Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It's Blitz

It’s easy to forget how life was before the information-saturated days of the internets. Those days, the only way to satisfy my anticipation of a new album was to physically go to the local music shop and check the racks. Unless a store had it together enough to display a dry-erase board with band/album names next to their release dates. Being left in the dark about the upcoming albums was excruciating, yet the gratification of untainted discovery was always well worth the wait.

Cut to the modern days, when music sites, blogs and message boards were all bracing me for the ominous horror of the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs album which features more electro-synth pop with dance beats and less iconic Nick Zinner guitars. Several sites had the lead song, “Zero”, available for streaming as evidence. Hell, even the entire album’s up for grabs a full two months before the intended release date.

The onslaught of warnings and rants resulted in my fully coming to terms with the “new sound” of Karen O and company going in so I absorbed the album with pleasing results. Still, I can’t help but wonder what my experience would’ve been like if I had hit PLAY on my iPod and dove into It’s Blitz completely fresh and unprepared. I imagine it could’ve been shocking, scary, surprising and deeply satisfying.

“Zero” is an appropriate lead-off since it features many of the elements that are the topic of controversy. Clearly synthesized beats open the track. But not a full 10 seconds passes before Karen’s recognizable voice eases to you into the rest of the album. Throughout the album, her voice is the trusted guide through their new landscape of sound. She has an unmistakable sound, however she manages to showcase it in many ways before the album’s end. Her trademark screeches and growls are kept to a minimum, replaced with girlish squeals and breathy whispers. It’s Blitz does a wonderful job of displaying how versatile and talented Karen O is, and not a one-trick wailer.

“Heads Will Roll” continues to pile on the evidence that detractors could turn to for how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have abandoned their old sound for clean-cut dance beats. While it’s true that “Heads Will Roll” is the most purely dance song on the album, it’s easy to look back to songs like “Y-Control” or “Cheated Hearts” to prove that the band has always been dance-floor friendly.

Which is what the album ultimately tells us. While they traverse new territory, the group hasn’t lost the sensibilities that made them successful in the first place. Rather than recycle a known formula, they forge ahead and test new waters. Isn’t that what we all want out of bands? Critics (and bloggers) are in an easy position. A band tries something new and are detracted for forgetting what made them successful. Yet another band could release an album of similar material and be scoffed at for being stale or unimaginative. It’s hard to see many bands coming out of that minefield unscathed. Even the Beatles garnered head scratching and queer looks when their mustached faces appeared, singing the weird and un-fab “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs certainly took their lumps as well. The aura of sophomore slump hung all over Show Your Bones, evident in the disappointing sales and lukewarm reviews. But after the initial shock, I grew to love that album as much as Fever to Tell. They didn’t replicate the raw, visceral ferocity of the debut album, but that possibly goes to show how special and great Fever to Tell was.

I applaud the band for not trying to recapture that moment in time. That doesn’t mean that the band can’t rock when they want to. Show Your Bones was full of bombastic moments, such as “Phenomena”, “Déjà Vu”, or even “Gold Lion” which deceptively grows into a beast of a song. People also forget that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ breakout hit was the soulfully quiet “Maps”. Show Your Bones stands apart from Fever to Tell in a relative manner that It’s Blitz is positioned from the two. Equidistant yet related, they each show a different side of this band and it’s impressive to hear.

I love how Karen O is able to let us into every aspect of her persona. She deftly glides from a fierce fire-breather to a fragile poet while keeping it genuine and uncontrived. I’m sure there’s much to dissect from the album cover and it’s implications but I’ll spare it in order to keep this review from mushrooming out of control.

I’ll come out and say that I listened to the leaked album in advance, but I have also bought the official digital and physical offering. The music industry may finally be figuring out how to cope in the world of illegal sharing by offering exclusive incentives such as live tracks on iTunes or b-sides on the actual physical specimen. That works out for me since I’ve always made it a point to buy the CDs and love hording rare and live songs. Those familiar with the brilliant acoustic rendition of “Gold Lion” or Karen’s Native Korean Rock wont be surprised by the bonus songs on the deluxe It’s Blitz version, but it might shed light for more casual fans.

“Zero” is obvious single material, “Heads Will Roll” and “Dull Life” will be popular, while “Little Shadow” and “Runaway” harkens back to the intimate and emotive “Maps” and “Warrior”. I personally love “Dragon Queen” for it’s sleek sexiness. The twinkling guitar is something I would’ve never expected from a band that created Fever to Tell, but that’s the point. The acoustic and orchestrated version of “Little Shadow” goes a little too far for me into the realm of mushy, bland soft-rock. But it’s a bonus song and a minor quibble to a fantastic album.

