Underappreciated Music File: The Ting Tings

The Ting Tings is duo Jules De Martino and Katie White of Greater Manchester in the UK. Their first release We Started Nothing came out mid-May 2008 and received an average reviewer score of 6.3 out of 10*. There are valuable and fun tracks like "Great DJ" and "That's Not My Name," but despite a number one ranking on the UK Album Chart and several top 20 spots throughout Europe, the album hasn't gained a lot of respect stateside. In fact, the majority of reviews feel the album is derivative, bland and, more or less, merely a pop culture footnote. Pitchfork decried the album especially saying The Ting Tings are "selling anti-establishment 'fuck yous' by the bottle. Plus some barely serviceable party tunes."(1) And, yes, there are some disposable tracks on the album that feel like pop filler, but guess what? By and large We Started Nothing covers so wide a spectrum of styles that it is unfair consider it as a failure of one genre or another.

There are dance-heavy tracks, pop-radio ready tracks, melancholy indie tracks, synth-y rock, et al. The album evokes Lily Allen, The Dears, and Belle and Sebastian, among others. And despite a lack of originality in style and form, the songs are excellent, well-composed, and delightful. Really, the album is fun to listen to from beginning to end, and although it's by no means a life-changer, it can't be faulted for being a solid pop record that makes no promises to begin with. Album titling is an important aspect of the overall artistic appreciation, and I'm always surprised when reviewers forget to consider how the music reflects the title and vice versa. Only theme albums, like Sufjan Steven's Illinois, are observed closely for the way a collection of songs tie into the title, but nearly every artist titles their work purposefully. An album like St. Vincent's Actor portends the varying masks worn by Annie Clark over the course of the tracks. Noble Beast sets up the acoustic, plodding design of the music on Andrew Bird's latest album. And in the case of The Ting Tings, We Started Nothing claims that, from the front cover, they didn't start these genres, they didn't make this music up from scratch, rather they're exploring their options and pushing away from the greater record industry to spread their creative wings.

We Started Nothing is not a perfect album, and it won't set well with every listener, but it is also one of the most pleasant, uplifting and repeatedly enjoyable albums I've listened to in the last year. The music isn't important, but it doesn't have to be to go underappreciated. The lukewarm response from critics just demonstrates a skew towards viewing all album for their "artistic purpose," but we've seen movements of art on canvas, in film and through photography that fail to meet with critics views of purpose, and managed to enjoy it anyway. Even Botticelli was contracted to paint some of his greatest work, and a present-day critic might view him as a sell-out simply filling a niche. And ultimately, it's fun to just listen to an enjoyable album now and again without burying its merits in a litany of artistic discourse and judgment.

Excellent tracks: "Traffic Light," "Shut Up And Let Me Go," "Great DJ," and "We Started Nothing."

*Scores adjusted to scale-10 from star-value for purpose of averaging.
(1) http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11594-we-started-nothing/
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Words On Film: Inglourious Basterds

Two years have passed since Quentin Tarantino's last film, the Grindhouse piece Death Proof, and five years since the closing half of his proper opus, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2. And while Death Proof is considered an excellent appetizer, it appeared to me to be more like a directing exercise for Tarantino than an actual project of his desire. Almost as if it was more fun to work with Robert Rodriguez on a joint venture, and to take a break following the Kill Bill films, than to create another sprawling masterwork. Fortunately, starting in late 2008, Tarantino tackled a project he'd always talked of undertaking: a massive World War Two genre film. Something fit into a historical context such as this would potentially allow Tarantino to use his broad film knowledge to alter the traditional views of a war film. And then this week, Inglourious Basterds premiered garnering a lot of solid reviews, none terrible, but some less than wholly complementary. As a stalwart Tarantino fan, ever since I first saw Pulp Fiction in my friend's basement during junior high, I held high hopes for this movie, but was not exactly sure what to expect. After viewing, Inglourious Basterds may not be Tarantino's best film, but it is definitely the one with the broadest scope and most interesting storyline.

