara album and being a straight pop album - where it fails, it fails because it falters on the side of being a generic pop record. While it may seem monotonous in places, the underlying songwriting is strong, and the songs reveal themselves under the pop shine through repeated listenings. There's no doubt that it will leave many of their fans disappointed, but I can't find it in me to fault them even though the project is only partially successful. It's not just that they decided to try something new, but that they wholeheartedly committed to the conceit. Heartthrob is all-in, warts and everything. I'm sure given time I'll love it as much for its imperfections.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Check It Out

Over the weekend, in case you missed it, I participated in Chad Nevett's Blogothon 2013, for the purpose of raising money for the Hero Initiative. Last count Nevett had already raised over $1000 - I really can't think of a more worthy cause if you are now or have ever been a comics fan. He's still accepting donations for the next day or so to catch up with any stragglers who may have missed it over the weekend, so think about it, hey?

Anyway, for the Blogothon I contributed a piece on why Cyclops was wrong in Avengers vs. X-Men. It's something I've been wanting to write for a while now because I've seen the idea repeated in a number of contexts that Cyclops "won" AvX, which strikes me as - shall we say - a severe misreading of the story, but also somewhat reflective of the ways in which Marvel has thoroughly mutilated the once-beloved X-Men franchise in recent years. It should go without saying that it's an extremely nerdy essay, the kind of thing I struggled with wanting to write but, well, not wanting to put a couple hours' work into something so hopelessly, heroically pointless. But since Nevett was someone who I had seen publicly declaiming Cyclops' victory on Twitter this seemed like the perfect opportunity for some good old fashioned nerd rage. You know, nerdity for a good cause. You can read his introduction to the topic here, my essay here, and Nevett's reply here.

Nevett actually partially concedes the point to me, which I appreciate, even if I think he (like many people, I find) are really underselling the fact that the Avengers really were justified in being aggressively skeptical of the Phoenix-possessed X-Men in the second half of the story. To Marvel's credit, they weren't particularly ambiguous about the fact that the "Phoenix Five" pretty much lost their collective minds the moment they gained nigh-infinite power. Maybe I've just read too many comic books that I find the logic of "absolute Godlike power corrupts absolutely" irresistible in its inevitability, but I really don't think you need the wisdom of Captain America to see that there was really no way five people with the power of gods vowing to upend the planet's status quo could turn out for the best. It's basically the same plot as Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #11, the only difference being that Doctor Doom actually seemed more benevolent after he stole the Beyonder's power. He didn't build a hell-prison in which to fling his enemies without trial.

Anyway, the one thing I screwed up with the essay is that I included a number of pictures which, duh, I didn't format correctly for Nevett's blog. So, if you want to go back and try to make sense of my chicken scratchings with the proper illustrations for context, here they are:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

Due to popular demand, I have recorded Podcast #2, which you can download here. People asked me to talk about Marvel NOW so I have done so. Leave comments and requests for future discussion topics in the comments, as always.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Year In Music, 2011

The end of the year is when the music industry stops to catch its collective breath, and part of what this breath-taking entails is the release of the de rigueur end-of-year lists. This is a great time for me, owing to the fact that my life is perpetually defined by a queasy mixture of busy and lazy that prevents me from paying as much attention to music as I'd otherwise like. December and January are the months I spend tracking down all the good music I missed from the previous eleven months, courtesy of lists such as this and this and this, to name a few of the more obvious candidates.

Last year, on the tail-end of the music list season, I initiated a conversation with the Factual Opinion's Marty Brown on the subject. (Tucker was involved too, but for the most part opted to lay back in the cut and watch the two of us go at it.) We set up a Google Doc and went back and forth for a couple weeks. The conversation sort of petered out . . . I was busy at school, I suspect Marty is plenty busy as well, time passed. After a while I realized that so much time had passed since we started the conversation that it really wasn't timely at all anymore. So I made a command decision to sit on the conversation for a year until it was timely once again. (Remember: busy / lazy.) Now that we are once again in that late year / early year dead zone when people are staggering around high on Christmas food and New Years' cheer and not really paying attention to new music just yet, it seems appropriate to once again take another look at the ways in which we listen to and formulate aesthetic criteria for music.