The track, “Shame and Fortune” was particularly interesting to me. It seemed to be the most direct response to the anticipated criticism. The song is composed of many “typical” YYYs tools: distorted, chugging guitars; Karen’s menacing vocals; and strong, rapid drumming from Brian. All this reinforces the message within the lyrics: Shame, it’s soft and same/Lose when I play your game/Come if you call my name/All the fortune on the floor. This band is obviously not interested in cashing in on their known commodity and that’s why I fucking love this band. I’ve said it before, this band embodies so much of what I loved about Nirvana: blisteringly loud, yet beautifully tender inside; unpredictable and a little bit crazy; and rebellious in a completely sincere manner.

I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Dragon Queen

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Asteroids Galaxy Tour at Le Poisson Rouge, 03/22/09

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when attending The Asteroids Galaxy Tour show at Le Poisson Rouge. I usually don’t go to shows so blind, not knowing what the band is about or at least more than a handful of songs. But this Danish group doesn’t have a lot of material out there yet. Their debut album, Fruit, is due out in May so all we’ve had to go on so far are an EP or two and of course that iPod Touch commercial.

Honestly, I was expecting to see a lot more similarities between them and The Ting Tings, another guy/girl duo with an Apple commercial in their résumé, who I saw less than a week ago at Terminal 5. Surprisingly, they have very little in common. First of all, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour didn’t present themselves as a duo, rather a full band with a couple of horn players. Whereas The Ting Tings fully fall into the Eighties pop revival with infectious dance songs and colorful hipster clothing, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour seem to draw more from 60’s soul and psychedelia.

Not that I didn’t enjoy The Ting Tings, but I knew what I was in for going into the show and they didn’t disappoint. The venue was also a factor. Terminal 5 is an impressive, large, modern space, but Le Poisson was much more intimate and inviting. I was literally a foot away from the drum set, which made not wearing earplugs a mistake.

My initial reaction to The Asteroids Galaxy Tour taking the stage was “Wow, the lead singer, Mette Lindberg, is REALLY petite.” which quickly gave way to “Wow, that’s one giant voice coming out of her!” During the show, I kept trying to recall who her vocals reminded me of. My brain went immediately to Shirley Bassey and other 60’s female vocalists with room-filling voices. Yet that doesn’t quite describe fully Mette’s distinctive sound.

The band as a whole had much more of a funk groove than I expected. Around the Bend is an obvious pop single that gets people’s attention, but as usual, it wont be able to adequately represent what this group is really about. The Sun Ain’t Shining No More or Bad Fever more likely embody the jazz over pop sound that the band employs. I think it helped immensely to have a horn section, strengthening that 60’s soul influence. It’s my opinion that most bands should have horn sections in their show rather than try to replicate them with synthesizers. The sax and trumpet added so much to The Asteroids Galaxy Tour that I can’t imagine what their live act without them.

The medium sized venue was packed with enthusiastic fans, which is pretty amazing considering their relative newness. It was a pleasure to be able to see them in a smaller space as opposed to the wildly popular Ting Tings, and for only $10. This experience probably wont last once their album debuts. Already, they’re generating buzz from NPR’s All Songs Considered for putting on a great show at SXSW last week.

The Sun Ain’t Shining No More

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Prim and propaganda

I ventured into the Saks store last weekend and was shocked to see the boldness of their new advertising campaign. Playing off heavily on a constructivist era aesthetic, the entire store was blanketed with the signage and installations. I applaud Saks for the guts to go with such a strong visual style and to do it whole-heartedly. Though I have to wonder how effective the campaign is and how it speaks to their target audience.

I became familiar with the design style in school and had attempted to incorporate elements into my work several times. The usual response is the client or art director freaking out. I would’ve loved to have sat in on the concept pitch and see how the design studio got Saks to OK the direction.

This economy probably has companies resorting to more extreme measures to attract consumers, and I’d be interested in seeing how this look works (or doesn’t work) for Saks. As a designer, it’s always great to see something different and daring, but when there’s no substantial reasoning behind the approach, the effect is fleeting. I love the style and how solid the implementation is, but know that it has connotations to people that don’t necessarily promote a positive shopping environment.

Kudos to NotCot for digging up the backstory and visuals behind the campaign.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone

There's no denying that Neko Case is a force of nature. Her voice is unmistakable and her songs are haunting, which makes it all the more astonishing that she didn’t take up singing until into her 20’s. It’s almost a crime.

Her latest release, Middle Cyclone, shows off a clear progression in her songwriting abilities. Comparably, the tracks off of Blacklisted, just a few years past, seem more simplistic and straightforward.

