Words On Film: DiG!

Ondi Timoner's 2004 documentary DiG! came to me through my friend Mary Kate. Knowing that the film follows The Dandy Warhols (a band I had loved in the late 90s) and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (a band I had heard only sparse details about) I was instantly intrigued. Rock documentaries have the power to be informative and entertaining in equal doses, and musicians are often the best artists to view in candid moments. The problem inherent to documentary film is that countless hours of footage can be taken, but ultimately it must be boiled down and edited into something of theatrical length. And the result, the story that is created from the individual experiences largely falls to the director and her perspective. Instead of being free and allowing the viewer to judge all for themselves, a director punctuates moments and scenes for gravity to maintain whatever theme she wants to construe. In the case of DiG! Timoner writes her own story of the rise of The Dandy Warhols and the mercurial non-rise of BJM, but she succeeds most in not picking sides.

Timoner begins the story with Courtney Taylor-Taylor's admiration and hero worship of Anton Newcombe. Newcombe, the leader and principle songwriter for BJM, is presented as a musical savant and a madman from the first scene. In a way, DiG! is built to point out how great musically Newcombe is, but also how his unfettered insanity and drug abuse would never let him succeed. Taylor-Taylor, by contrast, is promoted as the grounded but less talented student of the same 60s revival school. Allowing/tapping Taylor-Taylor to narrate via voice-over throughout the film seems to place Timoner squarely on the side of his band, but the actions taken by Taylor-Taylor, and his inconsistent and detached love for Newcombe complicates that initial gut feeling.

Viewing the film, I felt initially that Newcombe was just insane. Talented, yes, but completely insane. And that this film was built as a sort of torture porn predicated on Newcombe's decline and failure. That wasn't completely correct, but it wasn't completely wrong either. While BJM runs aground multiple times and The Dandy Warhols rise to the top, most of it is Newcombe's fault, his incapability to maintain a semblance of professionalism during numerous big opportunities. And although Taylor-Taylor seems to be the "together" musician, he is clearly also a complete prima donna who never appears satisfied with his success or opportunity, and watches idly while touring with BJM as the band decays and falls apart, saying "It wasn't my tour so I just had a good time."

Newcombe on the other hand spends the majority of the film ranting, composing and fighting (verbally and physically) with band mates and audience members. But when BJM actually plays, they are clearly the more interesting, more skilled and more powerful band. Don't get me wrong, I love The Dandy Warhols, but they aren't the greatest writers or musicians, they succeed with quality pop songs. So, possibly the most telling section of the film comes when "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" premiered and Newcombe composed an entire album in reaction over the course of the next seven days with the single "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth". Writing a complete album (Give It Back) so quickly seems indicative of great genius and also potentially great bipolarity. Newcombe's erratic, nonsensical behavior points squarely at mental instability, and not merely eccentricity. Yet, the film never addresses this, and neither his band mates, nor anyone in The Dandy Warhols ever confronts him with that concern. It makes you feel bad that Newcombe was so talented and no one tried (at least in the film) to explore his health issues or save him. Instead, his madness is tolerated as the cost of his genius, and only when he blows up do any of the other principle players take action... and then only of self-preservation.

Even when Taylor-Taylor is surprised that Newcombe has attempted to start a rivalry between the two bands, it reeked of selfishness. Just before, The Dandy Warhols had dropped in on BJM's new band house to do a professional photo shoot funded by Capitol Records. Taylor-Taylor behaves like a childish prick, leading people into their "friends'" home just to co-opt their living conditions and environment as something The Dandy Warhols owned. None of these people, ultimately are worth sympathy. They all exist only for their own gain. Newcombe wants fame, but refuses to cooperate with his band or any musical entity. Taylor-Taylor says he wants BJM to become big, but takes consistent action to undermine the band's fragile stability. Only the backing members of BJM (Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood) appear even sentient and caring for their futures and the happiness of the band. So, essentially DiG! just exposes and reiterates the "selfish-druggy-rockstar" paradigm through two meteoric personalities.

