Sunday, July 25, 2010

Album Review: "Crazy For You" by Best Coast

I experienced my first earthquake not long after I moved to northern California a few years ago. It jolted me awake at 4:30 in the morning and I sat in bed, frozen, for a long while after the shaking stopped. Let me tell you, that shit was scary, despite it being labeled just a “mild tremblor” in the papers. The next day I threw some canned food, water bottles, a flashlight and other essentials into an old backpack and had myself my first “earthquake preparedness kit.” But it didn’t take long for me to forget about the quake—after all, it’s sunny nearly every day—and I returned to being, like many Californians, blissfully ignorant that these horrible things can happen at any time. I even joke with others about how the Big One is just around the corner. Above ground, Californians have a massive state budget deficit, an unstable tax structure, and rising unemployment to worry about. The Golden State has seen better days.

Crazy For You, the debut album from L.A. duo Best Coast, can’t fix any of that. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino seems, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of some rather large state-wide financial and seismological concerns, and also perfectly aware that California still inspires the kind of breathless adoration and promise of sunny days that makes the largest state the envy of the rest of the country. After giving New York City a shot, in 2009 Cosentino moved back to her hometown of L.A. and its miles of beaches and highway along the Pacific, big sunglasses and boardwalk candy. The thirteen tracks on Crazy For You are the lines Cosentino wishes she had scrawled in her crush’s yearbook if she had just had the courage. Track eight, “I Want To,” sums up her feelings nicely: “I want you so much / I miss you so much.” Fortunately for Cosentino, summer has just started in Los Angeles, and that should give her all the time she needs to dream about sharing a beach blanket with her crush. Or maybe just enough time to forget about him.

Crazy For You draws from a diverse set of musical influences in its breezy thirty minutes. The ‘60s girl-group and surf rock inspirations are the album’s main bookends, and merge beautifully on the album’s standout, “Our Deal.” Breathy harmonies and a doo-wop swing combine to sound like the Ronettes lending vocals to The Beach Boys. Here, Cosentino has a heavy heart, but not just over the loss of love: “When you leave me / You take away everything / You take away my money / You take away all my weed.” That bastard. On “Bratty B,” Cosentino’s appropriately bratty demeanor blends with chugging guitars to create the album’s most straight-ahead rocker, a slice of ‘90s alternative rock. Of course, one of the band’s best qualities is its fuzzed-out sound. We got plenty of it on early single, “Sun Was High (So Was I),” which appeared to channel Jesus and the Mary Chain through a lifeguard’s megaphone. Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Bobb Bruno build a bed of distortion for tracks like “Honey” and “Each and Everyday,” but on Crazy For You the band scales back some of the shoegaze vibe from their pre-album releases.

Crazy For You will surely conjure images of crowded beaches with the sun high in the sky. But Cosentino’s summer isn’t all fun and games. While the summer days may seem endless, Cosentino knows that the sunlight still comes and goes. The more bittersweet tracks like “When The Sun Don’t Shine” and “Summer Mood” seem to encourage us to dig our toes into the sand at twilight: those two short moments each day with sunlight but no visible sun. Between dawn and sunrise, and sunset and dusk, these are the moments when love and heartbreak are equally possible. So it’s telling that the only track on the album to feature the word “summer” in its title is a glum affair. On “Summer Mood,” Cosentino stretches out the line “There’s something about the summer that makes me moooooooody” as if doing so will keep the California sun up just a bit longer. Or maybe summer's unfulfilled expectations are making Cosentino so
moooooooody? At other times, she doesn’t seem to mind the receding sunlight at all. Because what happens “when the sun don’t shine”? “You are mine,” obviously.

Best Coast tacks on “When I’m With You” as a bonus track to Crazy For You. The last thing you’ll hear before you hit repeat, it’s a reminder not only of how, but when many of us heard the band for the first time: last year in early winter, when summer felt a long ways away. The album goes by so quickly that you’ll likely appreciate it more after it’s ended. Cosentino knows that summers work the same way, so she’s given us these honest portraits of love and heartache, spread over miles of sand and surf, to hold us over until next summer. Like a flip book of memories you can thumb through at anytime, Crazy For You is a reminder that, when love hurts, summer’s there for you. And make no mistake: the best summers are in California, even if love sometimes teeters atop shifting sand.