The film opens in the Nazi-occupied French countryside, as Christoph Waltz playing Colonel Hans Landa (known also as "The Jew Hunter") interrogates dairy farmer Denis Menochet about a Jewish family he believes Roth is harboring. Classic Tarantino dialogue presents itself straightaway, as Waltz's Landa quickly presents himself as cunning, charming, and evil in a slightly cartoonish, but ultimately self-serving way. Characterization has always been a Tarantino strong suit. It is very clear who these people are by the things they say. Dialogue is everywhere in this film, and long conversations with minimal blocking perfectly complement the action sequences we expect from Tarantino. Despite the amazing amount of dialogue, too, in this nearly three hour long film, not one word feels wasted or unnecessary. Many people are quick to applaud Tarantino for his genre knowledge and shot selection, but his writing is what keeps an audience from noticing that they've been in the theater for hours.

And he knows enough to write a WWII movie in the languages of the peoples involved. Subtitles rage throughout. Personally, I love subtitles. Mostly because I revile films, such as Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, that use actors with British accents, speaking English and pretend that an audience is meant to accept that as German for the American palate. Tarantino brilliantly works with his subtitles, allowing the characters to speak English at times, but only after setting up that they're bi- or tri-lingual, outside of the French, German, and Italian that would be more common to the area.

The film is violent, and graphic at times as one should, nay, must expect from Tarantino. Of course, much of the violence is exaggerated for comedic effect (also to be expected). But, Tarantino's violence is no longer the impressive part of his work. His storytelling, and the web of characters and situations he creates is his greatest asset. Inglourious Basterds involves plots to kill Hitler, Goebbels (whose own film-making allows for a subtle, but brilliant bit of self-reflexivity), and other key Nazi leaders at a film premier in an alternate history. The litany of characters who cross paths, creates a tapestry of emotions that often go incompletely spoken as they are interrupted by the chaos of war. There is something like a love sub-plot existing in the film, very nearly, but the context of violence, racism, fear, hate, and war mute love to the greatest extent. Moments of compassion are always rewarded with violence, rather than compassion in turn. Tarantino says a lot about war, that despite holding brutality close in his writing, there seems to often be a feeling that compromise was available, but ignored. At times, the film seems to protest war, in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Characterization in the film is phenomenal. Not one actor fails in their design or performance. And given all the dialogue, that is a heavy compliment. Brad Pitt is hilarious, and exceptional as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine. Eli Roth shines as Bostonian Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz aka "The Bear Jew". Melanie Laurent, as Shoshonna, and Diane Kruger, as Bridget von Hammersmark, both give exceptional depth and brilliance to strong, complex female characters. The greatest performance goes to Christoph Waltz, who ultimately carries the suspense of the film and has the broadest range of acting to do. Tarantino even seems to inject a bit of himself into Lt. Archie Hicox, played by Michael Fassbender, who is a British officer and former film critic who infuses quippy genre/movement knowledge into the film. And there are other surprises, too, that keep the action and pace of the film flying along.

Inglourious Basterds reinvents the war movie genre, but never bastardizes it (pardon the pun). Tarantino takes his audience on another emotional roller coaster that is at times nauseatingly horrific, and heart-sinkingly emotional. We are treated to know a lot of different characters in the film, though never brandished melodramatically, who generate tangible emotional response. It's a solid Quentin Tarantino outing. He maintains his evasive style, wherein you can only expect the violence and the dialogue, but you're never sure what to expect from his inventive writing. And it's nice to still be surprised by a director, or a movie when the cookie cutter in Hollywood is so often applied.
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Underappreciated Music File: Mclusky

Good bands, even great bands, often fall through the cracks of the big label/indie label dichotomy and never attain the attention or widespread praise they deserve. In fact, very often the bands that do grab the mass audience categorically suck, or after one successful album create a catalog comprised of musical shit that happily kowtows to their key demographic. Or, those huge bands create excellent albums time after time and reach some sort of epic (colloquially) status. And in the wake of unending praise are talented, interesting, solid bands that never hear a word about world tours and stadium shows.