I didn't feel good when The Dandy Warhols gained success. And I didn't feel bad when The Brian Jonestown Massacre didn't. Instead, it was just a feeling of acceptance. One selfish band won, largely because they could play by big label rules. And the other band fell into relative obscurity because they couldn't do the label thing, and they couldn't get along. Overall though, DiG! is an aquarium full of selfish personalities (saved only by a few people) dancing around and vying for affection. Timoner does an excellent job of leaving the audience without any clear thesis. She never passes judgment on Newcombe, or on Taylor-Taylor, allowing their actions to speak for themselves. If you want a wild viewing experience, peppered with the coked up whining of talented people, this film is essential. It has piqued my interest in BJM, and caused me to question some of my love for The Dandy Warhols. I admire Newcombe's uncompromising artistic nature and dislike Taylor-Taylor's whiny pseudo-philosophical act, but all in all, I love both bands more because there is a window to their history and what must be the history of many other small rock groups just trying to catch a break.
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Indie Rock Genealogy: Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs

One of the great advantages of signing with an independent label (hence being an indie band) is that collaboration appears more encouraged, and freedom more oft divvied out. We see excellent efforts in "solo" projects from band members of Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear (Panda Bear, Department of Eagles, respectively) and The New Pornographers (Neko Case, who never leaves the band completely) because these musicians are encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities to create. It's more like an open salon than a label culture, providing we lucky listeners with eclectic sounds and wild groupings, and with art that is altogether intentionally inaccessible. Since this line of thought may well devolve into just an argument for the virtues of independent record labels, I'll digress, but the point is that indie bands can do a lot creatively, without booking stadiums or grabbing insanely expensive studio time. Instead, we get cross-collaborations and off-shoots. And recently, I've been re-discovering/re-falling in love with Wolf Parade, and the impetus for my born-again passion was Sunset Rubdown. And Handsome Furs.

All three bands are linked into a tightly-knit Canadian indie rock tapestry. Wolf Parade, the most well-known pairs Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner (with Arlen Thompson, Hadji Bakara and Dante DeCaro) and is responsible for two of greatest indie rock love songs of the last decade ("I'll Believe in Anything" and "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son" from Apologies to Queen Mary). The mixing vocals, between Krug's meaty, graveled wail and Boeckner's slightly more melodic tones and the airy, but still weighty walls of sound that pour out on every track they've composed as a band is staggering. I remember the first time I heard Apologies to Queen Mary, being both enamored and confused, it was something that I loved, but I couldn't be sure why. It was love at first listen. The album is incredibly passionate, powerful throughout. It doesn't give you a break, and you don't want one. It's like making love when you first fall in love. It can't happen too often, and the closeness is nearly an addiction. Wolf Parade's second At Mount Zoomer is more syncopated, less breathless, but more adventurous; expanding greatly on the foundation built with the first album, but holding onto the same sentiments of love, passion and the ways we isolate ourselves for fun and out of loneliness. "Soldier's Grin" is one of those openers that feels almost separated from time and place. The point here, is that Wolf Parade is amazing. The sum of two great vocalists/songwriters efforts. And Wolf Parade has led to a wide array of offspring.

Five bands are directly linked to Krug and Boeckner, including Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Atlas Strategic, and the two listed in this post's title: Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs. I'm hard pressed to count another band that gave birth to so many side projects. (And please, if you think of some, comment on this. I'm sincerely interested. Expand my mind.) Sunset Rubdown is Krug's side project of note. Two stellar albums recently Random Spirit Lover and Dragonslayer have propelled them up through the indie ranks. And Dragonslayer has some incredible, sincere, dire and rocking tracks, including but by no means limited to "Silver Moons" which asserts, "I believe in growing old with grace/I believe she only loved my face/I believe I acted like a child/Making faces at acquired tastes/And now silver moons belong to you..." Just amazing lyrics. Boeckner's Handsome Furs are equally exceptional, if markedly different (Krug's voice is possible a major factor). They're most recent Face Control is loaded with loving harmonies and great tracks, "Legal Tender," and "Evangeline" especially. And "Thy Will Be Done."

So, with so much great, eclectic, individual and successfully collaborative work coming from Krug and Boeckner, I feel compelled to make that dreaded, but fucking apt Lennon/McCartney comparison. Both have clearly defined writing styles, Wolf Parade songs can be separated fairly easily just by hearing them into either the Krug or the Boeckner column, and their "solo" work carries that style on unabated. But, it's not fair to make the comparison. Lennon and McCartney did most of their greatest work together (granted the White Album was essentially individual) and when they finally broke up, they're music wasn't the same. Lennon wrote more great post-Beatles stuff than McCartney (though "Maybe I'm Amazing is fucking incredible to this day), but John was never quite the same after the Beatles. He grew up, and that changed his songwriting motivations. Same for Paul. They were best as the Beatles, and while I'd happily argue that Wolf Parade is better than just the sum of its parts, both Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs exceed expectations in providing a uniquely familiar experience; a more personal sit-down with Krug or Boeckner, respectively. And maybe that's because they're still young enough. They have the sentiments lingering. Or, maybe it's as simple as they aren't so greatly overshadowed. Wolf Parade is not the Beatles, simply, they aren't a movement or institution, they're a simply an incredible band. Maybe, still, it's a Canada thing (a litany of excellent bands are from Canada). Whatever it is, though, all three bands are worth hearing, and I will be checking out the other members of this rock lineage soon with expectations for new angles on established excellence.
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Spoon - Transference

Transference n. In psychoanalysis, the process by which emotions and desires originally associated with one person, such as a parent or sibling, are unconsciously shifted to another person, especially to the analyst.