[4 out of 5 stars]

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Album Review: "Reservoir" by Fanfarlo

When David Bowie gives you his stamp of approval well before your first album drops, you’re likely to draw a horde of willing listeners. And close on their heels will be a fair share of skeptics. On their debut album, Reservoir, the blunder made by London-based band Fanfarlo isn’t that they fall short of their lofty expectations, but that they sound like they were afraid all along that they’d fall short of them. Their strategy was to play it safe, and the result is an album that’s at times enchanting, but ultimately frustrating.

Lead singer Simon Balthazar pens stories about trying in vain to sidestep a world that’s collapsing in on itself. There’s nowhere to go but down—a sturdy message across Reservoir’s eleven tracks, though Balthazar is sometimes unable to spin interesting metaphors out of the simple fact that things are just plain falling everywhere he looks. Drowning men drag him down while the walls come down. Somewhere, bombshells are coming. The album title not only suggests that manmade lakes are being built for the purpose of stemming the wide urban decay, but that water is also responsible for the very same destruction. In “Ghosts,” Balthazar describes a dam breaking at a cursed reservoir: “It caused a drought / It caused a flood / It came to change us all for good.” Balthazar isn’t clear how exactly it changed us, but this much is certain: the flood is seismic.

The instrumentation on Reservoir is generally strong, if understated, with Balthazar’s bandmates using an array of instruments—including strings, glockenspiel, trumpets, and banjo—to create a pleasant folk sensibility. Fanfarlo’s most courageous gestures happen when the instrumentation is allowed to shine, like on the stately call-to-arms chorus in “The Walls Are Coming Down” and the brass-led, spellbinding beat in “Ghosts.” But there’s an odd feeling throughout the album that this is meant to be Balthazar’s one-man struggle, his destiny to take Captain Ahab’s path to certain destruction. In this respect, Fanfarlo differs from the Arcade Fire, to whom they’ve been compared. While the Arcade Fire does share with Fanfarlo a diverse instrumentation and a big worldview, what sets the Montreal-based band apart is that we never doubt that their members share equally in the struggle, loss, and redemption. The vocals and instrumentation on Reservoir, however, too often sound like independent parts.

If Balthazar is determined to go at this alone, then his vocal execution better match the magnitude of the apocalyptic events he depicts. Instead, he sounds tired, like he’s just returned home from moonlighting as an opera singer. Balthazar’s voice still holds appeal, especially on tracks like “Drowning Men” when he matches the urgency of the instrumentation at the start before linking arm-in-arm with his bandmates for a gentle close. But these moments are rare on the album’s eleven tracks. When first single “The Walls are Coming Down” came out in September 2009, bloggers were quick to compare Balthazar’s voice to that of Alec Ounsworth, the frontman for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Another apt comparison is Zach Condon’s operatic tenor. But Balthazar’s voice lacks the whine that makes Ounsworth’s oddly appealing, and Condon’s expansive, go-for-broke attitude that befits his worldly influences. Balthazar too often sounds like he’s worried that his voice will crack if he stretches it too far. On the track with the Sufjan Stevens-inspired title, “Harold T. Wilkins, Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time,” Balthazar seems to pull back precisely when he’s supposed to scream (in the closing refrain of “just sail this thing straight!”). Here, Fanfarlo aims for the heights attained by the Arcade Fire on “No Cars Go.” The difference is, the Arcade Fire’s repeated screams of “hey!” sound like they have the power to topple buildings. I waited and waited for the Balthazar to just wail, and to give me that much-needed emotional kick that his band so obviously wants to produce. But it never came. Balthazar is a strong enough lyricist that I can imagine myself standing at the base of the dam just before it breaks. But what’s the point if the water only hits you like a lawn sprinkler?

There are some fine moments on Reservoir, but they don’t stretch on long enough for the album to matter to you when it should, like when, to take a cue from the title of the last track, you find yourself saying good morning to midnight all alone. There’s merit in having musical restraint, but on Reservoir, building meticulously without the proper moments of release keeps the collection of pleasant moments from ever developing into a compelling whole. That sort of achievement means that Balthazar will have to rely on—or trust?—his bandmates even more. Better to not go it alone with events this tragic. The potential for something great is certainly there, so I’ll give Fanfarlo the benefit of the doubt and choose the desirable interpretation of the album title (a rich source of a compound essential for survival) over the less desirable one (a large artificial construct). That source hints at what Fanfarlo could become. Balthazar should draw more from it next time.

