5/23/2008 4:06:17 PM
Type geeks will appreciate The Ampersand, a blog dedicated to “the most attractive punctuation mark of them all.” Readers can submit images of ampersands, from simple to ornate, ugly to artsy.
5/22/2008 1:21:56 PM
Following in the footsteps of fellow UK imports like the Fratellis and the Kooks, the Rumble Strips are poised to be the next big thing in feel-good indie rock. Their horn-laden debut album Girls and Weather is set for U.S. release August 5. Prepare to have it trapped in your head.
5/22/2008 9:28:01 AM
The Bubble Project has been a global viral phenomenon for some time, and now artist Ji Lee talks to Current.TV about how the project came to be. It’s interesting that the same ad agencies producing the ads that his bubbles deface now offer him freelance work to come up with similar viral ideas to promote their products. Bubble on!
(Thanks Wooster Collective.)
5/20/2008 1:14:16 PM
Just the other day I was visiting an ex whom I still count as a good friend, and she showed me a tiny artifact of our relationship, in the form of a mix tape I made for her nearly 10 years ago. I immediately became both embarrassed and wistful as I studied its faded magazine-cutout cover art and hastily typed-up track listing, a veritable time capsule of indie rock and electronica circa 1998—and, more importantly, a catalog of the songs we listened to regularly when we began dating: Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo, Cornershop, Daft Punk.
Chances are, if you came of age in the '90s and have an even glancing relationship to music, you made your fair share of mix tapes (and, later, mix CDs) for various friends and lovers. If those parties reciprocated, and if you are a pack rat, their lovingly curated compilations are probably still in storage somewhere in your home. Go dig one up. Maybe play it once or twice, if you’re feeling nostalgic (and if you still have a tape deck somewhere), and let the aforementioned wistfulness wash over you.
Then shake it off, you big sap, and submit it to Cassette From My Ex, where several contributors have already shared their musical mementos of past relationships, along with track listings, liner notes, accompanying essays, and even sound clips. “Because we met during the fleeting moment at millennium’s end when analog and digital media coexisted,” writes one contributor, “we could sign out of our Hotmail accounts and then step over to our stereos to express to our affections through mixed tapes.”
Indeed, those of us who still have actual mix tapes—who remember when they were the de facto album format; who occasionally betray our ages in conversations about our cherished cassette copy of Thriller, purchased at Sam Goody, shortly after its release; who once felt that distinctions like Dolby NR and High Bias and Type IV were important considerations—may find that by revisiting this obsolete format now, in the age of mp3s, our sentimentality is triggered almost as much by the form (that little plastic cartridge) as by its content (erstwhile love songs). In fact, a sort of eulogy for the cassette format was delivered in this space not long ago: “By giving listeners the ability to copy and share music,” Brian Joseph Davis wrote in Utne, “tape not only entered a copyright debate that still rages, but also became a way for an entire generation to express friendship, cultural affinity, and even love.” Davis' piece speaks not only to the cassette's versatile function as a musical love letter, but its role as an arguably populist medium—a convenient and controversial way for people to redistribute music; a sort of precursor to the file-sharing revolution of the late '90s.
Cassette From My Ex is a natural outgrowth of our culture’s burgeoning need to document experience using various media—in this case, the lost art of charmingly cobbled-together, obsolete cassette tapes—and the proliferation of personal narrative, a formula employed to great effect by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield in his 2006 memoir Love Is a Mix Tape, which expands Cassette From My Ex’s mission into a moving personal narrative as carefully crafted as the mixes he and his late wife assembled for each other. Cassette From My Ex continues in the spirit of Sheffield’s book, with prose contributions that range from irreverently funny to oddly touching, often within the same piece.
Image by kumar303, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/20/2008 12:46:51 PM
Let for-profit DVD lenders fight for subscribers. The Film Connection lends DVDs on current issues for free, provided you watch with a group and use the film to fuel conversation. The premise is simple: “We believe that film can spark a conversation like nothing else,” Film Connection states on its website, “and conversation is the first step to making a better world.”
