Miles Fisher - Miles Fisher

Miles Fisher self-produced his self-titled EP Miles Fisher and released it in 2009, but he is perhaps best known (and most notoriously known) as the actor portraying Tom Cruise in the horrendous parody film Superhero Movie. Recently, my friend Alexis guided me Fisher's cover of the Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place" via a YouTube video. The video is a parody/homage of the 2000 Christian Bale film American Psycho that is brilliant both in its admiration and attention to details about the cult classic, and in Fisher's almost scarily identical portrayal of Bale's Patrick Bateman character. But, the song itself, a cover of a sweet/knowingly-naive track, is absolutely exceptional. It's a head turner, and an instant classic as a re-imagining. Overall, Fisher has created one of the most compelling video/song combos in recent years. Both syncing the film's content to the song's lyrics, but also maintaining the artistic merit of the track even with a little techno-style airbrushing.

And that led me to track down Fisher's complete EP through his website. Unfortunately, the originals aren't quite what the cover is. The three other tracks "Don't Let Go," "What We Know," and "Half A Beer Left" are all musically solid. Fisher has a strong grasp of melody and the layers of sound that comprise a great song. They all sound like mid-beat indie rock classics. The chorus refrains are musically brilliant, catchy and delightful, but Fisher fails in the lyrics. These words, all completely serviceable, but also cliche and boy-band-pop saccharine let the music down. Especially in comparison to the incredible cover that ends the set. What exists in Miles Fisher is a vision of potential, rather than a cohesive success. Fisher's voice is solid, but all the pieces just don't fall into place as well as they could. His best is "What We Know," which has the most interesting sound, a combination of synth, electronic and plucking guitar strings, also has the most honest and universal lyrics. Like I said, this EP is about potential. Still, do yourself a favor and watch the cover video, and download the EP (it's free at the AmieSt link on Fisher's website). And here's to good music.

Score: 6/10
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Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

I'll admit my ignorance up front. I haven't heard all of Janelle Monae's first part of the four part Suites series: an EP called Metropolis (props to my buddy Garrick for what I have heard), but if that short-play is anything remotely as incredible as her new full-length debut The ArchAndroid then I have more record shopping to do. Monae's voice carries an album loaded with inventive, fascinating pop-soul-R&B hybrid fantasy storytelling. Over 18 sprawling tracks, Monae blends classical, soul, pop and disco seamlessly. What's created is a dramatic, wild and innovative dystopia wherein Monae represents an android seeking freedom and purpose. And what happens is a dynamic, sometimes absurd but always enjoyable collection of dance-inducing music.

Admittedly, all the genre-bending is the most striking part of the album's allure. It's at once complicated because you're not quite sure where to find your listener's footing, and the attractive aspect that keeps the music interesting. The opening track "Suite II Overture" is a flat out classic, hyper-dramatic musical theater symphony piece. And it fades directly into (with excellently placed audience claps) to "Dance Or Die," a song that features poet Saul Williams and drops directly into dance, hip-hop territory. In two tracks, at the inception of the album, it's already shown itself to have two completely different faces. The third song "Faster" manages to speed up and calm the themes from track two, holding down the fort (so to speak) so that album begins to feel more cohesive. It becomes a driving pop record that makes references to Roberta Flack, that's now about a chase. We've left the theater and now we're running. This is the story aspect of The ArchAndroid. Then, "Locked Inside" is more of a traditional funky soul song. The beat drops back and we're reminded strongly of Lauren Hill in her prime. For me, the highlights of the album are "Cold War" (an anthem about independence and loneliness), driven by drums, wailing guitar solos and quickly clattering cymbals, and "Tightrope," which enlists Big Boi and has a funky jazz vibe. Then there's the '60s-esque singer-songwriter folk track "Oh, Maker." And the sweet and catchy "Wondaland." It's dynamic all the time. Everything is change. Everything is transition.

