Archive for August, 2010

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Wild Mood Swings

August 29, 2010

Ironic that I picked Wild Mood Swings to listen to from beginning to end. Keeping up with the previous Gorillaz review and the theme of “fans being upset about one album so different from the last, even though this is a thought pattern clearly unjustified,” Wild Mood Swings is regarded as a huge and sometimes unforgivable departure from previous sounds by the mopish, foppish hardcore Cure collective—and yet, Robert Smith puts this album in his top five favorite recordings. Wait, how could this be!? To make sense of this mess, let’s backtrack to Smith’s own quota about how it’s “pitiful that the word ‘goth’ is still attributed to the Cure.”

Furthermore, if we look into Smith’s own assertion that he’s surely not depressed all the time—“I’m not like that all the time. That’s the difficulty of writing songs that are a bit depressing. People think you’re like that all the time, but I don’t think that. I just usually write when I’m depressed—” we’re already facing someone who clearly wouldn’t ALWAYS keep the same attitude through his transition from purely webspun tales of brooding towards a more psychadelic feel which suited his upbringing with artists as classic as Hendrix. Man, that was a mouthful.

So, here we have Wild Mood Swings; appropriately named. The album, for the most part, is really a big departure from music like Disintegration, The Top, and Seventeen Seconds—all of which I love. Along comes Wild Mood Swings with a truly bizarre assortment of everything from his trademark “goth” sound to songs bordering on poppy punk (Mint Car) Bowie-esque glitterglam (Club America) or occasional upbeat anthems (Gone!). Hey, I thought Smith was supposed to be droll and defeated! Well, oops. I guess he was having a good day or something in the studio. Woe to us!

I won’t lie, I really do still staple the word “goth” onto Smith’s forehead. It’s what people think of when they listen to the Cure’s earliest and more well-known work (barring, of course, Just Like Heaven). But hey, if the sound manages to climb out of the darkling thrush and inject a fair bit of positive images into my head—while keeping the same amazing vocals, lyrics, guitarwork and overall production value—I can’t complain. This is a solid album from an artist who was still very, very grounded in his talent and his vision. Unfortunately, over time this vision took a second seat to what other people claimed the band “should” sound like, I suppose.

I’m not sure how high I’d rank this compared to other albums, but I do like it better than a few other things that would follow in the future. That’s a story for another day, though. However…if you’re interested in the Cure, I would not recommend picking up this album as a starting point. If anything, I highly urge you to start from Seventeen Seconds, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and Disintegration, following up with The Top or Head On The Door, before you touch this particular record. I realize that this is an awfully tall order and maybe a bit daunting to say, but I do believe that if you want to start listening to the band, you might get a very false impression from the majority of their work if you begin with Wild Mood Swings. And that, I think, is the one negative truth I can say about this album…other than how much I dislike the song The 13th. But hey, you can make up your own mind about that one; I’m already bound to be burned alive for claiming I love Club America. Although I might not be in the minority for suggesting the last track–Bare–is one of the band’s best, emotionally disintegrating and equal parts beautiful/depressing.

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The Girlfriend Experience

August 29, 2010

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” is, to steal a line from the Thin White Duke himself (David Bowie),”ice masquerading as fire.” That is, I’ve never seen a film so deliberately enraptured in so many cases of subtle armory as this one. Every blow that meets its mark doesn’t have a crushing, smashing effect—It’s more like punching into pillows. The emotional impacts are quick but crucifying in the seconds that they happen, and the realism behind each encounter is like frostbite.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is about just like it sounds: Chelsea, the main character, is the highest class of escort available, providing a total emotional and mental s(t)imulation in addition to the sexual favors provided. And yet, she maintains a serious relationship with her boyfriend, and of course, we all know that there’s bound to be trouble in store for them. And the problems are contained until they spill forth in the kind of poetic justice you might have expected; though the real problem is whether or not you sympathize with Chelsea and her embattled psyche—partways contained and managed through her journalistic writings which document her exploits. It’s within this little tidbit of these books that transforms a high-class hooker into something of a statuesque artist who suffers for the craft, willing even to put her relationship on the line to find out if astrological coincidences between clients may emerge into something more. Is that the mark of an extraordinary risk-taker and a tool of the cosmos, or the scars of an emotionally unbalanced woman? This situation isn’t without its soft underbelly—the many intricacies about what we perceive as a real relationship, real love, real contact. I liked that I wasn’t quite sure if Chelsea was someone to contemptuously label, or to give an arm of consolation to throughout her tenures of crisis.

