She & Him - Volume Two

The quintessential indie pixie dream girl (Shout out to Sean for that phrasing) returns with M. Ward in tow for another folk pop compilation. Volume Two finds the aforementioned dream girl Zooey Deschanel singing more songs about love, much in the vein of 2008's Volume One, but with less variation in style. Instead, She & Him stick ardently to drum-driven '50s style country/folk pop, adorned with strings, piano and the rattling of acoustic guitar (with some simple, but extremely effective electric guitar solos and riffs). The composition and identity are tighter in Volume Two and it feels less like an experiment or larf, and more like a serious project. And each song is loaded with Deschanel's feelings of isolation from love, rather than a quest for it. Tracks like "Don't Look Back" and "Lingering Still" build off of the idea that love is all about stars aligning, and single moments that go awry. It's not that love seems wholly evasive, but that it appears and drifts away faster than we want. And for that I applaud She & Him. It's a more grown album. The dour "Me and You" which opens with the lines "Well I'm back in your good graces again/Remember when you told me I was your only friend?" identifying that sense that we drift in and out of each other's lives endlessly and that the worrying "you" of the song has let life hold him back from what love has to offer. It's an all-too-true story that we've all experienced. Love is about opening up to it, and when we don't, or at least tie ourselves too greatly to our fears, we tend to miss out on experiences we may value. The common thread is love breaking down, and in "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," Deschanel throws down the verbal gauntlet of a woman alienated. The lyrics are built on confidence, though, and while there isn't a sunny disposition to every track, there is a tough exterior, one that seems always declaring, "I can do better." It's not a stark contrast to Volume One, but definitely lacking the quiet sadness of songs like "Sentimental Heart" and even the pleading forcefulness of "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"

What's better, though, is that there's no sophomore slump here. The music has advanced organically, and Deschanel's vocals are again pitch-perfect, if relatively unchallenged by big, dramatic maneuvers. The tracks feature a more lush feel, with more overlaid tracks of vocals and backing vocals, and while several of the songs sound similar, they define themselves with quality words. I suppose, after hearing Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM, this album feels a little too consistent, but in listening to Volume One and Two back-to-back, it does feel like a complete pairing. There is a timelessness to the music Ward and Deschanel create, partly because its influences are classic folk songs, but also because the ideas are infinite. It's all love. The whole album. Love never seems to be a happy thing here, but it is the driving force for every action and decision. It stops short of the "Love/Fear" line lampooned in Donnie Darko, but the album definitely projects a variation of that sentiment. We're not getting behind Deschanel as a lovable loser, we're standing before her pulpit to learn the lessons she wishes to bestow. In one way, that makes the album preachy, but in another, the unapologetic delivery endears it to you too. And the band deftly incorporates NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car" into the chain of romantic lamentation, which deserves a special round of applause itself. My only major gripe is that there aren't a lot of songs that grab you, and on an album that comes in at under 45 minutes, that can make it run together and drift by. Still, the opening track "Thieves" and eleventh "Over It Over Again" are both true gems. Volume Two is, as said above, a more mature album that blends some of the "love makes me sad" vibe of Volume One with a distinct "love comes and goes and screw you for letting it go person X" vibe. It's a literal embodiment of the phrase "love's labours lost." While I'd have like to love this album more, I can't decry its skill and beauty. It's a winner, and it captures reality in an angelically beautiful voice.
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Book; Counter-book(s) 4: Love in a Dystopia - Livin' it up while I'm attempting to free myself from a fascist future-state

In previous editions of my critically-acclaimed (not a guarantee) Book; Counter-book series I've looked in depth at two specific texts seeking to draw parallels in style, mood or underlying theme. This time, I want to look at dystopian novels somewhat generally, but with a specific focus. That focus being the way that human sexuality is more often than not shown as the prime example of limited freedom or resistance to totalitarian ideology. I don't have all the texts at my disposal, but hopefully I can still do a serviceable job of discussing a few key texts and a couple of outside ones as I explore this intriguing aspect in this realm of literature.

Sexuality is, and ask anyone, an incredibly important part of individual development. We've all known people who identify themselves through sex, through these connections, or even just wanton hook-ups. Intimacy is one of the few things we hold great control over. It is something that defines us, and tangibly verifies our existence. While having thought and the ability to consider and make choices are valuable human traits, they do not cement us firmly in reality as sex does. We just don't possess intellectual property in the same way that we possess our bodies. Sex is the root action in some of the most enlightening moments in our lives, as well as some of the most terrifying. Whether used for good or evil, sex holds a substantial power over us. Look at the industries built entirely around it, all of which will thrive and manifest in new ways for the foreseeable future. And all of these things are obvious, I know, but often they are paved over by the puritanical ways we are taught to interact with sex in youth. It's worth noting that the most heinous of crimes are sex-based.