I've had a difficult time getting into the new Spoon album. I have juggled feelings of nostalgia with feelings of disappointment, and all the while have tried to find the places where the album becomes exceptional. Past Spoon albums, specifically Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga took time to grow grow on me. They lacked the same pop-scientific accessibility of Girls Can Tell and Kill The Moonlight. Those two elder albums were perfectly crafted for the mid-20s, chaotic, confused growing human being. The sentiments were all truisms, and the sounds were all original, bombastic, honest, sparse and dynamic. While Spoon has grown those descriptors remained applicable, but in different ways. On Gimme Fiction we could all easily attach ourselves to "I Turn My Camera On" and "Sister Jack" because they were both "old" Spoon songs, the mixing was more expressive, the beat more powerful, but the design was recognizable, comforting. Only then could we latch onto the other songs "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" and "The Infinite Pet". Even with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga we took time to grow with it. "Don't You Evah" and "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" were instant hits, but there were sleepers in "The Underdog" and "Don't Make Me A Target" (and personal favorite "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case"). The point of all this exposition is to illustrate how I have thought Spoon had lost it before, only to be blown away with time and careful mastication of the material. And that's what makes my feelings about Transference so hard to express.

The newest album feels short and plain. It's not really shorter in time than any of the others, but it drifts by almost inconsequentially. "Got Nuffin" is the high-point of the album, the big lift, but it's only a single dropped into the latter half of the album. It feels, now, more like a reminder. As if Spoon is saying to listeners, "This is why you like Spoon." But why so late in the album, and why without back up. I hate, HATE to say it, but "Goodnight Laura" sounds like a Coldplay song that Spoon slightly remixed. And the rest of Transference just sort of flutters, never getting loud, never grabbing the ear with a lick or hook that was so reliably present in previous releases. It's like a penguin. The album has wings, we can see them, but all the flapping never yields flight. Instead Transference contentedly slides around on the ice, a smooth level feel that isn't bad, but isn't energizing. It's a departure for Spoon, and one I can't say I happy with. My friend Mary Kate, an avid, steadfast Spoon fan, even gave it a droll "Meh" as her only review. And as I talk more and more with fans and friends, we can't get over that feeling of meh. It's just not great. It's not bad, but it feels passionless.

And then I did some reading, which compels me to refer to the definition printed up top. Transference is Spoon attributing some other relationship to music to its audience. The drive to create, the music, and maybe the sadness couched in this album are being thrust upon us through a sort of conscious-sub-consciousness. Spoon is not creating for us anymore. Not on this album, they are creating for something they used to feel that is now coming to us in a way that feels foreign. I had even said this afternoon that the album felt like an '80s art rock album. Quiet, still notably composed, but as if created entirely on Valium or some other sedative. If that is true, if my ears did not deceive me, then perhaps Transference feels different because we didn't expect these feelings, this style, to be thrust upon us. We are all analysts when it comes to music, and even if we don't break things down much beyond personal taste, we are constantly assessing our enjoyment and the music's value thereby. So, is this an intentional act (we must consider that if we're to attempt to ascertain success within this artwork-enjoyment or non-enjoyment does not constitute satisfaction)? I have to believe that Spoon knows what they've done. The lyrical complexity and narrative aptitude demonstrated on previous albums makes it impossible to believe this was just a case of the band firing blanks. Yes. It's conceptual. It's deeper. And in that way it works. And another wrinkle: we too, the audience are experiencing transference when we listen to this album. Our old association, the feelings we had for Spoon from 2001 - 2007, hold steady within us even though we (and the band) have grown up. Instead of enjoying the new way the band is on this album we're unhappy because we want them to be who they were when they either no longer are, or are turning purely for effect.

But I still don't love Transference. Not yet. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I will listen to it with the right person, on the right night, in the right moment and it will gain the associations necessary to rank it among the greats. Maybe it will just grow on me. Could it be like an impressionist painting, and that I'm looking at it so closely that I can only see the dots, the brushstrokes, and I'm not letting myself see the complete picture? I will not stop listening to this album. It's a must play because in a way I want to conquer my discontent with it. And that's the difficulty of music appreciation. Many of us, reviewers, listeners, audiophiles, build a perception of a band and love that perception as much as the music they create that fulfills that perception. Then, when the band takes a right turn, when the music is no longer what we expect, we begin to question its value. For the sake of Transference, we have to surrender our expectations (those "emotions and desires originally associated with one [band]"). Spoon may be intentionally performing the same mistake. There's no way to be sure, but we have the power to keep open minds. And then we may see an old friend in a new light.

