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    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    This Is England

    From its opening frames, Shane Meadows' This Is England aims to live up to its apt title. It channel-surfs through glimpses of early '80s British telly, lingering especially on the two iconic women of that era: Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher. It also intersperses footage of the Falklands War with domestic anti-immigrant violence, foreboding what’s to come with a subversive couch-potato ease. The clips suggest we'll get a deep sociological look at Thatcherite Britain, and indeed, This Is England delivers a cross-section as sharp and lasting as a guillotine.

    Centering on twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), the film thrusts us into a quaint, desolate town. The walls are crumbling, the housing is drab, and most prominently, an abandoned building wears the scathing editorial, "Maggie is a twat." It sets the mood immediately, which Shaun is all too quick to reflect. With his father slain in Falklands combat and bullies at his back, Shaun droops around mopily and defeatedly. But like his analogue Liam in Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, he also harbors a dangerous rage and a profound confusion. He'd fight the world just as soon as he'd fall victim to its cheapest tricks.

    Shaun and the gang

    One day, a pack of skinheads befriends him at the instruction of its leader Woody (Joe Gilgun). A lanky telephone pole with a branded forehead, Woody looks like a cross between Joe Strummer and Daniel Day-Lewis. By letting Shaun join his group of misfits, he gives the boy his first place to belong. When the guys all smash the contents of an empty house, they offer Shaun an outlet for his anger. When they have Shaun shave his head and dress in their uniform—suspenders, Doc Martens, Ben Sherman shirt—they also provide him with a standard to conform to. Shaun’s adolescence is so quickly accelerated that he even lands his first girlfriend. Nicknamed Smell, she wears clownish Siouxsie Sioux makeup and is twice Shaun’s size. Their relationship, like almost everything about the clique, is endearing, but also troubling and weirdly creepy.

    It’s in portraying this ragtag group that Meadows shines most as a director. He’s said that Shaun’s story is semi-autobiographical (hence the similarity in names) and the level of details he nails shows exactly why writing what you know is such a truism. In depicting the kids’ fashions, haircuts, conversations, behaviors and music tastes, Meadows transposes his coming-of-era experiences with striking confidence. His film in these sections feels so authentic that it resembles a lost document like Killer of Sheep more than a nostalgic period piece. Beyond any of the deeper issues and political critiques the film offers, the potent joy of time travel and the evocation of setting alone make This is England worth seeing.

    Graham as Combo

    However, all that color and vivacity of youth is undercut halfway through the movie. Bullishly headbutting into the narrative, Combo (Stephen Graham), Woody’s ex-friend and hardened ex-con, instantly splits the group apart. With his own stores of unresolved fury, he begins finding recruits for his anti-immigration group. He proves hard to turn down, asserting in every scene what a well-crafted villain he is. Combo is persuasive, even charming, exerting the unctuous but magnetic authority of a cult leader. He has a nuclear temper but an unexpected sensitivity too, and it’s impossible to guess with which he'll react. Sensing a kinship, he offers Shaun membership in his even more tightly knit community. That the community revolves around dogmatic British nationalism, violent intimidation against Pakistanis, and unbridled hate doesn’t faze Shaun a bit.

    Meadows is good in conveying the attraction of the protectionist mentality, never reducing its proponents to cartoons. But he also shows that their rage is more the product of their personal failures, their own disappointments and shortcomings. Unfortunately, as the subjects get heavier, the film starts to exhibit shortcomings of its own. There's the tendency to underscore climactic scenes with a cloying, facile piano. Because Graham's performance is so singularly dynamic and commanding, Combo also can't help dominating the later action. Combo's dramatic arc is just as interesting, but it renders Shaun a mere background player in his own story. Finally, the ending, in what seems to be a misguided homage to The 400 Blows, fizzles as an unearned copout. Meadows is so talented at presenting the mess--emotional, architectural, ideological, moral--that his attempts at sanitization really jut out. This Is England ultimately still works as a startling, vibrant leap into both a preteen life and an era, but one thing it should never attempt to be is clean.