Welsh alt-rock punk power trio Mclusky is just such a case of the overlooked. Formed in 1996 they put out 3 full length albums between then and 2005, at which time the band broke up due to inter-band tensions. Singer Andy Falkous now fronts Future of the Left, a great band in their own right and one that is thankfully not underrated. In 2006, a compilation titled Mcluskyism was released that chronicled their career in 12 singles. And in a special edition also showcased B-sides, rarities and unreleased material. Unfortunately, I can't speak to the special edition's quality, but the singles disc, the "best of" is incredible! Wait. FUCKING incredible! Arguably, Mclusky's ironic hard-rocking, hook-laden, screamy style takes some getting used to. But there are songs here that speak to the aggro-scientist in all of us. There's anger and intelligence in an equal, beautiful mix. Irony is dolled out like ice cream on pie.

But what is most impressive, and what makes them so surprisingly obscure as a band is that Mclusky covered an incredible amount of creative territory in 9 years, and their sound flourished, but changed so much over just four albums. Screaming crunchy rockers like "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues" and "To Hell With Good Intentions" lead organically into more complex, pseudo-folk-rockier songs like "Alan Is a Cowboy Killer". Although the principal album is short, clocking in around 38 minutes, it is a fantastic and complete view of the bands trend through loud rocking to political and social commentary and back. And lyrically, Mclusky so often cannot be topped. Check out these nuggets from "To Hell With Good Intentions":

1. My love is bigger than your love
We take more drugs than a touring funk band
Sing it

2. My band is better than your band
We've got more songs than a song convention
Sing it

3. My dad is bigger than your dad
He's got eight cars and a house in Ireland
Sing it

And the driving guitar and great finger work that accompanies these lyrics, plus Falkous' technically impressive scream-singing makes it a unabashedly incredible rock song. This very amazing capacity for greatness is what makes the music industry, radio, etc., even college radio, so perplexing. We miss so much great music in our lives and not for lack of looking or seeking new artists, but because there exists so much amazing work in numerous genres and there's often never enough time to listen to them all. Some great bands will fall through, wasted in their time, but luckily re-discoverable in the years after. Now. Go listen to Mclusky. And Future of the Left. You will thank me.
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Words On Film: Gigantic

Gigantic premiered in eleven U.S. theaters in April 2009 and ran for thirteen weeks grossing only just over $100,000. Its box-office draw and release record alone define it as a quintessential, no-backing, small-time indie film. Also, the movie stars Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) and the quirky and ubiquitous Zooey Deschanel. And it's about a dour, witty, but silent long-haired hipster guy who sells expensive Swedish mattresses during the day and seeks to adopt a Chinese baby in his free time. How's that for indie? Indie enough for you? Etc. All that and the fact that the script was a college creative-baby of the director combine to make something that is very nearly enjoyable, but seems thoroughly overinflated.

The viewing experience is at times unsettling. The colors are washed out, dry in an effort to reflect the ennui felt by Dano as he trudges through his day to day, 9 -5, boring, but completely off-beat life. A life which includes John Goodman appearing as an anti-Semitic, loud-mouth, wealthy mattress buyer, and his daughter played by Deschanel who just happens to come by to see the mattress and fall asleep on one of the beds. All of this garners little reaction from Dano whose preoccupation with international adoption, and how boring and unsatisfying his life is, prevents him from seeing that his life is exponentially more interesting than most. He even has a quirky scientist friend who talks sex and studies rats swimming (another billboard metaphor). And then therea quirky black mentor who has Dano give him a haircut. Dano's Brian just seems depressed because he doesn't have a path, and that theme for a movie, so plainly stated has grown a little long in the tooth. Dano and Deschanel fall for each other, and Deschanel propositions Dano for sex while the three take Goodman to a chiropractor. Every moment is quirky. Yes. Quirky! That's the theme here.

Gigantic then has the necessary complications such as relationship strife and questions of life-path/purpose. And as a film it's all very well and good, but Gigantic doesn't say as much as it thinks it does. The characters don't really grow, or change all that much. Instead, they are more or less just an assemblage of caricatures: hipster 20-something male, cute hipster rich-girl, mushroom growing-father, businessman older brother, mentor A, mentor B, sex-obsessed friend and so on. And all of these traditional archetypes are dressed edgily, shot in grainy, low-light, medium-long to make them seem deeper than they are. And then there's Zach Galifianakis as Dano's constant, brutal assailant who likely doesn't exist despite beating the male lead with a pipe, shooting him in the leg, and attacking him with a tire iron. (And his existence is never explained or even alluded to... so that's pretty quirky too.)

