americanmusicclubThe Golden Age is American Music Club’s second album since reforming in 2003, then moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles last year. (There are a couple of odes to the former city included, the best of which is “All The Lost Souls Welcome You To San Francisco.”) The album is a relaxed, laidback affair for the most part, enlivened by some excellent, often heavy sounding electric guitar work by Vudi on songs like “The Decibels And The Little Pills,” “The Windows On The World,” both album highlights, and “On My Way.” Mark Eitzel, leader of the band, sounds great, and his literate, often sardonically funny lyrics are matched to a fusion of rock with Americana, country, even a bit of waltz on “I Know That’s Not Really You.” Some of the songs go on too long and start to meander a bit, but in general, this is a very strong album. Other standout cuts: “All My Love” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”

http://www.myspace.com/americanmusicclub

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“That was a lot of running…”

“When it makes me so uncomfortable I want to turn it off, that’s when I know I’m watching something awesome,” Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) said last year in an Entertainment Weekly article, responding to an observation that “[a] lot of comedy these days…comes out of discomfort and awkwardness.” Using Rogen’s criterion for awesome, I think it could be said that Noah Baumbach’s last two movies, The Squid And The Whale and his latest work Margot At The Wedding, are two of the most awesome movies in recent years. Both films are about families in crisis, The Squid And The Whale focusing on the disintergration of a marriage, and Margot At The Wedding focusing on the beginning of one, the title character (Nicole Kidman) showing up at her estranged sister’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding with more than a few doubts. In both films, the adults behave poorly, and their children suffer accordingly, a cycle we find is being mindlessly repeated by the adults in Margot. Though Margot says at one point to another character, “Sweetie, I’m sorry. There’s something wrong with me,” we aren’t confident that this is going to be a turning point in their relationship. But then Baumbach’s films, beginning with his debut, Kicking And Screaming, aren’t really about people making turning points in their lives, but rather about how they are unable or unwilling to make them. Out of these seemingly grim circumstances, Baumbach is still able to mine some comedy, as Margot At The Wedding is frequently very funny, often as it’s simultaneously painful or heartbreaking, or else, to get back to Rogen’s comment, while it’s making you supremely uncomfortable. The cast, which also includes Jack Black and Zane Pais (as Margot’s young son), is first rate. Kidman in particular is good, as she manages to make a character that is for the most part very unlikeable somehow sympathetic. I also admired Baumbach’s almost stubbornly unsentimental approach to his material, often cutting away from emotional scenes where other directors would linger. Margot At The Wedding may be difficult to watch sometimes, and it’s certainly not perfect, but there are few films out there that are so honest and insightful about the mysteries, joys and utter pain of family relationships.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

Beach House – Devotion

February 28, 2008

beachhousedevotionBaltimore based band Beach House’s second album, Devotion, falls into a personal category of music I call “David Lynch movie music.” I think it’s because the kind of beautiful, dreamily paced, sometimes eerie sounding music that Beach House plays reminds me of that odd song from Eraserhead, “In Heaven,” or else “Mysteries Of Love” from Blue Velvet. This is in no way a criticism, though, as I think Beach House is very good at making music like this without falling into repetition or vapidity. They also manage to convey melancholia without being depressing, and really, a lot of the music here is anything but melancholy or depressing. On this sophomore effort, the songs are more densely layered than on their debut, and they play with a wider range of styles, so that some songs sound like 90’s shoegaze mixed with 50’s and 60’s vocal group sounds. Think Mazzy Star doing Burt Bacharach tunes, for example. I wouldn’t call this a great album, as I think Beach House are still working their way towards greatness, but there are plenty of great moments, enough to recommend Devotion. Standout cuts: “You Came To Me,” “Gila,” “Heart Of Chambers” and “Astronaut.”

http://www.myspace.com/beachhousemusic

nokidsClever pop music with a wanderlust: Vancouver, B.C. based band No Kids debut with Come Into My House, which mixes pop with lounge, R&B, Broadway showtunes, and even 40’s vocal groups, as on “Four Freshmen Locked Out As The Sun Goes Down.” The result is less chaotic sounding than you might think, as No Kids have enough control over the styles they dabble in not to let them run away on them, nor do they ever fall into parody, contrary to the Flight of the Conchords comparisons they’ve garnered from some corners. (They’re more reminiscent of Ben Folds, in his more playful moods.) For the most part, Come Into My House is a lot of fun to listen to, with some genuinely lovely moments, starting with the opener, “Great Escape.” Worth checking out for indie pop fans, for sure. Other standout cuts: “For Halloween,” “The Beaches All Closed” and “Dancing In The Stacks.”

http://www.myspace.com/nokidsband

Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree

February 26, 2008

And now for something completely different: Goldfrapp, after two forays into self-described “glam noir” electronica, releases an album of psychedelia. When I heard the first single from Seventh Tree, “A&E,” I was worried that maybe Goldfrapp had wandered into Dido territory. (Not that I have anything against Dido, but after Black Cherry and Supernature, that’d be a weird place for them to go.) However, that’s not the case at all. If anything, it can seen as somewhat of a return to the dreamy feel of their trip-hop/chill debut, Felt Mountain, though coming at it from a completely different musical direction, here with elements of both Nick Drake and the Beatles, folk and rock overlaid with strings and electronica. However you interpret what they’ve done on Seventh Tree, the results are almost uniformly first rate, strange and beautiful, the latter two qualities, which, come to think of it, can apply to the whole of their work. Standout cuts: “Little Birds,” “Happiness,” “A&E” and “Cologne Cerrone Houdini.”