    This Is England is out on DVD now.

    * MP3: "This Is England" - The Clash from Cut The Crap [Buy it]

    The trailer

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    Listening booth #27

    Photo by AnomalousNYC

    * MP3: "Wolves" - Phosphorescent from Pride [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Agent Orange" - Pharoahe Monch from Desire (UK Bonus Track) [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Alive Among Thieves" - Oakley Hall from I'll Follow You [Buy it]

    Check out AnomalousNYC's Faces of New York series here and more of his photography here.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Video Tuesday #45

    "Everything You Do is a Balloon" (Unofficial)
    Boards of Canada

    "Gronlandic Edit"
    Of Montreal

    "Roc Boys"


    "None Shall Pass"
    Aesop Rock


    Martin Walker @ Googie's, 8-25-07

    Photo by Teddy Maki

    “New York is cold but I like where I’m living/ There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.” That’s what I heard when I walked into Googie’s in August, and it feels even more appropriate now. On Ludlow, only a few streets removed from Clinton, I admired how true Leonard Cohen’s couplet remains today. No matter how sweltering or frigid the city gets, our music options are always intimidatingly rich. Top-tier headliners vie nightly with buzz-heavy up-and-comers; genres and styles are as diverse as the neighborhoods that inspire them.

    New York is also a city of secrets, and seeing Martin Walker perform that night felt like a secret. On the top floor of The Living Room, Walker performs weekly on Wednesdays with a piano, a guitar and accompanist Jimi Zhivago. It’s a simple set-up, but it’s all he needs. Drawing primarily from his recent album, Nylon, he sings evocatively of subjects like alcoholism, loneliness and rocky relationships. He freely draws comparisons to artists like Cohen and Nick Cave that his weighty baritone and sorrowed subjects corroborate. He makes music meant for low-watt lights and wintry streets, half-drunk wine bottles and late-night subway cars. It struck a chord in August, but it makes even more sense among November’s blustery drear.

    In person, Walker stayed fairly faithful to his album versions. On certain songs though, his voice would take on an extra force or sharper heft, as if he were suddenly reminded of the lyrics’ reference points. Out of the album’s familiar context, songs that didn’t stand out as much also gained new prominence in their performance. There was the benefit of the live setting as well—watching a singer excise such clearly personal revelations in an intimate setting of about ten tables is an automatic experience. Stripped of production elements, of the disconnect of digital technology, of real world distractions, the audience and the performer could commune in a more elemental way. In a city so overwhelming, we could partake in music that wasn’t afraid to be small or vulnerable. It had a space to inhabit and in Walker, a singer who can make even the pain of urban melancholia sound alluring.

    Martin Walker plays at Googie's on Wed
    nesday. You can also stream his album Nylon here.

    * MP3: "Fools" - Martin Walker from Nylon
    * MP3: "We Are All One" - Martin Walker from Nylon [Buy it]
    * Website: Martin Walker Music
    * Previously: It's winter again and New York's been broken


    "My Darkest Hour"
    (Videos by Martingwalker)

    Saturday, November 17, 2007

    Oh God, I miss you

    Is art a zero-sum game? Will continually raising the stakes of experimentation lead to empty noise? Will minimalism’s logical endpoint be nothingness? With so many creative approaches already claimed, artists have to take ever-bolder risks in the name of the new. It’s thrilling that they try, and even more gratifying when they succeed. But often, it seems they sabotage their work with their unilateralism. PJ Harvey’s new album, White Chalk, is one example of a problematic chance that doesn’t yield enough dividends. It’s thematic to a fault, so timid and isolated that it fades on contact.