(Thanks, Minnesota Women’s Press.)
Image by Brave New Films, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/20/2008 9:42:27 AM
If you still haven’t found something hopeful to latch onto in this election year, here is cause for optimism: Flight of the Conchords, a comedy-singing duo from New Zealand, is enjoying widespread popularity on American TVs, computers, and music-sales charts. Think of what this means! It means that a decade of reality TV, crappy sitcoms, and half-assed pop music haven’t necessarily destroyed the American sense of humor. Because Flight of the Conchords is funny—really, really funny—and Americans actually get it.
The duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, have a hit show on HBO (the second season is scheduled to begin next January), concert clips that have racked up millions of YouTube views, and a new album (self-titled) that debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200. Their May 13 concert in Minneapolis sold out almost immediately; as the enthusiastic guys sitting behind me helpfully explained, it was one of just 12 stops on their U.S. tour.
I’d seen their show, and seen their YouTube videos (if you haven’t had “Business Time” e-mailed to you at some time during the past year, you should get some funnier friends), so I was excited for the concert—but unsure how they’d spice it up enough to justify the $35 ticket price. That wound up being no problem. Everything, from their singing to their aimless chit-chatting, was hilarious. Yes, most of it was probably scripted, but their between-songs banter was brilliant and random. At one point, they set out to discuss “the issues,” including saving the whales. “Which is difficult,” Jemaine pointed out, “because they’re heavy.”
They mostly play guitar, but they like to rock out on strange, tiny instruments too: Bret had a cute little red keytar, Jemaine had a silver digital saxophone about the size of his forearm, and at one point they brought out a “rockin’spiel—it’s very similar to a glockenspiel,” Jemaine explained, “it’s just more rockin’.” They busted out more than a few crowd favorites, including “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” “Mutha’uckas,” “Bowie,” and “Business Time,” which included a bonus sitting-in-chair-sexy-dance by Jemaine.
It may have been the rowdiest I’ve ever seen a Minneapolis crowd (though in all fairness, I’ve never been to a hometown Prince show). Various come-ons, including one high-pitched marriage proposal, were screamed across the room by lovestruck women; I’m guessing the guys are used to such overtures, since they seemed pretty unfazed. The notes thrown onstage by fanladies disarmed them a tad, though, and were perhaps so raunchy (or so drunkenly, illegibly scrawled) that they refused to share them with the audience.
The duo’s strangely broad appeal can be summed up thusly: Last month, Jemaine and Bret appeared in Bust, as two of the feminist mag’s “Men We Love”—but also in the much-maligned lad-mag Maxim. A friend of mine offers a cynical explanation for their popularity in such disparate camps—that 80 percent of their humor lies in the kiwi accent—but I’m going to keep hoping that Flight of the Conchords heralds changing times on the comedy-performance horizon.
Photo courtesy of Sub Pop Records.
5/19/2008 5:06:10 PM
Louis Armstrong never stopped making art. Not only was he one of the most accomplished jazz musicians of all time, he was also an avid collage artist. The latest issue of the Paris Review showcases three examples of Satchmo's collages, described as “a visual outlet for his improvisational genius.”
5/13/2008 3:46:05 PM
David Berman, the singer, songwriter, and creative force behind the band Silver Jews, is not only a musician but also a respected poet. In 1999, he published a book of poems, Actual Air, that was cooed over by the New Yorker and GQ and praised by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Tate and former poet laureate Billy Collins. Berman is also an accomplished cartoonist whose drawings recently appeared at a gallery event organized by Dave Eggers in New York.
It’s Berman’s musical application of his literary talents, however, that are the wellspring of his success. His Silver Jews have been a going concern since the early nineties, and they’ve released a string of albums known primarily among critics for their lyrics, which tend to be funny, clever and genuinely, oddly beautiful. A quick sampler:
I had a friend, his name was Marc, with a “c."
