Stars - The Five Ghosts

Stars have aptly named The Five Ghosts. The opening track is as haunting in its whispering lyrics and calm guitar line as any track can be. And all that quiet builds into a fuzzy wall that feels submarine, lost and pale, but full. Just starting out, Stars have established the darkness they have so carefully crafted in previous songs about relationships and have here applied it to something bigger, death, itself. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan have long traded on sadness, break ups and emotional complication, and excelled in surrounding it with both mood-dampened and mood-lifting music. In this newest, synth-y-er release, one that my friend Jared called, "hella Breakfast Club" for it's '80s styling, Stars keep that old ball rolling, and make a handful of phenomenal songs. The Torq-heavy "I Died So I Could Haunt You" touches successfully on some heartfelt sentiments and questions about the nature of life and death. The very idea, that death could bring not all only the infinite love of the departed, but also allow a stalker a sort of all-access pass to one's world is intriguing. The song doesn't necessarily veer into a land of question marks, but Stars doesn't need to. The band latches so strongly onto love and loss that any familiar listener can simply enjoy the music, and new listeners may well find a sentiment they've never heard in music so eloquently before.

There are some up-tracks too. The Millan led "Fixed" is a priceless piece of '80s dance pop, heavy on keyboard and synth and drums that exist for drive rather than for show. And the Depeche Mode-esque "We Don't Want Your Body," which lives in thundering electronic drum beats, tortured harpsichord, and Torq's grainy, breathless vocals. What happens in both of the examples above are great pop songs that anchor the album, after all the opening sadness and dread, to something that could very well be, at least musically, positive. Then comes a funereal track in the form of "He Dreams He's Awake." The song is as heavy as any of the band's previous dark material, but additionally lacks the analog feeling of warmth inherent to real instruments. All the echo and synth and drum machine makes the track feel lifeless, beyond even the darkness of the lyrics or minor-nature of the key. A minor "comeback" in terms of pace, "The Passenger" is like a Blondie song on sleeping pills, but sells itself on Millan's excellent voice during the chorus breaks.

And its songs like these last two, and those that cap the album that make The Five Ghosts a little work to love. As a previous fan of Stars' work, I know what they've done and where they've been musically. And in a way they can do no wrong in my eyes (or ears, as the case may be). But, for a casual listener, or a new participant in this band, The Five Ghosts is at times oppressive and lushly cluttered with robotic sound. On the other end, though, Stars are trying something new, a bit of reinvention, at least in sound, if not in lyrical content, so that is something to be admired. The bottom line, for me, is that this new release is a mood album. It requires a level of positivity going in just to overcome the darkness and sadness draped within. Stars has never been entirely about dance pop, and that a major portion of this foray into the genre is a success is a true accomplishment. I feel like, as albums go, this one is more of a grower. With time, there will be more than 4 tracks to which I latch. And I look forward to the time I spend finding out which songs those will be.

Score: 7.5/10
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Notable Text: American Gods

Neil Gaiman's American Gods exists primarily as a discussion of two -ceptions: perception and deception. And those qualities of awareness and cloaking ultimately occupy sides on a single coin, a metaphor Gaiman applies liberally, and to great success, throughout the book. American Gods is also about abandonment and ego, failure and success, and above all, it is a study of the United States, and all its faith and design, reality and novelty. Gaiman excels in creating a lush world populated with colorful, lovable (and genuinely hate-able) characters as the text takes readers on a journey across the United States, from a prison cell to Chicago and Cairo (Illinois) and even the center of the continental United States. This sprawling epic is so large that error here or there would have been acceptable, and yet Gaiman doesn't misstep once. He keeps readers close by guiding the story behind the protagonist, Shadow, who tends to observe far more than react. And by avoiding a big personality in his main character, Gaiman creates mystery and an easy porthole into the action. And that attention to his audience makes the book extremely enjoyable, rather than overbearing and complex.

But, as I said, American Gods is about perception and deception, first and foremost. In the text, the world, but specifically in setting, the United States, is home to gods like Odin, Anansi, Czernobog, Loki, Easter and others. All of them in the form of humans, living among us without our knowledge. Gaiman's world posits that once belief in a god is brought to a place, that god becomes a permanent resident, regardless of waning interest from the "followers" around him. As they lose followers they lose strength, and are forced to take on the form of average people. It is our perceptions, for Gaiman that make a god real, our faith and our religious fealty. But, when we stop paying attention these beliefs do not evaporate, they just become old and worn, and driven to deceive us in hopes of one day regaining prominence. But, Gaiman does something even greater by showing us how these gods decide to get by when they are no longer feared/loved greatly. Some turn to crime, some to wanderlust, some to drinking, others to upstanding civic service. But these positions are as thrust upon them as taken up by them, because America is the type of place that requires such labels and distinctions, America is the type of place that gives birth to grifting and entitlement. And America also gives birth to its own gods, as Gaiman points to television, railroads, government agencies, internet and others as the "new gods" that grow, blossom and die in our world daily. For Gaiman, America is a place of consumption, quick, easy and ruthless use that makes it no place for any deity. America will destroy an idea as easily as it will praise it. There's no room at the inn.