In dystopian literature, we see sex as an instrument of control by the state and as a form of non-violent protest. In 1984, the Junior Anti-Sex League is a government instrument renouncing intercourse. But, Winston, the protagonist, with Julia, take up a secret love-affair that is central to the rebellion against Big Brother. It is even in their most intimate time, in an antique shop, where everything in the book falls apart. Winston takes essentially no other action against the Party. He passively observes dissenting video and texts, and the majority of the book is spent inside his head as he considers the values and impacts of resistance. He does, though, take control of his world through his relationship with Julia (however short-lived and doomed) and finds his brief moments of happiness and strength in them. Battling sexual oppression through love is his only course of action, and even then, it is an individual one, one that redefines him to himself.

Similarly, in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, D-503 comes to new awareness only after being seduced by I-330, the woman leading a small group against the mandates of the One State. For D-503, sex is an awakening to his humanity, and a sort of spell-breaking occurrence leading to his conflict with the world around him. And in the world of We sex is regulated by a Foucault-ian panoptic world of glass apartments. Physical connections can only be made by submitting a coupon that allows for the shades to be dropped and privacy to exist. Sadly, sex is both a liberator and a destroyer for D-503. It creates the potential in him to be human, rather than a logical robot, but it also creates such great conflict that he cannot recover and ultimately guides himself and the small group of rebels to their downfall.

The classic Vonnegut story "Welcome to the Monkey House," from the short story collection of same name, tells of a society with government-enforced euthanasia to prevent overpopulation, and controlled procreation. The "ethical suicide parlors" are staffed by beautiful, young virgin women, whose job it is to administer death (and make death seem more attractive). In a typically sardonic Vonnegut plot, Billy the Poet is the anti-hero who takes it upon himself to take the virginity of each of the young girls working for the government. While Billy considers his work to be the ultimate form of resistance against the government, circumventing their sexually oppressive laws, it is also very clearly an act of repeated rape. Vonnegut stops short of making anyone appear to be right or wrong, and just lets the story unfold. And when Billy leaves a bottle of birth control pills with Nancy after raping her we are left to the idea that sexuality may continue despite its oppression, though at a disturbing cost. What is clear, though, is that as I-330 and Julia used sex as a way to tap potential humanity within D-503 and Winston, respectively, Billy is attempting to do the same. There is a huge difference between seduction and rape, and clearly Vonnegut has that contrast in mind. What is clear, though, is that another dystopian society was conceived as one without sex. And sex itself, again, became a primary device in undermining that society.

But there are two interesting and notable contrasting examples. One comes from the well-known Brave New World, in which the World State encourages sexual activity from a young age, and it is no longer a means of reproduction, but simply a social pleasure. Aldous Huxley seems to be circumventing the standard dystopian meme, but it's notable that by encouraging and making unlimited the sexual act, it loses its value too. No one attains any sort of feeling of individualism from sex, or anything else for that matter. Huxley's pseudo-protagonist, John, comes from a world where sexuality is directly-related to individualism. John ties love and sex together, humanity and sex are one-to-one. And when (spoiler alert!) John commits suicide while in the society of the World State it is because his person-hood has been stolen from him. It is not merely his sexuality that is stolen, but the value of sex (relationship, love, and family, too) has been reduced to zero, and he is the only person who sees existence differently. Again, sex plays an instrumental role in the text, though instead of a resistance against oppression it is one of the principle instruments of oppression. When sex is reduced to mere animal action, it no longer confirms existence and becomes intangible.

Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is not entirely a dystopian novel. It is primarily the story of the struggles of two half-brothers against the troubles of modern society. One brother Michel feels infinitely detached from humanity, and cannot know love or even pleasure, while Bruno is plagued by his sexuality to the point of obsession. All of these struggles highlight the importance of sex as a defining aspect in humanity. Both men are wrought by it in different ways, but it is the central hub to an enjoyable life. Houellebecq's strange denouement, which turns fully dystopian, shows how Michel's genetic research has been twisted to create world where natural procreation is no longer necessary, and sex is merely action. The created people of the future even lose interest in sex entirely and are presented (in retrospective journalistic style) to be the highest form of the human animal. The irony, of course, is that despite Michel's detachment, he seems to genuinely wish he could love and lust. And Bruno, for whom sex is a plague of mind, finds true love through it, and loses his mind when that love is taken from him. Here again, sex is the key to humanity as we know it, and the disturbing society presented in the novel's final pages present a robotic society that is "free" only from passion.