With her next effort, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case created lush and epic landscapes full of abstract and fantastic stories. At times gothic and looming, she presented tales of “make-believe monsters” and big bad wolves. For my money, there’s nothing quite as moody and atmospheric as “The Dirty Knife”. Musically, she upped the ante, using more textures and beautiful cascading harmonies. Whereas Blacklisted firmly established Neko Case as a soulful, alt-country star, Fox Confessor was an ambitious, exploratory album which could be viewed as her Sgt. Pepper’s.

However, I sense that with Middle Cyclone, she’s found a middle ground (no pun intended) between her work on Blacklisted and Fox Confessor. Neko has absorbed all the lessons she’s learned before and utilized them all to create a much more deliberate and tempered album. Not as dark or serious as Fox Confessor, yet more complex and progressive than Blacklisted.

The themes have shifted as well. She isn’t as introspective as in Blacklisted, or intimate as with Fox Confessor; Middle Cyclone’s story is less about a specific person and more about mankind. Or specifically mankind in relation to nature. A first-person account by a tornado, descriptions of being mauled or eaten by animals, and blatantly saying “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” all show the fragility of man and that nature is a force to be respected.

In “Next Time You Say Forever”, Case reminds us that we are mortal and that what we create can be swept away with the lyrics “To be the dangling ceiling, from the roof came crashing down, peeling in the heat, vanished in the rain. The next time you say forever, I’ll punch you in your face.” Later on, she sings about the “Cistine Chapel painted with a gattling gun”, telling us that even the most prized accomplishments of man are temporary and perishable.

However, Case doesn’t present these ideas as a scare tactic. I mean, how serious can she be when her cover art features her crouching on the hood of a Mercury Cougar holding a sword? In fact, as serious as her subject matter is, I feel that this album is far less foreboding than Fox Confessor.

She presents the idea that we affect and are affected by nature equally. We’re not diametric forces, but rather harmonious ones. As the tornado, Case croons that she/it loves you, and later on points out that man is also an animal. And we can’t claim individual insignificance with “I didn’t know what a brute I was... And I drag the clanging notion I was nobody, nobody.”

Of course, it’s a Neko Case album so there are bound to be several beautiful, beautiful moments to be heard. “Vengeance is Sleeping” is an achingly gorgeous song. “Magpie to the Morning” showcases how Neko’s voice can soar like no other.

For the final track, Case allots nearly half the length of the entire album to the ambient sounds of frogs and other backyard creatures. It’s a fitting, final point to her message of having respect for nature.

What I come away with in the end is more respect for Neko Case. With each release, she shows noticeable growth as an artist. Fox Confessor was almost a collection of fairy tales and short stories, but Middle Cyclone demonstrates a much more calculated theme throughout. Like old school country artists, Case is a storyteller that creates characters with her lyrics, rather than relying on simpler, autobiographical lines like other modern vocalists. She’s a poet that uses complex imagery and metaphors that invite us to interpret them. Who’s not going to eat up lines such as “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes”?

Like that tornado, her power and love commands our respect and makes us love her back.

Check out Neko’s MySpace page to hear some of her new songs.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Metal Couture at Fontana’s

Burlesque, metal bands, and a fashion show with chicks in torn fishnet... Who could ask for anything better? More pics on Flickr.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Wii Can Work It Out

Oh man!

Can’t. Wait.

Whoever determined the release date is a genius who obviously knows his Beatles lore.


New York, NY - March 5, 2008 - Apple Corps, Ltd., Harmonix and MTV Games, a part of Viacom's MTV Networks (NYSE: VIA, VIA.B), today announced the 9/9/09 worldwide release of The Beatles: Rock Band (http://www.thebeatlesrockband.com). The music-based video game, an unprecedented, experiential progression through and celebration of the music and artistry of The Beatles, will be available simultaneously worldwide in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other territories for the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PLAYSTATION 3 computer entertainment system and Wii(TM) home videogame console from Nintendo.

The Beatles: Rock Band will allow fans to pick up the guitar, bass, mic or drums and experience The Beatles' extraordinary catalogue of music through gameplay that takes players on a journey through the legacy and evolution of the band's legendary career. In addition, The Beatles: Rock Band will offer a limited number of new hardware offerings modeled after instruments used by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr throughout their career.

The Beatles: Rock Band will be offered as standalone software and hardware as well as a limited edition bundle. The game will be compatible with all Rock Band instrument controllers and other current music-based video game peripherals.