Coins appear throughout American Gods, first as Shadow's hobby (coin tricks) in prison, then as gold and silver tokens that appear through magic means and have incredible powers. And like the coins, Gaiman wants readers to see that everything is 50/50. There is good and evil in all things, there is permanence and nothingness, and there is existence and nonexistence. Gaiman makes points of this with Shadow's wife Laura, with Mr. Wednesday and Lowkey, all characters who straddle a line, and are either attempting to get to one side of the "coin" or possess both at once. But it's also that coins represent wealth, and money is often the ultimate American god. Though Gaiman was careful not to spell such a sentiment out, I think it bears noting that money is the only thing we praise always and forever, and never forget. We sacrifice our time and lives to acquiring it. It's a bit melodramatic of me to say, I know, but it's on point. The coins, magical in fiction or not, hold a certain power over our consciousness.

This rambling madness of this review is really meant to highlight the incredible strength of Gaiman's storytelling, and to point out that American Gods has its pulse not merely on fantasy and mythology, but also on philosophy of life. Fans of the Sandman series will surely enjoy this book, but anyone who has ever considered the nature of myth and religion, or the complexity of our systems of belief will surely dig right in. American Gods is as much a mirror on humanity as it is a fictional account of bygone divine creatures. And we sometimes need to glimpse our failings to learn more about ourselves.
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Words On Film: The A-Team

I was a fan of the '80s classic show when I was a boy. Perhaps I was more attached to the theme song than any one plot line. In fact, I can't really remember a specific episode. But it seemed like they always ended with Hannibal and the boys turning a jeep or a fruit truck or an apple cart into a tank of some kind, bursting out of a prison of some kind and then avoiding the bullets of hilariously terrible marksmen bad guys until they saved the girl, or her scientist father, or something. And there were funny costumes. And Mr. T. But, I did find myself "playing" A-Team in the imagination-of-a-young-lad way. Running around my backyard or the playground pretending to be Hannibal or Faceman. So, in that way, The A-Team holds a special place in my heart, even if my nostalgia is based more on the idea of it than the actual product.

So, today, we (the fam for Dad's day) went to the movies, and of all the available options, The A-Team was chosen, and in all honesty I was entirely stoked. It was that little kid inside me, the one that thrives on absurd action plots, elaborate set pieces, and montages of tank assembly, crying out in joy. And to my surprise and jubilation, The A-Team was a thoroughly entertaining piece of guns and mischief daring-do. It's also a movie that thrives on self-congratulations and extensive scene-chewing, both of which have to be expected when going into a movie taking its source material from '80s "action television." I had read a couple of reviews that disparaged the film for not "elevating" the notion of The A-Team, but fuck, seriously? The show was campy and violent and stupid, but fun. And the movie fulfills those roles exceptionally well. Liam Neeson's Hannibal is a sturdy, nearly all-knowing leader, and Neeson attacks the film's few "serious" or "revelatory" plot moments with a knife and fork. And that's to be expected. George Peppard's original Hannibal was a mugging machine, thriving on that straight-into-the-camera wink that shattered the fourth wall, but kept the show cemented in a fun zone. Bradley Cooper takes Faceman's smart-assery and seducer traits to an extreme. That over-the-top writing and performance is only truly bracing when Faceman repeatedly utters the phrase "mother fucker," and spends parts of the film coming of as a slimy frat a-hole. It hinders his likability somewhat, but not enough to ruin anything. Quinton Jackson is a serviceable B.A. Baracas, but there was no way for him to claim or make the role his own. Mr. T is synonymous with B.A. and that's just the end of it. But, the best work comes from Sharlto Copley's "Howling Mad" Murdock. Copley seems most sincere in playing his character, a true and researched homage to Dwight Schultz's original take. Ultimately, these guys just have fun for two hours, which is mostly enjoyable, and occasionally intolerable and grown worthy... just like the source material.