Despite all these issues, Gigantic isn't awful, it just isn't fun, or funny particularly (except for Goodman and then Ed Asner, playing Dano's father), which wouldn't matter if the film wasn't marketed as a comedy. Dano is actually very well suited for the role, and Deschanel gets by on charm and the way her big-eyes sell lines that don't make a lick of sense. Goodman and Asner are the biggest bright spots, though, which speaks to the elder-statemen's abilities to carry a rough script and have fun with it. If the film were not so bogged down in the indie-hipster themes that have dominated this quirky-comedy-drama genre since Wes Anderson did it right four times consecutively, and if Gigantic felt less heavy, less arbitrarily oppressive, it could have been a great film. Instead, it's a decent movie that tries really hard to convince viewers that it's a revelatory one.
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Words On Film: (500) Days of Summer.

Romantic comedies are built on narrative conventions, as are most other popular film genres, that make them greatly predictable. There will always be "The Meeting" and then "The Coupling" and then "The Conflict" (usually a misunderstanding exaggerated by melodrama) and finally, in most cases, "The Reunion." We come to count on this framework to guide us from the opening sequence to the final scenes that galvanize our feelings about love, relationships and that way in movies that everything "just works out." Rom-com remains a powerhouse genre for just that reason. We all, whether we'll admit it immediately or not, enjoy a controlled emotional roller coaster. The real roller coasters in life aren't fun because we don't know how or when the ride will end, but in the movies, we always have a two hour window to rely upon. And we always have that framework to expect the romance to work out just the way that makes us feel confident about trying again and again. The problem is that while we enjoy the emotional Xanax of a happy ending, we know damn well that the story rarely ends happily in real life. In fact, really, there is only one relationship that ever ends happily, and often it's the last one you have. So, by that logic, 99% of romances (give or take) are honestly, unabashedly, and realistically destined to fail. And that's not sad-sack bullshit, either, that's just numbers.

(500) Days of Summer tackles just that idea with true, heartfelt and honest writing, acting and narration. This is a film that ends its long exposition with a voiced-over, "This is not a love story..." It is also a film that tries to maintain an aura of hipster cool, but does so sparingly enough that nothing feels forced or too far over the top. For that we can thank director Mark Webb, who keeps the indie styling grounded in reality and human emotion instead of playing them up to extreme caricature. (Webb especially handles the film's temporal dancing - bounding from Day to Day/phase to phase - with ease, never misusing it and often effectively juxtaposing happy times with sad ones.) This is a film in which Zooey Deschanel's Summer makes a passing reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. And this is a film where the primary demonstration of romantic domesticity takes place in the sprawl of an IKEA. Creating an IKEA date as flawless, sweet and raw as the one Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom and Deschanel's Summer go on is microcosmic of the film's emotional genius. I've been on these dates. People do exist this way. Love IS this sprightly and cute.

And love also falls apart. Gordon-Levitt knows from their first meeting that Deschanel is the one. He is the hopeless romantic type whose love of The Smiths and The Graduate lead him to believe there's one perfect person destined to him. By contrast, Deschanel is presented as the unromantic type. She loves herself. And she is enigmatically magnetic. Men love her instantly, but ultimately there is nothing special about her. (A key point here because most of our loves, the ones we fall extremely hard for are not special, per se, but we exalt them, deify them even, and fixate on how much better than anyone's their laughs, and smiles, and little quirks are.) The pair finally converse at length at an office karaoke event, where Tom and Summer briefly argue the existence of Love (capital L). Tom believes in it, Summer does not.

Gordon-Levitt does an exceptional job of portraying a man stupid with love as Tom runs the gamut of emotions from the initial "ultimate happiness" to points of dread and depression so great that they are life altering. And Deschanel sells Summer's careful, distanced reciprocation beautifully, but even more so, she subtly shows the sadness inside a woman unsure of the love she has. It is clear that she and Tom are well matched, but a good match does not always breed the kind of love that sustains a romance. The heart of which is the sadness of miscommunication between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel because she is his one and only, and he is her conundrum. Life works that way. No matter how long we are with a person, you never really know how they feel because you can't be in their head, or in their heart. At one point late in the film Gordon-Levitt's Tom asks Summer, following a fight, (and I'll paraphrase) to tell him that she won't wake up someday and feel differently about him. And she answers, "I can't do that. No one can." And she's right. That's why love is exhilarating. It's a ride you take that has no guarantee, regardless of how much love you put into it.