Really, Janelle Monae is a pure talent who has an incredible vision about the ways musical genres interact and play off of one another. There are no boundaries here. Jazz, rock, funk, soul, rap, and classical all coexist and rely upon one another. Monae's voice is incredible and reliable, and she takes each of these classes of sound and puts her own mark on each, never seeming out of place or strained. Historically, all of music has proven itself to blend and morph, and Monae is just showing that transition in fast-motion, high-speed camera style. All creativity leads to more creativity. And we can pay all our respects to classical musicians for making music a social gathering, to jazz, blues and rock for giving The People a voice, and dance music for tapping into both traditional ritual and our social need for bonding and the collective. And as a result, The ArchAndroid captures your imagination and demands your attention throughout. Janelle Monae is a rare and wonderful talent and this album is a must have.

Score: 9.5/10
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Notable Text: Blindness

Portuguese genius-author Jose Saramago published Blindness way back in 1995 (1997 for the English translation) and just about immediately won a Nobel Prize in Literature. That award is both slightly surprising and completely warranted. At its heart Blindness is a triumphant work of complexly composed fiction designed to gather together all of the boundless fears of the modern human (at least those of us in the cultivated security of Western society), but its also a bit of a gruesome torture porn given context in reality with anecdotal asides. It is a complicated read, one that has its own disorienting, and blinding style. Saramago takes care to keep text full on every page. The reader's eyes never get a break, not for dialogue, not for parenthetical statements. Instead, every page, with the exception of the blank spaces where chapters begin and end, is text-laden, like a mule carrying as much weight as its back can bear up a tall mountain. In this way, the novel is interactive. You will, in a sense, go blind attempting to read it. And the manner in which all of those words are delivered, undaunted, almost torturous, gives the book a mind of its own.

The characters, all protagonists held a minor distance, but still very intimate, are unnamed. They are distinguished only by a characteristic such as the Man with the black eye patch, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with the dark glasses. Saramago wants them to be "every-people" and in a way they are, but in another way they are safely distanced from the reader, a reminder that the occurrences within the text are fictional, but that they could happen and these are the types of people who would be there, as we all ultimately recognize people first by looks, then by other aspects of their character. Because Blindness follows these people through the most horrible possible imaginable situations, the characters become our traveling companions, and to some extent our friends. We, as readers, can understand their reactions, their inner workings because they are left defined only so much as to make us think they could easily be each of us, in a different time and place. So, with that attachment, and through it, we are thrust powerfully into a world that falls apart when suddenly everyone, it seems, can no longer see.

The blindness in Blindness is a white one, which is as is confirmed in the books conclusion, something of a holy blindness. The loss of sight reduces the people in the unnamed city and state to animals. First, they are contained in an abandoned mental hospital, frightened and made less secure by decaying conditions and the fear that those who were not yet blind would catch blindness by helping any of the "ill." This is the fear that causes prejudice and violence, and Saramago embraces the metaphor broadly. But, even when the people are no longer at ill ease due to their protector/captors, Saramago points out that humanity is inherently evil. Rape, robbery, extortion and murder all take place as average people in an un-average situation are forced to cope and struggle for survival. Slowly, the blindness causes all the morality to seep from everyone and in a variety of asides Saramago flippantly, but also judgingly comments of his disastrous menagerie. In a way, Saramago's narrator is God. Commenting and observing the collapse of his creation when forced into a difficult situation.

But, "God" has a chosen savior too. The doctor's wife is the only one who never succumbs to the blindness. There is nothing notable about her, virginal or anything like that, but she is ceaselessly helpful and strong (enduring the view of decaying human beings wallowing in their own defecation and urine). She is the "Jesus" of the tale. She is meant to lead, and she does, but for the most part like a scientist performing a study: distanced and only intervening when necessary. Eventually, when she reveals to her companions that she can and always could see, she becomes their guardian in full, finding them food and shelter, but also cursed to see the world around her. In this way she is as endowed with glory and doomed to suffer as the biblical Jesus. While her job is to save mankind, in a small dose, she is also tortured by the destruction, violence and sadness around her. And after everything the doctor's wife guides her unnamed internees through she receives no reward. She, like many women throughout film and literature, is forced to suffer to a questionable and unclear end. But, Saramago doesn't stop his biblical parable merely with implication. He drives the concept home when the doctor's wife visits a cathedral to find all of the saints and statues with covered eyes. The religious implication is unavoidable then, as God has truly and vividly forsaken his people, left even his representatives in their world sightless. It's a staggering image, sad and weighty, but also apt because it clarifies the point of this white blindness, which seems to have been in a way a trial of the doctor's wife and a test of humanity.