A fun extra note: My review of Harper Phillips' Cartography has been quoted and linked in Boulder's Elephant Journal here! Exciting stuff! You can check out the Elephant Journal's great work on their website, and Harper Phillips' exceptional ukulele music on iTunes and at her bandpage.
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February 13: St. Vincent

St. Vincent's live performances get better each time. Last night was the third time I had seen her in person (though, as my friend Jared corrected, we only caught the last two songs during the first performance, so that doesn't completely count). It was my second full show. The second where she headlined. And it was easily the most impressive yet. A packed to capacity Bluebird of excited, true fans fulfilled my personal need for Annie Clark's talents to be appreciated with gusto. And the set was stellar. Incredible. Untoppable, at least until next time, I'm sure. Opening the show was Wildbirds and Peacedrums from Sweden. A duo utilizing only drums (one traditional kit and one steel) and brilliant, hauntingly beautiful vocals. I only caught the last three songs of their set, so under the criteria hammered out by my buddy Jared and I above, I didn't really SEE them, see them, but regardless, they were a compelling and amazing act. Running the steel drum through an effects system created a unique and full sound, despite the lack of broad instrumentation or a large band. They were able to present the bombastic, jumping sound seen on the recent Dirty Projectors album, but with only a fraction of the staff. Truly, a great start to an impeccable show.

Annie came out with the band: drums, woodwinds, guitar and violin, and proceeded to play highlights from 2009's Actor to near-album perfection. The hits, or at least the favorites, were rearranged a bit, making them new, shiny, and delightful to listen to. My friend Jason even remarked, "You know that you're seeing a good band when every song they play is your favorite. There's not a single song on either album that I don't like." Annie Clark has that level of virtuosity. She has compiled two albums worth of incredible songs without a single throwaway track. And she's only becoming greater to see live. In two more albums she may actually melt the hearts and faces of entire amphitheaters of people with just a bat on an eyelash and a powerful guitar riff.

The set largely avoided songs from Marry Me, though she played, solo, "Paris is Burning" and did a beautiful, mind-bogglingly awesome cover of Nico's "These Days". There were shouts from the crowd for her cover of "Dig A Pony" as seen in the Black Cab Sessions that went unanswered and other fans beckoning her to play "Marry Me" and although neither made the final list, I don't think a single person at the show could've been disappointed. A great rock show is one of the most personal and interpersonal moments in my life. You are both connected to the music, to your listening experience, to the band, and to everyone around you. And were there not a drunken lout standing behind my friends and I, the show would've been untouchable in the annals of greatest live shows ever.

Since I associate St. Vincent so closely with my musical awakening, and since I picked up Annie's first album on a whim, having read nothing, I tend to hold these shows even more near and dear. Every St. Vincent show is like an affirmation both of my love of music and the great direction music can go when in the hands of someone truly talented. Her music is about a lot of the same topics all music is, love, confusion, disillusion, transition, fear, etc., etc., but each song is also utterly and completely unique. That is what marks a great gift. Even hearing the same songs again live, after having spun the album hundreds of time, you can still be surprised and sonically satiated. Maybe I'm too "into" St. Vincent to see her completely critically, but that's how I like it. I'd rather be a rabid, mouth-foaming fan for any band, than consider every error or misstep as representative of the whole. And it was great to see a full venue of people who seemed to feel more or less the same way. Annie Clark continues to grow as a performer, and we continue to grow as her audience, and the net result is that shows get better. I can't wait until she comes back to Denver again. If I'm lucky I'll get a chance to thank her for everything.
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John Mayer: Embracing Douchebaggery

In recent weeks, two interviews with pop-sensation/self-proclaimed great guitarist John Mayer have appeared in Rolling Stone and Playboy. In both of these interviews Mayer discusses his penchant for masturbation, the way he thinks about relationships and why he thinks a large section of the populace think he is a douchebag. I lampooned the Rolling Stone interview, at least his responses in a comic on my other site Illiterate Badger only days ago, but having just read the second interview for Playboy online, there is new resolve to ask questions about why Mayer insists upon behaving the way he does, and saying the things he does "on the record". Particularly, his indefensible use of racist and sexist language that may be oblivious, or may, in truth only be his attempts to redefine his public image. Long known as a nice, too sweet, singer songwriter type whose saccharine lyrics and sentiments were at worst disturbing and at most unoriginal, he has definitely transcended into the territory of insanity today. And when inanity becomes insanity there's usually more motivation than, as quoted from the Playboy interview:

"I’ve done away with feeling aloof and trying to seem suave and bulletproof. I’ve resigned myself to being slightly awkward and goofballish."