Sex is clearly a surrogate for human passion, the drive that motivates us to create and want and desire and live fully. For any dystopian fascist regime to take hold, we must first let go of our passions completely. Even though passion can haunt us and cause us terrible pain, it is also where all art comes from, and the wellspring from which love rises. Each of the examples above utilized the control of human sexuality as a greater control of the population. Taking sex away takes away our most pure and intimate form of expression, regardless of the numerous problems it can create in an ordered world. And that it would arise as a common theme in this genre of political-philosophical texts is telling. The greatest form of oppression is the oppression of the body, which is in turn the oppression of desire, love and creativity. Living in our bodies is one of the simplest and purest pleasures we have the luxury to easily access, and the mandated-withholding of that pleasure is a step toward a frightening future.
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MGMT - Congratulations (pre-release stream)

This age of digital media and social networking doesn't lend itself to patience. Waiting for things has become so old fashioned that we often can't get through a day without the instant gratification of looking up a fact in question or downloading instantly the album (or song) we just heard via radio or a friend's device. Since no band desires to fall behind, restricted by release dates and touring sales of new albums, we find that many albums become available through streams or download long before the physical prints have left the press. There's also the consistent and harrowing issue that many new albums leak via hacking or other "errors" well before they come out. Radiohead's In Rainbows leaked early prompting the band to give it away, and even Googling the term "albums leaked 2008 (2009, etc.)" garners mostly demands for leaked albums. Is it pure desire to be the first to hear this music? Or is it the drive to get more things for free via the internet? Either way, it has motivated artists to stream their albums in full, before or just post leak, to prevent the shit from hitting the proverbial fan. By doing so, content is even more clearly owned by its creators, which should, and I mean should lead to potential leakers to reconsider their abuses. In a way, anyone who sees a band live before their new release has received the same music, but for all the blah blah record company stuff involved, it's a heavy-handed Robin Hood argument. Surely, once the album is out, pirating it is an act of grabbing up the available digital content that can also be sold, but when you start snagging music before it has even come out, that seems less "little guy v. big guy" and more "opportunists v. bands."

But, I digress. All of this comes up because MGMT is currently streaming their new album (in the present form anyway... Wouldn't the best surprise be to leak an album you never meant to release? Something comprised of alternate mixes and b-sides or c-sides? Only to bring out the real thing as a kind of artistic prodding of the thieving bear.) at WHOISMGMT.com. They readily admit that the album leaked, somehow, and that while they'd like to just give it away, "that didn't make sense to anyone but us," read: Sony didn't like the free-music idea. Instead, it's streaming there, currently nine tracks long. As a preview, and perhaps not the final form (perhaps my conjecture wants more mystery than exists in the music industry), the album is very good, but completely different from 2007's Oracular Spectacular. This new album Congratulations is mostly '60s power and dream pop homage with several hints of overwrought '80s synthesizer. It is distinctly MGMT, but also distinctly a resistance to previous pigeonholing. Where Oracular was about dealing with the existential crises of growing up and acknowledging that we aren't all going to be famous stars like we've long hoped, Congratulations is a more personal, directly sincere and vulnerable album. MGMT clearly seems to be taking things back to basics. There are less sprawling tracks with over-over-over-dubbed sound and vocals. Often, the music is articulate and simple, even sad, relying more heavily on guitars and simple drums with only the occasional electronic garnishes. And many of the tracks feel like drifting in space, a sort of non-place, where Oracular felt so rooted in the physical, living, wanting, needing, dancing, growing, being, this new direction feels like it is made of thoughts and concepts, feelings, passing knowledge.

What hasn't changed is the elaborate way some simple sounds intermingle to create something that feels dense, if distant. While the vocals often feel far away, as if the words are fighting to get close to the listener, but all the music won't let them, the music doing the blocking always beautiful. There are flutes, organs, and all the accoutrement of a baroque pop band present here, so maybe that's what MGMT is this time around. (And there's a distinct Belle and Sebastian vibe happening, unless I'm mistaken.) Congratulations doesn't have any clear hits, but "Siberian Breaks" and "Flash Delirium" provide a lot of quality shoe-gazey moments. "Brian Eno" is a solid, if monotonous piece of driving lyrical homage. Congratulations is going to be a great, if extremely different, follow-up to MGMT's 2007 success, but they might lose a few fans seeking more of the same. Check it out, and maybe it will be like this when it comes out. Either way, I'll be picking up a copy.
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The 101st Post: Media Love