When the blindness evaporates to close the book, there is relief from all those inflicted, but reflection doesn't take as great a forefront. Instead, only the doctor's wife, whose eyes never betrayed her, is the only one to consider the implications and to wish for a moment that she too had lost her vision. In all of its violence, horror and complexity, Blindness doesn't force a point so much as throw the weight of a societies suffering onto the shoulders of one woman. Does that mean that Saramago hates women? Or the doctor's wife specifically? I don't think so. Any tale of suffering requires a neutral party, someone who can and must step up to save those (s)he loves. In this case, Saramago uses the doctor's wife as a device, both to generate a strong a perspective in the story and to give the reader the eyes we need to really understand any of it, but also to demonstrate the way that heroes/heroines aren't always magical or safe or sure. Sometimes perseverance is all we have. And beyond that there's doubt.

When the film adaptation came out in 2008, I was traveling down 16th Street in Denver and saw a mass protest by blind persons from around the state objecting to the idea that blindness is a sickness or a disease. It is clear, that having read the book, that those protesters did not. While Saramago often falls into a lot of foolish asides about blindness being an ailment that makes fools and brutes of people, Blindness is not about accentuating loss of sight as the reason why people turn to their most animal, instead that darkness is inside all of us, and this (blindness) is one of the ways in which a single alteration to our experience can completely our humanity for the worse. So on that uplifting note, take solace in the way that our perceptions of our world keep us in line because if they suddenly change everything about us and all we know can change too.
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The National - High Violet

Ever since my first listen to The National's 2005 masterpiece Alligator the band has resonated with me in every aspect of my life. The youthful confusion and feelings of fulfilled unfulfillment that flow through the lyrics, the sorrow and matter-of-fact battles between realities and dream states that drive these conversational pieces of music make it feel ultimately timeless. Matt Berninger's vocals, so velvety, dark, and drenched in whiskey and rain carry all of the lyrical sentiments perfectly. And Alligator was an excellent showcase of the band, what they wanted, what they could be, and how we were to understand them. That album was like a Rosetta Stone. And it was incredible, through and through. Songs like "Secret Meeting," "Lit Up" and "City Middle" drove an album about unrest, hope, failure and finally closed with a song of redemption (and disappointment) with "Mr. November." Then, Boxer came out in 2007, and brought sparser weight and darkness, lacking the the hard rocking anthems of its predecessor. I liked (and like) quiet a bit, but I don't love it, not like I do Boxer not like I do Alligator, but perhaps that's as much a result of the love-at-first-listen issue as with the dour nature of the album. Regardless, knowing that 2010 meant a highly touted new album from The National was coming held me in stitches, as if this were a sort of New Christmas. And what I can tell you, after picking up my copy and listening, is that a lot has changed since Boxer, but with High Violet a lot remains the same.

More dynamic, lush and dramatic than Boxer, finding a spot that shows maturity beyond Alligator, but still tied securely to the early work, High Violet is an album with full sound, looping echoes and distant cries (and occasionally, drums that sound like distant helicopter rotors). The National are unmistakable in their style, one where even when the pace increases, the sense of urgency is built more greatly into the lyrics than into the music. Things burn slowly on High Violet like the works that came before it, but this time it feels like the fuel for that fire has changed from a campfire (Alligator) or a slowly dying cigarette (Boxer) to a sort of quiet forest fire. Don't mistake my strange metaphor. This new album isn't louder or more domineering, but the world it embodies is larger, and just as wrought with doubt and passion as those worlds before. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a prime example of the vastness of the album, where lyrics like "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees" are at the forefront of an aptly buzzing guitar and drums that build and build while never attempting dominance. Everything is forceful, but restrained, reluctant. The song also features the late-twenties loan-driven life lines, "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/I never thought about love/When I thought about home." This is what The National are about, that disconnect of life and expectation, of what we think should be broad strokes of success and are often just small battles to keep our heads above water, in lifestyle and in emotion.