[3 out of 5 stars]

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Album Review: "Declaration of Dependence" by Kings of Convenience

Despite the temperate climate in their hometown of Bergen, Norway, the Kings of Convenience always appeared to be seeking more warmth. On the cover of their debut LP, Quiet is the New Loud, the duo of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe are huddled together; on the cover of their second album, Riot on an Empty Street, they’ve retreated indoors. On their new full-length, Declaration of Dependence, Øye and Bøe seem to get their much desired change of scenery, having shucked their sweaters and headed for the beach. They’re no longer standing guard and staring back at you—which Øye does on the cover of first album and Bøe on the second—as if to say that you’re peering into some intimate space where you’re not totally welcomed. And the brunettes, the only invited guests on the first two album covers, are gone. On Declaration, the Norwegian folk singers are finally left to themselves and they appear totally at ease. The climate’s just right.

It turns out that the album cover reflects the songs inside. On Declaration, all Øye and Bøe have left are each other, and much of the album’s success rides on the feeling that this is how it was always supposed to be. So Øye and Bøe take their already bare bones acoustic sound and strip it down further. Gone are the drums that provided extra thrust to the loveable “Toxic Girl” on the band’s first LP. While Declaration features a few sprinklings of upright bass and viola, missing are the string solos that made old tracks like “I Don’t Know What I Can You From” a standout. Absent are the dance beats that made “I’d Rather Dance With You” a refreshing change of pace on Riot (and made Øye in particular a fan favorite). Leslie Feist, who stole the show on more than one occasion on Riot, has left the building. Declaration has an air of sincerity because it’s the Kings of Convenience album that most closely resembles the duo’s popular live shows: just two friends and their acoustic guitars.

Like their first two albums, Declaration begins with Øye and Bøe singing in their familiar lock-step, a melody closely shadowed by a harmony. “24/25” offers not only the kind of wistful passages that fans have grown accustomed to, but a reminder that the duo has always appeared inextricably linked, like a single voice with subtle inflections. (In the liner notes, the band aptly acknowledges that “it can be difficult to separate the two voices.”) But the best moments on the album are when they divide the lead vocal responsibilities, with the other half carrying a strong supporting role. On “Mrs. Cold,” Øye wonders aloud about a love that might have been, while Bøe fills the space between verses with the duo’s most affecting guitar melodies to date. They trade places on the next track, “Me in You.” Above a steady bassline, Bøe, through whispers, traces the faultlines in a relationship, while Øye bypasses the duo’s typical harmonies and sings in falsetto in the final refrain.

Øye and Bøe probably won’t ever shake the comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel. But their music has new resonance when held up to another musical influence, someone who’s mostly unacknowledged but has been essential to the duo’s artistic development. At their 2005 concert at the World Café Live in Philadelphia, a fan asked Øye and Bøe to name their favorite artist. Their response came immediately: Mark Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters. Similarities in playing style aren’t hard to find. The propulsive finger-picking on Declaration’s “Second to Numb” has unmistakable shades of Kozelek’s cover of AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer.” The meditative shuffle of “Riot on an Empty Street” seems to draw its inspiration from Kozelek’s Little Drummer Boy. The Kings of Convenience are artists steady in temperament with a reputation for writing bittersweet tunes. They’re not mimicking Kozelek in that respect. On Declaration, the duo sounds proud of that fact that they’ve always shared Kozelek’s basic make-up.

As songwriters, Øye and Bøe continue to try to make every word count, often packing loaded words into tight spaces, like on “Freedom and its Owner” (“But freedom, freedom never greater than its owner / Freedom is the mastery of the known”). You can’t help but wonder sometimes if the band is test-driving phrases for future album titles. (For the duo, it’s always been the more audacious the title, the better. In particular, “Power of Not Knowing,” the album’s eighth track, sounds like a Kings of Convenience album title in-waiting.) Fortunately, more often than not these lyrics come across as emotional tributes rather than impersonal statements of fact, even when the duo flirts with political ideas. A decade into their career, Øye and Bøe’s honest declaration of self comes through loud and clear, no matter how quiet they are. Øye and Bøe no longer need those brunettes who appear on the cover of their first two albums. On their third and best LP, these two just have each other, and we’re all the better for it.

[4 out of 5 stars]

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Track Review: “Little Faith” by The National

Songs by The National uniformly have momentum: you get the sense you’re being carried somewhere, even if the destination is shrouded in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. But getting there often means taking a song and bending it in new directions. On the band’s fourth album, Boxer, these moments are striking: the steady piano march postscript to “Slow Show,” which shuts the door on whatever optimism the song had to that point generated; or near the mid-point of “Guest Room,” when Berninger bows out briefly and we’re left with a nervous guitar line that gives the song one final push towards its conclusion.