I haven't changed anything, save for a couple editorial insertions to indicate where circumstances have interceded over the past year. Let's just say I didn't see Channel Orange coming (but then, I'm willing to bet, neither did you). If you'd like to refresh your memory of the year in music that was, once removed, you can start by scanning The Factual Opinion's list here and here, as well as my list here. The conversation began on Twitter with Marty calling me an old man for having such an old man Top 10, to which I replied, you've got me dead to rights.

Thanks to Marty and Tucker for participating. One of the reasons I initiated the conversation in the first part was a desire on my part to participate in more cross-blog activity with like-minded writers - I see people doing stuff together all the time and it looks fun. Who knows what the future might bring?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Django Unchained

Enough has already been written about Django at this point that it might seem as if there weren't more that needed to be said. This is my favorite piece of long-form criticism I've read so far. Go read that first, they say a lot of things I would have liked to say better than I could have said them.

But a few more thoughts. Much reaction to the film seems to be split down familiar lines: people who see a great deal in the way of thoughtful and thought-provoking content in what must be one of the most thematically and historically dense and rich movies in recent years, and people who dismiss the film as being another in a long line of facile entertainments produced by a juvenile director. The latter school of thought holds that, yes, Tarantino may have his way with an image or a dialogue here and there, but he remains a stubbornly sophomoric filmmaker who's refusal to grow-up continually stymies his ambition. I should point out, based on the purely informal survey of reviews I've seen, that this last opinion appears to be an opinion held by a revanchist minority, the type of folks like Anthony Lane still waging a fiery rearguard action against the forces of cinematic iniquity.

The problem with Lane is that while his reviews are funny if you agree with his opinions, when you cease to agree they seem simply lazy. And surely in his brief dismissal of the film we see something less than a considered response to the film's myriad aesthetic, thematic, and historical dimensions, and more along the lines of a lazy refusal to engage with the film on any level above that of casual rebuke. The feeling you take away from this school of criticism is that Tarantino is somehow an irresponsible filmmaker for not having already settled down to produce something mature and understated such as Scenes From A Marriage Part Deux, and a movie like Django suffers for its inability to hold itself the standard of being a "well-wrought urn" of exceeding cinematic gravitas. Lane falters because his inability to engage seems simply absurd - borderline incompetent - next to the voluminous discourse that has already sprouted around the film. For better or for worse this is a film that is going to be seen, re-seen, analyzed, criticized, dissected, and lionized for years to come. But, I hasten to add, not dismissed, at least not by anyone who has actually seen the film - that means you, Spike - because I don't think anyone but Lane could see the film and not come away significantly affected. (Incidentally, you should read this for the best specific riposte to Lee's words I have read.)

Don't get me wrong: I've done my time in the anti-Tarantino militia. After producing three near-perfect films in the 90s (as well as a handful of great screenplays that became great movies for other directors), he lost me with Kill Bill. Probably because I don't have any affection for / little interest in the films and genres to which he was paying homage, I found Kill Bill, while pretty, to be almost completely pointless, and about as deep as a puddle of rain. Inglourious Basterds did a lot to redeem him in my eyes. That was a very good film. I think, however, that Django is probably better than Basterds.

I think the best way to measure the importance of Django is the way the film has made so many people so very uncomfortable. I'm not even talking about Spike - take a look at that first article I linked to for clarification on that. I'm talking about white people. Just go back and read Lane's "review":
Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache. That is what Django delivers, and it’s the least that Candie deserves, together with other defenders of the Southern status quo: such, at any rate, will be the claim of Tarantino’s fans, although I was disturbed by their yelps of triumphant laughter, at the screening I attended, as a white woman was blown away by Django’s gun.
These words echo another review I read recently (a terrible review for which I won't even bother tracking down a link) that also referenced this scene, with another bit about how uncomfortable they were with the theater massacre at the end of Basterds, especially in light of the tragedy at Aurora over the summer.