Granted, The National can also come off as pretentious and lacking lyrical direction. Their words are rarely stories in themselves, with beginnings, climaxes, and denouement. Instead, the songs are written as pieces of stories, snapshots of thoughts and moods. Short of calling it stream of consciousness in some vague Woolf comparison, I'll say this: Life is all snapshots. When we look back we don't see the whole story, we never remember the middling days, the moments where mania was tamed and desperation appeased. We remember the moments that make us want, ever so briefly, to die, to escape, and to alter our courses completely like drifting ships at sea. We remember the passionate moments where two bodies connect, or the rage or fizzle of two bodies parting ways. And because memory, because life, works this way, as a poorly assembled scrapbook of moods pasted to tear- and sun-soaked paper The National works. High Violet doesn't feel like Alligator, but for me, I don't think any other album could. And it doesn't need to be anything but what it is: a self-aware album of lush, beautiful songs applied in brushstrokes to a wasteland canvas.

Score: 9.5/10
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Words On Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson is one of those directors best described simply with a repetition of his name. Wes Anderson is Wes Anderson. His style embodies a mix of experimentation, minimalist dialog, aged, yet timeless design and a smooth, artistic, but completely self-aware fictional world. His expressively incomparable. And righteously strange. And the way that his films succeed so well at taking themselves seriously (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, specifically) while also embracing their inherent madness makes him the ideal director to tackle a work by renowned author and creator of strangeness, Roald Dahl. Dahl created worlds that were as out of place and timeless with words as Anderson has with images. And Dahl's focus on realistic characters appearing in absurd situations lends a nearly infinite amount of freedom to an animated film. I realize that I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox about 8 months too late. It has been around, floating in the NetFlix-ian ether for some time, and it only came to me via my friend Garrick who started talking it up so greatly that I couldn't imagine not watching it.

And so, I did. The film follows a basic plot, the story of the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney), his wife (Meryl Streep), and his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), as Mr. Fox tries first to overcome his animal instincts to be a good father (by taking a job as a newspaper columnist) and then lapses into a mid-fox-life crisis. Mr. Fox, wants to do one more giant thieving job by stealing chickens, geese and cider from three local, cartoonish farmers. And from there springs the conflict. It's a very basic conflict, wrought with near misses, rescues and silly schemes (and a brilliant final teamwork-saves-the-day battle). If you're looking for twists or narrative complexity, look elsewhere, and/or check those expectations in the coat room. Fantastic Mr. Fox lives and dies by two things: voice-work and visuals. The stop-motion animation does an excellent job of making up for dragging spots in the plot, and really visually the film is a triumph. The unique characters dressed in suits of tweeds and plaids and excellent use of props (from "bandit masks" to motorcycles) comprises a world that is somewhere in the early '30s or '40s, but perhaps just quaintly country enough to be from present day. And the backgrounds are vivid, sparse and at a key moment, perfectly expansive. Voice work drives the film. Wes Anderson has always excelled at getting great readings of wild lines, and his stellar cast gets it done here. George Clooney charms his way through the over-confident title character. Meryl Streep is a timeless voice of reason in a somewhat underutilized role. But Jason Schwartzman, as Ash, is the icing. He mumbles and downplays his way through a character who is a lovable weirdo with dreams of being an athlete. Bill Murray, Eric Chase Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Defoe, Owen Wilson and Wallace Wolodarsky also star. The voice-work lends itself to a lot of, "who's voice is that?" moments.

