Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2008

[Originally published at MadeLoud]

1. Amadou & Mariam – Welcome to Mali

The latest effort by Mali’s premiere husband-and-wife duo isn’t as instantly catchy as its Manu Chao-produced predecessor, but this mind-blowing amalgam of Afro-funk, folk and even electronica is even more ambitious. There simply aren’t many more exciting acts anywhere on the globe.

2. Yahowa 13 – Sonic Portation

It may not have been the year’s most talked-about reunion, but the return of this ‘70s psych-rock trio was by far the most fruitful. Over an album’s worth of improvised jams, Yahowa 13 crafts a powerful, apocalyptic soundscape that transcends the decades and flat-out kicks ass.

3. Ruby Suns – Sea Lion

A lot of albums strive to be compared to Pet Sounds, but this elaborately produced kaleidoscope of sound is one of the very few that actually earns that distinction. Veering from ponderous to poppy to straight-up silly, the New Zealanders’ second album draws on a huge range of global influences and reveals a little more with every listening.

4. Q-Tip – The Renaissance

The Tribe Called Quest front man’s sophomore solo effort was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. In a year that saw disappointing efforts from hip-hop cult favorites from Del to Devin, Q-Tip’s distinctive flow, groovy beats and quick-witted lyricism rang out loud and strong.

5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science

It’s not quite on par with the band’s 2006 masterpiece Return to Cookie Mountain, but that’s about the only knock to be made against this slicker, sleeker follow-up. Plenty of bands would kill to be able to evoke half the passion that bleeds from every TV on the Radio song.

6. She & Him – Volume One

At first glance, the pairing of indie film gamine Zooey Deschanel and indie folk charmer M. Ward looked like a pretentious gimmick, but the duo’s debut is exactly the opposite. Deschanel’s charming delivery complements Ward’s clever production perfectly on this sunny collection of tunes that would fit right in on a ‘70s pop sampler.

7. Cat Power – Jukebox

She’s one of her generation’s greatest lyricists, but Chan Marshall’s second covers collection proves she can knock it out of the park no matter who’s holding the pen. Her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You” hits especially hard, while the album’s lone original, “Song for Bobby,” captures Dylan’s voice almost as well as the man himself.

8. The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing

The British duo’s debut album was ubiquitous on 2008’s pop culture landscape, turning up on MTV, an iPod ad and soundtracks from “Slumdog Millionaire” to “The House Bunny.” It’s easy to see why – their brand of glam-pop is brassy, sassy and catchy as hell.

9. Tobacco – Fucked Up Friends

The Black Moth Super Rainbow co-founder follows in that band’s unpredictable footsteps with this raucous blend of hip-hop, electronica and psychedelia. It’s the type of album that will set heads nodding at the right kind of party and clear the room at the wrong kind.

10. Crooked Fingers – Forfeit/Fortune

Eric Bachmann’s latest reaffirms his status as one of the most consistently interesting creative forces on the indie scene. This time around, his gracefully gritty songwriting is buoyed by eclectic production that draws on everything from power pop to European folk to ‘80s goth rock.

Also excellent: Jake One – White Van Music, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!, Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down in the Light, of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping, Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold

- Ira Brooker

Friday, December 26, 2008

CD review: "Landing Gear" by Devin the Dude

(Originally posted at MadeLoud.com)

It’s well established that Devin is a funny Dude. Modern classics like 2002’s
Just Tryin’ ta Live and last year’s Waitin’ to Inhale established the Houston-based rapper as the heir apparent to storytellers like Slick Rick and Too $hort, a witty vulgarian whose good-natured flow and surprisingly lovely voice set him apart even when discussing his well-worn favorite topics of weed and women.

Humor alone would be enough to solidify Devin the Dude’s place among today’s most consistently fascinating rappers, but it’s his often overlooked talent for introspection that truly makes him stand out. His goofiness is frequently tempered with self-searching lyrics rarely heard in the braggadocious world of professional hip-hop.

It should be good news that Landing Gear finds Devin looking within more than ever, but that reflection unfortunately comes at the expense of the laughs. The album gets off to a promising start with “In My Draws,” in which a paranoid Devin protects his underpants from a weird array of intruders, from cops to thieves to kinky one-night-stands (“Might get full of weed and alcohol / I go to sleep / you try to dig up in my wallet and my draws”). Things stay strong with “I Can’t Make it Home,” which finds Devin and guest star L.C. detailing the dangers of driving after imbibing “one blunt / one more shot of Patron.” By spinning a straightforward, melancholy story and never speaking down to the listener, Devin’s avoids P.S.A. territory, emerging instead as a cautionary tale closer to Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story.”