Jessica Biel's in this thing too, but well... The truth is, The A-Team is only bad when the dialogue tries too hard to fill space. Characters here often tell each other things like "That was amazing!" or "I can't believe you did that!" etc. These are the sorts of things that audiences are meant to utter... the excitement and surprise at seeing them succeed in absurd situations, and when the people in the movie are as stoked about their accomplishments as we're supposed to be, that makes it feel forced and empty, like there just wasn't anything for these guys to say. The other issue is that Hannibal, Face, B.A., and Murdock shoot people a lot, using force more than they even seem to think they are. Hannibal even says in the film that they'd be the best team for the job because they'd do it quietly without casualties... and then, they start wasting people. The show was never gun violent, it had absurd chases and vehicles running over things and exploding, but it was rare that anyone actually got shot. Of course, that was the '80s and television just didn't have the kind of violence it does now.

The A-Team boils down to a lot of fun action scenes of shit blowing up, a few genuinely funny lines spoken off-hand, some contrived military plots, and several enjoyable and interesting plans that lovingly come together. It's a goofy, stupid, pointless film that doesn't require a lot of thought to process, and that's not a bad thing. The original show wasn't a thinker's piece either. Enter with the right expectations, and you'll be pleased. And maybe, if you can find them, you can hire... The A-Team.
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Mini Mansions - Mini Mansions

Chances are good you haven't heard or heard of Mini Mansions. Hell, I wouldn't have if not for the Them Crooked Vultures show back in April that presented me with their capacity to rock, as well as their propensity toward classic Blondie. After/during the show, I picked up their album/EP and wasn't completely blown away. Turns out, the music on the album is calmer and more ornamented than the brash hard-driving rock they displayed live. Of course, in retrospect, it makes sense that they'd rock as hard as possible given the band for which they were opening... but, well, I was tentative about liking the album right away because it felt soft, more produced and lacking in the pure animal grace of loud bark-singing, slammed piano keys and pounded drums. Time makes fools of us all. The album is, in all its low key glory, stellar! It's not riddled with hits. This isn't Sonny-Corleone-at-the-toll-booth packed with classic tracks, but it is completely enjoyable, and self-aware with a fine dose of Beatles-meet-prog rock. And the reason such a chill band would come along with TCV? Answer: Mini Mansions singer is Michael Shuman of Queens Of The Stone Age, making the 6 degrees game easily playable.

Mini Mansions, the album (self-released by the way), opens exceptionally strong with the catchy "Majik Marker" and holds a relaxed tone until the albums best track "Dirty T.K.O." bats in the fifth spot. It's a song with excellent composition. Not at all overambitious in the verses, it's quiet and calm and lyrically brilliant. Then the chorus rocks in, with hooky perfection that resonates in your head for days... or more, perhaps I've gone insane?... after its last turn on the table. The album is solid from there on out, but not phenomenal. Yet, it consistently pops up as a "must listen" disc at home and at work, so something has dug its claws into me. Mini Mansions lives by its fantastic harmonies, polite and enjoyable slow builds, and a lot of solid hooks that make each song lovable, if not entirely memorable. It also demonstrates the depth of the band, clearly far more than a power-pop trio, they can sling out some pastoral tones here and there and turn a ballad into a rock song, back to a ballad in a matter of moments. Listen to them via their MySpace page, and then find them live, see them, enjoy (hopefully!) a Blondie cover, and pay them for their album. It's too often that the little guys making great stuff get buried below the big label bullshit. Plus, you'll probably like most of it.

Score: 8/10
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Caribou - Swim

Dan Snaith continues to crack out impressive, dense and delightful indie dance rock-pop under the stage name Caribou. My first exposure to Snaith's work came via 2005's The Milk Of Human Kindness. I had heard bits and pieces of Andorra, his 2007 critically-acclaimed, award-winner as well, but three years ago, I didn't know about dance music, I didn't yet relish the way a good dance song can be both invigorating and unsettling, and with Caribou that is frequently the case. These intricate pieces of music create distinct, immovable moods, that stick with you and set your mind in a meditative, external state. When I listen to Caribou, I mean REALLY listen to it, I cease to exist in the present, and phase out into another plane. Not in the "Oh, man, we're like, totally, so high!" way, but in the "Holy shit! How can a piece of music remove me from the present so effectively that I very nearly completely forget that I'm listening to music and not feeling waves of emotional resonance washing my way..." way. How's that for a convoluted explanation? Caribou produces this sort of dance music. It's entrancing, but I wouldn't call it trance because it doesn't tow that line. It doesn't need to fulfill a genre, so much as fulfill as role as setting music, space music, time music. There are worlds created in each track, no just melodies.