So here we are: the 101st post in this space. I've talked music, movies, comics, books, philosophy, crudely assembled metaphors and so much more. I have also waxed about my life, and any of you who have read those posts, or at least kindly tolerated them, are forever on my "I owe you a cathartic recompense" list. Having started everything in December of 2008, I almost can't believe it has been more than a year. Every week I sit down with this space once or twice and grind out my thoughts about a new release of awesome sound, or the chaotic revision of a book to film, and it doesn't seem like time passes at all. Writing in this space is my passion, at least one of them. And I really want to thank anyone reading now, or ever before (or after) for taking that time. As much as I write for myself, I also hope sincerely to create something for everyone who loves media, with an independent voice, free of the administration and market-concern that controls (to some extent at least) the greater internet. Certainly so much of my writing and passion owes itself as much to the creations I discuss as to sites like the A.V. Club and Pitchfork, both of which churn out incredible amounts of content beyond the reach of an individual. I just hope that I can provide some new insight they do not. So, again, most sincerely, thank you to my readers. Many of you are my friends, people with whom I've shared great moments, and those of you that don't know me, please understand that I am indebted to you for your readerly patronage. There is no play without the audience, after all.

Since I've been at this for long time, I want to talk about why music, movies, books and comics are so special. I have been thinking about this for awhile, and I think it comes down to joy. Listening to a favorite album is something that cannot be destroyed or complicated. The same goes for books, movies and comics. Sure, the associations we hold with a certain material can change and we all grow and our tastes change, but it seems that once we reach a certain age, say, arbitrarily, 25, we all know what we like and the reason we like it is because of that empowering, butterfly feeling we get with each experience. It's like falling in love every time we hear a new song that hits us just right. Or reading a truly satisfying piece of literary gravitas. That feeling can never be sullied by time or experience. It is the purest aspect of human experience, and something that seems so much more fleeting as we leave childhood toward adulthood. Even the most cynical and elitist fan among us cannot deny that almost every band has written one incredible song. Every author one incredible sentence. Loving the whole of a body of work, or even a complete album or novel isn't a deal breaker for that feeling. And while we often feel, in retrospect, silly for liking a band we liked when we were 15 or 16, we can still remember the way we felt the first time we heard their music. Art, in all its forms, is purely enjoyable. That's a special, undeniably unique thing in this world. One that we should always embrace.

Consider how many emotions art can mine from our sometimes stony cores. No matter how jaded we become to the world, these things provide pure emotion. A song can make you feel like taking on the world, or sitting solemnly beside the bed in the dark. A song can alter your thinking completely, lifting you from sorrow or reminding you of the insignificance of life. So much of how we feel and think and exist comes from the sounds and words and images around us. Often, it does not matter what is happening in life, in the real, present, visceral existence, when art can provide so many angles on an individual topic. We experience great catharsis through art, whether we create it or observe or analyze it. It is, or at least can be, the purest catharsis. When trouble has its hold on your mind or heart, music can lift you out when friends may not. We all have comfort films that we turn to in times of worry. Art, I think, provides us the perfect love, when all we need is time with our minds and hearts, and solitude. But art is also so much more because it is the perfect communal centerpiece too. Music, live, with friends, is phenomenal. Discussing a book with a group is the key to free-form expression and philosophical discovery. Art and media are purity, much like dogs, and don't demand your affection in return, but offer so much. That's why I write in this space. That's why I love books and music and comics and film. All this pure love, projected out into the world, for everyone to share, is something for which we can all be thankful.
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Watch the Sunrise: Goodbye, Alex Chilton

This is the 100th post on Gas Lantern, and I wish I was writing about something happier. Yesterday, at age 59, Alex Chilton formerly of Big Star and The Boxtops passed away. He was never a big name, never achieved arguably deserved stardom, but he was responsible for some of the greatest and influential blues/rock songs of the '60s and '70s. The Boxtops had their famous hit "The Letter," which I remember listening to on car rides with my parents when I was a child, specifically as the relieving good song on the radio driving from Dulles Airport up to my grandparents house in Delaware. Chilton then moved on to join with Chris Bell in Big Star, composing several legitimate handfuls of pop perfection. From their debut #1 Record we were graced with "The Ballad of El Goodo," "In The Street" (later the theme for That '70s Show as covered by Cheap Trick) and "Thirteen," one of the most beautiful, honest and simple love songs ever (covered numerous times, and famously by Elliott Smith). Beyond even those bigger name songs, Big Star graced listeners with three near-perfect albums before disbanding.