Things start to go off the rails around the album’s midway point, when the subject matter slides into a mostly dull litany of Devin’s sexual escapades. When leavened with a dose of humor, the Dude’s tales of lust can be masterworks of libidinous lyricism, but this time around they’re tiresome and borderline misogynistic. (“See a fine bitch, fuck her / Yeah, I gotta / ‘cause I must get mine / you tryin’ to get yours / and I see through them counterfeit whores”) A guest appearance by longtime Devin booster Snoop Dogg does little to elevate “I Don’t Chase ‘Em,” an overlong, ugly tribute to hip-hop groupies (“Some niggas be askin’ can they go find me a bitch / When I have to dodge more pussy than they ever get”).

It’s frustrating to listen to Devin expending his talents on that brand of played-out, predictable hip-hop on an album also featuring uplifting fare like “Yo Mind” and the genuinely touching love ballad “Your Kinda Love.” There’s plenty to like about Landing Gear, including Devin’s trademark laid-back beats and silky smooth flow, but on the whole, it’s a major step backward from his recent work. This feels like a case of a true original trying to fall in line with industry expectations and diluting his impact in the process.

- Ira Brooker

Monday, December 22, 2008

Recent Readings: "Marabou Stork Nightmares" by Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting changed my life. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that John Hodge and Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting changed my life. I first saw the film when I was 17, the night it opened at the King Theater in downtown La Crosse. As a clean-living country boy from rural Wisconsin, there’s no reason I should have connected so intensely to the antics of a bunch of heroin-addled Scots, but for some reason the adventures of Renton and company just hit home for me. I saw the movie six times in the theater and stole a copy of the video as soon as it was released.

I held off on reading the book for more than a decade, largely because I was repeatedly told that it was much better than the film. It may sound odd, but I loved the movie so much that I didn’t want to tarnish it by viewing its superior source material. Of course, when I finally broke down and read the book, my friends were proven right. Welsh’s novel is absolutely amazing, one of the finest works of literature written in the last few decades. The characterizations, the use of dialect, the shifting points of view – it’s all brilliantly done and endlessly readable.

Not long after I finished Trainspotting, I was offered a chance to share a stage with Irvine Welsh at a public reading (thanks, Sexy Bald Men!). It was a hell of a rush, even if Welsh’s accent rendered most of his reading indecipherable for me. After the show, I violated all of my self-imposed fanboy laws and gushed my praise all over him. I didn’t even do that when I saw John Goodman at a sushi restaurant, and that dude was Walter Sobchak, for god’s sake!

All of this needlessly in-depth preamble just serves to show how hyped I was for Marabou Stork Nightmares, my first encounter with Welsh outside of the Trainspotting vernacular. I picked it out of a small array of Welsh novels at Crow Books in Burlington, Vermont based mainly on the unique premise: it’s told from the perspective of Roy Strang, a coma patient who constantly blurs the grim facts of his waking life with the exciting fantasy world he’s constructed within his head.

Reading this book turned out to be an exhilarating, horrifying, nauseating experience. It’s an excellent novel in just about every respect, but also one I wish I could block from my memory. The story of a bright but profoundly damaged young man who’s been raised to associate violence with love, sex, self-worth and nearly every other facet of his life, this is one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read. The stories of the Strang family’s extremely dysfunctional home life are hard enough to take – Roy’s ongoing campaign of sadism against the family dog is especially cringe-worthy – but it’s an excruciatingly long and graphic rape scene that truly pushes this into nightmare territory. I won’t provide any spoilers, but I’ll say that I’ve never before been so intensely horrified by a passage of fiction.

Unpleasant though it is, Marabou Stork Nightmares is eminently worthwhile because the brutality never comes off as extraneous. It’s a story of abuse and neglect at every level, from personal to societal. Welsh’s narrative is disturbing because it has to be. Pulling any punches would dilute the horror of Roy Strang’s existence and the impossibility of his attempts to escape into his homemade world of adventure. Even the traumatizing rape sequence is well-earned. As much as I found myself wishing Welsh would back off and spare me just a few ugly details, I had to respect his decision to spell everything out in its vicious totality. "Shock value" generally has a negative connotation, but that's only because many writers emphasize the shock at the expense of the value. Welsh's approach underlines the heinous nature of sexual assault and augments one of the book’s most important themes, the futility of trying to escape reality.