This year's Swim adds to and bolsters that legacy, and very easily. It opens with the jaunty, jangly and delicious "Odessa" and then blends straight into the mind-fuckingly temporal "Sun" in which Snaith chants "sun" repeatedly over a warping track. The album then rolls back into a more conventional mentality, still musically ambitious and complicated, but with lyrics that tell a story with "Kaili." The unsettling and thoughtful "Found Out" follows, and then the bell ringing, harp stroking "Bowls" that feels like we've been lead to the dock at the edge of this world and we're waiting for our ship to board. Tracks like "Bowls" evidence the way in which Caribou is, and is not dance music. You can move to it, but sometimes, it feels like music you don't move to so much as stare to. "Hannibal" is the most conventional dance song of the second half, but even then, it doesn't require movement the way some songs might, it merely requests it, and plies any sense of comfort away with dark, bellowing horns and heavy bass beats. Perhaps this is the sound of elephants attempting to cross the Alps, moving forward into something for which they are not prepared, but that may be a bit of a stretch. The closer, "Jamelia" rewards patient listening by bringing a jungle-calypso chanting anthem as the final track. Really, Swim is about transportation, from one place to another, which requires movement, but doesn't require fleet feet so much as cautious awareness. Swim is not a dance album for dance lovers, but it is a dance album for art lovers, for appreciators of dense composition and for Caribou lovers. And it excels in each of those roles.

Score: 9.5/10
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Sleigh Bells - Treats

Sleigh Bells formed, at least anecdote goes (thanks Wikipedia), when singer Alexis Krauss' mom volunteered her as a vocalist for then waiter Derek Miller's new music project. It's the stuff of dreams isn't it? Ok, so there's no fantastic discovery moment, maybe instead just a second of kismet between two strangers that lead to a capturing of artistic vision. From that day in 2008 forward, the duo has been creating, refining and polishing their noise pop, electro-punk-dance hybrid product to the amazing state in which we listener's can now find it. Treats is their debut LP and it is a complex, perhaps not initially easily digestible manifestation of its title. Think of it as an indie music Tootsie Roll Pop; hard and somewhat difficult to break through, but with a delicious chocolately(ish) center. And, just to be clear, that analogy only works if you don't take the owl's way out. No biting.

Opening with a roar and clatter, and littered with gasps, moans, echoes, breathy loops (and some mean funky, guitar, drums and sampled instruments galore), Treats is an attention grabber that feels like early Beck and M.I.A. in places, but doesn't rely on any one sound for long enough to get tired or repetitive. It's noisy, grinding, chunky, fuzzy and demanding. The lyrics are catchy, if occasionally cliche, and Krauss' vocals really keep the album afloat and alive. Krauss has one of those voices that has just the right amount of sweetness in it, and just the right amount of world-weary awareness. She never seems to be a cherry atop the music, and granted that speaks more to the producing than anything, but it's also very clear that this collaboration values has Sleigh Bells valuing her voice as an instrument more than as a band-leading position.

Miller shines too, coming up with some of the most catchy and noisy tracks imaginable. Sometimes it feels vaguely folksy, sometimes its surf rock, sometimes its hip hop, but each track also comes with a healthy portion of ass-kicking. Drums here are angry and the guitars could rip a grown man's face right off. Generally, it's just a great assemblage of produced, layered noise that never takes itself too seriously... it's not trying to be art, rather seems willing to tell art to fuck off. "Rill Rill," "Crown On The Ground," and "Infinitely Guitars" will blow your mind. As will the rest of the album. You'll catch on with one or two anthems here, too. And if you spend the time, it's one of the most interestingly layered discs to come out in awhile. Sometimes 4 or 5 tracks, or shit, more! are all happening at once. It's staggering. It's delicious. Go get it.

Score: 9/10
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Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (Second Self-Titled Album)

The thing about dance music is that it is alive. Dance music is predicated on movement, on desire and, in our visions of clubs, sexuality. It's a sound of vigorous youth and also a sound that thrives on foreign sounds, broken samples and glitches that hold a beat while being impossible to attribute to a traditional instrument. The entirely tonal, sound-based, clunky and electronic stuff I can give or take. When it's good, oh boy howdy shit-tastic, it's amazing. When it's bad, or merely serviceable, well... let's just say ugh. There's so much of it, dance music, too because many people can create it. It's like chess. Anyone can learn to play, but mastering it, making it worthwhile, that takes some serious chops. And since I've found myself gravitating toward it so much lately, I feel like I'm at least learning the difference, even if I don't think I could do it myself. Bands like Delorean, and Caribou have unique styles that mix dance in with other elements. It's all about mixing. And so, when I heard a bit of Crystal Castles' newest, I jumped toward it with a lot of hope and energy.