Little Faith,” the fourth track on the National’s latest full-length, High Violet, produces such a moment and gives it all the room it needs to grow. It’s a shame, then, that the track could be dismissed as an interlude: the two tracks that follow complement each other so perfectly that they easily steal most of the attention in the middle-third of the album. (The anxiety that builds throughout the fifth track, “Afraid of Everyone,” is finally swept away in the cathartic refrain in “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”) But “Little Faith” is the National is at its brooding best, with Berninger ruminating on the dangerous consequences of having nothing to do with nowhere to go. While Berninger’s rich baritone usually emerges as the centerpiece of the National’s songs, the instrumentation here gets the proper creative treatment. Two-thirds of the way into “Little Faith,” the percussion stops for a moment and strings turn figure 8s around a pitter-patter guitar melody, giving Berninger just the right context to admit that he’s in on your little secret: “Don’t be bitter, Anna / I know how you think / You’re waiting for Radio City to sink.” That gorgeous image of clouds parting? Yeah, I saw it too. This is no ordinary bridge. It’s a revelation.

[4.5 out of 5 stars]

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Sunday, July 08, 2007


This weekend I caught a few shows in New York that have led to reflection on the role of the artist performing live when seemingly every ounce of captured media is at their disposal.

Crane Kick Drum, or If You Like Spoon, Turn Around

Friday night I saw Fujiya & Miyagi, a UK trio that blends live guitar and bass with sampled beats to produce pop melodies that are eminently danceable and that recall krautrock. Early in the show a friend I was with pointed out that I was standing directly in front of Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel, who appeared to be enjoying the music.

Books on Tape

Last night I caught The Books at the Bowery Ballroom. They masterfully added live vocal, guitar, and cello lines to “found” sound and video to produce a full immersion media experience. The underlying media tracks, both audio and visual, were brilliantly edited to combine with the live tracks. In one piece, the video was edited so that each frame was the length of an eighth note, rendering the video a percussive element of the piece.

What does that mean?

Both shows featured “live” music, but each act relied heavily on the manipulation of captured media. The artist has always been a conduit, using an instrument to pull and organize notes from a prior existing plane of sound. Captured media seems to have formed its own plane, defined not only by physics as vibrations but also the ability to capture and digitize anything observable, that the artist can structure into art.

It was interesting to note what elements of their pieces the bands performed live and what they used in a pre-recorded form, which leads to a more general question about the relationship between the artist and his source materials: With the digitization of everything, does the artist exist even further above the plane-like digital tapestry from which he can pull in making art, or is the artist being pulled into the tapestry itself, blurring the distinction between artist and source?

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tales of Brave Ulysses

Hey there...Benthoven here, back after a prolonged absence here at the Mongrel with a special Bloomsday blog post. For those of you not in the know, Bloomsday is an annual commemoration of the life and work of James Joyce, specifically his most famous novel Ulysses, whose action occurred entirely on a single day: June 16, 1904. Since the 1950s, Joyce scholars, bibliophiles, and people willing to take advantage of any excuse to visit a tavern have celebrated Bloomsday. Those who can afford it travel to Dublin and walk around the city to the various sites mentioned in the story. Those with more modest budgets generally attend readings or participate in pub crawls.

And then there are starving grad students like yours truly. I read Ulysses as an undergraduate and despite being thoroughly flummoxed the majority of the time, I still reveled in my attempts to decipher a text full of references to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the Bible, 19th century Irish political history, and everything in between. But most years I haven't had the time, money, or inclination to devote a full day to James Joyce.

Which is why I've taken it upon myself to provide a relatively painless means of celebrating one of the 20th century's greatest novels: the first (as far as I know), MP3 playlist based upon Ulysses. Each track corresponds to one of the novel's 18 episodes which in turn parallel an event in Homer's Odyssey. A brief explanation of each track follows below.

free music

Part I: The Telemachiad--The first three chapters of the book center around the character of Stephen Dedalus, the title character of Joyce's earlier Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

1. Telemachus---Prelude/Angry Young Man (Billy Joel)
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead...": The novel begins with Stephen and his friends Buck Mulligan and Haines waking up and getting ready to face the day. Dedalus, one of literature's great angry young men, broods over the death of his mother and worries about his place in the world.