All told, Marabou Stork Nightmares solidifies Irvine Welsh’s status as one of my favorite living authors, but it also made me resolve to take a break from grimness and read something a little more uplifting. To that end, I promptly embarked on Cormac McCarthy’s feel-good, Oprah-endorsed father-son romp The Road. After Marabou Stork Nightmares, that one was a regular laugh riot.

- Ira Brooker

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Recent Viewings: "Semi-Tough"

Less than two minutes into its run time, Semi-Tough showed me something I’ve never seen in a feature film before. Unfortunately, that something was Brian Denehey’s bare ass, which honestly didn’t rank very high on my cinematic must-see list. That was far from the last surprise Semi-Tough had in store for me. Over the next hour and forty-odd minutes, I bore witness to such peculiarities as Robert Preston crawling around an office on all fours, Kris Kristofferson attempting to pass himself off as a comedic lead and Burt Reynolds offering sexual favors to German chanteuse Lotte Lenya in exchange for her not shoving her fingers up his nose.

You might reasonably assume that a film packed with this much weirdness and Denehey flesh would be interesting, if not entertaining. I sorely wish that were so, but Semi-Tough pulls of the rare feat of being bizarre and boring at the same time. I imagine the filmmakers pitching the suits a movie that “does for football what M.A.S.H. did for the Army.” That might be a noble aim, if not for the fact that M.A.S.H. contained considerably more football than does Semi-Tough.

Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson star as Billy Clyde and Shake, pro football’s most dominant running back and receiver, respectively. Now, I understand that professional athletes had longer careers back in the day, but both leads were a ripe old 41 when Semi-Tough hit theaters in 1977. The 2002 Raiders notwithstanding, buying these two well-kept but visibly middle-aged dudes as the cream of the NFL (or at least its fictional, licensing-fee-free equivalent) requires considerable suspension of disbelief.

Anyhow, the boys’ “Miami” squad is on the brink of a Super Bowl appearance when the film opens. We’re treated to an introductory blur of locker room shenanigans, team owner Robert Preston’s comic blustering and Kris and Burt’s stunt doubles in some brief on-field action. We also get brief glimpses of the stereotypes who fill out the team – a couple of jive-talking black dudes; a preening, barefoot placekicker from Eastern Europe; and Denehey’s violent, borderline retarded lineman. Usually this type of set-up would foreshadow hijinx to come, but there’s surprisingly little payoff to any of these caricatures.

Next up, we meet the owner’s comely daughter Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh), childhood pal and current roommate of Billy Clyde and Shake. As Barbara Jane explains to her dad, she’s not sleeping with either of them, so there’s nothing weird about their living arrangement (Dad somewhat creepily replies that he’d be more comfortable with it if she really were boffing one of the guys). We leave the rest of the team behind as this trio tools around town while engaging in inane conversations that were presumably intended as witty repartee.

So far, so good, or at least not so bad. We seem to be settling into the rhythms of a dumb football comedy with a potential romantic triangle subplot. And then things take a turn for the weird, as the film’s middle third inexplicably veers into a broad satire of the New Age self-improvement fad of the late ‘70s. Turns out Shake has recently discovered himself (or “got it,” in the parlance of the film) with the help of oily guru Bert Convy, whose primary path to enlightenment involves repeatedly calling his pupils “assholes.” As Billy Clyde and Barbara Jane make separate efforts to understand their friend’s conversion and “get it” themselves, Semi-Tough tumbles into a series of grotesqueries of wacky ‘70s soul-seekers indulging in treatments with goofy names like “pelfing.” This is where we’re treated to the sights of esteemed song and dance man Robert Preston trying to find his inner child by “creeping” around his office like an infant, and of Kurt Weill muse Lotte Lenya hamming it up as a sadistic massage therapist. 1977 made sensible people do some strange things.