The album itself is solid, delightful, and mostly peerless. Crystal Castles create a type of sullen, wispy dance music that reaches for upbeat, but never tries to break anyone on the dance floor with speed. Instead, these are songs that sound vaguely holy, often ethereal and expansive. The beat, that necessary aspect of any good dance music, is perfect. Each song builds well, starting slow, giving you the instructions on how to move to it like a great lover, and then blossoms and explodes. A good dance song, or dance album, no matter the content of instrumentation or electronica is built to give orders. "This is how you move to this song," it will say. And we, as casual listeners or floor-junkies, take our cues. The beat is the motivating factor, the impetus, the energy. The rest of the song is the artistic exploration. And Crystal Castles arrives here with an album that does with dance music what Renaissance painters did with the portrait. Sure, it's a painting of a person, but look at the way that person is painted, the way they gaze from or into the image, the way the surroundings interact. In a way Crystal Castles have created ordered chaos of the greatest level.

So much of the album is about sounds screaming and moving and living inside the beat, often exerting themselves greatly in what could be perceived as an effort to escape, to break free and live among the living. The opening track "Fainting Spells" is a prolonged scream, and it is followed by alternating solemn and dominant dance tracks. Special cases are "Year Of Silence" and "Empathy" whose respective force and punch, and calm awareness keep the album on a clearly contrived and solid pace. Crystal Castles need not belong in a mix to dance to them, they can drive you from start to finish, giving all the necessary breaks. Two of the best songs on the album come near the end, with the unfortunately named, but exceptional "Pap Smear" and the strong, driving "Not In Love." Really, Crystal Castles have manufactured a mindset as much as an album. It's a thinking man's dance album, one with so many layers that you'll never hear everything on the first few trips through, so each new trip is a new reward.

Score: 8.5/10
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The New Pornographers - Together

Together is a more raucous and chaotic album than 2007's Challengers and feels a little more like The New Pornographers' earlier releases Twin Cinema and Electric Version. But it's still a far cry from their crunchier rock beginnings too. In that way Together is an anomaly, stuck somewhere between the band's sweeter, melodic desires and their edgier interests. It seems a bit stuck in neutral, not moving forward or backward, but staying a course of solid, but non-life-changing rock. Still, I can't decry the album much. It opens with two exceptional songs back-to-back, "Moves" and then the Neko Case-powered "Crash Years." Both songs being strong anthems and characteristically fun tracks. It's not really possible, I think, to be disappointed by The New Pornographers. They're too objectively great to fail their listeners, and when you have a little bit of fan passion invested them, they're just bound to drop great music right into your ears like honey. That's why they can succeed with a song like "Crash Years," which rides a hooky bass/guitar line all over and holds tightly to you with semi-old school sentiments.

"Your Hands (Together)" is another success insofar as it has a built-in hook and demands repeat listening, even if it's not the best song the band has ever churned out. It makes you feel like moving, it's a driving song, a song about motion and a growling desire to fight. "My Shepherd" is a song that slows the pace greatly, and feels like the quintessential solo Neko Case track, built around her voice, calm and beautiful, and not too challenging. And even though it's a great track, it also pulls the album back into a place that is more subdued than its opening. Which goes back to the album's fractured tone. There are a lot of almost great songs near the end of the album, that's a fact, but it's that they never reach great that is most disappointing (as I said though, I can't be disappointed completely by this band). "Up In The Dark" is a speed high-point to the back half of the album, but it never gets over the hump from good to great, great to excellent. It's not forgettable, but it's not readily memorable either. Despite being a fun tune to listen to. They can't all be winners though, and it's unrealistic to expect some sort of perfection from any band. On the upside, the album closes well with "A Bite Out Of My Bed," "Daughters Of Sorrow" and "We End Up Together," all of which do some great work vocally and lyrically, and pique the interest as much as hold it. Ultimately, if you liked and/or loved Challengers you'll find a solid handful of songs on Together to latch onto and love. The whole album may not be great, but sometimes we have to live with a few mediocre entries to get the great stuff. Something like eating a really tiresome breakfast cereal as a child, awaiting the prize in the box, or, even better, going on a bad date or two with the person you will still end up with. Sometimes the highlights are worth as much or more than the middling territories in between.

Score: 6.5/10
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