    Harvey has always been a provocateur and her earliest incarnations were classics. Dry’s proto-post-feminism, Rid of Me’s guitar-drenched exorcism, and To Bring Me Your Love’s intertwining of sex and religion all revealed daring glimpses of a greater vision. Scaling back intimately, 1998’s Is This Desire? (my favorite PJ Harvey album) then added a fascinating vulnerability to the lust. But more recently, something feels stalled. Uh Huh Her was mostly a placeholder, a less successful Hail to the Thief that tried to synthesize an entire career into one record. And now comes White Chalk, with its threadbare piano and adrift vocals, tiny-sounding by design. It’s mourning music for shut-ins; Harvey even plays up the association with her spectral Miss Havisham cover shot.

    The entire album passes by me until the eighth track, “The Piano.” Currently the second single (how this album could have singles is baffling and amazing), it starts out as humbly as its predecessors. Harvey sings mutedly over the titular instrument, her voice numb and affected. But there’s also a drum machine now, underpinning the rhythm like a guilty heartbeat. It seems to gird her a bit. She starts to gain conviction even as her lyrics paint the same tired abstractions about ghosts. Finally, she just drops her defenses and moans, “Oh God, I miss you.” It’s so simple and yet it’s easily the most captivating moment thus far.

    Is the “you” in question a lost lover, her abusive parents or God Himself? Was she abandoned like her Dickensian counterpart or the regretful abandoner? Is her object(s) of desire dead or just dead to her? For once, the vagueness works because her vocal delivery sells it. Whoever “you” is, it’s clearly still roiling her. The more moving moment though comes with the reprise, where Harvey literally seems to fracture. One voice singing, “Oh God, I miss you” is calm and matter-of-fact, doing her best to hold it together. But her other self is wild and untethered, ceding to the gulf of grief and remorse. She shakes under the revelation, defying White Chalk’s emotional embargo at last. Ironically, it’s only when Harvey stops singing about being haunted in hushed tones that she actually sounds haunted.

    It’s highly possible that she meant this intentionally. This new album may be a kind of musical House of Bernarda Alba, where dammed emotions well up under pressure until they eventually explode. If so, “The Piano” could be viewed as the first sharp fissure in the wall and the primal, caterwauling closer, “The Mountain,” is the full cathartic release. However, this could also be a concept album that just adheres to its concept too slavishly. I don’t think absence should sound this absent of direction, loss so lost in its self-contained world. “The Piano” asserts how powerful PJ Harvey is when she steps through the gauze of repression. I just wish she hadn’t reduced the other songs to the cobwebs and cloisters she’s trapped herself in.

    * MP3: "The Piano" - PJ Harvey from White Chalk [Buy it]

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Listening booth #26

    Photo by Aleks Schürmer

    * MP3: "Maxine" (Remix) - Wu-Tang Clan from Wu-Tang Returns mixtape [Buy other Wu-Tang Clan]
    * MP3: "You Know Me Better" - Roisin Murphy from Overpowered [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Get Innocuous!" (Soulwax Remix) - LCD Soundsystem from "Someone Great" single [Buy it]

    You can check out more photography by Aleks Schürmer here.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Mas y Mas @ Trash Bar, 8-24-07

    Even by my anemic standards, I should probably be covering concerts I attend less than three months after they happen. But a dropped laptop and a transcontinental voyage later, I'm here to make up for my lapses. Good thing too, because I really can't get over how great Mas y Mas is. Out of nowhere, they're swiftly becoming one of my favorite bands. Since being reunited with it, I've been spinning their full-length Proud Sponsors of Pepsi faithfully. I'm also revisiting their earlier EP, Latin Outreach, when I need a change. And when I find myself sardined into a crowded venue, listening to mediocre opening bands, I'm thinking back to that simpler time known as August 2007 when Mas y Mas stormed my town and knocked it on its ass.