Hey, remember football? It’s a movie about football. We will indeed return to the gridiron before movie’s end, but first we’ll have to follow up the interminable New Age sequence with some slightly less painful romantic comedy. Somewhere in amongst the pelfing and the assholes, Shake and Barbara Jane get engaged, which forces Billy Clyde to realize that he’s always kind of hoped it would be him who eventually hooked up with the boss’s daughter. From here on out, “Semi-Tough” becomes pretty standard rom-com fare, with a ‘70s-sized helping of existential angst on the side. This final third is a bit easier to take, partially because of the lowered expectations of what went before, and partially because of Clayburgh’s effervescent performance. Throughout the film, she’s much better than Semi-Tough deserves. Blandly obnoxious as they may be, Shake and Billy Clyde at least have good taste in women.

And then, out of nowhere, it’s a football movie again. The boys from Miami suddenly remember there’s a Super Bowl to be played, so we get a few minutes of pre-game build-up (including one of the film’s few truly funny moments, a media interview in which Billy Clyde swaps self-help tips with “Dallas” team captain Carl Weathers), followed by the inevitable Big Game. The execution of this sequence is as lackluster as everything that went before it, with Billy Clyde playing miserably in the first half, then rebounding in the third quarter to lead the team to a remarkably tension-free come-from-behind victory. “Miami” brings home the trophy, but that’s really just an afterthought to the big closing piece – the wedding of Shake and Barbara Jane. Will she stick with Kristofferson’s New Age Adonis or yield to Reynolds’ cowboy charms? I’m not going to tell you, because you shouldn’t care any more than I did while watching the damned movie.

A football comedy that’s nearly devoid of football and comedy, Semi-Tough ranks among the low points in Michael Ritchie’s spotty career as a director of sports movies. Sure, the man helmed the original Bad News Bears, but his subsequent track record includes Wildcats, The Scout and the Robert Redford skiing epic Downhill Racer. Perhaps the film’s only redeeming quality, other than strong acting by Clayburgh, is how much it made me appreciate Norm MacDonald’s spot-on Burt Reynolds impression. His whole “Celebrity Jeopardy” character from SNL could have been cribbed from Burt’s performance in this movie. As ever, Burt’s reasonably charming here, but it remains unfathomable that this beefy, greasy guy was once a romantic lead, let alone the definitive sex symbol for an entire generation. But like I said, 1977 made sensible people do some strange things.

- Ira Brooker

Monday, December 15, 2008

Recent Viewings: "Stranger than Fiction"

A couple of conceits to which I do not characteristically cotton: meta-fiction and writers writing about writers. By all rights, I should have hated Stranger than Fiction, a film built almost entirely upon those concepts. The story of a bland IRS agent who learns he’s a character in an author’s novel-in-progress and sets out to confront his creator, this is a movie that tries to tackle weighty, intellectual matters but comes off like Charlie Kaufmann Lite. I’m not a huge fan of the original recipe, so again, this is a project I should have despised.

And yet, somehow, I didn’t. In fact, I liked quite a few things about
Stranger than Fiction. A lot of that has to do with the cast. It’s tough to go completely wrong when you’ve got the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah and Tony Hale backing up Will Ferrell in the lead.

That’s another cinematic trope I usually dislike – a gifted comedian trying to “prove himself” by playing a straight role – but Ferrell doesn’t overreach. I think the key to Ferrell’s success here is that he doesn’t come off as desperate for our approval. I can definitely appreciate why a comic actor would welcome a chance to play a role that doesn’t require him to flop around the screen half-nude and hollering. The trouble is, too many of these guys overcompensate when they’re finally given that chance. That mindset can manifest itself many ways: Jim Carrey and Robin Williams over-emote shamelessly in their quests for Oscar, Steve Martin shifts into pretentious
New Yorker mode and Martin Short and Chris Elliott hop the thin line between wacky and creepy in their Law & Order guest spots.

Ferrell avoids all of those pitfalls by playing a dull, aggressively average working stiff, a job more challenging than it might sound on paper. Give this part to Carrey or Williams, and we’d have the mundanity of the working world beaten mercilessly into our skulls. A quiet Carrey performance is just as obnoxious as an over-the-top one, because we can so clearly see him straining – and failing – to come off as a regular person. Ferrell just acts like a normal guy (as I suspect he probably is when he’s off camera) and it’s entirely believable.