So, as many blogs and news outlets labor over his use of the "N" word, or his comments about his penis ("My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.") I'd rather focus on why now, of all times, Mayer would openly demonstrate the complete lameness of himself to the public.

In the notorious interview for Rolling Stone Mayer derides himself, relying on saying essentially that it's tough being him. Having too many women want to turn him down just to screw him over (or to have screwed "The John Mayer" over) and then Mayer free-verse churns out repugnant analogies about finding his true love,

"But don't they also have to have a vagina you could pitch a tent on and just camp out on for, like, a weekend? Doesn't that have to be there, too? The Joshua Tree of vaginas? ...I'll be happy when I close out this life-partner thing. Think of how much mental capacity I'm using to meet the right person so I can stop giving a fuck about it."

In Mayer's defense, yes, anyone would agree a good, solid, powerful sexual chemistry is necessary to sustain any relationship, but it's his choice of words, the implication that a vagina equates a woman (a partner, a kindred) and that it can then be easily compared to a tree (ostensibly an object) is the greatest transgression. Then, the audacity to complain that he invests too much mental energy into finding the right person is just a contrast highlighting why people think he's a douchebag. No one likes to be objectified, and yet, Mayer, in his sheepish, I'm just a poor nice guy who got too famous for normal girls mode doesn't recognize that women are not merely vaginas. Earlier in the same interview, Mayer discusses his love of masturbation, and how he prefers to imagine sleeping with women he's already been with because the effort required to open himself up to a new person is too taxing (and that he believes many women just could believe they were with him to the extent that the relationship would be ultimately unfulfilling). Turning inward, only to sexualize past partners via fantasy is an act of objectification. Perhaps closer in line with voyeurism, but nonetheless an act of retreat from any real woman with complexities and desires and dreams and a heart to break.

But, Mayer still believes that he is a nice guy, perhaps THE nice guy, stating in his Playboy interview, "I consider myself a good guy, with the best of intentions. Anybody who has been in a relationship with me would stand by the fact that I’ve never been callous." And truly, since his ex-partners have not advanced to deride him after these interviews he may well be. But Mayer just can't seem to close his mouth, perhaps the impetus for his song "My Stupid Mouth" from Room for Squares, rattling off the following:

"I’m half Jewish. People say, “Well, which side of your family is Jewish?” I say, “My dad’s.” And they always say it doesn’t count. But I will say I keep my pool at 92 degrees, so you do the math. I find myself relating to Judaism. One of my best friends is Jewish beyond all Jews—I went to my first Passover Seder at his house—and I train in Krav Maga with a lot of Israelis."

John Mayer is a lot like Tim Watley from Seinfeld who was called into question for potentially converting to Judaism just for the jokes. He loves the slurring, the Seder, and the martial arts.

And: "Someone asked me the other day, “What does it feel like now to have a hood pass?” And by the way, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a nigger pass. Why are you pulling a punch and calling it a hood pass if you really have a hood pass? But I said, “I can’t really have a hood pass. I’ve never walked into a restaurant, asked for a table and been told, ‘We’re full.’"

The above comment, for which Mayer has already apologized, is plainly reprehensible. Not only because of his slurring, but also in the way he passes on saying he has cache with black America since he's never been denied access to a restaurant. It appears, in a sense, that John Mayer wants everyone to believe he is all things at once, a blues artist, a lover, a solemn poet, and an underdog, but none of his actions or words substantiate those claims. Except of course that he can play guitar and have sexual intercourse.

This boils down to Mayer being asked by his interviewer, "If you didn’t know you, would you think you’re a douche bag?"

To which Mayer replies, "It depends on what I picked up. My two biggest hits are “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters.” If you think those songs are pandering, then you’ll think I’m a douche bag. It’s like I come on very strong. I am a very…I’m just very. V-E-R-Y. And if you can’t handle very, then I’m a douche bag. But I think the world needs a little very. That’s why black people love me."

But, Mayer is missing the point. People may be tired of the wispy sentiments stacked up in "Your Body Is a Wonderland" or the creepy girl-preparation manual that is "Daughters," but these aren't the reasons people think he's a douchebag. It's because of everything said in the last few interviews. The 77 tattoo commemorating the year of his birth. The continued use and refuse of some of the most gorgeous and talented women in Hollywood. The tendency to fall back on the "I'm the one getting screwed over" card. The just music isn't that great anymore. I loved Room for Squares. I really, really did. And still do. But, sitting in a multi-million dollar mansion, complaining that getting to know new women is too hard, and talking about every album being made as something unprecedented in music is douchebaggery defined. It seems that it is time to decide whether to embrace this KISS-esque rock star mentality, and just start demanding sex and drugs and booze, or to back up and do something positive. It's no wonder that the new album Battle Studies can be easily abbreviated to BS.