    The show was at midnight in a thinly attended bar basement. Didn't matter though. Once the band launched into their opening songs, the room sounded instantly full. The crunch and splatter of rough chords drowned out every distraction. I was taken aback, because this performance was pretty different from their recorded persona. Sure, the energy, the attitude, the swaggering rhythms were all there, but there was also a new single-mindedness on display. The band sanded down the quirks and soft touches of Pepsi in favor of power and volume. Short songs already under the three-minute mark thrusted out at clipped rates, clocking in at a frenzied two minutes. The drummer thrashed at his set vindictively, driving the pace with his sonic threats. We were barely given time to breathe; as one song ended, another was already being flung our way. Trading their signature smirk for pissed sneers, Mas y Mas played like they had twenty-four hours to live. It was awesome.

    In some sense, it's ironic that songs crammed with pith and apathy would get boiled down with such workmanlike efficiency. And in their reinvented form, the sarcastic one-liners and bratty vocal tics did get lost in the shuffle. But since I don't care about hearing songs exactly as they appear on an album, it was worth the tradeoff. The major gain in Mas y Mas's frantic, hypercharged performance is that it highlighted how deeply their roots lie in punk. This was a show that affirmed the virtues of real independent music, in all its ugly, poor, loud, desperate, unsigned glory. It called back associations to the basement shows Minor Threat or Bad Brains once staged, an archetype which this DC-based band clearly draws inspiration from. Along with other higher-profile bands like No Age and Future of the Left this year, Mas y Mas have loudly reasserted that punk truly is an unkillable medium. All it takes to be resurrected is a few ratty garages and beer-splattered clubs, some amps and guitars, and the unequivocating need to leave rubble in your wake.

    Mas y Mas is playing in Charlottesville, Virginia at Club Dust on November 17th. You can also stream their entire new album, Proud Sponsors of Pepsi, at their website here or better yet, buy it for a mere five bucks.

    * MP3: "You Can't Play Without Ice" - Mas y Mas from Proud Sponsors of Pepsi

    * MP3: "Pop Psychology" - Mas y Mas from Proud Sponsors of Pepsi [Buy it]
    * Website: Rock So Tough




    Video Tuesday #44

    Jose Gonzalez

    "Someone Great"
    LCD Soundsystem

    "The Piano"
    PJ Harvey


    Van She

    "End of the World"
    Shocking Pinks

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Thailand series #8

    * Previously: Thailand series #7
    * Previously: Thailand series #6
    * Previously: Thailand series #5
    * Previously: Thailand series #4
    * Previously: Thailand series #3
    * Previously: Thailand series #2
    * Previously: Thailand series #1

    Friday, November 09, 2007

    It's a long way home when you're trying to find your way

    It's been a year of revisiting and reevaluation, so I suppose it's fitting I found myself back in Bangkok. Last November, it became the first city I had been to in Asia. Now ten months later, traveling through the continent's southeastern bloc, I suddenly found myself back in its heady mix. When our itinerary was still in its infancy, I hadn't been particularly psyched about returning. I enjoyed the Thai capital well enough the first time, but going back carried an air of "been there, done that." I didn't want to pass up the potential highlights of Seoul or Vientiane or Hanoi, none of which made our final cut, in order to retread old ground.

    But as our plane touched down on Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was growing progressively more excited. As our neon-pink cab spirited us down the highway, past a proud, idiosyncratic cityscape and swarms of royal-yellow shirts (worn on Mondays especially to honor King Bhumibol), I was getting practically giddy. (Or as people who know me will tell you, as giddy as I get.) It felt like a homecoming of sorts, a known entity in a litany of unknowns. At the same time, there was a wariness too, because I had remembered Bangkok as overwhelming and intense. Last year, I had been staying near the Victory Monument, where bodies clogged the narrow streets and frantic intersections at all hours. I thought of it as a circus, a zoo, an Asian Gotham--fast, polluted, delicious, lively, sprawling, thrilling, exhausting.