2. Nestor---To a Teacher (Leonard Cohen)
In the Odyssey, Telemachus seeks advice from his father's old brother-in-arms, Nestor--the master charioteer. A nestor has since entered the English language as a term referring to a venerable and wise old man, someone to whom one can turn for advice. Leonard Cohen's voice definitely evokes the sagacity of the mythical Nestor even if his Joycean analogue, Stephen's employer, Mr. Deasy, is an anti-Semite.

3. Proteus---Changes (David Bowie)
Proteus, a sea god second in power only to Poseidon, possessed the power to shape shift who would answer the questions of any mortal capable of restraining him. Telemachus learns that another of his father's colleagues, Menelaus, succeeded in pinning him down and discovered the whereabouts of his father, Odysseus. Although Proteus has no character analogue in the novel, his chapter is characterized by shifting and amorphous language. Who better than David Bowie to describe a god defined by his metamorphic abilities?

Part II: The Wanderings of Ulysses--In Chapter 4, the novel shifts its focus from Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom, the 38 year old advertising canvasser who is the book's second protagonist and serves as its Odysseus figure.

4. Calypso---Calypso (Bonanza Banzai)
Leopold Bloom wakes up, goes to the butcher, and cooks a kidney for breakfast. Just as the goddess Calypso trapped Odysseus on her island, Bloom is bound by the routines of domestic life, serving his wife breakfast in bed, reading a letter from his daughter, and reading the newspaper in the bathroom. Despite the musical genre associated with this episode's name, a boisterous Caribbean tune didn't seem apropos to the mundane events described. So instead, this more wistful track by Bonanza Banzai, the greatest synthpop group to come out of Hungary during the late 1980s. And hey, it has the same name! That's convenient.

5. The Lotus Eaters---The Lotus Eaters (Dead Can Dance)
Bloom heads off to the post office, the drug store, and then for a leisurely bath. His drifting toward the bathhouse is meant to parallel to the drug-induced haze of the Lotus Eaters that Odysseus and his crew had to resist. This hallucinogenic episode requires the musical equivalent of smokey, exotic, opiate dream-state. Thankfully, the Australian based darkwave duo Dead Can Dance provided an appropriately titled song for just that purpose.

6. Hades---O Death (Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack)
Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead in search of guidance from the dead sage Tiresias. While Leopold Bloom doesn't actually descend into the underworld during the novel, he does attend the funeral of his friend Paddy Dignam and ruminates upon mortality and crosses four rivers in Dublin that parellel the major rivers of the underworld. What better way to highlight this musically than a Grammy-winning dialogue with the Grim Reaper? Not to mention one that is featured on the soundtrack of another Odyssey parallel, O Brother Where Art Thou?.

7. Aeolus---Four Strong Winds (Johnny Cash)
Bloom and Dedalus' paths cross for the first time in this chapter set at a newspaper office. The chapter highlights rhetoric and is divided into short segments by newspaper-style headlines. This chapter's emphasis on language alludes to the Aeolus, the lord of the winds who tried to help Odysseus and his crew get home...until his crew screwed it up. One of my favorite sections of the book and the subject of my undergraduate English paper, to represent Aeolus in this playlist, I selected an artist whose use of language is easily the equal of Joyce. I refer of course, to the Man in Black.

8. Lestrygonians---Eat You Alive (Limp Bizkit)
The Lestrygonians are one of those sections of the Odyssey that everyone learns about in high school and then immediately forgets because their name is too long. The Cyclops? Circe? The Lotus Eaters? These are all better known than the Laestrygonians despite the fact that the Laestrygonians were freakin' CANNIBALS. The parallel section of Ulysses is hardly so exciting, centering on Leopold Bloom's tasty lunch (mmm...gorgonzola cheese!), but hopefully this choice of cannibalism themed music (which narrowly beat out Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive") can help liven things up while reminding the listener of the chapter's grim overtones.

9. Scylla and Charybdis---Wrapped Around Your Finger (The Police)
The original rock and a hard place, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters who lived on opposite sides of a very narrow strait through which Odysseus had to navigate. Moving too close to the monstrous Scylla would cost the lives of six of his men while Charybdis' mighty whirlpool would destroy the entire ship. Applying the maxim later popularized by Spock in Star Trek II that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Odysseus moves toward Scylla and sacrifices six of his men to save the rest. In Ulysses, the perils in question are Aristotle and Plato...or dogma and mysticism...or Stratford and London...and instead of sailing a ship, the challenging task in question is Stephen attempt to explain Shakespeare's writing based on the posited adultery of his wife. Bloom appears at the National Library where this takes place and briefly encounters Stephen, but is otherwise absent from the chapter. For this scene outlining the perils of extreme commitment to either side in an argument or any person in a relationship, the Police's "Wrapped Around Your Finger" seems eminently apropos, especially through its reference to the titular monsters of the episode in its first lines.