Big Star's music, the combined genius of Chilton and Bell (now both, sadly gone from this world) influenced R.E.M., Wilco, Matthew Sweet, The Replacements and surely a litany of other great bands of greater acclaim. And Big Star influenced me. My band, a short-lived foursome in 2005 - 2006, covered Big Star's "The Ballad of El Goodo" and their albums provided me strength during a tough time in my life. "Watch the Sunrise" from #1 Record particularly reminds me of a night that the combination of good times, consoling times and confusing times never lead me to bed. Instead, I sat on the floor of my apartment, next to the sliding door of my porch and listened to the song as the sun came up through the cool, damp summer air. It was one of purest, satisfied and peaceful moments of my life. And while nature surely played a part, hearing Chilton's music and feeling its inherent comfort for the lost, loving and existentially-in-crisis. The layers to these songs, creating an elegant musical tapestry, but also a divinely sincere network of real emotions make them timeless. Alex Chilton's contribution to music will never be forgotten. I just wish that he had received the admiration he deserved while he was alive. Rest in peace, Mr. Chilton. Now you can watch the sunrise from an infinite vantage point.

There will be a more celebratory post commemorating 100, or at least 101, next time. Go listen to Big Star, please.
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Ted Leo covers Tears For Fears

Something great has happened. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists has covered Tears For Fears. It's the brilliant '80s cover we were all hoping for, and I feel compelled to link it up here. I've always loved a good cover, but even more so a cover that shows self-awareness and humanity in a band. This video does both and reinvigorates an old song with new life. You can check out all the upcoming covers at the A.V. Club. by hitting up here: http://www.avclub.com/articles/introduction-to-av-undercover,38989/. It's proof that Starbucks can do good things. I'll be checking back and you should too.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists cover Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"
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Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks

There were loads of bright spots in Ted Leo's 2007 album Living with the Living, but after the near-perfection of Hearts of Oak and Shake the Sheets, those spots seemed sort of overwhelmed, like a candle in the sun. Great tracks like "Colleen," "Bottle of Buckie," and the epic "The Toro and the Toreador" couldn't lift the album out of a feeling that it was overfull. There was just too much music packed into one album, with dub tracks and the anti-war anthem "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb." feeling almost out of place. When I read first reviews of The Brutalist Bricks many other reviewers gave demerits because the album felt less produced and somewhat regressive. But rather than call those characteristics failings, I applaud them. Ted Leo plays notoriously exceptional live shows. It's loud, powerful, driving music that makes you want to jump around and sign up to canvass Republican neighborhoods to try and create social change. But most of all, the music is fun, hook-laden and grinding. He and the Pharmacists always seem to churn out well-balanced albums that combine their power chord pummeling strengths with the more subtle, calming and beautiful acoustic stuff. Living with the Living did too many things outside of those strengths, and The Brutalist Bricks wonderfully brings all of those strengths back.

A pleasing, shorter 41 minutes ushers The Brutalist Bricks in and out of your stereo without providing a lot of breaks. The opener "The Mighty Sparrow" feels like a classic pulled from Leo's earlier work with it's strong guitar hook, potent lyrics and up-tempo excellence. "Mourning in America" follows with a stylish, bass-heavy, drum-driven protest of political failure and the setbacks that Reagan (among others) thrust upon the country. "Ativan Eyes," which may well be the best track on the album rails against the drug industry. As you see, it's classic Ted Leo. There's a lot of frustration and anguish and action and protest rolled into a pleasing stew of rock and roll. And every song on The Brutalist Bricks is catchy, despite the overwhelmingly heavy subject matter pervading the album. Only "The Stick" is intentionally abrasive as a means of promoting the songs idea: The government wants you following tiny dreams, like getting groceries and buying things so you don't have the means or wherewithal to question bigger things. The sweet, more pop-centric "Bottled Up Cork" provides a moments rest, with a sweet, repetitive outro thick with drunken thoughts of love. (Even when Ted Leo is falling in love, he's drunk and sad about life and station...) The most surprising song, though is "Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop" that rides acoustic guitar and a distinctly retro feel until ending with only the sound of crickets. It's clear that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are still just as experimental as they were with Living with the Living, but the execution feels so much more palatable this way.