All throughout the movie, I heard the same mantra repeated in my head: plastic, plastic, plastic. It was a device that Warhol would have loved: flashes of the rich and carefree, all stressed jetsetters looking for a convenience in people like Chelsea. The very loosely formed narrative seems to have its place of plastic appeal, as well; it bobs and weaves between time frames quite well, as if it really accentuates how fleeting these lives are. The actress Sasha Grey is, in reality, a porn star—not only does she put on a pretty good performance, but there are no sex scene to be found. I thought that was amusing, even ironically so. You’d think Soderbergh hired her for her experience with sexual things, but I think he really craved her inner psyche on the matter of desires and relationships—which is, of course, the antithesis to his film.

The culture of love and consumerism (highlighted by copious conversations in the film about the economy) is felt everywhere. In Chelsea’s boyfriend’s weight training business, in the artwork they purchase, and in the isolation to be had from the true art found in the movie—namely, a street drummer who realizes he is truly alone in one extremely cold scene. There is a thick, glossy sheen on everything and everyone, and everyone is trying to be what is craved for at the exact moment. People are, in a way, products to be traded and reviewed. And Soderbergh’s hand of direction commands people not to be benevolent sheep, but to simply go with the flow.

It’s not a film to recommend for everyone, given Soderbergh’s odd technique and decisions in the past. It has its slow sections, true. There are some lulls in the film’s purpose, and it can  fall into a mental slumber at a few points where normal conversation carries on for perhaps a minute too long. But, the frigidity is something that’s needed to make the plastic seem flesh. Thus, it’s very appreciated when the movie’s largest burst of energy (in the form of a stormy, rocking track near the end) shuttles forth, sort of a triumphant thing in the wake of “I don’t need you/I need you” coursing through the main character’s veins. And, in a very silent and secretive way, I related.

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Now Here’s Something.

August 29, 2010

Dominance and submission; dominance and submission.

The second generation was without much flash-in-the-pan, to be honest. Our fathers had been executioners; our mothers, pallbearers. We were only gravediggers. This was not a metaphor to something grand—it was the literal definition of our lives. Bodies were never in short supply, so at least the occupation was a steady one.

“Here comes a truck,” one of our number would remark as the heavy vehicle rumbled up above the soft soil. We were ahead of the schedule, already finished with maybe four dozen pits. We were always ahead of the count.

“I hope they aren’t children,” another voice groaned wearily.

I hoped so, too. One woman, older than the rest of us, had the habit of cradling the forsaken corpses of young girls and weeping as she filled their graves afterwards. I hated that because it made my flesh ache to see her press a cheek to that of the rigid bodies.

The dump truck lowered its rump and vomited a putrid pile of stale skin and bone atop the heap of dirt at our feet. I leaned on my spade, watching them tumble helplessly. In a minute, there would be a swarm for possession of any unchecked jewelry and valuables still on the dead. It was strange that we should be burying them in the clothes they perished within; but like most insecurities that garnished us under an eternally overcast sky, this too was accepted as the standard. Personally, I had never joined the wild throng, save for the first time the bodies came crashing to the earth. In a frenzy, I managed to wrestle my fingers around a gold ring—only to accidentally snap the whole joint off entirely. The shred of the ligaments was a sound I just couldn’t forget; it was like a cork jettisoned from a particularly foul bottle of wine. Since then, I regarded the mad dash as a bestial playtime to be observed, not partaken in.

“Look at it! Look at this!”

The first jumble of tangled limbs was quickly sifted through with subsonic speed. Arms of naked white were caressed without love, jostled about without intimacy. No love, no life, nothing. It never fails to amuse me—to the point where I am laughing softly to myself, looking over this party—to suppose that someday, it will be I that they poke and prod for my belongings and semiprecious stones. And it makes me laugh to think that I will always be a poor man; what could they possibly desire from this rag and bone?

A sole fist punctures through, and a grin permeates the gray fog.

“Gold! Real gold!” he cries in jubilation.

Ah, now here’s something.

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Plastic Beach

August 28, 2010

Plastic Beach is totally unlike the raw pop-punk miasma of the first self-titled album, or the dark yet funky musings of Demon Days. Taking on more of a synthetic, electrolite sound, Damon Albarn does away with the guest producers and mixers of old—namely, Dan the Automator and Dangermouse—and tries his own hand at the production game. Depending on who you ask right now, this is either a neutral move or a completely awful one. Personally, I don’t think it would have made a difference in the end product, barring some shifting of song order or something.

Demon Days seems to be a high benchmark, and you’d be right; the production value and the overall quality of the music therein was fantastic. Nobody thought it had a right to be so majestic given the cartoon band’s initial image of the no-harm-done, playful romp in the first album. I doubt anyone expected the second album to be as artistically brilliant. And it’s because of this album that Plastic Beach is being constantly (and unfairly) compared to the earlier music. What even the diehard fans can’t understand is that Albarn clearly stated a loooooong time ago that the albums would feature a rotating roster, an evolving sound, and no certain kind of specific theme set in stone. Along comes a desperately different, even experimental album (experimental is a heavy word when it comes to the already alternative work of Gorillaz) and longtime listeners are split into a 50/50 dissent: people who hate it for being unlike the previous record, and others who accept the fun little changes in sound and mind.