    What a difference ten months make. This time around, Evan and I stayed pretty far off the grid in a northern outlet a fifteen-minute walk from the Saphan Kwai Skytrain stop. Our hostel was among my favorites of the trip, because it was secluded and peaceful. A quality restaurant in the back served all my favorite traditional Thai dishes--curries, kee mao, fishcakes--at no more than seventy baht for an entree (slightly over two American dollars). Most mornings, I'd just laze around, sitting by their bathtub-sized pool, downing bottles of Tiger beer to wash down the sweet, piquant chili-pepper heat. I'd hang out listening to the German and Scottish accents intermingling, while I wrote stories in a travel-battered notebook. The irony wasn't lost on me that a resort town like Phuket proved stressful and annoying, while I'd stumbled upon true relaxation in a nonstop metropolis of millions.

    When I did venture out, everything about Bangkok seemed freshly wondrous. Part of the reason was that I now knew which areas to avoid (seedy-to-the-max Pat Pong at night, for one) and what I should expect. With a second visit, I was able to custom-make my trip much like a playlist, cutting out the filler tracks, the awful skits and the misplaced experiments. When I went to the backpacker neighborhood, Khao San Road, I knew to leave after a few hours. The novelty of it wore off fast just as I knew one quick, sociological stroll past the red-lit Soi Cowboy was plenty. On the other hand, I also grasped I just had to head back to Polo Fried Chicken for another round of their incredible poultry, to stroll around the green expanses of Lumpini Park, and to take over the remotely located Khrua Rommai for another belt-testing feast. And of course, as anyone that spends even an hour in Bangkok will understand, I also knew the street food was an unmissable event. Every new street brought new smokes, new stinks, new stimuli to inhale. Food nuts there will rightfully overload on the sheer breadth of skewers, noodles, tropical fruits, raw meats, teas, desserts, stews and seafood that just a block-long walk can yield.

    On my first visit, I was sure that five days in Bangkok was plenty for me. I was ready to move on, needing a break from the bustle, and anticipating seeing what else Thailand had in store. However, on this return trip, I would've happily stayed behind a few more weeks. With no pressure to see any more sights or be awed by any more temples, I was free to roam as a local would. I was free to grow attached, even nostalgic, and to view the city through a wider, more informed lens. Now I understand that Bangkok is everything I first thought it was, up to and including overwhelming and intense, but it can be intimate and calm as well. It can be inviting and revitalizing, if you just slow down and give yourself the time to look.

    * MP3: "You Gotta Feel It" - Spoon from Kill The Moonlight [Buy it]

    * Also: On another note, this week, I had the chance to hang out with some former Stylus magazine writers as they were performing the last rites on their publication. It was your expected battle royale of debating The Blueprint vs. Reasonable Doubt, Manitoba vs. Caribou, and just how overrated the Avalanches are. If your eyeballs need a momentary rest from this here blog, definitely check out Jeff Weiss' much-beloved The Passion of the Weiss at its new home and the more recent development Flashes of Quincy as Tal gets it started over there. Oh, and what the hell, here's Barry's most canonical essay for good measure too. RIP Stylus...

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Listening booth #25

    Photo by Daniel Fernández

    * MP3: "Manchasm" - Future of the Left from Curses [Buy it]
    * MP3: "This Too Shall Pass" - Danny Schmidt from Parables and Primes [Buy it]
    * MP3: "I'm On Fire" (Bruce Springsteen cover) - Bats for Lashes (via Sucka Pants) [Buy other Bats for Lashes]

    Check out more photography by Daniel Fernández here.