The Beatles: Rock Band marks the first time that Apple Corps, along with EMI Music, Harrisongs Ltd, and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, has agreed to present The Beatles' music in an interactive video game format. The Beatles: Rock Band will be published by MTV Games and
developed by Harmonix, the world's premier music video game company and creators of the best-selling Rock Band. Electronic Arts will serve as distribution partner for the game. In addition, Giles Martin, co-producer of The Beatles' innovative LOVE album project, is providing
his expertise and serving as Music Producer for this groundbreaking Beatles project.

Exclusive content created by Apple Corps, MTV Games and Harmonix will be made available to fans over the next few months who participate in a pre-order campaign through major retailers. More details on The Beatles: Rock Band game and pre-order will be revealed in the coming months.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Hot knot

Who knew there were so many varied and wonderful ways to tie a scarf around one’s neck? Props to this site for the find. Can’t wait to try it out!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Breaking the bank

Once again, This American Life comes through for us all by taking another look at our faltering economy. Whereas the previous episodes focused on the buildup to the Wall Street meltdown, this episode tries to break down what’s going on with the banks and why they’re all in such trouble.

In order to provide clarity to financial laymen like myself, they make it an emphasis to explain things in as direct a manner as possible. The result is as enlightening as it is infuriating.

Basically, what you get out of it is that people have largely been irresponsible by taking out loans that they weren’t qualified for, the banks were greedy bastards by approving all these bad loans, everyone is looking to the government to bail them out, which means that honest, poor joes like you and I are going to get screwed no matter what. Wonderful.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Examined Life

The IFC Center is currently showing a documentary showcase of several modern philosophers called Examined Life.

Filmmaker Astra Taylor does a good job of adding kinetic energy to the stream of (essentially) lectures by putting each subject in a public area, mostly around New York. Topics of philosophy touch on consumerism and ecology, but the threads are mainly connected by the idea of meaning (or lack thereof) in existence and the individual’s connection with society.

Although certain theories such as Social Contract are alluded to, Taylor manages to steer clear of getting mired in a historical survey of philosophical thought. That frees her to let the subjects focus on their own modern ideas.

The film succeeds in keeping the speakers focused, without diverging on too many tangents. While it shows that the filmmaker has the skill to converge it all into a tight film, it’s hard not to feel like there wasn’t enough meat to the exploration. Each person had 10 minutes to get across their entire philosophy, when it's easy to see how they could’ve gone on for hours and hours. Thus Examined Life comes across as an overview of ideas, without being able to really explore the depths or details of those ideas. I suppose that’s not a knock on the film but more an observation on the limitation of the format. Taylor herself admitted to the amount that had to get cut out.

Afterwards, my friend wondered aloud if the people in films just talked endlessly about philosophy. My guess would be yes, but I took issue with some of the subtle allegations in the film that there is no middle ground in between being a deep thinking, cerebral citizen of the world and the mindless, uncaring, consumerist automaton.

While waiting for the showtime, my friend and I were drinking beers talking about plans for our next pub crawl. Is that not okay? Do we have to be dissecting the nature of man every hour of every day? I love philosophy and examining our nature, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but I don’t feel compelled to have to do that exclusively. I take enjoyment in mindless, stupid things as much as deep, thought provoking matters. I think it’s in our nature to have those dichotomies and juxtapositions.

One of the topics that I enjoyed the most was Cornel West speaking that there is no definitive goal or meaning in life, and what that means for our concept of “failure”. And while each philosopher had his or her own concept of “meaning”, whether there is one or not, they seemed to agree that we are social creatures who have an intrinsic need to interact.

As an only child who has always had strong loner tendencies, it made me wonder about my own views towards the nature of society. I’ve come to whole-heartedly believe that we need that interaction and contact to live “meaningfully”. Living in New York City, I can’t help but be constantly exposed to people. I wondered what my inclination are towards people I meet or strangers on the street. Do I automatically have trust and respect in those I don't even know?

Several of the companies I’ve worked for have a philosophy of making sure you do your work on the assumption that other people are lazy, slow, incorrect or dumb. Expect that clients will not give you the correct information, or predict that the printer will be late in fulfilling the order. That inherent mistrust for others seemed awkward for me. Although there were instances which proved that theory true, I have a feeling that those negative, paranoid thoughts had much to do with my unhappiness at those jobs.

My thoughts also led me to my parents, who more than anyone I’ve ever known, believe that the default inclination of human beings is to be good. They put trust and faith in people to points which make me uneasy. Yet my mom will still clutch her purse with a deathgrip at restaurants, even upscale ones. It reminded me again of our often contradictory thinking.

Not sure where I was going with the end of this post, but the film got some of those mental gears turning, which is the point of the film, and why I enjoyed it so much.

But Coraline in 3-D was also pretty awesome.