I guess I fall into the latter category rather than the former, because I think although the album’s song structure is a bit less polished than Demon Days, overall it is completely catchy, insanely fun to play, and every bit as great as Albarn’s previous efforts. The guest cast is amazing; everyone from Mos Def and his highly chaotic flow one track to Lou Reed crooning over acoustics in the next. Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Little Dragon, and even the Simonon/Jones combo of the Clash round out the formidable line-up. This, of course, was also a source of complaint from some people; it felt like “Damon And Friends” rather than Gorillaz. This is a moot point and a terribly stupid argument. Gorillaz has always had tons of guest artists in the past, and it’s no different this time.

Overall, this ain’t about what other people think right now—especially people who can’t seem to let go of the old sound and the old crowd instead of going with the evolutionary flow. The album is by no means awful—far, far from it. Would I put it on par with Demon Days, an album that I regard among my absolute favorites ever? Well, yes. I would. I’d proudly put this side-by-side the previous record. They are as different as day and night, and yes—Plastic Beach is less of a dark and brooding journey and more of a sick-headed, glittery jaunt across an apocalypse of jangly keyboards. But that’s why I love it; it’s catchy and simple in most places, but the restrain in some instances gives way to great payoff. And as far as Damon Albarn not receiving enough space to stretch his vox, well…that’s unfounded. He still reigns as the best vocalist by far on the record. Sure, his voice may have toughened a bit over the years, but he’s still among the most talented singers in his generation today. He’s still got the touch.

I have the feeling this album will be hugely successful with more casual fans of the band, though it makes me a little weirded out to think how dense longtime followers are. I highly recommend picking this album up; even if you’ve never heard a single Gorillaz song. It’s a ball of fun, there’s something on it for everyone, and it’s honestly one of the most enjoyable listens I’ve had in the last year or so (though I’m still sold that the clear winner for a good long while will be the self-titled Them Crooked Vultures album.)

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Antichrist

August 28, 2010

So I finally saw Lars von Trier’s Antichrist after what feels like an eternity of waiting. The hype behind this beast was nothing short of rabid excitement for me; mainly due to the now-iconic imagery from the trailers and the official poster. It was pretty much the most polarizing film at Cannes—though Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress for her lethally feral performance. A lot of people thought it was pretentious shock-jock trash; others thought it was a soft sawbuck for von Trier’s collection of socially jarring films.

Personally? I thought it was brilliant. However, you have to look at it from two standpoints.

First and foremost, I place the aesthetics behind the film in higher regard than the plot which has everyone confused. The camerawork, the editing, the cinematography and lighting as a whole can’t be denied: this is a nightmarish purgatory, but it sure is one heck of a beautiful purgatory. von Trier’s previous efforts along the lines of Dogville strived for a really original minimalist feel; but here he went all out and created what sometimes feels like a moving, breathing painting. It’s fast and panicked when it needs to be, but it’s also serene or haunting in all the right places. Definitely some of the best film techniques I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

Now, to the fun stuff: aside from the bizarre sexual scenes, the rather grotesque few seconds of up-close genital torture, and that cute fox who so gracefully utters the line, “‘Chaos reigns!” it’s not too confusing to see where von Trier is leading us. The name of the woods is Eden, for Christ’s sake. The fall of man through woman—and subsequently, the film’s mention of “nature as Satan’s garden”—weighs heavy here. Sure, the themes of paganism, spirituality and chaos of nature, gender dysmorphia, gynocide and the natural evils of humankind therein, and the limits of psychoanalysis are all prevelant arguments here; but I think the overall allusion (however loosely formed) keeps going back to the fall of man and his return to the primal. All throughout the story, there’s a relative failure of scientific method and cogent thought; the general frenzy of sex and conquest and “oneness” with the natural “balance” of things get stronger, and that’s all a little too much for poor Willem Dafoe to handle until the very end. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great symbolic scene that really pulled some loose ends together for me.

Overall, the phrase “art for art’s sake” keeps cropping up, although von Trier is hardly an auteur and probably never had the purity of art in mind when he thrust this film into the spotlight…or when he declared himself the “greatest director in the world.” I still think this is an aesthetic masterpiece, and definitely up there in my top twenty favorite movies—perhaps even cracking the top ten. Not because of its controversy, but because of its presentation, subtlety, execution, daring, and even myopia towards the triumphs of man. Even days after viewing the film for the first time, it’s chiseled in the lumpy parts of my brain and probably won’t ever go away. I’m sure it will be there for a long time to come.

Though I am very sure many people will hate this film as much as people might champion it, it’s within this reason that I encourage everyone to see it just once. It’s on the fringe of cinema, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else that wanders so close to the edge of reality and artistic taste.