10. The Wandering Rocks---Clash City Rockers (The Clash)
Those of you who have read Homer may be wondering about this section of the book. Joyce apparently needed a transition chapter while Bloom and Dedalus travel through Dublin and turned to an event referenced in The Odyssey but not experienced by Odysseus and his crew, for inspiration. The Symplegades, two rocks at the entrance to the Black Sea smashed together at irregular intervals making navigation perilous for all who attempted to sail between them. Jason and his Argonauts survived, but Odysseus decided to brave Scylla and Charybdis rather than risk smashing his ship. The stacatto punk stylings of The Clash thematically match the crashing sounds of the Symplegades as well as Joyce's stylistic division of the section into a series of interpolated vignettes highlighting the lives of various Dubliners.

11. Sirens--Song to the Siren (The Chemical Brothers)
Music plays an important part throughout Ulysses, but perhaps nowhere more than in this section of the book centered on the Concert Room, a saloon bar frequently visited by Dublin's amateur musicians. While Bloom eats dinner, ogles barmaids, and enjoys the restaurant's assembled musical talent, his wife Molly proceeds to invite her lover Blazes Boylan to an afternoon rendezvous. This is a section about seduction and enticement, with the barmaids corresponding directly to the Sirens of Greek myth who lured sailors to their doom. Odysseus was able to hear their song but not without being sorely tempted, almost to madness, in the process. Although there are a wide array of songs referencing the Sirens, this track from the Chemical Brothers' first album avoids the main flaw of the majority of these: clunky, annoying lyrics, emphasizing instead a wordless voice that seems ever so close to saying something meaningful before fading away.

12. Cyclops---Cyclops Rock (They Might Be Giants)
The Cyclops section of The Odyssey features Polyphemus, the giant, one-eyed son of Poseidon whose appetites, especially for wine, lead to his eventual blinding at the hands of Odysseus. In Ulysses, the Cyclops is symbolized by a character referred to as "The Citizen", a narrow-minded Fenian who attacks Bloom as they and a few others discuss politics at a pub. The chapter is laden with extended passages parodying literature and customs of the day-translations of Irish legend, the Bible, the minutes of a meeting, song lyrics, even legal jargon! Who better to lampoon a section that thrives on parody than They Might Be Giants, a group known for their experiments with different musical styles. The fact that they have one of the few songs out there with the word Cyclops in the title only makes the selection easier.

13. Nausicaa---Princess (Elton John)
One of the more controversial chapters in the book, the Nausicaa section is meant to parallel Odysseus' rescue from shipwreck after leaving Calypso's island by the aforementioned Phaeacian princess. Joyce's version transforms Nausicaa into Gerty McDowell, an enticing young woman that Bloom ogles on a beach. Gerty realizes that Bloom is watching her and begins to writhe and pose in order to entice him eventually leading to a controversial scene involving masturbation and a well-timed, if heavy-handed, use of fireworks as a symbol for orgasm. (No wonder the book was deemed controversial when it was published in 1922!) Elton John's Princess not only evokes Nausicaa's royal background, but its lyrics also touch on the loneliness and love that underlie motivate both Bloom and Gerty's actions throughout the chapter.

14. Oxen of the Sun---For All the Cows (The Foo Fighters)
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus's efforts to get home are constantly thwarted due his lack of control over his crew. The Aeolus incident is one example of this. The oxen of the sun provide another. The idea is simple. The crew lands on an island sacred to the sun god Helios. Although he has been warned by Tiresias in the underworld not to harm the cows that reside there, Odysseus figures he can trust his hungry crew not to do anything stupid. After making them pinky-swear not to eat the plump and tasty oxen, the crew immediately proceeds to slaughter enough cattle for a six day long feast. Needless to say, the gods are not pleased and Zeus destroys the mortal's ship when it leaves the island. Joyce is only slightly less vindictive to his readers in this chapter which my professor, an expert on Ulysses, allowed us to merely skim through it during our reading despite containing Bloom and Dedalus's meeting at a maternity ward. The chapter emphasizes birth and is written in a style to evoke the birth of the English language, beginning with Old English and slowly evolving into early 20th century slang. Few songs provide such an etymologically diverse approach towards the English language, so it seemed wise to just keep things simple with a nice friendly bovine-themed song from The Foo Fighters.