But the big undercurrent of the film is important to point out. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animals are all personified. They wear suits (or parts of suits), walk upright and have human jobs, and human-looking homes, but they never completely loose themselves from their animal nature. Anderson keeps this mostly subtle, and sometimes plays it for humor with creative shot design. These characters eat at tables, for instance, with silverware beside their plates, but always end up devouring their food quickly, with hands, and as messily as possible. And arguments among the characters, too, boil over into animalistic biting and scratching fests. What we see is that no matter how far away we try to get from our nature, we can't dodge who we are. It's why Mr. Fox wants to steal chickens again, and it's why Ash wants to be athletic. These animals can't resign themselves completely to a modern life of "human" activities. The kicker, and this is a SPOILER, is at the end of the film, when Mr. Fox, who has professed a fear of wolfs, stops his motorcycle and looks off into a mountainous, snowy distance to see a wolf, on all-fours, standing atop a rock and observing them as they pass. Mr. Fox never says why he's afraid of wolves, but in that moment, as the title character looks out to an animal still so full of animalness, we understand a bit more about the film and its conflicts. It's a very Dahl-esque moral. The further we go into being a civilized society, the more often we will look out and wish we were free. All of these jobs and organizations and buildings and modern conveniences mean we are out of touch with nature, and sacrificing our personal freedoms for a greater good. When the wolf waves to Mr. Fox, showing that the distance between civilized and animal is incredibly small, it's a bit of a penance. We make our choice to be "human" knowing full well that the wild is not too far away should we want to grasp it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fun film, certainly not the most exhilarating or most excitingly plotted, but it tells a quiet, timeless story about deciding to grow up, even when we never actually feel like it. The style is unique and unmistakable, and there are nuances of story and character that make it memorable.
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The Radio Dept. - Clinging To A Scheme

Sweden's The Radio Dept. takes a hold of you with Clinging to a Scheme's first track "Domestic Scene" via an unparalleled, understated touch of electric finger picking. Then there are the sing-whispered lyrics and the minor tones and all that remains is a feeling of comfort, love and mutual knowledge of some almost film soundtrack-style fate awaiting both yourself and the band. The lyrics, repeated "Leaving just in time" intoned by such delicate and sad music, drops you into an album about fighting, rising, accepting and struggling. A brilliant voice over follows, briefly discussing an overthrow of capitalist control over youth culture, and then enters the jangly, Belle and Sebastian-esque, "Heaven's on Fire" that combines a retro quick guitar riff and distant soft-spoken vocals with keys and lush percussion. And there are horns too. The Radio Dept. brings everything in Clinging to a Scheme, and pulls out all the stops immediately. And they're third release following 2006's Pet Grief is an undisputed masterpiece. Maybe that's because I like sad, shoe-gazey pop, but the album is also unparalleled. Track 3 "This Time Around" brings in a more contemporary sound, reminiscent of early 2000's bands like Creeper Lagoon and Guster, but without the high level of production and sparse instrumentation. Instead, it's solid music that's so layered sometimes it's easy to forget how many different sounds are in play.

"Never Follow Suit" feels like a heavy piano cross between 80s experimental, Radiohead and Gorillaz. Using a strong, funky, nearly reggae beat to supplement a heartfelt melody. And a brief spoken word, near-rap, sample section that does waver on the line between pretension and artistic assertion. It's a beautiful song, musically and in lyrical design. "David" (the band's initial single) plays similarly, relying on a heavy beat and some electro-synth beats to drive the song, while a mournful vocals and spritely chimes and keys fill the gaps. But, The Radio Dept. also represents with straight up guitar rock songs here and there too. "A Token of Gratitude" does just that, providing guitar-centric music without the complexity. And it's a great song in its own right. But the more heavily arranged stuff makes for more compelling listening. And, for me, this is the ideal album, a definite album of the year candidate, because I've reached a point where simplicity is no longer blissful. I need complex music, I need the walls of sound that make an album interesting to hear each time because you can choose to focus once on guitars, once on piano, once on chimes, etc., etc. The Radio Dept. clearly owes a debt, like so many (every?) other bands, to Radiohead for opening the sonic spectrum into new universes. We don't have to be tied creatively, or as audiences, to simple melodies and basic progressions. Maybe this is the new big band, raspy, lush, complicated and beautiful. And even a little overwhelming. The Radio Dept. is the best new album of 2010, hands down. And just because they're relatively obscure shouldn't hinder their place in the ongoing, and continual, "end of year" discussion.