I've been talking about the way albums are reviewed a lot lately, usually around the end of my own review. I am trying to maintain the necessary self-awareness, so please excuse any sort of self-indulgent banality that follows. When an album like this one comes out, many critics begrudge it for not continuing the advance that was started on the previous album, but when a band does continue the advance, there seems to be an equal number of writers who can't grasp the dramatic change. I think that it's a trap, really. Sometimes, regressions are the best thing that can happen to a band. I think anyone who has listened to a Rolling Stones album since 1980 would attest to that. But, whether advancement or regression are even fair terms is another issue completely. Should an artist just create as their life and creative impulses drive them to? Do we all operate linearly, growing either definitely better or worse at something until we reach a point of plateau? I think, and that you'd agree, the answers are yes and no, respectively. Nothing in life really goes linearly (unless it's mathematics... and even then). Creativity comes in waves, and yes without practice, it never gets any more advanced, but that doesn't mean it doesn't get better. Love goes this way too. It doesn't necessarily go the way you expect, or want, or work hard to make happen, but that doesn't sully the experience, and it certainly doesn't mean that there's no additional reason to try. Were our lives critiqued as we do with our artists, many of us would stop creating and loving and learning altogether. And with The Brutalist Bricks we see that Ted Leo still has the drive and power to write a potent, angry, erudite album, whether it looks like the last album, or jumps off from it at all doesn't really matter. In just the same way that one relationship cannot be compared to the other, we kill ourselves with expectations. Ted Leo has returned, better than ever, and as good as always.
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The Ruby Suns - Fight Softly

Let's start with honesty. I didn't know who The Ruby Suns were until about 3 weeks ago. My buddy Dusty who works at the Starbucks I frequent during one of my up to three coffee runs per day (Yes, it's a disgusting addiction, and yet I embrace it like a koala embraces a eucalyptus tree trunk... also, koalas technically get a little high every time they eat their dietary staple--hence the big, dilated eyeballs.) first told me about them because they're performing live at the Hi-Dive in Denver in April. My first investigations of the band were of an in-passing style, I just checked their work out online, but didn't fully absorb it. But, luckily, on one of my near-weekly record store trips, I found both their highly-rated 2008 release Sea Lion and the new Fight Softly. Over the course of a couple of evenings' listening sessions I took a crash course in The Ruby Suns. Their high-stylized electro-pop has some parts Vampire Weekend, some parts Hot Chip and some parts Pet Shop Boys, with even a sprinkling of Animal Collective (accessible Animal Collective specifically). It's fun, dance-inducing, funky, sometimes African-inspired pop music that can be effectively wispy and memorable.

Really, Sea Lion is the more grossly enjoyable album. It feels innovative and exciting. Each new track diverts just enough from the last that the whole disc feels alive. The Ruby Suns created something special that was brand new in 2008, it didn't try to emulate MGMT, but brought its own fluttering, beat-driven style. So, after listening to Sea Lion I took a crack at Fight Softly, which is definitely the inferior album of the two, but only fractionally so. Fight Softly throws a lot more synthesizer into the mix, giving it a never overbearing '80s vibe. The problem lies in Sea Lion's virtue. Fight Softly is good, but it doesn't sport a lot of variation. The tracks blend together a bit, and that makes the album travel by quickly with less resonance. The great albums always seem to pique interest at every turn. Look at Radiohead's OK Computer or Kid A, or even Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM. Those albums are fueled by diversity. Each song is linked more by the band that's playing it rather than merely the sound. I guess it's a matter of getting too tied up in a gimmick. And I know I just said the synthesizer is good. It definitely adds a strong tone and quality, but it may have overwhelmed the creativity just the same.

Regardless, The Ruby Suns are worth a look. I'm always thankful for friends sharing their musical interests with me. And as I grow older I realize that all those lines I drew in the audio sand (no country, no rap, no etc., etc.) were completely arbitrary. Good music is good regardless of the way it exists. The Ruby Suns are a great dance-electro-pop indie band, and they have at least shown the ability and interest in experimentation that prevents a laundry list of mediocre albums following a single good one. Even if I don't like Fight Softly as much as I do Sea Lion, I can respect their attempt at something thematically greater. One is an 8 and the other a 6, but both have their merit. No one's failing this class this semester.
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The Most Awesome Protagonist

Being a Denverite, a Coloradoan, a Mile-High Club member (anyone who has lived at this altitude is, after all) I'm not fully familiar with the Bay Area music scene, but I will boast that I know good music when I hear it. Recently, I linked to three songs by Oakland/San Francisco's The Most Awesome Protagonist, a band led by Mikey O'Connor in various iterations since 2006. The current line-up includes Aaron Goeth (drums/vocals) and Sarah Mammel (vocal and "tiny instruments"). I may not be qualified to speak to the band's growth, or the changes in sound over time, but this lo-fi pseudo-post-punk-indie version sounds full, talented and full of potential. In just three songs, The Most Awesome Protagonist gives us a very clear Clark Kent-Superman act (or if you prefer Peter Parker-Spider-Man) by showing both a raucous, party-centric booze-addled side and a quiet, mournful sincerity that function in appealing and effective contrast. The product of this phone booth mood change is a litany of impressive compositional moments, and some truly exceptional new music.