15. Circe---Season of the Witch (Donovan)
This chapter is an 150 page acid trip, plain and simple. Bloom and Dedalus go to a brothel in an episode paralleling Odysseus's experience with Circe, a sorceress who transformed his crew into animals. Some may wonder at the use of this relatively short Donovan track to paraphase this longest section of the book, but considering its 1960s use of hallucinogenic imagery, its haunting use of electric guitar, and its lyrical references to magic, animals, and the interplay between them all serve to justify its inclusion here.

Part III: The Homecoming--The final three chapters of the book describe the final hours of Bloom and Dedalus's day as the two men wend their way home in a manner paralleling Odyssesus's return home to Ithaca.

16. Eumaeus---March of the Pigs (Nine Inch Nails)
Bloom and Stephen have a snack at a cabman's shelter near the Liffey River where they meet with a drunken sailor and other assorted characters. One of these is meant to represent Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd to whom Odysseus first revealed his identity upon his return home. The idea of wanderers returning home is reiterated several times throughout the chapter. Nine Inch Nails' "March of the Pigs" pays tribute to Eumaeus' original profession while describing an emotional journey filled with violence and rage leading to an ending that tends to "makes you feel better." The irony of these words, however, hints at a lingering fear that Bloom might never be able to reconnect emotionally with his wife.

17. Ithaca---I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home (Grand Funk Railroad)
Odysseus and Telemachus reunite at Ithaca. Or, if you prefer, Bloom and Dedalus crash for a few minutes at Bloom's house at 7 Eccles Street, Dublin. Bloom offers his friend a place to crash for the night, but the latter declines. They discuss a broad array of topics and then after urinating in the back yard with his host, Dedalus stumbles home. Bloom goes back upstairs and gets in bed, providing his wife with a brief narration of the day's events. Another favorite chapter for readers and a source of vexation for critics, this section is written in the form of an extremely detailed catcheism featuring such questions as "For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?" (Answer: "For a cat.") and "What composite assymetrical image in the mirror then attracted his attention?" (Answer: "The image of a solitary (ipsorelative) mutable (aliorelative) man.") Rather than searching for songs that utilize a similar question and answer style or overly elaborate vocabulary, the use of Grand Funk's "I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home" effectively conveys the message that we, along with Bloom and Dedalus are nearing the end of our journey.

18. Penelope---I Never Loved a Man (Aretha Franklin)
There are 8 sentences in the final chapter of Ulysses, representing the inner monologue of Bloom's wife, Molly. And yet, despite the fact that these 8 sentences are spread out over 36 pages with only two distinct pieces of punctuation, Joyce is able to effectively convey the thoughts of a sleepy Penelope analogue who, despite lacking the faithfulness of her mythical forebear, still understands her husband and remembers the love they used to share. The last words of the book are hers. And so the last words of this CD must come from a female artist, and I think Aretha Franklin is a fitting choice even if her song ends with a negation ("No, I never loved a man...") rather than a positive statement like Molly's soliloquy ("yes I said yes I will Yes. ")

So that's the book, as it were. I'd be curious to know what people think of this playlist. Do the track choices make sense? What changes, if any, would you make? Also, what do people think of the idea of linking music and literature in this fashion?

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shakespeare in Italy in Washington

On Tuesday, Lowender and I saw the Washington National Opera's production of Verdi's opera Macbeth. Though not quite the full-body experience of the same company's performance of Wagner's Die Walküre from earlier in the year, the special effects, amazingly, may have been more elaborate. Much of the scenery was projected onto a mesh screen through which we had to watch most of the action — it worked, but I kept wanting the screen to disappear so I could actually see the performers clearly. On the screen was every ghost or image Macbeth thought he saw — so instead of Banquo's ghost running around scaring people, we had to look at a huge drawing of him. Also, we saw Macbeth's imaginary dagger fly out at us (enlarge rapidly on the mesh — see this review for a nice description and a generally solid discussion) before a real one actually fell and hit the stage. It was strange and creative, but then again, so is Verdi's Macbeth. Somehow, it worked. It must have been the chorus of witches dressed completely in white and playing with hula hoops and big rubber balls that did it for me. It's easy to call that stuff tacky, but because the music seems to be so inappropriately lighthearted at times, I suspect that the best productions of this opera are the ones that can make fun of themselves.