Check them out at theradiodept.com, or via their MySpace. (Or feel free to write Steve Jobs a letter requesting that he NOT shut down Lala, so that music can be freely spread by artists without another corporation sticking it's conflated profiteering ideals in the way.)

Score: 9.5/10
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Delorean - Subiza

Delorean's newest, Subiza, is an alt-dance gem loaded with bass backbeat, claps and building techno-influenced looping tracks. It also has a distinctly European feel (partially because the band is from Spain's Basque country), melding the rock/alt vibes of Phoenix, the vocal/lyrical tendencies of Peter, Bjorn & John and the club beats known to listeners of Erasure, Fever Ray, and Hot Chip. This is ostensibly electro-pop with layers of natural sound thrown in to create welcoming feel. For me, it's the idea of removing the individual layers to hear what's happening that makes the album so wonderful. Underneath, these are guitar and piano tracks, sweet and poppy, but also opening aware and sad. Minor chords and somber bass lines covered in loops and (at times Genesis sounding) drums fill the nooks and crannies of Subiza, giving it soul and a unique relistenability (I'm sure Urban Dictionary is all over this "word" already). As with many dance albums, the mix and the beat take the forefront, and it's easy to forget how much is underneath. Ultimately, if we've learned anything from Pygmalion, you can dress Eliza Doolittle as a duchess, but you'll never completely take the Cockney out of her, as well you shouldn't. No matter how flush with sound Delorean becomes, there is still a sense that the reason why their dancing (and compelling us to join) is because misery, or at least self-awareness, loves company.

"Endless Sunset" and the track preceding it "Real Love" both have a distinct attachment to minor chords, dour piano/synth, and a driving, splashing, heart-quickening drum beat. Neither song is about wanton acts of carnality, or youthful exuberance, but they pretend that they are in the way the make you move your feet. (As a brief digression: this is exactly what MGMT's beloved Oracular Spectacular did just as well. Creating music so fun to hear that we forget to listen to it, leading many listeners to consider MGMT's newest to be some sort of downer, when really, Oracular Spectacular, excepting perhaps "Electric Feel" is a sad album about the delusions of happiness we are taught to create regarding our youth, our future and our careers.) Dance music is difficult to fully appreciate aesthetically because it melds the sadness and disillusion of life with sounds of celebration, but really, to grab a hold of any genuinely happy, eternally positive music, we're best to look at marching band tunes. Anyway, Subiza maintains an exceptional balance throughout by touching on the sad stuff ("Grow") and throwing out dense, transcendent excellence with a catchy, poppy choruses ("Simple Graces" and "Infinite Desert," among others).

Delorean succeeds with Subiza by pushing the limits of the dance music to its dark and light boundaries. This album will electrify you, and ask you to question your perceptions. What else could be required of a fun, upbeat slice of excellence. Listen to it now, via interweb here.
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Fang Island - Fang Island

Lush, stadium-rock style layers of sound and vaguely church-organ infused choral qualities pepper Fang Island's first album. But that's not all Rhode Island to Brooklyn transplant quintet brings to the table. There's also a satisfying air of dance-punk and anthem-power rock guitar happening. With three talented guitarists (Jason Bartell, Chris Georges and Nicholas Andrew Sadler), a bassist (Michael Jacober) and speeding drummer (Marc St. Sauveur), Fang Island creates the kind of chanting, uplifting music that drives a listener to move, get up, jump around and feel utterly satisfied. Guitarist Bartell describes the band's sound as "music for people who like music" and that's just about the perfect summation. Hook-laden and bouncy, Fang Island is an album for the people, one designed to make music fun.