His sister was like the heat coming off the back of an old TV.
—“Sleeping Is the Only Love,” from Tanglewood Numbers
I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose,
Lit up like the blood of a centerfold.
I love the city and the city rain
Suburban kids with Biblical names.
—“People,” from American Water
The latest Silver Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which is due out from Drag City in June, is no exception to the rule of quality Berman has established. His lyrics are poetry in a cracked, catchy, alt-country frame.
And yet the songs seem a little more straightforward this time around, less cryptic and more baldly emotional than on previous albums. Berman has spent the last few years sober, after what sounds like the proverbial drug-fueled haze. So is his work sobering up too? Utne Reader tried to answer this and other questions in a recent chat with the Silver Jews frontman.
“I’m in, let’s say, this business, and I have competitors. Instead of profit, what I’m seeking is influence,” Berman says, his voice markedly less rumbling than his Johnny-Cash-like singing voice would indicate.
For a statement of purpose, this seeking is sober enough, to be sure. As an artist, Berman seems determined to ensure the originality of the content he generates, or, if you prefer, the awesomeness of his lyrics. And when he sings (on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’s jaunty “Party Barge”), “Satan’s jeweled lobster has your wife in its claws,” it’s not just uniquely absurd and goofily surreal. It’s serious. The eponymous, barging-in character who sings the song is a party animal turned to 11. His demons, therefore, might be reasonably expected to take bizarre, extravagant shapes. Or maybe he’s the jeweled lobster. After all, Berman makes no disguise of the fact that he himself played the role of “party barge” for a number of years.
Then again, the Silver Jews aren’t simply a stage for autobiographical metaphors. In a world and contemporary music scene where musicians routinely dismiss their own lyrics by saying, “I don’t know what they mean,” David Berman’s current vision of his music rests solely on the idea that he’s offering intellectual objects in the form of country rock songs.
“I think people have taken advantage of the evolution in language toward postmodern pastiche and non-sequitur,” Berman offers. “People who want to be a songwriter or lead singer, but don’t have anything to say, are provided with this sort of loophole in the culture.”
Now, of course, this sounds pretentious. And it probably is—in the past, Berman himself has indulged in oblique, significant-sounding nonsense. But in an indie culture that worships the idea of music as Art, Berman’s take—and the poetry involved in his songs—seems normal, even expected. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was made with more than a touch of the tortured artist’s attention to detail, a fact that becomes apparent when you talk to the guy who agonized over it.
For instance, Berman proposes that the album is the most “Googly-sure” of any album—ever. What this means is that he took the time to Google such phrases as “abridged abyss,” in order to find out if they were solely his creations. No hits returned? It’s his; flag planted. A Google search now turns up 44 hits for the phrase “abridged abyss,” and the first page of results shows either Silver Jews’ lyrics or references to a Yale French Studies article on André Malraux. The Malraux reference, which Berman says he found, was sufficiently lonely and obscure that the lyric remains fixed in Lookout Mountain’s leadoff track, “What Is Not But Could Be If.”
All the album’s tracks underwent this kind of surgical construction. Using colored note-cards to write them, Berman set out to wade through “50, 60, 70 chord progressions” and numerous books he was reading at the time. “There’s an Emerson quote at the end of ‘Strange Victory, Strange Defeat,’” he points out, and “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” samples Emily Dickinson.
Perhaps this makes it sound as though the songs on Lookout Mountain exercise a literary posture. But they certainly don’t scan that way. Cheeky fun is one of the first phrases that comes to mind when I think of them. A Google search, by the way, yields 21,400 hits for cheeky fun, so it’s not any stretch of the critical vocabulary. Lookout Mountain is just a good album, with a couple great songs. It won’t raise the dead, at least not for long, but how often does that happen?