All this said, of course, I think of the old "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" parable. I am by no means sin-free, nor exempt from responsibility for the ways I've entered into and exited relationships. And I still try to hold myself up as a good person. A person is not defined solely by their actions. But those are the only evidence for definition the public sees, so it's about careful balance. John Mayer is a talented musician, and has written some exceptional songs, but the sooner he stops tooting his own horn (a reference to his self-congratulatory nature rather than his continuous masturbation) the sooner he will find more favor. Perhaps then, women who he believes consider him to be inaccessibly awesome will see the real guy, who may well be kind and fragile, and give him an honest shot at love.
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February 10: Girls, Magic Kids

Live shows are a little like riding public transportation. You learn a lot about the people around you through simple observance. At a show, you know the people who are fans, or who at least have a vague familiarity with the band by their swaying, mouthing of lyrics (or outright belting of song). On public transit you can see who has no concept of personal space, as well as the people who really truly do. It's all anthropological observation. The rituals. The people who dress up for a show, to a point where, standing there in the dark, it's obvious that they're cruising for a like-minded hipster indie laureate to meet, greet and potential sex after the band leaves and lights go up. People riding the bus, or a shuttle, or train settle into the aisle seat hoping that they will block any one sitting next to them, they will find walls and barriers to lean up against (I do this), and then they will grow visibly uncomfortable when a person sidles up and stands facing them, barking into their cell phone mere inches from the wall-leaner's face. Yeah, just this evening, I watched as a woman who was comfortably in a nook on the shuttle, grew frustrated by a man who put his bag at her feet and held a loud, repetitive phone conversation. Surely, as I do sometimes in such scenarios, she was questioning his understanding of personal space. On a near-empty bus. Or maybe I'm just projecting. This tangent has taken on a mind of its own, so I will step back and take a deep breath.

Last night's Girls show at the Bluebird fulfilled the show rituals aspect of the above paragraph. Some people seemed to be there to be seen. Even when the headliners came out and played a stellar show, with near pitch-perfect vocals and exceptional musicianship, there wasn't a whole lot of cheering, or even concerting "Woo!"ing. It was a fairly low-key situation. Yes, a Wednesday night, and yes, Girls is not one of the big ticket bands, and Bluebird is a small venue, but sometimes I guess I expect more from crowds than I should. Since Album came out last year, it has been one of the favorite "this is just fun to listen to" albums of my life. Loaded with all the youthful hope and heartbreak-isolation stuff that resonates with everyone, and Christopher Owens' vocals carefully sounding similar to Elvis Costello just adds icing. Girls is a smallish band from San Francisco, and for them to come out to Denver, to the "cold" and play a killer show (I mean stellar-killer: they were just brilliant) is a treat. Denver remains a fly-over state for a lot of great bands, so we need to appreciate the ones that come by. Seeing Girls live should become any fan's, however casual, priority. Even if you don't know them, it's just the perfect '60s style surf-rock, Beach Boys-infused, Costello-ian fun that you need. Not every band will be prolific, or inspiring, or even devastatingly emotional for everyone. Girls is a band that succeeds for me when not trying to do any of those things, and that's meant as high praise. Sincerely.

Opening for Girls, at least the second opener who I was lucky enough to see, was Magic Kids. A rag-tag group of kids who could've been high school pariahs for their fashion, and their general gangliness. I feel compelled to make an A-Team reference here. Magic Kids being the perfect team of guys you'd never expect to be as awesomely competent and dynamic as they are. And get this, I think they do things for non-model-type women sometimes. Beat that A-Team! Magic Kid's love for playing their music was instantly infectious. A sort of Buddy Holly, '50s, beach party rock band, they sang about love and some about loss, and a lot about meeting girls places and telling them how much they love them. The harmonies were wonderful, and watching as the singer and lead guitarist belted out lyrics while wearing wide, bright smiles was a great combination of hilarious and wonderful. They appreciate themselves ironically (as any good hipster strives to) and because they do they have a free pass on any sort of awkward, Muppety stage behavior. The lead singer even successfully ran his hands all over his crotch while singing, in a display that was most definitely not intended to be sexy, just fun and self-aware. Magic Kids don't have a disc out yet, but they do have a MySpace page, so I advise checking them out. You won't be disappointed.
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Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring

Whenever I think of Los Campesinos! I remember that their first album Hold on Now, Youngster... was met with exceptional reviews, I ordered it online, and it was the only album out of that batch I never received. The original pressing I ordered ran short, and I just never got that debut disc. In a way, having heard them only in passing, and never having my own copy made them seem mysterious. My experience has shown that small indie bands that blow up are still usually attainable because there just isn't a broad enough audience to snag every single copy of their albums. In this case, apparently, there was. They must be good, follows the logic. There must be something about Los Campesinos! that says to listeners, "You must have this! Go out and fucking buy it!" And all the while, the tracks I heard through friends were good, punky pop-rock featuring screaming vocals about sex and love and lust and drugs and chaos. They sounded like a mix between Arcade Fire, Rainer Maria and Cursive. Fundamentally simple music, loaded with accoutrement via horns and strings and keys, and awkwardly harmonious vocals that weren't what anyone would call "traditional singing," but which still conveyed a yelping, almost uncontainable youthful passion. The words inside Los Campesinos! can't wait to get out of their vocalists mouths. The sentiments need to burst out like a skeleton of a person infected with "bonus eruptus" (Thank you, Dr. Nick). It's an admirable passion in listening to Los Campesinos! but I still hadn't listened to that first album in full, and aside from reviews on the 'Fork and other sites, it didn't seem like they were that special.

I continue to feel that way, even after listening through Romance is Boring a handful of times. There are unarguably great songs on the album, and it IS really completely enjoyable, but at the same time I can't dodge the feeling that it isn't speaking to me fully. I hear it, but it doesn't resonate. And having listened just a half an hour ago, I don't have a single song grinding the gears of my memory, say, the way Edward Sharpe (et al)'s "Home" is ingrained in my cortex, or Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" lingers. The issue is not that Los Campesinos! isn't excellent. I fully believe that they are one of the best up-and-coming bands out there. They have that distinct UK quality of indie-punk-folk-pop that arises in Frightened Rabbit too. I definitely recommend Romance is Boring for the songs' resistances to traditional ideas and topics. And for the number of times they mention erections, and other such sexual components in surprising contexts. It's a good album, I recognize this, and I think it's even better because it drives me to the point I've been hinting at throughout this post. Reviewers are inherently flawed, critics are built to criticize, but just knowing about how something sounds and whether it fits a mold, breaks a mold or changes a mold doesn't qualify any of us to make sweeping claims about quality and value.

A website like this one, or Pitchfork, or Allmusic, or Rolling Stone isn't reviewing music because there is expertise inherent in it. I love music, but I'd never consider myself an authority. There is too much music I don't know about, that I've never heard and never will hear, for me to say unequivocally that an album or artist is one way or another. Even in my wheelhouse, dealing with indie music that I get either via curiosity or word of mouth, I'm not entirely capable of telling anyone what to think or believe about the music they love. It's really kind of a trap. Reviewing music, criticizing it, comes down to issues of personal taste. For the Paul Thompson, who wrote the Pitchfork review, Romance is Boring is an 8.3 of 10. What that means, aside from an arbitrary assignment of value, is wide open. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart received an 8.4 and a "Best New Music" badge, but I didn't care for it that much. Knowing what one person thinks of an album is intriguing, but ultimately useless. And yes, of course I hope that my opinions mean something to someone, that a reader might consider my assessment of an album to accurately gauge that album's overall effect, but it's never everything. Writing about music doesn't have to boil down to "good" and "bad" or "effective" and "ineffective". So much of the time, for me anyway, it's about discussing what an album does. Music is a discussion topic, and a media to be enjoyed, and it's important to respect every attempt for what it is, and always keep tabs on how your own mood and tastes alter the way you consume the album. So, with that in mind, Los Campesinos!'s Romance is Boring is not my favorite, but it's still good, and worth owning and listening and re-listening. The sound is the reward, not just the review.
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Notable Text: The Book of Basketball

I'll admit that I'm an utter and complete sports junkie. I love my Nuggets, my Rockies, my Broncos and my Avs, and I also love sports history. Just consider how many players we can watch in person today who will go forgotten in the annals of history. There is only one Michael Jordan. Someone like Craig Ehlo wouldn't even be a footnote without the iconic Jordan over Ehlo shot in the Eastern Finals. A lot of admiration is thrust upon Brett Favre, who did have an exceptional season, but he's really, barely a cut above Dan Marino (with a 1-0 split on Super Bowl rings). And Marino never had half, maybe even a third, of the talent Favre had around him every season. The point of this rambling, that I'm getting to, is that sports is like history is like fiction is like music. There are a lot of brief moments of excellence as with Daunte Culpepper and A-ha, where a mark is made that is forgotten with archivists (and in the case of A-ha: Family Guy, etc.). Documentation is paramount. So, with an eye on that goal of documentation, I just finished Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball; a 700-page behemoth that considers the history of the NBA, asks prized "What if" questions, and ranks the top players throughout the history and present in the league. It is, for a sports fan to read, a monumental achievement.