Populated with short songs, Fang Island finds an agreeable mix of Vampire Weekend's catchy near-drunken wavering and the big build semi-choruses that happen with Them Crooked Vultures, but still they maintain an identity of nonchalance. It never appears that Fang Island is trying too hard to make good music, but rather that it just happens. This is like a heavier, more lush version of early Weezer, with some tinges of the Liars most recent release. Lots of big sound, big production, long '70s style solos that taper into chaotic drumming and hard power chords. The only downside to the album is that many of the songs sound un-strikingly similar. With the exception of opener "Dreams of Dreams" and the skillful "Daisy" and "Davey Crockett," the album can pass by almost too easily. That's not always a bad thing. Fang Island avoids the vice of over-experimentation by providing a singular sound across an album of ebbing and rising waves. Each song has its own hook, a guitarist's dream really, that there's a sense of surf rock, punk, pop, power pop, and arena rock.

And the closing track, the brief and elegant "Dorian," which ends with the crackling sound of popping record grooves (the same sound that opens "Dreams of Dreams" in fact) provides a feeling of exceptional closure. Fang Island seems close throughout their self-titled debut. By which I mean near. Fang Island feels like summertime. It is warm, speedy, but driving and passionate. It feels like an album for a beach night bonfire, a cookout or an afternoon and evening by the pool. The band takes hold of their time frame, creating the feeling of a single passing day, punctuated at points and quiet in others, but ultimately giving in to the calm, cool quiet of night. Ultimately, it's arena-rock guitar heroics with a lot of heart. And that's all right.

You can check out Fang Island on Myspace, or just go pick up the album, which in addition to my happy review (let's say 5 out of 7 lanterns... will that catch on?) has earned best new music honors from Pitchfork and other reputable locations across the web.
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Frontline: The Suicide Tourist

If you've never watched the PBS documentary news program Frontline, I encourage you to start. Actually, I more than encourage it, I fucking demand it. We live a world where television is laden with programs of little to no merit. Outside of some great comedy, drama and sports, we aren't provide much real, incisive media. Network television news magazines like Dateline NBC and the like tend to be glorified tabloids focusing on titillating audiences with crime, sex offense and dramatized fear mongering. Their existence seems predicated on people being too stupid to ask difficult questions, and our drive to avoid difficult knowledge in a high-gloss world. Frontline digs deeper. It asks the tough questions and addresses things we forget to know, forget to learn. And does so with grace, dignity, and merit.

Just this evening, I watched their recent expose entitled "The Suicide Tourist," which centers on the final days in the life of Craig Ewert, a 59 year old man diagnosed with ALS whose quick deterioration prompts his decision to take part in assisted suicide. Watching it means so much more than any summary I could provide, but in short, Mr. Ewert's quick loss of control over his own body, over his ability to live the way any person deserves to live, leads him to Switzerland where he enlists an organization called Dignitas to guide him out of suffering and allows him to maintain the independence and dignity he has remaining. You can watch the full documentary by clicking on the link above, or by going directly to the video here.

The reason for this, that I'd write about something so sad, so emotionally taxing to watch (and believe me it was, and continues to be as I write) is that it is a topic of constant debate and great philosophical importance. And in this specific case, media has provided an incredible forum for its display. Like The Antlers album Hospice, or a book like Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, "The Suicide Tourist" puts the value of life, and the terror of suffering at the forefront. We all too often shy away from death in modern society. We focus our compasses on youth, beauty and the stupidity that comes with both, and forget (or at least actively try to) the difficulties of illness and the gracefulness of age. Where Hospice focuses on the dialogue between the dying and the one who must watch his love die, and Norwegian Wood looks at the confusion and suffering and occurs silently inside even the most outwardly bright and young, "The Suicide Tourist" affords a view of the metered, philosophical and heartbreaking decisiveness that chooses death over pain, anguish and paralyzed terror. Craig Ewert sums up in several interviews how though he is not tired of living, he does not consider existing paralyzed within a shell of his former self to be life. And in a painfully beautiful moment, he argues the moral complexity of suicide and making such a choice before he is no longer capable of controlling his own body. He asks (and I'm summarizing) why we assume that a body, barely conscious, unable to speak, but still and not writhing, is considered to be peaceful. He wonders if Hell itself is not being trapped within a form without control over it, without the individual characteristics of life at one's disposal. This is a tragic point of discussion. Ought we be able to decide when to stop the ride of life and get off? And why should it be considered more brave to exist in continual pain and drudgery than to take up arms against misfortune and alter our own paths?