http://www.myspace.com/goldfrapp

Thumping bass, frantic, screeching buzzsaw guitars, and growling, screaming vocals: Ah, the soothing sounds of hardcore punk are still alive, courtesy of Philadelphia band Paint It Black, who have just released their third album, New Lexicon. In between the fiercely delivered societal rants, they throw in some new wrinkles of their own, including the ambient/noise transitions between certain songs. It’s always good to hear a band carrying on the hardcore punk tradition, especially when it’s done with the passion and intelligence on display here. Standout cuts: “We Will Not,” “Past Tense, Future Perfect,” ” “New Folk Song” and “Shell Game Redux.”

http://www.myspace.com/paintitblack

MONKEY REVIEW: Persepolis

February 25, 2008

Excellent film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel series Persepolis may have lost the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature to Ratatouille this year, but it’s a must see nevertheless. For a ninety-five minute distillation of an epic work that covers ages 9 to 24 in Satrapi’s life, the movie manages to cover a remarkable amount of ground while remaining coherent and instructive. During that time, beginning in the late 70’s, Iran experienced a revolution and then a disastrous war with Iraq. The Islamic Republic that governs Iran became increasingly fundamentalistic and repressive in nature, twice driving Satrapi from her homeland. The animation here is directly inspired by Satrapi’s original art, but as conceived and adapted by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the movie doesn’t settle for being merely a moving version of its graphic novel source, a slavish approach that adversely afflicted last year’s 300. Instead her work is reinvented as an intensely cinematic work of art, full of moments of humor and charm, but also of horror, fear and confusion. It’s one of the best book to film adaptations I’ve seen. As a coming of age story, it’s unique for its perspective into modern Iranian culture and history, which too many Americans will find, as I did, they know little to nothing about. The idea that many Iranian citizens paid for their open desire for a freer society with exile, imprisonment or execution will come as a revelation for those who tend to associate Iran with, as Satrapi observes in the introduction to The Complete Persepolis, “fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.” The richly entertaining Persepolis just may turn out to be a future classic, not just a classic animated feature, but a classic film, period.

MONKEY REVIEW: ZERO MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

headlightssomeracingChampaign, Illinois band Headlights try out some dream pop for their second LP, Some Racing, Some Stopping, setting aside the guitar based indie rock that largely characterized their debut. The results fall somewhere between early Rilo Kiley and Julee Cruise’s first album, that is, sweetness mixed with moodiness, with lush, richly atmospheric production. There are even echoes of Simon and Garfunkel to be heard here (or later Elliott Smith, dependent on your musical reference points). Erin Fein, who sang the majority of the songs on the last album, trades off vocals more evenly with bandmate Tristan Wraight, with good results, as they both have appealing voices, and sound great when they harmonize together. Hearing Headlights go in this direction may throw some fans they garnered on their first album, but it’s not so radical a change that you can’t tell who the band is anymore, and aside from that, it’s a creative way to avoid a sophomore slump while expanding and pushing the boundaries of their musical chops at the same time. All this to say, Headlights fans are going to in for a surprise when they hear this album, though I think it’s going to be a good one, and for all other listeners, well it’s just good music. Standout cuts: “Cherry Tulips,” “Market Girl,” “Some Racing, Some Stopping” and “Towers.”

http://www.myspace.com/headlights

worldwarz

Full blown audiobook production of Max Brooks’ zombie epic, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, features an impressive list of actors, most giving vivid readings: Alan Alda, Carl and Rob Reiner, Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Henry Rollins, Ajay Naidu and Jurgen Prochnow are some of the best known names in the cast. Brooks himself voices the journalist whose oral history gives World War Z its structure, as he globetrots to places as varied as China, Japan, Israel, Africa, Cuba, Chile and the United States, among other stops, to gather first person accounts of the decade long war against a worldwide epidemic of the flesh eating undead. The book is necessarily episodic, as the various sections explore how the zombie war impacts the world politically, socially, militarily, economically and psychologically in richly imagined and surprisingly very realistic scenarios. Some sections don’t work as well as others, of course, others are questionable, including one that portrays Iran as an irresponsible nuclear power, and there’s more than one descent into the cornball. One section in particular involving a Scottish character is afflicted by a difficult to understand performance, which fairly spoils that story. Those things aside, however, World War Z is generally absorbing and entertaining, often suspenseful and scary, and chock full of the walking dead. This abridged version of the novel may placate fans eagerly awaiting the forthcoming movie version, currently in development.

raveonetteslustIf the new Raveonettes album, Lust Lust Lust, never quite hits the peaks that its first two brilliant tracks do, well, so what? Most albums don’t have a single song as cool as either the eerie, almost menacing “Aly, Walk With Me” or “Hallucinations,” with its beautifully distorted guitar riffs. It’s not that the rest of the album pales in comparison, either, as the Danish band, now based in Los Angeles and New York City, have returned with an inspired, powerful album that finds them playing their now familiar mix of distorted, fuzzy guitar sounds and 50’s and 60’s rock with a renewed energy, infusing and complicating even the album’s poppiest moments with a strange, almost delirious obsessiveness, true to the album’s title. Other standout cuts: “Dead Sound” and “You Want The Candy,” but there are no duds to be found here.

http://www.myspace.com/theraveonettes