And now, the songs, in the order they appear on the band's REVERBNATION page:

"We Danced In All The Bars" plays up O'Connor's raspy, potent and dour vocalization (he could be a dead ringer for Paul Westerberg) mixed with in a rocking song of reminiscence that overflows with accordion wails in a dirge. Powerful drum work follows, pummeling the lyrics and persistent guitar maintains a driving pace. And then, a beautiful harmony-infused bridge loads on the sincerity and smooths things out for a bit, the perfect bit actually, before the rock returns and blasts through to the final note.

"Untimely Death Song" feels upbeat, but the lyrics (as the title might betray) are quite the opposite, as the words cry for help and compassion in a world of abandonment. O'Connor's wailing serves the chorus especially well, as he sounds genuinely lost, alone and helpless. The drum work keeps perfect pace, dropping back when the drama is necessary, and stellar backing vocals fill in any blanks. Any song that ends with the cry, "Don't let me die here all alone" and then fades to silence leaves me with a questions. What does that silence mean? Does it mean loneliness? Does it mean death? I might be reading too far in, but this is my favorite song of the three because of the sincerity, and because the song stops short of melodrama or droning on to the point of irony. It's the perfect amount of fear and death, and the silence afterward is essentially permanent.

"Try Another Day" is the Clark Kent track, loaded with ukulele and pristine harmonies. It's a song about finding the perfect person, and losing them, and looking again. It's the perfect outsider looking in song, for when we all feel paralyzed by the beauty right in front of us. And the song itself is so beautiful that it feels complete. It's not some singer-songwriter, whiskey soaked mumbler of a song, and that makes the repeat, sweet sentiments extremely palatable. The melodica solo at the end is a particularly graceful touch.

What I love about music is that it's part of our collective consciousness. We all hear it all the time and we all have a certain capacity to create. When a small group of songs like this (Can I call it a three's company of songs? I probably shouldn't.) shows so much diversity and complexity, while also showcasing a bands greatest strengths I think that's a pretty solid indicator that there are great things to come. Check out The Most Awesome Protagonist. This is a band to root for. We need new heroes.
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Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM

You should be listening to Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM right now. That's really it. The album is incredible, densely layered and brilliant every time you run through it. Gainsbourg's first release since 2006's 5:55, IRM functions as a beautiful aural victory lap. Every song is unique, some focusing on specific era and genre more than others, but they all knit into an intricate, hard-drumming-guitar-guided-synthy-digital quilt. Beck's hand (and vocals on "Heaven Can Wait") in the production of the album certainly enhances the product, and his influence is felt greatly in tracks like "IRM" and the Cash-esque freight train "Dandelion" (which actually folds in on itself until it becomes something altogether different. IRM is so impressive and refreshing because it refuses to be one thing or another, but excels at being all things at once. "Le Chat du Café des Artistes" pops into the album with dramatic, '60s style strings and a powerful looping echo to accompany Gainsbourg's beautiful French vocal. This high-drama homage to her father's work follows the "IRM" synth-folk and comes just before the delicate, acoustic throwback "In The End." And while on a lot of other albums, this kind of stylistic fluctuation might be unwelcome, Gainsbourg simply seems in the thick of a showcase. The best comparison would be to Super Furry Animals' Rings Around the World which runs the gamut stylistically, but lives by it rather than dying.

The variety! "Time of the Assassins" is a powerful britpop job, utilizing a distant harpsichord to build mystery and then cranks into rock excellence with every chorus, compositionally it feels like the best PJ Harvey or St. Vincent, with a heftier helping of '60s style. And then! "Trick Pony" drives you with chunky electric guitar, and heavy drums reminiscent of the most raucous Cat Power track. Even more! "Greenwich Mean Time" is a Euro-dance-pop anthem, funny, with witty lyrics that hold onto a self-awareness, while radio static and jingling guitar and synth fills complete the feeling. And all of this blends together seamlessly.