“If someone buys a Silver Jews record, they get to buy some freedom from the ickiness,” Berman hopes. The craft and thought he’s put into the album probably merits the description. Berman is, after all, a lauded poet, though he says that he has “less of a claim to originality [in poetry] than I do in, for instance, lyric-writing.” In lyric-writing, actually, Berman feels “like I could be in the Olympic finals; I could be in ninth place.”
Still, he says, his music “flies under their [listeners’] standards; the music and the singing is not technically adept.” For this reason, he feels that the context for his career is very important. As a poet, artist, and musician, his multiple-hat-wearing “sticks him out,” gives him an outsider-ish edge. Which is in some ways bullshit. This is a guy who, as a writer, critics compare favorably to Bob Dylan.
But it works for him. Feeling he’s on the aesthetic outskirts motivates him to feel justified in continuing to make albums. In some ways, the contradictory conceit of indie rock culture—idiosyncracy and the pretense of art all wrapped up as a not-quite-commodity—is realized perfectly in Berman’s approach. He says he’s not lauded, but he’s garnered considerable acclaim. Moreover, his music sounds and plays itself off as both friendly and accessible; the absurdity and weird braininess are just along for the ride.
Really this is the dream of rock and roll, since it first scandalously waggled off of Elvis’ hips or whatever: The fringe product as a rock in the mainstream. Then again, just because it’s fallen through the cracks of the industry machine doesn’t mean it didn’t roll off the conveyor belt. Pop music is pop music, right? Silver Jews melodies have straight-up hooks aplenty; the poetry involved looks more like a bonus.
But do these distinctions matter? David Berman is a serious craftsman, and seems intent on taking up the mantle of the struggling artist. And the mantle might fit: Berman certainly isn’t rich, and he was, at one time, a genuine “party barge” (he probably still has the tugboat marks to prove it). Similarly, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea has its moments of earnest, downtrodden poetry, but Berman certifies his tone with life-giving variety. He’s funny when laughter is a little relief from the model-parade of hard times.
The Silver Jews’ last record, Tanglewood Numbers, also explored the new world of sobriety. So Lookout Mountain may be more a refinement than a definition of Berman as a recovered sage. Nevertheless, he uses his addled wisdom as a launching pad for little poetic rocket ships (on fighting: “He came at me with some fist cuisine”; on divorce: “Living in a little town with my pedigree in shards,”). And, as Berman takes pains to point out, the language is plainer on this album. He has stories to tell and ideas to convey.
In the end, it may be a little stupid to emphasize Berman’s multidisciplinary career. The guy is a writer. And maybe he can’t sing, but I love it when he does.
5/13/2008 3:30:51 PM
Smooth jazz is dead, reports Will Layman in Popmatters, citing the format shift at a couple of major-market radio stations (in New York and D.C.) as evidence of the genre’s demise. “Dentists in the two most powerful cities in America are panicking,” he writes, seizing the chance for some easy gags before settling into a surprisingly well-rounded and illuminating look at the form, from its sonic origins in the late ’60s to its naming by a focus group participant to its “overriding aesthetic of cheesiness” and its “explicitly economic” inspiration in recent years.
I suspect it will take more than a presumptuous obituary to draw a death rattle from Kenny G’s horn. After all, the Yellowjackets have a CD coming out next week, and elevators and hotel lobbies everywhere have dead air to fill. But Layman’s treatise is fun and engaging and even a bit provocative, floating the notion that smooth jazz may have actually fulfilled a noble purpose during its pathetic life: “It likely served to bring some listeners to the real thing, giving them the courage to like Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins.”
5/13/2008 2:44:04 PM
Graffiti artist Blu has created something I’ve never seen before: a stop-motion animated sequence composed of one continuous, outdoor painting.