Putting aside the false equivalency that makes the righteous massacre of top Nazi party officials in any way comparable to the senseless murder of civilians during peacetime, you begin to detect the emergence of a strange kind of ethical scrupulousness, the kind of scrupulousness that focuses so intently on slicing delicate compunctions into fine slivers that the entire forest is lost in contemplation of the trees. Why, pray tell, is Lane disturbed by the gleeful reaction to Candie's sister's death? Tarantino isn't trying to set up any kind of subtle dialectical contrast here: he is saying as plainly as possible that the lingering cult of the pristine white Southern belle is a historically duplicitous and dangerous phenomenon that deserves nothing but our utmost contempt. The white women who sat peacefully in the big houses while their husbands, fathers, and brothers carried on the business of slavery, as the beneficiaries of this system, were no less to blame for the enormity of its evil. Do you retain any lingering sentimental connection to Scarlett O'Hara as a figure of romance and feminine perseverance? I certainly hope not. Burn it all. But then, worry not, Lane is clever enough to put these defenses in the mouths of "Tarantino's fans" - meaning, fanboys, uncritical and cultish devotees whose commitment lacks any kind of self-reflexive rigor. God forbid you actually be a fan of something.

The worst part about Django is that it was a movie only Quentin Tarantino could make. Meaning: no black filmmaker could ever have gotten anywhere near the subject matter, let alone produce anything remotely as violent or sickening, and received any money from Hollywood. There aren't very many movies made about slavery, for the obvious reason that it's hard to find and angle on the story that doesn't revolve around white Americans being terrible, unredeemable villains, and who would go see that movie? It's also hard to imagine many movies willing to go as far as necessary to show just how viscerally, unremittingly awful slavery was. If you think about it, there aren't a lot of films made about the Holocaust, either, at least not the very worst parts of the genocide. These things are hard to watch, and people don't like seeing them on movie screens outside the confines of the occasional prestige Oscar-bait documentary. That doesn't mean we don't need to see them, however.

As strange as it seems for such an idiosyncratic filmmaker, Tarantino has basically received a blank check from Hollywood to do whatever he wants. Kill Bill and Basterds made a lot of money. He's an auteur who gets to play on the big canvas without having to kowtow to the Happy Meal guys. And the fact is that he has chosen this specific moment to leverage his singular clout into making the most brutal, upsetting, bloody movie about slavery I've ever seen. Would it have been "better" if a black director had made the film? Few say it directly but that's obviously the undercurrent to much of the extant criticism. If the movie had been exactly the same, frame for frame, just with John Singleton or F. Gary Gray's name in the credits, would Spike Lee have given a damn how many times the movie said "nigger"? (The answer? Maybe. I don't know. I can't even begin to guess.) Or would the conversation have been entirely different, with white conservative pundits from coast to coast bemoaning the scourge of "black racism" and asking why "they" (those poor misguided blacks who have been betrayed by the Democrat party into accepting the status of permanent victims) can't just get over this slavery thing because they (white conservatives) obviously don't see color so there is no longer any such thing as racism . . . etc., etc. Even with a white man behind the camera, that discourse is still popping up.

Who the hell knows? If white people are still too "uncomfortable" with being reminded about slavery, well, tough. This movie rubs your face in the history like a pile of warm dog shit - if you forgot, or never knew, exactly what American history entailed, you deserve every ounce of your unease. There's been a side-narrative to the discussion about the movie, talking about whether Tarantino falsified or enhanced the historical record in reference to "Mandingo fighting" - which seems to me to be so astoundingly besides the point that its amazing anyone asking the question has the wherewithal to tie their shoes. Do we really think that if we can parse the historical record with perfect precision we can calculate the exact degree of moral culpability that white southerners possessed, and not one jot or tittle more or less? Is someone like Candie any less reprehensible if he didn't actually buy and sell men for the express purpose of pitting them against each other to the death, just, you know, having them torn apart by dogs and gelding them and putting them in iron boxes for weeks at a time in the heat of the summer?