It may be easy to look down on Macbeth in the context of other Verdi operas whose music may be more a little more interesting (Otello). People who do this are wrong. It's hard to deny the power and simplicity of the melodic material (and especially of Lady Macbeth's first aria and the final chorus), the ensemble singing at the end of each act, and the otherworldly chord progression that accompanies the procession of kings the witches show Macbeth. And it's just too easy to say this only prefigures Verdi's later and "better" stuff and to never listen to it again. But there's something disturbingly magical about hearing angry Scottish nobles and warriors singing jaunty music in Italian, and you can't get that just anywhere.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

This Charming Band

This ought to satiate those of you who have been waiting impatiently since last fall for a new Mongrel post: last night I saw a Smiths cover band, This Charming Band.

I should note two things. First, This Charming Band should not be mistaken for These Charming Men, who I suspect are actually better (or at least have been around longer) than This Charming Band. (Check out These Charming Men's version of "This Charming Man" (is this confusing yet?) on their myspace page, which is so close to the original it's spooky.) These Charming Men are from Ireland. The lead singer of This Charming Band bears a striking resemblance to Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, who's from Minnesota.

Second, This Charming Band and also These Charming Men claim to be Smiths "tribute" bands. I figure this is somehow more credible than calling one's band a "cover" band, though I wonder how big the difference is. Thoughts?

This Charming Band played at the Rickshaw club in San Francisco. I went with a good buddy and his girlfriend. The show was fantastic. The lead singer whose name I don't know belted out all the tunes in a voice that closely resembles Morrissey's (though his speaking voice, as my friend observed, sounds like Michael Stipe's), and the Johnny Marr wannabe tried his hardest to replicate those jangly melodies (he later left the bar with a sketchy blonde This Charming Band groupie; I'm not sure if this would make Johnny proud). A few guys rotated on bass and second guitar; I found this revolving door of musicians amusing for a tribute band. "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "I Know it's Over" were the two highlights for me, though the faster-paced songs got the Smiths cover/tribute band lovers dancing, some of whom made their way on stage. This included my buddy's girlfriend, who doesn't know the Smiths all too well but managed to play the tamborine admirably for one song, while I secretly wished I could be on stage playing the maracas. Notable omissions include "Ask" and "Panic." The lead singer offered "Panic" as one of two choices for the final song, but the audience overwhelmingly favored a Morrissey solo single I sadly didn't recognize and forget. Maybe I'm a fraud after all.

But I am a fraud! That's because I am not a Choir Boy. Far and away the most interesting part of the show was the presence of the Choir Boys, a group of mostly Latino Smiths fans, recognizable by the black shirts with "Choir Boys" emblazoned across the chest. Chuck Klosterman describes this phenomenon--Latino kids who love the Smiths--in his collection of short stories Chuck Klosterman IV (thanks Mugshot for the book), so I would recommend that as an authoritative source on the subject. Several of them sang along to "There is a Light" in Spanish, which for a brief moment made me feel like an outsider who couldn't have done the same despite several years of high school Spanish. Oh yeah, and there were "Choir Girls," too. Hot.

A DJ spun Britpop after This Charming Band finished. The finest moment was when he snuck in a single by The Dandy Warhols: So what do you do? / Oh, yeah I wait tables too / No, I haven't heard your band 'cause you guys are pretty new. Fabulous.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fall Mix 2006

A copy of FriedOreo's autumn mix is on its way to Prospect Hill in the mail, and he inspired me to create my own mix for the season. Here it is. I'm not going to try to explain any of these choices, except to say that the songs are just a little drearier than summer songs and a few of them mention "autumn" and maybe "leaves" and "foliage." And a few remind me of the fall. And they're all amazing songs.

1. September Gurls (Big Star)
2. Author Unknown (Jason Falkner)
3. Middle School Frown (Josh Rouse)
4. Eat the Menu (Sugarcubes)
5. Emma Blowgun's Last Stand (Beulah)
6. Crystal Lake (Grandaddy)
7. (Do Not Feed the) Oyster (Stephen Malkmus)
8. Great Fire (XTC)
9. You Are Invited (Dismemberment Plan)
10. Colmene Whispers (Yuji Oniki)
11. Ex-Girl Collection (Wrens)
12. Raw Sugar (Metric)
13. The Stars of Track and Field (Belle and Sebastian)
14. 7 Chinese Bros. (R.E.M.)
15. Today (Ponys)
16. Hudson Line (Mercury Rev)
17. Curtain Calls (Old 97's)
18. Ramble On (Led Zeppelin)
19. Drop Me a Line (Owls)
20. The Empty Page (Sonic Youth)

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