Every song is lush, and decorated, which I know some people find distracting, but it makes this album a true pleasure to listen to. The use of strings, and xylophone/vibraphone percussion with brass and woodwinds to fill in all the blanks lends the album a sense of permanence that's lost in an abyss. "Vanities" plays entirely to this vibe, and sits in the center of the album, almost an intermission or portal from one portion of existence to another. It's big, and complex, and droning and hollow and frightening in its sadness. But, it's so beautiful it cannot be resisted. The album feels that way, to me, as a whole. It isn't sad at all in its entirety, but it's irresistible. And for all the comparisons I've made through this post, they are all flattery. Charlotte Gainsbourg isn't aping any other great artist. No one else could have done this album this way. She's grown something of her own here. It's real and it's unique and infinitely enjoyable.

Apparently March is Gainsbourg month at Gas Lantern. Completely unplanned to be honest, but it sure makes it look like I know what I'm doing. Actually, I had been planning to write about Serge for a long time, and just finally got around to it. And then Charlotte's album was a must buy for me this weekend. I didn't know I'd be so immediately moved as to write about it so soon, but that's how good this album is. It's a 9 or a 4.7 or several pentagrams of listening pleasure.
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Underappreciated Music File: Serge Gainsbourg

Despite his broad and continuing influence on rock and indie music, Serge Gainsbourg probably isn't an artist most people would name alongside greats like The Beatles. Gainsbourg's facebook page has more than 50,000 fans, but considering that a briny cucumber wanting to best Nickelback has 1.5 million fans, the measurement is somewhat broken. The bulk of his fans are French, not surprising given that he is French and also directly responsible for bands like Air, and indie-darling Phoenix. But, is his lack of wider appeal due to the language barrier? Does a lack of complete understanding of the music make it any less valuable to a certain observer? The answers to me, after having listened for the last few months to Historie de Melody Nelson and Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg come out as yes, no (with a but).

Gainsbourg is known for the sexual, playful and quintessentially lustful nature of his music. He has numerous ballads that are more or less musical pick up lines so dripping in suave confidence that they're undeniable. But, he's not just a simple lounge singer either. And while there are elements of Sinatra/Martin-esque "cool-guy-in-a-tux" going on, Gainsbourg takes things further by forgoing the usual over-romanticism. Mix in amazing strings, brass, and funky '70s guitar riffs and suddenly there is a whole new sound spurting from your speakers. It's passionate, vibrant and physical music. And despite feeling completely grounded in the corporeal the music is very certainly intellectual. And it's all in French. I'll admit. I don't speak French fluently. I've always wanted to, but never got around to learning. It's a beautiful language, with a unique flow, like a river of molasses. Gainsbourg takes full advantage of that linguistic trait, whispering many lyrics and using his not entirely great singing voice to effect sexuality.

Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg's wife and mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, contributed heavily to that sexuality. On Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg, track one is a song most of us have heard at one point or another "Je t'aime... moi non plus" in which Birkin and Gainsbourg trade whispers of love and lust, which turn to moans and ultimately culminate in Birkin mimicking orgasm. Historie de Melody Nelson, released in 1971, tells a Nabokovian tale about an older man falling for a young girl, running away with her. Both of these albums are undeniably amazing, combining pop, jazz, big band, funk, rock, choral and art. Gainsbourg succeeds in creating quick, catchy, playful pop music, and shows an even greater aptitude with long, droning, acid-rock. "Cargo Culte" from Melody Nelson uses heavy bass lines and a choir to create a dreamy, infinite quality culminating the entire album's story perfectly. Gainsbourg has more than 20 LPs and some live albums, but still he is not tightly seated with other greats from his various eras (late '50s to '80s).

And mostly it's because he's French. The majority of Americans don't enjoy listening to things they don't understand. Even a classic rock station wouldn't add Gainsbourg to the playlist because the music wasn't played enough when it was new to have a large following, so instead his work becomes valuable to the music archivist/historian. The trick for me is that most of the time I don't understand all the lyrics to a song in English the first few times through, and yet I am capable of enjoying it. It's not because I know I can understand it fully, but just that it's incredible music. And that seems to be an important lesson about art, and everything else for that matter. We don't need to understand something completely to enjoy it and appreciate it (I'm looking at you Lost fans). So often greatness is in brief successes, that one riff that tugged at your heart, or the drum line that motivated you to get out of bed. Understanding is overrated, but, unfortunately Serge Gainsbourg is underrated. Seek him out. Listen. And just absorb.
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