5/8/2008 10:59:54 AM
Devastated by a messy break-up, I returned again and again to the separation-themed lyrics of Tegan and Sara’s album So Jealous. I’m a little embarrassed to admit my dependence on the sisters’ squeaky voices and repetitive tunes, but listening to sad songs, according a Walrus article about melancholy and music, might have helped me accept the relationship’s demise. Rather than sinking us deeper into the doldrums (unless we’re clinically depressed), sad music can actually make us feel better. In tears, the hormone prolactin, “along with the release of hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, mimics the well-being we feel in the most intense moments of connection with others—nursing an infant, having sex, receiving praise.” As musicologist David Huron says, “It’s biology wrapping its arms around you and saying, ‘there there.’” Feeling comforted can make us more realistic, whether about grades, like Huron’s student research subjects, or about losing loved ones.
Image by Patrick Doheny, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/8/2008 10:22:06 AM
In filmmaking, a “long take” is a cinematographic technique where the director chooses to hold one continuous shot for an extended period of time. A famous scene in Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) as he and his girlfriend skip the line for a club, bribe the bouncer at the back entrance, walk through the kitchen and up to the stage, all without a single cut. Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums has a great one, capturing a revealing moment for most of the characters in the film. I know of two full-length films, Timecode and Russian Ark, that take place entirely in one shot.
I was reminded of this technique watching a recent video for the pop band Goldfrapp. It’s not as ambitious as Goodfellas, or as revealing as The Royal Tennenbaums but it is fun. You can watch the video below.
(Thanks, Very Short List.)
5/7/2008 11:17:37 AM
A string of 20 three-minute films sounds like a YouTube self-distraction session, and that’s what the final showing of films at Paris’s Festival International des Très Courts felt like. But admission was only a euro, and in a two-euro-espresso town, I forgave a little less-than-careful culling.
The films were either sans dialogue or in English, convenient for me as a non-French speaker. Some communicated their humor silently, like the Paris Metro acrobatics in Nové in the Subway 3, the attack-chair ninja spoof In Sit U, or the wry, wordless commentary on the repetitiveness of pop lyrics in Papayes Hands. Several of the films even featured symbols of American culture, like the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero in the animation New York, New York, and one of the stomach-sinking images from Abu Ghraib in a poignant animation of The Declaration of Human Rights.
Mostly the showing was silly, the work of nerds (comic book, video game, and band nerds, to name a few varieties) equipped with video cameras. Nerds—filmmakers and viewers alike—enjoy their inside references, and I admit to my own geeky pleasure when I suspected the creators of the Live Good music video had enjoyed the same Sleeveface instruction video (pose with an album cover over your face!) on YouTube that I had. True, I probably could have tracked down Live Good on my own, but then I couldn’t have enjoyed a two-euro espresso afterward.
Image by Christopher Buttigieg, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/2/2008 2:54:02 PM
There’s no place like home to discover news of the weird, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the University of Minnesota staged The Wiz without what I thought was its sole requirement—an all-black cast. The school’s black student population was too small for that, Minnesota theater faculty told the alumni magazine Minnesota, so instead they cast a multicultural mix of students, reserving only the role of Dorothy for a black student.
I found the casting decision a bizarre alteration, especially after reading a panel discussion about race and theater in the April issue of American Theatre (article not available online). “Any love story or any story about people being people and doing ordinary things is somehow a white story,” says playwright and actor Zakiyyah Alexander. “If we see people of color represented in the culture, we’ve often shown their struggles with their environment, or their inner turmoil with their families and their troubled lives—how difficult it is to be us.”
The director of Minnesota’s Wiz takes the very moralizing approach toward being black that Alexander complains about. “I’m not going to beat people over the head with notions of identity,” Dominic Taylor told Minnesota. “Still, I want people to be aware of how young black kids think about their culture. In this production, home is the notion of keeping your culture with you.”
I can’t help thinking the university faculty were more preoccupied with putting on a play with enough name recognition to attract an audience than they were with anything philosophical. Such practical hedging calls into question university theater’s reputation for fearless innovation and racial inclusivity, which panel participant Daniel Banks, a director and choreographer, attributes to theater faculty “butt[ing] elbows with social scientists and critical thinkers.”
5/1/2008 4:13:02 PM
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