In fact, it’s to Ferrell’s great credit that the most effective parts of
Stranger than Fiction come when the movie sets aside its meta conceits and nurtures the budding romance between Ferrell’s IRS stooge and Gyllenhaal’s radical left-wing baker. Their moments together are rather lovely and never feel forced. There’s very little about their relationship that goes outside the realm of cliché, but there’s a welcome richness to their exchanges, especially the scene where Ferrell woos his lady with an acoustic rendition of Wreckless Eric’s “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World.” If you cut out Thompson’s tortured novelist and Hoffman’s bemused literature professor (both fine performances in their own right) and stripped away the overarching theme of fiction and reality, you’d have a pedestrian but pleasant romantic comedy. It would be a trifle, to be sure, but many movies have been built on flimsier premises.

As it is, we get a lot of reasonably interesting, mildly frustrating meditations on the power of fiction, the joy of self-discovery and the very nature of existence, all crammed into a movie a little too lightweight to support such heady pontification. It all works well enough, but it’s a bit of a shame to think how much more – or less – might have been done with the tools at hand.

- Ira Brooker

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An appreciation: Charlie Kelly of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

I know I’ve encountered a brilliant fictional character when I find myself wishing I could actually hang out with that person in real life. At the worst of times, palling around with a real world Charlie Kelly would be exhausting, pathetic and downright scary. At the best of times, though, it would probably be a hell of a lot of fun.

Hanging with Charlie is even more of a pipe dream than most of my fictional friendships, because I don’t believe anyone remotely like Charlie exists in real life. In fact, no one else quite like Charlie exists in fiction, either.

The genius of Charlie Day’s performance is that he’s created a character unlike anyone we’ve seen on our TV screens before. He’s manic, he’s depressive, he’s full-bore insane. He’s an illiterate, squalor-dwelling, paint-huffing stalker who platonically shares a bed with a slumming, degenerate millionaire. And yet somehow, he’s far and away the most sympathetic character on a show that actively shuns sympathy.

I’ve always held that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is basically Seinfeld with the self-absorption and misanthropy ratcheted way, way up. In that equation, Charlie equals George Costanza, the biggest loser in a gang of them. There are plenty of parallels, from the characters’ short stature to their inability to maintain an indoor speaking voice.

But even George was constrained by the bounds of logic and the basic norms of society. His constant scheming was at least motivated by hopes of financial or personal gain. Not so Charlie, who frequently dives wholeheartedly into degradation and bodily harm just because the opportunity presents itself. The series has found him filling his apartment with trash, enrolling in an underground fight club and leaping out of a moving vehicle not so much through any grand design, but just because he loves his role as “The Wildcard.”

And George never approached Charlie’s surrealist thought process, displayed in amazing bits like Charlie’s impromptu song snippets (“ROCK, FLAG AND EAGLE!”) or his confusing the concepts of haunting and murdering. He may be completely crazy, but the brain behind “Dayman” is a beautiful mind indeed.

Even when Charlie does act with a specific goal in mind, his approach is far beyond what we’ve come to expect from our sitcom characters. Take his pursuit of his dream girl, The Waitress. Plenty of other sitcom sidekicks have tried to lie, scheme and cheat their way into the hearts of various ladies, but only Charlie has gone so far as to write, direct and stage an entire rock opera as a subterfuge for proposing to the object of his obsession. That The Waitress is apparently willing to sleep with almost anyone who isn’t Charlie just makes his striving all the more exquisite.

In his portrayal of Charlie Kelly, Charlie Day has created something truly special: a disgusting, amoral man-child who manages to come across as almost loveable. He may be best summed up by this lovely exchange from “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”:

Charlie (tapping his temple, his face glistening with freshly huffed paint): “What is going on up here?”
Dennis: “I never know, man.”

Neither do I, and that's why I love the man.

- Ira Brooker

Friday, December 5, 2008

I'm a neat guy

Y’know, I’m a pretty interesting guy.

Or rather, I’m good at presenting myself on paper as an interesting guy. Judging by what I stumble across in my daily rounds of the internet, that makes me fairly unique amongst bloggers. I’m also a fine writer, a pop culture junkie and something of a bon vivant. And so it is that I saw an overcrowded marketplace and said, “Me too!”

That’s all for now, I reckon. I don’t want to make any bold statements of purpose or anything like that. For the time being, I’ll blog what and when I want to blog. If you care to read it, then welcome aboard. If you don’t care to read it, I hope you’ll at least appreciate the tasteful font and color scheme I’ve selected. I really do aim to please.