Or is the real issue here that Tarantino, in seeking to create an epic catalog of the brutalities of slavery, is secretly just as infatuated with the erotic possibilities of captive black male flesh as the slaveowners themselves, and that his insistence on putting the "N" word in the mouths of so many of his characters reflects a fascination with blackness that borders on the fetishistic? (Besides, that is, the fact that a movie about slavery times that didn't drop the "N" word every other second would be plain silly.) There's the rub. Because Tarantino actually wants to talk about race, and talk about race in explicit terms, suddenly he's just as culpable as the racists he's pillorying. Are we worried that showing slavery in all its lurid detail will somehow rekindle its old romantic aura, as if it could ever once again be made, dare we say, attractive? If we talk about slavery, can we only talk about it in tones of hushed reverence, sepia toned pictures of noble struggle against adversity and mute, holy suffering. You know, like Lincoln, a movie that does a bang-up job of eliding the actual physical existence of black people in a movie ostensibly about the abolition of slavery.

Accusing Tarantino of exaggerating or sensationalizing the practice of slavery seems to me to be almost an illegible complaint: there is no way to accurately portray the actual practice of slavery as it was experienced in the United States without the portrayal being, in the strictest sense of the word, sensational. Look at the historical record. Read the slave narratives - two feet from my desk I have a well-thumbed copy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr's The Classic Slave Narratives anthology. It's $7.95 in paperback and every household in America should own a copy. It has The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which is the best American memoir ever written, period. If you haven't yet you really should read it.

This isn't "just" African-American history, this is American history, and if that makes anyone too uncomfortable, well, I have no pity for you. It should make you uncomfortable. But we have to own it. If this movie puts this conversation back on people's lips, it's done the job. For whatever inaccuracies and exaggerations the film may or may not commit, it's an important film because it wants us to see something that has been invisible for a very long time.

I sincerely hope that Django isn't the last word in this conversation - it would be awesome if the film led to a greater awareness of the types of stories that could find a receptive audience onscreen. It would be completely fantastic if Danny Glover didn't have to scramble for spare change to film his Toussaint Louvrture biopic - that is one of the greatest stories in modern history, and I'm sure it would make one hell of a movie. Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath - as popular as Django is proving to be, it's still successful primarily because it's a Quentin Tarantino film, not because it's a film about race relations in American history. But by being everything that it is - loud, violent, unrepentantly nasty in places and downright strange in others - it opened the door to a bunch of people having precisely this conversation. That is why even though it's not a perfect film, I am still convinced that it is a great film.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The best compliment I can give this movie is that I didn't begrudge it a second of it's Brobdingnagian run-time. Sure, some have complained that the opening sequence in Bilbo's house run on too long, but they're not unnecessary minutes - we're setting off on a nine-hour adventure, so it's a good idea to know what we're actually doing and what people's motivations actually are.

I saw the film on 3D, which isn't my preferred format, but that was the time available for the afternoon I had open. I would have preferred to see it in regular 2D, because 3D has been known to give me a headache, but it was not to be. The 3D was pretty good. Before you ask, I did not see the film at the super frame rate, because I am not completely insane.

The coolest moments of the film, for me, were the handful of conscious homages to the original 1977 Rankin / Bass cartoon. There were a couple bits - really brief, blink-and-you-miss-it - where Jackson called back to the cartoon. In particular, during the first scene of Gollum paddling his little boat across the water in his cave, there was a split second where the image was framed and composed exactly like the same moment from the earlier film. One of those things obviously intended for people who spent too many hours watching that cartoon on TV during Thanksgiving afternoon Middle-Earth marathons (the three cartoons played back-to-back on local TV - we were never a big football household).

The cinematic Middle-Earth is a different place than Tolkien's Middle-Earth. I did enjoy the new film, however, for the chance to linger in the former world for another three hours of my life. These aren't films I revisit often - despite the extended run-time of the DVD special editions they really aren't made for small TV watching, full of big scenes and big, broad emotions - but I do look forward to seeing them on the big screen when I can.

I came home and picked up The Silmarillion again - still my favorite Tolkien, and one which I am delighted to add will probably never be filmed. OK, there's parts that could be taken for movies - lots of individual stories of the wars against Morgoth and the fall of Númenor that could probably be quite cinematic if given the opportunity - but the best part of that book is more amorphous. I'm consistently transported by the sheer scale of mythic deep time and alien melancholy with which Tolkien invests his ancient tales. These are the strongest emotions I take from him, and for the most part, these peculiar emotions remain stubbornly resistant to adaptation.