    Video Tuesday #43


    Scout Niblett ft. Will Oldham

    Aesop Rock ft. John Darnielle

    "Jesus Saves, I Spend"
    St. Vincent


    "Daughter in the House of Fools"

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Big pimpin', spendin' cheese

    Simply put, Phuket is a pimp. With no real goods to sell, the town hawks itself in harsh neons and worthless merchandise. Everywhere you walk, hands poke at you from makeshift storefronts. Voices implore you to do one of three things: buy a suit, ride a tuk-tuk (an open-air taxi), or get a massage. The women at the massage parlors loom out front in groups, and rise up en masse when a white man walks by. They'll all call out to you in a voice they imagine is coquettish, elongating the word "maaah-saaah-zheeee-eeee" into four squeaky syllables. They do it so much that the word and the tone both seem meaningless to them now. After a day or two in Phuket, (pronounced poo-ket) it started to sound meaningless to me. What was being implied, of course, was that back-rubs were code for sex or at least happy endings. But it was offered so casually and so indiscriminately, it had all the value of a souvenir T-shirt.

    Unknowingly, Evan and I stayed on Patong Beach, by far the most touristy and overrun strip of Phuket. It was a self-contained three streets that stretched down the length of the island, with dead-end alleyways bisecting the top street. Walking along them gave me the impression of a gauntlet, and worse, there was no destination worth heading toward. This was a resort with little besides the beach to offer, outside of overpriced (by Thai standards, anyway) restaurants and Western-style bars clogged with fat Australians. Even the one cultural activity, Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, was advertised with a screaming PA system and two men fighting on top of a van. It was unsubtle and in-your-face, fitting in perfectly with the Phuket ethos.

    The most depressing part of the island were the bars though. They were everywhere you went and mostly interchangeable. Throbbing American basslines would blare through the speakers; isolated TVs would broadcast the latest soccer match. Inside and hovering around the entrances were Thai girls in skimpy, Day-Glo outfits. The younger version of the massage parlor, it had the same implications in play. These girls though were often young to a point of discomfort, to a point of legality. And yet in each establishment, there were always some ugly sixty-year-old man nursing a Singha and chatting up his waitress. If you lingered long enough, you could see her drawing closer and his hands moving more freely. By ten o'clock, the streets would be full of these men walking back to their hotels, arm-in-arm with sad, willowy girls half their size and a quarter their age. (Phuket, being an equal-opportunity opportunist, also had a surprising number of karaoke bars, massage parlors, and dance clubs that catered to old Western men with a preference for boys or even ladyboys.)

    Still, that's not to say there weren't some pleasant aspects to this stop on our tour. For one, the off-season prices were cheap enough for us to get a hotel instead of a hostel. It was pretty amazing to have a nice place to relax versus, say, the fourteen-bed room in Singapore or the hose-and-bucket shower in the shared bathroom in Kuala Lumpur. Our balcony offered a pretty magnificent view of a orange-roofed village and lushly verdant hills, proving that, aerially at least, Phuket could be a stunning place. We also had access to a huge pool and an omelette bar at breakfast, not your typical backpacker accoutrements. The beach itself was also lovely with white sands and a warm, baby-blue Pacific. Still, in predictable fashion, a steady supply of vendors bothered you every three minutes with offers of sarongs, fried skewers, sliced mangoes or energy drinks.

    After three semi-fun days, we decided to cut our time in Phuket short and changed our flight. I was also getting nervous because there'd just been two earthquakes in Indonesia. That was the same catalyst that set off the massive Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which devastated a large part of Phuket and went on to kill over 225,000 people in eleven countries. The damage from that disaster was largely unseen in Thailand by 2007, but ubiquitous signs still pointed the way to a tsunami evacuation route. Luckily, our flight out to Bangkok turned out to be fine. Two days later however, when we were originally slated to leave, a plane crashed at the Phuket airport. The rough weather was blamed and ninety people, most of them foreigners, were killed. Suddenly, once again, Phuket took on a new gravity, a fatalism that's the antithesis of everything it otherwise stands for. At its core, Phuket is engineered to be frivolous and escapist, libindal and gluttonous, where even the unloved can purchase affection and every night you can party for a price.

    * MP3: "Big Pimpin'" - Jay-Z ft. UGK from Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter [Buy it]