This argument is as old as life itself, but Shakespeare made some quintessential points in Hamlet, both through the melodramatic nature of Ophelia's suicide, but also in Hamlet's arguments about the nature of existence. Is merely considering action, thinking of options, but not acting a mark of a life lived? Hamlet finally determines it is not. He decides to take action (the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy) as that is the only way to assure he is not merely an observer of his misfortunes, but an actor in his own existence. And we, as Americans, where individuality is predicated on the idea that can do, be or become anything we want to, seems to argue for the same right, the same ability. In "The Suicide Tourist," Craig Ewert "take[s] arms against a sea of troubles/ And, by opposing, end[s] them." And I don't think the question is whether it was right or wrong, so much as whether any of us would choose to do the same, or if we'd be content to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Where does our individualism end? Where we choose it to? Or where our society decides? Are our bodies our own, or do they belong to our culture? I don't have answers to these questions, but they need to be asked.
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Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

The most recent release from the cartoon concept from the minds of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett has been out for nearly two months now, and I long debated reviewing it in this space. The merit of such a review, obviously, is that the album is incredible, complete and enjoyable. The demerit, at least in my mind, was that I wouldn't be discussing a band that needs any promotion, any awareness. Gorillaz are ubiquitous. If there's a fan out there who hasn't picked up (or found means of acquiring) Plastic Beach yet I'd be greatly surprised. But for those who may only know Gorillaz for singles like "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc." need to know that Plastic Beach is a revelation. Where previous albums were spotty, perhaps even mired in the "hits plus filler" tag, this new record delivers a solid line up through and through. Despite an odd opener, performed by Snoop Dogg, the album is artistic, challenging, educated, fun and dynamic. At times Plastic Beach succeeds by taking itself serious, at other times, it dials back to a self-aware goofiness. The listener is lucky to receive songs like "Rhinestone Eyes" and "Superfast Jellyfish" back to back. The album provides loads of quality juxtaposition, on one hand melancholy poetics and on another, dance-ready, uplifting, hip hop. But Plastic Beach succeeds most in how it plots these fun and tender moments together in a legitimate theme.

Plastic Beach is loaded with island imagery, sailing reference and occasional calypso influence. It's also an album about memory, sadness, consumerism and collaboration. The density is vaguely staggering when so many albums choose to tell a single story or feature a memoir-esque encapsulation of the human experience. Gorillaz do both here, grabbing onto numerous concepts, and doing all of it in a narrative journey that mixes hip-hop, electronic, soul, indie rock, arena rock, jazz, blues and just about any other genre conceivable. And the assembly of guest musicians, who act to throw all of these disparate and volatile genres and messages together is incredibly impressive. Lou Reed, Mick Jones, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul, and Snoop Dogg. All together. On one album, a concept album, from a concept band, creating music that is anything, but merely conceptual. If nothing else, Gorillaz is about altering the way we perceive music, the way we consider bands to exist. In their nature, they're cartoon characters, fictional and inhuman, but they're also the ultimate instance of freedom. Anything can happen. Any genre, any concept, any dalliance of musical adventurousness can take place. And now, any musician can appear and partake/contribute to the unparalleled creative ouvre. Essentially, what I'm saying is that you, fan or not, are doing yourself an incredible disservice by not listening to Plastic Beach. This is an album that marks the beginning of something incredible, collaboration that doesn't devolve necessarily to a supergroup, but exists more as a tapestry to which each artist has contributed a design. You will feel downbeat moments and you will feel like getting up and moving, but you won't ever feel bored. In fact, I think, if you're anything like me, you'll feel like putting starting the album anew the instant it ends.

And you can still see the Gorillaz live performance (with Bobby Womack) on The Colbert Report here. What? A funny, incisive political program, and good music? Yes. Go straight there by clicking here.
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