Simmons is a crass, often pompous-sounding sports writer for ESPN (He also podcasts two - three times per week) who balances his encyclopedic knowledge of the NBA with some solid humor, and a reliance on the occasional sexist analogies that function well as allegories, but also show his hand. Reading Simmons, in his column on ESPN.com, or in this book, is like hanging out with a buddy at the sports bar. He knows his shit. He will tell some dirty jokes, and pop culture comparisons drop in whenever applicable. Ultimately, he's a guy's guy sports writer, rather than a traditional journalist. The Book of Basketball functions in this traditional Simmons style, to great effect. Simmons uses footnotes as the primary stage for his injected witticisms. There are hundreds of footnotes in the book, nearly one a page. Simmons maintains his usual self-awareness, too, either via self-referential footnotes or parenthetical statements, so there's always a heart there (making anything that's borderline sexist or racist a little less so). Reading Simmons is like knowing Simmons, and in the same way that we excuse the questionable phrasings of our friends and family because there's a deeper person there, so do we readers with this author. Especially given the final chapter of The Book of Basketball, following a somewhat masturbatory section called "The Wine Cellar," where Simmons briefly interviews Bill Walton and shows a lot of heart. It is the best writing in the book. It's the closer chapter, or as Simmons would call it "the cooler" and it easily sinks the go-ahead free throws.

As I said before, I am a sports junkie. This book was right in my wheelhouse, and I was fully willing to commit more than a month to reading about the history of basketball. Knowing that Wilt Chamberlain was statistically better than Bill Russell, but never put together enough of a team-game to win nearly as many championships is valuable to me. Understanding how rough life was for NBA players in the '50s and '60s, how they took buses and trains and flew coach, how they smoked and drank, how early black players like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson were discriminated against constantly, despite being professional athletes (unthinkable now, right?); this matters to me. For someone interested in the historical aspects, this book will perform a function, but unless you love basketball and need to know why Karl Malone's MVP win was suspect, you won't enjoy this book. It's a long, rewarding read, that is sometimes self-involved, but often time funny. If you like Bill Simmons, read it. If you love basketball, read it.
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Beach House - Teen Dream

When 2008's Devotion was received to great acclaim on many of the music sites I frequent and respect, I felt immediately compelled to pick up and copy and listen and listen and listen. And I did. But, I was never that impressed. The music, while beautiful always seemed too low-key and quiet. All the lushness within the album was appreciated, but there never felt like anything was there for my tastes to latch onto. Now, maybe I expected something else, maybe I just wasn't ready, but I have listened to Devotion dozens of times, even in my musically elitist office, and there's never been a "a-ha moment" where one of us or all of us finally proclaims, "Shit! That is a good album!" I considered, that I was taking a Luke Skywalker training with Yoda for the first time point-of-view when it came to Beach House where liking it after a while wasn't possible, and to expect it of myself was like asking me to lift a spaceship out of a bog with my mind. So, with that as my context I heard another succession of positive takes on Beach House's newest Teen Dream, and somewhat reluctantly approached it. I'm not afraid to be wrong, at least when it comes to music, so I took another shot.

Whether it is luck or timing or musical skill, or some combination of the three (Lutimusiskill?) I have fallen for Teen Dream. It is as lush and dream poppy as Devotion, but it brings faster pacing and more accessible melodies to the table to compliment the occasional dour entry. Where Devotion seemed depressed and outright oppressive to listen to without interruption, Team Dream invites listening as it glides and meanders from upbeat to downbeat and back again. The lyrics remain mostly dark, as on the opening track "Zebra" which taps into deception and running with/getting lost in the herd. The imagery is especially powerful, zebras being beautiful animals, essentially familiar animals in that they are nearly horses, but also animals built to deceive predators by mixing into a crowd where all semblance of individuality is lost. For Beach House, the zebra is disappearing because it is wise, but also because it is innately disingenuous. The tone of the entire album is set right there. Beach House litters Teen Dream with existential questions and lost love (all concepts that more realistically describe teen nightmares). And yet, through all of that, the album never feels unrepentantly emo or depressive. Like a dream, the melodies and music lull you, embrace you and enliven you, all while the lyrical content batters you with reality. In that way it's a concept album, but I'd never boil it down to just a concept because it's more than just a single idea, it's an entire era of human developmental existence concentrated into 10 songs.

And, after listening to this at the office, there was a resounding "a-ha moment" immediately after the first play through. "Shit! This is a good album!" Go buy it.
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