The film shines in its climax and ending moments. And it's a bittersweet ending. Tom turns out to be right about love, about destiny, about having a one and only (and he was all along). And it turns out Summer does end up accepting that true love exists and doesn't run from destiny. The movie succeeds especially in the way that it taps your emotions, or at least for me, with the parallels I could easily draw to my own dating experience. (500) Days of Summer poignantly circumvents some of those Rom-com conventions, and falls into a just enough to make you think the ride is just like every other. It's not. But, then, the same goes for life, as we take rides as special as snowflakes that so often end in fiery crashes. Until finally there's the one that doesn't.
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Notes on Twitter.

Social networking online, a concept that essentially allows people to know people they never actually know is undeniably a lot of fun. From Myspace to Facebook to the now ubiquitous little Twitter bird, more and more of us have the ability to access more and more people, more viewpoints, more products, more ideas. These are all part of the newest boon of the information age. I for one could claim addiction to Facebook. And I might then call myself a "social tweeter" as I don't do it as much, but as with any habit it could get very out of hand very quickly. These utilities are wonderful for rebuilding and redesigning old friendships, and (in Twitter's case) honing the lost art of one-liners. Abbott and Costello would've tweeted a mummy movie so fierce they'd have Brendan Fraser rolling over in his grave. (What? Fraser's not dead? My mistake.) But, Twitter is a curious case. Facebook and Myspace have more extensions, more connection with friends, more completeness of profile and yet Twitter is the up and coming Little Mac to "Face-space's" Mike Tyson (Mr. Dream). Why is that? My thoughts splay out before you:

Twitter uses diction that lends a sense of deification upon its users, while simultaneously making them part of a popular crowd. "Followers" connotes that the people attending to the Twitterer's tweets are not friends, but instead a sort of zealous congregation of internet hangers on. And the word "following" gives a Twitterer a feeling of security in the fact that he is part of a larger group of people going in a direction. Simultaneously, the chosen diction imbues godly importance upon the user, while also assuaging any concerns about responsibility. Silly to say, right? But consider the slogan current posted on the homepage for Twitter: "Share and discover what's happening right now, anywhere in the world." I'd venture that knowing what's happening anywhere at anytime qualifies as a type of omniscience, an attribute common to religious deities. And just below the search box on that homepage is a shortlist of popular topics, a mini-guide for users to know what they should attend to and what they should know. I have to applaud the value of Twitter during the Iranian elections, at very least as a tool for better understanding the breadth and complexity of conflict so tightly masked in political rhetoric.

But outside of the linguistic appeal, Twitter is a chance at anonymous fame in a way that "Face-space" no longer can be. On Twitter, the Twitterer can tweet a thought here and there, but never builds a profile or posts photos or laundry lists their various likes, hobbies, email addresses, etc. Through Twitter we can once again take on a persona that doesn't tie directly back into our usual (miserable?) lives of work or school or trying to determine why the dog can't seem to stop peeing whenever I say "Cast Away starring Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt". We crave that anonymity on the internet, and yet, we also crave attention. With Twitter, I can gain a following, and deification aside, I can feel at least slightly famous under the assumption that people on the internet, which is BIG and EXPANSIVE, care what I have to say. And in so tweeting, I can also be my own personal paparazzi delving out tidbits of juicy information about my life that drive my Twitter-ship wild.

Beyond even what I'll call the "Delusion of Fame," Twitter gets you in touch with real famous people. And sometimes, depending on the level of involvement by a celebrity, just reading about them can make you feel like you're right there in the limo (or prostitute) with an actual A-lister. I follow Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) and author Neil Gaiman and have several times caught myself nearly referring to them in the familiar sense. (i.e. "You'll never guess what Colin tweeted today.") Not to say that this is necessarily wrong, but well, to be completely honest I don't know either of them and likely never will. But someday, maybe when I @so-and-so to a famous person, they'll think what I said was indelibly interesting and decide to tweet on back.

I can dream.

Oh, and you can follow me on Twitter @nateragolia (I know... ironies.)
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